No easy way out for African migrants in Israeli desert detention


A compound of one-story buildings deep in the southern Israeli desert is now home to some 400 African migrants who face the prospect of being held in custody indefinitely.

The detainees in what the authorities call an “open” detention centre are allowed to leave for a few hours each day, but given its remote location near the Egyptian frontier, travel is impractical.

Israel opened the Holot complex in December after its Supreme Court stopped the practice of jailing illegal migrants for up to three years in regular prisons.

But in what the migrants call a cruel twist and rights groups say is a rights violation, a law passed the same month allows the migrants to be detained indefinitely, pending the resolution of their requests to stay in Israel.

“I went to renew my visa, and suddenly I wound up here. This is terrible,” said Eritrean Hagos Fdwi, 30, who worked in a restaurant in Tel Aviv.

More than 50,000 Africans – mainly Sudanese and Eritreans – have crossed into Israel surreptitiously through a once-porous, and now fenced, Egyptian border in the past eight years.

Many say they seek asylum from war-torn homelands, but Israel dismisses most as illegal job seekers although some have been granted limited visas.

Authorities complain of heightened social tensions in more impoverished parts of Tel Aviv where Africans settle. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the influx threatens Israel's Jewish character and wants the majority of migrants removed.

But rather than conduct outright deportations, Israel is trying to coax migrants to return home voluntarily – including offering a cash incentive – or persuade third countries to accept them.

So far, relatively few have taken the money, though Israeli officials say 2,000 left in 2013, up from a reported 400 or so in 2012. No third-country safe havens have been established.

Daniel Solomon, an Interior Ministry legal adviser, said Holot was established to get migrants off the streets and out of the job market.

“Legally people can be held at the open facility indefinitely, but the idea is for it to be a transit (point) for migrants before they go back home or to a third country,” he told reporters in January.

Journalists have not been permitted to enter the compound, but Reuters was able to interview a dozen or so detainees who ventured outside its gates.

Some said they were bused from Tel Aviv or surrounding areas after visiting the visa office, arriving at the centre with just the clothing on their backs.

Many said they do not take the opportunity to leave the facility each day. The closest town, Beersheba, is about an hour's drive away, and detainees are required to check in every few hours. Failure to do so could mean transfer to a conventional prison.

There were few complaints about accommodations, said to include television and three meals a day, with 10 men sleeping in an amply sized room. No women or children are being held.

FRUSTRATION

Holot has a capacity to hold more than 3,000 inmates and human rights groups say at least 2,000 more migrants have received summonses to report there by next month.

The rights groups argue that many of the migrants are worthy of political asylum, citing unrest and oppression in their homelands, and have petitioned the Supreme Court against the law.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, said unlimited incarceration at Holot did not “comply with international human rights norms.”

“What is more disturbing is there are no release grounds from Holot, the only way to get out is signing up for voluntary departure,” Englbrecht told Reuters.

Anger over the facility has triggered a series of protests by migrants in the past month, including a march to Israel's parliament and crowded vigils in Tel Aviv.

When a Reuters TV crew showed up outside the facility recently, some of the detainees held up signs calling for asylum. Three detainees walking down the road crossed their wrists over their heads as if they were handcuffed.

Detainees spoke to Reuters mainly of boredom and frustration at seeing no quick way out of their predicament. Two said they had been separated from their wives and children, although Israel said it avoids sending men with families to the facility.

Solomon Hagos, 25, said he has been in detention in Israel since he entered illegally 18 months ago. He said he fled an Eritrean military prison in 2012 and was gang-raped over several days by three men who held him captive in Egypt's Sinai desert before he crossed into Israel.

“My life is nothing but a prison,” said Hagos, whose asylum petition was rejected last month.

Robel Yohanns, 23, of Eritrea, was more hopeful than most of the detainees, however.

“I'm just going to sit patiently and wait for them to change the law, again,” he said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Protesting African migrants sent back to Israeli detention center


Israeli police on Tuesday sent back to custody about 150 African migrants who had abandoned a desert detention center in protest against a new law allowing them to be kept there indefinitely.

Aided by rights groups, the migrants had travelled to Jerusalem to demonstrate outside the Israeli parliament, which last week passed a law allowing authorities to hold illegal migrants in an “open facility” until they leave the country.

The Israeli government says that most of the 50,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean, who have since 2006 crossed over the Egyptian border into its territory, are illegal job-seekers who threaten the Jewish state's social makeup.

But rights groups and liberal lawmakers say many are asylum-seekers fleeing hardship and persecution in their homelands.

