* Ilan Grapel: “Consider what it’s like to spend nearly 150 days (3,600 hours) alone in a 10-by-10 room with a bed and chair, a small barred window and no idea what would come next. As my detention and recent events and repressions in Egypt make clear, the revolution brought only superficial change. The junta’s focus on external actors represents a desperate attempt to avoid culpability and abdication of power. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.”
* David Keyes: “Christmas greetings from a Saudi ambassador whose government prohibits Christians from worshiping publicly, building churches, wearing crosses or importing Bibles. Invoking the names of Mary and Jesus while representing a government that this year beheaded Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar and Abdul Hamid Al Fakki for ‘witchcraft.’ Had Jesus been born in Saudi Arabia today, he’d likely be imprisoned, flogged or beheaded.”
* Jonathan Tobin: “The notion that the Arab League was going to stand up for human rights in Syria was always somewhat farcical. This is, after all, a group that has numbered among its members some of the worst tyrants in the world and which has supported terrorist groups so long as their targets were Jews and not Arab oligarchs.”
Ilan Grapel with his mother, who flew into Israel to meet him upon his release from an Egyptian jail
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1. Israel angered after Abbas appoints freed terrorist to advisory role
2. “In Egypt, jailed but not broken” (By Ilan Grapel, Washington Post, Jan. 2, 2012)
3. “Merry Christmas from Saudi Arabia” (By David Keyes, Wall St. Journal, Dec. 28, 2011)
4. “AP sources: U.S. to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia” (Associated Press, Jan. 2, 2012)
5. “Not a Parody: Head of Arab League monitors in Syria led Darfur genocide” (By Jonathan Tobin, Commentary, Dec. 28, 2011)
6. “How does Israeli TV translate to U.S. audiences? Very well” (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 2, 2012)
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach five articles on a variety of topics.
The first piece, from yesterday’s Washington Post, is by Ilan Grapel, the young U.S.-Israeli citizen and law student at Emory University who was falsely accused of being a spy, handcuffed, blindfolded and held in an Egyptian jail from June to late October last year, before Israel paid a ransom to secure his release. In the piece, Grapel reveals himself to be an idealistic, some would say naive, young man.
In the second article, David Keyes (a subscriber to this list) reports on the hypocrisy of the Saudi embassy in Washington invoking Jesus and Mary in their holiday greeting cards
In the third article, the Associated Press reveals that the Obama administration is poised to announce the sale of nearly $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Officials say the deal will send 84 new fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and upgrades for 70 more jets. In addition Obama will sell the Saudis a broad array of missiles, bombs and delivery systems, as well as radar warning systems.
All this seems highly risky to me given the fact that the so-called Arab Spring could reach Saudi Arabia at any time and these weapons may then fall into the hands of a radical revolutionary government.
In the fourth piece, Jonathan Tobin highlights the fact that the international community has expressed faith in an Arab League delegation to Syria which is led by one of the principal perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur.
The final (and lighter) article takes a look at how Israeli TV dramas and quizzes are being adapted into American versions and becoming hit shows in the U.S.
“Nearly half a dozen shows in development at U.S. networks are based on hit Israeli series, their themes and language tweaked for American audiences,” reports The Los Angeles Times.
-- Tom Gross
Incidentally, regarding my previous dispatch (Britain’s biggest bookseller promotes Mein Kampf for Christmas), Alan Dershowitz (who is a subscriber to this list) writes to remind me that another British bookstore, Blackwell’s in Oxford, refused to stock his book “The Case for Israel” when it was published, claiming that “There is no case for Israel”.
ISRAEL ANGERED AFTER ABBAS APPOINTS FREED TERRORIST TO ADVISORY ROLE
Israelis, including many on the left, have reacted with dismay after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (routinely and wrongly described as a “moderate” in the Western media) appointed a convicted terrorist released in the prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, to an advisory role in his government.
