Jewish, Israeli-themed films vie for foreign-language Oscar

Producers and directors in 76 countries will be biting their nails when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film this week.

Along with providing a view of cinematic skills in countries from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the entries also serve as a rough indicator of themes of interest to international filmmakers and, presumably, to the audiences in their countries.

By that measure, despite regular predictions to the contrary, films on Jewish themes, including the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, are not passé, as shown by challenging submissions from four countries.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian entries this year reflect the intensity of their continuing conflict, although preoccupation with this theme is not a given. Israel’s previous two choices, for instance, were “Footnote,” about academic rivalries, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” about life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel’s current hopes rest with “Bethlehem,” which pits the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, such a plotline would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, as the film’s producer Talia Kleinhendler notes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed, all are vulnerable. There is no black-and-white in the film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes the film sound namby-pamby, full of on-the-one-hand, but-on-the-other-hand agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Wakad, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores of dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the connection between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory, ultimately developing into a wary father-son relationship.

While the movie’s Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Wakad, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, acknowledged in an interview at a Hollywood hotel that his film debut as director and co-writer is a major hit in its home country, and it won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Palestinian entry “Omar,” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding.” In those, the protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israelis, but still, the latter were portrayed as recognizable human beings, not Nazi-like monsters.

Actually, there have been instances when Israelis in Palestinian films were often more likeable than in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Abu-Assad forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for one another on opposite sides of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator. Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

“The German Doctor”

Argentina’s Oscar hope, “The German Doctor,” is set in the post-World War II decades, when the South American nation became a haven for Nazi war criminals, sheltered by the Argentinian military government and the long-established German colonies.

The German doctor of the title is Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” whose cold-blooded medical experiments put him high on the Allied and Israeli list of fugitive war criminals.

Feeling safe in the southern Argentinian city of Bariloche, Mengele resumes his experiments to “improve” the species, initially on livestock. After a local family befriends him, he transfers his ministrations to spur the growth of their undersized daughter, and then resumes his earlier “research” on newborn twins.

Almost as unsettling are the open Nazi sympathies of the local German community, whose school starts the day’s classes with the lusty singing of the German national anthem, as well as an openly advertised annual fiesta celebrating the Fuhrer’s birthday.

When the news breaks that Mossad agents have captured Adolf Eichmann to bring him to trial in Jerusalem, the German underground spirits Mengele to Paraguay.

Alex Brendemühl as the poker-faced Mengele heads a generally capable, though not particularly brilliant cast, directed by Lucia Puenzo.

The most surprising of the cited four Oscar contenders is the Philippines’ “Transit,” which probes the precarious existence of some of the 40,000 Filipinos working in Israel, mainly as caretakers of the elderly.

Initially given relative freedom to work and raise their children in Israel, the Filipino migrants were hit hard by a 2010 residency law, triggered by the government’s determination to preserve the Jewish character and demography of Israel.

The primary target of the law was the growing number of Africans entering the country legally and illegally, but the Filipinos were the collateral victim of a measure under which non-Jewish children who had spent less than five years in Israel could be deported to their parents’ home country.

That meant that kids born in Israel, who spoke only Hebrew among themselves and felt themselves Israelis, suddenly faced the prospect of separation from their parents and exile to a strange land. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court invalidated some of the harshest aspects of the law.

“Transit,” directed and co-written by Filipina filmmaker Hannah Espia, is told from the individual perspectives of two families living together — single mother Janet and rebellious teenage daughter Yael, and the mother’s brother Moises, a caretaker and single father of 4-year-old Joshua.

The dilemma facing these four people, and to a greater extent some 10 million Filipinos working outside their home country, is handled with sensitivity and without Israel bashing.

Israelis, especially the elderly employers of the migrant workers, are generally shown as sympathetic to the plight of the Filipinos. Police and government officials enforcing the anti-immigrant laws do so without humiliating the migrants, but neither do they question the government orders.

Hollywood’s annual game of predicting likely Oscar nominees and winners is now in full swing, though doing so for foreign-language movies is particularly hazardous.

