Achrei Mot Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30  20.04.13

Achrei Mot Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 20.04.13
Review: God`s Neighbours/Ha`Mashgichim


Howard Adelman

This blog is a double header. I will focus as usual on this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30. I will also review writer-director Meni Yaesh’s fantastic film, Ha`Mashgichim, translated best as God’s Kosher Monitors as in the Agudas Hamashgichim, the Kashrut Supervisors Union, but, in English, has the innocuous and misleading title, God’s Neighbours. I saw the film the night before last at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The film won the Society of Authors, Directors and Composers award at Cannes “Critics Week” in 2012, no mean achievement to be judged so highly by one’s peers for a first film. The parasha and the film are connected, but first the parasha.

Achrei Mot has three chapters and three subject matters respectively: 1) Aaron’s atonement and purification after his two sons die (see last week’s portion; we are now in the aftermath of those deaths, achrei mot); 2) prohibitions against consuming blood; 3) sexual prohibitions. Ch. 16, Verse 2 reads: “the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” God just killed Aaron’s two sons because they made a ritual error and now God talks of mercy! It is no longer the turn of the harsh judgment of the pillar of fire but of God as a cloud, of God the merciful, of God expressing Himself through the High Priest who is the embodiment of mercy, Aaron. Moses, God’s political agent who deals with power, must deliver the message to his brother Aaron.

But one gets no sense of mercy, only more rigid laws and judgments. The process of purification involves many steps, but only three essential elements: the sacrifice of a bull for a sin offering, the sacrifice of a ram for a burnt offering and one new element, a scapegoat, (לַעֲזָאזֵֽל) la-aza’zeyl, exiled from the community into the wilderness as part of the atonement ceremonies. The sin offering and the burnt offering are insufficient; the scapegoat must be sent into the wilderness “by the hand of one who is ready,” a scapegoat that will carry all of their iniquities to a wilderness remote area. (16:21-22) Only then can Aaron return to resume his role as High Priest in the Holy of Holies. In the process, the very same person, the one whose hand is ready and who sent the goat into the wilderness, shall wash Aaron’s clothes and bathe his body so Aaron can return as a renewed man. (16:26) The rules for the Day of Atonement are then set down.

Chapter 17 is about bloodguilt, the failure to understand that the sacrifice and consumption of meat must first be regarded as a gift to the Lord, in whose gifts humankind is allowed to share, and the cutting off from the community of the one carrying that bloodguilt. The symbol of bloodguilt is the consumption of blood; the Hebrews were commanded not to consume blood.

Chapter 17 is about sexual prohibitions. You can’t sleep with your mother, your father’s wife even if she is not your mother, your sister or your father’s daughter even if she is not a blood relative, your step-mother’s daughter even if she is no blood relative at all, your daughter, your daughter-in-law, your granddaughter, your aunt by blood or by marriage, your sister-in-law, or the sister of your wife, or your female cousins. Just to be safe, don’t sleep with relatives or, for that matter, a menstruating woman or a neighbour’s wife.

Further, just to be contemporary in a time of legalization of gay marriage, “22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The opposition to our liberal attitudes comes via orders from a harsh and judgmental God. The consequences are not just individual; your whole nation shall be vomited out for disobeying such an injunction.

Well not much sign of mercy in all that. Just harsh commands!

The Haftorah deals with the depiction of the results of that iniquity, the city of blood rather than the city of god, the city of murder and mayhem, the city of lewdness, the city from which one profited and “greedily gained of thy neighbours by oppression”. (12) If the Hebrews sink into such iniquity, if (29) “The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have wronged the poor and needy, and have oppressed the stranger unlawfully,” if there is not found among the people one man to stand as a hedge against the tide of evil, then God’s wrath will scatter the people to the four corners of the world. (27) “Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey: to shed blood, and to destroy souls, so as to get dishonest gain.”

Avi (Roy Assaf), Kobi (Gal Friedman) and Yaniv (Itzik Golan) are the princes of Bat Yam. Their prey are noisy drinking Russians playing loud techno music, a secular Mizrachi (Sephardi) selling purloined pornographic DVDs, and, the regular Israeli victims, Arabs, in this case from Jaffa rather than the Arabs in the Occupied Territories whom they used to beat up when they were in the border police. Avi is the leader. They are Mizrachi thugs, but religious thugs. They do not act for profit but as servants of God’s wrath. And some of that wrath is directed at Miri (Rotem Zussman) for dressing immodestly.

Roy Assaf as Avi

Gal Friedman as Kobi

Itzik Golan as Yaniv Lugassi

Rotem Ziesman-Cohen as Miri
The trio live in Bat Yam, a city just south of Jaffa with which I became somewhat familiar when I visited members of its Vietnamese population there back in 1980, for Israel had taken in about 800 Indochinese Boat people and they largely settled in Bat Yam. Bat Yam, originally known as Bayit VaGan (בית וגן), a city named after a home and garden, was resettled in 1930 after it was destroyed by Palestinian thugs from Jaffa in the 1929 Palestine riots. The city retained in its bones an antipathy to Arabs. At the time of independence, the town of 4000 received an influx of Jews from Turkey and Morocco, form Iraq and Yemen, later to be joined by Ethiopian Jews who were not in view in the movie. The town is now a city of 130,000 and a hotbed of right wing revisionism where Shas and Liberman’s party get a great deal of support since many Soviet Jews settled there in the nineties. Bat Yam is not the liberal and cultured Tel Aviv located just north on the other side of Jaffa.
The city is also known for one other group of residents, the Bobover Hasidim who arrived in 1959. But this movie is focused on the Breslev Hasidim who have developed a following among Mizrachi Jews who constitute the majority of Bat Yam’s residents. Bat Yam, like Haifa, is also a mixed city in another sense. It has a significant population of Palestinians who overflowed the confines of Jaffa. The Bat Yam beaches are also popular with Israeli and Palestinian youth who despise the tourist-ridden beaches of Tel Aviv, something I learned from one of my sons when he played trumpet for a year in the Rishon LeZion orchestra years ago, but my grandson in Israel says this is still true today.
The film does not begin with a pillar of fire but with Avi reading Psalm 136 (or it could be the first lines of Psalms 106 and 107). “Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever.” Over and over again the words are repeated and constitute a hypnotic spell, akin to the way Avi composes his lyrics and songs so popular in sending the followers of the Bratslav rebbe into delirious trances as they dance hystrionically to the beat and the music heavily influenced by Moroccan and Turkish music and driven to greater intensity with the use of drums and a bass beat. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived in the eighteenth century, was the direct descendent and great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism. God’s mercy never changes. That mercy is never exhausted, never used up. All God’s dealings with man – and every one of His creatures – will be infused with mercy; it is found in all his dealings. It will be thus forever.

The Breslov, or Breslev Hasidm, to pick up the emphasis on “the heart” (lev) emphasized so much by this group of Hasidim, try to develop an intense, joyous relationship with God. The only real instructor is God and his teachings must come through your heart, not the sharpness of your mind. Ezekial’s message as conveyed in the film instructs: “I [God] will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) That is the story of the movie, how God takes away Avi’s heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh. Life must be lived joyously, and though the film is full of brutality, it is also suffused with ecstatic singing and dancing and clapping and smiling and laughter. For these Hasidim, “Always be happy” is the 614th commandment. Jews must constantly live longing to return to unity with God, the rebbe in the movie teaches, for that it is the core expression of faith and the way to achieve repentance or teshuvah. That faith, as the rebbe says at the movie’s start, begins with observation, not judgment, a lesson the viewer must hear if the film is not to be simply misinterpreted as a rant against thuggish Mizrachi. The director helps with his extreme close-ups and his raw and rough footage.

However, in the movie, the trio not only drink, smoke pot and dance ecstatically, laugh and play backgammon endlessly, but are also merciless bullies using baseball bats and their fists in enforcing store closings for shabat and insisting the neighbourhood remain free of immodesty and loud noise on Friday night. Arabs (Palestinians) must be kept off its streets. The world is not united by God but divided into the higher force above and their use of force on earth. These are a trio of racist, homophobic, petty self-appointed vigilantes yet, ironically, driven by total loyalty to their mystical rabbi who insists that God’s word comes, not from their head, but through their heart. Through ecstatic joy! As the second half of verse 8 reads in Psalm 138, after repeating that God’s mercy endures forever, “do not abandon the works of the hands.” They are not scholars, though they study with the rabbi every afternoon. They go from their petty bourgeois jobs as grocers or sales clerks in a pet store or mechanics to study with the rabbi daily, but study does not mean developing critical skills. At one point the rabbi begins a Socratic mantra: “I know nothing. Uni yodeah cloomb.” And the short sentence is repeated and repeated and the group of students, including the trio, rise up and dance frenetically, clapping and repeating over and over again: “Uni yodeah cloomb.”

Until these Breslev fanatics try to intimidate Miri living in the neighbourhood from dressing immodestly. She stands up to their intimidation. Avi is enchanted by her spirit. He becomes her protector. She prudently dresses more modestly. Avi learns from his rabbi and his ecstatic religious hippie devotee of his lyrics who runs beach parties to Avi’s songs. Mostly Avi learns from Miri what atonement and mercy really mean. He is conflicted. He certainly can no longer lead the brutal pack in their vigilante enforcement code. The standard struggle of this genre, when the sensitive one tries to break with the code of the hood and its unquestioning brutality, then ensues.

