Category Archives: History

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.”

Recordings of German Soldiers’ Conversations Rediscovered

New research has unearthed conversations among German POWs during World War II–recorded by British intelligence–that reveals the extent to which some German soldiers knew about the slaughter of Jews. In Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying, authors Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer detail their findings in the British national archives and the National Archives in the United States. Among the many chilling conversations recorded is this one between Lieutenant General Heinrich Kittel and another prisoner of war named Felbert:

Felbert: Have you also known places from which the Jews have been removed?

Kittel: Yes.

Felbert: Was that carried out quite systematically?

Kittel: Yes.

Felbert: Women and children—everybody?

Kittel: Everybody. Horrible!

Felbert: What did they do to the children?

Kittel (very excited): They seized three-year old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it; the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Security Service of the SS] had roped the area off and the people were standing watching from about 300 m. off. The Latvians and the German soldiers were just standing there, looking on.

 

Jesus’ wife?

The Da Vinci Code—which popularized the notion that Jesus was married—is back in the news with the discovery of a fourth century papyrus text written in Coptic that refers to “Jesus’ wife.” But scholars say that the discovery does little to prove the theory, other than show that such speculation is nearly 2,000 years old.

“There is zero evidence that he was married,” says Lawrence Schiffman, a Dead Sea scroll expert who has also studied early Christianity extensively. “This text just shows that some people in the fourth century believed he was married.”

Mary Magdalene is often believed to be Jesus’ wife and in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, there are even references to a “close relationship” between the two.

“One text refers to a kiss on the lips but just because they kissed on the mouth doesn’t mean they were married. If she was his wife, why wouldn’t the texts have said so? This was nothing to be embarrassed about in ancient Israel, when most men were married.”

Schiffman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University and formerly Chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, says that the text is important in showing that some early Christians wanted a Jesus narrative in which women play a more prominent role. “Mary Magdalene is a tantalizing figure. She’s mysterious and Jesus’ early followers want to know what’s going on.”

The text, he adds, points to a dynamic religious tradition that changed over time. “Just like Judaism, Christianity isn’t a one-shot creation. There are developments over time and new ideas expressed every century.”

And Schiffman, like Karen King, the Harvard historian who discovered the text, says that even with the discovery, The Da Vinci Code should remain strictly relegated to the fiction department because despite what Dan Brown might think, Josephus, the Roman Historian Tacitus and the Gospels all report that Jesus was killed in the crucifixion. Says Schiffman: “There’s no evidence he survived.”

Arabian Nights, Jewish Dreams

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Janice Weizman’s The Wayward Moonmarks a refreshing departure in the Jewish historical novel, which is all too prone to focus on a limited range of well-known subjects and the theme of Jewish victimization. The setting in the 9th century Middle East is one that even avid readers of Jewish-themed history and historical fiction are unlikely to be familiar with, if they have thought about

The Wayward Moon
By Janice Weizman
Yotzeret Publishing, $14.95

it at all. Weizman, a Canadian immigrant to Israel and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, a literary journal affiliated with the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University, brings this time and place vividly to life with lively descriptions of the sights, sounds, odors and tastes of the region.

Our heroine, a 17-year-old girl named Rahel, lives in Sura in what is now Iraq, a famous center of Talmudic learning. When her physician father is murdered by a Muslim rival jealous of his appointment as advisor to the local ruler, which he has reluctantly accepted for the sake of the Jewish community, Rahel kills the murderer in self-defense and immediately flees the city to escape the vengeance of the killer’s family. The novel consists of her adventures traveling alone through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Galilee. It is an exciting story, as the pampered Rahel draws on inner resources she didn’t know she had to survive in a hostile world.

One of the many virtues of The Wayward Moon is that it avoids both of the fashionable extremes with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations—the gauzy sentimentality centering around the “Golden Age” in Muslim-ruled Spain, according to which Muslims were supremely tolerant of their Jewish neighbors until, it is implied, the Zionists came along and ruined everything, and an equally one-sided and historically unfounded view of the entire sweep of Muslim-Jewish relations over a dizzying range of cultures through more than a millennium as an unrelieved hell. Instead, Weizman shows the nuances and conflicts that existed within Islam, and quite reasonably suggests that individual Muslims held different views of how they should relate to their Christian and Jewish neighbors.

