Tuesday, September 29, 2009


As some of you may know, I actually contribute to two blogs: this one, which I started as a showcase for published and non-published articles, and the one I co-write with my wife. I tend to keep the more political stuff here, and use the other one for our shared experiences since making aliyah in 2008. I don't often cross-blog, but I've decided to with a poetical essay I wrote for Yom Kippur. It was, to be honest, my first bit of creative writing (other than ongoing screenplay work) in awhile, and I was pleased with the results. I hope you are to. (click on the image for the full-page version)

גמר חתימה טובה.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Massacre Mania Part 1

When dealing with Palestinian discourse, four words tend to overwhelm every discussion: 'settlements,' 'occupation,' 'apartheid' and, of course, 'massacre.'

There have been practically no encounters between Israel and Arabs in which an accusation of a massacre of some sort wasn't made. The most recent incident, last December's Gaza operation, is being played out now, as both sides offer discrepant civilian death counts and cite contradictory 'expert' sources. A UN war crimes investigation, led by Kapo, former South African judge Richard Goldstone, has just concluded, based on evidence that is already being challenged, that "Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity."

The report demands that Israel conduct an investigation of its own within the next three months. Amongst other information the report appears to have ignored, is the fact that the IDF has already examined more than 100 allegations regarding the conduct of its forces during Operation Cast Lead, which have resulted in a further 23 criminal investigations.

The fact that no other investigation is underway against any other state, despite recent conflicts in which thousands of civilians have been killed, is yet another example of the double standard Israelis find so infuriating. For example, for years the government of Sri Lanka fought Tamil rebels in the north of the country. The Tamils are claiming independence for this area where they constitute a majority of the population. Over the course of this period it is estimated some 70,000-80,000 civilians have been killed (as compared to the 500-700 Gaza civilians killed in the recent fighting). Has the UN Human Rights Council equally condemned Sri Lanka and singled it out as it has Israel? In fact, they dismissed it as "an internal matter."

How about Russia where the recent invasion of Georgia claimed, according to some sources, around 20,000 lives? As for Chechnya, there are no solid figures for the number of civilians killed since the second war began in late 1999, but estimates range anywhere between 25,000 and 200,000. When Russian soldiers have admitted brutality, condemnation from the UN has been conspicuously absent. "I remember a Chechen female sniper," a Russian soldier told L.A. Times reporter Maura Reynolds. "We just tore her apart with two armored personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel cables. There was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it."

It would appear that it is only the Jewish 'moral compass' that some critics see as out of whack. But our ‘moral compass’ is just fine, thank you. Anyone who knows anything about Judaism will understand the abhorrence at taking lives - any lives - Israeli soldiers feel. While I'm not dismissing the possibility that terrible incidents have occured - we're still dealing with flawed humans in a citizen's army, after all, who make mistakes, get angry, are stupid - anyone familiar with the situation knows that much of the criticism of the recent mission in Gaza came from Israelis. Self-criticism and introspection is alive and well here.

Beyond Gaza, it's worth remembering that other alleged 'massacres,' such as the Jenin libel, have already been debunked, even by experts generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause (Most NGOs and international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, tend to deal in half-truths, which are more difficult to counter, rather than outright lies).

All of which reminds me of a saying about truth and war. But Benjamin Disraeli really put it best when he wrote: "It is easier to be critical than correct."

Monday, September 07, 2009


As a former festival director (Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, 1997-2004), I truly appreciate the complex challenge in programming films and events at film festivals. As such, I want to commend Toronto International Film Festival for this year's decision to acknowledge Tel Aviv as an important artistic centre. The result of that brave decision, sadly, has been a thuggish smear and boycott campaign against the festival.

Tel Aviv is a brilliant, loud, brash, and diverse beast of a city. It's also arguably one of the most artistic, open-minded places I've ever visited. Despite - or perhaps due to - the city's history, diverse artistic expression is celebrated, even when specific artists or pieces are derided. That's the nature of art.

Like many great cities, Tel Aviv's past haunts it. Jaffa, its ancient neighbour, shares a history with Tel Aviv that is sad and unfortunate. But, it's a complex history. Those who see only one chapter in Jaffa's life ignore, perhaps willfully, the experiences of the city's Jewish population, once a majority in this place. Jaffa (the name comes from the Hebrew word yaffe which mean beautiful) is mentioned serveral times in the Bible and in many historical documents. The population was Jewish, and then mixed Jewish/Christian until the Arab invasion in the 7th century. The Crusades and Turkish occupation both affected demographics.

