Thursday, October 26, 2006

Comic Book Confidential

I've been busy on a few things including an article for Vancouver Jewish Independent. A recent visit to the Superheroes exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York inspired me to do a profile of local comic-book artist Miriam Libicki.

You won't find caped crusaders or masked superheroes in any of Miriam Libicki's comic books.

Her self-produced comic, Jobnik!, chronicles her day-to-day life in the Israeli army in frank, often blunt terms. Jobnik is Israeli slang for someone in the army with a desk job. More of a graphic diary than a comic, Jobnik! imparts a rarely seen perspective of an army generally viewed as vigilant and relentless. Jobnik! takes us behind the scenes, where soldiers wash dishes, file reports and fool around.

You can read the whole article here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A New Year

There is a modern midrash that goes:

Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush.
Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier.
Renegade and steer clear!
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives
and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

That was of course, Rabbi Michael Stipe from Congregation R.E.M.

I was reminded of this song while considering the Unetane Tokef, the moving piyyut or liturgical poem that we read each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Unetane Tokef was supposedly written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the tenth or eleventh century, but is actually many centuries older; portions of the Unetane Tokef appear in a very ancient Genizah fragment from the late eighth century, 200-300 years before Rabbi Amnon was supposed to have composed the poem! And many scholars now believe the document was written in Palestine during the Byzantine occupation, and not in Europe at all.

But, regardless of when and where it was composed, the Unetane Tokef is one of the most powerful texts in Judaism. It is also a difficult work. It is here that we are reminded of the fact that on Rosh Hashana, judgement is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: "who shall live and who shall die." The prayer even mentions the ways in which death will come: water, fire, sword, beast, and earthquake, and plague. These images are no idle threats; the Torah is filled with similar horrors.

Speaking of the end of the world, Jewish history is replete with endings that should have been final. We've done more final tours than the Rolling Stones. From our exile from paradise to our exile from Eretz Yisroel; from the destruction of the Temple to the destruction of European Jewry, it is no understatement to say if we were not here, if the Jewish people had ceased to exist centuries ago, there is not an archaeologist or historian alive who would be the least bit surprised.

But here we are.

So why the emphasis on mortality? "Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted?" Do we really need so many reminders that our lives are fragile and short?

And what do we make of a line like: "repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree" when we know this isn't true. Every day a righteous, beautiful life ends - and there's no shortage of those who have perished at the hands of evil tormentors, despite the prayers and a life of charity. What gives?

There is a saying from the Pirke Avot that illuminates this passage, "All is foreseen, yet free will is given." We may not be able to control the numbers of our days, but we can control how we live. We can choose to be gracious and generous, kind and hopeful, even in the face of great danger and imminent destruction. And I'd like to think we as a people have done exactly that. We have always persevered in spirit. The truth is, we all die.

But as Mr. Spock so aptly put it in Star Trek VI, The Undiscovered Country: "I've been dead before." It always comes as a surprise when I tell non-Jews that the Jewish people believe in reincarnation and the return to earth of the Neshama. But it's not a subject we dwell on. It is THIS life that is important.

Today, we mark the birthday of mankind. We are reminded throughout the Jewish year of the passage of time. Each week is celebrated on Shabbat; each month is celebrated on Rosh Chodesh; but Rosh Hashanah is a little different. It is not the year we celebrate, but our own lives. We do not reflect on the events of the year, but the events of our days. And we consider how we might have improved them. In fact, through this process of evaluation, repentance and renewal, we are given a special gift. The ability to reinvent ourselves!

I'm reminded of a Dear Abby column from many years ago. A woman wrote, "I am 44 years old and have always wanted to be a doctor. Until now, my life circumstances didn't permit it, but if I try to get to medical school, I won't be a doctor for at least six years and by then I will be 50. What should I do?"

And Abby replied, "In six years you will be 50 anyway. You might as well be a 50-year-old doctor and fulfill your dream."

I was listening to that R.E.M. song many years ago in the car with my father. He wasn't that hot on pop music, but he liked the chorus of the song. Every moment, he said, is the end of the world as we know it. Every year, our lives change in ways we could never imagine. And it's all good, he said.

