In Putting Ultra-Orthodox Jews on Screen, Comedy Works Better Than Tragedy

Jan. 29 2019

Since its debut in 2013, the Israeli television show Shtisel, which revolves around a ḥaredi family in Jerusalem, has become a surprise hit, even generating an audience outside the country. It has been joined by Autonomies, a series set in the future, where Israel has been divided into secular and religious states. Recent years have also seen a number of films about Ḥaredim. Taking stock of some of these works, Sarah Rindner notes their relative successes and failures:

The 2017 U.S. documentary One of Us follows the paths of three young ḥasidic individuals who left the insular community in which they were raised. With brooding music and a disturbing storyline, the filmmakers paint a picture of a repressive, backward society nestled within multicultural Brooklyn. One plot line concerns a young mother who tragically loses custody of her seven children after she leaves her community. . . . The stories are devastating, but we are never told of the existence of ex-Ḥasidim who have warmer relationships with their families. . . . The filmmakers themselves seem to have neither the interest nor the tools to paint a more layered portrait of this community.

A refreshing contrast is offered in Paula Eiselt’s 2018 documentary 93Queen. The film depicts the trials of an all-female ambulance corps in ḥaredi Brooklyn, focusing on its dynamic leader Ruchie Freier. With a lively and evocative soundtrack, itself the product of a ḥasidic alt-rocker Perl Wolfe, 93Queen deals with a less conservative subset of the ḥaredi community than does One of Us and a considerably less fraught situation. [Therefore] 93Queen is able to explore [its characters’] subtleties because it does not paint the community as a monolith—rather, it is a real landscape upon which human life, in all of its variety, can play out. [In other words], One of Us plays as tragedy while 93Queen is a comedy; plenty may be askew, but people live within imperfect reality. Tragedy moves us, but comedy is a lot more like real life for most people.

Israeli cinematic treatment of ḥasidic culture is often in the comic spirit. . . . Shtisel, for example, is hysterical. Who can forget the joy of the grandmother when she gets a television installed in her room in a ḥasidic nursing home: “Master of the Universe, today there is everything!”? The new series Autonomy follows a more tragic line. In the future, ḥaredi political power results in a theocratic police state that is perpetually at odds with, but also a shallow reflection of, its secular, free Jewish counterpart. The extremist rebbe [who leads the former] receives secret shipments of Thucydides, which presumably influences his warmongering. Meanwhile the sympathetic ḥaredi protagonist abandons his family to have an affair with a jazz musician on the secular side of the sociopolitical divide.

The result, writes Rindner, reduces both secular and religious societies to shallow stereotypes.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Film, Israeli culture, Shtisel, Television, Ultra-Orthodox

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians