Monthly Archives: September 2012

The St. Louis, Then and Now

By Sarah Breger

The contentious debate over Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his actions during the Holocaust is ongoing. There are those who argue that FDR was a true friend to the Jews, who led the United States to victory against the Nazis; others say that FDR turned a blind eye to reports of what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

The St. Louis has become a symbol of the United States perceived indifference. In 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Germany with 938 Jewish passengers seeking refuge in Cuba. After being refused entry, the ship searched for other safe havens, including the U.S. From the port of Miami, passengers sent FDR cables begging for refuge. Their pleas were denied and the ship was forced to sail back to Europe. About 1/3 died in Auschwitz.

For Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal, the refusal to give these passengers refuge was a moral failure of the U.S., particularly the State Department.  A U.S. State department ceremony this Monday, marking the 73rd anniversary of the St. Louis’s voyage, was intended to “take care of some unfinished business,” Rosenthal said. The program’s goal was to face “our government agency’s responsibility,” she added.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns echoed that sentiment, saying, “our government did not live up to its responsibility,” and later adding, “to the survivors of the MS St. Louis, on behalf of the president and secretary of state, I am honored to say what we should’ve said so long ago, welcome.”

The event included a performance of the play The Trial of FDR, by Robert M Krakow, president of the SS St. Louis Legacy Project. In the play, FDR faces a judicial court on the charges of sacrificing humanitarian need for his own political gain. Witnesses brought to testify include Joe Kennedy who served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938-1940, Cordell Hull, Secretary of State under FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.

It’s interesting that the State Department brought this play in for the event. While there is a “defense” and a “prosecution,” it paints a very negative portrait of FDR.

Take a look at the opening statement:

“The Prosecution will demonstrate that his failure to act was motivated out of the Defendant’s lust for power and his single-minded determination to win the 1940 and 1944 elections. Furthermore, that the political decisions he made to further his presidential ambitions sent a message to the Third Reich that the European Jewish community was expendable.”

And the closing statement:

“Members of the jury, we ask that you hold the Defendant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, accountable for being complicit in Crimes Against Humanity. His presidency, for all its good, exposed the dangers of exceeding the term limit tradition established by the founding fathers. They feared a return to the monarchy with its inherent threats to the republic. The Defendant was perpetually seeking to maintain power and as such made decisions the consequences of which were disastrous for humanity.”

Following the performance a panel of survivors of the St. Louis answered audience questions. On a question about forgiveness, Eva Wiener, who was two years old on the St. Louis, said: “We who have come to the U.S. had to come to terms with what it would be like to enter a country that began by rejecting us.” She added: “And I have accepted the fact that the government of 1939 was not the government of 1946 when I arrived here. Thank goodness eyes were opened, not completely, but somewhat, and I was then allowed to come to the United States and establish my life and pursue my dreams.”

Win a free iPad (really!!)

The Republican Jewish Coalition is giving away iPads to volunteers who rack up enough phone banking hours ahead of the November elections.

For 50 hours of phone time, volunteers will get the $599 iPad 3 and for 40 hours, they’re being offered the $499 version.

“It’s a token way of saying thank you for people who are giving up a lot of time,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks told the Forward.

That translates to more than just a token thank you, but with donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the RJC can apparently afford it.

Poll: Most Jewish Israelis dissatisfied with government policies on religion

More than three quarters of Jewish Israelis are dissatisfied with government policies on religion, while 67% believe that the country’s ultra-Orthodox are driving a wedge between the general public and Judaism, according to a recently released study.

The public opinion poll, conducted by Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel, also found that the rift between secular and haredi Israelis was deemed more “acute” than those between the country’s political right and left. Both, meanwhile, far surpassed the perceived rifts between Israel’s rich and poor.

This is the group’s fourth annual ‘Religion and State Index’ and is the largest ongoing public opinion study on matters of religion and state in Israel. It comes at a time when religious tensions in Israel are growing amidst what many perceive to be ultra-Orthodox’s increased influence on the public sphere. Gender segregation on public buses and the exclusion of women from the public sphere are on the rise, and fanning tensions are the ongoing draft exemptions that yeshiva students continue to receive.

“The public wants freedom of religion and equality in shouldering the civic burden, but receives the opposite all because of surrender to political extortion,” says Rabbi Uri Regev, the group’s president and former head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.


The poll, which surveyed 800 Israelis, also found that64 percent of the public, including 56 percent of religious Jews, support making segregation of women in the public domain a criminal offense, while 78 percent support reducing public funding for yeshivas and large families in order to encourage haredi males to enter the workforce.  Eighty-three percent, meanwhile, believe that yeshiva students should be obligated to serve in either military or civil service, while 72 percent reject the often-touted haredi claim that yeshiva study— and not military service— ensures Israel’s safety.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a haredi group based in New York, says that the poll only serves to fan the flames of internal conflict.

“The goal of Hiddush, which is headed by the former head of the political arm of the Reform movement in Israel, is to promote American-style ‘Jewish pluralism’ in Israel,” he said.  “It has thus far failed to attract very many Israelis to that vision, since most Israelis, however conflicted they may be about elements of Judaism, recognize that our religion has a history and definition, and is not silly putty to be re-formed by contemporary social mores.  What Hiddush has been unable to accomplish ‘on the ground,’ apparently, it is seeking to advance by fanning the flames of inter-Israeli strife.  All Jews of good will, whatever their level or type of Jewish observance, should hope it fails there too.”



