Israel Crisis Q&A for US Audiences

What happened on Monday?

On Monday, Israel’s Knesset approved a basic law that prohibits judicial review of administrative and executive actions on the basis of “extreme unreasonableness.” In anticipation of this legislation, and the general plan to weaken basic democratic protections and civil rights guarantees, hundreds of thousands of Israelis walked, in high-90s temperatures, all the way to Jerusalem to protest. They were met with violent oppression by the police (high pressure hoses, horses trampling them) and some were injured. The protest continues, with millions of people out in the streets on an ongoing basis for the last 28 weeks.

How come I haven’t even heard about this?

Mainstream U.S. reporting on Israel is scant and of low quality, and most of what you hear would suggest that Netanyahu enjoys consensus and that all Israelis are in favor of this. The opposite is true–even people who voted right-wing are opposed to this governmental overhaul, and people have been in the streets nonstop for years now, and almost daily since this government assumed power.

Why are all these people so worried?

They know this is merely the opening shot in this government’s battle to weaken democratic protections. The planned judicial overhaul would also politicize judicial elections; undermine judicial tenure and independence; make governmental legal advisors into, essentially, personal assistants to their ministers; etc. This basic law is there to help usher in the rest of these reforms, as well as other outrageous legislation that is already in the pipeline. As Internal Security Minister, terrorist, and convicted criminal Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted on Monday, “the salad bar is open.”

Wait, back up for a minute. What is a basic law?

Israel does not have a written constitution. In the 1950s, efforts to establish one failed due to the irreconcilable differences between religious and secular legislators. A compromise was reached, according to which the Knesset would, from time to time, enact “basic laws” with an enhanced majority. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court awarded these laws a special, quasi-constitutional status, allowing the judiciary to strike down regular laws that contradicted basic laws. All laws that violate or undermine a principle in a basic law must entail minimal injury and be legislated “for an appropriate purpose.”

So what’s up with this “extreme unreasonableness” basic law?

Because Israel does not have the level of democratic control–through checks and balances, or through the constitutional review structures in places like the US–that other countries have, its courts could strike down executive decisions and actions that appear to be purely malicious or don’t make any sense. Now that this amendment is in the books, and enshrined as a basic law, supposedly any government action will be immune to judicial review provided that it is done under proper authority. For example, if a government minister chooses to uproot a Palestinian village, require all women in the office to dress a certain way and earn a quarter of what men earn, award jobs to unqualified people based on whims, etc., courts would not be able to do anything as long as the minister acts within their authority

Why would Netanyahu ram this amendment through? Does he not care at all about what the public wants?

Not even a little bit.

What does this government care about?

Israel has a coalition-based governance, which means that governments are put together out of various political parties that have different, and sometimes contradictory, values and interests, but they all benefit from being in power. In this particular case, what they all have in common is that they don’t care at all about the democratic culture of the country or its citizens (and certainly not the Palestinians.) Netanyahu chose this adventure for a simple reason: he is facing multiple charges of corruption. The offenses are serious and there’s plenty of evidence, and he could be serving years, or even decades, in prison. He will do anything and sell out to anyone to avoid that. These amendments will provide loopholes for him to escape criminal accountability. His partners, to whom he has sold out, are an assortment of convicted criminals (Arye Der’i, bribery; Itamar Ben-Gvir, terrorism); known homophobes (Smotrich, organizer of the Pride counterprotest “the beast march”); and theocracy-bound bureaucrats taking orders from the religious think-tank Kohelet Policy Forum (Yariv Levin, Simha Rothman.) What they want is a theocracy, consisting of Jewish supremacy; an annexation of the West Bank and elimination of any hope or reality of Palestinian independence; the denial of rights to Israel’s Arab citizens and other non-Jews; taking away rights from women and unconventional families; and shifting mountains of money from the tax-paying, military-service-performing secular people to the Ultra-Orthodox, who neither serve nor work or pay taxes.

How do we know that’s what they want?

They have been open about it since day one. Folks like Ben Gvir and Smotrich came into power explicitly to annex the West Bank, obliterate any hope of Palestinian independence, and grind to dust any hope of upward mobility for Arab Israeli citizens. All you need to do is look at the list of laws presented to the Knesset for approval yesterday, the day after they stripped judicial review: a law requiring compensation for “Torah students” to match that of people serving in the army, sometimes at great risk and sacrifice; a law that ministers or legislators suspected of criminal activity can only be removed from office by the coalition’s agreement, not through judicial review; new criminal penalties–three years in prison to anyone blocking roads (i.e., the nonviolent protesters); extensions to the criminal immunity of parliament members; affirmative defenses for rabbis publishing their opinions in religious pamphlets (including incitement to racism, murder, etc.); recognizing rabbinical certificates as the equivalent of academic degrees for all public jobs. And that’s just yesterday. This will not be a democracy for long.

Was Israel ever a democracy, you colonialist monsters?

The occupation of Palestine, whose tragic roots date back to 1948 and arguably, before that, to the British Mandate, is indeed an ugly and horrifying aspect that is inexorable from the rest of this mess. It is arguably the root of much of the problem, and inhumane policies and practices have been a fact of life in Palestinian territories since they were conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. Many people live in horrid conditions, under a military regime that controls even minute aspects of their lives and accords these lives little to no value. At the same time, all Israeli governments, right and left alike, have allowed Jewish settlers to occupy and expand these territories, and often given them free rein in acts of agricultural vandalism, sabotage, and horrific violence against Palestinians with no consequences. Courts have offered precious little protection to Palestinians in these matters.

So why would Palestinians even care about judicial overhaul?

Even though the situation in Palestine has always been dire, any person who believes things cannot be worse is seriously deluded. With the de-facto elimination of Judicial review, people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich can run unchecked and unfettered in Palestine. Since their explicit goal is to burn down Palestinian villages–and they’ve been acting on it–you can expect worse. At the same time, it’s understandable that people who have been through so much are cynical about the protest and not participating as the Jewish protesters would hope.

Isn’t there any merit to the claim that this government is trying to disempower the old, oppressive Ashkenazi elites and bring about more equality?

No, this is a cynical ploy that persuades people who have been neglected and kept in ignorance by Netanyahu et al.–the epitome of an oppressive Ashkenazi elite–so that they can be duped into supporting this nonsense. It is true that long-festering resentments have lingered since the 1950s, when immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries were treated condescendingly and appallingly by the local Ashkenazi authorities and residents. Ethnic tensions still exist. But many, many talented, hardworking people who came from nothing are utterly disgusted with the effort to make ethnic tension into a cudgel to foment hatred and schadenfreude and have spoken out publicly about this farce.

