Forward Thinking

9 Years Later, Here We Go Again in Gaza

By Emily L. Hauser

A woman cries as Israeli soldiers evict Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 / Getty Images

Even as war continues to rage, August will mark the ninth anniversary of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Dubbed a “disengagement” by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the retreat was greeted enthusiastically by the institutional Jewish community. A full-page ad in the New York Times, spearheaded by the Israel Policy Forum and signed by 27 organizations, praised the plan as “courageous.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations greeted Sharon as “a great and patriotic leader,” and even AIPAC came around, if with a caveat:

“If the Palestinians transform Gaza into a reasonably well-functioning, reasonably peaceful place — not necessarily Sweden — then the world won’t have to pressure Israel to do this in the West Bank,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.

As luck (or possibly behind-the-scene conversations) would have it, the whole disengagement plan was conceived to help Israel avoid international pressure — if not quite in the way Kohr seemed to be suggesting. As Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s adviser and confidante, acknowledged in a pre-withdrawal interview, Gaza was to be sacrificed in order that Israel could better hold on to the West Bank.

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a [diplomatic] process with the Palestinians.

… The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians.

…We educated the world to understand that there is no one to talk to. And we received a no- one-to-talk-to certificate. That certificate says: (1) There is no one to talk to. (2) As long as there is no one to talk to, the geographic status quo remains intact. (3) The certificate will be revoked only when this-and-this happens — when Palestine becomes Finland. (4) See you then, and shalom.

In keeping with the contention that “there is no one to talk to,” Sharon didn’t even coordinate the withdrawal, much less negotiate it, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel simply pulled up stakes, and gave the party with which it had been in a diplomatic process since 1993 nothing to show for its efforts.

Unsurprisingly, Hamas announced that its rockets had made Israel turn tail, and — in the absence of a credible competing claim — declared victory. Less than six months later, Palestinian legislative elections were held, and Hamas narrowly won. As is now abundantly clear, Hamas did not transform Gaza into “a reasonably well-functioning, reasonably peaceful place,” or, indeed, “Finland.”

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Michelle Nunn Memo Shows How To Woo Jews

By Anthony Weiss

(JTA) — Georgia’s U.S. Senate race has just experienced a shakeup with the leaking of an eight-month old draft strategy memo — first reported by National Review — written for the campaign of Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn.

The memo provides an unvarnished look at how a modern Senate campaign is actually run, and among those interesting, unvarnished tidbits is the following on Jewish campaign contributions:

Jewish Community: Opportunity: Michelle’s position on Israel will largely determine the level of support here. There is tremendous financial opportunity, but the level of support will be contingent on her position. This applies not only to PACs, but individual donors as well. Message: TBD Potential Anchors: Sheri and Steve Labovitz, Elaine Alexander, Jewish Democratic Women Projected Goal: $250,000

This is, of course, flagrantly transactional, and it’s a good look at how campaign professionals actually think about these things behind closed doors. It is also, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias notes, how Jewish power translates into real-world terms, and the kind of dynamic that keeps Congress so overwhelmingly pro-Israel – candidates need campaign cash, Jews are big givers and Jews (particularly big Jewish donors) care about Israel.

It’s also worth noting that, elsewhere, the memo refers to the Jewish community as “Primary Targets” for volunteers as well as fundraisers. This is, of course, another aspect of Jewish political power — Jews get involved, and therefore matter to campaigns, even though they only constitute about 1 percent of the state’s population.

Also keep in mind that the memo was written by hired consultants, not Nunn herself, so while the “Message: TBD” looks terrible, it’s probably actually a good sign that Nunn’s campaign finance consultant wasn’t also drafting her Israel policy.

One thing that Yglesias leaves out is that this is how it works on both sides of the aisle. Remember when the biggest names in Republican politics showed up for the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas and waxed poetic about Israel, Holocaust memorials and menorah lighting? Remember how Chris Christie personally apologized to Sheldon Adelson for referencing the “occupied territories?” That’s because Adelson and other attendees, like Mel Sembler and Sam Fox, present, as Nunn’s consultants might put it, “tremendous financial opportunity,” and “the level of support will be contingent upon … position.”

