Corporeality IIIB: Justin Trudeau and Canadian Identity

Corporeality IIIB: Justin Trudeau and Canadian Identity


Howard Adelman

Yesterday I wrote about Justin Trudeau’s policies with respect to the war against Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. I tried to show that on the basis of strategic considerations alone, Canada’s plan not to renew the deployment of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft as part of the allied mission in Iraq and Syria, did not make rational sense. At the end I suggested that the account could not be left at the level simply of strategy, but the explanation lay deeper in Trudeau’s conception of the Canadian identity and the way, sometimes erroneously, that he envisions enhancing that identity.

The energy his government has put into resettling the Syrian refugees in Canada is a major expression of the view of the Liberal Party under Trudeau of Canadian identity. Though overwhelmingly cheered on, the initiative has not been without criticism, usually on security grounds rather than humanitarian ones. But some critiques have emerged that argue that we are importing a population which has values diametrically opposed to our own, particularly in the treatment of women. The following op-ed by the brilliant son of two very old (now sadly deceased) friends, David Frum, was published on 16 March 2015 in The National Post:

Trudeau now urges Canada to enable and assist those who define women as inferior — and who require women to wear special identifying badges of their inferiority. In his Toronto speech, Trudeau said: “one of the highest aims of Canadian political leadership is to protect and expand freedom for Canadians.” He is so determined to expand freedom, in fact, that he now proposes to expand it to include the freedom to treat women like chattels. This is not the freedom that Trudeau’s hero Wilfrid Laurier had in mind when he called freedom “Canada’s nationality.” The freedom Justin Trudeau defended in Toronto is the freedom Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee fought for: the freedom to dominate and subordinate.

Canada stands for human rights. Canada stands for freedom. Canada stands for gender equality. It is wrong, the argument goes, for Canada to bring in people who do not share those values. What the Justin Trudeau government is asserting by its initiative is that it is absolutely wrong to label a whole region and the people who live in it as discriminatory against women, let alone a whole religion. For the region contains many people. Yazidis and Chaldeans do not define women as chattels. Neither do most Muslims. Engaging in such labeling is un-Canadian and runs directly counter to Canadian values of tolerance and respect. Of course, among those refugees from Syria there will be some refugees who do not share in our values of gender equality which Canadian immigration officers will be unable to detect, especially given their focus on security issues. Trudeau trusts that Canadian values are so powerful and so winning that, even for those who do not share the Canadian values of gender equality, over one or perhaps two generations, given past history, and given Canada’s excellent multicultural and integration policies, even most of those will incorporate those values into their cultural praidentity, valuesctices.

The lesson about Canadian values encompassing respect for the Other goes even further. I will illustrate this by a story which I hope I have not written about before. When I was in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982 auditing the number of residents made homeless by the war, I was traveling around in a Red Cross vehicle. We came across a woman sobbing in the middle of the road. She was covered in blood and fresh blood was still seeping from her head wounds. The Red Cross vehicle stopped and bundled her into the back. A long interrogation and conversation proceeded in Arabic as her wounds were being treated.

Not understanding Arabic, I presumed that the woman was somehow a casualty of the war that had primarily moved up to the Beirut area. While the woman was being treated in the back, the Red Cross vehicle first drove to one location from which it received directions to another. We arrived at a home with posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme religious leader of Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, plastered all down one wall on the side. [As a total aside, and a bit of the good news coming out of Iran, his reform-minded grandson, who was initially vetoed by the Supreme Religious Council in Iran, has had his candidacy reinstated.]

No one explained to me why we were not at a hospital. I presumed we were at the home of a Hezbollah leader given the posters. I had to move over in the front seat and a gentleman joined us and chatted with the driver and with the woman and her attendant in the back as we drove to another village. There at a house we dropped off the woman and the man we had so recently picked up after a brief discussion with the Red Cross driver before we proceeded on our way. The driver then explained what had happened.

The woman had been beaten up by her husband. We had gone first to the home of the local religious leader who delegated one of his acolytes both to warn the husband never to repeat the beating of his wife and to live with the family for 30 days to protect the wife, to give daily lessons to the husband and to report back to the Imam on the treatment of the wife over a month. When I heard this I had to admit to myself that although I still regarded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and as a religious organization that supported the doctrine of the superiority of males over females, when it comes to responding to domestic violence, the organization seemed to have a social system of protection of women light years ahead of our own.

The lesson: do not be complacent and simply dogmatically believe that your practices of instantiating gender equality are by definition not only the best, but had nothing to learn from other practices. Ironically, other practices, from sources one would least suspect, can be superior to your own.

I tell this story because two Canadian values complementary to gender equality are tolerance and respect. They are best taught by example. The intolerant comments of the writer critical of the Canadian Syrian refugee program above in defense of Canadian values, reveals him or herself to be subversive of those values. Further, the writer revealed profound ignorance as well as negative exaggerations about peoples and religion in insisting that the niqab is a “symbol of oppression: the garment’s purpose, after all, is to deprive women of their individuality; to render them invisible in public space.” The writer was. I believe, obviously thinking of the burka rather than the niqab. With respect to the niqab, in my own studies of the controversy in France over its being worn by Muslim girls in the French schools, I learned that it was worn for many different reasons – to protect privacy, as a style statement, as an identifier with one’s tradition, as a religious identifier, as a means of diverting the male gaze away from them, and by two school girls whose last name was Levy and who had a Jewish father and a Muslim mother, as a political statement of rebellion against the arbitrary edicts of the French government in its efforts to ban the wearing of the niqab.

One reproach to Justin Trudeau took place in the context of his comments on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trudeau said:

“On this day, we pay tribute to the memory of the millions of victims murdered during the Holocaust. We honour those who survived atrocities at the hands of the Nazi regime, and welcome their courageous stories of hope and perseverance… The Holocaust is a stark reminder of the dangers and risks of allowing hate, prejudice, and discrimination to spread unchallenged. It also reminds us that silence must never be an option when humanity is threatened… As we pause to educate ourselves and our families on the bitter lessons of the Holocaust, we also strengthen our resolve to work with domestic and international partners to continue defending human rights and condemning intolerance.”

Many took umbrage at the statement – not for what it said, but for what it left out. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not Human Rights Day. Holocaust Day is specifically intended to commemorate the deliberate murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime during WWII. Yet there was not one mention of Jews in the speech. Instead, Trudeau said that, “We honour [all] those who survived atrocities at the hands of the Nazi regime.” The day was reinterpreted as a day of remembrance for all victims of the Nazis.

Further, the statement took place just a few days after Stéphan Dion, our Foreign Minister, said that Canada, as a steadfast ally of and friend to Israel, “calls for all efforts to be made to reduce violence and incitement and to help build the conditions for a return to the negotiating table.” This was said in the context of the intifada of the knives. Though very occasionally Jewish extremists have killed innocent Palestinian civilians deliberately, those rare occurrences have been deplored by political authorities in Israel. In contrast, the now almost daily terrorist attacks against civilians by Palestinian extremists may be criticized as an inappropriate tactic by Mahmoud Abbas, but at the same time, the perpetrators are celebrated as heroes. Further, the various practices of the IDF as an occupying army of a civilian population antithetical to that occupation, such as demolishing a number of Palestinian homes “illegally” erected on land reserved for the IDF for military practice, may be deplored, but there is no equivalence whatsoever between the deliberate attempts of Palestinians to murder Israeli civilians and the unacceptable and deplorable practices of the Netanyahu government.

