Chabad Lubavitchers bring religious Jewish life to Laos in 2008.
If you saw the Anti-Defamation League’s scary new report on global anti-Semitism, you might have been intrigued to learn that the least anti-Semitic country in the word is…Laos.
Laos? Yes, Laos.
But why Laos, you ask? Good question. Maybe the landlocked Southeast Asian country has an amazingly tolerant and morally evolved population? Perhaps it’s been impressed by the wit of the Talmud, the humor of Seinfeld, the literary prowess of the Jewish Nobel winners, the breakthrough research of Israeli scientists? Do they just really like knishes over there?
Probably not. A more likely answer can be found in the Wikipedia page devoted to “History of the Jews in Laos” — yes, there is such a page, and here it is in its entirety:
Laos has no established Jewish presence, but as this communist country gradually opens up to foreign tourism, Chabad has secured permission to establish a permanent presence in Luang Prabang in 2006, where the young Rabbi Avraham Leitner provides meals and shelter to Jewish travelers. In all, there are only four permanent Jewish residents in the country, who serve the Israeli backpackers, tourists, and diplomats visiting Laos.
Wait a minute. Four Jewish residents?
Has the ADL considered that the low incidence of anti-Semitism in Laos may be due to nothing more than the tiny size of its Semitic community?
And why is the community so tiny?
It should be said that if there’s a lack of Jewish life in Laos, it’s not for lack of effort. Chabad Jews have been very keen to bring Yiddishkeit to the country — which, being communist, doesn’t look too kindly on religious activity. That hasn’t stopped this guy from trying.
Apparently, there was some drama in Laos back in 2008, when local police expelled Chabadniks from the country after they organized a Rosh Hashana celebration for 200 backpacking Israelis. The Chabadniks were arrested and interrogated, then put on a plane (along with their Torah scroll) to Bangkok, where they landed just one hour before the start of Yom Kippur.
So, establishing Jewish life is a tricky endeavor in Laos; there’s almost no permanent Jewish presence there; there’s also almost no anti-Semitism there. Should we be scoring that in the victory column?
At first sight, the ADL’s stats seem to tell a clear story. But they leave us with some murky questions. Laos is one of them.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views
As members of Open Hillel’s steering committee, my fellow organizers and I commend Hillel International’s recent announcement to create the “Hillel International Israel Strategy Committee,” which will review the organization’s current approach to dialogue on Israel and Palestine and make recommendations for improvement. According to a letter written by CEO Eric Fingerhut on Hillel’s website, this committee “will include a diverse group of students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.”
This announcement, along with other potentially hopeful ones made by Fingerhut, proves that Hillel International is starting to listen to students’ concerns. Open Hillel’s campaign to change Hillel International’s policies is working. Three college campuses have already declared their Hillels to be “Open,” and several more have issued petitions to change their current policies. Plus, there’s evidence that these Open Hillels have experienced increased attendance at their events because more students now feel welcome.
An ultra-Orthodox bride at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
This past Sunday, I spoke about sexuality and modesty in front of a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Both professionally and personally, it was a profound moment for me, a formerly ultra-Orthodox woman, to sit there and name experiences that the ultra-Orthodox community hasn’t wanted to hear. To say aloud: I was raped, to say aloud: modesty can breed vulnerability to sexual assault, to say aloud: all girls deserve sex education. And to have these rabbis — some of whom were surprisingly open to these ideas — carefully listen to me articulate these silenced realities.
At this event, five former ultra-Orthodox Jews met with four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and one Orthodox woman in an optimistic but perhaps quixotic attempt to build bridges of communication between these two communities.
Tensions have risen between the two, as former ultra-Orthodox Jews have grown to be a bold voice for justice around issues of sex abuse, negligence in education, forced marriages, oppression of personal choice, removal of children from deviating parents and abusive treatment of deviating teens, in their communities of origin.
