The Israeli incitement problem: A personal look at a children’s book

Posted: March 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Israeli leaders and advocacy groups love to complain about Palestinian incitement, but militaristic and nationalistic indoctrination is all too common in Israel itself. Some personal reflection, following a mail from an outraged parent

Danni Din "Saving the President" cover (1997, M. Mizrachi publishing)

Danni Din "Saving the President" cover (1997, M. Mizrachi publishing)

When I was a kid, I loved Danni Din stories. Their hero was wonder-kid Danni Din, which became the worlds’ only invisible person after mistakenly drinking a strange liquid left on the window by the reckless Prof. Katros. As befits superheroes of his kind, Danni didn’t take advantage of his unique condition by rushing into the girl’s dorms, but instead dedicated his childhood to helping Israel’s security forces. Danni Din fought in the Six days war, caught terrorists and rescued IDF prisoners, and though even at a very young age I sensed there was something tragic in his condition (he was to remain invisible forever, not to mention the fact that he never seemed to grow up), I dreamed of getting the opportunity to perform such heroic acts for our country myself.

Last week, in the wake of another round of the endless debates over the “Palestinian incitement”, I got an e-mail with pictures of the front and back cover of one of the latest Danni Din stories, published in 1997. The author of the mail, an Israeli parent, was shocked to see the militaristic tone in the book his son, a second grader and an avid reader, brought home from the public library one day.

“Saving the president”, the 1997 Danni Din story, featured a new heroine: Dina Din, the invisible girl. The book has a somewhat bizarre plot: the invisible kids are abducted by extraterrestrials (the late 90′s were the days of the X-Files mania), only to escape after a fierce battle, in which they take control over the aliens’ spaceship. Headed back to earth, they intercept a plot by Hamas to send a flying suicide bomber that would crash into president Bill Clinton’s Air Force One – on his way to Israel, naturally – with the intention of blowing up the plane and killing all its passengers.

“Will our invisible heroes succeed in saving the beloved president and the planes passengers from death?” asks the back cover.

Danni Din "Saving the President"'s back cover (1997, M. Mizrachi publishing)

Danni Din "Saving the President"'s back cover (1997, M. Mizrachi publishing)

Danni Din’s war on Arab terrorists is not unique. Almost every adventure book I remember from my childhood featured at least a handful of evil Arabs (never mention the P word), if not full Egyptian military divisions. Some of the Arabs in those books were thieves and kidnappers, but most of them were terrorists.

The best known of these books were the “Hassamba” series, featuring a group or kids operating like a secret army unit in the service of Israel’s defense, getting their orders directly from the most senior generals. These books weren’t about politics: While Shraga Gafni, the author of Danni Din series (as well as many other Israeli classics), was a rightwing ideologue , Hassamba’s Yigal Mossinson was a Tel Aviv bohemian. His books were a bit more sophisticated, but the militaristic-nationalist tone was largely the same.

Whenever I hear Israeli advocacy groups speaking of incitement, I think of Danni Din and Hassamba. I also remember the maps of Israel we use to draw in school: none of them featured the green line, just one big happy Jewish state, from the sea to the Jordan; and we never marked the Palestinian towns on them, only Jewish cities. Does this qualify as incitement?

Naturally, there are many examples of hardcore anti-Arab incitement in Israel: from streets named after the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane and Minister Rahavam Zeevi, who promoted the idea of transfer, to graffiti and even rabbinical orders calling for killing and expulsion of Palestinians. But these are the obvious cases, to which people pay attention. There is something about the “innocent” examples, like kids’ novels and pre-school work pages that show the depth of militaristic and nationalistic indoctrination in Israel. It’s almost impossible to grow up here without being told to fear and hate the Arabs, or to idolize the army.

