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June 5, 2009

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I PAGE 18A By Stacey Palevsky j. the Jewish weekly of northern california SAN FRANCISCO--Where can you find lawyer's, judges, scholars, human rights advo- cates and Jewish leaders all in the same room? In San Francisco, when Hagai EI-Ad comes to town. E1-Ad. an Israeli civil rights leader, spoke May 6 at alunch- time lecture sponsored by the New Israel Fund. About 80 people attended the event, held at the offices of Farella Braun and Martel LLP. Hagai El-Ad "I'd put it up there among one of the best events we've had this y, ear," said Orli Bein, regionaT co- director of the New Israel Fund, a foundation that sup- ports the development and growth of nearly 150 pro- " le; gressive nonprofits in Israel. E1-Ad directs the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. NIF's flagship Israeli organization. EI-Ad is the former director of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. flae leading LGBT organization in Jerusalem. He began his career as an astrophysicist. EI-Ad appeared in San Francisco in conversation with Michael Bien, managing partner at the !aw firm Rosen. Bien and Galvan, LLP. Here are excerpts from their talk: Bien: How did you come to abandon science for social action? EI-Ad: I still employ les- sons from science But what I discovered was that the ability to change hearts and touch people is not easy in science. Bien: You used to work for Jerusalem Open House. Why was it important to have World Pride in Jerusalem? Why not , just in Tel Aviv? EI-Ad: It's not sufficient that advocating for equal rights happens elsewhere. We need to fight for these values everywhere. Bien: What position does the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel take on the occupied territories? E1-Ad: The occupation is a human rights violation and needs to end, and the Israeli response to ending the occupation should be done in a way that respects the human rights of all. The occupation has a poisonous effect on Israeli democracy. I cannot overstate the sense of urgency that this point needs to be injected into public opinion. Bien: [Israeli Foreign Min- ister] Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as a divisive leader. What are the implications of his popularity for Israel? What effect will that have on the Arab-Israeli relation- ship? EI-Ad: Lieberman led the most racist campaign in the history of Israel [among other things, proposing that all citizens be required to sign an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state]. Yes, we heard similar notions 20 years ago, but then. the opinion represented a tiny minority and had no broad backing or mainstream support. Now, they're a major partner in government. And I think that weakens the back- bone of Israeli democracy. It's unbelievable that we're not in agreement on something so basic as our shared citi- zenship. HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE5, 2 _0~'- Bien: What is ACRI's posi- tion on the security fence? E1-Ad: Israel has to defend its borders. That is obvious. And had the fence been built on the Green Line, no one would have had a problem with it. But it is built on Palestinian land and often for no security reason. Bien: What is the implica- tion of the current recession on social justice in Israel and what is ACRI's role? EI-Ad: A record-breaking 20.000 Israelis are newly unemployed monthly. That's a tremendous source of con- cern. Even though Israel has national health insurance, polls show that one-third of citizens still cannot afford health Care. ACRI is making sure that co-payments don't limit Israelis' ability to have healthcare. Bien: Many of us want to support Israel, but that can be a difficult role for those of us conce?ned about human rights in Israel. What is our role? EI-Ad: I am not interested m just any future for Israel. I want justice and peace, equality and democracy. If we're not talking about Israel's imperfections in an honest and thoughtful way, how can we move forward? ACRI is making sure progressive voices in Israel know they're not isolated and that they have broad support in this country and elsewhere. There needs to be more room for a conversation in [the United States] based on facts and not on fantasy Reprinted with permission from j. weekly, www.jweekly. com. as seen By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles Shmuei Beru was around 12 years old in 1989 when Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" stunned audiences with its provocative story of racial conflict between Afri- can- and Italian-Americans in New York. Five years earlier. Beru had made the perilous journey from his native Ethiopia to Israel. and though at 12 he was not old enough to ap- preciate the significance of, Lee's radical telling of an African-American story from an insider's point of view, Lee's work would later serve as in- spiration for Beru's career as a filmmaker in a way that the all-white Israeli film industry could not. Beru has become the first Ethiopian Jew to create an Israeli film, "Zrubavel,"with a team of fellow Ethiopians. The feature film describes his own community from an insider's perspective, and last year it became an award winner, even as it proved controversial. Beru has done for Ethiopian Israelis what Lee did for Afri- can-Americans, revealing a community little understood by outsiders and presenting Israel as a complex, multicul- tural society that is not always a successful melting pot. In fact. one of the main charac- ters in "Zrubavel." a 12-year- old