Tag Archives: Jews

Strauss-Kahn—Still Bad For The Jews?

By Theodore Samets

The idea that France was set to have a Jewish president before the United States sounded weird, anyway.

Of course, some might argue that the current holder of the office, Nicolas Sarkozy, is himself Jewish; his son even married a nice Jewish girl a few years ago.

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn has turned out to be too good to be true. Strauss-Kahn, as anyone who has ventured out in public in the past three months knows, was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and front-runner for the French presidency until he allegedly attempted to rape a housekeeper in his New York Sofitel hotel suite.

The Manhattan district attorney’s allegations against DSK were splashed across the cover of every newspaper in New York. His bail was set at $6 million. As New York magazine puts it this week in their fascinating look at DSK’s wife, the billionaire Jewish heiress Anne Sinclair:

[Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair] remained silent as initial reports, almost certainly leaked by the prosecuting attorneys, came out about the victim: She was a widow, a single mother, a devout Muslim and daughter of an imam, an illiterate victim of genital mutilation who’d grown up in a mud hut—she might even wear a head scarf! Soon, Strauss-Kahn was led up to the guillotine during his court appearances; hundreds of maids from measly countries around the world, their ill-fitting dark dresses cinched with frilly white belts, gathered to raise fists and chant: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” New Yorkers agreed that they had never seen a more guilty man than the “Horny Toad,” the “IMF Pig.”

Yet now the case is in doubt, mired by the alleged victim’s admission that she lied about a past rape and after an audio tape of a conversation she had with her boyfriend about how to exploit the situation came to light. Why was the boyfriend’s phone call taped? Because he is in prison, serving time for trying to trade counterfeit clothing for 400 pounds of pot.

Strauss-Kahn’s accuser still claims her allegation against the man who was supposed to be the president of France is true, yet it has become hard even for the prosecutors to believe her, according to a July story in the New York Times.

Whatever the final result, it is improbable that DSK will ever end up as president of France. Yet the newest look at his wife and the couple’s response to the allegations give the best opportunity to ask: How bad is this for the Jews?

From Israel’s standpoint, probably not that bad. Sarkozy has been rather pro-Israel and it’s hard to imagine that DSK would have done more for Israel than the current government, even if the New York story does remind us of just how strongly Strauss-Kahn identifies with his Jewish lineage:

His father dropped the “Kahn” from his name later in life and never bestowed it upon Strauss-Kahn, who took it in his twenties. “In my youth, I was called Strauss, like my father,” he has said. “But starting in the seventies, I changed to Strauss-Kahn. It was a way of demonstrating my attachment to my grandfather and also affirming my Jewish identity, which had been awakened by the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War.”

What about for Sinclair? It seems that her fall from power may be the greatest loss for France’s dwindling, though still sizable, Jewish community. New York reminds us that, as the granddaughter of Picasso’s art dealer, she is “an extraordinarily wealthy art-world heiress and a pillar of European Jewish society.” Furthermore, “she always wanted to prove that, more than 75 years after Léon Blum became France’s first Jewish prime minister, the French would again be willing to elect a Jew.” It now looks unlikely that her husband will be the one to bring that dream to fruition.

When DSK was once asked the obstacles to his presidential campaign were, he replied: “Money, women, and being Jewish.” If the charges are dismissed, as this new report suggests they likely will be at the end of this month, revelations about the extent of Strauss-Kahn’s womanizing will still keep him from becoming president, even in France, where philandering is generally considered cocktail party banter, not the ruin of presidential aspirations.

It’s certainly not good for France’s Jews that Sinclair and Strauss-Kahn’s positions in society have fallen—but is the DSK scandal truly “bad for the Jews?” Other criminals and conspirators—Bernie Madoff springs to mind—were bad for Jews because their actions played into stereotypes that have existed for centuries as anti-Semitic tropes. The same cannot be said for Strauss-Kahn. It’s never good for the Jews when a figure of such importance is alleged to have committed a crime, even when, as in this case, the charges are likely to fizzle. Indeed, the greatest loss may be that DSK was a once-in-a-generation figure for French Jewry, and that a leader such as he may never come again.