Today IS the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Have I Got News for You

I'm not much of a journalist. Not in the Matthew Halton sense, anyway. I'm far more comfortable pontificating from my ergonomic chair than documenting truth from a seedy hotel room on the other side of the world. But I hold my colleagues in the highest regard. Despite some recent allegations from the blogging world of photo-tampering, and even an admission from Reuters that a few photos had been photoshopped by a Lebanese photographer named Adnan Hajj, the industry as a whole cannot be condemned. Reuters uses hundreds of photographers and processes thousands of images every week. To their credit, they immediately admitted the problem, and are looking into ways to prevent this from happening again. The admission of error was an acknowledgement that the system isn't perfect, but improvable. I'm not sure if we could ask for more. Frankly, I'm more concerned about agencies like AP that won't even admit the possibility that some photographers take advantage of their craft to promote a personal agenda, let alone acknowledge media bias at the editorial level.

A number of websites continue to examine and discuss media manipulation by Hezbollah (and others) during the recent war in Lebanon. EU Referendum was one of the first to suggest that photos and video taken in Qana after an Israeli attack had been stage-managed. I watched some of the video available:

Having worked in the television industry for 20 years, I have no doubt that a so-called rescue worker is 'directing' the scene. His hand signals to the camera operator are unmistakable. That's not to insinuate that there were no victims of the attack. But this violation of truth, and others, have left me understandably cynical. I should say, more cynical. When I first graduated, I spent a week as camera assistant with a major Canadian broadcaster. I was disturbed to see the camera operator manipulate objects in view during interviews, or ignore certain images that may recast the story the wished to present. I'd like to think this isn't the norm, but I know it happens.

Still, I'm confident most journalists endeavour to maintain integrity and objectivity, even if a few are corrupt. It's also worth noting that every year, dozens of journalists pay the ultimate price to keep us informed. In 2005, 65 reporters and photo-journalists were slain for the crime of seeking truth. Twenty-five journalists have already been killed this year. Although some have died in combat zones, the vast majority were murdered by agents of a repressive government. This is, of course, one of the most insidious peculiarities of news gathering: it's simply impossible to report from exactly those places where the news is most compelling. In terms of Israel, there are probably more reporters per square foot than anywhere in the world. It's a beautiful, safe country that enjoys and respects freedom of the press. Sadly, the same can't be said of its neighbours. This was especially evident last month, with even mainstream journalists admitting they were compromised by Hezbollah restrictions and threats. But, then 'Truth' has always been subjective. "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." (Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 CE)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cease Fire!

I haven't commented up until now on Israel's war against Hezbollah, but not for want of an opinion. Now that there is a CeasefireTM, here are a few thoughts.

Every conflict has both military and political objectives. The military goal - disarming Hezbollah - was practically impossible and, despite accusations that the war effort has failed, most Israelis must have understood this. The best case scenario was to destroy as many rockets and launchers as possible before a cease-fire was imposed by the United Nations. Although it appears little has been achieved despite loss of life numbering in the many hundreds, I think, at this time, it's impossible to know the long-term benefits of this conflict. There are many that believe the conflict will only fuel more terrorism; I don't believe this is true.

Lebanon's sectarian population has always been split, with Christians and Druze generally supporting Israel's efforts to remove militant forces (thousands of Christians actually fled to Israel in 2000 fearing a rise in militant Islam in the south, and possible retribution against Christians who supported Israel after 1982). Shiite Moslems have generally supported or condoned both the PLO and Hezbollah because they see these groups as armies in a larger conflict: Pan-Arabism (until 1982) and Global Jihad (after 1982). I don't believe this current conflict will increase support, and its likely that many Lebanese, of all stripes, will blame Hezbollah for their recklessness (even if they hold Israel responsible for the deaths.) The Arab street traditionally display public support for its leaders and their military exploits, even when privately they may be critical. It's quite possible that Hezbollah will now lose some of the political support they've enjoyed, and their seats in parliament. We'll know with the next election.

