Monday, October 29, 2007

Olmert announces he has Prostate Cancer

Timing is everything, and the latest move from Jerusalem raises questions, as well as sympathy. The Israeli prime minister's newly announced cancer surgery is likely to be another reason to push back peace talks in Annapolis. Ehud Olmert disclosed on Monday that he has prostate cancer, but that the disease is not life threatening and he will continue to fulfill his duties.

Speaking to a packed news conference in Jerusalem at noon, the Israeli leader said that he will have surgery and that he has "full chances" of recovery. He said the disease was caught at an early stage.

Olmert, 62, took office in March 2006 after his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, suffered a debilitating stroke and lapsed into a coma.

The prime minister made his announcement during a press conference in Jerusalem.

The news comes at a delicate time in Mideast peacemaking, just weeks ahead of a U.S.-brokered summit designed to relaunch long-stalled peace talks. It was not clear how or if Olmert's illness would affect his already troubled efforts to frame a common outline with the Palestinians ahead of the conference, scheduled to take place in Annapolis, Md., in either November or December.

The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland beneath the base of the penis that makes seminal fluid. Prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. In most men, it grows so slowly that it will never threaten their lives. Treatment often leads to problems having sex or controlling the bladder, so finding a way to distinguish which tumors can safely be left alone is the field's top priority.

The primary risk factor is age, with the disease commonly striking after a man is after 50.

It can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy and occasionally chemotherapy, among other treatments.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Condi asks Carter & Clinton for tips on Mid-east mediation; quarters bounce off her buns

Eighth time lucky? It could make up for some missteps.
In her quest to kickstart a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians--and perhaps to distance herself from the Bush debacle in Iraq-- Dr Condoleezza Rice summoned two democratic American ex-presidents to get some handy hints on muddling through the Middle East negotiations. When she comes back on another leg of her shuttle diplomacy next week, she'll need to coax invitees to a showpiece peace meeting scheduled in Annapolis next month or in December. Expectations are sinking, so the plan is to deliver a diplomatic surprise. She's certainly been doing her homework, according to wire reports, however belatedly. The former scholar on soviet affairs is finally seeking advice beyond the counsel of the avuncular Republican, Henry Kissinger.

Other sources of advice have been former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross and ex-secretaries of state James Baker, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Rice lunches frequently with Albright, whose father taught Rice at Denver University.
Rice has made clear she will devote all her energy in the Bush administration's final 14 months to get what others have failed to attain in the past -- a viable, independent Palestinian state living side by side with a secure Israel.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Secretary of State's private life is in quite a state and entails a bit of cautious maneuvering too. There are some scoops in Confidante, a biography of the stellar Ms Rice . In his new book, Glenn Kessler, a Washington Post reporter, ponders about her sexuality and goes on to note how her buns of steel can deflect a tossed quarter in mid-dance without her detecting it. The book highlights her unusual housing arrangement, a Palo Alto residence she co-owns with a single (white) Californian woman of a certain age. The mailbox would be almost comical: Rice and Bean. The partner is a single female film-maker named Randy Bean (no joke.) An openly gay male professor named Coit Blaker was also a silent partner, but has since sold out his share in the upscale suburban house. Dr Rice, who briefly was married to a black football player and has been squired around by an NFL official, prefers to deflect frivolous speculation about her sexual orientation. The public perception is that she is married to her job. However, much is read into her studied silence on gay issues. Being perceived as a gay Miscegenist will not further her politial fortunes with the Red States, but for now, Peace in the Middle East is enough on Rice's plate.

Vatican vs Knights Templar

How the mighty fall always makes a great read. In Jerusalem, where the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself owns a family flat revamped from a Knights Templar dwelling, the medieval seems like comparatively recent history, so this tale is particularly gripping. Some 700 years after the fact, Pope Benedict XVI has revealed that these Knights were not heretics, despite their bad rep for spitting and kissing. Above is a venerable illustration of non-heretical crusader knights who were burnt at the stake on a Friday the 13th for, ahem, heresy. Peter Popham in Rome reports on the monastic knights who guarded the Al Aqsa mosque, snatched from jihadis, and profited from pilgrims.

One of the most iniquitous chapters in the history of the medieval church was revisited in Rome yesterday when the Vatican publisher Scrinium put on sale facsimiles of the trial of the Knights Templar order, held before Pope Clement V in 1308.

The book is unlikely to turn up in your local Borders': measuring 27 by 22in, printed on artificial parchment with replicas of the original papal seals, it is as close as the publishers can get to the appearance of the original document, which turned up in the Vatican's secret archives in 2001, having been mislaid for more than 300 years.

Academics and fans of Dan Brown's thrillers will be eager to get their hands on the book but it costs ¿5,900 per copy, and most of the 799 copies have already been reserved by specialist libraries. The 800th will be given to the Pope.

It ought to make uncomfortable reading for him. The Knights Templar, the order of monastic knights set up to defend Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, seized during the First Crusade, went into decline after Christians were expelled from the Holy Land in the 13th century. King Philip IV "the Fair" of France owed the order large amounts of money and land; to avoid repaying the debt, he prevailed on Pope Clement V, based in Avignon and dependent on his good offices, to put members on trial for heresy.

The pope tried them, and while he found them guilty of immorality, the key charge of heresy was found to be false. It had been alleged that while in Jerusalem they had been in the custom of spitting on crosses, and underwent an initiation ceremony that involved kissing.

They persuaded the pope and his judges that the spitting was done to prepare themselves for the dissembling they would be obliged to practice if captured by the Saracens, while the kissing was a way of promising complete obedience. The pope accepted their arguments and absolved them of heresy. This, however, did not satisfy Philip. The pope was pressured to reverse his verdict, and the head of the order and his closest associates were burnt at the stake. The order's riches were handed to a rival knightly order, and the surviving knights melted away. It was a demonstration of the power of realpolitik to trump justice.