Ethiopian boy named Itzhak, is nicknamed "Spike Lee" because of his penchant for documenting neighbor- hood residents sometimes not so favorably--with his inexpensive video camera. The raw, low-budget movie revolves around several gener- ations of Itzhak's family: The grandfather, Gite Zrubavel, had been a respected colonel in Ethiopia but now sweeps streets in Israel, even as he maintains big dreams for his children. Although one of his sons died while serving in the military, the patriarch is determined that his remain- ing son, Gill (played by Beru's brother, Avinu Beru), should attend a prestigious school to become an air force pilot, only to be faced with racism. Despite Gill's stellar grades, the headmaster rejects the boy's application and suggests he become a cook. which he perceives as a more suitable profession for an Ethiopian. Meanwhile. Gill's sister Almaz. a singer, wants to marry a distant relative, which is taboo among Ethiopian Jews, and the ebullient Spike Lee prefers making movies to studying for his bar mitzvah. Like Beru. the younger characters clearly identify with the African-American experience of inner-city life gangs, covert and overt racism on the streets and a glass ceiling in the workplace. And they look to black American culture for inspiration. Almaz tends bar in a club where blues play over the loud- speakers; when she takes the stage to perform, she dazzles the audience with her version i: ....................... courtesy of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles A scene from "Zrubavel," a film showing the Ethiopian community in Israel. of "Adon Olam," sung to the melody of the black spiritual, "Amazing Grace." Her fiance. a break dancer, calls himself Tupac after the slain rap art- ist; black youths dabble in crime and clash with corrupt, racist cops, and young Itzhak declares,"I'm making a movie about my neighborhood. I want to be like Spike Lee from America." Beru explainedhis charac- ters' fascinationwithAfrican- Americans: "Even though they have their own troubles. we see there are blacks who have become famous musi- cians, athletes and politicians: Michael Jordan. Beyonce. Barack Obama. And we prefer our role models to be suc- cessful." Speaking from his parents' house in Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, the same neighborhood where "Zrubavel" is set, Beru is ambitious, ebullient and outspoken. He said he has only vague memories of his village in Gondar. in northern Ethiopia. but he recalls the dangerous, two-month walk across the desert to Stidan as a kind of extended nature hike, albeit with some 10 other families, all traveling by night to avoid bandits, digging the parched soil for water and scavenging plants to eat. There was a sweltering six- month wait in a refugee camp in Sudan. where Beru saw a number of fellow refugees die, and the airplane flight to Israel in 1984, ayear before the mas- sive Ethiopian airlift known as Operation Moses. The family settled first in Tsfat, where Beru's white classmates had never before 'seen a black person and touched his face to see whether the color would come off. Beru's father, who had been a farmer and entrepreneur m Ethiopia and worked in a factory in Israel, hoped his nine children would become doctors and lawyers. Beru. however, wanted to become an actor and pursued theater at Haifa University. Later he wrote his own one= man show, performed stand- up comedy in Hebrew andAm- haric and landed small roles with the prestigious Habima national theater. Eventually, however, he felt typecast in black roles and decided to become a director in order to create his own projects, begin- ning with "Zrubavel.'" His goals for the film were social" as well as artistic. "I felt a responsibility to my community," he said. "There are still so many stereotypes about Ethiopian Jews that we are lazy, pitiful or notambi- tious. These stereotypes exist because people don't know us. "So I wanted my film to bring audiences into the Com- munity, through the story of one family, their hopes and struggles, their determina- tion to keep going even in the face of obstacles," he contin- ued. "I wanted audiences to see that these are people who love their country, despite the difficulties." Beru raised $150,000, the cost of making the film, by making a lO-minute pilot, which drew the support of the Israel Film Fund and a prominent producer~ Mark Rosenbaum. "Zrubavel" so far has been well-received on the festival circuit and stands out for its fascinating depiction of Ethio- pian family life and its unique point of view: distinctly Israeli but also African. Beru was ecstatic when he accepted his best drama award at the Haifa Film Festival last year and when the movie was well received in Addis Ababa. "It was crazy, because I was once a refugee on the border in Sudan, like the people in Darfur. when every day we didn't know if we would live or die." he said. "And then I came to Israel, and I made a film and went back for the first time to Ethiopia with my movie, which they loved. I was almost in shock." Even so, Beru said he re- mains concerned about how the movie will be perceived outside Israel. "After one screening in Manhattan, people asked whether it is really so bad to live in Israel," he said. "But my intention is not to condemn Israeli society. Israel is my country, it is the country that educated me, and I love it. But I do have the obligation to critique the things I feel are wrong in the society, and to say, "People, open your eyes.'" Naomi Pfefferman is arts entertainment editor for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.