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)

Unelected, Unaccountable, Untroubled: CIJA Says What it Wants, Then Says it Speaks For Us

Dec. 16, 2020

By ANDREW COHEN

Since its induced birth a decade ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has offered full-throated support for the government of Israel. As official advocate of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, it suggests it speaks for Canadian Jewry.

That CIJA “represents hundreds of thousands of Jewish Canadians affiliated with the federation,” is as empty as its claim that it is non-partisan. It isn’t really, at least not when it comes to Israel.

CIJA can scarcely utter a discouraging word about the harshest policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, from expanding settlements on the West Bank, to undermining the multi-party Iranian nuclear treaty.

Three years ago, for example, when the United States announced it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, CIJA quickly assembled an on-line forum of three panelists. All heralded the decision, a breathless exercise in propaganda from an organization which celebrates “educating Canadians about the important role Israel plays in Canadian life.”

Because Likud has been in power longer than CIJA has been in business, we don’t know how CIJA would react to a moderate government in Israel. But we do know how it reacts to a more moderate government in Canada on Israel: CIJA complains and complains.

In 2015, CIJA was quick to jump on Justin Trudeau, then in opposition, for “trivializing” the Holocaust. Yet it was unfazed when Steven Blaney, a Conservative minister, did much the same two days later.

More recently, when CIJA joined two other Jewish organizations in criticizing Canada’s vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian self-determination, it showed, once again, how CIJA is out of step with opinion at home and abroad.

CIJA issued a joint statement of protest with B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Each representative was quoted independently, as if none would take responsibility for the other – or, out of vanity, each insisted on his own megaphone.

Jon Allen, Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel, rejected their woolly-minded argument in the CJR. More than most Jews, he knows Canada is an unflinching friend of Israel. He explained persuasively why we voted with the rest of the world, including every one of Israel’s long-standing allies (other than the United States).

But that wasn’t enough for CIJA. Nothing is but the orthodoxy. This happens when your board of directors includes the perfervid John Baird, Stephen Harper’s foreign minister, beloved by CIJA; when he resigned unceremoniously in early 2015, CIJA saluted “his clear and conscientious foreign policy vision of which all Canadians can be proud.” Actually, many Jews were appalled, and helped defeat the Conservatives that October.

The Liberals can appoint Bob Rae as Canada’s Ambassador to the UN; they can avow moral and material support for Israel until the coming of the Messiah; they can appoint Irwin Cotler envoy on anti-Semitism (which CIJA uncharacteristically praised). CIJA is rarely satisfied.

Then again, why should anyone care what CIJA thinks? Its officers are unelected, unaccountable and untroubled by criticism, which it reliably ignores or dismisses. Sustained by the Federation, which is sustained by tax-deductible donations, CIJA says what it wants – and then says it speaks for us.

CIJA has lacked credibility since it was mysteriously established in 2011. Some say it was the product of a hostile takeover of the Canadian Jewish Congress, engineered by wealthy conservative Jews with the blessing of the governing Conservatives. That may explain its defensiveness.

For an organization which sees itself as a communicator, CIJA has clownish media relations. Despite its self-described legion of “analysts, public affairs specialists, web and social-media practitioners, relationship builders and media relations experts,” it is among the least responsive advocacy organizations I’ve seen in 43 years in journalism.

CIJA boasts of its work on Jewish issues in Canada (curiously, it does not have “Canada” in its name), which are detailed on its website. For fighting antisemitism, encouraging Jewish education, protecting kosher food, and other campaigns – wonderful. I applaud that, although it’s hard to judge its effectiveness or its value for money. Its budget is said to be $8 to $11 million, of which 40 percent, goes to advocacy on Israel. (CIJA refuses to say). To push this and other causes, it has 10 or so lobbyists.

For all its resources, though, how is CIJA the voice of “hundreds of thousands” of Jews in a country of 390,000 Jews? By what arithmetic, and with what authority?

The Canadian Jewish Congress, a venerable Jewish parliament, did not worry about its legitimacy. It had the confidence of Jews because it tried to represent all of them. It was a forum of conciliation between faiths, a voice of immigrants, and a champion of social justice. It had authenticity and loyalty. This we can say with confidence: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is not the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The Federation can address the problem with CIJA. It can tell CIJA to stop advocating for Israel in Canada, and focus exclusively on education and other domestic issues. It can allow donors skeptical of CIJA to designate their support to other worthy charities within the Federation. Or choose others outside it.

As the pandemic strains many charities heroically serving our community, CIJA is one progressive Jews no longer want to hear – and need no longer subsidize.


Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen is an award-winning columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History

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.