The order's downfall stimulated the growth of legends and fables about the order. Founded in Jerusalem by veterans of the successful First Crusade of 1096, it was a potent armed force designed to protect Christian pilgrims. When the pope gave it special status – exemption from local laws and taxes and answerable to no one but the pontiff – it soon became uniquely rich and powerful.

The order developed a way for wealthy travellers to pay for services received by leaving lands and wealth at the disposal of a Templar group in Europe.

It believed, as did the Jews, that Al-Aqsa was the site of Solomon's Temple, from which sprung the belief that many holy relics had fallen into its hands. The Turin Shroud, fragments of the Cross and the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper – the Holy Grail – are among treasures it was popularly believed to have acquired.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tell-tale Treadmill tactics of the Peace Envoys

Regular gym patrons of the iconic American Colony Hotel have been grousing about the dearth of equipment. It's practically a skeletal workout room now that minions of Tony Blair, the peace envoy who recently booked the whole top floor of East Jerusalem's Orientalist lodging for the duration of his job, moved one of the two treadmills near his suite. The nerve! He snatched half the resources for himself. This does not bode well.

After all, Blair is only in town one week out of every four. He also ropes off seven of the prime parking spots as well, my mole-cum-gym rat informs me.
Blair's people may have been inspired by the strong-arm tactics of Dr Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State who appropriated one of the elliptical exercisers at the David Citadel gym on her most recent visit. That's so Israeli patrons won't complain when the weight room is shut down by her secret security men. (Did protocol include wiping down her machines in the hotel gym? Reports vary.)
Obviously, to be properly prepared for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, diplomatic efforts must include a cardio-fitness regimen, so that an envoy is ready for the inevitable run-around. Israelity bites.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Arsonists scorch Baptist church in Jerusalem

A Baptist Bible church, located in one of the swankiest neighborhoods of Jerusalem, was torched last night, 25 years after ultra-Orthodox extremist vandals burnt down its original wooden chapel. This attack comes barely 2 weeks after the murder of a Baptist bookseller on the streets of Gaza City, and the Christian community in Israel is playing the incident down.

Chuck Kopp, one of the pastors of the Narkis Baptist church, said he did not know who was behind the latest outrage, which left smouldering chairs and a scorched interior, but did not destroy Bibles or hymnals. Attackers fled the scene and remained at large on Wednesday.
Their motive for arson was not immediately clear, police said.
Arsonists broke into the church building, located in Rehavia, just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, setting it alight in three different places.Jewish neighbors summoned firefighters to protect the present sanctuary, which had opened in 1993.

The church offers services in English, Hebrew, and Russian. Worshippers number in the hundreds and attend separate sermons for different congregations, including two for Messianic Jews. Worryingly, some of the Russian speakers attending the services for Messianic Jews had been previously threatened, church officials told police. Messianic Jews consider themselves Jewish even though they believe in Jesus, and are anathema to ultra-Orthodox extremists, who pity them.

In the past, Israeli anti-proselytizer activists have called the church a hotbed of missionary activity.

The church pastor, who has been living in Israel for 40 years, noted that the arson attack took place on the date commemorating the assassination of the late prime minster Yitzhak Rabin 12 years ago, according to the Hebrew calendar.

"Every society has its fanatics and there is no lack of fanatics here in the Middle East," he said, adding that he was not surprised by the attack.

"We've been needing a face-lift anyway," he shrugged.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Peace Studies - How a Jerusalem school embraces three religions

Principals should have principles.
If Israel's striking teachers want a lesson in reconciliation, all they need do is look at Jerusalem's private bilingual Max Rayne Hand in Hand school. While elsewhere in the country, some 120,000 university students and 600,000 high-school students are locked out of classes because agreements on a proper teacher's wage have floundered, this learning institute for 410 younger children offers an unusual example of getting along.
Hand in Hand is no longer on a hand to mouth existence, given a big new grant from the Lord Rayne foundation and a shiny new $11m building. Jews, Christians and Muslims-- pupils and teachers alike-- are accepted here on equal terms. This is highly unusual. Israeli schools are almost always separated along linguistic lines and Arab neighbourhood schoolrooms tend to be sub-standard.

It is hard to overestimate the importance, pioneering rather than merely symbolic, of the Hand in Hand school in a city whose religious and ethnic divisions are at the absolute heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The multicultural school,funded by a combination of government money, fees and donations, is the only one of Israel's four bilingual schools in Jerusalem. It straddles the Jewish neighbourhood of Pat and the Arab neighbourhood of Beit Safaf. The three other bilingual schools - in Beersheva, Galilee and Wadi Ara - all part of the same organisation, Hand in Hand, which began ten years ago when Oslo peace accords inspired optimism. Jamie Einstein Bregman has been attending for a decade, and is fluent in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. He invited a woman priest, a rabbi and an imam to preside over his bar mitzvah earlier this year, and as his Arab friends tossed sweets inside the synagogue, no one was agog.

First graders play bilingual tag, with Jewish and Arab teachers cheering on the children by shouting Yalla yalla!, slang for "go, go" used by both Arabic and Hebrew speakers. One of the Muslim instructors recently started wearing a full veil; in this school where Orthodox Jewish clothing restrictions are accepted, this decision did not faze the children.

History lessons about the war of 1948, which Israelis describe as the war of independence and Palestinians refer to as al-naqba, the catastrophe, are tricky.

"We teach everything and we discuss the issues and we accept it is possible not to agree with each other," said Amin Khalaf, a co-founder of the Hand in Hand mixed education project. "But we have to know both sides."