Is there nothing that can be done to change course?

Some of the more effective pressure has already been deployed: reservist pilots, military intelligence chiefs, and cyber unit specialists have withdrawn their commitment to volunteer for military service. This has considerably weakened Israel’s security situation and it’s not unlikely that the army is unfit to protect the country at this point. Iranian leadership, who now has nuclear weaponry that can reach Israel, won’t even have to use it. Yoav Galant, the security minister, has announced that, with these retreats, we must pause and reverse course before it’s too late. Similarly, the shekel is in free fall, investors are pulling out of tech companies, and bright minds are fleeing the country on the daily. Both of these things should have given anyone with an iota of public concern some pause (when you think about it, Israel’s survival in the Middle East is largely thanks to a few hundred pilots, some cyber defense systems, and robust scientific invention) but these government ministers are ruthless, unprincipled, and out for whatever they can get, and Netanyahu himself could not care less as long as it keeps his own ass out of the slammer.

Can the U.S. do something?

Emphatically, yes. The U.S. government generously and without asking any questions supports Israel with massive funds (these are sort of a reverse subsidy to American contractors, because the money purchases American weaponry and military equipment.) President Biden’s message to Netanyahu was an opening shot in this direction, and he can and should make it clear that the support is not unwavering or unconditional. Ben Gvir seems to think this is a bluff. Biden can call his bluff.

What can we do?

For heaven’s sake, speak out. It is inconceivable that the only U.S. Jewish voices heard on this topic come from nutty right-wingers or namby-pamby lefties mumbling DEI platitudes. If you don’t like fascism and want Biden to stop funding it, for heaven’s sake, pressure your rabbi, your Jewish organization, your nonprofit, your company, AIPAC, to say something.

I don’t want to seem antisemitic or offend anyone.

You know what’s worse than “seeming antisemitic” or “saying something offensive?” actually ushering in bigotry, discrimination, hatred, and animosity toward Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans by lending credibility to the government that has taken Israel hostage. The more Israel devolves into a decrepit, impoverished backward, theocratic, violent cesspool, the more credibility the bigots will have and the more difficult it will be for Israeli or Jewish people, businesses, and organizations to defend themselves against these noxious phenomena. It is your patriotic duty to both Israel and the U.S. to speak out.

What Democracy Erosion in Israel Means for U.S. Jews and Israeli-Americans

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of friends are protesting in Jerusalem, being beaten up by police thugs, as Israel’s theocratic, messianic government celebrates their massive success in eroding democracy. The first step was curtailing the type of discretion courts may apply when reviewing executive/administrative actions, by ruling out the use of “reasonability” as a standard. It should go without saying that whoever does not want their actions to be reviewed through a lens of reasonability is planning on doing unreasonable things, and given who is in government now and what their aims are–theocracy, annexation of Palestinian territories, etc.–it’s not a secret what these acts will be. After the new law passed, internal security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a convicted terrorist who assaulted Palestinians and police officers and who never did a day of military service, tweeted, “the salad bar is open.” What more do you need to get a sense of where this is going?

I was going to write a long post, explaining the American implications, but Thomas Friedman did my job for me. Here he lists some ways in which the Israeli catastrophe can affect U.S. interests in the Middle East:

It should be obvious to every U.S. policymaker by now that Netanyahu’s cabinet, one that you described as one of the most “extreme” you’ve ever encountered, has its mind set on two dismantling projects.

One is to dismantle the power of the Supreme Court to rein in this government’s extreme agenda, and the other is to dismantle the Oslo peace process and its road map for a two-state solution, in order to pave the way for a unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Oslo has been a cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy since 1993.

These twin dismantlings are interconnected: the Jewish supremacists in Netanyahu’s cabinet need to get the Supreme Court out of the way in order to carry out their plans to annex the West Bank. Such a move could easily destabilize Jordan, as it would likely push more and more Palestinians there and change its fragile demographic balance. Jordan is the most important buffer state in the region for the U.S., which operates from Jordanian territory, in collaboration with Jordan, to deal with U.S. security threats from Syria and western Iraq, where ISIS forces continue to operate.

At the same time, Mr. President, you are wrestling with one of the biggest decisions ever involving U.S. strategy in the Middle East: whether to meet Saudi Arabia’s requests for a formal security guarantee from America, for a U.S.-overseen civilian nuclear program and for access to some of the most advanced U.S. arms. In return for this, Saudi Arabia would normalize its relations with Israel (provided that Israel makes some concessions to the Palestinians) and limit its collaboration with China.

It would be both difficult and unfortunate to get such a deal through Congress without strong support from Democrats in the Senate. As you know, Mr. President, Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are two of the least popular world leaders among progressive Democrats, especially considering the way Netanyahu, over the past decade, moved to make support for Israel a Republican cause and spurned the embrace of secular American Jews for that of Christian evangelicals instead.

In short, winning enough support among Democrats to forge this complex deal with Saudi Arabia will be a huge lift on a good day; it will be even harder if Netanyahu neuters the Israeli Supreme Court — undermining our shared values of an independent judiciary — and moves ahead with plans to annex the West Bank. And without you as president, such a deal would be virtually impossible, because very few Democrats in the Senate would support it if it was pushed by a Republican president. In short, the window for this deal is small.

Moreover, in 2016 you and President Barack Obama signed a 10-year, $38 billion agreement to enhance Israel’s military. Are we supposed to just sit back and watch silently while that military — which we have made such a huge investment in to amplify our power projection in the Middle East — fractures over efforts to restrict the power of the Israeli Supreme Court? That would be a disaster for us and for Israel, which has real enemies like Iran and Hezbollah on its doorstep.

Also, we can already see that the extreme behavior of this Israeli government in expanding settlements in the West Bank is beginning to damage the historic relations forged by President Donald Trump between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain and Morocco with the Abraham Accords. All three Arab countries have been forced to cool their diplomatic ties with Israel.

Which leaves me to make a more minor comment, but important to me, anyway. I see a glaring failure on the part of U.S. Jewish authorities here. I suspect that Biden’s move to pick Friedman as his (able and well respected) messenger was calculated to reach the ears and minds of U.S. Jewry, especially those who are too apathetic or too hoodwinked by Netanyahu and Kohelet to reduce their ideological and financial support for this mess. It might have also been calculated for the benefit of the Jewish left (or, really, any left) that just waits to hear of more scandals to tarnish Israel completely, failing to distinguish between the government and its massive opposition.