Avi has a falling out with his closest friend, the hothead, Kobi, and, in a rumble, Kobi is stabbed and rushed to the hospital. I never anticipated that Kobi would be the scapegoat for the bloodguilt of the gang. The wilderness is the hospital, but it is also the barren beach of Bat Yam at night. Avi goes down to the beach, opens his conflicted soul to God, and prays openly and without any self-consciousness. The Breslev are taught that to become a true tzaddik, a just man, the followers must retreat, go into the wilderness, look into their own souls, and open their hearts totally to God. This true prayer in contrast to the everyday repetitions in synagogue, this total exposure of all your thoughts and fears, your self-doubts and hopes, to the only personal friend that you ultimately have in the world, the only way to redemption, God. Avi then strips to walk into the largest mikvah around, the Mediterranean Sea. A new Avi is reborn.

Some may see the ending as mushy and out of keeping with the rest of the movie. But it is necessary to allow the mystical circle of God’s utter ruthlessness and His kind loving side to be closed and for Avi to become at one with God. Where is the one whose hand is ready, the one who sent the goat into the wilderness, who will wash Aaron’s clothes and bathe his body so Aaron can return as a renewed man? Avi goes into his huge Mikvah alone. Until I recognized my blindness, I expected the redeemer to be his rabbi or his mystical ecstatic hippie friend in his psychedelic painted van. But, of course, it is neither. It is a woman. Miri, who has infused Avi’s soul, the one first taken as a Jezebel, is the one through whom Avi is redeemed from his thuggery. God appears in the cloud of love over the mercy seat through a woman. Avi finally comes to some understanding of what purification means, what the prohibition against consuming blood means. He did not shoot the Palestinian youth lying fearful at his feet on the streets of Jaffa.

The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich.18.04.13

The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich                                                 18.04.13


Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening I saw the film, The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 that had its North American premier at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. There have been many films on the capture and deaths of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1976 Munich Olympics and the Israeli hunting down of the terrorists. They include:

21 Hours at Munich (1976)

Sword of Gideon (1986)

One Day in September (1999)

Munich (2005)

Munich: Mossad`s Revenge (2006)

Now we have the 2012 documentary The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 directed by Emanuel Rotstein.

The most famous of the above is probably Stephen Spielberg`s 2005 movie, Munich, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth based on a Canadian, George Jonas, book listed below which, after recounting the events of the terrorist attack in the first half, focused on the Israeli response to the attack and how Israel`s Mossad dealt with the terrorists. The film was nominated for five academy awards, though its fictional construction of how Mossad developed the target list of 11 terrorists, the controversial portrayal of the fictional construction of guilt-ridden Mossad agents and posing the killing of the members of Black September simply as a tit-for-tat revenge operation, had little basis in historical fact. However, the depiction of the actual hostage taking and the German police response, as well as the names of the Black September terrorists involved in executive decisions, planning and executing the attack, is generally correct. The errors were mostly pointed out in the 2006 documentary, Munich: Mossad`s Revenge.

There are also many books written about the capture and death of the athletes and the response of different governments and authorities at the time and afterwards. The main ones include:

Serge Groussard (1975) The Blood of Israel: the massacre of the Israeli athletes, the Olympics 1972

David B. Tinnin and Dag Christensen (1976) The Hit Team

George Jonas (2005) Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Team

A.J. Klein (2005) The 1972 Munich Massacre and Israel`s Deadly Response

David Clay Large (2012) Munich 1972.

The film The Eleventh Day: The Survivors of Munich 1976 is not about the Israelis killed by the terrorists so we do not see pictures of them, though they are referred to in the memories of the survivors. Nor is it about the terrorists so we only have fleeting accounts of them as the survivors tell the stories of what they remember and how they experienced the attack and its aftermath. Nor is it about how the German authorities bungled the attack on the terrorists, though reference is made to that accident-prone effort – again through the memories of the survivors. Finally, the film is not about the insensitivity of the Olympic officials at the time or subsequently to memorializing the killed Israeli athletes, though the surviving athletes make reference to their memories of the memorial that was held at which 80,000 attended and how they were moved. Their response to how the Olympic authorities handled the memorial to the deaths of the eleven Israeli athletes is more muted in the film.  

The movie is a conventionally constructed well produced documentary that provides the key historical background and interweaves interviews with eight of the survivors with historical footage and a revisit of seven of those survivors to the Olympic village site forty years after the massacre. Because of the focus on the survivors, do not expect the film to deal with any of the following questions:

1) Who was killed and how they were killed, though, because Moshe Weinberg, the wrestling coach, and Yossef Romano, the weightlifter, were both killed in the Olympic village, their deaths are described in the film in some detail as well as the response of the survivors to their murders. For the record, the following nine were killed after they were transferred to the NATO military base in the bungled German effort to kill the terrorists:

David Berger (weightlifter)

Zeèv Friedman (weightlifter)

Yossef Gutfreund (wrestling referee)

Eliezer Halfin (wrestler)

Amitzur Shapira (track coach)

Kehat Shorr (shooting coach)

Mark Slavin (wrestler)

Andre Spitzer (fencing coach)

Yakov Springer (weightlifting judge)

In the film, there is a memorial plaque shown with the names of the eleven slain athletes beside the front door of 31 Connollystrasse.

2) The Terrorists. There are descriptions of two of them who were seen by several of the survivors when they seized the apartments in which the Israeli athletes, coaches and officials were staying, but there is no depiction of how the terrorists learned where the Israelis were staying, how they got into the athlete village for men except for the many references to the openness, and certainly not about how Mossad tracked the surviving terrorists that they assassinated. It is not clear whether the survivors knew that two of the terrorists had jobs working for the Olympics.

According to the generally perceived account, in the early hours of the morning of 5 September 1972, the eleventh day of the Olympics, eight members of the Black September terrorist organization in tracksuits with duffel bags packed with AKM assault rifles, Tokarev pistols and grenades, scaled a two-meter chain-link fence, assisted by other athletes who thought that the terrorists were also athletes who had been out carousing and were sneaking back to the village late. There is a dispute whether the terrorists had keys to the apartments, but the survivors` testimonies do not indicate any knowledge of keys. One survivor does describe one terrorist seen as having grenades strapped to his belt.

3) The German Authorities. There are many references in the film to the intentions of the German authorities to use the Munich Olympics to get the world to understand the new Germany and forget Nazi Germany of the 1936 Olympics, the friendliness, the openness, the bright colours, and the casual but very efficient but non-militarist approach. The survivors do question why the Israeli athletes were placed in what was perhaps the most exposed location in the athletes village for men, the lack of any perceived security, and the repeated bungling of the response. In the movie, there is no question about the information the German authorities had in advance due to a tip off by a Palestinian informant in Beirut two weeks before the Olympics opened that there would be an attack – all of which has emerged and confirmed with the release of German documents about the events.

The survivors do question why the German authorities, in particular, Chancellor Willy Brandt and interior minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, did not accept the Israeli government offer to supply special forces units designed to deal with the terrorists or at least to advise the German authorities. Why were not Zvi Zamir and Victor Cohen who were Israelis with vast experience in dealing with terrorists and were present at the German airfield not asked for their input?

However, this film is not about the bungling – how the German authorities based their response on an inaccurate count of the number of terrorists originally given by Genscher who had been allowed into the apartment to see the captives, why authorities permitted the initial attempted police attack on the apartment to be televised and, therefore, watched by the terrorists, the poor locations of the helicopters in the airfield, the reasons why some of the sharpshooters left, the lack of telescopic lenses for the sharpshooters, the absence of armoured vehicles, the bungling of the plan to get the terrorists before they reached the helicopters. In the end, to the horror of all Israelis and Jews, the German authorities traded the three terrorists who survived and were in prison for the release of a Lufthansa plane and its passengers hijacked by terrorists.

4) The Olympic Authorities. Though Avery Bundage is depicted in the movie saying the games must go on and the Olympic spirit must be kept pure and clean and honest, there is no explanation of why he did not cancel the games, why he never even mentioned the names of the athletes who died in his press conferences and addresses, why the Olympic authorities bungled the security for the athletes or why subsequent Olympic officials have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the death of the Israeli athletes with a minute of silence. There is a reference to the fact that the East German and Arab teams all boycotted the memorial event that was held with 80,000 in attendance for the murdered Israeli athletes, coaches and officials.

I was surprised that the director did not get the survivors to talk about their performances at the Olympics before they left prematurely and returned to Israel with the coffins of their colleagues. What the movie is about is those who were ignored in the focus on all of the above – those who went through the horror and survived, what they experienced, how they reacted to the initial false information that the nine Israelis that had been taken to the NATO base had been rescued, how they responded to revisiting the apartments where two athletes were killed and where the toys that the Olympians had bought to bring back to their children were splattered with blood that many of the police and investigators had just trampled through without respecting the athlete left to bleed to death for hours. 

The movie does not explain why one of the athletes in the film is not among the seven in the movie who returned in 2012 to visit the Olympic Village. In the Q&A, Avraham Melamed explained that the missing athlete was not physically well enough to travel back to Munich. Melamed also explained why the ninth athlete did not accompany them. Tuvia Sokolovsky, a wrestling coach, had been the one to escape from apartment 3 on Connollystrasse when warned. Weinberg had tried to keep the terrorists out at the door of the apartment and was killed. Gutfreund kept his body against the door to the bedroom which he shared with Sokolovsky, allowing the latter time to escape through the window. Gutfreinde had evidently responded to scratches he heard at the door, saw the masked terrorists with guns and, while Weinberg blocked the terrorists, ran back to warn the others, especially his room mate, to get away.

Afterwards, some dolts accused Sokolovsky of cowardice for escaping – a view not shared by the survivors interviewed. Further, Sokolovsky was involved in the making of another film about Munich and was advised that there might be a conflict of interest if he became part of this film. I have never been able to reconcile the figure of 12 Israeli Olympians in apartments 1 & 3 with the fact that a second captive, Gad Tsobani, a wrestler, managed also to escape when they were being escorted together in one apartment because Weinberg attacked one of the terrorists escorting the captives at the cost of his own life.

