Category Archives: Israel

“AN ISRAELI LOVE STORY”— Love and History

“An Israeli Love Story”

Love and History

Amos Lassen

When Margalit meets Eli on a bus, it’s love at first sight. Eli, however, takes a little convincing since his head is already crowded with ideas and responsibility. The catch in this little love story is that it’s Israel 1947. After all, Israel is about to become a nation and there is a lot to do. Things are also complicated by the fact that Eli (Avraham Aviv Alush), is the son of the second President of the State of Israel and lives on a kibbutz where he works all day every day.

When Margalit (Adi Bielski) pursues him there, she learns that he’s also helping the Palmach to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine. This only makes her love him more but his reality is very different from hers. She is a drama student and theatre lover who is reluctant to give up a life of creativity. Her love is strong enough to make the necessary sacrifices, but the turbulent state of things in Israel means that love will not be enough to overcome all.

This is based on the true story of the love affair between Pnina Gary and Eli Ben-Zvi. Set in 1947, the passionate love story is set against the political turmoil of pre-state Israel. The backdrop is politically and culturally exciting yet the love story could have happened anywhere but here it takes place in volatile Mandatory Palestine, and sure that plays a role in directing its course.

Even though the couple had overwhelming differences, the two lovers were able to overcome them. Having lived in Israel for many years, this was a nostalgic experience for me especially as I was taken back to life on the kibbutz. The film wonderfully captures the soul of the nation and s a very effective look at a period in history when a nation is about to be born.

“THE COUSIN”— Love Thy Neighbor

“THE COUSIN”

Love Thy Neighbor

Amos Lassen

Naftali (Tzahi Grad) is a local celebrity looking at an ambitious new project. When he decides to finally complete some long-delayed work on his studio, he hires a Palestinian worker, who doesn’t show up but sends Fahed (Ala Dakka) instead. Even though his new handyman doesn’t seem to know much about what needs to be done, for a while everything goes well. But then somebody assaulted a girl in the neighborhood and the Israeli community of the close-knit village quickly turns against the stranger, forcing Naftali to finally pick a side.

Tzahi Grad wrote, directed and stars in a story about trying to take justice into one’s own hands. Naftali is a left-wing idealist who, after stressing the need to understand both sides of the conflict, suddenly ends up following through with what he has been preaching. Predictably, all that talk doesn’t necessarily translate into action and although convinced of Fahed’s innocence, Naftali quickly starts questioning his own stance, especially when it becomes painfully apparent that when faced with vigilantes who would gladly engage in violence and he understands that it would be so much easier to simply turn a blind eye. 

The idea of mirroring a large-scale conflict in a small environment is as practical as it is effective and that there is clearly a need for this type of confrontational cinema. However, it all escalates a bit too conveniently and quickly to be fully convincing. Yet the film is universal and also extremely upsetting.

The film explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an everyday perspective through a comedic tone.

Grad has written himself a meaty yet delicate role and he proves more than up to the task. “The Cousin” is about a good man forced into a difficult situation heightened by inflamed sensitivities, ample real-life context. Naftali wants to see renovations on his ramshackle studio completed, and gets up early to collect the worker tasked with turning it into a usable space. Professionally, he’s preparing to pitch a new project to a TV network: a reality show that brings a series of Israelis and Palestinians together along the Green Line to document their attempts at mediation.

Naftali took his gardener’s advice and enlisted a Palestinian to undertake the remodeling, rather than hiring someone local and this drastically alters what should have been a drama-free day. Instead of the contractor Naftali had been speaking with, the man’s brother, Fahed (Ala Dakka), takes on the job. Initially reluctant, Naftali ultimately is okay with the change, but when a girl reports an assault nearby, his friends and neighbors are quick to point fingers at the outsider in their midst. The fact that the duo had been at the site of the attack just that morning, further enrages the growing number of involved parties.

The contrast between Naftali’s idealistic TV concept and the terseness unfolding at home isn’t meant to escape attention; Fahed himself calls the small screen project naïve, long before such allegations come his way, and the film makes plain the extent of the ingrained resistance to change.