In past years, the selection committee’s choices have been loudly criticized as highly erratic, and labyrinthine regulations have led to the disqualification of highly regarded submissions, a fate that this year befell France’s much-discussed “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Current prognostications favor Iran’s “The Past,” by director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar two years ago with “A Separation.”

Also winning early plaudits are Denmark’s “The Hunt” and Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” while there is some sentimental support for “Wadja,” the first-ever Saudi Arabian submission, with the added boost that it was directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour.

Israel’s “Bethlehem” is frequently listed in the second tier of contenders and in a good position to make it into the top ranks, while the Philippines’ “Transit” has drawn favorable mentions.

By one of the quirks of the Academy calendar, a shortlist of nine foreign-language nominees will be announced on Dec. 20, after press time for this edition, and a winnowed-down list of five nominees on Jan. 16, 2014. The final winners will raise their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

A chosen rail line?

In a city where nothing ever seems to come easy, the arrival this summer of Jerusalem’s long-delayed light-rail Red Line was seen by some as nothing short of a miracle. At many points over the past 10-plus years of construction, it looked as though the Messiah would pass through the Old City’s Golden Gate before the train might arrive. And like many good land-use battles in Jerusalem, this one featured national political aspirations, terrorism concerns and the secular-religious divide, as well as conflicting views of fiscal and corporate accountability and arguments over the best transit solutions for a culturally and religiously diverse city of 800,000.

Still, as I saw on a recent trip, the Holy City somehow achieved the opening of its first light-rail line a lot sooner than Los Angeles is realizing a subway to its Westside. Though I came too early to witness the line’s opening, during my visit I watched the train being tested, and I even stepped aboard a car before being shooed off by a grumpy conductor.

Being in the place that is home to three of the world’s great religions, I got to thinking about how conflict and different world views can stand in the way of public transit improvements like Jerusalem’s Red Line and L.A.’s Westside subway extension. Though I am no expert on Jerusalem, the sight of the train crawling down Jaffa Road left me wondering what parallels there might be between Jerusalem’s and Los Angeles’ struggles to bring rail to these cities.

The two transit battles both pit those who view their city as ill suited to trains against those who feel trains must have a place in growing cities. Also common to both battles are vocal adversaries of public transportation who don’t ride the buses and trains that they rail against. One certainty in such projects is that by the time the work is completed, few residents of either stripe are happy about the costs, delays and disruption caused by the construction. As if on cue, Jerusalem’s infant rail system has already seen its first strike by operators seeking pay equity with bus drivers. The 30-hour strike, which came during the busy period of Sukkot, has since ended with an agreement between the workers and the consortium that runs the rail service.

Jerusalem’s eight-mile light rail line, which opened Aug. 19, runs from the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, in East Jerusalem, through the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shu’afat to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West. This means it passes through land that came under Israeli jurisdiction as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Further complicating the process, there have also been efforts by the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews to create cars separating men and women. And for many, the Jerusalem project confirmed some fears that the disruptive construction process would be fatal to businesses along Jaffa Road, the narrow thoroughfare that runs through the mostly Jewish West Jerusalem to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

In Los Angeles, some have kvetched and even sued over the use of an established rail right-of-way running through Cheviot Hills for the new Expo Line, which is nearing completion, yet Los Angeles’ battles pale in comparison to Jerusalem’s. Even the vocal battle over tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, a plan that got the backing of a panel of engineers and seismic experts on Oct. 19, has been muted by comparison with a project that runs through neighborhoods some residents do not recognize as Israeli.

So, is Jerusalem’s Red Line a cursed effort at improving mobility in a traffic-choked city? Or will the project bring good things to all residents of East and West Jerusalem? Or could there have been a better, more cost-effective alternative?

In Jerusalem, some have complained that the Red Line should have run from Mount Scopus to Givat Ram, the main campus of the Hebrew University, where it might have attracted more riders than the current route, including many students and those visiting the city’s major hospitals. Indeed, West Jerusalem resident Ilan Jospe argues that the line mostly benefits people who live near the route. The train also took lanes of traffic from narrow roads that were hard to navigate to begin with.  