A generous humanism pervades the novel, as Weizman suggests that Jews, Muslims and Christians of good faith can find common ground. Without criticizing this spirit, however, I found it unconvincing that 9th century Muslim and Christian intellectuals would have expressed themselves in post-Enlightenment terminology, accepting all of the “monotheistic” religions as at least potentially equally worthy. The hardest task of the historical novelist is to get into the different mentality of his or her chosen historical setting, and while Weizman has clearly done her research, she has not made this leap with complete success.

Moreover, one gets the sense that Rahel’s adventures are driven at times by a perceived need to offer the reader a travelogue. Sold into slavery? Check. Visited a monastery? Check. Traveled with a caravan? Check. Stayed in a colorful inn? Check. Similarly, some of the characters seem to be there for their pedagogical value, and the Jewish characters except for Rahel tend to be two-dimensional kindly and pious cutouts. It’s a little odd in a Jewish historical novel to find that the non-Jewish characters are frequently more fully realized than the Jewish ones. I also found myself getting impatient with Weizman’s overuse of the timeworn plot device of the woman disguised as a man, the fantastic ease with which a girl who has never ridden a horse becomes a skilled horseman literally overnight, and the deus ex machina conclusion that suggests the author really didn’t know how to end the novel.

These flaws should not deter readers from buying this entertaining and thought-provoking novel. I hope Ms. Weizman will bring us more spunky, smart, strong Jewish heroines like Rahel.

The (True) Myth of the Jewish Democrat

By Daniela Enriquez

Elections are around the corner and once again the question presents itself—are Jews by nature Democrats? That American Jews tend to lean left is not news. After all, 74 percent of Jews voted for President Obama in 2008; the only group that voted more heavily for him was African Americans. However, the November elections are going to be quite interesting from this point of view. On one hand, Republicans keep saying that Jewish support for President Obama will decrease over the coming months. On the other hand, the GOP candidate, if elected, would become the first Mormon president and it’s hard to know whether this would impact “new world” Jewry and its relationship with Israel.

In the latest issue of Moment Magazine, we analyzed the most famous—and infamous—Jewish myths of all times; that got me thinking, so I decided to look around the latest political commentary to find out if there is any news regarding Jewish voters that could support or debunk the myth of the Jewish Democrat.

What I found is not exactly a scoop; it was, however, quite interesting.  In fact, a newly released report by the North American Jewish Data Bank, “Jewish American Voting Behaviour 1972-2008,” upends the claim that Jewish voters are starting to swing to the right, showing that Jews are still voting overwhelmingly for Democrats, and that their support for liberal candidates is actually increasing, not decreasing.

The study shows that between 1972 and 1988, Republican candidates won 31 to 37 percent of the Jewish vote, and that in later decades, between 1988 and 2008, Jewish support for Republicans dropped to 15 to 23 percent. The report also shows that Jewish support for Democratic congressional candidates is even higher than for presidential candidates. According to these researchers, these numbers not only demonstrate that the majority of Jews have been, and will continue to be, liberal, but also that they tend to be more Democratic than all other Americans.

Despite this trend, some polls show that Jewish support for President Obama may be slipping. Right now, the president would receive 64 percent of Jewish votes, compared to 29 percent of Mitt Romney’s.

After reading through the report, two questions occupied my mind—if true, why is the number of Democratic Jews is declining? And how much does “Israel” matter in terms of political voting decisions?

For one, as Dr. Rafael Medoff writes, the relationship between the GOP and American Jewry has changed over the past few decades. When Jewish immigrants arrived, they where scared by what they considered a “WASP-only country clubs” Party, and found common values with the Democratic Party. But the situation has changed. The Republican Party has abandoned much of its old anti-Semitism, and is moving toward many Jewish values and needs. Now, not only do many Jews vote Republican, but several prominent American Jews are giving considerable amounts of money to Republican campaigns. One important example is the donations given by Sheldon Adelson to Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney’s campaign.

According to Dr. Gilbert N. Kahn, writing in New Jersey Jewish News, every year many American Jews decide not to register for any party. They prefer to define themselves as liberals or independents rather than Democrats, and don’t want to be affiliated with any political institution. This means that in the states where it is necessary to register with a party in order to vote for its primary, many are not allowed to vote. Thus, statistics on Jews voting in Democratic primaries show that Jewish participation is decreasing. And that is the reason why the number of American Jews who vote for Democrats seems to decline!

