Posted by Simone Wilson
Gal Gadot has just been cast as the next onscreen Wonder Woman — nabbing her the hottest up-for-grabs role in Hollywood, and officially catapulting her past Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Bar Rafaeli as Israel's most famous industry export.
The actress, model, former Miss Israel and little-known record-holder as Most-Followed Israeli on Facebook has grown a considerable fan base as the hot, hard-driving Gisele in the "Fast and Furious" franchise.
But an upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in "Batman vs. Superman," the sequel to "Man of Steel," lands her squarely on the A list.
Judging by online reactions to Gadot's new role, director Zack Snyder's pick for Wonder Woman is almost as controversial as his choice to cast Affleck as Batman. I haven't seen the BDSers out in full force (yet), but news stories on the casting have been indundated by Lynda Carter diehards who find Gadot to be too waifish for the role.
Snyder pre-defended Gadot via press statement:
"Wonder Woman is arguably one of the most powerful female characters of all time and a fan favorite in the DC Universe. Not only is Gal an amazing actress, but she also has that magical quality that makes her perfect for the role. We look forward to audiences discovering Gal in the first feature film incarnation of this beloved character."
What he forgot to mention is that she's among the biggest badasses in the game. Not only did Gadot spend two years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), completing combat training and serving as a fitness trainer (Maxim took notice), but she's done all her own stunts for "Fast and Furious," according to the following interview:
"I always told [director Justin Lin], 'I want to be a badass' — can I say badass?" she asks. (Kind of like 10 minutes ago, when I asked my editors about this headline.) Gadot then goes on to describe what she admires about her "Fast and Furious" character, which also sounds like a pretty ideal description for the modern Wonder Woman: "She's very strong, but she lets herself be soft, and be happy, and be feminine at the same time. She's very clever, she's very sophistocated, she's smart — she can see a few steps ahead. And she's one of the boys, which I always love."
Gadot's second life, her Clark Kent storyline if you will, is in Tel Aviv, Israel, with her young daughter and husband, who owns The Varsano, the poshest hotel in Tel Aviv's poshest part of town.
In response to the news of her casting as Wonder Woman, Gadot posted to her 1.5 million Facebook followers (up from 1.2 million earlier this week): "Had to share this with the best fans in the world — I Can't express how happy and excited I am to be part of this amazing project! Thank you for all your support! Love you all! xoxo."
And on Twitter, she wrote: "Wonder Women! So exciting!!! Can't express how happy I am."
It's a sweet ending to a bitter week for Israel's darling, who just lost friend and "Fast and Furious" co-star Paul Walker in a fiery L.A.-area car crash last Sunday.
Update: In case the people would like to get to know their new Wonder Woman better, here's a choice scene with Vin Diesel from "Fast and Furious." And one of Gadot dancing around in her underwear, for good measure.
12.4.13 at 2:20 pm | An upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry. . .
12.1.13 at 4:30 am | Gadot, a former Miss Israel, joined the "Fast and. . .
12.1.13 at 3:00 am | By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very. . .
11.27.13 at 10:00 am | "Open facility," in this case, seems to be a. . .
11.13.13 at 10:05 am | The IDF just loaded about 150 soldiers and 100. . .
11.12.13 at 8:30 am | A small child swishes down the same red plastic. . .
12.1.13 at 4:30 am | Gadot, a former Miss Israel, joined the "Fast and. . . (13938)
12.4.13 at 2:20 pm | An upcoming role alongside Ben Affleck and Henry. . . (1728)
12.1.13 at 3:00 am | By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very. . . (231)
December 1, 2013 | 4:30 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
See also: "Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman"
Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, an exotic staple in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, posted tributes to co-star Paul Walker on her Facebook and Twitter accounts today, after news came in during the night (Israeli time) that Walker had died in a fiery L.A.-area car crash.
Gadot wrote on Twitter: "Lost a dear friend today. So sudden and tragic - @RealPaulWalker was a great man with a big heart and passion. RIP."
She also shared a photo of the actors smiling together, apparently on set or at a promotional event.
Her Facebook post elaborated further, and included a translation into Hebrew for her 1.2 million followers:
Lost a dear friend today.
So sudden and tragic .. Hard to believe.. Paul was a great man with a big heart and passion for life.
I'm so sad he's no longer with us. Can't believe I'm actually writing this.. I'm sending my condolences to his family and his precious daughter Meadow .
Rest in peace brother. We will miss you here..
איבדתי היום חבר יקר . בצורה כל כך פתאומית וטרגית. מרגיש כאילו הסרט התערבב עם המציאות. פשוט קשה להאמין.. פול היה אדם מקסים עם לב גדול. חבר טוב מלא שמחת חיים.. לא נתפס שאני בכלל כותבת את זה.
אני שולחת את תנחומיי למשפחתו ולביתו היחידה מדו.
