Film Review: Valley of Tears: Competent but Ho-Hum

Dec. 17, 2020

By SHLOMO SCHWARTZBERG

Valley of Tears, the latest Israeli television series to arrive in Canada, comes laden with accolades for its accuracy and commentary on its expensive nature – $1 million per episode, pricey for an Israeli production. (It was sold to HBO Max in the U.S, but premieres with two back-to-back, Hebrew language, English subtitled episodes on Dec 19 on Hollywood Suite in Canada. It only recently finished airing in Israel.)

I can’t quarrel with those facets of the 10-episode series, reportedly the first of at least two planned seasons, but neither can I endorse the show, or at least the episodes I’ve seen. As of this writing, five episodes had been made available as streams to reviewers.

Set just before and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was caught in surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria on Judaism’s holiest day, the series attempts to paint a picture of this fraught time when the country seemed, briefly, on the brink of extinction. It links various individuals, all apparently based on real people, caught up in the chaos and maelstrom of war.

They include, among others, Yoav (Aviv Alush), commander of an intelligence outpost overrun by the Syrians; Dafna (Joy Rieger), Yoav’s girlfriend, who’s trying to link up with her boyfriend; Melakhi (Maoz Schwizer), a member of Israel’s Black Panthers, a militant Sephardi group fighting for its rights in the Ashkenazi-run country and who is attempting to get back to his tank unit after escaping from jail; Marco (Ofer Hayun), another Sephardic soldier, trying to keep the peace in the same (squabbling, battle scarred) unit; Menny (Lior Ashkenazi, from Foxtrot and Walk on Water), a reporter and counterculture writer looking for a son he doesn’t know who recently came to Israel from Paris to bond with his absent father; and Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), who serves in an intelligence unit and is the first to realize an Arab attack is imminent but, mostly, functions as an hysterical irritant, scared he’s going to be tortured and killed at any moment.

Taboch’s performance is annoyingly one-note, but the rest of the cast, though adequate, aren’t particularly interesting as characters, with the Sephardic ones pretty much reduced to pouting and occasionally giving in to anger.

I had no use for HBO’s other purchased Israeli series, Our Boys, a one-sided and distinctly unsubtle pro-Palestinian screed based on the true story of the murder of an innocent Arab boy in 2014 by Orthodox Jewish settlers bent on revenge after three of their own youth were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

But that series, monotonous as it often was, at least seamlessly integrated its various personalities into a coherent whole. Valley of Tears awkwardly juxtaposes its storylines which, too often, come across as flat and contrived. That applies especially to Menny’s plight, and though I’ve long considered Lior Ashkenazi to be one of Israel’s best, if not its very finest actor – he had a small part in Our Boys, too – there’s not much he can do with what amounts to a cardboard cut-out role.

The hackneyed rendition of the Black Panther story is particularly galling, as it’s an important part of Israeli history that many Jews and even some Israelis I suspect don’t know. (That Sephardic anger had much to do with fuelling Likud’s victory in 1977, as Menachem Begin capitalized on that community’s disgruntlement, wresting power away from the long-ruling, Askenazi dominated Labour party.)

Even the movie’s battle scenes, though scrupulously authentic, utilizing tanks that were actually used in the Yom Kippur War, are pallid, particularly when stacked up against the powerfully visceral war scenes in films like Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon or even Ari Folman’s animated Waltz with Bashir. That flatness can be laid at the feet of director Yoav Zilberman, who co-wrote many of the episodes too; the series was created by Ron Leshem.

Zilberman’s credits include the fine documentary Watermarks, about a famed female Jewish swim team many of whose members return to Austria decades after the Nazis chased them out, and A Late Quartet, an American drama about a string quartet roiled when one of its members is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Zilberman directs fact and fiction in a very low-key manner, befitting the former but undermining the latter. But that laid-back quality is deadly for a production that needs to be running on adrenaline to be dramatically effective.

In the episodes I viewed, I never felt the country’s turmoil and angst as it transformed from a remarkable military victor in the Six-Day War in 1967 to an army seemingly falling apart at the seams a mere six years or so later. There is one attempt to humanize the Syrian enemy, beyond otherwise portraying them as faceless killers, but, unfortunately, it’s the most predictable scene of all the ones I saw.