Despite suspicion and resentment by some outsiders, the school has a growing waiting list and is a beacon of hope for Israel's future.

Christians Bring Iranian Jews to Israel

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. have helped convince dozens of Iranian Jews to move to Israel in recent months, offering cash incentives and claiming that Iran's tiny Jewish community is in grave danger, the Associated Press reports. It's the latest wrinkle in the demographic tug of war for numerical dominance between Jewish immigrants and Israeli Arabs.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars in evangelical donations to Israel every year, is promising $10,000 to every Iranian Jew who comes to Israel, said the group's director, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

The project is another example of the alliance between the Jewish state and evangelical American Christians, many of whom see the existence of Israel and the return of Jews to the Holy Land as a realization of biblical prophesy that will culminate with Christ's Second Coming.

But an Iran expert said the money would not be enough to draw Iranian Jews, who generally do not perceive themselves to be in great danger in the Islamic republic.

About 25,000 Jews are left in Iran—an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 65 million—the remnants of a community with origins dating to biblical times. Most Iranian Jews left for Israel or the U.S. over the last 50 years.

Still, Iran's Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel, and Iranian Jews have some legal protections. But Israel and Iran are staunch enemies and do not have diplomatic relations. Eckstein argued that calls by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Israel's elimination, coupled with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, represent danger.

"Is this not similar to the situation in Nazi Germany in the late '30s, where they (Jews) also felt they could weather the storm?" he asked. Instead, 6 million were killed in the Holocaust, which Ahmadinejad has called a "myth."

Eckstein said his group has helped bring 82 Jews to Israel from Iran since the project began this year, and hopes to bring 60 more by year's end.

The charity, based in Jerusalem and Chicago, has raised $1.4 million for the project, Eckstein said. The IFCJ initially offered $5,000 per immigrant, but doubled the amount when response was lower than expected, he said. Immigrants also receive government aid upon arriving in Israel.

One of the recent arrivals, a 31-year-old widow with three children, said she was not in danger in Iran but was concerned for her children's future.

"At the end of the day, this is the place for the Jewish people," she said, referring to Israel. She is living in the southern port city of Ashdod. Though she claimed to have felt safe in her hometown of Isfahan, she asked that her name be withheld to protect family remaining in Iran.

The grant from the IFCJ was what enabled her to come to Israel, she said. Most Jews in Iran have heard about the grant through word-of- mouth and Israel Radio's broadcasts in Farsi, she said.

Iranian government officials would not comment on the new project.

Iran's Jewish community is technically protected by the Islamic Republic's constitution, and has one representative in a 290-seat parliament.

In a speech at Columbia University in New York last month, the Iranian president insisted that Iranians "are friends of the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security."

Nonetheless, the Jewish community has led an uneasy existence under Iran's Islamic government.

In 2000, Iranian authorities arrested 10 Jews, convicted them of spying for Israel and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years. An appeals court later reduced their sentences under international pressure and eventually freed them.

"Generally, Jews are free to practice Judaism inside Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the Iranian Jews, however, are increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism, he said.

Such attacks have not led to a mass exodus from Iran, because the majority of Iranians are hospitable to the Jews and most Jews in Iran are economically comfortable, Javedanfar said. However, he noted, "the level of concern has increased" because of Ahmadinejad's statements.

This is not the first time evangelical Christians have taken part in bringing people to Israel. Eckstein's charity also played a role in funding the immigration to Israel of 7,000 members of the Bnei Menashe, a group in India claiming descent from one of the Biblical "lost tribes" of the Jews.

The charity's evangelical donors, who tend to have hardline political views, see encouraging Jewish immigration as a way of strengthening the country in the face of Arab threats.

The IFCJ is one of the most prominent examples of Israel's alliance with evangelical Christians, who have become among the country's most generous donors and most enthusiastic political supporters.

The ties have been welcomed by many Israelis but criticized by others.

Some Israelis believe the country should not align itself with a group seen as an extreme element of American society, while others have charged that the evangelicals' goal is ultimately to convert Jews to Christianity, a charge the evangelicals deny.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Habonim neo-Kibbutzniks hailed for nurturing Jewish talent in UK and Hollywood

A Zionist club that became a factory for creativity in the UK is highlighted by Jonathan Brown in the Independent today. Would you join a club that spawned Borat? It seems to be a secret recipe for success in London and Hollywood circles these days.

For decades, the Habonim movement, with its emphasis on high-minded ideals, collective decision making and outdoor activities, was the leisure activity of choice for the offspring of Britain's left-wing Jewish families. Committed to the ideals of socialism, collective strength and Zionism espoused at Sunday night meetings in London, Manchester Leeds and Glasgow, its aim was to found and inhabit Kibbutzim in Mandatory Palestine, later Israel, with people of unique and admirable qualities.

Today however, thanks to some very public praise from some of its old members, the Habo, as it is known among fellow chaverim or comrades, is being hailed as an unlikely talent factory for some of the hottest media talent to have emerged from these shores in recent times.

The recent relocation of the Habonim from its London headquarters has prompted an upsurge of interest and affection for the movement, founded in 1929 by Wellesley Aron and Norman Lourie along the lines of the Wandervogel groups of pre-Nazi Germany.
... [Its] "lefty boho" philosophy appealed to the children of naturally creative urban progressives who preferred their children to be rubbing shoulders with like-minded spirits at Habonim rather than some of the more conservative Jewish youth clubs.
Publicity comes at a welcome time for the movement as it relocates in the wake of declining popularity worldwide. In 1982 it merged with the Israeli Dror movement but ongoing disquiet among the left at the behaviour of the state of Israel and the decline of the Kibbutzim movement over the last two decades has raised concerns that it may no longer be relevant.