נוח על משכבך בשלום אח. נתגעגע אליך.
TMZ broke the story of Walker's death at about 6 p.m. PST on Saturday, reporting that the 40-year-old actor had been riding passenger-side in a Porsche Carrera GT, in the Santa Clarita area, when "the driver somehow lost control and slammed into a post or a tree ... and the car burst into flames." However, commenters and other journalists initially questioned the validity of the story, as death hoaxes have become common on Twitter. The circumstances seemed too ironic: Paul Walker, car afficionado and star of a series about street racing, dies in dramatic car crash?
But within a couple hours, Walker's reps had confirmed his tragic death, in the following statement:
It is with a truly heavy heart that we must confirm that Paul Walker passed away today in a tragic car accident while attending a charity event for his organization Reach Out Worldwide. He was a passenger in a friend's car, in which both lost their lives. We appreciate your patience as we too are stunned and saddened beyond belief by this news. Thank you for keeping his family and friends in your prayers during this very difficult time. We will do our best to keep you apprised on where to send condolences.
Pasadena businessman Bill Townsend, who attended the charity event, added in the Facebook comments: "I was with Paul today. He was surrounded by friends, talking about cars, seeing hundreds of gifts brought for kids to give out by charity. The news is terribly sad. The world lost an angel and Heaven gained one. I'm going to commit to helping ensure the Paul's charity lives on and that his love of cars and people, especially children, will be remembered forever."
Gadot, a former Miss Israel and the most-followed Israeli on Facebook, joined the "Fast and Furious" cast as character Gisele Harabo for the fourth installment in 2009, and has appeared in every film since. Filming for "Fast and Furious 7" had just begun in September 2013.
(When she's not working in Hollywood, Gadot resides in Tel Aviv with her young daughter and husband Yaron Varsano, owner of the upscale Varsano Hotel in Neve Tzedek. Just days before Walker's death, she also mourned the passing of Israel's "greatest artist," singer Arik Einstein.)
Here, Gadot appears alongside Walker in the trailer for "Fast and Furious 6":
Update: And here are a couple of their biggest scenes.
May he rest in peace.
December 1, 2013 | 3:00 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
Before I begin, a disclaimer: I've only lived in Tel Aviv for a year. And I hadn't heard of Israeli singer Arik Einstein, who many are calling the greatest Israeli singer of all time, before he died last Tuesday. (Blasphemy, I know.) Of course I'd heard his retro surfer Hebrew on the radio, in taxi cabs, at the wine-and-cheesier parties I attended in the Old North — but I'd never put a name to the voice. So my observations on his death are not those of a longtime fan or a member of The Family; they're those of an outsider engulfed in the strange, warm grief cloud that recently moved in on my city. A foreigner breathing its little drops with the rest of you.
Einstein, 74, a pretty Israeli pop singer who grew to be a beautifully reclusive old man, died of a ruptured aneurysm after decades offstage, but he might as well have been assassinated in front of a crowd. The majority of grief-stricken think pieces on Einstein's death have compared this fresh feeling of loss to that of losing peacenik Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to the bullet of a crazed Orthodox assassin. It's as if Einstein, too, has been robbed from Israel, murdered in the public square — and with him, all his open-minded and -hearted ideals. Eighteen years apart, Rabin and Einstein's deaths were announced in the same courtyard of the same Tel Aviv hospital, and their memories exalted by tens of thousands of mourners at Tel Aviv's same central meeting point, now known as Rabin Square.
(As a colder, more pessimistic parallel, it seems to me that Einstein and Rabin have both come to symbolize these liberal ideals despite the fact that neither was quite as wholeheartedly committed to peace as his simplified legacy suggests. Rabin was a long way from a real peace accord with Palestine. Einstein wrote songs about populating the Negev, which would require pushing out thousands of Bedouin — an enduring Zionist prerogative that was mass-protested across the country yesterday. But they both wore undeniably pure hearts and good intentions, the kind that can inspire hope in the hardest Israeli cynic. And is there a greater pain than loss of hope?)
I've never experienced a mourning so communal-yet-personal. The days since Einstein's passing have been tragic, but not in the big, shouty Internet way that I remember America mourning legends like Michael Jackson or Adam Yauch. This great popular death has spread through Tel Aviv with a soft and all-encompassing nostalgia, like it means no one can see their childhood home again (even if they haven't been back in years anyhow). The loss hurts, but the remembering is cozy.
Or maybe I'm just describing the sound of Einstein's voice, with which I am now intimate by default. This voice — deep, dreamy, milky, calm — has been leaking out of Tel Aviv apartment windows, cracked to the air of this warm November; mixed into DJ sets at Tel Aviv's hundreds of bars and nightclubs as nostalgia therapy for the drunken; pumping from speakers at cafes across the city, as couples and babies soak it in, desperately loving their country and racking their brains for its greatness.