The anti-Manischewitz

By Adina Rosenthal

Move over Manischewitz; Jewish wine is no longer synonymous with the sweet, syrupy stuff used for Jewish ceremonies. The Israeli wine and beer industry has boomed in the last few years, becoming a player in the global alcohol market.  In 2010, the Israeli beer market grew to about one million hectoliters (26.5 million gallons), a 20 percent increase from the previous year. Though no one can be sure, “applying the foreign experience on the Israeli market will lead to the conclusion that there is still a great potential in this [beer] market.” For Israeli wine, exports reached $23 million dollars, with local consumption accruing an additional $100 million dollars for 2010 alone. According to Israeli wine critic, Daniel Rogov, “Today, you’ll find that people are looking for Israeli wines that meet international standards and the good thing is we are actually producing wines like that…There is no contradiction between wines that are kosher and wines that are excellent.”

But alcohol production is not new to Israel, just a well kept secret. Wine can trace its roots back to biblical times, when spies who ventured into Canaan were said to return with a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried between two poles (a story familiar to anyone who recalls the Kedem grape juice logo). Not until the late 19th century, with the philanthropic aid of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his Carmel Winery, was wine mass produced, though British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described it as “not so much like wine but more like what I expect to receive from my doctor as a remedy for a bad winter cough.”

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, Carmel Winery has now cornered about 40% of Israel’s contemporary wine market, producing internationally recognized wines. The 1990s marked  a “true technological revolution” in Israeli wineries, with 90 percent of all current wineries founded during or after that time. Today, there are about 300 wineries in Israel, totaling about 15,000 acres of land and producing about 40 million bottles of wine. Robert Parker, among the world’s most influential wine critics, has lauded Israel’s wine industry, rating some 40 Israeli wines. Fourteen of them won more than 90 out of a maximum 100 points in Parker’s rating system.

As successful as Israel’s wine industry has become, the Israeli beer market is also setting firm roots in the Jewish state. As an article in The Jerusalem Post magazine points out, “The rumor is that after the wine revolution, the land of milk and honey is now undergoing a beer awakening.” Though mainstream Tempo Beer Industries (producer of well-known Goldstar and Maccabee) Israel Beer Breweries (who brew Carlsberg and Tuborg) hold about 70 percent of the Israeli beer market, smaller beer distributors and boutique breweries are heeding the call for increased demand in beer, particularly premium beers. Though small microbreweries only hold about 1 percent of the market with just ten microbreweries, beer consultant Gad Deviri hypothesizes that like “the experience of the American craft beer market [Israel] can see that it is in the first stage of the revolution, diversion from mainstream commercial brands to craft beers.” Winemakers are also following this trend, with 250 commercial mini wineries opening over the last decade.

So, instead of the usual Manischewitz, you can spice up your next Shabbat dinner, Kiddush, or social gathering with an Israeli wine or beer, such as  a selection from the award winning Golan Heights winery or the popular, non-alcoholic “Black” Nesher Malt, which is the first beer commercially produced in Israel. Such a choice is kosher, both literally and figuratively, so bottoms up and l’chaim!

A Golden Opportunity for Livni

By Niv Elis

It’s not clear why the Israeli left has shied away from putting economic arguments for peace front and center.  But the recent explosion of economically driven populist angst may change all that.

For nearly two weeks, Israeli citizens have protested en masse in the streets of Tel Aviv, building tent cities along its main drag, Rothschild Boulevard, and across the country.   Though popular disaffection with consumer prices, particularly housing, are at the heart of the the protests, growing economic inequality (persistent through strong general growth) and the neighboring protests of the Arab spring have fueled them.  Because the protests represent a significant challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his economic policies, they also provides an opportunity for the opposition leader, Tzipi Livni.

Sitting atop the largest party in the Knesset, which was thrust into the opposition after failing to cobble a coalition, Livni has watched in frustration as Netanyahu presided over the most stable Israeli government in decades, alongside political advocates for West Bank settlement expansion.  By linking the settlements with popular economic woes, Livni could establish her Kadima party with a strong platform, which it has lacked since the Gaza disengagment, its original raison d’etre.  And what a willing audience she would have!

To students demanding cheaper or free education, doctors demanding higher wages and young couples living at home and demanding steps to reduce housing prices, Livni can point out the incredible resources that have been consumed by settlements.  As Bernard Avishai pointed out in a TPM article, settlements cost Israel $20 billion, excluding security. The government has long provided incentives to reduce cost of living in the settlements—lower tax rates, subsidized mortgages, loan guarantees and extra community development funds.  Monies could easily be redirected toward increasing the supply of housing units within the Green Line, which would lower apartment prices dramatically.  (Pro-settlement councils are, of course, propose increased settlement construction to pull Israelis from the cities to their cheaper West Bank counterparts instead).

