Category Archives: Israel

“The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky” by Susie Linfield— “The Very Nature of Modernity”

Linfield, Susie. “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky”, Yale University Press, 2019. “The Very Nature of Modernity” Amos Lassen Susie Linfield’s “The Lion’s Den” is an intellectual history that explores how prominent midcentury public intellectuals approached Zionism and the State of Israel itself and its conflicts with the Arab world. It is an intense look at the political Left that investigates how eight prominent twentieth-century intellectuals struggled with the philosophy of Zionism, and then with Israel and its conflicts with the Arab world. It comes to us as a series of interrelated portraits that bring together the personal and the political and it includes includes philosophers, historians, journalists, and activists including Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, I. F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky. It. Does not shy from controversy or radicalism. In their engagement with Zionism, influential thinkers also wrestle with socialism, nationalism, democracy, colonialism, terrorism, and anti‑Semitism. In looking at Zionism, they confront the very nature of modernity and the often catastrophic histories of our time. By examining these leftist intellectuals, we begin to understand how the contemporary Left has become focused on anti‑Zionism and how Israel itself has moved rightward. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is a fascinating read. If you are like me and change positions constantly, this is a must-read. Have you even wondered why some of the greatest minds in the American and European Left are unable to understand Jewish nationalism? You probably won’t find that answer here but you will find plenty to talk about.  The book comes to grips with “both the tragedy of Zionism and the way in which anti-Zionism became a touchstone for the global Left.” We get a commentary on eight intellectuals who wrote about the Israel/Palestine conflict. We find ways to deal with both the tragedy of Zionism and the way in which anti-Zionism became a touchstone for the global Left.

“THE OTHER STORY”— Tension and Intrigue from Israel


Avi Nesher’s “The Other Story” is a family drama from Israel that is tense and filled with intrigue. Anat has recently become an ultra-Orthodox Jew, is about to get married. Her father returns to Israel to try to stop the wedding and family disputes and conspiracies arise. Meanwhile, her grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), a marriage counselor, has a client who has chosen to reject Orthodoxy and embrace spiritual freedom. When the women cross paths, the consequences are unexpected.  While the film is grounded through a father-daughter relationship, it also touches on the struggles between Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and secular lifestyles. There are two major plots going on in the film. One is the relationship between Anat Abadi (Joy Rieger) and Shachar Elkayam (Nathan Goshen).  The other deals with patients of Dr. Shlomo Abadi (Sasson Gabai), Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari). 

When Shlomo brings in his son, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help these two, it somehow enables Yonatan to become closer with his daughter.  Anat and Sari are rebels in their own way.  Where Anat has found herself becoming more religious, Sari is driven further away from Judaism. When the film begins, Tali (Maya Dagan) didn’t have the best relationship with her daughter, Anat.  Neither did her ex-husband, Yonatan.  He escaped a damaging scandal to be there for his daughter but only after Shlomo buys a plane ticket.  Their relationship hasn’t been the best but he wants to be there for her now.  Of course, he will try to manipulate her so that Tali wins but love can be strange.  None of them are happy that she followed her boyfriend Shachar into the Ultra-Orthodox Judaism lifestyle.  They’ll do anything if it meets getting her to forget that way of life. While Anat rebels against her parents by becoming religious, it’s interesting to see how her parents react to these decisions.  Based on a true story, the film will shows us a lot about these two different worldviews–Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and the secular world.  The film is more entertaining than one might’ve expected but because it is all-over-the-place, it becomes tiresome and uninvolving.

