Anne and Sigal’s flight path. Next stop, Birmingham.
We landed in Birmingham and were hit by a wall of heat — and a Bible.
The taxi driver who ushered us from the airport to our hotel keeps a copy of the Holy Bible on his passenger seat. Welcome to Alabama.
That was tame compared to the next cab ride we took (don’t worry, this will turn into a road trip once we pick up our rental car), which was to Temple Beth-El, Birmingham’s largest Conservative synagogue. After a 40-minute wait for the Yellow Cab company, we climbed in. The conversation with our driver went something like this:
Driver: Which restaurant?
Anne and Sigal: We’re not going to a restaurant, it’s a synagogue.
So you’re Jewish?
Well, I’ll say one thing about the Jewish people: You two are gorgeous!
What’s your name?
I knew it! I knew it was going to be a Jewish name!
It’s Hebrew for “chosen,” actually.
I was always raised like, “don’t say anything bad about the Jewish people, they’re God’s chosen people.” So I have the utmost respect.
The driver then went on to recount every encounter he has ever had with a Jew anywhere — including a stint in the Czech Republic, where he visited the concentration camp Thieresienstadt. He wants to go to Auschwitz next. After a few choice words about what he’d do to Hitler if ever the Nazi leader fell into his hands, our driver said, “Schindler’s List — that movie made me mad!”
(JTA) — The ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths is one of the most important measurements of the Gaza war.
The toll clearly disproportionate — as of this writing, about 192:1. There are a few different ways to look at this rate.
Critics of Israel herald the lopsided figure as evidence of Israeli barbarism. But such a simplistic view misses several important points. One, the Israeli death toll is low because Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, is successfully intercepting incoming rockets. The Palestinians have no defense against Israeli missiles.
Second, the ratio would be more lopsided if Israel were trying to kill Palestinian civilians. But by most accounts it’s trying not to do that. This is the most important element in interpreting the death toll: While Hamas measures its success by how many Israelis it is able to kill, Israel measures its success in part by how few Palestinian civilians it kills.
So how is Israel doing compared to previous Israel-Hamas battles? The Palestinian death toll is much lower than it was in 2008-’09, when a ground invasion preceded by an air campaign resulted in some 1,150 Palestinian deaths over three weeks. But the Palestinian casualty count now isn’t too different from November 2012, when an eight-day air campaign resulted in an estimated 158-177 Palestinian deaths.
The Israeli death rate, meanwhile, is down significantly — from 13 in 2008-’09 and six in 2012 to one so far in nine days of fighting.
Tariq Abu Khdeir is hugged by his mother following his beating in East Jerusalem / Getty Images
I have no idea what Tariq Khdeir was doing on the day he was savagely beaten.
I have no idea if — like the American high school student in my own home – Tariq woke up late and lazy, because that’s what vacation’s like. Maybe he slipped on headphones as he reached for his cell, checking his texts or the World Cup stats. Maybe he jumped straight out of bed. Maybe he lay quietly under the covers, trying desperately not to remember his cousin Muhammad’s voice, not to envision his grisly murder, not to hear the sobbing of his family.
Maybe Tariq Khdeir woke up filled with sorrow and helplessness. Maybe he woke up filled with rage. All those years in American schools, walking American streets, hearing about what life was like for his cousins in East Jerusalem, and then there he was, right in the house, with wailing family and shattered hearts. Maybe Tariq wanted to at least see Palestinians fighting back in his cousin’s name, just to see the rocks thrown, just to see the anger and maybe some fear on the other side.
Maybe Tariq Khdeir wrapped his head in a red-and-white checked keffiyeh because he’d been warned not to go out, and he didn’t want to get busted. Maybe he wrapped his head because he didn’t want to be recognized by police. Maybe he got out there and, like many angry young men before him, felt the power of rage surging through the streets and his own veins and picked up a rock. Maybe Tariq Khdeir threw some rocks — he says he didn’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine he did. Grief and fury can muddle the minds of even straight-A students.
I don’t know what Tariq Khdeir did that day, or how he felt, or what he was thinking, but here’s what I do know: He went out to the streets. He was at a protest that had shaded into riot, and his head was wrapped in a keffiyeh. And two Israeli police officers, broad of chest and fully armed, grabbed him – a slight 15-year-old boy — and dragged him to where they believed they would not be seen, and they beat the ever-loving daylights out of him. They held him down. They kicked him. They hit him. They took turns. They broke his nose. They blackened and bloodied his eyes. They held him down and beat him.
Tariq didn’t have a weapon in his hand or on his person. He’d been separated from whoever he’d been with. Whatever he may or may not have done in the moments before the now infamous video of fists and feet raining down on his body, Tariq Khdeir was not any threat, of any kind, to those who pushed him to the ground and raised their boots.