She could also make the case that such moves would help bolster peace talks, which themselves have economic consequences.  A peace agreement could increase tourism and decrease the defense spending that consumes a sixth of Israel’s budget.  With enough of an electoral boost from the left, Livni could reduce the unsustainable subsidies that keep ultra-Orthodox students in yeshivas instead of the workforce, much to the chagrin of university students who are not offered the same cushy perks.

The economics of the settlements have long been an underutilized rallying call for Israelis in the silent majority.  If Livni hopes to once again take the premiership, she would be wise to channel the public’s newfound economic ire toward a solution.

Going for Gold at the Jewish Olympics

by Gabi P. Remz

Since 1932, when a 50,000-resident town called Tel Aviv hosted the first Jewish equivalent of the Olympics, the Maccabiah Games have drawn the finest Jewish athletes to participate in a wide array of events. This year’s JCC Games, which began on Sunday, include the staples of sport, such as basketball and soccer, as well as more niche competitions, such as chess, bridge and squash. The event has grown so big that it is now one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world, causing the International Olympic Committee to officially recognize it as “regional games.”

And while these games offer nearly everyone a chance to play (the games have youth, open, and senior divisions allowing for almost all ages to participate) in a variety of settings—in addition to the Maccabiah of Israel, there are the European, Pan-American and North American JCC Games— the goal of the event is more than to simply provide Jews a forum in which to exhibit their athletic prowess.

In some cases, as with the European Games that were held in Vienna just a few weeks ago, it can be to show the endurance of the Jewish spirit.

This years European games in Vienna were the first in a German-speaking country since 1945, and overcoming the Holocaust was a constant theme of the games.

The opening ceremony took place at Vienna’s City Hall, several hundred yards away from where Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The opening ceremony included footage of Hitler’s speech as well as pictures of the destruction he would go on to cause. However, the video then moved on to the Jewish recovery effort, as images of Jews rebuilding their communities in Europe and Israel flashed across the screen.

Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Reuven Rivlin focused on the spirit of endurance, saying, “We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis…It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”

Two members of the American delegation in Vienna were, in fact, Austrian-born Jews, both of whom fled the country in 1938.

“I’m doing a symbolic swim,” one of those men, John Benfield, told the JTA. “I need to show the Nazis I’m still around.”

And Benfield, like many others, is there for something more than just athletic achievement.

Maccabi USA’s slogan is “building Jewish pride through sports.” The Maccabiah website describes the “principal mission” of the games as being not only “to facilitate a worldwide gathering of young Jewish athletes in Israel,” but also “strengthening their connection to the State of Israel and the Jewish People.”

The various versions of the Maccabi games do this by engaging host communities as well as including as many people as possible in delegations. The Maccabiah Games in Israel draw nearly 5,000 athletes, but the organization looks to include the “majority of Israeli citizens” in some capacity, whether as athletes, volunteers, or even just as spectators.

The JCC Games allow players from all over North America to connect with host families in the event’s host city, and the Games also provide social programming so that participants can develop relationships with Jewish athletes from all over. This year’s event will be held in Philadelphia and Springfield, Mass. three weeks from now.

Jonah Weisel, who represented the Greater Washington delegation in basketball from 2005 through 2008, says the connections he made at the games were strong and have been maintained over the years.

“I definitely made connections with many other kids at the Maccabi Games, to the point that I saw kids in Israel this year that I recognized from years past,” Weisel said. “I had conversations with other kids that started with, ‘Hey did you happen to play basketball in the Orange County Maccabi Games?’ I also keep in touch with my teammates and the families that hosted me.”

One issue many athletes voice about the games is the wildly expensive costs of participating. This years Pan-Am Games will cost nearly $5,000 a player, quite a price for a little more than a week of competition. Of course, many teams work hard to fundraise so that any qualified player can get a shot.

In the end, though, the mass gatherings of Jews that just occurred in Vienna, are currently happening in Israel, and will happen in a few weeks in Philadelphia and Springfield, are considered by many to exceed any price. It is a chance to show the Jews are as strong and proud as ever.

Not the First (or Last) Jew in Spain

by Hilary Weissman

While studying abroad in Spain this spring. I found myself unintentionally making numerous trips to the southern town of Córdoba– it served as a stop along the way in order to make the most of my EuroRail pass at the end of the semester. Córdoba’s storied Jewish heritage manifested itself when my sister and I were lucky enough to find the Mazal Sephardic restaurant (pun very intended) during my second visit. We sampled pumpkin flan and raisin roasted chicken with rice before the start of Passover, which we later celebrated with a congregation from Madrid. Other than the saffron-spiced yellow gefilte fish, the seder experience felt very familiar, as I was lucky to have my sister there with me to celebrate, daiyenu. We were transported between two different worlds as the Rabbi delivered a sermon and led us through the Spanish haggadah, and then brought us right back to our hometown synagogue, it would seem, as soon as he began to sing in Hebrew. Even his inherent Jewish kibitzing couldn’t be lost in translation.

Learning from my guidebook to Jewish Spain that there are merely 5,000 practicing Jews in Barcelona and Madrid each, along with pockets of communities sprinkled along the Costa del Sol (the southern border of Spain) surprised me much more than finding what was left intact of their ancestors after the original Diaspora. Spanish Jewry left their mark through the Sephardic flavor that enriches Spanish history.

Among the many eye-opening experiences I had while studying in the Madrid province–language immersion, living on my own with seven girls from three different countries, trying exotic and native food, and crossing borders on my own–nothing was quite as charming as my interview and guided tour of the barrio, Alcalá de Henares’ ghost of a Jewish quarter.

You would only know you had entered the Madrid suburb’s Jewish quarter if you happened to catch the small plaques on top of the entryways, marking where the two synagogues were supposed to have been, pointed out to me by the owner of a small souvenir shop on Calle Mayor (Main Street). He said he would show me around the 15th- and 16th-century Jewish homes, lofted apartments over their storefronts, set apart by holes in the floors for the residents to see who was knocking at their front door below. If they knew the caller, they would throw their keys down to let their guests up. My tour guide shared some of his favorite Ladino music with me and, after I told him that our family had traced our lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain, even let me in on the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name, Mirels, was probably Catalán (from the now-autonomous regions of Cataluña).

Though he claimed not to know much about the Jewish quarter, I spent the next two hours with him discussing the barrio, the architecture, religion, politics and current events. He told me about speaking with the Spanish ambassador to Croatia, who happens to be Jewish, and discussed the symbolism of the proximity of the old Jewish and Muslim quarters of Alcalá. The minor synagogue and the mosque were once across the street. Still, he said, “It became difficult to maintain the Hebrew religion and culture; the same happened with the Muslims—another 300,000 were expelled, and we never speak of this. In Alcalá de Henares alone the expulsion of the Muslims lost 10 percent of the population…but it’s not in the collective Spanish conscience like the expulsion of the Jews.”

After this conversation, I made sure to find the Jewish quarters that remain in several Spanish cities, like Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville. They are kept in various states—some only have rumored ties to Jewish communities and others are left in anthropological disarray, while a few have retained thriving historical proof of our ancestral fingerprints. Toledo, the most well known keeper of Sephardic heritage in Spain, boasts two of Spain’s three remaining pre-Inquisition synagogues, while Córdoba has the third. According to the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba, a colorful museum detailing the Inquisition and the journey of Cordoba’s native son, Maimonides, the 14th-century synagogue in Córdoba is Spain’s best-preserved synagogue, though it has fallen into disuse.

These interviews and trips were perfect supplements to the readings on the Jewish and Moorish coexistence and ultimate expulsion we studied in my Spanish culture and civilization class, in the form of history textbooks and historical fiction excerpts like “The Inquisitor” by Francisco Ayala, a story about a converted Jew who became a priest, confronted by his family and hidden past when they are presented before him to be interrogated. After all the nagging from my mother, grandmother, and every Judaica storeowner in Spain, I finally tackled The Last Jew on my commutes into the city with my newfound understanding of the context, and I think it is better this way, rather than drudging through it before my education abroad.

Debunking the Harry Potter Anti-Semitism Myth

By Stephen Richer

There’s no shortage of theories connecting Judaism and Harry Potter.  Entire books have been written on Potter philosophy and Torah wisdom (see Moment’s interview with Dov Krulwich), and some commentators have posited that its magicians—chosen people  misunderstood by others—are essentially Jewish.  Yet, others also a postulate a rather unfortunate perspective that J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series are guilty of perpetuating an anti-Semitic slur: underhandedly equating the book’s loathsome goblins with Jews.

The goblin-as-Jew allegation deserves assessment, partly because anti-Semitism is so serious, but also because if the complaint is true, millions of Jews, including yours truly, could not continue to happily reread and rewatch one of the greatest stories ever told.

