Forward Thinking

Hillel Is Already Open — So Why the Conference?

By Eric Fingerhut

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views

Once again the love affair between the Jewish people and higher education is back in full bloom. The start of a new school year, and the Jewish New Year, marked the beginning of robust programming for Jewish college students across the globe.

As students dig into their studies, the events in Israel and Gaza this past summer are a hot topic on many campuses. In response, Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world — its growing network now serves some 550 campuses in North and South America, Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Israel — is drawing on its expertise in promoting deep and thoughtful discussion. Hillel is sponsoring a broad range of programs to help students understand the issues and how they will affect Israel and its neighbors in the future.

Hillel professionals have heard presentations from both the Israeli ambassador to the United States and the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. Hillel student leaders have organized interfaith gatherings and intercultural dialogues. Hillel educators have offered seminars and discussions for students to learn about contemporary Israeli society and culture, to reflect on their own relationships with Israel and to develop skills as dialogue facilitators.

Hillel students have also modeled what respectful discourse looks like: At Cooper Union Hillel in New York City, students countered an effort to boycott a speech by the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and encouraged Jewish students to attend and listen respectfully, which they did. And, of course, the tens of thousands of students who attended High Holiday services at Hillel joined Jews all over the world in praying for a year of peace for all people.

What all these activities have in common is they welcome and include students of all backgrounds, all political positions and who have an exceptionally wide array of relationships with their Jewish identities and with Israel. They do so within an environment that is intellectually rigorous, respectful of difference and committed to honest conversation. Hillel is among the most religiously, intellectually, culturally and politically pluralistic organizations in the Jewish world — a testament to both the diversity of Jewish experience and of the college campuses we serve.

Inclusivity and broad-mindedness are part of our core values. All students are always welcome at Hillel. And these values guide all of our work. That work includes listening to all student voices, including those of the activists behind the “Open Hillel” campaign and other campus groups.

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News Quiz: Do You Have 'Chutzpah'?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Matzo balls, blintzes and – Beyonce? Not to mention Barbra Streisand’s agent? It’s a great start to a new year! Get quizzing!

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Why We Censor 'Klinghoffer' at Our Peril

By Mira Sucharov

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(Haaretz) — As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to launch its production of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” John Adams and Alice Goodman’s 1991 operatic account of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of a Jewish, wheelchair-bound passenger by Palestinian militants, the media has been abuzz. Protestors have gathered outside Lincoln Center demanding that the Met cancel the show, and agitating by the likes of the ADL has succeeded in blocking the planned global simulcast.

Opposing the opera, Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, has written that “civilized society, from the time of our caveman ancestors, has learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which deserves our unconditional revulsion. The Met has smeared this distinction and thus betrayed their contract with society.”

But the show will go on, opening on October 20.

There are at least two major questions I think we need to ask about the opera itself. First, is “Klinghoffer’ morally problematic? Second, especially in light of Yom Kippur having has just passed, what is the role, if any, of apology and forgiveness when it comes to political misdeeds and inter-group reconciliation?

Scholars continue to debate the effectiveness of apology as a tool in conflict resolution scenarios. It may be enough to note here that 11 years after the incident, one of the operatives behind the hijacking and murder issued an apology, something which, six years after that, he seemed less certain about.

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In Defense of the Shabbos App

By Julie Sugar

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When I began going to Friday night services, I kept my cell phone on vibrate in my boot, pressed against my calf. I was 19 and living in New York; the idea of turning my phone off or simply leaving it at home was, then, as unrealistic as my walking to Manhattan from Brooklyn instead of taking the train. (Later, I would do all three.)

I was reminded of those days when reading about the Shabbos app, which has caused a stir in the Orthodox world. Its developers assert that they will resolve all halakhic issues related to using a smartphone on Shabbos, the Sabbath. The app launches — God willing? God not willing? — in February 2015, with downloads priced at $49.99 a pop.

Much of the controversy around the app is about the developers’ depictions of why the technology behind smartphones has been prohibited, followed by their point-by-point solutions. I’m not going to join the halakhic debate as I have neither the inclination nor the chops, but I do have the background to say that people observe Shabbos in many, many different ways. Others may not like those ways, or think they are permissible. But the week after Yom Kippur, with our slates wiped clean, the time is right to think about how we talk to and about each other.

One Friday night in my early Shabbos days, my phone vibrated and I ran out to take the call. As I was on the phone, a friend — who was more religious than I was — walked past me outside. Every particle in my body burst aflame with shame. “Sorry,” I mouthed, while still holding the phone to my ear.

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New Square to Neighbors: Stay Away from Our Holy Shtetl!