Nevertheless, Jaffa remained an important Jewish centre for centuries. In 1909, upon purchasing beachfront properties near Jaffa, the city of Tel Aviv was established. Many of Jaffa's Jewish residents chose to resettle in the new city; and Jews still represented a large percentage of Jaffa's population, despite riots in the 1920's (the worst of which in May 1921) which drove out many Jews. Following the successful UN partition vote of November 29, 1947, Jaffa and Tel Aviv came into more immediate conflict. Arab snipers and mortar squads in Jaffa began targeting Jewish neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv. Dozens were killed and several hundred injured in these attacks. Thousands of Jewish residents were forced to flee the area. And Haganah reprisals were taking lives in Jaffa. The situation was quickly deteriorating. “As long as mortar bombs are fired from Jaffa at Tel-Aviv, life in that city is...precarious," wrote Palestine's British High Commissioner General Sir Alan Cunningham. ('An Analysis of the Palestine Situation, April 1948', Cunningham Papers, IV/5/33)

By April 1948, the country was engaged in civil war, with many Jewish and Arab communities caught up in the conflict. It was feared that the strategically important port of Jaffa might fall to Egyptian troops who would use the city as a base from which to destroy Tel Aviv. This was an untenable risk, and the decision was made to surround and control Jaffa. Irgun fighters, followed by the Haganah, succeeded in taking the city, despite British intervention. On May 12, a deputation of Arab notables from Jaffa arrived at Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv and, after negotiations, signed a surrender agreement.

Both Haganah and Irgun made it clear that civilians were not to be harmed. Irgun leader (and future PM) Menachem Begin spoke to his fighters before the attacks: “Strike at the foe! Aim well! Spare ammunition! In this battle, show no mercy to the enemy, as he knows none towards our people [but] Spare women and children. Spare the life of anyone who raises his hands in surrender. He is your captive. Do not harm him...”

Nevertheless, civilians panicked and fled once Jewish forces had captured the Arab suburb of Manshiyeh. “Ninety percent of the population of Jaffa have just run away," Sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary to the Palestine Mandate Government and no friend of Zionism or Jews, recorded in his diary on May 5, 1948, "... The mayor has gone, without even saying goodbye, and the remnants of the [Arab irregular] Liberation Army are looting and robbing. This is what the Palestine Arabs get from the assistance provided by the Arab states.”

It is fair to say the Jewish takeover of the city precipitated the exodus, an attack which was necessitated by relentless Arab attacks against Tel Aviv. But, according to even Arab sources,"the Arab Exodus ...was not caused by the actual battle, but by the exaggerated description spread by the Arab leaders to incite them to fight the Jews ... By spreading rumors of Jewish atrocities, killings of women and children etc., they instilled fear and terror in the hearts of the Arabs in Palestine, until they fled leaving their homes and properties to the enemy."
(Jordanian daily newspaper, Al Urdun, April 9, 1953.)

And it is equally true that Arab forces were attacking and destroying Jewish settlements in both Judea and Samaria (in particular Kfar Etzion) and land designated to be part of a Jewish state. Such is war.

In June 1948, the new Israeli cabinet met to discuss the refugee issue. All agreed that Arabs who fled the fighting to other parts of Israel should return to their homes. As Moshe Sharrett put it: "These (Arabs) should be returned to their places, with full ownership of their lands etc., and with full [citizenship] rights. We should not, as a matter of principle, discriminate against an Arab who had stayed inside [Israel] and thereby accepted its rule. He should enjoy full rights, including his property [rights]—unless there are decisive emergency considerations, security-wise. This should be the instruction to governors, commanders, etc.(Shimoni, "Tamtsit," pg. 3)

Indeed, The Palestine Post reported that several days after the battle for Jaffa, the Haganah invited representatives of Magen David Adom to visit Arab women, children and seniors who had fled to Tel Aviv. Those who wanted to return to Jaffa and other Arab areas were turned over to the Red Cross which escorted them back.

But the others, those who fled to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan would not be permitted back. Ben-Gurion was clearly angry when he proclaimed, "Jaffa will become a Jewish city. War is war; it is not us who wanted war. Tel-Aviv did not wage war on Jaffa, Jaffa waged war on Tel-Aviv. And this should not happen again. We will not be "foolish hasidim." Bringing back the Arabs to Jaffa is not just but rather is foolish. Those who had gone to war against us — let them carry the responsibility after having lost." (Ben-Gurion, Be-hilahem Israel, pp. 130-131.)

And so, here we are. While the political ramifications of that decision are still being felt today, the issue at hand is artistic boycotts. I don't think I can put this any better than Bruce Kirkland, film critic for the Toronto Sun, who writes,

"Art should encourage debate -- including on the complex Israeli-Palestinian question that so vexes the protesters -- and not repress it through bully tactics and censorship."

I highly recommend his whole response which can be read here.

UPDATE: The National Post's Charles Lewis jumps into the fray: