Category Archives: Israel

“The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” by Gregory J. Wallance— A Remarkable Life

Wallance, Gregory J. “The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring”, Potomac Books, 2018.

A Remarkable Life

Amos Lassen

Though she lived only to twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn only lived to the age of twenty-five but those years contain a remarkable life. Gregory J. Wallance shows us just how remarkable that life was in “The Woman Who Fought an Empire”, the story of a heroic and  a bold young woman who was the daughter of Romanian-born Jewish settlers in Palestine and who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring.

Sarah learned that her brother Aaron had formed Nili, an anti-Turkish spy ring, to aid the British in their war against the Ottomans. He did so after the beginning of the first World War. Sarah, had seen the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and she believed that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire could save the Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. She joined Nili and eventually became the organization’s leader. As they worked behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces until she was caught and tortured by the Turks in the fall of 1917. In order to protect her secrets, Sarah shot herself.

Sarah Aaronsohn’s leadership of the Nili spy network during World War makes her one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Zionist era but somehow over the years she has slipped between the cracks. Unfortunately, this is a little known story about a truly impressive young woman who had been shocked by the atrocities she witnessed which were carried out by the Turks against Armenians. Sarah Aaronsohn and her brother stood up to several members of their Jewish community in Palestine and risked torture and death to provide information to the British.

We do not learn as much about Sarah’s personality as I hoped we would since I have been familiar with her story for years. (I had an aunt who was a member of Nili). We see that Sarah was a very intelligent and extremely tough woman who could easily become a feminist role model.

Wallance has done great research to bring us this story and while this is basically Sarah’s story, we also get insights into some of the key historical personalities and sociopolitical forces that helped shape the modern Middle East.

“The Story of Israel: From the Birth of a Nation to the Present Day” by Martin Gilbert— The Story of Israel’s Birth and Development as a Nation

Gilbert, Martin. “The Story of Israel: From the Birth of a Nation to the Present Day”, Andre Deutsch, 2018, reissue.

The Story of Israel’s Birth and Development as a Nation

Amos Lassen

 Seventy years ago and after the Holocaust, the State of Israel came into being, having been established so that Jews anywhere in the world could have a homeland. In the years since, five wars have tested Israel’s ability to survive. Emigrants from all over the world have added to Israel’s rich culture and social fabric enhanced the country’s cultural riches while at the same time this strained Israel’s social fabric, while Israel’s Arab neighbors sought to redress their own grievances through violence. Now, Israel is celebrating 70 years of independence and here is her story replete with images of important historical documents.

Some of you may have copies of or have seen this book in a different format. This is a reissue in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday. The main text and illustrations are identical to earlier editions but they have been reformatted to a different size and shape of the page. 4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?

This is the story of Israel from the first settlers up to the present day. Each chapter is devoted to one segment of history and the photographs and illustrations interspersed through the text are fascinating and interesting. The content is succinct and factual and you must remember that this is not an in-depth account, but it does all the major facets of Israel’s history.

Photographs of original documents are included. We have a letter written by a young soldier to his family right before he was killed poignant, more so because he was killed shortly thereafter. Moshe Dayan’s personal letter of condolence to the parents of this soldier is likewise very moving and illustrates the huge sacrifices that Israelis have had to make.

This is not a history book but rather a very nice picture album with short summaries of Israel’s most important events.

“Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart” by Menachem Gottesmen and Leah Leslie Gottesman— A Special School in Israel

Menachem Gottesman, PhD. and Leah Leslie Gottesman, MA, “Not At Risk: Education as a Work of Heart”, Menorah Books, 2018.

A Special School in Israel

Amos Lassen

I have spent my entire adult life, some 55 years, in the field of education both in Israel and here in the United States. and even though I am semi-retired, I still teach several classes a year. It is a profession that is never boring and a profession that has kept me young. I love to read about new ways of educating others and so when I heard about “Not at Risk”, I was anxious to read it. Basically, this is the story of Jerusalem’s Meled School and Dr. Menachem Gottesman’s alternative education environment in response to the problem of high school dropouts hanging out, if not living, on the streets. One of the things that I learned when I lived and worked in Israel is that Israeli students are not like Jewish American students who come from homes where education is a top priority. Working with adolescents is a demanding job and it often takes a village to get a job done the way it should be done. Not every student can sit through six academic classes a day and not all-educational pedagogy is for everyone. It often takes open-minded educators, therapists, parents, and professionals to work with adolescents and those who do will find this book to be a wonderful tool.