By Frimet Goldberger

New Square

You know the Village of New Square — that holy shtetl that keeps Judaism alive and well, that isolated Mecca of Hasidism and Follow-the-Rebbe-Blindly-ism? You may have heard of the arson attack two years ago on one of its residents, Aaron Rottenberg, which was allegedly incited by village leaders, or about the rampant cover-up of alleged sexual abuse, as revealed in recent headlines.

This week, in a letter to its Orthodox Jewish neighbors, New Square leaders, under the auspices of a very eloquent non-Square lawyer (entirely my guess), announced that it intends to reinvent itself as a wilderness until the second coming of the dinosaurs. Its new name will be The New Cube (because Old Square times New Square equals, of course, New Cube).

In a heartfelt letter, which was featured in an independent Orthodox weekly newsletter delivered to Monsey residents, New Square leaders beseech their neighbors — those gentile-ish Jews of Monsey — to resist buying property within a 1-mile radius of New Square to help protect the late Skver Rebbe’s wishes: to be isolated from the impurities of common, lesser humans — that is to say, non-Hasidim, and especially non-Jews.

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The Tragic Lesson of the Shabbos App

By Eliyahu Fink

After days of discussing the Shabbos App — the new technology that claims to allow you to use your iPhone on Shabbat without breaking any Jewish laws — someone finally asked me a question that cut to the core of the issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?”

My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones to my Shabbat experience.

That is the real issue here. The halachic question about whether it is permissible or prohibited and why is a fascinating and important discussion, but it’s relatively obscure and esoteric. Digging into the nitty-gritty halachic nuances is enjoyable for me, but I think we have to look at the big picture and examine the social and communal issues raised by the Shabbos App.

To me, it’s real simple. No one would have thought of the Shabbos App or the need for the Shabbos App if people were enjoying the break from technology that Shabbat affords. If we all loved being off our phones for 25 hours, the Shabbos App would be superfluous. No one would want it. No one would care to have it. But that is not the reality.

Many people struggle with observing Shabbat every week. The phone is a private and quiet way to escape Shabbat observance. That’s one the many allures of the smartphone. It’s like holding the universe in your hands, and if someone is feeling stifled by Shabbat observance, the world in one’s hands can feel quite liberating.

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How Israel Hides Its Asylum Seeker Problem

By Elizabeth Tsurkov

Lily Padula

“There is no asylum seeker problem in Israel.”

So said Netanyahu when, following his recent address to members of the Jewish Federations of North America in New York, one of the attendees raised the issue of African asylum-seekers.

“They are illegal job immigrants,” the Israeli prime minister said, adding: “Asylum seekers can come in like those from Syria — but not job seekers from Africa.”

There are a few problems with this.

First of all, while all of Syria’s other neighbors have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees (Turkey and Lebanon each host over one million Syrian refugees), Israel has accepted none. Israel does welcome Syrians who’ve been injured in the ongoing civil war in the country and offer them top-notch medical treatment free of charge. Most patients are interested in returning, but even in cases when they are not, they are deported back to a country engulfed in war. Thus, the State opposed the petition filed to the High Court by a 17-year-old Syrian girl who was treated in Israel and wished to remain here. She was deported to Syria in early 2014.

But, more than that, there’s the fact that about 48,000 African migrants reside in Israel. The government insists that they are “illegal work infiltrators.” Is that true — or are they refugees who would face persecution if returned to their homelands?

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Blaming the Messenger on E. Jerusalem Settlements

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) — That Jerusalem building approval blow-up between the Netanyahu and Obama governments? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel media watchdogs like Honest Reporting are pressing the storyline that Peace Now is at fault. Which is kind of like blaming routers for the bad news you posted on the Internet.

Let’s review: On Sept. 24 the Interior Ministry published in Kol Ha’Ir, a free Jerusalem weekly, an “Announcement of a project approval.” It refers to plans to allow the building of 2,355 to 2,561 units in Givat HaMatos, in the area of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as a future capital. Its key phrase is high up: “Building approvals and permits: A project that is authorized to issue approvals and permits.”

The language is important because, although the plan was approved in 2012, the ad signals the go-ahead for building; its publication makes it harder to reverse the proposal. Sept. 24, as it happens, was also the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

On Oct. 1 — yesterday, and the day Netanyahu met with Obama — Peace Now and Terrestrial Jerusalem noted the announcement’s publication. The building permit became an issue in the talks between Obama and Netanyahu and resulted an an unusually sharp rebuke from the White House.

