Forward Thinking

Rose Fostanes, Israeli X-Factor's Unlikely Winner

By Nathan Jeffay

It was one of the most moving moments I can remember in Israeli television. Last night, Israel’s most popular human export crowned the country’s most adored import.

Supermodel Bar Refaeli, whose career took off in foreign fashion centers, delivered the best imaginable news to a woman who unexpectedly found fame far from home, in Israel.

Hosting the first series of Israeli X-Factor, Refaeli informed Rose Fostanes, 47, that she had been voted the winner. Fostanes arrived in Israel four years ago to work as a caregiver and cleaner for the elderly, but found herself in a much more high-profile role as soon as she auditioned for X-Factor and captured the hearts of the nation.

If viewers were asked before the first show to describe what they thought the winner would be like, they would have never described someone like Fostanes. Not only is she non-Jewish and non-Israeli. She also hardly speaks Hebrew, is far older than the average contestant, has a far curvier figure than many women in music, and is a lesbian in a long-term relationship. It was poignant that her winning performance was “My Way,” the song popularized by Frank Sinatra.

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What York University Can Learn From Israel

By Mira Sucharov

Aerial photo of York University, Toronto, in 2010. / City of Toronto

The ongoing dilemma of accommodating religious beliefs in a liberal and multicultural society is again glaringly apparent. News reports reveal that at York University, a large, publicly-funded post-secondary institution in Toronto, a student in a sociology course requested that he be exempt from required group work. His religion forbids him from “mingling with women,” he explained.

Over the ensuing days, the dean granted the request, the professor flouted the decision (insisting that doing otherwise would make him an “accessory to sexism”), the student complied with the professor’s ruling, and the dean’s decision has since been pilloried by politicians and public commentators. In a rare show of solidarity and non-partisanship, representatives of all three of Canada’s major political parties expressed dismay over the student’s request and the university’s decision to grant it, citing Canadian values of gender equality.

The media has not disclosed the student’s name or his religion. But as an observer and analyst of Jewish affairs both in North America and in Israel, I can’t help but reflect on current challenges in the ultra-Orthodox community in North America and especially in Israel. In that light, it soon becomes apparent that amid the debates over this particular Canadian case, at least one important point is being omitted.

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Scarlett Johansson: 'No Guilt' About SodaStream

By Elisheva Goldberg

Scarlett Johansson poses for photographers on November 10, 2013, in Rome. / Getty Images

Scarlett Johansson signed on this week as the new “global ambassador” for the West Bank-based Israeli company SodaStream and will be featured in the company’s 2014 Super Bowl advertisement. For SodaStream, this deal makes sense: Johansson is remarkably sexy, eco-friendly, loves the product, and happens to be Jewish. It makes particular sense since the company’s stock recently took a hit and its image has been tarnished by the fact that its factory is located in the Mishor Adumim industrial park in Israel’s occupied territories.

But for Johansson, who last October mentioned to Harper’s Bazaar that she might be interested in a political career, this deal makes a lot less sense. In fact, it may have forced her into her first public stance on foreign policy — one that is way outside the official American consensus.

This 29-year-old actress is no stranger to politics. Johansson campaigned for Kerry in 2004 and more heavily for Obama in 2008 and 2012. She spent time boosting the youth vote in Iowa in 2008, did a short campus speaking tour, and co-hosted a fundraiser featuring pro-Obama clothing and accessories. She even appeared in the Will.I.Am song “Yes We Can” inspired by Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire primary speech. In her unpretentious 2012 DNC speech, she said that she was there to “use whatever attention” she was “fortunate enough to receive to shed the spotlight on what’s at stake for all of us.” But with SodaStream, her considerable attention-getting powers are being used for something far less admirable: to advertise for a company located in a place President Obama and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton have called “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace” and a “cause for concern.”

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What If Ariel Sharon Had Died 8 Years Ago?

By Nathan Jeffay

If today has proven one thing, it is that time can be a healer here in Israel.

Imagine that Ariel Sharon had died the day after his stroke in 2006, instead of clinging on to life, unable to communicate. On the personal level, it would have probably been far easier for his family. But on the national level, his death would have most likely been a highly divisive affair.