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE”— Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel

“JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE” Up Close and Personal with Gay Porn Star from Israel Amos Lassen Jonathan Agassi is one of the world’s most successful gay porn stars who built his fame and success on a global taboo that pleases millions. ”Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” is an intimate look at the world of porn and escorting and at a unique relationship between a mother and son, who courageously redefine familiar family concepts. In essence, this is a film about a lonely person who seeks love and meaning, but is condemned to a destructive lifestyle, understanding that the extreme fantasies he chases are not necessarily his own.
Tomer Heymann who directed this new documentary says that the title says it all. Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life” was eight years in the making. Tomer Heymann first discovered the titular Agassi by chance in Tel Aviv. Tomer was struck by his looks and charm but completely unaware  that he was a well-known individual. His friends told him that he was crazy because he didn’t know that Agassi was a hugely famous porn star.
Heymann set out to discover more about him with the idea  to turning his life story into a film. Agassi was living in Berlin and Heymann arranged to meet him in a hotel and it was strange because Agassi thought Heymann was trying to have sex with him. Agassi had seen a couple of the Heymann brothers’ films, but his initial reaction was that he had no interest in starring in his own, particularly for any monetary reasons.
He had received an offer of ils500,000 [$140,000] to be in the Israeli version of Big Brother [which he turned down], but he said he wasn’t interested in money. Heymann told him we wouldn’t pay him one shekel because it was our principal to never pay anything to documentary characters. Agassi struck a deal with the director that if he could convince his mother, who he insisted would never speak about Agassi’s life as an escort and porn star, to appear in the documentary, he would consent to the project. He gave Heymann his mother’s number and they met for a coffee. It took time to convince her she told him that she trusted him to do the film.
The director filmed across a period of eight years, following Agassi’s wild life as a global porn star. Jonathan Agassi is a symbol for this generation,” says Heymann. “He is young, gay and has the freedom and the luck to have any fantasies he wants without being in the closet.” As they worked, Heymann discovered the story of Agassi’s early life. “Jonathan Agassi was born with a very Hebrew name, Elkana Yonatan Langer, he was feminine and had a very tough childhood in one of the suburbs of Tel Aviv,” the filmmaker explains. “His father left him a year after he was born. He changed his name and built a strong character for himself. He met his father for the first time once he was living in Berlin as a porn star.”
The film is comprised entirely of original footage shot by Tomer and was funded by the Heymann brothers themselves with Israeli broadcaster Channel 8 (which will broadcast a four-part episodic version of the film), HOT, Makor Foundation and Mifal Hapais. The Heymann brothers have produced two versions of “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life”. One contains uncensored X-rated footage and one doesn’t.

“LONGING”— Becoming a Father

Longing” Becoming a Father Amos Lassen Biologically most men  can become fathers but becoming a real father takes more than the sex act as we see in “Longing”, an acute and fascinating reflection on paternity and how to smile in the face of death from Israeli director Savi Gabizon. It is a paradox to becoming a father when your son is gone but that is what happens here. We look at a man’s role as a parent, his fear of becoming one, selfishness, his ability to open up to the world and to rediscover it and learning to look beyond self. Shai Avivi,  one of Israel’s best-known comic actors plays the part of Ariel, a sore, vain and disgruntled man whose life is turned upside down by a news that threatens to question his entire life until now. He is summoned to a bar by  Ronit (Asi Levi), his college girlfriend, whom he has not seen for 20 years. The conversation between Ariel and Ronit, who begins with a smile but becomes increasingly tense after revealing the true reason for their meeting: 20 years ago, Ronit gave birth to their son, whom Ariel never met, and whom he will never know as he recently died in an accident. After never wanting to have children, Ariel finds himself face to face with a missed opportunity.
Ariel sets out on a path of discovery in which he must piece together his ghostly son’s personality bit by bit, in all its entirety. He learns this in small doses through the conversations that the man has with those who were close to the boy: his fiancée, his best friend, but in particular, Yael (Neta Riskin), the young teacher he was madly in love with and the main source of his son’s torment and the subject of his poignant poems. Ariel begins to take on the role of a parent, jumping to his son’s defense when necessary, talking about him as if he knew him, and trying to resolve unanswered questions. There are some rather interesting and bizarre situations during the film that provoke a smile or two and prepares us for a lighter second half of the film when Ariel decides to arrange a wedding between his lost son and a missing girl. A marriage between the young and deceased which, according to a Middle Eastern tradition, is a means of guaranteeing the deceased a better afterlife. This is an almost impossible mission, but one in which the father finds a way of finally doing something for his son.  Ariel will never be able to answer the question of “What sort of father he would have been?” but through his journey from solitude and individualism to sharing, Ariel overcomes his traumas and will at least learn something about himself and heal a bit along the way. This is a well-measured and sensitive story about a somewhat bizarre second chance, which has the ability to improve life by smiling in the face of death.  We get aunique take on parenthood, on love, on mourning and on a few other very mundaneissues plus an excellent performances from Shai Avivi, and from Asi Levy. Everything about this film is excellent.

