Forward Thinking

Why Jewish Revenge Murder Should Shake Us Up

By Jane Eisner

Relatives of Mohammed Abu Khdeir carry his body during his funeral / Getty Images

Already, the details emerging about the gruesome death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teen burned alive in a revenge attack, are causing soul-searching among Israelis who would not or could not acknowledge that this unforgivable act was perpetrated by some of their own.

We American Jews must do the same.

It is far past time for those of us who love and support the State of Israel not only to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians under more than four decades of occupation, but to recognize what that occupation also has done to us.

Too many of us have become blind to the Palestinian Other. We rarely encounter them on our trips to Israel. We don’t listen to their lives. Every act of violence against Israelis — and there have been far too many — serve as confirmation of our ingrained prejudices, without any opportunity for another side of their story. And so we absorb a sense of moral superiority that underlies the message beamed our way from decades of Israeli governments, more so now: We don’t act like that. We are better. Israel is different.

I thought about this when hearing yesterday that some American Jews had convinced themselves that Hamas was to blame for Abu Khdeir’s murder, or that it was an “honor killing” in his family. Anything to deflect the horrible truth: That some Jews are capable of grabbing a 16-year-old boy waiting for prayers at a mosque and burning him alive — all supposedly for the sake of Israel.

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Who Won in Bibi-Liberman Divorce?

By Nathan Jeffay

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman / Getty Images

Who was the winner in the Liberman-Netanyahu divorce?

The ruling party in Israel has just split, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of its year-and-a-half-old alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Liberman said he was leaving Bibi because the latter is too soft on Hamas in Gaza. Despite the fact that the new Gaza campaign began shortly afterwards, Liberman hasn’t changed his mind.

Liberman, in status and in the size of the party he heads, was the junior partner in the relationship. Yet he seems to have gained the most from it — and decided to take his gains and run.

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The Pinkwashing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir

By Sigal Samuel

An undated family handout picture of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Now that Israeli police have arrested six Jewish suspects for the kidnap-murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, it’s safe to say that the teen was not killed by his own family for being gay.

Of course, Mohammed’s family has been saying that all along. They’ve been saying it ever since the burned-alive teen’s body was found in the Jerusalem Forest on July 2. “Our family is not involved in any disputes and he was a good boy,” one cousin told Haaretz. “This is not a family problem. This was a kidnapping and everyone has to know that.” So why did Israeli media outlets insist on floating the “honor killing” theory?

It’s not clear who started the rumor that Khdeir’s family murdered him for being gay. Many believe that it was the Israeli police who first fed this line to journalists — primarily in off-the-record briefings, and primarily to right-leaning outlets who would be willing to quote them as unnamed sources.

Whether or not that’s true, the media’s willingness to play along, combined with the police’s insistence on keeping the true details of the investigation under strict gag orders, allowed a baseless theory to spread far and wide among a credulous public. It was particularly popular with those Israel supporters who would rather believe this grisly murder was the work of Palestinians (“see, they even kill their own family members!”) than of fellow Jews.

What’s the upshot? Well, let me put it this way. The next time a pinkwashing conference rolls into town, I can pretty well guarantee that there will be a panel discussion with the name “Mohammed Abu Khdeir” in the title.

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News Quiz: The One With All the Funky Food

By Lenore Skenazy

ChocoChicken’s chocolate fried chicken and duckfat fries. // Twitter/KristieHang

Shrimp, Stalin and Gay Pride signs? This could be the strangest Jewish News quiz of them all. Except…they’re all strange. (Did we mention the cheesecake with bagel crumbs?) Good luck!

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Bulldoze Homes of Jewish Terrorists, Too

By Daniel Landes

Israel regularly destroys homes of Palestinian terror suspects, calling it a deterrent. But it never uses the same tactic against Jewish extremists. / Getty Images

(Haaretz) — There is only one sane and truly halakhic way to tackle our current situation: Take the well-known members of the Orthodox Price Tag gang and lock ‘em up, for a long time and in an inaccessible prison. Don’t let them go home for chagim and deny them visitors. Do the best to break and separate them. Freeze monies that go to their families.

