Bill De Blasio and his family celebrate inauguration as New York mayor. Like predecessors at Gracie Mansion, liberal and conservative alike, Hizzoner is hewing a pro-Israel line.
(JTA) — New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, drew some attention last week with his remarks at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event. “Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio isn’t the first New York City mayor to see the job this way.
New York City mayors have been outspoken defenders of Israel since its establishment — and of the Zionist cause even before that.
They have visited Israel, called for American aid, opposed arms sales to Israel’s enemies, snubbed visiting foreign leaders who were hostile to Israel, and criticized U.S. presidents on Israel-related issues.
Want to know who stands where on Iran sanctions? We’ve got the answer — at least for the 10 Jewish senators.
Of course, it’s never quite that simple. See below for the fine print.
Senators who had signed on as co-sponsors are listed as supporters of the bill. Senators who have spoken out publicly against the bill are listed as being opposed.
Similarly, senators who have not gone on record on the issue but have refused to sign on as co-sponsors, despite the massive lobbying effort to reach more than 60 co-sponsors, are also listed as being opposed to the bill.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is in a category all his own. He signed on as a co-sponsor, making him a supporter of the bill. However, he also says he is opposed to bringing the bill to a vote. That makes him an opponent of what the bill’s supporter’s want.
A woman prays wearing tefillin in Jerusalem/Getty Images
Must, should, or can observant Jewish women wrap tefillin, or not? This well-worn question was recently revived thanks to the two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York — SAR and Ramaz — that have tepidly embraced female students who wish to wrap tefillin publicly in their schools’ prayer services.
In an email circulated to parents, students and board members, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Ramaz’s Talmud chair, offers an internally contradictory five-point bulletin that makes his distaste for the practice clear. On the one hand, women are not obligated to wear tefillin (point 1) but nevertheless receive the benefit of having performed a mitzvah, or commandment (point 2). But in the very next breath he argues they should not be encouraged to do so and perhaps even discouraged from doing so (based on his “proof-text” in point 3), and “taught that they do not need to wear tefillin to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives” (point 5). The schizophrenia of the letter is demonstrated by the head of school’s hopeful sign-off to “see more people observing more mitzvot.”
Which is it? Is women’s observance of this mitzvah a religiously suspicious act destined to shame Torah and undermine halakhic (Jewish legal) commitment? Is it merely religiously tolerable, the isolated province of a few outliers on the religious bell curve? Or is it the natural, proper response to the times in which we live, possibly even mandated by our changed social circumstances?
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013. / Getty Images
In American politics, do Jewish voices count more on Israel than others? Should they? And who’s counting? UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, for one, who called on his Washington Monthly blog for readers to lobby their senator against a new Iran sanctions bill especially “if you’re Jewish, or have a Jewish-sounding name.” The anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss responded that Kleiman’s appeal proves that, on this issue, “we [Jews] are 5/3 of a man, to reverse the old voting fraction of black people.”
Weiss has picked an obnoxious analogy. Even those who talk about Israel as an “apartheid state” rarely have the chutzpah to include Washington D.C. in the supposed ethnocracy. But Weiss is also wrong in a more interesting way. Talk of how much Jews count is hopelessly naïve, because in fact, American foreign policy — in many areas — responds far less to mass demographics than to small, committed ideological elites.
Why is that? First of all, American Jews don’t care much politically about Israel. Most feel emotionally attached to Israel, but in 2012, only four percent considered it their most important political issue, classing it with sleepers like the environment and immigration. Nor is our apathy atypical: Americans just don’t care much about foreign policy. Less than ten percent of us vote primarily on foreign policy. When asked what is the most important issue facing the country, we show no interest in other countries (well, a little when people leave them to come here). Government, policy, and media elites love to talk about an increasingly globalized world, but most Americans think of foreign affairs as politically remote and irrelevant.