The screenplay (which won the so-called Israeli Oscar, the Ophir award) is alittle like a detective story. A father’s inquiries about the dead son he nevermet reveal surprise after. Certainly the father develops a “longing” forhis son.

“Holy Lands” by Amanda Sthers— To Love and Accept

Sthers, Amanda. “Holy Lands”, Bloomsbury, 2019. To Love and Accept Amos Lassen I am a very lucky guy in that there are publishers that know me so well, they know exactly what kind of books to send me. I used to laugh about how in Israel pigs are raised even though eating pork is a violation of Jewish dietary laws. What the pig farmers do is fix the stys on wooden platforms so that the pigs’ feet will not touch the holy ground. Now I am not exactly sure how to define the term holy ground because I am sure that in the centuries that the ground has existed, it has been touched by something that has violated the dietary laws. Anyway… this is “a witty, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching epistolary novel, soon to be a major motion picture starring James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” It is about a dysfunctional family (led by a Jewish pig farmer in Israel)  that is struggling to love and accept each other. (Now throw in a gay Jewish character and you got me). What I find so amazing in this little book of just 160 pages is that it is both very moving and highly humorous at the same time. Basically we read about an estranged family of colorful eccentrics. There is the patriarch, Harry Rosenmerck, an aging Jewish cardiologist who has left his thriving medical practice in New York to raise pigs in Israel. His ex-wife, Monique dwells on their once happy marriage even as she is quietly at war with an aggressive illness. Their son, David is an earnest and successful playwright who has vowed to reconnect with his father since coming out. Annabelle, their daughter, finds herself in Paris with no direction as she deals with the aftermath of a breakup. Harry does not like technology and the only way the family communicates is via snail mail. Their correspondence is fun to read and we see them grappling with challenges as they really go at each other. The book wonderfully captures an a dult family in all og its poignancy and craziness. Here is a family that strives to be connected even though they all have different and radical perspectives on life. The dialogue and the jokes are caustic and gentle and deal with important topics such as Israel’s militarized security, Jewish identity, and the dysfunction of Harry’s family. Writer Sthers manages to keep it balanced between sensitivity and ribald humor. We are irreverently and endearingly reminded that “blood is thicker than water.” Those of you who are familiar with Jewish humor know that it is laced with “ironic taunts, familial reprimands, and cries from the heart”. Each of the letters we read in this novel has a new secret in it each of the letters that form this gripping novel reveals a new secret or asks a new question on the topics of sex, love, friendship, religion and/or connection. We also realize that conciliation is best when based on truth and that the letters we write are intense whether we mean for them to be so or not. Each character goes through life-altering experiences as they question crucial matters of religion, morality, inheritance, compassion, and love. “Holy Lands” is set in Nazereth, Israel (because today it is one of the few places in Israel where pigs can be raised) and New York City, Marrakesh and Paris. The characters move  between places but as individuals and not as  a family. They simply do not get along like many other many other families. The inability to communicate in modern terms is tearing the Rosenmerck family apart more than it is already. The parents are divorced parents and the two adult children are somewhat caricatures of today’s dysfunctional family members. David who is gay and brilliant has problems communicating with his father who has practically disowned him (I resemble that remark). Annabelle is the 30 year old “child”, who goes through life not wanting to settle down and become an adult. We see characters like these in almost every book about dysfunctional families but we have something a bit extra here and that is “being the child of a father-who-has-a-pig-farm-in-Israel can’t be too helpful to family dynamics…”
The novel is written in the form of letters and messages among family members and others. It is set in the spring of 200 and the  idea of a pig farm in the Holy Land, where many people won’t eat pork or ham sets the backdrop. Harry receives many letters from a local rabbi concerning the pigs, the morality of having the pig farm, and so on. Then there is Harry’s son David who is gay and there is some confusion, particularly on Harry’s part about accepting David as he is. This is a family that does nothing together and cannot seem to do anything together.

