Forward Thinking

Did Israeli Conversions Just Get a Lot Easier?

By Nathan Jeffay

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images

Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.

Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.

Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”

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Trading a Palestinian Flag for a Kid's Freedom?

By Emily L. Hauser

IDF soldiers order Shadi Sidr to remove his Palestinian flag in Hebron. / YouTube

Last week I wrote about that wacky video of a Hebron settler climbing onto a Palestinian’s roof to steal his flag, getting stuck, and calmly telling the Palestinian that the roof, house, and everything within shouting distance actually belonged to the settler – that is: Israel. I posited that had the situation been reversed – had the Palestinian climbed onto the settler’s roof instead – the Palestinian would now be dead.

Rather than, say, arrest the settler for trespassing, though, soldiers responded to this absurd series of events by attempting to browbeat Shadi Sidr, the Palestinian in question, into handing over his flag. At various points, various soldiers insisted that flying the Palestinian flag was forbidden and that Sidr would be taken into custody if he didn’t take his down, but when he refused, at least one of them had the good sense to understand that continuing the farce in front of cameras was not a good idea. Later it transpired that the Israeli military in fact has no anti-flag regulation.

And that, you would think, was that.

Or, at any rate, you might think that was that if you had no experience with Israel and the occupation. Because of course that was not that. That was not even remotely that.

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Will Settlers and Arabs Unite To Tank Peace?

By Nathan Jeffay

John Kerry / Getty Images

As Jerusalem and Ramallah wait anxiously to see the framework peace agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is drafting, large numbers of Israelis are ready to take matters into their own hands if they don’t like what they see.

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute just asked Israeli citizens whether, if a framework deal goes against their political position but gets approval from the government and passes a referendum, “will you then accept the framework or will you act to prevent it from being implemented?”

Some 24.8% of respondents said that they would act to prevent its implementation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a quarter of Israelis say they would work against any peace deal, but rather a quarter of Israelis would work against a deal if they object to its terms. But it is still a high figure that points to a defiant spirit in relation to the peace process.

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Peace Now Video Advances Mockery, Not Peace

By Mira Sucharov

A new plea for Israelis to push toward an agreement with the Palestinians has been launched in the form of a Purim video sponsored by the Israeli group Peace Now. Called “It’s fun to be a rightist” and set to the song “Got my mind set on you,” the video is an unsubtle sendup of the settlers and their Knesset backers.

With the Israeli peace group already marginalized in mainstream Israeli affairs, deciding to openly mock their opposition is a risky strategy. Looking closer, though, it’s a message that may serve to skewer the whole nature of domestic ideological clashes in a conflict zone.

The video opens with Yossi Belin — now visibly older than he appeared during the height of his peace process involvement in the early 1990s — getting dressed up as a West Bank settler for a television spot. With an army-issue parka, wearing socks and sandals and a knitted kippah, Beilin-as-settler exclaims, “Isn’t it fun for me that there’s no partner, and that the Arabs understand only force and bombs! Because otherwise, what would I have to scare you with? Monsters?”

“It’s fun, convenient and comfortable to be racist and destructive. It’s fun to be a rightist. So what if it’s inflammatory and beyond the realm of reason?” the jingle continues.

The “rightists” are spoofed with phrases such as, “You built our new highways, and gave up on an apartment so I can sit here [in my balcony in the West Bank]. Nice, isn’t it?” And “if you dare speak of peace, we will legislate against free thought.”

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Were Students Punished for Protesting Israel?

By Gabi Kirk and Joey Morris

A member of Students for Justice in Palestine protests in Washington, D.C. / Getty Images

Debate about Israel and Palestine on college campuses is coming to a head this week, with over 200 activists expected to rally in solidarity with Northeastern University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on Tuesday.

Northeastern formally suspended SJP last week after the chapter distributed 600 “mock eviction notices” to campus dorms. These notices, similar to those distributed by SJPs across the country and clearly marked as fake, provided facts about Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes.

Northeastern SJP has been subject to an opposition campaign from right-wing pro-Israel groups for months. In November 2013, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) claimed students and faculty reported “virulent and intimidating anti-Israelism, or even anti-Semitism” at Northeastern. But the ADL and CJP’s own words indicate these anti-Semitism allegations are not so cut and dry.

Everyone has the right to criticize a foreign government when it breaks international law, even if others have deep emotional ties to it. Students do not have the right to incite violence against others based on religion or nationality. This raises the question: do SJP’s actions actually threaten harm to Jewish students and faculty? In other words, is SJP anti-Semitic?

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If a Palestinian Did This, He'd Be Dead

By Emily L. Hauser

In an imagined juxtaposition, the Hebron settler meets Fiddler on the Roof. / Richard Goldwasser

If you’re online and follow news out of Israel, you’ve probably already seen or at least heard of that wild-and-crazy video of a Hebron settler try to steal a Palestinian flag off a Palestinian roof.