The theory—as put forth by one its leading proponents Matt Zeitlin—is pretty simple:

The goblins, especially as depicted in the movies, are universally hooked nosed, short, unattractive, and green. …Professor Binns’ soporific History of Magic lectures tell tales of centuries of goblin oppression, segregation, mistrust, bad relations, exclusion, and revolts.  Sound like any European ethnic minority you know?  That’s right, Rowlings’ depiction of goblins reflects the type of stereotypes that are more fitting for Russia in the late 19th century or a second rate Gazan newspaper.

As further evidence, Zeitlin offers a side-by-side comparison of an anti-Semitic cartoon with the Warner Brothers’ rendition of a Rowling’s goblin:

Once the goblin-Jew connection is made, it’s easy to prove a dislike for Jews.  After all, Rowling’s distaste for goblins is quite evident.  Rubeus Hagrid – a character inclined to see the good in all people and creatures – warns Harry about goblins in the first 100 pages of the seven book series: “They’re goblins Harry. Clever as they come, goblins, but not the most friendly of beasts.” Deathly Hallows portrays goblins as impassionate neutrals in a fundamentally moral war who ironically play something of a Switzerland banking for the Nazis (Gringotts goblins).  In Goblet of Fire, goblins are more concerned with their money than the terrorization of innocents (World Cup Dark Mark raid).  And, as judged by the only goblin we really get to know in detail – Griphook – goblins are untrustworthy.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but to foist it on Rowling and the Potter series seems unjust.  For one, Rowling does a great deal of borrowing in her stories.  She followed established conventions, endowing her dragons with fiery breath and wings, giving her trolls dim wit and powerful clubs, and her goblins with short stature, hooked noses, and greedy manipulation—archetypes that existed well before Rowling ever put pen to paper.  Perhaps Rowling drew her goblin based on the goblins in the Nineteenth Century poem “Goblin Market,” in which goblins lure and trick with “evil gifts.”  Or consider JRR Tolkein’s goblin—“A foul creature…slightly smaller, sometimes hunched over or appearing to walk and run with limps.”  Or just look up goblin in the dictionary and you find a definition that largely resembles Rowling’s creatures.  Perhaps the goblin character has its origins in anti-Semitism, but Rowling can hardly be convicted of unjust commentary for using a now-familiar Western literary character.

Additionally, the debate over whether the goblin character has its roots in anti-Semitism is wholly unaligned with Rowling’s professed views on Jews. In 2004, Rowling visited a Holocaust Museum and compared the hated “mudblood” and “half-blood” terms used in Harry Potter with the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis: “If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted Aryan or Jewish blood.”  Rowling has also gone on record saying that her evil character—Lord Voldemort—is modeled in part off of Hitler.  Both comments won her comments of praise from Jewish organizations.

Then there are the movies—in which Rowling played an active oversight roll.  The actor that plays Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has a Jewish mother, and the film company that produces the movies, Warner Brothers, owes its start to Hirsz, Abraham, Szmul, and Itzhak Wonskolaser (later changed to Warner).

In the eyes of this aspiring Gryffindor, we Jews can enjoy—without misgiving—the latest, and final, Harry Potter movie.

Shakespeare’s “Merchant of NYC”

By Sarah Breger; Interview by Sophie Taylor

To stage The Merchant of Venice is courageous; to stage The Merchant of Venice so soon after the celebrated Al Pacino-led performance on Broadway even more so. The Washington Shakespeare Theatre’s production—a re-imagining of the play in 1920s New York—certainly does not lack for guts, but this madcap romp through the Lower East Side yields mixed results.

In Director Ethan McSweeny’s beautifully staged production, Venice is New York, Antonio and his fellow gentry are Italian Mafioso—and the Jews? Well, they seem to be Lower East Side Hasidim. Ignoring the fact that the twenties were glory days for Jewish mobsters (think Bugsy Siegal, Meir Lansky et al.) McSweeny chooses to dress his Jews in beards and payos, playing them as insular ultra-Orthodox.  (This was especially disappointing for me, since I was secretly hoping Shylock would be a 1920s secular Yiddishist).

Shylock himself is a diminutive man, soft-spoken, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mark Nelson plays him well as a man weary of society’s cruelty. His Shylock isn’t overly sympathetic or noble: he’s simply tired. McSweeny does not seem overly concerned with Shylock’s ambiguous morality, often rolling over uncomfortable dialogue or painful moments. In some ways this refusal to be a Shylock apologist is a brave move, leaving the audience free to look at the play through other lenses, such as class,  the complex relationship between people and money, and the issue of women as property (both Jessica and Portia are sought out both for their beauty and for their wealth).

