Salvation versus Resurrection

 

ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל. Isaiah 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.

Resurrection is very infrequently cited in the Torah. In its rare expressions, it is most often interpreted as a vision of glory at the end of days. But try reading it as a nightmare of the end of days when ignorant nostalgia governs, when dead zombies take power, when the shades enter daily life and hide the rays of sun behind a dark cloud, when those who sleep in the dust of the earth on gold-plated beds awake to reproach all others and spread abhorrence and hatred. (Daniel 12:2).

The vision of resurrection is not something to be celebrated, as the rabbis and Jesus did, but to be feared and eschewed. The monster in the black lagoon may now be coloured green as in The Shape of Water and in our imaginations and apparitions, but the real danger lies in the monstrosity of breath entering the dry bones of a dead past, dry bones covered with sinews and flesh, dry bones made to breathe and live again, when those should have been left in the slow decaying heap where they belonged and left to return to dust. (Ezekiel vv:1-2) The goal should be to deliver the Promised Land to our children and our children’s children and not to those lifted out of their graves.

“Dry bones, ’dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

In an age in which a consumer machine with the reach of Amazon, a surveillance machine with the reach of Facebook and a search machine with the power of Google, command the high reaches of our culture, filled in with hordes of more minor players, in an age in which it is so easy to brainwash all in the name of delivering freedom, choice and judgement, in an age when E.M. Forster’s spiritual command to “only connect” has been perverted in the extreme in a connect but totally uncommitted culture, I pray for salvation.

We live in an age of crony capitalism in which real competitive capitalists are exiled as those at the centre of power seek to reduce the independence of the judiciary and laud law and order instead of the rule of law as they create disorder and the rule of whim, in an age in which the political centre can ally with a powerful media network committed to perpetuating and elaborating the same lies instead of holding up truth to power, in an age of political gerrymandering that echoes the corrupt political days of old and power politics is based on a unity of white male elites who cry foul when not permitted to have their cake and eat it too, when simple and arbitrary connects replace commitment and commitment is gutted and converted to sloganeering, when NGOs that are transparent and dedicated are blasted as part of a hidden international conspiracy, when projection onto externals replaces taking responsibility for one’s own actions, when abuse of others replaces critical self-examination of oneself, I pray for salvation.

When those in power wallow in self-pity and victimhood, when the tactics of the powerful weaponize culture to instigate emotionally dominated culture wars, when a nostalgia for the greatness of a nation displaces a historical and critical examination of the past, when anyone committed to the universal oneness of humanity is blasted as a traitor and enemy, when the efforts to improve are turned into a piñata for abuse and calumny, when revenge rather than forgiveness has become the dominating immoral passion, when politicians with a noble conservative heritage turn into impotent patsies of populism, when illiberalism displaces liberalism and when crude nationalism shunts aside true national pride, when the graves for the death of democracies are being excavated, I pray for salvation.

When in the face of feuding sectarianism, shape-shifting allies and local government corruption one turns on one’s heel and retreats, abandoning long-suffering allies, taking with you your military toys, the path is open for corrupt coercion instead of coercion used in the defense of values, I pray for salvation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee Claimants in Israel

There are about 36,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugee claimants currently in Israel. Israel claims that the vast majority are illegal migrants or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu (Bibi) calls them, “infiltrators.” T’ruah, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims the reverse, that they have mostly fled oppression and forced military service (Eritrea) for a safe haven in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1954 and, therefore, had agreed not to refoule refugees if they had a legitimate fear of persecution. To assess the application of this criterion, some background might be helpful.

In the early 2000s, Sudanese fled to Egypt as refugees. By 2005, 30,000 had registered for asylum status there, but there were tens of thousands more in the country who had not been registered. In November 2005, a Sudanese asylum sit-in crisis took place in which the majority of the 4,000 protesters were women and children. Over six weeks in a park near the Mohandessin mosque in Cairo, the participants in the sit-in grew to 4,000 just when Egypt had taken steps to deport 640 Sudanese “illegal migrants.” UNHCR offered to organize a voluntary repatriation to Sudan, given that the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Army had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005.

