Outsider on the Inside
Reflections on our society by an Israeli born filmmaker

May
02

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There  are some news  concerning the saga of Exile and the BBC  …and they  are positive for a change!

I had a conversation yesterday with  BBC 4 executives .  It was a good talk where we both agreed we would like to see the film broadcast in the UK.  We agreed to explore ( by examining  scripts and cuts )  the possibility  of showing a mutually  agreeable  60 min  version of the film followed by a discussion  program   where myself and others  will participate.

I will of course report here the outcome of this  process of exploration.

As I wrote  in my first  blog I am  determined to  show  the film in the UK  on TV, in  public screenings  or both.  I believe   the dialog  with the BBC  is a positive step  to achieve this goal.

Thanks to all the concerned  individuals who send me  emails,  and posted their comments.  I was touched and encouraged by your comments . They  only emphasized for me the importance of showing  Exile and generating a  discussion and debate on the many issues it raises.

I am travelling this weekend to China for filming for another project and  we agreed that we will pick up  the issue when I am back on  the  May 14th.

I of  course will   keep  updating you  in my blogs on what happens next.

Stay tuned!

Apr
27

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As some of you know, my film EXILE, A MYTH UNEARTHED, which examines the myth of the Jewish EXILE and its political impact on both Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, was going to be shown on the BBC Thursday April 25th. It was pulled out of the schedule only a few days earlier.

Since than I was flooded by dozens of emails of angry and concerned viewers asking what happened.   To be honest I debated whether to tell the story of what I think had happened. I have worked with the BBC in the past on some programs that were deemed controversial and I never had any political censorship. On the contrary I was impressed by the integrity and fairness of the people I dealt with.

So based on my past experience, I was going to wait patiently until the BBC programming executives would solve the internal drama that apparently has begun to brew inside the BBC.  “The film is gorgeous, courageous and fresh, “ I was told several times by the programming executives. I was promised that the cancellation was temporary: “Given the short timescale and your workload, we have decided to delay transmission until we’ve had the chance you’ve had the chance to go through it in detail”. 

I naively believed and decided to wait quietly. But things have their own momentum and as I learned more, I realized that the story of “EXILE” in the BBC is far more complex.

Among the dozens of emails I received one caught my attention. It included the official email response from the BBC to the inquiry/complaint sent to irate viewers who contacted the BBC asking why the program was pulled out of the schedule. This email contradicted a private email sent to me by the programming executives. I was intrigued.

I discovered after quick research that while I was contacted by the BBC barely a week before the broadcast asking for my comments about the cut, the BBC have had the film for almost 6 months. So why was this sudden rush which supposedly was the excuse given to me as to why the film was pulled out?  Why was I contacted so late in the game?  And why was there a discrepancy between what was told to me and the “official” version . I started to dig a bit deeper and to put my findings in a blog, rather than answer the dozens of people who wrote to me privately.

This is not a personal issue.  This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté, conscious or subconscious political pressure and ultimately, I believe, a lack of courage of broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates. Once you indeed depersonalize this incident, you gain a fascinating insight on how subtle and complex is the process by which our understanding of the  Israeli Palestinian conflict is being shaped and what happens when one dares to raise questions about issues deemed by some as taboos.  It is this insight that I think is worth sharing and detailing.

The story begins for me with the name. I discovered only 3 days before the broadcast that the BBC has been using a different name for the film: Jerusalem – An Archeological Mystery Story.   It struck me as an odd choice that seems to camouflage the film’s real subject and repackages it as a neutral archeological mystery of sort- like the hundreds of hours one can see on cable and Satellite channels throughout the world.

“ Exile” of course is not about a mystery, neither it is limited to archeology or to Jerusalem. The name and the illusion that one can pretend that this film is just about archeology and its mysteries are at the core I believe of Thursday’s fiasco.

Digging deeper I also learned that this title was established back in November 2012 in the agreement between the National Film Board of Canada (one of the  film’s co producers and its int’l distributor) and the BBC.  Unknown to me at the time it was also agreed that my name would be removed and the version would be listed as an adaptation.  I do remember being approached by the NFB (National Film Board of Canada ) asking me if I would allow the BBC to cut the film down. I asked, and was promised, that the BBC would consult with me on the cut down so the integrity of the longer version (104 min) would be preserved.  From my access to some internal documents, it is obvious now that the BBC was not genuinely interested in my getting involved.  As the documents suggest, they realized that they could always rely on the solution to have my name removed and list the version as an “adaption”.

So back in November 2012, everything seemed to be on track to produce a cut down of the film without having to deal with the director, broadcast the film under a neutral title and hopefully avoid any serious political debate. A perfect solution!  So what went wrong?

Fast forward to Saturday April 20th 2013 when I received an email from a friend in the UK who saw that “my” film Jerusalem; An Archeological Mystery Story was going to be broadcast on BBC 4. He even read a preview of it in the Guardian. The preview promised that the film “ will ruffle some feathers”.  Two days earlier I did receive from the editor who cut the film a copy of the cut for me to comment on, but there was no mention of an impeding broadcast date!

On Monday, 3 days before the broadcast, I fired an email to the BBC programming executives complaining that it is unfair to expect me to spend time reviewing the cut and coming up with suggestions of a re cut, when I was given only a few days before a broadcast date that no one bothered to inform me about. I pleaded for more time. It was only when one of the programming executives called me, I realized that there were much bigger issues for her than my complaint about being pushed into an impossible schedule.

The program executive seemed genuinely shocked that a freelance employee hired by the BBC to take part in the re-versioning process called the film “propaganda”. When I asked if this unnamed person had specific examples to support such a sweeping charge, I was told  that she claimed that , “Everything was propaganda”.  And there was more.

