Diaspora News

News and current events affecting Jews in the U.S. and the Diaspora

Paris attacks mastermind identified

By Italy Blumenthal, Media Agencies

PARIS - French officials identified the suspected mastermind of Friday's string of unprecedented attacks in Paris as Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud on Monday afternoon.

Authorities said that Abaaoud was also a suspect in thwarted attacks on a train and church and that he is currently located in Syria.

RTL radio in France reported that Abaaoud is “one of the most active ISIS executioners” in Syria.

Another main suspect thought to have participated in the attacks, 26-year-old Abdeslam Salah, remained free Monday morning after French media reports revealed that he had been questioned by police and then released just hours after Friday's attacks.

Salah was subsequently named as a "dangerous" suspect and authorities began a desperate manhunt to find the individual, who seems to have played an active logistical role in aiding the attackers.

In addition, German police detained an Algerian man in a refugee reception center in connection with the attacks, officials said on Monday.

The man, detained in the town of Arnsberg in western Germany, is being investigated on suspicion of having told Syrian refugees at the center in recent days that fear and terror would be spread in the French capital.

He is also alleged to have spoken about a bomb. The senior public prosecutor in Arnsberg, Werner Wolff, said checks were being made into whether the allegations were credible.

In addtion to declaring a state of emergency, French President Francois Hollande shocked the world by announcing the complete closure of the country's borders just after the attacks, apparently in an attempt to stop and capture Salah and any other fleeing suspects.

Raids were also conducted in 168 different locations across France in connection with the attacks and 104 people were placed under house arrest - a crackdown confirmed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls in an interview with RTL radio Monday morning.

Twenty-three related suspects were also arrested in Belgium where weapons were also seized.

Valls also said that French police had raided the homes of suspected Islamists overnight across the country.

Weapons, including rocket launchers, rifles and hand guns, had been confiscated during the raids in the southern city of Toulouse and Lyon.

The prime minister added that French intelligence services had prevented several attacks since the summer and that police knew other attacks were being prepared in France as well as in the rest of Europe.

"We are making use of the legal framework of the state of emergency to question people who are part of the radical jihadist movement...and all those who advocate hate of the republic," Valls said on RTL radio.

The state of emergency allows police to enforce curfews where and when needed, and to search homes at night.

It was also reported that Iraqi intelligence had warned France that the Islamic State was planning attacks against countries currently involved in a coalition that is conducting continual airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria.

A French security source told the Associated Press that such warnings are received on a regular basis.

Hollande urges united US-Russia assault on IS

Monday marked the first time in more than six years that a French president addressed both houses of parliament, as Francois Hollande spoke to parliamentarians at Versailles.

The president said France wants to unite with the US and Russia in a grand coalition dedicated to smashing the Islamic State group.

Hollande said the United States and Russia needed to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a single coalition." He said he hoped to meet soon with US President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, though he didn't specify whether they would all meet together.

Hollande said he would present a bill Wednesday seeking to extend the prevailing state of emergency -- granting the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to suspend demonstrations and impose curfews -- for another three months.

Hollande also said that France will step up strikes in Syria where Friday's shootings and suicide bombings in Paris had been planned.

He also said France's constitution needed to be amended to better deal with crisis situations.

Hollande said he wanted French law to allow dual nationals to be stripped of their French citizenship if they were convicted of terrorism and dual nationals to be banned from entering France if they presented a "terrorism risk".

He also pledged to increase budgets for security forces and the army.

"That will lead to higher spending, which I take responsibility for," Hollande said.

"I consider that in these circumstances, the security pact prevails over the stability pact," he said, referring to the eurozone budget limits.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Salah on the cover of France's publications. (Photo: Itay Blumenthal)

Pews Or Bleachers? A Yom Kippur Dilemma

With the Washington Nationals scheduled for the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, baseball fans are in a fix.

09/30/14 | Elana Kook | Editorial Intern | Taken from The New York Jewish Week

The Lerner family, owners of the National League’s Washington Nationals baseball team, have spoken: they won’t be attending any playoff games that take place on Yom Kippur, they told the press last week. Taking after famed Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax, they’ve decided the High Holiday is no time for games.

But what about your average Jewish baseball fan? Many Jewish Washington Nationals fans find themselves in a fix, with the Nats gearing up to play their first playoff game on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Adam Isaacson, a Bethesda, Maryland resident and Nats devotee, is not trading in a chance to watch the Nats play in a playoff game in order to attend Yom Kippur services. Though he would normally go to his family's break-fast, Isaacson and some of his family are opting out this year to attend the big game.

“Any holiday is a chance to be with family. The capacity with which you are together should not matter,” said Isaacson, explaining his decision. “Whether it's in synagogue, breaking the fast at dinner, or going to a baseball game with my son, father and father-in law, being together and sharing a moment is what matters.”

To be sure, this is not the first time Jews are faced with the dilemma of choosing between an anticipated sporting event and the High Holy Days. New York Yankee player Derek Jeter played the final regular season home game of his career on Rosh Hashanah, much to the dismay of Jewish Yankee fans in the New York area. 

But despite the steep competition this Yom Kippur, local rabbis are optimistic that service attendance will not be drastically affected by the game.

Rabbi Mark Novak, founding rabbi of Minyan Oneg Shabbat (and a self proclaimed baseball “fanatic”), is confident that Jews who normally attend services will continue to do so, game or not. 

“For both observant Jews, as well as Jews who do not normally treat Judaism as a spiritual issue, the game doesn’t pose any conflict,” he said. 

Aryeh Kalendar, a student coordinator of Ometz, the egalitarian Jewish group on the campus of University Maryland, acknowledged that the games will affect his congregation.

“This weekend is going to present somewhat unique challenges for our services on campus,” he said. “Our constituents will be making tough decisions regarding whether they will come pray with us or be watching or attending the games.  We understand that this will certainly affect the amount of people who attend services both on Friday night, as well as on Shabbat.”

For those congregants who choose to go to the games, Kalendar said that his congregation will maintain an open-door policy. “We hope everyone makes the decision that is right for them,” he finished.


TED WEEKENDS: Breaking The Cycle of Violence

Zak Ebrahim Headshot

Author, The Terrorist's Son

Posted 09/12/2014 3:20 pm | Updated 09/12/2014 5:59 pm 

Zak Ebrahim is not my real name and was changed when my family decided to cut ties with my father, El-Sayed Nosair, the first member of a Bin Laden organization to shed blood on American soil.

As I share in my TED Talk, I have struggled for years to maintain my anonymity for fear of being judged for my father's actions, which has been a heavy burden to carry and at times, crippling. Being raised in the shadow of my extremist father, I feared being judged for having his blood run through my veins.

As I came of age, I began to bend back the bars of bigotry that had imprisoned me for years. It didn't happen all at once, but little by little, my worldview expanded as I chipped away at every lie my father, and later my abusive stepfather, had instilled in me.

Oddly enough, it was being the victim of a form of violence myself - bullying - that led me to seek a nonviolent path. When I was eleven, I once tried my hand at bullying another kid at school - but I found I could not do what had been done to me. Being bullied gave me empathy. And I realized, over time, that this empathy was more powerful than bigotry or hatred. It was this realization that helped me break a cycle of violence.

Zak visiting his father. Attica Correctional Facility, 1994. In the background: The small house where the family stayed together for the weekend. Courtesy Zak Ebrahim

"Empathy, peace, nonviolence-they may seem like quaint tools in the world that my father helped create. But, as many have written, using nonviolence to resolve conflicts doesn't mean being passive. It doesn't mean embracing victimhood, or letting aggressors run riot. It doesn't even mean giving up the fight, not exactly. What it means is humanizing your opponents, recognizing the needs and fears you share with them, working toward reconciliation rather than revenge. The longer I stare at this famous quote by Gandhi, the more I Iove how steely and hardcore it is: 'There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.' Escalations cannot be our only response to aggression, no matter how hardwired it is to hit back and hit back harder. The late counterculture historian Theodore Roszak put it this way: 'People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn't work, they go back to violence, which hasn't worked for centuries.'"

The Terrorist's Son by Zak Ebrahim is now available in bookstores, or you can get it for the Kindle or Nook, or through the iBookstore.