Jerusalem’s Mercaz L’Mida Dati Learning Center or Meled has been responsible for transforming lives of youths and restoring families for over twenty years. This is no doubt because the people who work here care deeply about their jobs and the people they work with. This is the story of a educational work that is not only groundbreaking but also so very important. We hear the story of this program from its founders as they share the amazing work they have done and continue to do. We learn of personal experiences of faculty members and parents and we read personal stories of former students. “Not At Risk” tells its story through the words of its founders, and details groundbreaking educational work, sharing not only experiences and insights of faculty members and parents, but heartwarming, and at times deeply painful, personal stories of former students.

Dr. Menachem Gottesman has had years of work child development and when he sat down to find a way to deal with at risk youth, he went to three main sources for help—- A.S. Neill’s philosophy of education, the therapeutic method developed by Dr. Milton H. Erickson, and the spiritual outlook of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. I must say that these were quite a change from the educational philosophers that we studied when I was a graduate student in education. I think what is so important here, it that the education system seems to be constantly criticized yet without an alternative making that criticism almost useless. If you want to repair, there must be an alternative in place and not after the fact. Dr. Gottesman did his homework well and he was ready to implement a program after careful study. Meled has succeeded and it is a model for open-minded educators, professionals working with adolescents, and concerned parents.

In Hebrew Meled stands for Merkaz L’Mida Dati and it is the Alternative Religious High School, or Religious Learning Center in Jerusalem that was begun in September 1995 as a pilot project, and has since grown in reputation and effectiveness. Dr. Menachem Gottesman had been involved studying blind individuals and working on programming for them in the U.S. and Israel. He became interested in adolescents who did not seem to fit into not been able to fit into the formal structure of typical religious schools in Israel. Using the aforementioned three sources, Gottesman developed new educational principles for Meled. Reading here what students have to say, we see that this alternative school has been able to save children by helping them to turn their lives around.

Gottesman dealt with students who had been depressed, abused, without a sense of self-esteem and/or a lack of self-confidence, whose families had alienated them, that were uninterested in school or studies and who had experimented with alcohol and drugs.

Because he was willing to listen to what these students had to say, he was able to help control their educations and what they did on a daily basis. Dr. Gottesman was able to give them the emotional and academic support that these students needed. Those that graduated from Meled felt good about their lives and were optimistic about what the future holds. They were able to finish what was requited of them academically

Most graduates of “Meled” are described as optimistic about their futures, completing appropriate academic challenges, find their places and begin having families of their own. Of course what was going on with Meled as Dr. Gottesman got his program going was political but ultimately, the school received official recognition and financial support from the Israeli educational establishment.

In “Not at Risk”, we have testimonials from students, parents and staff members. Gottesman, himself, supplies anecdotes and additional stories and in these he describes what the children had to deal with and how their poor circumstances affected them.

The school’s rules are minimal. Students are not allowed to physically harm each other, drugs and alcohol are prohibited, as is theft. Otherwise, it is up to the students to behave. Students determine when they come to school a truism that Gottesman fondly and frequently invoked, and it is left to the student to determine when they will come to school, what subjects they will study, how many of the national matriculation exams they will prepare for, and in which extra‐curricular activities they wish to participate.

Both Gottesman and his wife are totally devoted to the student body and there have been times when they have taken students in as foster children to make sure that those who go to their school have a proper place to live. The school staff, including the secretaries are committed totally as well. Everyone is a resource. When it happens that students have to be committed outside institutions, or have problems with the justice system, Gottesman and members of the

Meled staff are there to support them even away from school. Students continue to maintain connections with their former principal, teachers, counselors, and tutors by inviting them to share in these occasions. Some who once were students at “Meled,” now work there and have become role models and inspirations for the members of the current student body.

Two of the unique aspects of Meled are smaller student load for teachers and doing away with homework and exams and replacing them with small group study sessions. This provides more time for l interactions (one‐on‐one discussions, tutoring, and soul‐searching). Openness is required and teachers are trained for that by going to hours of observations and acclimation.

Gottesman says emphatically that school is not only interested in instruction, but also in dispensing “therapy,” staff members are “therapists” in addition to being educators. This is a new concept in which the educational institution is conceptualized as existing in order to serve its student body and Gottesman has brought the theory into reality and we see how much work that this has taken.

“Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” by Ronen Bergman— Israel’s Targeted Killing Programs

Bergman, Ronen. “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations”, Random House, 2018.

Israel’s Targeted Killing Programs

Amos Lassen

We learn from the Talmud that if someone comes to take a life, we have the responsibility to “rise up and kill him first.” Self-defense is an instinct that is part of most Israelis who will take every measure, even the most aggressive, to defend the Jewish people. We saw this in 1948 with the creation of the state and protecting the nation. The Israel intelligence community and the armed forces see this as the main priority. They have relied on targeted assassinations to stop the most serious threats and these have been used countless times, on enemies large and small, both in response to attacks against the Israeli people and preemptively.

Journalist and military analyst Ronen Bergman takes us inside the targeted killing programs and shares successes, failures, and the moral and political price we pay for the men and women who approved and carried out the missions. The stories are riveting and sometimes you have to remember that you are reading nonfiction here. Bergman has written this book with the cooperation of many current and former members of the Israeli government (including Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as high-level figures in the country’s military and intelligence services: the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency), Caesarea (a “Mossad within the Mossad” that carries out attacks on the highest-value targets), and the Shin Bet (an internal security service that implemented the largest targeted assassination campaign ever, in order to stop suicide terrorism once thought to be unstoppable.

Much of what we read here has never been in print before and we get behind-the-scene accounts of key operations, that are based on hundreds of on-the-record interviews and thousands of files to which Bergman has received exclusive access. We go deep into the heart of Israel’s most secret activities. Bergman takes us from statehood to the present though the events and ethical questions underlying Israel’s targeted killing campaign, which has shaped not just Israel but also the Middle East and the world.

We have the details of the history and the largess of Israel’s use of killing as an instrument of defense and foreign policy. Bergman also debates the effectiveness and morality of his subject. Nearly eight years of research went into “the most secretive and impenetrable intelligence community in the world.” We also become aware of America’s difficult relationship with targeted killing and the dilemmas the world might face in the future especially with the rise of terrorism being what it is.

Bergman brings together history and investigative reporting while keeping the ethical questions that come into being when Israel, a nation that was founded as a place for those with no state, for those who had lived through genocide needs to murder in order to survive. “Since World War II, the Jewish state and its pre-state paramilitary organizations have assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world.

We meet the personalities and learn of the tactics of the various secret services and we see that Israel has used assassination instead of war. We also learn that President George W. Bush adopted many Israeli techniques after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and President Barack Obama launched several hundred targeted killings.

This book takes us behind the scenes and puts events in context that shows their relevance to the survival of Israel. The events are filled with the clarity of truth. Much of what we read here was never meant to be seen making it all the more exciting. The survival of Israel has been possible because of the improbable success of suspenseful operations that involved boldness, planning, and intelligence together with intense preparation that made it all possible.

We are pulled into the difficult tactical, strategic and moral dilemmas that the decision makers had to deal with along the way and there are some very big questions here about the moral and practical costs of a justifiable program of sabotage and assassination as an alternative to wider wars among nations.

Bergman explains why the Israelis found it necessary to use targeted assassinations for the safety of their people and as we read our emotions get a workout. On one hand we are very proud of what Israel has been able to do while on the other hand we are disappointed that Israel had to use murder in order to defend herself.

This is a big book at over 700 pages yet I could not stop reading and am halfway through my second read.

“The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland― Then, Now, Tomorrow” by Gil Troy— Updating Zionism

Troy,Gil. “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland― Then, Now, Tomorrow”, with an introduction by Natan Sharansky, (JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought), Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

Updating Zionism

Amos Lassen

Growing up, Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Zionist Idea” was part of my life as I am sure it was with many Young Judaeans. It was until the publishing of Gil Troy’s “The Zionist Ideas” the most comprehensive Zionist collection ever published. But as time marches on, so do ideologies and what was old had to be updated. “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland—Then, Now, Tomorrow” is the definitive look at the diverse and shared visions for the realization of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Troy builds on Arthur Hertzberg’s classic, “The Zionist Idea”, Gil and explores the back stories, dreams, and legacies of more than 170 passionate Jewish visionaries (four times the number in Hertzberg and that number includes women, mizrachim, and others.

