Holiday interview with Avi Abelow, founder of 12Tribe Films and IsraelVideoNetwork.com, on what it takes to be an effective Israel activist
Avi Abelow heeded the call. It’s the call you sense to the depth of your being and know you cannot turn away from. A destiny, if you will, echoing over generations. Like the call heeded by our first ancestor, which led him to leave all and “go forth”, it resonates in our genes. The understanding that you cannot just go on living your life as usual. Instead, you find yourself having to make a stand, sacrificing all you have for a duty you feel compelled to fulfill. The duty to stand for Israel. Like so many before him, heeding that call would set him off on a journey he could never have imagined at the time. It brought him to the life he leads today, dedicated to the promoting of the State of Israel.
He may not see the moment as dramatic as the way I describe it here. It is after all, “just” his life. Avi tells the story far more modestly. He was willing to share his experiences with me for the purpose of doing what in essence, he has always done – encourage others to understand and utilize their abilities for the benefit of Israel and the Jewish People.
For Avi, using his abilities for Israel was second nature, though not what he had set out to do originally. “I was going for a career in Organizational Psychology” he explains, “to be a management consultant”. An Oleh to Israel with his parents as a boy of sixteen, at eighteen he enlisted in the IDF, joining a tough infantry unit, the Golani Brigade as a combat soldier. He then he set out to pursue his career, marrying and going back to the US temporarily for graduate school. He got a job in one of the leading companies in the field in the United States. All seemed to be going according to plan.
There are plans and then there are realities. It was the period of the Arab terror onslaught against Israel. The days when buses and wedding halls, restaurants and night clubs, schools and street corners – any place where innocent civilians gathered – were targets of a monstrous, murderous Arab assault. Israel was also suffering through a horrible economic crisis. “My wife and I just couldn’t stay away any longer” he explains. Avi left his lucrative job and career because he felt he had to be in Israel at that time.
As we know, the violence eventually subsided, the economy slowly got back on track and Avi even got a great job in Israel with his old American company. As his family expanded, he moved into a house in Efrat and it seemed he was destined to live out the rest of his life in the standard, middle class, stereotypical bliss. Israel is not your standard country though, and stereotypes only exist in movies. There is never a dull moment in Israel as we all know. In 2005 the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon embarked on the “disengagement” policy which had Israel withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and locations in the Shomron, relinquishing territories to the Arabs. This also meant the dismantling of Jewish settlements, the demolition of community centers and homes. In effect, the destruction of people’s lives.
This is when Avi felt the call. “I believed this was leading to a huge tragedy for the Jewish People and I couldn’t just sit back and watch it happen” he describes his emotions, adding, “I couldn’t get up in the morning, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, go to work, come back in the evening, have dinner and live as if nothing was going on, I just had to do something, I felt I had a duty to act.”
And act he did. Avi took a leave of absence from work. With the support of his pregnant wife, leaving her with two toddlers, he set out for Gush Katif to protest. “It was almost impossible to get through. How I got there is the stuff of movie scripts. Coordinating with residents, bypassing military check points, avoiding police so not to get arrested. Even trotting through a field one night only to be caught in the spotlight of an IDF unit. It was the moment I felt it was all over. But I realized they were from my old unit, young Golani soldiers. When I told them I was a veteran of the unit, attitudes suddenly changed and it defused a very tense situation. They sent me back and wished me luck. Eventually I succeeded in getting through.”
Avi quickly bonded with the locals. “I didn’t just want to protest. I wanted to do something more meaningful. These were dedicated and wonderful people. Zionists and patriotic Israelis who the government was now treating as the enemy. They were being vilified by the Israeli media. I understood that my role was to get their story out, so people would understand what was really happening.” Avi reached out to Gush Katif resident Anita Taulker, who was an English spokesperson for Gush Katif to the foreign media. “As an English speaker, I actually first started working as a spokesperson for the foreign media. Then I received a camcorder and started documenting as well.”
He began filming the people, the residents of Gush Katif. Recording their thoughts, their feelings, their anguish, their hopes and dreams and pain. He wanted the truth to be seen. “I had no idea what I would do with the footage, had no plan or money to make a video, but I just knew I had to film what I could. After returning home I commissioned a 4 minute clip that got over 50,000 views in only two weeks. This without YouTube or social media.”
That short film led to a bigger project a year later on the anniversary of the tragic disengagement. A full feature on the residents of Gush Katif called “Home Game“. Since theaters would not show it, Avi organized special screenings at community centers and by request. It was the most successful Israeli film at the time, based on ticket sales alone. This desire to get the truth out became a passion and it launched his career, leading to the life he has today, 12 years later.
Having a passion and having an idea was not enough. Avi wanted to share his lessons to help others help Israel. Today he heads his own company – 12Tribe Films/IsraelVideoNetwork.com – specializing in providing movies and cultural programs that show a side of the Jewish and Israeli narrative that receives little attention in the public discourse. He created a network of Facebook pages to promote videos about Israel and the Jewish people.
“It took many years to reach this point. Years of frustration and sacrifice.” Avi doesn’t elaborate on the difficult times he and his family faced before reaching this point. Despite it all, he never got discouraged. Maybe because he was all out and had no way to go but forward. He tells people who want to advocate and help Israel not to despair, “It can be frustrating, there are a lot of anti-Israel forces to overcome, especially on social media, but don’t let that stop you. Make your voice heard with the truth about Israel and the Jewish people. You will make a difference, the only question is how much. The only thing I can promise you is that if you remain silent, you will make no difference at all.”
Israel will always need creative people to stand up and put forth their abilities to the benefit of the Jewish People. “You need to be persistent. It is very hard to get help, and especially help without strings attached, whether from the government or donors etc. When I started, my methodology was to be as independent as possible, to build up our own platform, with our own editorial direction, with the ability to help any and all voices out there standing up strong, advocating for Israel and the Jewish people with the truth. There are many options available today for individuals to make an impact. We look to help them get the exposure.”
After all he went through and the sacrifices made, in the end was it all worth it? “Yes, for sure”, he says without hesitation.
The history of the Jewish People is replete with individuals who took a stand when they felt compelled. It is never easy and always comes at great personal sacrifice. It teaches us that we are all significant; that when we heed the call, we make a difference.