Since Justin Trudeau misspoke about the Holocaust in leaving out any reference to Jews that followed Stéphan Dion’s mistaken equation of Palestinian violence and Israeli political practices which may separately be worthy of extensive criticism, the government received a number of criticisms from various quarters, especially Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), but Fogel also noted that in each case the government issued an immediate apology and corrections. Dion made an explicit clarification which pointed at the exclusive responsibility for the intifada of the knives on Palestinians themselves and pointing to the ways in which they followed incitement by Palestinian leaders. Trudeau addressed the issue of the connection between the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

There are two lessons here. The first arises from the pattern and propensity to make such mistakes. Secondly, there is the willingness to immediately apologize and correct the errors. The first is not just a case of being careless, thoughtless and insensitive. In Otherwise than Being, Emmanuel Levinas dedicated it, “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the Nazi Socialists, and the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” (my italics) Though Levinas did not make the same error of simply putting a generic face on the singularity of the Shoah by omitting that the Nazis targeted Jews most specifically, he also wanted to universalize the lesson to all cases of racist thought. This, I believe, is what lay behind Trudeau’s misstep. The error was not in the effort to draw universal lessons, but in the omission of reference to the specific victims from which the lesson was being drawn. This is also true of the erroneous equivalence – the tendency to universalize, to apply to all patterns of injustice, but at the expense of forging false equivalences.

The willingness to correct the errors, the way they were corrected and the speed with which the corrections were made speaks to the strengths of the Trudeau government value system and its willingness to amend whenever it gives way to sacrificing the particular and significant differences to convey a universal message. What has this got to do with the Canadian decision to not to renew the deployment of the CF-18 Hornet fighter planes in the Middle East? I know analogical reasoning is the weakest form of argument and in many quarters is unacceptable, but it is my belief that this young government has a proclivity in general to such errors. In its desire to enunciate and give witness to universal values, there is a propensity to get the particulars wrong.

The government should, and I believe it might, demonstrate that it recognizes that it cannot combat evil only with giving witness to universal values. It can, and, in my mind, should continue to insist that upholding those values is the best bulwark against creating conditions for homegrown terrorism to flourish and grow. THIS MUST BE THE FIRST PRIORITY OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE BATTLE AGAINST TERRORISM. It is well exemplified in Canadian policies to take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. It is well exemplified in the unwillingness to target Islam as a religion because of the small number of terrorists that are spawned in part from that religion. But first priorities are not to the exclusion of other priorities down the line. The Canadian government must also engage with and combat that evil on the ground and in the air that is flourishing in the Middle East and even Africa.

What do I expect the government to do?

  1. Announce that it has not had enough time to reconsider its overall policies and plans for combatting Daesh (ISIS);
  2. Until it completes that reconsideration and review, it will extend the mission of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft for another six months;
  3. Nearing the two-thirds mark in that extension, the government will announce that, out of consideration for its responsibilities to the mission and its allies, out of consideration of the continuing threat posed by Daesh, the deployment of the six CF-18 Hornet fighter planes will be renewed for a further six months;
  4. That the government will enhance its contribution to the fight against evil in a number of ways, including going beyond a combat role and offering advice to the Iraqi government on how to implement multicultural practices that uphold the values of rights, respect for others and minorities and reinforcement of democratic institutions;
  5. That, in the meanwhile, Canada will continue to take in more refugees and to treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve, thereby offering the most important lesson through witnessing in combating terrorism.

Will the Canadian government do what I expect? “Expect” is an equivocal term. On the one hand it means setting standards for a party to live up to. On the other hand, it is a prognostication for the future. I leave it to the reader to decide whether I mean the first or the second or possibly both.

With the help of Alex Zisman



Terrorism in Israel and the West Bank

Terrorism in Israel and the West Bank


Howard Adelman

(My apologies in advance if I failed to get Schneeweiss’s comments accurately.)

Yesterday evening, CIJA organized a conference-call across Canada to discuss the current state of terrorist attacks in Israel. DJ Schneeweiss, originally an Australian who made aliya to Israel in 1987, was introduced by the CIJA representative.  DJ took up the post of Consul-General in Toronto in 2012 as the most recent posting in a long and distinguished career in the Israeli Foreign Service. After obtaining his masters degree from Hebrew University, he served as Policy Assistant to Foreign Ministers Ehud Barak (1995-1996) and David Levy (1996-1998). He was the Press Secretary at Israel’s London Embassy from 1998-2002 during which time he was recognized by Diplomat as the most effective Embassy spokesman in London. From 2003-2006, DJ served as Policy Advisor to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. From 2006-2009, he was Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to China. Before coming to Canada, DJ was Director of Civil Society Affairs in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

DJ offered the initial briefing and then opened the presentation to questions. His talk as well as his answers to questions were precise, clear and avoided any obfuscation. At the same time, in such a context, one could not consider alternative characterizations of the situation than the one he depicted, so I will have to fill in that gap.

DJ did not give a specific designation to the terror that has been going on in Israel since Rosh Hashanah, but it has been variously described as the “Third Intifada,” “The Wave of Terror” or the “Knife Intifada.” The latter seems a misnomer since some of the attacks have been shootings and others car rammings, though most have been knife attacks. Nevertheless, it seems to be the one favoured in yesterday’s Ha’aretz. “We are looking for a name for this intifada as well, which has already claimed 23 victims. It’s time to stop the foolishness which keeps calling it a ‘wave of terror.’ Those who really insist on avoiding the word ‘intifada’ can choose ‘a war of terror.’ But it’s an intifada, and there is no reason not to adopt the term which is repeating itself for the third time, even if there is no name to define this type of intifada, as the weapons range from a knife and scissors to cars and firearms.” For example, the initial attack that set off this spate of violence was a shooting by Hamas operatives that killed Eitam and Na’ama Henkin on 1 October.

According to DJ, there have been 72 stabbings, 10 shootings and 12 car rammings thus far.  Contrary to a belief that this was a new outbreak of violence, DJ characterized it as part of a pattern that will continue further, well beyond yesterday’s phone call. DJ held that, although these attacks, certainly near the beginning after the Hamas initial deliberate one, seemed to be the product of lone-wolf-initiated violence. He did not concur at leaving the depiction this way. He contended that, although not perhaps centrally organized and controlled, the violence was manipulated and used for propaganda purposes that almost certainly celebrated that violence and lent it some political and moral authority.

The attackers all denied that Jews had rights to the land. The effect of the campaign is like listening to the horror of a dripping tap, a sound which you cannot get out of your ears. The metaphor seems inappropriate because this tap cannot be simply repaired. Further, one cannot know where the next drip will hit. The attacks, though random and seemingly all over the place, according to DJ, seem to have been exacerbated if not orchestrated by social media that have played such an important part in this wave of violence and used to whip up and incite Palestinians.

