The former Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber in central Rome. / Getty Images
Should Jews living in the Diaspora feel ashamed of being, well, Jews living in the Diaspora? A growing number of European Jews, it seems, believe the answer is yes. But when did we start buying into this narrative?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because of a debate that’s going on here in Italy. It has to do with the opportunity to build a Holocaust museum. A very well known conservative pundit, Giuliano Ferrara, recently criticized the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, who dared to protest the fact that Italy doesn’t have such a museum. Ferrara suggested Jews worry less about “the anti-Semitism of the past” and focus on more urgent issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
What struck me most was the reaction I saw in the Italian Jewish press and online forums. A number of people sided with the right-wing commentator, claiming that building a memorial for the Holocaust would actually be inappropriate. Why? Because it would promote a Diasporic idea of Judaism!
Emanuele Segre Amar, a Jewish leader who serves as deputy chair of the Jewish community of Turin, went so far as to claim that Holocaust memorials “promote the stereotype of the Jew as victim, docile, weak, assimilated and Diasporic.”
It was one of the most moving moments I can remember in Israeli television. Last night, Israel’s most popular human export crowned the country’s most adored import.
Supermodel Bar Refaeli, whose career took off in foreign fashion centers, delivered the best imaginable news to a woman who unexpectedly found fame far from home, in Israel.
Hosting the first series of Israeli X-Factor, Refaeli informed Rose Fostanes, 47, that she had been voted the winner. Fostanes arrived in Israel four years ago to work as a caregiver and cleaner for the elderly, but found herself in a much more high-profile role as soon as she auditioned for X-Factor and captured the hearts of the nation.
If viewers were asked before the first show to describe what they thought the winner would be like, they would have never described someone like Fostanes. Not only is she non-Jewish and non-Israeli. She also hardly speaks Hebrew, is far older than the average contestant, has a far curvier figure than many women in music, and is a lesbian in a long-term relationship. It was poignant that her winning performance was “My Way,” the song popularized by Frank Sinatra.
Aerial photo of York University, Toronto, in 2010. / City of Toronto
The ongoing dilemma of accommodating religious beliefs in a liberal and multicultural society is again glaringly apparent. News reports reveal that at York University, a large, publicly-funded post-secondary institution in Toronto, a student in a sociology course requested that he be exempt from required group work. His religion forbids him from “mingling with women,” he explained.
Over the ensuing days, the dean granted the request, the professor flouted the decision (insisting that doing otherwise would make him an “accessory to sexism”), the student complied with the professor’s ruling, and the dean’s decision has since been pilloried by politicians and public commentators. In a rare show of solidarity and non-partisanship, representatives of all three of Canada’s major political parties expressed dismay over the student’s request and the university’s decision to grant it, citing Canadian values of gender equality.
The media has not disclosed the student’s name or his religion. But as an observer and analyst of Jewish affairs both in North America and in Israel, I can’t help but reflect on current challenges in the ultra-Orthodox community in North America and especially in Israel. In that light, it soon becomes apparent that amid the debates over this particular Canadian case, at least one important point is being omitted.
Scarlett Johansson poses for photographers on November 10, 2013, in Rome. / Getty Images
Scarlett Johansson signed on this week as the new “global ambassador” for the West Bank-based Israeli company SodaStream and will be featured in the company’s 2014 Super Bowl advertisement. For SodaStream, this deal makes sense: Johansson is remarkably sexy, eco-friendly, loves the product, and happens to be Jewish. It makes particular sense since the company’s stock recently took a hit and its image has been tarnished by the fact that its factory is located in the Mishor Adumim industrial park in Israel’s occupied territories.
But for Johansson, who last October mentioned to Harper’s Bazaar that she might be interested in a political career, this deal makes a lot less sense. In fact, it may have forced her into her first public stance on foreign policy — one that is way outside the official American consensus.
This 29-year-old actress is no stranger to politics. Johansson campaigned for Kerry in 2004 and more heavily for Obama in 2008 and 2012. She spent time boosting the youth vote in Iowa in 2008, did a short campus speaking tour, and co-hosted a fundraiser featuring pro-Obama clothing and accessories. She even appeared in the Will.I.Am song “Yes We Can” inspired by Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire primary speech. In her unpretentious 2012 DNC speech, she said that she was there to “use whatever attention” she was “fortunate enough to receive to shed the spotlight on what’s at stake for all of us.” But with SodaStream, her considerable attention-getting powers are being used for something far less admirable: to advertise for a company located in a place President Obama and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton have called “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace” and a “cause for concern.”