Former ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t speak with a unified voice, but our diverse perspectives are perceptive and essential — and troubling for the ultra-Orthodox world, which has often viewed them as an affront to their way of life. There is little constructive conversation between the two groups, for a number of reasons, including — as I, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, have experienced — a tendency for the ultra-Orthodox community to attack the veracity and mental health of any former ultra-Orthodox Jew who publicly tells their story.
An extremist Jew is arrested at a 2012 rally for ‘price tag’ attacker comrades / Getty Images
Over at Tablet, Liel Leibovitz is unhappy that Israeli author Amos Oz is going around calling violent Israeli settlers “Hebrew neo-Nazis.” He claims Oz’s statement suffers from “a logical flaw,” one that has “more to do with philosophy than with politics.” And yet, for all that Leibovitz likes to namedrop Kant, it’s his argument that doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny.
In case you missed it, here’s what Oz had to say on Friday:
“‘Price tag’ and ‘hilltop youth’ are sweet, sugary nicknames, and the time has come to call this monster by its name. We wanted to be like all other nations, we longed for there to be a Hebrew thief and a Hebrew prostitute — and there are Hebrew neo-Nazi groups.”
And here’s the follow-up explanation Oz offered on Sunday:
“I object to comparisons to the Nazis. The comparison I made on Friday wasn’t to the Nazis but to the Neo-Nazis. Nazis erect ovens and gas chambers; Neo-Nazis desecrate places of worship, desecrate cemeteries, beat up innocent people, and scribble racist slogans. That is what they do in Europe, and that is what they do here.”
Leibovitz isn’t satisfied with this explanation, because he doesn’t like what he takes to be Oz’s tacit assumption: that “an action is an action, intents and purposes be damned.” Surely, he argues, it matters that in the case of the “rowdy” Israeli settlers “whose particular form of teenaged ennui sometimes involves defacing mosques with hurtful graffiti, torching cars, and other acts of baboonery,” we’re dealing with an intent that is vastly different from that of the neo-Nazis, whose purpose is “the reinstatement of a regime responsible for the systematic murder of millions of human beings based on no other reason save for their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Okay. So. Two problems here.
First, Leibovitz grossly mischaracterizes Israel’s “hilltop youth” — by describing them in exactly the same “sweet, sugary” terms that Oz was trying to warn against. He talks about them like they’re naughty teenagers, guilty of nothing more than a bit of vandalism — childish maybe, hurtful maybe, worthy of a slap on the wrist maybe, but nothing requiring that we “really be worried.” What he ignores is that these settlers are increasingly engaging in what can only truly be called terrorism.
Rahm Emanuel and Sarah Silverman are an ITEM? Sort of… in that they are both items in this week’s quiz. They are joined by Godzilla, Santa and Tony the Tiger. And Portnoy!
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest plans to enlist them in the Israeli army / Getty Images
When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks, we all know that stuff happens. Jokes are made that blur the boundaries of decency, people get offended, and apologies are (sometimes) made. And when it comes to broadcast media dependent on audience share, the situation is even starker: shock talk can be seen as a ratings booster. But looking at the broader context around last week’s Israeli Army Radio gaffe, there’s something’s rotten in the state of Israeli discourse.
Not far off from Yom Haatzmaut, an Israeli comedian riffed on controlling Israeli population through cannibalism. There was a catch, though, he said. The population he’d like to cull first is the ultra-Orthodox, but he didn’t think Haredim would taste good (“too bland”). Knee-slap banter about flavor and matzo balls ensued, and the station eventually issued an apology.
As a rip-off of Jonathan Swift, the joke was already suspect in quality. But the reason that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is funny whereas the Army Radio bit was decidedly not, is, of course, irony. Swift was mocking shameful societal attitudes — in that case, as reflected in policies towards the poor. The Army Radio segment, on the other hand, sadly serves to prop up the very attitudes that Israelis should be addressing head on.
Hatred of the Haredim in Israel is pervasively and casually disseminated. Consider Ari Shavit’s widely lauded book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, where he mentions the various populations comprising Jerusalem’s schoolchildren. There, he decries the fact that not enough are nice, secular Jewish kids. Too many Jerusalem pupils, in his opinion, are either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
Israeli soldiers support a comrade punished for pointing a gun at a Palestinian teenager. / Facebook
We should all be with David the Nahlawi.
