Forward Thinking

Jonathan Pollard and the Spying-on-Israel Scandal

By Sigal Samuel

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.

And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?

This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”

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News Quiz: Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Grace Kelly

By Lenore Skenazy

Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Jonah Hill walk into a news quiz. You just know it has to be this one, right? Come on — what other news quiz could it possibly be?

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It's a Christmas Tree, Stupid

By Eliyahu Federman

In a Yuletide shift, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee finally agreed to call a 17-foot statehouse spruce a Christmas tree, admitting that his past practice of calling it a “holiday tree” generated too much anger.

No kidding. Naming a Christmas tree a holiday tree or Hanukkah bush should be offensive to both the religious and secularist or atheist. It is deceptive.

While using green trees during the winter solstice celebration predates Christianity, by the 16th century and possibly even the 15th century the custom of the Christmas tree developed as “devout Christians (bringing) decorated trees into their homes,” according to History.com. By 1982, Pope John Paul II formally introduced the Christmas tree custom to the Vatican.

Urban Dictionary defines a holiday tree as a “phrase used by folks who feel vaguely guilty about celebrating Christmas, and decide to pretend that what they are doing is celebrating some ‘universal’ holiday that uses ‘universal holiday’ trees” and a Hanukkah bush as a “Jewish Christmas tree.”

That is pretty accurate.

The religious should be offended because it is an attempt to secularize a Christian symbol of Christmas. Similarly, the Hanukkah bush is an attempt to Judaize an otherwise uniquely Christian symbol.

For Jews, it would be like calling a menorah a holiday candelabra. It would be misportraying a symbol of the holiday because the menorah represents the Jewish religious holiday of Hanukkah.

Secular people should be offended because it’s an attempt to deceptively rename an inherently religious symbol, in an effort to universalize it so more people adopt it. This is like calling creationism intelligent design in an effort to pass religion off as science.

Renaming the Christmas tree a holiday tree is also subterfuge to avoid potential First Amendment establishment clause issues.

The position that we should accurately define the Christmas tree is reflected in past polls that show Americans overwhelmingly believe it should be called a Christmas and not a holiday tree. According to a 2008 Clarus Research Group poll, eight in 10 side with “Christmas” over “holiday.”

The bottom line is that the Christmas tree is used to symbolize Christmas, not secular holidays or Hanukkah. There is no religion or culture in existence today that uses it to symbolize any other purpose.


Al Goldstein and Me

By Lukas I. Alpert

courtesy of Lukas I. Alpert
Lukas and Al: Veteran New York reporter Lukas I. Alpert strolls with pornographer Al Goldstein, post-stomach staple, through Times Square, which had long been swept clean of the porno theaters, runaways and roving gangs of teens carrying bicycle chains.

There are many words to describe Screw Magazine publisher Al Goldstein: vile, repugnant, crass, filthy, grotesque and even downright disgusting. His obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “scabrous” — a high-brow description for him that only the Old Gray Lady would use.

The Brooklyn-born Jew, who died last week at age 77, would have agreed with every one of those descriptions and even embraced them. That was just the kind of guy he was.

While childish and contemptible, Goldstein was also entertaining and a quintessential example of the New York I remember growing up. To me he was as much the face of the city of my childhood as Ed Koch, Crazy Eddie, Curtis Sliwa or Al Sharpton.

Most of my personal dealings with Goldstein came well after his pornographic empire had crumbled. As a journalist with The Associated Press, New York Post and Daily News, I interviewed him many times over the years.

Goldstein was one of those guys journalists liked to talked to because, as we say in the newspaper business, “he gave good quote.” I was pleasantly surprised that the prepared obituary I wrote for him at the AP about a decade ago ran all over the country virtually as I had written it.

But my first real knowledge of him dates back to my prepubescent days growing up in Manhattan. To be honest, I don’t think I ever read Screw Magazine, but like most of my friends, I was a regular watcher of Goldstein’s lewd leased-access television show “Midnight Blue,” which ran every Saturday night from 1974 to 2003.

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My Friends Suspected Me of Spying for Israel

By Michael Kaplan

A Palestinian worker passes near the Aida refugee camp on December 21, 2005. / Getty Images

Reading the recent reports about Jewish American spies like Robert Levinson and Alan Gross, I can’t help but think back on my own experiences in the Middle East.