This dynamic also explains why another part of the campaign memo is potentially troublesome for Nunn. Under the section on “Candidate Research,” the memo refers to “Grants to problematic entities” by Points of Light, the charity that Nunn ran before her Senate campaign. The National Review identified on such “problematic entity” — Islamic Relief USA, the U.S. affiliate of an international group of entities that all operate under the umbrella of World Islamic Relief. Why is it problematic? Because Israel has banned World Islamic Relief from operating there on the grounds that WIR gives money to Hamas.

Nunn’s campaign has pushed back hard — Points of Light did not actually make any grants to Islamic Relief USA, merely acted as a validator encouraging others to give donations.

Furthermore, Islamic Relief USA is fully independent of World Islamic Relief. As Slate’s Dave Weigel argues convincingly, it’s a fairly tenuous connection to get from Nunn to Hamas.

But, as the campaign memo makes clear, the important connection between Nunn and Hamas lies not through organizational entities but between the synapses of Jewish donors’ brains. If they do make that connection, then they may consider Nunn a “problematic entity,” and direct their cash accordingly.


Gaza War Diary: Everyone Is Proud of the Resistance

By Walid Abuzaid

The only power plant supplying electricity to Gaza was hit by Israeli shelling / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Walid Abuzaid’s diary is running in two parts. You can read the first part here. This is the second installment.

Thursday, July 17

It’s 10 p.m. when the power finally returns. The electricity has been down since 11 p.m. last night. The power company said the electricity lines were down during the bombardments and that there’ll only be six hours of electricity every day.

I turn on the water heater so I can finally shower in the morning, since Eimar is asleep at last and I don’t want to make any noise. As I brush my teeth, I’m reminded of the salty water I have to shower in. When I asked the tower guard, Abu-Zeyad, about it when I returned home at the beginning of July, he said the water pipes for the whole neighborhood were damaged a while ago and no one has repaired them. I remember Mohammed, my friend from Beit Lahia, complaining about it since moving here after the war began. The water they use back in their home is really sweet water coming from the wells.

We gather around in the living room, the TV is on the news channel; we don’t follow any Ramadan series this year. Although Lamar forces us every once in a while to switch to MBC so she can watch the prank series with the sharks. We still check the news channels during every commercial. Nirmeen, my step-mom, tells us about her friend from university that has a Swedish passport. She and her family left in the morning and they’re now safe in Jordan. Lamar hears this and angrily asks my father, “When are you going to get us passports so we can travel whenever we want?” I’m speechless, so is my father. I wonder how many desperate fathers and mothers don’t have an answer to that question.

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5 Reasons Why American Jews Are Standing With Israel

By Eric Yoffie

Demonstrators show support for Israel outside the United Nations in New York / Martyna Starosta

American Jews stand with Israel. At times of war and crisis, that’s the way it has always been, and this time is no different. Despite gruesome pictures of civilian casualties in Gaza, media coverage that is frequently critical of the Jewish State, and shrill and accusatory statements about Israel from U.N. officials and foreign diplomats, American Jewish support has been unwavering.

It is not only the Jews who support Israel, of course. According to the most recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified. But while there is some measurable slippage in Israel’s favorable ratings among the American people, American Jewish support remains firm. I have seen no poll data on American Jews to prove my thesis, but it is what I conclude from innumerable conversations and a review of both the Jewish press and Jewish organizational statements.

I offer a few observations on American Jewish attitudes on the current conflict with Gaza.

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Max Steinberg Was Not Brainwashed

By Yareeve Zemel

L.A. native Max Steinberg, killed in combat during fighting with Gaza / Courtesy of Steinberg Family

There have been many responses to Allison Benedikt’s indictment of Birthright in the death of Max Steinberg, an oleh and a lone soldier, the IDF’s term for new recruits whose families live outside Israel. Many have pointed out the total lack of factual evidence for her claims or the disrespect her article showed the deceased and his family. While I agree with these arguments, my problem with her article lies in its fundamental underlying assumption that any connection experienced by a Diaspora Jew with Israel is a sole consequence of nationalistic brainwashing.

As a former oleh and lone soldier in the IDF myself, and friend and acquaintance of many olim, both recent and veteran, I am a witness to the fallacy of that assumption. During my time in ulpan at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, I was fortunate to meet many other olim, who came from just about every country, level of Jewish observance, and political leaning possible. While most of us shared some level of Zionist ideology, this was by no means the common factor that drove us to leave our families and start our lives in such a far-from-perfect place. Although many of us were excited to join the army, this was nothing compared to the more visceral euphoria of being in the one place that we could call home, surrounded by people who are part of the same nation.