However, UNHCR, which had suspended its asylum hearings after the peace agreement had been signed, was unsuccessful in mediating the dispute in which Sudanese refugee claimants were protesting the dire social and economic problems they faced in Egypt and the insecurity of their status. Overwhelmingly, the Sudanese were unwilling to return to Sudan given that they faced a worse and more dangerous situation there. Further, the agreement the year before (the so-called four freedoms agreement), guaranteeing Sudanese in Egypt freedom of movement, residence, work and property ownership, had never been implemented. The Sudanese were still treated as foreigners with no rights to stay.

The government turned on the refugees using water cannons and batons. On 30 December 2005, thousands of riot police attacked the refugees to end the protest in the camp and killed at least 20, though Boutros Deng claimed that 26 Sudanese were killed, including two women and seven children. Egyptian human rights and refugee organizations claimed the total was much higher and that over 100 were killed. Though no survey is available, most of the public seemed to support the police and called the Sudanese dirty, rowdy criminals and stealers of jobs.

The Eritreans had a slightly different history. They were not fleeing ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, as the Sudanese did from Darfur, but an extremely oppressive regime that made military service compulsory and indefinite following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Deserters were treated harshly and subjected to indefinite prison terms. Those who fled initially made their way to Sudan and then to Libya. In Libya, they were mistreated and enslaved. By 2006, they had shifted to Egypt, but given that they were subjected to the same conditions as the Sudanese, they and the Sudanese headed for Israel in the belief that this nearby democratic country would treat them better, especially since Jews had suffered so deeply and so many had been refugees.

Between 2008 and 2010, traffickers had taken control of the flow and enslaved or ransomed the “refugees.” In 2009, Israel created its own refugee determination system. Israel also closed its border. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel interviewed survivors among those enslaved by the traffickers and estimated that as many as 4,000 died between 2008 and 2012. However, getting past the traffickers did not end their quest to reach the Promised Land. For example, in October 2012 a group of Eritrean refugees with little food or water had been stranded at the border between Egypt and Israel for over a week.

However, 36,000 Eritreans and Sudanese managed to reach Israel. Contrary to some claims, there was no necessity that Egypt as the first country in which they arrived had the obligation to process them as refugee claimants or that Israel had the right to send them back to the country of first asylum to have the claims processed in Egypt. The first country rule is an EU edict and not part of international law.

Israel responded to the influx by building an impenetrable border fence and detention facilities. In processing the claims, only 4 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans were granted refugee status, or .01% of Eritrean claimants compared to a success rate in Canada of 85-90%. The Israeli government also initiated efforts to deport those that had arrived in Israel as “economic migrants” and “infiltrators.” In spite of the Israeli effort, more kept coming, but in significantly reduced numbers. Some moved on from Israel to other destinations. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, Israel hosted a population of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans without access to health benefits or a legal right to work, though most were employed in the underground economy, mostly in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the Israeli government introduced a 20% withholding tax on their wages.

This past November, Israel announced that it had arranged to relocate these “illegals” to an African nation widely rumoured to be Rwanda and perhaps Uganda. The internment camp at Holon would be closed. The government gave the “illegals” 90 days to leave voluntarily with a grant of $3,500 or face forceful deportation. A minority of Israelis reacted by initiating a sanctuary movement as well as one of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with Israeli expulsion efforts; a group of pilots announced that they would not fly the refugees back to Africa.

At the end of January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met in Davos. Purportedly, they finalized their agreement to secretly transfer thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel to Rwanda. Though some claimants took up the offer of a $3500 grant to help in relocation, most refused. When the Israeli-Rwandan deal became public this past week, Rwanda was embarrassed by the alleged agreement to receive the expelled refugee claimants in return for a reimbursement of resettlement costs. The country (and Uganda) denied that they had signed any such agreement.

