In only 24 minutes, Israeli filmmaker Inbar Horesh delightfully unpacks a complex account of identity, language, and belonging in her short film Birth Right.
This brief but evocative piece is based on the true story of its lead actress, Natasha Olshankaya, and the experience of a Russian tour group on a trip offered by Taglit Birthright, an organization that takes Jewish teens from around the world on trips to Israel.
The girls we meet have different reasons for taking the trip: Natasha is hoping to escape family drama at home, while another girl is hoping to find a husband. The organization’s ulterior motive – encouraging Jewish immigration – lingers in the background.
Horesh portrays some of the lighthearted drama of a classic Birthright trip: Trying to “hook up” with cute Israeli soldiers, getting drunk and dancing to Hebrew songs that no actual Israeli listens to, trying to tan but accidentally burning after a lengthy camel ride – while also touching on many of the complicated rules around who is or is not a Jew according to Israel’s immigration laws.
Horesh explains: “Israel is deliberately and officially encouraging immigration of people that don’t consider themselves Jews and didn’t grow up Jews.” While the film may not seem political on its surface, it subtly draws out highly contentious themes and raises important questions.
One of the big questions Horesh contemplated while making the film, as she told the CJR, is “if Israel is encouraging immigration of non-Jews…why is Israel avoiding giving citizenships to people who already live here?” The film carefully challenges notions of nationhood and Jewish identity by telling the stories of characters whose connection to Israel and Judaism does not match the stories typically paraded out to Birthright’s donors.
While it is not uncommon to see Russian-speaking Israelis in Israeli media, their portrayal strikes a notably different tone in Birth Right. Horesh remarked that while casting Russian speaking extras for the film, many actors said it was their first time playing a normal Russian young person, rather than one to do with “drug dealing, prostitution, or being a cleaning lady.” Instead, Horesh portrays the multi-faceted experiences of being Jewish in Russia and being Russian in Israel.
The film, in Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles, showcases two soldiers who are asked to talk to the Birthright tour group, Ilya, who speaks in broken Russian, and Shlomi, who fluently sells the fantasy of immigration to Israel. Some of the trip participants are decked out in Magen David necklaces, while others admit they hardly feel Jewish at all.
Horesh mostly cast non-actors and ended up incorporating many of their own personal stories into the film. Rather than telling the more mainstream story of Jewish nationalism, she does not shy from showing the many sides of Israeli and Jewish identity.
In the film’s cleverly crafted final sequence, Horesh shows two tour buses trying to pass each other on a narrow bridge. This scene smartly shows, as Horesh explains, “the feeling of an ongoing factory, this assembly line” of Birthright trips that pass through Israel’s most popular tourist spots every year. Horesh takes a step back from the very individual and personal stories to remind audiences of the sheer scale of this tourism and immigration industry.
As a tour guide proudly declares, “Welcome to your historical homeland,” Horesh shows us a group of genuine, confused, and excited young people who are exploring a new country for the first time – a country they are told they belong to, despite its troubled history and complex present.
Horesh beautifully dances around complex and political issues of identity and nationalism in a touching, personal, sometimes tragic but also funny way. Her film is artfully shot and carefully constructed to be subtle and vulnerable.
The film leaves its audience contemplating critical questions about homogeneity, nationhood, and identity, and provides a nuanced and intimate connection to individuals who have restarted life in a new country where they do not know the people, the language, or how exactly they fit into their “historical homeland.”
MONTREAL— Over the past few years, Charles Bronfman has warned of a growing rift between the Diaspora and Israel that threatens to undermine the interdependence on which the Jewish state was founded and that enabled Jews around the world to hold their heads high.
In a videoconference hosted by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on Dec. 8, the billionaire philanthropist spoke about his newest project, “Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance,” which aims to forge a new relationship based on mutual respect between Israelis and Jews around the world.
The emphasis is on educating the young, starting with Israeli teenagers, in the hope of bringing about attitudinal change that will find practical expression in the next generation of the country’s leaders.
