Yesterday’s State of the Union address was a success for Obama. From ending the war in Afghanistan and helping to revive the economy, the president touted his accomplishments. The same accomplishments his fellow party members were reluctant to use to their advantage in the last elections.
So many stood up and applauded as he mentioned the most controversial topics and spoke frankly about them. Global warming — it’s real. Women — they’re not second-class citizens. Racism and discrimination — not in our home. Biden was beaming behind him like a guardian angel and John Boehner looked like his face was about to melt off in a giant frown.
There were a lot of good things for Jews to fist-pump over in last night’s address. Overwhelmingly, we care about women, care about the environment and care about education. But here are four things that made it especially good for us:
Even France was reluctant to say the recent attacks targeted Jews. And in a world where some are reluctant to use the “A” word, Obama said it loud and clear: “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened… It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.”
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.
A man stands beside a military oven in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. / Getty Images
Over the weekend, the Forward contacted Ukraine’s chief Reform rabbi, Alexander Dukhovny, to ask him about how he felt seeing the months of protests on Kiev’s central square lead to a clear resolution in the president’s ouster. This is his response.
Every citizen of Ukraine including Jews has his or her right to express their position. Those Jews who came to support the protestors were blamed that they were in collaboration with nationalists. Yes, there are some marginal groups in Ukraine whose views are anti-Semitic, and some of those people were among the protestors. However, the protestors’ main focus was on changing the corrupted presidency, government and unjust courts, and on getting rid of oligarchs.
At the moment, Ukraine’s Jewish communities and all Ukrainian people are confronting the uncertainty over our country’s political future. The protestors and many Ukrainian people throughout Ukraine want to establish in their country the Western/European standards of life, social security and a better future for their children. We want to introduce all the qualities of a person who “can dwell in God’s tent” (Psalm 15).
Back in May 2011, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which I serve as president, co-sponsored an international conference in Kiev together with the Ukrainian Jewish Committee to fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Ukraine and around the world. During the conference, I met many wonderful Jewish and Muslim Ukrainians — mainly from the Crimean Tatar community — all of whom told me that despite long and bitter histories of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence in that country, they were committed to remaining in Ukraine and forging interfaith coalitions together with leaders of the majority Christian churches dedicated to building a pluralistic and democratic Ukraine.
The horrifying explosion of violence in Kiev and around Ukraine this week, that has apparently left as many as 100 people dead and many more wounded, has obviously put that noble dream at grave risk. There is growing concern that the very territorial integrity of the country could be endangered — with the country potentially fracturing into a pro-European western Ukraine and a pro-Russian eastern Ukraine — unless both the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition coalition manage to pull back from the brink. Amidst the specter of chaotic civil war, there is also ample reason for concern for the wellbeing of Ukraine’s approximately 300,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims, the majority of whom are Crimean Tatars.
As I write, there is seemingly hopeful news that President Yanukovych, whose support has hemorrhaged even within his own party in the wake of the government-instigated bloodbath on February 19-20, has agreed to a tentative deal with the opposition involving a devolution of some presidential powers to Parliament and the holding of early elections. Yet the President has made similar conciliatory noises on several occasions since the political crisis began last November, only to return abruptly to efforts to crush the opposition through violent repression.
Anti-Semitism in Europe is, once again, making headlines. In Paris, crowds sang, “Jews, France is not yours” at an anti-government protest last month. In Rome, a right-wing extremist mailed three pig heads to major Jewish sites, and Italy had its own anti-government protest — complete with anti-Semitic slogans — a couple of months ago. Plus, a recently released survey conducted in seven EU countries suggests that the perception of anti-Semitism is on the rise among European Jews.
As anti-Jewish hatred gains ground, some Jewish communities are growing more insular in response. In certain Jewish circles, there’s a growing perception of living “under attack” — a siege mentality that results at times in self-segregation. But resorting to self-segregation may just be another way of falling victim to anti-Semitism.
Are Jews genetically homogenous? Though it’s certainly been a loaded question historically, the quandary has been the domain of scientists for a number of years now, all of whom have pretty much come up with the same answer: yes. But that was before Eran Elhaik entered the picture. An Israeli molecular geneticist, Elhaik is interested, it seems, not just in doing science, but in reveling in his role as a spoiler.
As a Forward story recently described it, he has written a report that claims Ashkenazi Jews are descendent from Khazars, a Turkic people from the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the eighth century. This flies in the face of that established genetic research, which did prove a continuous genetic link between Ashkenazi Jews and the Middle East, positing that they descended from Jews who fled Palestine after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. As Elhaik put it in the article, he sees this fairly well accepted theory as “nonsense.”
Perhaps to be expected, the comments section of this article became a microcosm for all the heated emotion that this issue inspires. Elhaik himself even jumped into the fray.
