As the director began his speech introducing the film to the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, I turned to a colleague sitting to my right and declared, “There’s a 50/50 chance this movie will be interrupted.”
I had seen this picture before. Not the actual movie, Incitement, which on that September evening in Toronto was being shown for the first time to international audiences, and which last week finally opened in the U.S. But any public event with an Israeli theme might have been fair game for the merry pranksters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—one of its current strategies being seemingly spontaneous eruptions of protesters situated strategically throughout a crowd. I had witnessed many such flash mobsters on the Internet or television, so a premiere of a film dramatizing the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin from the point of view of the assassin, and attended by the Israeli consul general in Toronto and other dignitaries, seemed a likely target.
Indeed, five minutes into the film, after a poetic opening scene depicting Yigal Amir, the future killer, cleaning tombstones in an Israeli cemetery in September 1993 as a television set broadcasts the “euphoria-inducing” Rabin-Arafat handshake at the White House, there was a stoppage in play. But it was not the work of a middle-aged “student” unfurling a Palestinian flag and issuing a bombastic accusation, just a bomb scare. A festival volunteer walked, calmly, to the front of the theater and announced that the audience would need to exit—calmly—through one of the two demarcated doors.
After forty minutes of idling on a sidewalk, approximately two-thirds of the original crowd calmly returned to their seats. The bomb scare was yet another quotidian dud; crisis averted, film to begin anon. I returned to the exact seat I had recently vacated, my colleague, calmness personified, sitting again to my right.
But, to my left, a new face. Young, unlined, twenty-five or so, though his receding hairline would have begged to differ. A black beanie suddenly appeared to cover his pate. He was wearing a coat. Smiling enigmatically, he placed three large, thick, black shopping bags in front of him and started squirming.
Reaching into one of the shopping bags, he pulled out a Ziploc that seemed to contain mushrooms. He unzipped it, extricated a shroom, and swallowed it. He closed the Ziploc and placed it back in the shopping bag. He took his hat off. He reached into another shopping bag for a metallic thermos. He took a swig. He took off his coat. He replaced his beanie.
All while maintaining his quizzical smile.
The film was about to resume, reminding me somehow of an article I had read about the methods used by Israeli airport security officers to identify possible threats—and of some of my own encounters with said personnel at Ben-Gurion airport and elsewhere. “Glad we’re gonna be starting up again, eh,” I proffered in the local patois, “can’t wait to see this flick. Have you seen a lot of movies this festival?”
He quarter-turned to me and said, “Ya, this is my fifth movie so far. I think I’ve seen like three today already.”
“Wow,” I said, looking for tell-tale signs of nervousness, “any other Israeli films so far?”
“Ya, I saw one yesterday. Maybe today.”
“No kidding. Hey, what you got in your bags there?” I asked in a casual tone, the film about to begin.
“Oh, they just shopping bags. Got some eggs and stuff from Shoppers” (a Toronto pharmacy chain with a surprisingly solid grocery section).
Not a bead of sweat, or a wink of discomfort. Was I Christopher Walken in True Romance (director Ridley Scott, written by Quentin Tarantino, 1993), trained to recognize and interpret the “seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give himself away”? No, but I had watched that movie and many others. This fella seemed kooky but not troublesome. I held my powder.
What exactly I would have done had I suspected that he was a potential protester or mad bomber is another matter. I was attending this premiere as an invited guest. I knew (socially) some of the professionals behind the making of the movie and, though my politics differ from theirs and from the film’s, I did not wish to interrupt the showing if possible. Professional courtesy. Personal affection. An appreciation of how difficult the artistic process is. A wish that an Israeli film, no matter how odious some in Israel think it is, would go off without a hitch in a foreign country, at the world’s foremost festival. At least, without another hitch.