And when and if we have proven guilty perpetrators, bulldoze their parents’ homes. The last will stop them.

Am I overreaching? Might not Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Arab teen murdered and his body desecrated, have been the victim of a different Jewish group or of some criminal group, perhaps Arab? Maybe, although I doubt it.

But what is not doubtful is that the PTG – the Price Tag Gang – is headed in the direction of creating real havoc with us and with our Arab citizens and with neighboring populations. Since the PTG could care less about Western values, let us refer them to Jewish Law and values and utilize some rules from that body of wisdom.

The PTG is an imminent sakanat nefashot, a danger to life. They are a fire burning on the Sabbath that will destroy not only property, but the lives of soldiers, police and civilians. Indeed, the PTG seemingly wants to cause tension and havoc, leading possibly to war. In their apocalyptic vision, they are confident that Israel will finally “do what it has always needed to do” and act with outstanding force to destroy not only Hamas but the PA and probably all other Muslims.

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How Do We Celebrate When July 4 Is Shabbat?

By Edmon J. Rodman

Getty Images

(JTA) — Part “God Bless America,” part “Shabbat Shalom,” the Fourth of July this year falls on a Friday. In this land of religious freedom, how do we plan to observe both?

As the sun sets over the “fruited plain,” will we be lighting Shabbat candles and fireworks? How will the Sabbath Queen look in red, white and blue?

Those who traditionally observe the Sabbath by not kindling fire surely will take a pass on the “rockets’ red glare.” But for many U.S. Jews and congregations, the day represents an opportunity to integrate Jewish themes into a national day of celebrating our freedom.

As a kid, like many boomers, I remember the Fourth as a day of firecrackers, spark-shooting fountains, backyard barbecues, parades and family picnics. Several synagogues this year will incorporate the same elements into their congregational programming.

On that Friday, when singing “Lecha Dodi” and hearing the boom of fireworks, or seeing them explode in the sky, I wonder how the verse “Awake and arise to greet the new light, for in your radiance the world will be bright” will resonate. Could it apply to celebrating the birth of a nation?

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Did Bibi's 'Vengeance' Tweets Provoke Violence?

By Gal Beckerman

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In moments of national tension — Israelis know these all too well — one can expect a leader to measure every word on a scale that calms on one side and inflames on the other.

So what are we to make of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tweets on Monday as the country was preparing to bury and mourn its three murdered boys?

I am not drawing a direct causal link between what I think was ill advised language and the Facebook page where tens of thousands of Israelis cried for vengeance or the murder of Mohammed Abu Khudair, most likely an act of revenge. But I do think that a leader has a responsibility to set a tone and this was the wrong one.

I’ve floated this argument on Twitter, actually, and the response (mostly from Times of Israel writer Haviv Rettig Gur) has been, firstly, that in describing vengeance for a child’s murder Bibi was making a literary allusion to Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem about the Kishniev massacre. Then came the argument that Bibi was actually using such dramatic rhetoric in order to compensate for a not-so-dramatic military response, and so this talk of vengeance represented a sort of de-escalation. And, lastly, Gur pointed out that this exchange was directed at Hamas and not at innocent 16-year-old Palestinian kids.

All of this is true, and yet I doubt that any of it was telegraphed through Netanyahu’s tweet. How many people got that it was Bialik? Understood that Bibi was offering tough words to make up for his decision to, say, avoid retaking Gaza? Or that he was even talking specifically about Hamas? No. What that tweet expressed was one word: Vengeance.

There are ways of channeling the pain and anger of a country without calling for vengeance, which in its classically biblical form is indeed an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Why not talk instead of justice, of tracking down the perpetrators and holding them to account for their crimes? Wouldn’t it have seemed more temperate, more responsible, to call for justice instead of vengeance?

If it sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing this, parsing hairs just at the moment that rocks are being thrown and missiles raining down, I would argue again that seemingly trivial word choices at moments when emotions are raw and people are looking for guidance about how to behave and what to feel are not at all inconsequential.

