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'Omar' and the Oscars

On Friday the 13th, the movie “Omar” won Best Film at the Dubai Film Festival. There is very little I could tell you about the plot of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad’s new thriller without turning this piece into one big spoiler. Abu Assad's new masterpiece is the perfect follow-up to the 2006 Golden Globe-winning “Paradise Now,” which he also penned and directed. “Paradise Now” was surrounded by controversy, from accusations that Abu Assad was glorifying suicide bombing to utter confusion as to what country the film would represent during the awards season. The latter controversy dogged Paradise Now all the way to the Oscars. There were several critics who objected to the fact that a film directed by an Israeli citizen would represent Palestine, a country these critics adamantly insisted does not exist.

A similar attempt was made to claim last year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature nominee “Five Broken Cameras” as property of Israel, even though the filmmakers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, insisted the film was indeed Palestinian. In 2006, when Oscar time finally came, the producers of “Paradise Now” were promised that the film would be credited to Palestine. When the category came up, however, the teleprompter for Will Smith, who was presenting, read "Palestinian Territories” instead. “Paradise Now” lost the Oscar but did win at the Golden Globes, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association even allowed the film to be listed as having been made in Palestine.


Director Hany Abu-Assad (L) is presented by Sheikh Mansour (2nd-L), son of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, with the award of Muhr Arab Feature award (Best director) for his film 'Omar' during the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in Dubai on December 13, 2013. (KARIM SAHIB / AFP / Getty Images)

Hany Abu Assad went to great lengths to avoid a similar controversy with “Omar,” which is Palestine’s official entry for the 2013 Academy Awards. The crew, the actors, and even the financing are all Palestinian, yet Israel has still found a way to try to claim “Omar” as its own. Israel is adamant that since Abu Assad is an Israeli citizen and large portions of the movie were shot in Nazareth, the film must therefore be Israeli. Hany Abu Assad killed all that noise really quickly. He is unapologetically Palestinian and no Israeli passport will change that, much to the chagrin of those who have worked so hard to morph the over one million Palestinians who carry Israeli papers into vague Arabs. Hany Abu Assad, from his first film, “Ford Transit,” to this latest creation, challenges the physical separation of Palestinian society by viewing the Palestinians as one community. He moves fluidly from Nazareth to Nablus in his films, simultaneously addressing and tearing down the walls the Israeli government has built to separate us.

The continuous attempts of Hillel’s directors to silence voices critical of Israel, which recent events at Swarthmore College exemplify, are a battle waged by Hillel’s directors against the Jewish tradition of pluralism, tolerance and the pursuit of social justice.

Hillel’s insular policies are enshrined in its Israel guidelines. The guidelines are unequivocal in stating not only Hillel’s support of Israel and Israel's centrality to American Jewish life, but also that this is to be accepted as an unquestioned axiom. Thus the guidelines deny room for any view that questions or rethinks the sustainability or value of an Israel defined as a “Jewish and democratic state,” regardless of the obvious tension that is built right into this formula. The mere acknowledgement of this tension is deemed un-Jewish by Hillel’s guidelines. The guidelines go further in forbidding the mere consideration of any significant political action against Israel. That is, regardless of any policy implemented by an Israeli regime, reprehensible as it may be, any position that calls for, say, sanctions against such a regime cannot as much as be voiced within Hillel.


Swarthmore College (Fritz Ward / Flickr Creative Commons)

As Hillel is the dominant Jewish organization on most American campuses, we, Jewish Israelis and Israeli-Americans with close ties to academic life, find the narrowness of views that are deemed legitimate by Hillel intellectually meek, counterproductive for sustaining a thriving Jewish community on American campuses, demeaning of our Jewish tradition and identity, stifling of both our Israeli and American voices and concerns, and finally morally offensive.

"There is a partner on the Palestinian side. The question is whether Netanyahu is a partner to reach an agreement with the Palestinians."
--Meretz party Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On Friday at the annual conference of Israel's left-wing.

