Monthly Archives: January 2011

Cairo is Burning; Is Egyptian-Israeli Peace Next?

By Niv Elis

As the world watches the unprecedented protests in Cairo unfold live on Al Jazeera, America and Israel face an intractable dilemma over who to support.  To  lovers of democracy and human rights, the Egyptian people’s uprising is a phenomenon to be encouraged; the Egyptian regime is a police state (though milder than, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia), which for nearly 60 years has held an iron grip on the country’s political institutions, limiting the media and sweeping aside opposition rights.  Like all people, Egyptians deserve better, and it seems incomprehensible that Western governments would fail to support them.

Yet for decades, Egypt’s autocracy has contributed a modicum of geopolitical stability to the region. Having established itself as the leader of the Arab world during the Cold War, Egypt made waves when it broke from its Soviet patronage and the Arab League to ally with the United States and make peace with Israel.  Thus was born a conundrum: the government carried out important strategic choices, receiving huge sums of American aid and opening economic pathways in exchange for international policies often resented by its population. Complicating matters, Egypt was an incubator of radical Islamist thought: the philosophical grandfather of Al Qaida and Salafi jihadism was Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, and the more mildly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, spawned Hamas.  Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cleverly lumped these groups with anti-regime elements seeking democracy and human rights. Ultimately, Mubarak fought off the most extreme of the groups, while allowing the Brotherhood to transform into a defanged opposition party.  Notably, the Brotherhood denounces political violence, except where Israel is concerned.

Nobody can know what the aftermath of the Egyptian protests will be.  When Iranians deposed the pro-Western Shah in 1979, it took several years for the broad coalition of revolutionaries to fight out their differences, leaving the Ayatollahs in firm control and shattering any semblance of democracy or human rights (See Moment’s feature “How Jew-Friendly Persia Became Anti-Semitic Iran”). The average Egyptian still views Israel very unfavorably, which could prove a rallying call for future politicians. The linkage of Israel and the United States to the current hated regime only exacerbates the problem.

Israel fears the prospect of a populist or Islamist government coming to power in Egypt, which could lead to a break in the 32-year peace that, though cold, has proved remarkably durable. Israel and the United States could lose the support of an ally that has served as an interlocutor between them and the Palestinians, not to mention between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.  Should Egypt revert to a confrontational relationship with Israel, it could destabilize the whole region and undermine any future peace talks between Israel and its neighbors.

The Obama administration is seeking a stable transition, but unmistakably hedging its bets as it grapples with the complexities, trying to curry favor with the population by acknowledging their legitimate grievances without explicitly disavowing the Mubarak regime.  In a statement today, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.” The West could throw its weight behind Mohamed ElBaradai, the opposition figure who won a Nobel Peace Prize as head of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, but that would be tricky should the Mubarak regime survive.  When the future of peace is at stake, it turns out that supporting democracy is no easy task.

The Holocaust Today

By Symi Rom-Rymer

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet troops.  In 2005, 60 years after the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated that date International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  As many have said before, the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone recreate in such a way so that others might understand.  Nevertheless, every year a new crop of novelists, memoirists, and academics pour their emotions, research and analysis into works that aim to shed new light on the well-worn subject.

In commemoration of this day, I have compiled a short list of recent books about the Holocaust that I have found particularly compelling.  These works, both fiction and nonfiction, successfully face the daunting task of retelling or challenging our views on the history that seems so familiar and yet, for most of us, so alien.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive catalog, but rather the spark for a longer list and deeper discussion.  I encourage each of you to add your own thoughts and suggestions of additional books in the comments section.

Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945, by Gunnar S. Paulsson
In Secret City, Gunnar Paulsson, former Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, takes his readers into a subject beset by myths and often left unexplored by most historians: The underground life of Jewish Poles in Warsaw during the war.  Using diaries, memoirs, records of Jewish and Polish organizations that helped fugitives, and testimonies, he demonstrates how 28,000 Polish Jews, out of roughly 380,000, were able to escape the ghetto and hide in Warsaw itself with the help of converted Jewish and Polish families.   In contrast to traditional assumptions, he argues that many more Poles helped rather than hindered Jews to escape and how many Jews with even just one Polish friend had an avenue for escape.  According to his calculations, more than 11,000 Jews survived the war in Warsaw.  Written academically, Secret City is not a quick read.  But its careful use of sources, statistics, and strong narrative voice makes a compelling argument for this new understanding of the Jewish experience in wartime Warsaw.