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Israel’s Culture of Debate Needs Serious Fixing

By Elan Ezrachi and Naamah Kelman

Getty Images

In her recent New York Times op-ed, Mairav Zonszein describes incidents in which left-leaning Israelis were intimidated and even attacked by right-wing thugs. She concludes that, to quote the title of her piece, “Israel Silences Dissent.” By using this phrase, she suggests that Israel displays a state-based system of intimidation against those who do not accept its core principles, which increasingly privilege Jewish ethnicity and religion.

While Zonszein points out some alarming signs in the social reality of Israel, we would argue that depicting Israel as a country that persecutes dissenters is a gross exaggeration. Israel’s freedom of speech is still widely exercised, even in moments when Israel is under attack and masses of Israelis are mobilized to serve the country’s basic security needs.

What’s more, by leveling these kinds of accusations, Zonszein does nothing so much as play into Israel’s dysfunctional culture of debate — exactly the culture she aims to expose.

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Newest Anti-Israel Hashtag? #JSIL

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

(Haaretz) — It was fairly predictable. The Israeli government, after all, has been doing its best lately to send the message out that we’re all on the same side when it comes to opposing the monstrosity that is the Islamic State.

But that message upsets those who don’t want the world to forget that there’s no entity on earth that could possibly be as incorrigibly evil and destructive as the state of Israel. We’re talking about those folks for whom this summer’s events in Gaza were clearly a premeditated genocidal operation designed to kill Palestinians - and Hamas rockets were just a convenient excuse.

The Islamic State poses a quandary for these activists - who see the Middle East in black and white, in which the black hat belongs to Israel. Even those who prefer to see the warm and fuzzy side of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah have trouble justifying the barbaric behavior of the Islamic State group - otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL - in any way.

So if they can’t say that ISIL is WORSE than the Jewish state, they’ve decided that the best way to vilify Israel these days is to make clear that the nation’s behavior is surely the equivalent of bloodthirsty beheaders.

And thus, in a catchy way to equate the two, the hashtag #JSIL was born on Twitter, presumably standing for Jewish State in the Levant.

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Ruby Rivlin Is This Palestinian Boy's New Best Friend

By Mira Sucharov

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian relations, there’s much to be cynical about lately. The 50-day long carnage resulting from Operation Protective Edge this summer, the frozen peace process, the dueling speeches by Netanyahu and Abbas at the U.N. — and then there’s the festering issue of Israel’s minorities.

This week, Israel’s new president has come out with a touching video demanding that Israeli society replace racism, intolerance and thuggery with unity, tolerance and empathy. According to the president’s Facebook page, President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin approached 11-year old George Amira after seeing a video the boy had created from his own experience at the hands of schoolyard bullies. The president invited the young Jaffa resident to his office and suggested they collaborate on a similar video with a country-wide message of hope.

“Speaking up against violence is everyone’s responsibility,” the president’s Facebook posting said. “We can see it intensifying in our society, and we must stop it,” he continued.

I could be cynical while watching President Rivlin’s video. But I’m not.

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Why Yom Kippur Tells Us To Fight Ebola

By Ruth W. Messinger

A newly arrived patient suspected of suffering from the Ebola virus sits on the ground at Island Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia./Getty Images

As Jews around the world prepare for Yom Kippur — a day when we pray to be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year to come — the people of West Africa are struggling to save the lives of their loved ones from the Ebola outbreak, one of the most desperate crises of our day.

In Liberia, the country hardest hit by Ebola and one I last visited just two years ago, people are dying outside overcrowded hospitals. The bodies of those who have succumbed to the virus lie in the streets for days, awaiting burial. Ebola has already claimed the lives of more than 2,600 people in West Africa, and the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities have estimated that it might infect between 20,000 and 1.4 million more before the outbreak is contained. Clearly, the book of life is closing far too early for many West Africans.

The virus is spreading like wildfire, in part because many people don’t understand how it is transmitted. Some communities view Ebola as something caused by evil spirits; others think it’s a government conspiracy. In some parts of Liberia, Ebola is inadvertently spread by traditional healers.

Fear is also fueling the epidemic. Neighbors are accusing neighbors of inflicting a curse. Not surprisingly, those who fall ill — and the families they leave behind — are marked with stigma and shunned. The epidemic has also sparked violence, as the Liberian government has sent armed soldiers to cordon off slums and impose quarantines — often with no warning.

As Jews, these developments are chilling. We know too much about human suffering as a consequence of panic and fear, dating from Medieval times when Jews were blamed for the spread of the plague—and from Nazi Germany, when we were depicted as vermin-like carriers of illness.