Spanish cities celebrate their Jewish heritage

15th European Day of Jewish Culture is focused on the contribution of Jewish women.

By JTA | Sep. 14, 2014 | 4:25 PM Taken from Haaretz

The exterior of La Sinagoga del Transito in Toledo, Spain Photo by AP

More than 25 Spanish cities launched a cultural program centered around their Jewish heritage in celebration of the 15th European Day of Jewish Culture.

Spain was one of about 30 countries marking the Jewish culture day on Sunday, which this year focused on women in Judaism.

The activities offered by Spain’s Red de Juderias, a national network of 26 cities where authorities have undertaken conservation and restoration of Jewish heritage sites, will focus during the week of Sept. 14 on the role of women in Jewish culture.

In Barcelona, the city is organizing a scientific conference led by the writer and translator Moriah Ferrus on the subject – part of a five-day program on Judaism which started on Sept. 13.

Opting for a less intellectual approach, the city of Cuenta organized a food fair to celebrate the gastronomical inventions of the Sephardic housewife. Many of the cities are offering concerts of Ladino music, with a special emphasis on music written and performed by women.

In Brussels, the day is being marked with the reopening of the Jewish Museum of Belgium, which has remained closed since the murder of four people there in May. A plaque commemorating the victims of the shooting was unveiled on Sept. 9. at the museum’s entrance. The previous day, the City of Brussels increased the museum’s annual budget for security from $6.500 to $38,000.

Belgian and French prosecutors said the murder was perpetrated by Mehdi Nemmoche, a French Muslim who is believed to have fought with jihadists in Syria. He is currently standing trial in Belgium.

In Italy, performances, exhibits, lectures, concerts, guided tours and other activities were organized Sunday in more than 70 towns and cities up and down the peninsula, including large Jewish culture festivals in Rome and Milan. “We believe that culture is the principal means to combat prejudice [and] help society grow and progress,” Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said. “We also want to demonstrate our solidarity with all the women who are victim of discrimination and harassment and to denounce the inacceptable conditions in which women in many parts of the world live still today.”

In Belarus, the Jewish educational nonprofit Limmud FSU and the Israeli embassy in Minsk announced a plan to center the nonprofit’s next conference in the former Soviet country around the family history of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in what is now Ukraine but whose parents both hailed from Pinsk in Belarus.

The EDJC was founded in 2000 as an expansion and outgrowth of an “Open Doors” to Jewish heritage program in France. Each country’s programs are organized locally, with the overall theme loosely coordinated by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage, or AEPJ. Some countries, such as Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the UK program dozens of events; others, such as Bosnia-Hercegovina, Poland and Ireland only one or two.

Brazilian School Apologizes for Test Question Comparing Israelis to Nazis

'Who Is Worse: Nazis or Jews?'

By JTA | Published September 11, 2014.

Taken from the Jewish Daily Forward

A school in Rio de Janeiro published a public apology for an exam question that compared Israelis to Nazis.

The geography exam for eighth-graders at Colégio Andrews included a question that said Jews were once chased by Hitler and today another people is victimized by the Israelis, who compel them to live under their rule after invading, seizing land and killing.

The question was illustrated by a Nazi soldier wearing a swastika oppressing a Jewish boy, and an Israeli soldier with a Star of David oppressing an Arab boy.

“Who is worse: Nazis or Jews?” the question asks.

The Rio Jewish Federation quickly demanded a public apology and further action. The school published a note on its website this week and emailed the apology to all parents. The exam’s question was voided and the teacher who created the question was fired.

“This was an isolated case that does not reflect our school’s educational project goals, which have always favored peace and the good coexistence among the people,” the apology read. “This is our formal apology.”

Holocaust Memorial in Budapest Vandalized

Bronze shoes stolen from the riverside Holocaust memorial ‘Shoes on the Danube’ in Budapest.

By Ben Ariel | First Publish: 9/10/2014, 1:15 AM
Taken from Arutz Sheva

Shoes on the Danube Holocaust memorial      Reuters

A number of bronze shoes were stolen from the riverside Holocaust memorial ‘Shoes on the Danube’ in Budapest, Hungary, The Budapest Beacon reported on Tuesday.

It is not known whether the incident was racially motivated or simple theft, the report said.

The memorial by Gyula Pauer and Can Togay, which was erected on the left bank of the Danube near Parliament in 2005, commemorates the victims of the Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

The victims were told to take off their shoes before being shot and flung into the freezing Danube. 

Local police said they are not investigating the case because no crime had been reported, according to The Budapest Beacon.

An earlier act of vandalism of the shoe memorial occurred five years ago, when pig trotters were placed in the shoes in a willful act of desecration. The ensuing police investigation turned up no suspects.

If the incident is indeed of an anti-Semitic background, it would not be the first in Hungary, where anti-Semitism has been on the rise in recent years.

Most of the anti-Semitism  has been perpetrated by the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party. In November of 2012, one of Jobbik’s members released a statement saying that a list should be compiled of all of the Jewish members of government.

He was followed by another Jobbik member who called publicly for the resignation of a fellow MP who claimed to have Israeli citizenship.

Last month, a town mayor linked to Jobbik was filmed ordering the hanging of effigies of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres in protest against the Gaza conflict.

Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, and Israel

Why Hillary Clinton's hawkish pro-Israel stance won't hurt her, even with the Democratic Party base

taken from The Atlantic
Jeffrey Goldberg, SEP 7 2014, 9:05 AM ET

Hillary Clinton and friends, digging a hole (Reuters)

Shortly after I posted my interview with Hillary Clinton last month, I began hearing from liberal Democrats who were worried that her hawkish comments—on Syria, but especially on the Gaza war—would somehow provoke a primary challenge from her left (these conversations proceeded from the assumption that Clinton is running for president, which is a reasonable assumption). The Democratic Party base, the theory went, would be so offended by Clinton’s vociferous pro-Netanyahu positioning that it would agitate on behalf of a primary challenge. Elizabeth Warren, the populist Massachusetts senator, was the most likely candidate for the role.

As a reminder, here is some of what Clinton said about Israel and Gaza:

Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.

And this:

If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.

Tough stuff, and not the sort of thing you would have heard from her publicly when she was yelling at Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of President Obama for the past several years. After the interview, I came to a few conclusions about these statements:

1.  They were made on purpose, as was every statement she made in the interview, including the line that got the most attention: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

2.  They were made with the knowledge that she faces no serious foreign policy-focused challenge from her left. She does face a more serious and sustained critique from the left on domestic issues, but she felt that going hawkish on foreign policy would be low-risk.

3.  They were made with knowledge that there are segments of the pro-Israel community that still mistrust her for kissing Mrs. Arafat a million years ago. 

4.  She believes what she said. She is just naturally more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state. 

I’m now glad to report—only because I’d rather be right than wrong, all things being equal—that Elizabeth Warren has confirmed for us that, on questions related to Israel, Clinton has nothing to fear from her, at least.

At a town-hall meeting on Cape Cod last month, Warren answered critics of her vote in favor of a Senate measure to send an additional $225 million in military funding to Israel during the war. Here is a report on the town-hall meeting from the Cape Cod Times:

“I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," [Warren] said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel ‘indiscriminately,’ but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants.”

“But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.

Even if Elizabeth Warren chooses to run (unlikely), she won’t run as a tough-on-Israel liberal. There's just no percentage in it. Hillary knew what she was doing.

Tricycle Theatre ends boycott of Israel funds

by Jerry Lewis 
8/17/2014 05:22
taken from The Jerusalem Post
After realizing that most of its predominantly Jewish sponsors decided to walk away from the organization, it changed its mind.

Protest outside Tricycle Theatre in Kilbum following refusal to host Jewish film festival over Gaza conflict. Picture: Nigel Sutton

LONDON - The management of northwest London's Tricycle Theatre beat a hasty retreat in its row with the UK's Jewish Film Festival once it discovered that most of its predominately Jewish sponsors decided to walk away from the organization.

The row was triggered by members of the theater's management board objecting to the tim festival sponsorship of £1,400 from the Israel Embassy's cultural fund.