“THE OTHER STORY”— Label, Judge, Condemn

“THE OTHER STORY”

Label, Judge, Condemn

Amos Lassen

 In “The Other Story”, Anat  (Joy Rieger) suddenly decides to marry Shahar (Nathan Goshen) a member of Jerusalem’s insular orthodox community. Her divorced secular parents (Yuval Segal and Maya Dagan) and grandfather (Sasson Gabai) formulate a plot to thwart the upcoming nuptial, with unforeseen results.

Avi Nesher’s warm hearted drama explores an age that is all too quick to label, judge and condemn what it doesn’t understand. Nesher and co-writer Noam Shpancer  effectively build the layers of the story and tighten the tensions. Nesher has stated that some of the inspiration for the film came from the growing phenomenon of ‘hazara betshuva’ (returning to faith) where young secular Jews are turning to orthodox Judaism. That is certainly true of Anat who has renounced her hedonistic youth in Jerusalem to devote herself to the study of the Torah and to live a pure life. Unfortunately, for her, this is a decision deeply resented by her mother Tali and grandfather Shlomo.

Her family sees the forthcoming wedding to singer Shahar as the final straw. Shahar was once a raunchy pop star but is now strictly orthodox and who instead of rock ballads, croons soulful songs to the wisdom of the Torah. In a desperate attempt to win back Anat, the family call upon her estranged father Jonatan  who returns from America charged with finding some flaws in the too-good-to-be-true Shahar.

We see that nothing is quite as simple as it appears on the surface. Anat is committed to her choices and feels that nobody, least of all her unreliable father, has the right to challenge her. (Jonatan’s visit allows him to escape a bruising lawsuit in America). Tali clearly still has some feelings for her ex-husband even if she greets him by throwing a glass of red wine in his face. Her proud father-in-law Shlomo is happy to have Jonatan sharing his house once again and believes that he might actually put a stop to Anat’s marriage.

The dialogue contains some wonderful one-liners and effectively build the layers of the story and tighten the tensions. Shlomo, a psychiatrist by profession, convinces his son-in-law to join him in providing counselling sessions for a couple in crisis. The wife has involved herself in a quasi-feminist cult dedicated to breaking the chains of patriarchy.

The wider themes of the film become more evident when no one is prepared to listen to the other side of the story or try to understand a different point of view. “The Other Story” becomes a reflection on how interfering parents must face the consequences of their actions and how nobody has a monopoly on virtue. This is a gripping, touching and unpredictable story about a troubled father-daughter relationship that weaves in the conflicts between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a struggle that is so central to Israeli life.

Tali has tried talking Anat out of the wedding, but with no success. It isn’t just that Tali, a successful Tel Aviv businesswoman, doesn’t like the idea of having a religious daughter; she has reason to distrust Shahar. He is a musician who got their daughter into drugs, and Anat followed along when he became ultra-Orthodox. 

Yonatan arrives and is repentant that he has been away so long and determined to get through to Anat. But he has his own “other story” that he has been involved in some shady business dealings in America – a biotech start-up that used fake data – and law enforcement is closing on this company in the US. 

Yonatan stays with his father in a cluttered Jerusalem apartment. While Yonatan is prepared for and endures Anat’s hostility, it still hurts. He realizes that even if he discovers that her groom-to-be is untrustworthy, this won’t win him back his daughter’s love. As Yonatan searches for a way to reach her, he learns about a couple Shlomo is treating who are in the midst of a bitter child custody battle. 