The guy gets caught on some barbed wire and then — even as his compatriots shout abuse (“you son of a whore!”) at Shadi Sidr, the man who lives in the house, and even as Sidr tries to help free the settler from his predicament (while also attempting to reassure onlookers: “It’s okay, don’t worry!”) — the settler explains, with almost otherworldly calm, that in fact “This roof, this is my roof. This is all mine. The whole country is mine. The whole state is mine.” Soon after, soldiers show up and threaten not the settler but the homeowner with arrest, demanding that he take down his flag. Crazy, right? Wild!

UPDATE: Palestinian agrees to take down flag after Israelis agree to release his neighbor

Here’s what nobody seems to have noticed though: If the shoe had been on the other foot — that is to say: If one of Hebron’s 170,000 Palestinians had tried to steal one of the many, many Israeli flags belonging to any of the 500-some-odd settlers whose presence dictates every single detail of Hebronian life — that Palestinian would have been shot. That Palestinian would be dead.

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Game Over for Religious Balance in Beit Shemesh?

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

In a rerun of a scandal-ridden poll in the fall, Beit Shemesh has reelected its ultra-Orthodox mayor. Rarely has a political campaign pitted Haredim and others against each other to the extent seen in this Israeli city.

The original election in October was fought as a battle between two rival visions for the city. Beit Shemesh has become heavily Haredi, and the Haredi agenda is manifest across the public domain. When I visited for this article in January, I even witnessed signs by religious institutions asking women to cross over to the sidewalk on the other side of the street to avoid disturbing men. Individuals put them up, but the municipality had failed to take them down.

Moshe Abutbul of the Haredi Shas party won the election then, but the poll was marred by illegal activity, violence and even voter fraud, and the court ordered a rerun. The rerun this week resulted in another Abutbul victory.

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EBSCO Backtracks On ‘Anti-Jewish’ BDS Index

By Sigal Samuel

Pro-Palestinian activists hold a banner reading ‘Boycott Israel’ in Paris in 2010. / Getty Images

Score this one in the victory column for BDS supporters and, much more broadly, for anyone who believes we should use language accurately — especially when we’re dealing with loaded terms like “anti-Semitism.”

EBSCO Information Services, a major provider of library resources and online research databases, raised eyebrows when it initially classified articles about BDS — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — under the heading “Anti-Jewish Boycotts.” After some sharp-eyed EBSCO users took to Twitter on Sunday and Monday to complain about the classification, the company acknowledged its mistake and changed the indexing to “Boycotts.”

It’s not hard to see why people were upset to discover that an American research database was defining BDS as “anti-Jewish.” That definition buys into the popular but deeply flawed rhetoric that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown fond of promoting, and that other Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders have grown fond of parroting. It’s a definition that assumes all Israel boycotts are inherently anti-Semitic — a logical fallacy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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3 Dangerous Bills That Will Rock Israel This Week

By Brent E. Sasley

Getty Images

This is a big week in Israeli politics. Three sets of bills are being introduced into the Knesset for their second and third readings, and all of them have far-reaching consequences. Though there has been much handwringing over them, over fears that Israeli democracy is being ruined, there is no doubt that the Israeli electoral and governance systems need to be fixed. Israel has had 33 governments since 1949 — an average of about one every two years. This makes for unstable government, increases coalition infighting, and undermines coherent policymaking. Still, the manner in which these bills are being passed is what makes them problematic.

In reality, two of the three bills are actually packages of bills, some of them long and detailed. Most contain some positive changes, but because they were passed relatively quickly and without as much opposition input as necessary, without a broader, comprehensive package of reforms, and because they were essentially trade-offs between various parties that make up the coalition (except Hatnua, which just wanted to remain in the government) they will have an overall negative effect on Israeli governance.

1. The Governance Bill

Just passed was the governance bill, comprised of an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government and a regular bill. What’s positive about this bill is the limitation on the number of ministers to 19, and no ministers-without-portfolio. This will reduce bloating of the government and make it a little more difficult to pass time-wasting no-confidence votes.

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5 Reasons You Should Talk to BDS Supporters

By Jay Michaelson

Getty Images

Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”

Here are five answers.

1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.

Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.

2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.

I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.