Nor are we given much insight into their various personalities and why, for some, the 1972 Munich Olympics have been a dark shadow over the rest of their lives while Professor Shaul Ladany, the race walker and the sole Holocaust survivor on the team, remembers and memorializes, but has not been haunted by 1972 but instead remains determined to get the Olympic authorities to recognize and memorialize the event. Further, Ladany had been at the 1968 Olympics in Tokyo but was not asked to contrast his experience there with his first impressions of Munich in 1972. Ladany had been awakened by the commotion by Gutfreund’s screams and, as bullets whistled past, jumped from his bedroom rear window to the lawn below.

Avrahem Melamed, who attended the Mexican Olympics in 1964 as well as the 1978 games, did compare the different games, and, contrary to the stories about lack of security, insisted in the Q&A that security at Munich was far tighter than at Tokyo or Mexico. He knew because, though he is listed in the program as a “member of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team”, he actually was not though he lived in apartment 2 in the Olympic Village. Because he was not part of the team, he had no official documentation and had to sneak around to get anywhere and that is why he was fully aware of the security at the Olympics. In the Q&A, he also elaborated on why he was not officially part of the team.

It was Israeli bureaucracy that I have discussed in previous blogs. He and his four fellow swimmers were in the United States training. They were four hours late returning to Israel to register for going on the team. The Israeli Olympic official – who in my mind had absorbed the true Olympic pompous spirit – barred the swimmers from the team. Melamed, with the sympathy of the media who sponsored him, went to the Olympics anyway and became the coach of one of the Israeli female swimming competitors.   

All but two of the survivors who had lived in that section of the Olympic Village returned. Besides Ladany, the other six included sharpshooters Henry Hershkowitz and Zelig Stroch, the fencers Dan Alon and Yehuda Weisenstein, and the team leader, Shmuel Lalkin and one other whose name I cannot make out in my notes that I made in the dark of the theatre. Dan Alon was most expressive in describing the dark cloud that has hung over him his whole life since the Munich Olympics. In their original visit to Germany in 1972, the athletes had been overwhelmed with the fact that they were not just individuals, not even just Israelis, but Jews returning to compete in Germany, the land of the Nazis that had murdered six million.

When this kept coming up, I wondered if Mark Spitz, the famous American Jewish gold winning swimmer who was at the 1972 Olympics, had the same feeling. American security officials certainly hustled him away from the Olympics quickly enough. Spitz was evidently very upset and very saddened by the deaths of the Israelis but was evidently too stunned – as well as too protected – to express his feelings at the time. It is too bad that the filmmakers did not reach him and get the feelings of Jewish as well as Israeli survivors. Spitz was not the only one. For example, the javelin thrower on the American team, Bill Schmidt, was Jewish.

The survivors all were impressed by the efforts of the German government to project an image of the new Germany even though they were only a few miles from Dachau. Many of them, however, wondered which Germans continued to have anti-semitic feelings, though no one indicated that they encountered any such sentiments – only friendliness, camaraderie and a sense of the brotherhood of all humans. All of them had been overjoyed to attend a performance the evening before the attack of Fiddler on The Roof as special guests of the famous Israeli actor, Shmuel Rodensky. They were overwhelmed at the reception they had been given. However, after the massacre they left with the impression that German authorities were simply anxious to get the terrorist problem out of the way for the murders had spoiled their big party.

When one watches the film, as when watches the news coverage of the bombing at the Boston marathon, I personally was embarrassed as news commentators then – and at Boston – asked the survivors and member of the team how they felt about what happened. I wanted to scream – How do you think they felt, you moron?  Instead of asking is there anything you feel you want to say or would like to express, they ask insensitive and dumb questions.

The movies does explain how everyone in apartment two escaped while everyone but the one who escaped in apartments one and three were captured and killed. Weinberg had evidently insisted that there were no Israelis in apartment two and led them to apartment three where he felt the athletes there – wrestlers and weightlifters – would be strong enough to challenge the terrorists, whereas the race walkers, swordsmen, sharpshooters and swimmers in apartment two were not in as good a position to do so. The film does not ask Ladany that question for he insisted in other interviews that the members of Black September had detailed information of who the athletes were and where they were housed. Instead, he said that the terrorists did not go to apartment two because there were two sharp shooters in that apartment. They did not want to take the risk. But this dissenting view of the conventional explanation was not in the movie.

The movie makes clear that the survivors had never been brought together for the last forty years to talk about their experiences and compare notes. The trip was, therefore, very therapeutic for them. They were also not united on whether the Olympics should have been cancelled or not. The ones interviewed on the subject seemed to feel they should have been. But Ladany held that that would have given the terrorists another victory. Ladany even argued that the Israelis should not have left but should have stayed and participated in the final parade of teams.

The greatest bitterness is probably aimed at the Olympic authorities rather than the terrorists. We know from the recent American presidential election that Mitt Romney, had refused, along with IOC Chief Jacques Rogge, a request to memorialize the Israeli murdered athletes on the 30th anniversary at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 – but did memorialize Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo) reputedly the fastest woman racer of all time but whose had nothing to do with the Olympics. She died in her sleep from an epileptic seizure in 1998. However, in the rivalry for the presidency last year, in London in September, Romney not only criticized the British Olympic preparations to worldwide embarrassment for him, but then echoed Obama in calling for the same memorial that he had rejected ten years earlier. On his visit to the London Olympics, and subsequently Israel, he supported an official minute of silence at the opening ceremony of the Games to honour the eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. That could not be expected to be told in this film, but a viewer wonders why the survivors were not probed in greater detail about their feelings and thoughts on the issue of a minute of silence.

In addition to the therapeutic effect on the survivors and the insistence of Jews that they remember everything, just as the Jewish body part collectors must gather every particle of a blown up body that they can find for burial, there is an important memorializing and therapeutic effect on the viewers. We also sympathize and cheer when the survivors insist, “We are still alive,” and testify to the importance of Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. 

Shimon Peres movie: The Price of Kings.17.04.31

Shimon Peres: The Price of Unsatisfactory Documentaries 17.04.12


Howard Adelman

I was going to review the documentary, Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace, but the analysis will take more time. Instead, today I will review The Price of Kings: Shimon Peres, a documentary filmdirected by Richard Symons and Joanna Natesegara that I saw yesterday afternoon. It is one of twelve planned documentaries on leaders that the directors plan to make. The first one was on Arafat released in January 2011. The Peres film is the second in the series released a year ago. (The third is on Oscar Arias Sanchez from Costa Rica was released in November 2012.) The opening of the Peres film is a confusing collage alluding to the theme of the series as focusing on the sacrifices leaders make to dedicate their lives to political leadership. The film asks: what would you sacrifice for your beliefs? Since the film never really even probes the question, I would be surprised if the film stimulated an intelligent answer.

I think it is very hard not to make an interesting film about political leaders. They have led eventful lives. If you can get an interview and have them talk on camera and then add views of associates, family members, friends and critics, over half your job is done. The filmmakers are to be congratulated for getting that part accomplished. The film not only has many minutes from Peres, but includes Yitzchak Navon, the 5th president of Israel, and Professor Michael Bar-Zohar, the biographer of David Ben Gurion, who also in 2006 published Shimon Peres: The Biography. Former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Querei and an Oslo negotiator for Arafat, and Ahmad Tibi, the Israeli-Arab leader of the Arab Movement for Renewal Party, make cameo appearances. Uri Savir, the Chief Negotiator for Israel in the Oslo process, has a much larger role. Uri Avnery makes an appearance as does Ruth Dayan who was married to Moshe Dayan. Gideon Levy, an ex-aide, and Peres’ friend, Danny Gillerman, have very serious parts. Human Rights campaigner, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, has much to say and is even given the final pronouncement. The problem then is editing the material and knitting it together. The directors use a simple technique – the historical trajectory of the life of the leader focused on the most famous historical events. For Peres, whose life covered the sixty-five years of the history of Israel, there is no difficulty in finding those key moments.

However, the selection of music, perhaps inspired by Peres’ current aged dour visage, is so melancholic that the film is often experienced as a dirge when the violins are not being used to bring forth your tears. Helena Bonham Carter, the actress from Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech and Les Misérables, is the narrator; her script is pedestrian, clichéd and often wrong, and the officious newsreel voice that she adopts, even though it is that of a woman, takes us back to newsreels of the fifties and sixties. The interrotron technique that appears to have been used for the Peres interview catches the face of the interviewee close-up, but also ensures formality and distance rather than intimacy and disclosure. The lighting on Peres when he is being interviewed against a black backdrop reinforces stiffness and platitudes rather than casualness and open comments. And some of the B-roll! At the end of the film there is a scene of the Tel Aviv beach with a cement podium as a backdrop and two sunbathers on chairs in the foreground. One of the sunbathers brings his legs together, then separates them, then brings them together again as if he suffers from ADHT. But then he appears to be exercising. What this scene has to do with the life story of Peres, I have no idea. It is just an ugly picture! Is that the message the director wants to convey about his view of Peres, that underneath his reserve and dignity he just sways from side to side wherever the political winds take him?

Peres left Poland at the age of eleven; before he left, he promised his grandfather that he would always be Jewish. Peres describes arriving Palestine with its golden sand beaches, blue skies and the perfumed air of the Mediterranean as arriving in paradise compared to the sullen gray skies of Poland and the crowded small shtetl of 1000 families that he left behind. Most of his extended family died in the Holocaust, including his grandfather to whom he made that solemn promise. One day, they were all gathered together by the Nazis, forced into the community synagogue and all shot.