Although chemical and/or nuclear weapons weren't used this time, an enemy poised with thousands of rockets along an un-supervised border is unacceptable. Moreover, Hezbollah serves as a de facto army of Iran, which has spent many years and millions (billions?) of dollars arming the group as part of a coalition of forces to be used against Israel. With many of those rockets now used or destroyed, and Israeli (and soon International) forces now establishing a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, a front in a future war has been removed. In that context, this effort may prevent a massive three-pronged strike by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Israel's enemies must now consider that any attack on Israel risks involving the international community.

Additionally, some of the political goals, which were far more realistic, have been achieved - at least in writing. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed unanimously last week, clearly states that the war and resulting deaths are blamed on Hezbollah attacking Israel, as well as declaring that the unconditional release of Israel's soldiers is mandatory. Israel is also not obligated to remove any troops until an international force is in place, nor do they have to release any Lebanese prisoners; the Resolution simply says that the issue of the three Lebanese prisoners is to be "settled." No demands on Israel at all. The resolution also acknowledges the Shebaa Farms dispute but again makes no demands on Israel. And it's in Israel's best interests that the UN now focuses on Iran: the real instigator of so much of this violence. Over the next few months, expect both the US and Israel to continue their war of words against Iran. Israel will need to have the sympathy of both the General Assembly and the Security Council; defying a UN brokered cease-fire now could have unacceptable negative long-term consequences.

It's also worth noting the unprecedented initial condemnation of Hezbollah from a few Arab countries. Even now, Egypt is warning terrorist groups in Gaza and Lebanon to consider the cost-benefit ratio of entering into a conflict with Israel. If these groups cannot depend on the financial support of Arab states, moderate forces may finally be able to speak up. And some Lebanese politicians are publicly rebuking Syria's Bashar Assad who has been suggesting that anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon are "collaborating with Israel." These events, in themselves, indicate significant changes in the status quo.

Any parent or fan of Supernanny will tell you that altering a child's bedtime routine takes a little time. You can't expect much to happen on the first night. Maybe a little crying on the second night. Hopefully, on the third night - success! Israel cannot expect to overnight change the behaviour of those in the Arab world who support terrorism. But this conflict sent a message that the status quo has changed. Hezbollah believed Israel would accept a prisoner exchange because they had done so in the past. That expectation no longer holds true.

Of course, the likelihood is that the conflict is not going to end anytime soon. Hezbollah will find an excuse to launch rockets again, and Israel will exercise its right to responds to attacks. Hezbollah will also certainly refuse to hand over the kidnapped soldiers to the Red Cross or anyone else. Moreover, the international force itself may become the target of Hezbollah attacks (remember the Marine barracks bombing?) potentially igniting an even larger conflict. In the minds of many, it made more sense to let the IDF finish the job it started, but it was the politicians - who recognize that not all battles take place on the battlefield - and not the generals who made the final decision. In the grand scheme of things, that's how we all want it. For better or worse.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In a move sadly reminiscent of Orwellian doublethink - blacklists are free speech - the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), the largest university and college lecturers' union in Britain, has now passed a motion boycotting their Israeli counterparts who refuse to condemn Israel's 'occupation' of so-called Palestinian lands. Apparently, free and open thought is not the imperative of academia after all. Maybe it's just me but isn't punishing academics for the policies of their government a little like blaming the hippies for the Vietnam War?

Speaking of groupthink, this current rash of dysfunctional group behaviour from the British Left is in no way a new phenomenon. Some have suggested that very old anti-Semitism is to blame.1 I’m reluctant to over-simplify the discussion. There are other factors worth considering.

Anti-globalists amongst the British Left are certainly playing a part in this round of anti-Israel activity. They claim to decry all forms of imperialism, but in practice have spent an inordinate effort targeting the Jewish state. Israel's economic success, especially compared to the backward economies of her neighbours, is seen to be a result of her collusion with the globalist forces (i.e. The US of A). As Mark Strauss, a senior editor for Foreign Policy writes (it's a pay link, sorry), "Islamists and secular nationalists alike portray globalization as the latest in a series of US-Zionist plots to subjugate the Arab world."