By accident, I walked passed Einstein's very unremarkable Tel Aviv apartment building the night after he died. A few hipster girls in braids and button-up boots kneeled in front of a puddle of candles on the sidewalk, their faces shadowed in glow. Eagerly they seemed to absorb the inimitable sense of witnessing something so grand and historic in their own young lifetimes, snapping photos with their phones on vibrate, so as not to pierce the sweet analog air with 21st century sounds. A young man with his hands crammed in his jeans paced back and forth in front of the shrine, full with feelings. Another petite and nice-smelling 20something carried around a plate of Chanukah donuts, the ones with the red jelly filling, which we all politely refused while trying not to puke from the smell (everyone in Tel Aviv had downed a dozen by that hour). Around the corner, at Tao Bar, men in stubble and dress shirts hugged each other's shoulders and sang Einstein songs into a microphone, karaoke style.
I haven't been over to Jerusalem since Einstein passed, but I picture their mourning as somehow more national, more scholarly. Jerusalem lost one of the greats. Tel Aviv — where Einstein was born, lived and died — lost the beat to its bleeding heart, the hum through its beachy soul. "Einstein was everywhere: on the street, in the café, at home and of course on the radio and television," wrote Ben Shalev of left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, in his piece "We missed Arik before he died." He wrote that Einstein's voice "seared into my soul in a way that couldn’t be more profound, and has been accompanying me since I can remember."
However, the best eulogy I've read, sadly under-trafficked, comes from Haaretz' farthest-left columnist, Gideon Levy. Below, as much of his piece as I can stuff into my own:
When the child was no longer a child, I had the honor of interviewing Einstein for Haaretz. I now write “honor,” since for many long weeks after the interview I went around as if drunk with love. I fell in love with Arik, really. I didn’t stop talking about him and thinking about the experience of meeting him.
That was in the fall of 1984. In Kolbo Shalom a riot broke out when Ofra Haza came to sign records, Israel was already sunk deep in the blood and mud in Lebanon — and Einstein put out a record, “Pesek Zman” (“Time Out”), his 23rd. He was already 45, I was 31, a minor reporter — and I fell captive to his charm. For three hours we sat in the house of a friend of his, not in his home of course. He evaded many of the questions, but nonetheless I fell in love. I am now reading the interview from the depths of the archive, and am falling in love with him once again.
I wanted him to return to performing, I wanted him to tell about his being estranged from Uri Zohar — “How I lost a friend.” I wanted him to talk about Shmulik Kraus, and mostly I wanted him to turn into a protest singer — and he remained firm: “What someone like Elimelech Ron from the streets does contributes more, in my opinion, than Joan Baez who sings against the war. The fact that I am more famous does not make me more right. God in heaven, because a person is famous because of his songs, that gives him the right? If I felt personally that I was accomplishing things, it would be easier for me to protest and shout. But I have a fear of making mistakes.”
Everything about this is so Tel Aviv. A city that has reluctantly become the face of modern Israel — and all the great ideologies and injustices that come with it — but that wishes above all to be simple and human. Most of Einstein's songs weren't political, but when they were, they were rooted in the hearts of men. "You are allowed to cry," he sang in his homecoming ballad to kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. "It's not simple at all, to forgive fate." Wrote another Haaretz great, Ari Shavit, of the singer: "Precisely because he wasn’t political or polished or eloquent, he expressed well the murmurs of the Israeli soul."
Some have also chosen to interpret Einstein as the last living statue of a dying breed: the mainstream, middle-class Israeli liberal. But sociologist Tom Pessah, writing for the far-left +972 Magazine, found some racism buried within the mourning of this particular character — a distinctly Ashkenazi, well-to-do intellectual. From Pessah's dark R.I.P.:
Israel’s business and political leadership remains Ashkenazi. When Ashkenazim like Einstein support liberal Zionist peace efforts, they remain identified with this elite, regardless of their personal politics and behavior. As long as we have no alternative politics, based in genuine cross-cutting solidarity between Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Palestinians and the many other groups that make up this country, nothing will change. General pleas for peace won’t change a thing. And culture, seemingly a-political, could actually play a huge role in that transformation. Especially when we’re talking about a singer as talented as Einstein.
In life and in death, it appears to me, Arik Einstein easily became everything for every Israeli. He is said to have brought rock 'n' roll to Israel in the 1960s — making him their Beach Boy, their Raffi, their Henry Nilsson, their folk hero, their proof of a "nation like all other nations." He sang children's songs, and love songs, and often songs about the sea, presumably Tel Aviv's hottub Mediterranean. "And a wet sun strikes my pale skin," Einstein sang of a Tel Aviv youth when he reached 60. His was the people's wet sun, and the entire Tel Aviv race can't watch the light dribble through the street trees any longer without hearing the words to one of his most famous covers: "The friends I have are fine/ But in the light you shine/ I only see the shadows of the others." Living here in this moment, I kind of can't, either.