The person who kicked off the fierce debate was Jon Entine, who wrote a book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People”, which presents the more established reading of Jewish genetic history. He also runs the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University. Entine insisted that the evidence is “incontrovertible”: “Ashkenazi Jewry is a coherent population, much like blacks descended from western Africa, the Amish or Icelanders.” Pointing out the Caucasian/Asiatic markers on his own chromosome – which he says typically makes up 20% of Ashkenazi genes – Entine says this might be because of the Khazar conversion, which took place among the elites of Khazaria and not the general population, as Elhaik contends. “When Khazaria collapsed, a fraction of the elite integrated themselves into the then tiny Eastern European Jewish communities,” Entine notes. “Today’s percentage of Khazarian like markers is congruent with the extrapolation of that core group to the founding of Ashkenazi Jewry in the 12-14 centuries, when Jews in Eastern Europe numbered only 15,000-20,000.” In other words, he writes, “Elhaik is just wrong.”
And Entine has a bigger point. He thinks that what really troubles Elhaik is the notion of Judaism as being tribally or ethnically founded in any way:
For those of you pulling out your hair over suggestions that modern Judaism has “racial roots,” get a grip. Christianity and Islam are faith-based religions…anyone can join at a proverbial drop of a hat. Judaism has never been just a faith based religion. It’s a triple helix: belief in god (yet many Jews are atheists/agnostics); belief in the state of Israel as a founding principle of our religion; and recognition of our “blood” connection to fellow Jews. Judaism is one of only two surviving tribal religions (Zoroastrianism, which shares many tribal attributes with Judaism is the other). All or any of those qualities can define one as a Jew. But one can’t just junk the “blood” part in an attempt to be “modern”–that’s an abandonment of a central tenet of what makes us Jewish.
This is when Elhaik chimes in. For him, Entine has revealed his own prejudice in his comments: “I would like to thank Jon Entine for disclosing his scientific guidelines for studying Judaism as believe in God (though it is ok not to), patriotism (though living afar is also okay), and the purity of the blood line…Not surprisingly, the last two scientific principles of Entine share a common ground with the Nazi ideology. While this may makes sense to some people and may fit with their belief, for those of us who actually practice science this is mere nonsense.”
The only thing that matters to Elhaik, the only point of his research, he says, is to discover the cure for genetic disorders in Jews and non-Jews. Identifying the correct genetic provenance of Jews will help find cures for diseases. “Today, we still don’t understand genetic diseases nor do we have a cure (for a large number of them),” Elhaik writes. “Non-Jews who have ‘Jews-only diseases’ are misdiagnosed because they are not Jews. There are serious problems requiring serious solution. The only method that works is the scientific method.”
The frustrating aspect of scientific debates (for us, outside observers, that is) is that both sides assume objective fact is on their side, and so they never really engage with each other’s arguments. As Entine has the last word, this tussle in the comments section is no different. They both seem to be talking past each other:
Elhaik is young enough and immature enough to be a young son of mine. All his rants aside, Judaism is a modernized version of a tribal religion, a fact thatshows up in the genes of Jews, across a range of disease and other traits. Elhaik, in either his overheated “academic” article or his posts just does not come across as a serious intellect. I have not found a mainstream geneticist who thinks much of his analytical ability let alone his care in assembling and analyzing genetic data. Sorry…just stating the facts.
A delegation of American senators met earlier this month in Cairo with a spokesperson for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, according to the New York Times. The spokesperson clarified press accounts of Mr. Morsi’s recent description of Jews as “bloodsuckers,” “pigs” and “dogs.” The remarks, he explained, were “taken out of context.” The senators left the meeting “feeling as if Mr Morsi had addressed the issue,” according to the report.
In order to place the Egyptian spokesperson’s remarks in context, a ramble across past and present might be in order so as to uncover other examples of remarks being similarly “taken out of context.”
• Meeting on the beach outside besieged Troy with Greek bards, a spokesperson for mythical hero Achilles discussed a recent exchange he had with King Agamemnon over a war prize. Forced by Agamemnon to turn over the booty, god-like Achilles informed his commander that he was “a dog-faced, staggering drunk who was the most shameless, cowardly and grasping man alive.” He quit the army and retired to his tent.
When a bard asked for a clarification of the swift-footed warrior’s remarks, the spokesperson grabbed a spear and ran him through as rosy-fingered dawn appeared over the wine dark sea. The other bards felt as if Achilles had addressed the issue. (The prize, Chryseis, whose father was employed by Apollo as his priest, had no say in the matter.)
• Meeting with a single English reporter on the god-forsaken volcanic rock called Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte, the recently retired Emperor of the French, was asked to clarify a remark he made about his former minister Charles Talleyrand, describing him as a “serving of s— in a silk stocking.”
Jon Stewart calls “Most of the Confederacy went for Mitt Romney.”
