Stefanella's Drive Thru

Israel, U.S., conflict, war, peace, humor, travel, romance, fashion, fun

Risky Business February 13, 2010

I was chatting on the phone with my friend “G” the other day and the subject of his 20-year network news career came up.

How did you get started with them? I asked. 

His story was fascinating.

It was 1982 and Israel was going into Lebanon to root out the PLO. Being an elite paratrooper, I got a “Tzav 8” – it’s an emergency order for reservists calling for immediate mobilization.

At the exact same time, I was offered the chance to go into Lebanon and cover what was happening for one of the major American networks.

I was conflicted at first.  I mean, a military order is a military order.  But on the other hand, I knew that this was a huge break that wouldn’t come around again.

So I opted out of the order and went with the network.  And that’s how I started my career with them.

The irony?  After the dust cleared and I was back in Tel Aviv, I never, ever heard from the army.  It was if they’d never sent out the order.  And one of the funniest parts of it all is that while I was in Lebanon working, I SAW my unit.  They all called out to me and waved: “Hey G!” Of course, they didn’t know I’d been called up.

I was stunned by my friend’s story.  His gamble turned to gold and he has enjoyed a prestigious career that has taken him from Winter Olympics, to war in Somalia to an airlift operation that saved more than 14,000 lives to the fall of Berlin’s Wall and beyond.  He has met heads of state, international terrorists, world class artists and athletes and he has worked with the best in the business. He now languishes in retirement on a small Caribbean island.

When he relayed his tale I was reminded of Martin Fletcher, NBC News Israel correspondent of several decades who I worked with in the early 90’s.

I was always impressed by Martin’s ability to predict industry trends.  But when I read his book Breaking News I  discovered he had something in common with my friend ‘G’:  Martin took big risks that paid off.

In his book he writes that while he was stationed in South Africa, he advised editors at NY headquarters to send him into a nearby country as conflict erupted.  They refused.  He was so certain the story was cover-worthy that Fletcher went in anyway without informing his higher ups.  A short time after, entry to the country was cut off.  His editors phoned to see if there was any way he could get in.  He was already there.

I found that, too, to be remarkable.  The move could have jeopardized his career and instead it put him ahead of the game.

Internally I laugh.  My acquaintances take BIG risks.  I debate over which swimming pool membership to get.

I’d say there’s a lesson in there to be learned.

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Dedicating Life in the Aftermath of Death January 12, 2010

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealisticJohn F. Kennedy

I spent last Saturday in Nablus.  Not the prettified city in the link here but a small outlying village perched on a hillside right below Elon Moreh settlement. Elon Moreh is where, according to the Old Testament, God told Abraham he was giving “your descendants this land”.  It’s why the Jewish settlers are there, for the most part, and it’s down the road from Yasuf Village, recently in the headlines when settlers set fire to the local mosque and burned holy books.

But I digress.

I went to the area with an Israeli  who, after his son was killed in Lebanon, chose to dedicate his life to fostering understanding between Israelis & Palestinians.  He works on projects like bringing Palestinian kids who have merely read about seashores to Tel Aviv’s beach – a half hour’s drive from their village.  He hires clowns and entertainers for village events,  helps re-plant old growth olive trees uprooted by…you know who… and this weekend, he dedicated a new playground built to replace the previous one destroyed by …you know.

To get to the village,  we had to pass through three Israeli army checkpoints and sign a waiver. But it was a feel-good day and upwards of a hundred children, teens and Palestinian official types were there.  I wasn’t nervous about violence.

After being there, the closest thing I can draw a comparison with in  U.S. terms is  inner city projects – just a lot greener and minus the dealers and drive-bys.  The village countryside is beautiful – lush green,  graduated craggy hills characteristic of this part of the world, olive groves stretching forever and partially built skeletons of homes awaiting further construction.

And yet, basic infrastructure was lacking.  Trash was strewn by the roadsides and along the hills and raw sewage streamed between olive tree rows.  As we approached, children swarmed, touched, patted, fired questions in Arabic and stared unabashedly, taking in every utterance and movement.   Allah help me had I pulled a stick of gum from my backpack.  Unless, of course, there had been enough to go around to all 4 dozen kids.

The dedication itself was run-of-the-mill:  Clap clap.  Smiles all around.  Hand shaking.  Photo opp.