While the overt clash between rival sides provides the drama and comedy, the battle waged within Naftali gives the movie its perceptive, penetrating centre. Initially trying to stay loyal to his employee, even when faced with vocal and threatening opposition, including from his wife Yael (Osnat Fishman), Grad’s protagonist carries the weight of constant intellectual and emotional readjustment on his shoulders.

Grad is well matched by Dakka and Fishman, both fleshing out pivotal parts that could have remained thin in other hands.

“In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea” by Michael Brenner— The Concept of a Jewish State

Brenner, Michael. “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Concept of a Jewish State

Amos Lassen

It seems that I have spent most of my life trying to understand the idea of a Jewish state and that includes the many years that I lived in Israel. The early Zionists envisioned the creation of a nation that would be unlike all others. However, the state that came to be in 1948 was not what had been expected. It was born out of the dead of the Holocaust and of the many years of Jewish suffering yet it was a nation that was unique with a model society in the Middle East yet Israel was a paradox, The country was shaped by its struggle to define itself while securing a place among the other nations of the world.

At the first Zionist Congress in 1897 there was no single solution as to how the normalization of the Jewish people was to happen. Theodore Herzl, the founded of the Zionist movement thought that a secular-liberal “New Society” that would be home to Jews and non-Jews alike was the answer. East European Zionists, instead, advocated for the renewal of the Hebrew language and the creation of a distinct Jewish culture. Socialists saw a society of workers’ collectives and farm settlements. The Orthodox Jews wanted a society based on the laws of Jewish scripture. Immediately, the stage was set for a clash of Zionist dreams and Israeli realities that still continues today.

Now, seventy years after its founding, Israel has achieved a great deal, “but for a state widely viewed as either a paragon or a pariah”, writer Michael Brenner argues, “the goal of becoming a state like any other remains elusive. If the Jews were the archetypal “other” in history, ironically, Israel—which so much wanted to avoid the stamp of otherness—has become the Jew among the nations.” While he is unable to answer questions about modern Zionism, Brenner elucidates the concept of modern Israel. Personally, I find it fascinating that while I lived there I wanted Israel to be more secular and while living in the United States now, I find myself wanting just the opposite. The idea that Israel is to be “a light unto the nations” has yet to happen even with all that Israel has provided to the modern world.

What makes this book both fascinating and unique is that Brenner has managed to unite the history of Israel with the history of Zionism taking us back to Herzl’s original vision through the various forms that Zionism has taken to the present. It is no surprise that since the early days of political Zionism, the idea of Israel has clashed wit ideas of normalcy and uniqueness. This is a book that cries out to be read by those who care about Israel and what she will be.

Brenner explores the tensions “within the Zionist project between Israel’s strivings for normality and its ongoing sense of exceptionalism” and he does so with style and grace. The different visions for a homeland for the Jews are many and need to be understood in order to appreciate what we do have now. Brenner does a wonderful job of explaining these.

“Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher— A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

 

Rothman-Zecher, Moriel. “Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2018.

A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

Amos Lassen

Jonathan is a young man who is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country. We begin in an Israeli military jail, where Jonathan remembers clearly the series of events that led him there. It all began two years earlier when after spending several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan moves back to Israel and is ready “to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state”. His grandfather was a Salonican Jew whose community was erased by the Nazis and he was one of the pioneers to help establish Israel. Jonathan is conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories and this becomes a very deep concern when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.

From that meeting, the three become inseparable as they wandered the streets on weekends, had new adventures and laughed together. They shared so much from joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets and family histories, resentments, and dreams. In effect, they created their own family. With his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestled with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage and loyal to your people, while also loving those outside of your own biological and tribal family. Then the day that put Jonathan in prison came and his relationship with the twins was changed forever.

This novel looks at one guy as he tries to find his place in the world and who found, along the way, love. In the process, we gain a look at identity formation, both personal and collective. As I read, I was reminded of so many of my own life experiences. As young people we become very aware of the changes in the world that we want to make. We establish our own set of values and beauty and see what we want to see.