November 27, 2013 | 10:00 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
Just over a couple months ago, African asylum seekers and their supporters in Israel were cautiously celebrating the Supreme Court of Israel's decision to overturn the Anti-Infiltration Law, which allowed Israel to imprison undocumented immigrants for at least three years without trial.
They were right to be cautious. Because on Monday, the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, responded to the ruling — within a few tight weeks of their 90-day deadline — by drafting a new Anti-Infiltration Bill that many human-rights orgs see as even harsher than the original.
At first glance, the bill looks to slightly improve on its widely despised predecessor. Under the proposed changes, undocumented African immigrants can only (only!) be imprisoned without trial for one year, as opposed to three years, and are thereafter required to check in regularly to an "open facility" nearby.
But "open facility," in this case, seems to be a euphemism for "larger and slightly nicer-looking desert prison."
According to the Hebrew version of Israeli daily Haaretz, even the Knesset's legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, noted at the meeting that "the difference between the planned 'open' facility and the existing detention facility seems minimal."
Despite this warning, the Anti-Infiltration Bill passed its first reading with flying colors on Monday, with 43 politicians voting "Yes" and 17 voting "No." After some fine-tuning this week by the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, the bill will hit the floor for its second and third reading early next week — after which it will likely be passed into law. "If the bill will be legislated, we are sure going to take it to the Supreme Court," said Anat Ovadia, spokeswoman for Hotline for Migrant Workers, Israel's original advocacy and resource center for African refugees. "But that could take 10 months. Even if we appeal, it will take so long that on the ground, they'll start to transfer [prisoners] to the open facility."
For this reason, groups like Amnesty International and U.S.-based coalition "Right Now" have pre-drafted emails, Facebook posts and Tweets for concerned citizens to send to Israeli politicians and ambassadors, pressuring them without having to think too much. (Sample Tweet from the latter: ".@israeliPM you must stop Knesset plan to create new detention for #African asylum seekers in Israel. It violates int law and Jewish values.")
But Twitter attacks may not stand up to bulldozers. Israel's new detention facility for Africans, called Sadot, is currently in the final stages of construction in the lot alongside the Saharonim Penitentiary, where over 2,000 asylum seekers are currently holed up. "They can see [Sadot] from their windows," said Ovadia.
Under the new bill, after one year at Saharonim, prisoners can request a transfer to Sadot, where they will be required to check in three times a day. Given its incredibly remote location in the harsh Israeli desert, this will make living outside Sadot impossible. The camp will be closed at night, and, Haaretz reported, "is surrounded by a high metallic fence topped by barbed wire that stretches for many kilometers." This, despite the fact that "during discussions... senior members of the Israel Prison Service said that there would be no wall or barbed wire on the site," according to Haaretz.
Sadot has been under construction for at least a year. In November 2012, a group of refugee-rights orgs in Israel led a small tour of the greater prison compound, situated near the border with the Sinai. (That great treacherous buffer between Israel and Egypt, where refugees fleeing the oppressive and violent governments in Eritrea and Sudan report being kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom on their journey to safety.) Here's what they observed on the tour:
The Ministry of Defense was installing hundreds of shipping containers onto the property, apparently as future housing for Africans in Israel. (Photo.) Cold white cells were lined in lockers and bunk beds. (Photo.) "Once completed," reported photo activist group ActiveStills, "it will be the biggest prison for immigrants in the western world" — with a final planned capacity of around 11,000 immigrants.
Now, it appears the Ministry of Defense and Israel Prison Service have simply made a few tweaks, at the will of the new Knesset bill, to re-purpose the long-planned jail expansion into a superficially friendly sort of post-prison. Details on the new setup, from a Hotline for Migrant Workers press release:
The detainees in the open facility will be provided with housing, medical services and food. Women and children will be detained separately, and education will be provided to the children. In addition, according to the new amendment, the director of the open detention center would be authorized to employ the residents of the center in maintenance work within the center itself. For this work they will receive a “proper reward”, but it was emphasized that there would be no employer-employee relationship between the state and any 'illegal migrant'. The detentions centers will be open during the day and closed at night, and the detainees will have to be present in roll-calls three times per day to prevent the asylum-seekers from venturing too far from the center and working elsewhere. If a detainee tries to run away, is late for a roll-call or is caught working outside the facility, he will be transferred to the closed prison for three months, and afterwards will get a chance to continue living in the 'open facility'.
"They painted it rainbow colors, but it looks like a prison nonetheless," said Ovadia. "It's a nicer prison, with maybe better conditions — but the main problem is the obligation to be there three times a day, and in the night it's closed. The [Israel Prison Service] operates it. And prisoners are still locked in the middle of the desert, away from any inhabited place."
(Having just returned from the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, I will say: No amount of United Nations aid or caravan furnishings can make up for the psychological terrors of waking up every day imprisoned in a desert refugee camp, cut off from the outside world, with no discernable path toward life's goals.)