Based on my own self-examination and countless conversations with other olim, this feeling is the only commonality I can find between us all. Some were raised by Israeli parents, while others had only one Jewish grandparent. Some had been on group trips to Israel, and others hadn’t seen the country until the day they moved there. Some spent years in Jewish day school or youth groups, and others were entirely assimilated in their non-Jewish communities at home. Some wanted to join the most secretive, combat-intensive units in the army, while others weren’t all that excited to join the army at all. Some supported the Likud party, and others voted for the far-left Meretz.

I definitely would not classify all the olim I met as being “especially lost, or especially susceptible, or… just looking to do some good,” the traits Benedikt believes characterize most olim and lone soldiers.

The diversity of backgrounds, personalities, and opinions in this group of new immigrants was equally reflective of that of the native Israeli population, and I therefore cannot accept that the feeling of belonging in one’s own land with one’s own people is the result of one particular worldview.

I never met Max Steinberg, but I do not believe that he choose his path because he was misled by a specific type of propaganda. When I think of Max, I think of the countless other olim who feel so at home in Israel. It is a feeling that has a special place between our hopes and dreams, irrespective of nationality, political views, or knowledge of the Hebrew language or Israeli culture. It is this feeling, and not political ideology, that drives olim like Max to live in Israel. It is such a shame that Max did not get to live in that place he felt was truly his home for longer, but I’m happy for him that he discovered it when he did.

Yareeve Zemel is a graduate student at Columbia University studying biomedical engineering.


News Quiz: What Do You Call a Jew in Alaska?

By Lenore Skenazy

Thinkstock

Penguins, Zumba and dirty pictures. If that doesn’t scream Jewish News Quiz, what does?

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Gaza War Diary: Silence, Then the Bombs Go Off

By Walid Abuzaid

A Palestinian carries the remains of an Israeli shell in the Gaza Strip / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Walid Abuzaid’s diary will run in two parts. This is the first installment.

Thursday, June 27

I was in Cyprus when it all started. When we heard about the kidnapped teens, we were thrilled by the possibility of another prisoner release. Hamas would be held responsible for the kidnapping, but we treat our prisoners well — at least the one prisoner we’ve ever had.

It’s my last night in Cyprus and one of so few in which I smile before I go to bed, for tomorrow I’m on my way home. I know it isn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made, but I miss Gaza. I miss my life.

“I don’t want to f**king go to Cairo, I want to go to Gaza. How many times do I have to tell you? Do you want me to say it slower?!” I yell at the woman at the gate who takes my passport and makes me watch every passenger get on that plane until the gate closes. “Wait here, please,” she says for the 10th time, before whining about Arabs in Turkish to the lady next to her, who lends me her seat while I wait. An airline employee official who speaks Arabic finally arrives. She hasn’t come for me, but rather for the Yemenite whose Saudi residency has expired. He isn’t allowed to go to Cairo either; nor does he want to.

For three days I’m being prevented from traveling to Cairo from the Istanbul Airport, since Rafah crossing isn’t open until Sunday. I try explaining that I do not want to enter Cairo, and that I agree to be held in that disgusting deportation hall in the Cairo airport until the border opens. Yet, nothing I say changes the officials’ minds. In Arabic, “How do you even know Rafah will be open?” the translator dares to ask me. I refuse to even glance at him and continue to scream in English at the cold officials. It’ll be three days of this.

A Palestinian girl waits for permission to cross into Egypt at the Rafah crossing in the Gaza Strip.

Monday, June 30

I’m finally home, after my dad spent a lot of money to buy me another plane ticket on a different airline. I only had 30 euros for the way back; that’s what was left from the 250 euros that my uncle sent from Germany.

My bag is still in Cairo, but who cares — I’m home. I’ll go to my other uncle, the lawyer, and have him write a contract that will allow my relative in Egypt, Mohammed, to collect my bag for me. Then I’ll go to the bar association to make it all official, before sending the papers through DHL and waiting a week for them to arrive. After that, Mohammed may have to wait a few hours at the airport until he receives my bag. Following that, all that’s left is to wait for the border to open again. Simple!

This isn’t even what I intended to write about, god damn it.

