Forward Thinking

Israel's Finance Minister Worries About Boycotts

By Nathan Jeffay

As the Scarlett Johansson-stoked controversy rages over SodaStream’s West Bank operation, Israel’s centrist Minister of Finance has been considering what effect international opposition to settlement production will have if peace talks fail. And his verdict is pessimistic.

In a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, Minister Yair Lapid said that if Israeli or Palestinian negotiations break down or hit an impasse, resulting economic actions by Europe could have a major impact on Israel.

“Every resident of Israel will get hit straight in the pocket,” he said. “The cost of living will rise, the education, health, welfare and defense budgets will be cut, and many international markets will be closed to us.” He stressed that the European market, the main focus of his concern, is Israel’s primary trade market.

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The 'Portuguese Schindler' and Me

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Aristides Sousa Mendes is a national hero today in Portugal for bravely saving Jews fleeing the Nazis. It wasn’t always that way.

When Aristides Sousa Mendes was a child, his name forced his family to leave Portugal for Africa. Today, his name is famous, and his grandfather and namesake, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, is a national hero, his story taught in every Portuguese school.

I met Aristides in Lisbon in November, while traveling in the Portuguese capitol to report my story about Sephardic identity that Forward published last week. While I was there, I thought it would be worthwhile to meet Aristides — another man concerned with his roots.

Aristides and his wife Teresa met me in the lobby of my hotel. Both have white hair and an aristocratic posture, and speak English well. They pronounce their surname in the vowel-less Portuguese style, so that “Mendes” sounds like “Mensch.”

Aristides realized that there was some sort of cloud over his grandfather when he was just seven or eight years old. “I started understanding that there was some strange thing around him, because my parents and my uncles, when they would meet with each other, they were always regretting something, even crying about something,” he told me. “In our house we were not allowed to speak about our grandfather.”

Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat stationed in Bordeaux in 1940. Portugal was neutral throughout the Second World War, and Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, wanted to keep it that way. So when Sousa Mendes, an observant Catholic, asked for permission to provide transit visas to the Jews amassing in Bordeaux to pass through Portugal and on to safer continents, Salazar said no. Sousa Mendes provided them anyway.

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My Search for the Perfect Biblical Blue

By Jeffrey K. Salkin

A few of the author’s many blue inks on paper. / Jeffrey K. Salkin

It’s time for me to confess my hobby. I collect and use fountain pens. I have no memory of how I first got into this particular way of writing. No, it has nothing to do with the fabled “Today I am a fountain pen” bar mitzvah speech (though, having gone to many vintage pen shows, I can attest to the fact that many a bar mitzvah gift has wound up on the sales tables).

As a fountain pen user, I use bottled ink and/or ink cartridges. I use a lot of blue inks. Probably too many. It’s because I’ve been searching for the perfect blue ink — the precisely right shade. I am not alone; this is a common theme among pen lovers.

People actually argue about this stuff. Part of those arguments include kaddishes for some beloved blue inks that are no longer available — except to Ebay prowlers, perhaps. Parker Penman, for example, is a cult favorite. It is in ink heaven somewhere — hopefully being used by the Holy One Blessed Be He to write the names of the righteous in the Book of Life.

What’s the deal with this incessant — one might even say obsessive — search for that perfect shade of blue? (It’s not limited to ink enthusiasts, either; have you ever seen people go crazy over the different versions of blue in the Benjamin Morris paint chart?) Recently it’s occurred to me that my search for the “perfect” blue is just a modern, secular version of Judaism’s frustrated and frustrating search for the “real” and historically accurate shade of the biblical tekhelet, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah.

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Does Rick Jacobs Think Intermarriage Is Good?

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — For an article I wrote on a recent flare-up in the intermarriage debate, I did two interviews with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twice I asked him whether there was any value in articulating a communal preference for in-marriage over intermarriage, and the second time I followed up by asking,

“Is it something you encourage or prefer?” Neither time did he give a direct answer.

Clearly, Jacobs is walking a sort-of tightrope in a movement that, while more accepting of intermarriage than its more traditional counterparts, still has its divisions: A significant minority of Reform rabbis don’t officiate at intermarriages, and there has been some debate recently about whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s policy barring intermarried rabbis should be rescinded.