Naturally, none of this prevents Israelis from seeing themselves as a peace-loving nation. In fact, I think that the real message of these books is that we fight the Palestinians because they prevent peace. We are forced to conquer and sometimes kill in the sake of a greater good (like saving Air Force one from a suicide attack). Isn’t that what you hear from advocacy groups like Stand With Us and The Israel Project – that fighting the Arabs alongside Israel is not just Israel’s interest, but the US’, or even the world’s?


I remember watching the military parade for Israel’s 40′th anniversary. The main event took place in the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, not far away from where I grew up. I was 14, and extremely exited that my parents got us tickets for the event, even though it was the cheaper of two shows, the one in which air force didn’t take part.

Behind us in the stands was another family, with younger kids. I have a very vivid memory of a certain point in the show in which the announcer describing the army unites and armed vehicles on the field in front of us said something like “The IDF’s real battle is for peace,” and the young kid sitting behind me burst into a spontaneous laughter. It sounded very stupid to him, “fighting for peace,” and he said so to his dad. In the next few minutes, this father explained to him why this phrase actually made perfect sense. I remember being embarrassed for the kid, which clearly didn’t understand what the army was all about. Much later, I thought he was right: It was a stupid sentence.

This Israeli dialectic of militarism and peace couldn’t have been better demonstrated than in these kindergarten Independence Day assignments from 2009, sent to me together with the Danni Din cover. They made me think of the infamous “suicide baby” picture, and how it became for many the symbol of the “inhumane” Palestinian culture.

Kindergarten Independance day assigment, 2009

Kindergarten Independance day assigment, 2009


Kindergarten Independance day assigment, 2009

Kindergarten Independance day assigment, 2009

One final word on this: It wasn’t my intention here to deny Palestinian incitement or hate-talk, or to say that our side is worse. Political indoctrination exists on both sides. Perhaps this is the reason Netanyahu refused to renew the work of the joint Israeli-Palestinian committee against incitement – he knew that it would have its hands full with evidence from both societies.

More than anything, I think that the complaints over Palestinian incitement are excuses to avoid real political action on behalf of Israel. I actually find it hard to believe that as long as the occupation continues – and the resistance to the occupation, which is natural and justified – we will be able to rid ourselves completely from the problem of “incitement”. Only after we deal with the political issues at the heart of the conflict, we could succeed in changing our children’s books.

“Anybody, if they want to buy a ticket, should be allowed to do so”

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Following my proposal for artists playing in Israel to insist on Palestinian attendance at their gigs, one of the reader posted this video clip, showing Dusty Springfield’s 1964 refusal to perform in front of segregated audiences in South Africa. According to her Wikipedia page, Springfield ended up being expelled from the country. She did, however, outlive Apartheid.

Selling tickets to Macy Gray in Ramallah?

Posted: January 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments »

The debate regarding the cultural boycott of Israel is framed around the wrong questions

Macy Gray. Would Palestinians be able to see her too? (photo: / via wikimedia commons)

Macy Gray. Would Palestinians be able to see her too? (photo:

So Macy Gray decided to perform in Tel Aviv. After sharing her hesitation with her fans on Facebook, Gray apparently made up her mind not to cancel the gigs she planned to have in Israel. One of her tweets implies she was also turned off by some of the messages she got from the pro-Palestinian side. On Wednesday night, Gray posted a response to one of her followers: “@bahebakyagaza See I’m willing to listen – really listen – but some of you so called boycotters are just assholes.”

I guess some of the posts on Gray’s Facebook wall were indeed unpleasant, and too many were written in all-caps. For someone unfamiliar with the intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, the language and tone on both sides can be shocking. But there is an issue here that goes deeper than style.

Many artists believe that music transcends political boundaries and everyday reality, so they are unwilling to submit their work even to political causes they believe in. Artists also tend to think that fans shouldn’t be punished for their governments’ actions, and some think that it’s not a good idea to mix politics and music. What’s more, most people were educated to believe that banning someone – anyone – is a bad thing, and they are inclined to think that this goes for states too. After all, the US and China commit atrocities as well, so if we ban Israel, why not ban them?