Part of the stimulus has been the repeated lies and misrepresentations, such as the calumny that the Israeli government is intent on changing the arrangements for governing the Temple Mount. Instead of Israeli responses being portrayed as self defence, they are misrepresented as intentional cold-blooded murder. Thus, yesterday a piece appeared in Al-Monitor written by Aziza Nofal. Farag Ibrahim Abdul Rahman who owns an antique store in the Old City, noted that after Muhannas al-Halabi stabbed two Jewish settlers and injured another in October, the Old City market has been almost empty. He, and East Jerusalem youth, all saw the responses as efforts to terrorize and intimidate Jerusalemites. He accused Israeli police and the IDF of shooting and attacking women and children in response to a call on their Facebook pages to quietly and peacefully protest the increased police and military presence. Israeli soldiers are using extreme measures, he said, “shooting directly and killing anyone they suspect.”

In the article, reference was made to the shooting of 1-year old Marah Bakir as she was leaving school on 18 October in Sheik Jarah. According to the article, she was shot directly because Israelis suspected that she was involved in an armed attack. Mohammad Majid al-Zaghl, 14, was also arrested on 28 October on his way back from school in the town of Salwan for carrying a wooden ruler. Jerusalemites know, he claimed, that their presence in the Old City is their means of confronting Israel. Jerusalemites refuse to be forced to leave their homes.

This narrative does seem to turn the Consul-General on its head while seemingly confirming his contentions, Yuval Aviv wrote that the efforts to build the Third Temple will destroy the Jewish state while DJ was adamant that the Israeli government insisted on maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and was not trying to make any changes whatsoever. He did not mention that a group of Israeli extremists believed that the rule of the priests and kings would be restored while ultimate authority remained in the hands of God.

At the opposite end of this extremist Jewish rhetoric is a dovish one. The violent actions of the Palestinians must be understood as, if not justifiable, at least comprehensible responses to years of frustration and upset over the years of occupation and a genuine fear of settlement expansion making the West Bank too disfigured to make self-determination feasible. DJ did not acknowledge or criticize this alternative opposing narrative from the dovish side that claims that the Palestinian violence has been provoked by Israeli insensitivities to justifiable grievances. However, if the terrorism of the Parisian suicide ISIS militants and the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah all stem from the same root, then such an argument is at least partially undercut. However, like DJ’s story, the dovish story of the oppressed resorting to violence because of the heavy weight of oppression is also a universal tale told from Mumbai to Paris, Israel to Mali and Nigeria.

One may think that the term “oppression” is totally inappropriate in depicting Israeli control over the West Bank. Control is the correct term. This is omitted from DJs narrative, which suggests that the PA is an independent power in total control of the situation on the ground, whereas the PA has only very limited administrative control and Israel is the de facto sovereign, certainly in terms of security and financial self-determination. The Israeli shekel is the monetary unit used by Palestinians. Israel controls the external borders and air space. Further, though Israeli Palestinians have most of the rights of any Israeli citizen – and produced only three knife terrorists – most Palestinian residents in Jerusalem (300,000) only have residence cards. Palestinians in the West Bank are ultimately subjects, not citizens.

DJ did accuse the Palestinian Authority (PA) of being unwilling to stand up and fight the upsurge in violence and, in fact, was playing a double game by supplying a degree of covert coordination with winks and nods rather than direct commands. The PA had chosen not to confront the upsurge in violence and had to be held accountable for its actions and inaction. Moral accountability was needed instead of the West absolving the PA of any responsibility. Israelis were to be commended for their fortitude and perseverance. The IDF and border police were to be congratulated for the steps they have taken to stem the violence. Included in those steps have been house demolitions, restrictions on work permits and resistance to the militant pressure. Most of all, Israelis were to be praised for adopting an attitude that, “Life goes on.”

The violence, DJ contended, was not the result of Israeli untoward political or otherwise militant responses, let alone initiatives, or even a role of tit for tat as depicted in some media. The issue was not one of inappropriate Israeli actions and reactions. Israeli responses inhibit violence in the first instance and then prevent it becoming lethal in the second sense. What Israel would not do was offer concessions that would be perceived as rewarding violence or that Israel would remain passive in the face of violent confrontation and deliberate misrepresentations.

This interpretation ignores the fact that the IDF had strongly recommended that a number of steps be taken to ease restrictions on the West Bank to decrease the tensions building up, but the government did not act on them, and now will not act lest the government be perceived as giving in to terror. However, when Israel does respect Palestinian rights to due process, freedom of movement, representation on zoning decision-making bodies, Israel earns considerable goodwill. This was the conclusion of both the IDF and the intelligence services, but the government did not act on that evaluation. Of course, those who refuse to accept the Palestinians as having any sovereign or self-governing authority, those so-called “concessions,” simply straightforward recognition of a partnership between two people sharing and dividing a piece of land, with the Palestinians still only netting 22%, those gestures are simply perceived as another step in the surrender of Israeli authority over all of Palestine – which, of course, they are.

DJ’s main thesis concerned the identification of the violence in Israel with the wave of extremist violence around the world rooted in an ideology of the supremacy of Islam, the exclusive rights of Islam, and the repression or even elimination of infidels. The immediate terrorist acts were intended to sew fear, wreck havoc and spread that fear through the population using, not simply violence, but the slick use of social media. DJ contended that the Iranians were complicit in this terrorism as Shia fought Sunni, as old regimes contended with new and younger challengers, and as the West refused to put boots on the ground to confront the scourge. In contrast, Israeli security forces, police and intelligence were on the front lines. For DJ, it must be understood that Palestinian terrorists and ISIS or al-Qaeda all drank from the same ideological well. Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIL, were at their foundations similar in glorifying death as a presumed moral ideal.

Amjad Iraqi wrote that, “Suggestions that terrorism springs from the same well as terrorism in Israel are misleading and dangerous. Erasing complexity may be a comfort in difficult days like these, but conflating the varying causes of violence won’t help us end it.” He went on to decry the comparison further. “Under the guise of attempting to arrange the current wave of global violence into some kind of cohesive narrative, and with the debate on terrorism at saturation point, many observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict have seized on the opportunity to situate the bloodshed here as springing from the vaguely-defined, amorphous phenomenon of ‘global jihad’ or ‘militant Islam’. This line of reasoning posits Islamic State, Hamas and lone-wolf attackers on the streets of Israel-Palestine within the same nexus of expansionist religious fanaticism and has been adopted enthusiastically in Israel, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downward.”

In the case of Israel, the nationalist-political dimensions were ignored in the equation. The killings were simply attributed to Islamist extremism. Peace talks may not be on the agenda for a number of reasons, but whitewashing the occupation does not help tackle the problem. Further, it allows Israeli leaders to position the settlements as the frontline in the fight against terror instead of attempts at expanding the territorial acquisitions by Israel. Saying this does not mean one condones or justifies the killings or even blames the killings on the so-called oppressors. On the other hand, the equation of various types of terrorism in this way allows us to forget George W. Bush’s war against Iraq that played such an important part in destabilizing the Middle East.