Nonetheless, it it is worth noting that we have reached a landmark moment in American Jewry’s lengthy and highly ambivalent obsession with intermarriage when the head of the country’s largest Jewish denomination will not say outright that marrying a Jew, a core tradition, is better than intermarrying.

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The Bibi-Bennett Feud Isn't Over

By Nathan Jeffay

The Israeli government has just emerged from a three-day coalition crisis, after public displays of antagonism between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett reached new highs.

A letter firing Bennett had reportedly already been prepared when he cleared the air last night. Netanyahu was furious that Bennett questioned his integrity because he suggested that some settlers could live under Palestinian rule following a peace deal. Netanyahu displayed “moral confusion,” charged an indignant Bennett, who leads the coalition’s most right-wing faction, Jewish Home.

The friction between the two men rose, and yesterday Netanyahu issued Bennett an ultimatum — apologize or leave the coalition. A few hours later, Bennett moved to clear the air and voiced “respect” for Netanyahu’s leadership under “difficult conditions” — though there is confusion over exactly what he said and whether it constituted an apology.

Details aside, the crisis seems to have come to a close, and the two men will go on working together. But for how long?

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Are Gas Chambers Making a Comeback in U.S.?

By Emily L. Hauser

The ruins of a gas chamber at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp / Getty Images

Lying at the heart of every political position I hold is an undying faith in human fallibility. Not only might we get things wrong, we will get things wrong – just as we got things wrong last week and last year and last war, forever and ever, back and back, all the way into our misty past.

Fortunately, history is chock-a-block with examples that prove my faith to be unassailable. In fact, it’s hard to know which example would be most illustrative here. Knowing the world is flat? Check. How about knowing we’d be greeted as liberators? Check and check. Or no, I have one: Gas chambers.

Gas chambers. Just saying the words fills the mind with horror and images unbidden – though I’ll bet they don’t involve Wyoming.

But for all that, Wyoming is where the topic of gas chambers was most recently raised, in the context of a broader conversation about the death penalty and America’s growing awareness that we were wrong when we thought that execution by lethal injection might not be a cruel and unusual punishment – because as the horrifying story that recently emerged from Ohio’s death row indicates, a whole lot of suffering can fit into just a couple of needles.

So what are some of America’s politicians suggesting instead? A reconsideration of sentencing procedures, a re-examination of the legal foundation for death penalty policies? No. They’re suggesting firing squads. The electric chair. Gas chambers.

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Did Genesis Founder Carry Gun to Meetings?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Mayor Bloomberg, the recipient of the first Genesis Prize / Getty Images

You know that Jewish charity that gave a $1 million prize to Michael Bloomberg, who can hardly count his billions? A feature in last week’s New Yorker sheds some light on the Russian oligarchs behind the award.

For instance: In the early 2000s, BP executives thought that German Khan was carrying a gun to business meetings.

It wasn’t clear to the executives why he needed the gun. “[H]e had other people with guns,” one told Connie Bruck, as reported in this amazing New Yorker profile.

German Khan and Mikhail Fridman are partners with the subject of the profile, Leonard Blavatnik, in an investment consortium called AAR. They are also among the founders of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a huge Jewish foundation funding Jewish charities around the world. The new $1 million Genesis Prize, bewilderingly bestowed on Bloomberg in 2013, is funded by the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Khan and Fridman aren’t actually named on Genesis’s website. The face of the operation is Stan Polovets, AAR’s CEO. But the New York Times, among other outlets, has identified them as two among the five founders of the charity.

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What Yair Netanyahu's Norwegian Dating Game Tells Us

By Emily L. Hauser

It’s easy for liberal Jews to write off the hullabaloo regarding the dating habits of one of Israel’s better known sons as just that: Hullabaloo. Sound and fury signifying nothing, or maybe signifying a prurient interest in famous lives, or possibly signifying a helplessly stultified and hidebound worldview that has nothing to do with us. Or, you know, politics.