  • Attorney General: Bill against pro-boycott Israel groups is unconstitutional - Ministerial committee to discuss bill penalizing non-profits Sunday. (Haaretz)
  • Israeli government halts controversial plan to resettle 30,000 Bedouin - Architect of the proposal told a Knesset committee earlier this week that he had never received community support for the proposal, despite claims to the contrary. (Haaretz)
  • Israeli troops shoot Palestinian teenager in Gaza - IDF says man was shot after entering buffer zone; nature of his injuries is still unclear. Maan writes that the injured is a 16-year-old boy. (Haaretz and Maan)
  • Report: University of Haifa denies professor honorary doctorate over politics - Rejecting Professer Robert Aumann because of his political beliefs is an "unacceptable phenomenon," says the Institute for Zionist Strategies after Haaretz reports that the University of Haifa denied Aumann over politics. University said, "The process is not over yet." (Israel Hayom)
  • CERN atomic research center accepts Israel as its 21st member - Full membership in the world’s leading nuclear research center will bring significant scientific, commercial and political benefits. (Haaretz+ and Ynet)
  • Iran pulls out of expert-level talks with world powers over U.S. sanctions - Iranian officials say U.S. move to target people and companies for evading Iran sanctions violates spirit of agreement reached in Geneva. (Agencies, Haaretz)
  • Jordanian king gives snowed-in citizens a helping hand - In attempt to show solidarity with people, Jordan's king took to streets to help citizens stranded in snow. See his highness roll up his sleeves in snow covered Jordanian capital. (Ynet)
  • Is Ghazi Albuliwi the Palestinian Woody Allen? He wants to be - Albuliwi’s new film - about a Palestinian guy who marries an Israeli woman - opened the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s Jewish Film Festival last week. (Haaretz+)

For the full News from Israel.

Bloody Battle

Red Cross Rejects Ethiopian Blood

When Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata offered to donate blood at a drive organized Wednesday by Magen David Adom (MDA)—the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross—she didn’t expect to stir up a huge controversy in the press, the health ministry, and the government at large. Or maybe she did.

MDA officials rejected her blood on the grounds that it was “the special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood,” which Health Ministry directives prohibit them from using for fear of spreading HIV. Tamano-Shata explained that she was born in Ethiopia but raised in Israel from the age of three. It made no difference. If she wanted, she could donate blood, but her donation would be frozen and never used. When she kept objecting, she was sent to speak with the supervisor, who told her, “Sweetheart, don’t be insulted. You’re right, but these are the Health Ministry’s directives.” Tamano-Shata’s colleague, tagging along with cellphone in hand, caught the whole thing on video.


Israeli Member of Knesset Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid Political Party / Wikicommons)

Then all hell broke loose. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein chased the MDA officials from the parliament. Tamano-Shata said she was insulted by the apparently discriminatory guidelines. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called her and promised that the guidelines would be reviewed. President Shimon Peres denounced the guidelines, saying, “There can be no differentiation between one blood and the other in the State of Israel.” In short, everyone quickly and tacitly agreed that the whole situation could probably be summed up in a single word: racism.

A few days ago, I blogged about sociologist Steven M. Cohen’s study (coauthored with Steven Fink) on Habonim Dror. Meanwhile, Cohen has been making headlines with a provocative new initiative he has floated with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute. For those non-Jews (typically among those married to Jews) who don’t wish to convert, Cohen and Olitzky are proposing the roll out of an alternative pathway to connection with the Jewish people. Their “Jewish Cultural Affirmation” plan would involve a more culturally focused program of study accompanied by experiences of “lived Jewishness” with a public certificate being earned at the end.

The proposal, first floated through JTA, then parsed on Facebook, and most recently debated on the pages of various other Jewish outlets, has seen a good deal of backlash. Rabbi Andy Bachman, of the popular Beth Elohim synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, writes, “this duck won’t fly” for the reason that “there’s no need to imagine that faith would be a stumbling block to plain old conversion. I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.”


Hundreds of secular Israelis and reform Jews demonstrate in Jerusalem on March 13, 2010 against what they call ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious oppression. The protestors are carrying signs reading "Israel is not Tehran," in reference to the Iranian capital where strict Islamic rules force women to wear the veil in public. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)

Mark Paredes, a Mormon who has worked for the Israel foreign service and various arms of the Jewish community says the proposal “helps no one,” that it will merely “water down” Judaism.

