J.J. Goldberg

How the Trinity Impacted Judaism — via Kabbalah

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
The 10 Sefirot or Emanations of the Divine in Kabbalah

If you don’t follow Philologos, the Forward’s inimitable language columnist, you’re missing one of the outstanding intellectual joys in contemporary Jewish life. I don’t say that idly. Week after week for 20-plus years, with an astonishing combination of erudition, curiosity and wit, he’s used readers’ inquiries into the origins of words and phrases to explore some lesser-known byways of history, culture, philosophy and sacred text. There’s nearly always a Jewish jumping off point, but oh, where he jumps to: Slavic, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese and any number of other civilizations. The bottom line is how interconnected we all are. When Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot (drawing on Psalm 119), “mikol melamdai hiskalti” (I have gained wisdom from all my teachers), he had to be thinking of Philologos.

It’s with great hesitation, then, that I take exception to a point he made in this week’s column. In the course of making a slightly different point, having to do with the Jewish origins of Christianity’s “Holy Spirit,” he casually states that “neither biblical nor rabbinic Judaism has anything like the Christian Trinity in its thinking about God.” Actually, rabbinic Judaism has something very much like the Trinity in its thinking about God. It’s called the Sefirot, the Kabbalah’s 10 Emanations or Manifestations of God’s presence. And no, it wasn’t a Jewish concept that found its way into Christianity. Aderaba (on the contrary), it’s a Christian idea that found its way into the heart of normative Judaism.

There’s a very respectable school of Jewish scholarship that sees the influence of the Trinity on Judaism in the Sefirot. I first learned about it in a graduate seminar with the late intellectual historian Amos Funkenstein. He taught that the Sefirot actually emerged in the early Middle Ages as a sort of Jewish retort to the Trinity, a case of rabbinic one-upsmanship: You got, what, three faces of God? Hey, we got 10. Badda-bing. I think Prof. Funkenstein had a more elegant way of phrasing it, if memory serves. But that was the idea.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Trinity, Sefirot, Rabbinic Judaism, Psalm 119, Pope Francis I, Pirkei Avot, Leon of Modena, Philologos, Kabbalah, Church Fathers, Holy Spirit, Catholic Church, Amos Funkenstein, Abraham Abulafia

Who's Touting a 1-State Plan? Fatah? Guess Again!

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons/Getty Images
Moshe Arens (left)

Fresh from her controversial April 3 paean to Palestinian stone-throwing, Haaretz’s Ramallah-based bad girl Amira Hass is making new waves with her Friday May 17 report about a group of “senior Fatah members” (the headline called them “senior officials”) who are calling for “the establishment of one democratic country in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”

The group reportedly gathered May 15 in El Bireh, outside Ramallah, to sign a document, “the culmination of two years of discussion,” that was titled “the popular movement project for one democratic state in historic Palestine.” It’s sparked a furor on the Internet, been tweeted hundreds of times and been posted to Facebook upwards of 2,200 times as of Saturday night, which is about 100 times the pace of the other top stories in Haaretz on Friday. It’s been posted to dozens of blogs, ranging from right-wing Jewish blogs that see it as proof of malign Palestinian intentions to left-wing Jewish, Arab and non-sectarian blogs that see it as a hopeful new beginning.

From all the fuss, you wouldn’t know that the “group of senior Fatah members” in question was a grand total of 22 individuals, of whom the most prominent were a former deputy prisoner affairs director, a former local district governor and an Israeli, Uri Davis, who now lives in Ramallah and describes himself as a Muslim. What’s more, the statement was issued four days after the actual Central Committee of Fatah met in Ramallah to endorse the Arab League’s call for land swaps and border modifications in an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement. An actual Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post after the committee meeting that the party maintains its “full commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution.”

Much more startling, though it’s gotten far less attention, was an endorsement of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for Jews and Arabs published on May 12, the day before the Fatah Central Committee rejected the same idea, by—wait for it—Moshe Arens, the former three-time Israeli defense minister, former foreign minister (Bibi Netanyahu was his deputy minister) and certified grand old man of the Likud.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Two-State Solution, Uri Davis, Ramallah, One-State Solution, Moshe Arens, Likud, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Fatah, Fatah Central Committee, El-Bireh, Binational State, Amira Hass

Alas, Poor GOP: 3 D.C. Scandals That Weren't

By J.J. Goldberg

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Barack Obama

Besides throwing the Obama administration off its stride, the three scandals roiling Washington and the 24-hour cable news channels have one thing in common: They’re shrinking steadily as more information becomes available. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein ably deconstructs them in his Wonkblog: the IRS-Tea Party scandal involves a group of employees in the IRS Cincinnati office who “started giving tea party groups extra scrutiny, were told by agency leadership to knock it off, started doing it again, and then were reined in a second time and told that any further changes to the screening criteria needed to be approved at the highest levels of the agency.” (I’ll have more to say about this after the jump.)

The Benghazi events, “tragic as they were,” have turned out to be “a bureaucratic knife fight between the State Department and the CIA” in which White House involvement was close to zero. As for the Department of Justice-Associated Press affair, Ezra writes,

This is the weirdest of the three. There’s no evidence that the DoJ did anything illegal. Most people, in fact, think it was well within its rights to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters. And if the Obama administration has been overzealous in prosecuting leakers, well, the GOP has been arguing that the White House hasn’t taken national security leaks seriously enough.