Kosher food fight

A legal battle over kosher food for Jewish prisoners in Texas begins Monday.

Max Moussazadeh, a Persian Jew who was convicted of murder in 1993 and was originally sentenced to 75 years in prison, says that withholding kosher food is a breach of his religious rights and violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Currently, thirty-five states and the federal government provide Jewish inmates with a kosher diet. Texas, however, has refused to provide a strictly kosher diet to Moussazadeh. The case will be heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

The Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm that is arguing on his behalf, has said that providing kosher food would come at minimal cost and would represent less than .02 percent of the Texas prison system’s annual food budget.  They also argue that mounting evidence suggests that increased religious programming reduces violence and that prisoners who attend religious events fewer disciplinary reports.

David Brooks and Robert Siegel Talk “National Shtetl Radio”

National Shtetl Radio? That’s the lineage that David Brooks imagined for himself and Robert Siegel–newly discovered by Moment to have genetic ties that might make them fourth cousins–last week on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” What kind of shows would NSR air? “All Pogroms Considered,” Brooks speculated. Yes. Listen to the whole thing here.

Debating War With Iran

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits New York this week for the UN General Assembly, the question of Iran and what the United States and Israel should do is on everyone’s minds. Here’s a roundup of opinions on both sides of the debate.

A top Israeli security official explains the Iranian nuclear threat, saying, “A nuclear Iran is one of the gravest things that could happen to Israel. If Iran goes nuclear, everything here will be different. Everything. We will shift into a different state of existence.” [Haaretz]

Jamie Fly and Bill Kristol call on President Obama to take action against Iran, writing, “The real and credible threat of force is probably the last hope of persuading the Iranian regime to back down. So: Isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for an Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program?” [The Weekly Standard]

Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton writes that sanctions and containment won’t work, so a pre-emptive military strike is the “only other option.” [USA Today]

Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig writes: “The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.” [Foreign Affairs]

Former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, writes: “Today, Israel sees the prospect of a nuclear Iran that calls for our annihilation as an existential threat.” [New York Times]

A bipartisan group of senior foreign policy experts—including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Senator Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Thomas Pickering—have released a report warning that an attack on Iran would only set the country’s nuclear program back four years. Ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon would involve a prolonged conflict, which would inflict “serious costs to U.S. interests” and “lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.”

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says in an interview, “We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it.” [CBS]

Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg lays out seven reasons Israel should not attack Iran, which include the loss of innocent lives and the possibility that a strike may speed up Iran’s nuclear capabilities. [The Atlantic]

L. Michael Hager, co-founder of Italy’s International Development Law Organization, writes: “Under the strict wording of the [United Nations] Charter, neither Israel nor the United States would have a legal right to preemptively launch a military strike on Iran.” [Christian Science Monitor]

A New York Times article details the strategic difficulties of an Israeli attack on Iran, which would require pilots to “fly more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace, refuel in the air en route, fight off Iran’s air defenses, attack multiple underground sites simultaneously—and use at least 100 planes.” [New York Times]

Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns writes: “[T]he United States should do all it can to avoid war and look for another way to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.” [Boston Globe]

A Measured Feast

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Contemporary poetry on Jewish religious subjects is rare in America outside the pages of specialized Jewish publications. Thus, Peg Duthie’s delightful new collection Measured Extravagance (Upper Rubber Boot Books) is doubly welcome.

Full disclosure: Peg and I attended the University of Chicago together, and she was a regular contributor to a student poetry magazine I founded and edited. That was more than twenty years ago, and her poetic gifts have if anything expanded and deepened over time.

Measured Extravagance contains only 35 poems, which in olden times would have made it a “chapbook.” Since it is available only in e-book format, I suppose we must call it an “e-chapbook.” There are disadvantages to this format, especially for a poet who makes such artful use of line and stanza breaks as Duthie does, and I found myself printing the whole thing out for a better view of what she was up to

For example, in the seasonably appropriate “Kol Nidre,” Duthie makes her line-breaks occasions for building suspense and the dropping of small surprises:

Sloppy work,

she tells Him. I can’t love anyone

proud of setting me up to fail.

The poem captures perfectly the ambivalence of the modern American Jew estranged from her religion and yet still tied to the tradition through ambiguous, dubious emotional bonds:

…Yet, the years

she pretended the holidays weren’t hers,

she felt like an incomplete book, like a spine

losing its glue, pages dropping away

before their time.

“Shehechianu,” titled after the prayer recited to thank God for “enabling us” to live to see a holiday or other special occasion, explores the disjuncture between religious experience and modern hyper-secularism, and whether there is any spiritual value to be found in the latter:

After sundown,

after its prayers

leave me more restless than at rest,

I walk past clusters of clubgoers,

of people in line for shows, for seats

in small booths and at narrow tables.



am not waiting

to be served

or saved.

I am here

to be moved

by how you are holding your breath.

A minor epiphany, to be sure, and perhaps an unsatisfying one. There is more raw emotional power in the poem “In Memory Of,” where no religious comfort seems to be available to comfort the mourner:

My aunt hanged herself, but her children

told the press she’d overdosed on pills.

It was in fact pills for the boyfriend of

my then best friend…

There are cautious experiments with form and rhyme, notably in the smudged villanelle “Schrödinger’s Top Hat” (a form I have experimented with myself). Peg is a poet we must hope to hear more from.