Engines for social change

Israel has over 26,000 non-profits devoted to helping the underprivileged. What these organizations need now is state support.

The Purim mitzvah of sending mishlo’ah manot (Hebrew for ‘gifts of food’) may be a Jewish child’s first experience of giving, an act that may (but may not) open the giver’s young heart to the plight of the less fortunate. A bar/bat mitzvah hessed (charity) project is another way to open young eyes to needy causes. Children’s awareness of the duty to give and help other people clearly depends on the approach of their parents and teachers.

When the Israeli child reaches high school, a stint of volunteering becomes part of the curriculum and thus becomes a compulsory chore which often has little added value for either the giver or the receiver. However, when 12th graders face the end of their school career, some consider the option of undertaking a year of community work.

“Should I delay my army service and do a year of voluntary service?” asks a girl on a youth chat forum (in Hebrew) on the Internet. “I discovered that I can volunteer at an immigration center, a dog training center, a youth village, a birding center, a boarding school, a youth movement, or in a center that runs activities in nature, and I found lots of other options, too,” she writes.

Israeli youth movements, such as the Scouts, Bnei Akiva and many more, reach out to and encourage high school youth to spend a year volunteering for worthy causes before enlisting in the army.

Another contributor to the chat forum addresses the question of why it is necessary to help others. She believes that some immigrants have difficulty fitting into society and therefore young people should help them through the established youth movements. “We, in the youth movements are the salt of the earth,” writes the teenager. “We are the people who can bring about change. In my opinion, whatever you choose to do, try to think how you can help the most, give, and improve our country.”

Each year, more school leavers in Israel volunteer through a structured framework, such as a youth movement or another non-profit organization, in the hope of bringing about social change.

The volunteering experience may strengthen their feeling of social responsibility and they may become the social entrepreneurs of the future. Alternatively, because it is difficult to have an impact on society, they may well give up. Volunteers need preparation, guidance and support from those with experience in the field so that they can truly make a difference.

The impact of social entrepreneurs

Is it really possible to improve society? Many of Israel’s brightest and most passionate social entrepreneurs believe that they have found a way that can indeed influence change in a specific field, such as feeding the hungry, helping immigrants to find their place in society, or helping youth at risk to find their way back into society, but they need time and money to do this.

The private sector provides role models for successful innovation: Social entrepreneurs develop business plans, create start-up funds, manage budgets, develop professionalism and excellence, market their programs for social change and also evaluate success. The private sector also provides advisors, board members and volunteers. Programs for social change depend on contributions from the private sector, but also sometimes from the public (government) sector as well.

Social entrepreneurs work mostly in the third sector – the non-profit or social sector – by implementing just and creative solutions and pressuring the public and the corporate sectors to act for the good of society.

In Israel, this sector includes more than 26,000 non-profit organizations. It is ostensibly an autonomous economic bloc that does not belong to the private sector or to the public sector, but nevertheless it depends heavily on both for grants, donations and tax breaks. Round table discussions among the government, the corporate chiefs and the third sector promote cooperation, especially on financial issues.

Israel’s government has a vested interest in the survival of non-profit organizations that provide important services, especially for those people with special needs, and therefore supports the third sector to the tune of well over a billion shekels per year.

And yet, if the government becomes the main funder of non-profit organizations, this third sector will no longer constitute an independent entity and it will lose its current role as an engine for change and diversity. Non-profits are already heavily burdened by governmental regulation, bureaucracy and surveillance, to avoid any potential abuse of charitable funding.

Social entrepreneurs who have their own source of wealth have more freedom and potential to improve society by engaging in human rights issues, teenage alcoholism, peace, the environment or whatever they choose, than do those who have to compete with thousands of other non-profits for limited funds to implement a creative solution and prove its effectiveness.

Those who don’t have their own fortune have to hunt for financial backing for their programs. For this reason, in recent years some non-profits have set up their own income-generating businesses in the hope of generating funds that can sustain their program of social change, with no strings attached.