I don’t dismiss these arguments (I tried to deal with some of them here), but I do see a problem in the fact that they focus entirely on the Israeli side. In other words, they deal with one question only: Whether Israelis deserve to be boycotted. Some say they do, others say they don’t, or argue that in such a case everyone could be boycotted; still others claim that even if you could justify the boycott, it would be a counter-productive act that would only push Israelis further to the right.

But instead of discussing Israelis, I want to speak about Palestinians. After all, the main problem about the occupation is not the privileges of Israelis, but the way it affects Palestinians;  and so the political action in confronting the occupation is not about hurting Jews, but rather about helping Palestinians get their rights.

The same goes for the boycott issue: It’s not the fact that Israelis want to go to a music concert that should bother people, but rather that Palestinians can’t attend the same shows. Even though they live under Israeli rule and on the same territory, the Palestinians are locked in their towns and villages, unable to travel or to have anyone visit them without a special permit from Israel. The inability to come to the concert is a symbol of the bigger problem.

So, instead of engaging in the endless debate on whether Israelis are evil enough to have them punished by canceling a music gig – something most artists feel uncomfortable with – I offer a simple test: When booking a show in Tel Aviv, the artist should ask that some of the tickets, say 25 percent, would be sold exclusively to Palestinians and that all ticket holders would be admitted to the concert (naturally, there would need to be some adequate security measures, but if that’s what will help Israel fight the threat of the BDS, I am sure it could be arranged).

If the Israeli organizers of the show refuse or if they are unable to deliver – it will become much harder for them to claim that there is no political problem with the gig, or that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians shouldn’t be compared to Apartheid. And if they deliver, the artist gets to play a real part in bringing down the walls between Jews and Arabs. In any case, everyone would know where they stand.

I know this idea must seem crazy to some Israelis. Selling tickets to Macy Gray in Ramallah? But didn’t we just say music transcends borders and walls? If so, let’s put this notion to a real test.

Israeli actors, directors and playwrights: we won’t perform in the settlements

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Leading Israeli theater actors, playwrights and directors signed a letter announcing they refuse to perform or have their work shown in the Ariel Culture Hall in the West Bank.

Earlier this week it was revealed that the Culture Hall in Ariel, which is due to open in November, will host productions from all major Israeli theaters. This would be the first time such productions take place in the West bank.

Arab-Israeli actor Yousef Sweid immediately announced he won’t take part in shows in the occupied territories. He was joined by actor Rami Heuberger and playwright Shmuel Hasfari. Hasfari is one of the leaders of The National Left, a Zionist movement calling for the immediate evacuation of the West Bank and the establishing of a Palestinian state.

In a letter published today on Ynet, notable Israeli theater artist declared that:

We wish to express our disgust from the intention of the Israeli theaters to perform in the new hall in Ariel. The actors among us declare here that they won’t perform in Ariel, or any other settlement. We call the managing boards of the theaters to conduct their activities inside Israel’s sovereign territory.

The article on Ynet names 32 actors, composers and writers that signed the letter. Among them are Renee Yerushalmi, winner of the Israel prize, and Yehoshua Sobol, one of Israel’s most celebrated playwrights, and Prof. Gad Kinar, head of the theater department in Tel Aviv University. “I wouldn’t have signed my contract in the Cameri [theater] if I was told I’m about to perform in the occupied territories,” said TV and theater actor Dror Keren.

“It seems that the theaters will have to make major changes in their casts, if they want their work shown in Ariel,” the article on Ynet concludes. The writers are less of a problem, since the theaters can probably have the plays shown without their consent. Still, this is a major development, especially since under the new boycott bill, which stands a good chance of becoming a law in the one of the next Knesset session, any call to boycott Israel or the settlements could result in a fine of up to 30,000 Shekels (9,000 USD), without proof of damages.

So far, no theater has backed down from the intention to perform in the West Bank.