“We came from a war-place and we want our dignity. We want to save our lives. We are not criminals,” one migrant, who did not give his name, said at the protest.

Police and immigration officers broke up the migrants' demonstration and loaded them on to buses headed for prison. A police spokesman said there were some minor scuffles at the scene, but no one was hurt.

An Israeli immigration official said the migrants would be held in prison for up to 90 days, for breaking the terms of custody in the newly-built open facility that they had abandoned late on Sunday.

The center, in a remote southern Israeli desert, allows the 400 migrants who were moved there from a nearby prison last week, to leave during the day and return at night.

The newly-passed law says they may be held there pending voluntary repatriation, implementation of deportation orders or resolution of their asylum requests.

“The law is the law and it surely applies to the illegal job-seeking infiltrators. The infiltrators who were moved to the special facility can stay there or go back to their own countries,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Rights group have appealed the new law, which replaced previous legislation, annulled by the Supreme Court last September.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan

A principal’s speech to high school students


Three years ago, I wrote a version of this column. Because it went viral — often listing me as the high school principal who actually gave this speech! — I am revising it and publishing it here. I believe that if every school principal gave this speech, America would be a better place.

To the students and faculty of our high school:

I am your new principal, and honored to be so. There is no greater calling than to teach young people.

I would like to apprise you of some important changes coming to our school. 

First, this school will no longer honor race or ethnicity. I could not care less if you are black, brown, red, yellow or white. I could not care less if your origins are African, European, Latin American or Asian, or if your ancestors arrived here on the Mayflower or on slave ships.

The only identity this school will recognize is your individual identity — your character, your scholarship, your humanity. And the only national identity this school will recognize is American. This is an American public school, and American public schools were created to make better Americans.

If you wish to affirm here an ethnic or racial identity — or a national identity other than American — you will have to attend another school. This includes after-school clubs. I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities. This includes race, language, religion, sexual orientation or whatever else may become in vogue in a society divided by political correctness. Those clubs just cultivate narcissism — an unhealthy preoccupation with the self — while the purpose of education is to get you to think beyond yourself.

Your clubs will be based on interests and passions — clubs that transport you to the wonders and glories of art, music, astronomy, languages you do not already speak, carpentry and more. If the only extracurricular activities you can imagine being interesting in are those based on ethnic, racial or sexual identity, that means that little outside of yourself really interests you.

Second, I am uninterested in whether English is your native language. My only interest in terms of language is that you leave this school speaking and writing English as fluently as possible. The English language has united America’s citizens for over 200 years, and it will unite us at this school. It is one of the indispensable reasons this country of immigrants has always come to be one country. And if you leave this school without excellent English-language skills, I would be remiss in my duty to ensure that you will be prepared to successfully compete in the job market. We will learn other languages here — it is deplorable that most Americans only speak English — but if you want classes taught in your native language rather than in English, this is not your school.

Third, because I regard learning as a sacred endeavor, everything in this school will reflect learning’s elevated status. This means, among other things, that you and your teachers will dress accordingly. There will be a formal dress code at this school. And you will address all teachers by their title, not by their first name. They are your teachers, not your buddies.

Fourth, no obscene language will be tolerated anywhere on this school’s property. If you can’t speak without using the f-word, you can’t speak. By obscene language, I mean the words banned by the Federal Communications Commission, plus epithets such as the b-word, even when addressed by one girl to another, or the n-word, even when used by one black to another. It is my intent that by the time you leave this school, you will be among the few your age to instinctively distinguish between the elevated and the degraded, the holy and the obscene.

Fifth, we will end all self-esteem programs. In this school, self-esteem will be attained in only one way — the way people attained it until decided otherwise a generation ago — by earning it. One immediate consequence is that there will be one valedictorian, not eight.

Sixth, and last, I am reorienting the school toward academics and away from politics and propaganda. No more time will be devoted to tobacco, caffeine, sexual harassment or global warming. No more classes will be devoted to condom-wearing and teaching you to regard sexual relations as primarily a health issue.

And there will be no more attempts to convince you that you are a victim because you are not white or male or heterosexual or Christian. We will have failed if any one of you graduates from this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky — to be alive and to be an American.

Now, please stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country. As many of you do not know the words, your teachers will hand them out to you.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Agreement reached on African migrants at Israeli border


Israel said it will allow two female African migrants — one who is pregnant — and a teen to enter the country, and turn over more than a dozen other refugees who have been trapped at its border to Egyptian authorities.

Thursday's decision by the Israel government came hours after the Israeli Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing on the migrants' situation on Sunday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO, that calls on Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office called the decision a humanitarian solution to the problem of the 20 African migrants who have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, The Jersusalem Post reported.

