This post originally appeared on allthesedays.org
Around the world, there is a growing willingness to boycott Israeli companies that operate and provide services to the West Bank Settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
Last year the European Union set a ban on funds going to projects operating in the settlements and there has also been a recent wave of boycott and divestment announcements from European companies. Danske, Denmark’s largest bank announced that it will begin boycotting Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank, and news soon followed that a key Swedish Bank may follow suit.
Just in case you’re keeping a scrap book of everything being said about the whole Open Hillel controversy, or you’re just interested in the broader issues about American Jews’ relationship to Israel and the place of dissent in the organized community, check out this smart piece in Tikkun by David Harris-Gershon. (Of course, if you’re like me, you may shake your head wondering how we got to a place where a writer as talented and thoughtful as David actually has to spend so much time on Planet Obvious. It’s embarrassing.)
Avid Jewschoolians may recall my October review of Harris-Gershon’s book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir, which narrates the events surrounding his wife’s injury in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, healing, grief, and emotional breakdown leading to an obsessive pursuit of the apparently remorseful attacker and culminating with meeting his family. Not surprisingly, this book has led Harris-Gershon, a journalist with The Daily Kos and Tikkun, on a speaking circuit in Jewish communities. Recently, Santa Barbara Hillel invited him to speak, then discovered that Harris-Gershon, a two-state advocate, had written sympathetically about economic boycott as legitimate, non-violent protest, and consequently threatened to revoke his invitation and bar his entry into the Hillel building unless he made a public statement clarifying his positions on BDS. This is probably too much build-up already; just read what he has to say about the episode here.
Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.
Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership
Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.
AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.
In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.
We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.
AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.
Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”
It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »
“We all are sinners, won’t you send us to Bible study faster/Your hypocrite-esque reaction a blasphemy”
–Kendrick Lamar, “Rigamortus”
Get ready for the strangest 45 seconds of your day. #whatthewhat
This happened today on the floor of the Israeli Knesset. MK Dr. Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) completed a speech with an unhinged, unprompted, upbraiding of young men in ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) dress for coming and observing Parliamentary sessions from the visitors’ gallery instead of learning Torah.
A few key Hebrew phrases:
*Hillul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name, i.e., terrible public behavior by someone clearly recognized as Jewish, that brings disgrace to the Jewish people and their God
*Talmid(ei) Hakham(im) — Torah scholar(s)
*Bittul Torah — “wasting Torah”; it means slacking off when you could be learning Torah; this is the ultimate insult in the yeshiva world, what overbearing rabbis and sanctimonious veteran students accuse younger students of doing when they have a casual conversation.
*Hareidim — Ultra-Orthodox Jews (literally, “quakers”)
Here’s my translation of the clip:
“The last thing I want to say in the 27 seconds that I have [left] is this daily hillul hashem of people dressed like talmidei hakhamim who sit here, up in the gallery, slacking off, without a book, hour after hour, it drives me out of my mind! It shames the dress of a talmid hakham, it shames the value of bittul Torah, and I request of you, either bring books, or go to the beit midrash and learn. Thank you.”
So a small group of Palestinians, Israelis, and Germans –all in their 30s–are having drinks in Malmö, Sweden with a bunch of Jews, Muslims, Christians and other people of all ages who don’t identify with any religion.
That is not a joke. It happened a few days ago. I was there.
The group was the ensemble cast of Third Generation: “work in progress,” a brilliant performance piece conceived by Israeli playwright and director Yael Ronen (who was also there) and developed as a joint project of Berlin’s Schaubuhne and the Habimah National Theatre of Israel.
At the start of the show, Niels Bormann appears alone in front of the curtain; dressed in grey sweatpants, a red t-shirt emblazoned with 3G in large black letters, and a kefiya. He introduces the play with one apology after another: He is sorry that the costumes are not more sophisticated, but the show was developed in the Middle East, not Europe. He is sorry for making that politically incorrect statement. He is especially sorry for the role that Germany played in the murder of so many diverse groups of people. He polls the audience;
“Are there any Jews here?” Many hands go up. He apologizes. More »
This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground. Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968. This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this: Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it. Therefore, it’s ours, always. Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers. This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularly subjected.
I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar: even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael. I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages. This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.
The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan. Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim. More »
Book Review: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir, by David Harris-Gershon
What do you buy the children of the terrorist who tried to kill your wife?