Still think I’m making too much of a tweet? I’d refer you to another moment when Bibi has been accused of drawing violent allusions that had very real world effects. See: Rabin, Yitzchak.


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When 'Death to Arabs' Rings Out in Holy City

By Elisheva Goldberg

Israel is consumed with calls for revenge for the murders of three kidnapped students. But some are pushing back against the cycle of hate./Getty Images

The headlines in Israel this week have been overwhelming. First the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers — Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach — were found, buried, eulogized, and mourned by Jews in Israel and around the world. There were calls on both the digital and actual street for vengeance, and for settlement construction in the Knesset, and soon somebody took matters (one could nary say “justice”) into their own hands: The body of an Arab teenager named Mohammad Abu Khdair was found lifeless in the Jerusalem Forest yesterday morning.

The 16-year-old’s death has led to what is arguably the worst violence in East Jerusalem in the last decade, exacerbated tensions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has palpably darkened the Jerusalem summer sky.

A glimmer of sun, perhaps, through this week’s haze, came yesterday at an event put together by Tag Meir and its partners, an anti-racism organization that has been the loudest Jewish vocal response to price-tag (“tag mechir”) attacks perpetrated most often by radical settlers who attack Palestinians or their property. The event gathered some 1,000 Israelis in Jerusalem’s Cat Square, not one block away from Zion Square where, the night before, some 47 anti-Arab rioters were arrested by Israeli police before they could turn into a full-blown lynch mob, or worse.

Tamar, an art and theater student in yellow earrings and short bangs, told me that she had come to the Tag Meir event because “Yesterday, I experienced something awful.” She had been sitting on her balcony in the center of town when she heard the shouts “death to the Arabs!”

She went down to the street, only to quickly find herself a human shield, situated between the police, a few Arabs, and the mob. “It opened my eyes,” she said. “They had murder in their eyes… In that moment, I didn’t want to be Jewish.” And so, despite being less than politically engaged by her own admission, Tamar came to the event yesterday. She was looking for a way to express her fear and frustration at the violence that is threatening to sweep this city off its feet. She — and many others — weren’t looking for politics. She was looking for light in the darkness.

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Auschwitz Selfies? No Big Deal, IMHO

By Emily L. Hauser

Teenagers, selfies, and the Holocaust — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone over the age of 30 who doesn’t have some thoughts on all three. Last week, though, the world was granted the chance to think about all three at the same time.

It was reported in various places that some Jewish teenagers, while in the course of visiting Nazi death camps, have taken the opportunity to take some selfies.

How many teenagers? Some. What kind of selfies? Varied. What does it mean? No one really knows.

Yet “some, varied, and no one really knows” were good enough reasons for many a furrowed brow and a clucked tongue, because if there is anything we do know as a society, it’s that the Holocaust is serious business, selfies are a sign of dangerous self-involvement, and teenagers will be the end of us all. Not necessarily in that order.

My fellow old Jews will have to forgive me, however, if I refuse to hop on the worry wagon.

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Why Israeli Thirst for Revenge Is Profoundly Un-Jewish

By Hody Nemes

Palestinians clash with Israeli police in East Jerusalem after an Arab teen was killed / Getty Images

The Torah sternly commands us to pursue justice (“Justice, justice, shall you pursue”) — but it leaves revenge to God.

That thought should resonate in our ears like a thunderclap after the discovery of a body in the Jerusalem forest. Israeli authorities fear that a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khudair, was kidnapped and murdered in a suspected revenge killing for the murders of three Israeli boys, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. If their fears are confirmed, this horrifying murder should provide a wake-up call to Israeli society and to all of us feeling anger over the murders of the Jewish teens.

As soon as the boys’ deaths were announced, calls for vengeance rang out in Israel. In just 24 hours, a new Israeli Facebook page, “The Nation of Israel Wants Revenge,” gained over 35,000 likes.