Ovadia added that as long as African asylum seekers are isolated in this desert compound, Israeli immigration officers can continue pressuring them to return to their home country.
Indeed — in addition to cutting the ribbon on Sadot, the proposed Anti-Infiltration Bill will jack up the financial incentives for African asylum seekers to leave Israel altogether, from the current $1,500 to $3,500.
One Darfuri refugee summed up the absurdity of that offer in an interview with Ynet: "They better raise it to $50,000. I can't return [to Darfur]. There is a war there now, it does not matter how much money they give me."
When African asylum seekers began flooding into Israel around 2006, Israeli authorities blanket-refused all requests for asylum. Instead, they scrambled to pass scary new laws and build a high-tech, $400 million fence along the border with Egypt — but not before about 60,000 asylum seekers had made their way into the Jewish nation, flocking mainly to South Tel Aviv. Conservative Jewish residents have since staged protests in the neighborhood that have bordered on race riots.
Asylum seekers can be sent to the desert prison upon any small brush with the law. For example, a woman can be sent there for reporting her own rape, or a man can be sent there for failing to provide the receipt for a bicycle tethered outside his barber shop. (See: "Coincidence? Tel Aviv cops arrest Darfuri actor who played Tel Aviv cop in theatrical critique.")
"Democracy is not a recipe for suicide and human rights are not a platform for national ruin," Interior Minister Gideon Saar, who's helming this whole thing, explained at Monday's meeting. Under the new bill, according to Israel Hayom, Israel will spend another $125 million or so to build the prison and infuse South Tel Aviv with over 100 more police officers — just the personnel needed to round up more Africans and banish them to the desert. And to think what world-class refugee rehabilitation programs could be established on a budget of $500 million plus.
November 13, 2013 | 10:05 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
The Israeli hasbara machine is in full gear this week — grinding as hard as I've ever seen it — to show the world the vast efforts this small Jewish nation is making to help a hurricane-ravaged Philippines back on its feet.
And there is certainly no lack of efforts to boast on. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the world's most powerful militaries — equally strong in medical/trauma relief — just loaded about 150 soldiers and 100 tons of aid onto a 6,000-mile El Al Airlines flight to Manila. The chosen soldiers include doctors, nurses, paramedics, X-ray and laboratory specialists, search-and-rescue experts and more, "all specialists in their fields," Tweeted Peter Lerner, head of the IDF's foreign press detail.
They're not the first IDF personnel to arrive. On Monday morning, according to an IDF live blog on the mission, "a lead IDF delegation of experts in the fields of search, rescue and medicine" arrived at the site of disaster, to "perform a thorough situation assessment, including an infrastructure evaluation, that will determine the best rapid response the IDF can provide."
Apparently, that assessment called for the establishment of an IDF field hospital, like the ones the Israeli army has set up in Haiti and along the Israeli-Syrian border. Below, the IDF describes the field hospital slated for the typhoon-stricken city of
Tacloban Bogo City:
An advanced multi-department medical facility, equipped with approximately 100 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies from Israel, will be rapidly established in the city of Tacloban to provide medical care for disaster casualties. The facility will be constructed of a children’s department, a women’s department, an ambulatory care department, and a general admission department, operated by IDF doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, mental health professionals, x-ray technician, and lab workers.
To keep everyone up to speed, the IDF, famous for its social-media presence, even created a whole new Twitter account: @IDFrescue. The account is spewing fascinating, if dramatic, updates on the mission multiple times per hour. And it's Tweeting constant photos of the Israeli aid effort, including this one of soldiers planning the field hospital on the floor of Ben Gurion airport (above) and one of the hospital itself, all deconstructed and packed up (below):
Although initial death-toll estimates of 10,000 for Typhoon Haiyan have been pushed back down to about 2,000, the devastation left by the typhoon cannot be over-emphasized. [Update, November 16: The hurricane's fatality count is back up to almost 4,000.] Photos in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the BBC and elsewhere show a peaceful, green beachside village reduced to grime and splinters. And those who did survive what is being called possibly the strongest storm in history have a long, painful recovery ahead.
But the IDF is confident it has the resources and experience to help. "Our mission is challenging but we have the best of the best," said the head of IDF Home Front Command.
In addition, according to Israeli news station Reshet Bet, three non-military Israelis are already working in Tacloban with the French organization Rescuers Without Borders.
IsraAID, a non-governmental Israeli organization that provides aid to foreign countries, was quick to respond as well. When I talked to IsraAID Director Shahar Zahavi on Monday, he said IsraAID had sent over seven medical professionals the night before, and planned to send additional trauma experts and child-protection specialists in the coming days. "Israelis do have the expertise," he said, "especially because of ongoing tragic events we have here in Israel." The organization has set up a donation page especially for its typhoon recovery efforts in the Philippines. (Word on the street is that at least one other Israeli aid org, one more shy to press than IsraAID, has also dispatched aid workers to the Philippines.)
