Why I chose not to program ‘Klinghoffer’ and still support it

October 28, 2014 by

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Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the productionreviews of its artistic meritsocial critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities.

Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed.

Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.”

By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first, loses

 

By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

My own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard.

I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy.

The work felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict

 

One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far.

Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy.

To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible.

And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled.

Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to Israel’s survival.

 

That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism.

But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly.

“Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?”

 

In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?”

Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.

 

Joshua Ford is a writer and arts consultant in Washington, D.C. He blogs at notforprofitdad.wordpress.com and is on Twitter @jfo_in_dc

The sweet desserts of Berlin – aliya, yerida, and Zionism

October 27, 2014 by

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Here is the thing about the Berlin Balagan and the Milky Moan. They have nothing to do with the city of Berlin or the Milky dessert.

The controversy has been simmering for some time. Young Israelis have been working to attain European passports so as to more easily leave Israel. Berlin is their most attractive and symbolically incendiary European destination. The thought that an Israeli could actively seek to live in the Land of the Holocaust sends shivers down Zionist spines.

The rhetorical stakes are high.

Add to this the Milky rhetoric. An uproar began when it was revealed that the cheap Milky dessert created by Strauss Dairies – one of the early mainstay industries of the fledgling State of Israel – is available at a far cheaper price in Berlin, than it is in Israel. This in itself is not a great surprise. Nearly everything in the shops in Israel costs far less outside of Israel. You can even buy those Osem yellow crunchy things that you put in your soup for less in London than you can in Lod.

The “Milky Protest” insisted that the lower price of a dessert in Berlin was symbolic of the incredibly high cost of living in Israel. Of course for those opposing this critique of the cost of living – politicians responsible for it mainly –  the “Milky Protest” was symbolic of something else. It was symbolic of the trivial minds of empty people who contemplate or even commit Yerida (emigrating from Israel).

Combine the sacred cows of Holocaust and Yerida, together with the increasingly evident but wholly untended issue of socio-economic hardship, and inevitably you find more heat than light. This cartoon by Shay Charka, adding Milky cartons to “Shoes on the Danube” memorial offer a measure of the mainstream outrage.

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Charka’s hyperbolic critique is reinforced by more extreme expressions of the Berlin Milky protest. Emboldened by the discourse of yerida (and no doubt encouraged by the way in which establishment Zionist organisations have taken to embracing not rejecting “Israelis living abroad”) one group brazenly presents its relationship to the State of Israel as nothing more than a financial transaction between customer and server: “Waiter!” cries the facebook meme, “There’s a fly in my Country.” Make no mistake about it, urges the small print, “Just as you would exchange your soup that had a fly in it, so it is entirely your right to move on, and exchange a State that is rotten from within.”

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This black-and-white argument, between idealist Zionists versus empty nihilists, was bound to get more interesting the moment people started singing about it.

Here is a wonderfully upbeat and irreverent song and clip from the Israeli band Shmeml, who don’t look to me to be making yerida any time soon. But they make it very clear from the outset that many of their friends have…

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“Let’s be honest”, the bald band leader invites:

Grandma and Grandpa didn’t come here out of Zionism
They fled here because they didn’t want to die
And now they realize that it’s not really life here

So ideology is not an issue: What is at issue is the cost of living. And this is too high. Hence the same grandparents who fled to Israel for a life, now encourage their children to leave the same country for a better life.

This might be seen as further reinforcing the “fly in my soup” image of the protesters, until one looks to the song’s hyper-Zionist idiom. In the space of one verse and chorus it manages to reference Israel’s National Anthem, iconic liturgical references to Jerusalem, and even Naomi Shemer’s Jerusalem of Gold. For someone praising life in Berlin, this is rather Israel-centric language to be using!

Which is of course its main underlying point. The singer is not looking to leave Israel – he loves the land and the language. He would happily hang out by the Kinneret all day. (“If there is any of it left”, he wryly comments, either in reference to its drying out, or to the way in which private pay-through-the-nose beaches have occupied every inch of its beaches).

Most “milky protesters”, like the tent-dwellers of the 2011 summer protests, do not wish to leave Israel. Indeed most statistics (notoriously difficult to verify) point to the fact that very few young Israelis are actually emigrating. Their protest is not against Israel or against Zionism. If anything theirs is a Zionist call to put the State back into the Jewish State, rather than handing it over to the super-rich whose allegiances are only to profit and not the People.

In this sense this second song, ostensibly attacking the pro-Berlin crowd, would seem in the end to be supporting their sentiment.