The year before Sharon’s stroke, he had delivered a harsh sentence to the very same settlement that he built — he evacuated the Gaza settlements, and some in the West Bank. For settlers, this was an act of betrayal so great that some later composed hymns of mourning for recital on the Fast of Av, along with those commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and the Holocaust.

Anger about the disengagement hasn’t subsided. In a roundabout way the fact that it happened makes the settlement movement more aggressive, more on-its-guard, and parts of it more violent (the disengagement prompted the “price tag” ethos), every year. But it isn’t synonymous with Sharon in the same way as it was in 2005/6. Years of silence on Sharon’s part have allowed even his strongest critics from the Israeli right to find something to celebrate from his life.

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Israel's Got No Business Banning Nazi Symbols

By Brent E. Sasley

A swastika symbol painted on the wall of a synagogue in Petah Tikva, Israel. / Getty Images

Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted for a bill yesterday that, if it passes three readings in the Knesset, would impose penalties on those who use the term “Nazi” as a comparison, employ Nazi symbols, or call in some way for the work the Nazis began (killing the Jews) to be finished. Those who break the law could face a 100,000 shekel fine and six months in prison. But while Nazi comparisons are abhorrent, the law itself is dangerous and anti-democratic.

The bill — a second effort after a similar bill was proposed in 2012 — has broad backing for now. It was sponsored by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnua, while some members in Labor have in the past expressed support. And we can easily discern worthy motives behind it. Settlers fighting forced evacuation by the state have used Nazi symbols to claim the government is as evil as Hitler. In 2011, to protest the Haredi draft, several Orthodox demonstrators dressed in uniforms that resembled concentration camp clothing, complete with yellow star. Civil dialogue is difficult under these conditions, to say nothing of the deadly atmosphere that can be created when these accusations are carried too far — for example, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

And yes, comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is ridiculous and immoral. There simply hasn’t been any group or regime like the Nazis, who didn’t just torture and murder millions of people, but created the most efficient systems and organizations for doing so. The Holocaust isn’t the only case of mass killing in human history, but it is unique.

Moreover, because the term is associated with such horrific and sadistic acts of violence, calling your enemies or opponents “Nazis” obscures the real issues at stake, because of the emotional reactions and overly-sensationalist assumptions the name evokes. This, in turn, makes it that much harder to construct policies to resolve the problem or conflict at hand.

But Nazi comparisons are not for the Israeli state to forbid. Doing so only serves as a restriction on what citizens can say about their country and opens the door to further limitations on their freedom of expression.

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Gary Shteyngart, Tiger Mom and the Pope

By Lenore Skenazy

Welcome to probably the only place you can find the Tiger Mom, the Modern Language Association and the Pope all hanging out together.

Watch out!

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A Portrait of Ariel Sharon

By Eli Valley

This week, all of Israel and not a few world leaders gathered to mark the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Cartoonist Eli Valley offers his own unique graphic take on the much-memorialized man.


Fighting Jewish Slumlords Isn't Anti-Semitic

By Elise Goldin

Menachem Stark’s death and the media’s inflammatory response to it highlight a particular kind of anti-Semitism: the kind that can emerge as a result of the religious Jewish community’s involvement in real estate and the horrible living conditions in many of those buildings.

As a tenant organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, I work alongside tenants citywide to form tenant associations and improve building conditions. I was shocked by the headlines describing Stark’s murder, but not surprised, unfortunately, by the shady business practices or lack of upkeep on the large stock of rent-stabilized buildings he was connected to in Brooklyn. That’s something I see all too often.

Through my work, I do a great deal of research to try and untangle the mess of who owns what property and who’s connected to whom in the real estate industry. And it’s not easy. Take 199 Lee Avenue, an address in the religious Jewish part of Williamsburg. It’s connected to literally hundreds and hundreds of distressed buildings. Entities with an address at 199 Lee touch all sides of any real estate deal — as owners, mortgagers, brokers — and it’s nearly impossible to connect the address to an actual person.