Objectors made clear their anger at Israel's action in Gaza.

As word spread about the proposed boycott and despite the Tricycle management offering to replace the embassy funding, numerous Jewish supporters of the theater vowed to end their membership and many said they would boycott the theater altogether.

Among the prominent members of the Jewish community who have been significant funders of the Tricycle is Sir Trevor Chinn.

The last week he told The Jewish News he was withdrawing funding.

"We are as a community under pressure from the boycott movement," he said. "We can't accept boycotts and whenever one comes along we have to fight it."

With the theater realizing it was facing serious problems, talks were hastily arranged between the two sides and in an agreement worked out by which the Tricycle would accept Israel Embassy funding and there would be no further discrimination for the Jewish Film Festival.

However, arrangements for alternative venues had already been made for this November's film festival.

It was agreed that the Tricycle would return to being the main host for the festival in 2015 following this year's gap, resumed a relationship that has lasted nearly 10 years.

'Guardian' slams rise in anti-Semitism as Europe anger over Gaza operation grows

by JPOST.COM STAFF 8/10/2014 17:53

Criticism of Israel's policies is legitimate, but attacking synagogues and Jewish institutions is "vile, contemptible racism."

The Guardian, one of Britain's most influential daily newspapers, used its editorial on Friday to warn of the dangers of European anti-Semitism that has been fueled in recent weeks by the tumult in Israel and Gaza.

Citing the numerous violent attacks against Jews, synagogues, and other institutions on the continent in recent years, the newspaper condemned "the conflation of Jews and Israel" while denouncing those who would exploit their anger over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians by attacking Jews in the diaspora.

"The controversy has gained extra heat because of the alarming increase in anti-Jewish racism," The Guardian wrote." As we reported [on Friday], during the course of a single July week, eight synagogues in France were attacked, one of them firebombed by a 400-strong crowd, whose chants and banners included 'Death to Jews' and 'Slit Jews' throats.' "

"More chilling still, given that country's history, Molotov cocktails have been hurled at synagogues in Germany, where chants heard at pro-Palestinian protests have included 'Jew, coward pig, come out and fight alone', and 'Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas'."

The newspaper was prompted to tackle the subject after last week's controversy surrounding London's Tricycle Theatre, which refused to host the UKJewish Film Festival unless organizers rejected funding from the Israeli embassy. The theater raised the demand in response to the Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.

"It should not need saying, but it does: people can be as angry as they like at the Israeli government, but to attack a synagogue, threaten children at a Jewish school, or throw a brick through the window of a Jewish grocery store is vile and contemptible racism," The Guardian wrote.

by Jane Eisner, Published on July 31, 2014

Convergence of Hate: Essay 

Editorial taken from 

Getty Images

Last Shabbat, as my husband and I were walking home from a long, lovely lunch with friends, I noticed scribbling on the sidewalk. Since the letters were written in white chalk and were upside from where I stood, it took a moment to decipher the meaning, and another moment to get over the shock.

This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the epicenter of the liberal American shtetl, a place so ubiquitously Jewish that even the smallest grocery store posts Friday night candle-lighting times each week. So to see even this mildly anti-Israel graffiti was a surprise. For the first time since we moved to the neighborhood a couple of years ago, we felt uncomfortable, targeted, as people who care about Israel and as Jews.

Though we share serious misgivings about the way the military conflict in Gaza began and is being prosecuted, and we grieve for the horrendous loss of life, we also believe that Israel does have a right to defend itself against a terrorizing organization that seeks its obliteration. If Israel's actions warranted the end of its sizable financial support from the United States, what about neighboring Egypt - also a recipient of billions in aid - whose government has killed peaceful protesters, imprisoned journalists and put a democratically elected leader in jail?

As we continued our walk, we asked ourselves whether the comparison was unfair because Israel should be held to a higher standard, and whether that scrawled sidewalk sentiment was a legitimate criticism of American policy or rank anti-Zionism. And when does anti-Zionism bleed into simple hatred of Jews?

To borrow Irving Kristol's line about neoconservatives, was I acting like a liberal Jew who gets mugged?

Like many liberal American Jews, I have long insisted that anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitism,, that one can be critical of Zionist political ideology and not hate Jews as Jews. The argument is partly an intellectual one, and partly a response to the embarrassing ease with which some Jews make the link, equating every criticism of Israel with the "oldest hatred" - an accusation that can unfairly label dissenters and shuts down the conversation.

Plus, I'm American. America loves its Jews, and loves Israel. I can show you the polls, and the votes in Congress, and the intermarriage rate, and other indicators of public sentiment. To equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism somehow burns us into victims, part of a global victimhood, but we are not victims here, and even a few uncomfortable words scrawled on the sidewalk cannot really make a dent in our secure standing.

The virulent reaction around the world to Israel's latest incursion into Gaza is making me rethink that argument, and I know I'm not alone. "I've never been as concerned, frightened, worried and confused as this," the historian Deborah Lipstadt told me. "Maybe it's not 1939, but it may be 1934." We liberals simply cannot ignore the pernicious way the israeli invasion of Gaza and the horrible civilian death toll there has given an anti-Zionist cover to attacks against Jews as Jews. In France, England, Belgium, India, etc., etc., Jews are being held responsible for Israeli actions they may not even support. In Turkey, the prime minister tells CNN that what Israel did to Palestine "has surpass what Hitler did to them" and then confirms that he said it. Unfortunately, I could go on.

"Liberals need to recognize that there is no comfort in their position," said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, himself a liberal. Arguing that these anti-Zionist actions are not also anti-Semitic is "making a distinction that goes against the reality of what we are experiencing today."

This is not something new so much as it is a new inflection point in a long, uneven development. The historian Robert Wistrich argued in the Jewish Political Studies Review that "anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge." That was written a decade ago, when various United Nations actions made the convergence seem more troubling. I think we are at another one of these moments today.

Now, there are some who argue that we Jews bear a share of responsibility for this convergence. More than six decades after the birth of the modern State of Israel, we have made attachment to that state a central aspect of Jewish identity. Throughout the Diaspora and especially in the United States, support for Israel has taken on theological dimensions: We talk about it more openly, passionately and sometimes antagonistically than we do about belief in G-d or any other tenet of our faith.

A free trip to Israel is every young adult's Birthright. A donation to an Israeli cause is every Jew's tithe. It is the barometer by which we judge each other and judge our "friends."

This public form of diasporic Zionism is enhanced by the rhetoric and actions of the Israeli government, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who characterizes himself as a leader of all the Jews and introduced a demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

I can see how this line of thinking is appealing, because to hold ourselves partly responsible for this convergence is also hold the tools of a response: We could amend our language, perhaps, or redirect our activism. But do we really think the rage directed at Jews in a Parisian synagogue was fueled by a few words at a Netanyahu press conference, or by talking points from the Jewish Agency? The growing centrality of Israel to Jewish life in the Diaspora is a complicated communal challenge to us Jews, but it's simply an excuse for those who choose to hate us.

I can hear the sneers from those conservatives eager to show they were right all along: Liberals fooled themselves into thinking that anti-Semitism was not behind the violent agitation and political machinations against Israel that have left it isolated and vulnerable. Hating Israel and hating Jews are one and the same, they might say. Welcome to the real world.

What I reject about that argument, in the past and still now, is that it is views the world as an unredeemably hostile place for Jews, forcing us into a universally defensive position and expecting no real change for the better in human behavior. And it rejects any responsibility for our own actions, and the terrible consequences they may cause.

I'm a liberal because I believe that human beings can progress, sometimes with the help of government, to a place of more tolerance, equality, justice and compassion. And that includes Israel. And that includes other Jews.

Yes, there have been awful riots in France. But there also have been forthright statements condemning such riots from French leaders. It's not 1939. It's not 1934, even. It's 2014.

The challenge for liberals is not to deny or diminish the frightening convergence of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or to dismiss some of its root causes. The challenge is to own it, to recognize the world for what it is right now and not lose sight of our obligation to repair it.

Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner

Photos from Getty Images

In Poland, Jewish identity isn't because of the Holocaust - but despite it

At Krakow Jewish festival, a carnival of music and culture, it is clear that a common history seems to be yielding fertile ground.

By Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua Jul. 28, 2015 | 1:38 PM |  4
Taken from Haaretz.com
Lola Marsh performing at the Beit Cafe, Krakow, Poland, 2015. Photo by Michael Ramus.

Krakow – The six clarinets, three percussionists, horn players, fiddlers, bassists, guitarists and singers were whipping the hordes into a whirling dervish. Their unabashedly joyous, sometimes harmonious, often cacophonous and always rhythmic brew had turned Szeroka Square into a mass of clapping hands and dancing feet.

Where exactly had I landed – Coachella? The gospel tent at a Jazz fest? An outdoor concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, right on Broadway, so the Chassids and the hipsters can comingle?

Before I knew it, a young Sinead O’Connor lookalike grabbed me by the arm and thrust me into a frenzied circle of 20-something revelers dancing the hora.

Welcome to Szalom Szeroka, the grand finale concert of Krakow’s 10-day Jewish Culture Festival, which just celebrated its 25th year and drew its largest crowds yet, attracting 22,000 fans to its quaint Jewish quarter known as Kazimierz.

“It’s the highlight of our summer,” says Krakow native Zofia Radzikowska, “something we look forward to all year. It’s become part of our life.”

To the 80-year-old Radzikowska, who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child, the festival symbolizes the restoration and reinvention of a legacy she at turns was able to embrace, but mostly conceal.

“People don’t realize there has always been Jewish life here,” says Radzikowska, a retired lawyer/professor at Jagiellonian University/Krakow politician and activist, who was part of Solidarity and is now a vital member of the JCC in Krakow. “After the war, I studied at a Tarbut school here and though I wanted to make aliyah, I was too little and somehow I never left. Most Jewish tourists go to the death camps when they come here. But we don’t go from death camp to death camp. There is Jewish life here, and while it’s important to remember the past, we also have to live for the future.”

Nowhere in the world is Jewish culture fraught with so much poignancy and contradiction than in Krakow. “We feel the presence of the absence here very strongly,” says Katke Reszke, a New York-based Jewish historian, writer and documentarian, who grew up in Wroclaw, Poland, went through a ritual conversion before discovering she had been Halachically Jewish all along, received her PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of “The Return of the Jew: Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.”

“It drives you to observance because everyone counts in a minyan here. I’m not generally religious, but I would say, I feel most Jewish when I’m here in Poland.”

And that’s exactly why the festival is “a very deep and genuine exploration of what it means to be Jewish,” says Shmuel Afek, a teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, who came to Krakow for the festivities and myriad other seminars that dovetail on it, such as Centropa Summer Academy. That it attracts a mix of academics from around the world, as well as mostly non-Jewish Poles, is exactly the point.

Or as Lucy Les, co-owner of the Jarden Bookstore, the first and foremost business in Kazimierz catering to those interested in Jewish history and culture, puts it: “This festival is for the Polish people because we need to know about Jewish culture, because it was born here and it’s part of our history, too. We need to keep it alive.”

Though not all Poles feel the sense the obligation Les does, it’s precisely that dual sense of ownership that has turned the festival into the loudest, proudest demonstration of Hebrew heritage on the planet. Not bad for a country that still ranks high in anti-Semitic attitudes, according to an Anti-Defamation League survey.

“Have you ever seen such a thing?” asked the Polish-born Sigmund Rolat, the American Jewish philanthropist who is one of the festival’s main funders, enjoying the concert from his yearly party at a corner suite in the Ester Hotel overlooking the main stage.

Indeed, I hadn’t.

If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d spend a night raving to nouvelle klezmer – or whatever you would call the funky hybrid of Israeli, cantorial and Yiddish music produced the likes of Shlomo Bar, the Klezmatics, Shai Tsabari Future Orchestra, Lola Marsh and Bemet – with mostly non-Jewish Poles in the crowd, grooving in a cobblestone square less than an hour away from Auschwitz, I would have laughed in his or her face. But that’s exactly what I did.

(Michael Ramus)

And not even sweltering heat could contain the eclectic array of singers, horn players and guitarists from streaming onstage like random session musicians at a James Brown show, or could deter the thousands of fans from flocking to private parties on rooftops, in hotel suites, in sidewalk cafes and local pubs. It was nearly 2 A.M. when the rapture came to a halt, sending sighs echoing through the old Jewish quarter, which dates back to the Middle Ages and is named after King Kazimierz the Great, who created a safe haven for Jews here by the Vistula River when they were being expelled from major cities throughout Europe and where Jewish culture flourished for many centuries.

“Kazimierz is the only genuinely Jewish neighborhood to survive the Holocaust,” says Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw native, foremost journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza, founding member of the Flying University – a secret institution of higher learning of topics forbidden by the Communist government – and Jewish activist in Poland, author of “Living in the Land of Ashes.”

“Warsaw also tried to have a festival like this one, but the city was all bombed out and had to be rebuilt. Here, there are synagogues that have lasted hundreds of years. There is culture imbedded in the streets. There is no place like Kazimierz.”

And that’s exactly what drew Janusz Makuch, the festival’s organizer, to this location roughly 30 years ago.

Unlikely origins

A Polish Catholic from a small town on the outskirts of Lublin, Makuch said his entrée into the Jewish faith was accidental. “I was 14 or 15 when a professor of history approached me in a bookstore in my hometown of Pwaveck and asked me: ‘Do you know anything about the other half of our population?’ to which I responded: ‘Who are you talking about?’”

The professor then told him about the village’s Jewish population. Makuch likens the moment to some grand awakening about his missing link.

“I thought I knew everything about my hometown, and here was this guy talking about ghosts,” says Makuch. “I was shocked. I had never heard the word ‘Jewish” in my school. This guy became my melamed [teacher].”

When he finished high school, Makuch decided to come straight to the source and moved to Krakow, alighting on a what he terms “all this strange architecture” in Kazimierz.

“It was the process of discovering Atlantis for me,” says Makuch, 55, whose long, graying beard and sideburns, coupled with his frequent peppering of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions in conversation, would have you swearing he’s a member of the tribe. “I found a building behind the Tempel Shul [synagogue], whose windows weren’t completely dark and that resembled a Beit Midrash [study hall], and thought, ma kara [what happened]? So I knocked on the door. Suddenly a man with a long beard opened the door. He looked at me. I looked at him. He must have thought I was a hippie Hasid because he began speaking in Yiddish, which I recognized but couldn’t understand. He allowed me in, and that was the start – a very symbolic gesture, because he allowed me to cross the threshold into the Jewish world.”

Though he was the only non-Jew in a shul in those days and often regarded with suspicion by members of the congregation, Makuch stayed the course, attending Shabbat and holiday services, learning the Bible and Hebrew.

“I felt like a Marano,” he says, referring to the Jews of Spain who were forced to convert under the Inquisition but lit Shabbat candles and observed traditions in secret.

Of course, Makuch wasn’t Jewish and learned, much to his chagrin, that he never had been.

“I dreamed I was Jewish, that I would discover I had Jewish roots,” he says.

And though he probably knows more about Jewish traditions, faith and history than most Jews his age in the United States, he’s not about to convert.

“For us Poles, it’s different,” he says. “Even though we’re not Jewish, we’re also heirs of Jewish culture because Jews lived here and the culture grew here. Our histories are intertwined. And anyway, how can you know anything about Catholicism without knowing anything about Judaism?”

Fortunately, Makuch met like-minded souls who also felt Judaism needed to be incorporated into a new understanding of Christianity and Polish identity, fitting for a post-communist Poland.

“It was a phenomenal time,” he recalls. “When we decided to mount the first festival in 1988, we did it in a very counter-culture way. It was risqué to explore Jewish culture – a taboo. Being here in Kazimierz lent it an air of micro-theater. I invited the then-ambassador of Israel, who was born in Tarnow, to attend, and he invited the head of the Jagiellonian University, and it became somewhat academic. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was afraid – what if the space is empty and we can’t even get 20 people to come?”

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

(Michael Ramus) 

“Over 100 came that first year, many wearing kippot [skullcaps],” says Makuch. “I was in heaven! I saw this as a demonstration of pride – we are Jewish and we’re not afraid to be Jewish!”