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“This Ain’t Europe” speaks street. It tells the hipsters and the rich girls that they won’t feel at home in Berlin. The threat of anti-semitism is as thinly veiled as the first song boldly decries its misuse by politicians (They once again pin on me/The yellow star like a medal of honor”). The assumption behind the second song is that those aiming for Berlin are not rejecting Israeli financial policy, but Israeli culture. Israel ain’t Europe, the song chides. Here life is loud, we are Americans with an Arab sense of honor, but life here is addictive.

In this sense the two songs agree with each other. They both love Israel.

It is in listening to the different musical styles of the songs that it comes clear their disagreement is over a far deeper conflict than yerida.

The Ashkenazi/Mizrachi divide.

While “Here it ain’t Europe” mixes classic Israeli accordion and clubbing sounds, its singer – Margalit Tzanani – places it firmly in the Mizrachi musical genre. The rhythms, her trilling vocals, and Tzanani’s decades-old reputation as a Mizrachi musician and cultural icon, do not let us ignore the Mizrachi call to the Ashkenazi “Miss Hipster”.

It is, after all, only the Ashkenazi Israeli who will find an easy life in Europe. First, in an irony that is almost nauseating, an Ashkenazi Israeli is more likely to be able to obtain a European passport, since his or her grandparents are more likely to have fled the Holocaust from there. Second, the less “Middle Eastern” one looks in Europe these days, the more likely you are going to fit in.

The Shmeml boys unconsciously affirm this Berlin trend as Ashkenazi, when they level with us that their Grandparents fled for their lives for Israel, not necessarily driven by Zionist ideology. This was certainly the experience of most Ashkenazi immigrants to Israel. But the vast majority of Mizrachi Jews made aliya out of a desire to rebuild Zion. Very few Jews from Morocco “fled” to Israel.

And it is underneath these deep wounds in the Israel psyche – that of continued Ashkenazi hegemony ignoring Mizrachi needs, and that even more basic fear of abandonment that the threat of yerida awakens – that the urgent needs for social and economic reform will be buried once more…

 

4 points about doing politics on North American campuses

October 26, 2014 by

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Cross-posted with ejewishphilanthropy.com

Image by Shay Charka
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I have recently returned from an 8 city, 11 flight, 2 weeks’ tour of campuses in North America – with 4 questions.

I was one of the Jewish Agency’s Makom team running full-day workshops on “Gaza, Israel, and the Jews” for the staff of thirty Hillels. Our aim was to empower Hillel and campus leaders to frame constructive conversations about the Gaza Conflict by identifying pertinent questions (rather than institutional answers), and by defining a successful conversation as one that leads to a second conversation…

Apart from learning that DC taxi drivers are the most interesting in the world, and that United Airlines are not always to be trusted with your luggage, I have been left with a few thoughts to ponder:

1.  The conflict attracts institutional attention and repels most students

Incredibly generous donors were able to fund Makom to run a workshop on Gaza for 30 campuses. This amount of money and size of project normally takes months if not years to put together. It was agreed upon in a matter of minutes. This is because Israeli military conflicts, and the conflict perceived on campuses, will always be regarded as an emergency issue. It was an honor and a pleasure to be engaging with Hillel staff and student leadership throughout North America, but at the same time there was a feeling of disconnect. As we learned from most (not all) campuses, the vast majority of Jewish students that Hillels might come into contact with are not interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact the chances are that the best way to repel a Jewish student is to begin a conversation about the conflict.

This might well be because the discourse within the Jewish community about the conflict is so polarized and thin, and that a richer discourse might be more attractive, but the paradoxical concern remains. The more we invest only in the Conflict, the more we risk reducing the number of students voluntarily engaged in Israel.

2.    Politics is a toxic word that cannot be extracted from the Israel mix

“Politics” would seem to be a dirty word on most campuses. Whether this is due to the vitriol of the Israeli-Jewish discourse or the polarized US political culture in general, “politics” tends to imply immorality, bloody-mindedness, futility, and never-ending conflict.

Yet Israel without politics – in the broadest sense, not just the Israel-Arab conflict – is difficult to conceive. Politics – ongoing social negotiation about collective power – is at the heart of the Zionist revolution. Everything about Israel – the buildings, the people, the culture, the landscapes – has politics in its circulation.

So when we are told that Jewish students are hoping to avoid “the politics” in their relationship with Israel, and when Hillel professionals aspire to go “beyond the politics”, we at Makom like to believe that the problem is with the connotations of the word, and not due to a desire to strip Israel of what makes Israel real. We choose to hear that a rejection of politics in Israel engagement is an expression of the thirst for the fascinating vibrant multi-vocal Israel that lives beyond the suffocating binaries of good guys vs bad guys.