Bronfman was in conversation with American journalist and Middle East scholar David Makovsky, a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Based in Israel and supported by private foundations, the Alliance launches its first program in Israeli high schools in January when up to 500 students will be paired virtually with their Jewish peers in the United States, Canada and England. Ostensibly, the purpose is to practise their English, a compulsory subject in Israel.
The more subtle goal is to give the youths an opportunity to get to know each other on a personal level and realize that they have much in common, not the least, Jewish “peoplehood.”
The Alliance’s chief executive is Alon Friedman, previously director of Hillel Israel. The co-chairs of its advisory committee are Dan Shapiro, a U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration and now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, and Dan Meridor, a former senior Likud cabinet minister.
Bronfman, 89, is the co-founder of Birthright Israel, which has given over 750,000 young Jewish adults a free 10-day trip to Israel since the program began in 1999.
He feels Birthright’s most effective aspect has been the mifgashim (encounters) between the participants from abroad and their Israeli counterparts, who join them on the tour.
“The myths are dispelled. They find the Israelis don’t have horns and those from the Diaspora aren’t (made of) gold,” Bronfman said. “They come from different political and social systems, but they have the same values; they are all Jews and they love each other.”
The Alliance is diverging from the traditional role of Israel as “host” of these experiences and putting exchanges on a more equal footing. Diaspora Jews’ awareness of Israel has evolved, but Israelis remain largely stuck in the past in how they see their brethren abroad, Bronfman thinks.
“Israelis and Diaspora Jews do not know each other as human beings. The relationship was built on myths and falsehoods from the beginning. They were the poor cousins and we the rich cousins. They said, ‘Give us the money and bugger off, we’ll do our own thing…’
“Then Israel became this unbelievable start-up nation and now has a GDP almost equal to Canada. We need a new relationship as equals; we have to get together empathetically and try to find out what we can do together…We must be interdependent, or the dreams of our forebears will be shattered.”
Part of the Alliance’s mission statement is to “ensure the Jewish people remain a dynamic, diverse global community that is united, secure and inclusive.”
Whatever their religious, ideological or national identities, Bronfman believes all Jews share a bond. The Alliance is working with the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv to develop cultural programs that foster ties across the spectrum.
“I’m more of a secular Jew, but I love being Jewish, I love the traditions and values,” said Bronfman. “Most of my friends are Jewish. I can kibbitz with Jews in a way I can’t with Gentiles. It’s just so nice.”
Bronfman said he remains a Canadian nationalist, even though he has made his principal residence New York for a quarter-century. But that does not diminish his sense of Jewish belonging.
Defining who is Jewish is difficult, he said, hinting that the community could benefit from a big tent. “Intermarriage in the U.S. is over 50 percent, but I think 70 percent [of those] are bringing up their families Jewish. It’s not so terrible.”
Bronfman, long associated with the Labour Party leadership, has been critical of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, especially policies affecting the non-Orthodox. He alluded to the claim that this is making it increasingly tougher to find rapprochement between Israel and the Diaspora.
“I hope, out of the chaos that is the Israeli government, that one of these days there will be a government we can all be proud of,” he said.
The newly published Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy (PublicAffairs, 480 pages) offers an intimate portrait of the man who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for his activism on behalf of Jewish emigration and who, after his release in 1986, became an outspoken politician in Israel. More recently, he was head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Troy, who made aliyah 10 years ago, continues to serve as a Distinguished Scholar in North American history at McGill University, where he’s taught from 1990. A specialist in the U.S. presidency, the New York-born Troy is a prolific author on the subject, as well as on Zionism. His most recent previous book was The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.
The CJR interviewed Troy about Never Alone and his impressions of Sharansky.
How long have you personally known Natan Sharansky? How long did you work on the book together, and how much are his words/ideas vs. yours?