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
Named one of the New York Times’ best 100 books of 2010, Julie Orringer’s epic novel sweeps readers into her world and refuses to let go.  Andras Lévi, a brilliant architectural student whose departure for architecture school in Paris in the late 1930s unleashes the plot.  Unlike most Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is neither from Western Europe nor from an East European shtetl.  He is an educated, cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew who, like many of his era, sought a better life for himself elsewhere in Europe.  Orringer refreshingly breaks with convention further by choosing Hungary as Lévi’s point of origin.  The story of Hungary’s Jews is a less familiar one to the American and Western European  public (see our post Jewish Ghosts of Budapest) and by placing the novel in Hungary, she avoids the traditional Holocaust progression: home, ghetto, concentration camp.  While no less cataclysmic, readers are offered an opportunity to revisit the era through Lévi, through a more unusual lens.  The Invisible Bridge may be 600 pages long and ultimately tragic but Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that the characters haunt you long after the book is closed.

The Pages In Between, by Erin Einhorn
“I was always loved,” was Erin Einhorn’s mother’s standard response about her experience during the Holocaust.  Left in the care of a Polish couple as a baby, she grew up never knowing stability and peace.  Whisked away to the United States after the war by a father she barely knew, she clung to her rose-tinted vision of her childhood through most of her life.  Einhorn’s narrative tries to break through that vision and discover what really happened to her mother, and to her mother’s protectors, during the war.  In an attempt to reconnect with the family who saved her mother from the Holocaust, Einhorn travels to Poland only to find the situation much more complicated than she anticipated.  She gets sucked into to a protracted legal battle over the ownership of the apartment building where the elderly son of the family who saved her mother still lives.  But this is not only a memoir about retracing the steps of a Holocaust survivor.  This is also about how each generation tries to make sense of its family’s Holocaust legacy on their own terms. While Einhorn confronts the anti-Semitic attitudes she was brought up to expect, she also discovers, and becomes friends with, young Poles who are deeply interested in Judaism and Jewish culture.  One of them even ends up converting to Judaism.  Einhorn is respectful of her mother’s experiences, but at the same time she insists on confronting the country, and its personally difficult legacy, from her own perspective.  For many American Jews, Poland and Polish attitudes towards Jews remain frozen in time.  This engaging and thought-provoking memoir brings us up to date and shows just how multi-layered the story truly is.

Hollywood, Oscars and the Jews

By Sophie Taylor

This morning’s Oscar nominations did no favors to anyone hoping to dispel the myth that Jews control Hollywood. In the nine most prominent categories, all but one (supporting actor) included at least one Jewish Hollywood player; Jews represented nearly a quarter of the nominees in those categories.

The idea that Jews run Hollywood is as popular as the notion that they control finance or the media.  After CNN’s Rick Sanchez made comments in October implying that Jews control the media, Slate‘s Brian Palmer decided to look into Sanchez’ claims and discovered that while none of the major news stations are Jewish-owned, Hollywood is, in fact, heavily Jewish—forty-five percent of The Guardian’s “Top Twenty Directors of All Time” are Jewish.

Of course, having a heavy presence in an industry is a far cry from the implications of “controlling” it; the latter implies some sort of cabal, monolithic whole, or conspiratorial agenda, while the former is merely a sociological phenomenon.

Below, find a list of this year’s Jewish Oscar nominees in the top categories.

Best Film:
Black Swan, produced by Mike Medavoy
The Fighter, produced by David Hoberman
True Grit, produced by Scott Rubin and the Coen Brothers

Best Lead Actor:
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)

Best Lead Actress:
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Supporting Actress:
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Best Directing:
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)

Adapted Screenplay:
Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Joel & Ethan Coen (True Grit)
Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone)

Original Screenplay:
David Seidler (The King’s Speech)
Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are Alright)
Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright)

Achievement in Music-Original Song:
Alan Menken (Tangled)

For more Jews in film, read Moment’s compilation of Great Jewish Films.