MILAN, Italy – When Ariel Toaff, the descendant of a prestigious rabbinic dynasty, was studying to become a rabbi, almost no one at his yeshiva wore a yarmulke. Even those few pupils who did cover their heads during classes, took hats and yarmulkes off once they left the school. Drinking kosher wine at meals was out of the question: “It was something meant only for the kiddush—and for Ashkenazi tourists, for course,” he said.

Being an Orthodox Jew and a rabbinical student was “a completely different thing” in 1960s Italy, said Toaff, who now teaches medieval history at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

OZ_Rome Jews

For centuries Italy's Jewish community, which dates back to ancient Roman times, followed its own brand of orthodoxy. It was uniquely open to the outside world. Its non-dogmatic approach to halakha, or religious law, was very different from the strict precepts that are usually associated with the haredi or even modern Orthodox way of life.

Dramatic Diplomacy

If The Peace Talks Were A Movie

Confused by the current frenzied round of Middle East diplomacy? Me too. Until I imagine it as a Hollywood movie.

Here’s my elevator pitch. Working title: A Foreign Affair. It’s a bit like When Harry Met Sally meets Knocked Up meets Dr Strangelove.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) makes a statement with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (L) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (R). (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Doe-eyed but flint-hearted former Mossad lovely Tzipi (Meryl Streep) and chubby, eloquent but iron-minded Saeb (Danny DeVito) are neighbors and on-again, off-again friends/rivals. They are each happily married with their own families and there is no question of an affair—but that simmering tension provides a backdrop for the drama that follows. Saeb has threatened to leave the neighborhood before and has planted a For Sale notice in his front yard several times, but he keeps changing his mind at the last minute.

Next weekend, religious Jews around the world will read the weekly Torah portion of Shemot (Exodus) which describes the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt, the birth of Moses and his mission of liberation.

One of its pivotal episodes is the showdown between Pharaoh and two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refuse his orders to murder every male child at birth. For obvious, if perhaps rather manipulative reasons, this particular Shabbat is the start of annual fundraising drives for Israel’s Orthodox anti-abortion groups.


An Ultra-orthodox Jewish baby is placed in a pail in the snow for a photograph in the Mea Shearim religious neighborhood on December 12, 2013 in Jerusalem's old city, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

Yet despite their best attempts, and the fact the country’s religious right are not shy of trying to impose their views on the rest of the population, abortion is a topic which remains persistently undebated in Israel.

MILAN, ITALY—“Anti-Semitism in the ancient form” should no longer be the primary concern for Jews across the world, the outgoing chairwoman of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians Fiamma Nirenstein told the Jerusalem Post earlier this week. Rather than worrying about the hatred of Jews, she suggests we focus on the hatred against Israel instead.

Now, I see one big problem with this “Israel first” attitude. To put it bluntly: it often leads to making everything else a secondary—that is, expendable—issue.


ROME, ITALY - JUNE 13: In this handout provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi walk through the grounds of Villa Madama during meetings on June 13, 2011 in Rome, Italy. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Getty Images)

This, unfortunately, includes topics that should be at the very heart of Jewish interests, such as the freedom to practice other religions in predominantly Christian countries—and, of course, “Anti-Semitism in the ancient form.”

The sad truth is that at some point old-school Anti-Semitism has begun to be perceived as tolerable even among Jewish circles—and all in the name of the “Israel first” philosophy. This is especially true in Italy, where offensive comments about Jews are often downplayed, as long as they come from self-described “friends of Israel” (more often than not, this means right-wingers).

"If you do not vacate the premises by 13 DEC 6PM, we reserve the right to demolish your premises without delay."
--Flyers put under doors of dorm rooms of students at University of Michigan in faux protest against Israeli demolitions of Palestinian and Bedouin homes.