Mahmoud Damara, who was found guilty of murder for his involvement in attacks which killed Israeli and American citizens, was designated as a special advisor by Abbas.
“TO THOSE WHO WRONGLY HELD ME, I SAY SIMPLY, I FORGIVE YOU.”
In Egypt, jailed but not broken
By Ilan Grapel
Washington Post (op-ed page)
Jan. 2, 2012
Five months in an Egyptian jail gives a person a lot of time to think. When you are not pacing or trying to catch an hour of afternoon sun through the barred window, there are thoughts of home, family, the freedoms Westerners take for granted, what exactly got you into the mess and even why you came to the country that locked you up. Two months after my release, as I watch news of the Egyptian military’s violent suppression of protests and raids on nongovernmental organizations, I still think of my first hours of arrest, when I was handcuffed and blindfolded.
When I went to Egypt to spend the summer working at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers from Sudan and Iraq, I was no stranger to the Middle East. I had studied Arabic in Cairo and spent more than two years in the Israel Defense Forces. I hoped that my summer would prove that my Zionist ideals could coexist with support for the right of human migration and sanctuary. I also hoped to convince the Arabs I met that my Zionism did not have to be antithetical to their interests and that we could work together for peace.
But in post-revolutionary Egypt, my attempts to educate and interact with the local population led to my arrest, to solitary confinement and eventually to the threat of five simultaneous life imprisonments for “espionage” and “incitement.”
On previous visits, the friendships I developed overpowered the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda of the Arab world. Some former adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood actually wished me luck when I left to do reserve duty in Israel. Most Egyptians I met and chatted with over coffee ended our conversations by admitting to holding misconceptions about Israelis. This reinforced my hopes for common ground.
So during the summer I emphasized my Israeli background, even when I entered Egypt as an American. I identified as a Zionist Israeli to all of my Egyptian friends, taught them Hebrew and showed them Israeli movies. In return, I received lessons in Arabic, Islam and Egyptian culture.
Some who do not know me considered my actions peculiar or harmful. But that condemnation only underscores a particular abyss into which the Middle East conflict has descended since once-influential Zionists and Egyptians considered cooperation to be beneficial, as did the early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Dawood Barakat, the former editor of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram.
On June 12, two dozen state security officials barged into my hostel room, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and transported me to their general prosecutor.
People ask, “Were you scared?” I was terrified and confused. Over time I also became angry and lonely. The initial 14 days were the “best” part of my imprisonment because there was at least human interaction. The prosecutor and I bantered about politics, religion and the Middle East conflict. The conversations were jovial, mostly innocuous, save for some random accusations: “Security reports inform us that you were smuggling weapons from Libyan revolutionaries into Egypt,” or my favorite – but perhaps irrelevant – charge: “Ilan, you used your seductive powers to recruit Egyptian women and that is a crime.”
After these first two weeks, the interrogations ended, but my detention continued. Thus began my solitary confinement, which became the true ordeal – near-complete isolation, interrupted just twice a month by consular visits that lasted only 40 minutes. But thanks to the work of so many U.S. and Israeli government officials, I was not lost in the system. My parents and U.S. officials got me books, which I read slowly because I did not know whether I would get more or how long I would be jailed.
People ask, “Were you tortured?” I was not beaten – but consider what it’s like to spend nearly 150 days (3,600 hours) alone in a 10-by-10 room with a bed and chair, a small barred window and no idea what would come next.
People ask, “So what do you think of Egypt and your mission now?” My answer is constantly evolving. As my detention and recent events and repressions in Egypt make clear, the revolution brought only superficial change. The junta’s focus on external actors represents a desperate attempt to avoid culpability and abdication of power.
Hosni Mubarak’s notorious state security forces still arbitrarily arrest Egyptians without real charges or trials (as they did me), denying anything resembling due process. Prosecutors and judges go through the motions of court proceedings, but the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces really calls the shots.