Continuing to read Mr. Kahn’s article, I found the answer to my second question. According to an April 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, Israel and its relations with the United States are not the most important issues that American Jews think about when choosing a candidate to vote for. Just four percent of the Jewish population put Israel at the top of their political priority list. The majority prefers to give more importance to the issues of health care and the economy.

To summarize, American Jews are still overwhelmingly Democrats—although many prefer to be called liberals, and don’t always register officially as members of the Democratic Party. However, many Jews are still Republicans and willing to help the GOP to win the elections. Thus, the race for the November presidential elections is still quite open, and Jews are an important part of the equation!

TIAA-CREF Divests from Caterpillar

By Julia Glauberman

In recent weeks, TIAA-CREF, a leading financial services organization that manages nearly $500 billion in assets, has announced that it will remove Caterpillar, Inc. from its socially responsible investment portfolio and to sell Caterpillar’s shares, which are worth around $73 million. Like the company’s move to divest from companies with business ties to the Sudanese government three years ago, this decision comes after much contentious debate on the subject.

Caterpillar has recently been the target of criticism for selling bulldozers to the IDF, which uses the machines to demolish Palestinian homes in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, TIAA-CREF’s public relations department has avoided citing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the source of its decision, instead pointing to Caterpillar’s recent downgrading in MSCI’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) ratings index.

TIAA-CREF’s apparent desire to distance itself from this decision and any related controversy is not surprising. Prior to MSCI’s revision of its ESG index, TIAA-CREF released a statement in response to calls to divest from Caterpillar that included the following: “While TIAA-CREF acknowledges participants’ varying views on Israeli and Palestinian policies and the Gaza Strip and West Bank, we are unable to alter our investment policy in accordance with those views.” But unlike TIAA-CREF, MSCI has acknowledged the conflict as one of three “key factors” that led to the ESG index revision.

Since TIAA-CREF’s announcement of its decision to divest, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and the Rachel Corrie Foundation are claiming the divestment as an indisputable victory. Whether or not the MSCI and TIAA-CREF decisions resulted directly from the actions taken by these groups, advocates of divestment surely have reason to celebrate. This is especially true for Craig and Cindy Corrie, parents of the late Rachel Corrie and creators of the foundation that bears her name. Rachel Corrie, a college student from Olympia, Washington, was killed in Gaza in 2003 after putting herself between a bulldozer and a Palestinian home.

Since Rachel’s highly publicized death, the Corries have brought lawsuits against both the State of Israel and Caterpillar. While they are still waiting on a decision from the Haifa District Court, which will be handed down in late August, their case against Caterpillar in the United States has already been dismissed, appealed and dismissed again. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision on the basis that, among other things, the judicial branch cannot and should not make rulings that affect foreign policy.

The decision also noted that even if the court possessed the power to make such rulings, Caterpillar could not be held accountable on the charges of aiding and abetting war crimes or violating any other international laws because the corporation is not a “state actor.” Furthermore, Judge Wardlaw, the author of the final decision, points out that the case is further complicated by the fact that all of Caterpillar’s contracts with the IDF have been approved and financed by the U.S. government as far back as 1990.

Despite the clearly controversial nature of Caterpillar’s involvement with the IDF and the potentially massive negative impact of the downgrading in MSCI’s ESG index, Caterpillar seems to still be faring well financially. Recent reports from Bloomberg, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal point to impressive risk-adjusted gains, high dividend payouts, and increased global sales. Nevertheless, it should be interesting to see how the ESG downgrading, as well as the divestments by more firms like TIAA-CREF that may follow, will impact Caterpillar and its involvement with Israel.

The New Religious Intolerance: An Interview with Martha Nussbaum

By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

From Switzerland’s ban on minarets, to France’s ban on headscarves, and the controversy that raged over Park 51, the “Ground Zero Mosque” in lower Manhattan, religious fear is on the rise, writes Martha Nussbaum. In her latest book, The New Religious Intolerance, the University of Chicago law professor tackles the politics of fear, and lays out a roadmap for society to overcome its fear of the other, which she warns, “currently disfigure[s] all Western societies.” To learn more, Moment spoke with Nussbaum about religious fear, anti-Semitism, burqas, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and more.