And Florida continues to be “a huge clusterf*** - Florida, of course, being the place where Cubans go to live and Jews go to die.”
The High Holidays don’t work for me. I know that Yom Kippur is supposed to be the holiest day of the year, and I’ve read and listened to many great ideas about how Yom Kippur is supposed to work on supreme spiritual issues and in sanctifying relationships and community. And I’ve been trying it out for a few decades now. But it just doesn’t work, and I think I finally figured out why.
The Jewish people would like to have a special day for forgiveness, but the fact is, we really don’t do forgiveness well at all.
Our entire calendar is dedicated to not forgiving. Every holiday is filled with rituals and practices and texts that urge us to remember the sins that others have committed against us since time immemorial. We remember what the Egyptians did to us over three millennia ago, what the Persians did to us over two millennia ago, what the Romans did to us beforeJesus created a new religion. One of the top six commandments of memory is aimed at the Amalakites a nation that doesn’t even exist anymore and attacked us before we even knew what “Israelite” meant. We remember what the Christians, the Spanish, and of course the Germans did to our ancestors (heck, 70 years isn’t even that long ago). This is what Jews do best: we remember, and we do not forgive. We create elaborate mechanisms with special foods and blessings and hundreds of pages of text in order to remember. We are the masters of remembering what others have done to us.
Mitt Romney has came under fire for meeting with William (Jerry) Boykin, a retired U.S. Army officer who is now executive vice president of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian conservative organization.
Boykin has enraged the Muslim-American community with anti-Muslim remarks which date back to his days in uniform but have intensified after his retirement in 2007. Boykin has argued, for instance, that Islam should not be protected under the First Amendment and has wondered during a synagogue speech whether President Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Muslim groups questioned Romney about the meeting, arguing that Boykin’s history of anti-Muslim statements should not make him a welcome partner.
As it turns out, Boykin hasn’t just made inflammatory statements about Muslims. He has had a lot to say about Jews as well.
Israelism, the idea of a nation or people’s direct descent from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, or the appropriation of Jewish ideas or texts for use in new belief systems, is not unique to the Mormon faith. At the height of British imperial power in the early twentieth century, notions of a lineage from King David to the House of Windsor were too at their zenith. The country’s national canon is awash with Israelism and references to Jerusalem, ranging from the King James Bible to the poetry of William Blake.
But it is the recent spate of stories regarding Mormon posthumous baptism of deceased Jews — an activity, it should be noted, which is neither secretive nor obscure within the faith — including Anne Frank, Simon Wiesenthal, Daniel Pearl, and the not-yet-dead Elie Wiesel that has brought into question the peculiar relationship which exists between Mormonism and Judaism, one where feelings of love and admiration very much journey down a one way street.
On the one hand, as a branch of Christianity, there is nothing inherently unusual about the fact that 25,000 words of the Book of Mormon are taken directly from the Old Testament. Nor that, of the 350 names published in the text, more than 100 are lifted straight out of the Bible, and the same amount again are near matches.
Yet there is something inherently distinctive about the Latter Day Saints’ origin story. For, Mormons believe themselves to be the spiritual descendants of the Nephites, a lost tribe of Israel who led by the prophet Lehi fled Jerusalem around 600 BC at the time of the Babylonian conquest, ending their journey in the New World by 586 BC.
The golden plates from which the Book of Mormon is derived were claimed, by the faith’s founder Joseph Smith, to have been revealed to him in upstate New York by the angel Moroni, the last Nephite who chronicled the adventures of his wandering tribe after it was all but wiped out by the Lamanites (another lost tribe) in a series of wars which occurred in the 4th century AD. The baptisms themselves occur in large fonts of water that rest upon twelve oxen, representative of the tribes of Israel.
Florida’s Jewish voters were in the crosshairs of Republican efforts to peel support away from President Obama in the general election.
Exit polls from the Republican primary suggest that the strategy may not be working particularly well.
According to polls posted by Fox News, only 1% of voters in today’s Republican primary identified themselves as Jewish. That’s compared to 3% of Republican primary voters identifying themselves as Jewish in 2008.
The polls involve a relatively small number of voters, roughly 2,000 in today’s poll, and experts warn that they shouldn’t be taken as representative, especially when dealing with a small sub-group like GOP Jews.
“It could be statistical noise,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s hard to extrapolate much from that.”
But fewer Jewish voters in the primary could correlate to a lack of enthusiasm among Jews for the Republican field. Most Jewish Republican leaders back Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich.
“You have to hold your nose,” said Republican Jewish voter Micki Kaufman of the Republican hopefuls. Kaufman winters in Boca Raton, Florida. Though she votes in New York, other Florida seniors shared her views.
The Forward reported last week on Floridian Jews’ specific anxieties over a Gingrich presidency.
Barack Obama won an estimated 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008. Republicans are hoping to cut into that margin by raising questions about the strength of his support for Israel.