An “unnamed” BBC insider who I was told “liked the film,” claimed that the film props up the myth of Exile “ which we all know did not happen, in order to support his political analysis”.  I learned that the cut I was given was now irrelevant, since some internal review deemed one scène with the Palestinians to be “too emotive” and they were asked to cut it down.  Realizing that a mini political storm was brewing around the film and attacks lodged against its integrity, I asked and was promised that I would be given at least a summary of the essential charges so I could answer them in length.  I am obviously very familiar with some of them and could easily and in detail refute them.  I told the programming executive that my reply would help them to defend the film in the Channel. After all, they professed to love the film and seemed genuinely interested to show it.  I told them it was very easy for me to prepare a detailed rebuttal with citation of sources for every word of the narration, the overall  analysis and for every scene. I told them that some of the academic participants in the program who  saw the cut and are reputable scholars in their field  did not find any factual errors or misrepresentations of facts or  of the historical narrative. In other words, I argued that such a detailed and substantial defense would convince any objective reader and observer of the editorial integrity of the film. I repeated the request several times yet I never got a reply. Instead, I received an email telling me that they decided to pull it out of the schedule, citing  the “ short  timetable and my work load “( !) A few days later I saw the “official” version that went to the public:

“We originally acquired ‘Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story’ to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. However, we have decided that it doesn’t fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season.  Plans to broadcast  the program are currently under review”  So Exile, A myth unearthed  has begun its own exile within the BBC.

I do believe it is ultimately a sad saga. A saga of well meaning programming executives who acquired  the  “courageous “ film  they claim to love, believing that they can sneak it by with a “neutral title”. When they were “caught”, rather than face the criticism  and be helped by the mountains of documents and dates I was ready to send them,  they panicked like deer in the headlights not knowing what to do and eventually raised  their hands in resignation.

The truth of the matter is that the reaction outside and inside the BBC surprised me too. The film by now has been shown in a Jewish Festival in Toronto, playing in a screening room there for a week. It was shown on Canadian TV with a second broadcast  planned for June.  Another version of the film is scheduled to be shown in France and Switzerland ,with  hopefully screenings in the US later in the year.  The response in all the public screenings, some of which I attended, was overall extremely positive. Nowhere did the film generate such a reaction as  that of the few individuals inside and outside the BBC.

The temporary success to “exile” the film might prove I believe to be a pyrrhic victory.

EXILE does not deal with contemporary politics in the Middle East, rather, it proposes to examine their ideological and historical underpinnings.  EXILE has not contributed to the political stalemate in the region nor to the continued bloodshed, occupation and violence. It is a film born out of the continued violence. Rather than propose a simplistic solution or an aspirational political program , it tries to suggest a possible way out by re examining the historical narratives we all grew up on, suggesting that in this tormented land there are historical models of co existence and tolerance that could replace the dominant conventional nationalist ones. Silencing this film is silencing a possibility of discussion, debate and re examination not of the current political stalemate but of the intellectual stalemate that contributes to it.

I hope that somewhere in the BBC someone will rise above the hysteria and the attempts at self censorship to take a cooler look at the film and realize how it has been profoundly mis-characterized , -viewing it through partisan glasses instead of looking at it for what it is:  a film that can and has already in its  public screenings generated  dialogue and positive, thinking rather than perpetuating divisions  and polarization.

So for me this is not the end of EXILE in the UK but only the beginning.  I will show the film publically throughout the UK and will challenge the BBC to either broadcast the film or relinquish its rights. I have offered to buy these rights so I could place the film elsewhere in the UK.

The saga of EXILE will continue. Stay tuned!

Feb
12

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During the 1996 Israeli election, I was in the Channel 4 Television studios in London. I still remember the surrealistic atmosphere sitting in the editing room, putting the final touches on a film that was supposed to be broadcast in an hour, while on a small TV, the Channel’s news was broadcasting images of the spontaneous celebrations in the Likud party’s headquarters. On stage was the beaming winner: Bibi Netanyahu. “Bibi, Bibi, King of Israel,” they sang. It was indeed a historic election, a metaphor for the near death status of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. The process had been slowly killed by expanding Israeli settlements and Palestinian suicide bombers. After the murder of Yzhak Rabin by a right-wing assassin it was only a question of time, we felt, until the death of the peace process would be made official. For me, the election of Bibi Netanyahu in 1996 was that moment. Four years later the disillusionment of both societies  from any process of reconciliation  produced  the blood letting of the second “intifada”.

I suddenly remembered that episode yesterday as I was watching on the Internet, the live election coverage from Israel. Don’t believe the morning papers that report inconclusive results and don’t be distracted by the stories of the power struggle between the night’s two winners. Who the next Prime Minster will be and the precise list of parties, which will form the future coalition, is unimportant. The reality is that the right-wing block in Israeli politics received close to 65 members of Parliament out of a possible 120. As in 1996, the results are not surprising. In fact, they should have been predictable to anyone who has watched and lived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I do not want this blog to become an analysis of Israeli electoral politics or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the lessons I learned in the Balkans while making the film that was going to be broadcast in the UK the night Bibi won. Throughout 1995, my colleagues and I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Roy Gutman, on an investigation into the UN role in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica—designated by the UN as a Safe Haven. It was my second film in Bosnia. The first one was an investigation into the beginning of the ethnic cleansing campaign as it unfolded in the Bosnian town of Zvornik. It was that film that brought me to Belgrade at the beginning of the war in Bosnia. At first the city was surprising. Belgrade, even during the war, had a liberal, sophisticated and strong intellectual elite. Sitting in sun-drenched cafes in Belgrade as Serb paramilitary units were decimating Bosnian towns only a few hundreds kilometers away was almost surreal. It was hard to reconcile the urbane atmosphere with the horrors of Bosnia. But, Serbia, as I soon learned, was gravely ill. Impressive as Serbian intellectuals were, the country was on a path of self-destruction; dark ghosts of nationalistic fantasies gripped its soul and were slowly eating its body politic. Serbia, by choosing an uncompromising, extremist nationalist position, pinned itself into a corner from which there was no exit. The massacre in Serbrenica was not the last stop in that journey of self-destruction but it was visibly the beginning of the end.

