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

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

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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:

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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.

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“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:

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“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

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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?

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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!

Oct
26


I was overseas this week screening my film Jesus Politics, when I received an unexpected letter from Mark.  The entire Texas prison system is under “lockdown,” after a death row inmate made a threatening telephone call to a state senator using a contraband telephone, allegedly smuggled into prison by a guard who was bribed.

What was more alarming to me was Mark’s description of what a “lockdown” means, which he describes in his current bog.  He had already mentioned in a past letter to me, that at times  like this prisoners are fed “Johnny sacks,” (cold food) such as when the electricity was down because of the impact of Hurricane IKE.  I learned that  “Johnny Sacks” consist of primarily cold sandwiches – typically peanut butter sandwiches.  In his current letter Mark’s claims that, although the press is reporting that  the lockdown began around October 21st, they have been in this state since October 13th.   His letter also describes a new type of sandwich:  “…three pancakes and two slices of bread with nothing on it.”

Twelve days is an awful long time to eat dry “pancake sandwiches” I thought to myself.  So we decided to investigate.  Jason Clark, the Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Mark ‘s description of pancake sandwiches did not sound accurate, but he confirmed that inmates are being fed “Johnny sacks,” which could include peanut butter sandwiches. And yes, they could be getting these sandwiches three times a day. The reason, according to Clark, is that inmates typically cook the meals, but as they are also in lock down, everyone will most likely receive these Johnny sacks until the lock down ends, as long two to three weeks, the time needed to search individual cells in a statewide system that holds some 156,000 inmates.

That potentially amounts to a month of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, possibly with periodic variety of dry pancakes with two slices of bread.  And this is the diet of 156,000 human beings who presumably are locked up 23 hours of each day. ( Mark claims that during  “lock up” there is no recreation hour so he is actually locked for 24 hours a day)  What is the health risk of eating this kind of a diet for a month?  I went online to find out.  A nurse from an Internet medical site answered me:

Hi Ilan Ziv:

My name is Sarah and I have worked in the Texas and New Mexico prison system for about seven years. That being said, I can confidently tell you they also receive a fruit like an orange or apple with their lunch and dinner sacks.  It’s not the best tasting but it will pass regulations. That being said, as long as there are no medical conditions that require a special diet there really should not be any health implications. Aside from maybe weight loss.”

Now I get it!  An orange or apple with the peanut butter sandwich (albeit only with lunch and dinner)   “will pass regulations” and might add those necessary vitamins that will avoid more serious health issues, i.e. more serious than weight loss. She also said the inmates still received their one-hour of recreation in an enclosed space within the pod of cells.  I fired a letter to Mark to see whether he could confirm the nurse’s claims. Here’s his response:

“Hell no we don’t get any juice or drinks. No fruit or recreation. The nurse is wrong!”

The reason I have become so obsessed with apples, oranges and peanut butter sandwiches is because   this whole absurd discussion is only a metaphor to how low we, as a society, have sunk. In an editorial entitled, “The California Prison Disaster,” published on Saturday Oct 27th in The New York Times, the writer points to the root of the problem – money:

“The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.”

Sky-rocketing costs probably contribute to providing peanut butter sandwiches,  without leaving much room in the budget for more humane meal alternatives when a prison is locked down.

I guess once we accept the logic that we can execute prisoners, a daily diet that is imposed from time to time and consists of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day (and occasionally some other cold sandwich) is indeed no big deal. Who cares?  On death row, at least, they are all going to be killed anyway.

Oct
19

More than a year ago, and before the primaries kicked off, Beliefnet.com, a Web site dedicated to “inspiration, spirituality, and faith,” interviewed John McCain.  The presidential hopeful claimed that the Constitution of the United States established a “Christian Nation,” a statement that caught my attention. As an avowed secularist, I rarely think about my “Jewishness.”  Reading that statement was one of the few moments I did.

I was reminded of McCain’s statement several times, the first while on the road working on my current documentary, Jesus Politics: The Bible & The Ballot (www.jesuspoliticsthemovie.com). We were filming some Evangelical activists who supported Mike Huckabee. It was primary day in Florida and the group was saying a prayer before fanning out to the streets to wave banners, distribute leaflets, and urge passers by to vote. “This used to be a Christian Nation,” said the man leading the prayer. “It used to be that you could not run for office unless your were a Christian.” His wife referred to Obama as “a Muslim.”