China Hedges Its Bets in the Middle East

By Gabriel Weinstein

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States was only the beginning of a busy week of diplomacy. Last Tuesday 10 Chinese government officials and academics arrived in Israel for three days of meetings with Israeli academics, policy analysts and government officials. The meeting is China’s latest attempt to bolster relations with Israel and become a trusted ally among Middle Eastern Countries.

For most of Israel’s history official relations with China were non-existent. Israel sought to establish a firm partnership with China after the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, but the Chinese government  did not acknowledge Israeli’s recognition. The relationship disintegrated in the mid-1950’s when Israel supported UN forces during the Korean War and chose to align with the United States during the Cold War. Though Israel and China engineered a series of covert weapons deals in the late 1970’s, official diplomatic relations were not restored until 1992.

Since then China and Israel have enjoyed a healthy commercial relationship. In 1992 the two countries traded $54 million worth of goods. By 2009 the figure mushroomed to $4.6 billion. Israel is a major supplier of agricultural, telecommunication and defense technologies in China. Major Israeli universities such as the Technion, Tel-Aviv University and Hebrew University have relationships with Chinese counterparts and integrate Chinese language and Asian studies into their curriculum.

Yet, much to Israel’s chagrine, China has showered goodwill on other Middle Eastern countries over the past decade to feed its insatiable appetite for oil. It helped Syria modernize its aging energy infrastructure and provided caches of weapons since the 1990’s. In October Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and Turkish Prime Minister announced plans for a railroad dubbed the “Silk Railway” to honor the ancient Silk Road between the countries. China is a major investor in Iraqi oil and has excused the government from paying outstanding loans from the Saddam Hussein era. Since 2005 leading Chinese oil companies Sinopec, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and China National Petroleum Corporations have invested in the several oil development projects in Israel’s arch nemesis Iran. Trade between China and Iran is valued at $21 billion and over 100 Chinese companies conduct business in Iran according to a report by CNA Analysis & Solutions on Sino-Iranian relations.

Although China’s cordial relations throughout the Middle East seems ominous for Israel, experts believe China does not want to become entangled in the regions mangled military landscape. Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China has “walked away from its past as a supporter of liberation movements” in the Middle East during a speech in July. According to Alterman, China does not view the region as strategically significant and prefers to maintain a low profile throughout the region. He cites China’s relationships with Israel and Iran as proof of China’s indifference.

The CNA report draws similar conclusions about China’s ambitions in the region. The report states China’s four goals in the Middle East are to prevent one global power from dominating the region, stem anti-Chinese and pro-Taiwan sentiments and garner support for broader Chinese foreign policy.

Although most experts believe China is not overly interested in the Middle East, China’s attitude toward Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is cause for concern. Experts in the CNA report were concerned Chinese companies sell equipment to Iran that could be used nuclear weapon production. The latest round of Wikileaks cables revealed the American government shares the same sentiments, as American diplomats have pleaded with China to monitor the industrial products that can be used to build nuclear weaponry it sells to Iran.

As China continues its geopolitical ascent, potential allies must not fear confronting China about its potentially careless political tactics. A nuclear-armed Iran is not just a threat to Israel, but to the entire global community as a potential strike on Israel might encourage Iran to broaden its military ambitions. The United States must respect and acknowledge China’s ascent to global prominence, but make clear that China’s policy of potentially reckless commerce will not be tolerated.

Louder Than Words

By Daniel Kieval

In the wake of January 8’s horrific shooting in Tucson, Arizona, attention was rightly given to Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ 20-year-old intern, Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez calmly and heroically rushed toward, not away from, the victims of the gunfire, and his immediate care of Giffords is credited with helping to save her life. Meanwhile, far more discussion concerned Sarah Palin’s and President Obama’s contrasting speeches in response to the incident. It seems that words, especially those of politicians, ultimately provide more fuel for the relentless 24-hour media than actions, even exceptional ones.