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Netanyahu's Convenient Lies About ISIS and Hamas

By Nathan Brown

Benjamin Netanyahu, left; anti-ISIS fighter, right / Getty Images

Speaking at the General Assembly this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu repeated a refrain he has sounded for three decades (since his days as Israeli ambassador to the U.N.) — that all forms of terrorism are different sides of the same coin and have civilization as their target:

So when it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. And what they share in common all militant Islamists share in common. Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Nusra in Syria, the Mahdi army in Iraq, and the Al-Qaida branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere.

The startling assortment of groups; the lumping of a Shiite movement (Hezbollah) with those that can treat Shi‘a as apostates; the linking of Israel’s enemies with those now targeted by the United States — all this is politically convenient. But is it accurate?

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9 Sephardi Dishes That Won’t Make Buzzfeed Gag

By Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel


If your signature dish can be mistaken for cat food, you’ve got a problem.

Or that’s what Buzzfeed’s most recent experiment would have you believe. They got “random people” (aka non-Jews) to try classic Jewish foods for the first time and recorded their reactions. The response to gefilte fish? Gag. To kugel? Gag. To matzo ball soup? Yum! To chopped liver? “This is poop.”

One problem: what Buzzfeed considers to be traditional Jewish food is actually just Ashkenazi food. This is not surprising: America has long made the mistake of thinking “Jewish” is limited to Ashkenazi. From bagels to Woody Allen, Eastern European traditions reign.

And so, as two Sephardic Jews raised on a very full stomach, we humbly present these alternatives — they won’t make you gag. Promise.

1) Moroccan Cigars

Fried rolls of meat? ‘Nuff said.


2) Salade Cuite

This cooked Moroccan salad is really easy to make, if you have three hours to spare watching peppers and tomatoes simmer in oil. The end result is worth it. Trust.


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No, Pamela Geller, the Qur'an Is Not Anti-Semitic

By Reuven Firestone

Pamela Geller, left; Qur’an, right / Getty Images

Soon you will see ads, courtesy of Pamela Geller, in the New York City subway system that state, “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Qur’an.”

Is she right?

It’s easy to understand why many Jews might think so. Anti-Semitism has become a frightening force in much of the Muslim world, and a recent Anti-Defamation League study has shown that anti-Semitism is more common in Muslim majority countries than in any other region identified by religion, culture or geography. Muslims need to address this problem for many reasons, not least of which is that anti-Semitism reflects deep ignorance and a willingness to be manipulated by simplistic propaganda that is harmful to Muslims as well as Jews.

But anti-Semitism is not found in the Qur’an.

This may be difficult to fathom given the recent heated public discussion. Some people cite what appear to be obviously angry and seemingly hateful negative references to Jews in the Qur’an. Others argue that these verses are taken out of context. They cite counter-verses from the same Qur’an that appear to respect Jews and even refer to Jews using the same positive language reserved for followers of Muhammad.

So what’s the real story? As usual, the issue is not so simple, and many on both sides of the debate do us all a disservice with their hyperbole and naïve arguments.

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Is the Israeli Left Anti-Democracy?

By Brent Sasley

In Haaretz, Moshe Arens has accused the Israeli left of not accepting, first, that Israeli democracy is working fine, and second, the specific “verdict of the electorate.”

Arens’ framing of Israeli democracy is flawed because he leaves several important points out of his description. To begin with, the Israeli left doesn’t wonder why the system isn’t functioning; they know perfectly well that it is. It’s the incentives they’ve identified driving the vote that they want to change, not the system itself.

They’re worried about the apathy that characterizes recent Israeli voting patterns. In addition to a declining voter turnout rate — from between 70% and 90% from 1949 to 2003 to under 70% since then (though it has risen slightly since 2009) — the default pattern has for some time been the right-wing parties, particularly as the economy has been doing well. Israeli leftists understand that the voting public needs to be made aware of the price of maintaining that pattern — mostly occupation and settlement expansion and the moral, political, financial and security costs associated with them. They also know they need a stronger message than the right’s playing on general security threats and efforts to instill fear of those with different political ideologies and backgrounds.

Arens is right that the electorate has held the left accountable for Oslo, the withdrawal from Lebanon and even the withdrawal from Gaza. He might have added that the left-wing parties themselves haven’t been able to get beyond the old slogans that “ending the occupation” and “negotiated withdrawals” would make everything immediately better. But he might also have added that the right-wing parties haven’t gotten past their own outdated ideas.