One thesis in the film is that Peres remained an outsider because: a) he was not born in Israel and spoke Hebrew with a Polish accent; b) he never served in the army; and 3) he was too much of a thinker. But they never asked what he read, what his favourite writers were or where he got most of his inspiration. Further, surely the filmmakers knew that he served in the Haganah and was charged at a young age with giving an organizational structure to the collection of militias from pre-state Palestine to create the Israeli army. Finally, one would think that the filmmakers would have asked, why, if he arrived at 11 years of age, he still had an accent? They do not. Like many of the issues raised and theses propounded without any evidence, there are no follow-ups. As we heard the claim of the disadvantage of speaking Hebrew with an accent, we wonder about Begin and the hordes of other non-Sabra founding fathers, but do not expect the film to provide any answers.

In the film, Peres says that if you have to choose between being Machiavellian and doing everything you can to achieve power or naiveté, he prefers naiveté. I wanted to scream: Why did you not ask why Peres defined Machiavellian as the pursuit of power by any means, or the even easier question of why pose those as the only two alternatives? The film loves to capture protagonists cast between two poles. Peres might opt for one pole, such as naiveté and offer a rationale, but the director suggests that this is evidence of his being conflicted. The script writers themselves seem to have a propensity to favour a tryptych of concepts rather than visual panels to make pronouncements – Peres combined religion with a conscience with a commitment to good government. Other than the odd shot of Peres with a kippa, where is there any exploration of Peres’ religion in the film or even an allusion to the fact that as a young boy influenced by his grandfather, Peres was a Haredi while his family was really non-observant? Where are the questions about the influence of his religious beliefs on his politics? Whenever these summaries were offered, I had to mentally close my ears lest they distract from the focus on the events and actions in which Peres was involved.

Some of these were impossible to ignore – such as the erroneous cliché that the UN gave birth to Israel because of the guilt over the Holocaust, a cliché that even most Jews believe. A good historian will show you why this is utter nonsense. One of the more important reasons was the problem of dealing with the 200,000 Jewish refugees left after the war. But that issue is not raised in the film nor whether the intake of those Jewish refugees played any part in Peres’ early life. Instead, the film focuses on the exodus of the Palestinians who became refugees and whom the Israeli authorities banned from re-entering. Does this have anything to do with Peres? If so, what? If not, why is this episode in the film?

The film makes clear that Peres was on the side of those Zionists who accepted partition and an Israel with only 45% of the land of Palestine but ended up with 78% because the Arabs never were satisfied with the amount allocated to them. Thus, war was inevitable in a fight over land. If that fight was to be settled by force of arms at the Arab’s choice and not mutual agreement or external imposition, then why would Peres not take 100% and instead settle only for 78%? There are good answers to which Peres would probably agree, but the question is never asked, perhaps because the director is not neutral and cannot even imagine giving a respectful voice to the right wingers who are presented stereotypically as religious zealots. The film seems to have an underlying thesis – that peace was sabotaged simply by the work of Jewish extremists and the settler movement more generally, as if the Palestinian terrorist bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are shown in the film and that turned the Israeli public against Oslo, played no part. Contrary to some commentators on the film commending its neutrality, I found the appearance of neutrality a sham. The issues are discussed superficially and without any depth.

The film is gripping because the events and characters are gripping. The film engages but doesn’t really probe – except with one provocative (and inappropriate question in the context) suggestion that Israel is an apartheid state. However, by an large the questions are left out of the film to enhance the impression of letting the characters voices carry the film.

Peres is given credit for organizing the arms supply to the army of the new state, but we are told nothing of how he accomplished the feat. If the directors asked Peres, the footage was left on the cutting room table. There is one interesting anecdote told in the film that I had never heard before. Peres was corralled by Ben Gurion to accompany him in the car to Tel Aviv. Ben Gurion told Peres out of the blue that Trotsky was a lousy leader. "No War, No Peace. That was not a decision. Decisions have to be clear and unequivocal." Lenin was the real leader for Ben Gurion. Peres was puzzled by the story. Why not explore the puzzlement? What was Peres’ view of leadership?

Peres is also credited with bringing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons to Israel and with building the "textile factory", the Dimona reactor. But how or why – you will learn nothing from the film. You will not even hear Peres’ evasions.

On the Entebbe operation, the film sums up the position that, while Yitzhak Rabin wanted to negotiate with the terrorists, Peres was totally opposed and was convinced that a plan of rescue could be developed, in spite of the total scepticism of the head of the armed forces, Mordechai Gur. This potted summary is all we get along with a mixture of facts and errors about the raid that Peres’ himself calls one of the bravest and most heroic deeds performed by Israeli troops. An example of an error is heard when the narrator states that five aircraft landed in Entebbe when there were only four Hercules aircraft.

The story and activities were quite a bit more complicated than the edited summary. As Peres himself described them when he opened the storyteller’s festival as recorded by Shahar Chai for Israel News (10.01.12) in a news item headed, "I convinced Rabin to launch Operation Entebbe." Here is what Peres said:

"The chances of rescuing 101 Jewish hostages 4,000 kilometers away seemed miniscule…The conclusion was that we should comply with the demands to release the terrorists," but Peres then left out the qualifier – if a feasible rescue plan could not be developed. It is true that most were sceptical that a feasible rescue plan could be created and he himself thought the chances were miniscule. "The Fantasy Headquarters" made up of gutsy creative officers did come up with a plan and Peres convinced the cabinet that the risks were worth taking. So while Prime Minister Rabin continued to give the impression that he was keen on negotiating, the plan was implemented.

This is a very different version that the impression created by the film of Peres as a determined decision maker willing to take risks and Rabin as a waffler willing to back down on a sacred principle of no negotiations with terrorists. Further, it contradicts the overall impression the film makes, and the stated conviction of the director, Richard Symons, in reinforcing the image of Peres as a very successful second in command but not a decisive and gutsy leader. In fact, Symons has said on tape that he thinks Peres lacked a backbone and was deeply conflicted even if the evidence in his own film contradicts that conclusion. The film spends a few seconds mentioning the back channels behind Oslo, but only a mention; there is no suggestion that this initiative might belie the stereotype of Peres as just a second and never qualified to be a first.

Further, there is so much about Peres that is omitted – his imposition of a military organization on the inchoate ragtag of militias inherited from pre-state Palestine, his early career initiatives in modernizing agriculture and spreading those innovations to Africa, his later initiatives that helped make Israel the "start-up" nation.

Peres is presented as a person with enormous self-control – which he did have – but he also cried when told of Yoni Netanyahu’s death, but that is not stated or admitted in the film. What is said by a colleague – I cannot recall who said it in the film – was that Peres was both very decisive and very flexible and willing to change. Peres admits he made many mistakes, but the filmmakers never ask him whether his decision not to call an election in 1995 in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, contrary to all the advice he received, because he did not want to ride into office on the coattails of Rabin’s blood, was one of those decisions. Had his own ego stood in the way of practicing proper Machiavellian politics? Again, the film provides no answers.

The film does provide a very moving account of the success of the rally in Tel Aviv in November of 1955 when Rabin was murdered, but especially of the close rapport Peres and Rabin had finally developed and when Peres had never seen Rabin so relaxed, happy, smiling and, most of all, friendly. The glint in Peres’ eyes as he described Rabin putting his arm on his shoulders could not and should not be missed. These touching moments – such as the account of and by Peres’ granddaughter, Mika, riding in the back of a car in Washington with her grandfather and saying what she thinks of him, are very moving.

Finally, to return to the ostensible theme of the series, what did Peres sacrifice? Peres explicitly states that the most rewarding and satisfying experience in life is work. Peres did a great deal of important work. His granddaughter cried when she expressed to him directly how proud she was of him and what he accomplished. Where was the sacrifice? What greater nachas is there?

Shimon Peres.17.04.13.doc

Live or Die in Entebbe – a review

The Need for Recognition: A Movie Review 16.04.13


Howard Adelman

Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut (יום העצמאות‎), Independence Day commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 which, as I wrote yesterday, then fell on the 15th of May, but is celebrated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th of Iyar. Unlike yesterday’s films that I reviewed, which were strictly about Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron – yesterday) and eschewed politics, this film, Live or Die in Entebbe, briefly deals with politics and the celebration of one of the outstanding military accomplishments of the Israeli Defence Forces, the rescue of 102 hostages (88 Israelis) captured and held by terrorists in Entebbe after an Air France airliner was hijacked. It is a coincidence of history that this widely recognized unprecedented heroic rescue took place on 4 July 1976, the 200th anniversary of America’s Independence Day. However, Live or Die in Entebbe skirts over the heroic elements of the mission in the first few minutes in a summary form and then deals with its core subject matter, the civilians who died in the rescue attempt and the effort to acknowledge and recognize their sacrifice.

But first the heroic parts of the story. In addition to the book, Ninety Minutes in Entebbe by William Stevenson, the following films have been made about the heroic political and military aspects of this episode:

Victory at Entebbe (1976 – 119 min.) directed by Marvin J. Chomsky

Raid on Entebbe (1977 – 145 min.) directed by Irwin Kershner (Golden Globe winner)

Operation Thunderbolt (Mivtsa Yonatan Operation) (1977) Menahem Golan

(nominated for an academy award as best foreign film)

Operation Thunderbolt: Entebbe (2000) Eyal Sher

Entebbe Hostage Rescue: Operation Thunderbolt (2011) National Geographic

Rescue at Entebbe: An Interview with the Chief Pilot (2012)

We now add Live or Die in Entebbe to the list.