Effi Toledano of Zionut 2000 has helped in the setting up and running of 42 third sector social businesses, giving people with special needs valuable work experience. He admits, though, that most of these businesses are unable to generate sufficient income to sustain the non-profit organization’s effort for social change.

The new “fourth sector” in Israeli society

Now a fourth sector is sprouting in Israel, in the form of “for-benefit” corporations with a social mission. This is venture philanthropy, where stakeholders expect an interest on their financial investment in the social enterprise. However, in my opinion, although every citizen should be involved and help out, it is the government’s responsibility and not that of the private, non-profit, or for-benefit sectors to improve society.

The Declaration of the state’s establishment spelled out the government’s responsibility to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex… guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture… [and] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions,” as agreed on May 14, 1948.

The Welfare Ministry is right to fund the third sector, if the third sector can indeed improve society for the government. That is the big question. The business sector can and should help, too, but ultimately the state has to keep the engine running toward equality of social, political, educational, and religious rights for all citizens.

Michele Klein has a doctorate in adolescent psychology and volunteers for several projects for youth at risk in Israel’s third sector, including Wing of Love and Bikes for All.

Alexander Haig was my friend

Through thick and then, Alexander Haig never wavered in his friendship for Israel.

Al Haig, who died Saturday, was a good friend to Israel – through thick and thin, both at the best of times and during difficult times. He never wavered in his friendship for Israel. A very cerebral man, Haig’s support for Israel was not only based on the rationale that the United States and Israel had shared strategic interests; it was also tempered by an admiration for Israel’s courage in the face of daunting odds.

I first got to know him well when I arrived in Washington as Israel’s ambassador in February 1982, when he was president Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. My first order of business was to request a private talk with him, just the two of us. He immediately consented. A few days after my arrival in Washington, on a Saturday, I was secretly whisked into the State Department building through an underground entrance. For the next two hours he and I, with no one else present, discussed the problems facing Israel and the situation in the Middle East.

When I told him our prime minister, Menachem Begin, was concerned that after having made substantial concessions during the negotiations leading up to the peace agreement with Egypt, he might now be pressured by the White House to make additional concessions inimical to Israel’s interests, Haig responded by saying “not on my watch.” He showed understanding for the problems we faced at the time along the Lebanese border, with the Palestine Liberation Organization militias encamped there launching attacks against northern Israeli villages. When we parted, I knew that Israel had a good friend in Washington and that I had also established a personal friendship with Al Haig.

While there is no truth in the persistent rumor that Haig gave Ariel Sharon – Israel’s defense minister at the time, who visited Washington and discussed Israel’s problems in the north with Haig – the “green light” for an Israeli military operation in Lebanon, we did have his steadfast support throughout the operation until he left the office of secretary of state. When at one point I described the operation to him and told him “Al, we are winning,” he responded “you guys always win.”

To read the full article click here.

Printed courtesy of Ha’aretz

Moshe Arens was a member of Knesset. He served as Minister of Defense three times, and Minister of Foreign Affairs once. He also served as the Israeli ambassador to the US, and was a professor at the Technion University in Haifa.

Israel’s bird watchers

In Israel, even the Knesset has a bird observatory.

You don’t have to be a political quack to realize that the Knesset is unique among parliaments around the globe. It’s not only the politicians in the Jewish state who make it so different. It’s the fact that the House is also home to a bird observatory, which is a delight for ornithologists and nature lovers alike.

Late last month, bird lovers flocked to the Knesset for a day of events marking 30 years of organized bird-watching here, kicked off by the inauguration of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory’s new visitors center.

The Knesset has really taken the local birds under its wing. Touchingly politicians across the political spectrum joined in the discussions and festivities, with barely a nod to the natural pecking order and without ruffling feathers.

A former environment reporter, I have been watching the bird-watchers for about 20 of the last 30 years. They are a rare breed.