  • Palestinian man attacked, stabbed by Israelis in West Jerusalem - Mohammad Marwan Oweis, 20, was stabbed on his way home from work and when he tried to defend himself nine Israelis described as "religious" attacked him with a club, hitting him over the head and body. (Maan)
  • In West Bank, Arab home faces demolition while Jewish ones get stamp of approval - Defense Ministry changes housing regulation according to whether the houses belong to Jews or Palestinians. (Haaretz+)
  • Peretz: New Labor leader makes Hatnua-Labor unity possible - Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni previously called for unity to 'counterbalance the alliance between Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.' (Haaretz+)
  • "The next war could start by surprise" - According to the Commander of the Home Front Command, the battle will open with fire on the home front that will continue until the end. "The whole country is exposed to missiles and there are no areas not vulnerable," said General Eyal Eisenberg at the Kinneret Conference Wednesday. (NRG Hebrew)
  • Edelstein: Most countries didn't send prime ministers to Mandela memorial - South African official appreciated the Israeli delegation of MKs, insists the Knesset speaker. Following the ceremony, the six-MK delegation meets with the heads of South African Jewish leaders. (Israel Hayom)
  • Audit: EU pays Palestinians in Gaza to not work - EU should stop paying salaries of Fatah civil servants in Gaza, EU auditors said after learning that majority have stopped working since Hamas violently took control of Strip in 2006. Auditors further call for 'overhaul' of current EU aid. (Agencies, Ynet)
  • Azmi Bishara's comeback: a mediator between Hamas and Fatah - Six years after fleeing the country when suspected of aiding Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, former Balad party leader is involved in the reconciliation talks in Qatar. [Note: Bishara has severe diabetes and did not feel he was healthy enough to endure sitting in jail while a years-long trial ensued. - OH] (Maariv, p. 1/NRG Hebrew)
  • Thousands of students 'evicted' in pro-Palestine solidarity campaign - Thousands of University of Michigan students woke up Tuesday morning to faux eviction notices slipped underneath their dorm room doors. The mock eviction was orchestrated by the student organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality to raise awareness about the actual Israeli-directed evictions that are carried out on a regular basis in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, in addition to the Negev. (Maan)

For the full News from Israel.

This sounds like the sort of thing I should be excited about: authorities in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine have agreed to a massive regional water project intended to meet shared needs.

As the New York Times reports,

The project addresses two problems: the acute shortage of clean fresh water in the region, especially in Jordan, and the rapid contraction of the Dead Sea. A new desalination plant is to be built in Aqaba, Jordan, to convert salt water from the Red Sea into fresh water for use in southern Israel and southern Jordan — each would get eight billion to 13 billion gallons a year. The process produces about the same amount of brine as a waste product; the brine would be piped more than 100 miles to help replenish the already very saline Dead Sea.


An aerial view photo shows sinkholes created by the drying of the Dead Sea, near Kibbutz Ein Gedi, on November 10, 2011. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP / Getty Images)

Amidst all the hand-wringing brought about by the Pew Study on Jewish Americans, a new study released this week reveals that fostering a progressive, critical-thinking culture among North American Jewish youth about Israel actually works to instill commitment to the Jewish homeland.

In “Building Progressive Zionist Activists: Exploring the Impact of Habonim Dror,” Steven M. Cohen and Steven Fink find that fostering a critical wrestling with Israel apparently serves not to alienate Jewish youth from Israel, but rather to shore up their attachments. Habonim Dror North America is a progressive, Labor Zionist youth movement whose guiding principles include “[building up] the State of Israel as a progressive, egalitarian, cooperative society, at peace with its neighbors; actively involved in a Peace Process with the Palestinian people with the common goal of a just and lasting peace; and as the physical and spiritual center of the Jewish people.”


The emblem of Habonim Dror, stenciled on a wall in Rosario, Argentina. (Pablo D. Flores / Wikimedia)

The movement retains some quaint principles in this hyper-capitalist age, principles including a declared commitment to, dare they say it—socialism—as well as to related conceptions of social justice. But rather than alienate its youth from what has become the “start-up” nation of high-tech Israel, which is seeing a growing class divide, Habonim’s youth evidently retain a commitment to wanting to devote their lives or parts of their lives, anyway, to the future of Israel. Those who do land in Israel often seek out collective living experiences—whether in yesterday’s communal kibbutzim, or in today’s “irbutzim”—urban-based experiments in communal living.

Speaking Out

What Siddur Do They Use?

A recent meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Conservative rabbis from the Rabbinical Assembly touched on a number of vital issues, including negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the future of the Kotel. But, as has become sadly typical of American Jewish dialogue with Israel, one key topic was missing.

Despite the fact that Israel and the Palestinians are negotiating for the first time in years—encouraged by the tireless engagement of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has personally appealed to our community to support his efforts—the Conservative leadership that claims to represent over one million Jews worldwide chose not to mention it to the Israeli prime minister. For some reason they decided that peace was not a cause worthy of our efforts.


