Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Not in My Name

First published in Excalibur, May 18, 2005.

Jewish left focus of documentary
Written by Aliza Libman - Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, 18 May 2005

With controversial flicks like Women for Sale, about Israeli society's legalized prostitution industry, and Channels of Rage, a documentary headlining two rival rappers caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this year's Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) is not the lox-and-bagels of Jewish cinema.

The festival, a 13-year veteran featuring dozens of films from many countries, has among its edgy offerings a movie that has generated particular buzz this year. Not in My Name, a film by Chutzpa Productions' Igal Hecht and co-produced by Talia Klein, looks at the Jewish left and its relationship with Israel. Live footage from protests, interviews with leftist activists and segments with famed academics Norman Finklestein and Alan Dershowitz insulting each other help the filmmakers ask the question, ‘Who today speaks for the Jewish left?'

The answer from the producers is clear: The extremists do.

"This film shows what the left has turned into," filmmaker Hecht tells me. He says that in contemporary Jewish circles, many moderates are being silenced. "We've allowed extremists to take over both political beliefs [left and right]."

The title of the film is one used by many on the Jewish left who object to the state of Israel's policies, as the state of Israel purports to speak for all Jews. Viewers of the film meet non-Zionists and anti-Zionists as well as ardent Zionists who simply reject Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and criticize alleged human rights abuses in the territories.

For better or for worse, the filmmaker says, these activists are still Jews.
"If you are against the state of Israel, it does not mean you are a self-hating Jew," Hecht states.

"They're part of the Jewish community whether we like it or not," adds co-producer Klein. She notes that many activists in the film have family members who disagree with their politics. A chief example is International Solidarity Movement activist Avi Zer Aviv, whose father Shimon Zer Aviv, a right-wing ex-pat Israeli, found out about his son's interview and asked to do a rebuttal. The result is a poignant mix of footage of a son firmly rooted in his convictions and a father trying to make sense of who his son has become.

The film's thesis, extremists are dominating the Jewish left, has angered many, including some of the activists appearing in the film.

Making Not in My Name had Klein and Hecht criss-crossing the map, filming in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Vancouver and Toronto. They also took a trip up north to Camp Shomria to film the training of the camp staff. The late-teen and twenty-something counsellors in the film come from the Hashomer Hatzair youth group. The leftist Zionists of Hashomer, whose predecessors in the movement helped found the state of Israel and the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, came to the screening expecting to be misrepresented.

Before the film, Northern Secondary student Eli Zeldin was among the Hashomer group who were handing out leaflets that proclaimed "Images in film can be taken out of context."

"We're just here to make sure that our good name is not discredited," he said, adding that his youth group is a "very progressive" movement and stating that he felt a strong Palestinian state alongside a strong Jewish state would ensure peace in the region.

The film's footage of their camp's training was not the whole story, group members say, and they are upset at the suggestion that they can be linked to anti-Israel individuals and groups.

"We felt we were presented very inaccurately," Hashomer Hatzair representative Tom Chervinsky tells me. His point echoes that of Avi Zer Aviv and other interviewees who thought that their interviews were edited in such a way as to make them more extreme than they actually are.

"To say that Hashomer in any way integrates any kind of anti-Zionism is so preposterous, it's almost sad," says Chervinsky, a graduating student from the University of Waterloo and the president of the Waterloo Israel Public Affairs Committee. "You don't have to support the policies, but you have to support the state to be a part of Hashomer."

The screening at the packed Bloor Cinema was host to a score of objections from self-proclaimed members of the moderate left who resented the film's implication that Zionist activists against Israeli government policies "provide a shield of legitimacy" to those who truly hate the Jewish state.

Klein and Hecht contextualized activists' statements by showing footage of the actual situation, complete with shots of Palestinian Arabs crossing checkpoints and interacting with Israeli soldiers. They balance a scene of an activist Passover seder talking about the crimes of occupation with footage of the 2002 Park Hotel massacre in which a Palestinian suicide bomber killed dozens of Jews having their Passover seder.

