Forward Thinking

News Quiz: The Happiest American and a New Israeli Game Show

By Lenore Skenazy

Game shows, Hawaiians and the IDF’s new “Guardia. Is this really a Jewish news quiz? Answer the questions and find out!

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My Advice for Birthright? More Palestinians

By Michael Kaplan

Taglit-Birthright Israel

Birthright’s worried. Registrations are dwindling and young Jews are growing disinterested in the free 10-day trip to Israel.

Over a period of three years, applications have dropped more than 17%. To compensate for the downturn, the group has started to ease its “Jewish” definition and dig into its years-old wait lists. It’s also hired a marketing firm to help with outreach.

As one of those former Jewish day school students who opted against taking the trip, I can probably help Birthright save a lot of money by offering a little friendly advice — no marketing firm needed.

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Israel Hires Psychic Uri Geller To Fight Rockets

By Emily L. Hauser

Israeli psychic Uri Geller poses with a spoon that he bent in 2008 / Haaretz

Really, can you blame them? Faced with ongoing rocket fire on the citizens it’s meant to protect, Israel’s military has done the only truly reasonable thing it could do: It hired a spoon-bending mentalist named Uri Geller.

More than two decades after the first time the PLO agreed to recognize Israel in exchange for peace; a decade and a half since the PLO reaffirmed that decision three times in the space of a few months; 11 years since Israel and the PLO signed on to the U.S.-backed Roadmap to Peace; nine years since Israel pulled up stakes in Gaza and locked the door; eight years since the mini-war on Gaza (launched in a failed attempt to free Gilad Shalit) that no one remembers; five and a half years since Operation Cast Lead, launched to end rocket attacks; a year and a half since Operation Pillar of Defense, launched toward the same end — Israel has neither achieved peace nor pounded the Palestinians of Gaza into submission.

And so the rockets continue. And, of course, the Israeli military remains charged with protecting the civilian population, a thing that is genuinely very hard in the face of this particular threat, because the rockets fall sporadically, are ill-aimed, and arrive within seconds of being fired. All the military can really do, via its Home Front Command, is try to educate people how best to protect themselves.

Cue Uri Geller.

Celebrity psychic Uri Geller is the beaming new face of Israeli disaster-readiness, starring in army-sponsored TV and Internet advertisements on how to take shelter from missile attacks or earthquakes.

…[The campaign] aims to keep Israelis vigilant, though public fears of any imminent war with Iran, Syria or Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas have receded.

…In the ads, Israelis are invited to submit their location at the military’s Home Front Command website, where pre-recordings of Geller will “telepathically” inform them where and how quickly to seek cover if air-raid sirens sound.

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Anat Hoffman’s Daughter Puts Women of the Wall to Film

By Sigal Samuel

Tanya Hoffman is the daughter of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. / Haaretz

“How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.”

That’s the title of an upcoming film by Tanya Hoffman, the 26-year-old daughter of firebrand feminist and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman. The summer release is already arousing a certain amount of interest in Israel — but will it be worth seeing? That depends on how well the filmmaker can use her personal story to shed light on a larger question — the question of why many young people, and not just her, are less than enchanted with Women of the Wall these days.

The documentary is as much about Tanya’s conflict-laden relationship with her mother as it is about Anat’s liberal prayer group, which pushes for equal ritual rights for women at the Western Wall. In a Haaretz interview, Tanya explained that she couldn’t be more different from her super opinionated “bulldozer” of a mom, and that no one else in the family ever understood what Anat was after. “None of us ever joined her at the Women of the Wall services. None of us really got it. We were, like, why are you doing this?”

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Israel's Bid For Visa Waiver Falls Short

By Ali Gharib

Getty Images

Israel is making another push to join the U.S. visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Last year, another effort to enlist Israel in the program stalled amid criticisms of Israel’s discrimination against Americans of Arab and Muslim origins at its border.

In the latest push, which was reported today in Haaretz, Israeli officials said they planned on ending discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel through Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international hub. But this pledge falls short in several ways.

Though discrimination against Palestinian-Americans is particularly acute — and, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly fraught — it does not constitute the totality of Israel’s discrimination against American citizens. The U.S. State Department, after all, warns that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin” face difficulties entering.

Indeed, confronted with a specific question today on Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim extraction, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that narrowly easing discrimination against only Palestinian-Americans would not be enough to satisfy the reciprocity requirements for consideration in the visa waiver program. So while Israel seeks piecemeal fixes to the problem, the U.S. — correctly — won’t readily compromise the equal rights of any of its citizens.