MM: You write, “We should be worried about the upsurge in religious fear and animosity in the United States, as well as in Europe. Fear is accelerating, and we need to try to understand it to think how best to address it.” Can you explain why you think religious fear is accelerating—hasn’t it always been with us?

MN: There are periods of high anxiety and lower anxiety, so when I say it’s accelerating, I mean from what it was 10 years ago. There’s a new upsurge of anxiety about Muslims. 9/11 was the catalyst, as well as the wave of Muslim immigration—Muslims are the fastest growing religious minority in America. Every time you have a new minority coming in, you often have an upsurge in religious anxiety, so this is nothing new. We saw a great deal of anxiety in the late 19th and early 20th century with the waves of Roman Catholic immigration from Southern Europe. In some ways today is not quite as bad as then, because there’s no national political party right now basing its appeal on a nativist agenda the way there was in the 19th century. But we have to watch out.

MM: How did the old religious fear, anti-Semitism, give way to today’s religious fear, Islamophobia?

MN: The treatment of the Jews in Europe is in many ways parallel to the current European treatment of Muslims. If you assimilate, dress like everyone else, marry with us, eat with us, then you can fit in. But if you don’t, then we’re going to regard you with great suspicion. That was the European approach to the Jews, wherever the Jews were allowed to be. The reason was that for many centuries, Europeans have based their idea of national belonging and nationhood on ethnicity and religion. It’s a romantic idea of solidarity, and the idea that if you’re truly one of us, you’re going to have the same language, culture and religion, and you’re going to fit in. America never had that conception of that national identity. We were fortunate to be a nation of immigrations where people came as refugees from various types of religious persecution. So many of the American religious minorities dressed oddly: Quakers wanted to wear their hats in the courtroom, and Jews, of course, dressed in a characteristic way and didn’t want to testify in court on a Saturday. So there were many occasions for Americans to get used to the fact that religion leads people to behave differently. The American conception of national belonging is one of sharing political values, so if you swear to respect our Constitution, that’s enough. Anti-immigrant politics has never really taken off in America. The closest was in the 19th century, when so many Roman Catholics were coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism in America was also quite real. But still, it was at the level of refined, polite discrimination in employment. There was social discrimination among elites, but it wasn’t the kind of systematic political discrimination you got in Europe.

MM: You say that fear is a “narcissistic emotion.” Why is that?

MN: Fear has this riveting character that it makes you exceedingly aware of your own body and its own processes. If you read descriptions of fear in combat, it means you’re very alert and alive, but to yourself. Often it blocks the view of other people and other things around you because you’re so focused on survival. It’s an evolved instinct for survival, and it gives the message that you’d better pay close attention to yourself. It can be good, and very helpful, but it also means we neglect the implications of our actions and our policies for other people who are in our area, and we become very focused on warding off threats to ourselves, our families and people like us.

MM: What are some of the inconsistencies in the arguments for the burqa ban?

MN: In general, it’s always a good idea when you make an argument against somebody else’s culture, to first look at your own, and if you have the same problem, to treat the two similarly. The first argument is about security risk of bulky clothing under which you could carry a bomb or a gun. Because Chicago is a very cold place, when I go out in the winter, I’m more covered than a woman in a burqa, even more. I have a floor-length down coat, a shawl over my mouth and nose, a hat pulled down over my eyebrows and sunglasses, so my whole body is covered. And nobody thinks that’s a threat because they’re used to this. So we have to ask ourselves, when do we think that there’s a reason for extra caution? I’m prepared to say that in airports, let’s have the full body scan, as long as everyone has it. I don’t think they should single out the Muslims for special treatment.

The other argument is that you can’t have a good human relationship unless you can see their whole face. I think that’s just wrong. For one thing, eyes are traditionally thought of as the windows to the soul and the main place you make contact. Also, think about all the people with disabilities who can’t see, yet they have rich human relationships. Human beings have many ways of making connections with each other–through the voice, for instance—without seeing each other’s faces.

