Category Archives: Israel

“The Only Language They Understand” by Nathan Thrall—Can the Status Quo in the Israel/Palestine Conflict Be Changed?

Thrall, Nathan. “The Only Language They Understand”, Metropolitan, 2017.

Can the Status Quo in the Israel/Palestine Conflict Be Changed?

Amos Lassen

Nathan Thrall is considered to be one of the best informed, most insightful, and least polemical analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His conclusion about the present conflict is the title of his new book, “The Only Language They Understand”, and it is that the status quo will remain in place indefinitely unless the two sides are forced to change it. No one is prepared to exert such force.

It’s been tried in the past but not since the 1990s. It was then that President Jimmy Carter confronted Israel repeatedly and unrelentingly, threatening at one point to terminate U.S. military assistance. There were accusations that he was “selling Israel out,” and the ultimate outcome was the Camp David Accords of September, 1978. In 1991 James Baker, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, withheld a $10 billion loan guarantee and brought Israel to the negotiating table in Madrid.

Without pressure, however, neither Israel nor Palestine have much of an incentive to upset the existing conditions, according to Thrall sees it. Israel’s position has only strengthened since the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. She has greater control of more of the West Bank and this includes an extensive security barrier, some of which it would have to give up in a peace agreement. Palestinian Authority leaders understand that foreign aid, and their own jobs, would be at risk if there were a comprehensive peace deal. They also realize that their relation to Israel has profoundly changed— “transformed from a protector against an occupying army into an agglomeration of self-interested businessmen securing exclusive contracts from it.” There are world leaders who maintain that time is short, but as Thrall reminds us that that peace is within grasp but overstated as warnings that the perpetually closing window for a two-state solution has nearly shut, or that the occupation of the West Bank “will make Israel an international pariah.” Meanwhile, Israel has become a regional power and cordially works with Egypt and Jordan, and quietly with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Emirates.

Thrall also updates several important pieces which first appeared in periodicals. He deconstructs Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” and documents the shortcomings of Shavit’s history of Israel and the flaws in his reasoning. He also takes a hard look at the Shavit’s book and how it was so ecstatically received by American Jews.

Then there is Thrall’s very strong critique of John Kerry’s diplomatic ministrations and calls them “faith-based diplomacy”. —is also required reading. “Kerry found a formula to launch new negotiations: he made inconsistent promises to each side.” He also gives us a look at the failures of the Obama Administration’s approach and states that these did not attain anything whatever.

In several other essays, Thrall looks at the intifadas and other Palestinian protests; the increasing Israeli dominance of East Jerusalem; Hamas; and the skepticism about the “two-state solution.” Everything he says is documented, hugely informative and argued. What we get here is a clear understanding of

the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations as well as an essential guide to the history, personalities, and ideas behind the conflict.

“Three Floors Up” by Eshkol Nevo— An Apartment Building in Tel Aviv

Nevo, Eshkol. “Three Floors Up”, (translated by Sondra Silverston), Other Press, 2017.

An Apartment Building in Tel Aviv

Amos Lassen

One of the books due out later this year is one I have been eager to read since I first heard about it. Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents and their turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions and readers see a society in the midst of an identity crisis.

Arnon, a tormented retired officer who fought in the First Intifada lives on the first floor and he confesses to an army friend with a troubled military past how his obsession about his young daughter’s safety caused him to lose control and put his marriage in peril. Above Arnon lives Hani, “the widow,” whose husband travels the world for his lucrative job while she stays at home with their two children. Hani becomes increasingly isolated and unstable. When her brother-in-law suddenly appears at their door begging her to hide him from loan sharks and the police, she agrees to do so in spite of the risk to her family. She thinks that his being there might bring some emotional excitement into her life. On the top floor lives a former judge, Devora. Now that she has retired, she is anxious to start a new life and joins a social movement, while desperately trying to reconnect with her estranged son. She falls in love with a man who isn’t what he seems. 

I have lived in an apartment house in Tel Aviv and can tell you from what I saw is that each building of this kind is almost a microcosm of the larger society of Israel. Writer Eshkol Nevo vividly “depicts how the grinding effects of social and political ills play out in the psyche of his flawed yet compelling characters, in often unexpected and explosive ways”.