Update: Here are all the ways you can help. And here's some aerial footage of the devastation in Tacloban, as shot by the IDF.
November 12, 2013 | 8:30 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
A photo originally posted two months ago to Reddit's "Morbid Reality" thread (or, as the kids say, sub-Reddit) was re-posted last weekend to the "WTF" thread, and proceeded to re-blow everyone's mind.
It's a pretty baffling shot: A small child swishes down the same red plastic slide that an African refugee is using as shelter, as the child's light-skinned parent — in Teva sandals and a fedora — waits with open arms. (See below.)
Not surprisingly, it has caused mass confusion and debate in the comment section. Some Redditors insist the photo was taken in South Sudan, because of all the Africans in the photo, and because of "Welcome to South Sudan" message on the slide. Others can't help but use the post as a jumping-off point for yet another argument about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Still others are fighting over the gender of the parent.
One thing's for sure: We are, unmistakably, looking at the bizarre dystopia that is South Tel Aviv. The photo was taken in Levinsky Park, a grassy spread in the shadow of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station that has become a second (and, in some cases, first) home for the roughly 60,000 African asylum seekers who have reached Israel from Eritrea and Sudan.
I returned to the spot where it was taken this morning. A young African mother was pushing her children on the swings. Dirty clothes and other personal items were strewn across the play structure, evidence of the many homeless who sleep there each night. Two of the homeless were still there, at the top of one of the slides. One of them, a blonde woman who looked Russian-Israeli, told me her name was Christina, and showed me around her makeshift home at the top of the slide. She said she has lived there on-and-off for about five years. Shelves had been fashioned out of a jumbo tic-tac-toe game built into play structure.
Christina collects useful and comforting items from the streets and stores them there: Olive oil. Vodka bottles. A gas mask. A bong made from a plastic water bottle. A kiddie piano that Christina plans to start playing, once she finds the right batteries. Winter is bad, she said — "like Alaska." But other than that, she likes sleeping in her fort at Levinsky Park just fine. "The kids climb up and play here, in the blankets," she told me. "The play all over."
It's also worth nothing that until recently, a canopy filled with child-sized holes was stretched over the top of the play structure. Much to the horror of passersby, children would somehow climb onto the canopy and use it as a sort of trampoline — with, of course, little in the vein of safety guards or padding, in case they fell. I never saw one of them fly off the canopy, but I don't see how it couldn't have happened at least once.
The Reddit photo is actually a near-perfect commentary on the refugee situation in Levinsky Park, and in Israel overall: We see the desperation of the asylum seekers forced to take refuge in a child's play structure. (The majority are denied residence or work visas, and are afraid to step out of line, lest they be sent to the terrifying desert prison for immigrants down south.) We see sarcastic commentary scrawled onto the slide by an opponent of African immigration to South Tel Aviv. (The outrage in the area is so great that last year, largely religious and conservative Israelis staged race riots, prodded by right-wing politicians who called the refugees a "cancer.") We can see the liberal Tel Aviv hippie parent, so intent on integration that he (or she) is willing to brave the heartbreaking squalor that has overtaken Levinsky Park. (And indeed, the child looks mixed-race. Perhaps the child and adult aren't even related — anything's possible.)
One Redditor interpreted the photo as "a critique of the middle and upper classes enjoying themselves, completely oblivious to the poverty they are right on top of." But I find it bittersweet — equal parts injustice and defiance.
Here are some additional photos that I took at the Levinsky Park playground today.
November 7, 2013 | 9:40 am
Posted by Simone Wilson
With each horrific mass shooting that devastates another town in America, we are presented with a flood of news stories and think pieces, reflecting on how this could have happened — again. And how, they ask, can we stop the deadly cycle: Gun control? Mental health care? Community togetherness?
At least two Israeli security experts, both of whom formerly patrolled Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and now work as security consultants in the U.S., said the key point of intervention may lie in the moments leading up to the crime.
On the heels of the LAX airport shooting last week that killed a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, and the New Jersey mall attack this week, Israeli-born Rafi Ron, speaking to CNN and PBS, and Michael Rozin, speaking to the Jewish Journal, said this type of attack could possibly be prevented using Israel-style security measures, which take a more intensive and personalized approach to spotting potential attackers in public spaces.
The Israeli method is based on suspect profiling — an especially touchy subject among civil-liberty advocates in the U.S.
The TSA is already one of the most hated governmental agencies in America, for the hands-on security measures it does impose. Tellingly, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, in defense of his officers' failure to catch 23-year-old suspect Paul Ciancia before the young man allegedly started shooting up LAX last Friday, partially blamed America's aversion to strict security:
"We can search every car like a military checkpoint at gunpoint and make it impossible for [a shooting] to happen," Beck said. "But it would take days to get into LAX, and people are not ready for that."
