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If you turn on your TV set at 9:30 P.M. tonight to see the sixth and final episode of the docu-series "Sewing for Bread" ("Daroma" in Hebrew), aired for the past five weeks on Channel One, you'll be disappointed. You won't be seeing the final chapter in this moving drama about the seamstresses of Mitzpeh Ramon, who two years ago turned a failing factory into their own cooperative enterprise; instead, you'll be watching a rerun about Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon's last day earthbound before his recent trip to the moon. The affair of the final episode of "Sewing for Bread" is causing something of a stir right now. At this writing, Channel One is saying the program will be aired next week.

The documentary series made by Doron Tzabari and Julie Shlez tells the story of the Mitzpeh Ramon seamstresses over a period of about two years. It all began in 2000, when the factory where they worked was headed for closure. First they protested; then they took things into their own hands and ran it as a cooperative, launched with Histadrut assistance at the initiative of Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz.

What began as an optimistic story about the liberation of women workers ends gloomily, at least from the standpoint of the series' protagonists and the role played by Amir Peretz in the affair. In February 2002, three of the original leaders of the grassroots revolution at the plant quit, in the context of a conflict with Danny Sheetrit, secretary of the Workers' Council of Mitzpeh Ramon and de facto representative of Amir Peretz there. All three - Havatzelet Ingbar, the central heroine who led the women's struggle, Avigail Yifrah and Smadar Levy - have been out of work for nearly a year. The factory is running without them. The last episode is the saddest of the six, and could do a lot of damage to Peretz' public image. The episode presents the collapse of the dream, the price paid by the women who spearheaded it, and the power struggles between the women workers and the Histadrut representatives. As Tzabari put it, it shows "50 years of what's wrong with the Histadrut in one episode." Among other things, Ingbar tries repeatedly to contact Peretz for help, but gets no response.

In the last two weeks, the drama behind the scenes has been no less stormy than the one recounted in the series itself. It stars two outraged series creators, Peretz's representatives, the film's central heroine, and of course, the people who run Channel One.

Havatzelet Ingbar says that after she sent Peretz a copy of her letter of resignation in February 2002, she didn't receive a single telephone call from the Histadrut chairman. She's been sitting at home for seven months, and all her attempts to make contact with him through his office have been unavailing.

Accusations

Shlez says Peretz and his people began to take an interest in the series only in September, after it won first prize for a docudrama series at the Haifa Film Festival. Peretz also began taking an interest in Ingbar at that point, maybe because someone close to him realized that "Sewing for Bread" wouldn't do him any good, although only the first four episodes had been aired at that point. "Suddenly they wanted to meet with Havatzelet urgently, immediately," says Shlez. "We'd been inviting them to attend events involving the series all along, and they ignored us. The minute they realized there's a series and it's out there, and that they'd made a political error, they started putting pressure on Havatzelet, and the day the awards were announced, they asked to meet with her right away."

Peretz came to a screening in Sderot in October, and met with a cool reception from Ingbar. Subsequently, several feelers were put out on Peretz's behalf to Ingbar, and around the time the first episode of "Sewing for Bread" was aired on Channel One, the two met privately.

"He told me it was his personal mission," says Ingbar, "to bring a smile back to my face. He talked with me about setting up a new cooperative in Mitzpeh Ramon that I would head - a laundry. I told him I wanted to think it over. I didn't want him to fix me up with work, but to make public that justice was on my side, because before I quit, they had made all kinds of accusations against me."

This marked the start of a very odd sequence of events that continued over the last two weeks, at a time when electioneering was reaching a peak and when the final episode, the most damaging to Peretz, which had not yet been seen anywhere, was about to be aired on national TV.

On Friday, a week and a half ago, Iche Menahem, chairman of the Center for Cooperation in Manufacturing and Transportation at the Histadrut, met with series creators Shlez and Tzabari in Tel Aviv. There are conflicting reports as to what was said at that meeting. Tzabari and Shlez allege that Menahem explained to them that the final episode was liable to damage Peretz during "a sensitive election period," and hence he proposed changing it and showing how Ingbar would be getting a laundry to manage, at Peretz's initiative. Tzabari says there was already talk of a potential new series to be called, perhaps, "The Laundry."