Israel is, of course, no Serbia and there are many differences between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Balkans. But as I watched the election results last night I could not escape the feeling that since 1996, Israel too has embarked on a similar journey of self-destruction. Of course Israel’s journey began long before Bibi Netanyahu was elected, and he is hardly the only one responsible for it. But the process of destruction has accelerated since the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and Bibi’s election in 1996. Violence has been radicalizing both Israelis and Palestinians and has steadily eliminated the available political options. The ruins of Gaza are the most recent evidence of how destructive the last 13 years have been. But as I learned in the Balkans, they are only but a preview of the conflicts ahead.

There was something else last night that reminded me further of the dark days of the Balkan wars. It was the meteoric rise of Avigdor Liberman, the arch nationalist, whose party got more votes than the Labour party did, becoming the third largest party in the Israeli Parliament. I saw his ilk in Serbia too. It is a mistake to consider Avigdor Liberman as just one more voice in the nationalist chorus. He is far more ambitious and clever than that. Liberman carved his role in the Israeli right by stoking the fires of a much more dangerous aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the future of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Without Loyalty—No Citizenship,” proclaims his party’s motto. It was splashed behind him on the stage. He wants to impose a loyalty oath on the Palestinians citizens of Israel. Their refusal will lead to loss of citizenship. It is only one part of an ambitious goal: to rid Israel of this “Fifth Column” which, according to Liberman,  is what the vast majority of the over one million Palestinian citizens have become. Liberman is, of course, not alone. His party could not  end up with 15 members of Parliament  unless it represented and attracted a far wider segment of the Israeli society. On the stage behind him last night were former Likud members of Parliament, generals, and even Israel ‘s former ambassador to the United States. All have recently joined his party.

In 1995, the war in Bosnia came to an end, and Srebrenica was its last massacre. The searing imagery haunted the entire world and distracted us from another conflict that was brewing in the background.  The Albanian majority in Kosovo first demanded the return of the Province’s autonomous status, which it had enjoyed as part of the former Yugoslavia. When their struggle was met with Serbian repression, their demand was changed to full independence. Kosovo was where Slobodan Milosevic baptized his nationalist campaign and where it ultimately ended with disastrous consequences to Serbia. In 1996, with the images of Srebrenica still seared in my mind, it was difficult to see the looming time bomb, which was Kosovo. In the wake of the war in Gaza, it is hard to focus on the radical change that the election of Avigdor Liberman signifies. But I believe that last night Avigdor Liberman laid the foundations for what could become an “Israeli Kosovo.” He, like his counterparts in Serbia, is ensuring that the delicate, tense and complex relationship between Israel and its Palestinian minority will be further damaged, leading to the radicalization of both societies.

The film we were making in 1995-1996 was not just a chronicle of Serbian and Bosnian-Serb atrocities. Its main focus was the moral bankruptcy of the international community, which had promised the Bosnian citizens of Srebrenica protection, and then betrayed them. At the core of this failure was the international community’s inability to grasp the fact that the war in the Balkans was not going to end by itself or run out of steam. Western politicians failed to grasp that virulent nationalist and ethnic conflicts such as these are like fires that feed on themselves. Without outside intervention and help, Serbia could only but continue to advance deeper and deeper into that dead end corner. Its political system was not only held hostage by Slobodan Milosevic. Its soul was infected with xenophobic rhetoric, and its passions whipped to hysteria by nationalist politicians . No opposition could grow in that barren landscape. The Bosnian Muslims, on the other hand, were wounded and radicalized by the atrocities committed against them and could only produce a desire for revenge. Srebrenica was a reminder that without international intervention, the Balkans would not only burn themselves to death but ignite other parts of Europe and the Muslim world. By the time the West was propelled into action, over 200,000 Bosnians of all religious beliefs had lost their lives and over 1.5 millions refugees were expelled from their homes. In 1996, the night Bibi won, I did not understand the parallels with what I saw on  television  and my film, which was about to be broadcast. Last night I felt I was watching the future unfold… and it looked painfully familiar.

Israeli novelist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent article that Israelis and Palestinians are like the foxes in the biblical story of Samson. In the Bible, Samson, in his war against the Philistines in Gaza, tied two foxes by their tails and placed a burning torch in their midst. The terrified foxes, unable to untangle themselves, were unleashed on Gaza ‘s wheat fields, setting them on fire while the foxes themselves burned.

Yesterday, the Middle East made yet one more step toward that great fire that, at the end, could consume us all.

Jan
18

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By Ilan Ziv and Daoud Kuttab

For over twenty years we have worked together documenting the struggle between our peoples with the goal of saving our humanity, with the belief in the sanctity of life and the power of the rule of law. If we have learned anything in our years of work on the ground in Palestine, Israel and around the world, it is that our two peoples are incapable of solving our conflict by ourselves. We have also come to the strong belief that the US, acting in a biased fashion, has failed to be the impartial and honest broker it has claimed it will be. Instead we truly believe that there is an international body, yet to be established, that can save Israel, the Palestinians and indeed the region from this process of self-destruction, which has been spiraling out of control.

In 2001, in the height of the second Intifida and in the midst of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, and Israeli incursions, we published a joint article calling for an international war tribunal ( http://www.daoudkuttab.com/?p=69 ). In this article we concluded that Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a deadly embrace from which neither side can extricate itself. Neither society, we argued, is capable of producing the forces of change that could alter this deadly course. Both societies, we wrote, are locked in their own concept of victimhood and self-justification, while extremists on both sides are feeding off each other. Each convulsion of violence narrows further the space for dialogue and compromise, marginalizing internal opposition.

This was not an academic observation. It grew out of our own experience. For years we collaborated on a Palestinian /Israeli self-documentation project where cameras were given to ordinary Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life to record the impact of momentous political events on their lives. In Palestinian Diaries, cameras were given to young Palestinians to record their experience of the first Intifida. We expanded the project after the signing of the Oslo accords to include six Israelis as well. We called it at the time “Peace Diaries”. Yet while politicians spoke about peace, the material that came from villages, refugee camps and settlements showed the brewing of a new war.