I once witnessed the unbridled enthusiasm of perhaps the country’s biggest name in the field, Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Yossi Leshem (a former head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) whose eagle eyes spotted a large, slightly menacing raptor sitting atop the stone monument at Gesher Ad Halom near Ashdod. I was missing the symbolism. It was no ordinary bird perched on the Memorial for Fallen Egyptian Soldiers: It was an Egyptian vulture.

A birds-eye view of Israel

Since Israel is located at a natural crossroads, some 500 million migratory birds of more than 500 species get a bird’s-eye view of the land twice a year. Few countries can boast skies simultaneously filled with buzzards, storks and pelicans; wetlands full of egrets, herons and wildfowl; and hillsides that are home to warblers, wheatears and buntings.

Hence, hundreds of foreign visitors a year go on a very special form of pilgrimage – on a wing and a prayer. From Eilat in the South to Gamla in the North, for these avid bird-watchers Israel is a paradise.

Occasionally, I have had a glimpse of what so excites them. Sitting in a camouflaged safari truck in a field in the Hula Valley surrounded by some 8,000 pairs of courting cranes is a thrill you cannot get anywhere else in the world.

For another only-in-Israel experience, take the Vulture Path to a panoramic lookout above the ancient city of Gamla on the Golan Heights where, in the first century, thousands of Jews plunged off the cliffs rather than fall captive to the Romans. Here, bird-watchers can see impressive griffon vultures in what is, sadly, their last remaining stronghold. Leshem notes that due mainly to secondary poisoning, the population of griffon vultures in the country has dropped from thousands to just 60 pairs.

People with more patience – much more – don’t stick together with the other bird-watchers but take the route of acclaimed nature photographer Yossi Eshbol, among others. Eshbol goes to great lengths to shoot birds. Through a telescopic lens, that is. He tells of spending days, even weeks, in a tiny camouflaged tent waiting for the right moment to click the camera.

Several of Eshbol’s remarkable photos are currently on display at the Knesset in an exhibition named Agriculture and Birds – coexistence or conflict?

Elite IDF troops rappel down to save buzzard

Vultures, pelicans, cormorants and a host of other birds fall prey to farmers who do not think of them as feathered friends. Many magnificent creatures have been the victim of secondary poisoning as they eat the carcasses of cows that have been (illegally) placed as bait for wolves and jackals. Some 50 bird species are on the endangered list and other birds, such as the bearded vulture (the bird which inspired then-Shimon Persky crossing the Negev to change his name to Peres), have died out altogether.

Fortunately, there are still some uplifting experiences. A few months ago when a honey buzzard got trapped on the ninth story of a Tel Aviv high-rise, the wardens of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not so much call out the cavalry as summon the IDF’s elite 669 search-and-rescue team. Some of them, by chance, had spent the morning touring the Ramat Poleg nature reserve learning about nature protection. They quickly rose to the occasion, or more to the point, rappelled down to save the poor creature.

It’s not just the Knesset that takes bird protection seriously, it seems.

Indeed, Leshem’s work with the IAF on preventing accidents when flocks of birds can bring down a plane is recognized around the world.

Another project with growing support across borders is the use of barn owls as a biological pesticide, safely ridding fields of rodents. Each nesting pair can prey on more than 2,000 rodents a year and apart from the obvious advantage of allowing organic, nonpolluting farming, another benefit is that rodents don’t develop a resistance to owls, as they do with pesticide.

The program and study, pioneered by Kibbutz Sde Eliahu in the Beit She’an Valley, has spread its wings and can now also be found in cities – including the anything-but-rural Tel Aviv – and is being implemented also in the Palestinian autonomous areas and Jordan, showing, as Leshem likes to note, that “birds know no boundaries.”

Turning ammunition crates into nesting boxes

In a nice, new twist, in cooperation with Israel Military Industries, local farmers are now turning old ammunition crates into cozy nesting boxes for owls.

Nowadays, the project has been upgraded to a 24-hour system, using lesser kestrels to do the daytime shift while the barn owls nap.

One expert in the field is the super-modest Dan Alon. Among the feathers in his cap is being acknowledged several years ago by Time magazine as a “Hero of the Planet” for his work in a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to save the lesser kestrel. Even birds of prey can turn into doves of peace.

Over the years I have watched and admired many birds that have flown. There will always be a special place in my heart for the vulture named after MIA Ron Arad whose release I witnessed at Ramat Hanadiv in the mid-1990s.

And following the closed-circuit monitor observing a colony of Jerusalem’s lesser kestrels a few years ago was like watching an avian telenovella.

I have been captivated by courting cranes and nesting storks in the north and proudly followed plucky spur-winged plovers – which think nothing of dive-bombing bird-watchers who get too close to their young. I participated, like thousands of others, in the democratic nationwide elections to choose a national bird in honor of the country’s 60th anniversary. And although my vote did not go to the winner, the hoopoe – which is now the subject of a new Israel Post stamp – I like finding them bobbing their heads up and down in the local park.

Birding might be a fun hobby, but it’s far from a lark. Sifting through owl vomit and poop (for incontrovertible evidence of their diet and pest control skills) can certainly bring a person down to earth.

You can discover the secret lives of many of the country’s birds via the Web site www.birds.org.il and there’s no limit to what you can find in the skies if you take the time to look.

Liat Collins is the editor of the International Edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Printed with permission from The Jerusalem Post.

Using new media to seek peace

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – these are the tools that can help us resolve conflict.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” said one great informal educator. Modern technology empowers us to be that change – for peace.

By enabling self-expression and interaction, new media tools are helping our efforts for conflict resolution in the Middle East. Horizontal transfers of knowledge on social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter empower us to build understanding through lateral learning. While teaching tends to be top-down, lateral learning lets us learn from one another. We decide what we learn, as well as where, when and how.

Traditional media no longer dictates our news, we do. Take Facebook for example. Status updates keep us up-to-date with our friends; news feeds tell us what is new and comment walls let us post and receive feedback. Like my status? Give me a thumbs-up or just leave a comment. Through video sharing on YouTube, we produce and distribute video content. On Twitter, we tweet our news in 140 characters or less. With new media, we are the media.

Social networks are empowering us as peacemakers. By making it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to interact, they let us see and humanize the “other”. In a conflict where Israelis and Palestinians are physically separate, new media allows us to see and hear each other beyond the stereotypes and the physical barriers.

In 2007, I created mepeace.org – a social network and platform for peacemakers. The name communicates the goal: Middle East peace, and the method: combining “me” and “peace”- it begins with each of us. Ha’aretz nicknamed it the “Facebook of peace” because it works like Facebook and is based on a shared commitment to Middle East peace. All are welcome to join.

The web platform has become home to thousands of “peacemakers” in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and more than 100 other countries. These peacemakers are communicating through text, photo and video and supporting one another with personal profiles, blogs, real-time chats and more than a thousand active discussions.

Some claim such a peace is virtual. But through mepeace.org, peacemakers meet online and on the ground -overcoming many barriers to meet at the organization’s Peace Cafes, “Peace Talks” and other events. The organization is now offering joint leadership training for young Israelis and Palestinians. Young people are most in touch with networking tools which enable youth (often stereotyped as potential radicalizers) to actively contribute. A new generation of activists is in creation.

Next for mepeace.org is building an online resource center for conflict resolution. Knowledge for communication and conflict resolution exists to support people’s hopes, but information must be organized and shared. Community and knowledge sharing can nurture peacemakers from the bottom up.

True, the Middle East consists of different viewpoints from moderate to extreme. At the core, each of us wants peace. We may seek peace differently, but let us not be indifferent.

We can use technology to reach out and overcome our differences. We can connect, convince and create coalitions. Today with WIFI and smart phones, the Internet is portable and so are our networks. We carry with us the power to effect mass change. Can we utilize this power for peace?