I again thought of McCain’s statement watching the Al Jazeera English news report we feature this week on http://www.Executionchronicles.org. “It is a Christian Nation, ” said one agitated woman. “Obama is a Muslim,” another one said, “he befriends terrorists.” A young Obama supporter holding a sign for the Democratic candidate on the side of a road as a convoy of cars inched toward a Sarah Palin rally, expressed fear that “they will hurt Obama.”  Thus the connection was established: “A Christian Nation” versus  “a Muslim” Obama “who befriends terrorists.”

More than a year has passed between McCain’s interview and Palin’s rally in rural Ohio. For me, this extraordinary year is symptomatic not only of the threat in this country to Senator Obama, but also to the very fabric of our society.

John McCain knows very well that the Constitution never established the nation as a Christian one. Even the reference to God (never to a specific religion) was hotly debated among the Founding Fathers. Yes the majority in America has always been Christian, but the Constitution and the letters and documents of the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to ensure that this nation does not endorse one religion over another. At the time of the Beliefnet.com interview – indeed throughout his campaign – McCain has struggled to win the evangelical Christian vote.  Viewed with suspicion by the Christian Right, he panders to them. He chummed up to the extremist Pastor John Hagee, an association he later had to rebuke when the pastor’s views and sermons came under media scrutiny.

His efforts to court the Christian Right culminated with his choice of Sarah Palin for running mate. Certainly Ms. Palin, a first-time governor of Alaska, was not chosen because of her experience but because of her faith. She is a devout evangelical. McCain’s campaign knew that with her ultra conservative worldview, Palin could energize the conservative base of the party and mobilize evangelical Christians. It was a Faustian deal, and now we can see the price that has to be paid, with ugly taunts and shameful rhetoric at rallies.

I spent more than five weeks and 4000 miles on the road filming Jesus Politics. Among the many things I learned was that the majority of divisive religious issues we’ve come to associate with the Christian Right were not raised by devout believers, but by the manipulations of conservative political activists, who are neither necessarily religious nor devout. Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and co- founder of the Moral Majority, told me how for years he was trying to get Evangelical Christians to form a conservative coalition united by opposition to abortion. He was looking for wedge-creating concerns that would motivate Evangelical Christians to become politically involved. Until the late 1970s he was failing. By the time Evangelicals woke up to help establish a new Republican coalition, it had little to do with abortion but with school desegregation legislation that they viewed as government intervention in their religious affairs.

A year ago Senator McCain, probably the candidate least associated with religion, began to talk about a “Christian Nation,” and the result of his efforts may be gleamed from this short Jazeera report.  In such a diverse society as our own, the political use of religion can only be divisive. He who sows fear and hate will harvest only violence.

Throughout American history, political assassinations were attributed to “deranged”, ” lone individuals”.  Rarely if ever  the socio political nature of the act and its context  is discussed.  I hope we will never see such a “disturbed personality”  emerge from the angry crowds that the McCain/Palin campaign manages to arouse. But if one does, the ultimate responsibility must rest with those who unleashed the genie of religion out of the bottle.

Sep
28

A week after our launch and discussions have already begun on our Forum.  I received an email from Rais, Mark’s second victim (see this week’s Close Up). He forgave Mark many years ago, he said, but took issue with Mark ‘s attributing his crimes to September 11th. “I know from the video that after he shot Mr. Patel he demanded money,” Rais wrote, “tried to open the cash register and threatened if Mr. Patel didn’t open it, he would blow out his brains. But I read a different story on the site.”

Rais refers to the security camera tape showing Mark killing Mr. Patel. We will play this security video in the coming weeks, as well as clips from our interview with the prosecutor. The tape was used as part of the prosecution’s legal strategy to present the case to the jurors as a robbery gone wrong. This elevated Mark’s crime to capital murder, punishable by death. What exactly was Mark’s motivation, along with the prosecution’s success in achieving the death sentence, merits a separate discussion on this blog in future.  I found, however, the second part of Rais ‘s email far more distressing and revealing.

“I went to see Alka Patel (the widow of Mark’s last victim) couple of weeks ago,” Rais writes. “I was very upset and felt pain in my heart by seeing her condition, working seven days a week, losing memory, extremely stressed, no time for the kids, and her daughter was staying with her in the gas station while she was working there…It’s been seven years since 9/11 and not a single charity or humanitarian organization came forward to see how we, the victims and the families, are surviving! There is no Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, Latino leader or any renowned community leader, who always raise their voice against any kind of discrimination against their people. Since, we do not belong to their group, who cares?”