Although our ways parted for some time, we have both been involved in focusing on issues of war crimes and the use of international instruments to hold people and governments accountable. Ilan has documented war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Daoud contributed to and produced two editions of the Arabic version of the multi-language book “Crimes of War—What the Public Should Know.” Our work convinced us that only the creation of a special tribunal, like those, which were established during the war in the former Yugoslavia and after the massacre in Rwanda, would create an international body with a moral authority to hold a mirror in front of both societies. Only such a tribunal could sift through partisan rhetoric and claims of victimhood. The importance of such a court will be far more than enforcing international law. As in the Balkans, we believe, it will help to contain the conflict and force political changes.

In 2001, we never imagined the war in Gaza eight years later with its frightening human toll of hundreds of children and women dead or wounded. Hamas is accused of firing rockets into Israeli civilian locations but who could have imagined the response:  as many as 150,000 internal refugees (estimated by Human rights groups,) the massive destruction of infrastructure and homes, the disproportional use of force and the attacks on UN facilities (even while the Secretary General was meeting with Israeli officials.)

This time there is a growing chorus calling for an international investigation into whether both sides committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Though we whole-heartedly support those calls, we know that the impact of such investigations in the past has been limited. Israel is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court in the Hague (neither is Hamas,) therefore any attempt to bring the case to the Hague is bound to fail. The only choice, we believe, is the establishment of a special tribunal based on the legal precedents created in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. There are many obstacles to the establishment of such a court by the Security Council. However, according to Prof. Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, the court can be established by the General Assembly, as well.

We believe that the cause of such a tribunal should be adopted by the hundreds of non-governmental organizations, recognized by the United Nations. They could put pressure on the member states to adopt such a resolution. At stake are not only the crimes committed yesterday, but also the future disasters that will be born out of the ruins of Gaza. As we peer into the abyss, we believe that the establishment of a War Crime Tribunal needs to be supported both by Israel’s friends as well as by supporters of Palestine. It is the only international mechanism that can save Israel from itself and save the Palestinians and the region from a looming catastrophe.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist who lives in Jerusalem and Amman. Ilan Ziv is an Israeli documentary filmmaker living in New York City and director of Tamouz Media.

Jan
11

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HATE TALK

Periodically, my blogs gets comments. I always have published them (I have the option to publish or delete comments sent to my blog.) From the start, I vowed to myself to publish any comments irrespective of their content. Yet last week I broke that vow and did not authorize the following comment to be published:

Why don’t you make a film about today’s even-worse torture and genocide of Palestinian Muslims by the current crop of Zionist war criminals headed by the vicious war dog thug Olmert?
We know why – you have no fundamental morals beyond your next pay check from the Zionist-controlled western MSM media.”

Pathetic pseud

It was written in response to my July 28th blog, Karadzic and Us, in which I wrote about how I feel we all abandoned Bosnia, including people like me, who were involved in covering the war and producing films, investigating war crimes. The blog ended with a link to an excellent article by Ed Vulliamy, a British TV journalist, who revealed the existence of the Bosnian concentration camps. In this moving article, Vulliamy describes his recent visit to Fikret Alic, whose emaciated image behind the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp in northern Bosnia shocked the world.

I kept visiting this comment trying to understand why I was so quick to reject it. It could not be just its tone. After all comments like blogs are an exercise in free speech and I cannot approve only comments that are nice and kind to me. We cannot publish every crackpot comment on our site I said to myself.  Here is a guy who has no idea who am I or about my work. (For the past 25 years, I have done many films with Palestinians and Arabs that have been very critical of Israel, some even getting  me into trouble with Jewish and Israeli organizations.)  Even worse, he has no idea who the Maryknoll Media Productions  is ;  a progressive Catholic organization that has never done work on the Palestinian Israeli conflict, calling them  “Zionist controlled Western MSM Media.”  take  guilt by association to a new height.  No, at the end I decided that I was so quick to reject the comment because it was hateful. Based solely on my name, the writer went to attack me as some abstract representative of the “Zionist War Criminals” who is “working” for the “Zionist-controlled Western Media.” This, I decided, was not a critique but hate talk.  When I first discussed with Mark his blog from Death Row, he asked me if he was going to be censored. No, I responded, we will publish everything short of “hate talk.”

As you can see, this week I decided to quote his comment and give it a space, though without  mentioning  the identity of the author. I did it after reading the articles and watching the videos  (see the front page of the site) on the rise of hate crime in Russia. I found myself glued to the chilling interviews with Russian skinheads. They are “crackpots” too but see how dangerous they are and how much damage and suffering they inflict.

So I decided that it important to expose the comment because of the state of mind it reveals. There is nothing wrong with protesting Israel’s invasion of Gaza or Israel’s role in its conflict with the Palestinians. But it is wrong to develop conspiracy theories about Zionist war criminals and lump Ehud Olmert and me together just because we are both Israelis.

Mark Stroman told me many times how wrong it was for him to do what he did. He told me how he knows he was living in an environment of hate and how wrong it was to lump everyone together as “Arabs,” including poor Pakistani and Indian immigrants as well as  an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.

The distance between hate talk and hate crime is indeed short. Dealing with people as racial or political abstractions and not as individuals always have led to the worst atrocities in history.

It is this state of mind we have to fight.

Dec
30

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It is a weird time I must admit. Around me are the trappings of the holiday season all talk about the season of “peace” and the wishes for a “happy new year,”  while we are publishing Mark’s latest blog from “hell hole.” Mark ‘s blog, as usual, is dark and bleak, telling the story of a guard who could not take the pressure and “ate a bullet” (i.e. taking his own life,) as Mark calls it, in the prison’s parking lot.