This is not solely the audience’s fault: Before Friedman’s important reporting on this, U.S. coverage of recent Israel affairs tended to equate Israel’s 37th government with Israel itself. Generally speaking, U.S. media is very domestically focused compared to, well, every other country in the world, and on the rare occasions it reports on foreign affairs, it does so in an infantilizing and paternalistic way. To be fair, Netanyahu has been in government for so long that, for the ill-informed U.S. populace, it’s easy to identify him with the country he’s hijacked. Coverage of this mess has really diverged: U.S. newspapers extensively cover harm to Palestinian towns and villages (with good reason! Israeli media grossly and criminally downplays these horrors!) but remains mostly silent about the size and courage of the anti-government protest movement. To get a better idea of what is not being properly reported, imagine that half the U.S. had marched in the anti-Trump protests and risked serious violence by police and right-wing goons. The temperatures here are in the high 90s and, nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people have walked by foot to Jerusalem, for days, to protest, and have taken over a park near the Knesset to continue their operations. Some have been injured, seriously even, by police water hoses and horses (poor, sensitive, gregarious creatures, again dragged into the depravity of homo sapiens.)

The outcome of all this is all too obvious to me, having lived in the United States for more than two decades. Pretty much every Israeli American has coped with hostile sentiments from both the right and the left. I won’t tire you with my “lived experience” of bigotry and ugliness, in some cases seriously career harming, because we don’t really need more earnest, whiny confessionals, nor will I get dragged into the tiresome and intractable problem of whether these noxious sentiments are antisemitic, anti-Zionist, or anti-Israeli (this is open to interpretation, and the sentiment is misguided and its expression sickening either way.) The bottom line is this: the more unconscionable governmental behavior takes place unchecked and unchallenged by Jewish authorities abroad, and the more Israeli consulates throughout the U.S. parrot it and defend it, the more justified and less objectionable these bigotries will be.

This has several corrosive implications. First, it means far fewer business opportunities, especially in tech, for Israeli companies. Second, it means that the unspoken but quite obvious sentiment that there seem to be “too many of us” in intelligentsia will strengthen and become spoken (back to the “quota system” in university admissions?) Third, it will unfairly and counterproductively target precisely the demographics that are doing what they can to oppose these travesties (this is why I’ve always thought BDS incredibly foolish when applied to academics and/or journalists. And yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of that nonsense as well.)

There are a few things Jewish leadership in the U.S. should be doing right now:

Speak out against all this. Yes, your congregation can and should have at least as much of an opinion about this as it does about Ukraine and Iran. You have a voice. Some of you have Biden’s ear. Sure, your lefty, scrappy, civil-rightsy temple/shul/congregation can marinate in the same advocacy that any progressive organization in the U.S. does–the usual DEI talking points and capitalizing on domestic controversies. Your duty is to expand your congregation’s parochial concerns and figure out how to talk to and about Israel.

Put your money where your mouth is. If you are funding think tanks like Kohelet, stop it immediately. Even Kohelet’s nauseating captains are horrified by the monster they helped create. Instead, put your money, openly and explicitly, in the service of the protest organizations. My friends are being brutalized by cops and fascist goons to cultivate a safe, democratic haven for you and yours. Help them.

Israel is not a fun summer camp for your kids. Stop sending them to Birthright which, at best, sickens them about the settler and antimiscegenation propaganda they are subjected to, and at worst, converts them to be Netanyahu supporters.

Dissent, even abroad, is patriotic. Join a local protest. I’ve seen people express precious qualms about how they don’t have a “right” or a “say” in Israel. And yet, when horrors happen elsewhere in the world you speak up and donate. What I keep hearing from my friends in Israel is how heartened they are when they see pictures from protests around the world.

Book Review: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death

Following the tragic passing of my father, I spent a lot of time thinking about mourning rituals, and particularly about the invaluable work of Menuha Nekhona (“A Righteous Rest”), the all-volunteer organization that runs the secular-civil cemetery in my parents’ town. I was so impressed with them that I started drafting a book proposal about secular burials in Israel, but a few days later found out that someone has already written a book about alternatives to religiously sanctioned deaths: Zohar Gazit’s A Struggle to the Death (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2016) (Hebrew.) The original title, “Osim et HaMavet” (“making death”) is a double entendre: it’s a figure of speech meaning “haranguing someone” and also, in this context, implies the creative remaking of a hegemonic ritual in a way that fits the needs and concerns of deeply underserved populations.

Gazit’s book, which is based on his doctoral dissertation, examines three alternative death initiatives: in addition to Menuha Nekhona, he looks at Path to Life, an organization devoted to the healing and welfare of family survivors of suicide and to the destigmatizing of these deaths, and at Lilach, an organization promoting death with dignity (passive euthanasia) for terminally ill patients. Gazit’s theoretical framework heavily relies on Bordieu’s “field” concept (what sociological work doesn’t?) and shows the complicated relationship that each of these organizations has with the death “field.” All three of these organizations struggle against the hegemonic death rituals and perceptions in Israeli society: the religious concept of suicide (and any other actively chosen form of death, including some forms of euthanasia) as defying halakhic rules; the aggressive and greedy religious monopoly on burials in Israel, run by Orthodox Hevre Kadisha organizations who perform alienated, antiquated rituals, discriminate in plot allocations, and humiliate the dead and their loved ones; and the Israeli hierarchy of death, which glorifies military casualties and features a constant contest among other groups about their relative prestige, access to services, and differential stigma.

Gazit’s analysis is incisive and sensitive. His ethnography (participation in meetings and rituals, plenty of interviews, clever media analysis) shows internal conflicts and contradictions within the organizations he examines. What they want to highlight, and who they want to associate themselves with, is a delicate and carefully strategic dance of courting legitimacy and support. For example, Path to Life activists fiercely oppose efforts to downgrade the status of soldiers who committed suicide beneath that of supposedly legitimate military casualties; at the same time, they assiduously avoid even the semblance of supporting suicide as a legitimate option. They also contest professional opinions that discourage open talk of suicide as potential encouragement, arguing that open conversation can invite attention, help, and saving lives. Similarly, Lilach activists try to disengage from suicide organizations and stick to passive euthanasia, so as not to invite displeasure. And Menuha Nekhona have faced a complicated relationship with the very few people in Israel who sought cremation, an option associated with deeply negative stigma in Israel due to the legacy of the holocaust; at the same time, they’ve had to partner sometimes with Hevre Kadisha for burial services, among other surprising disclosures in procuring coffins: traditional Jewish burials are in shrouds, with no coffin, but bodies flown in from abroad arrive in coffins and Hevre Kadisha sell these to Menuha Nekhona.

