Saturday, April 17, 2010

Art, Peace and Normalization.

It has often been said that the arts promote learning and can inspire a culture of peace and hope. Along the same lines, there is an interesting resolution to story coming out of Israel this week that tests this adage.

The case began earlier this year with Ala Halihal, an Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian, seeking permission from the Israeli government to go to Lebanon to receive an award as winner of the “Beirut 39” literature competition. The event, which is awarding 39 Arab writers up to the age of 39, was developed as part of a UNESCO project. Essentially what happened was...

The author was informed that he had won the prize in August 2009 and immediately submitted a request to the Interior Ministry for permission to enter Lebanon. According to the 1948 Emergency Regulations, anyone wishing to enter an enemy country as defined in the Prevention of Infiltration Law must obtain a permit from the prime minister or minister of interior. Lebanon one of the countries classified as an enemy state.

Hlehel did not receive an answer from the Interior Ministry. Finally, in March, attorneys Hassan Jabareen and Haneen Naamnih, petitioned the High Court on his behalf.

The petitioners demanded that Hlehel be allowed to go to Beirut and that the state prepare clear and written regulations and criteria to determine what might qualify an Israeli wishing to visit the countries classified as “enemy” for a permit.

Perhaps, Israel's Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their world of black and white, felt justified, denying Halihal on the grounds of reciprocity.

The "accepted" view in the Arab world holds that a visit to Israel by an Arab author, artist or filmmaker is an act of treason, or at least a violation of the bylaws of professional associations. As a result, for example, the noted Egyptian author and playwright Ali Salem suffered the prolonged ostracism of his Egyptian author colleagues, who viewed his visit to Israel as a gesture of normalization.

Other Arab artists and writers who wish to visit Israel must do so surreptitiously to avoid the backlash.

Fortunately Halihal's appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court ended well, with a binding ruling that the state to explain why it had not established written regulations and criteria to objectively determine who was eligible to visit these 'enemy' countries and that Halihal must immediately be given a permit to visit Lebanon.

While the case seemed to have ended well, it certainly has raised a couple of important issues. First, as Haaretz notes:

And now none other than Israel, which has made normalization a precondition to the peace process and is demanding at least tiny gestures of normalization as a show of good intentions, has joined the coalition of the ignorant

While normalization with Palestinian artists has been tenuous as of late, it seems the current party line is beyond counter-productive. Nor does their hypocrisy help to inspire hope that such confidence-building would be treated in kind.

Secondly, and more fundamental is what an act like this, however small, means. Art can bring awareness to society and it is a powerful means of presenting truths about ourselves through such expression. There are many artists, and organizations who seek to promote tolerance and non-violence and to create a culture of peace through art. Amongst other things, perhaps this is something that Yishai and Netanyahu could better seek to learn.

Ala Hlehel

Its a worthy cause.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Someone Is Always Watching.

After last fall and news from Iran its no surprise the power Twitter has had on politics world-wide. Another case of a tweet that has had immense power locally is that of user @OGLE_Toronto who on Friday posted a TwitPic on their Twitter account of a sleeping Toronto Transit Commision ticket collector.

In effect, this tweet has become a lightning rod for transit riders frustrated with the TTC and has sparked a media controversy.

The responses have been mixed, with that of the TTC Workers' Union stating that:

it is "disturbing" that a transit rider snapped a photo of what appears to be a sleeping ticket collector instead of checking to see whether the worker was okay.

While Adam Giambrone, head of the TTC has created a “blue-ribbon task force” to propose ways to improve the commission’s customer service. However somehow, this controversy seems far from over.

As Mashable says:

The world is changing because of social media. Information can be spread in real-time to millions of people. It’s the same power that has helped raised millions for Haiti and forced big companies to listen to their customers.

But somehow, personally I seek very little solace in the lesson we might learn from technology as being that 'someone is always watching.'

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Marriage... It's Changed.

With the release of today's Pew Research Center report, many preconceived ideas about the economic dynamics of marriage seem to be turned on their head.