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Teens' Funeral Changed Israeli Youth Forever

By Elana Sztokman

Funeral ceremony for the three Israeli teenagers / Getty Images

When the city of Modi’in was built in 1993, I don’t think the planners envisioned the scene that took place here today. Tens of thousands of Israelis — nearly the equivalent of Modi’in’s entire population — descended on the modest cemetery at the outskirts of the city to bid a final farewell to the three boys murdered on their way home from school 19 days ago. The families of the three boys — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaer, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 — were surrounded by masses of Israelis from all over the country, spilling out of the Ben Shemen forest where the cemetery sits, all having come to share their grief and provide mutual comfort.

The crowd was overwhelmingly religious and very young. Teenage girls in skirts and boys wearing knitted yarmulkes dominated the scene. I felt almost old as I searched for other adults in the crowd, a feeling reinforced by the sight of teens wearing youth-movement shirts, a reminder that in Israel, teenagers pretty much run the country. Gilad Shaer’s sister eulogized him by describing how they would plan their youth group activities together. The boys were in some ways still children, and in other ways deeply formed and complex young people.

There were some beautifully touching moments at the cemetery. Before the three processions arrived from their respective towns (Nof Ayalon, Elad and Talmon), the crowd kept breaking into spontaneous singing, like a massive standing kumsitz. As I walked along the forest road, one group of singers faded and another heightened. In between the singing, there were groups praying mincha, the sounds of “Amen” reverberating for a distance because the crowd was so quietly subdued. Young boys were walking through the crowds handing out free bottles of water, though I have no idea who paid for them, or in fact how all of the logistics of this massive event were organized so fast or by whom. And then there were people wearing t-shirts saying “Bring back our boys” and other related slogans, reminding me of how quickly everything moves, and even entire movements form, in this digital age.

As the procession of the cars of the families passed by, my heart tore apart. Images of Eyal Yifrach singing a song he wrote while strumming on his guitar at a recent wedding of a relative, images widely circulated these past few weeks, stuck a chord with me. The boy is the exact same age as my son, Effie, who also plays guitar, and who is currently serving in the army. The similarities in their build, the purity of their smiles, the beauty of the spirit shining out of their eyes, made Eyal’s death particularly piercing for me.

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The Perks of Being a Lubavitcher

By Mordechai Lightstone

Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seen here (at left) in 1993 / Getty Images

There’s a hidden perk to being a Lubavitcher, one often not talked about but widely experienced: People like to talk to you. I’ve been called out as a Lubavitcher and brought into impromptu conversations everywhere from a small bridge over the Bled Gorge in Slovenia to the Top of the Rock in New York City.

Normally, I think most Lubavitchers enjoy this quirk of our existence. But there are also times when it becomes inconvenient. As fate would have it, one such encounter happened on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York. Tired and with a full day ahead of me, my greatest desire was to sleep. But no sooner did I sit down than the gentleman seated to my left leaned over and asked, “So you’re going to Crown Heights?”

Busted.

“How did you know?” I sheepishly, exhaustedly, asked.

“My rabbi is a Chabad rabbi,” he told me. “I met the Rebbe, you know.”

Those words got my attention faster than a hot cup of coffee.

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News Quiz: The One with Michael Douglas's Jewish Injury

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Michael Douglas, Russian oligarchs and a whole lot of chickens (human and otherwise) come home to roost in this week’s quiz.

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'Pinkwashing' Washed Out at Toronto Gay Pride

By Michael Kaminer

Getty Images

“I knished a girl and I liked it.”

That placard, waved by a member of Toronto Jewish gay group Kulanu, captured the spirit of yesterday’s massive WorldPride parade in Canada’s largest city: Joyful, fearless and boisterously irreverent.

About 100 Kulanu participants joined an estimated 12,000 marchers cheered by more than a million spectators on Toronto’s Yonge Street, according to reports this morning. The parade capped ten days of cultural and social-justice programs whose Jewish components included several Shabbat dinners, prayer services and a panel featuring Shai Doitsh and Itay Harlap, two leading figures in Israel’s LGBT movement.