"Neither am I," he added.
... Beck, speaking with reporters following Tuesday's Police Commission meeting, said most people aren't prepared for the "intrusive security" that would be required to prevent an attack.
Rozin, however, argued that "your rights are a lot more infringed when you're exposed to violence than when you're answering security questions." And he said that tightening security measures at U.S. malls and airports wouldn't necessarily mean ordering new shipments of expensive, intrusive body scanners or hiring hundreds more officers. Instead, he recommended that all existing security personnel on the premises should be better trained to "identify things in the crowd that indicate malicious intent."
In Israel, Rozin served in a specialized combat unit of the IDF, trained under the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) and worked as a security agent at Ben Gurion Airport. In the U.S., he runs Rozin Security Consulting, a Minneapolis-based risk management and security services firm. In a phone interview, Rozin told me that, generally speaking, security training in the U.S. puts a bigger emphasis on identifying a weapon and reacting to an attack, as opposed to identifying malicious intent and preventing the attack before it occurs.
There are two factors that lead to an act of public violence, said Rozin: 1) a weapon and 2) intent.
"We focus on intent," he said. "In Israel, we don’t ignore the weapon — of course we have measures to [screen for weapons] — but we put more focus on identifying malicious intent. In the U.S., a lot of the strategy is to wait for something to happen and then respond. The focus is on identifying a weapon. If you pass the metal detector, you must be good. While we do use metal detectors [in Israel], they're only secondary. People are looking you in your eyes and watching your behavior. That’s the element that’s missing."
From personal experience, entering Ben Gurion Airport is like being sucked into a sterile security vacuum: I feel I'm being watched and studied from every angle before I even reach the front door. And once inside, if I even look at the flight board funny, a uniformed official will come up and start asking questions. How long have you been here? Why did you come here? Where are you going? The same one-on-one questioning is repeated in a security line that passengers must walk through before they even reach the carry-on and suitcase screening area. And once security officers see the Gaza stamp in my passport, I'm in for another 20 minutes of hard interrogation. These guys can smell the tiniest white lie from clear across the airport — it's insane.
Ron, former head of security at Ben Gurion, told PBS:
"I don’t think that the level of threat here in the U.S. is similar to the one in Israel and it requires the, I would say, far reaching solutions. It isn’t. But at the same time, we cannot neglect all these areas, the public areas of the airport, whether it is on the curbside and the public lobbies and the public side of the checkpoint, because this is the area where things can happen."
Israel has been bashed halfway into the Mediterranean for its airport profiling practices. While most Jewish Israelis accept the 20 sets of elevator eyes and interrogations they receive at Ben Gurion as the price of their own security, they're also not the ones being pulled into windowless rooms for seven hours, treated as terrorists and kicked out of the country.
But what Ron and Rozin are talking about goes beyond racial profiling. (And really, if U.S. security guards wanted to profile mass shooters on race alone, all they'd have to do is watch out for white, male 20somethings with Jack Torrance glares.)
As Ron explained to NPR back in 2010:
We use profiling. It is not the racial profiling. It is profiling that takes into consideration where somebody comes from, and if somebody's home address is Gaza, we should be paying more attention to details compared to, for example, a Holocaust survivor from Tel Aviv.
... One of the problems with racial profiling is that there's a tendency to believe that this is the silver bullet to solve the problem. In other terms, if you're a Middle Eastern or if you're a Muslim, then you must be bad. And if you're a European and Christian, then you must be good.
But back in 1972, Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was supposed to be attacked by a Palestinian, was never attacked by one. It was attacked by a Japanese terrorist killing 24 people. And it was attacked in the mid-'80s by a German terrorist answering to the name Miller.
Israel learned from those attacks, Rozin told the Jewish Journal. Now, based on the Israeli standard, he teaches his clients — including the security detail at Mall of America — to profile based on suspicious factors in appearance, attire (such as clothing that could conceal a weapon), body language, behavior (such as reaction to a security presence) and other telltale actions.
"Eight out of 10 people have certain activities before an attack," said Rozin. "[The shooter] knows he’s going to engage in a shooting. He knows his life will be in danger. He is carrying a weapon — he appears different, he acts different. You just need a trained professional who can identify him."
For example, he said, Al Qaeda-linked "shoe bomber" Richard Reid was subjected to an intensive search in Israel in 2011, during what was believed to have been a test run through Israel's El Al Airlines before his attempted attack on American Airlines. "Security personnel considered Reid a high risk and checked his luggage, his person and his shoes before he was allowed to board the aircraft," the Telegraph reported at the time.
I also asked Rozin about the differences between spotting a more traditional "terrorist," by Western definition, and an active shooter.