Yes, I am talking about the 19-year-old Israeli soldier who pointed a gun and cursed at Palestinian youths in Hebron. Yes, I know that the brass knuckles one of his antagonists was supposedly holding turn out to have been Muslim prayer beads. And yes, David (“Nahlawi” refers to his army brigade, Nahal—his real name’s “Adamov”) has attracted some unsavory friends. The Facebook group supporting him, which has more than 130,000 likes, posts militaristic photos in which soldiers, shackled by the army’s code of engagement, are hapless victims of Palestinian violence. And while, horrible to say, that sometimes happens, the reality is soldiers in Hebron are occupiers. They are there to protect a small cluster of ideologically hardened settlers, even when that involves, say, indefinitely closing the main Palestinian thoroughfare.
But pillorying a teenage soldier only deflects outrage from the real villains. Don’t get mad at David the Nahlawi. Get mad at the cynical old men, army commanders and politicians, who send 19-year-olds into the West Bank with machine guns and ethics rulebooks to control a hostile population. Then, when the guns are pointed at kids and the rulebooks discarded, all of a sudden, they’re shocked, shocked. Adamov’s actions, a military spokesman said, “did not seem to fall in line with what we expect from our soldiers, as far as conduct is concerned.” Sure.
Violence against Palestinians isn’t an aberration caused by one angry young man. It’s the predictable, expected result of a long-term military occupation. For every one incident that makes the news, hundreds don’t.
Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of former soldiers, published a 93-page book of soldiers testifying about serving in Hebron between 2008 and 2010. On page eight, we hear about the “front command, the company commander” who “were always talking about how they would beat up Palestinians for fun, the whole time.”
Nor is it just talk. Go read the gory details there, or read about how soldiers regularly break up non-violent demonstrations, seal off un-permitted Palestinian houses, and detain kids as young as sixth graders. These aren’t rotten eggs, bugs in an otherwise smooth occupation; forcibly controlling an enemy population is the point.
Palestinian supporters of Hamas attend a rally in the West Bank / Getty Images
Employing the term “apartheid” — a word that conjures up the evils of both colonialism and racism in South Africa — to describe Israel’s future if peace with the Palestinians isn’t reached is nothing but a canard.
Within the 1967 lines, Israel is a working democracy in which minorities have equal rights. But even when applied to the West Bank, it is a complete misnomer. So long as Gaza remains an independent Palestinian state in all but name, Jews will remain the majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean for the foreseeable future. And that’s not even taking into account that the assumption that the Arab birthrate will always overwhelm that of the Jews is probably a mistake.
More to the point, the standoff over the West Bank that leaves most Arabs living under Israeli security but administered by the Palestinian Authority has nothing to do with an apartheid-style desire by a minority to rule a majority. After torpedoing the peace talks by making a deal with Hamas, Fatah has effectively turned down a fourth chance for independence to go along with its previous rejections in 2000, 2001 and 2008.
The continued Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is a product of a political culture that still links national identity to the war on Zionism. That creates an unfortunate stalemate that isn’t satisfactory to either side.
But the notion that Israel must repeat its 2005 Gaza mistake in the West Bank in order to avoid being smeared as a new South Africa is unpersuasive. Any use of the apartheid canard to describe Israel, whether employed by Secretary of State John Kerry or by the BDS anti-Zionists, only serves to make a Palestinian decision to make peace less, rather than more, likely.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the senior online editor and chief political blogger of Commentary magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @TobinCommentary.
Palestinian protesters near Israel’s separation wall in 2013 / Getty Images
After getting verbally pistol-whipped for merely suggesting that Israel was sliding head first down the slippery slope to apartheid, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly realized that Israel can’t handle the truth. He backpedaled so fast, he broke Lance Armstrong’s record.