Ironically, it is the British who were the Imperialists not so long ago. In pre-state Palestine, the Leftists readily identified the Jew as a legitimate enemy based on perceived collusion with the British during the Mandate years.2

Is there legitimate concern that British antipathy towards Jews is real? In January 2002, British left-wing magazine The New Statesman published a cover story on the "Zionist lobby" in Britain. The cover displayed a golden Star of David stabbing a Union Jack behind the banner: "A Kosher Conspiracy?" To be fair, the magazine's editor apologized (after many complaints) but it's hard to dismiss such a blatant expression of distrust.

At the very least, this current spate of anti-Zionism is acerbated by a blithe ignorance of 2,000 years of Jewish nationalism (not to mention erstwhile British support for Zionism). What is more mystifying is the apparent lack of knowledge of contemporary Middle East history. Considering the role of the British themselves, their sense of historicity seems illusory at best.

Some are suggesting that a boycott of British academics is now warranted. I can’t go along with that. But I do know I’ve lost a lot of respect for these allegedly learned men and women. If their judgement can be so impaired by bias, and their research so willingly absent, can their academic output really be trusted?

But all of this is beside the point. Members of NATFHE may well have real and sincere complaints to make against the Israeli government on behalf of Palestinian Arabs. However, NATFHE is not a political body. It is an educational union. And the issue at hand is academic freedom.

Despite petitions and emails to forestall the boycott vote on the grounds it would impinge academic freedom, NATFHE approved the resolution recommending that its 67,000 members personally boycott all Israeli professors, lecturers, universities and colleges, unless they publicly forswear Israel's "apartheid policies" in the territories. Paul Mackney, NATFHE's secretary-general, will likely feature in a future course on irony.

Mackney, an unabashed supporter of Palestinian rights,3 has said: "Palestinian civil society, including the universities, needs support and solidarity as never before, and I will not be bullied into silence."

Good for you, Paul. God forbid your opinion should be stifled.

  1. As described in an essay by Ben Cohen: The Persistence of Anti-Semitism on the British Left.

  2. “[Resolved: that] the revolt of the oppressed peoples in the colonies against imperialism has always been accompanied by destructive attacks against the national minorities when they aided the imperialist regime, and that the revolt of the Arab masses in Palestine against the imperialists had been and would in the future be accompanied by a war of annihilation against the Jewish minority, as long as it cooperated with the British imperialists. - Palestine Communist Party resolution, 7th Congress, 1932
    (Zachary Lockman, “The Left in Israel: Zionism vs. Socialism,” MERIP Reports, July 1976, p8)

  3. Seen here addressing a Palestine Solidarity Campaign conference (Shabbat, March 1, 2003)


It should be noted that on June 1, 2006 NATFHE will join the Association of University Teachers (AUT) to form the University and College Union (UCU).

Today, AUT issued the following statement:

"AUT does not endorse this policy and is strongly advising its members not to implement it." The full statement can be read here.

In May 2005 the AUT council overwhelmingly rejected an earlier decision to boycott two Israeli universities and reasserted its belief that freedom of expression, open debate and unhampered dialogue are prerequisites of academic freedom. They also established a commission to investigate the effectiveness of boycotts. The report of that commission was passed this month by AUT. It recommends that boycotts are applied only in exceptional circumstances, are fully justified by the facts, and can be shown to be an effective way of furthering academic freedom and human rights.

It's impossible that Paul Mackney and NAFTHE were unaware of AUT's position regarding boycotts of Israel. Ergo, NAFTHE's resolution (and subsequent vote) was a calculated publicity stunt (albeit with some symbolic value). Perhaps their efforts to improve the lives of the Palestinians would be more effective if they worked to make real change rather than play at politics like students pretending to be diplomats at a model UN.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Deliver Us From Evil

Great article by Bradley Burston over at Ha'aretz: "Why 'Jews for Jesus' is evil"

My comments as posted to the article:
Without getting into an argument over who is 'right' and who is 'wrong,' I must completely agree with Bradley Burston on this one. No one is suggesting that groups like 'Jews for Jesus' have no right to their beliefs; of course they do, even if we think they're misguided. The issue is intrusive practices like targeting Jewish homes for door-to-door canvassing or scattering Christian propaganda pamphlets near Jewish schools. If the cause is so righteous, are these abhorrent practices necessary? Shouldn't the cause sell itself? Jesus may have been truthful, but his followers have used every nefarious trick in the book to substantiate their faith.