Victory at Entebbe had a high powered list of actors, including Anthony Hopkins (Yitzhak Rabin), Burt Lancaster (Shimon Peres), Kirk Douglas (Hershel Vilnofsky) and Elizabeth Taylor (Edra Vilnofsky) who recriminate the Israeli government for not negotiating, for their daughter Chava is on the plane, Richard Dreyfus (Yoni Netanyahu, the leader of the 29-man assault team), Helen Hayes (Etta Grossman-Wise, a passenger on the plane who distracts an Israeli ex IDF officer from trying to tackle the hijackers), and others. It seemed as if every Hollywood star was keen on being involved in portraying such a heroic event. The movie was shot, edited and ready for showing in five months and tried to portray the story from four angles, the hijacking itself, the process of political decision-making, the military perspective and the plight of the hostages.

A superior film, Raid on Entebbe, did not have as stellar a cast, but top actors nonetheless – Peter Finch as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Horst Buchholtz as Wilfred Böse, the German terrorist, John Saxon as Major General Benny Peled, then commander of the Israeli air force, Jack Warden as Lt. General Mordechai (Motta) Gur, the IDF Chief of Staff, Charles Bronson as Brigadier General Shomron who was in overall charge of the total ground operation, and Robert Loggia as Yigal Allon. From the cast list it is clear that this film paid far closer attention to the military planning and execution, slighted the politics and virtually ignored the perspective of the victims.

Operation Thinderbolt, in contrast, was not a re-enactment but a documentary interspersing news footage with interviews of many of the key players such as Janet Almog (a hijacked passenger), Michel Bacos (the Air France pilot), Ehud Barak (then in the planning team for the operation), Moshe (Muki) Betzer who was responsible for integrating the intelligence information with a detailed plan and led one of the assault teams, David Kimche (Deputy Chief of the Mossad at the time), Tricia Martel (hostage), Benjamin Netanyahu, Benjamin Peled and Shimon Peres.

The core elements of the story are very straightforward. On 27 June 1976, an Air France passenger jet, Flight 139, an Airbus A300 flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with a stop in Athens, was boarded by two West German terrorists, Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann as well as two Palestinian members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine along with 54 additional passengers. The terrorists hijacked the plane just after it took off, forced it to land in Benghazi, Libya for refuelling (where a passenger escaped by pretending to be having a miscarriage) and ended up at Entebbe Airport in Uganda where the hijackers were joined by three other PFLP members and were protected by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, and his guards. The passengers were divided into two groups, Israelis and others. The others were released, including Jews who were not Israeli citizens. Air France sent a plane to bring them back to France. The captain, Michel Bacos, refused to leave his passengers and his crew followed his example and opted to stay behind with the captive Israelis. Of the original manifest of 248 passengers, 94 remained behind (the Air France manifest showed that 92 carried Israeli passports) along with 12 Air France crew members. The hijackers demanded an exchange of the Israeli hostages for 40 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons on terrorist charges and 13 detained in Kenya.

At the time, Yitzhak Rabin had been Prime Minister for two years and was determined never to negotiate or compromise with terrorists. While foreign diplomats negotiated with the terrorists on behalf of Israel, mainly the Americans, an Israeli retired IDF officer, Baruch "Burka" Bar-Lev who had known Idi Amin for years, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate directly with Amin. During this time, the Israeli government immediately began planning a rescue effort for the deadline originally given by the hijackers was only five days away. Henry Kissinger, then Foreign Minister of the USA, subsequently criticized Israel in a private conversation with Israeli Ambassador Dinitz for using American equipment in the raid. Later, Jimmy Carter would try to imitate the Entebbe operation in Operation Eagle Claw to free the 52 American hostages in Iran on 24 April 1980, but it was a complete humiliating fiasco which was aborted halfway through. In turning back, a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft and eight servicemen were killed in the fire which destroyed both aircraft.

Israel had already decided to negotiate with the hijackers and release the prisoners, but only if a military rescue operation proved unfeasible. What they did get with American, Egyptian and Amin’s help, was an extension of the deadline until 4 July. Because an Israeli firm (Solel Boneh) had actually built the old terminal where the hostages were held, Israel had detailed plans and quickly, virtually overnight, built a mock-up of the old terminal where the hostages were held. Further, Mossad agents interviewed passengers who had been released, particularly one French Jew who had served in the French military and provided a detailed account of how many terrorists there were, the weapons they carried, where they were positioned, and how many of Idi Amin’s troops were seconded to guard the old terminal (100).

Special forces were selected for the attack, now codenamed Operation Thunderbolt, and one of the army officers came up with the plan to land the planes sent for the rescue under cover of darkness and then send a Mercedes limousine painted black, which they borrowed from an Israeli, accompanied by two jeeps. The three vehicles would role out of the back of the Hercules cargo plane and drive to the old terminal where the hostages were being held as if they held Idi Amin himself. One small team would head to rescue the hostages while another team took care of the 100 Ugandan soldiers (45 were actually killed). Troops led by Shaul Mofaz from the other planes would blow up Idi Amin’s air force (fifteen Soviet-built MiG-17s (3) and (12) MiG 21s) and surround the airport to prevent Amin sending in a counterforce. There was a plan B. If the operation failed and the troops became trapped, Israel would send in troops to overthrow Idi Amin.

The idea was very imaginative, but very high risk on a number of levels, both because of what the Israelis knew and what they did not know. The four Hercules aircraft, first of all, had to fly very low to remain undetected by radar on the way down for 2500 miles. Low meant flying at 100 feet and sometimes as low as 35 feet. That required exceptional skills, especially by the lead pilot, Lt. Col. Joshua Shani. Second, at that level, the four Hercules aircraft sent could not help but constantly hit air pockets. Most of the 300 or so troops on board the four aircraft became air sick repeatedly on the way down and were in the worst condition to act as a fighting force. Further, the planes did not have enough fuel to fly back. The Israeli government had to get Kenya’s cooperation to allow the planes to land in Nairobi for refuelling – which they received at the last minute with the help of the Jewish owner of the Block hotel chain in Kenya, which included the famous Norfolk Hotel – the hotel that was bombed on 31 December 1980 in revenge with 13 killed and 87 wounded. Kenyans had paid a price earlier when Amin killed hundreds of them living in Uganda after the raid as revenge against Kenyatta for helping the Israelis. Finally, the lead plane had to land at night with the runway dark until lights could be strung to guide the following three planes in to land. Two other Boeing 707s followed, one equipped as a flying hospital to treat wounded soldiers and civilians which landed in Nairobi and one with General Yekutiel Adam who would be in charge of Plan B if it was necessary.

Secondly, many things could go wrong. And they did. Israelis did not know that Amin had just switched to driving a white rather than a black Mercedes. Secondly, the surprise was not as great as intended. One Ugandan guard fired at the jeep and an Israeli soldier had to take him out with a silencer, but the element of complete surprise had been lost. The constant vomiting and the speed of disembarkation had disoriented the soldiers and made them unsteady so that they were unable to follow their routines exactly as they had practiced them. Nevertheless, the rescue team reached the terminal, but not before one of the Ugandan soldiers shot and killed the commando leader, Yonatan Netanyahu, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s older brother.

This is one item that virtually anyone who has heard of the Entebbe raid knows as well as the fact that Idi Amin afterwards had 75-year old Dora Bloch, an Israeli captive who had earlier been rushed to Mulago hospital in Kampala because of a piece of meat stuck in her throat, dragged out of her hospital bed, beaten, murdered and her body thrown into a swamp. A number of Ugandan doctors and nurses who tried to protect Dora Bloch from the soldiers were also killed.

But that was later. The hostages still had to be rescued. Once inside the terminal, one soldier was instructed to order everyone to remain lying on the ground. However, he was hardly able to speak after the quick run to the terminal, shooting guards on the way. He quickly shot the terrorists in the room guarding the hostages and in the process he and others in his small troop of four, killed three civilians and wounded ten others by friendly fire. All three had been near the terrorists. One was 20-year-old Jean-Jacques Maimoni, a French citizen who had wanted to immigrate to Israel but whose grandfather feared putting him in harms way if he was conscripted into the IDF. Maimoni, who is seen only in photographs, is the central attention of the film. For in Paris, Jean Jacques was to meet his two month old nephew, Jonathan Khayat, who thirty five years later would make this film with the help of his friend, Eyal Boers who directed the movie. Jonathan Khayat works as an Associate Director, Recruitment and Admissions, of the MBA Program in the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University. By all accounts, his uncle, Jean Jacques was remembered by the other passengers because he went out of his way to help others, one time being hit hard by a terrorist for standing up on behalf of another hostage. Further, he had a French passport and could have possibly left with the other non-Israeli Jews but evidently chose not to.

In the film we learn how precisely he was shot, why and how his great uncle had been first told that he died of an asthma attack, what the effects of suppression had been on the family, how his aunt and uncle in seeing the body knew he had been shot by Israeli soldiers, and what the effect of non-acknowledgement and non-recognition had been on the family.

Live or Die in Entebbe also interviewed the son of Pasco Cohen, 52, the manager of an Israeli medical insurance fund, who was travelling with his wife and children, and raised the upper part of his body off the floor to check on the safety of his son, Shai. His daughter, Tzipi, who was 8 years old at the time, always celebrated their rescue and never held anything against the IDF for killing her father by friendly fire. Jonathan Khayat had also tried to interview family members of a third hostage, 56-year-old Ida Borochovitch, a Russian Jew who had recently emigrated to Israel, who was also killed by Israeli gunfire. However, her family had emigrated from Israel and Khayat was unable to find where they had gone.