This is not a question that many of us have ever asked, or even thought about thinking about figuring out how to ask. Or why, or whether, or how such a question could even exist. But this is what David Harris-Gershon found himself asking in a Toys-R-Us in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon, as it was preparing to close. This is the question that encapsulates the absurdity, desperation, and emotional daring in his mission to meet the jailed terrorist who planted the bomb at Hebrew University that killed nine people, including his friends Marla and Ben, and injured 100, including his wife, Jamie, who was eating lunch with them when the bomb detonated.
Harris-Gershon, a schoolteacher, dad, columnist for Tikkun and the Daily Kos, Moth Grandslam Storytelling champion, first-time author, and lover of words and dictionaries, learns a few things along the way, starting with language: More »
The hatred being spewed toward Stephen Hawking is disturbing.
The man made a choice informed by his own views and information on the ground. Anyone hiding behind the “fact” that Israel is only democracy in the Middle East or that Palestinians have it better under Israeli rule or any of the other tired and lame excuses for the vile things being said about a physicist in a wheelchair, should be ashamed of themselves.
Perhaps as opposed to automatically blaming those who have the audacity to stand up and say something — even if it is seen as overbearing, inappropriate, or bias — the American Jewish community could say something about the Palestinians and how as Jews we don’t like the way they are being treated BY OTHER JEWS. I don’t know, that might actually work.
It might be time for a significant change in our approach to dealing with legitimate criticism of Israel. But it has been time for that for the last 15 years.
Ach, like I said, this was a short post.
Yesterday, the Open Hillel campaign, a student led initiative to change policies around permitted conversations on Israel on campus, presented their petition ( 801 signatures strong as of this writing) and letter to the Hillel International Board in Washington, D.C.
The grassroots initiative was started by members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Hillel-affiliated group, when PJA was prevented from co-sponsoring an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. Open Hillel urges Hillel International to revise, reconsider, and ultimately remove its Standards for Partnership, which read: “Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, has chapters and affiliates on university campuses across the US and abroad. Hillel International currently publishes “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” which declare, “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
The Open Hillel campaign asks that Hillel ”remove all political litmus tests for co-sponsorships, affiliated groups, and invited speakers.”
More from the letter (written and signed by Jewish student leaders from universities across the country):
“Pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and no Jewish individual or group should be excluded from the community simply because of political views. The prohibition against anyone who “delegitimizes” or “applies a double standard” to Israel is used to silence students who are critical of Israeli policies or express views with which the Hillel leadership disagrees. These policies deny all students the opportunity to learn about a range of views and form well-supported and defensible opinions about Israel. We all lose out when important perspectives within our community are stifled.”
The campaign is currently awaiting a response from Hillel International and will continue to expand if Hillel International is resistant to the requests of the petition and letter,
This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the student group organizing a protest
against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.
Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups. Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity. We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.
Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine
Recently, Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine created, published and distributed a Zine called “Birthright? A Primer” for folks contemplating going on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The primer includes testimonies from previous trip participants, as well as resources for exploring Israel/Palestine after the trip. Tufts SJP organizers Matthew Parsons, Anna Furman and Dani Moscovitch spoke with Jewschool about the primer, how and why it happened, and what impact they hope it will have.
Jewschool: What was the impetus for creating the primer? What’s the goal?
Anna Furman: The goal of our zine is to equip students who have chosen to go on Birthright with a body of knowledge that they will not find otherwise. I think the most important section of our zine may be the section that encourages students to extend their trips and to go with various groups to the West Bank. If I had a zine like this when I had gone on Birthright 3 years ago, I am pretty certain that my whole understanding of the region and my relation to it would have been very different.
This is a guest post by Sandy Johnston. Sandy is a recent graduate of List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary and of Columbia University, where he majored in Bible and Archaeology, respectively. He currently lives in Chicago. His interests include, in addition to the study of ancient Israel, railroads and transit systems, urbanism, Israeli and American politics, and critical thought about the future of the American Jewish community. And cats.
(Map of verified incidents, Monday, November 19, 2012. Via the Guardian.)
Now that the latest bout of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is behind us, the time has come for analysis, postmortems, prognostication, and punditry. I take issue with a particularly simplistic, troublesome, and unhelpful strand of what passes for “progressive” thought on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that surfaced in threads I saw on Facebook during the latest round of fighting. My desire is not to legitimize Israel’s operations against Gaza nor to delegitimize criticism of the same; in the vein of criticizing most heavily those with whom one most identifies, I write to hopefully help sharpen the arguments and solutions that my fellow progressives put forward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yes, if I had the energy, I would write a response to some of the equally unsophisticated, idiotic, hurtful, and insensitive propaganda that came from the “Pro-Israel” side.