A new war is brewing in the Middle East with Israel violently retaliating for Hamas ‘ rocket launch into Israel. Over 300 Palestinians have been killed already—many are civilians. Hamas vowed to retaliate using suicide bombings… and so it goes on. Despite all the nationalist rhetoric and the demonstrations of protest, only few brave observers dare to admit that both sides are locked in a violent bargaining for a new ceasefire. Hundreds undoubtedly will be killed before a new “deal” is brokered. It too will be broken in few months or years,  in this never-ending cycle of violence. Israel admits it can not or does not want to topple Hamas (since it does not want to occupy the Gaza strip.) Hamas is too weak to destroy Israel. So the result is periodic bloodletting, which of course can lead nowhere. The Israeli campaign is called “Cast Lead (Oferet Yezuka) a name taken from a kids ‘s Hanuka song about the “cast lead dreidel.” Hanuka is celebrated as a Jewish holiday of freedom.”

So what is the connection between all these manifestations of violence in the period of peace?
For me it reaffirms one more time that violence only breeds more and worst violence in a slowly escalating process. “What prompts a man to eat a bullet?” asks Mark in his blog. “This man is working on the row—men are being executed in an alarming rate… dying to live… living to die. And he, who has his freedom takes his own life right before the Christmas Holidays.”

I  don’t know the reasons were that pushed officer “Wood” to end his own life. However I am willing to bet that working so many years in an environment of sheer violence and in such proximity to death made his radical choice easier. Where violence and death are the norm not the exception, I am sure that reaching for one’s gun is just a bit easier psychologically.

For generations Israel’s violence only helped to radicalize Palestinians making their violence more indiscriminate, Israeli violence helped to usher suicide bombing which in turn helped to usher more Israeli violence. The result of this process of mutual radicalization we can see today.

All three monotheistic religions believe in the concept of the end times and time of blissful peace. History is linear and the faithful will undoubtedly end one day in heaven on earth. But it was the pagan Greek who understood that history does not move in such a linear way. In Greek mythology the most gruesome torture is to be condemned for an eternal brutal present. So Prometheus is tied to a rock, doomed to have his liver eaten by eagles. But rather than a one-time event leading to his death, the liver will rejuvenate, inviting for ever the eagles to perform their gruesome task. Sisyphus was a king punished in Tartarus by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again, and to repeat this throughout eternity.

So in this violent season of peace I remember not necessarily the Jewish “freedom fighters” that liberated the Jewish Temple, or the birth of Jesus Christ, but the profound warning of the Greek myths.  Those who do not heed it are condemned to play a role in our never-ending violent present without the “relief” of either heaven or hell.

Dec
14

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Anand Patwardhan is one of India’s leading documentary filmmakers and also a friend. He sent me an article he wrote after the recent terror attack in Mumbai. I have known Anand for the past 30 years. He is a dedicated, independent filmmaker, committed to expose the evils in his society. (To learn more about Anand ‘s films please go to  http://www.icarus films and  search for Anand’s name)
Anand’s “blog” was too long to publish here but I decided to publish at least part of it. Frankly I am doing it out of desperation. With the hours and hours TV coverage of “India 9/11″ not one word, not one report even began to deal with the issues Anand raises in his piece. My blog is the only space I can give and I am doing it not only out of the profound respect I have for his courage and the integrity of his work; I do it also because though the names and events mentioned in it might  sound distant and foreign, the discerning reader will undoubtedly see many parallels to what has been happening here since “our ” September 11.

The Terror Within
The threat of terror in India does not come exclusively from the outside. Apart from being hugely populated by the poor, India is also a country divided, not just between rich and poor, but by religion, caste and language. This internal divide is as potent a breeding ground for terror as jehadi camps abroad. Nor is jehad the copyright of one religion alone. It can be argued that international causes apart, India has jehadis that are fully home grown. Perhaps the earliest famous one was Nathuram Godse who acting at the behest of his mentor Vinayak Savarkar (still referred to as “Veer” or “brave” although he refused to own up to his role in the conspiracy), murdered Mahatma Gandhi for the crime of championing Muslims.

Jump forward to 6th December, 1992, the day Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri Mosque setting into motion a chain of events that still wreaks havoc today. From the Bombay riots of 1992 to the bomb blasts of 1993, the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 and hundreds of smaller deadly events, the last 16 years have been the bloodiest since Partition. Action has been followed by reaction in an endless cycle of escalating retribution. At the core on the Hindu side of terror are organizations that openly admire Adolph Hitler, nursing the hate of historic wrongs inflicted by Muslims. Ironically these votaries of Hitler remain friends and admirers of Israel.

On the Muslim side of terror are scores of disaffected youth, many of whom have seen their families tortured and killed in more recent pogroms. Christians too have fallen victim to recent Hindutva terror but as yet not formed the mechanisms for revenge. Dalits despite centuries of caste oppression, have not yet retaliated in violence although a small fraction is being drawn into an armed struggle waged by Naxalites.

It is clear that no amount of spending on defense, no amount of patrolling the high seas, no amount of increasing the military and police and equipping them with the latest weaponry can end the cycle of violence or place India under a bubble of safety. Just as nuclear India did not lead to more safety, but only to a nuclear Pakistan, no amount of homeland security can save us. And inviting Israel’s Mossad and America’s CIA/FBI to the security table is like giving the anti-virus contract to those who spread the virus in the first place. It can only make us more of a target for the next determined jehadi attack.

Policing, Justice and the Media
As for draconian anti-terror laws, they too only breed terror as for the most part they are implemented by a State machinery that has imbibed majoritarian values. So in Modi’s Gujarat after the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in 2002, despite scores of confessions to rape and murder captured on hidden camera, virtually no Hindu extremists were punished while thousands of Muslims rotted in jail under draconian laws. The same happened in Bombay despite the Shiv Sena being found guilty by the Justice Shrikrishna Commission. Under pressure a few cases were finally brought to trial but all escaped with the lightest of knuckle raps. In stark contrast many Muslims accused in the 1993 bomb blasts were given death sentences.