The bone of contention is that the wife (Avigail Harari) is part of a women’s cult which engages in pagan rituals that involve blood, and the husband (Maayan Bloom) fears for their son’s safety. (This is actually based on a true story). Jerusalem is filled with true believers, but their beliefs often go in wild directions. Yonatan sees this case as a way to engage his daughter, whom he believes can win the wife’s trust and will share his concern for their young son. This strange story takes Yonatan and Anat on a strange journey through their past and through Jerusalem. There’s too much damage done and all the characters are too flawed for anything important to happen quickly or easily, but it is fascinating to watch  the story unfold. 
The acting is excellent all around. Yuval Segal gives a low-key, nuanced performance as a broken man who is trying get back some of what he’s let go of. Joy Rieger is intense but charming as a young woman who thinks she has found the truth. Sasson Gabai does wonderful work here in the key role of the grandfather. Maya Dagan manages to make Tali into a full-fledged character, rather than just a resentful ex-wife.

Avi Nesher’s “The Other Story “is a complex drama about family, spirituality and love. Its narrative reflects the uniqueness and complexity of Jerusalem, but the emotions that we see and feel are universal.

“Israel/Palestine” by Alan Dowty— The Conflict

Dowty, Alan. “Israel / Palestine”, (Hot Spots in Global Politics), 4th Edition, Polity, 2018.

The Conflict

Amos Lassen

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is so intense that we really do not know what to call it or how to talk about it.

In this fully revised and expanded fourth edition of his highly respected introductory text, Alan Dowty looks at and attempts to define the conflict by putting it in broad historical perspective, identifying its roots, and tracing its evolution up to today. We gain a clear analytic framework for understanding transformations over time, and in doing so, the myths of an “age-old” conflict fall away. This is not just a recitation of historical detail; it is a clear overview that serves as a road map through the conflicting claims. It has now been updated to include recent developments, such as the clashes in the Gaza Strip and the latest diplomatic initiatives. It presents the opposed perspectives of the two sides in full, leaving readers to make their own evaluations of the issues. “The book thus expresses fairly and objectively the concerns, hopes, fears, and passions of both sides, making it clear why this conflict is waged with such vehemence – and how, for all that, the gap between the two sides has narrowed over time.”

Alan Dowty illuminates history with this book. “Israel/Palestine” is an authoritative text on the Arab/Israeli conflict. It combines balance and examination of the responsibilities of all sides as well an opportunity to evaluate critically their differences and the commonalities out of which the conflict could be resolved.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most emotionally charged conflict in the world and both the passion and emotion of it is often appears many of the books written on the conflict. Alan Dowty has done something that I thought was impossible  to in writing a book about the conflict. He remains balanced between the two sides.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface

1 Introduction: Two Worlds Collide 
Dispelling Myths 
Defining the Conflict 
The Setting: Ottoman Palestine 

2 The Jewish Story 
A Fossilized Relic? 
The Theme of Persecution 
“Come, Let Us Go” 
Herzl and the Second Aliya 
First Encounters 

3 The Arab Story 
The Glory of Islam 
The Rise of the West 
Palestine and Palestinism 
First Encounters 
The Debut of Arab Nationalism 

4 The Emergence of Israel 
The British Mandate 
A Mischievous Pretense? 
Holocaust and Partition 
The War of Independence/An-Naqba: 
The Second Stage of the Conflict 
Nasser and Nationalism 

5 The Re-emergence of the Palestinians 
The War that No One Wanted? 
The Peculiar Legacy of 1967 
The Decade of Sadat: Entering the Third Stage of the Conflict 
The Lebanese Tangle 
Shaking Things Up: The First Intifada 

6 The First Pass at Peace 
The Oslo Breakthrough 
The Rocky Road to Peace 
What Went Wrong? 
The Roof Falls In 

7 The Fourth Stage of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict 
The End of the Arafat Era 
Israel Turns to Unilateralism 
A Turning Point: Ideology Prevails 

8 The Impasse that Remains 
The End of the Two-State Solution? 
Territory and Settlements 
Jerusalem 
Security Issues 
Refugees 
A General Prognosis 