3.      Can Israel be grasped American-style?

There is something about contemporary Israel that will always be somewhat intense, slightly rough-and-ready. Even the most constructive of discussions in Israel can sound like arguments. Which leads to an open question: Can this abrasive energy ever fit with the mainstream North American Jewish student? If we choose to address Israel in ways that are less abrasive, more comfortable, or more culturally acceptable for North American students, do we risk missing the point?

Can we deeply engage with Israel in a non-Israeli way?

While Israelis can be accused by North Americans of being rude, and North Americans assumed fake by Israelis, the situation is richer – and more challenging. We would suggest that in the classic Talmudic conflict between Truth and Peace, Israelis tend to favor Truth at the expense of a quieter life, while North Americans tend to favor Peace even if it means cutting early to snatch a consensus. Neither of these approaches are right or wrong – values conflicts rarely are – but they do beg the question whether holding on to one’s traditional communication values prevent one from appreciating alternative communication values?

In short, can you reach a deep connection with Israel without learning about it “Israeli-style”? Perhaps the style is just as if not more important than the information? As the British author Martin Amis insisted: “I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.”

4.      Israel demands, and cannot always receive, time

The workshops we offered were time-consuming for hard-working and committed campus staff. We knew that one cannot move past clichés and beyond “the same old thing” without investing serious time exploring a different approach. In our assessment, it is unrealistic and even unfair to expect someone who has perhaps visited Israel twice at most – once on Birthright and once staffing Birthright – to be able to transform a concerned conversation about Gaza into a constructive discussion about Israel in Jewish life, without some form of intensive training. A snatched half-day will rarely be enough.

But who has that amount of time to invest in any one topic of campus work? Can we expect or even demand such a commitment? Time will tell…!

 

We at Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel, tackle the challenges of style, politics, the conflict, and Israel’s place in Jewish life with relish. Our 5 day training seminar, providing sophisticated yet accessible solutions for Israel educators and para-educators throughout the world, is ready to go. In my next piece I shall sketch out the backbone to this approach, nicknamed 4HQ – the Four Hatikvah Questions.

 

Gaza conflict – a letter to Temple Adas Israel, Sag Harbor

August 11, 2014 by

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Dear Friends,

I remember when August would roll around in Sag Harbor, and our synagogue’s Rosh Chodesh group meeting would focus on Tisha B’av (the 9th day of the month of Av) – the holiday that animates the Hebrew month of Av.

I would always frame the conversation by saying how out of sync the Jewish calendar felt with the Gregorian one. August is the height of summer fun – the beaches and BBQs, summer evening dresses and dinner parties. And in the Jewish calendar cycle Tisha B’Av represents the low point of the Jewish year. We sit on low chairs, we fast – in collective mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temples, the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and so many other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. For me, most years the sense of mourning feels forced.

This year, it felt real. We needed Tisha B’av, to give ritual expression to the collective pain that we are all feeling about the war with Hamas. To Full Post

Gaza conflict – three thoughts about the fighting

August 10, 2014 by

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1. Good Guys, Bad tactics?

There was something of a meme that went around, asking the two key questions of Just War theory: Are we fighting the bad guys? and Are we fighting like good guys? I think I’ve realized that the first question is almost irrelevant, and often unhelpful.

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It’s irrelevant because while I may be sure that Hamas are the bad guys, so Hamas thinks it is Israel who are the bad guys. It is unhelpful because since we both reckon we’re fighting the bad guys, we both tend to take the second question less seriously.  To Full Post

Hot Topic Question – The Tricycle Theatre, London

August 7, 2014

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tricycleOnly a few weeks before its opening, the UK Jewish Film Festival needs to find a new venue. The Tricycle Theatre, the Festival’s North-West London home, suddenly demanded the Festival disassociate itself from one of its minor funders: the Israeli Embassy. To Full Post

The complexities of Gaza – film guide to “Precious Life”

 

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In 2010 the Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar made a documentary about a Gazan family that brings their baby for a life-saving transplant in an Israeli hospital. The movie is built with great sensitivity and an eye for painful irony and complexity galore.

Here Dr Raz Somech explains the story behind the film, at the Montreal Film Festival.