Gazit’s book is full of fascinating information for anyone interested in social movements, sociology of religion, political theory, and constitutional law. I learned a lot. There is plenty I’m interested in that I didn’t find in the book (such as the negotiations of individual burial styles, headstones, and maintenance), but there’s only so much one can include in one work. My only quibble–a minor one, and by no means limited to Gazit’s book–is that he repeatedly relies on the terms “good death” and “bad death” for, respectively, the hegemonically sanctioned death and the alternatives. I know these are both well-established sociological terms of art and Gazit is correctly using them. But terms of art in sociological theory can sometimes sound jargony and, in this case, given that these organizations fight deep injustices, come off a bit precious and more than a bit jarring in their aesthetic and moral removal. I would have preferred “hegemonic” and “alternative.”

This minor issue aside, Gazit’s book is an important and worthy addition to other texts investigating national-religious hegemonies in Israel and those who try to contest them, such as Daphne Barak-Erez’s Outlawed Pigs and Michal Kravel-Tovi’s When the State Winks. I’ll end with my favorite passage (in my own translation from Hebrew):

All three organizations have emblazoned death on their flag, but they carry a message of life. Better, safer, richer, more mindful life, achieved through dealing with the “bad death.” From an event that happens to us, death is shaped as an event that we are active in. Passive social isolation, leaving decisionmaking to the medical establishment and later to Hevre Kadisha with no input from the individual and their loved ones, are replaced by decisions, choices, and action. Addressing “bad death” is framed as an empowering resource in the activists’ lives–an expression of courage, principled stance, and a struggle against injustice.

A “Shloshim” (“Thirty”) Ceremony for my Dad

Today, my family will observe the “shloshim” (“thirty”) ritual for my dad, a little over a month from his death. This Chabad resource explains the ceremonial significance of the passage of the first month of mourning. It is customary for family and friends to visit the grave and witness the unveiling of the new headstone (“giluy matzevah.”)

Headstones are placed on graves for various historical, practical, and cultural reasons. I see dual symbolism in a heavy, sturdy stone. First, there is the idea of finality, of coming to terms with the loss, which reflects the complicated psychological process of grief after the shock and confusion that characterize the time of the funeral. The grief is far from dulled, but it begins to transform as loved ones try to adjust to their bereavement. And second, there is the idea of the stone not as an end, but as a beginning–as a cornerstone for what will eventually become a memory palace for the person we grieve.

The concept of a “memory palace” comes from memory science, where it is also known as the “method of loci.” It is an ancient mnemonic device which uses the visualization of familiar spatial environments–or the detailed imaginary construction of spatial environments–in order to enhance the recall of information. I think that the idea of spatially constructing memory during bereavement is hugely important. Events immediately preceding death, as well as death itself, tend to loom very large in the loved ones’ consciousness, which I think is true in cases of a sudden, shocking passing as well as when a prolonged period of suffering and caregiving overshadows a lifetime of happy memories. This understanding transforms the meaning of a headstone from something final to a new beginning–a freeing process by which having the dying process and the death settle into the memory makes room for preceding memories to emerge and populate the palace.

In light of this understanding, I choose to interpret my dad’s headstone as a cornerstone for the memory palace I’m building for him in my heart. The ceremony I’m officiating today is therefore designed to ceremonially and emotionally place this cornerstone, through sharing memories and through special prayers and texts crafted to move along the memory-building project.

The central prayer of the ceremony is my version of the traditional Jewish “El Maleh Rakhameem” (“God full of mercy”) recitation, which is a deeply spiritual call to find a proper resting place (“menukhah nekhonah”) for the soul of the deceased. The original prayer is full of flight, bird, and wing imagery, which reminds me a lot of one of my dad’s favorite songs, El Cóndor Pasa:

My version of the prayer retains the flight motif and invites the memory to soar (English translation follows the Hebrew original):

חברים אהובים, מלאי רחמים, חברים עצובים והמומים, המציאו מנוחה נכונה על כנפי זכרונותיכם הטובים במעלות קדושים וטהורים, כזהר הרקיע מזהירים, לנשמת חיים אבירם בן שרה ושמואל יוסף שהלך לעולמו. רננו לכבודו, הללו את זכרו בכינור ובנבל עשור. שירו לו שיר חדש. היטיבו נגן בתרועה. זכרו את הווייתו הזכה, את חכמתו הרבה, ליבו הגדול והחומל, צחוקו הטוב, מעשיו הנאצלים, ועשו מעשים טובים בשמו ולעילוי זכרו. את הציווי לחיות חיים מוסריים, טובים ומשפרי עולם שמרו – אל נא תעזבום בשמו. בכל לבכם דירשו את צרכי תיקון עולם – אל נסטה ממצווה זו כשם שהוא הגשימה בכל נשימה מנשמות אפו. הנה תאבנו לדעת איך לרפא תבל – בצדקת מעשינו נחיה כשם שחי הוא את חייו הטובים והראויים.

על כן ברחמיכם הגדולים תסתירוהו בסתר כנפיכם לעולמים, ותצררו בצרור זכרונותיכם היקרים מפז את נשמתו. ליבותיכם האוהבים הם נחלתו, וינוח לשלום בנשמות כולנו, ונאמר שלום.

Dear friends, full of compassion, shocked and saddened friends, find proper rest on the wings of your good memories in holy and pure realms, like the shining stars that sparkle in the skies, for the soul of Haim Aviram, son of Sarah and Shmuel Yosef, who has passed away. Sing praises in his honor, glorify his memory with a ten-stringed harp. Sing a new song for him. Let your trumpets ring. Recall his righteous being, his abundant wisdom, his big and compassionate heart, his hearty laughter, his noble deeds, and do good in his name and for the elevation of his memory. Preserve the commandment to live a moral life, good and world-improving – do not abandon it in his name. Seek with all your heart the needs of repairing the world – do not neglect this commandment, as he fulfilled it with every breath he took. Indeed, we desire to know how to heal the world – through the righteousness of our deeds, we will live just as he lived his good and worthy life.

Therefore, in your great compassion, hide him under your wings for eternity, and gather tightly the dear memories of his soul as a precious treasure. Your loving hearts are his legacy, and may he rest in peace within all our souls, and let us say, peace.