9 The Perfect Conflict 
Right against Right? 
A Practical Solution 
Building Foundations: Extremists and Illusions 
Reflections 

Chronology 
Further Reading
Internet Links
References
Index

“SCAFFOLDING”— In Two Worlds

“Scaffolding”

In Two Worlds

Amos Lassen

Seventeen-year-old Asher has always been something of a troublemaker at school. He has difficulty concentrating in class, and he is compelled by a lot of rage and violence. Surprisingly, he also possesses charm and street smarts. His father is quite strict yet he is preparing him to take over the family’s scaffolding business. However,  Asher has a different masculine role model in his gentle literature teacher Rami and forges a special connection with him. Asher is torn between the two worlds and looks for a chance for a new life and identity. When a sudden tragedy occurs, he has to take the ultimate test of maturity.

Director Matan Yair taught literature in Israel for almost a decade before he switched to film-making. I did the same but for a longer period and instead of turning to filmmaking, I turned to film reviewing. Israeli society is a true melting pot with  individuals from various backgrounds  including challenging youngsters. Both Yair and I believed that we could inspire his pupils by letting them follow their own path of self-discovery.  Yair had a special student, the aforementioned Asher who was the inspiration for this film.

We start with a question—how much does it take for a person to achieve their full potential? Asher (Asher Lax) is a 17-year old student, short-tempered, yet sensitive. He doesn’t care much for education and makes little effort to prepare for his final exams. Besides being a student, he helps his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) with his scaffolding business. Since the old man expects that his son will take over the company one day, the boy doesn’t believe that he has any options for a different life available. But everything changes when Rami (Ami Smolartchik), a literature teacher, becomes both his mentor and a role model. He helps Asher with his studies and shows Asher that he has other options in life apart from his father’s business. Although the teacher gives it his all, he himself is also lost. One day, Rami suddenly disappears from the students’ lives and leaves them with anger and sadness. With a new professor on board, Asher might not be able to carry on with what he has already set out to do.

This is a sincere and compelling portrait of a young man’s self-discovery. Asher has dreams of becoming a student of literature and history – but his temper and circumstances often get in the way. Only Rami has a chance at changing his life for the better. “Scaffolding” is largely the story of the relationship between the teacher and his student; as well as that between a domineering father and his son. Asher is not a likeable character: even if we feel sorry for him a lot of the time, he keeps making aggressive mistakes and never learns from his actions.

The performances are excellent all around. Asher, as a real-life student of the director and a first-time actor, is brilliant in the leading role. His vulnerability, anger, and internal conflict are all visible just by looking into his eyes Ami Smolartchik is also incredible as the polar opposite: the sensitive teacher. Again, there’s a lot of internal conflict in this character, and the understated way with which Smolarchik carries himself in all his scenes, complete with the physical display of vulnerability, is remarkable. Yaacov Cohen is impressive as the domineering yet weak father – by turns supportive and kind; but then tragically oppressive the next sentence. What goes on between Rami and Milo for Asher’s heart is the heart of the film.

There’s something that is fascinating about watching Israeli films. I have remarked in the past that there was a time when you could not pay an Israeli to go to a movie made in Israel but that has changed greatly. 

“Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land Hardcover” by Amos Oz— Three Essays

Oz, Amos. “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land Hardcover”, translated by Jessica Cohen,  Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Three Essays

Amos Lassen

Israeli writer Amos Oz has written an urgent and deeply necessary work with “Dear Zealots”, three powerful essays that speak directly to our present age, on the rise of zealotry in Israel and around the world. This is “a depiction of one man’s struggle, who for decades has insisted on keeping a sharp, strident and lucid perspective in the face of chaos and at times of madness.” The essays are on the universal nature of fanaticism and its possible cures, on the Jewish roots of humanism and the need for a secular pride in Israel, and on the geopolitical standing of Israel in the wider Middle East and internationally. The language is rich and knowing (we would not expect less from Oz) and the essays are perfectly timed for our world where extremism and polarization has taken hold (something I never thought I would live to see). Oz says that he wrote these for his grandchildren and in them he retells history, religion and politics in a way that they are to be studied and possessed. Our future seems to be more uncertain every day.