Entitled "The New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives," the study shows that a "larger share of women today, compared with their 1970 counterparts, have more education and income than their spouses. As a result, in recent decades the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women."

As the Washington Post details;

Looking at the impact of nearly four decades of social change, the report shows that men increasingly get a significant economic boost when they tie the knot -- improving their household incomes and often pairing up with a partner who has at least as much education as they do. Compared to 1970, when men usually married women with less education and fewer wives worked, these changes have contributed to a "gender role reversal in the gains from marriage," the report said.

"What's radically changed is that marriage now is a better deal for men," said Richard Fry, co-author of the report, published by the Pew Research Center. "Now when men marry, often their spouse works quite a bit. Often she is better-educated than the guy." In 1970, unmarried men "had a higher economic status than married guys," he said, "but no longer."

While there is no doubt these significant economic changes for married people combined have trasformed the dynamics of marriage, what I believe is worthy of further research, is the impact, if any, on that of how these trends have affected the social and interpersonal dynamics of marriage. Perhaps then, with better understanding of contemporary marriage and shifting societal expectations we can learn and accept all who choose to undertake its demands.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Smearing of TIFF & Attempt To Silence Art.

This 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been shrouded in controversy this week after a variety of film makers, actors, academics, and activists signed and released a statement called the "Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation" alleging amongst other things that the Festival:

has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.

The protesters loose claims stem from the Festival's selection of Tel Aviv for it’s City to City Program which showcases 10 films by local filmmakers. In its inaugural year, "the goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways."

The protesting group, which initially included Jane Fonda (who has since apoligized for her involvement), Danny Glover, David Byrne, Ken Loach and author Naomi Klein stated that:

"The emphasis on 'diversity' in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine's main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada."

Amongst one of the key signatories, filmmaker John Greyson withdrew his film 'Covered' from the Festival. This film, ironically is a short “about the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, which was cancelled due to brutal anti-gay violence” or rather more to the point: censorship.

Making the case that the Festival is being complicit by Israel’s propaganda machine, the group added:

In 2008, the Israeli government and Canadian partners Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation launched "Brand Israel," a million dollar media and advertising campaign aimed at changing Canadian perceptions of Israel. Brand Israel would take the focus off Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its aggressive wars, and refocus it on achievements in medicine, science and culture. An article in Canadian Jewish News quotes Israeli consul general Amir Gissin as saying that Toronto would be the test city for a promotion that could then be deployed around the world. According to Gissin, the culmination of the campaign would be a major Israeli presence at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (Andy Levy-Alzenkopf, "Brand Israel set to launch in GTA," Canadian Jewish News, August 28, 2008.)

In 2009, when the TIFF announced that it would focus on Tel Aviv. According to program notes by Festival co-director and City to City programmer Cameron Bailey, "The ten films in this year’s City to City programme will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity."

Festival organizer, Cameron Bailey directly responded to these allegations:

As the programmer of City To City, I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives. Furthermore, the City to City series was conceived and curated entirely independently. There was no pressure from any outside source. Contrary to rumours or mistaken media reports, this focus is a product only of TIFF’s programming decisions. We value that independence and would never compromise it.

The goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens, especially cities where film contributes to or chronicles social change in compelling ways. We believe that the 10 films in our inaugural programme do just that. We encourage everyone to see the films, engage in debate and draw their own conclusions.

In addition to City to City, our Festival lineup also includes other important films from the region, including two films by Palestinian filmmakers and others from Lebanon and Egypt. As these films address the past history and current realities of the region, we hope they will become part of this year's conversations.

John writes that his protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers we have chosen, but against the spotlight itself. By that reasoning, no films programmed within this series would have met his approval, no matter what they contained. For us, the content and form of films does matter. In fact, when I met with a number of the signatories earlier this week, I encouraged them to see the films before passing judgment on the programme. Regrettably, they chose a different route. We know some of them to be veterans of Toronto’s battles against censorship -- all the more surprising to watch them denounce a film series without seeing the films in it.