I had the privilege of first meeting him in the early 2000s when he was Diaspora Affairs Minister, among other positions. He was very concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and I shared that concern as a McGill professor. It was mostly, however, a “hello, how are you?” type relationship, with occasional brainstorming meetings in his Jewish Agency office.
When I finished my last book, The Zionist Ideas, I asked him to write the preface, thinking of him as the most prominent and legendary Zionist in the world today. He kindly agreed – then turned it around and asked me to be his co-author.
We were true co-authors. We worked extremely closely together for three years, arguing lovingly about every word, every phrase, every logical sequence. And yet, in all that time, despite coming from such different worlds, we never had an ideological disagreement. So the book truly is our words, our voice – we call this a “memoir-festo,” a manifesto and memoir, because we are using his life story to tell a broader story about Jewish peoplehood and freedom.
Why the title Never Alone?
I was brainstorming with a good friend, David Suissa, [a former Montrealer now living in Los Angeles]. I told him that the KGB kept telling Natan, “you’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone,” but Natan says, “I knew I was never alone.”
“That’s it!” David shouts. “For 75 years we’ve emphasized ‘Never Again’ – and of course we will always revere our Holocaust martyrs – but our message now is that if you are a part of this amazing people called the Jewish people, you can know you are never alone.”
What surprised you the most in getting to know Sharansky so personally? Were there any revelations?
The newsiest part for me – and the most surprising – is that this guy is the real deal. This is a story of a man [and his wife Avital] who should have been crushed by the Soviet Union. Instead, they stood up, resisted, became symbols of freedom, and are now doing everything they can to continue the struggle, while living the simple, humble life they fought so hard to enjoy.
What does Sharansky have to say concerning Canada, about Irwin Cotler, who acted as his legal counsel while he was in prison, and the Soviet Jewry movement here? Of more recent note, the book discloses that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to dissuade emigration of French Jews to Canada to ensure their aliyah. True?
There is some fascinating Canadian content: heroes like Irwin Cotler, one of his attorneys, along with Andrea Bronfman and the Group of 35, [who] were part of that army of “students and housewives” that literally saved his life. “Students and housewives” was the dismissive phrase of one of his KGB interrogators that Sharansky, in typical fashion, flipped into a flag of honour.
When Natan arrived in Israel, Andrea and Charles [Bronfman] were among the donors who helped him ease the way for other Soviet Jews arriving by bankrolling innovative programs. Irwin Cotler remains a close friend of both authors, and a mentor to me.
And yes, Natan does report that Bibi thought that [then Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s sympathetic, enthusiastically pro-Israel Conservative government might discourage French Jews from moving to Canada and encourage them to move to Israel. Natan [and I] approach Zionism differently. We don’t want to be commissars of Zionism; we encourage an Aliyah of Choice based on Identity Zionism, a decision to join the Jewish people and live in the Jewish homeland to seek ideological fulfillment and a certain kind of communal experience, not because you are forced to or fear antisemitism.
What opinion does he express about Netanyahu? Donald Trump?
Natan and Bibi have been friends for 30 years. Natan is grateful for all that Bibi did to save Soviet Jews, and to defend Israel’s security as effectively as he has. But Natan is also repeatedly disappointed by Bibi’s demagoguery against Arabs and against critics, and felt personally betrayed when Netanyahu sabotaged the Western Wall compromise to welcome egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – especially because Bibi himself knew how important it was.
Natan [and I] were stunned that American Jews couldn’t thank Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or now, can’t appreciate the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords. But we are both dismayed and often appalled by Trump’s boorishness, his bullying, and his uncharacteristic caution when it comes to clearly denouncing the antisemitic extremists who have felt encouraged by his rise to power and his rhetoric.
What does Sharansky say about the state of Israel today or its future?