Reading it and looking into the issue further, I realized that we failed to understand that several crimes were committed in Texas after September 11th. First there were the obvious, those of Mark Stroman, now awaiting execution. But the other crime that we never discuss is the refusal of any state or any Federal authority or charity to extend any help to the victims of these hate crimes. This offense is less known and far less spectacular than Stroman’s. But I do believe it is as important and far more revealing about the society in which we live.

Anya Cordell, an activist who launched the Campaign for Collateral Compassion, described in last week’s Close Up the response to her failed efforts to solicit compensation for the victims of all post September 11th hate crimes as ranging from ” indifferent to hostile.”  This shameful inertness toward the fate of the victims stands in stark contrast to the state of Texas’ highly efficient pursuit of Mark’s execution. A federal judge accepted the State’s argument to deny Mark’s Federal appeal. (Read more in Mark’s death row diary). The road to his execution has just become shorter.

The death penalty is usually defended as providing the victims with a sense of justice. Alka Patel told me in no uncertain term that, as a religious person, she opposes the death penalty and never asked the prosecutor to demand it. Delivering justice for Alka and the other victims is far more complicated than simply executing Mark Stroman. Recognition by the state, or any other agency, of their victimhood might have gone a long way to alleviate their suffering, help heal their emotional wounds and give them a more meaningful sense of justice. A brief Goggle search I did reveals that millions of dollars went unspent by the various funds established to aid 9/11 victims. Yet not one charitable organization, neither the Federal or State government in Texas and elsewhere saw it fit to include in the list those few individuals who, in the days post September 11th, were victimized by a rash of violent hate crimes. So it is not due to lack of money that not a penny reached Alka and the other victims.

You can call the future execution of Mark Storman any name you wish, but do not call it justice. It might be one more crime to be committed in this case while the victims continue to await true justice.

Sep
04

September 11th 2008

The launch of this website is, for me, one more step in a life-long journey to understand violence and hate.  Growing up the son of a Holocaust refugee in Israel, I learned from a young age to view the world through particular lenses.  My father did not tell me horror stories when I was little – those came later – but he spoke of his family who had been killed as if they still were alive and with us.  So real were they, that when I learned of their murders, I felt a great loss. Later, when I fought in some of Israel’s wars, I was introduced to violence firsthand. Given these experiences, I feel that every film I have made has been part of a personal investigation into the impact of violence and hate, two frighteningly powerful forces that have shaped my life and the lives of millions of others.

Now I assume most people would understand this description of my work.  That might change, however, after visiting this site.  I can almost hear some of the reactions:  How do you dare to place the victims and their tormentor on the same page? How can you allow a confessed murderer to have a blog to communicate his fear, rage and frustrations while the families of his victims struggle to reconstruct lives shattered by his crimes?  Am I some wide-eyed liberal with a distorted sense of fairness?

This is not the first time I have been subjected to such questions.  During 1994 and ’95, I filmed in Bosnia and Serbia investigating the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group.  It was a demanding period, during which I hung around with the most despicable human beings I have ever met, and tracked down their victims in refugee camps throughout Europe.

The documentary, Yellow Wasps: Anatomy of a War Crime, participated in many human rights film festivals and aired on television networks around the world.  During appearances I had to explain and defend myself against charges of giving voice to individuals whom the international community condemned as war criminals.

Three yeas ago, I produced another film, The Junction, the story of the first Israeli soldier and the first Palestinian killed in the beginning days of the second “Indifida” at an obscure road junction in the Gaza strip.  Critics wondered how could I place victims  (Palestinians) and their occupiers (Israelis) on the same level,  “drawing moral parallels between them.” Although all my films are different, they share the same focus and belief.

I feel the complexities of hate crimes, personal violence or political violence gripping Bosnia or Israel can’t begin to be comprehended without trying to understand the participants and what drives them.   How were the members of the Yellow Wasp recruited and what were they after? How did they commit such heinous crimes?  Why did young Israelis volunteer to serve in a military unit to guard isolated Jewish settlements in a sea of Palestinian-Arab population — settlements, which by their very existence, generated violence and resentment?