The story is told through letters written by Jonathan whose grandfather convinced him of the honor and duty that cones with the defense of Israel. Jonathan becomes devoted to his grandfather’s dreams of recapturing some of that which he lost when they were forced to leave Palestine. At the same time he is became friends with Palestinian Arabs, Laith and Nimreen.

Laith and his twin sister, Nimreen, became Jonathan’s voices of the other side of the political divide. Their relationship becomes strained because of ideologies and Jonathan is sure that he must follow what his grandfather told him to do. Laith and Nimreen feel that their view of the situation is right.

Jonathan tells the story through his letters, thoughts, journal entries that he writes to Laith, his friend he feels he’s lost along the way as he sits in an Iranian military jail cell. How he got there and everything else about his life is told in flashback.

This is so much more than a coming-of-age story— it also shows the dangers and ravages of war and this is also a love story of a kind. We sense Jonathan’s spirit, thoughts and feelings and the see the effect that the Israeli/Palestinian has on his relationship with Laith and Nimreen. Beautifully written and honest and sincere there is, of course, a message here.

“Candies from Heaven” by Gil Hovav— Stories to Eat By

Hovav, Gil. “Candies from Heaven”, translated by Ira Moskowitz, Toad Publishing, 2017.

Stories to Eat By

Amos Lassen

Gil Hovav is one of Israel’s natural cultural treasures. He is a wonderful storyteller. In “Candies from Heaven” we get a wonderful sampling of stories as well as recipes that help us enjoy the food for thought.

Hovav is not only a masterful storyteller he is a born raconteur. His family is unforgettable— colorful uncles, aunts, and other family members that we meet through the stories that use food as a lemotif. The stories are actually autobiographical accounts of growing up in Jerusalem in the 60s and 70s and they read like short stories in the great tradition of Sholem Aleichem—-they are related with “great wisdom, tenderness, insight, and wit as tart as a bowl of Yemenite pickles.” The recipes include sweet sour chorba tomato soup and his Aunt Levana’s eggplant and feta bourekas. It is great fun to read intimate details about someone else—- it is almost as if we are pulled into the family. We really see the diverse cultural mix that was the foundation of Israel.

 

“The Diamond Setter” by Moshe Sakal— Inspired by True Events

Sakal, Moshe. “The Diamond Setter”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Other Press, 2018.

Inspired by True Events

Amos Lassen

 “The Diamond Setter” traces a complex web of love triangles, homoerotic tensions, and family secrets across generations and locations. We get a new look at life in the Middle East as it really is. Written by Moshe Sakal this is his first novel to be translated into English. The story is related by characters whose lives intertwine and revolve around a rare diamond.

In his first novel to be translated into English, Israeli writer Sakal uses elements of his own biography and weaves them into a story that is part mystery, part family history, and part myth. Tom narrates the story that starts when he begins an apprenticeship in his uncle Menashe’s jewelry shop in Tel Aviv. A customer comes into the shop with what she claims belongs to Menashe: a long-lost blue diamond known as “Sabakh.” Tom and his boyfriend, Honi, become involved with a young man from Damascus named Fareed, who may be connected to the diamond in some way. From this point, the story moves backwards as the characters’ lives are traced back through their respective family trees and into the history of the Middle East. We learn about the mysterious diamond and the lives it’s touched as it is set against the backdrop of the founding of the State of Israel and the deepening conflict that developed at that time. Sakal plays with boundaries while reality and fiction come together when Tom discusses the book he’s writing (also called “The Diamond Setter”) as the story progresses.

As the mystery of the diamond unfolds, characters’ lives cross in unexpected ways and we are reminded that we are all connected to each other in some way.

