She forgave a terrorist

By Simon Round, May 16, 2008

Storyville: My Israel
BBC4, Wednesday, May 14

Storyville: Flipping Out — Israel’s Drug Generation

BBC4, Thursday, May 15

BBC4’s Storyville strand celebrated Israel’ s 60th birthday with a season of films analysing different aspects of Israeli life.

My Israel was Yulie Cohen’s intensely personal account of her country, her hopes and her fears. For the past 30 years, Cohen has been attempting to come to terms with a terrorist attack which injured her and killed a colleague. Cohen was on a bus taking her El Al flight crew from Heathrow Airport to London’s Europa hotel. As she stepped off the bus, Cohen saw a man staring at her “hatefully”. She told a supervisor: “I think he’s going to start shooting at us.”

That man was Fahad Mihyi, who was later jailed for life for murdering a young air hostess, Irit Gidron, in the attack.

Twenty-two years later, Cohen, who suffered a shrapnel wound in the attack as well as a thyroid disorder triggered by post-traumatic stress, sought to find her attacker. She decided that by meeting him and seeking to forgive him she could finally draw a line under the terrifying events. She wrote to Mihyi, who was still incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison. In his reply, he wrote that he had long since renounced violence and now wished for peace — which, as a man desperate to be released after 22 years in prison, he would do, wouldn’t he?

Cohen, however, was sufficiently moved to fly to Britain to meet him. This time, she said, the hate was gone from his eyes. It was, she recounted, a claustrophobic encounter. “I looked at the window trying to get oxygen,” said Cohen as Mihyi apologised profusely for his role in the attack.

Later, Cohen was moved to write to the parole board to plead for his release. Not everyone saw her forgiveness as laudable. We saw her debating with a settler, Ruthie Gillis, whose daughter had been killed in a terrorist attack. Despite the fact that both had been the victims of Arab terror, the gulf between the forgiving Cohen and the vengeful Gillis could not have been more stark.

However, this was about more than politics, it was an intimate film about how events in the Middle East had shaped and affected Cohen’s attitude to her parents and to her children. Some may say that there are better causes than campaigning for the release of a terrorist but one can only admire her sincerity and courage.

In a sense, Flipping Out: Israel’s Drug Generation was also about how Israelis deal with trauma — in this case by recourse to nefarious substances while up a mountain in the Himalayas.

The Israelis in questions had just finished their stint of National Service. Thousands take their demob allowance and head for India, where their convalescence consists of class A drugs on a scenic hillside. This, it had it to be said, was a far less interesting film than My Israel, unless of course you happened to be the parent of one of the twentysomethings attempting to make sense of the preceding three years by sucking hard on a water pipe. (The shaky nature of the photography work in Yoav Shamir’s film also raised doubts about the sobriety of the cameraman.)

Such was the influx of Israelis (who were not liked by other nationalities, said an Indian landlady, because they made too much noise) that there was a Chabad House, an Israeli government-funded refuge and felafel wherever you looked. Thousands of ex-servicemen succumb to psychosis on these trips — although it is hard to know whether this was the result of delayed stress brought on by combat in Lebanon or merely a dodgy batch of acid.

The local Chabad representative, Danny Winderbaum, certainly had his hands full looking after those who had freaked out. We followed him as he collected a casualty from a remote village and transported him back to Chabad HQ. The journey took them along precipitous mountain roads at frightening speeds while all the while, Danny and a colleague sung a full-throated version of Am Yisrael Chai.

And they wondered why the poor guy was having a bad trip.

Last updated: 1:10pm, June 2 2008