What’s more, Ben Gurion Airport isn’t the only point of entry to Israeli-controlled areas where these demographic groups may encounter discrimination. Last year, my colleague George Hale and I reported on the case of Nour Joudah, an American of Palestinian descent teaching in the Palestinian territories who was denied entry to Israel twice — in the first instance at the Allenby Bridge, a crossing between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan where Israeli officials now claim Palestinian-Americans were supposed to enter in the first place.

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What Jews Can Learn From Rwandans

By Randy Kafka

A woman consoles a fellow Rwandan at a genocide commemoration ceremony / Getty Images

I am no Shmuley Boteach, God knows. But I have recently learned from the Forward that Boteach and I have one thing in common – we are both rabbis who have visited Rwanda.

This February, on the eve of Rwanda’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide, I joined a 10-day “witnessing” tour hosted by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. We heard stories of horror, and stories of heroism, rescue, reconciliation and – unimaginably, miraculously – stories of forgiveness.

While I am delighted to hear that the governments and entrepreneurs of Rwanda and Israel are now interested in one another, I find myself dreaming of a different sort of connection: What if the people of Israel and Palestine could learn from the Rwandan people how to do the difficult and necessary work of trauma healing and reconciliation?

The blossoming of Rwanda today defies facile explanation, just as it defies facile criticism. I went on this journey with the intention of not-knowing, of bearing witness without judgment. Throughout the ten days, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s expression “radical amazement” kept coming to mind – a theologian’s way of saying “mind-blowing.” How to process, for example, the experience of meeting 60+ convicted genocide perpetrators in matching blue outfits, dancing and singing joyfully to welcome you as they take a break from their community service work building homes for survivors?

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2 Women Put a Darfuri Survivor Through College

By Maya Paley

Guy Adam

In the fall of 2010, I had recently arrived in Tel Aviv and had started my New Israel Fund Fellowship at ASSAF, a humanitarian aid organization helping asylum seekers and refugees in Israel. I met Guy around then at the ASSAF offices. He spoke English, so I explained to him that I was researching the refugee community. He quickly agreed to advise me, help me meet community leaders and translate interviews.

One evening we walked around south Tel Aviv together, discussing his future goals and desire to go to college and help his people. We entered an ad-hoc shelter where at least 100 Sudanese men slept each night. The shelter was the basement of a building that the Sudanese community had rented out. Guy and I sat there for hours, conducting a group interview with around 10 men. Guy translated for me with astounding patience and care. From the beginning, it was obvious to me that he was dedicated to helping his people.

Guy was an asylum seeker himself. During the genocide in Darfur, he fled while his village was burning down, ran for his life and left his family behind. Through a mix of luck, a friendly personality and survival skills, Guy made his way through Sudan and Egypt to Israel, where he felt he would be safe from harm. He arrived in Israel in 2008.

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Family Amulet Captures Jewish Life in India

By Sigal Samuel

A portrait of the writer’s great-great-grandmother with amulet overlaid / Sigal Samuel

When my grandmother was pregnant with my dad, she got a terrible — and somewhat mysterious — mouth infection. It kept her from eating and talking. It was so painful that it landed her flat on her back; for days, all she could do was lie in bed. Then her bedroom door creaked open to reveal my great-great-grandmother, sidling up with something clenched tight in her palm. The object passed from the older to the younger hand, accompanied by a command in Hindustani: “Put this on — and don’t take it off until you get better.”

The object looked like a necklace, but it would be a mistake to call it that. Really, it was an amulet. Extraordinarily heavy, made of solid Indian gold, its cylindrical capsule — as long as an index finger — hung from an expensive-looking chain. Opening it, my grandmother saw a shriveled black root. She suppressed a shiver of disgust and closed it up again, then placed the chain around her neck. A few days later, she was healed.

A prized heirloom, that amulet has been in my family for five generations now. It’s traveled from Bombay to London to Montreal. These days, my grandmother doesn’t really believe that the ugly black root has magical healing powers; more than anything, she finds it creepy. But my great-great-grandmother, an uneducated Calcutta-born Jew who came from a family of kabbalists, believed it had the power to ward off the evil eye.