In the book, we propose what we call the Driving Test: in what direction is Israel or any country going? We are happy to report that, despite some worries here and there, the directional signals all point positively. Take a simple test: would you rather be in the Israel of 1950 or 2000 or 2020? There’s a lot of false nostalgia about early Israel, but Arabs have more equal rights today, Mizrachim [non-Ashkenazi Jews] enjoy more respect, we are closer to peace and we have more freedom, democratic quality of life, and prosperity – quite the miracle, we both like to say.
On Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly with American Jews, what is his outlook?
We do see warning signs of divergence, of two different communities with two different agendas, but we also see encouraging signs of convergence and a new mutual respect. Programs like Birthright illustrate the new Identity Zionism approach of partnership, wherein Israelis and Diaspora Jews learn from one another, look out for one another, save one another, rather than assuming that it’s a one-way relationship.
Sharansky has been in our consciousness for close to half a century, yet he remains an enigma to all except those who are closest to him. He’s not a man of faith in the conventional sense and his ideology is hard to categorize. So what sustains him? Is he someone who had “greatness thrust upon him” and perhaps would have preferred the life of an obscure mathematics professor?
With him, what you see is what you get. He’s really modest, a mensch, a funny, ironic, thoughtful idealist who doesn’t wallow in the pain of the past but delights in the miracles of the present while working for even more miracles in the future. I am an historian. Usually, when I scrutinize popular gods up close, I discover their clay feet really quickly. Natan and his wife are genuine – they live their values and getting to know them is getting to appreciate them on deeper levels, far beyond the hero worship, which makes them both uncomfortable.
While he is not a formal philosopher and was not only never a king but thought he was a terrible politician, he is more philosopher-king than man of faith or humble academic. He is driven by ideas, but wants to live by them and inspire others to live by them – so he is less interested in refining them theoretically than championing them practically.
Secondly, he understands that dictatorships are fear societies and really appreciates the freedom we all too often take for granted in modern Western democracies. And third, he really loves the Jewish people, loves being Jewish, is thrilled to live in Israel, and wants to share that with others, not in a heavy-handed way, but in an educational manner.
Sharansky insists Never Alone is not a memoir because he is not done yet. What are his plans?
He starts his work days at 5:30 a.m. and, until the pandemic, travelled around the world. He chairs the Shlichim institute of the Jewish Agency, training emissaries from Israel to work all over the world, and chairs the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, headed by Montreal native Charles Small.
He also chairs the initiative to have a proper, thoughtful memorial and museum in Babi Yar [site of a Second World War massacre in Ukraine] and he just won this year’s Genesis Prize.
Informally, he is writing, teaching, and fighting for the big ideas in our book, about identity and freedom, about the joys of being Jewish and the dangers of veering to one extreme – or the other.
– This interview was edited for length and clarity.
When people see my last name, “Silverstein,” there is no mistaking it: My Jewishness is obvious. But the question is, more often than not, “So, I guess you’re married to a Jew?” I am light-skinned and wear a Star of David, so the assumption that I could not be mixed race is odd. My favorite is when I’m asked, “How did that happen?” While I generally hold my tongue, I often want to respond, “how did your parents conceive you?” to point out how ridiculous that question is.
While I realize there isn’t an overwhelming number of people who look like me within the tight-knit Jewish community, we exist and we’re not going away.
The questions started even before I was born. “I don’t know if we can be seen in a restaurant together, and what would you do with the children?” My grandfather had – let’s call them “questions and concerns” – when my father, an Ashkenazi Jew, introduced my Black mother, who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to his family.
I can comprehend his disappointment at her not being Jewish, but I can’t help but wonder that if she were white, would the concern of being “seen” have come up?
I was raised in the Caribbean in a predominantly Black society, and the only remnants of a Jewish community are a synagogue and cemetery from the 1700s on the sister island of Nevis. I visited Canada at least once a year and would spend lots of time with my father’s extended family. I have many wonderful memories of Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and trips out to London, Ont. to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins.