Not so, said Daniel Conn, a 22-year-old education worker from Hendon, north-west London and a current member. He says that despite falling numbers the movement gives the same moral and philosophical underpinning to young people as it ever did – a kind of confidence described by the journalist, broadcaster and former member Jonathan Freeland that you would normally only get from going to Eton.

The movement, which has headquarters in 21 countries, has also sought to refocus on new issues that emphasize a global social conscience, recently leading a delegation to the World Day of Action for Darfur. "It has given me my values and shaped the way I see the world. It has helped me become the person I would wish to be and learn how to work with people. At the end of the day it is all about trying to make the world a better place," said Mr Conn.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Filmmaker Lynch meditates on peace in the City of David and how to erase War

David Lynch, the noir film director best known for Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the weird tv series Twin Peaks, has arrived in the Holy Land to instruct cinema students and Israeli leaders alike on how to banish war through thought vibes. He funds his own consciousness-raising institute to spread these uncommon notions, and was met by Israel's celebrity-obsessed President, Shimon Peres (first cousin of actress Lauren Bacall). Other audiences here, hardened from years of intifada violence, appeared rather less than convinced.

Journalists who were packed into Lynch's press conference in Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel Institute collectively rolled their eyes when he pooh-poohed peace mediation; Lynch advocates peace meditation instead. (Sorry, Condi. Assume the lotus position and cease the shuttle diplomacy. Now.)

With a staight face, the cinema guru of the grotesque told these hardboiled hacks that war could be banished if only 240 individuals would simultaneously practice transcendental meditation for 40 minutes every day. Each would need "total brain coherence" instead of using a mere 5-10 per cent of their gray matter, as us less-evolved mortals typically do. With that amount of effort, humankind could "say goodbye to the horror of hate." Lynch pointed to unified field theory as the way to achieve
"real peace, which is the absence of all negativity, not simply the absence of war", as all "dark horrors dissolve." The analogies shifted to the organic, and the human condition was likened to a diseased tree which needs root treatment, but then they segued to the surreal. If you don't want to "cramp your happiness", Lynch said helpfully, just shed the "suffocating rubber clownsuit" of hatred. "If you can think it, you can do it." Uh-huh.

This was pure LA-speak, honed after decades of meditation sessions. With wings of silver hair framing his pink face, Lynch showed all of his 61 years and appeared afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome, or else jet lag had him speaking in tongues. He resembled the leading man from his baffling cult classic, Eraserhead, As for cinema, Lynch confirmed that "Film is dead, digital is here, and the director's manipulation of the image is now almost infinite."
He will be mentoring master classes of film students and Israeli directors in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv until the end of the week.

Monday, October 15, 2007

US spy-bugs raise a stir

A news story in the Washington Post about how America is innovating insect spies the size of dragonflies was dismissed in some quarters as a blatant bid for a circulation buzz, with very sparse sourcing. But readers of israelity bites will recognize the type of mini-robotics which the Israelis already have in development. These dragonflies are not much of a leap forward compared to the IDF's bionic wasps and other robot weapons. Don't underestimate the capabilities of spymasters and their canny technicians, which can make James Bond's arsenal look like something out of an antiquarian's window. These mini-gadgets are not necessarily the paranoid fantasies of tweaking methamphetamine addicts, particularly in a place threatened by sporadic terrorism.
What's that buzzing noise? That irritating click? It's possible you are being watched. You have been warned.

Hamas and Fatah back Palestinian Headcount

Amid the big brouhaha over Condoleezza Rice's seventh visit to the region this year, while expectations for the Bush administration's legacy-polishing Middle East summit planned in Annapolis next month are plummeting fast, there is a cooperative effort by Palestinians to get some "facts on the ground" of their own. Hence an official new census is underway. Oddly enough, officials are starting off by tallying buildings and only later doing a headcount. According to the Associated Press, the results should count for something:

Rapid Palestinian growth would bolster Palestinian territorial demands, while Israelis' fear of being outnumbered in areas they now control might make them more willing to consider a West Bank withdrawal.

Later this week, some 5,000 census-takers will fan out across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, first to count buildings, and, in December, to count people. Results are expected by February.

"We hope we can use these statistics in the negotiations," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a supporter of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Ramallah-based administration. "It's not only important for the political process, but also for building the institutions of the state."

The militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has also said the census results are important and that it will cooperate.

Present guesstimates suggest around 3.9 million Palestinians inhabit the occupied territories. Last December, government statistics revealed that the Israeli population comprises 5.4 million Jews, 1.4 million Arabs and 310,000 others (Christians and miscellaneous) Most of the million plus Russians emigres are tallied in with the Jews. The stumbling block is East Jerusalem. It is still unclear whether Israel will allow Palestinians to take a census in just a portion of Jerusalem when they are busy promoting a P.R. campaign that hails "40 years of Reunification." Israelity bites.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bye-bye Ynet

Ynet, the spunky English language website of the Hebrew daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, will abruptly close down this week, after a two year run. It will be missed. They were quick off the mark to break stories and pulled few punches. Proprietors say that the website was not earning its keep, and most of its 11 journalists, who post news around the clock, are expected to be sacked rather than redeployed. It was known for its poisonous talkbacks, with dozens and sometimes hundreds of opinionated readers flaming one another over political or religious posturing. If you could wade through them, you'd get a cross section of the passion and delusion with which English-speakers around the world view this troubled region. Read it while you still can.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taming Israeli Chutzpah - will cash inducements do the trick?