That most people in attendance weren’t actually Jewish hardly roiled him. It was a sentiment of solidarity, akin to Jews singing “We shall overcome!” alongside Blacks during Civil Rights marches, or the more recent “Je Suis Charlie.”

Kazimierz native Jakub Nowakowski, director of the Galicia Jewish Museum, recalls that first festival as an odd convergence of unlikely characters and a demonstration of cultural pride over a culture that had been dormant and whose purveyors were largely not in-situ.

“I was six at the time,” he says. “And I thought, who are these freaks?”

(Michael Ramus)

But with time, he grasped the relevance and he, too, became one of those non-Jewish Poles who felt a sense of obligation to unearth this heritage that was so much a part of his own firmament.

“We’re living in a place shaped by Jewish death, but we didn’t know how they lived because there was no transmission of how they lived,” he says, strolling by a mural called “Judah” by Israeli artist Pil Peled that depicts a boy clad in some native American warrior headdress, representing how our tribe has been uprooted from its indigenous soil but has prevailed.

“To us, Jews were just characters in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ not real, just figures from movies – so activities like this, where there’s music, culture organized by Poles for whatever reason, some portal to the Jewish world, is a vital link.”

Though 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before the war, only 10 percent survived, and of those, only 1 percent of them returned to live, says Nowakowski. Their property had been seized and Jews were often expelled from their small villages and gravitated toward the big cities. But even there, Jewish life hardly flourished.

(Michael Ramus)

“The Communists put a severe clamp on Jewish religious practice and in 1968, they made Jewish self-expression illegal, forcing people to emigrate and putting a taboo on the whole field,” says Jonathan Webber, a British social anthropologist, author, documentary filmmaker and professor at Jagiellonian University specializing in Polish-Jewish relations and the cultural heritage of Polish Jews.

“I started to do research here in the 1980s, and the whole topic of Jewish culture wasn’t off limits then. It was just a perception; there was quite a lot more going on than what people give credit for. There was Glasnost going on then, so 1989 was not quite the watershed people thought it was, but since then everything did open up.”

Or as Makuch puts it: “I was at the right place, at the right time and with the right people.”

Though he took a break between his first festival in 1988 and his second in 1990, he was undeterred in his mission to mount a more “out” festival. Quite literally, he took his festival outdoors, incorporating music and proudly displaying signs that he felt would resonate with Poles eager to reconnect with a notion of identity that had been dormant when the Iron Curtain was up. And that proved a critical step.

“Historically, Polish culture was multi-ethnic,” says Gebert. “And Poles, particularly the younger generation, wanted to emerge from the oppression of a mono-ethnic culture. In the 1970s there was an explosion of alternative cultural styles borne out of young people being bored out of their skulls. You had Polish Hare Krishna, Polish Indians, people dressing up like they lived on the prairie, but the only genuine native experience here is the Jewish one. That’s why it stuck. That’s why people embraced it with a passion. And that’s why it still resonates.”

Erica Lehrer, an anthropologist, curator, professor and author specializing in post-Holocaust Jewish culture and Krakow’s Jewish revival, remembers that second festival well.

“I took a year off from college when the wall came down and traveled throughout Europe with my brother,” she says. “We wound up in Poland, not for any particularly Jewish reason. And we were staying with an artist in a village outside Krakow. At the time, people had this sense that they owed us morally something and of wanting to repay a debt, or make good on history, even if they didn’t do anything or knew if their families had any guilt [vis-à-vis Jews]. But the way I was treated in those early days was with a combination of fascination, sometimes bordering on fetishism, but also incredible interest and incredible outpourings of empathy, and this desire to make sure you had a good experience in Poland, to show you that history didn’t end with the Holocaust.”

Their friend took them to Kazimierz, and as they were driving in, Lehrer recalls a banner that read “the second annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow,” and thinking, what? For whom?

Janusz Makuch, the founder of Krakow's Jewish Culture Festival, July 2014. (Wojciech Karlinski)

“He got us tickets for this cantorial concert in the Old Synagogue, and it was a cantor from Washington, D.C., and I thought I was on the moon,” she says. “This whole area was a slum, everything was run down; nothing was painted those bright, pastel colors as it is today. It was gray and looked like the war had ended three months earlier, to my American eyes. There were broken piles of bricks, things falling in on themselves. The northern end, which now has this enormous wall, was all wobbly – wooden tenement houses with collapsed porches and laundry hanging over the cemetery.”

But that sense of danger only added to the lure of the forbidden, which turned the festival into the ultimate expression of counterculture – or the quickest way to disassociate from the bland, cultureless world of your parents. Or as Nowakowski puts it: “I was a little embarrassed at how little my parents knew. I wanted to right that wrong and make sure where I came from. And now, as a young father, I feel the urgency all the more.”

As Makuch has written, he sees his role – and of his non-Jewish Polish peers who are actively involved with the festival as Shabas goyim – caretakers of a heritage that they must safeguard for those who cannot.

But Gebert laughs off the comparison. “He’s a legitimate organizer of a vital festival,” he says. “The fact that it’s organized by non-Jews and mostly attended by non-Jews but whose performers and presenters are Jewish saves it from being a minstrel show.”

And the fact that the Szalom Szeroka stage was full of an amalgam of musicians from all parts of the world, reflecting sensibilities ranging from hip-hop to rabbinical traditions, further saved it from being a tacky nostalgia-fest.

“If it had stayed indoors like it was the first year, or remained a dutiful recreation of traditional Klezmer music, this very correct and boring thing, then it would get old and clichéd. But Janusz, being exuberant, decided to take this concert outdoors, to experiment and combine music, old and new, and it worked out beautifully. Because if we are to be the klezmorim of today, then it needs to be this live, hybrid culture.”

That multi-dimensional approach also went into programming the 300 events that shaped the 10-day festival, from the studious “Deconstructing Symbols: Graffiti and Its Broader implications,” to the surreal “The Rebbetezen’s Disco,” from the serious “Tangled Fates: Perceptions of the Past in the Polish-Lithuanian-Ukranian Troika,” to the sublime “From a Klezmer to a Hipster, or How Come I am Still the Director of the Jewish Culture Festival?” by Janusz Makuch.

But that’s one question no one seems to be asking.

“Ninety percent of the people here are young Poles. Think about what that means,” says Rolat, a Holocaust survivor who also is one of the principal funders of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, also known as POLIN, in Warsaw. “Imagine this happening in Western Europe, in Paris, Brussels, London ... There would be a battalion of police. Actually, it wouldn’t happen.”

The Krakow Jewish Center’s dynamic director, Jonathan Orenstein, echoes those sentiments.

“People used to think Jews would never return to Poland, that Kazimierz is a scene steeped in nostalgia at best, but this is proof that it’s not,” he says. “Janusz has created an environment that has allowed Jews to feel comfortable exploring their roots, and that’s been conducive to Jewish life. How many festivals around the world can claim to have created a situation where Jewish life is thriving now as a result?”

And that’s the festival’s greatest reward to its founder.

“I had a 22-year-old woman come up to me the other day and tell me that she grew up going to the festival,” says Makuch. “My own daughter is 28, so she’s even younger than her. She said that thanks to the festival, she became interested in Judaism and was proud to discover she has Jewish roots.”

Though the Jarden Bookstore’s Lucy Les is quick to distinguish that the festival isn’t so much a reflection of Polish Jewish culture as an indication of a growing interest in it among Poles, she affirms its larger significance to Poles.

“Knowledge produces tolerance, if you know more, then you’re not aggressive because you’re not afraid, and that’s the main reason why we’re here and why the festival is so important,” she says.

However you define Polish Jewish culture, one quick walk around Kazimierz during the festival yielded ample proof that it is anything but a kitsch throwback to “Fiddler on the Roof”-style Judaica.