“All the Rivers: A Novel” by Dorit Rabinyan— An Untenable Love Affair

Rabinyan, Dorit. “All the Rivers: A Novel”, (translated by Jessica Cohen), Random House, 2017.

An Untenable Love Affair

Amos Lassen

When Liat meets Hilmi on an autumn afternoon in Greenwich Village, she realizes that she is unwillingly drawn to him. Hilmi is a talented young artist from Palestine who is handsome and charismatic. Liat is an aspiring translation student who plans to return home to Israel the following summer. Even though they knew that their love can be only temporary and that it can exist only away from their conflicted homeland, Liat nonetheless lets herself be enchanted by Hilmi. His wise eyes spoke directly to her and he was both sweet and devoted to her.

Together the young lovers explore New York City and as they do they shares their thoughts and their homesickness for their countries. However, the joy that Liat feels is filled with guilt that comes from hiding him from her family in Israel and her Jewish friends in New York. As her departure date nears and her feelings for Hilmi deepen, Liat must decide whether she is willing to risk alienating her family, her community, and her sense of self for Hilmi’s love.

The book has been banned from Israeli school classrooms by Israel’s Ministry of Education. It is quite basically the story of a forbidden relationship, a love story and a war story. It is also a New York story and a Middle East story that dives into the forces that bind us and divide us. Hilmi reminds Liat that the land is the same land and all of its rivers flow into the same sea in the end. What we really see here is how public events play upon the private lives of those who attempt to live and love in peace with each other. This is a very human story of rapprochement and separation that brings together reality and emotions.

Liat and Hilmi’s chance meeting sparks a love affair that takes readers on a five-month journey through New York City. But the young lovers have to deal with the knowledge that their secret love is forbidden by their families and will have to end when Liat returns to Israel in just five months. Back in Israel they are separated physically by just forty miles but those forty miles are quite a distance ideologically.

We know when we meet that this relationship is essentially on a timetable. We see both sides of the conflict well and we understand that the two characters passionately believed they were right in the way they felt. While I wanted to find the love story to be convincing, I felt something was missing but the book does help us to understand both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from two very personal and opposing views.

“Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman— On the Occupation

Chabon, Michael and Ayelet Waldman (editors). “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation”, Harper Perennial, 2017.

On the Occupation

Amos Lassen

I find that talking about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a sure way for me to get into an argument and so I try to avoid the issue as much as I can. Authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman along with the Israel non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence (former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied territories)and other illustrious writers to tell stories of the people in the contested territories. This essays put a human face on the situation.

Contributors include Colum McCann, Jacqueline Woodson, Colm Toibin, Geraldine Brooks, Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru, Raja Shehadeh, Mario Vargas Llosa, Assaf Gavron, and the editors Chabon and Waldman. What we read here gives us unique insight into the narratives behind what we hear about and provide us with a deeper understanding of how those who live in occupied territories deal with.

The topic is always a difficult one for me since I served in the Israel Defense Forces and I love Israel. We are quickly approaching the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June and it is also the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. During the last five decades there has been a great deal of violence on both sides. Former Israeli soldiers formed an organization in 2004 that allowed them to speak about what they experienced in that war. The group met author and editor Waldman in 2014 and they shared a tour of Hebron and she, along with her husband Chabon realized that something must be done to change the situation. They chose to work on storytelling and thus provide a personal view of those who face the situation every day. It was then that they invited twenty-four writers from all over the world to go to the West Bank and Gaza and then share their memories of what they saw. The stories are fascinating and the run the gamut of opinions. What we read is not only enlightening but also moving, sensitive and often infuriating. Together, these stories stand witness to the human cost of the occupation






“Memories of the Eichmann Trial”

From Testimony to Proof

Amos Lassen

David Perlov’s hour-long documentary film, “Memories of the Eichmann Trial” captures how a formative event in Israeli history continues to shape the Israeli experience. Perlov approaches the trial not as a formative event that brought the story of the Holocaust into Israeli consciousness, but as a formative event that turned into a memory itself and this memory continues to influence the Israeli experience and shape its development to this very day.