Tuesday, July 1

I’m getting ready to embrace my mom, after not seeing her for almost a year. “Wasim, we’re f**ked; they’ve just found the bodies of the three Israelis. Don’t tell mom.” My younger brother, of course, decides to use that as an excuse to tell Mom that I’m still not in Gaza in order to surprise her when I get to her home. Wasim is like that. He arrived from Indiana just a couple of days before I did. He was there on a year-long youth exchange and study program — the same one I did in 2012. We call it a taste of freedom.

Wednesday, July 2

My mother cries all through the night, a sense of déjà vu overwhelms me as I recall the night of Nov. 11, 2013.

Back at my dad’s, home, we discuss the repercussions. My father and I don’t usually agree, but this time we both know something bad is going to happen. He asks my stepmother, Nirmeen, for the grocery list. She points out that she has already evaluated the situation and the list will be longer than a week. Lamar, my younger sister, comes along for one last ride before she has to stay in an apartment for an unknown length of time. She understands. She remembers October 2012, she was three years old then.

Thursday, July 10

We are in the living room with an incredible view. We can see Gaza’s entire harbor. I try to cover two-year-old Eimar’s ears when a rocket drops and destroys a mini yacht called “Gaza’s Arc.” She can’t sleep yet; she’s scared. She likes the fire though. She laughs.

“You look upset, you’ve been watching that boat for 30 minutes, what’s wrong?” Wasim wonders. “I don’t know what was in it,” I respond, “I don’t know why they bombed it, but I know someone loved that boat. That boat was someone’s dream, they just killed someone’s dream. That’s far worse than killing them.”

Friday, July 11

My dad and I go out for the first time in five days to get rgag, a kind of bread made in a saj oven, for the delicious Fatteh dish. It’s 5:22 p.m., the electricity’s been out for three hours. It’s the usual eight-hour rounds and the batteries are almost out. The windows of the house are open and the sweet wind is blowing in. I can hear the jets, drones, gunboats and the occasional thud. Eimar is still awake.

Saturday, July 12, 8:23 p.m.

I’ve just finished eating and I’m heading to my room for a long-awaited smoke or two. My mind is rushing with thoughts of the Brazil vs. Netherlands match. I saw a photo of Neymar with the rest of the team earlier today. I hope Brazil saves some face and wins the game — that would cheer up my Brazilian friend Pedro a bit. I’ve been to Amsterdam, and have friends there too, so I also want the Netherlands to win. Oh well. I’ll go on Facebook before I start looking for a good online stream of the match, one that can tolerate my agonizingly slow Internet speed.

“Breaking: Al-Qassam Brigades threatens to hit Tel Aviv with J-80 rockets at 9 p.m.”

8:28 p.m.

“You still want to go donate blood?” Wasim asks sarcastically. I don’t indulge him this time. A couple of minutes later my mom calls. She succeeds in convincing me not to go out tonight. I haven’t moved from my place yet. I’ve smoked four cigarettes so far. It’s 8:58 p.m.

9:00 p.m.

My dad asks me to take the car keys to the guard tower so he can park it in the underground garage. A chance to buy more cigarettes, I tell myself. I’m dreading the fact that I have to walk rather than “borrow” the car to drive to the market, since, like last night, Abu-Malek has closed up his shop. I don’t blame him. Tonight will be a particularly loud one, and I’m rehearsing the lies I have to tell Eimar.

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When ‘Anti-Israel’ Looks Like ‘Anti-Semitism’

By Sigal Samuel

A man demonstrates at a Hong Kong rally calling for an end to Israel’s war in Gaza / Getty Images

Since Israel launched its military operation in Gaza, other countries are seeing an increase in anti-Semitic hate speech and attacks. In France, synagogues are being firebombed. In Belgium, coffee shops are barring Jews from entry. In Chicago, leaflets threatening the Jewish community are being discovered on parked cars. In India, Jewish sites are being threatened with terrorist attacks. And all around the world, protests that start out as “pro-Gaza” or “pro-Palestine” or “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist” are quickly devolving into pure, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

For many American Jewish liberals, this trend is deeply dispiriting — and confusing. They’ve spent years arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two different things, that the former isn’t necessarily rooted in the latter. But now, they complain, that argument is becoming harder and harder to sustain. The lines are getting blurry. If these protesters don’t actually hate Jews, they ask, then why do they keep conflating Jews and the Israeli government? Why are they resorting to this anti-Jewish — and not simply anti-Israel — rhetoric?