We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground. We continue to learn more about the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world. This is our contribution to expanding our audiences’ experience of this art form and the worlds it represents.

Further, Bailey in an interview soon after the letter was released:

“It’s important to note,’’ he says “that the [Tel Aviv Spotlight] was independantly conceived and curated. Entirely. We were looking for a place on the planet where there was new work happening. I was interested in bringing the culture of the city to Toronto to spark debate. There was no influence from any outside sources.’’

Does that include cash inducements, I ask? “The only financial element is the Israel Film Fund which funds filmakers travelling to festivals. And that’s all there is.’’

In response to the protest, another group of artists have decried these efforts to silence Israeli filmmakers. Amongst them, which include Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Darren Starr, Jason Alexander, Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Kudrow, Canadians Robert Lantos, Ivan Reitman, David Cronenberg, Moses Znaimer and Patricia Rozema they endorsed the following statement as a response.

“We don’t need another blacklist.

“We applaud the Toronto International Film Festival for including the Israeli film community in the Festival’s City to City program. The visiting filmmakers represent a dynamic national cinema, the best of Israel’s open, uncensored, artistic expression. Anyone who has actually seen recent Israeli cinema, movies that are political and personal, comic and tragic, often critical, knows they are in no way a propaganda arm for any government policy. Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries.”

Some have suggested that there are shades of anti-semitism at work here, and it looks as if there some validity in this claim. Since to create an environment in which a religious or ethnic group can be persecuted, it is first necessary to demonize and vilify them to the point that their humanity is in question, which is what this protest intentionally does.

You folks are being criticized for encouraging censorship, whether you admit that you seek such censorship or not. A letter that compares Israel to South Africa and Israel’s actions to South African apartheid in the context of criticizing a slate of films at a film festival, is not a letter that merely seeks to bring up some history. It is a call to action. It is also a warning to any other film festivals and their directors who seek to put on Israeli films that they will encounter fierce criticism in the media.

The targeting of Israeli films shown in a program at a major film festival is also a call to audiences to view those films as your group wishes them to be viewed and not as they would be viewed without your politicization of those films. Your group has set the agenda and nobody who will enter the cinemas to watch those films will be able to disengage your criticisms of Israel from their viewing. You have damaged the work of these filmmakers by doing this.

You have also falsely connected their films to the “destroyed Palestinian villages” upon which Tel Aviv supposedly resides. Never mind that this is highly misrepresentative of Tel Aviv’s history – the bulk of its land was never Palestinian land or was purchased outright – or the manner in which these “destroyed Palestinian villages” fell into Israeli hands (the villagers abandoned them before the ‘48 war even began). Anybody reading your group’s letter will enter those films with false impressions.

You have created the terms of the debate, ugly and false terms, but now you wish to present yourselves as victims of those who would respond.

A recent Toronto Star editorial also ponders the odious nature of the protest:

It is tempting to ignore this latest, tedious tiff over TIFF, spawned by a few dozen protesters who signed the petition – Jane Fonda and Naomi Klein among them. The anti-Israel diatribes are becoming a bore: Complaints against the Royal Ontario Museum for showing Israel's biblical Dead Sea Scrolls; "Israel Apartheid Week" for high-minded student activists; CUPE locals calling for a boycott of Israeli academics; and the latest Pride parade featuring a float that attacked gay-friendly Israel for apartheid policies (ignoring other Middle Eastern regimes that persecute gays).

Now TIFF is the target for those who would treat Israel as a pariah, demonize every aspect of its existence, and smear its supporters in Canada. TIFF, they imply, is in the pocket of the Jews – from both Canada and Israel. Their open letter conspicuously highlights the names of "Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, David Asper of Canwest Global Communications and Joel Reitman of MIJO Corporation," noting ominously that TIFF is now "complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." Cue dark clouds of conspiracy.

Replying to his accusers, TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey says he chose Tel Aviv to inaugurate an annual "City to City focus on films" that will showcase cities through a cinematic lens. TIFF took no Israeli money. The festival will also be showing films by Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese filmmakers when it opens this Thursday.