Jewish tradition, on the other hand, offers a different perspective. Judaism is a religion of action; thought and learning are encouraged and even glorified, but the tradition also teaches that “lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar elah hama’aseh”—the main principle is not study but practice. Thus, when the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they famously declare “na’aseh v’nishmah”—we will do and we will hear. They commit first to acting in accordance with God’s commandments and only afterwards to understanding them. This is interpreted as a demonstration of the Israelites’ extreme trust and also a delineation of Judaism’s priorities.

In Judaism, therefore, there is no central dogma, no list of statements one must believe in order to be Jewish (even the supposed dogma of belief in God is contradicted by today’s existence of Jewish atheists). Instead there is a list of actions: the mitzvot, the commandments. To believe in them as one performs them is a bonus, but the main principle is the actions themselves (See Moment’s “Ask the Rabbis” section on the Ten Commandments). Likewise, Jews have no need to confess “sinful thoughts.” Our thoughts cannot be sinful because they are not under our control; they fly in and out of our minds as they please. What we can control, and what we are therefore held accountable for, is how we choose to act in response to those thoughts.

There is a flip side to this point, too. Just as negative thoughts do not make us into bad people, we cannot fulfill our duty to be good people by positive thoughts alone. It is usually easier to identify the right actions than to actually perform them. In Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, to give grudgingly, with negative feelings, is the lowest form of giving. Yet to have just and charitable thoughts but not give does not even make the list; this is not tzedakah at all. Thought can enhance action but is not a substitute for it.

In a world today riddled with crises, from the environmental to the social to the political, it often seems as though the effort put into thought and discussion far exceeds that put into action. Giffords’ intern Hernandez serves as an inspiration and example to reverse this trend. We would do well to listen to him and to centuries of Jewish thought when they tell us that in the end, what will truly matter is not what we thought or even said about the problems of the world, but what we did about them.

Jewish Mother Redux

By Symi Rom-Rymer

We’ve had the bad mother, the free-range mother, and now, thanks to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother.  From punishing late-night math sessions to grueling practice sessions to complaints over poorly-made birthday cards, Chua suggests that her methods of pushing her children to succeed are what American children need—and are lacking.  A Chinese mother herself—literally and figuratively—Chua writes in the Wall Street Journal that as opposed to Western mothers, “Chinese parents understand that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”   She does let some mothers of other cultures off the hook including Korean, Jamaican, and Irish—although not Jewish—whom she concedes may meet ‘Chinese mother’ standards.

Stereotypically, Jewish mothers have also been categorized as pushy and aggressive with their children, holding them to extremely high standards.  In her WSJ piece, Chua tells the story of the Chinese child who returns home with an A- only to have the parent ask why it wasn’t an A.  Growing up, I too heard—although never personally experienced—the same story.  Only it was a Jewish child bringing home an inferior grade to his Jewish mother.  Ironically, Chua’s husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale Law professor and successful mystery writer, is Jewish and their kids are being ‘raised Jewish.’  But  despite his own achievements, Chua has cast him as the soft Westerner.

At what point along the way has the Jewish mother become more American—or Western?   In a piece about breaking down the Jewish mother stereotype, Dr. Paula Hyman points out that some of the intense mothering patterns that have worked their way into the Jewish mother persona were based on survival instincts needed in the small towns and shetels of Eastern Europe.  They were even needed in the new world to push children to succeed in an atmosphere where anti-Semitism was still prevalent.  But as Jews became more assimilated and reached the American middle class, the over-bearing mothering instincts became unnecessary and a source of derision.

Like immigrant Jewish mothers before them, Chinese mothers, too, must feel anxious about their children’s success in a country that may or may not accept them.  They, too, must feel that they have to push them in order to have the life that Americans of other ethnicities take for granted.  Which may speak to why Chinese immigrants—really immigrants of many different backgrounds—pressure their children to be the best.

To back up her parenting style, Chua points to a study that compares American middle-class mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers.  According to Chua, the study shows that 70% of Western mothers think that learning should be fun while 0% of Chinese immigrant mothers do.   But that is like comparing apples and oranges.  Western mothers have different concerns and see their children through a different lens.  They are likely to feel more comfortable in their identity as Americans and as a part of American society and not torn between two worlds as immigrant parents do.  Nor are they as fearful that American society will reject their children and block their potential success.