A young woman prays wearing tefillin on April 11, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. / Getty Images
On December 8, 2013, SAR High School principal Rabbi Naphtali Harcsztark permitted students Ronit Morris and Yael Marans to lay tefillin in the school’s daily women’s prayer group, allowing them to do so within the school building. While this is the first time in its 12-year history that SAR High School has faced this issue, SAR Academy, the associated elementary and middle school, has had female students who lay tefillin. So has Ramaz, another Modern Orthodox high school in New York.
I began laying tefillin when I was a seventh grade student at SAR, over thirteen years ago. Unlike in the case of Morris and Marans, the SAR administration barred me from praying with tefillin in the school building, and excused me from praying with my class. Instead, my prayer took place in my living room, before I left for school.
As a result of not being able to pray daily with the rest of my classmates, I missed out on a lot. Announcements were regularly made at the end of services, and I missed them. Students celebrated bnei mitzvah during services, and I missed them. I missed class jokes about the boy who always hit the ceiling when he did hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, or the boys who (flirtatiously?) handed their tefillin to the girls for re-wrapping at the end of services. I missed the camaraderie of praying with my peers.
After graduating from the eighth grade, I attended Ramaz High School, where another student, Shifra Mincer, also began to lay tefillin. Shifra and I were excused from morning services, and prohibited from laying tefillin in school. However, there was one exception to this rule: Tuesday mornings.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Blau speaks at a Jewish school in Berlin. / Getty Images
When you package it right, even a plot against pluralism can be made to seem progressive.
In Israel, government ministers spanning from left to right have advanced legislation that will end the country’s dual Chief Rabbinate, under which there are two religious figureheads, one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi. Instead, if the Knesset approves the bill, there will be one.
“In a state where there is only one President, one Supreme Court president, one Prime Minister and one chief of general staff, there is no way to justify the doubling of the position of chief rabbi,” reasoned Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
Smooth talking, but this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The President, Supreme Court president, Prime Minister and army chief have set political, judicial and defense jobs. Religious leaders are an entirely different matter — they are meant to lead, inspire, and uplift. And to do that in a country where people come from a broad range of religious traditions, giving at least a nod to this by having more than one Chief Rabbi makes perfect sense. It means that at least the two main ethic groupings have a figure on the top level of the state rabbinate.
A Swedish punk rocker with a swastika tattoo. / Getty Images
I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville, Tenn. On my recent trip there, I had every bit as much fun as I suspected I would. But I also saw something that made me gasp out loud.
Downtown, I stumbled upon a tattoo shop. Being a person with tattoos (controversially, a Jew with tattoos), I decided to stop in and do some pricing. Perusing the flash art wall, I saw the typical assortment of symbols, animals, sayings, suggestive cartoons, etc. Then a particular design caught my eye: an eagle’s head with a swastika inside it.
I wondered how I could actually be seeing this. I had been enjoying my trip so much, and this was casting a cloud over it. Do people actually come into the shop to get that terrible symbol inked on them? I wanted to go and say something to the shop staff members, who seemed extremely friendly, but since I was more or less a stranger in a strange land I decided it was best to keep mum.
Back home I told several people about my experience, and they were all appalled. After all, even though bigotry and hatred can happen anywhere, they definitely should not be catered to. I “liked” the company’s page on Facebook so that I could post on it to let staff and patrons know how I felt. My feeling — and hope — was that the design was due to ignorance, since the Jewish population in Nashville is not at all like New York City’s.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz (center) confers with Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. / Getty Images
As a Canadian Jew, I often feel a twinge of envy on Martin Luther King Day. I’m envious of larger-than-life heroes who succeed in uniting a nation around issues that are so blatantly about justice versus bigotry that almost no one can today publicly disagree. I’m envious for symbols like Rosa Parks, and for American rabbis, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who were able to join these freedom seekers while “praying with their feet,” as Heschel famously described his act of solidarity when he marched in Selma.
Today, it seems, the issues worth fighting for when you’re a Canadian Jew who expresses her political Jewish identity largely in terms of attachment to Israel are not nearly as simple. This can make the idea of praying with one’s feet a lonely exercise. As I write this, Israel is hosting an official visit by my prime minister, the Jewish State’s best friend among a sea of leaders who are increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s policies.
Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper mention anything to Bibi, today, on Martin Luther King Day, about the hundreds of Africans whom Israel is holding in open-air prisons, in contravention of the international refugee convention to which Israel is a signatory?
Many would of course argue that separate water fountains, Jim Crow, voter suppression, and back-of-the-bus laws in pre-civil rights America have nothing to do with the current asylum-seeker quagmire in Israel. But many others would say that there lies but a short road from one to the other.
I also wonder whether Prime Minister Harper will suggest to Bibi, today, on Martin Luther King Day, that the many laws that still exist in Israel — laws that effectively discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel — should be changed.
The latest in the Nicolas Anelka-Deuidonné-quenelle affair is that another apparently nonsense word has been inserted into the fray.
“Zoopla,” the English real estate website and jersey sponsor of West Bromwich Albion has decided to end their sponsorship of the Midlands soccer team due to the failure of management to act on the matter of player Nicholas Anelka having performed a neo-fascist quenelle salute in their December 28th game against West Ham United.
Inaction appears to be the order of the day, as the English Football Association (FA) was should have already made a decision regarding Nicholas Anelka’s performance of the quenelle, allegedly an inverted sieg heil salute created by the French player’s friend, anti-Semitic comedian and political provocateur, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. While the FA tends to take its sweet time in adjudicating allegations of racism - it took them two months to determine that Chelsea captain John Terry had called Queen’s Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand a “black c**t.”
The sport’s anti-racist watchdog, Kick It Out, has also complained about the sluggishness of the FA’s response and Zoopla, one of whose owners is Jewish, has tried to force the issue by first saying that Anelka should not be allowed to wear a Zoopla-branded jersey, and later announced they would not be renewing their contract with West Brom.
From Zach Braff to Downton Abbey to rye bread and herring. It’s not as big a leap as you might think!
REASONS TO LOVE:
1 — It’s delicious. What Jew doesn’t like seltzer?
2 — It’s eco-friendly, saving massive amounts of otherwise virtually indestructible plastic waste.
3 — It could feasibly pay for itself.
4 — According to MSNBC, it’s the largest job provider for local Palestinian workers.
5 — It comes in invigorating Energy Drink, tipsy Happy Hour Cocktail and relaxing Diet Tea flavors.
REASONS TO HATE:
7 — It has fraudulently used the “made in Israel” label on its products when, in fact, they were made in the occupied Palestinian territories.
8 — It is also arguable that it doesn’t pay for itself unless you “regularly buy name brand can soda and pay full cost for it.”
9 — According to WhoProfits, it was guilty of worker exploitation until the workers’ rights organization Kav LaOved got involved. It also takes advantage of Israeli policies that make it cheaper for it to be across the Green Line, in occupied Palestinian territory.
10 — SodaStream is located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under complete civil and military control of the IDF. That means Palestinian entrepreneurs, business owners, and industries face significant barriers that force them to turn to the settlements for employment.
11 — It also comes in Kool-Aid. And they want you to drink it.
Nicolas Anelka, center, celebrates a goal before flashing the anti-Semitic ‘quenelle.’ / Getty Images
It has been almost three weeks since West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka celebrated scoring two goals against West Ham United by doing the quenelle, the reverse Nazi salute popularized in France by comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Yet Anelka remains unpunished. He continues to play, in fact. Albion’s then-head coach Keith Downing refrained from condemning him immediately after the soccer match, and in the days that followed the club itself held back as well. Albion instead released a clumsy statement, which acknowledged that the quenelle “has caused offense in some quarters.” Albion “asked Nicolas not to perform the gesture again.”
But for the Jewish community — including the owner of the club’s shirt sponsor Zoopla — in the United Kingdom, it is the lack of response from the Football Association (FA) and anti-racism campaign organizations like Kick It Out that has disappointed and caused upset.
Chile’s El Palestino soccer club recently raised the ire of pro-Israel groups when it decided to redesign its team jerseys, replacing the numeral one with a one-state map of Palestine. Because they show the entire map of Israel as Palestine, these jerseys effectively erase Israel, making it seem like the state doesn’t exist.