I love this amulet for many reasons, chief among them its weirdness. The sheer superstitiousness of it makes me smile — maybe because it reminds me that Judaism and rationalism didn’t always go hand in hand, whatever the diehard Maimonideans would have us believe.

I also love the way this artifact captures the centuries-long symbiosis that Jews enjoyed in India — a country that, until recent years, was strikingly free of anti-Semitism.

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Does Israel Advocacy Belong on British Campuses?

By Liam Hoare

Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube

American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”

In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).

Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.

But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”

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How Uganda Helped Me Mark Passover

By Sonia Daccarett

Getty Images

Freedom is always a primary theme on Passover, but this year, after travelling in Uganda for ten days as part of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellowship, the idea is heavy with real-world implications.

The Haggadah instructs: “In every generation, everyone must think of him or herself as having personally left Egypt.” And yet, some of the people we met in Uganda remain trapped in their own Egypt: LGBT people are ostracized, threatened and assaulted for being who they are; women and girls are beaten and raped; people living with HIV and AIDS are isolated and abandoned by their families and communities.

The idea that all human beings are of infinite value and are created in God’s image — B’tselem Elohim — is a pillar of Jewish tradition. And yet, so many of the struggles we witness every day — in the United States, in Uganda, and elsewhere around the world — require that we pursue human dignity in a global context.

As I prepared for the trip, I studied materials about Uganda with the other Global Justice Fellows in my group, drawing upon my own experiences growing up in Colombia and travelling in many parts of the world. I read about the activists and projects in Uganda that AJWS supports and brushed up on facts. But nothing could have prepared me for the courage, ingenuity and dignity I encountered once I arrived.

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Will Chelsea Clinton Be a Jewish (Child's) Mother?

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — Chelsea Clinton’s announcement Thursday afternoon that she and Jewish hubby Marc Mezvinsky are expecting their first child has set off a fairly predictable wave of reactions Jewish-wise, not unlike the interest their 2010 wedding generated.

Interfaithfamily.com quickly seized the pregnancy as an “opportunity to share with ALL expecting parents” its various resources for new interfaith parents, including a booklet called “To Circumcise or Not: That is the Question.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, The Jewish Press chose this headline: “Chelsea Clinton Pregnant With Non-Jewish Child.” Calling the former first daughter “America’s poster child for intermarriage,” the Brooklyn-based Orthodox newspaper noted that in marrying four years ago the pair was “effectively pruning away that 3,300 year old Jewish branch of the Mezinsky family.” (And apparently also pruning away the “v” from the groom’s name.)

The Jewish Press also reminded its readers of Rabbi David Stav’s apparently clairvoyant question posed to Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs at a meeting back in November about Israel’s adherence to Orthodox standards: “Do you want me to recognize Chelsea Clinton’s child as a Jew?”

Under the traditional policy of matrilineal descent, adhered to by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, the child will not be Jewish unless s/he undergoes a conversion, but Reform and Reconstructionist Jews will recognize the baby as a Jew if s/he has a Jewish upbringing.

Not surprisingly, Stormfront, the anti-Semitic website, does recognize the child as a Jew, as evidenced by its charming headline: “Chelsea Clinton pregnant with jew spawn.”

And now, bring on the months of intense speculation: If a boy, will the child have a brit milah? Will s/he be given a Jew-y name? Jewish nursery school? Hebrew school? And, of course, how will all this affect Grandma Hillary’s prospects in 2016?


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When Jesus Died at Auschwitz

By Jay Michaelson

YouTube

The most tasteless YouTube video ever has just been released – by our friends at Jews for Jesus. Entitled “That Jew Died for You,” it is – I am not making any of this up – a three-minute video showing Jesus Christ among a group of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. And you thought the Easter Passion Plays were offensive.

According to Jews for Jesus, the video was made because “Jesus has often been wrongly associated with the perpetrators of the Holocaust.” The film, which includes Jesus helping a Jewish woman when she stumbles during a forced march and, later, being selected for the gas chambers by a Mengele-like Nazi, is meant to clear that up. Actually, Jesus was “just another Jew,” and suffered with the Jews in the Holocaust.

A “making-of” video available on thatjewdiedforyou.com elaborates: “The Holocaust, perhaps more than any other event or topic, has kept Jewish people from being open to considering Jesus as the Jewish messiah.” If only we didn’t blame Christians for the genocide of our people, the reasoning goes, we’d be more open to converting to Christianity.

