Forward Thinking

Stop Comparing Jewish and Palestinian Refugees

By Michael Kaplan

Yemeni Jews get instruction at a center for immigrants in Israel. / Getty Images

As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grinds on, and the issue of Palestinian refugees continues to be a sticking point, some Jewish groups are arguing that these aren’t the only refugees we should be considering as the parties move forward in negotiations.

They’re calling on Western governments to recognize the more than 850,000 Jews pushed out of Arab countries in 1948 and the years that followed — and claiming that the Arab Jewish refugee issue should be tied to the fate of Palestinian refugees.

“Palestinians document every tent, well and thicket they had here but we left behind property worth billions of shekels,” Meir Kahlon, representing Libyan Jews, recently told the Israeli press. He argued that stolen property should be compensated for as a part of the ongoing U.S.-led negotiations.

And just a few weeks ago, six years after a similar resolution passed in the United States, activists pushing for recognition of Arab Jewish refugees enjoyed a big win in Canada, when pro-Israel Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to back a government committee recommendation to “recognize the experience” of Jewish refugees.

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Seeking Salvation? Dial 1 for Baruch Goldstein

By Sigal Samuel

Right-wing activist Baruch Marzel wipes his eyes at the grave of Baruch Goldstein. / Getty Images

These days, you can order almost anything by phone. Books. Movies. Food. Sex. Salvation?

Sure, why not. Salvation. And not just any old kind, but the kind you can only get by virtue of an appeal to one of Israel’s most notorious killers: Baruch Goldstein.

Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs 20 years ago, and to this day right-wing Jews still flock to his grave in nearby Kiryat Arba. They go there to pray, hoping that proximity to this “holy man” will help get their prayers through the pearly gates.

But since not everyone can afford to make that pilgrimage, Baruch Marzel — a right-wing activist and Goldstein devotee — has organized a telephone service allowing Jews to outsource their prayers, according to a Walla report cited today in Yeshiva World News.

Call Marzel’s service and you’ll be invited to “Push 1 for a Yeshua,” a salvation. That salvation, which will come by way of a prayer to be said on your behalf at Goldstein’s grave, includes everything from financial and romantic success to improved health and victory in court cases.

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Netanyahu's Fake Jerusalem Stalls Peace

By Emily L. Hauser

Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images

Last week we learned that Israel’s government is advancing plans for another 2,269 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; 144 are planned for the Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Har Homa.

Discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to focus on minutiae, or the broad sweep of an entire century; our frames of reference rarely allow us to discern patterns within the broader picture. In geopolitics, however, the patterns found in any nation’s behavior are often determinative – such as, for instance, the pattern we find expressed in Har Homa.

Har Homa is located in what is inaccurately called (by everyone, including me) “East Jerusalem.” The inaccuracy becomes clear as soon as you look at a map: Har Homa is actually south of the Green Line that demarcates internationally recognized Israel from the West Bank; it’s southwest of the Old City. Much of the Palestinian land that Israel has annexed in its decades-long push to turn what was once tiny Jewish Jerusalem into a behemoth of land and resources is east of the historically Jewish part of the city, but much of it is not. Another well-known settlement neighborhood, Pisgat Ze’ev, is to the north, as is French Hill. A more accurate term would be “Palestinian Jerusalem” or, in the case of Har Homa (which was never any part of anyone’s Jerusalem) “the West Bank.”

Every settlement is a political statement – “here we sit, we will not be moved” – but Har Homa’s is particularly blunt: Established in 1997, four years after the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel’s then-Prime Minister was very clear about Har Homa’s purpose: “The battle for Jerusalem has begun. We are now in the thick of it, and I do not intend to lose.” Who was that Prime Minister? Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: West Bank, Palestinian, John Kerry, Jerusalem, Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu

How I Built My Jewish Charity Database

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Kurt Hoffman

Last summer, I hit upon a way to measure Jewish institutional power: Using data from the IRS, I would gather financial information on every single Jewish organization that files a tax return.

My first story based on that project is printed in this issue of the Forward. This addendum, which is only for readers with a high tolerance for boring data stuff, describes how I built my database.

I started with two files, posted online by the IRS last spring, that contained data from all tax returns filed by tax-exempt groups in the 2012 calendar year. The IRS posted one set of data extracted from Form 990s, which are filed by larger tax-exempt groups, and another from Form 990-EZs, which are filed by smaller groups. I chose not to include a third dataset extracted from Form 990-PFs, which are filed by private foundations, as those groups are generally harder to classify as Jewish or not-Jewish.

The Form 990s and Form 990-EZs ask different questions, and the datasets provided by the IRS were structured differently. I mapped the two datasets onto each other so that they could be considered together. Then, using another dataset from the IRS — the Exempt Organizations Business Master File Extract, which includes information like names and addresses on all tax-exempt groups registered with the IRS — I searched for Jewish organizations.

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Why a Sicilian Nun’s Song Moved Me as a Jew

By Sigal Samuel

Left: Ophir Ben-Shetreet on Israel’s ‘The Voice.’ Right: Sister Cristina on Italy’s ‘The Voice.’

I’m not usually the type of person who goes in for reality TV shows. Especially not when they revolve around singing competitions, and especially not when one of their singers’ performances becomes an overnight Internet sensation, to be endlessly posted and reposted on social media.

So why did I feel compelled to watch a Sicilian nun singing a song by Alicia Keys on Italy’s ‘The Voice’ about a dozen times over the course of this weekend?

After giving it some thought, I realized it wasn’t the TV lover or even the music lover in me that drove my obsessive replaying of this video. It was the Jew — or, more specifically, the formerly Orthodox Jewish woman — that couldn’t resist its charm.

Strange as it may sound, watching 25-year-old Sister Cristina Scuccia belt it out on stage while a cluster of habit-clad nuns cheered her on from the sidelines, I couldn’t help but do a simple thought experiment: What if this were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman instead? Would she dare to sing like that in front of a mixed audience of men and women, knowing that her performance — her intimate voice — would be broadcast to millions more around the world? And would her ultra-Orthodox female friends stand there, cheering her on?

No way, I thought. Not in a million years. The reason why can be explained in two words: Kol Isha.

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Harvard Group Was Right To Visit Arafat's Grave

By Elisheva Goldberg

Harvard students pose at Yasser Arafat’s grave. / Twitter

Last Monday, the Harvard College Israel Trek went to the Muqata’a, the offices of the Palestinian government, in Ramallah. While they were there, the group took a picture with Yasser Arafat’s grave, which was inevitably Tweeted by the group’s tour guide. The photo was picked up by two far-right blogs — one Jewish, one not — and then nailed down by the Jewish Press, which ran the provocative headline “Jewish Donors Funded Harvard Students’ Trip to Arafat’s Grave.”

The headline, of course, is ridiculous: The family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies funded a wide-ranging ten-day trip all over Israel for 50 of Harvard’s best and brightest, during which they spent half a day in Ramallah and 30 seconds for a photo shoot at Arafat’s grave.

But that’s not the point. The point is that allowing students to engage in conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Palestinians themselves is still taboo among the American Jewish establishment. And it’s high time that changed.

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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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