Editor’s Note: As part of the Forward’s Our Promised Lands project, which will cover 50 states in 50 weeks, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a Southern adventure. Over the next eight days, they will travel to Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, so keep an eye on this blog to follow their shenanigans. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips.
He may not represent the tribe anymore, but Jesus hails from some pretty hardy Jewish road trippers. Mary and Joseph trekked the 80 miles (a 33-hour walk according to Google Maps) from Nazareth to Bethlehem with only a donkey to lighten their load. In case you’re wondering, that’s roughly the distance from New York to Philadelphia.
Dubbed the “Jewish Marco Polo,” Tudela was a medieval Jewish traveler who visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century. In what began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Tudela traveled through France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon and what is now Israel before reaching Baghdad. After a stop in Persia, he cut through Egypt and North Africa to return to his homeland of Spain. The things you can get done when you don’t have to go through airport security!
Palestinian families leave their houses following Israeli air strikes in Gaza City / Getty Images
When I was 14 years old, I remember my father, Edgar M. Bronfman, publicly calling for the end of Israeli settlement building. It was 1977, the very beginning of the implementation of the Drobles Plan, and only a few thousand settlers lived in what we now call the Occupied Territories. At the time, I was only a boy, and I did not understand the urgency with which my father spoke against the construction of settlements.
“Israel is to be a light unto the nations,” he would say to me. “Israel must behave according to a higher moral and ethical code.”
“Why?” I would ask. With the look and a tone that only my father could muster, he would reply, “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
My father’s words became more and more strident as the decades passed. But today, as we grapple with the wrenching pain of the murder of Jewish and Muslim youth, they have never rung so true. Why do I hear my father’s words about settlements at this time? Simply put, the settlements are the greatest impediment to enduring peace in Israel, and the deaths of four innocent children last week should cause us to examine our own beliefs and actions.
Israeli family seeks shelter in parking garage as rocket sirens blare. / Getty Images
(JTA) — “In Tel Aviv, we expect the skies clear with a temperature of 32 degrees,” our pilot said upon taking off from Milan’s airport Wednesday, with no discernible hint of irony.
The thermometer in Tel Aviv did fill up — 32 degrees Celsius, 90 Fahrenheit — but the skies have, sadly, been far from clear. As the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Protective Edge in Gaza finishes its second day, Israel’s coastal metropolis has experienced an unprecedented rain of rocket fire.
Enduring rocket attacks used to be the province of Israel’s north and south; Tel Aviv, by contrast, has derisively been called “the bubble,” a central-Israeli city of relaxed beach-goers removed from security threats to Israel.
Hamas aimed its first few rockets at Tel Aviv during its last conflict with Israel in 2012. On Tuesday, Tel Aviv endured several more volleys — all shot down by Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense shield.
On the morning of our flight, two rockets headed for Ben-Gurion Airport, also intercepted by Iron Dome. When we descended onto Israel, our plane swooped in a semicircle north of Tel Aviv rather than flying directly over the city, a flight path altered to avoid potential rockets. When we entered the airport, just after the sign bidding us “Welcome to Israel,” another one pointed us to a bomb shelter.
Josh Nathan-Kazis checks out his roots in Fort Kent, Maine.
Everyone in the Facebook group called “You know you grew up in Fort Kent, Maine, when…” is talking about my great-grandfather.
I’ve been lurking all day.
The great thing about travel writing in 2014 is that you can eavesdrop on locals’ reactions to your story when you’re back home. I don’t know what the guys having coffee at the Napa Auto Parts store in Fort Kent are saying about “The Rise and Fall of the Potato King,” my article about my great-grandfather’s ambitions and failures in northern Maine, which the Forward published on Tuesday.
But I can read what they’re posting online.
The family of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir / Haaretz
On July 1, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu eulogized the three Israeli yeshiva students murdered in the West Bank. “A deep and wide moral abyss separates us from our enemies,” he said. “They sanctify death while we sanctify life…”
When 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered in East Jerusalem a few days later, Netanyahu’s words — and words like them — framed the story. Indeed, an unbiased consumer of media reports about Abu Khdeir’s killing would likely conclude that while the perpetrators turned out to be Jewish Israelis, they might just as likely, or more likely, have been Palestinians.
What else could explain why, from Day 1, almost every report on the murder treated seriously the possibility that it was part of an intra-Palestinian “blood feud” or an anti-gay “honor killing”? Any fair-minded consumer of news would naturally assume that deaths owing to these two causes are common among Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Why else, in an atmosphere of raging anti-Arab hate and calls for revenge, would they be given such credence? Why else would Israeli authorities and alleged experts voice such damning speculations, and credible news media faithfully report them?