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We Got Bupkis From White House Seder

By Nathan Guttman

White House Photo

What would you do if you’d have to choose between spending the second night of Passover with your family (and with your twins celebrating their birthday on that same day) and laboring in someone else’s kitchen for hours?

For acclaimed chef/beloved wife Vered Guttman, there wasn’t much of a dilemma. She gladly left me and the kids with a sink full of dishes from the previous night’s (first) Seder and went on to roll matzo balls for another family’s second Seder.

The fact that this Seder was hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama and that the kitchen was located in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, can perhaps make leaving your family behind a bit more understandable.

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A Hebron Land Grab, Just in Time for Passover

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

For the settlement movement, there is poignancy in the fact that the Hebron Jewish community has branched out into a previously Palestinian neighborhood just before Passover. It was Passover 1968 when settlers first got their foothold in Hebron, after renting out a hotel and refusing to leave.

For critics of the settlement movement, the echo of 1968 is also relevant. When the Israeli government decided yesterday that settlers could move into a building surrounded by Palestinians, it was a reminder of just how much Hebron settlers have increased their holdings over the years.

In ’68 they left the hotel in exchange for the promise of a settlement next to Hebron. Today, they have this adjacent settlement as well as four (or, as of yesterday, five) enclaves in Hebron itself.

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How My Grandfather Marked Passover as a Slave

By Hody Nemes

The author and his grandfather / Courtesy of Hody Nemes

The Exodus happened 3,000 years ago. But today, in the year 5774, we are still supposed to see ourselves as if we had experienced slavery and left Egypt, according to the Haggadah.

For me, that’s always been a tall order.

In order to feel like a slave, I wanted to know the details of individual slave life. What emotions did a Hebrew slave feel as the taskmaster walked by, holding a whip? Did he love the land of Goshen, the only home he knew – or did he curse it? Did he sing songs as he worked? Was he too tired to dream of freedom? The book of Exodus is remarkably silent on these questions.

But sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather.

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Why Is This Israeli Land Grab Different?

By Nathan Jeffay

The big story in Israel is no normal decision to build a few extra settlement homes; it is a highly unusual development for the occupied West Bank.

According to an as-yet unconfirmed report, the state is setting the wheels in motion for an appropriation of nearly 250 acres of territory in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem.

Israeli settlement announcements in recent years have generally focused on building within the existing borders of settlements. In fact, one of the defenses of settlement announcements in government circles has been that building isn’t even settlement expansion, because it’s just a matter of increasing the housing density within settlements. The argument has often been that given the footprint of settlements isn’t growing, Palestinians should stop worrying about settlements.

However, if today’s report is correct, the government will actually be increasing the settlement footprint. An outpost which is currently illegal in state eyes will be legalized, in a sense creating a new settlement, and the rest of the land to be appropriated would be available for zoning for brand new settlements.

As well as the appropriation report, today has been party day in the Jewish community of Hebron, which received go-ahead from the Ministry of Defense to move in to a new enclave in the city.

In early 2007 some Jewish Hebron families lived in the four-storey building where the ceremony took place. However, after 18 months the Israeli government ordered them to leave. While they claimed that they were entitled to live there, because one of their supporters in America, Morris Abraham, purchased the property, the original Palestinian owners claimed the purchase was fabricated.

Last month, an Israeli court ruled that Abraham does own the building, and now the Ministry of Defense has said that the Jewish community can move back in.

If the peace process doesn’t get back on track, today may well be remembered as the day when Israel threw caution to the wind and backed settlements with a whole new gusto.


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Should I Die for Passover?

By Nathan Jeffay

Photo credit: Getty Images

This week is prime time for Passover shopping and cleaning. But in Jerusalem, hundreds of people will be engaged in a very different type of preparation for the festival — witnessing the slaughter of a lamb, just like in the olden days.

The Seder has its origins in ancient times, when the Israelites slaughtered, roasted and ate lambs — Paschal lambs.

According to the Torah, the Children of Israel were commanded “in perpetuity” to sacrifice a young lamb or goat on the anniversary of the Exodus. But this sacrifice was to be conducted in the Temple, and was therefore suspended after the Temple’s destruction nearly two millennia ago. With some innovation from rabbis the Seder morphed in to the more domestic affair we know today.

Contemporary Seders, with their many commemorations of the sacrifice, such as the shank bone on the Seder plate, are largely a tribute to the offering. But some Israelis want to go a step further.