What a strange plot twist: Canadian filmmakers who pay lip service to free expression trying to bring the curtains down on Israeli filmmakers whose art is tainted by their Tel Aviv origins. But if the protesters are applying a litmus test to all world cities, why not castigate city hall for twinning Toronto with Chongqing, given China's human rights abuses? Or demand that Toronto sever its "friendship" links with Volgograd because of Russia's political sins?

Tel Aviv, it seems, makes for a more tempting target.

Either way, it is shocking that some would freely make unsubstantiated accusations of this sort. Moreover, even though the protestors didn't even have the chutzpah to call for a boycott, in fact — the whole protest seems like an exercise in grandstanding to take the focus off the films and create an environment where people would view them, and the festival through a nefarious lens.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rape, Shmape.

On a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged 17 million dollars in new funding to combat sexual violence. Sadly though that's not the story most of the media is covering.

Instead there has been intense focus on Clinton's snippy response to an apparently rude question from a Congolese student during a forum in Kinshasa:

“We’ve all heard about the Chinese contracts in this country — the interferences from the World Bank against this contract. What does Mr. Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton, and what does Mr. Mutumbo think on this situation?”

Although ther standard media line was that the question was mistranslated, that has since been debunked.

Given that it now appears that the question was translated correctly — and that the male student wanted to know not just what Bill Clinton thought of Chinese relations with Congo but also what the former N.B.A. star Dikembe Mutumbo, who was present at the event, thought, too, but expressed no interest in the perspective of America’s female secretary of state — is it possible that Mrs. Clinton has gotten a raw deal from commentators in the United States for her angry reply?

More to the point, while most of the derisive commentary on Mrs. Clinton’s flash of temper contextualized it by noting that her husband had just been lauded for his trip to North Korea, few noted that she was in the middle of a trip to Congo, where the plight of women, many of whom suffered violent sexual abuse during recent fighting, is a major issue.

Perhaps more absurd is the news media coverage that followed. "I'm the Boss!" headlines screamed, even Jon Stewart disappointingly joined on the bandwagon.

SAs the documentary The Greatest Silence: Rape In The Congo points out:

Since 1998, tens of thousands of women and girls have been systematically kidnapped, raped, mutilated and tortured by soldiers - both from foreign militias and the Congolese army that is supposed to protect them. But perhaps the greatest tragedy, and danger, is that victims almost all remain silent about what they have suffered, too afraid and ashamed to speak out. As a result, the world is largely ignorant of their horrific plight and of the political conditions that allow it to continue.

The question remains, is Clinton's announcement and focus on the crisis of sexual violence against Congolese women not newsworthy enough?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Holocaust Shtick.

In what can only be described as bizarre, comedian Roseanne Barr and Heeb Magazine have created some controversy surrounding a recent interview and photo shoot.

In the shoot, Barr poses gleefully dressing as Adolf Hitler, complete with a swastika armband, pulling a tray of burnt “Jew Cookies” from an oven. Barr, a Jewish grandmother herself allegedly requested that she be dressed as the f├╝hrer for the photos.

Barr went on the depart some additional pearls of wisdom:

…on politics The rich ain’t going anywhere. They are done with that Christian Right- type stuff—there’s no more money in it. They have become the Christian Left now.

…on vegans Vegans are all coke-sniffing, cigarette-smoking faux socialists who listen to music that has no melody at all, so fuck them.

Apparently Barr feels guilty about it though.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sexism: Olympics Style. Part Deux.

Last year I explored the International Olympic Committee’s exclusion of women's ski jumping for the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010. Not that there is anything new about sexism in the Olympics, but this case, and its recent conclusion demonstrates it in a way that is quite outrageous.

The story began in November 2006 when the International Olympic Committee rejected the inclusion of women's ski jumping for the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010. IOC President Jacques Rogge explained that only 80 women were competing in the sport and including it in the 2010 Games would dilute the value of medals won in other events.