And then there’s the argument that the burqa objectifies women. I think the fact that women are often treated as objects for male use and control is a real problem. But let’s also think about porn magazines, the treatment of women in advertising and in the media, where women are treated as consumer objects and are encouraged to package themselves for male use and control in a way that eclipses their individuality. If you go to a high school dance, girls are wearing identical micro-skirts and packaging themselves as objects for a simulated group sex ritual that takes the place of dancing. There are lots of practices in our society that objectify women, unfortunately. To complain about one that happens to be the practice of the minority religion and not to examine yourself and the many ways in which you participate in such practices is terrible, especially when the force of law is brought to bear. In America, fortunately we don’t have bans on the burqa and the headscarf. But the French would ban you from walking down the street in a burqa, while you could wear a micro-skirt and your 4-inch heels and they’d think nothing of that. I think it’s just an ugly inconsistency.

MM: You lay out several principles that can be used to overcome religious fear. These seem to be designed for well-intentioned people, but how can they be used to push back against those in power who use religious fear for political gain?

MN: The first of my principles, which is having good constitutional norms, is helpful here. Fortunately we do, because our constitution was written by people who were very alert to religious persecution and religious fears. You can see over time that minorities find relief when they go to court and practices that stigmatize them are found unconstitutional. Again and again we find minorities making law and prevailing because we have good constitutional principles. That’s something that even in bad times, when politicians are doing bad things, it’s a bulwark.

The other things I talk about are consistency and self-examination and the use of a sympathetic imagination. We still shouldn’t despair of these things even in our own political climate because we should keep trying to have a deliberative public culture and to appeal to sympathy. I found that in studying the Park 51 controversy, there was a lot of sympathy. Sometimes it was one-sided sympathy, sympathy for 9/11 victims and their families, and not the Muslims. But even Sarah Palin—who I don’t support politically—expressed a fair amount of sympathy with peaceful Muslims. There were very few people who demonized all Muslims. I think George Bush set a good tone when he said we’re not at war with Islam. Americans both left and right have tended to try to exercise some thoughtfulness and sympathy. I think that reminding people constantly of history and of parallels to anti-Semitism is a useful way to get them to remember what they’re saying and to get them to look at things in a more complicated way.

MM: One interesting aspect of this presidential campaign is that not much has been made of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Does this signal a change in the climate of fear in the United States, or is it something else?

We have heard a fair amount about it. I think that’s why there was so much resistance to Romney early on, and such a desperate search for an alternative. In my earlier book, Liberty of Conscience, I wrote about the demonization of Mormons in the 19th century, which is an unfortunate part of our history. Mormons were pilloried in a way that involved a kind of racism, oddly, because, of course, Mormons look like the dominant white-Anglo culture. But they were described in journalism as having African features, as an African race. There was great demonization and lies about Mormons and the link to polygamy, which at the time was not any worse than the conditions of women in monogamous marriages. Women in monogamous marriages had no property rights and couldn’t get divorced on the ground of cruelty. Women in the territory of Utah had the vote in 1874, which is way before any other Mormon in monogamous America. So there was no reason to think these women were slaves. Today polygamy has long been outlawed by the Mormon religion, so it’s ridiculous to try to link them to that. The thing that ought to be discussed is the fact that Brigham Young is a university that does not have genuine academic freedom because the Mormon elders have decided that it’s okay to fire people whose theology is dissident. I’d like to know if Mitt Romney takes issue with this, and if he speaks up for academic freedom. If he doesn’t, that’s a problem.

MM: What are the consequences if we can’t keep religious fear in check?

MN: What would be bad is to get to the point where there’s demand for laws that are genuinely repressive. Europe has already gotten to that point. Beyond that point, there’s a potential for real violence. We’ve seen this from isolated psychotic individuals such as Anders Breivik in Norway. He may be deranged, but he’s certainly functional and has a program closely linked to right-wing bloggers in America, who have denounced him, but nonetheless his ideas have a lot in common with them. That kind of situation—where unstable individuals are whipped up and violence takes place—that’s what we need to worry about. It has happened in our past; we have had a lot of violence against Mormons, who were murdered, which is why they kept moving further west. We also had Jehovah’s Witnesses who were lynched because people feared they were a threat to American security. Let’s hope we don’t get to that point again—I think we’re not near that now. Let’s just stay vigilant.