Was my trip reckless or “wrong”? No. Despite the peril, the U.S. government sends Peace Corps volunteers to volatile regions because of the benefit of grass-roots diplomacy. Hasbara, the Hebrew term that refers to efforts to explain the Israeli viewpoint, has much to gain from such a strategy, given the pernicious myths about Israel and Jews prevalent in much of the Arab world.
My hasbara provided a viewpoint that changed the mentalities of former Muslim Brotherhood members, the prosecutor and my guards, whose last words were “Shalom, we hope you forgive us.” Israelis and Arabs can continue to maintain the status quo of mutual avoidance or they can dare to coexist. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM SAUDI ARABIA
Merry Christmas From Saudi Arabia
Holiday greetings from a regime that prohibits Christians from worshipping publicly or wearing crosses.
By David Keyes
The Wall Street Journal
December 28, 2011
If you want a good laugh, read the holiday card sent out by Saudi Ambassador to the United States and public relations genius Adel al-Jubeir. Citing a Quranic verse, he writes “Behold, the angels said: ‘O Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.’“
Christmas greetings from an ambassador whose government prohibits Christians from worshiping publicly, building churches, wearing crosses or importing Bibles. Invoking the names of Mary and Jesus while representing a government that this year beheaded Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar and Abdul Hamid Al Fakki for “witchcraft.”
Saudi Arabia has perfected the art of cognitive dissonance – or, in plain English, hypocrisy. For example, Saudi Education Minister Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed recently spoke at the Saudi-U.S. Business Opportunities Forum in Atlanta. The Saudi Embassy reported that “Prince Faisal characterized the educational system in the Kingdom as a model for the Middle East and North Africa.”
God help us if that’s true. An eighth-grade textbook currently published by the Saudi Education Ministry declares “The Apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews; and the Swine are the infidels of the communion of Jesus, the Christians.” A ninth-grade textbook echoes “The Jews and the Christians are enemies of the believers, and they cannot approve of Muslims.” Six million schoolchildren are indoctrinated with this every year in Saudi Arabia.
Had Jesus been born in Saudi Arabia today, he’d likely be imprisoned, flogged or beheaded.
BILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH MORE WEAPONS FOR THE SAUDIS
AP sources: US to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia
By Lolita Baldor and Matthew Lee
January 2, 2012
WASHINGTON – U.S. officials say the Obama administration is poised to announce the sale of nearly $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
Officials say the deal will send 84 new fighter jets and upgrades for 70 more, for a total of $29.4 billion.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the sale has not been made public.
About a year ago, the administration got the go-ahead from Congress for a 10-year, $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that included F-15s, helicopters and a broad array of missiles, bombs and delivery systems, as well as radar warning systems and night-vision goggles.
The plan raised concerns particularly from pro-Israeli lawmakers, but U.S. officials reassured Congress that Israel’s military edge would not be undercut by the sale.
NOT A PARODY: HEAD OF ARAB LEAGUE MONITORS IN SYRIA LED DARFUR GENOCIDE
Not a Parody: Head of Arab League Monitors in Syria Led Darfur Genocide
By Jonathan Tobin
Commentary magazine website
December 28, 2011
The notion that the Arab League was going to stand up for human rights in Syria was always somewhat farcical. This is, after all, a group that has numbered among its members some of the worst tyrants in the world and which has supported terrorist groups so long as their targets were Jews and not Arab oligarchs. Nevertheless the world applauded when the League turned on Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime and viewed its offer of placing monitors to ensure that the violence there ended. But in case anyone in the West is actually paying attention to the slaughter in Syria, the identity of the head of that peace mission ought to pour cold water on the idea that it will do much to help alleviate human rights abuses.
As David Kenner reports in Foreign Policy, the head of the mission is none other than Sudanese General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. Al-Dabi just happens to be the man who created the murderous janjaweed militias that were the principal perpetrators in the Darfur genocide. So we should take his claims that the Assad government has so far been “very cooperative” and that all is going well in the country where thousands of have been slaughtered by the regime with a shovelful of South Sudanese salt.
