Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream

One of my goals for this blog was to create a resource for people interested in the Jewish film genre (along with regular editorials on current events.) Eventually, the site will include more film reviews, movie trailers and video clips. I’m also using the site to workshop some ideas I’m working on related to ‘Jewish film.’

Jewish film. It's a complex topic. It's universally understood that Hollywood began as a Jewish venture - perhaps the word "adventure" would be more appropriate - even if very few films portrayed Jewish culture and characters. But the influence was there. Westerns are my favourite Jewish films: "Rabbi, there's a posse of Cossacks headed towards the shtetle, er, town!" Ok, you get the idea. It's also been suggested that the "American dream" itself owes a lot to the Hollywood Jews and their idealized vision of their new homeland, an idea prevalent in Neal Gabler's An Empire of their Own.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this subject as the director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. Our concern was what constituted a "Jewish film" in order to warrant inclusion in our schedule. The definition seemed to mutate as necessary. Still, I'm intrigued at the idea that there are Jewish concepts and ideas in mainstream films. Considering the number of Jews that continue to work in the film industry, it's inevitable that some sense of "Jewishness" has permeated into film consciousness. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of resources on this subject. Most websites and books that deal with "Religion in Film" really mean Christianity. Personally, I’ve already seen far too many Christ-figures and could stand a few more Moses- or Ruth-figures.

I’ve started a book on this subject. Jews in film (and television) has been done (Omer Bartov's The "Jew" in Cinema) so rather, this will be an exposition on the perception of film issues from a Jewish perspective, for example, Jewish attitudes towards magic and the supernatural as it relates to fantasy films like the “Harry Potter” series. There will also be a discussion of Halacha (Jewish law) as it relates to film.

Mostly, the book will focus on watching films in a Jewish context. Are there Jewish sensibilities that contribute to how we deconstruct film narrative? Do we recognize Jewish concepts that may have subconsciously found their way into the film’s themes? If you have any thoughts on this subject, let me know. This is a work-in-progress, and I invite your suggestions and comments.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Cartoon Circus

Well, I'm back from a short visit to Toronto, and it looks like while I was gone, the world decided to go mad. Er, madder. As protests continue to rage across Europe and the Middle East, I'm finding myself oddly unsympathetic toward either side in this strange global conflict over cartoons! The fact is, some of the Danish cartoons are truly hurtful and intentionally provocative; I would probably support the Muslim position (the criticism, not the property destruction) if it wasn't for centuries of systemic dicrimination and violence against Jews and Christians in the Arab world. Even as Moslems are protesting against Denmark, anti-semitic cartoons continue to appear in Arab newspapers.

And in Iran, one newpaper suggested a contest to find cartoons about the Holocaust, as if to suggest some correlation between Judaism and cartoons produced in Denmark. The whole thing would be funny if it wasn't so bizarre.

I also can't help feeling a little smug as Europeans face the sort of incendiary extremism that has for decades plagued Israeli efforts to resolve the Palestine dispute. Sadly, the rest of the world is slowly discovering that the problem may have always been that some groups are simple inflexible and unwilling to dialogue to resolve differences. Once again, Islamic extremists are being allowed to hijack a legitimate charge for their own political purposes. The timing of all of this strikes me as rather suspect. Didn't the cartoons first appear in print over four months ago? Could it really be pure coincidence that riots have broken out within days of an announcement that Iran's nuclear program will be referred to the UN Security Council (not to mention increased pressure on Syria over their involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former Prime Minister).

Incidentally, last year Denmark began a two-year stint on the Security Council and has recently been elected as chair of the UN Counter Terrorist Committee (CTC). The coincidences pile up.

Appropriately, I just finished a book I think would be worth everyone reading, "A View from the Eye of the Storm" by Professor Haim Harari. Harari, a theoretical physicist, is the chair of the Davidson Institute of Science Education. He was the president of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science from 1988 to 2001. In his career he has made major contributions to three different fields: particle physics research, science education, and science administration and policy. Harari's book is a refreshing personal assessment of conflict between the West and the Arab world, with specific reference to recent violence in Israel, written from the perspective of someone's whose family has lived in the "eye of the storm" for seven generations. As such, the book lacks the exposition of a political science or history text, but makes its case with reasonable and logical argumentation.