The bulk of our media, policing and judicial systems swallows the canard that Muslims are by nature violent. Removing democratic safeguards guaranteed by the Constitution can only make this worse. Every act of wrongful imprisonment and torture that then follows is likely to turn innocents into material for future terrorists to draw upon. Already the double standards are visible. While the Students Islamic Movement of India is banned, Hindutva outfits like the RSS, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, and the Shiv Sena remain legal entities. The leader of the MNS, Raj Thackeray recently openly spread such hatred that many north Indians were killed by lynch mobs. Amongst these were the Dube brothers, doctors from Kalyan who treated the poor for a grand fee of Rs.10 per patient. Raj Thackeray like his uncle Bal before him, remains free after issuing public threats that Bombay would burn if anyone had the guts to arrest him. Modi remains free despite the pogroms of Gujarat. Congress party murderers of Sikhs in 1984 remain free. Justice in India is clearly not there for all. Increasing the powers of the police cannot solve this problem. Only honest and unbiased implementation of laws that exist, can.

It is a tragedy of the highest proportions that one such honest policeman, ATS chief Hemant Karkare, who had begun to unravel the thread of Hindutva terror was himself gunned down, perhaps by Muslim terror. It is reported that Col. Purohit and fellow Hindutva conspirators now in judicial custody, celebrated the news of Karkare’s death. Until Karkare took charge, the Malegaon bomb blasts in which Muslims were killed and the Samjhauta Express blasts in which Pakistanis were killed were being blamed on Muslims. Karkare exposed a hitherto unknown Hindutva outfit as masterminding a series of killer blasts across the country. For his pains Karkare came under vicious attack not just from militant Hindutva but from the mainstream BJP. He was under tremendous pressure to prove his patriotism. Was it this that led this senior officer to don helmet and ill-fitting bullet proof vest and rush into battle with a pistol? Or was it just his natural instinct, the same courage that had led him against all odds, to expose Hindutva terror?

Whatever it was, it only underlines the fact that jehadis of all kinds are actually allies of each other. So Bin Laden served George Bush and vice-versa. So Islamic and Hindutva jehadis have served each other for years. Do they care who dies? Of the 200 people killed in the last few days by Islamic jehadis, a high number were Muslims. Many were waiting to board trains to celebrate Eid in their hometowns in UP and Bihar, when their co-religionists gunned them down. Shockingly the media has not commented on this, nor focused on the tragedy at the railway station, choosing to concentrate on tragedies that befell the well-to-do. And it is the media that is leading the charge to turn us into a war-mongering police state where we may lead lives with an illusion of safety, but with the certainty of joylessness.

I am not arguing that we do not need efficient security at public places and at vulnerable sites. But real security will only come when it is accompanied by real justice, when the principles of democracy are implemented in every part of the country, when the legitimate grievances of people are not crushed, when the arms race is replaced by a race for decency and humanity, when our children grow up in an atmosphere where religious faith is put to the test of reason. Until such time we will remain at the mercy of two penny “patriots” and zealots.

Anand Patwardhan
November 2008

Nov
18

ilans-portrait2 Let’s imagine that the Texas press was vibrant and dynamic, probing and investigative. Let’s imagine a young, ambitious, smart, local journalist is sent out to investigate the current crisis in a Texas prison, a crisis that led to 156,000  prisoners being “locked down”, some for as much as  month. First she must investigate what precipitated the crisis. We all know by now the official version : a Death Row inmate threatened a local State politician using a cell phone! Our young journalist , the good researcher that she  is, will discover that this official version contradicts some of what the inmates have been saying. Take Hank Skinner, for example. He too is a Death Row inmate and he published a letter on October 27th, 2008. In his letter, which  is circulating widely on the Internet, he describes a very different scenario of what happened. Now I do not expect a serious journalist to accept the word of a Death Row inmate but surely our Journalist, after reading that letter, must have decided to pursue the story. After all, local politicians’ exploitation of events for their own political agenda is not that rare and is not limited to Texas. What must have caught the attention of our imaginary journalist is Skinner’s allegation that he has been punished because of grievances he has filed against the Warden on Death Row. In his letter, Skinner even claims that he has not written publicly for years now:

hankskinnernewphoto

October 27, 2008

Hello folks: I quit writing this column a few years back because we had a decent warden who was trying to make things better for us (actually we had two (2) in a row – Biscoe and Massey) and I didn’t want to be disparaging them. Things since have taken a serious down turn for the worse, to the point that now that I feel compelled to once again take up my pen and deal with it…Captain Bryant and his cronies are currently employing leveling classification as their own personal tool of punishment and retaliation without any due process whatsoever”.

Why  would  Skinner write such a thing? Digging deeper for answers,  our journalist discovers that Skinner has actually won few legal battles in his attempt to prove his innocence. Why would an inmate, who might have chance to prove his innocence and save his life, risk it all by confrontations with the prison authorities?  By now our journalist  must have realized that the story is potentially  far more complex than  she had imagined. In her  quest for more evidence our journalist  discovers Mark Stroman’s blog circulated widely on the Internet.

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In his Nov. 1st blog Mark wrote: “so the last few days i’ve been in my cell with all of my property in the middle of the floor waiting for another raid …or~move to the hole …i really did believe i was gonna be set up and i still do …so i am expecting to be sent; to level 3 for some trumped  up charge  someone is definitely pissed off at me!!!! SO FAR i see no signs of this …but for the FBI to send in a huge team of spooks…

Now, as our diligent probing journalist is busy trying to investigate if there is any validity to the allegations of these inmates, she is overtaken by events. Mark Stroman was allegedly caught with a cell phone and moved to level 3 (which means no privileges only only one visit a month and many other restrictions.) Yet our professional journalist must have noticed odd variations in the press accounts of how the phone was found.

Mike Ward, from the Austin American Statesman, wrote on Thursday, Nov.13, that Stroman “was suspected of having been involved in smuggling phones and the cards that allows them to be used, but when investigators first searched his cell they found only the four cards.” They also found, according to Mike Ward, a law book that was cut out “just large enough to hide a cell phone.” Wow!  Mark  sounds like a ringleader! And what about the Sim cards and the law book? Were they taken from Mark without him being punished?