The key point that’s too often overlooked in the AP case is that the leak the Justice Department was trying to plug had compromised a double agent planted by British intelligence inside Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues in the press are particularly worked up about this one — how it’s going to cripple the AP and all that — but this could be the foul-up that’s the most understandable. Blowing an agent’s cover is very serious stuff, and planting a mole inside Al Qaeda is a particularly delicate and dangerous business. Republicans are right to be alarmed about the sloppiness of the entire affair — after all, you wouldn’t see a Republican administration blowing the cover of a secret agent, would you? Oh — right. Never mind.

The scandal that has the strongest air of wrongdoing is the IRS scandal. That’s the one that’s got even liberals righteously huffing and puffing about the “use” of the agency for political purposes. That word “use” is key — it implies that the administration decided to do this. There hasn’t been a shred of evidence that this is the case. Just as important, it’s not clear that this was a political witch hunt or fishing expedition, even a low-level one.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Wonkblog, Watergate, Washington Post, The New Yorker, Tea Party, The New Republic, Obama Administration, Noam Scheiber, John Cassidy, Iran-contra, IRS, Ezra Klein, Benghazi, Department of Justice, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Associated Press

Shavuot Reading: Hunger, Gleaning & Marx (Zeppo)

By J.J. Goldberg

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Zeppo is like Shavuot: the one you don’t recognize. He’s the dude in front.

The festival of Shavuot has begun, which means it’s time to read the biblical Book of Ruth. It tells the story a non-Jewish woman who marries a Jewish man (no mention of rabbinic conversion, by the way), becomes a widow and ends up on welfare — or, as it was known in those days, gleaning the corners of a rich man’s field.

According to the Torah, as alert readers recall, it’s forbidden to harvest the corners of one’s field, which is to say, to extract every bit of profit from your enterprise, because a portion of it belongs to the poor. Put differently, redistributing your income to the poor is not recommended but commanded—not charity, but law. It’s not that taxes take a larger or smaller portion of your money—the money isn’t yours. The sustenance of the earth belongs to God, or whatever name you give to the universal oneness of the cosmos. No, you didn’t build that.

Well, in observance of the holiday, I’m linking two columns I’ve written in the past few years about Shavuot and gleaning. In this one, from Shavuot 2010, I observed that Shavuot is probably the least familiar of the major Jewish holidays to the average American Jew. In fact, you could say that it’s best known for the fact of being little-known. As such, I suggested, it might usefully be thought of as the Zeppo Marx of Jewish holidays.

In this one, from Sukkot (October) 2011, I described a wonderful concept proposed by a reader, Harriet Feinberg of Massachusetts. It builds on the principle of gleaning to develop a way for individuals and communities to combat poverty and unemployment. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried it yet, but I’d love to see someone try it.

If it’s not yet sundown, or if you’re using the computer on yomtov, you might want to check out these recent pieces you might have missed from the general press:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zeppo Marx, Wonkblog, Washington Post, Shavuot, New York Times, Gleaning, Corners of the Field, Book of Ruth, Bible, Austerity

Funny: Jon Stewart on the IRS Tea Party Witch Hunt

By J.J. Goldberg

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In case you missed it, last night Jon Stewart took on the IRS-Tea Party and Justice Department-spying-on-reporters scandals and, as they say, nailed it. In an inspired burst of hilarious, impassioned (and profanity-laden) outrage, he summed up exactly why the reports of a Nixonian-sounding IRS witch-hunt against right-wing and Tea Party groups are, beyond their offense against the law, the Constitution and good government, a betrayal of liberals and liberalism.

Congratulations, President Barack Obama. Conspiracy theorists who generally can survive in anaerobic environments have just had an algae bloom dropped on their f*@!ing heads, thus removing the last arrow in your pro-governance quiver: skepticism about their opponents. (4:10)

This has in one seismic moment shifted the burden of proof from the tin-foil behatted to the government. The VA claims backlog and the bounced-checks-foreclosure-cluster-f*@! had already given government competence fetishists fits. And now this. (5:04)

In a few short weeks you’ve managed to show that when the government wants to do good things, your competence falls somewhere between David Brent and a cat chasing a laser pointer, but when government wants to flex its more malevolent muscles, you’re f*@!ing Ironman! (5:35)

Watch:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: U.S. Constitution, Jon Stewart, David Brent, Government Competence, Internal Revenue Service, Conspiracy Theorists, Barack Obama

Kotel Miracle: No Stone Throwers Killed by Cops

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images

There must have been divine intervention at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Friday, when no one was killed or injured by the volley of police fire that surely must have been unleashed at the rioters who threw stones at Jewish worshipers that morning. If memory serves, that is what the police do when people throw stones at Jewish worshipers at the Wall.

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any reporting of the police opening fire on stone-throwers in all the coverage of the violence at the Wall last Friday, when a mob of angry Orthodox Jews let loose with stones, chairs and other projectiles at non-Orthodox women holding their monthly Rosh Hodesh service in the women’s section.

Then again, press coverage of clashes between Israeli police and violent protesters is always spotty and one-sided, as pro-Israel media monitors regularly remind us. So I have no doubt that this was the case here, too.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the Israeli and international Jewish press in recent weeks about the lethal power of stones when thrown in hatred. (Here’s a pretty good sample.)

Prime Minister Netanyahu himself weighed in on the topic in an April 15 speech, declaring that “stones are deadly weapons.”

The furor over stone-throwing erupted after Haaretz writer Amira Hass, who lives in Ramallah and reports on Palestinian affairs, wrote an op-ed essay April 3 describing “throwing stones” as “the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule,” by which she meant Palestinians.