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At one point the mother asserts that she would be happy if her child under treatment were to grow up to be a suicide bomber – to the horror of Eldar. As the full story unfolds, we learn of the difference between the mother’s pronouncements for fear of Hamas reprisals, and her true respect and affection for Israel and its doctors. If these struggles were not enough, during the treatment, their doctor is called up for reserve duty – fighting in Gaza. For a full synopsis, read here.

For a community or campus wishing to delve into the human heart of the complexities of Israel and Gaza’s desperate embrace, Precious Life is an excellent place to start.

 

We recommend providing free coffee at a nearby cafe after the screening, and putting these place-mats on each table. In this way discussion can be encouraged without being forced.

The guide was first created for the screening at JW3.

Click here for free print-out.

In order to obtain a copy of the film contact Bleiberg Entertainment

Gaza conflict 2014 – the Shorts

 

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You may have noticed that we have been trying to post conversation-provoking statuses on our facebook page. Here are some of them in one document for your use. Feel free to post them on your own facebook pages, or to use them as short opening conversations at team or committee meetings.

Click here to download a printable version.

Three thoughts on proportionality

July 28, 2014 by

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Disproportionate attention

There is the feeling that the media and public response to the Gaza war is disproportionate to their response to every other conflict in the world. As thousands are slaughtered in Syria, all rage is directed to Gaza.

Part of me is surprised at the surprise. There is an antisemitism at the heart of Europe. There is an antisemitism at the heart of the Islamic world. Big whup. These facts don’t dispel for me the deep agony I feel when a defender of Israel wishes us to be compared to a murderous dictator such as Assad. Even if the comparison is relatively favourable. That is not the kind of company we should be keeping.

It must not be a rhetorical question

This video of Israeli philosopher and consultant to the IDF Moshe Halbertal lays out all the key questions. Halbertal points out that “proportionality” is not about the death of combatants. It is about the death of civilians. As he puts it from 17:10 onwards: “Is the expected collateral killing proportional to the military advantage to be gained?”

So it’s a really good question. It accepts that civilians might die in urban warfare. And it asks how many civilians is it “worth” killing in order to win the military advantage? It is the correct moral and philosophical question to be asked.

Halbertal’s question must not be solely rhetorical. I believe we Israelis have been remiss at going ahead and trying to find an answer. 

Are we really okay with the rationale: “We fired on the hospital/school because they fired at us from there: It is their fault that we fired back.”? Well it certainly paints Hamas black, but it doesn’t answer Halbertal’s question.

What military advantage did we gain by firing back? Was that advantage worth the risk that we might slaughter some kids along the way?

It seems we are too easily appeased by Hamas’ guilt to assess our own. It tortures me.

Desired disproportionality

If we want Palestinians to appreciate that violence against us does not pay, I believe we must also work behaviouristically to show that non-violence does pay.

If we are, as I am beginning to fear, responding disproportionately to Hamas violence, I believe we should be equally disproportionate in resopnding to all Palestinian non-violence. Any Palestinian who denounces violence, even in a mealy-mouthed way, should be ridiculously disproportionately rewarded. Abu Mazen, and his former Prime Minister and non-violent State-builder, Salam Fayyad, should have been treated as kings by our government. Every bona fide business established by the PA should receive outrageously generous subsidies from the Israeli government. Sweets should be thrown at every Palestinian kid who smiles at an Israeli.

At the same time I think we should be disproportionately generous to our amazingly non-violent Palestinian Israeli citizens. Forget trying to bring the education budget for Arab schools up to parity – it should be twice the size as the budget for Jewish schools. Don’t fight for Arab Israelis to have the same house-buying subsidies as Jews – fight for them to have even bigger subsidies.

If we are okay with severely punishing Palestinians for the violence of their leaders, we should also be willing to seriously reward them for the opposite.

The Evening Blessings directed towards the Gaza Conflict

July 24, 2014 by

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As I walked down the streets of Jerusalem this delightful, breezy July night, I passed two demonstrations supporting the soldiers of the IDF—one particularly dedicated to the Golani Brigade, which suffered so grievously this week.  Two tangible reminders that the calm of Jerusalem masks the sorrow and the fear, the violence and the uncertainty of this war.  And then I recited Ma’ariv, the evening service with its 23 blessings—through whose timeless words the prayers of a moment manifest.

The evening comes, and we reflect on a trying day, hoping that on another evening, sometime soon, the news will be better.  Blessed are You, Lord, who brings on evenings.

The world “regrets,” “condemns,” “urges,” and “demands,” and airlines cancel their flights.  Israel yearns not to be alone.  Blessed are You, Lord, who loves His people Israel. To Full Post

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