In the earlier documentary, a hostage had testified that Wilfried Böse had insisted that he was not anti-semitic but just anti-Zionist. Further, another hostage had testified that when he entered the old terminal in response to all the shooting, he could have opened fire on all the hostages lying on the ground but chose not to. When he opened fire at the commandoes, he was immediately shot by Israeli soldiers. The commandoes then burst open the door where the hostages said the remaining three terrorists were and killed them.

Though the film focuses on giving recognition to the civilian victims who are oft forgotten and put in the background to help enhance a myth, the documentary also gives recognition to the other five Israeli commandos who were wounded, particularly Soron Herschko who was shot in the spine by one of Amin’s soldiers. He too was interviewed in the film and Khayat told us in the Q&A after the film that in spite of being a quadriplegic, Herschko told him that he has never regretted for a moment going on the mission.

In turning a heroic tale into one of memory and recognition, in acknowledging that three of the captives were killed by friendly fire, the heroic story is not impoverished in the least but given greater depth and breadth. Further, the laws of war demand that civilians not deliberately be put in harms way; this law applies to your own civilians as much as the civilians on the other side. Four civilians were killed (Bloch by Idi Amin much later), and ten others were wounded; seven terrorists were killed – a high ratio. But almost a hundred civilians were rescued. Yitzhak Rabin said in advance that if 25 were killed, he would consider the rescue mission a failure and would resign as Prime Minister. He did not have to face that vow.

One last point! None of the films on the Israeli Entebbe raid adequately put the film in a longer range political context. It is no surprise that the memorial aspect and the more balanced perspective are now surfacing in a way that does not detract from the heroism. There is also the perspective of the past. One is Africa. The humiliation of the 1976 raid encouraged Amin to try to recover his status by military adventurism towards Tanzania that led to disaster and the eventual overthrow of the Amin regime in 1979. At the UN, most counties were in awe of what Israel had accomplished even if they were otherwise critical of Israel. The Westerm countries were generally very supportive. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, however, revealed his true colours and criticized the raid as "a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state." Israel itself had been through a period of deep self-doubt since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Entebbe raid changed the spirit of Israel overnight. Further, the role of Anwar Sadat in trying to free the hostages is not well known and Sadat would bring a new shock and a radical change in the relationship of Israel and the largest Arab state.

I will turn to the latter issue in my review of another film from the Toronto Jewish Film Festival tomorrow. Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace focused on the Sadat visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David Accords and Peace Agreement. The film is being shown late this afternoon at the Sheppard Centre on north Yonge St. and I will review it tomorrow morning.

The Need for Recognition16.04.13.doc

Three Movie Reviews.15.04.13

Three Movie Reviews 15.04.13


Howard Adelman

Blue Line

The Cave – Nekama

Rainbow – Keshet Be`Anan

Today is Yom Hazikaron (יום הזיכרון‎), Memorial Day, the day set aside to commemorate the Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael v’l’Nifgaei Peulot Ha’eivah יום הזיכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל ולנפגעי פעולות האיבה‎). This evening Yom Ha’atzmaut (יום העצמאות‎), Independence Day begins commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 which then fell on the 15th of May but is celebrated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th of Iyar. The above three films have everything to do with Yom Hazikaron, the second on the list in a perverse way, but all three have nothing to do with Yom Ha’atzmaut. That is to say, all three movies are about the military, but all three have nothing to say about politics. I saw all three at one showing last evening at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF). The first was a delight. The second was wonderfully acted and very moving. And the third was magnificent.

Blue Line is a 20 minute 2011 short in Hindi, Hebrew and English made by Alain Sauma for French television. The film opens with a shot of blue painted boulders in a line, widens to a gorgeous shot of green hills and a small pond, and widens again until we see a UN peacekeeping observation post and then an Israeli observation post on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The scene is gorgeous and is probably intended to be located in the north-east in North Baalbek and the borders of Baalbek, Beka‘a, Hasbaya or North Rashaya. Based in Beirut, Sauma generally shoots commercials, such as a beautiful very short film asking for support for Gaza called Bring Gaza Back. He also shoots propaganda films against terrorism. This film has the usual stereotypes of armies, whether in the Israeli army or working as Indian peacekeepers. There is the soldier who wants to keep strictly to orders. Then there are the humanitarian soldiers who try to apply common sense when dealing with a small incident but in a zone that makes humanitarianism seem not only risky but a potential trigger for resumed fighting across a cease fire line. The action is initiated by a boy minding his cow in Lebanon and falling asleep on the job as his cow wanders across the cease fire line. The film is whimsical. Its humanity warms your heart until, in the end, the story is juxtaposed against the real war.

The Cave (Nekama) is an Israeli 22 min. short directed by Yoav Cohen, one of 13 Cohens who are filmmakers in Israel. He made the film as a student at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem. At first you are unsure what is going on. The fifty year old casually dressed bald man seen making a fire in a cave looks like an Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agent. Then you see that he has a captured a youth in uniform, tied him up and gagged him. The kidnapper of the soldier speaks fluent Hebrew. Is the tied up youth a fellow from the Lebanese or Jordanian army or one of Arafat`s soldiers? If I was an Israeli, I would have recognized the insignia and caught on before three minutes of the film had passed. The soldier is Israeli. The kidnapper is an Arab, named Yusuf – it is not clear whether he is an Israeli Arab or from the West Bank. He has kidnapped the soldier and tied him up. Is this not where the Blue Line ended? No, for Yusuf has not kidnapped the soldier for political reasons, but to exact revenge for what he and his wife went through at the hands of Israeli soldiers. The acting by Yusuf Abu-Verda playing Yusuf is simply brilliant. The film is beautifully shot with a red camera so the details within the cave stand out. The script is almost poetic. It is a must see movie.

Imagine The Hurt Locker looking artificial beside this 41 minute film directed by Eliran Elya called Rainbow or Keshet Be`Anan. Documentary film footage is shown of real Israeli troop going through the sand and rocks in search of body parts for proper burial of dead soldiers whose armour carrier had been attacked and blown up. This took place in Gaza and this archival film is interwoven through the movie. The film is about a troop of half a dozen soldiers sent into Gaza to guard the body part collectors. When they are shot at, the soldiers take cover in a house that they find is occupied by a Palestinian family with a sullen father, a rather animated older grandmother and a brood of children, one in bed suffering from asthma. A wayward Israeli army photographer is found and forced to take cover with them; the photographer was assigned to their unit and simply went ahead on his own. We know from the start that the enterprising photographer obsessed with getting his shots will spell trouble. The claustrophobia of the house in which they take refuge makes the castle in the Israeli film Beaufort look roomy.

Again, there are a variety of types. The troop is made up of the self-centred soldier and the romantic wayward and even rash one, the do-gooder and the responsible Michael, the commanding officer, who tries to keep his troops safe without imposing unnecessarily on the trapped Palestinian family as the soldiers are periodically shot at by snipers. The film see-saws from situations of fear to the movements of well trained soldiers, from boredom to the religious soldier praying, from one soldier taking water belonging to the family when his own runs out to the medic helping the child. The film is fast-paced and taut, carried by suspense and fear but lightened up by camaraderie and care. Until the climax!

The director, Eliran Elya, and Producer, Oren Rogovin, were there for a Q&A. We learn that this exact situation took place when he was in the army. Rainbow was both the code name of the mission and the house that they had lined up to occupy while they protected the gatherers of the body parts. The White House was the source of the sniper fire but I would not read any political symbolism into that. With minor alterations, what is portrayed actually happened. Shockingly, this superb film was made with all volunteer labour and total dedication and cost $2000. The film is a fitting tribute to Yom Hazikaron.

The film was all the more poignant for me, as I am sure it was for so many Israelis. I recalled when my grandson was in the paratroopers on the Gaza border and his best friend was killed a few yards from him by a grenade from a grenade launcher. I phoned him not long after the event and what he said kept going through my head and cutting through my heart as I watched the film.

May peace come and may no more civilians be harassed or injured or killed and no more Israeli soldiers` lives sacrificed.

Three Movie Reviews15.04.13.doc

Tycoons and Monopolies I.14.04.13

Tycoons and Monopolies I 14.04.13


Howard Adelman

Economic development depends in good part on entrepreneurs. The vast majority are small, but some have become very rich. There are at least seventeen Israeli billionaires in Forbe’s Israel list not counting billionaires who hold Israeli citizenship but whose primary residence is now elsewhere. I have already referred to the richest, the Ofer brothers (Idan and Eyal) and Arison brother (Micki) and sister (Shari) in previous blogs. Since the Arisons largely inherited their money from their father who died in 1999, I will only tell one story of Shari Arison who was voted the 56th greatest Israeli in 2005 because of her philanthropic work. In March 2009, she sponsored the annual Good Deeds Day in Israel to inspire and recruit thousands of volunteers. As part of the event, a Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin performed classical Arabic tunes and songs of peace in a concert honouring Holocaust survivors. Subsequently, the conductor was condemned by Jenin politicians, fired from his job and expelled from Jenin. Such are sometimes the unintended bad effects of good deeds.

Israeli billionaires are sometimes accused of bad deeds. Focusing on the Israeli documentary, The Shakshuka System (Shitat Hashakshuka), written by the Israeli investigative journalist, Miki Rosenthal and directed by Ilan Aboody, I will re-introduce the Ofer brothers. Shakshuka refers to an Israeli hot breakfast concoction of poached eggs cooked in a tomato and olive oil sauce with lots of spices and an assortment of other ingredients often mixed in – sausages, tuna, spinach, feta cheese. Since the film was broadcast, the term now has a secondary meaning in Israel to refer to mixing of government and big business in the process of devolving state assets onto the private sector. A lawyer working for the Ofer family can be given the credit for this neologism for he described the process for calculating the purchase price of state assets as combining various offers and making a shakshuka out of them.