At the JCC, Orenstein offered a sample of kosher gelato made by an Italian (non-Jewish) transplant to the neighborhood, who felt a certain obligation to adhere by the locale’s traditions. Further down by Szeroka Square, a 20-something barrister with tousled blond hair, discs in his earlobes, sporting what looked like a black concert T-shirt that announced “Bajgel Challah Bakery” instead of the name of a band, brewed coffee laced with Middle Eastern spices as a group of musicians was finishing their sound check on a second stage behind the Old Synagogue on Dajwor Street. Around the corner, food trucks were serving everything from Belgian fries to something with the unlikely name Chimney Cake – a crepe-like dough with Nutella, whipped cream and nuts in a cup. It felt more like a scene at Austin, Texas’ “South by Southwest” than at a Jewish culture festival.

“There’s something dynamic going on here,” says Orenstein, a New York native who likens the spirit in Kazimierz to the East Village of the 1980s but with a soul-searching bent. “It’s hard to put your finger on it, but for those who say there is no Jewish life in Krakow, come to one of our Friday night dinners.”

During the festival, the Krakow JCC hosted 500 guests, the largest Shabbat dinner in Poland since before the war. Half the guests may have been tourists in town for the festival, but that hardly diminished the awesome sense that a tangible Jewish presence is being felt and is reinvigorating this city in uncharted ways – and at a time when the rest of Europe is reeling from the most strident form of anti-Semitic activity since World War II.

“The festival has transformed Kazimierz from an abandoned slum into a neighborhood that’s gentrified and a true destination,” says Gebert, who sometimes winces at what he terms the “tackiness” of the commercialization of the Jewish revival, with theme restaurants where waiters wear aprons that resemble tallitot [prayer shawls], but welcomes the interest in a culture he had to explore on the sly under Communist rule. Nor is he surprised at the philo-Semitism here.

“Let’s not forget that of the six million Poles killed during the Holocaust, half were Jewish and half weren’t, so there isn’t this abyss of incomprehension between Jews and non-Jews here, because they went through hell, too,” he says.

“It may not have been the same hell, and I’m not trying to amalgamate the two, but neither do we have the stark incomparability that you have in the rest of Europe and in the U.S. So in that sense, instead of setting us apart, the Shoah almost puts us together – almost!”

And perhaps that’s why as interest in Jewish culture blooms in Poland, thanks to the festival, which has spawned knockoffs in cities ranging from Warsaw to smaller towns like Czeladz, there’s a sense that Jewish identity here isn’t because of the Holocaust – as it is in the U.S., as reported by a recent PEW Survey – but despite it. And that’s a huge difference. Jewish identity – or the interest in it – has created a wild, carefree hybrid culture that’s young, hip and an antithesis to the way this New York Jew and 2G was raised.

To those of us whose Jewish identity was predicated on Holocaust trauma and tragedy and who, like Woody Allen, wonder why anyone would voluntarily want to claim a piece of this guilt pie, the festival’s take on Jewish heritage presents a glowingly positive picture of what it means to be Jewish, and one that for once isn’t propelled by the Chabad or right-wing Orthodoxy.

Still, I wonder, isn’t it a paradox that of all places, the seeds of a new Jewish culture are being sewn here?

To Rolat, it isn’t.

“See this?” he asks, pulling out a crisp 10-zloty bill from his wallet. “It’s an aleph, a yud. The first Polish coins were named brackteate. Right there on the currency of Poland are Hebrew letters. What does that tell you? The two cultures are intertwined.”

And for now, as Poland also celebrates 25 years of renewed relations with Israel, that common history seems to be yielding fertile ground.

Follow Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua on Twitter: @marisafox  

El Al 'gender discrimination' may violate U.S. law, claims N.Y. activist rabbi

In wake of petition urging El Al to act on Haredi passengers who refuse to sit next to women, Conservative rabbi and attorney calls on unhappy clients to use U.S. Federal law to pressure airlines.

By Alona Ferber | Oct. 1, 2014 | Take from Haaretz

There was chaos on an El Al flight. Picture: Aero Icarus Source: Flickr

In the wake of a petition urging El Al airlines to protect female passengers from what it says is harassment by ultra-Orthodox male passengers, a New York Conservative rabbi and attorney is calling on unhappy customers to put pressure on airlines by using a U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on flights to and from the United States.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Iris Richman, who founded the group Jewish Voices Together a year and a half ago to address issues of religious pluralism in Israel and the U.S., posted a callout on Facebook quoting “49 U.S. Code § 40127 – Prohibitions on discrimination a) Persons in Air Transportation.” According to this directive, she wrote, “An air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.”

El Al says it doesn't discriminates against passengers, and that it deals with customer complaints on an individual basis.

Customers on an El Al flight from New York to Israel last week complained it was delayed and disrupted by ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers who refused to sit next to women. Meanwhile, the petition signed by some 1,200 people as of Tuesday, having been launched Sunday on Change.org, charges that the Israeli airline permits “female passengers to be bullied, harassed and intimidated into switching seats which they rightfully paid for and were assigned to.”

According to Richman, who says she phoned the U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the department “is willing to investigate any situation where any employee of a carrier – i.e. a steward/ess – participated in asking someone to change a seat because of their gender,” she wrote. She called on Facebook users to contact her if they would like to pursue a complaint.

“I did the research to figure out who in the U.S. is responsible to redress this wrong,” she told Haaretz. “There are no private damages, but if the Aviation Consumer Protection Division finds that airline personnel were involved in any act of gender (or other impermissible) discrimination against a passenger – they will take action and levy a sanction against a carrier. This applies to any carrier flying to or from the U.S.”

Her post also specified that, “In addition, a separate complaint may be made to the FAA, which regulates safety, since it is a clear violation of the law to move away from the gate while any passengers are standing – for any reason.”

The Department of Transportation confirmed that Richman’s Facebook post correctly refers to its statutory authority and policy to investigate complaints of discrimination against airlines that they receive.

Richman hasn’t personally been asked to move on a flight, but she has experienced Haredi men “standing and interfering with people on the plane” amid seat-switching negotiations. However the story of Elana Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who refused a request to switch seats on a recent flight, struck her as “the last straw.”

With many Haredi customers on U.S.-Israel routes, particularly on El Al, seat-switching requests on grounds of gender, whether through flight attendants or directly with passengers, is a common occurrence, although it doesn’t always lead to disruption or delay.

A spokeswoman for the company, which is represented by the Israeli public relations firm Ran Rahav Communications, told Haaretz, “Our policy in general is to try to accommodate any customer request.”

She added that El Al deals with complaints on a case-by-case basis. As for Richman’s Facebook call, the spokeswoman said El Al operates within the law.

There is no equivalent law in Israel, a Transportation Ministry spokesman told Haaretz, although Israel does have an anti-discrimination law.

Steven Beck, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel’s international relations director, said that “what El Al and other airlines are doing is trying to avoid a bad situation, and they are dancing incredibly close to having a discriminatory policy.”

Still, he noted that people want to switch seats on a flight for all sorts of reasons, and that it would be difficult to prove flight attendants accommodate with an intent to discriminate.

Beck is also formerly of the Israel Religious Action Center, which dealt heavily with gender segregation on Israeli buses in the past. IRAC appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court on the issue, and the court ruled in January 2011 that forced segregation on Israel’s public buses was banned.

In 2012, IRAC took on the airline after a U.S. passenger, Debra Ryder, said the flight crew made her switch seats because a man would not sit next to her, according to Orly Erez-Litkhovski, a lawyer for IRAC. The group asked El Al to pay her damages of NIS 50,000, a maximum amount for damages under Israel’s anti-discrimination law. El AL rejected the demand, and IRAC did not proceed to court. But IRAC representatives met with El Al in 2013, and the company at that meeting said it would set guidelines.

“As far as we were concerned there was improvement since that meeting, but there is still more to be done in order to make sure that the rights of female passengers would not be harmed by the rights of male passengers,” said Erez-Litkhovski.

Not everyone is critical of the practice. One former El Al flight attendant, who preferred to remain nameless so she could speak freely, said she doesn’t see the issue as a problem, but rather as a “question of tolerance.”

“If it’s possible and doesn’t interfere with safety or service, then why not?” she said, adding that Haredim are an important part of El Al’s clientele. As a secular Jew, she said, “I respect that this is their belief and I don’t judge them. I always tried to help them be happy and enjoy good service, as with any other customer request.”

She noted that it is not always women who are asked to move, but that men are sometimes also asked to switch seats to accommodate Haredim.