Context is important. Different trajectories are important. To sweep everything up into an overarching grand simplistic narrative leads us, not only to bad explanations, but to ill-fitting solutions. It is certainly true that the successes of Israel and Western governments in countering these threats cannot simply be based on dealing with direct challenges. Many plots and attacks have been thwarted. Look at the list in Israel alone – over 100 attacks and attempted terrorist initiatives by over 100 Palestinians and even three Israeli Palestinians. Just yesterday, a Palestinian male was shot after stabbing an Israeli man in the West Bank in the latest incident in a two-month spate of attacks that has left 19 Israelis, 1 American and 89 Palestinians dead. However, only 57 of those deaths were reported to be attackers; the rest were allegedly killed in clashes with police, suggesting that some innocent Palestinians have also been killed.

In the meanwhile, as DJ contended, Israelis are determined to go on and not only survive, but to live well. They will continue to do so as the government attempts to balance the protection of individual rights with measures needed to be taken to protect its citizens. Israel continues to have a thriving democracy. We are all in for the long haul, DJ insisted. The terrorists will not be defeated either easily or quickly. More assets and resources need to be put into this battle by all democratic governments. However, the peace process will not proceed until the violence ceases.

Even concessions, such as raising restrictions on road access, easing travel and work permits or releasing prisoners will not be contemplated as long as the violence continues. In any case, there is no silver bullet and DJ rejected suggestions by at least three callers that Israel take more forceful actions against Palestinians in general as advocated by Naftali Bennet. This possibility was firmly and unequivocally rejected. All actions have both intended and unintended consequences that all have to weighed lest the decisions made increase rather than decrease insecurity.

Thus, generally, there are two basic conflicting narratives, and two versions of each. All four have their own corresponding response strategies. For the right, the violence is totally the fault of extremist, unrepentant violent killers propelled by an ideology of both death and triumphalism (Naftali Bennett). Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked joined Bennett in launching a campaign to initiate “Operation Defensive Shield 2.” They argue that the only appropriate response is the one akin to that launched by Former Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, after the attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 30 Israelis. In six weeks, that violent insurrection was totally smashed. Use overwhelming force. Crush the insurrection. Netanyahu, they claim in an appeal to their settler backers, is weak and ineffectual.

Other right-of-centre proponents, like DJ, moderate their responses and do not opt for an all out war and extermination of the scourge. Rather, they advocate managing the problem rather than exacerbating it by an approach that insists on a dramatic and much more robust military response.

Similarly, the left or dovish narrative also has a more moderate position than the views of those dubbed “grievance freaks” by the right. It suggests combining gestures, both symbolic and real, with initiatives that will enlist Mahmoud Abbas more actively in suppressing the violence in recognition that Abbas is not complict in abetting the violence. This interpretation is endorsed by many if not most in the IDF leadership and the intelligence corps. Instead, Abbas is only hanging onto his diminishing authority by a thread and refuses to take initiatives that would sever that thread altogether. Demolishing homes of families of attackers, shooting to kill, a greatly increased military presence in the lives of the Palestinians, only enhance rather than calm the raging waters. The response must be appropriate to the type of terrorism, for it is violence without a central address or a central headquarters by youth bent on killing or wounding Israelis on their, the attackers’, path to self-destruction. No known intelligence system can anticipate such acts, making them all the more frightening.

Certainly, the killers are greeted as heroes and martyrs after they die, even as the Palestinian leadership ostensibly disagrees with the tactics. For their cause is applauded, not the specific action. On the other hand, in Israel, DJ was correct in saying that the majority of Jewish Israelis have no stomach for further negotiations with the Palestinians without some real movement from the other side. Any concessions would benefit the Palestinians and reduce the power, authority and influence of Israel over territories without anything concrete in return, for piecemeal concessions do not bring peace. So Israelis elect a leader who promises to do everything to see that nothing is done on this front.

The result: ignoring IDF advice and building up explosive pressure that erupts in a really violent outbreak which, unfortunately, is akin to the first intifada which resulted in Oslo, and the second which resulted in withdrawal from Gaza. Failing to take small preventive steps ends up requiring much larger ones. We know that from the treatment of diseases. The lesson also applies to social maladies.

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler

Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler


Howard Adelman

John Wick and Nightcrawler are both action thrillers with a great deal of violence. But they are very different movies. Chad Stahelski, a former stunt assistant director and the novice movie director of John Wick, has positioned his revenge movie somewhere between Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (I never saw Vol. 2) and David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence. As in the latter comic book novel on which the film is based, John Wick is mostly a flashback to just before the current phase of violence until its culmination. Unlike A History of Violence, where the hero instigated his fallout with the mob, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his role as a mob hit man on good terms with the New York-based Russian crime family because he had met the love of his life and had performed the almost impossible assignment for the Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), of eliminating the latter’s mob rivals. That stunning performance (not shown) earned John his exit ticket from the criminal underworld.

The revenge and his re-entry into murder and mayhem are propelled initially because of a total coincidence – Josef Tarasov (Afie Allen), the spoiled son of his former employer, develops the hots for the 1969 vintage Mustang convertible that John drives when Josef sees it parked at a coffee shop. In a home invasion that night, Josef and his bodyguards beat John up. In the process, Josef kills John’s dog, Daisy, a gift of his late recently departed and much loved wife who died of cancer. All of the above takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie. The quest for revenge is spurred by the violent murder of Daisy.

Why does John retire in the same city in which the Russian mob holds total sway? How is it that neither Josef nor his two sidekicks know of the infamous John Wicks, dubbed the bogeyman? How can only three men at the beginning of the mobster film beat John to a pulp when, in the rest of the movie, in a series of three different scenes, John Wick slaughters scores – literally scores – of Russian mobsters? Could the answer be because he had buried his enormous collection of firearms in concrete before he retired? Without guns, he is literally a sitting duck, whereas once the weapons are unburied, he can beat anyone in boxing, wrestling, and using the most violent of the martial arts, though his main tool of slaughter is the machine gun and the pistol. But if you have to ask questions about realism and causation, then the film has not swallowed you in the high kinetic pace of a series of brilliantly staged massacres. After all, the intelligence of the movie has been concentrated in stunt driving and the most graphic murder scenes.

My wife, who said the movie was the worst she had ever seen – she is not a lover of violent action thrillers – thought it must have been a spoof. Kill Bill is a spoof since Tarantino directed it with choreographic brilliance and with his tongue in his cheek. Tarantino is a consummate craftsman with a fantastic sense of humour. I could not find an ounce of comedy or satire in John Wick. It was but one scene of murder and mayhem followed by another, with only the slenderest thread tying the scenes together. Instead of serving as an implicit commentary on the genre of violent films or even as a more explicit one as in A History of Violence, the violence in John Wick consists only of cinematic effects, though the latter are brilliantly executed.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill arises like Lazarus from the dead – a victim of murder by Bill of her whole bridal party. She alone survived in a coma for years. Keanu Reeves recovers by the next scene. John Wick lacks any of the tricks of magic realism that so infused Kill Bill and transformed the genre of action thriller into a fairy tale for modern times with no narrative. The plot takes no more than a sentence to describe. In John Wick, it takes three or four sentences, and that is at least two too many. The far too long plot line with a few twists never offers enough to create mystery, but strings together too many sequences that provide plenty of time to question the slender artifice on which the film rests. It would have been better to rely on the sheer gratuitous quality of the action.