Even though nearly all Olympic sports have both a men's and women's event, the Games position towards ski jumping was to let it be a male-only competition. The IOC explained that its decision not to include women's ski jumping at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games was based on technical merit and wasn't discriminatory.

However a coalition of international women ski jumpers disagreed and filed a lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) last year challenging this decision arguing that their exclusion from the Vancouver Games violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. "The failure to include women's ski jumping events in the Games violates every woman's right to equal benefit under the law," according to the documents filed in British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver.

VANOC argued that the IOC decides which sports are allowed in the Games and that the Charter doesn't apply to it.

In order to be considered for inclusion in the Olympic Games, the IOC said past world championships were one of several criteria used to determine which of several possible new events would be included in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"Events must have a recognized international standing both numerically and geographically, and have been included at least twice in world and continental championships," according to the statement, which was re-released by the IOC on Friday.

The statement said the decision not to include Curling Mixed Doubles and Women Ski Jumping in the 2010 Winter Games "was made as their development is still in the early stage thus lacking the international spread of participation and technical standard required for an event to be included in the programme."

But some say the IOC is using the technical merit justification as an excuse and that requirement was formally dropped by the IOC in 2007. They also pointed out that world championships for women's ski jumping were held this year in Liberec, Czech Republic.

Supporters of women's ski jumpers argue there are 135 women ski jumpers in 16 countries. This compares to other sports already in the Games like snowboard cross, which has 34 women from 10 countries, skier cross, which has 30 women from 11 nations, and bobsled, which has 26 women from 13 nations. They also argue that women's marathon was added to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles after a single world championship in 1983.

Of note, the Canadian Government fully supported the lawsuit and "would try to convince the IOC to include women's ski jumping at the Vancouver Games." David Emerson, Canada’s federal minister responsible for the 2010 Games, said it’s “extremely disappointing” women are not being allowed to ski jump at the Olympics.

“Ski jumping is an important sport and we’re investing a lot in jumping and training facilities in Canada and to not have women able to participate on the same basis as men, to me, I just don’t think it’s right.”

While members of the Canadian ski team were vocal in their dissent, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association took a more diplomatic tact. The association is the governing body for ski sports in the U.S., Tom Kelly, vice-president of communication, refused to say if he thought women were being discriminated against.

“We have great respect for the process the IOC has for bringing the sport into the Olympics. We were disappointed when the IOC made it’s decision (on 2010.) We are very optimistic for 2014. The first world championships will be held next year and that is a critical event in the growth of the sport. When we get to the world championships, and the world sees what these women can do, that is a great message to send to the IOC.”

Sadly though – the battle for female ski jumpers to compete in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver was lost.

In a ruling issued last week by the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon expressed sympathy for the women, but said the court doesn't have the authority to force the IOC to include the sport in the 2010 Games.

In her reasons for judgment, Fenlon agreed with VANOC that the issue is an IOC responsibility. While she conceded that women are being discriminated against, the responsibility for eliminating that discrimination is the IOC's, not VANOC's, she wrote.

Fenlon also sided with VANOC in its argument that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply in this case. The IOC is not governed by the Charter nor does it fall under this court's jurisdiction, she wrote.

After the ruling, the IOC issued a statement:

"While we are pleased that the Games can now proceed as planned, we strongly disagree with the court's analysis that the IOC acted in a discriminatory manner."

It repeats the IOC's explanation for the decision not to include women's ski jumping in the 2010 Winter Games: "Our decision was based on technical issues, without regard to gender."

Those technical issues they included the number of women ski jumping at an elite level and the number of countries competing in the sport and restating that too few women and countries compete to justify Olympic competition.

Fenlon addressed that directly in her: "If the IOC had applied the criteria for admission of new events to both men's and women's ski jumping events," she wrote, "neither group would be competing in the 2010 Games."

As more succinctly, as 16 year-old ski jumper Zora Lynch says "It’s not about the competition between the sports. It’s about gender equality and that kind of stuff."