Ronnie Maman, a 'Californicated' Israeli businessman who recently returned to the Holy Land after making a fortune on the West Coast of America for 18 years, apparently longs for that laid-back feeling of San Diego.
In fact, according to recent Israeli press reports, he wants to give a cash prize of $60,000 to anyone who finds a foolproof way to get brusque Israelis to behave themselves. (Getting readjusted after returning to the land of sharp elbows and shrill voices is taking its toll.) Maman hopes readers will post motivational ideas to encourage civilized behaviour and ordinary courtesy on his personal website and will mull over them and perhaps test some during the coming year before doling out any cash.
But does Izzy Bee detect a wee bit of chutzpah on Maman's part? The dude announced that he plans to publish the best 100 submissions for chutzpah modification as a hardcover book. Hmmmm. A hundred Joe Schmoes write the book, Maman gets the kudos and the book tour. All he does is give a big tip, worth about half a publisher's advance, to the best suggestion. OK, so maybe it's not mega-chutzpah on the scale of murdering your parents then appealing for clemency on the grounds that you are an orphan...but for someone who gets irked because Israelis pile into an elevator without allowing you to exit, or lean on the horn when the stop light is about to change, it's pretty cheeky.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bible-seller murdered in Gaza

The manager of Gaza's only Christian bookshop, who was kidnapped on Saturday by suspected Muslim extremists, was found dead early Sunday morning.
Some 3,000 Arab Christians live among 1.4 million Muslims in the Gaza Strip. Christians and their property have rarely singled out for attack in the past, but more than 40 video cassette shops and internet cafes, plus an American School, all have been firebombed in the past year. This coincides with the rise of a more stridently fundamentalist Islam inside Gaza which puts Christians increasingly on edge.

According to Eric Silver in the Independent:

Medical officials said Rami Ayyad, 31, had been shot and stabbed. He was the father of two small children and his wife is pregnant with their third.
Several death threats were issued to him after his Baptist bible shop was fire bombed six months ago, blackening shelves of books and pamphlets. He told friends that bearded men in a car stalked him and after he locked up on Thursday, he said they looked at him menacingy

The killers grabbed him as he left the shop on Saturday night. Suhad Massad, the director of the local Baptist bible society which runs the shop, said friends had rung his mobile phone when he did not arrive home. He told them he was running late.

Mr Ayyad's mother, Anisa, said he telephoned his family. "He said he was going to be with the 'people' for another two hours and that if he was not back by then, he would not be returning for a long, long time." She added that Mr Ayyad, who was born into a Greek Orthodox family but worshipped in a Baptist congregation, had "redeemed Christ with his blood".

About 3,000 Arab Christians live among 1.4 million Muslims in the Gaza Strip. Attacks on Christians and their property are rare, but more than 40 video cassette shops and internet cafes, identified with Western values, have been bombed in the past year. So was an American school. A shadowy group calling itself the Righteous Swords of Islam claimed responsibility.

Up to 300 Muslims and Christians attended a memorial service for Mr Ayyad in a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City Sunday. The mourners were reluctant to point fingers or to open a rift between the faiths.

Ms Massad said: "We don't know who was behind the killing or why. Was it for money, or was it because he was selling Bibles?" Describing him as a man with a warm heart, a smiling face and no enemies. "We try to show Jesus' love for all people, but without evangelism."

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, maintained: "This ugly act has no support by any religious group here." Nicholas Issa, a 50-year-old Christian, said: "Today is a black day for Gaza. We hope he was not killed because he was a Christian."

Another Christian, Jan Sa'ad, 42, said: "This has never happened before in Gaza. If somebody thinks this murder will make Christians leave, they are mistaken. This is our homeland. We are as patriotic as anyone."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Temple gifts from afar: a kilo of gold plus wedding ring meltdown

Visitors from Papua New Guinea donated heaps of gold for rebuilding Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, according to the latest report from Kobi Nahshoni:

A delegation of 34 devout Papua New Guineans visited the Western Wall last week and left a kilo of gold and several thousand dollars to the Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

The delegation's participants, who define themselves as members of "The Bible Circle", told the institute's workers that they study the bible on a regular basis.

Recently, they read the prophecy of Zechariah, where it says: "And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord, and ye shall know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you," and decided to follow the verse and come to Israel.

The Papuans explained that since their country was rich in gold mines, their donation was "nothing out of the ordinary," but added that in the future they hoped they would be able to send valuable exotic wood for the new Temple's construction.

"They pulled gold bullions out of their bags, and even started to take off their jewelry, apologizing it was too little," head of the institute Yahuda Glick told Ynet. "There was even a married couple who gave me their wedding rings and said they wanted to marry God."

"The scene reminded me of the legends of King Salomon I read when I was young, and pictures of the Queen of Sheba bringing gold and precious gems to the Temple. The vision is literally coming to life before our eyes," Glick said enthusiastically.

What a journey: they came 7856 miles with their golden offering! Just how it gets put to use remains to be seen. Here is one rather controversial, if inclusive, blueprint:

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.
May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." (Psalms 137:5-6)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Israel's 'Toy Soldiers' draw fire

A summer camp for Jewish tourists, like teenager Daniel Roth, who come to the Holy Land just to play toy soldiers, has inspired Chris Hedges, a veteran Middle East reporter, to post a fervent piece on Truthdig. He examines the inequalities and iniquities of religious-inspired weapons training gigs in a foreign land. Once you think it through, this IDF gun camp's not quite as "marva-lous" as its on-line hype.
Hedges writes:

If you are an American Jew and you join hundreds of teenagers from Europe and Mexico for an eight-week training course run by the Israel Defense Forces, you can post your picture wearing an Israeli army uniform and holding an automatic weapon on MySpace.