The Credible, the True, and the Inconceivable: Ashraf Tahimer v. the State of Israel

In May 2016, Mirwat Abu Jaleel, an Arab-Israeli woman, was horrifically stabbed to death eleven times in her bedroom in her home in Shefar’am. Her oldest son, Nasrat, told the police that he woke up hearing a struggle. As he exited his room, he saw his neighbor, Ashraf Tahimer, running toward him in the hallway, holding a knife in one hand and making a fist in the other. Ashraf hit Nasrat in the mouth, breaking one of his teeth, and fled the home through a window downstairs. Mirwat’s younger children told the police that they saw Ashraf enter the home through the same downstairs window, take a knife from a kitchen drawer, remove his shoes, and ascend the stairs to Mirwat’s bedroom. The police did not find Ashraf at home–he had fled–but the next day he surrendered. At his interrogation, Ashraf denied having had anything to do with the murder. Nevertheless, when the police searched the crime scene, they found Ashraf’s shoes in the kitchen. The court did not believe Ashraf but found the prosecution witnesses, Nasrat and the other kids, credible, and convicted him of murder.

Today I attended the oral argument in Ashraf’s appeal at the Israel Supreme Court. My long-time friend and colleague Hagit Lernau, a longtime senior veteran of the National Public Defender’s office and now a criminology professor at Haifa University, argued the case for the defense (she’s pictured above in her robe, getting ready for court) and so I tagged along to help her prepare and see the argument. The hearing proved to be a disquieting inquiry into questions of truth, credibility, biases, and heuristics. It’s as gripping and horrifying as a classic detective novel, and offers important lessons to anyone investigating and adjudicating crime.

Ashraf does not make for a particularly cuddly appellant. He has a long history of petty crime and heavy drug use. He is also quite impulsive and found it difficult to sit quietly during the hearing. He was also disliked in the neighborhood because of his lifestyle. But, as he repeatedly told the police and the factfinding court, he had no reason to kill Mirwat. They had a good neighborly relationship and, while she did not approve of his lifestyle, she was always kind and welcoming to his son. Indeed, he had serious disincentives: killing Mirwat would create a deadly conflict between his family and the Abu Jaleels, putting his children in danger of retaliation (indeed, following Ashraf’s arrest the Tahimer home was burned to the ground, and the entire family had to flee the town.)

By contrast, Mirwat’s family had ample motive to murder her. Mirwat was divorced and her ex-husband, Ibrahim, found a younger woman. Mirwat’s independent, open life was a threat to the patriarchal family structure. Arab Israeli women are overrepresented as murder victims, and divorcées are at a particular risk. Most murders of Arab women are never solved; out of those solved, most are perpetrated by a partner or other family member and related either to family honor or to retaliation for some offense committed by a man. In 36% of cases, the murder is witnessed by at least one child or another family member.

Given these statistics, which are well known to the police as part of the depressing picture of violent crime among Arabi Israelis, you’d think the investigative team would at least question the Abu Jaleels’ version. But they accepted wholesale the testimony of Mirwat’s family members, all of whom denied having had anything to do with her murder. They claimed that Mirwat and Ibrahim were on the path to reconciliation, and had met with a third party (some said a sheikh; some said a lawyer; some said three weeks prior; some said three days prior) to sort out their differences. The police never sought to confirm or refute this story. Ibrahim himself, who would’ve normally been the prime suspect, was conveniently out of the country when the murder took place (I’m told this is not an uncommon pattern in family honor killings–there’s already somewhat of a playbook for these crimes.) Nasrat, Mirwat’s son, even said that he could provide a motive for Ashraf to commit the murder: a few days before murder, Nasrat overheard Ashraf promise his son an Xbox if he improved his grades. There was an Xbox in the Abu Jaleel’s home–in Mirwat’s bedroom, in fact–and Nasrat testified that after he found his mother’s lifeless body in a pool of blood, he located the Xbox disconnected on the floor, put it back in place and reconnected the wires. This version of events was utterly refuted by forensics, who found that the Xbox had not been disconnected, reconnected, or moved at all recently. Even this considerable contradiction–suggesting a fabricated motive for the suspect–did not lead the police to doubt the Abu Jaleels or look elsewhere for suspects. They were focused on Ashraf as the one and only suspect.

The children testified that Ashraf had climbed up to their home through one of the windows. But the crime scene photos clearly show that the electric shutters are lowered all the way in all windows, and the children said that the family kept them shut (after being confronted with this problem, one of the children pointed out that the one shutter would sometimes be open to let in fresh air.) The act of climbing up the wall requires some dexterity. During the investigation, a police officer secured in a harness attempted to climb to the window and into the house, and while he was not initially successful, he did eventually manage to get in. However, on his way out he broke a fragile piece of the window, raising questions as to whether it would be possible for Ashraf to enter/exit and leave the window intact. But on top of all this, it turns out that Ashraf suffers from a shoulder prone to dislocation. An orthopedic expert testified at trial; his uncontested expert testimony was that Ashraf’s shoulder would have likely been dislocated by the effort (he gave that a 90% chance of happening) and, in fact, was dislocated later at his jail cell by the mere act of raising it.

At this point, you might wonder whether the entire debacle is unnecessary: surely, in the course of climbing into the house, walking to the kitchen, pulling out a drawer to get a knife, walking to the bedroom, and having a violent struggle with the victim involving copious blood, the perpetrator must have left forensic residue behind! The answer is: none was found. The forensic team lifted 27 fingerprints from the home, emphasizing the course that Ashraf allegedly took. 26 did not match his and one remained unidentified. No DNA of his was uncovered–no skin, no blood–and no blood smears were visible on the way from the victim’s body to the window. All prosecution witnesses attested that Ashraf was not wearing gloves at any point during the event. At the factfinding court, he prosecution argued (successfully, apparently) that Ashraf must have smeared away his own fingerprints, as well as the blood, when he climbed back out of the window, or that his criminal experience prompted him to clean up his own fingerprints as he went along. Such a course of action, for someone under drug influence and with a weak shoulder, defies credibility: did he hold himself up with the bad shoulder and wet-wipe his own fingerprints off as he went along?