Troy divides the thinkers into six Zionist schools of thought—Political, Revisionist, Labor, Religious, Cultural, and Diaspora Zionism and by doing so, he reveals “the breadth of the debate and surprising syntheses”. He also introduces these visionaries within three major stages of Zionist development that show the length and evolution of the conversation. Part 1 (pre-1948) introduces the pioneers who founded the Jewish state; those that many f us are so familiar with— Theodore Herzl, A. D. Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, HaRav Kook, Echad Ha’am, and Henrietta Szold. Part 2 (1948 to 2000) looks at the builders who actualized and modernized the Zionist blueprints, such as Ben-Gurion, Berlin, Meir, Begin, Soloveitchik, Uris, and Kaplan. Part 3 showcases today’s torchbearers, including Barak, Grossman, Shaked, Lau, Yehoshua, and Sacks.

With the addition of these new voices, we have diverse ideologies that reinvigorate the Zionist conversation with the development of the moral, social, and political character of the Jewish state of today and the future.

Troy presents an impressive range of thinkers, from the past and the present, from the left to the right, along with commentary, all of which affirm the enduring moral character of the Zionist idea: the fact that Zionism aside safeguarding the Jewish state, “is anchored in a humanistic ideology of universal resonance.”

Today we  live in a world of Zionist ideas with many different ways to help Israel flourish as a democratic Jewish state. We have a revived Zionist conversation, a renewed Zionist vision and these can help to give us a Jewish state that reaffirms meaning for those already committed to it, while at the same time, addressing the needs of Jews physically separated from their ancestral homeland, as well as those who feel spiritually detached from their people. I believe that a lot of conversation will come out of this book and as we talk about it, we will see, in the words of Natan Sharansky “How lucky we are to have this new book, filled with old-new ideas, Theodor Herzl style, to guide this important and timely conversation.”

Hertzberg gave us a great deal to think about just as Troy does here. It is as if we are bring asked to share a new vision for Jewish nationalism that is due to come into being. Theories of Zionism did not end with the creation of the State of Israel, they continue today. This new book expands our range of vision, as it looks at Zionism in its political, religious, and cultural dimensions as imagined by Zionists both in Israel and the Diaspora. 

Reading this is like being on a tour of Zionist thought that Troy is leading us through as he analyzes Zionism’s evolution from its early ideology as a national movement to its development of its own

Philosophy that underpins of its own manifestation to the miracle of statehood for the Jewish people.  We look at a diversity of views about an ideology that has actually come to life and we see the maturation of Zionism as part of a vibrant nation.

In 1959 JPS published Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Zionist Idea” and it became the foremost anthology of Zionist literature in the English language, and it was an inspiration for generations of young Jews throughout the Diaspora.

Zionism is also a way of launching ideas about what Judaism means, how Jewish nationalism can inspire us, and what Israel can mean to each of us. We can see Zionism as a framework for “learning more about our past, finding meaning in the present, and building a more inspiring future by working together as a people – and by seeing Israel as a living old-new laboratory for exciting new ideas and meaningful traditional values.”

We see here the power of liberal nationalism as a force for good in the world that galvanizes people to work together through the magic of democratic patriotism. Perhaps the biggest change that we immediately see is in the title of the book, We have moved from the Zionist idea to the Zionist ideas. Now we can attempt to answer the question of what Zionism means to each individual and does

does Israel mean to me?” liberal nationalism mean to me?” Free download discussion guides can be found at

‪”SHELTER”— A New Identity

‪”SHELTER” (”Mistor”)

A New Identity

Amos Lassen‬‪ ‬

Mossad agent Naomi who had taken sick leave is called back from sick leave and assigned to a “babysitting” job. Now, under a new identity, she goes to Germany to protect Mona, a beautiful Lebanese informant, whom special agents have taken from her country and hidden her in a Hamburg safe house while she recovers from plastic surgery. Naomi soon learns that Mona is very close to a top Hezbollah leader, a man who she betrayed and who is now determined to revenge. During the two weeks the women spend together, they develop a bond that neither expected and it is based on the shared dangers, risks and understanding of loss. But in this high-stakes game of deception, questions of fate may be out of their control.

We see the two women secluded in a lonely apartment for their protection and each is determined to survive. Writer/director Eran Riklis shows the intimacy and tension of the relationship between the two women. The film is both a psychological thriller and an action movie. Thee two women are separated by almost everything in their personal biographies and yet have a great deal to share with personal traumas. Women fighting in the secret wars have no easy time and it is interesting that Riklis chose that idea for a film.