Hillary Rodham Clinton waves to Jewish women praying at the Western Wall during her visit to Judaism's holiest site November 14, 2005 in Jerusalem's Old City. Clinton was in Israel with her family for the 10th anniversary memorial of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. (David Silverman / Getty Images)

This was a glaring omission after Kerry specifically called on American Jews in June to rally a “great constituency for peace” behind the negotiations. “No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community,” he said. Kerry, like countless American and Israeli leaders, recognized the critical role that our community has played in helping to build and protect the Jewish state. Like family, we have a tradition of celebrating our opinions and differences in constructive dialogue.

Quote of the day:

"Thank you for your support...Together with Bibi we can all help truly make Greater Israel, the Greatest Israel. Give today."

--Jewish American blogger Mondoweiss makes funny mock fundraising campaign to send Netanyahu to Mandela memorial service.

  • Dutch water giant severs ties with Israeli water company due to settlements - Vitens reneges on deal with Mekorot because 'these projects cannot be seen separately from the political context.' (Haaretz+ and Israel Hayom)
  • Judea and Samaria (W. Bank): Police pose as human rights activists - Contrary to promise of police chief Aharonovitz: the disguised police insert themselves among leftists and ambush rightists in conflicts hat rise between Palestinians and settlers. (Maariv, p. 1/NRG Hebrew)
  • Mock funding drive launched to send Bibi to Mandela service - Mondoweiss, a progressive Jewish website, starts tongue-in-cheek campaign, tells readers 'desperate times call for desperate measures.' (Haaretz+)
  • OECD: Israel poverty high despite strong economy - OECD survey shows Israel has worst poverty among member states, despite economic growth, low employment. (Agencies, Ynet)
  • Knesset approves Infiltration Prevention Bill detaining migrants without trial - (Controversial) Bill passes after stormy debate with 30 MKs voting in favor, 15 against. Vote preceded by heated debate. MK Eli Yishai says detaining African asylum seekers for one year is not enough: "We need hot pursuit." Meretz MKs ask (Likud) MK Regev, ''Would you put Nelson Mandela in confined facility." (Ynet and Haaretz+)
  • Haifa University accepts employees from the State of Palestine - Academics looking for jobs at the university found a surprising tab when entering their details in the registry data: the list of countries of origin also offered to choose from "Palestine." (Maariv, p. 17/NRG Hebrew)
  • Halutz, Israel prefers the Syrian leader Assad - At a fundraising event in Moscow the former chief of staff Dan Halutz said: The mine that exploded on the Israel-Syria border is an indication of what will happen if extremists get to power. [However, now officials say Assad forces set the bomb - OH]. Unlike former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, Halutz blamed the difficulties in the peace negotiations on the Palestinian side. (Maariv, p. 1/NRG Hebrew)
  • US defense bill ups funding for joint projects with Israel - Bill includes $173 million in added funds for U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense programs, including David's Sling and Arrow. Measure also backs U.S. President Barack Obama's request of $220 million for additional Iron Dome batteries. (Israel Hayom)

Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has long struggled with where to draw red lines on the conversation about Israel. Since the “Hillel Guidelines for Campus Israel Activity” were updated, there have been regular campus battles between university students and the organization. The guidelines restrict whom Hillel groups may partner with or host, based on their politics, something that has been persistently controversial. Yesterday, Swarthmore College Hillel took a huge step by breaking with the guidelines officially and declaring itself an “Open Hillel.” Now might be the time for Hillel International to take another stab at updating those guidelines.

The problematic bits in the guidelines that govern “Campus Israel Activity” include the following prohibitions on partnering with or hosting groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: (a) deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, or (c) supports boycott off, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.


Swarthmore College (Fritz Ward / Flickr Creative Commons)

It is those bits that Swarthmore Hillel announced it is done with, and it’s those bits that have Hillel International President and former Democratic Ohio Congressman Eric Fingerhut up in arms. Those sections of the guidelines were emphasized when Fingerhut and long-time AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler teamed up in a recent op-ed in which they announced that they would work together “to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” And it’s those prohibitions that spawned the initial Harvard-driven petition to “Open Hillel” which garnered nearly 900 signatures.

About the Editor

Author headshot

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Crisis of Zionism, was published by Times Books in April 2012.

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