Which brings us back to the real problem: it is the existence of Jews that is an affront to (revelationist) Christians. As long as we exist, there will be doubt in their minds as to the truth of their beliefs. In the end (and it's truly the end we're speaking of), they care only for our souls to save their own.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Blood Was Flowing Like a River

What do we really mean when we say "never again"?

Since the expression came into vogue after the Holocaust, the world has experienced countless genocides, from northern Congo to Cambodia’s killing fields to the Rwandan massacres. We can't seem to stop the killing. Worse, we don't seem to care. Indifference, the real culprit as Elie Wiesel has pointed out, is pervasive and systemic. But what is at the root of it?

Sadly, I fear that it is not so much aloofness as racism that drives this apathy. We are afflcited with the worst kind of prejudice: that which forgives the actions of a group because "they can't help it;" that which condescends to allow immoral behaviour because presumably not everyone can be expected to live up to the white man's morality.

Across Africa, thousands have suffered - murdered, raped, deliberately starved - with barely a blip in the world press. As the conflict continues to claim victims in the Sudan, we change the channel and turn the page. I hate to ask an uncomfortable question, but what is the source of your indifference?

Moreover, I think that for too long, we've made the mistake of allowing "never again" to hover over us like a hypothetical ideal for future age. If "never again" is to have any meaning, it must be reinvented as a call to arms. We must make "never again" mean "not now." And it must apply universally.

See my sidebar for links to information pages, petitions, emails and educational handouts on Darfur and what you can do right now.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Good Resolutions

I've had this running through my head all morning since reading this headline: U.S.: Resolution under way to address Iran.
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Friday that the United States will seek a resolution in the Security Council urging Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions.
Here is what I expect will be the reaction:

(with apologies to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)

I don’t give a damn ’bout your resolutions
You’re living in the past it’s a new revolution
Iran can do what it wants to do and that’s
What It's gonna do
An’ I don’t give a damn ’ bout your resolutions

Oh no not me

An’ I don’t give a damn ’bout your resolutions
Never said I wanted to improve our constitution
An’ I’m only doin’ good
with Uranium
An’ I don’t have to please no one
An’ I don’t give a damn
’bout UN resolutions

Oh no, not me
Oh no, not me

I don’t give a damn
’bout those resolutions
I’ve never been afraid of UN prosecution
An’ I don’t really care
If ya think I’m strange
I ain’t gonna change
An’ I’m never gonna care
’bout UN resolutions

Oh no, not me
Oh no, not me

Missiles boys!

An’ I don’t give a damn
’bout your resolutions
Iran's in trouble
with your institutions
An’ the world can say
What it wants to say
It's no better anyway
So why should I care
’bout a bad resolution anyway
Oh no, not me
Oh no, not me

I don’t give a damn ’bout those big resolutions
You’re living in the past
We're a new revolution
An’ I only feel good
Cause I've got no Brain
An’ that’s how I’m gonna stay
An’ I don’t give a damn
’bout UN resolutions

Oh no, not me
Oh no, not
Not me, not me

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Imaginary Heroes

This week the entertainment world lost two significant personalities. I'd be lying if I called either of them 'great' or 'legendary.' But they meant a lot to me. Don Knotts died on February 27 at the age of 81. He will always be remembered as the perpetually anxious Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a role that won him five Emmy® Awards. However, I was a much bigger fan of the films Knotts made in the mid-60's.

The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) featured Knotts as a Henry Limpet, a milquetoast human who turns into a fish and helps the US Navy during the Second World War. While not a brilliant film, it did cleverly combine animation and live action. My favourite Don Knott's film remains The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). He plays Luthor Beggs, a jittery typesetter at the local paper who dreams of being an ace reporter. He's offered the chance to write a story about a haunted house and ends up solving a 20-year old murder case. The film was competently directed by Alan Rafkin and features an above-average score by Vic Mizzy, best known for creating the theme music for TV's The Addams Family. I just loved The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. It was funny and silly, with a few scenes that truly scared the bejeezus out of me. And I’ve had that organ solo – if you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about - stuck in my head for 30 years. Knotts had a way of epitomizing a kind of goofy excitability that kids like me could relate to. It's also refreshing to remember a time when family films didn't need fart jokes to be entertaining.