As the left-wing British daily The Guardian explained on April 6,

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Women of the Wall, Western Wall, West Bank, Stone Throwing, Rosh Hodesh, Ronn Torossian, Media Monitors, Human Rights Organizations, Haaretz, Benjamin Netanyahu, FrontPageMag.com, Asher Palmer, Amira Hass, Adele Bitton

Thin Line Between Hate and Free Speech

By J.J. Goldberg

Pamela Geller

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering where to draw the line between free speech, which should be defended, and hate speech, which should be combated. Well, I’ve found some useful insight in a series of articles that appeared the Jewish Tribune, the weekly journal of B’nai B’rith Canada.

I’m not sure the articles were intended as a series, but they sure do read like one. It starts in the April 25 issue with a front page headline, all capitals, reading “Student Union Bans SAIA Group.” SAIA, it turns out, is Students Against Israeli Apartheid, and as the Tribune reported from Winnipeg, “the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) voted to delist and ban it from UMSU-controlled spaces.”

The reason for the ban was a student union anti-harassment code stating “that anything that is likely to undermine the dignity or self-respect of any UMSU member on campus is not condoned by this union.” The ban on SAIA was proposed to the student union’s council by a Jewish member, Josh Morry, who told the Tribune he

deflected attempts to turn the meeting into a debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict by reminding council members that his motion was solely “about how Israel Apartheid Week makes Jewish and Zionist students on this campus feel.”

The Tribune quoted a student at York University in Toronto who explained how Israel Apartheid Week makes Jewish students feel:

“It’s scary coming out and trying to show support [for Israel] when you have so many faces staring at you with what I believe to be hatred,” said Jason Isaacs, a second-year psychology student at York. “It’s very difficult to maintain that [brave] face when you’re really so terrified on the inside.”

Three weeks later, in the May 9 issue, the front page banner headline reads: “Police accused of pressuring rabbi to cancel talk.” The rabbi was Mendel Kaplan, spiritual leader of Chabad@Flamingo, which was to host the talk. The speaker was Pamela Geller, who is described as “the controversial columnist and author whose writing focuses on extremist Islamic ideology.” The story leads with a quote from her: “Truth is the new hate speech.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yossi Alpher, York University, York Region Police, University of Manitoba Students' Union, University of British Columbia, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, TWA Hijacking, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, Pamela Geller, Meir Weinstein, Leila Khaled, Josh Morry, JDL Canada, Jewish Tribune, Israel Apartheid Week, Hate Speech, Free Speech, Frank Dimant, Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs, Canada, B'nai B'rith Canada

Mark Sanford Wins: When Party Trumps Character?

By J.J. Goldberg

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Mark Sanford

It’s sort of fun watching Democrats and liberals do headstands over the political redemption of Mark Sanford, the disgraced Republican ex-governor of South Carolina who was handily elected to the House of Representatives in a special election.

Here was a champion of conservative values who narrowly escaped impeachment just four years ago after disappearing from the capital for six days, lying about his whereabouts and then admitting he had been having an extra-marital affair on another continent. And yet the voters in South Carolina’s First District chose him over a sober, accomplished businesswoman with some celebrity cachet, simply because he was a Republican and she was a Democrat.

As Nate Silver wrote today in his New York Times blog, “Voters in South Carolina may not like sex scandals—but they appear to like Democrats even less.” How could the party of family values let ideology trump character?

On the other hand, it was less than three years ago that Democrats and liberals were in precisely the opposite tizzy. The question in January 2010 was how voters in Massachusetts could let personal qualities trump ideology when they chose state senator and onetime nude model Scott Brown over state attorney general Martha Coakley in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.

Of course, the cases aren’t entirely comparable. In one case the ideological favorite (Sanford) was a philandering hypocrite and liar, while in the other case the ideological favorite (Coakley) was simply boring. The common denominator, though, is situational ethics: our astonishingly widespread ability to proclaim our devotion to principle in loud, wide-eyed sincerity and then, when the principle becomes inconvenient, to reverse ourselves without blinking or looking back.

And then there are the rare cases where the about-face is open, above-board and sadly necessary. The best example I can think of is the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race between the scandal-plagued ex-governor Edwin Edwards and his surprise runoff opponent, former Klansman and neo-Nazi David Duke. The bumper stickers that year said it all: “Vote for the crook—it’s important.” And: “Vote for the lizard, not the wizard.”

Barring the extreme circumstance, though, there’s a case to be made for voting blind ideological or party loyalty. In the end, what are you voting for? Would you rather have a noble soul who’s going to do things you hate for honorable reasons, or a no-goodnik who’s going to create the sort of world you want to live in while making whoopee in his or her spare time?

And speaking of sex scandals:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ted Kennedy, Scott Brown, Nate Silver, Martha Coakley, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey, John Ensign, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Edwin Edwards, David Vitter, David Duke, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Stakes for Chief Rabbi: Marriage, Converts, Peace

By J.J. Goldberg

David Stav

That fight within the Jewish Home party over nominations for chief rabbi has more to it than meets the eye. True, it opens up a fault line within the religious Zionist movement, between the liberal wing that backs Rabbi David Stav and the more religiously conservative wing that backs Rabbi Yaakov Ariel. But it’s also a test of Arye Deri’s authority in his new position as sole head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party. And that has powerful implications for, of all things, the peace process.