Sidelining the Jewish question also allows us to laugh, and McSweeny does put on a funny show. The scenes in Belmont with Portia and her suitors—the Prince of Morocco as a flying baron and the foppish Prince of Aragon, a Maltese in tow—are as clever as any of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The Merchant of Venice is always a confusing and uncomfortable play to watch, and McSweeny’s production unfortunately doesn’t rise to embrace all its complexities. As one friend who saw the production put it: “I’m glad I’ve now seen The Merchant of Venice. But I never want to see it again.” -Sarah Breger

Moment‘s Sophie Taylor sat down with actor Mark Nelson to discuss the significance of setting the play in the 1920s, whether it’s anti-Semitic and how he portrays the unsympathetic Shylock.

Moment: What appeals to you about Shylock?  

Mark Nelson: Blazing poetry. And a kind of perverse integrity in a world of characters with no integrity. Also, the idea that you can care for and even root for a hated outsider— that Shakespeare actually makes us understand him. I’ve always watched the play thinking, I like the ‘bad guy’ better than the ‘good guys.’

In some ways, Jessica’s desire to escape her own Judaism is more disturbing than Shylock’s character.

I think she’s a great character, but the most interesting thing about her to me is her confusion, her ambivalence; about her father, about leaving, about Lorenzo. That love scene in the fifth act between Jessica and Lorenzo is not a love scene—it’s about betrayal. She’s wondering about what moved her to elope, what she’s left behind, and how to go on in a world that will never really embrace her.  She can’t assimilate entirely, and she can’t delete her past.

Do you see Shylock’s integrity in his refusal to assimilate?

Continue reading

United (Nations) We Fall

By Adina Rosenthal

Richard Falk was criticized for posting this cartoon on his blog.

Anthony Weiner may have proved that social media can reveal the naked truth, but a far more stark reality has emerged from the personal blog of the United Nations Special Rapporteur to the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk.  Earlier this month, he posted a cartoon on his personal blog depicting a dog on a leash wearing a kippah bearing the Star of David, bloodied by chewing on a pile of bones while urinating on his owner, Lady Justice. In response, both the United States and Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, have called for U.N. Human High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, to condemn Falk, and demanded his resignation.

Though initially denying the cartoon’s anti-Semitic connotations, as Falk himself is Jewish, he eventually deleted the post and issued an apology, claiming he did not see the Jewish star on the small image, but adding the final caveat: “I am quite aware that many of the messages were motivated to discredit me due to my views of Israeli policies and behavior.”

However, this is not Falk’s first time around the questionable comments block. In his tenure as U.N. Special Rapporteur, Falk has been accused of conflating the personal with the professional, sympathizing with 9/11 conspiracy theories through his infamous blog (you be the judge), likening Israelis to Nazis as perpetrators of a Palestinian Holocaust, and flat-out accusing Israelis of ethnic cleansing. As ADL National Director, Abraham H. Foxman, correctly points out in his letter to U.N. High Commissioner Pillay, “Mr. Falk has a long record of incendiary and blatantly biased criticism of Israel, including statements comparing Israeli defense measures to Nazi atrocities…Such biased behavior and clear intolerance is fundamentally against the values and ideals a Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council should uphold.”

But will the U.N. heed Foxman’s advice and deal with Falk? Don’t count on it. Last week, Rupert Coleville, spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights  (OHCHR), told The Jerusalem Post “that the matter had effectively been dealt with, since Falk had apologized for the cartoon, and although it was ‘clearly unfortunate and shouldn’t have been there,’ it was not the place of the OHCHR to comment.”

U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer, however, disagreed with this assessment in a letter to the OHCHR, citing past precedent as evidence for such condemnation to be within the scope of the OHCHR’s responsibilities. Neuer concluded, “For the U.N. human rights system to be credible in the fight against racism, its own representatives must not be allowed to incite hatred and racial discrimination with impunity.”

Neuer makes an important point. Doesn’t the U.N. have the obligation to uphold its purported commitment to human rights and not turn a deaf ear to its representatives who tarnish this image?