Menahem denies this, and says that in the wake of criticism penned by Meir Schnitzer in Ma'ariv, which mentions that at the end of the series, the cooperative was closed down, he fears the final episode presents the facts inaccurately. Menahem: "I didn't suggest changing the end of the series. I said that if that's what is conveyed at the end of the episode, it's not fair, because we did a fine thing there. We opened a cooperative. There are problems, like everywhere else in the country. I said that if [the episode conveyed] that the plant was closed, it's not accurate, and it will harm the establishment of additional cooperatives. They said it was too bad we hadn't met sooner. I didn't ask them to change anything; the film was already finished. They clarified for me that the final episode did not convey the idea that the plant was closed."

Whether by chance or otherwise, last Wednesday, Ingbar, the heroine of the series, was also invited to a meeting, but this time with someone else from Peretz's circle, Shmulik Cohen, head of the election effort on behalf of the Am Ehad party headed by Peretz. Cohen proposed that Ingbar appear in an election spot for the party and sing Peretz's praises, despite the fact that she doesn't work at the factory any longer. Cohen even showed her a prepared monolog that he thought would be suitable for her to read from. Ingbar refused.

"I was candid," she says. "It's true that Amir Peretz invited me to a meeting, but I don't think that a spot like that will do him any good, and certainly wouldn't do me any. The sixth chapter has to be seen and Amir Peretz has to respond, along with me. Injustice was done here, people destroyed my good name, Sheetrit incited against me, and they want me to do their propaganda." Cohen says in response that he met with about 30 people who were slated to appear as "witnesses" on the party's broadcasts, and in the end it was decided not to use that type of spot after all, for professional reasons. As to Ingbar, Cohen says, "I emphasized to her that I had no intention of asking her to do anything she wasn't a full partner to, or didn't feel comfortable with."

But that wasn't the end of the tribulations of "Sewing for Bread." On Monday of last week, Channel One head Yossi Meshulam was frantically looking for Tzabari. As the latter tells it, he hadn't had a single phone call from the Israel Broadcasting Authority prior to that point, despite the praise heaped on the series and its good ratings - about 11 percent on average. Now Meshulam announced that the final episode would not be aired this week, because the film on astronaut Ilan Ramon was being aired again, and in fact the last chapter would be postponed two weeks, or maybe even three, because of changes in the programming schedule.

Actually, without saying it outright, Meshulam was telling Tzabari that the last episode would be postponed until after the elections. Tzabari was outraged. "Suddenly it all came together. It was three days after [IBA] Director Barel said that all the MKs know they'll find a sympathetic ear with him. He has no shame whatever. It's really Tony Soprano meets Salah Shabati. They're acting like the Stalin folks in the 1950s - they think they can chop an episode from a series for no reason."

An angry letter from Tzabari to Barel modified Meshulam's decision: The broadcast would be delayed only a week. But now a new demand has surfaced, apparently coming from the direction of the Channel One documentary division chief, Natan Caspi. Shlez and Tzabari have been asked to reopen the final episode and, in the last few minutes when the end of the story is related on screen in print, to permit a rejoinder by Peretz and the current head of the factory. According to Caspi, without this change, it won't be possible to broadcast the last few minutes of the series which, in the opinion of the legal department of the IBA, is libelous.

The creators have rejected the Channel One proposal out of hand, but it raises an interesting question: Is a docudrama like "Sewing for Bread" a piece of journalism that must be balanced and permit the right of response to all parties, or is it a piece of art done from the point of view of its creators and hence should on no account be tinkered with? Orna Lin, the attorney for Shlez and Tzabari, was quick to respond yesterday to the IBA, saying the series is an artistic creation in every respect: "The demand to change the series is interference in the creative freedom and freedom of speech of the creators and the protagonists, and violates basic rights protected by Israeli law."

Slander

Meshulam thinks otherwise. "They're putting out slander," he says, "and it's legitimate to change the text on-screen at the end. This isn't `Gone with the Wind,' it's a documentary film. It's not a work of art, but letters on a black screen. People are slandered, so why not present a response? We, unlike in print journalism, behave with fairness." Lin proposes a discussion in the studio after the film is shown, with participation by anyone who feels himself to have been injured by the series. Meshulam rejects this possibility.

For Tzabari, the affair thus far is reason enough to declare war on Channel One and the head of the IBA. "No public entity operates that way," he says. "These are civil servants lording it over the public and behaving like strongmen and bullies, with no transparency. And good Lord, they have a budget of a billion shekels."

The person who sounds most relaxed in this affair is Cohen, who's in charge of Peretz's positive image. He actually thinks that "Sewing for Bread" is a very moving series that basically portrays Peretz in a positive light. He denies any connection between Am Ehad and the conversation Menahem conducted with the series' creators; he denies outright any allegations by the creators that Peretz's people approached the management of Channel One about postponing airing the program or changing the last episode.