Cartoonist Nina Paley has been working on a (potential) feature film called Seder-Masochism, and earlier this week she released a first look, which is also its last scene. “This Land Is Mine” illustrates the battles over the patch of land that’s been known as Canaan, Israel, Palestine, etc. in a way that’s reminiscent of Chad Gadya without the animals. Check it out:
If you’re not sure who each of the characters is supposed to represent, Paley offers a guide to “Who’s Killing Who” on her blog.
It is no secret that Jews like a good debate. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture. I once heard Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz say that as much as the Talmud (a repository of disagreements and debates) is a product of Jewish culture, it has as much of an influence in shaping Jewish culture. We call an honest debate in Judaism a machloket l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. In other words, we don’t have to agree with someone’s opposing viewpoint, but we do have to respect the person.
Matt Abelson, a JTS rabbinical student, recently completed his year of study in Jerusalem. Perhaps one of the most challenging years in rabbinical school for a whole host of reasons, it is nearly impossible to return from the experience unchanged. Abelson wrote a post in which he slams the Encounter program for encouraging students to disengage from traditional Zionist ideology when it comes to their relationship with Israel. This is a “problem” that has been gaining increased attention in the last few years. It is a tense subject for many. As I have mentioned at other times on this blog, there were figures who sought to end my own career before it even began because, despite not even knowing me in real life, they decided I was anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. I responded to Rabbi Daniel Gordis here when he brought up the issue last year.
I do not have a problem with the fact that Matt Abelson has a problem with Encounter. I do have a problem with how he misrepresents their program. I won’t go into those details here, because I already responded to his blog post there (I included my comment below the fold). I also have a problem with the notion of shirking the responsibility for responsible debate because an issue elicits strong emotion. However, I do want to pose the question, is it an acceptable response to “opt out” of a difficult discussion because it makes you uncomfortable? Go and check out his post and come back here to comment. More »
From FOJ Emily Hauser
For those in the DC area:
Bethesda Jewish Congregation/Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church event with Jen Marlowe
The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker – Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe, co-authors
April 29, 7 pm
6601 Bradley Blvd
As a young Palestinian boy, Sami Al Jundi had one ambition: to help overthrow the Israeli occupation. When a bomb that he was building with friends exploded prematurely, killing one of the teenagers, Al Jundi was sentenced to ten years in Israeli prison. It was while there, unexpectedly, that ideas about nonviolence and reconciliation first took root and changed the course of his battle forever.
Guest post by: Eli Ungar-Sargon
For the past three years, my wife/producer Pennie and I have been working on a film about the moral and practical failings of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe that not only is the one-state solution inevitable at this point, but that it has the potential to yield a much more just and moral resolution to the conflict than the two-state solution. Objections to our vision usually come in two flavors: The theoretical and the practical. On the theoretical side, people argue that the one-state solution would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. They argue that demographic realities make it inevitable that very shortly after the creation of a single state, Jews would find themselves in the minority. The phrases that often pop up alongside these observations are: “Israel has a right to exist” and “Jews have a right to self-determination.”On the practical side, people usually argue that there is too much hatred for these peoples to coexist peacefully in a single state. The corollary to this argument is that a single state would quickly devolve into civil war, as was seen in Lebanon, or in the best case scenario end up as a failed state like Belgium.
It is true that the one-state solution would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Indeed, when the Zionists came to Palestine they were a minority and the only way that they were able to achieve their coveted majority status was by ethnically cleansing the land of most of its inhabitants. But the new state could still be a homeland for the Jews. Ali Abunimah famously argued in his book “One Country” for the maintenance of the Law of Return, which grants Jews automatic citizenship, alongside the implementation of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Whether or not this concept is actualized in the new state, any one-state solution would obviously have to guarantee the rights of its sizable Jewish minority. But the key here is that Jews would be equals, not privileged ethnocratic masters. Israel doesn’t have a “right to exist as a Jewish state.” States are political constructions and as such they don’t have rights. Individuals, however, do have rights and when a state infringes on those rights, its legitimacy is correctly brought into question. Moreover, even if we accept that Jews have the right to self-determination as a nation (a somewhat controversial claim), this right does not entitle them to deny the self-determination of another people group.
As in any ethnic conflict, an enormous amount of animosity has built up between the two sides and suspicions run deep. On the Palestinian side, 64 years of dispossession and oppression, along with two decades of insincere peace negotiations, have led to a total mistrust of Israeli intentions. On the Israeli side, a culture of Siege Mentality co-opts the history of Jewish suffering to perpetuate an unjust and immoral ethnocracy. But were we to look at Apartheid South Africa in the late 1980’s, we would also see deep mistrust and hatred between Blacks and Whites. Moreover, Germany in the 1940’s didn’t exactly look like a good place for Jews to live but today, it is one of the best countries in the world for Jews. Political realities change. And sometimes, when people of good will get together and work at it, political realities can change for the better.