Yes, we can. Social networks are empowering individuals and organizations in significant ways. With this power comes responsibility. While our political leaders fail to forge peace, let us network for peace. Let us not wait for our leaders – we are the leaders we have been waiting for. Networked and empowered, we have the tools we need to learn, to teach and to inspire one another. Together, we are the change we want to see in the world.

Eyal-Raviv Eyal Raviv is the founder of mepeace.org – a network for peace. He is studying conflict resolution at Ben Gurion University.

This article originally appeared in the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Israel’s smash-hit decade

Once, Israeli films were rarely shown at international film festivals, now it’s rare when they don’t win a prize there.

 

It’s all in the eyebrows. When I used to tell people I wrote about Israeli movies, their eyebrows would furrow downward, into an unmistakable expression of pity. Now they raise their eyebrows, and they often murmur that, “Oh,” that shows they’re impressed. “Interesting job,” they’ll say.

The significance of cultural trends should not be measured in eyebrow shifts alone, but there’s no denying that both the reality and the perception of Israeli movies has improved immeasurably over the past decade. This has been the most significant decade for the movie industry in the country’s history. Let’s take a brief look at just how far they’ve come.

Ten years ago, Israeli movies were rarely, if ever, shown at international film festivals. Now, it’s unusual for a significant film festival to conclude without one winning a prize. It’s incredible that a small film industry, which produces about 20 features a year, has won more than 200 prizes at international festivals over the last decade. And, if you add in prizes for documentaries, shorts and student films, the total would come to well over 500.

While the Oscar has eluded us, the movies nominated in the past two years were considered serious contenders. Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort, a drama about the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, was the 2007 Oscar nominee, and Ari Folman’s animated documentary about the First Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir, was a nominee the next year (Waltz did win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film). This year’s official selection for Oscar consideration, Yaron Shani’s and Scandar Copti’s Ajami, a gritty drama about crime in Jaffa, has a real shot at a nomination as well.

While a small, unreasonable minority has called for a boycott of Israeli films recently, the list of prestigious awards won at festivals during this decade is long and impressive – and growing. Shmuel Maoz’s Lebanon just won the Golden Lion, the top prize, at the Venice International Film Festival. Cannes is arguably the most prestigious festival of all, and Israeli films are regularly shown in the main competition there. Two, Keren Yedaya’s Or (2004) and Shira Geffen’s and Etgar Keret’s Jellyfish (2007), won the coveted Camera d’Or Prize for first-time filmmakers, while several others, including Ajami and Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit (2007) won Special Jury prizes in this category. Tawfik Abu Wael’s Atash won the FIPRESCI (foreign film critics’ award) at Cannes in 2004.

Israeli films won the top prize at several other international film festivals, including The Band’s Visit (which won a phenomenal total of more than 35 international awards) and Broken Wings (2002) at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Dror Shaul’s Sweet Mud (2006) at Sundance, David Volach’s My Father My Lord (2007) at Tribeca and The Syrian Bride (2004) at the Montreal Film Festival. Joseph Cedar was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007, while his film Campfire (2004) won a Special Mention there.

Israeli actors were also recognized abroad for their work: Hanna Laszlo took Best Actress honors at Cannes for Free Zone in 2005 (a win that was considered a particular surprise since she faced stiff competition from actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Sharon Stone); Ohad Knoller won Best Actor for Yossi & Jagger at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003; and Sasson Gabai won Best Actor for The Band’s Visit at the European Film Academy Awards in 2007.

Unheard of sums for low-budget movies

Nearly all of these films played abroad and several, notably Dover Koshashvilli’s A Late Wedding (2001) and Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (2004), earned several million dollars overseas, unheard of sums for low-budget, subtitled Israeli films in the past. Their box-office earnings in the US are on a par with subtitled films from other countries with more established film industries, such as France and China.

In the documentary field, there are from 50 to 100 films made here each year, and many go on to international festivals. Lia van Leer, the founding director of the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Jerusalem Film Festival, told me a couple of years ago that the toughest part of her job was choosing documentaries for the 10 to 15 slots in the Wolgin Competition for Israeli films – one year she received more than 70 entries. Short films, many made by students at local films schools, have been phenomenally successful, winning hundreds of prizes. And they compete at virtually every festival in the world.