The film combined a Monopoly Board, cartoons and official records, history and interviews, to explain how the Ofer brothers and the Israel Corporation purchased what were state assets at what were alleged to be bargain basement prices. But the film starts with the end, the effort of the Ofer family to suppress the film and prevent it from being shown on Israeli TV. Eventually they not only failed, but their own film made to counteract the critical film, and shown back-to-back on Channel 1 (the Israeli version of CBC), evidently, according to a radio survey, garnered a credibility of only 10% while the Rosenthal-Aboody film had a credibility of 90%. However, in the process of making the film, Rosenthal lost his job with Channel 2 (the Ofers actually bought the channel as part of its campaign). Nevertheless, the film garnered far more publicity than it would otherwise have if the Ofers had not launched such a strenuous campaign to suppress it. The Ofers also agreed to pay NIS 40,000 to settle their suit against Rosenthal et al out of court.

In the film, as in a Michael Moore documentary but without Moore’s narcissism, no one from the Ofer family, its hirelings or the government is willing to talk to Rosenthal about the process of privatization, but in the tradition of investigative journalism, the narrative relays how the government sold state assets in the resource industry cheaply while the companies continued to pollute and hired former state employees in charge of the sale to work for the Ofers immediately after the purchase. Other than introducing a new meaning to a Hebrew word, as a result of making the film, Rosenthal and Aboody have been frozen out of many work opportunities. At the same time, the Ofer brothers blame the film for making government officials unwilling to meet with them lest those officials be suspected of collusion.

We should not, however, stereotype billionaires, though when at the end we discuss the Eastern European Israeli billionaires, one may be tempted to do so. The billionaires in Israel represent a widely divergent group both in background, how they made their fortunes and any conclusions that can be drawn for their impact on the Israeli economy. The most well known in Canada is David Azrieli because he is a Canadian as well as an Israeli citizen and is included in the Canadian rather than Israeli list. He made his money (currently a fortune estimated in excess of $3 billion), like many of the very rich who made fortunes in Canada, as a property developer in both Israel and Canada where he is ranked as the 9th wealthiest Canadian by Forbes.

Trained as an architect in the Technion (though he never graduated) and having served in the IDF, he was one of the first Israeli migrants to Montreal in 1954. The Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University was named after him, not only because of his $5.1 million donation, but because of his commitment to high quality architecture in his developments. In Israel, the Jerusalem Shopping Mall, as well as twelve other super malls in Israel, and the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, are now landmark developments. Azrieli has a controlling share in Sonol, Tambour and Supergaz. There is no indication that his contribution to the Israeli economy (and the Canadian economy) has been anything but positive.

However, he has donated funds to Im Tirtzu, self-described as a centrist organization combating efforts to promote a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. However, Im Tirtzu is known for its denial of the Nakba, condemnation of artists who support Palestinian nationalism, its campaign against the New Israel Fund for funding the "lies" that were fed into the Goldstone Report, and especially its criticisms of biases in political science departments of universities. In the case of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the organization claimed that 9 of 11 professors in the department were left-wing activists who supported the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Although the heads of Israel’s seven leading universities condemned Im Tirtzu‘s "dangerous attempt to create a thought police," the Israeli Council for Higher Education appointed an international committee to investigate the allegations but it too became controversial because well-known scholars were rejected from being appointed to the committee and the original chair also resigned. The committee did conclude that the curriculum of the department was indeed imbalanced and recommended closure unless changes were made.

Then there are the American billionaires who are also Israeli and not included in the list. Micki Arison is classified as American because he runs Carnival Lines out of Miami; both he and Shari were born in the USA and retain their American citizenship. Noam Gottesman, who founded GLG Partners, a wealth management firm, which he sold but still controls TOMS Capital, has lived in London and New York and is not an Israeli resident. Other Israeli-born billionaires have made their fortunes in America. Arnon Michan, the Hollywood producer (Pretty Woman, L.A. Confidential and numerous other movies) built his initial fortune in Israel by developing and expanding his father’s fertilizer company into a large chemical business. He has always had an intimate relationship with Israel, having served in the Israeli intelligence and is credited by Shimon Peres for obtaining what was required to build Israel’s nuclear capacity — as well as other forms of arms dealing. (Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman (2011) Confidential – The Life of a Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon). He has no current impact on the Israeli economy except as a goodwill ambassador and financial backer of the Israeli Network which re-broadcasts Israeli programs to Canada and the United States.

Marc Rich is another billionaire born in the USA with Israeli citizenship, but he lives in Switzerland. He fled the USA to escape indictment for tax evasion, running an export oil scam and involvement in the illegal trading with Iran in 1983 but was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. A more interesting billionaire personality from an Israeli perspective is Haim Saban, another Hollywood mogul who owns Univision, the Spanish-language media giant. He sold Fox Family Worldwide, a co-venture with Robert Murdoch, to Disney in 2001 and made $1.5 billion. He has retained a continuing commitment to and involvement in Israel but is formally classified as an American billionaire. His main efforts are directed towards ensuring American support for Israel rather than having any direct impact on the Israeli economy. He supplied the funds to build the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee and founded and funded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

The big Israeli billionaire movers and shakers in the Israeli economy, other than those discussed above, can be divided into five groups:

a) Mizrachis – Israeli Jews born in Arab countries;

b) the Ashkenazis;

c) the older Israeli-born businessmen;

d) the Young high-tech Sabras;

e) the East Europeans, the most colourful collection of all.

I will discuss the Mizrachis in this blog, then the other Israeli billionaires in subsequent blogs. Since the Toronto International Jewish Film Festival is now on, I will delay some of these economic blogs to review some of the films I see.

Shlomo Eliahu came to Israel as a child of fourteen from Baghdad and made his fortune, and reputation for integrity and responsibility, in insurance and banking. He owned large stakes in Bank Leumi and the Union Bank of Israel (Bank Igud) which in turn owned 9.9% of Bank Leumi’s shares, but very recently had to sell his personal stake in Bank Leumi to consolidate his takeover of Migdal Insurance and Financial Holdings and escape the requirements of the Israeli anti-monopoly laws. He is one of the two billionaires who has run for and had a seat in the Knesset, first as part of DASH, the Democratic Movement for Change, in 1978, and then in 1980, as part of Ahva until 1981. He then went back to making money. In 2012, that effort landed him in trouble with the law for he was fined almost $3million for non-payment of taxes between 2007 and 2009 when he took NIS 74.3 million out of Israel without notifying the authorities, in part ostensibly for gambling in London. There were rumours of money laundering but no evidence that I could find and a spokesperson for the Eliahu group explicitly denied it.

When Italian insurance giant Generali was due to sell its interest in Migdal to Eliahu, and Elihau was about to sell his shares in Bank Leumi, as stated above, to satisfy the new anti-trust laws, Bank Leumi lent Eliahu NIC2billion to buy Generali’s 69.1% controlling share of Migdal. Eliahu sold another block of shares in Leumi for NIS200million thereby raising about two-thirds of the needed price of his purchase of Migdal. After Eliahu completed the purchase of Migdal, the share price rose 40% and Eliahu joined the billionaire class.

I tell this story because all sales were private. But if it was a state sale to a private entrepreneur and the share price went up 40% after the sale was completed, there would have been accusations that the stock was sold too cheaply and that politicians and civil servants had colluded with Eliahu to help him make his fortune. The reality is that once you have a fortune, it is easier to enlarge it for there are fewer competitors in the buying sweepstakes for states privatizing their holdings.

Eliahu retained his personal political conscience. He railed against the high cost to Israelis of buying a home because of the scarcity of land and sites on which to build. He called for land to be privately owned so a base for personal capital would be created. "Why have Israelis, exemplary children, been sentenced to a country that does not care to give them a piece of land? To build a home?…We have a lot of land. In two years, I’ll build you hundreds of thousands of homes at a construction cost of $1,000 per square meter. $20,000 for a young couple, an 80% mortgage, and you’ll have a reasonable home for a family.”

Yitzhak (Isaac) Tshuva, another Mizrachi Israeli, seems to have been apolitical. He was born in Libya. He came to Israel as an infant in the Jewish exodus from Arab countries following the War of Independence. Starting as a contractor and developer, he has maintained his down-to-earth modesty though he came to own some very posh investment properties through his wholly owned property company, El-Ad, in New York, Florida and Los Angeles, including the landmark Manhattan Plaza Hotel which he recently sold after renovating and selling off a large number of condos.

Tshuva also controls the Delek Group, a global integrated energy company based on the Israel Fuel Corporation which he acquired from private interests rather than the state, but in gaining control, he pushed aside the establishment very wealthy Recanati family which made him some enemies in establishment circles. The Delek Group was part of the conglomerate that discovered and brought on stream the Tamar gas reservoir; Delek owns about one-third of Tamar. (See my blog on the energy sector.) He is an example of a Horatio Alger story of a self-made billionaire who made his money through hard work, discipline and dedication. Though in his early years he received state contracts – such as for building the Bar Lev Line along the Suez Canal – there was never any suggestion that he obtained those contracts other than through competition and an excellent business reputation. He has also had but survived serious setbacks, losing half a billion dollars when financial markets took a dive in 2008.

Tshuva has one ambitious plan that would have a tremendous political impact – to develop a 106-mile canal to bring Red Sea water to help refill the Dead Sea as well as develop hotels, restaurants and parks along its length. Tshuva is working with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as well as the Israeli government to advance the project.