I have come to realize is that criminals are as human as we are.  The majority of killers are not demented psychopaths, and if we hope to understand the inner forces that create hate crimes, we need to explore the criminal as much as his/her victims. It is this realization that guides this web site.

At the trial of Mark Stroman, the prosecutor in asking the jury to sentence Stroman to death, referred to him as “cancer,” for which the only cure was amputation of the infected limb. This sentiment impressed Nadeem Akhtar, the brother of Duri Hasan whose husband was Stroman’s first victim. (Duri appears on Victims’ Voices this week) Nadeem, a devout Muslim who opposed the death penalty on religious grounds, was swayed by the prosecutor’s argument to believe Stroman’s punishment is right.

“Cancer” is what Nazis called Jews in order to remove them from the human experience. In Nazi films, books, newspapers articles and endless speeches, Jews were labeled a disease that threatened the “volt” – the people. This prolonged propaganda campaign was essential to the success of the Final Solution in deporting and killing millions with minimal protest from the rest of the society.   Prof. Rick Halperin of Southern Methodist University, who will be featured on this site in the coming weeks, actually made a study comparing the language the Nazis used against those the party wanted to eliminate with the language used by proponents of the death penalty.

Now I know many might disagree, but on  the level of the human experience, I do not see much difference between the  prosecutor of Mark Stroman labeling him  “cancer” or  Stroman  lumping poor Asian migrants as ” Arabs” and thus “responsible ” for   the September 11 attacks.  Both needed to reject the individuality of their victims  as a first step in seeking their death.

— Ilan Ziv

Jul
28

Since the arrest of the former Bosnian Serbian leader, Radovan Karadic, I have been overwhelmed with emails from friends and colleagues . We all found each other during the war in Bosnia, a war that in so many ways has changed our lives. When the war was over, we filmmakers and reporters moved on to other projects and other films . Karadzic’s arrest was a sudden awakening to us all. Suddenly I found myself flooded with memories of people, places and encounters that I thought I had left behind. Compared to reporters spending months under fire in Bosnia , I was truly privileged. I began filming a year into the war. I visited Sarajevo a few weeks after a cease fire was arranged . I filmed in Srebrenica almost 6 months after the town fell and 8000 of its defenders and inhabitants were slaughtered. I was not a war reporter but an “archaeologist “, a “forensic” investigator piecing together the fragments of genocide. I soon realized that an investigation into a massacre can be as taxing as watching it unfolds. Interviewing refugees in the relative safety of exile allowed them to be more open and intimate. Suddenly I was privy to their most intimate thoughts and feelings as they described the experience of horror. I visited the scenes of the crime, like the small city of Zvornik where not a single Muslim inhabitant was left. I drove through the “cleansed” surrounding villages, now eerily empty . I filmed the local discotheque outside of Zvornik which was converted into an improvised concentration and torture center. It is the gap between these “peaceful ” images in the spring of 1993 and the detailed stories of the horror that had transpired there only a year earlier, that made an indelible impression on me.

“For the generation that lives through it , the documents of the War Crimes Tribunal are not that important“, I wrote to a friend , a refugee from Zvornik  now living in Sarajevo. We exchanged emails after Karadzic ‘s arrest “…. but for generations to come, , these testimonies like those of the Nuremberg Trials will provide the backbone for our collective memory of what had happened”

I was jolted by the response:

…I can only hope so… because, unlike the 2nd world war, in the Bosnian war there was no moral winner, and no closure – and that is soooo bad. and dangerous. and I can feel and see the effects of that every day“.

I felt ashamed by the banality of my email. For me the war in Bosnia was a memory, for everyone I left behind, the war was ongoing…no closure , no moral victory, only the danger of a conflict which could reignite.

I decided than and there that I will have to go back to Bosnia . I must continue some how to document the war that was over for all of us foreigners but is still raging in the souls and minds of its victims.
I have yet to work out in the coming months the details of the future project. However for now, please read Ed Vulliamy’s piece in this Sunday’s Guardian. It was Ed Vulliamy, the Independent Television News reporter and Roy Gutman ‘s an American print journalist who revealed in 1992 the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia. Their stories led me to Bosnia a year later. Ed’s revisit to Bosnia in the wake of Karadich ‘s arrest is a vivid testimony of the war that is not yet over .