Doitsh told Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy that his WorldPride experience was “amazing… The Canadians not only played a very important role in our fight for equality [in Israel] but our communities and our journey is quite similar. We can work together and learn from each other.” Levy — an out lesbian Jewish political columnist at the right-leaning Sun — wrote that she herself marched with Kulanu, wife in tow.

The march’s exuberance overshadowed controversy around a group called Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid, which marched despite protests by Jewish groups and some Toronto legislators. QUAIA has pushed for a place in the march for years, and the group got a boost in 2013 when a City of Toronto panel ruled the organization’s message did not represent discrimination towards the Jewish community. Stakes were also higher this year because of the global stage that WorldPride provided.

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A Non-Giggly Girl Causes Problems Among the Ultra-Orthodox

By DeDe Jacobs-Komisar

Ultra-Orthodox girls lean out of a classroom window / Getty Images

“What do you mean he abused her?” The question was shrill and innocuous.

The teacher, Mrs. Stern, looked incredibly uncomfortable. But hey, she had brought it up. “He got into the bed with her, and he abused her.” Mrs. Stern shrugged her shoulders at the ambiguity of it all, as if it was impossible to know what the passage was really saying. “Now let’s move on.”

I rolled my eyes from the back of the room. Seventh-grade Prophets class at Bais Yaakov, my school for Orthodox Jewish girls. We were studying Samuel II, wherein King David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, who is then violently avenged by her brother Absalom. But Mrs. Stern didn’t use the word “rape,” because sex itself was never acknowledged, much less discussed. I don’t know that many of my classmates would have even known what “rape” meant at the tender age of 12. These girls would eventually learn the facts of life from their mothers or rabbis’ wives in the weeks before they got married, soon after which they would be mothers themselves.

This is a weird account with which to begin this essay, I know, but it gives you a sense of the curricular world in which I experienced puberty — one in which sex and sexuality did not exist.

When I was about five years old, my parents got religion. We stopped driving on Friday nights and Saturdays and started keeping kosher. When I was six, we moved to another state and I started second grade at the local Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, which turned out to be a pit of evil little children who bullied me for my buck teeth and awkwardness. It got pretty bad and the administration refused to do anything about it, so my parents took me out of that hellhole and put me in Bais Yaakov.

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Brandeis Gave Up On Al Quds. Its Students Didn't.

By Eli Philip and Catie Stewart

Yasmin Khatib and Catie Stewart of the Brandeis-Al Quds Student Dialogue Initiative

Talking about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is difficult. Seeing it firsthand is harder. Living under it is nearly impossible. We learned this while leading a trip for a group of Brandeis students to Al Quds University in the West Bank this June. The purpose of the trip, organized entirely by students, was to open up a channel of dialogue between both universities and to establish ties on a student level.

After one of our long days of touring and dialoging, we, like any other group of students, wanted to have a bit of fun. Someone plugged their phone into the speaker system on the van from Jericho to Ramallah, and an impromptu dance party was born, complete with everyone singing and dancing in the aisle. Out of nowhere, the van came to an abrupt stop. A young face covered by a green helmet peered through the window and glanced at our group of American and Palestinian students, and then promptly demanded we all disembark and hand over our IDs. Outside, a group of Israeli soldiers stood by their jeep, stopping vehicles marked by Palestinian license plates. The music was shut off, and the laughter and singing disappeared. In the heavy silence, we did as we were told, obediently filing off the bus. We were no longer treated as individuals, but rather as faceless suspects. The soldiers’ gaze did not meet our eyes.

Brandeis University is deeply connected to Israel. It is a historically Jewish university, and 50% of its students are Jewish. Israel activism on campus is vibrant and ubiquitous. Brandeis historically has also taken a stance dedicated to maintaining communication and relationships with Palestinian institutions such as Al Quds, and working towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We had a decade-long partnership with Al Quds University, initiated at the height of the second intifada, when starting a relationship with a Palestinian institution was difficult. The partnership was instituted as a beacon of cooperation that showed we, as Jews and Palestinians, could work together despite some deep differences in ideology. We — Brandeis and the Jewish community — were willing to try and understand the Palestinian experience. Brandeis’ message was clear: its connection to Israel necessarily meant engaging with Israel on all levels — including with the conflict and occupation.