There is a fascinating obsession with property here. The question of who will inherit Israel when the time comes is never answered. We never really understand the meaning of the word “inherit”. On opposing sides are Menashe Salomon, the moral jeweler with an intricate history of its own and Amiram Kadosh, Menashe’s scheming, money-driven landlord who plans to renovate the building where the jewelry shop is and turn it into a boutique hotel. Between the two is a large cast of characters that includes respective children, friends, intimates, confidents, and forbears, some of whom the two men actually have in common.

This story is about Israel today as she is in her most liberated and existence. complex, acculturated, even liberated format. This is about Israel without looking at war, religion, disagreement, etc and t is sort of like a state of little America where there is a constant flow of cultures and languages. Several of the men and women here are gay or bisexual, and little is made of it and even the older characters have no problem with sexuality. The past is constant throughout and it provides solace and grounding. and grudges and arguing. The symbol of the past is “Sabakh,” the blue diamond. It had once been given to Gracia, a beautiful, talented, great aunt of Menashe’s, by a Turkish sultan as a reward for her singing. The diamond’s journeys and the subsequent “curse” attached to it become a major theme in the novel. Eventually it comes to Fareed, a handsome young Syrian who met Rami on Grindr. Rami introduces Fareed to Honi, another young gay man whose father is Amiram Kadosh, and from there the story begins to move. Fareed will return the diamond to its rightful owner and we will learn about the intertwining destinies of almost all of the many characters.

What we really see is a portrait of modern Israel that is good and positive. We read about the movement to equalize wealth and opportunity, and that understands that Israel cannot exist without its Palestinians and their own history and culture. It is all about economic justice and this is quite a different Israel than the one I lived in.

Fareed came to Tel Aviv with the intention of returning the diamond to its rightful owner and is soon swept up in Tel Aviv’s vibrant gay scene, and a turbulent protest movement. He falls in love with both an Israeli soldier and his boyfriend and shares the story of his family’s past that turns out to be a tale of forbidden love beginning in the 1930s that connects Fareed and the jeweler.

Writer Sakal presents us with a wonderful mosaic of characters, locales, and cultures that allow us to look beyond the present military conflicts. This is a fascinating look at the Middle East through the intergenerational lives and loves of its characters.

“WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER”— Continuing the Discussion

“West of the Jordan River”

Continuing the Discussion

Amos Lassen

Amos Gitai goes to the West Bank to better understand the efforts of the citizens, both Israelis and Palestinians, to try to overcome the consequences of the 50-year occupation. Interspersing footage of his interviews with Yitzhak Rabin from the 1990s with the contemporary interviews of everyday citizens. It seems that what we see are a collection of outtakes from Gitai’s earlier film, “Rabin, The Last Day”. In this aspect it becomes problematic because the documentary never coheres into a solid whole, leaving viewers with only the vaguest of sketches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is, however, a message and that is Gitai seeing the peace process as being over after hitting a dead end in the wake of Rabin’s death. The film is bookended by interviews with Rabin from 1994 on the subject of the Oslo Accords, and we get the implication that the bilateral situation has steadily deteriorated since then but without providing the context to verify such a claim. Gitai suggests early on that his film will provide a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however the series of short interviews that he conducts with various political and civil figures involved in the conflict fail to deliver on this.

The roughly five-minute interview segments that make up the entirety of the film go back and forth between talks with Israeli and Palestinian organizations, journalists, politicians, and regular people on the street. This diversity of views on display gives the film the appearance of having a broad overview of the conflict yet the final product nevertheless feels shallow. Gitai makes no attempt to bridge the gap between Rabin’s assassination and the present day regarding the manifold changes in the conflict that have taken place in the meantime. The result is a work that feels like an introduction to a larger statement that the filmmaker can’t manage to put into words.

Early in the film, a member of Hamas states plainly that he doesn’t believe in the peace process. Later, a Palestinian boy says to Gitai that he wants to die as a martyr, while simultaneously admitting that his life is actually quite good. If there’s a thesis here, we get it when Gitai says that such Palestinian extremism triggers an equal response on the Israeli side. Yet, he offers no concrete examples of this equivalent Israeli response to such ingrained behavior under the assumption that his audience will take his word for it. We hear from the leftist Israeli organization “Breaking the Silence” that claims to speak out against Israeli abuses in the West Bank but we see as paranoid and unconvincing in its time on screen. The group’s promise to reveal the outsized ethical toll of Israel’s presence in the West Bank is simply the assertion that “it’s difficult to be a soldier in a place where the parents of child soldiers are one’s everyday acquaintances.”