Later Thursday, an Israeli official told the French news agency AFP that the agreement was reached between military commanders from both Israel and Egypt, along with the migrants, who had refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let in the refugees but reportedly have provided them with water.

“It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday evening after the agreement was announced. “We are determined to stop the flood of infiltrators that has been here. We built this fence and it has already lowered the number of infiltrators by 90 percent. We will intensify steps against those who employ illegal infiltrators, and we will continue the effort to return infiltrators to their countries of origin.”

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt. Also Wednesday, the envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

African migrants stuck at Egypt-Israel border


A group of some 20 African migrants is trapped between Israel's border fence with Egypt and Israeli soldiers who have been ordered not to let them in.

The soldiers reportedly are providing water to the migrants, who as of Tuesday had been there for five days. The migrants, who include a pregnant woman, have refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants. 

Humanitarian organizations have called on Israel to allow the migrants to enter and apply for asylum.

Ethiopian-Israeli Jews, mistaken for African migrant workers, feel racism’s pain


When violent riots against African migrant workers erupted in south Tel Aviv recently, a mob attacked Hanania Wanda, a Jew of Ethiopian origin, mistaking him for a Sudanese migrant worker.

“Wanda is my friend,” says Elias Inbram, a social activist in the Ethiopian community and a former member of the Israeli diplomatic corps who served as spokesman for the embassy in South Africa. “I knew I had to react somehow.”

He suddenly realized, says Inbram, 38, “that since to white people, all blacks look the same—I, an Israeli Jew who is black, or anyone in my family, or anyone in my community, could be attacked, too.”

That moved him to stencil “CAUTION: I am not an infiltrator from Africa” onto a bright yellow T-shirt. He then drew in by hand, in the upper left corner, the unmistakable yellow “Jude” patch from the Nazi era.

Last week, he posted a picture of himself wearing the shirt—the only one he has printed—on Facebook. It already has gained thousands of “likes.”

“I want to force people here to think of the racism and hatred in Israeli society,” Inbram, who holds a master’s degree in law and is interning before applying for the bar, told JTA.

The wave of violence in Israel against African migrant workers and asylum seekers, in which nearly a dozen Jews of Ethiopian origin also have been attacked in the past few weeks, has forced many Ethiopian Jews to deal with race in a way they have until now mostly avoided. Some said it has forced upon them a new consciousness and political awareness.

“I have a law degree and a master’s degree. I served in the army,” Inbram said. “Another friend of mine who was beaten up is a Ph.D. candidate. We’re Israeli citizens. But none of that matters. Ever since we came, the state has treated us as if we should say thank you for anything we receive, as if we have no rights as Jews and Israelis. But now we are afraid because in the eyes of whites, we are first of all blacks.”

Aliza, 23, a sociology student at Hebrew University who would give only her first name, told JTA, “At the beginning, when white friends would ask me how I feel about the migrants from Africa, I would get pretty angry. Why should I feel anything special? Just because we’re both black? I thought it was racist and patronizing. I’m Jewish and Israeli. Jewish history is much more relevant to me than African history. I relate more to Jews from Eastern Europe than to African Muslims or Christians. I was a baby when I came here.”

But the violence—and in particular, she said, the torching of an apartment where Eritrean migrants were living in Jerusalem early this week—have changed her mind.

“Now I’m scared to live in my own country—because I’m black,” she said.

Shula Molla, 40, a Jerusalem educator who chairs the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry, a leading advocacy group, said Aliza’s feelings were common.

“The violence has forced the Ethiopian community to come to some difficult, but mature, realizations,” she said. “Until now, some community leaders have tried to avoid talking about systemic racism. They tried to explain away racist incidents; some even blamed the community—that we’re not progressive enough, that we haven’t adapted quickly enough.

“But now we all must deal with racism,” she added. “Of course I don’t feel particularly connected to Africans, but society is forcing us into a common fate. How I define myself doesn’t matter. Only my skin color is visible.”

Inbram was a member of the Foreign Ministry’s committee that deals with asylum seekers and said he feels no particular affinity or commonality with the migrant workers. He said he hesitated before adding Nazi badge to his shirt. But then he thought: “We Jews and Israelis are very quick to condemn anti-Semitic attacks – like the ones near Lyon in France just this week. But same thing is happening in our own country. Instead of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ we behave worse than many of the countries we criticize. Germany has much more humane policies toward migrants and asylum seekers than Israel has. We should be doing some serious soul-searching.”

He added, “At first, Hitler only called for the expulsion of the Jews.