While the intentions and premises are interesting, it took me a while to settle into the plot. Naomi (Neta Riskin) and Mona (Golshifteh Farahani) are fine actresses and their chemistry is excellent throughout. They fill their roles as victims of terror and power that come together in the middle of the great game of the world powers in a small apartment in Hamburg. For two weeks, Naomi must protect Mona against the Lebanese revenge; against the games of the Germans and the Americans ,and the Mossad.

Riklis plays with the rules of genre film and he varies them, plays with expectation and surprise, and above all keeps his film’s tension. Naomi who was already out, on-leave for two years, is reactivated for a small job and she does not even need a gun. Mona sits in Hamburg, having had cosmetic surgery to make at least outwardly another person. But the phone rings, even though nobody knows the number. On the balcony opposite is someone in a red jacket who just might be watching her. She is suspicious of the kiosk operator and of a new neighbor and the janitor. Over and over, the film jumps to the Mossad or to the headquarters of the Lebanese Liberation army, a terrorist organization.

There is a sense of mistrust between Naomi and Mon but there is also the compulsion to be together. Why did Mona betray Lebanon to the Israelis? Riklis gives us scraps of information creating suspense. When the viewer has to know something, when he needs to know more, when he shares the non-knowledge with the characters. Say: when he has to share the mistrust with the characters. This creates a great suspense not only from the characters with their different, often unclear goals, but also because at the same time this threatens the Middle East, where at any time everything can change, coalitions, appointments, diplomatic and intelligence missions.

Riklis cleverly uses the reality of world politics to underpin his thriller. Paranoia is always an excellent basis for a suspense film and if that paranoia is based on reality, then the cinematic thrill comes very close to real danger.

“SHELTER” will open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre, Monica Film Center and Town Center 5 on April 6. Other cities will follow.‬

“Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema” by Rachel S. Harris— A Feminist Study of Israel’s Film Industry

Harris, Rachel S. “Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema”, (Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series), Wayne State University Press, 2017.

A Feminist Study of Israel’s Film Industry

Amos Lassen

Rachel Harris’s “Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema” is a feminist study of Israel’s film industry and the changes that have occurred since the 1990s. Using a cultural studies approach, we look at the creation of a female-centered and thematically feminist film culture in terms of the structural and ideological shifts in Israeli society. Author Harris places these changes in dialogue with the cinematic history that preceded them and the ongoing social inequalities that keep women marginalized within Israeli society.

While no one can deny Israel’s Western women’s advancements, feminist filmmakers look at Israel’s less impressive underbelly as sources for their inspiration. These films have focused on sexism, the negative impact of militarism on women’s experience, rape culture, prostitution, and sexual abuse. These films also tend to include subjects from society’s geographical periphery and social margins, such as female foreign workers, women, and refugees. The book is divided into three major sections and each considers a different form of feminist engagement.

The first part explores films that situate women in traditionally male spheres of militarism and consider the impact of interjecting women within hegemonic spaces or reconceptualizing them in feminist ways. The second part recovers the narratives of women’s experience that were previously marginalized or silenced, thereby creating a distinct female space that offers new kinds of storytelling and cinematic aesthetics that are a reflection of feminist expressions of identity.

The third part offers examples of feminist activism that reach beyond the boundaries of the film and comment on social issues. Here we see how feminists use film (and work within the film industry) in order to position women in society. Of course, there are thematic overlaps between the chapters, each section marks structural differences in the views of feminist response.

We see the ways social and political power have affected the representation of women and how feminist filmmakers have fought against these inequities behind the camera and in the stories they tell.

Rachel Harris’s focus in our on the shifting representation of women in Israeli cinema post-1990. This is an academic study and not for the general reader or filmgoer. Harris asks whether a director’s gender necessarily determines the politics of a film, whether women’s stories are necessarily feminist ones, which women’s stories are represented on-screen, and how some depictions of sexual violence intended to critique rape culture are actually complicit with it. Harris provides an act of resistance to those who think that feminism can only position itself in opposition to all things Israeli.