In the midst of the past three months, Israeli courts entered the fray. In response to a case filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, a special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues ruled that flight from service in the Eritrean army was a justified ground for claiming refugee status even though British and Danish courts had ruled that it was not. Further, any argument that insisted that granting refugee status to so many Eritreans would threaten the Jewish character of Israel could not be used to make a refugee determination. A stop order was placed on the deportations. In response, the Israeli government requested, and was granted, an extension in the case of asylum seekers from Darfur and Nuba. The High Court of Justice endorsed granting male migrants of working age a “choice” of either deportation with a $3,500 grant or internment in Israel.

In the diaspora, many liberal Jews mobilized to help the refugee claimants working on two tracks – lobbying the Israeli government to drop the policy and negotiating with their own governments to at least take some of the refugees. The effort was successful in Canada when the private sector stood up to the plate to sponsor the refugees and the Canadian government, strongly influenced by a brief of a former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, agreed to allow 2,000 to be resettled in Canada in 2018. As a follow-up, in a totally surprising move, this past Monday a separate agreement was announced between the Israeli government and the UN wherein the UN would arrange for the resettlement of 16,250 refugee claimants to other countries over five years while Israel agreed to allow an equivalent number to remain with resident permits. Netanyahu said that he would now scrap the controversial plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers given the unprecedented understanding with the UN.

Within a few hours, in the face of a backlash from his base, Netanyahu reversed course, first suspending the agreement and then cancelling it. Even more oddly, seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu blamed the NGO, New Israel Fund (NIF), for sabotaging the deal, but no explanation accompanied the charge. The following day, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an absolutely unprecedented action in Israel, claimed that NIF had put pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the deal, but offered no evidence. NIF insists that it has been totally transparent and never did what Bibi claimed. Netanyahu, however, promised that parliament would set up a committee to investigate the NIF and its involvement in sabotaging the deal.

The puzzlement is that this leaves Israel in a far worse position. First, Bibi’s attack on the NIF resulted in an enormous swelling of support for NIF and for the refugees. The support came both from Israel and abroad. It even came from south Tel Aviv that had been undergoing a process of gentrification over the last decade and from which area a delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday. South Tel Aviv is the area where most of the “infiltrators” live because they have access to the bus station, social services set up by Israeli volunteers and companies seeking casual day labourers. With permanent status, the Eritreans and Sudanese would more likely disperse through the country.

The government’s black eye is even much darker. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, embarrassed by the whole affair, announced that they had no signed deal with Israel. Further, in openly acknowledging that Israel could not sent the “infiltrators” back to their home countries, the government implicitly conceded that the Eritreans and Sudanese were refugees in some deep sense.

In the meanwhile, the debate continues in Israel with those opposed to the refugee claimants accusing them of being illegal migrant workers and infiltrators who, in Israel, undermine Israeli social life. The defenders of the claimants insist that the vast majority are fleeing oppression and, in Eritrea, endless forced military service. Quite aside from the debate over the refugee claims process, Israel introduced another dimension, its long continuing war with Arab states and the antipathy towards Israel of those states and members of the population. Israel claims the need both to preserve its Jewish character as well as preventing Muslims from entering Israel and undermining the ethnic balance. Tough measures towards asylum seekers (or infiltrators) are necessary, the government declared ignoring a long Jewish tradition, for many, the essence of the Jewish character, to helping those in need.

Netanyahu’s reputation has suffered even more than Israel’s. Yossi Verter wrote:

“In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.”

However, the result, though embarrassing to the government and especially Netanyahu that finds himself boxed in, still leaves the so-called illegals without security or a clear road to the future. One advance: Israel released the asylum seekers who were interned for refusing deportation to Rwanda.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Rohingya

On Wednesday, Bob Rae released his final report on the Myanmar and the Rohingya entitled, “‘Tell them we’re human:’ What Canada and the world can do about the Rohingya crisis.” The report can be read in full on the internet.

http://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/response_conflict-reponse_conflits/crisis-crises/rep_sem-rap_esm.aspx?lang=eng

Though Bob is a good friend, a great ambassador of good will for Canada, a man of both wisdom and great integrity with a fine moral compass, I recommend reading the report both because the plight of the Rohingya refugees and internally displaced is so terrible and the situation forces any Canadian to focus on what principles they hold and how they ought to be put into practice.