But probably the most important fact about the success of the film industry over the course of this decade is that local audiences now enjoy locally made films. I don’t believe a film industry can flourish in the long run if its films don’t resonate with its own citizens. If films are made primarily to please the juries of foreign film festivals, in the end, the movies will lose all sense of place and authenticity. But happily, that is not the case here. Although Israeli films will never outsell Spiderman 7, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I’ve had a hard time getting a good seat at commercial showings.

And the major distribution chains show Israeli movies, even at multiplexes, for a single reason – they want to sell tickets. And they do sell tickets. In a good year, local films sell more than a million tickets locally. In 2007, the year The Band’s Visit and Beaufort were released, that figure was a million and a half. Avi Nesher’s Turn Left at the End of the World sold more than 600,000 tickets in 2004. New releases routinely break the 100,000 viewer mark. Ajami, which was released in September, is a case in point. Again, by Hollywood standards, these numbers are small. But in a country this size, where several million don’t speak Hebrew as their first language and several hundred thousand (at least) don’t see movies for religious reasons, these figures are phenomenal.

Of course, local audiences don’t always go for the same films as foreign audiences. For example, a movie like Lost Islands (2008), about two brothers’ coming-of-age in the early 1980s, is filled with jokes, music and nostalgia, and appealed (and was designed to appeal) much more to local audiences than foreign viewers.

These attendance figures may not sound so astounding, if you forget that before 2000, four or five feature films were made (in a good year) and would play to empty houses here for a few weeks before closing and vanishing without a trace. Their only shot at going abroad was Jewish and Israeli film festivals, where audiences went out of curiosity or to support Israel, not to see good films.

From silly comedies to Holocaust dramas

Up until about 2000, there were two basic streams of Israeli movies. One of these were the sirtei burekas (burekas movies), like the Eskimo Limon series, silly comedies aimed at high-school kids. Then there were the painfully earnest dramas that were about either Holocaust survivors, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or god-awful dysfunctional families. Few saw these films other than the cast, crew and their close relatives. Most of these were made with money from the Israel Film Fund, that, to be fair, probably weeded out scripts that were even worse than the ones that got made.

The awful domestic dramas continue to be made, and follow such a predictable formula that I have dubbed them TAMP films, an acronym for Tel Aviv’s Miserable People. But a few bad films are inevitable. Katriel Schory, the head of the Israel Film Fund, likes to say, “Quantity is quality,” meaning that there will only be good films if a critical mass of movies gets made.

There were a few good films made during the first five decades of the state, although not as many as some nostalgia addicts would have you believe. Israel had six nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar prior to 2007, and several of them were excellent, particularly Sallah, the Ephraim Kishon satire starring Haim Topol as an innocent immigrant. The 1971 nominee, The Policeman starring Shaike Ophir (the actor for whom the Ophir Awards, Israel’s Oscars, get their name), may be the most beloved Israeli film of all time, but although Ophir shines in his role, it’s not a movie that holds up all that well. The same is true of I Love You, Rosa (1972) and The House on Chelouche Street (1973), both Oscar nominees. As for Operation Thunderbolt, the 1977 nominee tells of the heroic rescue at Entebbe, and its inclusion in this category is simply proof of the American Academy’s love for the Jewish state.

There were other films here and there that shone, among them Renen Schorr’s Late Summer Blues, about a group of high-school students during the last month before they are drafted. But Schorr then turned around and founded the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem and did not direct again until he made The Loners, which will be released next week. But the good films were few and far between. Very, very far between.

So what happened?

A few factors came together to bring hidden or slumbering cinematic talent to the surface. The first was the birth of commercial television in the early 1990s. It’s fashionable to denigrate television, but it nurtured a generation of directors, crew members and actors. By 2000, for the first time, a director who got behind the camera had a good chance of having had at least a couple of years’ experience, and the same can be said for actors, writers, etc. It made a huge difference.