We need to move away from the discourse of partition and ethno-nationalism and towards a discourse of integration and human rights. The two-state solution is immoral, because it denies millions of Palestinians their right of return and it legitimizes the second-class citizenship of Palestinian-Israelis. Now it is possible to conceive of a two-state solution that respects the right of return and transforms Israel from an ethnocracy into a full democracy, but such a solution is not on anyone’s agenda. Indeed, an examination of the motivations behind the two-state solution reveals why such a conception was never in the cards. On the Israeli side, the motivation for partition comes from the will to maintain a Jewish-majority state in as much of historic Palestine as possible. On the Palestinian side, partition was only accepted by those who live in the West Bank and Gaza under the boot of the IDF, because they were so desperate to end the Occupation. And in their desperation, the Palestinian leadership came close to negotiating away the right of return which is and always has been the central issue of concern for a majority of Palestinians.
The only way to really solve the conflict is to respect all of the human beings involved as equals. The one-state solution, therefore, is the most logical and practical way to achieve a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much work still needs to be done on what the precise contours of the new state will look like. But in the meantime, we are trying to articulate and facilitate a paradigm shift that will help set the groundwork for a peaceful political transformation of Israel/Palestine.
Eli Ungar-Sargon is an independent filmmaker. He and his wife Pennie are currently raising funds to finish their second feature-length documentary “A People Without a Land”. All contributions are tax-deductible and entitle the contributor to awesome perks: www.indiegogo.com/withoutaland
The Promise is a 4 part BBC miniseries portraying, in the words of producer David Aukin, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict “as it is seen through British eyes.” Each episode is divided between the point of view of Erin, a young woman from Leeds spending the summer in modern day Israel/Palestine, and the flashbacks of her grandfather, Len, a soldier in 1945 British Mandate Palestine. The first episode was shown Wednesday, November 16th at the JCC in Manhattan as part of the Other Israel Film Festival.
I’m sure Claire Foy, who plays Erin, gets this all the time, but she looks like a cross between of Rory Gilmore and that Kirsten Stewart person from the Twilight movies. Moving on. The episode begins with Erin’s discovery of her grandfather’s diary, kept during the British Mandate, in his apartment. Her mother tells her to throw it away, but Erin keeps it, and after informing her mother that she’s going to Israel for the summer with her friend Eliza, who’s beginning her army service, she begins reading it on the plane, starting with his account of liberating Bergen Belsen. Then we see a lot of black and white footage from the camp. Or rather, the audience did. I kept my head down and scribbled. “I wish everyone could see what I’ve seen,” writes Len.
Eliza, Erin’s friend, has dual Israeli/UK citizenship, and her parents live in Caesaria, in a crazy house with glass everything and a giant pool. They take a walk on the beach wearing white and drinking wine and the whole thing makes me think of folks who own houses in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s like paradise,” Erin tells Eliza. “It’s not what I expected.” “You thought we lived in bomb shelters,” Eliza says. Cue a montage of Eliza and Erin cavorting in the streets of what looks like Tel Aviv-shopping, sitting in cafes, Erin gawking at the sight of a soldier’s gun, and then, in a night club, where Erin passes out and has a seizure.
Meanwhile, in British Mandate Palestine (BMP), Len is told by an army commander that “These Jews see returning to be this place as the fulfillment of the promise of Gd,” but that the Arabs see things differently. The goal of the army is to get both parties to live together peacefully, “like the meat in a sandwich.” (The creepiest simile ever used to refer to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?)
A moving scene follows of Jews jumping from an arriving ship into the water, and being greeted and pulled to shore by British soldiers. There’s a woman with a skeletal face, her wet hair clinging to her head, slogging towards land. The camera lingers on her for a minute too long, or maybe I just imagine that. We learn that there is a quota on Jews entering the country, and when Len tries to smuggle a woman through, he’s reprimanded.
Erin and Eliza, clad in her IDF uniform, drive to her army base to begin training. The front entrance is blocked by Peace Now protestors. As they drive to the other entrance, Eliza tells Erin that her brother is one of them. “I know you think it’s idyllic, but it’s total bullshit,” she says, admitting that she’s terrified of being the army. Erin proposes that if she really can’t take it, she’ll bail her out and they’ll run for the border. (Things I would love to see happen in a future episode.)