In the fairy tale, the tailor kills 99 in a single blow, Uma Thurman killed 88 in Kill Bill – along with an assortment of bodyguards and specialized murderers. The body count in John Wick seems to closely rival Tarantino’s send up of violent thriller movies, except there are two other specialist hit men in John Wick – Marcus (Willem Dafoe), his former mentor and friend, now hired by Viggo as John’s executioner to protect Josef, and the more interesting and most comic figure in the movie, Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), the female assassin. As in Kill Bill, the thrust of the film supposedly comes from the depth of John’s vengeance as well as the breadth of his murderous skills, but with respect to the motivation, as the pursued cowardly bully, Josef, says in the most unintended comic line of the movie before being dispatched by John Wick in revenge for Daisy’s death – all this because I killed your f…ing bitch dog?

Since most of John Wick is a flashback of John’s fallout with Viggo over John’s intention to kill Josef in revenge for Daisy’s death, one might have expected the film to have been a flic about character using the genre of a revenge thriller, but instead John Wick turned towards stale plot devices of a dozen violent predecessors to hold the action scenes together. The violence is displayed in graphic detail without the gore of the 2010 Kick-Ass and without any indication of any theme such as the one Cronenberg provided on violence. There is no hint that we in the audience have any role or responsibility for this violence.

This is not true of Nightcrawler directed by another novice director, but experienced screenwriter, Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script. That movie is a thriller chiller on a whole different plane than John Wick. Just as tow truck operators listen to police dispatchers to learn the location of accident scenes, nightcrawlers use the same frequencies for the same reason but for a different purpose — to get video tapes of the victims to sell to TV stations. If John Wick leaves you on the edge of your seat with the frenetic pace of the slaughters, the ghoulish Nightcrawler worms its way into your intestines as Lou Bloom, played with outstanding brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal, progresses from a scavenger of scrap to his rise to eminence as the ironic poster boy for entrepreneurship, self-help and a Műnchhausian dirty determination to raise himself by his own bootstraps to a business CEO in a media-crazed age. Nightcrawler is a worthy successor to The History of Violence.

Though Nightcrawler does not adopt Cronenberg’s Hobbesian metaphysic that violence is an integral element in our DNA, the love of violence of Lou is perceived as simply a byproduct of a consumer rather than a producer culture of violence reinforced by media news that caters to our lowly tastes. The news director in Nightcrawler, Nina (played by Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo as a paean to Faye Dunaway in Network but with more wrinkles and eye shadow) sums it up: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The supreme achievement is to broadcast a screaming woman with her throat cut running in panic in a quiet upscale neighbourhood. On many stations, the mantra of seeing a woman bleed in a safe suburb infiltrated by urban violence has become the marker for the appeal of much local evening TV news. [Incidentally, the movie also includes Gilroy’s brother Tony as a producer and his brother John as the editor, a documented refutation that the film is autobiographical in any way.]

It is not so much that we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, but that our passion for consuming visions of violence propel media news in a system founded on the need for advertisers to cater to our tastes. Nightcrawler does not adopt the discarded theory that violence on television breeds violence in the streets, but rather adopts the position that the taste for violence in the streets leads to the emphasis on violence on our screens that, in turn, allows a psychopathic petty criminal with a degree of intelligence sharpened into self-learning through home schooling, spouting the potted business mantras of his auto-didact education, to rise in the cut-throat business world to create his own nascent business empire.

Even though Jake’s character, Lou Bloom, unlike John Wisk, never acts directly as the executioner, he brilliantly sets the scenes for the execution of others – whether his competitor in the nightcrawling video business, the cops or his own employee, Rick, played with hysterical passivity by Riz Ahmed. Lou progresses from a chaser of news to a shaper and composer of news to a creator of the news itself. He becomes his own director to a racing beat but without the frenetic energy of John Wick. In the process, we gradually learn the depth of his madness and the breadth to which this form of psychopathy has penetrated. Jake Gyllenhaal increasingly stares with concentrated attention and gleeful penetration with eyes sunk in deep sockets exaggerated by his loss of 28 pounds to play the part. He sees what we evidently want to see but look away when it is in front of our eyes. However, when presented through the media of television, we watch with unblinking and mesmerized fervor.

On 14 June 2014, Nancy and I arrived in Dublin just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday. If Leopold Bloom, a Christian convert who was a blend of wandering Jew and the Greek hero Ulysses, walked the streets of Dublin observing and describing his fellow Dubliners with the distance and detachment of a Jewish eye over a 24-hour period, Lou in contrast to Leopold stalks and rides the avenues of the nighttime in film noir Los Angeles, not to describe its life, but its violence and love affair with death. If New York in John Wisk is gloomy with haze and pouring rain, the night air of Los Angeles is murky and bleak. Each movie has numerous stock scenes – in John Wisk, a nightclub, a church which is a front for the mobster’s bank, a depopulated industrial remnant presumably in New Jersey, and the choice of the iconic scenes of Los Angeles of Venice Beach, the LA airport, palm trees and oil derricks – the selection seems more deliberate in Nightcrawler for that movie is as much about Los Angeles as it is about an individual nutcase.

If Leopold Bloom in Ulysses was modest, Lou Bloom has chutzpah in spades, even if there is no suggestion that he is Jewish. However, just as his namesake did in Dublin, Lou unveils the mundane and the intimate of daily life, but its very dark side. If Leopold was a consumer of inner organs of beasts and fowls, stuffed roast heart and liver slices, Lou is a visual consumer of human carrion, of human hearts and bleeding internal organs. Both Leopold and Lou are driven by their appetites and both have a penchant for voyeurism, but Lou’s appetites have morphed into the macabre while Leopold, even as he frets over the affair of his wife, Molly, and the death of both his son and his friend, always exhibits a sense of humanism and tolerance. Lou, in contrast to Leopold, is a loner, and in contrast to the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is, paradoxically, gregarious. Lou is a gregarious loner in a world where madness has simply become ordinary corporate practice. In this movie we are purportedly exposed to the real Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank.

If Leopold detests violence, Lou is smitten with it. And unlike John Wick, there is a real progression rather than simple repetition in the type and scale of the violence. In radical French philosophy, Leopold Bloom is the archetype of loss of identity and political apathy for a nihilistic mass contemporary culture. Lou Bloom is its apotheosis where the divine has become truly satanic. While Leopold always thinks in the poetic English of the Irish, Lou speaks with the metronomic patter of managerial textbook jargon that reveals its ghoulish qualities so that it truly and literally becomes wickedly funny.

In all its horror and action, it is a very comic film.

An Inside Post-Mortem: The Connection Between Violence and Peace

An Inside Post-Mortem: The Connection Between Violence and Peace


Howard Adelman

On Friday, after I published my analysis on Jerusalem as the key stumbling block in moving forward on a peace agreement, an article entitled, “U.S. post-mortem on peace talks: Israel killed them,” appeared in +972, a blog-based web magazine. That blog was reprinted and re-circulated by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) dedicated to promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The post-mortem was evidently based on non-attributable interviews by Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth with U.S. officials involved in the negotiations.