While Kerry took back his insinuation that Israel could end up on the dark side known as apartheid, others in the know would argue it is already there. Major players who lived through apartheid say that today’s Israel is a mirror image of South Africa back in the day. It’s not just the late Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu who have used the analogy, but also white South African politicians who served during that time. When both the oppressed and oppressors can agree, and Jimmy Carter bears witness, it is hard to deny that it is apartheid.
If there was an autonomous Jewish homeland in Grand Island, N.Y., near Niagara Falls, what would it look like?
This idea seems surreal today. But it was exactly what Mordechai Manuel Noah, one of the most influential Jews in the United States in the early 19th century, advocated. Noah named his utopian vision of Jewish autonomous state Ararat after the place where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed.
But Noah wasn’t able to galvanize any support from the Jewish community for his vision, neither in the U.S., nor abroad. His efforts to establish the colony in 1825 imploded soon after the inauguration ceremony.
What if Noah had been successful? How would a trip to Ararat feel like today? What kind of sightseeing would we embark on? And, what kind of money would we use to pay for it?
The interactive art project “Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homeland” by Melissa Shiff starts with these “What if? questions. Shiff and her dedicated team use digital multimedia and geo-locational software to stage a historical fiction with wit, creativity and surprising attention to detail.
Nigerian women call for the freedom of Chibok’s kidnapped girls / Getty Images
Last month, an Islamist armed group called Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Presumably, these girls will be killed or sold into slavery and child marriages.
Even though I sit here in Los Angeles, this crisis affects me personally, deeply and immediately. You see, I am a Jewish mother of three daughters: Zohar, Ella and Hadar. And even though I do not know the names of the 276 girls, I know who they are. I see them clearly. They are my Zohar, my Ella, my Hadar.
I know what slavery means. I grew up reciting, every year at the Passover Seder, “In each generation, each person must envision being freed from slavery in Egypt.”
If I can imagine that, how can I not imagine what the mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of those girls are feeling? And how can I not act upon my feelings of sadness, fear and outrage? After all, the Torah teaches, “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Those girls and their families are not strangers to me. They are my family.
On Yom Haatzmaut morning, bright and early at 8:30 am, my four-year-old son Asher broke a crystal vase. It was an accident, but it could have been avoided. He could have chosen to play in a different place, and we as parents could have guided him better in his morning shenanigans. Horrified, Asher asked if he would still be allowed to go to the Yom Haatzmaut BBQ.
While we need to teach our son to be responsible, we also need to teach him that we have reasonable expectations and do not expect him to be perfect. We ask him to learn and grow as he matures out of toddlerhood. So yes, he got to join the family — and all of Israel — at the Yom Haatzmaut BBQ and festivities in Jerusalem.
Yom Haatzmaut is a day of joy for Israelis and Jews throughout the world — a celebration of the establishment of a home state for the Jewish people. But Yom Haatzmaut is more than a BBQ and a day to relax: It is the day we celebrate the right of Jews to live freely, as a nation, in our homeland, the Land of Israel.
A boy plays with a rifle during a weapons display in Efrat, Independence Day 2014 / Getty Images
Little kids throw mock grenades and pretend to shoot big guns; a boy crawls militant-style as gun-wielding adults cheer him on; a girl wearing a pink dress carries a rocket launcher twice her size.
These are some of the disturbing photos that flooded out of the West Bank earlier this week on Israel’s Independence Day, or what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe).
I can imagine that despair and hopelessness probably rattled the Jewish community. How could there ever be peace when kids are trained to aspire toward violence and militancy?
At my old Jewish day school, there was probably a lot of chatter about how this was further proof that only military force could work to quell violence. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) was probably all over the story. Palestinian Media Watch, too.
But instead, when I turned on my computer this morning, I couldn’t find a thing on any of the sites that track hate in the Middle East. None of my newsy friends even dedicated a Facebook status. No one seemed to really care. And for one reason: the people in question weren’t Palestinians, but right-wing Jewish settlers.
Prayer outside the U.S. Supreme Court / Getty Images
“For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful, amen.”