A friend and I lived and volunteered in the Aida refugee camp, just outside Bethlehem, for several months after graduating high school. It was a great and memorable experience for both of us, but living in tense regions of the world has more downsides than just poor resources and facilities, which are to be expected. There is also the almost constant fear that your own friends might be suspicious of you.

One night there was a loud thump on the front door of our home, as if someone had thrown a large stone or possibly a brick. It was followed by a louder thump, another bang and then a few seconds of calm. My friend and I quickly, almost instinctively, grabbed the largest kitchen knives we could find and ran, knives in hand, to the front door.

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Forward on Film

By Martyna Starosta

What do Hasidic hats, the Borscht Belt, the king of competitive dreidel-ing and a tiny row house shul have in common? They all played starring roles in the Forward best videos of 2013 — along with a poignant portrait of the Jewish mother who lost her son in the Newtown school massacre.

This year saw a major transition in our video department: Nate Lavey, who had laid the groundwork for stunning video journalism at the Forward moved to the New Yorker. Since the fall, I have the privilege to continue our practice of ambitious visual storytelling. Here are them most delicious highlights from this year.

We used the camera for time travelling. Borscht Belt takes us on a trip to Upstate New York to re-discover the history of Jewish summer resorts. Little Row House Shul depicts how a tiny synagogue in southeast Philadelphia is struggling to survive after a century of service. And Men of Many Hats investigates the changes in two Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn through the prism of hat fashions. This beautiful report won Lavey the first award of the national Press Photographers Association.

It’s always yummy to combine film and food. In Debating the Deli David Sax and Josh Ozersky go head to head-to-head on “new school” versus “old school” delis. We also had the pleasure to chat with the famous chef duo Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi who share insights on The 8 Flavors of Jerusalem.

One of my favorite challenges is to produce “vox pops”, which confronts a diverse set of people with the same question. In response to the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we created quick video portraits of Jews from different backgrounds. The question: What does “Jewish” mean to you? The answer: It’s Complicated. The video A Fine Balance features the voices of participants of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Conference (JOFA). It’s intriguing to witness how Orthodox feminists are trying to balance the desire for inclusion with the aim to preserve traditional gender roles.

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Peace Now Was Wrong To Exclude Einat Wilf

By Gerald M. Steinberg

Peace Now members call for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire on January 10, 2009. / Getty Images

Former Knesset member Dr. Einat Wilf was recently invited and then uninvited by the influential Israeli NGO Peace Now to participate in its annual “Conference of the Left” meeting. In attempting to justify the abrupt reversal, Yariv Oppenheimer, the organization’s head, blamed Wilf’s membership in the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor. Wilf, who entered the Knesset in 2010 as a member of the Labor Party, replied, “If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country.”

This example of political blacklisting highlights the self-destructive ideological purity and conformity that has come to characterize many “progressive, liberal” Zionist NGOs and their supporters. Instead of engaging on the substance of criticism offered by NGO Monitor, which points to the exploitation of liberal values in the political warfare against Israel, groups like Peace Now have worked overtime to silence the messengers.

While Oppenheimer did not offer details regarding NGO Monitor’s violation of Peace Now’s litmus test, others filled in the charge sheet. Writing in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg supported the decision to disinvite Wilf due to her links to NGO Monitor. His justification cited a “quick search of the organization’s website,” which yielded “271 postings that discuss Peace Now, nearly all of them negatively.” If he had gone beyond Google stats, Goldberg would have discovered that nearly all the references to Peace Now are parenthetical or appear on European government lists of NGOs that they fund. Peace Now does not appear on NGO Monitor’s Index of over 100 NGOs, many (but not all) of which exploit human rights and humanitarian aid principles to demonize Israel.

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Now They Come for the Gays

By Sharon Kleinbaum and Yelena Goltsman

The Jewish community should feel a sense of déjà vu as it witnesses the government-sponsored persecution of LGBT people in Russia. We should respond with a statement of determination nearly as familiar to us as the Shema: Never again.

In the 1960s, with our awareness of the Holocaust very fresh in our memory, American Jews took seriously Soviet scapegoating of Russian Jewry and the efforts to destroy the Russian Jewish community. In 2013, in Putin’s Russia, gays are the new Jews.

In his assault on democratic institutions in Russia, Vladimir Putin is counting on xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Western and anti-immigrant sentiments to turn the Russian people against anybody perceived to be different. Government-run media supports these policies. The precious few independent media outlets cannot compete with Putin’s huge propaganda machine. This, along with the infamous new law banning the spread of “nontraditional sexual relations,” all but silences LGBT people in Russia.