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How This Summer Made Me a Racist

By Leah Bieler

Israelis hide in a concrete pipe used as a shelter during a Palestinian rocket attack / Getty Images

This summer, I heard the word “we” over and over as Jews around the world (appropriately) condemned the horrific murder of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir. “We Jews don’t do this,” they claimed, even as empirical evidence to the contrary mounted. Some Jews do do this. But they are clearly the exception. Jews know what it’s like to be persecuted. That means we don’t hate Arabs because of who they are, but we hate how some Arabs behave. We are most certainly not racists. Okay. If you say so.

Until recently I felt proud of the manner in which my whole community handled questions regarding race. Then last month, I found myself becoming one. A racist, that is.

As sirens blared, we experienced the physical stress that comes with even the few runs to the bomb shelter that we had in Jerusalem. The rush of adrenaline that washes over you every time you hear a siren.

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News Quiz: Which Politician Just Put Their Foot in Their Mouth?

By Lenore Skenazy

Robert Ransdell’s campaign slogan on view in Kentucky / WLWT

Naked pictures! Brisket! How to pick up girls! We are starting this new year in style, here at your weekly news quiz. Dive in!

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Do Jewish Actions Ever Cause Anti-Semitism?

By Raphael Magarik

Jewish graves daubed with anti-Semitic slogans in a German cemetery / Getty Images

Is anti-Semitism ever a response to things that Jews do?

Jeffrey Goldberg thinks saying “Jews… Jewish organizations, or the Jewish state” ever cause anti-Semitism amounts to blaming the victim. Thus he attacked Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, for tweeting, “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war.”

Goldberg is right to highlight and condemn anti-Semitic violence in Europe, which is horrible and scary. But he’s wrong about Roth, because he’s thinking fuzzily about anti-Semitism.

First off, denying that Israel’s behavior has any causal role in anti-Semitism is deeply counter-intuitive. This summer, Israel fought a war and anti-Semitism surged in Europe — are those two facts supposed to be a coincidence?

Social scientists like to say that you cannot explain a variable with a constant. That is, there’s plenty of “irrational hatred” of Jews in Europe, but there always is. To explain changes in anti-Semitism, we need to discuss things that change — current events. And that’s why, as Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin noted, in 2002, the esteemed Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer not only attributed contemporary anti-Semitism to a reaction to Israel, but further claimed, “hostility can be reduced and moderated by [Israel’s] policies.” When you approach anti-Semitism as a detached observer, rather than a polemicist who has a beef with Human Rights Watch, this is obvious.

Goldberg gets mixed up because he conflates two very different questions. Glazer and Roth are just describing, totally without moral judgment, what causes what. Goldberg, who excoriates Roth for “accept[ing] these [anti-Semites’] pathetic excuses as legitimate,” confuses causality with moral responsibility. As an example: Surely when the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade ran over a black child, that was one of the causes of the Crown Heights riots, but that does not in the least justify the subsequent rioting. Israel bombing Gaza may cause upticks in anti-Semitism, without detracting one bit from the moral culpability of the anti-Semites in question. German neo-fascists and Jew-haters are contemptible. There should be no argument about that. But their strength and virulence vary over time, and Israel’s actions can help explain those changes. Explaining isn’t justifying.

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'With Jews We Lose' Candidate Robert Ransdell in His Own Words

By Sigal Samuel and Anne Cohen

Robert Ransdell’s campaign slogan on view in Kentucky / WLWT

“With Jews We Lose”? No, this isn’t a poster from Nazi Germany. It’s a campaign placard currently on view in Kentucky, where write-in candidate Robert Ransdell is running for U.S. Senate. His party, The White Guard, “seeks to show White people the facts regarding the Jewish role in America’s decline as well as highlight the destructive effects that multiculturalism, diversity, and political correctness have had on this country.” (He details his whole platform in this incredibly rambly video.)

We here at the “Jew Media,” as Ransdell calls it, had a few questions about his views. And so we emailed him. To our surprise, he answered back. Highlights of the interview, which has been edited for style and length, include: his belief that Christian Zionists should relocate to Israel, that no Jews are white, and that there’s only one group out there more arrogant than members of the tribe.

Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Ransdell in his own words:

1) Nowadays, many American Jews consider themselves white. Why don’t you share that view?

I don’t share that view because Jews themselves don’t share that view, it is absurd and a fantasy that Jews in America do not make a distinction between Jews and Whites, I won’t even bother quoting the numerous statements made by Jews, past and present, that affirm this fact. Most Whites falsely see Jews as White because they are never given an in depth and accurate portrayal of Jewish solidarity, unity, and identity which would go to show, again through the actions and statements of Jews, through the prolific number of Jewish interests organizations, that Jews regard themselves as what they are, a separate group.

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