The internal fight within the Jewish Home has been building for weeks as leaders of the so-called Hardal wing (Hardal is an acronym for Haredi Dati Leumi—the mainly settler-based wing of the religious Zionist movement that’s moving more and more in the direction of Haredim on ritual matters) have been pushing back against party leader Naftali Bennett’s oh-so-cozy relationship with secularist Yair Lapid. The feud came to a head yesterday (Sunday) when a group of senior Zionist rabbis convened under the leadership of Rabbi Haim Druckman to endorse Ariel. This is reported to be part of a deal with Shas and its old-new leader, Arye Deri, under which Ariel becomes Ashkenazic chief rabbi and Shlomo Amar, a Shas favorite, gets an unprecedented second 10-year term as Sephardic chief rabbi.

The 150-member chief rabbinical council, which chooses the chief rabbis, has been controlled for decades by Haredim and has been moving further to the right on matters of marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and everything else under the rabbinate’s jurisdiction. This trend reached absurd proportions in 2007 and 2008, when Haredi rabbis began wholesale annulment of conversions officiated by special rabbinical tribunals under Druckman’s leadership. Those tribunals had been set up a decade earlier, after long negotiations involving the Reform and Conservative movements, aimed at easing the increasingly strict standards of conversion. (Basically, Haredi rabbis have a very high benchmark for judging whether the convert actually intends to live an Orthodox lifestyle—if not, the conversion is ruled invalid.) The annulments were finally overruled by Israel’s Supreme Court just last week.

At the other end, growing numbers of young non-religious Israelis have been choosing not to get married because of the unpleasantness of dealing with the Haredi rabbis who dominate the state rabbinate. Some go to Cyprus for a civil wedding, some ask a local Reform rabbi to officiate even though it has no legal status, and many simply live together.

Responding to the trend, a group of liberal Orthodox rabbis in 1996 formed Tzohar, a rabbinical union that performs user-friendly weddings. Since then Tzohar has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Chief Rabbinate, which requires couples to be married by the local municipal rabbinate in the town where they live. Tzohar is a national organization and sends rabbis around to work with couples wherever they live, using loopholes to get around the municipal registration requirement.

Last fall Tzohar supporters began mounting a campaign to boost the group’s CEO, Rabbi David Stav, for Ashkenazic chief rabbi. Not surprisingly, the campaign has aroused the ire of the current Chief Rabbinate. Stav has the support of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, all of which are secular parties with a handful liberal Orthodox figures in the leadership of each.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zalman Melamed, Yesh Atid, Yona Metzger, Yair Lapid, Yaakov Ariel, Tzohar, Shas, Shlomo Amar, Naftali Bennett, Ovadia Yosef, Labor, Jewish Home, Hatnuah, Haim Druckman, Eli Yishai, Elazar Stern, Dov Lior, David Stav, Arye Deri, Chief Rabbinate, Chief Rabbinical Council, Aharon Lichtenstein

More Killed by Toddlers Than Terrorists in U.S.

By J.J. Goldberg

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Startling fact:

Number of persons killed on American soil so far this year by terrorists: 3.

Number of persons killed on American soil so far this year by toddlers: 5.

Note that three of the toddler killings occurred on the same day, April 9, six days before the Boston Marathon bombing.

The most recent took place last Tuesday, April 30, when a 5-year-old in Cumberland County, Kentucky, killed his 2-year-old sister Caroline with a child-size .22 caliber “My First Rifle” his parents had given him as a gift. These deadly toys are manufactured by Crickett Firearms, which reportedly has taken down its website since the shooting.

Strangely enough, it took me several hours to track down this list. If there’s a national registry of this shocking type of shooting, I can’t find it:

2/11/13: 4-year-old Joshua Johnson shoots, kills self, Shelby County, TN.

4/9/13: 4-year-old shoots, kills 6-year-old friend Brandon Holt, Toms River, NJ.

4/9/13: 3-year-old shoots, kills self, South Carolina (no further details).

4/9/13: Josephine Fanning, 48, shot & killed by her 4-year-old son, Wilson County, TN.

4/30/13: 2-year-old Caroline Sparks killed by her 5-year-old brother with his kid-size “first gun,” Cumberland County, KY.

And these three non-fatal shootings:

3/13/13: 3-year-old shoots self in head, survives, Manchester, NY.

4/7/13: 2-year-old shoots mother Re’kia Kidd, 22, not fatal, Carroll County TN.

4/24/13: 3-year-old shoots 10-month-old sister in car, not fatal, Canyon County ID.

Hat tip to Facebook friend Jonathan Freund for putting me on this trail.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: My First Rifle, Tennessee, Kentucky, Gun Violence, Crickett Firearms, Toddler Shootings

Face It: That Atlanta Publisher Is One of Us

By J.J. Goldberg

I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere. Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?

One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.

Before we put the Adler incident comfortably behind us, though, let’s linger a moment to consider how such a thing might have happened. After all, this wasn’t just some lone nut talking—it was the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, the semi-official voice of one of the nation’s major Jewish communities. A fellow like that is supposed to have some feel for the mood of the community he’s covering, plus enough common sense to run a business and write coherent thoughts. Nor is Adler some self-inflated businessman who decided to purchase intellectual gravitas. He has a B.A. in journalism, according to his LinkedIn.com page. He reportedly worked in the past as the paper’s managing editor, then started up a smaller, independent Jewish weekly before acquiring the Times. What made him wander so far off the reservation?