Of course, lack of credentials in political science hasn't stopped linguist Noam Chomsky from opining on similar issues. Harari's insight and first-hand perspective gives him, in my opinion, far more credibility.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

In a Persian Garden

After months of behind-the-scenes talks, all five permanent United Nations Security Council Members have finally agreed that Iran's contentious nuclear endeavours deserves their consideration (although the EU agreed not to consider action against Iran, such as sanctions, until after the UN nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), submits a conclusive report on March 6, 2006.) This is the correct course of action. Besides putting on show of belligerence not seen since the Iran hostage crisis, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly threatening another member state with annihilation, Iran is actually guilty of myriad violations of international law.

The issue on most people's minds these days is the legitimacy of force if Iran refuses to comply with the demand that its nuclear program be dismantled. In fact, the use of military force is enshrined in the United Nations Charter. Nevertheless, the use of force is only authorised if it falls under one of two categories: self-defence (Article 41 of the United Nations Charter), or Security Council authorization (Article 42 of the Charter, which was used to authorize the military response by the United States and its allies against Iraq to drive that country out of Kuwait in "Operation Desert Storm" of 1990-91).

According to the Charter, to deem self-defence lawful requires that an attack has already been launched against a victim state. If a state believes it must resort to a pre-emptive strike, it must give solid proof that the action is necessary and that the act of defence is proportional, according to principles outlined in the Charter. The threat must be proven to be clear and imminent, and only after peaceful alternatives have failed.

But much has changed since the UN Charter was written. Today, the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) strongly suggests that a preventative war may be the only reasonable course of action, with many legal experts now arguing that international laws must be updated to reflect the difficulty in proving capability and intent, and the ability of modern weapons to cause complete annihilation of an enemy. Of course, simple possession of WMD’s does not in itself imply intent to wage war.

However, Iran is already in violation of Article 2.4 of the UN Charter prohibiting threats of war:
"All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state..."
In 1974, the General Assembly concluded that in situations where a state is implicated in terrorism, the very involvement is as if the State perpetrated the attack. In theory, a nation could invoke the right of self-defence against the neighbour state that provides tactical support for the terrorists. Article 3(g) of the UN's Definition of Agression, 14 Dec. 1974, prohibits "the sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State..."

Iran actively supports anti-Israel terror through the funding of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. And recall that in January 2002, Iran attempted to smuggle 50 tons of ammunition to Palestinians aboard the ship Karine A. In so doing, Iran also violated the 1997 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (the Financing Convention). Iran's nuclear program is clearly an extension of this animosity; proof continues to pour in that Iran is building nuclear weapons and not power plants as claimed.

If Israel chooses to strike first, she also has the support of precedent established by the United Nations itself. In 1967, the UN Security Council declined to condemn Israel's pre-emptive strike at the outset of the Six Day War, partly because Egypt’s troop build-up was clearly visible and their intent openly stated in public rhetoric.

In its defence, Iran's chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, and possibly its nuclear weapons program, may be meant to dissuade internal challengers and gain influence in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea regions. The development of these various weapon systems can also be seen as a reaction to Iran's own experience as a victim of attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran also believes it is threatened by US influence in the Middle East and the Arab myth of Israeli expansionism

Nevertheless, based on its actions and words, Iran has repeatedly violated international law and the UN Charter, and must be dealt with appropriately. Israel is correct in its expectation that the UN must act to protect Member States from imminent attack. If the UN fails to do so, or is unwilling to do so, the rule of international law makes clear that in "a case of necessity, of self-defence, a State is authorized to enter and destroy or remove weapons and bases that may be used against it." [Oppenheim L., International Law, vol. 1 par. 130, pg. 266, 6th edition, London, 1944]