Study Says All Ashkenazi Jews Are 30th Cousins

Researchers identify 350-person founding population of Ashkenazi Jewry

By Stephanie Butnick|September 10, 2014 5:40 PM
Taken from Tablet Magazine

According to a new study, all Ashkenazi Jews are basically cousins. More specifically, Ashkenazi Jews are at least 30th cousins. LiveScience reports on the international team’s new study, which found that “the central and eastern European Jewish population, known as Ashkenazi Jews, from whom most American Jews are descended, started from a founding population of about 350 people between 600 and 800 years ago.”

According to Columbia University researcher Itsik Pe’er, who was involved with the study, their research also showed that the group of 350 was made up of Jews of Middle Eastern and European—thereby disproving the much-debated theory that Jews descended from Khazars, a Turkic people who lived in the Caucasus region between the 7th and 10th centuries.

Here’s how the study was performed, according to LiveScience:

The team analyzed the genomes of 128 Ashkenazi Jews, comparing them with a reference group of 26 Flemish people from Belgium. From that the researchers were able to work out which genetic markers in the genome are unique to Ashkenazi. The number of similarities within the genomes allowed the scientists to compute a rough estimate of the founding population and put upper and lower limits on the amount of time that had passed since that group originated. In this case it is 30 to 32 generations, or at most 800 years. “[Among Ashkenazi Jews] everyone is a 30th cousin,” Pe’er said. “They have a stretch of the genome that is identical.”

The discovery holds perhaps the most significance for doctors and Jewish patients. Just last week a new study revealed that all Ashkenazic women, even those without any family history of cancer, may carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The more genetic information available regarding Ashkenazi Jews, the fewer genome sequences doctors need to test and analyze when looking for potential problems or mutations.

This is pretty big stuff. Now go call your cousin.

Cardiff deputy lord mayor says Hamas fired 'toy rockets' at Israel

Welsh businessman calls on legislator Ali Ahmed to resign or be dismissed.

By Haaretz - Sep. 9, 2014 - 3:57 AM
Sderot residents show the remains of a rocket fired fro Gaza, on July 13, 2014. Photo by AFP

Comments by the deputy lord mayor of Cardiff, UK, suggesting that Hamas was firing "toy rockets" at Israel during the country's recent conflict in Gaza, have prompted Israel's honorary consul to Wales to demand that he resign or be dismissed, a media report says.

On August 30, the lord mayor, Ali Ahmed, attended a "No NATO" rally in Newport. A video of the remarks linked by Wales Online shows that Ahmed was introduced as the deputy lord mayor but told the crowd that he was attending in a personal capacity.

"We all know what's happening in Iraq … in Gaza, Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan. Who created all this? It's us, America, Mr. Cameron," Ahmed told the rally. He said the rockets fired at Israel were "toy rockets" while Israel was firing "arms and weapons made in U.K. and USA, supplied by America."

Ahmed told the rally that the U.S. had "created" Osama bin Laden and Isis, the Sunni Islamist group trying to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

He ended the speech saying "Freedom for Palestine" twice.

Cardiff Deputy Lord Mayor Ali Ahmed,
Photo by Cardiff, U.K., Council Website 

Philip Kaye, a Cardiff executive who has held the position
of Israel's honorary consul since in Wales since 2010, called Ahmed's remarks "deeply offensive" to the Jewish community, Wales Online reported.

“To refer to the rockets launched against Israel as ‘toy rockets’ is appalling. One of them killed a four year-old child,” the website quoted Kaye as saying.

Kaye sent an e-mail to Cardiff Council Chief Executive Paul Orders, saying that Ahmed's remarks bring "disrepute" on the city and called for Ahmed's resignation or dismissal, the website reported.

Ahmed, a member of the Labour Party, said he attended the rally as a private citizen and has "a right to express my views," Wales Online reported.

Why Does President Obama Condemn ISIS But Ask Israel to Accept Hamas in Unity Government?

taken from the algemeiner
AUGUST 20, 2014 6:32 PM

President Barack Obama has rightfully condemned the ISIS beheading of American James Foley in the strongest terms.  This is what he said:
“There has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of the kind of a nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is group like (ISIS) has no place in the 21st century. Friends and allies around the world, we share a common security a set of values opposite of what we saw yesterday. We will continue to confront this hateful terrorism and replace it with a sense of hope and stability.”

At the same time that President Obama has called for an all-out war against the “cancer” of ISIS, he has regarded Hamas as having an easily curable disease, urging Israel to accept that terrorist group, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, as part of a Palestinian unity government. I cannot imagine him urging Iraq, or any other Arab country, to accept ISIS as part of a unity government.

Former President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu have gone even further, urging the international community to recognize the legitimacy of Hamas as a political party and to grant it diplomatic recognition. It is hard to imagine them demanding that the same legitimate status be accorded ISIS.

Why then the double standard regarding ISIS and Hamas? Is it because Hamas is less brutal and violent than ISIS?  It’s hard to make that case. Hamas has probably killed more civilians—through its suicide bombs, its murder of Palestinian Authority members, its rocket attacks and its terror tunnels—than ISIS has done. If not for Israel’s Iron Dome and the Israeli Defense Forces, Hamas would have killed even more innocent civilians.  Indeed its charter calls for the killing of all Jews anywhere in the world, regardless of where they live or which “rock” they are hiding behind.  If Hamas had its way, it would kill as least as many people as ISIS would.

Is it the manner by which ISIS kills?  Beheading is of course a visibly grotesque means of killing, but dead is dead and murder is murder.  And it matters little to the victim’s family whether the death was caused by beheading, by hanging or by a bullet in the back of a head.  Indeed most of ISIS’s victims have been shot rather than beheaded, while Hamas terrorists have slaughtered innocent babies in their beds, teenagers on the way home from school, women shopping, Jews praying and students eating pizza.

Is it because ISIS murdered an American?  Hamas has murdered numerous Americans and citizens of other countries.  They too are indiscriminate in who they kill.

Is it because ISIS has specifically threatened to bring its terrorism to American shores, while Hamas focuses its terrorism in Israel?  The Hamas Charter does not limit its murderous intentions to one country.  Like ISIS it calls for a worldwide “caliphate,” brought about by violent Jihad.

Everything we rightly fear and despise from ISIS we should fear and despise from Hamas.  Just as we would never grant legitimacy to ISIS, we should not grant legitimacy to Hamas—at the very least until it rescinds its charter and renounces violence.  Unfortunately that is about as likely as America rescinding its constitution.  Violence, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism are the sine qua non of Hamas’ mission.

Just as ISIS must be defeated militarily and destroyed as a terrorist army, so too must Hamas be responded to militarily and its rockets and tunnels destroyed.

It is widely, and in my view mistakenly, argued by many academics and diplomats that there can never be a military solution to terrorism in general or to the demands of Hamas in particular.  This conventional wisdom ignores the lessons of history.  Chamberlain thought there could be a diplomatic solution to Hitler’s demands.  Churchill disagreed.  History proved Churchill correct.  Nazi Fascists and Japanese militarists had to be defeated militarily before a diplomatic resolution could be achieved.

So too with ISIS and Hamas.  They must first be defeated militarily and only then might they consider accepting reasonable diplomatic and political compromises.  Another similarity between ISIS and Hamas is that if these terrorist groups were to lay down their arms, there might be peace, whereas if their enemies were to lay down their arms, there would be genocide.

A wonderful cartoon illustrates this:  at one end of the table is Hamas demanding “death to all the Jews!”  At the other end is Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu.  In the middle sits the mediator, who turns to Netanyahu and asks:  “Can’t you at least come half way?”

No democratic nation can accept its own destruction.  We cannot compromise—come half way—with terrorists who demand the deaths of all who stand in the way of their demand for a Sunni caliphate, whether these terrorists call themselves ISIS or Hamas.  Both are, in the words of President Obama, “cancers” that must be extracted before they spread.  Both are equally malignant.  Both must be defeated on the battlefield, in the court of public opinion and in the courts of law.  There can be no compromise with bigotry, terrorism or the demand for a caliphate.  Before Hamas or ISIS can be considered legitimate political partners, they must give up their violent quest for a worldwide Islamic caliphate.