Act Up’s slogan “Silence = Death” comes from recent U.S. history, when coming out and speaking out were essential to changing public views of homosexuality and to mobilizing response to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. If you are gay in Russia in 2013, it is no longer lawful to affirm who you are, even in front of your own children.

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Why I Support the Academic Boycott of Israel

By Eric Cheyfitz

On Sunday, the American Studies Association, of which I am a member, voted to support the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. Included in their announcement of the vote are the statements of 13 scholars in support of the vote, among which I am included. Here is my statement:

I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States, so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands. It is from these personal and professional positions that I applaud the decision of the NC to support the Academic boycott of Israel, which I support, and urge ASA members to affirm that support with their votes.

I offer the personal information in this statement so that people will know that I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel. We should remember that Palestinians on the West Bank live under Israeli martial law. I also believe that in the long run Israel cannot survive caught in the vice of this political contradiction. And I want Israel to survive.

Professionally, I have my investments as well, to which the statement alludes. As a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, I am acutely aware of how the agendas of settler colonialism — land grab being the primary one as it is in Palestine — actively decimated the Indigenous population of the United States from an initial estimate of four to five million in 1492 in what would become the lower 48 states to 250,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. While the Native population has been growing since then and since 1924 Native peoples are citizens of the U.S., nevertheless the lasting effects and ongoing forms of settler colonialism are instrumental in making Native peoples the poorest of the poor in the U.S.

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The Exodus at the 92 Street Y

By Jane Eisner

Well, I certainly never had that happen before. In years of moderating sometimes heated public conversations, never has a panelist just walked off the stage. But that’s what Commentary editor John Podhoretz did Monday night. And I’m still trying to figure out why.

Of course, I expected a feisty evening when the venerable 92nd Street Y asked me to moderate a panel about what it means to be “pro-Israel” (their words), with Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, and Podhoretz. And from the outset, it was clear that Ben-Ami and Podhoretz were going to disagree about everything, with Harris positioning himself — literally and figuratively — in the middle.

We talked about the latest controversy at the Swarthmore College Hillel, and who should or should not be invited to speak at a Jewish institution.

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How Long Is the Road From Jerusalem to Damascus?

By Michael Kaplan

Have you ever tried Google Mapping the directions from Jerusalem to Damascus? I have, and the site’s recommendations came as a bit of a shock.

I decided to look up the travel route after reading Mairav Zonszein’s blog post about how the recent snowstorm in Israel reminded her of that country’s geographical connectedness to the wider Middle East. Specifically, she writes, “there were once open roads and railways that connected Damascus to Jerusalem.” She’s right — though you’d never know it from Googling.

Once upon a time, life was pretty calm along Israel’s northern borders. Until the late 1970s, Israeli farmers from the town of Metula would toil their agricultural lands in the Ayoun Valley inside Lebanon.

And going even further back, open roads used to connect the now war-engulfed city of Damascus to cities that are today in Israel.

Things, however, have changed. Today, Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria are highly fortified and overseen by United Nations peacekeeping forces. The Good Fence (as it was called until 2000) separated Israel from Lebanon. It’s now legally referred to as the Blue Line and demarcates the highly secured, U.N.-mandated border.

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News Quiz: Lady Gaga, Alan Dershowitz and Bibi

By Lenore Skenazy

Lady Gaga, Alan Dershowitz and Bibi? Yes, it’s time for the Jewish News quiz again. This week also featuring a brand new pastry!

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Never Too Late For Justice in Y.U. Abuse Case

By Paul Berger

It’s one year since the Forward published its first story about abuse allegations at Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys in Manhattan.

Little did we know then that the recollections of four former students would prompt dozens of men to come forward with their own claims of abuse. Nor could we have foreseen that it would lead to a $380 million lawsuit against Y.U. and an internal investigation that found “multiple instances” in which Y.U. staff failed to respond to allegations of abuse.

One year ago, the allegations, particularly against Y.U. high school’s former principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, were treated within the Modern Orthodox community as a rumor. Today, it is widely accepted that inappropriate behavior went on for decades at a range of Y.U. institutions and that those in charge failed in their duty to protect students.