Stark’s death, and the resulting uproar, comes at a particularly interesting time for my coworkers and me, since we’re in the midst of planning a tenant-driven rally in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. The rally is targeting a group of Jewish investors who are trying to flip two horribly distressed rent-stabilized buildings in Crown Heights. Like at 199 Lee Avenue, the investors are nameless — associated only with a P.O. Box in Borough Park that is associated with many other distressed properties in Brooklyn and Queens.

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Fiction and Farce: Democracy at the MLA

By Rachel S. Harris

Thinkstock

I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.

The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.

The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.

Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.

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First They Came For the Humanities...

By Rachel S. Harris

Thinkstock

This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.

The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.

Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.

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Who Will Show Up To Mourn Ariel Sharon?

By Nathan Jeffay

A life-size art installation of Ariel Sharon is displayed in 2010 in Tel Aviv. / Getty Images

Ariel Sharon, the 11th Prime Minister of Israel, has died, and arrangements are being made for his funeral. The question that looms large now is who will watch him reach his final resting place and who won’t.

Sharon’s term as prime minister ended suddenly on January 4, 2006, when he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that put him in a coma. Sharon’s reputation was at a high — months earlier he had taken what many world leaders considered a bold step, in the form of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He was the staunch rightist who made the most significant concession of recent years, bolting Likud and setting up a new party, Kadima.

It’s almost certain that had he died back then, the world’s great and good would have flocked to Israel to pay respects to an incumbent prime minister — one of significant note.

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If 'Palestine' Jerseys Incite Hatred, What About JNF?

By Sigal Samuel

Normally, when a sports team decides to redesign its uniforms, the decision isn’t considered a major news story. But when Chile’s El Palestino soccer club began wearing jerseys that show the entire map of Israel as Palestine, it met with an intense Jewish backlash — and it’s easy to see why.

By using a one-state map of Palestine to replace the numeral one, the new jerseys effectively erase Israel, making it seem like the state doesn’t exist. Of course Israelis and Jews worldwide would take umbrage at this. And, predictably, statements condemning the jerseys poured in this week from all the usual suspects.

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s January 6 statement, the jerseys are not only “inciting hatred among the large Arab community in Chile.” They are also “fomenting a terrorist intent.” The Anti-Defamation League added on January 8 that the one-state map constitutes “inappropriate political imagery” and a “clear delegitimization of Israel.” Both organizations called for the imposition of penalties on El Palestino soccer club.

For these groups to take issue with imagery that depicts Israeli and Palestinian land as a single state makes perfect sense. But El Palestino isn’t the only group to do so: the Jewish National Fund also favors one-state imagery. Their iconic blue donation boxes, ubiquitous in Jewish schools across the globe, feature a map depicting Israel without the Green Line. That means the JNF doesn’t distinguish Israel from the Palestinian-populated West Bank — even though the Israeli government itself officially endorsed the idea of two states in 2009.

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MLA Panel Is High On Emotion, Low On Facts

By Rachel S. Harris

‘It Impacts People’: Professors and scholars are debating the boycott of Israel at the MLA. // Thinkstock

Vote Your Conscience!

Well, that was certainly the message at session 48 of the MLA, billed as a roundtable discussion of “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.”

“There is no us and them, only us and us,” claimed the panel organizer and moderator Samer M. Ali, while Omar Bargouti — an independent scholar — appealed to “people of conscience to stop ‘business as usual’” citing scholars’ “profound moral obligation.” Barbara Harlow of the University of Texas at Austin called on “scholars with integrity,” while David Lloyd at the University of California claimed that there was a “moral principle” at stake, which he reiterated in the question period by claiming that scholars have “an ethical responsibility to… colleagues in Palestine.”

So it is clear, if you aren’t supporting the boycott you must be immoral, without integrity, and lacking good conscience. The arguments for and against the boycott are significantly less important to the panelists, and certainly few real facts surfaced in the course of their presentations. Instead, they have decided that an emotional appeal to the scholars of the world is enough to win their case.

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After Caleb Jacoby Found, Twitter War Resumes

By Sigal Samuel

The disappearance of Caleb Jacoby — who was found, thankfully, safe and sound in New York last night — brought out the best in many people in the Jewish (and general) blogosphere and Twittersphere. And it brought out the worst in others. As the news that Caleb had been found hit social media, people shed the self-restraint they’d been exercising while the boy was still missing, and ignited fresh Twitter wars.

