Dancing Arabs

Dancing Arabs


Howard Adelman

[I will wrap up my series on Indochinese refugees tomorrow morning, but this morning I just had to write a review of the movie I saw yesterday.]

In the 1986 or 1987 when I first met the late Ralph (Rafi) Amram, a pedagogue and educationalist from Israel, and listened to his idea of founding “the best residential school in the world” in Jerusalem which would take in the most promising mathematical and musical talent in the country, I thought that this heavy-set man, a bit younger than myself at the time, was both “mad” in the good sense and the most enthusiastic enthusiast for a cause that I had ever met. He was then heading the Society for Excellence through Education and was determined to found what I believe was then called and continues to be known as (its title in the movie under review) The Israel Arts and Science Academy but formally as The Israel Academy of Arts, Sciences and the Humanities. He would soon convince the Asher family of Chicago to back his dream and was traveling across North America raising funds for the school.

From the first, Rafi was determined to found a school that would not be an educational institution for an elite of nerds cut off from society, but would build into its curriculum a requirement that each student dedicate a number of hours per week back to the community (I recall it as being 10 hours, but it may have only been 4 hours per week and the figure became exaggerated through my faulty memory), but which certainly compares very favourably to the 20 hours during all of high school for students in Ontario. From most of the students I have known going through this community program in Canada, the 20 hour requirement did not infuse the students with a sense of an obligation, indeed an eagerness, to give back to the community, but, rather, a sense of how can I skip over this hurdle with the least hassle possible. In contrast, the program of the Academy would be and has been different in the sense that dedication to contributing to the community and to the principle of mending the world (in Hebrew, tikkun olam) would be and has been part of the core curriculum.

Thus, community service was to be one of the four core principles on which the school was built in addition to a major stress on mathematics and music, and would also include a solid ethical foundation, the fostering of independent and critical thinking, and, most of all, a sense of curiosity and exploration to emphasize learning as a lifelong voyage of discovery. The physical facility would be specifically designed with that in mind to provide places all around the school for students to interact in informal settings.

I do not recall Rafi ever dreaming of the school having a sports and physical fitness program, but it does now, but one oriented to personal health and well-being rather than competitive team sports. It also has a visual arts and phenomenal science program. Though Rafi’s dream was to provide a model that would feed into the rest of education in Israel, I do not believe he imagined, at least as he articulated his vision to me, the extensive way in which the school has developed its outreach and enrichment programs to other schools around the country, or that it would serve to provide curricular hubs for schools around the world dedicated to achieving excellence.

Can you imagine a high school that would offer this June the Annual Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture on a topic such as, “Can the Navier-Stokes Equation Blow Up in Finite Time?” by Prof. Terence Tao, the Fields Medalist for 2006? Last year, the school held a collaborative symposium on, “Big Data and the Future of Research in the Digital Age,” between the Israel Young Academy and the German Young Academy.

In Rafi’s vision, the school would be operated on a systematic program of measuring progress, providing feedback to both teachers and students on their development to encourage excellence as the only standard so that students as well as teachers become the means for initiating change and improvements. Student selection would be based on merit alone, but the school would be committed to providing the best education for young students of high school age from every community in Israel, Jewish and Arab, secular and religious, students coming from development towns with poor schooling and students coming from the best primary schools in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Although students would be selected on the basis of merit alone, with a significant outreach, the school would be a residential school offering its young students enough financial aid as needed to assure the pupils could attend the school without placing an immediate financial burden on their families.

The excellence and range of the school is reflected in its Board of Directors. As a signal of both excellence and the balance between recognition of public service, research and business donors, the current Board of the school includes luminaries from government — Moshe Arad, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and Dan Meridor, a Likudnik and Cabinet Minister whom I met in 1982 and gave me an introduction to the head of the IDF in order to get permission to enter Lebanon and study the people displaced by the Israeli invasion, Ayala Procaccia, a former Israeli Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. The academic world is represented by David Harman, former president of Hebrew University, Zehev Tadmor from the US-Israel Science & Technology Foundation, Hanoch Gutfreund, a physicist and author of The Road to Relativity. Businessmen include Nissim Bar–El, a high-tech and security expert, Ze’ev Drori, an Israeli-born American technology entrepreneur, and Eran Shir, co-founder and CTO of Dapper, one of the most prominent angel investors in Israel. Last, but in the cliché not least, the academic and social activist, Nava Ben-Zvi who serves as chair of the Board and who is the first recipient of the University of Florida’s Global Leadership Award for her scholarship and work on behalf of disadvantaged women.