No substitute for experience

Most actors and directors tend to go back and forth between the big and small screen even today. You can see Lior Ashkenazi on television soap operas or in some of the highest-profile local films, including A Late Wedding and Walk on Water. Ditto for virtually every other actor. There is no substitute for experience.

But it’s a two-way street: Directors who have made films go back to television and the quality of the TV programming increases. Nir Bergman, who made the acclaimed 2002 drama Broken Wings and who was a star student at Sam Spiegel, went on to become one of the creators of Betipul, a series about a psychiatrist that had the nation glued to its screens. So brilliantly conceived was this show that it was actually adapted by HBO into the series In Treatment, which won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. Who could have imagined in 2000 that the network that brought the world The Sopranos and Sex and the City would take ideas from Israeli television?

To blur the lines even further, the cable companies invest heavily in the movie industry and some films originally meant for television, such Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger, turned out to be so good they got a theatrical release.

The second significant change was the passage of the Cinema Law in 2001, which greatly increased the government budget for supporting the film industry. It has been cut several times, but in response to pressure from across the political spectrum, it was restored. I was skeptical at first that investing more money would help, but there is no question that it did. The film industry here is so small, taxes so high, red tape so cumbersome and private investors so unwilling to put their money into local product, that without this infusion of cash, the film industry would have not reached the heights it has.

The proof is that after the funding was cut, the industry output dropped from 24 of the best-reviewed films in the nation’s history in 2004, to a handful of mostly mediocre films the following year. Part of what this funding does is give filmmakers grants so they can spend a year or two rewriting scripts, and the difference shows up on the big screen. For example, Joseph Cedar spent a year and a half rewriting the screenplay of Beaufort along with Ron Leshem, the novelist on whose book the film was based. And that time costs money.

But it also generates money. When foreign investors saw how good Israeli films had gotten, they began investing heavily in this industry. The money comes mostly from France and Germany, but The Band’s Visit got some funding from Japan. There has been some controversy about this trend, with critics saying that films made with this coproduction money are more likely to be made with foreign audiences in mind. That danger is certainly there, but the reality is that local filmmakers are in no position to turn down money from any source. And the success of the industry is also a product of contributions from several privately held Israeli film funds.

Growth of the cinematheque

The third factor is the development of a sophisticated movie culture here, through the cinematheques and film schools. It was the cinematheques that came first, and the woman who started them, Lia van Leer, has done more to develop the local film industry than any other single person. A great movie lover, she started a cinema club with her late husband, Wim van Leer, in Haifa in the 1950s, which she developed into the Haifa Cinematheque. In 1973, she created a small-scale version of today’s Jerusalem Cinematheque, which was expanded in 1981.

The cinematheques show a mix of Hollywood classics from the huge archives she acquired and the best contemporary and classic art films. Van Leer made sure they provided a showcase for upcoming local directors. Both of these cinematheques began film festivals in the early 1980s, modeled after the large European festivals, with hundreds of films shown in 10 days or so.

Van Leer quickly succeeded in attracting the crème de la crème of international moviemaking to the Jerusalem Film Festival. The list of directors who have attended includes virtually every art film director you’ve ever heard of, and such actors as Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Warren Beatty and Lillian Gish. In recent years, Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum have attended Jerusalem, while Elliott Gould, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe have been at Haifa.

But more important than any other contribution, these festivals showcased and nurtured local directors through their high-profile Israeli film competitions. There are now cinematheques based on the model van Leer started in cities across the country, including Tel Aviv, Sderot, Rosh Pina, Holon and Herzliya. Before DVDs and the Internet, the cinematheques and festivals provided budding cineastes with their only exposure to classic film and helped develop a true film culture here.

Next, the young people who became movie lovers wanted to make their own movies, and so the film schools stepped in. The Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. But it is by no means the only film school here. There are several others including one at Tel Aviv University, Camera Obscura and Sapir College. The Ma’aleh Film School in Jerusalem, which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is geared to religious students.