The answer is, he didn’t. He was speaking for a community—or rather, an assertive subgroup of the community—that considers itself the true heart of the Jewish people and lives in fear and loathing of President Obama. Anyone who circulates regularly in organized communal circles knows what I’m talking about: the earnest denunciations of Obama as hostile to Israel, sympathetic to radical Islam, the worst president for Israel in its history, intent on weakening Israel and leaving it vulnerable to its enemies. Liberals like to dismiss such talk as Republican partisan smoke, but it’s not. It’s widely believed. Lots of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, are genuinely scared of Obama. They shouldn’t be, as we’ll see in a moment. But they are. that needs to be understood.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Andrew Adler, Atlanta Jewish Times, Dwight Eisenhower, Gabi Ashkenazi, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, IDF, Meir Dagan, Mossad, President Obama, Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin

Update on Ex-Mossad Chief Meir Dagan: Embrace Saudi Plan. Bibi Scares Me!

By J.J. Goldberg

Recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, fresh from calling a military attack on Iran “the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said at a conference in Tel Aviv that Israel should embrace the Saudi peace plan.

He also said he has been speaking out against the prime minister’s policies since leaving the Mossad in January because “when I was on the job, I, (ex-Shin Bet chief) Diskin and (ex-IDF chief of staff) Ashkenazi could restrain any dangerous adventurism. Now I’m afraid there’s nobody to stop Bibi and Barak.”

Here is an account from the Sydney Morning Herald with some quotes from Dagan on the Saudi plan. (Dagan retired in January after nine years as director of the Mossad, and is a legend among security hawks. Here’s an interesting profile that shows where his reputation comes from.

The comments on Bibi and Barak don’t seem to be on the Web - they appear in Friday’s Yediot print edition. Dagan made his comments, according to Yediot, during a “closed meeting” at Tel Aviv University. Besides discussing the Saudi plan and his fears of Bibi’s recklessness and Barack’s enabling, Dagan also repeated his contention from January that attacking Iran is “the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

By implication, Dagan also confirmed what I have been writing in the past few weeks, that Bibi and Barak have managed in the past six months to remove the entire top echelon of the Israeli security establishment and replace it with a more compliant leadership that won’t talk back or raise hard questions (hence “there’s nobody left to stop Bibi and Barak”). The outgoing leadership was unanimously opposed to Bibi’s saber rattling on Iran and overwhelmingly in favor of renewing talks with the Palestinians ASAP. What this means is agreeing to resume talks where Olmert and Abu Mazen left off in October 2008, agreeing to the 1967 lines as the basis for the talks (as Dagan implies in calling for the Saudi plan) rather than insisting on starting again from scratch and dismissing all the concessions mooted up to that point, as Bibi has been demanding.

I know I’m going to hear that there are ex-generals who disagree, like former IDF chief of staff Moshe Boogie Yaalon, now Bibi’s deputy prime minister. That’s a good point. I can name you another: former
chief of Northern Command Yossi Peled, now a Likud lawmaker. That’s pretty much the list.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: U.N. Resolution 194, Saudi Peace Plan, Mossad, Meir Dagan, Giora Eiland, Yaakov Peri

Wash Post Op-Ed Writer: What If Torture Is Morally Wrong — but Effective?

By J.J. Goldberg

A recent op-ed essay in the Washington Post dissects torture / “enhanced interrogation” and presents evidence that as repugnant as it is, it might work — that is, yield usable intelligence that otherwise wouldn’t have been forthcoming. The writer, M. Gregg Bloche, is a psychiatrist and teaches law at Georgetown. He was a health consultant to the Obama campaign and teaches courses on health policy and human rights. He writes that he’s against torture because it’s evil, but whether or not it’s effective is a separate and more complicated question.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.

He talks to some of the researchers who developed the techniques apparently used by U.S. forces and shows how they would work. It came out of Chinese techniques for extracting fake confessions and was studied by U.S. researchers originally to train troops in resisting it, until some bright guys figured out that if it helped the Chinese get prisoners to lie, and helped American soldiers resist, it could also help American interrogators extract real stuff, with some tweaks. If he’s right, he says, the “possibility poses the question of torture in a more unsettling fashion” than it’s been addressed up to now,

by denying us the easy out that torture is both ineffective and wrong. We must choose between its repugnance to our values and its potential efficacy. To me, the choice is almost always obvious: Contempt for the law of nations would put us on a path toward a more brutish world. Conservatives are fond of saying, on behalf of martial sacrifice, that freedom isn’t free. Neither is basic decency.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: torture, interrogation, human rights

Bank of Israel Governor Stan Fischer Mulls IMF Run

By J.J. Goldberg

The Wall Street Journal reports that Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel,

is examining a formal bid to head the International Monetary Fund, said an official familiar with his thinking, and figures he has an outside shot at the job if there is a deadlock in the voting.

Mr. Fischer, a former deputy managing director of the IMF, is a long shot. While he’s widely respected among central bankers and finance ministers, his current position as Israel’s central bank governor would make it tough to win the support of Arab nations and other emerging-market countries, said an Arab official who has worked with Mr. Fischer…

The odds-on favorite, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, is widely supported in Europe, which has about 35% of the votes in the IMF. A simple majority is needed to win the job. She told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday she expects shortly to tour major emerging-market countries, including China and Brazil, to build support. …

In 2000, Mr. Fischer, then the IMF’s deputy managing director, made a run for IMF managing director and picked up substantial support from Africa and the Middle East, including from Mr. Manuel of South Africa. Mr. Fischer was born in what is now Zambia and positioned himself as an African candidate despite his U.S. citizenship. But the U.S. balked, trying to preserve the tradition of the top IMF job going to a European and the second position going to a U.S. citizen.

Eventually, Germany’s Horst Kohler, who was president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, got the managing director’s job, and Anne Krueger, an American economist, got the No. 2 slot.