If today has proven one thing, it is that time can be a healer here in Israel.
Imagine that Ariel Sharon had died the day after his stroke in 2006, instead of clinging on to life, unable to communicate. On the personal level, it would have probably been far easier for his family. But on the national level, his death would have most likely been a highly divisive affair.
The year before Sharon’s stroke, he had delivered a harsh sentence to the very same settlement that he built — he evacuated the Gaza settlements, and some in the West Bank. For settlers, this was an act of betrayal so great that some later composed hymns of mourning for recital on the Fast of Av, along with those commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and the Holocaust.
Anger about the disengagement hasn’t subsided. In a roundabout way the fact that it happened makes the settlement movement more aggressive, more on-its-guard, and parts of it more violent (the disengagement prompted the “price tag” ethos), every year. But it isn’t synonymous with Sharon in the same way as it was in 2005/6. Years of silence on Sharon’s part have allowed even his strongest critics from the Israeli right to find something to celebrate from his life.
A swastika symbol painted on the wall of a synagogue in Petah Tikva, Israel. / Getty Images
Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted for a bill yesterday that, if it passes three readings in the Knesset, would impose penalties on those who use the term “Nazi” as a comparison, employ Nazi symbols, or call in some way for the work the Nazis began (killing the Jews) to be finished. Those who break the law could face a 100,000 shekel fine and six months in prison. But while Nazi comparisons are abhorrent, the law itself is dangerous and anti-democratic.
The bill — a second effort after a similar bill was proposed in 2012 — has broad backing for now. It was sponsored by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnua, while some members in Labor have in the past expressed support. And we can easily discern worthy motives behind it. Settlers fighting forced evacuation by the state have used Nazi symbols to claim the government is as evil as Hitler. In 2011, to protest the Haredi draft, several Orthodox demonstrators dressed in uniforms that resembled concentration camp clothing, complete with yellow star. Civil dialogue is difficult under these conditions, to say nothing of the deadly atmosphere that can be created when these accusations are carried too far — for example, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
And yes, comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is ridiculous and immoral. There simply hasn’t been any group or regime like the Nazis, who didn’t just torture and murder millions of people, but created the most efficient systems and organizations for doing so. The Holocaust isn’t the only case of mass killing in human history, but it is unique.
Moreover, because the term is associated with such horrific and sadistic acts of violence, calling your enemies or opponents “Nazis” obscures the real issues at stake, because of the emotional reactions and overly-sensationalist assumptions the name evokes. This, in turn, makes it that much harder to construct policies to resolve the problem or conflict at hand.
But Nazi comparisons are not for the Israeli state to forbid. Doing so only serves as a restriction on what citizens can say about their country and opens the door to further limitations on their freedom of expression.
This week, all of Israel and not a few world leaders gathered to mark the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Cartoonist Eli Valley offers his own unique graphic take on the much-memorialized man.
I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.
The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.
The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.
Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.
This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.
The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.
Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.
A life-size art installation of Ariel Sharon is displayed in 2010 in Tel Aviv. / Getty Images
Ariel Sharon, the 11th Prime Minister of Israel, has died, and arrangements are being made for his funeral. The question that looms large now is who will watch him reach his final resting place and who won’t.
Sharon’s term as prime minister ended suddenly on January 4, 2006, when he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that put him in a coma. Sharon’s reputation was at a high — months earlier he had taken what many world leaders considered a bold step, in the form of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He was the staunch rightist who made the most significant concession of recent years, bolting Likud and setting up a new party, Kadima.
It’s almost certain that had he died back then, the world’s great and good would have flocked to Israel to pay respects to an incumbent prime minister — one of significant note.
Normally, when a sports team decides to redesign its uniforms, the decision isn’t considered a major news story. But when Chile’s El Palestino soccer club began wearing jerseys that show the entire map of Israel as Palestine, it met with an intense Jewish backlash — and it’s easy to see why.
By using a one-state map of Palestine to replace the numeral one, the new jerseys effectively erase Israel, making it seem like the state doesn’t exist. Of course Israelis and Jews worldwide would take umbrage at this. And, predictably, statements condemning the jerseys poured in this week from all the usual suspects.
According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s January 6 statement, the jerseys are not only “inciting hatred among the large Arab community in Chile.” They are also “fomenting a terrorist intent.” The Anti-Defamation League added on January 8 that the one-state map constitutes “inappropriate political imagery” and a “clear delegitimization of Israel.” Both organizations called for the imposition of penalties on El Palestino soccer club.