“I don’t think of myself as African; I think of myself as Jewish and Israeli,” he said. “And the majority of these people are not asylum seekers. They are migrant workers who should be deported. But while they are here, they should be treated with kindness and compassion and provided with vocational training. I say that because I’m human, not because I’m black or African.”

Molla is particularly critical of Israeli leaders.

“I’m certainly not justifying the racism against migrant workers, but I believe that each of us has a kernel of racism in him or her,” she said. “In South Tel Aviv, society has pitted a poor, neglected community of veteran Israelis against the even weaker, more vulnerable community of migrants.

“So I don’t expect the residents of Tel Aviv to rise above themselves, but I do expect our leaders to rise above their own racism, and to lead,” she continued. “Instead, they are fanning the worst form of racism.”

She noted that Miri Regev, a Kadima member of Knesset, compared the Africans to “cancer” while Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas “accused them of spreading disease and raping women.”

Meanwhile, Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union said that “anyone who touches Israel’s border should be shot, and even the prime minister says that the infiltrators threaten the character of our state,” Molla said.

With political leaders granting legitimacy to the violence, she says she has felt a change in how some strangers treat her.

“On the bus, people turn to me and speak in English, because they assume that I am a migrant. The security checks at malls and movie theaters aren’t the same as they are for white Jews, because I’m considered suspicious. It’s getting harder to stop a cab,” Molla said.

Pointing to recent events in Israel, she said that the situation is likely to get worse.

“Last year, in Safed, the rabbis called on residents not to rent to Arabs,” she said. “Our political leaders were quiet—and soon after, in Kiryat Malachi, apartment owners signed an agreement not to rent or sell to Jews from Ethiopia.

“It’s bad enough that an uneducated, deprived mob has taken to racial violence, but what is really terrible is that political leaders have legitimized it,” she said. “And now that it’s been legitimized, the racial violence will spread against all blacks—and that includes me, my children—all Jews from the Ethiopian community.”

South Tel Aviv quiet but tense


South Tel Aviv remained calm but tense Friday after recent violence aimed at African immigrants.

Law enforcement officials deployed a large force of border police in the Hatikvah neighborhood, regular police and volunteers to better secure the area, which has seen a spike in friction between African migrants and local residents, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yochanan Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch had agreed to add approximately 40 police to the area to try to calm the streets.

Wednesday night, a group of rampaging Israelis assaulted migrants and looted storefronts belonging to Africans. Rioters smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. The rioters also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police.

The next night, a group of locals protested outside the city’s Likud headquarters, demanding that the government put forward clear policies to solve the migrant issue, including refraining from what they labeled as incitement against the migrants.

Also, an 18-year-old resident of Tel Aviv was arrested Friday morning on suspicion of belonging to a gang that targeted African migrants for physical assault.

The police alert is expected to last through Shavuot, which ends in Israel on Sunday evening.

Illegal African migrants killed crossing to Israel


Six African migrants attempting to cross into Israel were killed by their smugglers and by Egyptian forces.

The smugglers opened fire last Friday following an altercation over the fee to help about 100 migrants cross the border into Israel, killing four, according to reports. Two more were killed by Egyptian forces while trying to cross the border.

Several of the dead were Eritrean, according to reports. Some 22 other migrants were detained by Egyptian police.

Twenty-eight African migrants have been killed so far this year attempting to cross into Israel, 24 of them by Egypt’s police, and four by smugglers.

Meanwhile, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israel’s prime minister, wrote a letter to Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai asking him to allow 400 children of migrant workers slated for deportation to remain in the country. The letter was written by Netanyahu “as a mother of two young sons and as a public service psychologist,” Israeli media reported over the weekend.

Yishai has been a major proponent of deporting the children of illegal workers.

“Most of these children and their parents came to Israel as tourists,” he told Army Radio on Sunday. “It’s time to tell them the trip is over,”

Yishai and Sara Netanyahu will meet Thursday to discuss the issue, according to reports.

Hope breeds strength


PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.

This time, it was visible.

The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.

The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.

In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.

The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.

When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.

Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.

The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.

As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.

Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.

Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.

The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.

Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.

The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.

It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.

The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.

In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.

Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.

New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.

From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.

The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.

When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.

Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.

L.A. Jewish girl joins the African Jewish matzah dance


My Pesach preparation, like that of so many Americans, usually involves walking to my local supermarket and loading a cart full of Manischewitz products … you
know, the chocolate-covered jellies, the matzah-pizza sauce and, of course, the kosher cheese that rarely melts. The hardest part of the process is simply choosing between the egg and onion or the butter-flavored matzah.