A Peach of a Synagogue 

Mickve Israel on the Minds of Savannah Tourists

By Lauren Davidson

Published August 12, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014

Photo by Kurt Hoffman

If you were asked to guess the top tourist destination in each state, you might go with the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, the “Bean” monument in Chicago, or Central Park in New York City. Your local synagogue might not immediately spring to mind.

Unless you live in Savannah, Georgia, that is. The reform congregation Mickve Israel has been named the most popular travel attraction in its state, up there with the world-famous attractions mentioned above, according to TripAdvisor’s popularity index.

“We find that very hard to believe — but we’ll take it!” said Phoebe Kerness, a longtime member of Mickve Israel and co-chair of its museum committee.

Savannah might be better known for the Georgia State Railroad, the U.S.’s oldest antebellum railroad facility still in existence; Chippewa Square, where Forrest Gump sat on a bus stop bench and shared his life story; or the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a striking piece of architecture built in the 1870s. But the Jewish community in Savannah has 150 years even on that.

“We’re probably one of the most surprising locations in the state of Georgia,” Herbert Victor, co-chair of Mickve Israel’s museum committee, told the Forward. “People who are not from the South — from the north of the Mason-Dixon line — are shocked to hear that there are Jews in Georgia at all, other than maybe Atlanta.”

That discovery is one of the reasons that so many tourists are attracted to the Mickve Israel synagogue: Their interest is piqued by the novel idea of a community of Jews living in the Deep South. (Stumbling across a synagogue in New York’s Upper West Side might be less of a revelation.) There’s another reason Mickve Israel keeps bringing in visitors: It’s a well-oiled tourism machine, replete with guided tours, a museum and knowledgeable docents, whom reviewers on TripAdvisor shower with praise.

But the Mickve Israel synagogue is much more than a curious congregation or remarkable museum — it’s emblematic of the very story of American Jewry and a testament to almost three centuries of U.S. history.

“The story of the Jews and the part they played in the settling of the South and even Monticello is very interesting,” Robyn B, a TripAdvisor user from Denver, Colorado, wrote on the review site. “An unlikely story [is] brought to light here.”

The first Jews arrived in Savannah on July 11, 1733, five months after General James Oglethorpe, the British colonialist and social reformer, established the colony of Georgia. The second ship that arrived in Georgia from England, called the William and Sarah, carried 42 Jews — although one Jew did not survive the journey — including eight German Ashkenazim and 34 Spanish Portuguese Jews from London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the U.K. This was the largest Jewish group to arrive in the colonies by that time and the first to land in the South.

After two years, during which they probably held private services in their homes, the Jews of Savannah agreed to open a synagogue called Kahal Kodesh Mickva Israel, or the Holy Congregation Hope of Israel. Dedicated in 1735, was the third congregation to be established in America, following New York City’s Shearith Israel in 1654 and Jeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island, a few years later.

Jews in early Savannah had a unique experience. Some other colonies did not grant Jews equal rights; in Connecticut, for example, Jews were banned from public worship until 1843, and the last state to lift its ban on non-Protestant state officials (New Hampshire) did not do so until 1877. But “thanks to Oglethorpe,” Kerness said, “Savannah is one of the only Jewish settlements that received immediate equal rights, [such as] land grants and voting rights — and they had freedom of religion.”

“From the very beginning, we were part of the conversation,” Kerness said. “It’s not like we’re another community that has worked its way in — we continue to be part of the growth and development of the [city’s] economic, religious and political [landscape].”

Georgia’s Jews helped to found Solomon’s Lodge, the oldest operating Masonic lodge in the U.S. America’s oldest orphanage still in existence, Bethesda Home for Boys — now a residential education program called Bethesda Academy — is funded by the Union Society, which was co-founded by Benjamin Sheftall, an Ashkenazi Jew who arrived in Savannah on the William and Sarah and whose descendants still belong to the city’s Jewish congregation.

Mickve Israel also helped support the Girl Scouts, an organization that now boasts millions of members across the world, which was founded in Savannah in 1912. Three of the first Girl Scout leaders were from Savannah’s Jewish community, as were many of the girls who made up the early troops.

Mickve Israel also gave Savannah a mayor, Herman Myers, at the turn of the 19th century, and Mordecai Sheftall — son of the aforementioned Benjamin Sheftall — became the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the American Revolutionary forces during the Revolutionary War. Dr Samuel Nunez, who arrived on the William and Sarah in 1733, became Georgia’s first practicing physician.

“We were there at the ground floor,” Victor said. “We were involved in all the things that have happened in Savannah history: the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression.” The synagogue continues to contribute to Savannah: every year, Mickve Israel hosts the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival in Forsyth Park, which attracts some 15,000 hungry visitors.

Despite the community’s longevity, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing since that ship first docked in Savannah. Although most of the early Jews were Sephardic, many of those who joined later were Ashkenazi. Reverend John Martin Bolzius, a Lutheran pastor, detailed the differences between the two groups — from language spoken to dietary laws observed — in a letter to a friend in Germany.

Although the Jews “enjoy all privileges the same as other colonists,” Bolzius wrote in 1739, “they have no synagogue, which is their own fault; the one element hindering the other in this regard. The German Jews believe themselves entitled to build a synagogue and are willing to allow the Spanish Jews to use it with them in common, the latter, however, reject any such arrangement and demand the preference for themselves.”

It brings to mind the old Jewish joke about the man rescued from a desert island. While giving his saviors a tour of the land, he points out his home and his shul. When his rescuers ask what the third building is, he replies, “That’s the shul I don’t go to.”

Despite these disputes — and, no doubt, many others, if Jewish jokes are anything to go by — the Mickve Israel synagogue has stood in its current place since 1878, making it the third oldest synagogue building still standing in the U.S. Today, its tower rises regally over the flat, tree-lined streets of Savannah, presiding alongside the green spires of its fellow monarch, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Some 280 years after those few dozen Jews arrived in Savannah, the city boasts several synagogues and day schools that cater to all tastes among its population of 3,800 Jews — about 1% of the city’s total population. Some 350 households make up Mickve Israel’s membership. Kerness estimates that Mickve Israel attracts between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors each year, of whom slightly less than half are not Jewish.

“The Mickve Israel Temple tour was one of the highlights of our long weekend in Savannah!” QuincyKid, from Austin, Texas, wrote on TripAdvisor. “We are Christians and had never been in a Jewish house of worship for any appreciable time. Our outré guide was extraordinarily knowledgeable and patient with our many questions.”

Mickve Israel offers guided tours of its sanctuary, an ornate cream-colored chapel with an organ, majestic stained-glass windows almost a century old, and gothic revival cast iron pillars painted in café au lait marble. “Rumor has it that we bought the building from a bishop,” the tour guide explained, “but we did it all ourselves.” The giveaway is the ark, designed to look like the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.

The synagogue also houses a museum, which contains a 15th-century deerskin Torah scroll that is believed to be the oldest Torah scroll in the U.S. The congregation reads from this Torah each year on its anniversary, on July 11. As well as other historical Judaic artifacts, such as a haggadah dating to 1784 Amsterdam, the museum displays letters from about a dozen U.S. presidents. Upon his presidential appointment, George Washington addressed a letter “To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah, Georgia.”

“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and make the inhabitants of every denomination partake in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people, whose God is Jehova,” President Washington wrote.

For a suggested donation of $6, visitors can see these items on a guided tour, which runs twice daily from Monday to Friday. The synagogue is closed for business, as it were, on Shabbat and Jewish festivals, but as Kerness said, “That doesn’t mean tourists don’t try and sneak in.”

They might not get an official tour of the premises, but tourists who show up on Shabbat might at least get a good show. “Our rabbi is a riot,” synagogue member and docent Gail Kaplan said of Rabbi Robert Haas. And if that doesn’t do the trick, there’s the kiddush.

“If they come on a Saturday at 11, [the service] is always followed by a full lunch. We invite everybody who’s there,” said Kerness. “We’re a very hospitable, haimishe place — that’s our trademark.”

Lauren Davidson is a frequent contributor to the Forward.