What has to be recognized is that I (and many others) rely on tracking the data on Israeli settlement activities through the reports of the FMEP edited by Geoffrey Aronson. (Cf. Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories) What also has to be known is that since Merle Thorpe Jr. founded the FMEP in 1979 and published her book, Prescription for Conflict: Israel’s West Bank Settlement Policy in 1984, FMEP has always held the position that the settlements are the main obstacle to peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. As has been clear, it is not an interpretation with which I agree, but it is the thrust of the results of the unattributed interviews with American officials and certainly of both Peace Now and B’tselem which also track settlement activities. I will deal with that thesis in tomorrow’s blog.

The big noise that arose out of the publication of the summary of the interviews in Israel focused not on the analysis of blame but on the remark that, “It seemed as if we’re in need of another intifada to create the circumstances that will allow for progress,” even though instant clarification noted that the American participants regarded such a possibility, not as something to be welcomed, but as a tragedy. Nevertheless, they believed that recent history indicated that Israeli-Arab peace only happens after war makes it urgent.

Before I turn to the full post-mortem tomorrow, let me deal with the connection between an intifada as a catalyst to peace with the Palestinians and the more general thesis that war has been the catalyst to peace between Israel and Arab states. This specific correlation became a truism when the 1967 war brought Sadat to the realization that he had to make peace with Israel, but he had to instigate the 1973 war in order to get Israel to draw the same conclusion. As a result, the Egyptian-Israel Peace Accord was signed six years later. There was at least some plausibility in the simplistic connection in this case.

However, the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty was signed in 1994. Was that a product of the 1987-1991 first intifada? Was the Oslo process a result of that intifada?  What is not debated is that immediately after the eruption of the intifada in 1987, Shaikh Ahmed Yassin created Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which Israel had been supporting to counter-balance the PLO. Instead of remaining committed to non-violence, Hamas took up arms against Israel. As an immediate result, in the first full year of the intifada, 304 Palestinians, 6 Israeli civilians and 4 IDF soldiers were killed.

Most significantly, Israeli naval commandos killed Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) in Tunis in April. This refugee from Ramla completely committed to the right of return and the elimination of Israel, the militant behind Black September in Jordan and the terrorist incursions into Israel from Lebanon, the co-founder with Arafat of Fatah and the leader of its militant wing, al-Assifa, and the key organizer of the youth committees that instigated the intifada in the West Bank in December of 1987, was the Palestinian leader most committed to the military overthrow of Israel. His death – setting aside the deaths of 300 other Palestinians – was the initial most significant outcome of the intifada because his elimination meant that the greatest obstacle to a rapprochement between the Palestinians and Israel had been removed. In that very ironic sense, the intifada did help create the possibility for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There was a second outcome of the first year of the intifada that also dialectically facilitated peace between Israel and Jordan. In August of 1988, King Hussein of Jordan abandoned any claims to the West Bank, his first key step in forging a separate peace with Israel. In that sense, the intifada had instigated a peace deal, but not because of its effects on Israel, but because of its effects on Jordan, especially when the Palestinian National Council in Algiers then declared an independent State of Palestine. If the Palestinians could go ahead ignoring Jordan on top of instigating war against Jordan in Black September, Jordan was preparing itself to forge a peace independent of the Palestinians.

In the subsequent three years of the intifada, the huge disproportion between Palestinians and Israelis killed recurred each year until it became clear to Arafat that the only outcome of the intifada had been suffering for the Palestinians and tremendous loss of material assets as well as greatly increased repression by the occupation forces. The Palestinian intifada had been a bust except that some leaders, in addition to Faisal Husseini who had been among a small minority promoting non-violent resistance, began to believe that armed resistance was not the path to self-determination. But the intifada had buried that idea temporarily. At the same time, doubts deepened over whether Arafat had surrendered his belief in the use of violence to achieve peace.

What is also undeniable is that the Madrid Conference was a direct product of the end of the intifada as was the UN resolution retracting by a substantial majority the equation of Zionism with racism. However, the Madrid Conference was also a failure. Further, the killing of Palestinians in great disproportion to Israelis continued on virtually the same scale through 1992 and 1993 as when the intifada was in full force as Israelis engaged in mopping up operations of those still committed to violent revolt. However, via the Track II route, Israelis and Palestinians had been meeting in a multiple of tributaries – when I was involved, I counted 18 – but one which most of us knew nothing about led to Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signing the Oslo Accords in August of 1993. In one sense, this was an outcome of the first intifada, not as implied by making the Israelis more amenable to a peace agreement, but by making the Palestinian leadership recognize that violence was not the best route to an independent Israeli state.

So all of the immediate and direct outcomes of the first intifada had to do with the effects on the Arab (Jordan) and Palestinian positions and not on Israel’s position. Perhaps not all. It seems that the intifada could have played a significant role in the growing recognition by the Israeli right that they could not achieve the vision of a Greater Israel and that they began to recognize that an independent Palestinian state would have to develop in the West Bank. I happen to believe that this shift in perception would have come quicker without the intifada, but that would be difficult to prove. In any case, Rabin had all along been prepared for a two state solution and the intifada only made him very cautious in approaching that possibility.

Further, the series of killings of Israelis that followed Oslo and the Jordanian peace process in 1995 alienated many Israelis from the peace process: the Beit Lit massacre by Islamic Jihad in January that killed 21, the Kfar Darom bus attack in April that killed 8 and injured 52, the Ramat Gan bus bombing in July that killed 6 and wounded 33, the Ramat Ashkol bus bombing in August by Hamas that killed 5 and wounded 100. The more obvious conclusions that many Israelis drew, though equally simplistic as the conclusion connecting intifadas as a causal condition of peace agreements, is that, in fact, peace agreements bring more violence than the combination of occupation and any uprising by the Palestinians.

What about the connection between Intifada II and peace? When Ariel Sharon took a stroll on the Haram al-Sharif or the Temple Mount in September of 2000, clashes between Palestinian militants and Israeli police allegedly set off what Arafat dubbed the Al-Aqsa Intifada. We only learned much later from Imhad Falouji, the PA Minister of Communications, that, in fact, the intifada had been planned ever since the failure of the Camp David negotiations. In examining the argument that violence leads to peace, two reverse propositions seem to have much greater truth: failure of peace leads to violence, and peace agreements can just as well produce violence. Since both peace and its failure can both be connected with an upsurge of violence, it seems both absurd to suggest that another intifada may be needed to bring about peace, even if you agree that violence is a tragic course.

The outbreak of the second intifada led the newly elected Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to call off peace negotiations in the aftermath of Taba. The lynching of two Israeli soldiers in a Palestinian police station in Ramallah in 2000, the deliberate killing of an Israeli baby by a Palestinian sniper and the Dolphinarium massacre by a Hamas suicide bomber killing 21 young Israelis and wounding 100, the August Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing that killed 15 including 7 children and a pregnant mother, and the December Hamas suicide bombing killing 9 teenagers and wounding 188, encouraged Israelis to turn against peace and accommodation with the Palestinians. After 131 Israelis were killed in March 2002, Israelis once again turned to extensive use of repressive force though suicide bombings continued. The full scale Operation Defensive Shield was launched at the end of March at the same time as the Tel Aviv café suicide bombing and the Haifa Hamas suicide bombing of the Arab Matza restaurant that killed 15 Israelis.