The Marva program, part summer camp part indoctrination, was launched in Israel in 1981. It allows participants, who must be Jewish and between the ages of 18 and 28, to fire weapons, live in military barracks in the Negev desert and saunter around in an Israeli military uniform saluting and taking long hikes with military packs. The Youth and Education Corps of the Israel Defense Forces run four 120-strong training sessions a year....
How have we reacted when we discovered that American Muslims were being taught in a foreign country to fire machine guns at paper figures and simulate military maneuvers? And what about the summer schools in Gaza organized by Islamic Jihad designed to train young Palestinians in the basics of military life? These Gaza camps, uncovered in 2001, were widely denounced by Israel as proof that the Palestinians were teaching their children to hate and kill.

The argument in favor of camps in Israel, as opposed to camps in Pakistan, is that these young men and women are not going to come back and use what they have learned to harm Americans. They are not terrorists. Muslims, however, have not cornered the market on terrorism and violence. Radical Jews have also been involved in terrorist attacks in Israel and the United States... The program inculcates hatred and a belief in the efficacy of violence to solve the problems in the Middle East. It identifies Israel with militarism. It feeds the idea that a Jew born in Brooklyn has a birthright to settle in Israel that is denied to an American of Palestinian descent.

Jerusalem, aside from being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is one of the most literate, creative and intellectual. Do these young men and women really know the best of Israel by spending eight weeks playing soldier and glorifying the military? Is the cause of Israel advanced by mirroring the twisted militarism of Islamic fundamentalists?...The danger of a military program such as these is that it solidifies a mind-set of us and them. It romanticizes violence.
(Wheee!) It widens the divide that leads to conflict. It makes dialogue impossible. There are great Israeli institutions. A summer working for them, rather than wearing an army uniform, unleashing bursts of automatic fire in the desert and singing Israeli patriotic songs, might actually help.

photos courtesy of MySpace and Marva's website

Friday, October 05, 2007

After 106 days in coma, Alexandra Boulat passed away today

Friends, family and photography buffs are grieving at the loss of this sensitive and brave conflict photographer, who shot the photo above in Afghanistan. Alexandra was a vibrant woman, and had an exacting eye for lighting and detail and a passion for the truth. Our deepest condolences go out to Issa Freij, her partner, and Annie Boulat, her mother in Paris. After suffering her brain aneurysm last June, Alex never regained consciousness. She was strong physically and held on for more than three months.

Gaza became an obsession for this exceptional photojournalist, who co-founded the renowned photo agency VII, and Izzy Bee will go through Erez crossing with friends and make a donation in Alex's memory for the women and families whose lives are blighted by that conflict. Alex used to record the border guards' commands and the whirrs and dehumanized inspections every time she crossed this checkpoint and use them for podcasts.
Rest in Peace, Alexandra. (Will post more details about funeral service and obituaries as they become clearer.) It is indeed a sad day.

UPDATE: A memorial service will be held on Friday, 12 October in the chapel at Jacqueville, outside Paris. Alexandra will be laid to rest beside her photographer father, Pierre Boulat.

The family would like to announce that a Foundation to continue Alexandra's and Pierre's legacy will be established in the coming weeks. The Foundation will support the ideals and issues that Alexandra and Pierre were concerned with. If you would like to contribute to this Foundation please contact:

If you prefer to send flowers please send them to:
Cimetière de Jacqueville
77 760 Amponville, France


Alexandra Boulat was born in Paris, France, in 1962. She trained in graphic art and art history, at the Beaux Arts in Paris. She was represented by Sipa Press for 10 years until 2000. In 2001 she co-founded VII photo agency. Her news and features stories are published in many international magazines, above all Time, Newsweek, National Geographic Magazine and Paris-Match. She has recieved many International Awards for the quality of her work.

Boulat covered news, conflicts and social issues as well as making extensive reportages on countries and people. Among her many varied assignments, she has reported on the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan at the fall of the Taliban, and the Women condition in the Islamic world. Other large assignments published in National Geographic include country stories on Indonesia Albania, and Morroco.


Best Women Photographer, Bevento Oscars, Italy 2006
Overseas Press Club 2003 - Afghanistan
World Press Photo / Art 2003 - Yves Saint Laurent Last Show
Infinity Award, International Center of Photography, New York, 1999 - Kosovo
USA Photo Magazine's photographer of the year, 1998
Perpignan, Visa d'Or pour l'Image, 1998 - Kosovo
Prix Paris-Match 1998 - Kosovo
The Harry Chapin Media Awards 1994 - Besieged Sarajevo


PARIS -National Geographic France 2002
ECLATS DE GUERRE (lights of war).
Les Syrtes Image, 2002

Wars in Former Yugoslavia, Visa Pour l'Image, Perpignan 1995
Wars in Former Yugoslavia, Gallerie Debelleyme, Paris 2002

Click here to see the VII archive portraits of (not by) Alexandra.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I Spy Undercover Kosher

It sounds like the opening of a crusty old joke...there were these five Lithuanian rabbis who crossed the border to check out some foreign fruit and veg. But it's a true story.
The Hebrew daily Ma’ariv reports the adventures of a group of Kosher inspectors from Israel who are keen to import fresh produce during this Shmita year, when Jewish fields lie fallow by Biblical commandment. This happens once every seven years and it transpires that some of the usual loopholes for farmers have been closed by ultra-Orthodox decree. Gaza, which normally makes up the shortfall of crops, is barred from exporting to Israel at the moment because of its rocket attacks.According to Ma’ariv, these black hats decided to bypass West Bank sources because they are harvested in Judea and Samaria and went shopping inside Jordan for the tons of produce needed by their communities in the coming months. But, even though Jordan has friendly relations with neighbouring Israel, the rabbis were leery of standing out in an Arab crowd.

At Eilat, before crossing into Aqba, the rabbis underwent a makeover. This was not the typical caution of concealing kippahs beneath baseball caps. No, these fellows ditched their heavy black coats, stuffed their sacred string fringes inside their pants and traded their yarmulkas for red-checked kaffiyehs, the dish towel-like head scarf worn by Palestinians and Bedouins.