In a scene about the establishment of Holocaust memory, Perlov asks photographer Henryk Ross (whose photos are now on display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) to describe how he was able to secretly take dozens of photos of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where he and his wife Stefania (who is also interviewed in the film) lived. We see Ross wearing a hat, and wrapped in a coat and scarf, which hide the camera he is holding underneath. He shows how he quickly drew the camera from behind an opening in the coat, shot the picture, and with the same haste returned the camera to its hiding place.

This reenactment of how he documented a reality that became a memory of both presence and absence is one of the most beautiful, moving and significant moments in the history of film.

Rafi Eitan, who ran the operation that led to the capture of Eichmann, is the first person interviewed in the film and we see him leafing through a series of photos of Eichmann who was inside his glass booth during the trial. Eitan sat beside Eichmann (who under a blanket in the back seat of a car) after his capture and had even visited the former Nazi in his jail cell. Eitan looks at the photos tranquilly, almost with a smile.

In one of the pictures, Eichmann is seen in his jail cell, wearing house slippers, leaning back in his bed and examining some kind of document. In a second photo, his naked back is to the viewer as he washes himself at the sink in the cell. Moving to the end of the movie, we are told that Ross never took another photograph after he was released from the Lodz Ghetto. The film ends with a series of photos of a young, smiling Stefania Ross, accompanied by an argument between her husband and Perlov playing on the sound track. The two immigrants both speak Hebrew with heavy accents, each according to the country of his birth.

The banality of evil has itself become a banality. A recent biography of Otto Adolf Eichmann by Bettina Stangneth has rekindled the debate over Hannah Arendt’s portrait of the Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer, logistician, and executor of the Final Solution as an apathetic, bureaucratic functionary “who never realized what he was doing.” Perlov’s gives us reminiscences by trial witnesses, Holocaust survivors, Israelis of the second generation, and others who were directly involved in the Eichmann case. Perlov is considered the father of Israeli nonfiction cinema, having given it his deeply personal, artistic sensibility. This is what makes this film so striking and unforgettable.

“A QUIET HEART”— Seeking Anonymity and Solitide

“A Quiet Heart”

Seeking Anonymity and Solitude

Amos Lassen

Jerusalem today is a city that is increasingly dominated by religious fanaticism, Naomi Sarid (Ania Bukstein), a secular young woman seeks refuge from the pressure of her life as a concert pianist. She is overwhelmed by the expectations of her parents and her colleagues in Tel Aviv and seeks anonymity and solitude in Jerusalem. Despite her intentions to stay alone, however, Naomi quickly makes two unexpected connections, one with a musically gifted Ultra-Orthodox young boy who lives in her building and the other with Fabrizio (Giorgio Lupano), a charismatic Italian monk and organist. While these relationships allow Naomi to reconnect with her love of music and sense of meaning, they also make her a target in her new community. She faces escalating isolation and violence and Naomi has to learn to use music as a bridge to overcome towering religious barriers.

The film is set on the fault line between religious conservatives and secular liberals in contemporary Israel and has a great deal of emotional bite and drama. Already a domestic award-winner, writer-director Eitan Anner has directed strong performances and timely themes.

Escaping her native Tel Aviv to start a new life in Jerusalem, Naomi rents a threadbare apartment in a high-rise housing project in Kiryat Yovel, a hillside suburb that is dominated by hard-line Orthodox Jews. Her religious neighbors see her with suspicion. Naomi is alarmed to discover that Simcha (Lior Lifshitz), a mute preteen boy from an Orthodox family in the next building, has a habit of climbing in through her fifth-floor window to play a battered piano left behind by the previous tenant. She begins giving him lessons on how to play the piano.

In between working at her day job, Naomi faces constant passive-aggressive scrutiny from her neighbors, while a hostile traffic warden (Uri Gottlieb) gives her costly parking tickets on a daily basis. Her only escape is trying to rediscover her love of music, which starts to return after she hears the pipe organ played at a nearby Catholic monastery by a handsome Italian monk, Brother Fabrizio.