Apparently not when it comes to Israel. The U.N. has a long history of singling out Israel for atrocities and ignoring actions committed against Israelis. Since its inception almost 70 years ago, the U.N. has passed well over 200 resolutions against Israel, more than any other state. Though it was rescinded in December 1991, on November 10, 1975 (the anniversary of Kristallnacht), the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism as tantamount to racism.  To this day, Israel is blocked from serving on both the Security Council, unlike neighbors Syria and Lebanon, and the Human Rights Council, a post Libya held until its membership was suspended in March. Just last week, the U.N. condemned Israel for firing on Lebanese protestors, numbering 10,000, who attempted to breach the border in May, accusing the Jewish state of violating the 2006 cease-fire agreement that ended the six-week conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. In the report, U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon stated, “I call on the Israel Defense Forces to refrain from responding with live fire in such situations, except where clearly required in immediate self-defense.”

 

Based on this ostensibly hypocritical track record regarding Israel versus the rest of the world, Falk’s actions and the U.N.’s response—inaction—seem to meet the status quo. For an organization that claims to be the paragon of human rights and freedoms around the world, the U.N. loses credibility due to its clear anti-Israel bias. United we stand, divided we fall; unless the U.N. gets its act together, the latter will hold true.

No Take Backs

By Steven Philp

There are times when “reclaiming”—politically redefining a word or symbol—goes a little too far. On Sunday, July 3 members of a small, but growing, religious sect called the International Raelian Movement (IRM) set up shop at Pride Toronto 2011 to raise awareness about their organization, featuring a rather curious juxtaposition in their official logo: a star of David intertwined with a swastika. This is not the first time that their chosen symbol has caused controversy; as detailed in an article from Trinity College, over its 35-year history the IRM has faced criticism from both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for resurrecting the swastika. After a brief hiatus from incorporating the swastika in to their symbolism—supposedly out of concern for its negative association with the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) Party—in 2007 the leader of IRM announced that they would permanently revive the original logo. Over the past four years IRM has engaged in a campaign to “take it back.” According to an article posted by the Toronto Sun, when IRM was denied a position in the Pride Toronto parade—which serves as a celebration of the Canadian LGBTQ community—it set up a booth near the festivities, to “remove the negativity attached to [the swastika].”

“For religions like Jainism and Buddhism, the swastika represented luck, well-being, harmony and peace,” explained Diane Brisebois, a spokesperson for IRM, to the Toronto Sun. “When people think of the swastika, they immediately think of the Nazis and we want to change that.” Although she was disappointed that the organization was not allowed to participate in the parade—understandable, considering the Nazi position toward the LGBTQ community—she mentioned plans for a rival parade next year that would reclaim the swastika. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, spokesperson Brigitte Boisselier claimed that its historical origin in “many peaceful religious groups, especially in Asia” gives historical reason to reclaim the symbol. Indeed the swastika is still used among practitioners of several Eastern faith traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Its earliest archaeological records date it to 2500 B.C.E. in the Indus Valley, before it spread across South and East Asia. Using the symbol may be tone-deaf in the West, but an argument can be made that in some places it is regarded as an auspicious symbol.

Yet why the Star of David? Apparently the IRM is not only fond of borrowing symbols from the Jewish tradition, but several words as well. The organization—whose non-theist faith Raelism has been compared to Scientology—was founded in 1974 after French-born Claude Vorilhon (now called Rael) encountered a being named Yahweh while walking in the woods. Through conversations with Yahweh, Vorilhon learned that human beings are the end result of scientific experiments conducted by extraterrestrial beings called Elohim. Small in stature, individuals from this species have been mistaken for angels, cherubim or divine spirits by human eyes. Over time the Elohim have contacted select human beings to carry their messages; these include people like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and other faith leaders. This, he claims, has created a succession of religions, starting with older traditions like Judaism. Vorilhon was given their final message through Yahweh, to pacify the earth so that we may be welcomed in to the fold of the Elohim. This includes establishing a global government, formed around a meritocracy of intellect and the tenets of voluntarism; this is to say, the intelligent rule, while adherents conduct themselves as they see fit.

Over the years, the IRM endorsed attention-getting practices such as human cloning, their liberal consideration of sexuality, and—of course—their logo. Yet concerning the latter, the group says intertwining two opposing symbols was not done to step on toes, but rather speak to their core beliefs. As Boisselier explained, by combining juxtaposed elements the logo speaks to “the infinity of time.” Their claim to borrowing from preceding traditions to build the “ultimate faith,” seems circumspect, considering they do not incorporate iconography from any other religious group.