There’s a mild political subtext running through Valley of Tears, whether it’s a soldier cursing Prime Minister Golda Meir when the war breaks out, or Menny’s referencing of General Moshe Dayan’s infamous quote that he’d rather have Sinai without peace than peace without Sinai. Menny’s declaration that Dayan, in effect, goaded Egypt into the war because of what he said might shock Western viewers, but it shouldn’t. Israelis have long debated the facts behind the seminal turning points in their country’s history, but let’s face it, there’s always been a patina of propaganda overlaying what Diaspora Jewry is taught or believes about key events like the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

I fear, however that I’m making Valley of Tears seem more provocative and probing than it actually is. It’s competent enough but, mostly, and ultimately, ho-hum.


Shlomo Schwartzberg
Shlomo Schwartzberg

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the London JCC, among other venues. He is also the co-founder of the noted Critics at Large cultural web site. (ww.criticsatlarge.ca)

Cotler’s ‘Cameo Role’ in Bringing Sadat and Begin Together Finally Told

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Irwin Cotler may have been the matchmaker between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the unlikely couple who forged the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Forty-three years later, Cotler, who was named Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, is revealing for the first time his “accidental cameo role” in helping to bring together the two Middle East antagonists.

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler

In 1977, Cotler, then a McGill University law professor and leader of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, was doing work at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo, and travelling in Syria and Jordan – unusual at the time.

The centre’s president, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who would later become Secretary-General of the United Nations) was close to Sadat’s office and told Cotler that the Egyptian president was curious about Begin, the Likud leader who had become prime minister in June that year, ending the monopoly on power the Labour Party had had since Israel’s founding.

Sadat wanted to meet Cotler to discuss the new political landscape, knowing his close connections to Israel and understanding of the Arab world. 

Cotler would have a few meetings; by around the third, the Egyptian ruler got down to business.

“Sadat asked me two questions,” Cotler told the CJR in an interview soon after his federal appointment. “One, did I think this government [Israel] wanted to make peace with Egypt? I said yes. Two, did I think he could make peace with the new prime minister? I said, ‘I don’t know Begin personally, but I know him to be a committed democrat and parliamentarian and think he would want to make peace with the largest and strongest Arab country.’

“Sadat then asked me to deliver a message to Begin. He wanted to reach out to Begin through informal channels, through someone, he said, the Israelis trust and I trust.”

Sadat’s confidence was flattering, but in truth, Cotler had no channel to the Israeli prime minister. Back in Israel, Cotler attended a meeting of young Knesset members convened by Jewish Agency official Uri Gordon. Cotler spoke in Hebrew about his having been in Egypt and in Syria three times. In the audience was Ariela Zeevi, Begin’s parliamentary secretary, whom Cotler did not know – yet.

“She passed a note to a colleague that I must be a spy,” Cotler recalled. “Afterward, she asked me more about Syria, and I shared with her that the Jewish community there had toasted Begin’s election, hoping their liberation would soon come.

“She said to me, ‘you have to tell the prime minister that,’ and a few days later, she arranged a meeting with Begin. I gave him Sadat’s message that he was prepared to enter peace negotiations on two conditions: that Israel withdraw from the entire Sinai and that Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

‘’Begin right off said he could not agree to that, and I said that these were only conditions for starting talks. Then he asked me if I thought peace could be made with Sadat, and I said yes.”

Cotler said he knew that Boutros-Ghali, who was minister of state for foreign affairs by then, was keen on peace, as was Sadat’s chief of staff, Tahseen Bashir. He also pointed out that Sadat’s wife, Jihan, was urging him to come to terms with Israel.

So it was that on Nov. 19, 1977, Sadat stunned the world by becoming the first Arab leader to officially visit the Jewish State. The peace agreement was signed in March 1979 and came into force the following year. It has held for 40 years.

Despite characterizations to the contrary, Cotler said Sadat and Begin did hit it off personally, and that, he believes, was crucial to the eventual agreement.

