Saturday, 4 May 2013
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
To live in Israel is barely to begin to understand it.
You’ve just learned to nail jelly to the wall, step back to admire your handiwork, only to watch it slither off and cause you to trip up over the mess!
So it is with cinema. I often boast that we’re treated to popular movies many months before they’re released in the U.K. or Europe.
But now I’ve discovered that Zaytoun (Olives), a new film directed by Israeli Eran Riklis and which opened here on Thursday last week, was viewed as ‘feel good’ Christmas fare by British audiences in December last year.
It was a great pity, moreover, that a bare half-dozen middle-aged viewers were at the Saturday night screening in Nahariya. Were others deterred as some of Riklis’s previous work like Lemon Tree has proved unpopular with local audiences? That notwithstanding, I felt like saying to those present, “just think, we’re so near to where the action takes place, I suggest we get out of here and investigate its truth”.
The storyline, set during the 1982 Lebanon War, traces the unlikely but growing affection between an Israeli fighter pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff), and a Palestinian boy, Fahed (Abedallah El Akal). They meet after Yoni is shot down and captured outside the Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut where the boy lives and is being trained in terrorism. Fahed and his friends are left to guard Yoni. But Fahed is persuaded to free him in exchange for helping him to get over the border into Israel where he wants to plant an olive tree at his family’s abandoned home.
Objective critics have dismissed the film as fanciful; a mere road-cum-buddy movie. But it’s much more than that. While the professionals sneer at it for being hugely entertaining but whimsically twee, I believe Riklis, an IDF Yom Kippur War veteran and his screenwriter, Nader Rizq take pains to tackle the history on both sides of the conflict with precision and even-handed care. What’s more, having got to know the area a little, I can assure outsiders that the countryside around Tiberius is captured in all its compelling beauty.
I consider the film to be another hit for Riklis and producer, Gareth Unwin (The King’s Speech). Many Israelis know that despite the huge difficulties involved, that this is how true friendships can be made and then endure across the great political divide. It attests, for example, to the success of the many groups which work for peaceful co-existence, both within Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The movie is also a good vehicle for the gifts of 14-year-old Abedallah El Akal, whom I look forward to seeing in tough adult roles in the not-too distant future.
Monday, 29 April 2013
Saturday, 27 April 2013
Elizabeth Gaskell’s poem for her stillborn daughter, 1836
I made a vow within my soul, O child,
When thou wert laid beside my weary heart,
With marks of Death on every tender part,
That, if in time a living infant smiled,
Winning my ear with gentle sounds of love
In sunshine of such joy, I still would save
A green rest for thy memory, O Dove!
And oft times visit thy small, nameless grave.
Thee have I not forgot, my firstborn, thou
Whose eyes ne’er opened to my wistful gaze,
Whose suff’rings stamped with pain thy little brow;
I think of thee in these far happier days,
And thou, my child, from thy bright heaven see
How well I keep my faithful vow to thee.
It’s late January 1996 and a terrible day. My father has died barely three weeks before and my brother and I are sharing the sad, sacred duty of wheeling my mother’s coffin down the neatly tended paths of the Orthodox Jewish cemetery at Waltham Abbey, Greater London.
Suddenly I’m distracted. As we trundle Mum to her final rest, we pass a small plot filled with tiny graves and miniature headstones. While my mother had lived her biblically allotted seventy years, I realise these children’s lives had been snuffed out before they’d truly begun. Unjust; upside-down; quite cruelly against the natural order. However, these youngsters were accorded full funeral rites and headstones mark their graves.
But what of those who are miscarried, born ‘out of wedlock’ or considered too young to be ‘real’ people and are therefore buried swiftly, anonymously and without honour?
Although my mother did miscarry one of my siblings, I have no children myself and therefore am unable to offer personal experience of the subject. But Terry McDonagh’s finely crafted poem, Limbo which appeared in the March edition of Live Encounters magazine, persuaded me to examine further how ultra early infant death is treated by different religious traditions.
The Jewish concept of ‘illegitimacy’ is different from other faiths. But that aside, I’ve been forced to conclude that Orthodox Judaism is still implacably indifferent to the plight of families bereaved by neonatal or early infant death, especially compared to the current approaches of Progressive Judaism, the Christian faiths and Islam, all of which are far more sympathetic.
No wonder then, that while the non-Jewish world has produced several marvellously sensitive pieces like those of Gaskell and McDonagh, which reflect the pain of such bereavement, there is nothing comparable I can find in Jewish sources.
When the previous Pope Benedict XVI formally abolished the Catholic doctrine of ‘Limbo’ in 2007, he overturned a belief held since the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish tradition still dictates that if a baby does not survive for 30 days, it is as if the child has not lived.
What is worse? To be forced, as per the former Catholic doctrine, to believe your darling child dwells somewhere on the border of Hell or to be told by a Jewish authority that the perfectly formed individual you created never really existed and is the equivalent of an amputated limb?
McDonagh explains: “Growing up in a very Catholic environment in the west of Ireland, I was very conscious of Limbo as a state or place where non-baptised children were to exist, without ever seeing the face of God, for all eternity. It was bad enough for a mother to lose a child, but the thought of Limbo was tragic. These children could not be buried in consecrated ground, but it is said that mothers baptised their stillborn babies themselves in the hope that they could see the face of God. Burial often took place after dark, in secret, by fathers or close relatives. I found this so unjust as a child. Thankfully Limbo is no longer an article of faith.”