More than anything else, the film is real. Interviewees say what they think, debate internal conflicts and ponder their own role in the big picture. Hecht and Klein capture shouting matches between protesters and mainstream Zionists. They include grisly footage of the aftermath of bombings in Israeli cafes and on buses seconds after activists mention the Palestinian struggle.

Objections of the moderate left aside, the point made by Hecht and Klein is well taken. In many spheres, the voice of the moderate left is overshadowed and out-shouted by the extreme left. The result is a blurring of lines between the moderates and the extremists, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell who is who.

For all those in the moderate political sphere, whether on the left or the right, the harsh reality is simply that if they haven't been speaking out until now, perhaps they should be.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

On Torah Study...

When a small group of high school students decided they wanted to try something different six years ago, Bnei Akiva, the international religious Zionist youth group, was known for being a fun place for Zionist kids to socialize. A group of grade twelve students tried to kick-start a weekly Torah study program that year, but could only get five or six students to show up every week, Arye Sokol remembers.

“Two years ago, we struggled to get a minyan [of ten],” the UofT student says, surveying the packed room with pride. “This year we get 70 people a week.”

The program’s premise is simple: High school students get paired up with university students and learn in pairs and small groups. They come for an hour of group study, a brief speaker, the evening prayer Maariv and refreshments. Not where you’d expect to find a student when prime time TV is on. But this year, the popular program has swelled far beyond expectations.

The high school students who come every week often finish their classes as late as five or six pm. The university students come during midterms and even during exams. Most can’t imagine doing otherwise.

“When I walk into this room full of high school students learning together, it’s uplifting and it makes it fun. It’s nice to come to a place where learning is not for marks and it’s a positive atmosphere,” says Sara Yeres, an Ulpanat Orot student in grade 12. She, along with Sokol and two other students, coordinate the weekly program, which is called “Beit Midrash”, or ‘house of study’. Together with UofT student Sara Greenwood and Or Chaim student Ezra Javasky, they are responsible for creating the atmosphere of a house of study, something they attribute to the students who have begun to come in large numbers this year.

The program’s vibrance depends on older students drawing in younger ones, which is how Ulpana grade nine student Chaya Solomon was recruited this year.

“My older brother and older sister came [weekly in previous years],” she says, “so I decided to come, too.” Solomon, who says that she appreciates the opportunity to study Torah without being tested on the material, is like Yeres and Javasky in that respect – they too began attending because their older siblings did.

The record numbers of students have posed a challenge for the organizers, who hold the program weekly at the centrally-located Congregation Bnai Torah. For each new student who comes, the organizers have to find a regular study partner or group. Duos have become trios and groups of three now have five or six studying everything from Bible to Talmud to Jewish philosophy.

In addition to pairing up people with study partners, the organizers line up a weekly speaker, and over the years have hosted scores of interesting people, like Rabbi Charles Grysman from Netivot Hatorah, Rabbi Glenn Black from NCSY, and York University’s Rabbi Dr. Marty Lockshin. Some weeks, the students themselves do the speaking, Javasky says, while other times, it’s the B’nei Akiva shlichot Ayala Shalev and Avital Goddard who share brief words of Torah. Javasky, a grade eleven student, says that his favourite speaker was York student Noam Lockshin, who spoke about the lesson to be learned from Aggadic passages in the Talmud.

And the studying isn’t confined to the weekend – due to popular demand, the four organizers, collectively known as the “Beit Midrash Crew”, have begun Torah study weekly emails, journals for the holidays of Hannukah and Pesach, and they are planning, along with a lot of alum, to complete the entire Torah, Mishna, and Talmud branch of Nezikin in time for their all-night Torah study program on Shavuot. After a year of such tremendous growth, Bnei Akiva has its work cut out for next year, but the students say they are excited to just be doing what they’re already doing.

“It makes me proud to be a part of this,” Yeres says.

- Aliza Libman is a fourth-year religious studies and education student at York University. She has been studying Talmud at the Bnei Akiva Beit Midrash for three years. Published in August 2005.