Or, in the words of recent Forward contributor Tova Ross:

When angry protesters shout “Death to the Jews!” at “anti-Israel” rallies in Antwerp, Berlin and London, and Jews are trapped in a Paris synagogue and firebombed by an angry mob, how can you honestly posit that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism?

My response to that question is: Of course the two have something to do with one another — of course they’re uncomfortably intertwined — and are you really so shocked by that?

Is it really so hard to understand why — after Jews have spent decades telling every Jewish child that they are owed a free trip to Israel, citizenship in Israel, life and land in Israel purely by virtue of being Jewish — the world is slow to distinguish between Jews and Israel?

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The Gaza War Through Ultra-Orthodox Eyes

By Miriam Moster

An ultra-Orthodox Jew watches the bombardment of Gaza from southern Israel / Getty Images

(JTA) — Most Israelis blame the war in Gaza squarely on Hamas, though there are plenty who fault the Israeli government for not pursuing peace more aggressively.

In the haredi Orthodox community, however, where practically everything is ascribed to the omnipresent hand of God in one form or another, the true cause of Israel’s troubles is seen as something else: sin, with the troubles Israel’s punishment.

Which sin? Take your pick.

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Why Israeli Left Should Stop Backing Gaza Wars

By Raphael Magarik

Palestinians carry a boy following an Israeli military strike on the Gaza beach / Getty Images

In the current outburst of violence, perhaps the only pliable and docile actor is Israel’s center-left. Politically speaking, opposition leader Isaac Herzog might as well be cowering in a shelter. He toes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line, supporting both the airstrikes and the ground invasion. True, he popped up to demand an exit strategy from the government, but he did so just as Hamas was rejecting a cease-fire — rendering his quibbles about an exit strategy weak and irrelevant. Centrist Minister of Finance Yair Lapid is even more accommodating, loosening the purse-strings for an indefinite war.

The trouble is that acquiescing to periodic escalations in Gaza makes mincemeat of the mainstream left’s supposed stance on the conflict. It’s a strategic disaster.

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No, Birthright Didn't Kill Max Steinberg

By Elissa Strauss

L.A. native Max Steinberg, killed in combat during fighting with Gaza / Courtesy of Steinberg Family

I’ve gone on the record about my ambivalence about Birthright, having argued that it actually discouraged a connection to Israel for Jews like me due to the clear bias of its agenda. Should I have been offered a more complex portrait of the country, I might have better understood what is really at stake and why I should care. Instead, like so many other Jews of my generation, I decided to let it be someone else’s problem.

Birthright is hardly perfect. It is absolutely one-sided and all too easy to see through for the more critically-minded, or maybe just less drunk, people on the bus. But let’s get one thing straight: it is not a cult.

In her Slate story on Los Angeles native Max Steinberg, who moved to Israel, joined the IDF and then sadly passed away in combat this past week at the age of 24, Allison Benedikt implies as much, suggesting that Birthright should take part of the blame for Steinberg’s death.

Benedikt says that joining the IDF “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and suspects that Steinberg fell into this trap. (As Haviv Rettig Gur points out at the Times of Israel, this hypothesis doesn’t hold water when we look at the actual numbers.) She recounts how Steinberg had initially resisted going on the trip, but ended up feeling deeply moved once he got to the country and experienced his life-changing epiphany that he wanted to make aliyah at the gravesite of an American soldier who died fighting for the country. Does this make him brainwashed? Benedikt seems to think so.

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Don't Reward Hamas for Israeli Soldier's Body

By Eliyahu Federman

Palestinians celebrate after Hamas’ armed wing said it had captured an Israeli soldier / Getty Images

Immediately after a Hamas military spokesperson announced the capture of an Israeli soldier this Sunday, the streets of Gaza, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem erupted in fireworks and celebration. Israel confirmed this week that the body of, Oron Shaul, a soldier presumably killed when an armored vehicle was hit by an anti-tank missile, went missing.

If Hamas has the body they are likely to demand the release of prisoners in exchange for the body. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including notorious murderer Samir Kuntar, for the corpses of two Israeli soldiers.