So I said nothing. The film began anew. Told mostly from the point of view of Amir, it proceeded along a direct narrative, a linear retelling as straightforward and calculated as a mathematical equation. Amir is presented as a rational, intelligent, sensitive, handsome, angry young man. Naturally, he has his quirks and his quibbles. He is perhaps overly aware of the quarrels and prejudices inherent in Israel’s Ashkenazi/Mizraḥi divide. Perhaps he feels the terror situation too “personally.” His (over)reliance on rabbinical authority seems a bit anachronistic.
As the film unspools, I cannot help noticing the parallels with another film about a would-be assassin, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver. Scorsese focuses his lens on the eponymous driver Travis Bickle and his (over)sensitivity to the “filth” and “animals” around him in New York. He wishes a “real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Gradually, Bickle realizes that he has to become that hard rain. He has to kill the presidential hopeful, Senator Palantine. His romantic ideal, Betsy (played by a luminous Cybill Shepherd), surely will notice him then. Or something. His thoughts are as mud-caked as the Aqueduct racetrack after a deluge.
I also notice the discordant notes in Incitement. The Israeli film cannot help suffering by comparison with the American classic. The director, Yaron Zilberman, is an extremely capable craftsman, as evidenced by his debut fiction feature, A Late Quartet (2012). He is precise in his framing of a scene; he is logical in his presentation of motivations and actions. He is the director-as-physicist, physics being the field in which he attained a degree at MIT.
But where Taxi Driver sings, Incitement chants, and somewhat mono-tonally. Perhaps it is the score, which in Taxi Driver alternates brilliantly between thrumming Hitchcock-esque foreboding and the dreaminess of incipient urban romance, thus straddling the emotional contrapuntals of Bickle’s addled mind. By contrast, Incitement’s score is workmanlike, stolid, forgettable; far from holding a key to Amir and his thoughts, it could have been written by a program.
Hmmm. Perhaps that is Zilberman’s point, I considered. Perhaps he is saying that Amir lacked some inner musicality. Perhaps Amir himself was that overly logical fiend, the kind of yeshiva student who seeks rabbinical approbation for a talmudic discourse on. . . .
Oh, hang it. I cannot think this through. I am sitting at this theater trying to watch a film on a gigantic screen 50 feet in front of me and I cannot formulate my thoughts. I cannot concentrate because one foot to my left, that deranged moviegoer continues his squirm. He opens a shopping bag reaching in for something, cannot find it there so he opens another. He pulls out the Ziploc again. He pulls off his hat. He puts on his coat. He takes off his glasses. He ingests another shroom. (Isn’t that one too many?) He places the bag back in the bag. He reaches around and pulls out the thermos. Wait, is this one not metallic? He takes a swig of what must be water. I assume. He puts his hat back on.
This continues for an hour straight. I am presented with perpetual decisions. Should I nudge him to stop? What if that provokes him to interrupt the film? What would I do then? What am I prepared to do? Am I prepared to do something physical if necessary? To stop a bombing, of course, but what if just to ensure the film continues without a hitch?
It is not my film. It, in some ways, represents a country I love, although it does so in an arguably hyper-critical fashion. But am I prepared to risk injury for a representation? For what is, ultimately, a perishable entertainment product? Am I prepared to risk hurting someone else, someone who seems to not be in full control of his faculties, a nebekh as we’d say in the Old Country?
I cannot watch the film without noticing his antics. Damn peripheral vision. I cannot properly appreciate what seems to be a star-making turn for Yehuda Nahari Halevi, the young Yemenite actor playing Amir and capturing every nuance, the hurt and the pride and the brashness and the intelligence and the madness. Does he not even resemble a young Robert De Niro in his quirky handsomeness, his elusive intensity? He is charmingly askew, he is. . . .
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Shit, is my neighbor getting up now and exiting the theater? Leaving his three giant black shopping bags behind?!
No such luck.