The advent of Ma’aleh is striking because in the past filmmaking was a strictly secular industry. It is still dominated by secular filmmakers, but that is changing. Joseph Cedar is modern Orthodox, and his first two films, Time of Favor and Campfire, dealt with issues in the modern Orthodox community in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Shuli Rand, who had had a career as a secular actor, became religious and made Ushpizin (which he scripted and acted in), a very effective drama set in the haredi community. And with more religious filmmakers completing the course at Ma’aleh every year, surely there are more such films on the way.

Minority voices

But it wasn’t only that religious filmmakers got in on the act. Many other groups whose voices hadn’t been heard in the past, when most filmmakers were Ashkenazim from established families, began making films. The year after Cedar’s Time of Favor won the Ophir Award, the 2001 prize went to Georgian immigrant Dover Koshashvilli for A Late Wedding, a jaundiced look at the Georgian community here. In 2002, Eytan Fox, a gay filmmaker, triumphed with Yossi & Jagger, a love story about two male soldiers. Interestingly, both Fox and Cedar are the children of American immigrants.

While many films had dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there had been few films by Arab filmmakers here. But in 2004, Tawfik Abu Wael, an Israeli Arab, made Atash, a look at the tyranny of an isolated Arab family that may or may not be read as an allegory against patriarchal tyranny. Suha Arraf, an Israeli-Arab screenwriter, cowrote (with Eran Riklis) The Syrian Bride in 2004 and Lemon Tree in 2008, bringing her point of view front and center. There are several other Israeli-Arab filmmakers, most notably Hany Abu Assad (who made Paradise Now, about two suicide bombers) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), who live abroad, don’t take money from Israeli sources and prefer not to be known as Israeli-Arabs. But they were born and raised here.

This year, a new trend may be on the horizon with the directing team of Scandar Copti, a Christian Arab from Jaffa, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, who made Ajami, a film in Arabic and Hebrew, with both Jewish and Palestinian characters.

Women filmmakers are out there, but it’s still a male-dominated industry. Keren Yedaya, the director of Or, and Shira Geffen have had the highest profile successes in the feature film category. Ronit Elkabetz, a critically acclaimed actress, turned her hand to writing and directing and has made two films (with her brother, Shlomi), based on her Moroccan family, To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2007). More women, such as Anat Zaria, a modern Orthodox director, are making their marks in the documentary field.

So the film industry has become far more representative of the population, is enjoyed by millions of Israelis and is winning an unprecedented number of awards worldwide. Where’s the downside? Well, when there’s a party, there are always party poopers. Many on the Right tend to dismiss Israeli film as a bastion of knee-jerk leftist politicking. While it is true that most directors are on the Left, this kind of blanket condemnation inevitably reveals more about the complainer’s own ignorance than the true state of film in this country.

I’ve had arguments with otherwise serious people who told me they didn’t need to see local films to know they were bastions of self-hatred. But is it an expression of self-hatred when directors who served in Lebanon, such as Shmuel Maoz, Ari Folman and Joseph Cedar, make films from the soldiers’ point of view, showing how emotionally wrenching their experience was? If you accept that young people in this country need to serve in the army, it would seem to be a given that some filmmakers will make movies about their experience there. Many movies made here do celebrate Israeli life, and anyone who has actually bothered to see these films won’t need to argue the point.

Where is the film industry going and where will it be in 10 years? Opinions vary widely. At a recent seminar to mark Sam Spiegel’s 20th anniversary at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Tawfik Abu Wael, who has made one feature, argued for more grant money going to first-time filmmakers. Three-time director Joseph Cedar said the film industry won’t develop unless an investment is made in more experienced directors. Who’s right? Along with large numbers of filmgoers, I look forward to finding out. And I look forward to seeing people’s eyebrows rise even higher when Israeli films are mentioned.

Hannah Brown is a reporter for the Jerusalem Post.

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