For ten years I attended a Church of England school and, for every set meal during that time, a version of this grace was said. Although there was a notable minority of Jewish boys and a growing population of Muslims at my school (founded in 1552, just after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and establishment of the Anglican Church), there was no real doubt as to who the “Lord” was, no matter which one of the teachers was saying grace.
God bless Mr. Lomas who spelled it out: “… For Christ’s sake, amen.”
And that’s why this week’s ruling of the Supreme Court recognizing the right of American Town Meetings to “solemnize” their opening with prayer is so deeply disappointing. Instead of moving to undo the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers ruling that allowed prayer at government meetings it’s a step towards establishment of religion and an intrusion of majority beliefs into a supposedly independent sphere that honors minorities equally.
I believe that we should solemnize the eating of food. The fact that we can eat stuff that just grows from the ground still seems miraculous to me — whether a miracle of science or of divinity. And the fact that our political and economic system has seen fit to distribute enough food for me and my friends, colleagues and family to eat is also worthy of stock taking. But that still leaves us with a choice of how we do so and how we stuff that choice down each other’s throats.
Views of the iNakba app / Zochrot
What would be a reasonable response to this week’s release of the interactive iNakba app, designed to help users “locate the Palestinian localities destroyed in the Nakba since 1948 and to learn about them”?
Given the depth of ignorance surrounding the topic, you could greet iNakba as an essential corrective; given the ongoing pain within the Palestinian community, you could consider how it might serve as a conduit for healing. You could even – reasonably – raise questions about the limits inherent to crowdsourcing as a tool in the study of history.
Or you could scoff. That’s the route that Tablet writer Liel Leibovitz chose:
It’s easy to dismiss the app as a gimmick — the name itself begs it. It’s easier still to argue, correctly, that reducing any cataclysmic event to dots on a map is trivializing, and that an app, for all of its cool factor, is hardly the most suitable canvas on which to paint a historical picture that is infinitely complex.
Having dismissed the mapping of all-but-lost Palestinian history as a gimmick, Leibovitz then takes off on a flight of fancy, philosophizing about “what land means” and how iNakba is
all about roots and branches, however virtual. It is not interested in sweeping themes and movements of armies and causes and consequences; its focus are the homes and the yards and the smell of the grass of individual places long gone.
I would firstly submit that only someone who hasn’t had their own home taken can regard its mapping as a gimmick; furthermore, only someone whose side has already won has the psychic luxury of waxing philosophical about land as “first and foremost, an idea” in the minds of the pioneers.
Sarah Palin’s dog makes a surprise appearance in this week’s quiz, as do millions of bees, Pres. Obama’s cousin, and Santa. That’s enough, right?
Princeton student Tal Fortgang / Fox News
By now, you’ve probably heard about Tal Fortgang, the white male Princeton freshman who’s taken the phrase “check your privilege” to the next level. He’s actually claimed to have checked his, and in an article that’s now gone viral, he admits that he has privilege but insists it’s nothing to apologize for.
His family’s story, he writes, is one of triumph against all odds: His grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, came here as penniless immigrants and had to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. They passed on their hard-earned privileges to the next generation, who passed them on to Fortgang. So the privileges he now enjoys are to be celebrated: If anything, his family’s tale proves that the American dream is attainable. “It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character,” he says.
Fortgang and I are similar in a lot of ways. I grew up in the Jewish day school system, I attend an expensive university and my ancestors arrived here in the United States as penniless immigrants, albeit a long time before his. I grew up thinking that it was to their hard work that I owed my privilege.
But, inspired by Fortgang, I’ve decided to check my privilege as well — and sorry Fortgang, but you’ve cut your inquiry short. Our Jewish families’ climb to success had everything to do with race.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis stand for the Yom Hazikaron siren / Vimeo
Israeli unity made a big leap forward today, on the national memorial day for fallen soldiers.
Normally, Yom Hazikaron, one of the most emotionally-charged days in the calendar, gives rise to anger from the general population towards the ultra-Orthodox community, which is considered disrespectful toward the day.
A siren sounds nationally twice on memorial day, and activities grind to a halt. However, each year Haredim are spotted and caught on camera ignoring the siren, believing that as their community doesn’t serve in the army they don’t need to observe it.