But preparing for Pesach this year was a bit different. Living in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia and teaching Hebrew music, dance and culture to eager students, ages 6 to 20, has been an enormous blessing. I wake up each morning to pray with white-robed, modest Ethiopians who have moved from the surrounding villages to be a part of this unbelievable 14,000-person Jewish community. From morning services, I walk the rocky dirt path to the mud and straw school, which is decorated with vibrant paintings of the Torah, a shofar, Israeli flags and even a diagram of the body in Hebrew. It is alive with exuberant children skipping quickly inside to get a good seat on the wooden benches. They sing “Hava Nagila,” “Esa Enai” and “Hinei Matov” with every ounce of power in their lungs and with a groovy boogie in their brightly colored foam-sandaled feet. Meanwhile, some of their older cousins and parents are busy suiting up in matching beige aprons preparing for the coming holiday.

Almost 400 miles away from the nearest “supermarket” — not to mention one that sells kosher food — the members of Gonder’s Beta Israel Jewish Community have to make all their matzah themselves, resulting in the production of 300,000 matzot in an outdoor, 18-minute-or-less whirlwind, just in time to replace the injera (traditional flat, sour, bubbly pancakes — the staple Ethiopian food) for Pesach.

As a Los Angeles-bred city girl, I would have had no idea where to start if I were asked to hand-prepare fresh matzah. I probably would have plopped some bread dough on my head and hurriedly walked around outside in the sun, trying to mimic my ancestors leaving Egypt, hoping that it would somehow bake into a neat flattened square crisp.

But in Gonder, they have the process down to an art. More than 100 community members in kippot and hair coverings (for the women) work under the supervision of an Israeli Ethiopian named Getinet beneath the precious shade of a large green tree. Turquoise-, yellow- and cantaloupe-shaded birds gather on the branches to witness the operation, also providing a cheery tune on the breeze. The men face each other across long, spotless tables. They count down to the start of the 18-minute cycle with an excited Amharic “ahnd, hoolet, sost!” (And I thought that the ’90s cooking show, “Ready, Set, Cook!” was good.) As soon as the countdown reaches its climax and the time begins to run, they rapidly mix the flour and water, pound it out, roll it, puncture it with “the little hole making wheel” and cut out medium-sized circles.

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May this Pesach bring us all a little “Jewish matzah dance” of our own — or may it at least inspire us to enjoy the natural beauty and joy of Hashem’s creations. More importantly, may the fire of our souls inspire us to perform many mitzvot and celebrate the glory of our heritage that transcends continents, languages and cultures.

For more information about the program, contact the

The Graves Of Sudan


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With Thanksgiving here and Chanukah just around the corner, most of us are reflecting on all there is to be thankful for, embracing our freedom as Jews and Americans. As we share our thanks this year and celebrate the holidays, it is my hope that more American Jews will think of those who are denied what we have come to expect as basic human rights, particularly those who are suffering from genocidal campaigns in Darfur, Sudan.

In this remote region, more than 1.5 million African tribal farmers have been violently driven from their homes by the government of Sudan and the militias they armed, called Janjaweed (evil men on horseback). Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence that has taken at least 100,000 lives.

As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out and take action against ethnic cleansing. The epithet “never again” must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact, Jews must be the guardians of this call for action, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people.

I went to Darfur in August to bear witness, to assess humanitarian needs and to ensure that funds provided by the American Jewish community are being and will be used effectively. I met many of the displaced farmers and listened to their chilling stories.

The government bombed their villages; men on horses rode in, often yelling ethnic slurs and shooting wildly. They stole; they raped; they killed. They stuffed wells with dead bodies or carcasses and burned villages to the ground.

I met Fatima; her five children were all ill with life-threatening diarrhea. I met a 10-year-old boy — clinging to the leg of a medical assistant — who saw his parents and two brothers shot dead.

I met the mother of twins who gave birth the day the militia came to her village. She saw her brother, aunt and uncle killed but managed to escape with her family, her newborn babies tucked into a straw mat.

They and over a million others fled in terror and came gradually to camps being set up to receive them — now about 158 camps scattered throughout Darfur (a region the size of California) containing tens of thousands of families packed into tent cities, fighting hunger, illness, displacement, boredom and depression. People whose simple agricultural life had allowed them to remain self-sufficient, now have no means of support.

Currently, the situation is deteriorating. The populations coming into the camps keep growing, and there is not enough food. There are too many cases of dehydration, malnutrition and deadly diarrhea.

Living in close quarters like this breeds its own set of sanitation, physical and mental health problems. Mortality rates — already at about 10,000 a month — could rise suddenly.