The three essays,“Dear Zealots,” “Many Lights, Not One Light,” and “Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon,” share a common theme and that is to think as an individual and do not let blind devotion overtake our views.  It is easy to be a zealot; we must listen to our opponents; learn nuance and learn to live with your neighbors. Growing fanaticism is manifested today in the illiberal democracy in the age of Trump and Putin. The characteristic here has become extreme hatred. We forget how disgusted we were with fascism and Hitler and Stalin
One of Oz’s most compelling points is that we were so disgusted by the fascism of Hitler and Stalin but as history fades and complacency rises, we are letting fascism spread.
Oz says  that “Jesus regards all of humanity as morally infantile individuals who commit evil because they do not know that it is evil.” But Oz will have none of this. Even children, he says, are aware of the pain they inflict on other sentient beings. Is not the banality of evil facing us once again? It is indeed time to study Hannah Arendt again.

Oz sees “the essence of Judaism as rebellion against unfairness, presenting doubt against the complacency of certainty, questioning God when God’s actions appear tyrannical, fighting for justice, fighting against fanaticism, using persuasion and counterargument, negotiating compromise, and finding peace through tireless struggle.” I do  not see that as far from my own philosophy.

Oz explains that fanatics are living in a black and white world with a simplistic view of good and evil. They are the people who try to save us from ourselves; the people who can never seem to hear anyone’s voice but their own. They are a people with no sense of humor. The disagreement over the differing views of the Messiah has brought hatred and anger to the world along with persecutions of the Jews, inquisitions, pogroms, mass murders. Why can we not wait patiently and see what happens?

This view of fanaticism informs Oz’s view of Judaism. Using the Torah and the Talmud, Oz argues that Judaism is passed down not through genes, but through books. At the heart of what it means to be Jewish is how we treat each other. It is actually very simple.

The third essay gives Oz’s views on the Israel Palestinian divide which lies somewhere between the right and left, though supportive of a two state solution; yet critical. These are Oz’s thoughts and ideas as he shows the intellectual and moral decay behind simplistic appeal of authoritarianism, absolutism, and religious dogma towards the observance and manner of practices of others. The discussion focuses on the dysfunction between Jewish religious fanaticism and the moral and humanistic intellectual foundation of Zionism. We also get interesting insight to the conflict between two thousand years of Jewish existence and tradition without independence, and the conflict between the humanist-Zionist approach and the messianic-Hasidic approach to the qualification of Israel as ‘Jewish’. There is so much here but I do not want to spoil one’s adventure of reading this very important work so I will stop and urge you to get a copy of “Dear Zealots”.

“Never a Native” by Alice Shalvi— An Unforgettable Woman

Shalvi, Alice. “Never a Native”, Halban Publishers, 2019.

An Unforgettable Person

Amos Lassen

With the publication of her autobiography, Alice Shalvi is 92 years old. I met her sometime in the late 1970s when I would grade Israel’s National Matriculation Exams in Jerusalem during the summer. She was already legendary and I never cease to be amazed at how  she becomes more and more legendary with every passing day.

“Alice Shalvi is the most famous Israeli whom the average American Jew has never heard of. Revered Hebrew University English professor, principal of the Pelech school, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, rector of the Schechter Institutes, intrepid feminist activist, prominent advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and winner of multiple honors—among them, the Israel Prize, the country’s Nobel—Shalvi nonetheless remains virtually anonymous in the mainstream Jewish world.”

Alice Shalvi possessed a wide-ranging expertise and coherent in-depth analyses of women’s issues. She is a living denial of feminist stereotypes. Alice was married for more than 60 years and religiously, she practices what is regarded as  modern Orthodoxy. She was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany and then went to England where her family took refuge in 1934.