In a few hours, in a yeshiva in the neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, a religious non-profit will give a demonstration of the original Paschal service. Their slaughterer will kill a lamb as a choir sings of praise, and as a state veterinary inspector looks on. He will then sprinkle the blood as-per Biblical instruction. The lamb will be roasted and, as-per the Biblical procedure, everyone in attendance — men and women — will get a portion. The diners will include rabbis from a broad ideological spectrum within Orthodoxy.

“Passover is not about matzo ball soup; it’s about the Passover offering,” Chaim Richman, International Director of the Temple Institute which is running the event, commented to Forward Thinking.

Referring to the reams of rabbinic texts written on the Paschal sacrifice he said that is important, educationally, to give a more vivid insight in to what it looked like. “The logistics is a Jewish art discussed and clarified throughout the generations,” he said.

He said that the slaughter is poignant, as lambs were considered sacred in the ancient world when the sacrifice was instituted. The ceremony is “literally to slaughter all of the idolatry in the entire world and stand up for what we believe in, namely one God,” said Richman.

While the Temple Institute has been known to stray from religious education to politics, in its quest to increase Jewish rights on Temple Mount, it didn’t attempt to hold this even on or near Temple Mount, where it may have increased Jewish-Arab tensions. However, as the Forward has reported,, in previous years right-wing activist has tried to organize a sacrifice there, but was stopped by Israeli authorities.


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What The Forward's Jewish Charity Poll Teaches

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Jewish charity goes largely to Israel-related groups. Our readers think that’s a bad idea.

Last week, as part of our ongoing investigation into Jewish charity finances, we asked you how you thought Jewish charitable dollars should be spent.

The results, embedded below, suggest that Forward respondents think that education-related Jewish charities should get the largest share of contributions, followed by health care and social service-related charities. Israel-related charities rank fourth.

These poll results are far from scientific. Still, they shed light on the opinions of Forward readers, as Jane Eisner wrote in her editorial this week.

Close readers confused by the disparity between the “How They Spend It” figures reported below and the numbers reported in our story on this two weeks ago, take note: We excluded two categories from the poll for the sake of clarity, which resulted in tweaked figures.


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I Miss J&R Already

By Michael Kaminer

Shopping at J&R Music World always felt weirdly haimish.

Despite the fact that the electronics retailer owned an entire (and very lucrative) block in Lower Manhattan, there was something endearingly shabby about the chainlet founded by Israeli immigrants Joe and Rachelle Friedman (J. and R., get it?) as a basement record store in 1971.

On Thursday, J&R’s brick-and-mortar operations ceased to exist. As the New York Daily News reported, the Friedmans issued a statement today to announce the closings.

“On April 10th, J&R will close its doors so that we can rebuild this location into what we hope will be an unprecedented retailing concept and social mecca,” the statement said. “A lot has changed in these 43 years, including not only the way we listen to music and the technology products we sell, but the way people shop and socialize.”

In recent years, the Friedmans had already started consolidating their retail business, compressing an unruly row of shops along Manhattan’s Park Row into a single – and sterile – vertical mall at the end of the block. The stores had been “struggling amid a difficult environment for consumer electronics retailers,” the Daily News wrote.

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No, Brandeis Isn't 'Silencing' Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Ali Gharib

Anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali / Getty Images

To begin with, let’s clear up a few details of the flap over Brandeis University’s decision to revoke an invitation for Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree and address the graduating class: Hirsi Ali is emphatically not being “silenced,” as she and her defenders claim.

The university, in tandem with its notice to Hirsi Ali that her award was rescinded, invited her to campus to expound on her views in a forum that did not confer upon her any honor.

That latter invitation was the lynchpin in Brandeis’s strategy to correct its mistake — the initial offer of an honor — in the best way possible: by preserving the notion that universities should be bastions of free thought, even for deeply unpopular ideas.

And it is that invitation which renders moot Hirsi Ali’s complaint that “neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.” The issue with honoring Hirsi Ali was never what she may say — hence the standing invitation to speak — but rather what she has said.

Hirsi Ali’s record is plump with remarks that any tolerant, liberal institution should view with caution. Her personal narrative and work on women’s rights may tell a different, laudable story, but not one that outweighs the pattern of hostility toward a major world religion.

This hostility crosses boundaries beyond atheistic skepticism and into literal militant opposition to one faith in particular: Islam. Hirsi Ali claims her “critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work.”

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