His boss, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, for which al-Dabi also bears no small responsibility. He founded the janjaweed during his service as the regime’s head of military operations from 1996-1999. Since then he has served al-Bashir loyally in a number of different job, including some diplomatic postings.
The irony of sending a war criminal to try and stop the commission of war crimes is lost on the Arab League. It is also lost on Syria’s dissidents who continue to be killed and harassed by the government with the so-called monitors doing nothing.
President Obama has done his best to ignore the ongoing massacre of protesters in Syria and, like many others in the West, seems content to let the Arabs sort out the mess there without much fuss from the United States. But al-Dabi’s role in this farce should serve as a reminder that Assad is counting on a quiescent Arab world and its Iranian ally to survive. If he does, along with the new Egypt, Syria will be more proof that the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy has turned out to be a sad delusion.
“NEARLY HALF A DOZEN SHOWS IN DEVELOPMENT AT U.S. NETWORKS ARE BASED ON HIT ISRAELI SERIES”
How does Israeli TV translate to U.S. audiences? Very well
By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
January 2, 2012
When the season finale of the Showtime thriller “Homeland” ran last month, it didn’t just cap Claire Danes’ triumphant return to series television – it marked the latest milestone for a small country that lately has become an improbable player in Hollywood.
“Homeland,” which broke Showtime’s ratings record for a first-year series finale, is adapted from the Israeli show “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War). It’s one of a host of U.S. programs that began life as a Hebrew-language series in this Mediterranean nation of only 8 million people. “Who’s Still Standing?,” the new NBC quiz program in which contestants answering incorrectly are dropped through a hole in the floor, is also an Israeli import. So is the former HBO scripted series “In Treatment,” which starred Gabriel Byrne and ran for three seasons.
And that’s just the beginning: Nearly half a dozen shows in development at U.S. networks – including the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” (CBS), a time-travel musical dubbed “Danny Hollywood (the CW) and the border-town murder-mystery “Pillars of Smoke” (NBC) – are based on hit Israeli series, their themes and language tweaked for American audiences.
Unbeknown to most viewers, a small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away. Although many American Jews have a political relationship with Israel, the entertainment pipeline is a new development born of the maturation of the Israeli television industry – and has turned a nation known for politics into Hollywood’s hottest spawning ground.
“I know it can sound strange, but when you think about it, the two countries have a lot in common, whether it’s in social values or storytelling,” Gideon Raff, the creator of “Hatufim” and an executive producer on “Homeland,” said in a Tel Aviv cafe a few days before the “Homeland” finale aired in the U.S. “And Israelis as a people don’t really care that much about traditional rules, which fits a little with what’s going on in cable television in the U.S. right now.”
Israel isn’t the first place one might look for entertainment imports – in fact, in some ways it seems as if it would be one of the last places to look. There’s the political factor, with the country carrying a stigma as a hotbed of unrest. The Israeli television industry is also very different from Hollywood’s; it’s an informal place where everyone knows everyone else, budgets are microscopic (“if I ask for three helicopters, I might get a horse,” said Noah Stollman, the Israeli co-creator of “Pillars of Smoke”) and institutional memory is short. The industry was born only in 1993, after deregulation; before then, the lone state-run television station might broadcast reruns of “The A-Team” and “Three’s Company,” play the national anthem and simply go off the air at midnight.
But a seemingly unremarkable trip by Noa Tishby, an Israeli-American actress and producer, opened the floodgates. About seven years ago, Tishby, who makes her home in Los Angeles, traveled to Israel to visit family. When she arrived, she heard everyone buzzing about “Be’Tipul,” a series set in a therapist’s office. Tishby felt the series would tap into the U.S. market’s appetite for high-end drama and called Hagai Levy, the show’s creator.