I became involved with the school in two ways. First, Rafi invited me along with seven internationally-known philosophers from around the world, to spend a week in Oxford University around Sir Isaiah Berlin designing the humanities curriculum for the school. For though the school was destined to be renowned for its music and mathematics program, Rafi wanted the school also to have the best humanities program.  Many of the group invited, such as Avishai Margalit, who had been a colleague at Hebrew University when I was a Lady Davis visiting professor there in 1977-78, who won the 2007 one million dollar Emet Prize for Philosophy, and is now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, were former students of Isaiah Berlin. I, and for that matter, Avishai’s late wife, Edna, also a colleague at Hebrew University, had not been Isaiah’s students. The Marxist expert and theorist (Karl Marx’s Theory of History), Professor Jerry Cohen, originally from Montreal and McGill, at the time Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford, but subsequently the Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College, London, and, more importantly, the best stand-up comic I have ever met, kept us in stitches with superb imitations of Isaiah’s mannerisms and unique way of speaking English. I still have a framed picture of the nine of us on my shelf; unfortunately, five of the nine, including Rafi, the first one to die, Gerry and Edna have passed away.

I do not know to what extent the school adheres to the original humanities curriculum that we drew up at the time, but hopefully what we prepared was a direction and a standard and not a set of vice grips. When I looked on line this morning, the humanities curriculum was still based on a great books program emphasizing primary sources that would make most universities envious. It still had the requirement of mastery of a second language and the insistence that students write a dissertation before graduating.

My second involvement came when I produced and hosted the television program, Israel Today, and we made one program in Israel focused on the school, its physical and pedagogical architecture and specifically, the inclusion of Arabs and Jews in the same school — as well as the superb educational program offered. The school which got off the ground in 1990 and at which Sayed Kashua, the author of both the novel and the screenplay of the film under review, must have been an early student. When we did the program, the school had by then been operating for fifteen years. I write this because the Academy is as important as most of the supporting characters in the movie.

My son, Jeremy, worked for a year on Kibbutz Gesher. Gesher in Hebrew means bridge. One anagram of the word, regesh, means emotion and sensitivity. The most important virtue of the school, in addition to fostering intellectual and artistic excellence, is its emphasis on both regesh and gesher, serving as a bridge between different worlds. In the film, A Borrowed Identity, the movie with the original title of Dancing Arabs under which it is being promoted in Toronto, a movie directed by the Israeli-Arab director, Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride) and financed by The Israel Film Fund, The Jerusalem Film & TV Fund and the Israel Lottery Council for Culture & Arts, Eyad is an Israeli-Palestinian from the small Arab town of Tira. (The town scenes were actually shot in Kafr Qasim; I recognized the town for we had once had a program for Israel Today set there.) Eyad is the central protagonist, though to adumbrate the course of the movie, Naomi, played again with terrific panache by Danielle Kitsis, his eventual Jewish girlfriend at the school, teases him for allowing the Jewish students to call him Ayid, a Jewish Israeli name with the ironic meaning in the diaspora of a yid. In both the semi-autobiographical novel and the screenplay, Eyad is a both a brilliant mathematician as well as a very sensitive and affectionate child well before he earns a scholarship to The Academy which is portrayed as fostering and reinforcing both that intellect and sensitivity.

In one scene after Eyad has clearly been at the school for a few years, reluctantly when the teacher insists, he offers an in-depth stellar critique of the portrayal of Arabs in the novels of most of the greats of Israeli literature, including the famous very progressive advocate of peace, Amos Oz. The analysis took less than two minutes. The segment is amazing, but even more amazing is the reaction of his fellow Jewish students who acknowledge Eyad’s performance as itself amazing. Though the students laugh inappropriately when he first arrives at the school, for his mis-pronunciation of Hebrew, always substituting “B” for “P” as Israel Arabs tend to do, and which is used earlier as the key clue Eyad unravels to allow his family to win a local TV quiz contest in his home village when he was a young child, the expression of discrimination and intolerance is characteristic of youth and extremely mild. The school is actually portrayed as the epitome of tolerance – except when it comes to a love affair between a Jewish girl and an Arab.

Razi Gabareen, who plays Eyad as a young boy, and Tawfeek Barhom, who plays him as a young man, are both terrific in their parts and totally convincing that they are playing the same person who becomes even more introspective as he matures, though always retaining a delightful sense of humour and a wry smile.  The movie is not primarily about a brilliant scientist who happens to have a personal and emotional life, but almost entirely about that emotional life. It is a love story, a tale of strained love between the boy and his father, Salah, again played superbly by Ali Suliman. Salah both pushes Eyad to accepting the scholarship to the best school in Israel and towards realizing his father’s dream when he attended Hebrew University, for his career was aborted when he was charged with being a “terrorist” and was and certainly remained an anti-Israeli activist. The father clearly hates Israel and hoped Saddam Hussein would kill the Jews with his missiles in the opening of the Iraqi War, at the same time as he recognizes the achievements of Israeli schools and academia.