But the Sturm und Drang in certain Jewish circles about Yair Netanyahu’s (maybe?) girlfriend is bigger than that – as evidenced by the speed with which his father the Prime Minister has turned around to deny the romance. It goes to the heart of the Jewish experience and the soul of our people. Who are we, how do we define ourselves? Whether or not we realize it, that’s what we’re talking about, and ultimately, these questions go to the heart and soul of how the Jewish faith is conducted everywhere, not least in the Jewish State.

Liberals often forget that for many Jews, the question of one Jew’s dating habits is, genuinely, the business of all Jews. If the younger Netanyahu marries a Gentile, these Jews will (genuinely) feel it to be a catastrophe – a national catastrophe, not just for the State, but for the entire Jewish people. We see more than a little of this fear reflected any time an American Jewish leader starts talking in dire tones about intermarriage.

This is, of course, true as regards any Jew’s decision to marry out, but it’s more powerfully true when the Jew in question is well-known. Marit ayin (appearance) plays a powerful role in how Jewish law is interpreted; minhag k’din (“custom as law”) is no joke. A well-known Jew can lead others astray, new customs can arise, and these will, eventually, change the way that people understand the law.

Which, I tell myself, is fine – those folks can believe whatever they want. I don’t daven with them.

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Pete Seeger's Hometown Rabbi Remembers When

By Brent Spodek

Pete Seeger never stopped singing — or fighting for justice. Just last month, he turned up at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance to explain why it was important to join the town’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.

If you move to Beacon, or even think about moving to Beacon, someone will tell you that this is where Pete Seeger lived.

When I moved to Beacon, a town of 15,000 on the banks of the Hudson River, I knew where Pete’s house was before I knew where the hardware store was. But before I knew him as a neighbor, I knew him as most people did, as as the icon, the figure that Bruce Springsteen called “a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”

It was shocking to realize that the icon Pete (who was known to everyone as Pete), was also the old man on line at the post office, on Main Street, at the riverfront.

Ellen Gersh, the cantor at Beacon Hebrew Alliance, grew up in Beacon and has known Pete for her entire life. She met him as a child because her grandfather was friends with Pete’s father-in-law and then later, she got to know him through music.

“When I was eight or 10 years old, we were on a class trip to the Clearwater (Revival) and he heard me sing and invited me to sing at the Sloop Club,” she said. “The meetings were on Friday nights and that was a conflict [with Shabbat], but my father said I could go to the first half and then needed to go to services.”

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Love Israel. Oppose BDS. Reject SodaStream.

By Debra DeLee

As counterintuitive as it may be, when you see Scarlett Johansson’s Super Bowl ad on Sunday, promoting a product that lets you make carbonated drinks at home, try to see through bubbles and think about the future of the Middle East.

There is nothing wrong with the product itself. Under normal circumstances, I would buy SodaStream and recommend it to my friends. But the circumstances under which the product is made are not normal. And because Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is such an anomaly, as much as I may like Scarlett (and seltzer), I will not buy SodaStream, not until it moves its headquarters away from a West Bank settlement.

But before I discuss bubbles, a few words of clarification are in order. My organization is staunchly pro-Israel. Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of Israel’s peace movement, is a Zionist organization, proudly committed to Israel’s security and wellbeing. I love Israel and I’m worried sick about its future as a democracy and a Jewish state.

It is because of my love for Israel that I don’t buy products made by companies that are located in West Bank settlements, and that I urge the millions watching the Super Bowl on Sunday to look beyond the luminous actress and the fizz — and to consider the future of Israel and the Middle East.

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Can a Government Video Fight Racism in Israel?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

A new anti-discrimination video campaign by Israel’s Ministry of Justice sends an important social message and packs a powerful emotional punch. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough to do the enormous job of eradicating racism in the Jewish State. Still, it’s a start.

Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or religious group, nationality, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, political views, party membership, personal status or parenthood is a violation of a law passed by the Knesset in 2000.