One last aside on the Recanati famil fortune which controlled the IDB Group and bought a controlling share of Gmul at a premium price just when the stock market hit the skids. When he lost about a half billion dollars and had to liquidate assets to satisfy creditors, he stepped aside. Leon Recanati lost control but retained his (and his family’s) reputation as a businessman of honour and integrity.


Tycoons and Monopolies.I.14.04.13.doc

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33)

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) 12.04.13


Howard Adelman

I have been dreading writing about this week’s parashat. The length is intimidating. The discussion of pus and menstrual blood, bodily emissions and scaly skin, boils and rashes, swellings and hair follicles, skin discoloration and bleaching, is far from aesthetic. My kids when they were young would say, "How gross!" After a year in Mount Sinai Hospital, I left medical school and cannot count the number of lives I saved by not practicing medicine. Why return to read what I was so inept at – differential diagnosis? Besides, I truly did faint a number of times at the sight of blood. My wife has also been nagging me to go see a doctor about the raised white small eruption on my temple half way between my eyelid and my hair line. Leviticus 13:4 reads: "if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days." I do not want to be shut up for seven days.

The section deals with purity, such as purification after childbirth because of the evident impurity of the parturient woman. But today’s National Post has a story about taking the parturient after a mother gives birth, making it into pills and giving those pills back to the mother for her physical and mental health. It makes this Torah section seem entirely sane! The Torah section also deals with identifying and treating leprosy (or perhaps some other skin disease caused by God), cleaning or, in the last resort, tearing down houses with mould, isolating persons afflicted with certain types of bodily discharges, particularly from their sexual orifices.

Perhaps the passages on bodily purity and impurity are really metaphorical. The section may really be about spiritual impurity that expresses itself in a physical form. In the midrash, מְּצֹרָע, metzora(leprous) is read as a contraction for motzi shem ra, gossiping about and slandering another. And exiling someone from the community can be interpreted as a blessing, as forcing someone to get a rest and go on a retreat. After all, sometimes people suffering a spiritual breakdown need to get away.

Or perhaps the parasha is about being a social outcast and the role of re-integrating the alienated back into the community. In the current issue of The New Yorker, the feminist writer, Susan Faludi, wrote an essay in memoriam about the modern radical feminist Shulamith Firestone called "Death of a Revolutionary", a pioneer in the second wave of feminism who kept being kicked out of every radical feminist organization she initiated. She was the second child and oldest daughter of a brood of six in a mixed family of an Orthodox mother, from a long line of rabbis, who was a Holocaust survivor, and an assimilated Brooklyn father who eventually became orthodox and adopted the zealotry of the converted. Shulie’s father, Sol, eventually banished Shulie from the family home when she was seventeen. Then the theme becomes how to welcome an outcast back into a community, any community, but especially the community of feminists. It never worked. Somehow the radical feminists as well as the Orthodox reborn Jew never grasped the process of reintegration. Shulie ended up living as a recluse and died alone. Perhaps the spiritual disease discussed in Leviticus was a mental one like schizophrenia for which established rituals of inclusion are critical to forestalling the advance of the disease.

Or the passages could even provide a kind of structuralist moral ordering à la Claude Lévi-Strauss and offer a portal into the core of the moral code of the ancient Hebrews. What other rationale could there be for writing that a woman who gives birth to a male child is unclean for seven days, but a mother of a newborn female child is unclean for fourteen days; in the case of a male child, the mother must remain "in the blood of her purity" for thirty-three days, but sixty-six for a female child.

Jacob Neusner in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism: The Haskell Lectures 1972-73 offers a reply to Mary Douglas’ (1968) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo using the same approach. For Douglas, every culture naturalises a certain view of the human body to make it carry social meanings. Neusner agreed that purification rites are really about separating one cult from another, only Neusner is much more sympathetic to the Pharisaic cult of purity than Douglas. He writes, "purity and impurity are cultic matters; second, they may serve as metaphors for moral and religious behaviour, primarily in regard to matters of sex, idolatry, and unethical action. Purity furthermore closely relates to holiness. The land is holy, therefore must be kept clean. It may be profaned by becoming unclean. The sources of uncleanliness are varied and hardly cultic: certain animals, the woman after childbirth, skin ailments, mildew in a house, bodily discharges, especially the menses and seminal flux, sexual misdeeds, and the corpse…things which evidently seemed loathsome." For Neusner, purity "serves as an important mode of differentiation and definition for the sects known to us in the first century B.C. and A.D., and, second, provides for Philo and the later rabbis an important set of laws for allegorical interpretation and a set of ethical homilies." (Ch. 4, 108)

However, when I read the text itself on tzarat, translated or mistranslated as leprosy depending on your interpretive bent, that can attack our bodies, infect our clothes or even get into the walls of our homes like a poisonous mould and we are told to burn those clothes and even tear down those walls, and when after our body is physically cleaned, we must be subjected to a ritual involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop, I am convinced the Koanim were witch doctors or shamans. If so, what is to be learned from reading rules about superstitious ancient medical practices? It would be no different than reading about putting leeches on someone’s body for treatment of a number of afflictions?

Certainly Jesus seemed to challenge these instructions about isolating the leper. Jesus bent down and kissed their feet. (I fully support the humane treatment of lepers and not making them outcasts, but you will not catch me kissing a leper’s feet. I am not humble enough to be a Christian.) Jesus purportedly made sinners holy and the sick whole and challenged the policies of exile. But I no more believe in faith healing than in using rituals to deal with physical infirmities.

But then treating the passages as being about physical diseases does not make sense since there were a myriad of varied physical infirmities that afflicted people in the ancient world. Why pick out this particular small sub-set? Surely the section must be metaphorical and really offer a lesson in ethics rather than good ancient medical practice. Further, why would someone who is totally covered with tzarat be pronounced clean unless the passage were really about mixing what should be unmixable. It is a lesson about mixing and impurity.

By why should mixing be an impurity? Yesterday I wrote about the 1937 Peel Commission Report. It adopted the Nansen belief that the alleged greatest source of violence was the mixing of populations. The world community in the first half of the twentieth century gave its blessing to internationally endorsed and enforced ethnic cleansing – the unmixing of populations – as in the forced exchange of Greek and Turkish minorities after WWI. Surely, at least in some cases, the obsession with purity is the real problem, not mixing.

Then again, when we read the passages about seminal discharges from the penis that are clearly neither urine nor semen from a wet dream, but a cloudy white discharge, one suspects the Torah is discussing gonorrhoea. The man infected is a zav. The zav is in a state of ritual impurity as long as the discharge continues plus seven days after it has stopped. Since we now know that it takes five days without a discharge to be sure that an individual is cured of gonorrhoea, surely this section is about a specific sexually transmitted disease. But then why are some other clear and obvious symptoms not mentioned – dysuria (a burning sensation when pissing), nocturia (excessive need to urinate at night), rashes in the groin or on the genitals, and swollen lymph glands in the area? And why is anything touched by a zav’s bodily fluids unclean or tameh? Is that simply because the ancient Hebrews were ignorant about how gonorrhoea is transmitted? And why is a menstruant woman, a niddah, or a zavah, a woman who has a discharge of blood other than her menstrual period,connected with gonorrhoea?

Or does this all have something to do with the mystical tradition whereby Adam and Eve when they were pure and innocent and naked were clothed only in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph, while after they got to know one another in the biblical sense, they were clothed in bare skin, ‘or‘ spelled with an ayin and knew they were naked? Is purity just spiritual, a state of being clothed in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph.

My own conviction is that this section was originally about physical conditions regarded as unclean or diseases – skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). A person affected by skin disease is referred to as a metzora (ְמְּצֹרָעְ). The haftorah seems to be clearly about lepers. Miriam became "leprous" (מְצֹרַעַת, m’tzora’at) in Numbers 12:1 for being critical of Moses because he married a Cushite, though Philo said it was a result of depravity. Moses regarded tzara’at as a special disease, an affliction brought on by failure to obey God (Deuteronomy 24:8-9). As society evolved and many of these conditions were no longer perceived to be diseases or abnormal states, the medical explanations were put away to be replaced by metaphorical or mystical ones and the rituals raised up, transformed and saved at a higher plane as conditions connected with impurity. The rituals for its treatment were the same as making the priests sacred by putting blood of a ram on the lobe of the right ear, the right thumb and big toe (Exodus 29:20 and Leviticus 8:23-24) as in cleansing a person of this disease (Leviticus 14:14; 14:17; 14:25; 14:28).

If the passages are about physical diseases, why keep the rituals when the medicine develops and such designations are irrelevant? One argument is that the issue is not the disease, but the sin that brings it on. For example, in the case of Miriam, the issue was not her criticism let alone her depravity, but her engaging in gossip that amounted to slander. It was left to the Talmud, the Gemara and various Midrashim to clarify which types of sins brought these forms of physical retribution by God. The rabbis competed to establish a comprehensive list. For example, Rabbi Judah the Levite, son of Rabbi Shalom, using textual sources, argued that that the skin disease arose from the following sins: 1) cursing God; 2) immorality; 3) murder; 4) slander; 5) haughtiness (for others this is specified as assuming a false identity as in the movie Catch Me If You Can); 6) encroaching on another’s property (for others this was just stealing or misusing public property for your own purposes); 7) profanation; 8) idolatry; 9) slander and/or an evil eye; and added three other sins not included in many other lists – 10) habitually lying; 11) theft; and 12) swearing falsely. The issue of slander is a most interesting one for it suggests that the cleanliness that must come out of your mouth is as important as whether the food you ingest is kosher.

So I am left baffled. And I have nothing of interpretive value to add. Perhaps that is the real lesson – be humble when you try to interpret, especially if you know as little as I do.