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How 'De-Arabizing' Christians Serves Israel

By Emily L. Hauser

Palestinian Orthodox Christians at the 2013 Palm Sunday procession in Gaza City / Getty Images

Last week the Knesset voted to force yet another division onto the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians are already divided in a myriad of ways: There are those who live in the Diaspora and are divided there, from America’s well-fed middle class to Syria’s hungry refugee camps; there are those who live in the West Bank, and those in Gaza, each under a different kind of military occupation; there are Palestinians who live in Israel’s capital city but aren’t given Israeli citizenship, and those who live elsewhere in Israel and do have citizenship (if often of a second-class variety); there are Bedouin Palestinians who have citizenship and are even drafted to the army, but if anything, are treated even less equally than their non-nomadic Palestinian brethren; and long ago, Israel decided that those living within Israel’s borders aren’t even Palestinian: They’re Arabs. Israeli Arabs.

Last Monday, by a vote of 31-6 (out of a total 120 Members of Knesset, so one has to wonder where everyone else was), Israel’s legislative body passed a law the ultimate goal of which is, according to its sponsor, “to distinguish between Muslim and Christian Arab citizens and to heighten involvement of Christians in Israeli society.”

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Revenge May Drive Haredi Settlement Boycott

By Nathan Jeffay

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images

A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.

In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.

Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.

So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?

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Will Israel's Haredi Draft Bill Empower Women?

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.

The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.

The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.

But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.

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Handing the Western Wall to the Judaizers

By Emily L. Hauser

Wikipedia

Quick, if you’re a settler-dominated government uninterested in sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinian people, what’s a good way to telegraph your position without raising a ruckus?

Well, one good way would be to turn over a sizable portion of Judaism’s holiest site to the management of a maximalist settler group — which is precisely what Israel’s government is about to do.

Haaretz reported on Monday that settlement organization Elad—City of David Foundation stands to be granted the management of the Western Wall’s southern section — not the section most people visit, but the part to the south of the rampart up to the Temple Mount itself, where the Jerusalem Archaeological Park/Davidson Center are located.

Elad is best known, perhaps, for its management of the City of David (Ir David) archeological excavations, which it has turned into a right-wing propaganda center, eliding Palestinian history in the city, ignoring findings that don’t support a Jewish-only narrative, and in the process of expanding its work, damaging (or simply claiming) the property of Palestinians living in the surrounding neighborhood, Silwan.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Western Wall, Silwan, Palestinians, Kotel, John Kerry, Jerusalem, Israel, Elad

The Lesson of Angela Merkel's Hitler Mustache

By Sigal Samuel

Benjamin Netanyahu casts Hitler mustache on Angela Merkel / Marc Israel Sellem

Ah, the hazards of light and shadow.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at a press conference today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he didn’t mean to point his finger in a way that would cast upon her face a distinctly Hitler-mustache-like shadow. But point he did — and Jerusalem Post photographer Marc Israel Sellem captured the moment in a photo that’s now gone viral.

The image has unleashed a tidal wave of laughter, praise and puns. BuzzFeed ran it under the tongue-in-cheek headline “There Is Nothing Strange About This Photo of Angela Merkel — And You’re Crazy If You Think Otherwise.” Gawker’s headline joked that “Angela Merkel Did Nazi This One Coming,” engendering a slew of comments like “Something’s not Reich here” and “Heil get you every time.” Inhabitants of the Twittersphere have been busy nominating it for “Picture of the Year,” while the photographer’s personal Facebook page has been inundated with back-slapping comments from friends (“Congratulations!” “Bravo!”).

But the photographer himself, and his employer, seem to be taking an altogether more bashful approach. Sellem initially uploaded the photo to his Facebook page, but then deleted it, according to BuzzFeed. The Jerusalem Post has said that it will not use the photo, with reporter Lahav Harkov taking care to clarify that the image did not (despite appearances) get posted to the Jerusalem Post’s Facebook page, and tweeting in quick succession:

There’s a whiff of embarrassment and defensiveness about these remarks — and that’s probably just as it should be. Looking at this photo, you can’t help but laugh. But you also, well, kind of cringe.

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British Jews: Showing Green Line Is Not 'Insane'

By Jordan Marsh and Jess Weiss

Young British Jews who support the Sign on the Green Line Campaign. / YouTube

Throughout our history, young Jewish voices have played a vital role in shaping the Jewish story. Young people lead and teach other young people and take on significant leadership roles. Youth empowerment is highly valued, and it was with this feeling of empowerment that a group of 16 young British Jews — of which we are a part — stood up and asked British Jewish communal organizations to “Sign on the Green Line.”

Education is a core Jewish value, and we are simply asking for a fair and balanced education in regards to Israel. We, the members of the Sign on the Green Line Campaign, are asking for Jewish schools, synagogues, youth movements and Jewish communal organizations to only use maps that show the 1949 armistice lines. Why? Because we believe that our community is presenting us with inaccurate maps of Israel, which are ill-informing us as to the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Jewish community often worries about young Jews and their lack of Israel involvement. But how can we possibly expect young people to get involved with a country about which we do not properly teach them?

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Israeli 'Semi-Citizenship'? No Thanks!