The movie is a love story between Eyad and his parents, and between Eyad’s father and mother. She is devoted to her supportive husband, but proves herself the real subversive when the father tries to transmit his radical ideology to his children. Her rich inner and outer life is only hinted at. Even more slighted is the affection between Eyad and his two older brothers. It is a story of Eyad’s deepest love for his grandmother for whom he is clearly the favourite child. And it would be almost impossible not to adore him with his combination of intellectual brilliance and sensitivity, his compassion and concern for others, yet his dispassionate view of both the excesses of both his own Arab world and the Israeli world of anti-Arab haters. This attitude permeates the film and is not restricted to the scene when he is insulted at a bus stop by a group of Israeli Jewish teenagers, but in one scene there is the equivalent of an anti-Semitic sticker, but one directed at Arabs, on the side of a telephone booth.

The love story continues when he is a teenager and attends the Academy, but leaves behind the humour and the intimacy when he lived with his family in Tira. That sensitivity and compassion emerges not so much in the school as when he gives his hours dedicated to community service to taking care of and being a companion to a young Jewish boy with muscular dystrophy. After a rough initial start, they not only become the best of friends, but Yonatan, played by Michael Moshonov, introduces Eyad to the world of popular music and to a very black and wicked sense of humour. Yonatan also teaches Eyad that dissing and put downs can be forms of a self-critical and ironic teasing form of humour. The tale is also the love story of Yonaton’s single mother, Edna, played by the exquisitely beautiful Yaēel Abecassis, a secular Jew and a lawyer, for Eyad becomes like a second son, though a few of my friends who attended the movie with me yesterday thought there was a strong note of sexuality suggested in the relationship. I did not.

In school, the central love of his life (and reciprocally for her) is a bubbly outgoing and clearly also very intelligent Jewish classmate, Naomi. However, although this Romeo and Juliet love story forms the central plot, the real theme of the movie is not primarily about love but about shape-shifting, about how identity is changed by context, by challenges and by introspection and by a series of small decisions. The motif of an identity shift is at the core of the movie against the volatile background of Jewish-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle East. Eyad’s shifts in identity from a son of a fiery Arab nationalist (in the novel, the grandfather was killed fighting Jews in the War of Independence) of whom he is very proud but also blissfully ignorant – there is a hilarious scene when a Jewish Israeli is hosted in Eyad’s home as an exercise in coexistence and mutual understanding  – to someone who learns to speak Hebrew like a Jewish Israeli, to someone who passes as a Jewish Israeli to earn more money as a waiter rather than as a dishwasher in the back kitchen, to – I will not say anything more.

The film has many flaws, including the absence of any other friends or family of Yonatan and his mother Edna that becomes glaring at the highly implausible film ending. The flaws that bothered me, however, were petty and irrelevant. Why was he the only Arab shown in a school which exerts enormous efforts to enrol Arab students? I never saw one of the students wearing a kippa – one of my friends assured me he saw one – when the school also tries to enrol religious Jews. Nevertheless, though far from the greatest film, it is an excellent one and well worth seeing.


2 comments on “Dancing Arabs

  1. I liked the ending. It was totally surreal. As if that is the ONLY way such an doppleganger plot could end, with Arab qua Israeli Jew switched at the grave. With Eyad moving to Berlin. Kashua, unfortunately, moved to Illinois with the most recent round of

    I felt that the film dealt very sensitively with a complex issue — how deeply racism is ground into the fabric of the society, despite liberal, enlightened views. The litmus test for any deeply held racism is in the confluence of gender/sex — it is bat yisrael, that is being “protected” ultimately from the “other.” Of course Kashu’a is critical of both sides — as protrayed by Eyad’s father’s “simplistic” anti-Zionism (who, in the end, confesses he wants to live in peace and wants his son to succeed where he had ‘done himself’ in with his activism). But the deeper critique is of us, of Israelis. To make it, you’ve got to be “Jewish” — by birth or by cultural assimilation. That’s so glaringly obvious and painful.


  2. Ron Amram says:

    Dear Howard,

    My name is Ron Amram, and I am Raphi’s son. I live in Perth, Western Australia.

    Though my father has been gone a long time, I often think of him and the school as I, too, am an enthusiastic enthusiast and am heavily involved in education.

    Dad passed when I was still quite young – 14 years old – and it saddens me that it’s hard to find much about my father’s work. I treasure little pieces like this, which in a way allow me to know him a little better as an adult.

    Thank you for this little gem.

    Warm regards,

    Ron Amram

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