It is the early 1990s. The media are claiming (as they will go on claiming forever) that Gazans live in “the world’s largest open-air prison.” That the million or two inhabitants of the coastal enclave are restricted to but 140 square miles, hemmed in by Egypt, Israel, and the sea. Curiously, the same media are failing to notice that, in a certain way, the country of Israel is similarly constricted and circumscribed. Surrounded by Gaza, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and the various areas of the West Bank, Israeli citizens, in essence, depend entirely on Ben-Gurion airport for their methods of ingress and egress.
Everywhere Israel looks: trouble. Danger. Societies in ferment. Secret police. Civil war. Barrel bombs. Chemical weapons. Lines in the sand crossed and re-crossed. It has been that way since 1948, and, if anything, the situation in the near-abroad has deteriorated. At the very least, it is a constant, unyielding presence of annoyance.
In 1993, recently elected Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin decides to build upon steps taken at the Madrid conference of 1991, attended unwillingly by his predecessor Yitzḥak Shamir. Utilizing backdoor secret diplomacy undertaken by mid-level representatives of Israel and the Palestinians (see Oslo, the 2016 play by J.T. Rogers), Rabin and Arafat reach a basic agreement. After years of seclusion, of imposed isolation, Israel is set to “join” the Middle East, to share the region with its neighbors.
This was Shimon Peres’s dream. To live within the geography, but to live unfettered. Imagine an Israel no longer restricted to looking straight ahead, blinders on. Imagine a country that could afford its peripheral vision, that could gaze at the countries to the north, east, and south—and embrace them. Imagine a country as integrated in the region as Germany or France in Europe. Imagine free travel, freedom of association, freedom of labor. Imagine an Israeli banker shuttling off one morning to a Gulf state to advise a sovereign-wealth fund, returning later that night to tuck in the children. Imagine an Israeli irrigation specialist consulting openly across the oft-parched Arab and Muslim world. Imagine the pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa flowing once more. Imagine the Ottoman-era train running again to Mesopotamia. Eyes wide open, grand vision. Euphoria.
Incitement was co-scripted by Ron Leshem, a former reporter turned award-winning novelist and screenwriter. Beginning with the Oscar-nominated Beaufort (director Joseph Cedar, 2007), Leshem had enjoyed moderate career success until what may be his most acclaimed project, the Israeli television series Euphoria, later sold to HBO, revised for international audiences and also titled Euphoria.
From the HBO episodes I’ve viewed, the title seems to refer to the classic American high-school years as experienced by privileged or near-privileged teens. A setting as sweet as a land of milk and honey, full of football games, kegger parties, intense studies, and friendships, a time and place of unbridled joy and elation of mind, body, and spirit—or so one would think. In fact, the star quarterback is a sociopath, his father is a pedophile, the charming quirky female lead is in rehab, her laconic loyal friend is an enabling dealer, her newest confidante is something else entirely. Half of the community is suicidal; the other half is murderous. The only way to reach any sort of euphoria is through short-term drug (over)use and risky, mind-numbing activity.
In 1993, Oslo was that drug. The land of milk and honey, a setting of historical riches, endless coastlines, and educated patriots, was floundering. Its history was a noose, its sandy beaches a mirage, its patriots regenerating themselves as “post-Zionists.” The nation needed something. Something risky and game-changing. The entire grand experiment was at stake—or so said Rabin, Peres, and the “peacenik” portion of the country.
A decade or so and an intifada later, the country would emerge from its drug-induced haze to realize that the side effects were too pernicious. Till then, not even Yigal Amir’s late-1995 assassination of the prime minister had pierced the haze; to the contrary, by making a martyr of Rabin, it may have inadvertently extended the sell-by date of the drug, and increased the toll of Israeli dead at the hands of terrorists. In the end, only those who had read the label beforehand had been correct. Euphoria was a nice state to dream of, to aspire to, to work toward. But the actual, legal name was the state of Israel, and in 1993, there had been many reasons not to feel euphoric.