What’s interesting is the response I got when relaying my plans for the day to friends.     It’s been the same response for more than a decade whenever I announce I’ll be going into the West Bank or Gaza. That is, unless I’m talking to a journalist. “Why are you going there?  Did you lose something?  Aren’t you afraid?  It’s dangerous!  Are you crazy?”

I won’t downplay the serious nature of the political conflict nor will I make light of terrifying lynchings Israelis have fallen prey to in Palestinian areas.  But most people on the Israel side of the Green Line haven’t crossed to the other side unless they’ve served there in the military or they’re journalists, settlers or peace activists.   Ditto vis-a-vis Palestinians coming to the Israeli side of the line.

Both populations get most of their information about “the other” from what they see on the news:  often frightening and violent depictions.  Mainstreamers on both sides are scared and have no idea what life looks like “over there” beyond the lenses of extremism, suicide missions, military uniforms, rocket launches and bombing campaigns.


My strong sense after visiting this weekend is that there’s not a hope in hell for working anything out in the long-term between the parties until getting to know “the other” and moving beyond “Arab terrorists” and “military occupying Jews” stereotypes.

And for the record, I’m not trivializing the pain or suffering others have endured nor am I lightly suggesting a kumbaya-live-in-love-and-harmony approach.  There’s no easy fix and it may never happen.

But I figure if the Israeli who devoted his life to reaching out can do it after his loss. . .

 

Israeli Oscars September 27, 2009

Last night I slipped into a little black dress and a pair of heels and made my way to Haifa for Israel’s version of the Oscars: The Ophir Awards.

Attending Israel’s upscale events is always an interesting venture. Because, compared to the U.S., they’re pretty scaled down and lacking pretense. Dress codes don’t rule and most anyone can get away with whatever their personal interpretation of gearing up or down might be.  That includes nominees, as demonstrated here by Best Actor winner Sasha Avshalom Agronov for his role in The Loners. Dig the hat.
IMGP0051

Also glaringly absent at these affairs are hulking bodyguards (unless government ministers are present). Sure, there’s security at the entrance but once inside, the press mingles with celebs and it’s a sort of everyone hangs out with everyone free-for-all at the bar and buffet kinda thing.

Which is why I was able to walk straight up to Ajami Producer Mosh Danon, congratulate him on taking best film and wish him luck at the Hollywood Oscars. I grabbed this shot of the film’s Israeli director Yaron Shani as he was being interviewed for radio.  His Arab co-director Scandar Copti was, unfortunately, in Europe.     IMGP0047

I also shook Lebanon film director Samuel Maoz’s hand and congratulated him on his Venice win.  I felt truly sorry that his film didn’t clinch the top seed.  Because imho, the movie based on his personal experience as a soldier during the 1982 Israel incursion into Lebanon, would have been a serious Academy Awards contender for best foreign film.  I’m not sure about Ajami, a story about the crime ridden mixed Arab-Israeli neighborhood of the same name in southern Tel Aviv.   Yes, it’s a microcosm of the Israel-Arab flashpoint conflict at large but it somehow feels too local.

But then, I’ve seen neither  and am basing that rather broad opinion on trailers,  discussions with colleagues and the reception for Lebanon thus far in the world arena.

Here’s a clip.  A reportedly super intense film, it takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank  in Lebanon.  Last night the movie nabbed top honors for Best Supporting Actor, Best Soundtrack, Best Cinematography and Best Design.

A few notes about the ceremony:  The high point was seeing Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Assi Dayan take to the stage.  A legendary Israeli actor and director, he has been plagued by negative press throughout his career for drug abuse, mental instability and domestic violence.  But he is talented.  And his peers gave him a standing ovation.

Heart wrenching, on the other hand, was witnessing producer Uri Segev’s widow and two young children take to the stage to receive an honorary award in his name.  46-year-old Segev died last year of heart complications during the wrap of  Lebanon. The audience, on their feet again, applauded warmly as his wife and children stood at the podium. And there was neery a dry eye in the house as his wife thanked the film academy with broken voice and his 8-year-old daugher sobbed quietly beside her.