Their attempt to “take back” the swastika does raise interesting questions concerning what cultural signifiers—visual or verbal—can be reclaimed, and by whom. Instances of minority groups reappropriating symbols used by the Nazi Party are few and far between. Perhaps the only prominent example of such a shift is the use of the pink triangle by the LGBTQ community, now a prominent symbol at pride parades, on gay-friendly businesses, or LGBTQ monuments. The pink triangle, or rosa winkel, marked prisoners detained for suspected or confirmed homosexuality; it was part of a larger system of triangular badges used to identify concentration camp victims, of which the Star of David (two interposed yellow triangles) was part.  Yet in the case of the pink triangle, it was the minority community in question that “reclaimed” the symbol. The fact that the swastika has maintained its negative symbolism through modern Neo-Nazi organizations makes it especially inappropriate for an organization with no connection to reclaim it. Although we can acknowledge the positive sentiment behind the desire to redefine the swastika for Western audiences, it seems that—for some symbols—there are no take backs.

Revolutionary American Jews

By Adina Rosenthal

“You’re Jewish, so do you celebrate Independence Day?” When you live in a small town with a small Jewish population, such a question is commonplace. Though the reply may be polite (with an inconspicuous jaw-drop, of course), I really want to scream, “Jews enjoy fireworks, barbecues and a day-off from work like everyone else! We’re Americans too, after all!”  Why do people think American Jews don’t celebrate holidays that commemorate American history with dear old Uncle Sam?

Perhaps the reason is that when people look back on this country’s founding, they think of names like John, Thomas and James; not Moishe, Dovid, and Shlomo. Jews are thought of as immigrants who came to the United States about 100 years ago with strong ties to Eastern Europe and, eventually, Israel, so what part could they possibly have played back in 1776?  As it turns out, Jews were in the thick of the American Revolution.

Of the 2.5 million colonists in 1776, the Jewish population in America numbered no more than 2,000. These Jews were mostly Sephardic, of Spanish and Portuguese origin, emigrating from South America, the Caribbean and Western Europe to the American colonies. Despite such small numbers, Jews played an active role in the American cause on a variety of fronts. Financially, Jews like Jonas Philips, who had business connections to their coreligionists in the West Indies, became blockade-runners, jeopardizing their ships to bring goods through the British blockade on American ports.

Among investors, Polish-born Jewish immigrant Haym Solomon, played a significant role in financing the revolution. After being arrested as a spy by the British in 1776, Solomon was pardoned and served as an interpreter for the Hessians (German troops hired to fight for the British). In this role, Solomon helped prisoners escape and encouraged the Hessian mercenaries to desert, resulting in another arrest and a death sentence. Fortunately, Solomon managed to escape to the patriot capital, Philadelphia, where he used his financial acumen to support the rebels, lending thousands of dollars to the Continental Congress and advancing the American government $200,000 during the war effort. Solomon also supported his fellow Jews, becoming an influential member of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Congregation and advocating to repeal the restrictive laws that barred non-Christians from serving in public office. In 1975, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Solomon as a “Financial Hero…responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.”

Jews also served bravely on the battlefield side-by-side with their non-Jewish compatriots. Examples include Lieutenant Colonel David S. Franks, an adjutant to Benedict Arnold; Dr. Philip Moses Russell, George Washington’s surgeon; and Colonel Solomon Bush, adjutant general of the Pennsylvania militia. In Charleston, South Carolina, location of the largest American Jewish population until 1830, most Jews served on the American side of the conflict, with one regiment comprising so many Jews that it became known as the “Jew Company.” One important Jewish South Carolinian, Francis Salvador, championed the American cause as a member of the South Carolina General Assembly, the first Jew to hold the office in any of the American colonies. Salvador served as a delegate to the revolutionary Provincial Congress, which set forth the colonists’ complaints against Britain, as well as on a commission that attempted to convince the Loyalists throughout the colony to join the American cause. Unfortunately, Salvador could not see his efforts come to fruition, as he died in combat in 1776, becoming the first Jewish casualty of the war. In 1950, to celebrate the bicentennial of Charleston’s Jewish community, the City of Charleston erected a plaque in commemoration of Salvador that reads:

Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat, an Englishman, he cast his lot with America.
True to his ancient faith, he gave his life for new hopes of human liberty and understanding.

Jewish participation in the American cause did not go unnoticed in revolutionary times either. In response to a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington wrote:

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This letter not only set the standard for religious freedom in the fledgling nation, but also solidified Jews as citizens in the newly created United States of America.

So, on Independence Day, I will raise my Hebrew National hotdog in the air to commemorate the Jewish patriots who served this country in the American Revolution, who fought for our freedoms and our livelihoods, which include allowing us to live as both proud Jews and Americans.  No questions asked.