It soon becomes clear that Naomi’s peace of mind is likely to be assaulted by external pressures such as the open animosity from some of her neighbors, who consider a young secular woman living on her own as immoral in their close knit community. One young woman, an activist who is part of a group which is trying to stop the ultra-religious from taking over the neighborhood claims that his a war and the only connections that Naomi she manages to achieve are due to passion for music.

It is Simcha who holds the key to the truth about what happened to the previous tenant. Her other emotional link is with a charismatic Italian monk, Fabrizio (Giorgio Lupano), who agrees to teach her to play the pipe organ. The mutual attraction between the two is played out in intimate duets, shared glances and, just when it means most, a chaste kiss to the hand.

The connection with Fabrizio is a rare moment of harmony in a world which seems increasingly discordant as Naomi finds herself the target of a hate campaign.

Naomi’s hesitant friendship with Fabrizio is mildly flirtatious but never sexual. Even so, faceless neighborhood gossips use this to brand her as a “whore” and a “missionary,” demanding that she leave the area by using anonymous threats and increasingly stark warnings. Fearing reprisals, Simcha’s mother cancels the boy’s informal piano lessons with Naomi. There is evidence that seems to suggest the previous tenant in her apartment was driven to suicide by similar harassment tactics, or even murdered outright.

The drama is about the evils of intolerance. Director Anner succeeds in conveying a repressive, claustrophobic air of creeping unease and latent violence. Naomi’s housing block exudes a chilling, almost hostile mood and writer-director Anner has crafted a piece that is very symbolic of the subject of the coexistence of different religions, a topic inherently important to Israel, and especially Jerusalem. The film answer to this is that it takes courage from a brave individual to stand up against intolerance.

“FOUR BY FOUR”— A Comedy

“Four by Four” (“Arba Al Arba”)

A Comedy

Amos Lassen

Wanting his boss to think that he is a cool guy, Oded lies about knowing a secret beach in Sinai Peninsula. Moti, his boss is a bit crazy himself and decides to take Oded along with two other employees, Tal, a nerd from marketing, and Dima, a racist, quirky Russian programmer to the terror-stricken peninsula.

Of course, this results in a near catastrophe and their off-road vehicle goes way off the map. One lie led to another and another so that Moti would not know that Oded lied about the resort They guys end up lost in the desert, running from a hostile Bedouin who is aided by a sheikh’s gun-toting daughter. Oded can kiss goodbye the promotion he was looking for.


“MR. PREDICTABLE”— Keeping His Promise

“MR. PREDICTABLE” (“Yeled Tov Yerushalayim”)

Keeping His Promise

Amos Lassen

When Adi (Amos Tamam) was five years old, his father made him swear to be a good boy and always be responsible. After his father’s death in the war in Lebanon, Adi had no choice but to keep his promise for life. Years later, a computer error causes Adi to believe that he’s got cancer – and suddenly all those years of being “predictable” seem like a tragic waste of time. Adi meets sweet, free-spirited Natalia (Meytal Gal), who seems to have no fear of life. Now he has face the choice between a steady, predictable existence and a chance at genuine happiness.

Adi has always been a “good boy.” He always helped at home, at school, in the military, in his marriage and he became the most thoughtful man you can imagine. Actually, however Adi became a “sucker” who was exploited by nearly everyone he ever met. Natalia, something of a “naughty” girl who entices Adi into a life full of emotions, of passion and romance. Adi Levi became a man who was simply too nice for his own good until he literally bumps into Natalya and one of the dogs she walks. Natalya is a dog walker who takes Adi into her life and retrains him (just like she does to the dogs she walks).

This is a film that takes us into ordinary life in Israel, with the situation there in the background, informing it rather than being at the heart of the story. Because of his promise to his father, Adi has been careful and cautious to the point of timidity and so very aware of others. He became a pushover and his boss, his wife and even his teenage son walk all over him. When a mix-up at a hospital appointment that leads him to believe he has mere weeks to live, his life begins to change. It just so happens that he narrowly avoids killing one of Natalya’s dog charges when he runs it over.

We watch a new relationship and a new man being born. Adi finds not just his mojo, but also his inner hard man. Much of this is down to the winning performances of a beautifully matched pair of actors, and supporting cast of dogs. Roee Florentin directed the film with sensitivity and panache.