Alice’s memories of the war years are sketchy. She remembers being afraid when the Gestapo raided her house and when her brother came home beaten by Nazi street thugs. In London, she remembers taping the windows, the sirens and gas masks and running to the shelter.

She also remembers growing up with “a gramophone, records of Gigli, Jan Kiepura, famous cantors; opera, cinema, theatre.” She heard the child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin play at the Royal Albert Hall. During the blitz, her family left London for Buckinghamshire. Her mother provided meals for anyone who came to their door and even hosted a Seder for more than 30 Jewish soldiers stationed in the neighborhood.

Her Zionism was nourished by her father, an active Zionist and co-founder of both a publishing company of Hebrew books and a weekly newspaper whose back page featured Yiddish writing. As a child, Alice had a Hebrew grammar tutor. After the war, her family kept a chauffeur, daily household help, and a nanny.

Shalvi was a bright child who had taught herself to read German before turning 4 and often read aloud to other children. She invented imaginary alter egos to amuse her friends and amused adults with plots of movies she’d never seen but whose stories she’d imagined. She had been denied a formal Jewish education, she eavesdropped on a friend’s father’s Hebrew drills.

When she came to England, her classmates called her “a little refugee” but by the end of the school year, she was at the top of her class. She fell madly in love with English literature and was an ardent monarchist. When King George died, she wore a black armband.

She was determined to eliminate suffering and this began one rainy day while she saw a hungry old man in rags, soaked to the skin, shivering in the doorway, and felt powerless to help him.

She entered Cambridge a year earlier than her age group and spent her free time with the Jewish Society and joined a Zionist study group and discussed Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Leo Pinsker and was elected its president. In 1946, she attended the World Zionist Congress as a junior delegate. After Cambridge, she went to the London School of Economics and got a degree in social work You get the idea; she was a star.

It was not all happiness, however. She felt like an alien in England “not only Jewish but a foreigner, and though my flawless accent did not betray my foreign birth, my ignorance of … upper-class British traditions and mores would.” At Cambridge, she felt ill-prepared. Physically,  “I did not meet ideal standards. My bust was too small, my hips too broad.” She was ashamed of being “plump.” Before she had a boyfriend, she retreated into one of her fantasy alter egos, “a witty, physically more attractive person far more successful than me in winning the attentions of the opposite sex.”

When anti-Semitic remarks became unbearable, she detached from her “Jewish self” except in the privacy of her home. At the same time, she felt immense guilt for her ignorance of the Holocaust and became aware of “a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.”

Her first visit to Palestine was in 1947, a month after the U.N. voted in favor of partition and two years later, she made aliyah. Her achievements as an educator, public speaker, social justice activist, and public intellectual are well known and her life paralleled Israel’s growing pains. However, Israel did nothing to relieve her self-doubt and shame. She had hoped to do social work with Holocaust survivors but discovered her “qualifications were inappropriate” and by accident, she found a job teaching English at the Hebrew University (her former students include Hebrew poets Yehuda Amichai, Dalia Ravikovitch, and Dan Pagis). Her confessions here are a testament to the durability of the female impostor syndrome and the emotional fortitude required for a woman to function in a judgmental patriarchal world.

We read of the unspoken and the unspeakable as Shalvi revisits episodes that sensitized her to gender inequity: The sexist pushback she got from higher-ups when she was the founding chair of the English department at the Institute of Higher Education in the Negev, the misogynistic humiliations that doomed her application for the position of dean of Ben-Gurion University, her service on the Namir Commission shich had been tasked by the Knesset with proposing legislation and other changes to improve the social, economic, and political status of women, her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school that aims to provide Orthodox girls with both a secular and religious education, where she faced conflicts between Orthodoxy and modernity, her role as co-founder and chair of the Israel Women’s Network, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s status through advocacy, consciousness-raising, litigation and legislation. She initiated new projects, like Nashim, the journal of Jewish feminist studies, created a Centre for Women in Jewish Law, and ended up as the institute’s president. This is a book about a little refugee who, despite suffering self-doubts lived a very large life.