But rewarding terrorists by releasing prisoners in exchange for the body will only embolden Hamas and incentivize more kidnapping attempts and lead to more terrorism.

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ADL Needs To Drop Thane Rosenbaum Right Now

By Emily L. Hauser

Thane Rosenbaum / Getty Images

So. Can we talk about Thane Rosenbaum?

You probably already know that Thane Rosenbaum — who likes to talk about being a human rights professor — wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal arguing that the Gazan noncombatants are fair game in this war, because “they” voted for Hamas and “invite [Hamas members] to dinner with blood on their hands.”

Setting aside the fact that Hamas (being awful) hasn’t held elections since 2006 — and also setting aside the fact that Gaza’s overwhelmingly young population includes hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t have voted for Hamas had they wanted to — there are of course numerous problems with this analysis, starting with the Geneva Conventions.

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Gaza War Proves My Pro-Israel Dad Was Right

By Tova Ross

It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune.

I guess on the whole Israel thing, I used to be kind of pareve. Not so much on the country’s scenic landscape or its culture, which I loved and deeply appreciated: its vibrancy and sheer chutzpah; its gorgeous men who looked nothing like the pimply boys in my hometown of Flatbush, whether they were in uniform or not; its falafel. But on the whole ardent Zionist devotion to the Jewish homeland that characterized the majority of my Israeli relatives, both sabras and American olim, I hesitated to commit similarly.

I admit that this was largely due to my rebellious nature, which had me instinctively buck any familial trend. I relished my role as the token liberal in an almost-uniformly Republican family. I liked looking beyond my immediate circle and empathizing with people who weren’t necessarily Jewish, white, or upper-middle class. And when I made friends at age 16 with a left-leaning socialist who saw clearly the persecution of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, I only grew more daring in my critiques of the Jewish state. The discussions with my father grew more heated.

“Tova, one of these days you’re going to grow up and realize that Israel is all the Jews have,” he said to me, banging the table for emphasis. I sneered at his naiveté. This was America, for God’s sake. It was 2004. Being a Jew was more than acceptable: It was cool. And I continued to routinely call Israel’s policies into question, because I was a good little liberal.

But, alarmingly, my father seems to have been right. Everywhere I look, there’s news of anti-Israel demonstrations that regularly devolve into openly anti-Jewish sentiment, weakening the position — which I once held — that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are separate entities. The line between the two is growing blurrier, and fast. When angry protesters shout “Death to the Jews!” at “anti-Israel” rallies in Antwerp, Berlin and London, and Jews are trapped in a Paris synagogue and firebombed by an angry mob, how can you honestly posit that anti-Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism?

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I'm Done Apologizing

By Menachem Creditor

A Palestinian gestures as flames rise from the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza / Getty Images

I’m done apologizing for Israel.

It’s tiring to apologize over and over. Instead, I’ve decided to come clean: I am a progressive American rabbi who leans left pretty hard. I’ve been engaged, as a US faith leader, in work to reform gun laws, extend LGBT rights around the world, grant refuge to illegal immigrants, protect women’s reproductive choice, and more. Paint me blue.

So, when it comes to Israel, many of those with whom I engage in social reform expect me to react to Israel’s military actions in Gaza with scorn and criticism. To be fair, there are times when I do. My Zionism demands I speak out on behalf of the Israel that remains, in my world-view, the most ambitious project-in-process of the Jewish People. Whereas Israel’s 66 short years have witnessed strength and resilience that have redefined Jewish identity in profound ways, the global Jewish family remains interwoven with Israel. If you question this, scan the last week’s news for anti-Israel rallies in Antwerp, Los Angeles, Paris, Boston, and elsewhere that featured widespread anti-Semitic chants and violence against Jews.

So I’m a progressive US faith leader. I’m a Zionist in Berkeley, CA. I’m a Jew in the world, worried for my family. So here is my response to those criticizing Israel this week.

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VIDEO: How To Fight Voyeurism in Gaza

By Sigal Samuel

When some of us hear “Gaza,” we picture bombs or rockets or rubble.

What if, instead, we pictured an adorable little girl in a pink hat? Or a grandfather playing with his grandchild? Or young men handing out ice cream cones?

A new short film by Palestinian filmmaker Hadeel Assali is an ingenious exercise in juxtaposition. The audio: a journalist’s call for help in the embattled Gaza neighborhood of Shejaia last weekend. The visuals: footage of smiling and laughing Palestinians in Gaza last summer.