In a blog post last week, I asked how the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Anti-Defamation League can condemn these jerseys for using a one-state map, while staying mum about the fact that the Jewish National Fund does the exact same thing on its charity collection boxes. The ADL hadn’t gotten back to me by the time the post went up, but they’ve since emailed me this response so that I can update Forward readers on their stance. Here goes:
There is no comparison between the JNF blue box and the team jerseys worn by Chile’s “El Palestino” soccer club. The Chilean team’s shirts are a highly politicized form of incitement which negates Israel’s existence, while the JNF boxes have a representation of the internationally recognized country of Israel.
Huh. It’s hard to know how this explanation is supposed to defuse the idea that there’s a double standard at work in certain pro-Israel groups when it comes to one-state maps. As far as I can tell, though, three claims are being made here. Let me try to unpack them.
In 1996, Alan Webber launched Fast Company magazine as a hybrid of “Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal.” The same energy hovers around his recently announced run for Governor of New Mexico. A Tweet kicked off the campaign; a few days later, Webber confirmed the run with a simple “Yeah” in a Santa Fe newspaper. But Webber’s laid-back style is grounded in heavyweight credentials. Along with his leadership roles at the Harvard Business Review and Fast Company, Webber’s authored four bestselling business books, and he’s been vocal about public policy on opinion pages. His own government experience includes multiple roles in Portland’s city government in the 1970s, and he served under the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt later that decade. A Boston transplant who settled in New Mexico in 2003, Webber caught up with the Forward from Santa Fe about his campaign.
You sold Fast Company magazine for a record sum in 2000. Why shake things up now with a very demanding run for Governor?
We’re all called upon to make a contribution in our lives. New Mexico has so many riches and possibilities. We are one of the most culturally diverse states in America. We have the oldest state capitol in America. We have some of the most talented artists and craftspeople in America. Our land is spectacular, our climate is unsurpassed, our natural resources are bountiful. But without leadership, we’re not making life better for our people. I can’t stand idly by and watch New Mexico’s way of life be destroyed by Susana Martinez. I believe that we all should do what we can to make the world a better place. And there’s no better place to start than here at home.
You’re running as a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat. New Mexico’s wavered between Democrats and Republicans in recent years. How do you think a progressive platform will play?
Being a progressive means that I believe that everyone should get a fair chance, everyone should get an equal opportunity, everyone should play by the same rules, and everyone should have a place at the table. When people hear that those are my core values, then more often than not, they say that they share those same views. The values are more important than any label.
What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?
My father was raised in a Conservative-Orthodox home and my mother came from a Reform home. They compromised and my brother and I were raised in a Reform home. I went to religious school in St. Louis at a Reform synagogue where the emphasis was more on Jewish history, values, and traditions than on learning Hebrew. At home we observed the Sabbath, and my father, in particular, imparted the lessons of the Torah through family discussions and regular attendance at the synagogue.
The former Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber in central Rome. / Getty Images
Should Jews living in the Diaspora feel ashamed of being, well, Jews living in the Diaspora? A growing number of European Jews, it seems, believe the answer is yes. But when did we start buying into this narrative?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because of a debate that’s going on here in Italy. It has to do with the opportunity to build a Holocaust museum. A very well known conservative pundit, Giuliano Ferrara, recently criticized the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, who dared to protest the fact that Italy doesn’t have such a museum. Ferrara suggested Jews worry less about “the anti-Semitism of the past” and focus on more urgent issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
What struck me most was the reaction I saw in the Italian Jewish press and online forums. A number of people sided with the right-wing commentator, claiming that building a memorial for the Holocaust would actually be inappropriate. Why? Because it would promote a Diasporic idea of Judaism!
Emanuele Segre Amar, a Jewish leader who serves as deputy chair of the Jewish community of Turin, went so far as to claim that Holocaust memorials “promote the stereotype of the Jew as victim, docile, weak, assimilated and Diasporic.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.