Mira Sucharov noted in these pages a couple of days ago that journalists, bloggers and tweeters had united in an effort to publicize the search for the missing boy. She also calmly noted that Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, “perhaps took the low road” when he tweeted about Caleb’s father Jeff Jacoby, the conservative Boston Globe columnist: “Jeff Jacoby is a hateful fanatic, but I very much hope his son is quickly found safe and sound.” After many people took Ibish to task online, he apologized, acknowledging that his initial tweet was “uncivil and unnecessary” as well as inappropriately timed, since now was not the moment to be airing his political differences with Jacoby, Sr.

But that apology — which was brought about, it’s worth noting, by calm interventions delivered in reasonable tones — didn’t stop the blogosphere and Twittersphere from continuing to hurl invective at him. It was the kind of invective that’s so offensive and ridiculously over-the-top that it makes the people meting it out look way worse than the person on the receiving end.

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Caleb Jacoby — It's None Of Our Business

By Efrem Goldberg

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 800,000 children younger than 18 are reported missing each year. That means close to 2,200 children a day or 91 children every hour are reported missing in the United States. And yet, I don’t remember a story catching the attention of the Jewish community like the report that this past Monday, 16-year-old Caleb Jacoby from Boston was missing.

By the time Caleb was found on Thursday night, the news had spread to Jewish communities across the globe that had been praying for his safe return. Jewish organizations and Synagogues sent out email alerts asking people to look for him. The report of Caleb’s disappearance united incredibly diverse segments of the Jewish community who rarely come together in such a cohesive way. People from all different ages, backgrounds, denominations and levels of observance shared in the pain of the Jacoby family and expressed it by posting the missing person poster on their Facebook statuses and tweets.

The unusual reaction to the missing Jewish teen was not lost on the Brookline Police Department. The Atlantic described, “Police have told Maimonides parents that they’ve never seen this degree of interest in a missing person. They’ve received calls from strangers in Israel who are ready to fly over and carefully comb the streets of Brookline with the Maimonides classmates who are searching for him, house-to-house, in below-freezing weather.”

The fact that Caleb is the son of Jeff Jacoby, a prominent conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, certainly added to the intrigue of the story, but I would like to believe the same attention and efforts would have be extended to the news of any Jewish child who had gone missing.

The news that Caleb had been found spread just as quickly as the news of his disappearance. Jewish communities everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief that this story has a happy ending. Hearing Caleb is safely back with his family should be more than enough for us to close this story out, but remarkably, most people are not satisfied.

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Germany's Not Just Faking Holocaust Contrition

By Liam Hoare

News that drunken revelers had, on New Year’s Eve, used Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a urinal came shortly after The New York Times published an op-ed by Yascha Mounk on the conflicts of being a German Jew.

Together, these items create an image of a Germany not at ease with itself, of a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its past and found a place in its social fabric for Jews or the memory of Jews. Mounk suggests Germany has swung between “a bout of philo-Semitism” and “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’” when it comes to processing the Second World War, adding:

Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.

Mounk is right, on the one hand, to suggest that after the Shoah, things can never be normal again, neither for Germany as a whole or German Jews in particular. “Increasingly, I realized that the mere mention of my heritage erected an invisible wall between my classmates and me,” Mounk writes. “I realized that even my most well-intentioned compatriots saw me as a Jew first, and a German second.”

But to suggest that Germany’s public struggle to come to terms with the past is in some form artificial does a disservice to what Germany has achieved since the end of the Second World War in this regard.

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Sarah Silverman Hailed As Prophetess in Israel

By Nathan Jeffay

Comedian Sarah Silverman has been called many things, but never a prophetess. Until yesterday, when she was given prophetic credentials in the magazine section of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.

The accolade comes from an interview with her sister, Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi (and one of the Forward 50 list of important Jews) Susan Silverman, which is the cover item and a two-page feature in yesterday’s edition.