Ahmad Fahoum, an East Jerusalem resident, is not enthusiastic about the train. He questions the cost, the political message sent by the route, and whether Jewish and Arab residents used to riding Egged (Israeli) and Arab buses as well as sherutim (shared shuttle vans), taxis and private cars around the city will embrace the limited service of a single line, which is a slow train, for now — the Red Line’s trip from end to end takes 65 minutes rather than the originally scheduled 42 minutes, though that will change with improvements. He also wonders who got rich off the project, which was built by an international consortium of companies. Like others, Fahoum noted the lower cost of offering bus service, including dedicated-lane bus rapid transit (BRT) to speed commuters through congested parts of the divided city. And, one need not go far in Jerusalem to find proof that BRTs can be built faster and cheaper than rail. Jerusalem’s first BRT line, a north/south project, was completed some time ago to act as a feeder connection to the Red Line.

In an Aug. 17 article in The Guardian newspaper, critics claimed the project was “part of a deliberate plan to link the East Jerusalem settlement [of Pisgat Ze’ev] to the city centre, [to] consolidate Israel’s grip on the eastern part of the city that Palestinians want as a capital of their future state, and present Jerusalem as an undivided city.”

As for construction of a second line, dubbed the Blue Line, both Jospe and Fahoum hope it will never happen, given that the Red Line took more than 10 years to build and reportedly cost the municipality $1.1 billion. Nevertheless, Jerusalem has plans to build eight light rail and BRT lines, with the first new service planned for Ein Kerem (serving Hadassah Hospital) in the southwest and Neve Ya’akov in the northeast. Other lines serving Neve Ya’akov, Kiryat Menachem, and the Hebrew University campuses at Givat Ram and Mount Scopus are also planned.

Battle over Mideast transit ads heating up across U.S.

With public bickering over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already having spilled over into university student senates, corporate pension boards and even local farmers markets, the latest battlefield in the debate over the conflict is municipal transit systems.

In several major U.S. cities, advertisements on public buses and municipal rail stations are designed to galvanize public opinion to end U.S. military aid to Israel or to pressure Palestinians to end anti-Jewish incitement. In some cases, the ads have been deemed so inflammatory that local authorities have tried to restrict or ban them outright, leading to frustration on both sides and, in one case, a federal lawsuit.

A group calling itself the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, with the help of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, filed a lawsuit in Seattle last month charging that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated when the local transit system reneged on an agreement to carry its ad opposing aid to Israel.

The ad, which featured a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli war crimes: Your tax dollars at work,” was slated to start running on Seattle buses in late December. But after local officials were besieged with complaints and at least two counter groups proposed ads of their own, the officials suspended all non-commercial bus advertisements.

One of those ads, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, featured a digitally altered image of Hitler and a man in Arab headdress under the headline, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

A judge is due to rule on a temporary injunction that would restore the initial ad next week.

“Israel’s accountability for the ongoing conflict is a part of the story that gets silenced more in this country,” Ed Mast, a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, told JTA. “So our purpose is education.”

Across the country, public advertising is emerging as a new front in the public debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine launched a campaign on trains and platforms in Chicago in October in which Israeli and Palestinian faces were depicted under the banner, “Be on our side. We are on the side of peace and justice.”

Below the smiling faces, the tagline urged an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. The campaign already has run in San Francisco and is slated for expansion to other U.S. cities.

Caren Levy-Van Slyke, a member of the steering committee of the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, said the campaign was “inclusive” of both Israelis and Palestinians and was intended to draw taxpayer attention to the 2007 deal providing $30 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over 10 years.

“We are the side of peace and justice,” Levy-Van Slyke said, echoing the Chicago ads.

Pro-Israel activists contest that assertion. In San Francisco, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine ad triggered a response from the Los Angeles-based pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which is sponsoring ads beginning this week urging the Palestinian leadership to stop teaching hatred and to “Say Yes to Peace.”

An earlier version of the ad, which Stand With Us attempted to place in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, showed a masked terrorist under the headline, “Stop Palestinian Terrorism.” Transit officials reportedly rejected the ad after people complained. The new ad features only text.

