Tag Archives: Jews

Yizkor Education

By Adina Rosenthal

British historian Sir Ian Kershaw famously wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” a sentiment that provides much rationale for solid Holocaust education today.

However, despite its clear importance, Holocaust education is not always the norm in schools. In 2007, a controversy erupted over Britain dropping required subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from History curriculums due to fear of Muslim discontent. But the study citing Muslim opposition was debunked—only a small number of teachers at two schools involved in the study reported incidents—and the British have rebounded since the incident.

In a recent article, the Jerusalem Post reported that British teachers have been brought to Israel as part of a three-week course on making the Holocaust more accessible to students. Funded by the Holocaust Education Trust, a UK-based organization that aims “to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today,” twenty teachers from across the UK participated in this ten-day course at Yad Vashem that include seminars and workshops on anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish life between the World Wars, and the Final Solution. Speaking on the importance of Holocaust education, one participant stated, “Historical truth has to be the foundation of what we do and facing up to the truth is the best defense against those who would deny it or passively accept that it happened without learning anything from it.”

Not all countries require Holocaust education as part of the curriculum. In the United States, the states, not the federal government, determine what is taught in public schools. According to a 2004 Holocaust Task Force report, while most states have created social studies standards for the classroom and about half the states have explicitly mentioned the Holocaust in these standards, only ten percent of states have a legislative mandate to teach the Holocaust in the classroom.  Though there have been some improvements, including Virginia calling for teacher manuals on the Holocaust and Maryland establishing “a Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education in the state,” few states have updated their legislation since the report was issued. Even if imperfect, in the West, education on the Holocaust, genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur, and other worrisome situations evolving around the world, has been largely admirable.  Not so in the Middle East.

According to Hannah Rosenthal, the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, “One of my primary goals this year is to address the issue of intolerance in textbooks and in the media in the Middle East,” which included meeting with Saudi religious and education scholars about the importance of teaching the Holocaust. Most Middle Eastern countries do not teach the Holocaust, and, according to one article, “Some even include verses from the Quran that they use to justify intolerance and violence against non-Muslims, primarily Jews and Christians.”

In Gaza, the tension concerning Holocaust education has also been mounting. According to an Associated Press article, the United Nations is launching a plan to teach Holocaust education in Gazan schools this September, despite promises by Hamas to block such an initiative and the West Bank and PLO’s disapproval. According to the article, many Palestinians are loath to recognize the Jewish tragedy because they fear it will minimize their own suffering. “Views range from outright denial to challenging the scope of the Holocaust.” Schoolteachers also expressed hostility toward teaching about the Holocaust, with one teacher warning, “The [United Nations] will open the gates of hell with this step. This will not work.”

But proponents of such an initiative see the lessons from the Holocaust as an especially important educational experience for the Arab world. “Instead of pre-emptive accusations, it is important for Palestinians…to fully understand the tragedies and suffering that happened to all people through generations, without divvying up facts and taking things out of context.” Moreover, in a recent New York Times piece, the authors write, “If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.”

As Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin best stated, “Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is.”

A Goy in Jews’ Clothing

By Steven Philp

Considering the cultural significance of the kippah, it is safe to assume that an individual who chooses to wear one on a regular basis is Jewish.  But what happens when a non-Jew chooses to don the iconic skullcap? This week a man filed papers at a federal court claiming that he became the subject of ridicule when he decided to wear a yarmulke to work. Ciro Rosselli is a 29-year-old Italian-American who lives in Queens, NY—and is not, by descent, choice or self-identification, Jewish. According to an the New York Post, Rosselli is a practitioner of theosophy—a philosophical tradition founded in the 19th century that seeks to reconcile scientific and religious knowledge through the pursuit of a unifying truth. According to his lawsuit, Rosselli started to wear the kippah as part of his spiritual exploration. Yet when he showed up to work wearing a yarmulke, his peers at McKinsey & Company—an international business consulting firm—explained that his choice in headgear was not, in their opinion, kosher. His supervisor demanded that Rosselli take the yarmulke off, stating: “You’re creeping me out.” Later his boss, Gina Denardo, sent him an e-mail with a subject line that read “Madge Rosselli,” paralleling his appropriation of the yarmulke to pop superstar Madonna’s controversial embrace of Kabbalah. Another coworker accused him of wearing a kippah “to hide his bald spot.”

In an interview with the Post, Rosselli explained that he adopted the practice of theosophy in 2007, the same year he was hired as an executive assistant at McKinsey. Inspired by the works of Helena Blavatsky, theosophy took root in New York at the close of the 19th century. It ascribes to the motto, “There is no religion higher than truth,” and included broad anti-discrimination clauses in its founding doctrines. This embrasure of cultural variety is what inspired Rosselli to adopt the practice of wearing a kippah. “It is about finding truth in all religions,” he explained. “I’m still learning all of the different facets.”