Some of the Janjaweed have been outfitted by the government as “police” to provide “security” for the camps. Women still disappear or are raped when they venture out to collect firewood to use for cooking or to sell to buy food.

The U.S. Congress labeled the crisis genocide in July, and the Bush administration followed suit in September, but members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly Russia, China and Algeria, continue to block sanctions and other strong actions, creating deadlines and weak resolutions that are unenforceable and unheeded. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that security is declining and violence is on the upsurge.

In a reversal that demonstrates that international pressure can make a difference, the Sudanese government reluctantly agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to monitor the tenuous cease-fire and escort aid convoys, but they have no mandate to protect civilians. The Sudanese army and police continue to attack camps and forcibly relocate internally displaced people.

Recent reports describe government forces burning shelters, smashing water pipes, beating and shooting people and refusing access to aid agencies. On Nov. 8, the Sudanese government signed a historical peace agreement, accepting a no-fly zone over the region and promising to disarm the Janjaweed and improve access to aid. The next day, more violence was reported in camps.

The United Nations is conducting an investigation to determine whether the crisis constitutes genocide. This marks the first time in the history of the Security Council that Article 8 of the Genocide Convention has been invoked, which is a most welcome occurrence, but it is not enough by itself. By the time the assessment is complete, at least another 30,000 people will be dead.

Confronted with the realities of a grim future, we must increase pressure on the U.S. government and international community to persuade the Security Council to do what must be done to end the violence and suffering. Sudan must be forced to improve access to the camps for humanitarian aid workers and supplies, and it must be sanctioned until the Janjaweed is disarmed and the region is secured.

The African Union troops must be given an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to protect civilians. Should the no-fly zone over Darfur be violated, enforcement by NATO forces must be authorized.

Additional humanitarian aid is desperately needed. Governments must do their part to ensure that the U.N. humanitarian programs are functioning at full capacity and meeting the vast needs. Support from individuals to nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance is also essential.

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) launched a Sudan Emergency Appeal in April to help meet these needs. To date, $500,000 has been raised to rehabilitate water sources, construct sanitation facilities and provide therapeutic feeding centers to care for the thousands of malnourished children. I surveyed these programs when I was there and left overwhelmingly satisfied that lives are being saved.

As a result of my assessment, AJWS is also providing educational and recreational materials and programs for orphaned children, zinc treatment for children suffering from diarrhea and because rape is being used as a strategic weapon against women and their families, we are providing reproductive health care and addressing the consequences of sexual violence against women. Financial support for these ongoing efforts is critical.

The Jewish response is growing. The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, comprised of 45 national Jewish organizations, created a Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief that has raised about $170,000, and the Reform movement has spearheaded its own campaign, raising about $120,000. A number of Jewish organizations have joined us as members of the Save Darfur Coalition, a broadly diverse group of more than 100 faith-based and humanitarian organizations advocating for the people of Darfur, and other Jewish organizations are responding with humanitarian aid.

Until conditions are established that permit the voluntary, safe and dignified return of those displaced by the conflict and violators of human rights are held accountable, our diligence must not wane.

Leviticus teaches, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This holiday season, let us celebrate with our loved ones, but let us also resolve to do all that we can to end human suffering and prevent genocide whenever, wherever and to whomever it occurs.

Ruth W. Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, an international development and emergency relief organization. For more information, to make a donation or take action, visit

In Search of ‘Shlomi’


Shlomi, the 16-year-old protagonist of the Israeli film, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi,” has his hands full.

He cooks the family meals, cleans up, does the laundry, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family and bathes his grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title.

For his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered none too bright by his family and in school, where he is flunking out.

Worse, Shlomi believes the outside world’s assessment of him, which seems to be confirmed by his first attempt at romance. When he suggests to his girlfriend that they “upgrade” their relationship — Hebrew slang for having sex — she “freezes” him out.

At home, the situation is even worse. His obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time slip with her best friend. Shlomi’s older brother is the mother’s favorite, and she regales the boy with clinical details of his real and fancied sexual conquests.

Shlomi’s older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother’s home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the Internet for porn.

It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi’s life slowly turns around.

A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi’s layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and poetic sensibility.

A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi’s real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts — she, the herbs she grows in her garden, and he, the diet-defying cakes he bakes in the kitchen.

The film’s theme is “the pain created by the gap between one’s outer image and the inner truth,” said Shemi Zarhin, the film’s director, himself of North African descent.

“Monsieur Shlomi” is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with absolute veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting.