PEGGY FIKAC , in her article in The Houston Chronicle of the same day, never mentions any of that or answers  or  these questions. She  only quotes Michelle  Lyons, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice : “Among the articles found in Mark’s search, a phone and a flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges, were found hidden in a sock.” An AP story reprinted  ( still the same day) in the Dallas Morning News has yet another twist of the story: An officer doing a routine search of convicted killer Mark Stroman’s cell at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston discovered a phone stuffed in a sock, along with a charger and “trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”

A bit confused by all of it  our reporter seeks to find whether Mark Stroman has his version of what happened. He is privileged to be given Mark’s personal letter from Nov. 13th – the same day.

stromanmark2

“Sorry I have let you down,” Mark wrote to his girlfriend,  but “it is like I said -I knew I was gonna be set up…Let me explain -I have come back from our awesome visit and about one hour later two guards came to my cell and told me that Lt. Duff wished to speak with me …I went out and they put me in a cage in the Hall and then the gang office Personnel raided my cell. They came back and said they found a phone and other items inside my door.”

So  lets see what our reporter  got by now:

1). a book with  a cut out ” just large enough to hide a cell phone.”

2) 4 sim cards,

3) a cell phone found in a sock …

4)  A cell  phone found in a metal  door.

5)  ” trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”

5) A flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges,

And all of that after 5  thorough searches described in details by Mark and other inmates.

So let’s continue to  dream and imagine that our enterprising young reporter succeeded to convince her City Editor that this  mounting pile of contradictions and inconsistencies, merits a closer look. But just when she won and was  promised she would be given the time and the resources to dig deeper,  she discovers  that Hank Skinner, the inmate whose letter began  her  investigation, was also caught with a cell phone and was sent to the isolation of “The Hole” -Level 3. So now, the two sources of alternative information  she came to rely upon  in her investigation , have been silenced for a while leaving  her only with the TDCJ ‘s version. As she ponders what her next move should be, our reporter notices a paragraph in Skinner’s letter that she must have overlooked:

hank2001

“In short, contraband is anything, some officer or rank doesn’t want you to possess any longer.  If an officer doesn’t like your attitude or, is irate with you for his own personal reasons, he’ll just go search your cell and find a reason to take your stuff. Your t-shirt got a pinhole in it? Loose seam? Contraband, confiscate it.  Your night light got a crack in the shade? Contraband, take it…TDCJ teaches its officers to retaliate against prisoners and the ubiquitous, all-encompassing “contraband” is used as a tool of punishment in this fashion. Until something is done to change this practice contraband will always be the #1 case written, simply due to the way it is misused.”

Well dream on”, you say and the cynics among you say, ”  such a professional reporter is yet to be found”.    I know  that our reporter is still a figment of my imagination, but do let me indulge for few more minutes in these daydreams and imagine myself calling this reporter asking  her to look a bit more closely into these “Johnny Sack” meals (Peanut butter and dry cereal several time a day) that the inmates have been fed for the month of the lockdown. I would even propose that she  should talk to a gutsy young British woman who decided to transform herself into a human  guinea pig and subject herself to the same diet. She wanted to do it for two weeks,  but dizziness, hunger, and alarming weight loss convinced her to quit after a week. Laura Sheehan, the young woman,  has no journalistic ambition, yet  she did what not a single Texas reporter did. Unfortunately  Skinner’s letter rudely awaken me  from my delirious daydreams:

“In this place you cannot have anything, say anything, see anything, know anything, do anything, be anything, hear anything or enjoy anything.  It’s beyond being merely inhumane; Some of you might be quick to say “well, they’re capital murderers and they shouldn’t have anything anyway.”  To you I would say, again, not all of us are guilty but besides that, our court sanctioned punishment is DEATH; we forfeit our very lives for the crimes we’re accused of, so we shouldn’t have to forfeit more, extra-judicially, in the meantime just because others want to make us suffer.

Please read  Skinner’s  full letter  go to  http://www.executionchronicles.org – Breaking News

To visit Hank  Skinner’s  web site  http://www.hankskinner.org

To read Mark’s blogs please go to http://www.executionchronicles. org –  Death Row Diary.

For Laura Sheena’s diary please go to “Johnny sack ” Diet.

Nov
10

ilans-portrait2

The blogs and letters keep coming in fast and furious. Mark is writing about continuous searches of his cell that keep him living with “all my property on the floor waiting for another raid… or move to the hole.” In earlier blogs he detailed the raid, the destruction of his legal files, no clean towel for 12 days and running out of toilet paper… not to mention stamps.

His girlfriend wrote me:

“I did receive some personal letters from him also, Ilan, he is drinking water all day because he is so hungry, he said that’s the only way he can ease his stomach. His hands are shaking because of the hunger. This is horrible! And legal work? THAT ALONE pisses me off, but to know Mark is sitting there in a cell, no showers, nothing, and hungry…. I just don’t know what to do to help.”

And all of that because of  illegal  cell phones which made their way into Death Row unit. The Texas Department of Criminal  Justice admits those cell phones made their way probably by underpaid prison guards who made extra money smuggling these phones in. Yet rather than try to find these guards and punish them, the entire prison is punished.

