Archive for August, 2011

‘It would be so much easier if we were mean and ugly and violent – but we’re none of those things.’

I just watched The Hilltops, by Igal H. It is a beautifully-shot and thought-provoking documentary about the settlers in Judea and Samaria. Admirably, it manages the unlikely feat of being fair and quietly even-handed on this most contentious of topics.

As we know, Israeli settlers are often described as ‘the obstacle to peace’ in the Middle East. According to many, the obstacle is not the tyranny and medieval brutality of some Arab states, nor the terrorism of Hamas, with its policy to exterminate all Jews, nor even the nuclear programme of Iran, whose President openly vows to wipe Israel off the map.

No, it turns out that the obstacle is some Jews building a few homes just outside Jerusalem. Awesome.

In reality, the settlers are not the obstacle. But they might be an obstacle, so they merit clear-headed understanding. The Hilltops is a well-made film; the most intelligent portrayal of the settlers I’ve ever witnessed. Igal H is neither a rabid settler-basher, nor a fanatical backer of them right-or-wrong. Instead he visits the communities, speaks with their members and lets the viewer draw their own conclusions.

Putting aside the contentious nature of the settlements, it is interesting to witness the passion for the land of those featured. ‘I could be wrong, but I really don’t believe there is a nation on this earth who loves their land as much as we do,’ said one. While settlements are often surrounded by hostile neighbouring villages, the harmony within the communities is remarkable. Not a street-robbery, intimidated pensioner or torched shop to be seen.

The emotional connection with the land is most beautifully-expressed by the women featured in the film. Indeed, the fact that The Hilltops features so many women from the communities is one of its strengths. With one exception they speak without the bluster and bravado that dominates some male settlers’ statements. I wasn’t surprised; I’ve long thought that women have far more chance of solving the world’s most contentious issues than any of the men who dominate political leadership.

Igal H occasionally intervenes with some questions of his own. The one I wish he had asked is how settlers with children justify raising kids in settlements. Adults have free choice to live in the middle of such dangerous and contentious neighbourhoods – children do not. I’m genuinely curious about this aspect of their decision to move their families into settlements.

Whether you support or despise the settlers, or if you’ve not made-up your mind yet, The Hilltops is required viewing. It had a sell-out world premiere at Hot Docs, North America’s most prestigious documentary film festival. It also aired on the CBC in Canada. I think this balanced and thought-provoking documentary would be ideal for the UK Jewish Film Festival.

If you want to showcase The Hilltops in London or Europe, or hold a big screening, contact Igal H at chutzpaproductions@hotmail.com.

The most recent sign of life we have had of Gilad Shalit was in the autumn of 2009, when Hamas released a video of him in return for the release of over 20 Palestinian prisoners. Among the many emotions I felt as I watched was a wonder at the fact he smiled during it. It was moving to see someone in his position manage a smile.

I’ve heard different theories about what was behind the smile. One person said they thought it meant he believed he was about to be released. Another person said they thought he was smiling ‘for his Mum’, to bring her comfort. I noted that Gilad has always been spoken of as a shy young man, and wondered whether it was just a nervous smile.

Of course none of us know how and why he smiled in such a tense situation. So I prefer to settle with the theory he was smiling for his mother – because it’s the most happy of them. For the same reason, when privately considering the conditions he is being held in I prefer to tell myself they are humane.

That might seem strange, given what we know about Hamas. But none of us know for sure what the conditions he is being held under are. We can only tell ourselves a story of how we imagine them – so why not tell ourselves a happy story? Doing otherwise doesn’t help ourselves and neither does it help Gilad.

When I refer to what we tell ourselves, I mean that precisely. Of course, when discussing his plight with the public, we should be absolutely clear that Hamas is breaking every humanitarian law and moral code in its treatment of Gilad.

This Sunday is Gilad’s 25th birthday and his sixth in captivity. As well as praying afresh for his speedy release, I’m going to reflect on his smile during the 2009 video. It was inspiring, and on-par in my mind with the true stories I have read of the Hasidim dancing with joy as they were driven into death camps during the Shoah. Extraordinary.

I’m thankful that in my life I have never faced anything even remotely like the trauma that Gilad managed to smile in the face of. So how can I ever justify not smiling in the face of my life’s trials? After all, as Gilad showed us, it is not only the smiler who benefits from the smile. As Rabbi Nachman said: ‘Always wear a smile. The gift of life will then be yours to give.’

I hope Gilad is home soon.

See also: the Faces for Gilad page, the Meet Gilad page, and a previous post about the Gilad campaign.

So, where were we? Oh yes, Israel.

Five years ago this week I was preparing for my first visit to Israel. I remember the day I left. As I walked through the gate at Heathrow I saw the huge Magen David emblazoned over the EL AL plane’s tail and felt so excited. I sat next to a beautiful Scottish Jewess on the flight. We talked about Big Brother for a while and then she said: ‘You may not believe me, but Israel is a magical place.’ I told her I believe.

After we’d been silent for a while, she tapped me on the shoulder, pointed out of the window and said: ‘There it is.’ And there it was; the country I had dreamt of visiting for so long.

I’ve had some memorable arrivals to foreign lands in my time. When I went to Thailand as a 15-year-old who thought he knew it all, I realised within moments of arriving in Bangkok just how little I knew. As an 18-year-old I hopped around various Greek islands, and always savoured the moment when each new port began to take shape in my vision. And you can’t really beat rolling into Manhattan, can you?

Except you can. As we flew over Tel Aviv late that night, I was beyond excited to see it and to consider what lay ahead for me. My friends had warned me for weeks that I was building up enormous expectations for my trip. I always do for any trip, and sometimes they are met. Israel exceeded them.

After three days in the Dead Sea, I moved to Tel Aviv. It was strange being in Israel on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. If someone would have told me on that terrifying day in 2001 that just five years later I’d be sunbathing on top of the Isrotel Tower in Israel, as planes swept past, I’d have wondered where I got the nerve from. I’m not the bravest of people, I suppose I felt that Israel is worth digging deep for.

What is it about Israel? I love the sense of hope that is inherent in the state, including its moving national anthem. It is a vibrant, brilliant country and a remarkable one given both its youth and the circumstances it was created and built under. To me, etched into every part of Israel is an unwritten message: just look what is possible in life. Admirable and inspiring.

Anyway, I’m back. I wrote about why I stopped blogging in the JC. I don’t want to dwell any longer on those reasons, I would rather concentrate on positives. Thanks to the hundreds of people who wrote lovely messages to me after I stopped posting. It meant a lot.

I enjoyed taking a break. It’s always nice to remember what a big world there is out there. I have a brilliant and busy life as it is, so I was never naturally disposed to ‘activism’ anyway. But as I said, Israel is worth digging deep for. And to clarify, my break had nothing to do with any change of feelings about Israel; blog or no blog, you can bury me a Zionist.

Now I’m back, I’ll be posting on new topics including initiatives to counter cyber-bullying, and also the efforts to build a loving legacy for Amy Winehouse. However, my love and respect for Israel will probably always be at the heart of this blog. I might even find time to write about shawarma and the NaNachs from time to time. You know me.

I aim to keep this blog even more positive and upbeat going forward. There’s enough darkness and fear-mongering in our corner of the internet as it is. I’d rather keep things light. If that sounds a bit Christian happy-clappy then all I can say is that I’m neither Christian nor clappy, but I am happy.

I’m happy to be back.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.