Others have written about the “pinkwashing” of Abu Khdeir’s murder; about the climate of incitement that preceded it; about the violence that followed it, including the brutal beating of Abu Khdeir’s cousin. But nobody has noted a simple fact: neither the “blood feud” nor the “honor killing” theory ever made sense — and their manufacture and dissemination constituted a blood libel against all Palestinians.
Mort Klein / Courtesy of ZOA
(JTA) — American Jewish groups from across the ideological and religious spectrum have issued strongly worded condemnations of the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdier, apparently a revenge killing committed by Jews.
One exception to this chorus of denunciation was the Zionist Organization of America, a hawkish Israel advocacy group, which issued no statement.
Reached by phone on Tuesday morning, the ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, said that he had been on vacation and away from the news over the weekend, the window during which the Israeli police announced the arrest of six suspects in the murder.
However, he quickly added that the ZOA would not have commented in any case because it does not consider the motives for the killing, or the identity of the perpetrators, to be clearly established.
“As long as there is no clarity as to whether this was an ordinary criminal act as opposed to an act of vengeance, ZOA feels it is not appropriate to make a public comment,” Klein told JTA, adding that the ZOA does not comment on ordinary criminal acts.
Israeli officials have stated that they believe the killing was motivated by a desire to avenge the murders of three kidnapped Israeli teens. But Klein said that was an insufficient basis for a statement.
“Even arrests, you don’t know whether these arrests make it clear that this was a murder of revenge,” Klein said.
The revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khudair has shaken up even those who normally have little reason to question their preconceived notions about the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
Eli Valley takes an insightful graphic look at one (fictional) American Jew’s crisis of confidence.
SCROLL DOWN TO ENLARGE.
Eli Valley is finishing his first novel. His website is www.evcomics.com, and he tweets @elivalley
Camp Modin, in the Belgrade Lake district, is New England’s oldest summer camp. // Courtesy of Camp Modin
1) Jewish population as of 2012: 13,890
2) The Portland JCC opened in 1938.
3) Camp Modin, established in 1922 in the Belgrade Lake district, is the oldest Jewish camp in New England.
4) Susman Abrams (1743-1830., a native of Hamburg, Germany, was the first known Jewish resident of Maine. He came to the state in the post-Revolutionary period and lived in Waldborough, Thomaston, and finally in Union, where he operated a tannery. Abrams married a Christian woman but did not himself convert to Christianity.
5) Captain Harold H. Gordon, Jewish chaplain for the North Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command, took a Torah, on loan from the Beth Israel Synagogue in Bangor, on his rounds in 1945. Gordon and the Torah racked up more than 75,000 miles on a circuit that covered bases as disparate as Reykjavik, Iceland and Bermuda.
6) Nearly two-thirds of Maine’s resorts refused to accept Jewish guests in the 1950s, the highest percentage of any state in the union.
7) Shaarey Tphiloh was the first synagogue in Maine, built in 1904. Etz Chaim Synagogue came into being because of a dispute that started in 1915 between Rabbi Chaim Shohet and the board of directors of Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue over the dismissal of Cantor Lebovitz. Rabbi Shohet’s support of Cantor Lebovitz culminated in the rabbi’s dismissal in 1917. According to popular legend, the rabbi’s chair was removed from the sanctuary and placed in the bathroom.
8) The Maine Jewish Film Festival is held every March in Portland, the smallest city in the nation to host an independent and professional Jewish film festival.
Relatives of Mohammed Abu Khdeir carry his body during his funeral / Getty Images
Already, the details emerging about the gruesome death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teen burned alive in a revenge attack, are causing soul-searching among Israelis who would not or could not acknowledge that this unforgivable act was perpetrated by some of their own.
We American Jews must do the same.
It is far past time for those of us who love and support the State of Israel not only to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians under more than four decades of occupation, but to recognize what that occupation also has done to us.
Too many of us have become blind to the Palestinian Other. We rarely encounter them on our trips to Israel. We don’t listen to their lives. Every act of violence against Israelis — and there have been far too many — serve as confirmation of our ingrained prejudices, without any opportunity for another side of their story. And so we absorb a sense of moral superiority that underlies the message beamed our way from decades of Israeli governments, more so now: We don’t act like that. We are better. Israel is different.