We all know the legal rule that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But scientifically speaking, we can sometimes learn from absence of evidence–particularly when the probability of finding the evidence would have been high. Prof. Lernau, who on top of being a terrific litigator has a curious scientific mind, wondered: how likely is it for someone to engage so thoroughly, in such a tactile manner, with a crime scene, and not leave a trace? There is apparently considerable variation among people in propensity for leaving fingerprints (it has to do with grease and moisture in the skin, etc.) and surfaces vary in how well they absorb and retain fingerprints. With the assistance of Dr. Naomi Kaplan-Damari, a forensic criminologist at Hebrew University, the defense team ran a little experiment. They instructed fifty staff members to touch similar surfaces to the ones at the crime scene. Even for the people less prone to leaving fingerprints, the odds of not leaving a trace were extremely small.

There was, however, one crucial forensic finding: a human tooth located at the top of the bed, where Mirwat had lain her head before she was attacked. The tooth did not belong to Ashraf; it belonged to Nasrat, Mirwat’s 17-year-old son. As you’ll recall, Nasrat told the police that Ashraf punched him in the hallway when fleeing the scene and dislodged the tooth. If so, how did the tooth make it to the bed? Nasrat claimed that he had reconnected the Xbox in his mother’s bedroom, but that proved false. He did, according to his own testimony, attempt to revive his mother alongside the other family members, but the body was at the entrance to the bedroom, about 2.5 meters (8 feet) from the bed. The tooth would have had to migrate from the hallway to the bed on its own, or it would have had to be dislodged during the resuscitation attempt (but not on the bed). Or, which would be a more plausible explanation, it would have broken off in the first place not as a consequence of a hallway fight, but during a struggle on the bed with the victim.

But let’s assume, again, that Ashraf escaped from the house the same way he got in–through the window, with no shoes on, and miraculously without smearing any of the copious blood from the crime scene or leaving any fingerprints or footprints on his way out. How did he get home? There are two paths leading from the Abu Jaleel home to the Tahimer home: one is short and leads to the front door, and the other takes a roundabout way and ends in the rear steps of the Tahimer house. The claim is that Ashraf snuck out that way because, as it happens, a nearby home has a camera mounted on the roof that continuously films that allley. For many hours before and after the supposed commission of the crime, only one figure is visible on camera. It is the blurred image of a man holding a knife. The man cannot be identified, and the police assumed it was Ashraf making his escape. This fit testimony from a neighbor, Omri Nadaf, who testified that he saw Ashraf heading to the alley.

Was it Ashraf? Apparently not–according to the prosecution’s own witnesses. Nasrat’s uncle, Wahel, was with his parents, locked in, during the murder. According to Wahel’s testimony, Nasrat, who discovered the murder, ran over and screamed that Ashraf had murdered his mom, and Wahel immediately grabbed a knife, ran out of the front door, and made it to the Tahimer home using the back alley. On cross-examination, Wahel agreed with the defense that he walked that path during the relevant time. As mentioned above, there is only one figure who walked there with a knife. It therefore must have been Wahel. But this would mean that the neighbor’s testimony about seeing Ashraf was wrong (mistaken or deceitful.) If the man in the alley was Wahel, this would also explain the inconceivable timeline by which Ashraf would’ve left the home, managed to get out of the window, make it to the alley, and somehow clean himself enough to appear nondescript on camera within two minutes.

It’s worth reminding U.S. readers that Israel has no jury system. Verdicts are given by professional judges and, in serious offenses, by a panel of three judges. The panel that convicted Ashraf wrote an extensive decision, in which they flat-out rejected the forensic and objective crime scene data and relied primarily on their credibility observations: namely, they believed the family and disbelieved Ashraf, and that was that. As we all know, appellate courts cannot substitute their own impressions of credibility for those of the factfinding forum, which is what the Supreme Court judges reminded Hagit at the hearing. A recent high-profile Israeli case, however, highlights the fact that credibility findings cannot stand when they contradict objective facts. The judges kept asking the same question again and again: how can the appellate court overcome the fact that four witnesses–including children–were all found credible? Hagit kept replying: then what do we do about the impossibility of climbing the window, the lack of forensic evidence, the location of Nasrat’s tooth, and Ashraf’s invisible escape back home?

The hearing highlighted some of the inherent tensions in evidence assessment, which apply to professional judges as well as to juries and laypeople. The first one had to do with the appropriate weight, if any, to allocate to the absence of evidence. The prosecution dismissed Dr. Kaplan’s probabilistic demonstration as “amateur fingerprint science.” This was a mischaracterization: it was an exercise in statistical probability. Of course, it is not a cardinal rule that any case lacking forensics must end in an acquittal; however, in situations where the expectation of forensics is extremely high, negative inferences from their absence are not only possible but logical. It shouldn’t take a huge taxonomical effort for an appellate court to separate their deference to credibility findings from their completely legitimate authority to deduce

While the judges listened attentively to the defense’s oral argument, some of them seemed extremely resistant to the idea of reversing the verdict, and it was obvious that the source of the resistance was the credibility issue. Two of the judges, at different times, said that they needed something more–something positive–to overcome the lower court’s positive impression of the witnesses. The barrier of overcoming the credibility findings sometimes threatened materially exculpatory evidence: at least one of the judges was willing to suspend disbelief about Nasrat’s tooth’s supposed path from the hallway to the bed because the alternative was just too hard to consider in light of the credibility issue.

This all boils down to a central defense strategy concern, which I discuss extensively with my criminal procedure students every year. When, as in this case, the defense argues that the crime was committed by a different perpetrator, the jury is confronted not with the basic challenge of criminal burden of proof–assessing the probability of one story by its own strengths and witnesses–but with a comparison between two different stories. Jury calibration of burden-of-proof is notoriously tentative as it is, and the natural and understandable tendency of a layperson confronted with two different versions of the same event is to compare them to each other and pick the more likely one–even if the comparative likelihoods are 60-40 and the likelihood of the prosecution’s story falls far short of the normal standard of conviction (90-10? 95-5? depends on who you ask.) The hearing made it plainly obvious that this human tendency to compare stories and disengage from the legally required calibration could not be easily overcome even by erudite, experienced professional judges. “But how do you expect us to buy,” they kept asking, “that an entire family conspired to frame Ashraf? Including four children, some of them little? And over the course of such a lengthy period of time? When in this version the victim’s own son is supposedly the killer, or one of the killers?”

The legally correct answer to this question is, of course, that the court does not have to “buy” this alternative story with certainty, nor does it have to find it more probable than the alternative (a man who cannot climb windows climbs and enters an apartment through a closed window, commits a heinous crime, flees an extremely tactile scene leaving not a shred of forensic residue behind him, and somehow ends up at home avoiding detection by camera on the only path he could’ve taken.) All the court has to agree to is that there is a five-percent, or ten-percent, chance that events could have unfolded according to the alternative story to acquit. That’s how reasonable doubt is supposed to work.