She points out, early on, that while Hollywood in the U.S. had a women’s melodramatic film tradition to call upon, there was no such tradition in Israel. From the beginning of Israeli cinema, women were depicted on-screen as military and pioneering support staff. Their bodies were metaphors for the land and their sacrifices were for the nation. The war widow was a prominent figure, and Israeli film shows that the Zionist narrative of gender egalitarianism was really not sustained. As more leftist critiques of Israeli militarism became part of cinema, the possibility for raising feminist questions in war-related films developed. Changing modes of warfare also impacted cinema.

Harris also looks at the increasingly diverse representations of women in Israeli cinema. While religious women tended to be stereotypically viewed from a secular vantage point, including a fetishizing of their sexual oppression, now films such as “Ushpizin” (2004) and “Fill the Void” (2012) show the struggles of religious women from an insider’s perspective. Harris acknowledges that these films are sanctioned by religious authorities who define their feminist limits within the world of Orthodoxy.

For Jewish feminists interested in the intersections of film, feminism, and Israeli culture, this study asks valuable questions and gives valuable insights. It also provides a watch list and most of the films mentioned here can be streamed either through Amazon or the Israeli Film Center.

“THE JUDGE”— The First Female Sharia Judge



“The Judge”

The First Female Sharia Judge

Amos Lassen

Erika Cohn’s “The Judge” is a captivating documentary about the first female Sharia judge in the history of the Middle East, Kholoud Faqih. It’s particularly interesting that this documentary, which takes us into Palestinian life and culture is directed by an American Jewish filmmaker. This combination of cultural diversity and conspicuous female presence on both sides of the camera is exciting and we can hope that it will start a new trend. Once we see Faqih, we connect to her. She is a person with great charisma and intelligence who immediately pulls us into her. We also sense her confidence.

After studying law, Faqih had worked as an attorney until she decided to become a judge. When she informed the Chief Justice, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi about her decision to do so, he thought it was a joke. But Faqih was serious and supported her choice with lawful evidence and passed the exam with the highest honors.

Faqih was appointed a judge in the Sharia Court of Ramallah, the West Bank. In Palestine, people follow the Hanafi School of Islamic law, which allows women to be judges. In fact, Palestinian women have ruled in the country’s criminal courts since the 1980’s. However, Faqih is the first female judge to be appointed in the Sharia court, which deals primarily with domestic and family matters. She argues that it’s judicious to have a female judge in the Islamic court as domestic situations are incredibly important and pertinent to women. This changed the status quo and broke the deadlock of confining women to traditional roles. Faqih has numerous supporters, many of whom are women. She is a nonconformist and her perseverance embodies Palestine’s desire for change. Her story shows her country’s obstinacy against social reforms.

The media claims Faqih’s career move as “revolutionary,” yet some local authorities are not so ready to welcome her in this new position. While Sharia law permits female judges, a few Sharia scholars refuse to accept it. Dr. Husam Al-Deen Afanah is a recognized Palestinian professor and Islamic scholar. He is a conservative thinker and a strong believer in gender roles and argues that women are bound to limited vocations due to their biological susceptibilities. Afanah has also repeatedly criticized the expansion of women’s civil liberties, including Faqih’s advancement as a judge.

Afanah is representative of a substantial fraction of Palestinians and has a huge following online. While his interpretations of Islam might contradict some of the actual Sharia laws, he is highly respected by many. His way of thinking is a reflection of and conforms to the traditional ideas about women and femininity, which increases his high esteem in many peoples’ eyes. The Chief Justice says that in Palestine traditions are so strong that they overtake the actual Sharia laws. Nonetheless the entire documentary revolves around the Sharia courts and actual Islamic law is rarely mentioned here. Religion has little to do with the antagonistic reaction many have expressed against Faqih’s appointment. Gender roles are deeply entrenched in Palestinian culture. Women are repeatedly stereotyped, and femininity is often perceived as a threat.

According to Faqih, the problem is that society still views women as objects. This kind of mentality corrupts the justice system, even when it comes to the Islamic law. Islamic religious education is also shocking in the way it sees women. Even thoughthe film is culturally specific, its topic is globally ubiquitous. Its narrative quickly escalates beyond courtroom drama conventions, offering shocking and distressing revelations. As we watch the film, we begin to realize that it is a social critique of Palestinian prevalent chauvinism. We learn of the stories of horrific abuse perpetuated against Palestinian women and become aware of the juridical negligence concerning women’s issues. The film authenticates the need for women like Faqih in Palestine’s justice system. Aside from getting an overview of Sharia law and a brief look at Islamic feminism, the film also gives us an all-encompassing and uplifting portrayal of Palestine’s people and culture. We see the bustling streets of the West bank and the region’s traditions and atmosphere. There are several street interviews and we hear public political sentiments. Director Cohn takes us into the peaceful households of Faqih and Al-Tamimi and through everyday conversations and small court hearings, we learn about the country’s current political landscape and the on-going conflict with Israel.