He answered: "When you’re talking about sophisticated terrorist groups, their implementation phase is larger and longer. There is a lot of effort studying the targets... and they're better at concealing suspicious actions." However, he added that "while [terrorists and shooters] are different, with different weapons and different ideologies, the bottom line is, it doesn’t really matter in the moment. They have a weapon and they intend to use it to cause harm."
Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg nailed it in 2010 when he wrote that "the coiled, closely packed lines at TSA screening sites are the most dangerous places in airports, completely unprotected from a terrorist attack."
Indeed, the LAX shooter chose the screening line as his point of impact. But had trained eyes been on the shooter from the moment he arrived at the airport, said Rozin, there's a chance he wouldn't have even made it that far.
"What I suggest is simply to turn around the roles between technology and the human factor," Ron told PBS. "If [Nigerian "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] was subjected to even a very basic interview at the airport, that would have exposed him. What we're doing right now is actually we are running machines and people are there to operate machines. In other terms, people support technology. I say technology should support people. And it should be skilled people at the center of our security concept rather than the other way around."
November 5, 2013 | 2:00 pm
Posted by Simone Wilson
Peace between Israel and Palestine seems a teensy bit more possible this week than the last.
Negotiations are apparently entering a bulldozer phase: Israeli politician Zehava Gal-On announced yesterday that the U.S. will stage an "active intervention" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this coming January, regardless of hesitance on either side. [Update: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry later denied that he would impose a plan, saying, "Let me categorically dispel any notion that there is anything other than the track that is formally engaged in between Israel and the Palestinians."]
And now — riding that wave of renewed hope — Israeli organization Peace Now is doing its part to align public opinion with the potential breakthrough.
Currently, popular support for a two-state solution is at about 55 percent, both in Israel and in the West Bank. But that slim majority of approval is more theoretical than practical — because most Jewish Israelis still don't want to withdraw from the settlements in the West Bank, and most Palestinians are still hoping for a "right of return" to Israel. And those figures don't even begin to address cordoned-off Gaza. As author China Miéville wrote in his tragically beautiful piece for Guernica Magazine this month: "The holy land is now a land of holes, and lines, a freakshow of topography gone utterly and hideously mad."
Peace Now, however, knows that despite the deep-set physicalities and ideologies driving the Israel-Palestine conflict, we have to find an in-road somewhere. In a video released yesterday called "Why We Struggle For Peace," the non-governmental organization — formed in 1978 to push through an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which they succeeded in doing — goes back to basics, reminding Israelis what's really at stake.
"For far too long we stood on the sidelines, while blood was shed, while indifference took over, while opportunities were missed, and hope was nearly lost," says the narrator, over stark, slo-mo clips of inanimate objects crashing and breaking, including a watermelon meant to evoke carnage. "But when you truly love something, you will do everything for it," says the voice, as a newborn falls into the arms of his father. The narrative also plays to Israel's head, bringing up the country's evil reputation abroad, economic troubles and omnipresent brain drain. "Although the struggle for peace may not always be popular, and may even be frightening," concludes the video, "we must never forget this is the struggle for our future."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may finally be giving that decades-long struggle a hard deadline. Here's what's coming in early 2014, according to Gal-On:
“The Obama administration plans to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough at the beginning of 2014. The Americans want to move from coordinating between the two sides to a phase of active intervention. This coming January, they will present a new diplomatic plan that will include all the core issues and will be based on the 1967 lines, with agreed-on land swaps. The plan will include a gradual timetable for implementation and will also address the dimension of regional peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative. It will also include an economic plan to invest billions in the Palestinian economy.”
The most stubborn obstacle to peace between Israel and the West Bank, in my observation, is mutual mistrust — the sum of daily injustices that build and harden and grow deep, twisty roots. A Palestinian boy is shot by an Israeli soldier on his way home from school. An Israeli girl is hit by sniper fire in her West Bank settlement. Jewish settlers destroy Palestinian olive groves in the night, trampling their neighbors' pride and livelihood. Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who was hit by an IDF bomb or bullet, or targeted in an anti-Israel terror attack.
And where there's not fear, there's complacency. At least in Tel Aviv, over months and sometimes years of calm, it's easy to go about one's charmed city lifestyle and forget about the actively caged-in people just a short drive south or east.
But this status quo is no longer acceptable, says Peace Now — the process must move forward. In a statement circulated through the organization's daily news blast, Peace Now Secretary General Yariv Oppenheimer wrote:
"The film illustrates in a minute and a half the contemporary vision of all those who believe in a two-state solution and support reaching an agreement. The peace camp must demand that Netanyahu overcome political and psychological barriers and reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinian side and with the Arab world. From our point of view, possibility of holding a national referendum is real and and the work of persuasion must start from now."
For more on the U.S. branch of Peace Now and its remote crusade for a two-state solution, see the Jewish Journal interview with Americans for Peace Now founder Mark Rosenblum. Moment of truth: “What convinces people to listen to you," he said, "is when you listen to them."