This all changed last November, when Brandeis President Fred Lawrence suspended the partnership as a response to what he deemed intolerant acts: an Islamic Jihad-affiliated political rally on the Al Quds campus and the response from Al Quds’ then-president Dr. Sari Nusseibeh.

The suspension not only damaged longstanding relationships, it also served to keep us — Brandeis students as well as the larger Jewish community — from seeing and understanding life under occupation.

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World War I Shaped My Life, But I'll Never Know How

By Hody Nemes

The author’s family in Romania, with great-grandfather Leib Nemes in the back row, furthest right

Everyone thought he was dead. No one had seen Leib Nemes, my great-grandfather, for years — not since he was swept up into the bloody tornado of the First World War. The war was long over, but still he had not returned.

Only Rosalia, Leib’s sweetheart before the war, insisted he was alive. Like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, she refused to marry a different man. Neighbors and family members shook their heads: Rosalia wasn’t getting any younger.

Then one day Odysseus appeared at her door, back from the underworld, carrying an army sack, a five-foot rifle and stories of distant capitals. The two were married faster than you could cock a gun.

Where had he been? How long was he missing? Was he a prisoner of war?

I’ll never know.

I can’t ask Leib, who died in the Holocaust, or my grandfather, who died a decade ago. My father doesn’t know any details, and my great-uncle, whom I called up recently, said he had never heard the story.

This is the great challenge of remembering World War I, which began 100 years ago this week. The so-called Lost Generation is actually lost; the last veteran of the war died two years ago. There is no one left to ask who remembers.

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Two Neulanders — Two Dead Wives

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — Robert Neulander, a Syracuse, N.Y., physician active in his local Jewish community, was indicted this week in the murder of his wife.

Whether the 62-year-old Robert Neulander — who chaired his local federation’s campaign and has served on the board of his JCC — is found guilty or innocent in the Sept. 17, 2012 death of his wife, Leslie, he will be the second American Jewish leader named Neulander to face such charges.

In 1998, on the eve of the High Holidays, Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, N.J., was taken into police custody and accused of hiring a hit men to murder his wife, Carol, in their home four years earlier. The longtime spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom, a 1,000-member Reform temple he founded (he resigned before the indictment, after news leaked that he was under investigation), Rabbi Neulander is believed to have been the first American rabbi ever tried for murder. While his first trial resulted in a hung jury, Neulander was convicted in 2002. Now 72, he is serving a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison.

In addition to the shared indictment of wife murder and each man’s prominence in his local Jewish community — Dr. Neulander is still listed as a board member on the Jewish Federation of Central New York website — the two Neulander cases have a number of things in common. (It is not clear whether or not the two are related by blood.) Each was freed on bail after being arraigned ($400,000 for the rabbi, $100,000 for the doctor); each was indicted more than a year after his wife’s death and both had several adult children (three for the rabbi, four for the doctor). Each wife was found dead in the home she shared with her husband — Carol in the living room, Leslie in the bathroom.

As Rabbi Neulander’s trial neared a close, JTA attempted to ascertain “the impact of the Neulander trial on the Jewish community.” Kim Fendrick, a member of Neulander’s temple, told JTA that when Neulander “was a rabbi, he was a rabbi, and he did a very, very good job. When he didn’t assume the rabbi’s cloak, he was a very vulnerable person. This is not unusual in the world in general. I suspect that Hitler was very nice to Eva Braun.”

But the disconnect between the two was problematic: “This really touches our souls, because we trust our religious leaders, and we wonder whether we can trust anybody when something like this happens,” she said. “It certainly touches me as a Jew.

“So many people, especially young people, put such faith and trust and honor in this man, and they have been so disappointed,” she said, pointing to those for whom Fred Neulander was a teacher, a role model, a religious leader — the man who shaped their values and officiated at their life-cycle events.