Yet it is the fact that Rosselli is not, as one coworker put it, a “real Jew” that he received such strong criticism. According to the lawsuit, when he showed up to his office wearing the yarmulke in question, one of his peers stated: “You can’t be Jewish if you’re Italian.”  This statement draws forth several important questions for the Jewish community. First, it shows a general ignorance of the diversity of world Jewry; Jews of Italian decent have a history dating back to the 2nd century B.C.E.  Second, regardless of the fact that Rosselli does not identify as a Jew, what is a “real Jew?” This question has been debated for centuries, and has led to both broad and narrow definitions of Jewish identification, yet it gets to the heart of the matter, which will be asked in the official consideration of Rosselli’s case: does one need to be a “real Jew” to appropriate aspects of Jewish culture or faith-practice? From an American legal standpoint, no: One does not need to be a Jew to engage in the Jewish customs.

Yet from the perspective of our community, how comfortable are we with allowing non-Jews to adopt elements of our identity?  Do we fear that they will misrepresent us, or dilute our unique cultural identifiers?  The fact of the matter is, Jewish culture has already seeped past the bounds of our community. From words like “klutz” or “mensch” to delicatessens and kosher salt, there are pieces of the Jewish community embedded deep within the common property of American culture. Rather than resist curious minds who are trying on a new hat—or yarmulke—perhaps we should welcome individuals like Rosselli as opportunities to share more of our heritage, explaining its significance, and adding it to the broad composition of national identity.

Why Should Zion Mourn?

By Adina Rosenthal

“The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn assembly; all her gates are desolate… and she herself is in bitterness.” These words are found in the opening lines of Eichah, The Book of Lamentations, read each year on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Known as one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av commemorates the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, particularly the destructions of both the First and Second Temple and the subsequent creation of the Jewish Diaspora. Serving as the culmination of the three-week period of mourning, beginning with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz,  Tisha B’Av is customarily observed by fasting from sunset to sunset, refraining from bathing, and reciting Eichah, Jeremiah’s poetic lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple. In addition, some other customs forbid celebration of weddings and other parties, cutting one’s hair, and, from the first to the ninth of Av, eating meat, drinking wine or wearing new clothes.

Beyond the biblical, Tisha B’Av also commemorates other tragedies of great consequence in Jewish history, many that actually fell on the already inauspicious day. After reciting Eicha, the Tisha B’Av service continues with Kinnot, elegies that recall the destruction of the Second Temple as well as disasters like the Crusades (Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, in which thousands of Jews were slaughtered, on Tisha B’Av in the year 1095) and the Holocaust (Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp began on Tisha B’Av, 1942). Other tragic events include the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the culmination of the Spanish Inquisition with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, and the declaration of war on Germany by Britain and Russia in 1914 to begin World War I.

Despite the significance of these historical, catastrophic events that have shaped Jewish history and are still mourned to some degree, they are just that—historical events. While some Jews feel these events like a fresh wound, most people memorialize such tragedies, rather than feel the weight of their impact on their lives. In The Jewish Week, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz evocatively states, “We tend to forget almost everything; the sharpness and the colors of things past become tarnished. And even when they are written down or memorialized another way, events become smaller with time. This happens even to strong personal memories, and surely to memories that are transmitted from one person to another, surely over many generations.”

Moreover, the question arises whether such a day need be commemorated in the 21st century at all. Eicha mourns the loss of Zion, the exile of the Jewish people, and the affliction and hardships that seem to follow the Jews wherever they go. Today, a Jewish state of Israel exists, most Jews either live in Israel or choose to live in a democratic state that recognizes their religious freedoms, and the word “Jew” and “affliction” are no longer necessarily synonymous. Not all Jews want to rebuild the Temple, nor do they want to end their status as Jews in exile. If Jews are comfortable with the 21st century status quo, does Tisha B’Av simply serve as a souvenir to an identity of old rather than a continuous reminder of Jewish suffering?

It doesn’t have to be. For those who find difficulty in commemorating a distant past, Tisha B’Av can serve as a reminder of the sadness that still befalls the Jewish people in the modern age. Anti-Semitism and bigotry still exist, Israelis don’t live in peace, and, as Rabbi Steinsaltz also poignantly points out in his piece, “The lack of unity, the lack of common purpose, the loss of the feeling that we are one people: all these began about 2,000 years ago…If there is something to mourn—these are the results of Tisha B’Av that should be mourned.”

Moreover, Tisha B’Av serves as a reminder “for the quest of  justice, of hope and of light, and above everything an innermost will to stand up to evil, to defend those who are weak and who need a  compassionate and strong human being to stand by them and say ‘no’ to  injustice.”

As Eicha poetically laments, “The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning…Restore us to yourself, G-d, that we may return; renew our days as of old.” No matter the motivation, Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn, pray, and turn our hardships into hope for the future.

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.