Through the story of one woman, we are introduced to a world where modernity and tradition come together to produce a beautiful and yet incomplete creation. The film is a tribute to brave, intelligent and inspiring women like Faqih, “whose relentless dedication and humanity will help to shape a more inclusive future.”

“ITZHAK”— The Life, Work and Religious Heritage of Violinist Itzhak Perlman


The Life, Work and Religious Heritage of Violinist Itzhak Perlman

Amos Lassen

Alison Chernick’s new documentary, “Itzhak” ha sboth god music and good company and it should since it is a personality sketch of the world-famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman. Chernick captures the Manhattan-dwelling subject at home and on tour around the globe, hobnobbing with classical colleagues as well as the likes of close friend Alan Alda  and former President of the United States, Barak Obama. 

Perlman was born in 1945 in Tel Aviv to Polish émigré parents who were non-musical, though they quickly supported their prodigy son’s talent. Others did not because they thought he couldn’t get far on the leg braces that polio forced on him when he was just four years old. At thirteen, he was both enrolled at Juilliard and making his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

We see just glimpses of his meteoric subsequent rise in archival performance and interview clips and that is deliberate. Chernick’s main focus is on the subject’s everyday life and this includes such activities as eating Chinese takeout with other living classical-musicians and legends, accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, jetting to Jerusalem for a prize, backing up Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden or playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open a Mets game. There are also less grand moments when we see Pearlman rehearsing with an orchestra or in the recording studio, teaching music students (at Juilliard and the Perlman Program summer camp and negotiating wintertime NYC sidewalks in his wheelchair-scooter.

Perlman is quite a personality who seems comfortable in almost any setting. Yet here he often appears to take a conversational back seat around wife Toby (also a violinist who says she is “not a particularly exciting one” by comparison to her husband), a perfect soul mate in seemingly every respect. Their busy, curious, affectionately meddling dynamic sets the general tone here and we see the film as if we have been invited to spend the weekend with a family of acquaintances who just happen to include one international celebrity and celebrity freinds. The film is just that intimate. We see how important Jewish identity, culture and ritual is in the Perlman’s lives, and we see their lifestyle  as casual . There’s also time to look at the fascinations of the violin as a physical instrument whether we visit a dealer in Tel Aviv or see Perlman’s favored Stradivarius looked over by a repairer before a tour.

The music of Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Strauss, et al., weave through the film more incidentally than focused since this is the kind of documentary where Pearlman might reasonably enough be last seen playing with nontraditional klezmer band the Klezmatics.

Alison Chernick’s documentary is a fond portrait of the violinist Itzhak Perlman. We see him as he makes “garbage-pail soup” for Alan Alda and collaborates with other musicians. Most important, he plays, filling the film with the yearning strains of his instrument. Ample archival material shows a child sensation playing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1958 and a young man performing in Israel in 1974.   Chernick gives time to Perlman’s discussions of the violin. He beautifully says that to elicit a sound from a piano is automatic but from a violin, he says, “when you finally get the sound, you are really getting something out of yourself.” To coax emotional shadings from a violin, “the more you have in your heart, the more you have to give,” he explains.

The film follows him unobtrusively through observing the Sabbath with family, rehearsing a trio or maneuvering his scooter through snow. His wife is with him and she is a sunny, empathetic presence.

Aside from frank views of his crutches and leg braces and a mention of early rejections because of his handicap, the film glides lightly and uncritically along the surface of a life. We get a brief look into his family’s past and emigration from Israel; the filmmaker never goes deeply enough to reveal any other substantial dimension of this man or theories about what shaped him. That does not mean that hat we see is superficial, it is the kind of film it is meant to be. This is a character-study documentary that captures Itzhak Perlman’s warmth and bravado through short, anecdote-centric scenes and we see him as something of a big-hearted raconteur who wants to tell everything about himself.