“Right now, we’re watching and we’re asking our members to let us know when these kinds of things come up, and we will directly respond,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us.

Pamela Geller, who writes the conservative blog Atlas Shrugged and who is the executive director of the group that tried to run counter ads in Seattle, said she submitted a similar ad in San Francisco that BART officials rejected. She has vowed to pursue a lawsuit if the officials fail to approve her revision. On her website, Geller describes the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine spots as “Jew hating” and “annihilationist ads supporting jihad.”

“If the ACLU prevails in their lawsuit, I expect my ads to run as well,” Geller wrote in an email to JTA. “If they refuse my ads, I will pursue legal recourse.”

Much of the inspiration for the ads appears to have originated with a billboard erected in early 2009 in Albuquerque, N.M. That ad, which called for an end to military aid to Israel, was sponsored by a group calling itself the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel.

In 2007, Rothstein’s group responded to a similar campaign in the Washington, D.C., Metro criticizing the Israeli occupation. The Stand With Us ad featured an armed man holding a child, with the tagline, “This Child Could Grow Up To Be A Terrorist.”

Rothstein said her group had no desire to be dragged into the ad wars, but would not allow material critical of Israel to go unanswered.

“This is not something that we’re interested in,” she said. “We are really only doing it as a reaction.”

Your Letters

Chandler Boulevard

The inaccuracies of your article on the Chandler busway (“Taking on the MTA,” June 15), beginning with the biased cover headline “There Goes the Neighborhood,” are distressing. The MTA clearly states that buses would go no more than 35 mph, the current speed limit, through the Chandler portion of the route. There is no “nightmarish labyrinth of pedestrian walkways and sound walls that would … divide … a community” in the current MTA proposal nor any mention in your story about the accommodations to the neighborhood which include passive crossing signals so that they would not have to be activated on the Sabbath and other holidays.

By repeating the hysteria in the community, this story is an editorial, not an objective account, which would at least speak to the reasons why the Chandler route is best for the entire Valley, east and west, Jews and non-Jews. It is one thing to defend the interests of the Orthodox community. It is another to do it with specious and untrue statements.

John Glass, Studio City

As an Orthodox Jew and a reader of The Jewish Journal, I wanted to thank the writer of the article on the MTA transit issue and commend her on her excellent reporting and fact-gathering. The article was a balanced approach to the issue and gave me a better education on the matter in a short and to-the-point manner than I have learned from numerous articles in the Daily News.

More importantly, by publishing this article The Jewish Journal has once again been the voice of the L.A. Jewish community by exposing critical issues affecting the Jewish community. This article and your previous article on the Los Angeles Times’ anti-Israel bias is The Jewish Journal at its very best — covering the Jewish issues that the downtown media will not cover.

Neal B. Jannol, Los Angeles

I’m the public relations director of the MTA. However, I’m not writing in my official capacity. I’m writing as a reader of The Jewish Journal and a Jew. I also am the son of a Holocaust survivor from Berlin. I’m outraged that my fellow Jews in the Valley compare the proposed busway to the Berlin Wall. Adding insult to injury, your reporter parroted that ridiculous slogan without first checking to see if MTA has any plans for any kind of sound wall. Had Wendy Madnick done that, she would have discovered that the disinformation she was fed is hardly kosher.

Marc Littman, via e-mail

A dedicated busway along Chandler or Oxnard boulevards should not even be considered when low-income areas along Sherman Way and Vanowen Street show a greater need for public transportation and receive fewer services. We do not need to disrupt an entire neighborhood with a bus travelling from Warner Center to North Hollywood when residents of the southwest Valley can drive or bus 15 minutes north to the Metrolink station, which will take them directly downtown. Let’s run Rapid buses north on streets like Winnetka and De Soto avenues, away from traffic, and abandon this crazy idea of shuttling people in buses west to east across the San Fernando Valley.

Susie Shannon, Los Angeles

There will be no “stream of buses coming through every few minutes.” The plan calls for a schedule of one bus every 10 minutes, certainly enough time for anyone to cross the street safely.

Michael J. Olnick, Los Angeles

Buses will not run down hapless Valley Villagers. It will be the SUV owners busy on their cell phones who will.