As you read or even skim the report, I suggest a number of questions. But first a number of basic facts, most included in the report.

  1. The Rohingya lived for years overwhelmingly in Rakhine State in Western Myanmar.
  2. Rakhine is the poorest state in Myanmar.
  3. The population of Rakhine State in 2014 was 3,188,807 and included many minorities, but in small numbers.
  4. About two-thirds of the population of Rakhine, about 2,100,000, at the time of the above census, was Buddhist, overwhelmingly Rakhine who speak a Sittwe dialect.
  5. Rohingya then made up just over one-third of the population or about 1,050,000 and speak a Rang-bre dialect; that census is somewhat disputed since Rohingya were denied the right to register in the census unless they did so as Bengali and many refused.
  6. The Rohingya are Sufi Muslims.
  7. Thus, the majority population of Rakhine and the minority population of Rohingya differ in ethnicity, religion and language.
  8. The two groups have been at odds for decades and have a history of violent conflict dating back to at least WWII when the Rohingya sided with the West and the Rakhine sided with Japan.
  9. Many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh before the 2014 census and most were hosted in refugee camps.
  10. In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship and dubbed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though their roots in Myanmar go back centuries; for a while, they were issued white identity cards giving them limited rights, but explicitly stating that they were not citizens.
  11. Many Rohingya fled because of employment, education and access to health were limited, a limit of two was placed on the number of children a couple could have, and rights to religious practice, marriage and even freedom of movement were also limited.
  12. Thousands fled in 2012.
  13. In February 2015, the temporary white identity cards were cancelled.
  14. In October 2016, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled as militant Rohingya attacked military and police posts and the latter responded with violence burning villages and raping Rohingya women.
  15. In August 2017, again in response to a raid by militant Rohingya, riots broke out and, facilitated by border police and the military, in a widespread ethnic cleansing involving the burning of hundreds of villages over the following month, an estimated additional 670,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar.
  16. There are now an estimated 950,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another 50,000 or so distributed among Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
  17. Of the remaining 450,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, 120,000 live in abject poverty in internally displaced camps.
  18. Most of the remaining 330,000 are little better off and are subject to curfews, severe restrictions on movement and frequent violent attacks.

Bob’s report includes references to the political situation in Myanmar, the political initiatives in the United Nations and a long analysis of the situation followed by 17 recommendations. In his report, Bob states, “I was permitted access to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, the week of February 4, 2018. What became immediately apparent was the deep resentment of the very presence of the Rohingya population in Rakhine by some (my italics) ethnic Rakhine and the extent to which international and other efforts to establish a humanitarian dialogue are, in fact, deeply resented. It is this hatred that in my view poses the greatest threat to any possibility of a safe and dignified return for the Rohingya who are currently living in Bangladesh and indeed threatens the lives of those Rohingya who are still in central and northern Rakhine.”

Question 1: Why does Bob in his first recommendation insist on listening to the voices of the Rohingya but does not include the voices of the majority of Bamar in Rakhine, Myanmar, or of the Bengali population in Bangladesh, particularly those living in the region of Cox’s Bazaar where the largest number of refugee camps are located?

Question 2: Why does Bob recommend that Canada take a leading role in dealing with the crisis when we are such a small donor and would remain so even if we tripled our annual contribution as recommended, when our foreign capital investment in Myanmar is .01 of China’s and Singapore’s, .02 of Thailand’s and .03 of Hong Kong’s, when as an exporter to and an importer from Myanmar, we do not even make it on the comparative charts, and when no basis is provided in the report for choosing among many competing crises in areas where we have much greater interests and a significant degree of political and academic expertise? When we do not count on virtually any scale of economic involvement, when we lack in-depth political capacity or academic expertise, when we advise Canadians to travel to Myanmar with caution because of “the unsettled political situation and the possibility of civic unrest,” when our ambassador, Karen MacArthur, on her trip with other diplomats to Rakhine state, was “protected” by a phalanx of border guards and police who have been accused of perpetrating the atrocities on the Rohingya, why would the Rohingya population, let alone that of Myanmar, be open to Canadian leadership?