A final note to self:  MUST SEE A Matter of Size – a film about a diet club support group that decides to start up their own Sumo Wrestling team.  It looks poignant, funny and visually beautiful.  And Best Actress recipient Irit Kaplan made a distinct impression upon the uber looks-conscious crowd by advising in her acceptance speech that we all go beyond exteriors and start digging deeper to the core where it really counts.

Lacking pretense, indeed.

 

Until the Army April 20, 2009

My 7-year-old is doing really well in swimming.

He sailed through beginner, intermediate and advanced courses last year and has now been selected to join the city league swim team entailing twice-weekly practice training sessions.

Today was the 1st such session and when we  arrived, I had a word with the coach about vacation and how we should handle summer break.

Coach & I didn’t see eye to eye on a start date for my son.  I wanted immediate.  He favored end of summer.

“He’s now in serious training for the long haul,” coach explained.  “So what’s the rush? As I see it, I have him from now until he’s 18 when he goes into the army.”

JOLT.  I had NEVER directly correlated my son with army service in that kind of “oh it’s so obvious he’ll be going in at eighteen” kind of way.  Ever.  And here was this stranger casually linking the two.

Yes, it’s compulsory in Israel for 18-year-olds.  But MY son?  MY budding artist/swimmer?

I didn’t grow up with the concept so it’s totally foreign to me even though it’s ultra ingrained in Israeli society.  I can’t even think about it. I don’t want to.

Jolt aside, I won.  He started practice  today.

11 more years.

 

Oscars Anyone? February 15, 2009

Oscars are a week from today.  I haven’t watched the ceremony in yeeeaaaarrrsss but I always follow the results.

This year, however, I’m changing it up by synching my local Israel time to U.S. ceremony time (read: It’s gonna be an over-nighter Sunday) to watch it live.  I admit: I’m a sucker for the red carpet, the hoopla, the speeches, the controversy and I particularly love seeing trailers from the contenders.

This year I have selfish interests at heart as well: I want to see if Israel’s nominated entry Waltz with Bashir wins in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

I FINALLY got around to seeing Waltz this weekend.  And it far exceeded my expectations.  The use of animation was really apt on many levels.  Also, because the subject matter it addresses has been so very controversial for so long, the film was quite poignant.

Because Director Ari Folman’s animation is a personal testimony to one of the major events that happened in Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War/Invasion, it is tough to dispute what some have denied vis a vis Israel’s role in that event.  I’m being vague, I know.  I don’t want to spoil it.

Watch the trailer.  French Foreign Film Contender The Class also looks quite good  – haven’t seen it yet.   I’d say it’s between the two.  But Waltz With Bashir’s timing in terms of what we just saw happen in Gaza may give Folman the edge…

 

The Big Ask: ACT NOW! February 12, 2009

Israel elections are past and a new government is in the making.  The Green party I voted for didn’t even make it into the bleeding government.  THAT is crazy.

It’s all about the future – for us and our children. If we combust, who cares who’s holding the scepter?

Check out the video. .

http://www.thebigask.eu

 

Quotes of the Week. . . January 22, 2009

My parents back in Philly were freaking out.  I talked to my mom for the first time in three weeks today.  It was very traumatic.  But it’s over and my prayers were answered.  All I kept asking God for was to be able to see my parents again. . .U.S.-born soldier serving in Gaza since the start of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead

Mom, you’re the best most wonderful mom in the whole world.  I’d give you a shekel just to prove it but I don’t want to waste the money. . .My 7-year-old son

What happened to the good old days when you could kill people and dispose of the bodies in a field and nobody had to know anything?  Now you have to fill out paperwork, file reports and account for every single dead person!  God!  . . .Anonymous person in Tel Aviv cafe

We heard some stories in Gaza about miracles that made me think: The messiah is here.  It’s time.  It’s finally time.  The messiah has come. . .Israeli soldier at Gaza military base

“My daughters, they killed them, Oh Lord. God, God, God.”. . .Gaza physician, Dr. Izeldeen Abuelaish sobbing during a phone interview following the deaths of his three daughters and a niece after an Israeli army shell penetrated the wall of their home.

“I think this broadcast will change public opinion in Israel. . .It feels to me as if some of our audience is seeing and hearing about the high price ordinary Palestinians are paying in this conflict for the first time.”. . . Israeli television journalist Alon Ben David in an interview with the BBC after airing Dr. Izeldeen Abuelaish’s anguished phone call.