So alien was the idea of a Hollywood sale that Levy at first thought Tishby was calling to angle for a role in “Be’Tipul.” “He couldn’t believe that it was something we thought we could sell,” she said.
After knocking on a lot of doors, Tishby and her partners sold the show to HBO, which put an American version on the air. Soon, creators and a small group of business people, aided by a coterie of Hollywood agents, was selling concepts from Israeli television series – known in the industry as “formats” – to U.S. networks and studios, following a path taken by far larger countries such as the Britain.
A key link in this chain was Avi Armoza. A longtime producer of Israeli television, Armoza about six years ago began packaging Israeli shows for the global market, first for Europe and Asia and, more recently, for the U.S. In his cramped but well-kept office above a health club in downtown Tel Aviv sit shelves of DVDs offering an unlikely window into English-language airwaves.
There’s “The Bubble,” a show about contestants cut off from the news that aired on the BBC; “The Frame,” a reality show about a couple confined to a small space scheduled to air stateside on the CW; and “The Naked Truth,” a “Rashomon”-style procedural in development at HBO. The current crown jewel, “Who’s Still Standing?,” which has pulled in respectable ratings on NBC since premiering in December, is featured on several posters lining the walls.
“I think what happened in Israel is that we were producing so much but realized this market is so small. So we started to look elsewhere,” Armoza said.
Israelis have long been obsessed with American television, which in recent years has led to some unexpected consequences. “We all grew up watching American television,” said “Pillars of Smoke’s” Stollman, whose show has been compared to “Twin Peaks.” “And I think what a lot of us did was reflect that back, maybe through a slightly off-kilter lens.”
It’s one of several theories cited to explain the surging popularity of Israeli shows in Hollywood. Some others: Israeli television’s gallows humor fits with post-9/11 American anxiety; Israelis are preoccupied by some of the same subjects as American network executives (“the country has more psychologists per capita than anywhere else in the world, and that leads to psychologically complex stories,” said David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment); a U.S. business that has grown restless with traditional sources; Israeli shows are relatively cheap; and Israeli TV’s small budgets birth creative storytelling.
“When you don’t have a lot of money, you find more interesting and clever ways to write a script,” said Daniel Lappin, the creator of “Life Isn’t Everything,” a sitcom about a divorced couple that can’t get out of each other’s lives that ran for nine seasons in Israel. Lappin – who like Raff and Stollman, also spent some of his formative years in the U.S. – is working with “Friends” writer Mike Sikowitz on the CBS version of “Life.”
American executives, who for years looked to more established territories for imports, say they’ve felt a certain kinship with Middle East creators.
“God bless those Israelis,” said NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, whose network has “Still Standing” and “Pillars of Smoke.” “They’ve somehow done a great job of finding things that translate well.”
Those who work on the Israeli shows say politics is not an issue, despite the country finding itself in the headlines frequently over any number of charged issues. “I went to Turkey recently to work on a local adaptation of an Israeli show,” said Armoza. “And when we’re in there, it’s not about politics or prejudice. It’s just 200 people in a studio trying to make good entertainment.”
Cultural differences between the Middle East and Hollywood, though, are another matter.
When 20th Century Fox Television was developing “Traffic Light,” based on the Israeli slacker comedy “Ramzor,” they insisted on changing a key element, according to Keren Shachar, an executive with the Israeli broadcaster Keshet, which developed and sold the show.
“In the Israeli version, the main character was a real loser, but [the Hollywood executives] said we can’t have a loser as a main character in prime time,” she said. The show was pulled after barely a dozen episodes in the U.S., prompting Shachar to add, “Would the show have been a hit if we kept the character a loser? I think it would have.’“
As with any bubble, though, rapid growth can be dangerous. Already, the creative atmosphere in Israel may be threatened by visions of American money. “I hear executives talk about development in a different way now,” said Raff. “I even hear writers saying it. People will say, ‘Yes, it’s good. But can it sell to the States?’”