The currrent reports don’t spell it out, but part of the U.S. objection to Fischer is his left-leaning outlook, which he shares with Socialist party stalwart Strauss-Kahn. He was named IMF deputy chief at the beginning of the Clinton administration, when the Robert Reich left faction was still in charge, before Robert Rubin became top dog after the 1994 elections. After that Fischer was unpopular in D.C. The African group nominated him in 2000 as a friend of the working man. As a kid in Zambia and Zimbabwe he was a member of Habonim and made aliya to kibbutz after high school, departing pursue a career as an economist when he unexpectedly got accepted to London School of Economics. He’s close to Shimon Peres and his post-industrial, high-finance New Socialism.

Stephanie Flanders at BBC reports from the IMF conference in Rio that the Lagarde candidacy is leaving a lot of insiders cold:

They don’t like the symbolism of the job going to yet another French citizen; they worry that she will not be able to inject fresh thinking into the management of the eurozone crisis, and more than a few still harbour hopes of a last minute revolt.

And so many are fantasizing about an outsider, and Fischer is a favorite fantasy:

The way the fantasy plays out, there would be a major fight in the board over the decision, with Fischer then emerging at the last minute as the compromise candidate to break the deadlock.

Stan Fischer would be an extremely good choice: born and raised in Africa, he has friends across the developing world and, as a distinguished economist, he’s both liked and respected within the Fund. He’d also be good at banging European heads together.

Unfortunately, the fantasy has little chance of coming true, not least because he has been a US citizen for much of his working life.

If he came in as number one at the Fund, the Americans would lose not just the number two slot at the Fund, currently taken by John Lipsky, but the job of running the World Bank as well.

The Americans like Stan Fischer a lot, but not enough to give up two senior posts in the international financial system in exchange for just one.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Habonim, International Monetary Fund, Robert Reich, Robert Rubin, Stanley Fischer

Mofaz Calls Bibi Out on Ynet (Hebrew Only — Why Isn't It Translated...?)

By J.J. Goldberg

Shaul Mofaz, the chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, wrote an op-ed essay on the Ynet Hebrew website on Wednesday May 25, savagely summing up Netanyahu’s American visit. Strangely, it doesn’t appear on the English site. In fact, it’s not so strange—the English site’s opinion section carries mostly right-wing material (Obama vs. the truth, Obama’s skewed worldview, Beware fake humanitarians, Say no to a Palestinian state etc. etc.) while the Hebrew opinion page is fairly balanced between left and right and varied in theme as well.

The failure to translate Mofaz is particularly telling — the Iranian-born ex-soldier has more credibility on defense matters than just about any other critic of Netanyahu right now, given his background as IDF chief of staff (appointed by Bibi), defense minister and ally of Ariel Sharon and reluctant convert to Kadima (he first mulled running for head of Likud after Sharon bolted). He’s someone the security minded would have to take seriously.

Here’s some of what Mofaz had to say:

Like many Israelis I believe the prime minister gave an excellent speech in Congress, but unlike the prime minister I am not a great believer in the power of speeches. I was raised to believe that actions are stronger than words. The prime minister of Israel is good at giving speeches. Very good. If I were looking for a salesman, he would be the man. But Netanyahu sold air yesterday—promises without political backing in front of the wrong audience…

The state of Israel has come to the moment for action. Since the Six-Day War the state leadership has refused to take the necessary decisions. What began as a tactical consideration has become over the years a moral and existential decision that the jewish state can no longer escape. The quest for defensible borders is in opposition to the Zionist nightmare of a binational state. Electoral considerations, populism, seductive words and twisted language have become a replacement for national policy.

The principles of Obama’s speech aren’t new. The American president erred when he chose not to state clearly that there will not be a right of return, there will not be a return to the 1967 lines and that President Bush’s commitment to recognizing the settlement blocs is still in effect. The prime minister erred when he wasted two precious years. He erred in forming a government of national refusal, in relying on war-mongering extremists, in his inability to make a reality of the statement that it would be good for our Jewish state to give up parts of the land of Israel.

A leader is judged by his ability to lead. In the end, Netanyahu chooses to stand in place, to hand out promises that he can’t fulfill, to preserve the past, to muddy the present and to mortgage the future. This is a surrender to paralyzing fear and is the opposite of leadership.

Today Netanyahu returns to Israel. From here Obama looks less threatening. The echoes of the stormy applause in Congress will fade within hours, but the problems, challenges and threats will remain. Fine words are no replacement for leadership. Punchy sentences aren’t a replacement for deeds. September is only four months away and the reality is not going to change—the threats will become reality, the seeming quiet will turn to violent, bloody confrontation.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ynet Opinion Section, Shaul Mofaz, Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama

The Generals Vs. the Lobbyists and the Psychology of AIPAC

By J.J. Goldberg

The press attention at AIPAC goes to the big speeches by prime ministers, superstar lawmakers and the occasional president. Most of the action, though, is in the less ballyhooed small-group workshops and “breakout” sessions, dozens at a time, where groups of delegates listen to experts expound on topics ranging from effective lobbying and working with estate planners to “Syria’s Destructive Behavior,” “Reducing Dependence on Oil,” “Saving American Lives With Israeli Military Innovations” and “The Modern Arab State: The Making of an Unstable Order.”

Every now and then, though, a session turns unpredictable and ends up offering an unexpected peek below the surface of the Israel-American Jewish family psychodrama. One of those moments came on the first day of this year’s conference, shortly after President Obama’s speech.