\”I am waiting . no one has ever said sorry\”

Apr
20

The Bloor Cinema is a Toronto landmark, an 800-seat grand venue for film festivals and reparatory programming. Last year my film, Six Days (the story of the 1967 war that shaped the modern Middle East), played here at the Jewish Film Festival. This year, a group of young Canadian Jews invited me back with the film, as part of a planned series they’re organizing in an attempt to attract a younger Jewish audience to the festival.

All of this is hardly significant, besides the fact that I am writing this blog in the ornate balcony of the theater. I am alone. The 200-plus audience is downstairs. I am waiting for my film to end so that we can start the Q&A session, for which I came. On the screen both Jordanians and Israelis describe the final battle for Jerusalem in 1967. Among them, I can hear the voice of Hanan Porat, a paratrooper during the war, who grew to become one of the founders of the settlement movement. He is describing the emotional moment before the paratroopers entered the Old City of Jerusalem: “I felt as if I was part of King David’s army.” He had told me this while standing in front of Lion’s Gate, the gate in the Old Cities’ wall through which he and the other paratroopers entered Old Jerusalem.

I have watched this scene hundreds of times and now my mind drifts back to my last time filming in Israel. Recently I was there to film a scene for my current project Faith&Politics, a documentary about the 2008 American presidential campaign. I went to Israel literally following the trail of the biblical leader Joshua, who took over from Moses fighting his way into the Promised Land. The biblical Joshua? you may ask. What does he has to do with American politics? That was my initial reaction until I heard Barack Obama ‘s speech in the historic Brown Church in Selma Alabama, a monument to the Civil Rights movement.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Democratic candidate Barack Obama told the congregation. “I thank the Moses generation, but we’ve got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do…We’re going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens.” I was surprised by Obama’s use of Joshua as a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle. I come from a place where Joshua is a very concrete individual …and a divisive one.
I guess I, too, can be called, “The Joshua ‘s generation,” but not in the sense Obama meant. I spent most of my military service in the Jordan valley fighting Palestinian guerilla infiltrators. In fact, a large part of my service was passed in and around Jericho, the city that Joshua allegedly occupied. I say “allegedly,” since part of the filming I did recently in Israel was a debate between three individuals, each holding a conflicting view on the subject.
Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun is one of the founders of Gush Emunim and considered one of the more important rabbis of the settlement movement. “Who is Joshua for you?” I asked him. “The leader of the first settlement project in the promised land,” he replied without hesitation.
I posed the same question to Dr. Nazmi Al Ju’beh, a Palestinian archeologist. For him, Joshua is a symbol of destruction and occupation. As a young schoolboy before 1967, Dr. Al Ju’beh worked for three summers on archeological digs in Jericho and Jerusalem, conducted by noted British archeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon. In the early 1950s, Dame Kenyon came to the West Bank on a search for archeological evidence of biblical stories. Like many archeologists at the time, she was a devout Christian. Her groundbreaking dig in Jericho proved that the city was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned before the supposed arrival of Joshua. As an adult, Dr. Al Ju’beh caught up again with Kathleen Kenyon when she came to Bir Zeit University on the West Bank where he was studying archeology. “How do you reconcile your faith with your scientific discovery in Jericho,” he had asked her.
“In my head I know that Jericho was destroyed and abandoned long before the arrival of Joshua. I did not find any archeological basis to the bible story,” she replied. “But in my heart I still believe…so I have a conflict between my faith and my heart.”
Dr. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, a leading Israeli historian, refuses to treat the bible as a historical document. For him , as a historian, there are too many contradictions and too many events with no archeological basis. “What would you like to me do as a historian? he asked me rhetorically. He claims that for thousands of years religious Jews revered the bible as a theological document, and not as a historical narrative. It was the Protestants, he claims, and later the Zionist movement, that transformed it into an historical document: “They took Joshua from the theological book shelf where he lived for centuries and put him on the historical book shelf…my role as a critical historian is to put Joshua back on the theological shelf where he belongs… it is the only way to calm the region.”
To learn how this debate resolves itself, you will have to see the upcoming film, Faith&Politics. But listening to Hanan Porat’s words blurring in a Toronto theater reminds me of this struggle on how to define the bible. This struggle, I have grown to believe, is at the core of the political divisions not only in Israel, but also in the United States. Is the bible a profound theological document full of metaphors, or the literal words of God and a political guidebook on how to govern our political life as a society? Faith &Politics tries to explore the contours of this debate.