Today, Jewish parents are encouraged to release their children, to give them space to discover who they are and yes, even make learning fun, all in the name of Judaism.  According to Sharon Duke Estroff, a Jewish educator and parenting columnist, “the Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, or for its own sake. We shouldn’t learn Torah with ulterior motives.  By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our children as a means to an end.  Instead, we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement and privilege of discovering the world around them.”

Chua is unapologetic for her parenting style and sees Chinese immigrant parenting values as key to producing successful children. But she misses that while she and her husband had different upbringings, both have achieved similar levels of high success in their careers. In response to all of the controversy over Chua’s article, both of her children have defended her parenting style.  But perhaps one day, they will grow up and see that they do need not be a ‘Tiger mother’ to be a successful parent or have successful offspring.  It will be enough to model healthy, high-achieving behaviors for their children to be successful.  Just like both their grandparents.

Israel’s Public Debate Over Privatized Land

by Lily Hoffman Simon

This week, Jews around the world celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for trees. Among many Jews, the most popular way to celebrate this holiday is to plant a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This symbolic act goes further than celebrating trees and agriculture in Israel; the practice of planting trees on public land in Israel was fundamental to establishing a Jewish presence in Palestine and mobilizing American Jewish support for the seed of the State of Israel. In today’s world, though, conceptions of public and private land have changed, as evidenced by a 2009 bill that would privatize Israeli land, challenging the foundation of the JNF and of Zionism in general.

The vast majority of land in Israel (around 93%) is owned by the JNF or the State of Israel—that is, not privately owned. This land is typically leased to private parties on 49-year leases by the State, in accordance with the Jewish Yovel (Jubilee) agricultural tradition. This system was largely introduced in order to establish a state along legitimate borders in 1948—borders that were easier to determine with centralized land ownership. In addition, public land ownership was intended to encourage Jewish stabilized and distributed populations in the newly established Israel. Fundamental to this project was also the Zionist dream that the state of Israel was to belong collectively to the entire Jewish people (achieved through the administration of land by the JNF as well, which is largely a Diaspora-run organization).

In 2009, however, the Knesset voted to pass a bill that enabled the private purchase of Israeli land. The motivation behind this bill was to free land which has been left undeveloped because of bureaucratic processes, opening up more opportunities for economic and structural development. This would reportedly drop housing prices, as more houses could be built on the newly opened land. The bill reflects the greater shift towards free-market capitalist principles in the Israeli economy, countering the socialist values on which the State was founded.

The privatization of Israeli land has been criticized by people of all political affiliations and ethnicities. The bill is seen by many as undermining the essence of Zionism, which for many is the collective ownership and investment in the state by the Jewish people as a whole. More right-leaning critics claim that enabling private ownership may allow wealthy individuals or groups who are not favorable to the existence of a Jewish state (including forces such as Hamas) to buy significant amounts of land. Some also believe privatization to contradict Biblical and spiritual connections to the land itself, citing Leviticus 25:23: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity.”

Criticism of the bill has also hailed from pro-Palestinian communities, which claim that the selling of land is a neo-Zionist attempt to appropriate Palestinian lands. This criticism is two-fold. First, if Israeli land is publically owned, the issue of a Palestinian right of return for those whose families became refugees in 1948 can be discussed with Israel. Second, the selling of land involves the drawing of more concrete borders in order to establish land to be sold. Many claim that this will not only conceal vast amounts of land that was taken by Palestinians earlier in history, but will also provide new opportunities to take more land. This is especially true when considering that the land proposed to be privatized includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, which were annexed by Israel in 1981. Some are going as far as to call the bill “a privatized naqkba,” using the Arabic word for the day of Israel’s independence that translates as “the catastrophe.”

Environmentalists are also criticizing this bill, arguing that privatization favors urban growth at the expense of environmental sustainability and agricultural development.

Amidst all these criticisms, the government faces a conflict between appealing to public interests and continuing to move Israel into the developed, free-market driven world. This Tu B’Shvat, buying a tree might not be the best way to celebrate.