The result was enhanced security, enhanced repression of Palestinians and the construction of the Security wall/fence that eventually could be directly correlated with a severe reduction in violence against Israeli civilians, though during the process the pattern of suicide bombings continued — including the junction massacre killing 19 Israelis and wounding 74, the Immanuel bus attack that killed 9 Israelis, the Hebrew University massacre that killed 9 students, the Karkur junction suicide bombing that killed 14, the Jerusalem bus massacre in November of 2002 and the Hamas suicide bombing on bus 20 that killed 11 and wounded over 50. By the time the Quartet at the end of April 2003 announced a road map for peace and two months later Hamas, Jihad and Fatah agreed to a three month truce, many more instances of terrorism had taken place. Though the International Court of Justice in an informal ruling declared the security barrier being constructed by Israel as illegal, there was a closer connection between the security barrier and the reduction of violence than any connection between the violence and peace. The belief in connecting the intifadas with instigating peace is a myth with virtually no empirical evidence to back the thesis up. If members of Martin Indyk’s team really held such views, then I was completely incorrect in praising the quality of the team the Americans sent.  

Did tit for tat military responses bring about the peace? I doubt if there is a 1:1 connection. The October 2004 military operation, “Days of Penitence” in Gaza, along with the construction of the security barrier, was followed by a significant reduction in the killing of Israelis in  2005. This was followed by a unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza by Israel, not peace, and that was followed by the appearance of a unity government among the Palestinians – that needless to say did not last – and the initiation of the Annapolis Conference to discuss peace in November 2007, but the unilateral withdrawal and the peace talks only led to a much bigger war, the devastating Israeli Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza that killed 1300 Palestinians before it was terminated 22 days later in January of 2009. 

The 2010 Fall direct talks followed and, like the 2013-14 talks, they too ended in failure. I find it impossible to make a 1:1 correlation between an upsurge in violence and peace. So why would mediators engaged in the peace process utter such a mythological connection?

Tomorrow: the building of settlements as the key obstacle to peace.

Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave                                                                                 


Howard Adelman


Last evening, Nancy and I went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave. I have no intention of giving the story away and depriving you of your enjoyment, even though there is little to “enjoy” in this brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing movie. You will have to take it on trust that there is relatively little plot in any case – just a series of events cascading unremittingly downwards. Appropriately, given the film’s structure, I will use analogy to depict the film, but you may prefer to see the movie first before you read the blog.

Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is to the American institution of slavery what Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg (that other Steven) is to the Holocaust. Only Twelve Years a Slave is a better film as terrific as Schindler’s List was as a movie. It is better because it is even more gritty and horrific than Spielberg’s authentic account of the clearing of the Krakow ghetto while also much more profound. The surrounding story of Oscar Schindler was a Hollywood fictional character even if based on a historical one, one so successful that it has largely been adopted by official accounts, including that of Yad Vashem. Oscar Schindler was, in reality, a spy against the Nazis for the Abswehr, a money runner for the Zionists and a philo-semite from youth when his two best friends who lived next door to him were sons of a rabbi. Though in real life also a philanderer and gambler, in the movie he is also portrayed as an opportunistic Nazi who undergoes an epiphany when he sees the girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Krakow ghetto – the only colour scene in the movie before the ending. Oscar Schindler henceforth dedicates himself to saving a small remnant of about 1100 Jews. This Christian overlay of simplistic personal sin and redemption is so typical of Hollywood films on the Holocaust; the film ends not only with Christian redemption but with the redemption of the Jews in the promised land of Israel continuing the link in the imaginary eye of the triumphal creation of Israel with the horror of the Holocaust as its precondition. This contrasts markedly with the role of Christianity in Twelve Years a Slave – but more on this later.

Both movies are about a very tiny minority, Schindler’s List about one relatively small group among an absolute relatively small total who were actually saved from the Holocaust, while Twelve Years a Slave is about an even smaller group of relatively free Blacks captured and sold into slavery and an even much tinier group of Blacks who were restored to their free status. But Schindler’s List focused on seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a redeemed Christian through whom the redemption of the Jews in general is made possible. Twelve Years a Slave shows slavery as it was perceived, experienced and felt, slavery as it was beaten into the flesh and the mindset of one man, a former free man from Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon Northup, born free, well educated and relatively prosperous with his own home and thriving musical career as a violinist, is tricked and sold into slavery at a slave sale in New Orleans in Louisiana.

Steve McQueen and Steve Spielberg share another element in common. Spielberg cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in his 1997 critically acclaimed film Amistad. In Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor plays the main character (Pratt, née Solomon Northrup) utilizing very few words but a myriad of facial expressions and bodily movements to reveal his character and thoughts. Both films are about non-gratuitous, almost banal, violence and racism. But the differences far outweigh the similarities between the two films, especially the main subject matter of each. Though Schindler’s List is unequivocally a Holocaust film, Twelve Years a Slave is about much more than slavery. It is about the inferno, purgatory and heaven that one man goes through depicted with the poetic imagery of a modern-day Dante.

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s best-selling memoir of his life when he was captured as a free man and sold into slavery in 1841. We know from the title of the film that he will be rescued and redeemed after twelve years of unremitting torture. Solomon, presumably the wise, but actually naïve northern prosperous Black, is, like Dante, in his mid-thirties when he begins his descent. Solomon is like one of those ancient soothsayers with his head screwed on backwards as he wallows in his success and glories in his prosperity just as Job once did. But his face is really “twisted toward his haunches
and (he) found it necessary to walk backward because he could not see ahead.”  The film is a backward path and a downward descent beyond hell into purgatory before Solomon is rescued and restored to paradise.

The first part of the film quickly traduced begins with a prosperous Solomon seen with his wife and two children in Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon tucks his two children into bed insisting they go to sleep quietly and make no noise, an ironic adumbration of his own future where his own voice had to be shut down lest he give offence to whites after he is sold into slavery. The family owns their own home and Solomon travels extensively on concert tours. He has white friends. He, his wife and children are all well dressed. In one incident at a general store, a black man, who has presumably slipped away from his master, approaches Solomon to speak to him, but Solomon is distracted by his wife’s demand to purchase a new handbag of the latest design and the approaching black man is found by his master before he has a chance to speak. The descent into Hell begins with this most casual sin of indulgence and the “poetic justice” meted out against Solomon. So passes the first sin and the beginning of the descent into hell disguised by the peace and generally non-racist tenor of this superficially idyllic scene.

The animal in Dante’s Commedia first encountered is the black and white leopard, which, for Dante, represented the radical political split between the Black Guelphs (the political papists), in this film, actual Blacks who were to be saved by what the state rights advocates argued was the new imperial president in Washington, and the White Guelphs, in this film, the white southerners who opposed the imperialist or strong federalist claims of Washington. Dante was then the Chief Magistrate of Florence and saw himself as a keeper of the peace by serving as a bridge between two radically divided worlds. What begins in mild material indulgence quickly descends into the other sins of indulgence on the first level of the inferno, before descending further into the hell of violence and malice.