I thought about this when hearing yesterday that some American Jews had convinced themselves that Hamas was to blame for Abu Khdeir’s murder, or that it was an “honor killing” in his family. Anything to deflect the horrible truth: That some Jews are capable of grabbing a 16-year-old boy waiting for prayers at a mosque and burning him alive — all supposedly for the sake of Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman / Getty Images
Who was the winner in the Liberman-Netanyahu divorce?
The ruling party in Israel has just split, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of its year-and-a-half-old alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Liberman said he was leaving Bibi because the latter is too soft on Hamas in Gaza. Despite the fact that the new Gaza campaign began shortly afterwards, Liberman hasn’t changed his mind.
Liberman, in status and in the size of the party he heads, was the junior partner in the relationship. Yet he seems to have gained the most from it — and decided to take his gains and run.
An undated family handout picture of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
Now that Israeli police have arrested six Jewish suspects for the kidnap-murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, it’s safe to say that the teen was not killed by his own family for being gay.
Of course, Mohammed’s family has been saying that all along. They’ve been saying it ever since the burned-alive teen’s body was found in the Jerusalem Forest on July 2. “Our family is not involved in any disputes and he was a good boy,” one cousin told Haaretz. “This is not a family problem. This was a kidnapping and everyone has to know that.” So why did Israeli media outlets insist on floating the “honor killing” theory?
It’s not clear who started the rumor that Khdeir’s family murdered him for being gay. Many believe that it was the Israeli police who first fed this line to journalists — primarily in off-the-record briefings, and primarily to right-leaning outlets who would be willing to quote them as unnamed sources.
Whether or not that’s true, the media’s willingness to play along, combined with the police’s insistence on keeping the true details of the investigation under strict gag orders, allowed a baseless theory to spread far and wide among a credulous public. It was particularly popular with those Israel supporters who would rather believe this grisly murder was the work of Palestinians (“see, they even kill their own family members!”) than of fellow Jews.
What’s the upshot? Well, let me put it this way. The next time a pinkwashing conference rolls into town, I can pretty well guarantee that there will be a panel discussion with the name “Mohammed Abu Khdeir” in the title.
ChocoChicken’s chocolate fried chicken and duckfat fries. // Twitter/KristieHang
Shrimp, Stalin and Gay Pride signs? This could be the strangest Jewish News quiz of them all. Except…they’re all strange. (Did we mention the cheesecake with bagel crumbs?) Good luck!
Israel regularly destroys homes of Palestinian terror suspects, calling it a deterrent. But it never uses the same tactic against Jewish extremists. / Getty Images
(Haaretz) — There is only one sane and truly halakhic way to tackle our current situation: Take the well-known members of the Orthodox Price Tag gang and lock ‘em up, for a long time and in an inaccessible prison. Don’t let them go home for chagim and deny them visitors. Do the best to break and separate them. Freeze monies that go to their families.
And when and if we have proven guilty perpetrators, bulldoze their parents’ homes. The last will stop them.
Am I overreaching? Might not Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Arab teen murdered and his body desecrated, have been the victim of a different Jewish group or of some criminal group, perhaps Arab? Maybe, although I doubt it.
But what is not doubtful is that the PTG – the Price Tag Gang – is headed in the direction of creating real havoc with us and with our Arab citizens and with neighboring populations. Since the PTG could care less about Western values, let us refer them to Jewish Law and values and utilize some rules from that body of wisdom.
The PTG is an imminent sakanat nefashot, a danger to life. They are a fire burning on the Sabbath that will destroy not only property, but the lives of soldiers, police and civilians. Indeed, the PTG seemingly wants to cause tension and havoc, leading possibly to war. In their apocalyptic vision, they are confident that Israel will finally “do what it has always needed to do” and act with outstanding force to destroy not only Hamas but the PA and probably all other Muslims.
(JTA) — Part “God Bless America,” part “Shabbat Shalom,” the Fourth of July this year falls on a Friday. In this land of religious freedom, how do we plan to observe both?
As the sun sets over the “fruited plain,” will we be lighting Shabbat candles and fireworks? How will the Sabbath Queen look in red, white and blue?
Those who traditionally observe the Sabbath by not kindling fire surely will take a pass on the “rockets’ red glare.” But for many U.S. Jews and congregations, the day represents an opportunity to integrate Jewish themes into a national day of celebrating our freedom.
As a kid, like many boomers, I remember the Fourth as a day of firecrackers, spark-shooting fountains, backyard barbecues, parades and family picnics. Several synagogues this year will incorporate the same elements into their congregational programming.
On that Friday, when singing “Lecha Dodi” and hearing the boom of fireworks, or seeing them explode in the sky, I wonder how the verse “Awake and arise to greet the new light, for in your radiance the world will be bright” will resonate. Could it apply to celebrating the birth of a nation?