Ma’ariv claims that these five Israeli inspectors tried to wander around Jordan, looking for onions and green peppers, but they were hauled in and grilled by the Jordanian police at every new town. The reason? Their disguises were too convincing. Sporting Arafat-style kaffiyehs and unruly beards, these ultra-orthodox Jews were mistaken for Islamist militants of Hamas and al-Qaeda.
Oy vey.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New York Sun set in its ways: stylebook spells out Israeli coverage

Sure, perhaps "It shines for all," but Ne Plus Ultra-orthodox, apparently, is a motto for scribes on the New York Sun.
Ms Heidi Bruggink, of the NY Observer's Media Mob column, shares some inside info from the editorial room of a newspaper "known for its pugnacious coverage of Jewish-related issues--particularly a strong proponent of Israel's right to defend itself."

The in-house style guide of The New York Sun can be taken to offer some insight into the editorial positioning of the publication. We found, among the many entries, the following:

"aliya, not aliyah. Jewish immigration to Israel. Literally 'going up.' Opposite is yerida, the 'going down' of Israeli Jews to live in other countries, like America.

"Avery Fisher Hall: At Lincoln Center."

"Charedi. Literally, trembling. Prefer 'fervently Orthodox' or 'black-hat' to this Hebrew word. Avoid the term 'ultra-Orthodox.'"

"Decter, Midge. The Cold War heroine. Note the spelling of her last name."

"Ethnic. Means not Jewish or Christian."

"Gentile. Not Jewish or genteel."

"Jerusalem. Avoid the phrase 'Arab East Jerusalem.'"

"Matzo. Unleavened bread eaten at Passover, also called the bread of affliction."

"Peace process. Confine use to quoted material. Use the Oslo negotiations or the Arab-Israeli negotiations or the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs."

"Prime ministers of Israel. Our readers can be counted on to know of which country Prime Minister Sharon heads the government. Likewise with the American president."

"Reveal, revelation. Use only in quoted matter or when referring to what happened at Mount Sinai…"

"West Bank and Gaza Strip. Territories under Israeli control from 1967 onward. 'The territories' is acceptable on second reference, as are Judea or Samaria for the Southern and Northern regions of the West Bank. Avoid the phrase 'occupied territories.'"

UPDATE: This one was too good to leave out...

"communist, socialist. See AP stylebook. Any favorable reference to a communist must be shown to either the editor or the managing editor of the Sun before publication."

Hat-tip to the media blogger Feral Beast

Monday, October 01, 2007

'Shabat Shalom, Maradona'-when a suicide bomber switches off

This 100-minute movie, set in Tel Aviv, packs quite a punch and defies cinematic cliches about good guys and bad guys.
Israeli director Dror Zahavi's latest film looks at the Arab-Israeli relationship through the story of a Palestinian terrorist who is issued faulty equipment and suffers the consequences. Donald Macintyre reports in The Independent:

The Israeli director Dror Zahavi succinctly describes the plot of his latest film Shabat Shalom Maradona (Sabbath greetings Maradona): "It's the story of the 48 hours spent in Israel by a suicide bomber who gets stuck in Tel Aviv and doesn't know what to do until the switch of his bomb has been repaired."

Arresting – and accurate – as Mr Zahavi's summary is, it hardly does justice to the complex emotional, psychological and, albeit indirectly, political layers of what is certain to be the one of the most unusual and daring feature films due to screen next year.

Tarek, 20, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Tulkarem with a promising career as a professional footballer at Maccabee Nazareth, has been chosen to carry out a suicide bombing in the crowded, open-air Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. The title is a nod to the protagonist's passion for football.

He's an eligible candidate for the bombing because his father, by persuading the troops to keep allowing his son through the checkpoint to get to the club, has soon become obliged to do favours for the Israeli military in return; to become, in other words, a small-time collaborator. Now, with the intifada under way and the borders sealed, Tarek's footballing days are over and his father all but ostracised by his own community. To clear his family's name as well as help the Palestinian cause, Tarek agrees to do the bombing. But the explosive belt he wears fails to detonate because the switch has a fault and burns out.

He finds an electrician, Katz, a 70-year-old Auschwitz survivor, to fix the switch – in total ignorance, of course, of its true purpose. But Katz warns Tarek that he won't be able to do the repairs until Sunday morning, because of the Sabbath, and invites him to stay over in his flat until then.

Slowly Tarek discovers something of Jewish life on the other side of the separation barrier that usually serves to make Tulkarem and Tel Aviv, only 25 miles apart, as alien and separate as if they were on different planets. Katz's wife rarely gets out of bed any more; their beloved son died during army manoeuvres while doing his national service many years ago. Finally, on this strange weekend when according to the plan, he should have been already dead, Tarek meets Keren, a 17-year-old Jewish girl who has broken out from her ultra-Orthodox family to live a secular life – and has been beaten by religious members of the community for doing so. The young couple begin a friendship which, with time, might blossom into something more. And he learns a little of the deep-seated Israeli fears of suicide attacks like the one he has crossed the green line to perpetrate.

It wouldn't be fair to future audiences to reveal the ending. It's hardly a happy one, though as Mr Zahavi explains: "This is the story of a suicide bomber who comes with hate and leaves without it." And at least two dramatic yet plausible twists of plot underline the challenges this Israeli-German co-production poses to the received wisdom of many cinemagoers, especially in Israel itself.

Mr Zahavi says that at the wrap party when shooting ended in May he put together – as he usually does to say thank-you to the crew for their hard work – around 15 minutes of rushes from the film for them to watch.