Normally, the media is dominated today by images of Haredim disrespecting the siren. But not this year. The national Haredi newspaper Hamodia, which has a panel of influential rabbis determining policy, ran an editorial urging readers to observe the siren. The piece (not available online) urged Haredim to “honor and perpetuate” the memory of the fallen.
It addressed the perennial comeback: Yes to commemoration, but observing a siren is a “gentile way” and therefore against Jewish law. Hamodia didn’t buy in to this argument, but did say that those who do should stay at home while ignoring it, so they don’t cause offense to others.
And so Yom Hazikaron was a less divisive day this year than normal. The images that made the rounds weren’t the usual ones of Haredim ignoring the siren, but rather images like the one above, of them respecting it.
If Israel had a Facebook account, what would it look like?
The answer can be found in a Facebook “look back” movie promoted ahead of Israeli Independence Day and made by Todd Zeff of Jerusalem U, an institution that uses film to strengthen young Jews’ connection to Israel.
Or, I should say, an answer. If only that answer weren’t so incomplete.
In the video, we see Israel “join” Facebook in 1948, followed by “first moments” that anachronistically include young pioneers farming the land (1938) and a Hagana Ship bringing immigrants to British Mandatory Palestine (1942).
We’re then treated to Israel’s “most liked posts,” ranging from Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream” to David Ben-Gurion’s “We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the states around us.”
Israel’s photos include a lot of grainy black-and-white nostalgia shots. Then, in color, we see an Ethiopian kid with Israeli flags and a family of smiling white Jewish immigrants fresh off an El-Al plane.
But what don’t we see in this video?
Francesca Sternfeld and Ruth Messinger / Courtesy of the authors
So, imagine sharing a large apartment with someone else who loves life, enjoys good food, cooks well, reads intensively and extensively [but not always the same material] and is not always but often willing to hear about your day or your life and offer wise advice. Those of us who throw ourselves into our work and our studies as we do need just such a person to share with, to collapse with and to consult at the end of what are often very long days.
Well, here we are, eight months in and planning on an ongoing shared living relationship over the next year or two. We each cherish the benefits and find few challenges and no obstacles. The fact that we are grand-daughter and grandmother is an added plus, but a very big one; it brings us together at a point in our lives when we might otherwise not be so connected — something which happens all too often and is a sad consequence of our modern lives.
New York, of course, is the key. Ruth has lived here almost all of her life, adores the West Side, travels a lot for work, but relishes coming home. And Francesca grew up elsewhere [Salt Lake City and Miami], had a few college years near the City, knew what it offered in terms of people, culture and food and decided on a visit a year ago that this was where her body and soul needed to be. And it is a city that a 28 year old student can live in with only part time work but to be sure not easily, and not on the West Side absent a large slew of roommates.
Ruth: I have a crazy travel and work schedule, and a husband who works in Connecticut during the week. I love, love, love having a smart, thoughtful, passionate, caring housemate — the fact that she is my granddaughter is the icing on the cake. I love knowing something about her life and sharing good food, wise discussion, the New York Times and shopping suggestions. I am glad she puts up with my penchant for old movies and bad TV [better than my husband I might add]. I love having a restaurant, movie, theater companion who nudges me to neighborhoods and experiences I might otherwise miss. I love being reminded what a serious exercise regimen looks like, understanding that Francesca benefits from meditation which I still need to learn to do, seeing her build a spectacular wardrobe out of the best of two local thrift shops and learning from her about parts of the world she knows intimately that I do not — including Egypt and Italy. Together we make the world’s best granola.
And I consider it a special privilege of this particular granddaughter and our relationship that I know some things I might otherwise never know [but also not too much] about her love life. And I adore her friends who often stop by for an evening, an exercise class she teaches, a week in New York City which would otherwise not be available to them. I treasure her spectacular “listening ear” [she will make a great social worker], her capacity to draw others out, her wonderful witticisms and sense of humor and the way she has been there for me over a few tough issues.