The session was titled “The West Bank Model,” touted to explore how West Bank’s economy “has grown rapidly for the past two years” with the “help of Israel, the West and some notable Palestinian leaders” — and whether the model can “provide a basis for improved Israeli-Palestinian relations, or founder on “the PA’s recent unity deal with Hamas.”

The speakers were Major General Eitan Dangot, coordinator of government activities in the territories, essentially the military governor of the West Bank and Gaza; retired Brigadier General Eival Gilady, former head of the army’s crucial Planning Branch and now CEO of the Portland Trust, a British foundation that finances West Bank start-ups; and Howard Sumka, former head of U.S. foreign aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza.

The generals’ presentations were eye-openers. Both talked at length about the effectiveness and professionalism of the Palestinian Authority under its prime minister Salam Fayad, the close and effective cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces and the ways in which both processes have allowed a West Bank economic boom, a sharp rise in living standards — and an easing of Israeli roadblocks and other security measures, which has cleared the way for even more growth. The standing room crowd, some 200 delegates, listened with seeming rapt attention.

Both generals peppered their talks with cautions, however, about the limits and fragility of the efforts. Dangot warned repeatedly that the progress could be set back suddenly by a terrorist incident “provoked extremists on either side.” Gilady warned that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an economic one — it is a national one that will only be solved by a diplomatic process.” He said Israel’s priorities must be maintaining security, encouraging further growth and “to help Fayad by rolling back the occupation.”

All three points represent sharp departures from the policies of the present Israeli government. None drew any visible reaction from the audience. It wasn’t clear that anyone noticed. Mingling and eavesdropping after the session ended, I couldn’t hear anyone mentioning any of these points.

What did stir the crowd was the third presentation, by the former U.S. aid official, and the response he drew from the generals. Sumka first detailed American efforts to encourage the West Bank economy. Midway through, though, his focus switched to criticizing Israeli restrictions, some security-based, some bureaucratic, variously “burdensome,” “illogical” and “unnecessary,” that frustrate Palestinian businesses and impede growth. He was especially passionate about Gaza, which he said was “not a humanitarian crisis” but “is a mess.” As he spoke, various members of the crowd shook their heads, shifted in their chairs and muttered “not true” and “he’s wrong.”

His comments drew angry retorts from Dangot and especially Gilady, who said that Palestinians in Gaza share responsibility for their hardships and that restrictions would not be eased at the cost of Israeli lives. “I don’t think there is another situation in history where a territory is shooting rockets on a neighboring country and the other side is feeding them,” Gilady said. Each of his statements drew loud applause and cheers—the only applause of the 90-minute session.

The bottom line: An important group of American Jewish activists was given a stark demonstration of the perception gap between the thinking of the generals in the field and the policy nostrums of the politicians and lobbyists — viewing the Palestinian Authority as partners and the occupation as the problem, versus blaming everything on the Palestinians and calling peace impossible. But the important insight went right over the crowd’s heads. The generals didn’t make a big deal out of it, because they take it for granted. The crowd was waiting to hear Israel defended against the Arabs. And the voice of American liberalism zoomed straight in on Palestinian suffering and Israeli sins, rather than Israel’s needs and the possibilities of progress, which drove the Israeli doves instinctively into the arms of the hawks. That’s why we’re stuck.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: AIPAC, Gaza Restrictions, Israeli Military, Israeli Policy, Palestinian Authority, U.S. Aid, West Bank Economy

Abe Gets Hate Mail, Bibi's 3 Whoppers and an Optimistic (Yes!) Reading of the Situation

By J.J. Goldberg

Barack and Bibi: An Optimistic Reading

According to a very reliable source, Abraham Foxman got an e-mail the other day, lamenting the fact that Hitler didn’t get him, apparently because of the Anti-Defamation League’s statement praising President Obama’s Middle East speech. I didn’t call for confirmation because I didn’t want Abe to ask me not to publish, and I regard my sourcing as pretty close to impeccable.

The Internet has been exploding lately with e-mail slime about Obama and the so-called “Auschwitz borders,” which Abba Eban often said was the one moment in his life that he regretted more than any other. There’s an ugly mood in the land that ill serves us. This is not something orchestrated out of Jerusalem; it’s an expression of a psychological debility, some sort of post-Holocaust stress syndrome: Eban once said, “We are a wounded people.”

Nonetheless, Bibi could make things better if he moderated his own speech. He’s taken up a position that he knows is untenable, partly for domestic political reasons, playing to his right flank, and partly as a tactical feint to improve his eventual, inevitable bargaining position. Israel has run out of time for stalling; Bibi’s too smart not to know this, and besides, he’s hearing it from his security and intelligence people. He’s saying stuff that simply inflames the right and makes things uglier.

Now, assuming he’s saying the stuff he’s saying for tactical reasons, that’s not the end of the world. Politicians can’t always be telling the truth — they have to tell people what they want to hear in order to gain the running room to do what needs to be done.

The fact is, though, that his reaction to Obama’s speech is one giant whopper. Three giant whoppers, in fact. Call it the Three Whoppers of Blair House, in honor of the famous Three No’s of Khartoum.

Whopper No. 1: It’s unrealistic to demand that Israel go back to the 1967 borders, because they’re indefensible. Negotiations can’t be conducted on that basis. First of all, nobody asked Israel to go back to those lines. The demand is that those lines be the basis for the talks. And they have been the basis for nearly every round of Israeli-Palestinian talks up to now. That’s why we keep on hearing about 92%, 98%, etc. 92% of what? The territories as they were before 1967.

Whopper No. 2: The 1967 border isn’t a peace border, it’s a war border. Israel was subjected to constant war before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. No — actually Israel had very little war on its borders before 1967, and lots and lots of wars on its borders and inside its “borders” since 1967.