These are troubling times for Y.U. The institution has a special place in the Modern Orthodox community. Its deep fiscal troubles, coupled with the negative publicity and financial threat posed by the lawsuit, have conspired to create an air of crisis.

At times like these people’s instinct is to rally around. And rally they have. Anecdotally, I have heard of people hectoring the victims, who are seen as either whiners or money-grubbers. The refrain among many is still that what happened to the victims was either not serious enough or happened too long ago to be dredged up now.

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A Blanket of Snow Changes Jerusalem — Even Just for Shabbat

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

They say that the sun shines on the righteous. Maybe not, but you did have a better chance of weathering this weekend’s Middle East storm if you’re Haredi.

At the height of the Alexa storm, which brought unusually cold temperatures and severe snow, some 60,000 Israel households were without power. However in some neighborhoods, lights were shining brightly in Haredi homes while others were in the dark.

A strain within Israel’s Orthodox doesn’t use electricity from the country’s national grid on the Sabbath out of concern that it is the produce of Jews laboring on the day of rest (a concern that isn’t relevant to Jews in the Diaspora where the majority population is non-Jewish). And so, these households are hooked up to either private “Sabbath generators,” or in most cases, a generator that serves a few dozen homes in their neighborhood.

Just before the candles are lit for the Sabbath, householders flick a switch to move from weekday electricity from the grid to locally produced Sabbath-electricity. Of course, when the grid went down, they were just able to switch to their local supply.

In general, the past weekend was one of both stunning beauty and notable hardships in Israel. The Old City of Jerusalem looked magnificent with its blanket of white, and it seemed that the usually divided population for once took joy in the same things, building snowmen and playing with snowballs. The weather brought out the best in many people, as it did in New York a year ago. Strangers took in people who were unable, or unprepared because they don’t travel on Shabbat, to get home over the weekend. The community spirit was even such that Jerusalem, a woman was able to wear a tallit by the Western Wall without generating controversy. She was a snow woman.


Harvard Hillel Falsely Accuses the Forward

By Larry Cohler Esses

Credit: Flickr/timsackton

Harvard being Harvard, and Hillel being Hillel, it catches an editor’s attention when the executive director of Hillel at Harvard sends out an email blast publicly accusing the Forward of printing an untruth; especially when he does so without the courtesy of telling us or others what that untruth might be — despite our having asked.

In this case, my concern is exacerbated by the fact that the charge is flat out wrong.

It was on Friday, December 13 — as we at the Forward were still waiting to hear back from him after an initial exchange — that Harvard Hillel’s executive director, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, sent out his email blast to the Hillel center’s thousands of members and supporters.

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Jewish Exploitation of the Educated Underclass

By Gordon Haber

thinkstock

Right now Jewish academics in the U.S. are preoccupied with the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel. But very few Jews in academia — or Jews in any position of moral authority — have spoken up about an academic scandal that has been quietly building for decades: the exploitation of adjunct instructors at American colleges and universities.

Think of adjunct instructors as highly educated temps. They can be fired at any time, for any reason, sometimes no reason at all. And the pay is horrendous. According to the Adjunct Project, the average is just under $3000 per class. So an instructor who teaches nine sections a year — say, four per term and one in the summer — earns $27,000. If a section is cancelled, an adjunct is plunged into poverty. I’ve been eligible for food stamps.

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A Community of Exes — Hasids, That Is

By Frimet Goldberger

Frimet (third from right), holds up her Footsteps certificate with the other fellows.

I am a Footsteps member and supporter. I am also an observant Jew.

To the critics of Footsteps, a not-for-profit organization that helps those seeking to leave their ultra-religious communities, this statement may seem like an oxymoron. Until about a year ago, I too believed that one could not remain Orthodox and be a Footsteps member at the same time — that one could not eat a plate of chulent at the Shabbos meal, completely unplugged from the world, and engage in an intelligent existentialist debate.

I became a Footstepper — the term of endearment embraced by members — this past May. Five years after leaving the Hasidic community I grew up in, but still remaining Orthodox, I finally decided to join the community of exes (ex-Hasidim, ex-ultra-Orthodox and ex-Orthodox). I’d never felt the need for social and emotional support, but until this year I had been unaware of the other resources Footsteps offers to help the exes get better education and find jobs.