Darren McGavin died last Saturday a few months short of his 84th birthday. I first discovered McGavin in a short-lived, but hugely influential mystery series called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. McGavin played Carl Kolchak, an irascible reporter with a penchant for stumbling onto monsters, ghosts and vampires. In a career that lasted 50 years, McGavin played a lot of characters, but Carl Kolchak was my favourite. Despite the improbability of events that plagued him, and the unwillingness of the police and his associates to ever give him a break, Kolchak never gave up. He was hard to love at times, but impossible not to root for.

I’d like to think there’s a little bit of the spirit of Luthor Beggs and Carl Kolchak in me.

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]

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

History vs Hollywood

Hollywood's attitude toward historical accuracy has always been, shall we say, fairly contemptuous. Historical figures and events have served as readily accessible fodder since the first train was robbed on film in 1903. And the robbery has continued unabated. Of course filmmakers aren't historians or political scientists; as an art form, motion pictures can elucidate themes or ideas beyond the banality of the real event but filmmakers have no responsibility to be realistic or accurate. Or do they?

"History," T.S. Elliot once observed, "is but a contrived corridor."

This brings me to Munich, the new drama from Steven Spielberg and award-winning scriptwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"). The much-criticized film depicts the implementation of a plan to revenge the killings of Israeli Olympic athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, at the hands of Arab terrorists. The film is controversial to say the least, not only because the source material - a book by George Jonas, "Vengeance" - has long been discredited by Israelis in the know, but significantly because the depiction of Israeli agents as bumbling and morally conflicted has left many viewers upset and perturbed.

The film raises a few issues: were the filmmakers ands writers obligated to be factual and true to the events? Was there an ulterior motive to the film, or in other words, was the intent solely to discredit Israel, making Munich a propaganda film of left-wing politics? Do Jewish filmmakers (and other artists) have responsibilities beyond their muse? Is it fair to criticize a Jewish filmmaker for his views as an American if his Jewishness plays an insignificant part in his artistic makeup?

I'm reminded of an interview with author and screenwriter William Goldman. Goldman spent years on research before writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in the end, invented most of the film.
"Most of the movie was made up. I used certain facts. They did rob a couple of trains; they did take too much dynamite and blow the car to pieces...they did go to South America, they did die in a shoot-out in Bolivia. Other than that, it's all bits and pieces all made up."
But a scriptwriter isn't a journalist. The best a scriptwriter can hope for is to capture an essence of a person; if a character is the sum of experiences, the writer's challenge is to depict only these experiences that matter.

For a real lesson in historical minimalism, go no further than your Bible. No other text achieves so much depth and complexity with such brevity and sparseness. Leaving aside for the moment the debate over Bible authorship, the Bible manages to convey significant aspects of characters with such precision, one is left breathless. Unlike modern fiction, the Bible generally fails to suggest why people behave the way they do; we are meant to interpret action and motive.

Film writers can't enjoy that privilege. Most people won't see a film more than once, Rocky Horror Picture Show fans aside, and simply aren't willing to pore over each word and phrase of dialogue. It's also obvious that many so-called historical films use an event as an allegory for a more topical theme. Which brings me back to Munich. This is really Spielberg's second film on the aftermath of 9/11. War of the Worlds blatantly captured the horror and shock of the attack on New York City right down to the literal reduction of victims to ashes. In the end - I'm not spoiling much here since I assume you know the general story - the human race survives, but only through a miracle. The film ends before the survivors (and viewers) can mourn the countless deaths. How would we deal with such carnage?