"I guess there were about 60 to 70 people there, mostly people who worked on the film and a few special guests. When the showing finished, there was complete silence. For about five or six minutes nobody was able to say anything. Then they started talking among themselves at first and then people started to come up to me saying: 'I was emotionally impressed. I was so moved by the film. But I didn't want to be moved because it was about a suicide bomber.'"

Mr Zahavi, an experienced 47-year-old Israeli director who has worked – mainly in television – in Germany up to now and for whom this is his first feature in Israel, says this contradiction is bound to manifest itself within sections of the public. For by depicting the bomber as a human being rather than a monster, with palpably human as well as nationalist motives, the film is an "emotional trip" which asks the audience to feel empathy for someone they would normally reject and hate.

Saying that he and the film's veteran Israeli producer, Zvi Spielman, were well aware of the risk they were taking with such a subject, he recognises that not everyone will have the open-mindedness to take easily to the film. "You are breaking a taboo not just politically but emotionally. Some will reject this and some will love it."

But it's clear that Mr Zahavi and Mr Spielman were determined to make a film that in the director's words, would "build a bridge" between Israelis and Palestinians and offer a hope of reconciliation. The dialogue will be in both Hebrew and Arabic. Tarek, the film's leading man, is played by Shredi Jabanin, a young Israeli-Arab actor, who admitted earlier this year that the part was a challenge: "I have to play a character that everyone hates, yet I have to try to make the audience love him. It's complicated."

Both the director and producer are broadly on the Israeli left—Mr Zahavi's parents were Israeli communists and a picture of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime minister who took the greatest risks for peace and was assassinated by an extreme right wing fanatic in 1995, still hangs outside Mr Spielman's office in the Herzilya studio complex, Israel's Cinecitta. Mr Spielman says the story focuses on "36 hours with the enemy, in which both sides learn to find out about the other. That's what fascinated me about the story."

The history of the script is almost as remarkable as the plot itself. Invited to meet graduating students at the Tel Aviv university script writing department, Mr Spielman was particularly struck by one student's proposal in the booklet produced for the event – and even more by how he presented it under a grilling from a team of TV professionals.

Mr Spielman took the student, Ido Dror, aside and asked him to come to his office the following Sunday. "Much later he confessed that he had nothing written except this one page." But he worked furiously over the weekend and by the Sunday had produced a "kind of treatment."

The student had intended the idea as a 60-minute TV drama. But Mr Spielman gave him a $1,000 down payment and told him to come back with the script for a 90-minute feature. And so Shabat Shalom Maradona was born. "I fell in love with the idea of the script," says Mr Zahavi. "It was a very happy hour for me when Zvi called me and asked me to do the film."

The film, which Mr Spielman and his German co-producer Heike Wielhe-Timm hope will get its first showing at the Berlin Biennale, has been three years in the gestation and was already in story development when real life imitated art in an especially violent way. A suicide bomber recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blew himself up in the Carmel Market at around 11.15am on a fine November morning in 2004, killing three Israelis and injuring some 30 others. If nothing else, it was a reminder that – after a period when suicide bombings have long been much fewer and further between than at the peak of the intifada – as Mr Zahavi frankly says it would be a "disaster" for the film if one were to occur during or in the run-up to distribution.

By another grim coincidence Shlomo Vishinsky, the well known Cameri Theatre actor whom Dror Zahavi successfully asked to play Katz, had lost his own son Lior, an army sergeant, in May 2004 when his APC was blown up by an anti-tank rocket as his unit prepared to detonate a weapons smuggling tunnel into Gaza.

But like the character he plays, Mr Vishinsky is no hater. Recently telephoned by a reporter for a reaction after the Israeli military said they had killed the militant suspected of killing his son he says: "I said that I was sorry for his mother. It wasn't going to bring my son back. I hate the German Reich; I don't hate Arabs. I have Jewish friends and Arab friends. And I don't believe the Arabs hate us either." Using the word "neighbours" to describe Palestinians he added: " In a way the tragic thing about this war is that it's a war without hate."

Mr Vishinsky is active in a campaign to stop people, including some high-profile showbusiness figures, from evading army service. But but he is, like Mr Zahavi and Mr Spielman, an equally ardent supporter of an equitable two-state solution to the conflict.

Mr Vishinsky, 64, says he does wonder what Israeli audiences will make of the highly personal – rather than political – motivation of protecting his father ascribed to Tarek in the film but then he reflects that in a sense the motives of his own son, a leftist, were not so different. "He wanted to protect me too. I asked him why he was in that troop and he said 'to stop buses being blown up in Tel Aviv'."

And the director, who made a close study of the backgrounds of suicide bombers in preparation for the film, agrees that the motives are often complex. "In 2004 the army produced a profile of the typical suicide bomber – young, male, fanatic. Then came the women, the intelligent people, the religious. There is no one profile of a suicide bomber. I have even talked to women in the occupied territories who told me that sometimes personal marital or other problems cause women to do bombings."

Referring to the armed struggle for establishing the state of Israel in the late 1940s, Mr Spielman says while suicide attacks played no part in it, "we tend to forget" that acts of what was then called terrorism certainly did. Not that the film remotely condones suicide bombing or anything like it. Rather, by showing the human interaction between Israelis and a Palestinian, it sets out to expose more clearly the wounds on both sides – and perhaps the possibilities of healing them.

Answering the inevitable question about Paradise Now, the Palestinian film that won a Golden Globe, in which suicide bombing is also a central theme, Mr Zahavi says it was a "cinematographic poster," in which the politics and rights and wrongs of bombing were much discussed. Mr Zahavi eschewed overt political discussion in his film preferring to locate the story at the purely human level.

He said: "Paradise Now, which is a film I like and appreciated a lot, represented only the Palestinian point of view. Our film represents the Israeli point of view as well as the Palestinian point of view."