For these groups to take issue with imagery that depicts Israeli and Palestinian land as a single state makes perfect sense. But El Palestino isn’t the only group to do so: the Jewish National Fund also favors one-state imagery. Their iconic blue donation boxes, ubiquitous in Jewish schools across the globe, feature a map depicting Israel without the Green Line. That means the JNF doesn’t distinguish Israel from the Palestinian-populated West Bank — even though the Israeli government itself officially endorsed the idea of two states in 2009.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has been called many things, but never a prophetess. Until yesterday, when she was given prophetic credentials in the magazine section of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.
The accolade comes from an interview with her sister, Jerusalem-based Reform rabbi (and one of the Forward 50 list of important Jews) Susan Silverman, which is the cover item and a two-page feature in yesterday’s edition.
“I didn’t say she’s a Biblical prophet but she continues that path,” said Susan Silverman, suggesting that her perceptiveness about society and powers of observation make her, in a sense, prophetic. The prophecy theme provided the headline for the article: “Sister of the prophetess.”
As the controversy rages over Hillel’s Israel guidelines — which delineate which groups it will partner with or allow to participate in Hillel-sponsored events — observers have started to wonder what effect all this will have on American Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. The issue, though, is about more than just defining Hillel; it’s also about defining the issue itself.
We use language not just to describe things, but to give ideas emotional meanings. People, including policymakers, respond to specific discursive cues. When these cues are associated with a particular meaning or emotional state that matters to the listeners, they are more likely to respond in the way the speaker intends.
So, for example, part of the reason Jewish groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship (think AIPAC) have become successful is because of the rhetoric they use in their public statements and private conversations. The U.S. sees itself as a superior form of democracy, a beacon of light and a “good” country. Lobbyists who can tie into those feelings — by using key words like “shared values,” “democracy,” “individual rights,” “common Judeo-Christian heritage,” and “common strategic interests” — can make a stronger case for their demands.
Similarly, when it comes to Hillel, the fight is really about how to define what “pro-Israel” means, a controversy that has flared up in recent years, spurred by the battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and questions about whether the U.S. Jewish community should pressure Israel on peace talks or not. But in this case, Hillel’s own guidelines have left the door open to multiple interpretations of what “pro-Israel” means.
Palestinians protest on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2013. / Getty Images
In 2014, commemoration of the First World War on the one-hundredth anniversary of its commencement will be inescapable. So, too, will the debate over the merits of the miserable and bloody conflict that took the lives of over 16 million soldiers and civilians, crippled an entire generation of Europeans, and begat the infamous Treaty of Versailles.
In the United Kingdom, this conversation has already begun and has spiralled off so as to encompass another product of the Great War: the Balfour Declaration. At the end of last year, the Palestine Return Centre launched in Parliament a campaign called, “Britain, It’s Time To Apologize,” requesting an international voice to call on Her Majesty’s Government “to apologize to the Palestinian people, for either wilfully or carelessly failing to protect their human and political rights, while under British protection.”
Leaving aside the Palestinians for a moment, in the first instance any campaign against the Balfour Declaration must be treated with great suspicion. After all, that declaration was more than a government memorandum. It was the first declaration of its kind from a world power in support of the Zionist idea of Jewish autonomy and self-rule in Palestine.
More importantly, it was a legal instrument, incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine ratified by the League of Nations in July 1922, in which it was stated that Britain as overseer would be responsible for fostering political, administrative, and economic conditions that would secure “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”
(JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America is standing behind Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., in his dispute with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — sort of.
Last week, the Rabbinate for the first time offered its reasons for deciding several months ago that Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and RCA member, wasn’t kosher enough to affirm that a Diaspora Jew seeking to marry in Israel was indeed Jewish (Israel requires that such people provide a letter from their local Orthodox rabbi affirming they are Jewish and single).
The reason? Well-known American Orthodox rabbis, including members of the RCA, had told the Rabbinate that Weiss — spiritual leader of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains Orthodox female clergy — had a “questionable” commitment to Jewish law, or halachah.
Last Friday, the RCA – America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — issued a statement saying it wasn’t the RCA that had cast aspersions on Weiss: “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.”
But the RCA statement did not contain any expression of support for Weiss or endorsement of his commitment to halachah.
So on Monday I phoned up RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, to ask him whether or not the RCA stands by Weiss.