In appreciation of Cotler’s little known part, Montreal Consuls General David Levy of Israel and Hossam Moharam of Egypt hosted a virtual tribute to him on the anniversary of the groundbreaking détente.

Another match was also made as a result of Cotler’s unplanned encounter with history: Ariela Zeevi’s initial suspicion about the bachelor Canadian professor melted away. They started seeing each other and were married on the very day the peace treaty was signed.

Ariela brought into the marriage a young daughter who is today a member of the Knesset for the Blue and White party, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, elected in March.

Cotler, of course, was a Canadian Liberal MP from 1999 to 2015, serving as justice minister and attorney general in Paul Martin’s government. Boutros-Ghali went on to lead the UN in the 1990s, and Tahseen Bashir became Egypt’s Ambassador to Canada in the 1980s.

In thanking Cotler, Levy said the Israeli-Egyptian agreement laid the foundation for the recent normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

When the pandemic is over, Cotler hopes he can facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, now that the latter has signaled he wants to reopen talks.

Editorial: Avera Mengistu is Still a Hamas Prisoner. Why?

Sept. 9, 2020 – There is a common myth in Israel that it will never desert one of its own. Israel has cooperated beyond courage to bring back those killed on the battlefield. IDF officials have negotiated in the past with Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, even terrorist groups, often trading hundreds of captive Palestinian terrorists and enemy combatants for the body of one IDF fighter.

Recall Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who, in June 2006, was captured by Hamas terrorists entering Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing through their intricate tunnel system. Shalit was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years.

Israel and the Shalit family, which had resources thanks to campaigns in Jewish communities worldwide, kept his name and his plight at the centre of events. In October 2011, following tense and often fractious negotiations through intermediaries, Shalit was finally released in exchange for some 1,000 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, 280 of whom were serving life terms for carrying out deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

The treasuring of each Israeli citizen was, and continues to be, the truest test of Israel’s character.

Sadly however, in the case of Avera Mengistu, the credo of “no Israeli left behind if captured by enemy combatants” does not seem to hold true. Some feel racism is to blame.

Mengistu and his large family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 when he was five years old. Theirs was not an easy life. His father found it difficult to find work and the only income for the clan came from Avera’s mother, who cleaned homes in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border.

Avera’s life went from bad to worse following the death of his beloved eldest brother. He turned to friends for money, and his mental health became fragile to the point where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In March 2013, the IDF determined that Avera was not fit for military service. During this time, his mental health deteriorated even more.

A few months later, in circumstances that remain vague, Avera was seen near the Zikim beach on the Israeli-Gaza border. An IDF unit thought he was one of many Sudanese refugees who were trying to get into Gaza. He was last spotted near the security fence, and by the time Israeli border guards arrived, he had disappeared into Gaza. He has not been seen since.

There were some minor attempts to have him returned to Israel. All failed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Avera was in Gaza. He claimed the Ethiopian was wearing a uniform, was mentally healthy, and was part of ongoing negotiations relating to the 2014 Gaza-Israel truce talks.

And this is where Avera’s fate has largely stood to this day. Unlike the case of Shalit, there has been little mass public outcry from Israeli authorities for his release. His family, who are among the poverty-stricken Ethiopians in Israel, have no resources to fight for his release.

There is an inescapable feeling that the reason Avera’s case is not being handled with the determination and seriousness of other kidnapped Israelis is because he’s Ethiopian – and Black. Indeed, one of Avera’s brothers, Yalo, noted in an interview with Ha’aretz that “it’s more than racism. I call it ‘anti-Blackism.’ I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Hamas has also not lost sight of the fact that Avera’s case has garnered little attention, though there have been sporadic reports of Hamas demands for a prisoner exchange with Israel for his release. Notably, Hamas has used the racial bias issue as a propaganda chip. On its Twitter platform, a Hamas message claimed “obviously the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi (white Israeli) man behind.’”

This is a sad story of one man suffering from severe mental health problems. It seems sadly clear that both Israel and Hamas view the situation through the colour of his skin. It’s time that both sides see Avera as a man who must be returned to his family. His life matters and we cannot be silent.