February 9, 2006
Disputed Film Draws Muted Response
For Rabbi Marvin Hier, suicide bombings are the modern-day plague. The founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center so condemns these acts of terror that he spoke to the late Pope John Paul II, Jordan's King Abdullah II and the chancellor of Austria to enlist their support in passing a U.N. resolution condemning suicide bombings as a crime against humanity.
Given Hier's passion, one might expect him to denounce loudly the film, "Paradise Now," as a work of propaganda. The movie, which seeks to humanize two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers dispatched by operatives to murder innocent Israelis, recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and received an Academy Award nomination in the same category.
Despite the subject matter of "Paradise Now," Hier, himself a member of the academy, has yet to see the film, although he said he soon planned to and "didn't feel good" about the movie's premise.
Like the Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League has no plans to protest the nomination of the controversial film. In fact, no large mainstream Jewish organization has called for a boycott.
In a measure of the acclaimed movie's respectability in some quarters of the local Jewish community, the University of Judaism recently sponsored a screening of and panel discussion on "Paradise Now" that featured the film's director, Hany Abu-Assad. The sold-out audience of nearly 500 clapped at the movie's conclusion, which ends with a rage-filled Palestinian bomber getting ready to blow himself up on an a bus crowded with Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Abu-Assad said at the University of Judaism event that he opposes all suicide bombing attacks, even against soldiers. However, the director added that he came to understand how bombers can commit such acts after Israeli authorities detained him, without cause, he said, for three hours in the hot sun at a checkpoint.
To be sure, some conservative Jewish organizations have condemned the movie as an attempt to sanitize and justify a hateful terrorist act. They complain that "Paradise Now" seeks to blame for the proliferation of suicide attacks solely on Israel's occupation, ignoring the dangerous grip of Islamic fundamentalism and the steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in Palestinian schools and media.
"I'm surprised that major Jewish organizations have not studied this film more closely, if at all, and taken it more seriously as an effort to normalize suicide bombing as an acceptable response to poverty and depression," said Roz Rothstein, executive director of Los Angeles-based StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel educational advocacy group, who has seen the film twice.
"What's the point of this movie?" asked Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, headquartered in Washington, D.C. "We should be shining a light on the horrors of [suicide bombing] and the victims, rather than humanizing these heinous acts."
Brooks has not seen "Paradise Now."
A few Jewish groups have done more than simply verbally attack the film.
The American Jewish Congress (AJC), Pacific Southwest Region, hopes to take out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter to "make Academy members think twice before voting," said local AJC Executive Director Gary Ratner. Israel Project, an international educational advocacy group, has helped an Israeli father of a 16-year-old suicide bombing victim place an article critical of "Paradise Now" in American newspapers, including the New York Daily News. The goal: to make sure "the voice of the victim is heard," said Calev Ben-David, director of the project's Jerusalem office.
In the opinion piece, Yossi Zur writes: "Nominating a movie such as 'Paradise Now' only implicates the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the evil chain of terror that attempts to justify these horrific acts."
Liberal Jewish leaders, on the other hand, tend to share the critics' consensus that the film is complex, nuanced and "an examination rather than a justification," in the words of David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., an L.A.-based human relations organization. They argue that "Paradise Now" questions the morality and efficacy of terror attacks through a pivotal character named Suha, a female Palestinian human rights activist who condemns bombers for perpetuating the cycle of violence, behaving as immorally as the Israeli occupiers and for hardening the Jewish state's resolve.
"I think it's a credit to our community that institutions like the University of Judaism have held showings and that the community response has been thoughtful rather than reactionary," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Jewish social justice organization with offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. "I think most Jews who see the movie realize that it's not about Jews in America or Israelis but an interesting insight into the bubble of Palestinian society."
Perhaps the muted reaction from the American Jewish community stems from the fact that so few Jews have actually seen the film. Confined largely to art houses, "Paradise Now" earned a paltry $1.1 million from its late October release until its Oscar nomination.
Jewish groups might now also temper their reactions because of the lessons learned from "The Passion of the Christ." The controversial and, some argued, anti-Semitic film about the last hours of Jesus' life saw its box-office surge after Jewish critics began attacking it.
Boycotting "Paradise Now," said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, "will only bring more publicity to this type of movie."
Marc Ballon was moderator for the discussion following the University of Judaism's screening of "Paradise Now."