There is no mistaking what statement the video is making. Filmed in an edgy, ominous style and with a soundtrack that wails a heavy metal-style acoustic version of Hatikvah, it shows various instances of the discrimination against minorities that happens on a daily basis. Children on a basketball court tell an immigrant boy to go home to Russia. A white mother stops her preschool-age son from playing with a black boy on the playground. A Jewish woman prevents a Muslim woman and her daughter from sitting next to her on a bus. A bouncer won’t allow a black young woman to enter a nightclub with the cool kids.

The text accompanying the images warns that one kind of discrimination can lead to another, often worse, kind. A refusal to play with a boy could lead later on to preventing him from going to school, or refusing to give him a job. Not making room on a bus for a girl could lead to eventually refusing to rent her an apartment.

These scenarios have not been pulled from thin air. These kinds of things really do happen daily in Israeli society. It’s rather astounding — not to mention maddening — to think that Jews, who suffered not so long ago from the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, would need reminding as to where discriminatory behaviors can lead.

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News Quiz: Bill de Blasio, Elvis and HBO

By Lenore Skenazy

Bill de Blasio meets Elvis meets HBO in this week’s Jewish News Quiz – which also includes some Jews. We promise.

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Israeli Teacher May Lose Job Over 'Leftist' Views

By Mairav Zonszein

A schoolgirl listens to language class on November 4, 2002 in Jerusalem. / Getty Images

An Israeli high school teacher faces dismissal after a student complained that he expressed radical “leftist” views in the classroom. In a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron, 12th-grade student Sapir Sabah accused Adam Verete — who teaches philosophy in the small northern Israeli town of Kiryat Tivon — of saying the IDF is “unusually brutal” and uses rhetoric in class that disparages the state.

Since news broke, Verete has received threats to his life and other forms of slander and incitement, for which he has filed a complaint with the police. It didn’t help that former MK Michael Ben Ari — a right-wing Kahanist notorious for his Jewish supremacist and incendiary views — posted Sabah’s letter on his Facebook page, immediately turning the issue into a public left-right political battle. Sabah herself has in the past argued in class that all Arabs should be thrown into the sea and also called Verete a traitor, adding that treasonous citizens like him are punished by death. No one from the school has condemned her hate speech or her incitement against Verete, instead chalking it up to “her opinion.”

In what can only be described as a modern-day Israeli McCarthy-style tribunal, administrators from ORT — the non-profit network of state-subsidized schools that employs Verete — held a hearing last week with him to discuss the allegations. Portions of the audio recording of the hearing released on news sites reveal a hostile group of administrators uninterested in getting to the bottom of the issue, or in discussing the boundaries of democracy and critical thinking in school.

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Scarlett Johansson Stars in 'SodaStream'

By Eli Valley

Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson is taking heat for her decision to represent SodaStream, an Israeli home beverage company that operates in the occupied West Bank. Cartoonist Eli Valley offers his own unique graphic take on the controversy.


Europe Still Needs Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Anna Momigliano

Milan — Today, many European countries — including Germany, Italy and the UK — are observing the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What makes this particular Holocaust Remembrance Day peculiar in Italy is the fact that quite a few public intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have called for its abolition. Well, that and the fact that three pig heads have just been sent to three major Jewish sites in Rome, in an apparent mafia-style attempt at intimidation.

Among the public figures explicitly calling for the abolition of Holocaust Remembrance Day are Elena Loewenthal, a renowned Jewish writer who just published the pamphlet Contro il Giorno Della Memoria (Against the Day of Memory), and Giuliano Ferrara, a devoutly Catholic conservative pundit who wrote a much discussed editorial on the topic last month.

The utility and raison d’être of Holocaust Remembrance Day have often been questioned since it was established in the early 2000s. Allow me to sum up the main arguments most commonly presented against this day, in an effort to better explain why, no matter how flawed it may be, I’m still convinced that Europe needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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Bill De Blasio Takes Well-Worn Pro-Israel Path

By Daniel Treiman

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.

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Jewish Senate Iran Sanctions (Fuzzy) Math

By Nathan Guttman

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.

Got it?


Why Women Can — And Must — Lay Tefillin

By Will Friedman

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?

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Do Jewish Voices Count More on Israel and Iran?

By Raphael Magarik

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.

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My Fight To Lay Tefillin At an Orthodox School

By Eliana Fishman

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.

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