I have a wonderful relationship with my father and his family. Even my grandfather came around. After he passed away, I was overwhelmed helping to clean up his apartment, decorated with numerous photos of me, my sister, and her son, his first great-grandson, his absolute favourite.
When I returned to Canada and completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to learn more and become more involved in the Jewish community. A Jewish coworker told me about Birthright Israel, and I was accepted on a trip in the spring of 2017.
I was nervous at first, assuming I would be the only Black participant. The voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had never gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah.
These fears were mostly unfounded. I wound up having a wonderful experience, and even celebrated my bat mitzvah on Masada. Meeting an Ethiopian Jewish woman and seeing many other ethnicities represented in Israel opened my eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people. And while I was the only Black participant on my bus, at least 15 others were from mixed marriages. I subsequently led a Birthright trip two years later.
My decision to lead a trip stemmed from my gratitude at being given such a wonderful gift, one that allowed me to develop a Jewish identity and be proud of my heritage in a way I did not understand before. I wanted to ensure no one feels like an outsider, and to remind them that being Jewish does not mean the same thing for everyone. I recently joined the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada’s youth leadership counsel.
This is my story, but I’ve haven’t always felt as accepted as I let on. Many people in the community still don’t see me as Jewish, and when they do, it’s only because I’ve had to explain my existence.
Instances of blatant racism towards Black people are still far too prevalent. I was recently getting to know a new friend. She’s Jewish and has lived in Thornhill for 15 years after emigrating from Israel with her husband and son. She adapted quickly to the community and had many friends and relationships. But when she and her husband divorced, and a few years after she began dating a Black man, she was shocked by the hurtful and racist comments and responses she received from many Jewish friends who she had previously thought were open-minded, kind and accepting.
Late last year, I attended a diversity and inclusion workshop where a Jewish lawyer spent considerable time venting her frustration and shock towards the openly and unapologetic vocal racism her parents frequently expressed towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour).
Why is this behaviour so troubling? As a community, we have suffered immense trauma, oppression, and discrimination in the form of antisemitism. What group understands better how propaganda, harmful stereotypes, and systematic forms of discrimination and dehumanization can lead to unimaginable horrors?
We have, in many ways, become an insular society that prides itself on protecting and preserving our cultural heritage and religious traditions. This is beautiful, and many aspects of such a tight-knit community fill the stories my father tells me of his upbringing in London’s Jewish community.
However, Ashkenazi Jews in North America have benefitted immensely from their “white-passing” privilege, ensuring that they have been able to bypass certain systemic forms of racism which have disenfranchised BIPOC. As a Black Jewish woman, I cannot help but feel hurt and frustrated at the overwhelming silence from the Jewish community on most issues of race and the overt perpetuation and participation of racist behaviours towards Black people in particular.
Our Jewish teaching of tikkun olam is a concept defined by acts of kindness to repair the world. It’s a fantastic calling and crucial responsibility to which I want my Jewish community to take the lead, and to call out and be true allies against any form of racism against BIPOC.
While I have, for the most part, been made to feel welcome in many Jewish spaces, I often wonder if I were single and happened to be dating an Ashkenazi Jewish man, would his family accept me in time, as my grandfather had? Would my Blackness be an issue? Would someone in the family still be concerned about being seen with me in public?
I would be remiss not to mention that over the last few weeks, I have been inspired by the numerous posts, personal notes and a true commitment to listening, understanding and being part of the proactive change that I have seen from some of my Jewish peers.
I’m hopeful that meaningful change may come about as true allies are developed with friends who can support, fight for, and work to undo the systemic racism and oppression still facing BIPOC. As someone who proudly identifies as a Black Jewish woman, I am asking you to take a hard look in the mirror and decide which side of history you want to be on moving forward.
My dream is to see both of my communities united in the fight for equality, liberation and the right of self-determination for all.
Akilah Allen-Silverstein lives in Toronto. She is a Certified Financial Planner, passionate about community engagement, gardening, cooking, exploring the outdoors, and travelling.