One oft-cited reason pertained to the nature of democracy. Rabin had not campaigned in the national elections on a platform of entering into such an ambitious and comprehensive peace agreement. Far from it, in fact.
And there was another reason, a reason somewhat specific to Israeli democracy, not to feel the Oslo euphoria in 1993. Israelis possess a hard-earned unease that something is not being told to them. This is an obvious consequence of life in a nation on a constant war footing, a tiny country surviving on its wits and also on its secrets. There is a long history of Israelis not being told the total truth, and there is a general acceptance that this is being done for their own good. But there are also those who look back at this element of their history and think about what could and should have been done differently.
Take, for example, the infamous June 1948 incident of the Altalena, a ship carrying over 900 men and thousands of weapons destined for the Irgun, a paramilitary group connected with the right-wing parties and led by Menachem Begin. For decades, Israel’s left wing has maintained that the Altalena was part of an effort by these dangerously radical-right elements to overthrow the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and that Ben-Gurion’s order to sink the ship and its armaments, which also caused the killing of sixteen of its men, was necessary to enable the unification of the pre-state militias into a single army under civilian command.
But the weapons were being brought for the defense of Jerusalem, a critical theater of operation for which the Irgun had specific responsibility. And infamously, Yitzḥak Rabin, then an officer of the rival Haganah and nascent IDF, was the man who commanded the operation that sank the Altalena. Forty-five years later, in 1993, the faction that remembered the Altalena constituted the main opposition to Oslo. They could not feel Euphoria.
Today, 25-plus years after Euphoria, knowing what we know about the various secrets of Israel, should we not be even more suspicious of the justification of Oslo? After all, the first intifada, begun in December 1987 and at one point responsible for the deaths of approximately 50 Israelis a year, had by 1993 ebbed considerably. The conflict with the Palestinians had become “manageable,” and one that Israel could crush at any time if necessary. True, the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was extremely taxing and morale-depleting, but it, too, was manageable, certainly as compared with bringing back and implanting an unrepentant terrorist, Yasir Arafat, on the throne, thus immediately doubling the civilian death toll from Palestinian terror.
But what if, in fact, the Israelis’ hands had been tied? Remember, the impending collapse of the Soviet Union had presented Israel with a fantastic opportunity but high associated costs. Three-million Jews were poised to leave Gorbachev’s Russia. Where would they go? The United States was an obvious destination. As the Jews were a persecuted religious minority, they surely would have qualified for refugee status, much like the more than 100,000 who had claimed refugee status in the years between 1970 and 1988. The European countries were another possible destination. For years, any Soviet Jews lucky enough to emigrate would travel first to the way stations of Vienna or Rome on their way to final destinations. Some would stay there.
The Israeli government recognized that the settlement of a million-plus Russian Jews, a large percentage of them highly educated, could materially tip the Jewish-Arab population balance in the state. It petitioned the American government, somewhat sub rosa, to reject refugee claims wholesale. It finagled direct flights from Russia to Israel. And it requested loan guarantees from the American government to help finance the venture.
At the time, George H.W. Bush was presiding over the end of the cold war. His secretary of state and major fixer, James Baker, was a blunt-speaking, non-philo-Semitic establishment type. Using much colorful and arguably prejudiced language, Baker would condition $10 billion in loan guarantees on Israeli efforts to advance the peace process. Hence, the Madrid peace conference of 1991.
So what if, beyond simple attendance at a customarily ineffectual international conference, there was also a secret agreement? What if Baker had gone on to condition the refugee status, the direct flights, the loan guarantees, etc., on actual concrete steps? On an agreement with the Palestinians? An Oslo?
Sounds conspiratorial and far-fetched? Perhaps. Perhaps definitely. But what is the truth?