UPDATE: Culture minister Limor Livnat and PM Benjamin Netanyahu issued statements condemning the boycott letter. The pressure made four Cameri actors, including TV star Dror Keren, to announce they are withdrawing their signature from the letter, and that they will perform in Ariel after all.

Brecht in the West Bank: Israel’s major theaters going to the settlements

Posted: August 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The first major theater hall in a West Bank settlement will open on November 8th. The Ariel Culture Hall, located in the settlement of Ariel (south of Nablus) will host major productions of leading Israeli theaters, including Habima, Israel’s national theater, and Tel Aviv’s city theater, The Cameri.

According to Haaretz, The Ariel Culture Hall will have 540 seats, and 40 million NIS (11 million USD) were spent on its construction. The Hall will open with the Israeli adaptation of Piaf, a play by British Pem Gems on the life of the famous singer, performed by the Beersheba theatre. Later this year, Ariel will host Tel Aviv’s Cameri theatre’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

Some Israelis noticed a cruel irony in hosting a play dealing with concept of justice and fair trial in a place where the majority of the population have no rights, and is tried in military courts, without due process. Arab-Israeli actor Yousef Sweid, who plays in “A railroad to Damascus”, also scheduled to show in Ariel, told Haaretz that “I’m opposed to it, but this is the first I heard about it and I’d like to investigate the matter further.”

Israeli journalist and blogger Ofri Ilani wrote in the leftwing group blog Eretz Haemori that this marks a new record in the whitewashing of the occupation’s crimes:

To what level of ridicule will the heads of the culture scene degrade (…) we had murders who talk about spiritualism, Arms dealers who play the piano and Military radio stations that play protest songs (…) but to recruit Brecht to legitimize the colonial project of [Ariel's mayor] Ron Nachman?

But those voices are an exception. Most Israelis are blind to the occupation, and Ariel – which sits literally in the heart of the West bank – is by now an ordinary Israeli town, with a secular population, not that different from the Israelis living in Tel Aviv’s suburbs. The entire idea that one can separate “good” Israel west of the Green Line from “bad” Israel lying to its east is ridiculous. Every aspect of Israeli civilian life, from the economy through real estate to culture, has something to do with the occupation.

It seems that the heads of the major theaters in Israel were even surprised somebody made a deal out of their recent bookings. A Habima spokeswoman told Haaretz: “Habima is a national theater, and its repertoire is supposed to suit the entire population.” Chairman of Jerusalem’s Chan theater said that “Everybody is invited to watch the shows. We don’t take side in the political question.”

Bertolt Brecht, I think, would have loved this last one.

Elvis Costello boycotting Israel, helps Israelis out of their state of denial

Posted: May 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Elvis Costello, who cancelled his shows in Israel for political reasons, is extremely unpopular here these days. I’ve read several articles condemning him for this decision, and not one supporting him. Culture Minister Limor Livnat declared that “Costello is not worthy of performing here,” and many people commented that they would never listen to him again.

But check this out: while claiming that a more honest and effective move by Costello would have been to come here and express his opinions publicly, many commentators and writers also argued that Israel should end the occupation ASAP, or it stands the risk of facing many more such incidents.

Furthermore, Costello’s decision has been the talk of the day for many people  – I also had a ticket for his Tel Aviv gig – and even when people hated him, they had to think about the political issues and about their consequences, and especially on where they stand. Just like after Gil Scott-Heron had decided not to come here, in the past couple of days I saw friends who never discuss politics going into long debates on Facebook because of Costello. For a country that is in a constant state of denial regarding the occupation, this is no small thing.

So much for the ineffectiveness of the boycott.

Cultural boycott? It’s already happening in Israel

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News, media | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

The only democracy in the Middle East is getting a little less democratic by the day

I’m traveling abroad (currently in San Francisco), and so far I didn’t have much time to catch up with the local news; that’s the reason I haven’t been blogging for more than week. However, there is one recent affair I want to comment about – that of the Israeli film Lipstikka.