This is a subject which surely concentrates the minds of Irish writers, as McDonagh’s countryman, the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has tackled it famously in a poem also entitled Limbo, published in his great 1966 collection, Death of a Naturalist, which volume coincidentally also includes a moving piece about the death of his four-year-old brother (Mid-Term Break).
I wonder now how either of them would describe the plight of Darren Clift who, I earnestly hope, was allowed to organise a full funeral for his stillborn daughter as well as for his late wife, Lindsay.
Or how would they cope with the story of nine-day-old Australian infant, Jaylea Thompson who died cradled in the crook of her mother’s arm as they slept on a couch after an early morning feed? Jaylea’s passing may have been through Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or perhaps accidental asphyxiation. The Coroner at the Inquest was not fully certain. But again, we can hope only that if her parents wanted to organise a formal burial and headstone, they were allowed to do so.
Research advises that rituals pertaining to miscarriage, stillbirth and death
among Muslim children depend on the age of the child or the stage of a foetus’s development. However, “full Islamic ritual is carried out for foetuses that have developed; stillborn babies and children”.
It is not so long ago, before the evolution of modern antibiotics and surgical techniques, that people often had large families as they realised that many of their children may die well before adulthood. So traditional Judaism, in line with these earlier social norms, made little of perinatal deaths and a dead baby was treated as outlined above and buried in an unmarked grave, in the general section of a cemetery to avoid ritual uncleanliness for a Cohen (a man recognised as a member of the priestly clan).
There is only one explanation that I can give for this ruling: that the spiritual welfare of an individual who considers himself superior to other Jews is put above the welfare of a grieving family. Here, I must confess is an area where modern Orthodox Judaism trails badly.
Where Progressive Judaism now agrees that times have changed from the days of common infant deaths and allows families “personal autonomy (allowing) laypeople and rabbis to observe or not observe as they see fit”, Orthodoxy still denies parents the right to hold a funeral, to mark a grave with a headstone and to ‘sit shiva’ - the formal seven-day mourning period - and the infant is buried as described above.
I firmly believe it’s time for a change here. ‘Counselling’ sessions and sympathy are not enough and I now challenge the Orthodox Jewish authorities to find away around the law and devise new traditions for the present age.
This piece first appeared in the April 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=3055) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.
Thursday, 18 April 2013
Thursday, 11 April 2013
Monday, 8 April 2013
On a day when the death of Margaret Thatcher has eclipsed all other news, I write of an increasing and markedly unhealthy trend for adulatory obituaries to people who are still alive.
It’s happened again in the past few days following the sad news that Scots novelist, Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M Banks) is suffering terminal cancer and may die before the end of the year. Like everyone else, particularly as a fellow writer of the same age, I earnestly hope he beats his doctors’ prognoses and continues to live and work far in to the future.
Banks is highly esteemed both for his mainstream fiction and his sci fi stories. He also has a highly developed social conscience and arranged that his books were not sold in South Africa during the rule of the previous apartheid regime. Indeed, when some were sold there under the terms of an old contract, he donated the royalties accrued to the ANC.
Most commendable. However, we now learn learn from an extracted article published in The Guardian on Friday last week, that he also supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and since 2010 has refused to have his books published here.
His decision followed Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara, a passenger ferry which was part of a six ship flotilla organised by the Free Gaza Movement, an international coalition of activist groups attempting to send aid to Gaza and on which at least nine people were killed.
Israel is still suffering the fallout from the incident, during which I believe the military behaved stupidly, not heinously. Armed personnel could have scuppered, instead of charging a couple of the vessels involved, towed them ashore and arrested the passengers.
However Banks prefers not to dwell on the reality. He simply sees Israel as worthy of punishment by the international community just as “it engages in the collective punishment of the Palestinian people within Israel, and the occupied territories, that is, the West Bank and – especially – the vast prison camp that is Gaza.”
As someone with dual UK-Israeli citizenship living in The Galilee I can assure Banks – like I’ve done scores of time before on this site – that his assertions are ridiculously false. But I don’t aim to wade through the tarradiddle again. Instead, in the manner of another famous Scot - journalist, John Junor - I simply want ask some pertinent questions:
- Why is Banks using what may be his final months on earth to attack Israel? Should he not concentrate on keeping as healthy as possible under the trying circumstances?
- Away from writing, should he not confine himself to seeking comfort from family and friends?
- If he wants to make the world a better place before he goes, why attack Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East? Surely The Guardian would allow him to write about whatever he wished.
- Moreover, why choose to publish a piece written for a collection edited by someone else?
- Further, why not only pick on Israel but choose to air his grievances on the eve of the weekend that the Jewish State was preparing for Yom Hashoa – Holocaust Memorial Day?
- Was this scenario not uncannily reminiscent of The Times newspaper publishing a Gerald Scarfe cartoon conflating the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process with the anti-Jewish blood libel on International Holocaust Day?
- And why be so patronising about Israeli (really Jewish) sporting capabilities as compared to citizens’ cultural and intellectual prowess? Does he not know of Jewish athletes like the US swimmer, Mark Spitz and the British sprinter Harold Maurice Abrahams (featured in the film Chariots of Fire)? Has he not learned of the Jewish boxers who literally fought their way out of ghettoes like the Glasgow tenements?
- And why indeed has he allowed his publishers to announce his illness ahead of the launch of what may be his last book?
- Surely a man like Banks is not seeking a way to compensate for potential royalties lost from sales in South Africa and Israel? Such thinking would be total anathema to someone of such integrity – of course!
- And why, as I conclude, do I read that the annual report of Tel Aviv University's Kantor Centre for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry has noted a staggering thirty per cent rise in antisemitism during 2012?
- So why do I smell a rat?
- Why indeed?