As a special bonus, Ashkenazic viewers will get a much-needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Although director Zarhin’s ancestors came to Palestine nearly 300 years ago, “both I and Oshri grew up with the mindset that we were part of Israel’s underclass,” he said.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” opens July 16 in Los Angeles.

An Afro Judeo Beat


Tired of the same old synagogue music? Want to put a little lift in your liturgy? Then give your cantor the gift of Ugandan Jewish music, Say what?

Yes, Smithsonian Folkways has just released a singular CD titled, “Abayudaya: The Music of the Jews of Uganda.”

This is a sometimes lilting, often haunting and always fascinating collection of African Jewish music in which the rhythms and harmonies of Africa blend with Jewish celebration and traditional Hebrew prayer.

The Abayudaya community traces its roots to the early-20th century, when disparate tribes melded their traditions with those of Western Jews. Founded in 1919 by Semei Kakungulu, a tribal military leader who was exposed to Judaism by the British, the Abuyudaya developed a literal interpretation of the Bible and adopted circumcision and Sabbath rituals. Subsequent generations of Jewish visitors imparted knowledge of Hebrew prayers, kashrut, the Hebrew language and Jewish calendar.

But the harmonies remained African, and this collection celebrates the melding of the songs and prayers you know with music you can only dream about. Give it to a cantor today.

$15. Available at record and book outlets or at www.folkways.si.edu/catalog/40504.htm .

Television Jews: How Jewish Is Too Jewish?


The new television season is upon us. African American and Latino groups are making the expected protests about the lack of people who look like them before and aft of the camera, and the Jews are — as usual — adding up their TV IQ on the fingers of one hand.

If there aren’t many “brothers” out there, there are even fewer “Members of the Tribe,” and those that are there are not particularly Jewish Jews, if you know what I mean.

Take 40-something, newly divorced father “Danny,” played by Daniel Stern. In CBS’ new series, Danny looks like he’s Jewish, sounds like he’s Jewish, but his live-in father is played by Polish American Robert Prosky, and his kids Sally and Henry come across as just, well, kids.

Ah, but wait, Danny is described in the program notes as “adapting to his single life one neurotic step at a time.” Neurotic is television-speak for Jew — just like “New York” as an adjective means “Jew” in the Midwest.

The whole subject makes the producers of the show, which, by the way, is set in that hotbed of neuroses, Portland, Ore., a trifle nervous. “It’s implied,” one of the show’s producers told The Journal. “It’s not an overt kind of thing. You don’t get it rammed down your throat. It’s not about his Jewish life — it’s about his life.”

Actor Daniel Stern himself, however, seems more relaxed about the idea of playing a Jewish man with a thing about basketball. “I was happy to be Jewish on the show,” he said. “And I like sort of putting it out there. And I want to put it out there in a sort of funny way. I thought that might be something that I hadn’t seen.”

That’s because he hadn’t seen the pilot for “Inside Schwartz” (see below). Adam Schwartz is also Jewish and a basketball nut. It’s not implied — he tells you that right off the bat, even though he’s played by non-Jew Brekin Meyer.

“I want to be the first Jew to win the slam-dunk contest,” Schwartz declares in the pilot episode. His more realistic dream is to become a sports announcer. Even if he hadn’t told us, we’d know he was Jewish, because his sidekick is a perfectly marvelous young Jewish woman played by Miriam Shore, who is ready and waiting for him to make his move on her. (We know she’s Jewish because she’s smart-mouthed and quirky.)

Executive Producer Stephen Engel says he wasn’t sure how the network would react to a show built around a Jewish character. And he wasn’t the only one.

“My father called while I was doing the show,” Engel said. “He said, ‘You know I don’t interfere in your work, but this show you’re doing, are you sure about the title? You know Schwartz is a Jewish name. I don’t know how the rest of America [is] going to respond to this.'”

Of course the central joke only works if the character is Jewish. Jews and sports — an oxymoron, right? And that was the point, as far as Engel was concerned.

“I like to consider myself a fairly good athlete,” he said. “I’m not a professional yet, but I haven’t given up hope. But there are Jews across America in sports. One right here in right field in Los Angeles.” (For those not into sports, that would be Dodger Shawn Green.)

Jason Alexander, one of the Seinfeld crew — the most successful Jews-who-dare-not-speak-their-name in TV history — is playing a Tony Robbins-style guru in ABC’s “Bob Patterson.” Patterson may or may not be Jewish — but he is kind of a lovable jerk. If in a future episode we find out the name used to be Futterman, be prepared to cringe.

Mike Binder, however, former stand-up comic star and creator of HBO’s “Mind of the Married Man,” is undoubtedly Jewish, although it’s never stated, and he’s married in the show to a gorgeous blonde Englishwoman, played by Oxford-educated Sonya Walger.