“We stand by his letters,” Dratch said.
But do you stand by him? I asked.
“He is a person who is committed to halachah, although there are many within the RCA that do not support every halachic position that he takes,” Dratch said. “Rabbi Weiss has done many wonderful things and continues to do many wonderful things for the Jewish people, but not everything he does is agreed to by members of the Rabbinical Council of America and so this is an ongoing discussion and debate.”
The debates, he said, concern Weiss’ ordination of women, among other things.
“There’s no official RCA position with regard to some of these matters,” Dratch said. “A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that.”
Dratch called Weiss a “person of integrity.”
As for the dispute with the Israeli Rabbinate — which involves about a dozen other Orthodox rabbis who over the last few months have had their letters suddenly rejected by the Rabbinate — Dratch said his office is in constant contact with the Israelis.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to come to an understanding in the very near future about how to process these letters,” Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”
A nephew of a murdered Israeli soldier protests a Palestinian prisoner release. / Getty Images
For 26 Palestinians, this weekend will be the first one in decades spent at home with their families. They were released on Monday as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The discourse over prisoner releases tends to be dominated by the big questions about their desirability, morality, wisdom, and also the aftermath. Israel is understandably perturbed that the prisoners, many of whom were involved in serious acts of terrorism, were greeted as heroes by its negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority.
But this release also raises a more basic question. All of those released were imprisoned before the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, and for a clear reason. Releasing prisoners from before the major change that Oslo brought about in Palestinian politics is less emotionally charged than releasing terrorists from a later period. The Second Intifada, for example, is far more raw in the Israeli psyche than the First Intifada.
Pro-Israel marchers walk along Fifth Avenue on May 5, 2002 in New York City. / Getty Images
While Americans continue to hold long-time allies like Great Britain and Canada in high esteem, they are pretty divided as to how they feel about some of the government’s other key allies — like Israel.
A recently published Pew Research Center poll reveals that 61% of Americans view Israel favorably, which puts it on par with Brazil in terms of likability, but lagging behind Germany (67%), Japan (70%), Great Britain (79%) and Canada (81%) among the 12 countries surveyed.
That level of support is not incredibly low, though perhaps disconcerting for Israel’s more zealous advocates. Just over a quarter of those surveyed (26%) said that they view Israel unfavorably, and presumably the jury was still out for the rest of those surveyed.
But when accounting for political affiliation, the Pew research reveals just how starkly the partisan divide plays into the issue. Only a little over half of Democrats (55%) said that they view Israel favorably, compared to nearly three quarters of Republicans (74%). Eighty-six percent of Republicans who lean toward supporting the Tea Party said they felt favorably about Israel.
A doctor performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman on November 9, 2011. / Getty Images
It’s not every day that progressives get to see encouraging policy changes coming out of Israel, so we should celebrate them when they do come along — even if they don’t go quite as far as we might like.
Starting next year, Israel will pay for all abortions for women between the ages of 20 and 33, health officials announced Monday. Currently, women under 20 or over 40 can receive subsidized abortions for personal reasons, but women in between those ages are only eligible in cases of medical emergency or forbidden relations like rape, incest or adultery — elective abortions aren’t covered. The new funding, which will cover elective abortions, is part of Israel’s state-subsidized “health basket” for 2014, and will go into effect pending approval by the Health Ministry and the Cabinet.
Contraception isn’t included under the new policy, but officials say that’s just due to budgetary constraints. They have indicated that they plan to expand coverage in the future, eventually offering subsidized abortions to women of all ages. In the meantime, this is a pretty good start.
And yet, it bears noting that women seeking state-funded abortions will still need to appear before a government committee to make their case and obtain approval. Even though the committees approve nearly all requests, this requirement is problematic because, as Roni Piso of the Isha l’Isha (Woman to Woman) organization has noted, “there are women who are afraid to approach the committees in the first place because they fear they are going to be turned down.”
Has Israel just eased the housing crisis — or issued an invitation for wanton wastage of natural resources?
From the start of 2014 on Wednesday, municipal taxes on second homes will double. Or to be accurate, taxes on all homes that are occupied for less than nine months a year will be double taxed.
This represents a new year’s resolution by the government to deal with so-called phantom apartments that are normally empty, many of them owned by Diaspora Jews and inhabited only during the big religious holidays and a few weeks in the summer. It is also directed against investors who purchased property to take advantage of Israel’s real estate boom and are waiting — with the property empty — for the right time to sell.
Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.
And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?
This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”