The lockdown is now in its 4th week and no real media coverage; demand for access to prisons… an investigation… Nothing! Soon Mark will run out of stamps or his typewriter will be taken away under one pretext or another. Then the door will be sealed tight , and so will  be the last  independent voice telling us the human reality behind this lock down.
map-philippines
While reading Mark’s blogs my mind drifts to my first prison visit. It was in 1983 in a provisional town on the island of Negros in the Philippines. I came to Negros to interview and follow Father Niall O’Brien, an Irish Columban missionary  priest, and Father Brian Gore (an Australian). They were arrested on trumped up charges of conspiring with local Marxist rebels to assassinate the mayor of a small provincial town on the Island. It was the last year of President Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. The repression was increasing and the country was dead poor, plagued by violence and a growing Maoist insurgency. Bacolod Municipal Prison had the look and the feel of a medieval dungeon. I remember all the faces pressed against the bars, the terrible fetid aroma and the blackness inside. The cells were large with dozens of prisoners sleeping on the bare floor sharing one open toilet ( a hole in the ground) and some spigot that was supposed to represent showers.

niall_brian

We entered without a problem heading for the priests’ cells. To my surprise they did not complain about the conditions but talked instead about the humanity of the prisoners .  They went on and on about how nice the guards , how poor they are  and how friendly the prisoners are. This is how Father O’Brien remembers it: “All the prisoners were stunned that a foreigner was in that prison, they were all desperately poor. There was a phone there but until we came no one used it. I remember sitting in the middle of them and starting talking about hope.” .
I was in Bacolod for a week  going to visit and film with the priests every day. After the initial shock had worn off, I noticed the prisoners’ families living in tents out side the minimum security wing of the prison, cooking for their loved ones. The guards were very accommodating, even helped us to carry our gear into the prison yard. The prisoners were allowed to sell their craft   so they could buy more food. Suddenly, this medieval dungeon felt very human, a teeming society.
bacolod-prison1
I remembered Bacolod prison while reading Mark’s blogs. Polunsky is a highly modern prison, a five-star hotel in comparison to the 17th century Bacolod Jail built by the Spanish governor who ruled the island. Yet despite the dismal conditions I found Bacolod far more human than Polunsky. The poor, barely literate, guards mingled with the poor, illiterate prisoners, with chickens running in the yard soon to be killed for food by the families who are cooking for their loved one to supplement the daily diet of rice and one dried, salty fish. Everyone was struggling to survive including the guards and the prison warden. Poverty was a great equalizer.
What emerges from Mark’s blogs and other prisoners’ letters is that Polunsky Death Row Unit might be squeaky clean and modern but it is far less human.

I am worried about Mark now that he claims to be targeted because of his blogs. I trusted the poor, illiterate guards in the Philippines. I do not trust the guards in Polunsky.  The depersonalized violence hidden by legalistic rules and regulations scares me more than the old fashioned human interaction in Bacolod, where rules and regulations are to be negotiated daily by both prisoners and guards. Now as Mark’s stamps run out who knows what will happen? Who can prove that if he  would  be beaten up it  would be  unprovoked? Who could dispute the prison’s version if indeed his typewriter would be taken? How can we really know what  would  happen  in these searches when the only version we would  hear would be  the sanitized, terse press releases. The Geneva Convention forces a country to allow a visit of Red Cross monitors to its POW camps. Will the State of Texas allow an impartial group to visit its prisons? And if not, will the Federal government step in… or international  human rights organizations?

abolition-movement-call-for-action

Nov
03

“We here on Death Row have been on lockdown since October 13th...” Mark writes from Death Row in this week’s blog. ” We have been fed very little… just enough to keep the body moving… Johny sack meals, which consist of peanut butter sandwich and some other evil looking things… for example, the other day we were brought a “Potato” and a noodle with a mustard sandwich…that’s is! Nothing else! This is how they feed us each meal! That’s lockdown status for us here in the Polunsky Unit.”

We will publish Mark’s blogs daily for the duration of the “Lockdown”. His next blog is far more ominous. He describes daily invasive searches including dogs; pepper spray guns, tossing legal papers, which will take weeks to put back in order, if at all. Call me obsessive but I am still  haunted by peanut butter sandwiches three times a day. Why am I? After all Gini Sikes’ investigation ( This week IN DEPTH)  did not find any health risk in eating these sandwiches three times a day, for as long as three weeks. Obviously, they are not the most brutal part of the prison system in Texas …so what’s the problem? Call me naive but for me they have become symbolic of how little we know or question what is going on in this vast archipelago of American prisons, with its population of over 2 million people. Take for example the 10-minute segment we publish this week, from a groundbreaking, 2005 investigation by British journalist, Deborah Davis, on the brutality inside American prisons. Deborah is a friend and colleague. We have collaborated professionally on several projects. Deborah is an award-winning journalist who works with one of the UK’s flagship investigative journalism units. Some of the images in this segment will disturb or even shock you, but I found the notes people left on YouTube after watching the film far more intriguing:

Raping the inmates or beating them handcuffed might be too much, I disagree with that,” wrote ‘Slovakianstallion’ a week ago. “But on the other hand I think prisoners (especially the ones charged with things like murder, man slaughter, rape…) should suffer. I even think they get to do too much (they can work out, watch TV, play games, they have doctors…) I think those people should be locked up 24/7 and do nothing. It’s a prison, not a school or a gym.”

His views represent the majority of the viewers’ comments I found on the film’s site.  All of that brings me back to peanut butter sandwiches. I have read most of the Texas press coverage of the “Lockdown” but could not find one article or even a paragraph that looked into what a lockdown means for the lives of prisoners. Not one journalist investigated, for example, the prison’s diet issue or dared to ask the simple question: why a peanut butter sandwich can not be supplemented by a tomato or an orange? Surely these additions would not have any real budgetary implications. There are dozens of ongoing documentary series on crime and prisons in this country. Yet it took one brave, lone British journalist to look beyond the Abu Ghraib prison scandal into the culture of brutality of our prisons right here at home. So for me the “Johnny Sack” meals are only a reflection of our collective attitude toward prisons, though we euphemistically call them “correctional facilities.” They have become places where we exercise a kind of collective revenge against human beings who have already  been stripped, as punishment, of most of their rights. Peanut butter and lethal injections are just different dots on the same line.

“Your ass belongs to the Florida Criminal Justice System.” This is what a former prison guard in Deborah’s film recalls they were told to drill into prisoners. It always amazes me how in a country where “keeping the government off the backs of the people” is a campaign battle cry with which elections are being won, we seem not to care how in our prison archipelago of over 2 million people  is  exposed to the absolute power of the state. We even support it!

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