Furthermore, as an Orthodox woman, I half believed the rumors flying around — that Footsteps is anti-religious, that their only goal is to get you to abandon your traditions and that all Footsteppers are losers, drug-addicts and ne’er–do–wells. I almost bought into it because I did not know otherwise. Even though some of my closest friends — successful, educated and settled individuals — had been Footsteppers for years without spewing venomous fires of atheism through their nostrils, it was still easy to think that joining Footsteps meant throwing the Jewish baby out with the cultural bathwater.

My first visit to the Footsteps headquarters in New York City was on a scorching hot Sunday morning. I was selected to participate in the Footsteps Career Fellowship pilot program — a paid opportunity for 12 members to gain meaningful work experience, develop a career network, improve their presentation, and access valuable professional support (full disclosure: I ended up using my fellowship to work at the Forward). This first welcoming workshop was designed to acquaint fellows with the program. In between panel discussions and introductions, lunch was served — turkey and ham sandwiches from a local restaurant. Oy.

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Israel's Blood Donation Rules Are Becoming a National Problem

By Nathan Jeffay

Yesterday, an Ethiopian-born lawmaker was told at a Knesset blood drive that the state doesn’t want her blood because of her origins. I know how she feels.

There is widespread outrage following the news that Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian born Knesset member, was told not to donate (or that she could donate but the blood probably wouldn’t be used). Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein threw the blood collection stand out of parliament, President Shimon Peres has condemned the decision, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced concern.

The shunning of Tamano-Shata stems from a policy that generated much publicity in the past but long ago fell off the public agenda. Since 1997, the Israeli Ministry of Health has prohibited donations from people who were born or who lived in a country with high HIV incidence.

Israeli rules also make me persona-non-grata at blood donation stands. On my most recent attempted donation, I was in a hospital, killing time as my wife underwent a procedure, thinking that it would be fitting to do a good deed as she was on the receiving end of medical care. But no, I still wasn’t welcome, and given that blood donation is an honored tradition in my family — my father has given many times his body weight — it’s an unhappy feeling.

The reason for my rejection? Remember 1986 and the start of Britain’s “mad cow disease crisis? Well it’s because of that. I’m British, and anyone who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 still can’t donate blood in Israel because of “mad cow disease.” I get the same kind of response from the blood stand staff as I saw on the video of Tamano-Shata’s attempted donation — an embarrassed statement of the rules with a tacit understanding between us that they are outdated.

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A Trailblazing Cantor

By Michael Kaminer

Courtesy of Marc Goldman

In many ways, Mark Goldman’s a traditional cantor. He serves a 900-member Reform congregation, in Plantation, Florida. He’s performed around the world, including a historic group gig at the Vatican. And he loves to chant the “haunting, yet familiar” Kol Nidre.

But this year, the UK expat became a trailblazer. After nearly two decades as a member, Goldman was elected president of the American Conference of Cantors, making him the first openly gay chazzan to hold the post.

Descended from a long line of cantors, the yeshiva-educated Goldman came out to his parents at age 27 — three years after emigrating to the States. He took on his first cantorial position at Temple Kol Ami, which later merged with Temple Emanu-El of Fort Lauderdale. Nineteen years later, he’s become a beloved fixture on the South Florida Jewish scene.

The Forward caught up with Goldman from the home he shares with interior designer Aaron Taber, his partner of 17 years.

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Mr. Obama, Your Selfie Sent All the Wrong Messages

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Getty Images

Thank you, Mr. President.

You’ve just made it harder for me and every other parent and educator to convince young people that taking selfies at memorials and on solemn occasions is not okay.

Just what were you thinking when you leaned in close to Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron to snap a group self-portrait at the memorial service for the late great South African Nelson Mandela on Tuesday?!

The folks behind the “Selfies at Funerals” Tumblr blog said it best: “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done.”

Sadly, I fear, that the image of you grinning in to the lens of that mobile phone you held up together with Thorning-Schmidt is going to be recalled far more clearly and much longer than anything you said in your well-written four-and-half-minute-long eulogy for Mandela.

I completely understand that you were too busy to read my piece about the unfortunate and misguided (some would say disgusting) trend of young visitors to Holocaust sites and memorials in Europe taking cheery (and sometimes sexy) selfies and posting on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. But for parents like myself and educators, a world leader setting this example only reinforces that these pictures are ok for teens to take.

I’m sure your wife Michelle also didn’t have a chance to read my piece, but from the look of disapproval on her face, it seems she didn’t have to in order to know how a world leader should act at a memorial service.


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