“HOMEPORT”— Returning to Dry Land

“Homeport” (“Namal Bayit”)

Returning to Dry Land

Amos Lassen

After thirty years at sea, Aaron (Yoram Hattab) returns home to the port of Ashdod, Israel in the hopes of winning back his family, but he soon realizes that life on land is more complicated then her thought. He accepts an administrative position at the port and soon finds himself in confrontation with Rahamim Azoulai (Shmil Ben Ari), a working class leader who tries to protect the world he’s built for himself and his men. This is the story of a port and the need to build a life even on shaky ground.

Director Erez Tadmor looks at the corruption of the port in Ashdod and treats the subject with a certain ambivalence. Aaron really wants to repair his relationship with his married daughter, Tali (Liron Ben-Shlush), who has recently had her first child and whose husband also works at the port. Rahamim is his best friend and the head of the local workers’ union and the de facto boss of the port. He is pleased by Aaron’s appointment to his new job and he believes that it will serve his own best interests. However, Aaron has no intention of compromising the integrity of his job, even at the cost of his longtime friendship with Rahamim and what he owes him for helping him and his family when Aaron’s father died.

“Homeport” is something of a morality play that pits a principled hero against a reality of professional anarchy and corruption, and it follows that hero’s struggle to hold to his principles and the price he pays for his moral backbone. We’ve seen many movies centered on a similar kind of conflict, often involving two friends whose years-long closeness turns sour when one of them fails to live up to the other’s expectations. Aaron is a man with a stubborn conscience and we see this in his attempts at reconciliation with his estranged daughter, who resents his many years of absence.

Aaron becomes involved with Yelena (Anna Dubrovisky), the port’s customs supervisor, who came to Israel from Ukraine, leaving her daughter behind. Their budding relationship is totally predictable from the moment we first meet Yelena and see the analogy between the two absentee parents. The eventual moral conflict to which their romance leads is a familiar one yet there is s a certain charm to the scenes between Aaron and Yelena.

While it seems like nothing but plot for much of the film, towards the end the movie manages to go further adding an ideological ambivalence that redeems it. At this point the moral forthrightness of the film finally blurs, and it suggests that rigid integrity might have consequences that neither the hero nor his adversary want. The result is a social, economic and political comment on who really rules the port and, by extension, the country, where processes mirroring those that take place within the port claim so many victims.

“OUR FATHER”— A Story of Fatherhood

“Our Father”

A Story of Fatherhood

Amos Lassen

Ovadia Rachmim (Morris Cohen) is the strongest and most violent doorman of Tel Aviv nightclubs. He fears nothing and has never lost a fight . His biggest dream is to become a father; he and his wife Rachel (Rotem Zisman-Cohen) are trying to get pregnant for almost five years. A small time gangster named Shalom (Alon Dahan) sees great potential in Ovadia and wants him to come to work for him. Ovadia sees this as great option to start an expensive treatment for his wife. As soon as Rachel gets pregnant, he decides to stop working for Shalom but learns that it is not that easy. Ovadia needs to finance fertility treatments for his wife and reluctantly takes the job as a strong-arm collector of grey-market debts.

This is the story of decent man who is drawn into organized crime only to find that, once he has become a fully blooded member of the underworld, he can’t opt out again.

There’s an intimacy and subtlety that we see when the husband and wife share the screen (They are also husband and wife in real life). Ovadia was at first reticent to taking the job offer but soon gets a taste for the work. However, the stress takes its toll on his even temper.

Meni Yaish’s film is filled with violence and the acts Ovadia commits show him a side of himself that he has always tried to restrain, a side that enjoys his physical power and his ability to inflict pain.

Throughout the movie, we know that something awful is coming when Ovadia tries to break free from Shalom. This is also the story of the other Israelis, the ones who live in Tel Aviv but who are outside the so-called bubble, whose lives revolve around minimum-wage jobs and being overdrawn at the bank. Ovadia and Rachel are also religiously observant without being fanatical. Ovadia’s religious observance is at odds with the job he is supposed to do.