We see an Israeli-Palestinian women’s association doing the practical work of reconciliation by bringing mothers from both sides of the conflict together to share their grief and this is a glimmer of hope. This scene works to fundamentally undercut the rest of the film by showing that coexistence here is possible when people are willing to listen to one another.

Gitai often takes incidents and anecdotes out of context, making it difficult for viewers who lack intimate knowledge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to follow the proceedings. He never concretely defines the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and provides almost no historical back-story for the views and assertions we see on the screen.

At the heart of the documentary is a 1994 interview with Israeli Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination. At one point, Rabin says: “We must first make intermediate steps which would bring, by their success, evidence that peaceful coexistence is possible.” With this ideal of reconciliation

between Israel and Palestine, Gitai joins a meeting of The Parents Circle, a gathering of parents from both sides who lost children in the conflict. He attends a meeting of B’Tselem, a human rights organization that assists Palestinian women to film violations in occupied territories. He talks with two women living in a Jewish settlement about their desire to get along with their neighbors. He also listens to veteran activists who show the harshness of everyday life in the occupied territories. And then there is the young Palestinian boy whose dreams and wants to die as a martyr.

Gitai tells us in his press notes that this documentary is a tribute to the civil courage of individuals who feel disappointed by the lack of political action to resolve the problem. “Because of this, we are all forced to act individually in our own way. This is the optimistic side of the film. We see a large collection of people of different backgrounds who take action in their own hands.”

“AZIMUTH”— Hope

“Azimuth”

Hope

Amos Lassen

At the end of The Six Day War of 1967 in Israel, two soldiers, an Egyptian and an Israeli, encounter each other in the Sinai desert. The two share the goal of survival. During the 67 war, Israel repelled a concerted effort of its Arab neighbors to drive it into the sea. The country was about to be torn apart by artillery, air power and troops and it was an ambush. This time, however, the underdog served the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan with defeat. In just 6 days, the warring enemies were brought to their knees.

The movie was directed by Mike Burstyn, the son of Yiddish actors, who got his start in Yiddish theater . He and I did our basic training for the Israel Defense Forces together. This is the first film he has directed and he has something to be really proud of. “Azimuth” exposes conflict and salvation as it communicates itself between two soldiers: an Israeli and an Egyptian who are–deadlocked in an abandoned desert UN outpost, during the ceasefire that ended the war. The very strong metaphor we have here is that we can survive if we cooperate, or we are going to die in the desert.”

Burstyn uses a question of relativity as his subtext that has us empathize with he characters. We care for both characters, because in their isolation it’s difficult to remember who they are fighting and what for. They are simply two men who fight for all of us.

The 6-Day War did not just change the Middle East, it changed the world by making us believe in hope. With the war’s end in the middle of the desert, in an abandoned outpost of the United Nations, two soldiers cross each other. The Egyptian is hurt and lost. The Israel is looking for his mates in a jeep and stops at the place to refuel the car and escape for awhile from the scorching heat. The war is over, but for these two men the confrontation is inevitable. And they end up being each other’s prisoner.

It is not a matter of opposing a Jew to an Arab, but of observing the behavior of two men in the face of a situation of mutual fear and struggle for survival. There is no religious or ethnic hatred, but only an inescapable boundary imposed by the different military uniforms they wear. We have no temptation to justify or legitimize the conflict between Jews and Arabs, to victimize or demonize one of the sides. What matters is the brutality of war, seen from the point of view of two individuals who have nothing against each other but mutual fear, external to themselves, because both were mobilized to fight on opposite sides.

