Glimpses into cultural swirl of Israel

TELEVISION

June 22, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

In the television news game, when a reporter or anchor travels for a story -- especially local station personnel traveling overseas -- the resulting report frequently seems designed principally to emphasize the presence on the scene of the news personality. The story often suffers.

Thus it's refreshing to see so little of producer/reporter Donna Hamilton in "The Peacemakers," a WJZ-Channel 13 special taped this spring in Israel and airing tomorrow night at 7 p.m.

This is no knock on Ms. Hamilton, who was the longtime co-host of "Evening Magazine" until its cancellation earlier this year. For in this hourlong program, she wisely allows some very articulate people to take center stage, offering hopeful voices amid what Ms. Hamilton calls the "fiery dialogue" of the Israeli/Arab dispute.

We hear from a handful of figures who, in varying ways, seek to somehow peacefully quell the simmering animosity between the governing Israelis and the Palestinian Arab population. The show was produced with the help of the Institute for Christian/Jewish Studies, co-written and produced by Carol Gregory and shot by Kurt Kolaja and Joel Eagle.

Says novelist Amos Oz, for example, a leading spokesman for the Peace Now movement in Israel, "Arabs believe that if only they rub their eyes hard enough Israel will go like a nightmare. . . . Now both sides are waking up and realizing the other is there."

He suggests there are just two dramatic solutions: The Shakespearean way, "where the stage is littered with bodies," or the way of Chekhov, "where everybody is grumpy and complaining and unhappy, but they're alive."

He favors the second: "What they need is not integration but precisely a decent divorce," wherein Israel would give Palestinians land to allow the building of at least a figurative wall between themselves and Israel.

By contrast, other segments of "The Peacemakers" focus on private efforts aimed at fostering better understanding and communication between Arabs and Israelis.

For example, we hear from teacher Ali Ahir of the Ulpan Akiva, a school founded in 1951 to teach immigrants Israel's officially designated language of Hebrew. But Ahir teaches Arabic to Israelis, in recognition that while Hebrew is now well-established, few non-Arab citizens know "the second language of Israel."

The program is a monthlong residential one in which Arabs and Israelis are housed together. One graduate, a young Israeli soldier, says that when he returns to duty in the occupied territories, "now I can talk to a person with respect in his own language."

We also meet Sarah Kramer, a Pittsburgh-born woman who went to Israel on a study program 10 years ago and stayed. Now, with an Arab partner, she runs the Center for Jewish/Arab Economic Development, which fosters cooperative cross-cultural business enterprises, such as a baklava factory.

The show also visits a small Christian enclave whose members observe the sabbath on Saturdays and celebrate other Jewish holidays in an effort to overcome Christianity's historically negative stance toward Judaism.

Yet Ms. Hamilton notes that even if all of Israel's conflicts with outside cultures were resolved, there would still be conflict from within -- between the ultra-orthodox religious communities, other branches of Jewish belief and secular Israelis.

Even here there is an interestingly divergent point of view from the usual media slant on the running Israel story, with an interview with Rabbi David Hartman.

Although Orthodox, he runs an institute in which students are encouraged to learn about all of Judaism's branches, in the belief that people should "struggle in the marketplace" of religious ideas, instead of fighting politically to establish strict observance of religion as government policy.

Early on in this special, Ms. Hamilton notes that "Israel has to be one of the most talked about yet least understood countries in the world."

True enough. Yet within the realm of numerous documentaries about this troubled part of the world, "The Peacemakers" offers more raw material than most toward beginning to understand the not-always-hateful cultural swirl.

' THE CABLE CONNECTION --

The trouble with "Payoff," a new movie premiering tonight on the Showtime premium service (at 9 o'clock), is that there really isn't one.

Keith Carradine, as the son of a policeman who got too close to a mob figure, finally gets his revenge on the thug responsible. But a confusingly tangled plot and wild swings in tone, from the dark side to the cute caper, make the film largely unsatisfying.

But at least the scenery in the latter part of the film, shot on XTC location in Lake Tahoe, Nev., is pretty.

Initially, the movie seems quite noir, as Mr. Carradine flashes back to a childhood incident when he unwittingly carried a bomb into his house, causing a blast that killed his parents but which he escaped.

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