Munich suggests that one course of action is revenge. But how we as a society deal with the moral repercussions of blood thirst is another issue, one that seems to be on the minds of Spielberg and Kushner. It's no coincidence that the film ends in New York City. Some have criticized this scene for suggesting that an Israeli agent may be suffering from a sort of moral distress; frankly, I think Munich is really about the moral distress of left-wing Americans following the retributive war against Afghanistan, and the subsequent campaign in Iraq. Of course, it also plays on the discomfort felt by left-leaning American Jews unable to process Israel's complex entanglement with the Palestinians. Tony Kushner has made no secret of how he feels about the Jewish state:
"Israel was established at a terrible human cost, which is still going on. You can't feel the only way to go forward is to pretend that in 1947 and 1948 there were no Palestinians in those villages, or there were only a few thousand of them." (Jerusalem Report, pp 34, May 3, 2004) sorry, it's a pay link
As such, it's impossible to imagine Munich as an unbiased historical document. For his part, Spielberg is always on firmer ground in a literal milieu: sometimes a shark attack is just a shark attack! Beyond that, when faced with difficult moral issues, his simplistic, commercial sensibility becomes a handicap. Munich fails on most levels. It is only as allegory that it achieves any kind of vague success, but really, haven't we seen and heard all of this before? Evil begets evil. Revenge is bad. War is hell. When all is said and done, Steven Spielberg remains, undeniably, Steven Spielberg, the great manipulator, the Saturday afternoon matinee wunderkind director of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

I present workshops on this very subject - "History vs. Hollywood" - with an emphasis on Jewish issues and the presentation of Israel on film. We look at films that purport to be Bible-based (i.e., The Ten Commandments) and historical epics like Exodus. For more information on any of my workshops and classes, please contact me.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Valley of the Dolls

If you're like me you've spent countless hours wondering what you would like as an animated cartoon. Thankfully a new website makes this possible.

It also helps to have hours to waste on the many possible variations of facial characteristics, clothing and backgrounds. Well, since my time is precious (and my wife is wondering why this short blog entry is taking so long to finish), here's a quickly thrown together image. It looks exactly like me! Er, if I was still 20 years old and about 10 kilos lighter. And lived in Japan. You get the idea.

Friday, January 13, 2006

A Trail of Books

Like many writers, I'm also an avid reader. These days, it's mostly non-fiction on a wide range of subjects. I really like immersing myself in topics, reading several books on the same subject to glean varied interpretations of events and people. I also like to hear and see what I'm reading about. A number of excellent internet resources now make it possible to hear music, news and entertainment from recorded history. CBC Archives features actual news stories and documentaries on many events of the last 80 years. It's one thing to read about a person but an entirely different experience to hear their voice, how they enunciate, emphasize and inflect their word choices.

This week I'm reading From Eden to Exile: The Five-Thousand Year History of the People of the Bible* by David M. Rohl. I'm listening to a CD called Music of the Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians & Greeks by De Organographia.

There was a moment the other evening when the music and words seemed to meet and fall in love. I was reading the chapter on Joshua and the Hebrews challenging the city of Jericho. As I hit the description of the walls coming down, ancient trumpets sounded in my headphones. No kidding! I couldn't have the scored the scene better if I was Miklos Rosza. Next on the reading list: False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear by Dr. Marc Siegel.

*The title of the book varies depending on the version, and whether hardcover or paperbook. Makes for a confusing bibliography.

Friday, January 06, 2006

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

I was recently able to combine my film background and writing work when I was asked to create web content for a Canadian film company called Laffstock, best known as the distributor of Corner Gas, CBC's breakout hit comedy. You can read my film reviews here. This will be an ongoing project as I plan on adding additional reviews over the next few months. I will also be reviewing films on this blog. If you'd like to know what I think of a specific film or have a question about the film industry, email me.

At the moment I'm finishing up some web content for a law firm, and continuing my own creative writing. As a matter of course, I tend to use the computer for business writing but a notepad and pen for my scripts and stories. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with the artistic process. But I feel a bit like a dinosaur as I scratch each letter into the paper, words forming like little doodles; I know the process would be quicker on the computer but I appreciate being able to track my changes, words and paragraphs crossed out and re-inserted; drawings of characters and places litter each page.

At one time, every written work - from an intricate parchment manuscript to a list of items in a stockroom - was penned lovingly by hand, each stroke a reflection of the author. We study old texts today not only for the words but also the style and penmanship of the writer. For the time being, I'll be using the laptop to compose blog entries because it's faster and more efficient. Perhaps one day writing by hand will "go extinct" like the dinosaurs, but not today. Some things must still be done by hand.