Instead of stirring us to voyeurism by showing dead brown bodies in the streets, this video stirs us to empathy by showing us the bodies of people who live and laugh and love. It’s a refreshing departure from the ceaseless televised carnage — which, by the way, has a disturbing race element to it: Can you imagine how people would react if dozens of dead white kids were shown on screen that way? And if those dead white kids were then used as the punchline for, say, an Onion article?

Rather than dehumanizing Palestinian bodies, this video shows their basic humanity, reminding us what’s at stake in Gaza.

Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave from Hadeel Assali on Vimeo.


News Quiz: What Did John Kerry Say This Week?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

John Kerry, Henry Kissinger and Natlie Portman? It must be this week’s Jewish News Quiz! Or perhaps it’s the hummus talking.

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L.A.'s Eric Garcetti Dons Kippah for Instagram

By Noah Smith

Getty Images

After a year on the job, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, 43, has enjoyed mostly positive reviews from Angelenos and from observers of City Hall, who have credited his low-key governance style with helping reform the daily operations of the city’s government as well as with moving his “back to basics” initiatives forward in sectors such as job creation, traffic and public safety.

Though critics say that Garcetti has not been bold enough in creating and pursuing his agenda, the mayor can point to victories in securing lowered salaries and benefits for union workers of the Department of Water and Power, as well as to gaining the support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for his ambitious $1 billion proposal to redevelop the L.A. River and its surrounding areas.

The city’s first elected Jewish mayor, Garcetti has also been actively involved with creating more cooperation between L.A. and Israel, most recently in the form of the Los Angeles/Eilat Innovation and Cooperation Task Force, which aims to help Israeli and Southern California-based businesses, universities and not-for-profits work together to solve issues related to water resources, solar energy and other environmental technologies.

In an interview held at his office in Downtown Los Angeles Garcetti and the Forward’s Noah Smith discussed issues related to the Jewish and Israeli communities.

Noah Smith: In light of recent proposals to boycott and/or divest from Israel, on University of California campuses and throughout the country, what are some of the specific ways in which the City of Los Angeles benefits from its cooperation with the State of Israel and its businesses and universities?

Eric Garcetti: Because we have similar land and similar challenges of drought, of energy independence, of economic development, I think we feel a real natural affinity with Israel. With the coast line and mountains, you go to Israel and you feel like you’re in California and vice versa, which I think is why so many Israelis probably settle here so comfortably and there are such close ties. This is not only an important Jewish city, it has now become an important Israeli-American city, I think one of the great cities of Israeli expats in the world.

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Is Gaza Fight Israel's 'War of Choice’?

By Brant Rosen

Israeli armored personnel carrier rolls at army deployment near Israel’s border with Gaza / Getty Images

In his piece “Israel’s Moral Army?” in these pages, Michael Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” — or, to use a title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. While Israeli and American politicians — and Israel-supporters the world over — have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

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From Shul to Shrimp in New Orleans

By Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel

The French Quarter in New Orleans.

We spent the last night of our road trip through the Jewish South in New Orleans — not really part of the South at all. The Big Easy is more like the northern extension of the Caribbean. And its Jewish life reflects that.

The pattern we saw here differed from the patterns noted on our previous stops. The first Jews arrived earlier, when Louisiana was still a French colony. These were Sephardis, often crypto-Jews, escaping religious persecution in Europe and looking to do business in the New World. But even here, they didn’t advertise their religion: intermarriage and assimilation were the norm.

The first recognized synagogue in New Orleans, Shangarai Chasset (Gates of Mercy), was founded in 1827, after the Louisiana Purchase. As in the rest of the South, organized Jewish communal life developed towards the 1840s, with the arrival of German Jewish merchants. This meant fewer concessions to assimilated Jews as Ashkenazi rituals supplanted Sephardi customs; by 1841, intermarried men were barred from Shangarai Chasset membership.

As two Sephardis, we went on a quest to find the original home of Shangarai Chasset. We arrived at the corner of St. Louis and North Rampart Street. It was Friday evening, and had the shul still been there we would have been just in time for Shabbat services. Unfortunately, only a plaque now marks the spot. A Catholic church with voodoo ties looms across the street, as does New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, nicknamed the “City of the Dead.”

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