BMP: Len is in some kind of swanky club, with other soldiers and ladies and lots of alcohol, and he meets Clara, prompting me to worry that we’re going to see some sex really soon. (Spoiler: we do not.) Clara tells him that this is all propaganda, that she and many other women are being paid to entertain soldiers, and that “100,000 soldiers equals 100,000 opportunities,” and that he’ll undoubtedly write letters home to his family telling them about how well he’s being treated by the Jews of Palestine.
Len has a look of perpetual torture, which only gets worse when he’s ordered to attend a rally against the Jewish quotas, a project that Clara and her father are involved in, in civilian clothes. “Be a Jew for a day,” his commander tells him, urging him to get information on any insurgency the Jews might be planning. Clara, in the meantime, confesses to him that her mother met another man while in the concentration camp. “Not every concentration camp story has an unhappy ending,” she says.
Bon Iver. Bikini. Swimming pool. Erin floats around on a raft until she’s surprised by Eliza’s “insane” brother, Paul, who’s visiting his parents. Erin tells him about her grandfather, Paul tells her that his grandfather fought in the Irgun. Over dinner, things get a little American-Jewish community when we learn that Paul is an anti Zionist who believes Israel is a military dictatorship. Fight with parents about the occupation ensues. Eliza shows up in her IDF uniform and gun. Everyone stares. Later, Eliza tells Erin that once, Paul was very hard core about the army, before he went to Hebron.
BMP: Len attends the anti quota rally, and a man is killed whom the British believe to be an instigator. Later, some of his friends are killed in a shooting. It’s unclear who’s responsible, but in a move that I can only regard as insanely ironic, the remaining solidiers break into an Arab home in pursuit of the actual shooters. Clara’s father tells Len that he’s no longer welcome in their home, even after Len assures him that he’s on their side. “We may be stateless,” says her father, “but we are not stupid.” In the stairwell, Clara and Len embrace secretly.
That’s the end of the flashbacks. Erin and Paul travel to Ramle so she can see the graves of Len’s friends, and she freaks out when she sees the graves of two who aren’t dead in the journal yet. And then we’re in Paul’s car driving into the Territories. “I thought it was dangerous,” Erin says. “You’d rather be back by the pool?” Paul says, and she doesn’t answer. In Nablus, Paul speaks at a Combatants for Peace meeting, along with Omar, a former member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Erin watches, enraptured. She’s surprised to learn later that Omar is an Israeli Arab, and watches, horrified and confused, as Omar is stripped searched and detained at a checkpoint after confronting a solidier about his treatment of a Palestinian woman. “Welcome to Israel,” Paul says, as they drive away from the checkpoint after Omar has asked them to leave him there. “Isn’t it to stop the terrorists?” Erin wonders. Paul responds by showing her the separation barrier and explains that the goal of the checkpoints and the barrier is to force Palestinians off their land and into such a state of despair that they leave all together. He yells a lot. Erin looks confused and scared.
At the entrance to a cafe, a bewildered Erin gets searched by a security guard. She and Paul drink beer. She says she loves it in Israel, he says it’s because she lives in the safe world of his parents, who, he admits, are lovely people. He tells Erin that when he was little, his father took him to a border and pointed out the difference between Jewish and Arab land. “Look what they’re done with the land in 2000 years and look what we’ve done in 50,” his father said. Paul: “He was telling me that they aren’t as deserving as we are.”
On the way out of the cafe, Erin’s glance lingers on a couple coming in. Paul realizes that he’s left his wallet inside when they get to the car and tells Erin to wait. And then there’s a explosion in the cafe. End of episode one.
Are you still reading? Good. After the episode, there was a q/a in the Speakeasy cafe with Liel Leibovitz and producer David Aukin. The idea of the series began with a letter from a solidier who served in Palestine during the British Mandate, which inspired Aukin to portray the conflict through a British perspective. The series was shot on location in Israel/Palestine and the crew represented a cross section of Israeli society, which, according to Aukin, resulted in very real tensions and arguments.
In response to an audience member’s question about the source and prevalence of Britain’s anti-Israel boycotts, Aukin said, “There is no memory in the current British narrative about the Mandate. It doesn’t exist anymore. If anything, this film is anti-British. What we’re dealing with now are the seeds of what the British left behind.”
In case you’re wondering what happened at the end of episode one of The Promise, you can see the second episode this coming Monday, November 21, at the JCC in Manhattan at 7 pm. Episodes three and four will be show on Wednesdays, November 23-December 7th. For more information, visit www.jccmanhattan.org/cat-content.aspx?catID=2928&progID=24759.