How Dr. Neulander’s trial will affect his central New York community remains to be seen, although for now, the Forward reported this week, local leaders are calling his arrest “a major shock, especially given his activism in the Jewish community and in other humanitarian causes.”


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No, Presbyterian Divestment Is Not Anti-Semitic

By Elisheva Goldberg

Twitter

Yesterday, Jane Eisner, with whom I most often agree, wrote about the Presbyterian vote to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. These are three companies that reportedly participate in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by providing heavy equipment for the construction of the barrier-fence, the destruction of Palestinian homes and building settlement roads. The vote passed at this year’s biennial assembly by a slim margin of 310-303.

Eisner wrote about an implied argument of Netanyahu’s in a speech he gave to a group of journalists last Tuesday night at the first Jewish Media Summit. The Prime Minister, in a “snide tone” according to Eisner, had two suggestions for the Presbyterians whom he invited for a tour of the region (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq): “One, make sure the bus is an armor-plated bus, and two, don’t say you’re Christian.”

This implied that the Presbyterian decision to divest held Israel to an unfair double standard. For Eisner that meant something very stark and very disturbing: the Presbyterian vote, by virtue of the fact that it singled out Israel while ignoring the abuses perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors, particularly against Christians, was “biased, hypocritical and, yes, anti-Semitic.”

But I’m not sure it is. Far be it from me to claim expertise in identifying anti-Semitism, but it’s worth noting that the resolution includes a line that explicitly distances the Church from “an alignment with the overall strategy of global BDS,” a movement which can at times arguably be accused of real, historically recognizable anti-Semitic tropes (I personally do not support BDS for reasons explained here, here and here). And while I’ll admit that neither this distancing nor even explicit statements of philo-Semitism are any kind of proof — one can claim to love bananas and still hate bananas — I’d like to point out a few things about the perhaps more specific argument of “double standard” that the Presbyterians purportedly uphold.

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When Christians Fight Over Israel

By Adam Rovner

Choir members at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida / Getty Images

When Christians fight, Jews are collateral damage. The prize is Israel, or at least how Americans perceive Israel. That’s one lesson to take away from the Presbyterian Church-USA’s (PC-USA) decision on June 20 to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.

The debate preceding the vote at the PC-USA’s General Assembly was emotional, or at least as emotional as a debate can be that features speakers whose lilting cadence is reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. At one point, the bow-tie-wearing moderator sighed, “Guess I won’t be going to Israel next week.”

The divestment resolution passed by the slimmest of margins — the vote was 310-303. Shortly after, groups associated with the BDS movement trumpeted their achievement and a remarkably unified American Jewish establishment issued ritualized statements complete with finger-pointing and outrage. Even J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, Rachel Lerner, who attended the General Assembly to protest the resolution, expressed her exasperation with the PC-USA. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.

You’d think that this was the first time a church group had voted to use economic pressure to call attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s not. The Mennonite Central Committee voted to divest last year. The Quaker American Friends Service Committee did so even earlier. Nor does the PC-USA vote signal a wholesale divestment from Israel or announce the latest dubious success of the BDS movement. The final text of the PC-USA resolution explicitly rejects the “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.” The fact that the vote will be misconstrued by observers and manipulated by BDS partisans who lobbied PC-USA delegates doesn’t alter the narrow scope of the resolution. BDS supporters will not be cheered that the resolution reaffirms the Church’s longstanding support of a two-state solution and the importance of “a secure and universally recognized State of Israel.”

Nonetheless, David Brog, executive director of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), vented his frustration with the Presbyterians before the vote in an email statement to me: “The fact that they are focusing their attention on the one democracy in the Middle East…raises troubling questions.” Indeed there are troubling questions at the heart of the PC-USA’s decision, but those questions have as much to do with Christian sectarianism as with anti-Israel politics.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: divestment, Zionism, West Bank, Presbyterian, Palestine, Jews, Israel, BDS



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