By Brent E. Sasley

Getty Images

Yesterday in these pages Mira Sucharov explored the concept of qualified Diaspora Jewish citizenship in Israel. She was responding to Naftali Bennett’s floating of the idea (he called it “semi-citizenship”), but she seems open to the notion. However vague, both Bennett and Sucharov meant more than just the ability of ex-pats to vote in “homeland” elections.

Talk about dual loyalty. I cannot think of a worse idea for either Israel or Diaspora Jewish communities.

We Diaspora Jews like to think our connection with Israel is special, outside the normal bounds of host-kin country relationships that mark all other ethno-national communities. (Israeli Jews hardly think of the connection at all.) Our bond, we contend, is of an ancient people committed to a particular piece of territory by history and religion. Jews revived their old sovereignty by dint of blood, sweat and tears — including the blood, sweat and tears of Diaspora Jews who went to Mandatory Palestine and early Israel to volunteer in agricultural work, industry and war. Though the specific nature of our activities vis-à-vis Israel have changed over the years, we still see ourselves as intimately connected to the land and to its (Jewish) people.

But we aren’t special in this regard. Diaspora Armenians, Palestinians and Greeks — to name only a few — feel a similar connection to their mythological-historical homelands and kin networks. If every Diasporic community — most of which, like the Jewish Diaspora, were born in “foreign” lands — is allowed to claim citizenship and participate in the homeland’s politics, there would be no need for separate states. And again, Jews aren’t so special that only they would be considered for such status.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: dual loyalty, semi-citizenship, Naftali Bennett, Jewish, Israel, Diaspora

Haredi Draft Refusers May Go to Jail Smiling

By Nathan Jeffay

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer to the Israeli Army’s Nahal Haredi brigade. / Getty Images

Plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men to Israel’s army are moving ahead — complete with a surprise.

There has been lots of tough talk regarding the need for universal service, but there was a widespread expectation that the government would stop short of criminalizing yeshiva students who refuse to serve. However, yesterday a committee formatting the draft law decided that draft refusers could face jail.

This has proved intensely controversial — and not only with Haredim, who are determined that they won’t be forced into the army. That’s because it raises a question mark about how realistic it really is to get Haredim into uniform.

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How Not To Brainstorm the Jewish Future

By Mira Sucharov

Supporters of Naftali Bennett celebrate in Tel Aviv in 2013. / Getty Images

When I heard that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency were spearheading a three-day “Online Brainstorming Marathon to Plan the Future of the Jewish People,” the international crowdsourcing initiative instantly grabbed my attention.

Partly, it was because I’d heard that Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett has been working with the Jewish Agency to launch a global dialogue that will, I believe, promote a healthy shift: from viewing Diaspora Jews simply as bankrollers of Israel, to seeing how Israel and the Diaspora can help each other in securing their respective and mutual identities. The “Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative,” which kicked off last November, will see the Israeli government earmark 1.4 billion towards this goal. More recently, Bennett even went so far as to float the idea of granting Diaspora Jews “semi-citizenship.”

The other reason I wanted to join the Jews around the world who have been participating in this online forum for the past three days had to do with something I’d written years ago. In a column about attending a Tel Aviv peace rally, I had puzzled over the question of whether or not participating in such protest marches was my right as a non-citizen. I suggested that perhaps we Diaspora Jews can consider ourselves quasi-citizens of Israel as we engage and wrestle with the Jewish state and its policies.

So I went sleuthing online, where I eventually found the Securing the Jewish Future discussion board. After signing in with my name and photo, I was invited to watch several minute-long, upbeat videos on topics including Israel and peoplehood, Israel on campus, Jewish engagement, experiencing life in Israel, immersive experience, and serving the global good.

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BDS Is Not Anti-Semitism

By Emily L. Hauser

Pro-Palestinians activists demonstrate in 2010 in Paris, France. / Getty Images

No. It’s not.

The Prime Minister of Israel and the Grand Poobah of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Marching Band can say it as much and as loudly as they want. But the BDS movement is not, as Grand Poobah Malcolm Hoenlein put it yesterday, the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” And despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, when “people on the soil of Europe [talk] about the boycott of Jews,” they are not “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

No. Stop it.

Though I boycott the settlements, I don’t personally support BDS, for reasons that Bernard Avishai once expressed perfectly in The Nation, and I do not doubt that some members of that movement are unrepentant anti-Semites — just as some members of the Greater Israel movement are unrepentant racists and Islamophobes. Yesh ve’yesh, as we say in Hebrew. There are all kinds.

But there is simply nothing inherent to a call to boycott/divest from/sanction the modern nation state of Israel that is — inherently — an expression of (and here I quote the dictionary) “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: occupation, boycott, Malcolm Hoenlein, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, BDS




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