Question 3: Why the great stress on humanitarian assistance to camps when the report itself suggests that camps usually lead to the long-term warehousing of refugees as recently documented in the recent book by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World; that book trashes camps as a solution to refugees and emphasizing them appears to undermine economic development in dealing with the problem, a direction which Bob seems to favour?

Question 4: Why not be really radical and take the almost US$1B planned to be spent annually on the crisis and give those funds – say $1,000 to each refugee family with a line of credit of an additional $4,000 spread over 4 years (total approximately 200,000 families = $200M annually) – not only the refugees, but an equivalent amount to the polity hosting the displaced and double that amount as an investment in the local population so that it is in everyone’s economic interest to allow the refugees to settle?

Question 5: Why propose a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) among the various stakeholders when even in states with a much smaller degree of ethnic and religious conflict, such MoUs in Kenya and Nigeria where the historical, structural, institutional, legal, and cultural dimensions of the conflict have very much smaller depth, and when MoUs have had limited success in other regions only because the local insurgency was overwhelmed by force by the state as in Aceh, Sri Lanka or the Myanmar Keren in Thailand (the minority uprising was effectively defeated)? Only in a polity like Northern Ireland has there been significant success, but the conflict was between two groups divided by religion only, without nearly the extent of violence and in a context of strong social and political institutions. The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh over the years have signed many agreements, three recent ones concerning the repatriation of the refugees, but the situation simply gets worse and the words have little substantive meaning.

Question 6: Why does recommendation 5 require, “reassuring both the Rohingya population and the international community of the sincerity and credibility of the commitment of both the civilian and military wings of the Government of Myanmar to an effective plan for the return of the Rohingya population,” when the desire for return may be sincere, but has never been shown to be credible where ethnic and religious groups have been involved in violent conflict, unless the ethnic groups returns after its army has inflicted defeat as in Rwanda in 1994? Otherwise, refugees never return in a context of groups with deep ethnic and religious divides and a long history of violence. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge – Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.) Further, Bob himself writes that although, “The government has also said it will allow for the return of the Rohingya to their home villages…evidence suggests that many of these villages have been destroyed, and there is a prevailing sentiment within the local ethnic Rakhine population against the Rohingya’s return.” In addition, “United Nations (UN) agencies have stated that they do not believe conditions are present for the ‘safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable’ return of the Rohingya to their homes in Rakhine State.” Saying that return has to be conditional in this way just means that there will be no return.

Question 7: Why support Track II initiatives – I have been involved in several – when in such contexts, like refugee return, they have such an unlikely payoff and sometimes lead to extending a violent conflict and the suffering of refugees in the belief that peace (and refugee return) are right around the corner?

Question 8: Why make reference to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) when it has not been operative and if it is, it is because the responsibilities of the international community to protect the oppressed within a polity have been suborned to sovereign rights; even the report recognizes that implementation is subject to the government of Myanmar’s consent?

Question 9: Why was the proposal for Canadian resettlement places for the Rohingya not included in the final list of recommendations?

Question 10: Is there a possibility that the 450,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar might be better off and their situation more likely to improve if the emphasis on the issue of repatriation of the refugees was removed?

Those are enough questions. I leave aside the proposed conditions suggested for the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, the recommendations for dealing with accountability and preventing impunity for those guilty of ethnic cleansing and even possibly genocide, or the recommendations on inter-state cooperation in handling the crisis and the formation of a multi-ministry task force in Canada to deal with policy and its implementation.

Anyone is invited to answer these questions.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

Isle of Dogs and Dogs of War (Layla M)

 

Almost two years ago, fake news reported that leaflets had been distributed by Muslim fundamentalists in Manchester, Britain, calling for a public ban on dogs to keep the area pure for Muslims. I am technically unable to reproduce the poster in this version of the blog, but after a sign showing a dog crossed out in a circle, and presumably the same reference in Arabic, the poster reads:

FOR PUBLIC PURITY

This area is home to a large Muslim community. Please have respect for us and for our children and limit the presence of dogs in the public sphere.