Anna G. Abraham, West Hollywood

Wendy Madnick Responds:

Regarding the sound walls, the EIR addresses the possible use of sound walls along the route to mitigate moderate to severe noise impacts (Chapter 4, Section 9). Although not specifically included among the original drawings for sound walls, the report describes 20 single-family residences and 25 multiple-family buildings along Chandler Boulevard as moderately affected by the proposed busway (P. 4-222) and thus candidates for mitigation.

When my story went to press, I was unable to confirm that the MTA’s proposed system of automatic activation for pedestrian walkway buttons on the Sabbath and Jewish holiday would be calibrated to the lunar calendar. An MTA spokesman confirmed that the MTA is working with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to install a system calibrated to a lunar calendar.

By 2020, the number of buses projected to run from North Hollywood to Reseda, according to the EIR, are 464 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 158 from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The frequency works out to considerably more than once every 7-10 minutes. An MTA spokesman said, “Service frequency would be adjusted as demand for services grows,” which would likely mean that the frequency would be adjusted upward.


In the June 15 article on the MTA’s proposed Chandler corridor busway (“Taking on the MTA”), we incorrectly stated that buses will reach speeds of 55 mph. To quote from the EIR (Chapter 2, Section 2.3): “For the purposes of this environmental document, an average speed of 37 miles per hour … has been assumed. Furthermore, it has been assumed that in the Chandler Boulevard median, buses would not operate faster than the posted speed limits on the adjacent north and south roadways.” We apologize for the error, and for and for compounding it by referring to the buses as “high-speed.”


I didn’t do much today but drive.

No one died. No jobs were lost or won. I didn’t run into an old boyfriend, have an epiphany or a traffic accident. I just climbed into my car and pointed it across the Mojave desert.

My head was like one of those deluxe crayon boxes with every conceivable shade of mood – and that was only between Primm and Barstow.

I was just hitting one of my stomachache-inducing purple moods when I pulled up to a Shell station for gas. As I stepped out of the car, desert air surprised my lungs like a warm drink. I stretched my cramping legs against the rear bumper and felt my mood lighten. I moved slowly and deliberately, feeling as if I were in a movie, or at least a ZZ Top video.

I think most of us former joint-custody kids have a special relationship with transit.

Travel is something we did a lot of during our formative years. In my case, I flew back and forth from San Francisco to Los Angeles every month starting at age 4. Later, when my dad moved up north, I took the Golden Gate Transit, the most glamorous sounding of all my travel mediums, but a bus all the same. I logged quite a few travel hours in my day, reading Mad Magazine, eating M&M’s and not knowing if I was leaving home or heading toward it.

All of which is a perhaps long-winded way of saying that the road makes me nostalgic and nervous and hopeful all at the same time. It was a little much today.

One minute, it was like Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in the back seat telling me to pull over and walk off into the mountains. “It is your responsibility to control your own destiny,” he seemed to say to me in his uppity French accent. Moments later, I would be seized with the beauty of something banal, like a bright red Del Taco sign. Was I having a nervous breakdown, an existential moment or just one mean case of PMS?

There’s not much a nosh can’t fix, so I veered off toward the aforementioned glorious Del Taco sign and got a burrito for the road. Jean-Paul left in disgust.

Something of his essence remained, however. In the crayon box of moods in my head, the blackest is always brought on by thoughts of what I’m not doing. There’s nothing so wrong about my life except the idea that I could be wasting it. The things I’m not doing get big and bossy. I obsessed on that for miles and just sort of bored myself into a better mood.

The greatest thing about the road, what lures me back, is the temporary freedom from the overwhelming need to be doing something more important with my life and the sadness that I don’t know how. On the road, I’m off the hook. I can’t be writing, volunteering or improving myself in any way because I’m just driving. I can be a total loser as long as I obey the rules of the road and manage not to spill too much taco sauce on myself.

When I finally got home, my face was wan and road weary. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was clammy and my skin didn’t seem to fit. Parts of me, it seemed, were left on the road, like something that fell off the back of a truck.

I’m searching for a happy ending here, but to what? I didn’t do much today but drive.