“I didn’t say she’s a Biblical prophet but she continues that path,” said Susan Silverman, suggesting that her perceptiveness about society and powers of observation make her, in a sense, prophetic. The prophecy theme provided the headline for the article: “Sister of the prophetess.”

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We Are All Jeff Jacoby

By Mira Sucharov

When one puts forth conservative ideas that go against the grain of what many see as the defining pattern of a more liberal press, one earns one’s share of attention. Jeff Jacoby, a Jewish columnist at the Boston Globe, has tackled hot-button topics ranging from abortion to climate change to the war on Christmas to same-sex marriage to Palestinian terrorism. In a Stephen-Colbert-like turn, on Twitter he describes himself as a “purveyor of conservative cheer in the midst of a dusty liberal wilderness.”

But today, Jacoby is gaining attention across the blogosphere not for his provocative opinions but for a hurting heart. His older son, Caleb, 16, has been missing in the Boston area since mid-day Monday. He is a student at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

Bloggers, journalists and tweeters have been keeping the story alive across the web, hoping that added exposure might encourage tips that will help bring the boy home. This is undoubtedly the right role for the Jewish (and general) blogosphere and twittersphere to play in such a situation — and Caleb’s father acknowledged just that today. “We are so deeply, deeply grateful for everything being done to reunite us with our beloved son Caleb,” Jacoby tweeted.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and an outspoken advocate of liberal politics and moderation in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, also tried to help, though perhaps taking the low road. While tweeting his hope that Caleb would be “found safe and sound,” Ibish couldn’t resist calling Jacoby a “hateful fanatic.”

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Hillel’s Battle Over the Meaning of ‘Pro-Israel’

By Brent E. Sasley

As the controversy rages over Hillel’s Israel guidelines — which delineate which groups it will partner with or allow to participate in Hillel-sponsored events — observers have started to wonder what effect all this will have on American Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. The issue, though, is about more than just defining Hillel; it’s also about defining the issue itself.

We use language not just to describe things, but to give ideas emotional meanings. People, including policymakers, respond to specific discursive cues. When these cues are associated with a particular meaning or emotional state that matters to the listeners, they are more likely to respond in the way the speaker intends.

So, for example, part of the reason Jewish groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship (think AIPAC) have become successful is because of the rhetoric they use in their public statements and private conversations. The U.S. sees itself as a superior form of democracy, a beacon of light and a “good” country. Lobbyists who can tie into those feelings — by using key words like “shared values,” “democracy,” “individual rights,” “common Judeo-Christian heritage,” and “common strategic interests” — can make a stronger case for their demands.

Similarly, when it comes to Hillel, the fight is really about how to define what “pro-Israel” means, a controversy that has flared up in recent years, spurred by the battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and questions about whether the U.S. Jewish community should pressure Israel on peace talks or not. But in this case, Hillel’s own guidelines have left the door open to multiple interpretations of what “pro-Israel” means.

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Britain Should Apologize for Balfour Declaration

By Liam Hoare

Palestinians protest on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2013. / Getty Images

In 2014, commemoration of the First World War on the one-hundredth anniversary of its commencement will be inescapable. So, too, will the debate over the merits of the miserable and bloody conflict that took the lives of over 16 million soldiers and civilians, crippled an entire generation of Europeans, and begat the infamous Treaty of Versailles.

In the United Kingdom, this conversation has already begun and has spiralled off so as to encompass another product of the Great War: the Balfour Declaration. At the end of last year, the Palestine Return Centre launched in Parliament a campaign called, “Britain, It’s Time To Apologize,” requesting an international voice to call on Her Majesty’s Government “to apologize to the Palestinian people, for either wilfully or carelessly failing to protect their human and political rights, while under British protection.”

Leaving aside the Palestinians for a moment, in the first instance any campaign against the Balfour Declaration must be treated with great suspicion. After all, that declaration was more than a government memorandum. It was the first declaration of its kind from a world power in support of the Zionist idea of Jewish autonomy and self-rule in Palestine.

More importantly, it was a legal instrument, incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine ratified by the League of Nations in July 1922, in which it was stated that Britain as overseer would be responsible for fostering political, administrative, and economic conditions that would secure “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”

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