At the upper level of Hell we encounter four other types of self-indulgent sins before we descend lower into the middle reaches of hell where two types of violent sin await Solomon and then, at the base, the two types of malicious sin. In 1841, Northup met Merrill Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Abram Hamilton (Taran Killam) who claim to be entertainers. They offer Solomon a position with a very high pay – one dollar for each day on the road and an extra three dollars for every show he plays – for playing the violin as part of a travelling Circus Company. They meet Solomon in Washington, where the deeds they practiced were not then illegal, and they ply Solomon with both drink and flattery. As a result of his naiveré and lack of sufficient wariness, Solomon ends up drunk and wakes up only to find himself bound in chains in a slave cell in Washington cast into the second circle of the first level of hell and insensibility.

Solomon refuses to believe he has been tricked and betrayed by Brown and Hamilton and insists that his new-found friends were artists, not kidnappers. Solomon is in denial. He threatens his jailers, John Birch (Christopher Berry) and his turnkey, Ebenezer Radburn (Bill Camp), with justice and has no true recognition of the perilous state in which he finds himself. This appeal to and belief justice in the face of blatant evil is the third circle of indulgence expressed by Solomon.

Radburn beats Northup to silence his claim that he is a free man and insists he is a Georgian runaway slave whose name is Pratt. On top of the material indulgence, Solomon’s sense of pride, his belief and faith in justice, he now has to surrender his faith in truth and even his own identity. In the upper level of hell, Solomon is stripped of all he believes in – prosperity, success, self pride, a belief in justice and in truth, and even his own sense of self. Solomon is ready to be transported to middle-Hell.

With other slaves he purchased, Birch ships Solomon by sea to New Orleans to his partner, Theophilus Freeman, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti. En route, it is clear we are in hell as coal is shoveled into the furnaces of the steamer and as we watch the ripples of water left behind and viewed through the repetitive slats of the paddlewheel of the steamer. The circle goes round and round and down and down. In New Orleans, we encounter gratuitous violence, violence rooted in ideology rather than utility, and we are now beyond the level of indulgence. Upon his arrival in the middle level of hell, Solomon watches helplessly as his Virgil, who taught him the ways of survival, how to stay hidden and betray yourself to save yourself, is set free, if not from slavery, at least from the horrors that Solomon will continue to face. Solomon has been cast into his hell by what are otherwise ordinary or even noble beliefs, conceived as indulgences in a country strongly rooted in institutionalized slavery. Solomon now must truly encounter the sins of others.

The first circle of violence is the treatment of the captives as less than human. Freeman tells his buyers that the young boy, whom he ruthlessly separates form his mother, will grow into a fine and strong beast. It is as if he is displaying cattle for sale as he lauds the bodies of the slaves and haggles over the monetary value of each. He will not compromise on a sale in consideration of the feeling of the inconsolable mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children by the garrulous Freeman who wallows in his own logorrhea.

We experience a twofold violence, violation of the individuals treated as mere meat and violation of any human relationships. But that violence will bear little resemblance to the third and bottom circle of hell when Solomon is confronted, not with simple greed and inhumanity, but with actual malice. The malice stands in stark contrast with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the “good slave owner” who purchases Solomon and Eliza. Ford ineffectually tried to convince Freeman to at least keep the girl with her mother, but to no avail. Though a good and sincere man, he is still a slave owner, but also a moral coward as Eliza points out to Solomon. Ford’s wife is less sensitive; she tells the grieving and inconsolable Eliza who will not be comforted that she will soon forget her children.

Solomon’s intelligence and creativity flourish under Ford and he successfully suggests tying the cleared logs to together to ship them down river to the saw mill or market. John M. Tibault, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dano, oversees the work of Ford’s slaves picking cotton to the tune of Tibault singing “Run Nigger Run”, ironically, originally a Negro folk song cheering slave flight and warning that time is running out, but sung as a demeaning song about Blacks who steal crops and run from the “pattarolls”.

Oh run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run nigger flew

Nigger tore his shirt in two

Run run the patty roller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run through the field

Black slick coal and barley heel

Run nigger run the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Some folks say a nigger won’t steal

I caught three in my corn field

One has a bushel

And one has a peck

One had a rope and it was hung around his neck

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Oh nigger run and nigger flew

Why in the devil can’t a white man chew

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Hey Mr. Patty roller don’t catch me

Catch that nigger behind that tree

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away 

Nigger run, run so fast

Nigger, he got away at last

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

However, for an unexplained reason, Ford gets into financial difficulties and has to sell some slaves to settle his debts to Tibaut. But Ford continues to hold a chattel mortgage on Solomon for the unpaid part of the sale. Tibault is the exemplification of malice driving violence. He resents Solomon’s smarts. Tibault challenges Solomon’s uses of nails provided by Ford’s overseer, Chapin. Chapin intervenes and Solomon speaks up, asserting that Tibault wanted to beat him for using the nails that Chapin provided. When Chapin challenges Tibault, asking what’s wrong with the nails, Tibault does not reply but stares malevolently at Solomon. Chapin walks away with Tibault evidently trying to quiet Tibault’s furious resentment at being upstaged and put in his place by a black slave.

In a subsequent confrontation, Tibault attacks Solomon for a second time when he arrives with two others (Cook and Ramsey) on horseback with whips and a rope. Thibault attempts to hang Solomon, but Ford’s overseer, Chapin, intervenes, and reminds Tibault that he has a debt to Ford, secured by a chattel mortgage on Solomon, so hurting or killing Solomon would in law be an attack on Ford’s property. Chapin also threatens Thibault’s two companions and they ride off. Tibault sneaks off in shame. However, Chapin does not cut Solomon down even though Solomon’s toes barely touch the ground. After a number of hours, Ford comes to the rescue and releases Solomon from his noose.

Why did Chapin allow Solomon to continue to hang just after having rescued him? The implied answer is that Chapin’s malice is even worse and a different order of sin than Thibault’s overt hatred and resentment even as he appears as a rescuer. For at least Tibault’s malice was worn on his sleeve, whereas Chapin’s resentment goes much deeper and his violence is more indirect and cloaked in protectionism and the rule of law. 

When we reach the bottom of hell, the movie’s real horrors are just about to really begin. For we now transition from hell to purgatory when Solomon transits through a short period clearing land of cane, trees and undergrowth to prepare the land for planting cotton before title to himself as a chattel is sold to the venomous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender who starred in McQuuen’s two previous feature films – Hunger about the 1981 northern Irish hunger strike and Shame about a sexaholic) on a cotton plantation where slavery is pure torture but where repression is finally linked to desire and not just survival, to eros, admittedly a perverted eros in the various forms of lust, gluttony and greed, sloth and malicious love mixing wrath, envy and pride as Patsey, played in an Oscar winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, becomes the object of Epp’s passion and wrath, his pride and disdain, as he whips Patsey in the most horrendous scene of the movie as black skin is torn open by the lashes to reveal the pink and blood soaked  bloody flesh beneath.


Tomorrow; Purgatory and Paradise