As posited above, Israelis are accustomed to being lied to. In the benign reading, Israel is one family, a six-degrees-of-separation country where your neighbor is probably your fifth cousin once removed and your mailman’s nephew was your unit commander in the army. As Tolstoy famously said, “all happy families are alike,” the sly implication being that there are many variegated challenges endemic to the family unit and that members of the unit consistently lie to each other, beginning from the numerous white lies told by parents to their children, continuing to prevarications, ranging the colors of the spectrum, told to one another by spouses.
But Canada, and Toronto in particular, operate in a different paradigm.
III. The Toronto Paradigm
As I left the screening room for the intermission before the next movie, I stepped into the outer entrance area to witness an argument. Two middle-aged women, who had been sitting near me and the squirming fellow, were in the midst of berating three young female festival volunteers.
“This creep keeps moving around and grabbing things during the whole movie.”
“Yes. This guy is a complete creep. He’s sitting there with three giant bags and hasn’t stopped all movie.”
“You gotta do something about this idiot. I’m not sitting there anymore. This is ridiculous.”
When the head volunteer calmly offered the women a full refund of their ticket price, I interjected.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about safety. We just had a bomb scare because of a suspicious bag, and here we have a suspicious character with three suspicious bags. Please call security over here.”
This was my attempt at being the rational, sane person required by every re-imagining of a crisis situation. Mansplaining, or, in this case, man-mediating.
The chief volunteer responded calmly.
“Well, sir, we cannot act differently here. The festival’s policy is that festival goers are allowed to bring bags into a film. And don’t worry, our security must have checked beforehand to ensure that it is safe. Once again, if you do not feel comfortable, we understand and can offer you a full refund.”
This last part was offered with a smile. I lost it.
“Forget the refund. I don’t care what your stupid bags policy is. There was a bomb scare here. Just an hour ago. Remember?! We all had to exit the theater? This was an Israeli film, you know? You understand?!”
The chief volunteer retained her calm.
“Sir, I do understand. Let me call security here. I’m sure he can explain it to you.”
A minute later, like an extra from a 1972 Grateful Dead concert, a sixty-five year-old, elfin man with beard, pony tail, and beaming countenance calmly ambled over to explain.
“Yes, sir and madams. I understand your concerns. But the festival rules do allow the bags and we did clear the theater for the showing so it is safe. We would love for you to return, but if you don’t wish to, we understand and offer you a full re- . . .”
At this point, the young squirming man crossed the hall from the bathroom and approached the entrance of the theater. A beatific smile affixed to his face.
“Hey, man, you know you are creeping all of us out,” I sneered at him.
Maintaining his smile, the young man said nothing and walked inside.
Decisions are made in Canada according to plan, program, and process. Calm, rational, deliberate. If a rule allowing festival goers to carry bags has been enacted months or years prior to the festival, that rule is maintained, no matter what. When the festival is over, and the organizers have had time to digest, analyze, and discuss, perhaps said rule will be modified. Assuredly, any such change will occur only after a lengthy and methodical process, involving calm, dispassionate viewpoints.
The Start-Up Nation cannot afford deliberative processes. It proudly does not wish to. Israel has turned necessity into a virtue, transforming itself from a heavily state-run enterprise, complete with five-year-plans and cutesy kibbutz collectivism, into a lean reflection of its armed services, where famously, every lowly soldier can make decisions, can bypass chains of command, when necessary.
Knowing that my mother might see news reports that the Incitement film had been halted due to a bomb scare, I had texted her during the 40 minutes on the street awaiting the “all-clear” to return. Naturally, my mother’s immediate reaction was “Do not go back in. There is no reason to risk it. Just leave. This is how we survived during the war.”
Indeed, my mother, her older sister, and her parents were the only members of her extended family to survive. Escaping from a small town in Slovakia to Budapest and finally to Bucharest, traveling on false papers, presenting themselves as Gentiles, the immediate family survived while all of my grandmother’s siblings, who had stayed behind, perished.
Of course, proceeding calmly with caution is always the prudent course. But if my grandparents had been prudent, they would have been gassed alongside their family and friends.