Thing is, the court’s resistance to the alternative story is understandable. It’s the stumbling block I kept hitting when we practiced oral argument the night before the hearing. To believe even a shred of the alternative story, one has to ascribe the Abu Jaleel family a level of sophistication befitting the villains in a highly contrived Agatha Christie novel. The family would’ve had to decide ahead of time not only on the honor killing, but also on the alibi for Ibrahim, the father (who would have to be out of the country). They would have to expect 17-year-old Nasrat to be a perpetrator, or at least a seriously involved accomplice, in the murder of his own mother. They would have to decide to frame Ashraf ahead of time. Wahel, who gave Ashraf a large quantity of drugs the day before (he testified about it) would have done so intentionally, so as to dull Ashraf’s senses and make him a convenient target. The family members would have to rehearse the young children extensively in the Ashraf story. After the chaos and destructive energy involved in the murder, as they supposedly ran over to the Tahimer home to take revenge, someone (Nasrat? Wahel? Someone else?) would need to have the presence of mind to take Ashraf’s shoes and place them in the kitchen. Nasrat would have to change his version of his encounter with Ashraf to fit the loss of his tooth. The neighbor, Omri Nadaf, would have to be contacted to provide a fictitious account of Ashraf’s escape. Everyone, including the kids, would have to stick to their version of events over the course of years.

This is a high cognitive hurdle, but two important factors can help overcome it. The first is what Holmes says to Watson in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” The family conspiracy, while improbable, is possible; Ashraf as a perpetrator is impossible. The only possible conclusion is that the improbable-but-not-impossible event is what actually took place.

The second factor makes the improbable less improbable: there are well-known sociological realities about the modus operandi of family honor killings. Police officers, attorneys, and judges who investigate and adjudicate these cases are fairly familiar with these cases. Unfortunately, honor killings of Arab-Israeli women are extremely common. In 70% of the cases, family members are the killers; the remaining 30% usually involve some inter-family conflict, in which the woman’s murder is an act of revenge upon a transgression by the husband. In 36% of the cases, at least one child, and often other family members, witness the crime. There are known cases, including the one I reviewed in this article, in which adolescents and teenagers (more often sons, but sometimes daughters) kill their own mothers, and sometimes their younger siblings, by family command, fearful for their own lives if they refuse. In highly patriarchal families, a command from a father or uncle to tell a fictitious story is law for the kids. It is easy to manipulate young children into lying about an event, especially if they (hopefully) did not witness it in person. This was a highly patriarchal family, involving traditional polygamy patterns (Mirwat divorced Ibrahim after he added a younger woman to the family.)

When a judge says, as in this case, “I can’t believe that children could be complicit in this kind of murder-and-framing-conspiracy,” he or she are most likely thinking about the improbability of something so horrifying happening in their own family. Indeed, educated judges from affluent, successful families–most of the time Jewish-Israeli families–would find this horrid scenario very far removed from their personal reality and their surrounding social milieu. It’s important to remember that not every Supreme Court judge is appointed after a long judicial career in lower courts. Some of them are former academics or commercial litigators, who would not have encountered the catastrophe of misogynistic, patriarchal violent crime in Arab communities anywhere in their social or professional circles. And yet, entire cities and towns live in terror of these crimes, to the point that leaders in the Palestinian community feel helpless and call for the intervention of the very police force that oppresses them. My family, who lives in the north of the country and has many personal and professional connections with Arab Israeli citizens (my dad had scores of Palestinian colleagues, employees, and students from local towns and villages; as a judge, my mom interacted for decades with scores of legal professionals, defendants, victims, and witnesses from Palestinian communities) is intimately familiar with these realities, including lovely, law-abiding people who are desperately looking to move because they can’t let their kids out the door unsupervised. What happens in some of these towns mirrors the worst inner-city environments in decrepit skid-row places in the U.S., and honor-related fights between extended clans (“hamulas”) and within families echo the worst of U.S. gang violence.

How Arab-Israeli violent crime reached these virulent proportions of pathology and sophistication is a matter of debate and speculation. Some believe that successful interrogations and prosecutions that crippled the Jewish-Israeli organized crime underworld created a void, into which Arab-Israeli criminal enterprises stepped in. Others think that the lack of opportunities for Arab-Israeli adolescents, fueled by deep inequalities, racism, and animosity, create a natural pool of potential “soldiers” for these enterprises. Yet others speak of patriarchal cultural norms that are difficult to root out. People who are steeped in these crimes already know that they are committed with frequency, and that there is considerable community knowledge and expertise in committing them and escaping scot-free (only 24% of homicides where the victim is an Arab-Israeli woman are ever solved, compared with 84% of crimes in which the victim is a Jewish-Israeli woman.) This reality can help demystify the Agatha-Christie-like quality of the defense’s alternative story. But to accept it would mean to live in the real, unfortunate world, not in the idealized world in which some judges might live, in which women are free to divorce abusive husbands, live free and open lives, without fearing violent consequences from their own partners and children.

I have a final observation about what I saw yesterday. When Ashraf was brought into the courtroom, flanked by guards, several nasty bruises were clearly visible on his face. He grimaced in pain and found it hard to sit down, asking permission to stand for part of the hearing. Had I been the judge in this case, the first thing I would do would be to ask him, “how are you?” and “what happened to you?”. To my astonishment, not a single member of the judicial panel bothered to figure out the provenance of the bruises or evinced compassion toward Ashraf in any way. I don’t think this is entirely unrelated to the legal aspect of what happened in this case.

The Prospect of Freedom

It looks like the event I hardly imagined could ever happen might happen: Gov. Newsom announced that he would not appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to reinstate Leslie Van Houten’s parole. The Associated Press reported Newsom’s obligatory statement, as well as some valuable words from Van Houten’s attorney:

In a brief statement, the governor’s office said it was unlikely that the state’s high court would consider an appeal of a lower court ruling that Van Houten should be released.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is disappointed, the statement said.

“More than 50 years after the Manson cult committed these brutal killings, the victims’ families still feel the impact,” the statement said.

. . .

“She’s thrilled and she’s overwhelmed,” [her attorney Nancy] Tetreault said.

“She’s just grateful that people are recognizing that she’s not the same person that she was when she committed the murders,” she said.

After she’s released, Van Houten will spend about a year in a halfway house, learning basic life skills such as how to go to the grocery and get a debit card, Tetreault said.