Lipstikka was originally planned to deal with director Jonathan Segal’s mother’s experience in the Holocaust.  Later on Segal decided to move the plot to Ramallah, and to tell the story of two girls struggling to end the Israeli occupation. Like almost all Israeli films, Segal received financial support for his film from the Israeli Film Fund (IFF).

Last Friday, Israel’s most popular columnist – and channel 2 anchorman – Yair Lapid of Yedioth Ahronoth, quoted on his weekly column a passage from a pre-production brochure advertising Lipstikka, which compared Israeli occupation to the Nazism. As a result, Minister of Culture and Sports Limor Livnat (Likud) contacted the IFF, which immediately decided to freeze all support for Lipstikka. Director Segal claimed later that the brochure was written by a British PR woman who was sacked from the production two years ago – and that Lapid never contacted him to get his comment on the issue – but at this point, nobody really cared to listen.

Basically, what the IFF and the Minister for Culture did was little more than censorship. It is important to understand that it’s almost impossible to produce a film in Israel without the IFF’s help. Allocating funds according to the political message of films means that from now on only certain views would be allowed to be shown.


Israel never misses an opportunity to remind the world that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. To me, this has always been an empty argument (because even a democracy can’t decide to withhold all civil rights from millions of people – who get nothing to say about this – as Israel is doing for more four decades), but it sounds today more hollow than ever. Israel is getting less democratic by the way. Examples are easy to come up with – from the arrest of the head of the Association for Civil Rights during a protest in Jerusalem, to the deportation of “pro-Palestinian” journalists. However, let’s stick to cultural affairs in this post.

Last year, the most important literary prize in Israel – the Sapir Prize – was striped from author Alon Hilu, which was even forced to give back the money that came with the prize. The official reason referred to some irregularities in the process of selecting Hilo as the winner, but throughout the public debate on the matter, it seemed that the main problem was that Hilu’s House of Dajani was, as the tabloids kept reminding their readers, “a post-Zionist novel”.

Most Israelis don’t view both cases – Lipstikka and House of Dajani – as censorship. They simply say that the state of Israel shouldn’t support those who are publicly criticizing it. But these are no more than technicalities. The issue at hand is the growing involvement of politicians and bureaucrats, under the influence of pundits and tabloid journalists, in cultural works. There is an ongoing effort in Israel to portray some views and acts – mostly those involving harsh criticism of the occupation and questioning Zionism altogether – as illegitimate. It can happen through legislation – such as the ban on teaching the Nakba – and it can happen in a ways of withholding support from films and books. In both cases, it won’t end here. Many people are already demanding to stop funding Israeli universities who teach “anti-Zionist” courses.

Censorship is a double edge sword. The next time Israelis would cry that boycotting our films or our universities is an act against freedom of speech which would even hurt the peace effort – since most criticism for the occupation comes from the cultural elite – they should be reminded of Lipstikka.

The perfect gift

Posted: December 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: culture, media | Tags: , | 4 Comments »


Israel can be a very strange place. I just saw this add on the Jpost site, inviting people to purchase “a piece of history”: the Sderot Dove – “a dove sculpted from actual pieces of Qassam rockets that landed in Sderot”.

The price: 1,000$ (plus 40$ for shipping).

And so the add goes:

Each sculpture is sent in a gift box and is mounted on a display base with a medallion quoting the verse form Isaiah 2:4 ” They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not take up weapons against other nations and never again will they know war”.

Each hand sculpted dove portrays the inexhaustible strength of the Jewish people and its never ending desire for peace.

(Jerusalem Post co-sponsors of the project.)

Personally, I think the dove is slightly overpriced.