Of course we have the irony that the war is over and the struggle to survive is a crude look at the logic of conflict.. It is surprising that, with a story that has just two characters, that the movie can move forward as rapidly as it does. The performances of Israeli Yiftach Klein and the Egyptian Sammy Sheik are outstanding and the film is visually beautiful to watch.

The conflict that frames “Azimuth” is still going on and this prevents the story from being a fable or morality tale. Yes, the message of the movie is not new yet as we watch we are kept guessing as to how it will be presented.

“NASSER’S REPUBLIC, THE MAKING OHF MODERN EGYPT”— The Heart of Modern Egypt

 

Nasser’s Republic, The Making of Modern Egypt”

The Heart of Modern Egypt

Amos Lassen

Gamal Abdel Nasser I considered by many to be the heart of modern Egypt and in this documentary, filmmaker Michal Goldman details Nasser’s rise to power in 1952, the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967 and his death in September of 1970 from a massive heart attack.   The legacy of these 18 years as president of Egypt are still felt today. Nasser is the person who remade a post-war Egypt into a nation that is at the center of the Middle East.

Goldman took four years to assemble, not only the history of Nasser, but to conduct numerous interviews with scholars, Islamists, secularists and the people of the street.  When we put all of this together, we get a fascinating look at modern Egypt and the man who made it what it became.

This is the first film for an American audience about one of the Arab world’s most transformative leaders. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Gamal Abdel Nasser became a symbol of Arab progress and dignity. From 1952 to 1970, he challenged Western hegemony abroad, confronted Islamism at home, and faced deep divisions among the Arabs. He also established the region’s first military authoritarian regime. Nasser was a man of enormous charisma and ambition but he Nasser had begun a revolution he could not complete. Nonetheless, his dreams, dilemmas and decisions continue to shape the current generation.

Goldman began work on this project before the January 2011 uprisings in Egypt and continued filming through General Sisi’s first year in power. During this period of turmoil, Egyptians argued with passion about their history as a way to see what course to follow in the future. It is their voices; the voices of peasants and professors, secularists and Islamists that drive this thus allowing us to see the multiculturalism that is Egypt.

In 1952, as an unknown young Egyptian colonel, Nasser led a coup that became a revolution. Over the next 18 years he challenged Western hegemony abroad, confronted Islamism at home, and faced deep divisions among the Arabs, yet he emerged as a champion of Arab progress and African liberation. However, he could not offer democracy and so instead, he established the region’s first and much emulated military authoritarian regime. But Nasser became “caught in the coils of his own power” and died at 52 with many dreams unrealized. His legacy became the Arab Spring and its aftermath are his legacy.

Between 2011 and 2015 Egypt experienced a period of turmoil, Egyptians argued about their history as a way to see what course to follow in the future. It is their voices that drive Egypt and this film.

Through rare archival material, new interviews and narration by actress Hiam Abbas, we find invaluable resources for historians, students and scholars. We see a myriad of contradictions and are left with many open-ended questions but we also clearly see that Nasser’s story remains at the heart of Egypt’s struggles.

The storyline is fresh and the archival footage is gripping as are the witnesses who drive the story. This is a “ compelling tale of shrewd political maneuverings, idealism and, at times, sadness. This regime’s echoing impacts on the Middle East will hit home for viewers.”

“Pnina, My Comrade in Arms” by Lucienne Marode Skopek— A Life

Skopek, Lucienne Marode. “Pnina, My Comrade in Arms”, Editions Allewil Verlag, 2017.

Å Life

Amos Lassen

Lucienne Marode Skopek has a PhD in sociolinguistics and lives between Washington and Geneva and is the author of various books. In this book, she pays tribute to a friend, a comrade in arms she met during her military service in Israel. The themes include friendship, the Holocaust, homosexuality, the passing of time and she deals with them with thoughtfulness and sensitivity about these episodes in Pnina’s life. Despite the tragic aspect of historic events that form the background of the book, Skopek is never accusative, moralizing or sentimental. she approaches her subject by bringing everything into clear focus even when some of the moments are for those with strong stomachs.