In moments of national tension — Israelis know these all too well — one can expect a leader to measure every word on a scale that calms on one side and inflames on the other.
So what are we to make of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tweets on Monday as the country was preparing to bury and mourn its three murdered boys?
Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created. Neither has vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their>— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) June 30, 2014
way home to their parents who will not see them anymore. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay. May the memories of the 3 boys be blessed.— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) June 30, 2014
I am not drawing a direct causal link between what I think was ill advised language and the Facebook page where tens of thousands of Israelis cried for vengeance or the murder of Mohammed Abu Khudair, most likely an act of revenge. But I do think that a leader has a responsibility to set a tone and this was the wrong one.
I’ve floated this argument on Twitter, actually, and the response (mostly from Times of Israel writer Haviv Rettig Gur) has been, firstly, that in describing vengeance for a child’s murder Bibi was making a literary allusion to Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem about the Kishniev massacre. Then came the argument that Bibi was actually using such dramatic rhetoric in order to compensate for a not-so-dramatic military response, and so this talk of vengeance represented a sort of de-escalation. And, lastly, Gur pointed out that this exchange was directed at Hamas and not at innocent 16-year-old Palestinian kids.
All of this is true, and yet I doubt that any of it was telegraphed through Netanyahu’s tweet. How many people got that it was Bialik? Understood that Bibi was offering tough words to make up for his decision to, say, avoid retaking Gaza? Or that he was even talking specifically about Hamas? No. What that tweet expressed was one word: Vengeance.
There are ways of channeling the pain and anger of a country without calling for vengeance, which in its classically biblical form is indeed an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Why not talk instead of justice, of tracking down the perpetrators and holding them to account for their crimes? Wouldn’t it have seemed more temperate, more responsible, to call for justice instead of vengeance?
If it sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing this, parsing hairs just at the moment that rocks are being thrown and missiles raining down, I would argue again that seemingly trivial word choices at moments when emotions are raw and people are looking for guidance about how to behave and what to feel are not at all inconsequential.
Still think I’m making too much of a tweet? I’d refer you to another moment when Bibi has been accused of drawing violent allusions that had very real world effects. See: Rabin, Yitzchak.
Israel is consumed with calls for revenge for the murders of three kidnapped students. But some are pushing back against the cycle of hate./Getty Images
The headlines in Israel this week have been overwhelming. First the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers — Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach — were found, buried, eulogized, and mourned by Jews in Israel and around the world. There were calls on both the digital and actual street for vengeance, and for settlement construction in the Knesset, and soon somebody took matters (one could nary say “justice”) into their own hands: The body of an Arab teenager named Mohammad Abu Khdair was found lifeless in the Jerusalem Forest yesterday morning.
The 16-year-old’s death has led to what is arguably the worst violence in East Jerusalem in the last decade, exacerbated tensions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has palpably darkened the Jerusalem summer sky.
A glimmer of sun, perhaps, through this week’s haze, came yesterday at an event put together by Tag Meir and its partners, an anti-racism organization that has been the loudest Jewish vocal response to price-tag (“tag mechir”) attacks perpetrated most often by radical settlers who attack Palestinians or their property. The event gathered some 1,000 Israelis in Jerusalem’s Cat Square, not one block away from Zion Square where, the night before, some 47 anti-Arab rioters were arrested by Israeli police before they could turn into a full-blown lynch mob, or worse.
Tamar, an art and theater student in yellow earrings and short bangs, told me that she had come to the Tag Meir event because “Yesterday, I experienced something awful.” She had been sitting on her balcony in the center of town when she heard the shouts “death to the Arabs!”
She went down to the street, only to quickly find herself a human shield, situated between the police, a few Arabs, and the mob. “It opened my eyes,” she said. “They had murder in their eyes… In that moment, I didn’t want to be Jewish.” And so, despite being less than politically engaged by her own admission, Tamar came to the event yesterday. She was looking for a way to express her fear and frustration at the violence that is threatening to sweep this city off its feet. She — and many others — weren’t looking for politics. She was looking for light in the darkness.
Teenagers, selfies, and the Holocaust — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 30 who doesn’t have some thoughts on all three. Last week, though, the world was granted the chance to think about all three at the same time.
How many teenagers? Some. What kind of selfies? Varied. What does it mean? No one really knows.
Yet “some, varied, and no one really knows” were good enough reasons for many a furrowed brow and a clucked tongue, because if there is anything we do know as a society, it’s that the Holocaust is serious business, selfies are a sign of dangerous self-involvement, and teenagers will be the end of us all. Not necessarily in that order.
My fellow old Jews will have to forgive me, however, if I refuse to hop on the worry wagon.