Chernick suggests that this is something in Perlman’s bubbly and open personality and not some singular biographical event, like the musician’s childhood struggles with polio that has caused his rise “to becoming the rock star of the classical music world.” She lets him talk and she uses pre-existing video and audio footage of Perlman performing to illustrate his abstract, even rambling theories about how he has grown as an artist by answering his Juilliard School students’ questions, or of what one admirer truly means when he compliments Perlman for “praying with the violin.”

Watching the film is like looking at a revealing scrapbook of Perlman’s favorite stories. We see him on “The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958” interpreting the Allegretto Non Troppo from Mendelsohhn’s joyful 64th opus (My parents never forgot that and it was often used as a goal that my sisters and I should aspire to which was really interesting since we played no musical instruments). We see him today as he replies to questions from his students after they listen to a recording of Perlman playing Johannes Brahms’s triumphal seventeenth piece in his Hungarian Dances cycle and we see Perlman at home, drinking red wine and kibitzing with Alan Alda about the ineffable nature of creative genius, just moments before we see a clip of a younger Perlman joyfully shredding Johann Sebastian Bach’s raucous second violin partita solo for a packed Israeli concert hall in 1974 (I was there that night and I will never forget it). I also will not forget this wonderful look at Perlman.

“Moment of Truth: TACKLING ISRAEL-PALESTINE’S TOUGHEST QUESTIONS” edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner— Asking Questions

Stern-Weiner, Jamie, editor. “Moment of Truth: TACKLING ISRAEL-PALESTINE’S TOUGHEST QUESTIONS”, OR Books, 2018.

Asking Questions

Amos Lassen

It is more than a century since the Balfour Declaration and a little more than 50 years since the Six Day War of 1967, and it is also ten years into Gaza and yet the conflict remains. We are well aware of the Palestinians’ long struggle for self-determination and it has reached a crossroads, if not an impasse. The writers included in “Moment of Truth” take stock, draw lessons from experience, and weigh the road ahead. Of course, a book cannot solve the situation but it can clarify what it would take to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, to assess the prospects of doing so, and to illuminate what is possible in Palestine. Here is an unprecedented wealth of expertise including political leaders, preeminent scholars, and dedicated activists from Israel, Palestine, and abroad and many of whom are in direct critical exchange on the issues at the heart of the conflict. We have questions such as these: Has Israel’s settlement enterprise made a Palestinian state impossible? Can the Palestinian leadership end the occupation? Is Israel’s rule in the Palestinian territories a form of apartheid? Could the US government force Israel to withdraw? In return we get compelling, enlightening, and at times no-holds-barred debates in which leading authorities tackle these and other challenges, exposing myths, challenging preconceptions, and establishing between them a more sober and informed basis for political action.

Contributors: Musa Abuhashhash, As’ad Abukhalil, Mkhaimar Abusada, Gilbert Achcar, Ghaith al-Omari, Ghassan Andoni, Usama Antar, Nur Arafeh, Shaul Arieli, Arie Arnon, Tareq Baconi, Sam Bahour, Sari Bashi, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Suhad Bishara, Nathan J. Brown, Diana Buttu, John Dugard, Michael Dumper, Hagai El-Ad, Richard A. Falk, Norman G. Finkelstein, Neve Gordon, Ran Greenstein, Yoaz Hendel, Jamil Hilal, Khaled Hroub, Amal Jamal, Jan de Jong, Leila Khaled, Raja Khalidi, Rami G. Khouri, Lior Lehrs, Gideon Levy, Alon Liel, John J. Mearsheimer, Jessica Montell, Rami Nasrallah, Wendy Pearlman, Nicola Perugini, William B. Quandt, Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Glen Rangwala, Glenn E. Robinson, Nadim Rouhana, Sara Roy, Bashir Saade, Robbie Sabel, Dahlia Scheindlin, Daniel Seidemann, Michael Sfard, Muhammad Shehada, Raja Shehadeh, Sammy Smooha, Mark Tessler, Nathan Thrall, Ahmed Yousef, Ido Zelkovitz.

Here is what readers and reviewers have to say:

“A monumental and exceptionally rich book.” —Andreas Van Agt, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands

“An extremely rich collection.” —Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow, Institute for Palestine Studies

“Incisive and stimulating.” —Sara Roy, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University

“An informed and important contribution.” —Charles D. Smith, Professor Emeritus of Middle East History, University of Arizona