About Us

Keeping the purity of the public space enables the (sic!) Muslims remain untainted and without blemish.

As part of this effort, we have chosen to address one of the aspects that can have a detrimental effect on the purity of public space, with the aspect being the presence of dogs who are considered impure in Islam.

PublicPurity                                          4PublicPurity

This might have been the impetus for Wes Anderson to write Isle of Dogs since he devised the script for the movie before the 2016 U.S. election, the rise of anti-immigration populism and Christian nationalism as well as the election of Spanky as a proto-fascist president. Or perhaps Wes Anderson was simply prescient in tackling themes like refugees, xenophobia and intolerance.

The dogs, whose barks are dubbed into English while the Japanese characters speech is incomprehensible to better capture the emotional punch, are sent into exile to Trash Island and eventually an intended genocide. The heroes include a Japanese 11-year-old “little pilot,” Atari (Koyu Rankin) and representatives of four different dog species (Rex – Edward Norton, Boss – Bill Murray, King – Bob Balaban, and Duke – Jeff Goldblum) and one outlier to the outliers, a stray named Chief (Bryan Cranston). There is also a love story (Scarlett Johansson is the voice of Nutmeg). In this superb parable of our time, instead of hatred even for the Machiavellian dictator who hates dogs, we are taught trust, love, empathy and the benefits of democratic procedures.

The core of the story is a corrupt politician who spreads false news, assassinates scientists, spreads fear and persecutes minorities. The taiko drums are merely the introduction and finale to a brilliant score that provides the propulsion more than the simplistic plot of this stop-motion phenomenal innovative animation film rooted deeply in contemporary Japanese pop culture and iconography. Archetypal comic fight scenes of swirling clouds with only “Xs” and exclamation marks emerging from the mist and imported Lauren Bacall – Humphrey Bogart dialogue bring into the movie Hollywood nostalgia.

The second of the excellent films that I saw yesterday, the just released Dutch film Layla M on Netflix, is rooted in realism rather than fantasy. Like possibly Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, this movie was, I believe, based on a series of 2014 news reports in the Dutch press of European and Muslim teens recruited and radicalized by ISIS who were lured to become jihadi brides. The marriages very often failed as the husbands turned out to be domineering, patriarchal wife beaters. Yusra Hussein was a 15-year-old Somali girl in such a situation. In the film, Layla is a 17 or 18-year-old Dutch-born very intelligent and spirited girl from a Moroccan immigrant family who turns to religion and is gradually radicalized. Unlike the typical explanations for the susceptibility of teenage girls to such lures, Layla is not motivated by a search for excitement or adventure or to give meaning to her life, but as a reaction against Dutch stereotyping and a sincere search for meaning from her religion.

In Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony shouts, “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” This is what the corrupt mayor does in Isle of Dogs; he exhorts the Japanese citizens of his city to reject and throw out of the city the dogs. Mark Antony wanted to use Julius Caesar’s assassination to urge revenge. In the havoc stirred up, the mayor and his criminal cohorts can seize the wealth of the nation. The dogs, though pets, but originally trained for war, are to be released from their leashes and their master’s love and control to create mayhem. Only in confining them to an island, they organize themselves, revolt and come back to conquer the hatred and fear stirred up. In Layla M, in spite of the irony that religious Muslims regard dogs as unclean, it is radical Islam that cries havoc and releases its young men to become dogs of war totally subservient to the dogmas of their new masters.

If Anderson’s film is full of slapstick, Mijke de Jong’s Dutch film is chock full of deadly slaps. If Anderson manages to craft an allegory about genocide by the use of huge mounds of garbage that have a strange ethereal beauty, de Jong’s relatively squalid Dutch suburbs offer only a hint of all the hidden ugliness. If Anderson’s film is surreal, de Jong’s is real. If Anderson employs humour and levity, the rare moments of levity in de Jong’s film quickly sink into the bog of radicalism.

I did not intentionally watch the two films back-to-back, but they told the same story from opposite perspectives and using opposite techniques. Layla M is a very good film, good in its ethos and good in its execution. Anderson’s film, however, belongs to a very different order of brilliance.