“She’s been in prison for 53 years. … She just needs to learn how to use an ATM machine, let alone a cell phone, let alone a computer,” her attorney said.

In the last chapter of Yesterday’s Monsters I looked at factors that might or might not be conducive to the release of any of the people I featured in the book. What paved the way to Van Houten’s release was the reemergence of adolescence as a relevant factor for parole; she had been living an exemplary life of self-reflection and rehabilitation for many years and was nonetheless repeatedly denied based on “lack of insight”, which, as I and others have discussed, is nonfalsifiable. The Commissioners had always known that Van Houten was 19 when she participated in the LaBianca murders, but a series of Supreme Court decisions gave them explicit permission to consider her age, and that’s what tipped the scales.

I now see these cases through the broader prism that Chad Goerzen and I develop in FESTER (coming to a store near you in January 2024), which highlights the travesty of turning our prisons into geriatric facilities. Beyond the obvious issue of medical risk, there is the question of what freedom looks like to a septuagenarian leaving prison after 53 years. Even without the added difficulty of immense stigma and animosity, Van Houten, who is a bright, thoughtful, and talented person, and who has academic degrees, will find it very hard to find and hold a job in this market. She has had to endure a lot behind bars, and her reentry is unlikely to be very easy. I wish her all the best. Our paths did not cross–she did not wish to be interviewed for Yesterdays’ Monsters–but I very much hope they will some day.

Film Review: Holding It In

Filmmaker Omer Yefman and I went to school together and, after wanting to see his films for years, yesterday I finally had an opportunity to attend a screening of Holding It In (2020), his film with his partner Chen Rotem, an honest, no-barred-holds window into their surrogacy journey.

I’ve been interested in Omer’s work since hearing about All Happy Mornings (2012), in which he and Chen opened up about Omer’s bisexuality and their complicated journey into nonmonogamy (something I had written about from a legal and sociological perspective.) I remembered him vividly from our school days as an authentic, real person, who met the world around him with humility and curiosity, and it was a pleasant discovery (though not at all a surprise) that Chen is also a fantastic and openminded person. I especially appreciated the film’s entry into a fraught conversation in Israel about surrogacy. Israel’s limited adoption market, a product of its decided natalism, means that people aggressively pursue IVF treatments with enormous social backing, and that queer couples and people for whom IVF is not an option pursue surrogacy. This has produced a ferocious debate in the queer community about the power differential and exploitative potential of surrogacy, as well as legislation that excluded same-sex couples from surrogacy in Israel (surrogacy is still an option for opposite-sex couples and single women.) Some surrogates have spoken up against the assumption that they are exploited or powerless in the relationship, while other commentators have dismissed their perspective as privileged and not representative of the overall population of surrogates.

Issues of money and power are not at the center of Chen and Omer’s journey–they are frank and vulnerable about conversations of partnership, giving, children, family time, and camaraderie before and during Chen’s pregnancy–but they are not far from the surface. In one scene, Chen and Omer’s two young kids are asleep in the back seat of the car while the parents discuss Omer’s discomfort using “surrogacy money” to go on a family vacation abroad. Earlier in the film, discussing their decision with friends, Chen is adamant that she would insist on paying for surrogacy, and there’s an agreement that payment is fair and important given the sacrifice and risk. “It’s our money,” Chen says. “I’m still uncomfortable,” Omer replies.

Surrogacy and adoption are distinguishable in important ways: by contrast to surrogacy, which is a service from the get-go (in one touching scene, Chen explains to her young kids that the baby is “a guest in our family” who “will return to his parents” after he is born), the decision to place a child for adoption can only be made after the child is born, no matter what theoretical agreements birthparents and adoptive parents reach before the birth, and therefore there is no compensation, as such, beforehand, which could be constituted as bribe. But to say this is to some extent hypocritical. I’ve written before about the fact that, like surrogacy, adoption is a situation in which a baby usually passes from poorer hands to wealthier hands, while money changes hands in the opposite direction. The meticulous limitations on what is, and is not, remunerable, obscure this important point–an effort to quantify the unquantifiable. Regardless of the legal or ethical taxonomy of payments (support? compensation?) the quantification of such a fundamental and immense human process is at the heart of the discomfort.

Because of this deep truth, people on both sides of either adoption or surrogacy relationships would do well to remember that there are some things that this money should not buy. One of the most stunning moments in the film, for me, was when Chen returned from a medical checkup and told Omer that the prospective parents discussed a C-section with the doctor–without having discussed it with her first. Here’s the scene:

I felt rage bubbling in me while watching this scene. I’ve been in a similar situation from the opposite side, I thought. Someone else gave birth to my child. And it would never occur to me to make any demands, requests, suggestions anything at all about the birth. I feel very strongly that the only person who should be entitled to make decisions about a birth (what form it would take and who would be in the room, to name just two factors) is the person giving birth. As the scene progressed, Omer’s resentment toward the parents was palpable, while Chen explained that she did not want him to be angry on her behalf and that she was listening and trying to see things from their perspective (in the conversation we had after the movie, some details emerged that somewhat ameliorated, though did by no means eliminate, my deep concerns about the parents’ stance.) I had to actively remind myself that it was also Chen’s choice whether to feel resentful or not, and that adoption was fundamentally different from surrogacy. A birthmom gives birth to her own child and therefore makes her own decisions. A surrogate gives birth to someone else’s child. But a birth is a birth, I thought. What can be more personal than giving birth, regardless of the genetics of the child? The greatness of the film is that it is willing to ask these difficult questions without giving pat answers that rely on definitions and self righteousness.

And this is at the heart of my deep appreciation for the film: more than a film about an unusual, deeply stirring journey, it was a film about two incredibly brave and honest people, who are willing to confront not only complicated social and psychological questions, but their own demons, and to do so authentically in front of a camera. Their struggles and epiphanies are never self-serving, and never take the form of the all-too-common “lived experience” narrative one encounters all around us, where people marinate in their own goodness publicly. We’re flawed, just like everyone else, they seemed to say, and we want to share our process with you. In our conversation after the show, the filmmakers mentioned that, while documenting their experience, they weren’t thinking “people will be seeing this later”, but I think that there is a profound act of service in making this film that parallels the profound service of surrogacy. By opening a window into their personal life, far from generalizing their experience or making ethical proclamations, Chen and Omer are offering me and you an opportunity to engage with our own sense of ethics and question even the assumptions we clutch most tightly. What more can one possibly want from a film?