Whopper No. 3: Israel can’t talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. By that logic, the Palestinians can’t talk to an Israeli government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, which openly rejects peace, and HaBayit HaYehudi-The Jewish Home, which claims that the West Bank is part of Israel.

Some more details about these three Whoppers, plus a theory that Obama is endorsing the 1967 borders because he can’t get Bibi to do so openly and it’s the only way to get the Palestinians back to the table, after the jump:

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Peace Talks, Mahmoud Abbas, Israel's Wars, Bibi Netanyahu, 1967 Borders, President Obama

Strauss-Kahn, French Jewish Leader? IMF Head Does to African Maid What Global Finance Does to Africa

By J.J. Goldberg

Two thoughts about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and currently Riker’s Island’s most distinguished resident…

Before his arrest, he was considered the clear front-runner in France’s upcoming presidential election, set for next April. Were he elected, he would have been the sixth Jewish leader of France. Despite its reputation for anti-Semitism, France has elected five Jewish prime ministers. The only other country with a comparable record is Israel (10 Jewish prime ministers, nine Jewish presidents).

Here they are in chronological order: Leon Blum (1936-37, March-April 1938, 1946-47; Rene Mayer, January-June 1953; Pierre Mendes-France, 1953-54; Michel Debre (Jewish father), 1959-62; Laurent Fabius (Jewish father), 1984-86.

They don’t settle for halfway measures when they pick a French Jewish leader. Compare that to American Jewish leaders, who don’t lead America and don’t lead Jews.

If Strauss-Kahn manages to overcome his legal troubles and come back to win the election, France will become the second country to have a Jewish alleged sexual predator in its presidential palace.

Jon Stewart pointed out last night that Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim is an African immigrant, which means that the head of the IMF was (allegedly) doing to an African woman what the global economic system is doing to Africa. “He’s posing for his own political cartoon,” Stewart said.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, International Monetary Fund, Jewish Prime Ministers of France

Yediot Obtains Obama's Speech: Renew Talks, Recognize Jewish State, Stop Settlements

By J.J. Goldberg

Yediot Ahronot obtained a copy of President Obama’s upcoming Middle East speech, its website Ynet reports. The speech, to be delivered at 6 p.m., will

call on Jerusalem and Ramallah to reignite the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying it is the only way to achieve viable peace.

Obama stands to demand the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and that the Palestinians unequivocally abandon terror.

He is also likely to stress Israel must cease any settlement expansion in the West Bank and further avoid any act which could be construed as changing the status quo on the ground.

The subject of Jerusalem also stands to be included in the American president’s speech: Washington sees the city as the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state, with its east Jerusalem neighborhoods – which are largely populated by Palestinians – under the PA’s sovereignty, and its Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner is quoted as saying Washington is “not so pessimistic.” Haaretz’s Yossi Verter suggests why. He writes that Bibi’s Knesset speech yesterday, despite its hawkish tone, moves in a dovish direction, explicitly offering to give up settlements outside the major settlement blocs and demanding Israeli military presence along the Jordan River — as opposed to full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, his previous demand.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Netanyahu's Speech, Obama's Speech

Readers' Questions Answered: Israel, Hebrew, Guns and Me

By J.J. Goldberg

Given the evidently growing interest in the details of my biography, I’d like to offer a quick rundown of the most frequently questioned data.

I lived in Israel for six years during the 1970s, serving for several years as an Israel and Zionism educational programs specialist at the World Zionist Organization in Jerusaledm and then settling on a kibbutz, where I served a term as secretary. For the last several decades I have generally spent about three weeks a year there, visiting friends and immediate family, meeting with government officials and ensuring that my children have ties with their family and the country and are comfortable in Hebrew.

I did not wear the IDF uniform. I served in the civil guard as part of the kitat konenut (ready response unit) at my kibbutz under the command of the Border Police in our region. I was the designated sharpshooter of the unlt and was given regular training sessions at the regional Border Police post, both in tactics and to maintain my shot with an M-1 Garrand, Uzi and M-16 assault rifle. As some readers have hae correctly asserted, I did not sit on guard duty at night. I walked. The job was to patrol the perimeter of the kibbutz at night. I also served a number of times as an armed guard on youth tours of the Sinai.

I have spoken fluent Hebrew since childhood. My Hebrew literature studies at McGill University included, among other things, “advanced Hebrew style and composition.” The course requirements included translating passages from the Hebrew Bible (both Deuteronomy/Kings and the Hebrew of Isaiah and the later prophets) into modern Hebrew (both Maariv tabloid and literary Hebrew) and vice versa – translating passages of modern Hebrew into various periods of biblical Hebrew as well as rabbinic Hebrew of the Mishnah period. I served for a period at kibbutz meetings providing simultaneous translation of the Hebrew proceedings for new immigrants and volunteers, until I was elected kibbutz secretary and could no longer perform that duty. (I am still called on to perform such functions from time to time.) My first job in journalism was as a reporter at a Hebrew-language newsweekly published for the Israeli expatriate community in Los Angeles, where I interviewed and wrote (and touch-typed) in Hebrew. I have published numerous Hebrew-English translations, including an authorized (and well-received) translation of a previously untranslated Agnon story.

I admit that my Hebrew is not what it used to be; I easily follow the weekly Torah readings in synagogue, but I have to follow in a book during the Haftarah readings, as my command of the later Hebrew from the prophetic period is not as fluent as it once was. Mea maxima culpa.

It was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once said that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”


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