Using and abusing the Holocaust / the work of Khaled Mahameed

Posted: September 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: culture, guest post | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off
Mahameed giving a workshop in Askar Refugee camp

Mahameed giving a workshop in Askar Refugee camp

Harvey Stein is a filmmaker/journalist, originally from New York, who moved to Israel 3 years ago and now lives in Jerusalem. Harvey is working these days on a documentary called “Heart of the Other“, which follows the work of Khaled Mahameed. Just before Yom Kippur, he suggested writing something about it for Promised Land, and I was more than happy to agree, as I think that Mahameed’s is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve heard of in the last  years.

Besides working on “Heart of the Other,” Harvey has made short videos for Time magazine website, CNN, ABC, and other TV stations and websites in Europe and the United States. If you’d like to contact him, write me (my e-mail is in the “about” page), and I’ll forward your mail.

Since moving to Jerusalem from New York three years ago, I have been fortunate to spend considerable time with Khaled Mahameed (I’m making “Heart of the Other,” a documentary about his work, excerpts here: Mahameed is a Palestinian-Israeli citizen who has gotten notice for his “Holocaust education” for Arabs – both at his tiny museum in Nazareth, and in villages, towns, and refugee camps in the West Bank.

Mahameed is a lawyer by trade, and a complex “intellectual in action” by nature. Since at least age 18 (when his Jewish tutor at Hebrew University responded to his request to study more about Nazi Germany with, “Why would an Arab want to do that?”) he has basically been obsessed with the Holocaust – unpacking its meaning and its effect on both Palestinians and Israelis, and their fraught relationship. Read the rest of this entry »

Madonna, the PM, the Holy Ari and the Palestinian quality of life

Posted: September 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: culture, media | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

madonnaI’ve written her before about the blunt support of the free paper Israel Hayom for PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom is owned by gambling billionaire and personal friend of Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson. Having past both Maariv and Haaretz in circulation, it is now the second largest daily in Israel, read by more than 25 percent of Jewish paper readers.

We have seen some strange items in Israel Hayom, but nothing until now came even close to this:

On today’s back page of the paper, instead of the usual gossip column, was the following article (signed by political correspondent Shlomo Tzezna), describing a Friday evening’s meeting between PM Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife and pop singer Madonna, whose visit and shows in Israel last week caused something close to mass hysteria.

The text is so funny I bring it here in full version. The Hebrew original follows, as some of the better subtleties just get lost in my translation:

After two successful shows in Park Hayarkon (Tel Aviv) which ended her current world tour, Madonna saved the remaining weekend in Israel for spiritual activity and a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah.

On the night between Thursday and Friday, Madonna’s helicopter landed in Ziv hospital in [the town of] Zfat. Haim Azulay, the PR man from Zfat who escorted Madonna through her visit, has told us that “the bodyguards waited her and she and her partner Jesus boarded the bullet proof car which took her to the new cemetery in Zfat.

“Over there, Madonna got off the vehicle and walked on foot towards the grave of the holy Ari [Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, a well known Jewish mystic]. When the entourage arrived at the grave, Madonna wrapped a red scarf around her and her partner, and sang the Mizmor [traditional Jewish song] “Lecha Dodi” in an ancient melody that touched the feelings of all the people present there,” said Azulay.

The next day, on Friday afternoon, the singer arrived at the official resident of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, escorted by her personal manager, Guy Azury. After exchanging courtesies and a formal introduction, in which Madonna has received compliments on the successful shows she gave in Israel, Sarah Netanyahu and Madonna lit up the Shabbat candles and said the blessings together.

Madonna sang the blessing, and some close associate who were gathered outside the door said the atmosphere inside was especially warm and cordial.

In the friendly conversation that followed Netanyahu didn’t forget to mention the change that has already taken place in Israel’s handling of the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister spoke of the easing of the Palestinians life, the growing Palestinians economy, and the nightclubs that are being opened in Ramallah and in Nablus, and about the improvement in the quality of life of the Palestinians. Finally, Sarah and Benjamin Netanyahu took their picture with Madonna and her manager, and said goodbye.

And here is the original: Read the rest of this entry »