Binder grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, and made a 1993 movie about his summer experiences at the Jewish Camp Tamakwa in Ontario (“Indian Summer”). He even wears a Tamakwa sweatshirt in one scene in the new show. But the character is just another narcissistic, sports- and sex- obsessed American male. And you don’t have to be Jewish to be that.

On the other hand, Max Bickford, professor of history in CBS’ “The Education of Max Bickford,” doesn’t know from sports. His is the ivory-tower world of old European white males to whom scholarship and love of the past is life.

And while he’s staggering under the pressure of apathetic students and political correctness, he’s doing it (from the evidence of the pilot, at least) as a slightly over the hill, all-purpose ethnic. So — is he Jewish?

“I think so, yes,” says Bickford’s alter ego, Richard Dreyfuss. “He’s got an edge; he’s a curmudgeon. The way I keep describing him is Walter Matthau, but shorter.”

He’s also the most potentially interesting of the ‘Jewish’ characters on this season’s new shows, if only because Dreyfuss is noted as that rare Jewish actor who enjoys being Jewish on screen: think Moses Wine, ace detective in “The Big Fix,” Duddy Kravitz, and even Meyer Lansky.

But since this is essentially a serious show, well written and dealing with intelligent issues, just hold your breath that it will enjoy a long run. Even if it is, don’t expect Bickford to deal with his Jewishness. Having an overtly Jewish character as the lead on a drama is still seen in Hollywood as a surefire way to cut yourself off from the American mainstream viewer.

Serious shows with Jewish content have a history of wiping out before you can say, “Nielsen, Shmielsen.” Remember “Brooklyn Bridge,” Gary David Goldberg’s loving tribute to his Brooklyn bubbie? Or how about “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” in which Rosie (Sharon Gless) answered to a kippah-wearing, public-defender boss played by Ron Rifkin? Neither lasted long.

Comedies have a longer shelf life. Jewish humor on television is the one thing that has been accepted with open arms by the rest of America — witness “Seinfeld.” Because, whether they know it or not, just as Jewish music became Tin Pan Alley, Jewish humor, as filtered through the Catskills, Hollywood and Las Vegas, is now American humor.

Bob Hope once quipped, “Hollywood is the only town where they give up matzah balls for Lent” — a line written by one of his many Jewish writers. The point being that everyone in Hollywood is Jewish, whether they were born into it or not. Hollywood has been shaped by Jewish culture — by now that’s a sociological truism — but the only place you’d know it on television is in comedy.

From “Seinfeld” to “Mad About You” to “Dharma and Greg” to “The Larry Sanders Show,” Jewish humor has infiltrated popular culture. On television, Jewish humor is the Trojan horse sneaked into the living rooms of non-Jewish America to acquaint them with the fact that Jews are pretty much like them, only more so.

“Northern Exposure,” for example, worked because America identified with its hero — a nice Jewish doctor (Rob Morrow) plunked down in small-town Alaska, where he was the least weird of the bunch. “Picket Fences,” created by Irish American David E. Kelley, introduced the conniving Jewish defense attorney played by Fyvush Finkel. (Kelley’s in-joke was that Finkel’s character bore the WASP-ish name of Douglas Wambaugh.) In one episode, he was called before a beit din to answer charges that his sleazy behavior was damaging his people’s good name.

Ironically, Kelley wrote the episode after receiving letters complaining that Finkel’s character perpetuated the stereotype of the shyster lawyer.

HBO’s “Larry Sanders Show,” which told the truth about so many aspects of American television, also warned about the perils of being too Jewish. In one episode, Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) became a born-again Jew, and insisted on wearing a kippah on the show. Larry’s creator, Garry Shandling, noted his favorite line in that episode was when a Jewish network executive said it was OK for him to be Jewish because, unlike Hank, “he was behind the camera where the audience couldn’t see him.”

Larry Gelbart, one of the funniest comedy writers today, says of Jewish humor, “I think it’s our cultural heritage to find some relief from intolerable situations with laughter. To use it as both a sword and a shield, as an offensive and defensive weapon against those who are being hostile to you.” It seems that in a more dangerous and difficult America, the rest of the country increasingly wants to borrow the weapon.

The good news this season — yes, there is some — is that with “The Nanny” and “Suddenly Susan” (the JAP stereotypical Vicki may have been married to a decent sort of rabbi, but she was definitely cringe material), having passed into the lucrative afterlife of syndication, parodies of spoiled shopaholic Jewish women on primetime television have given way to spoiled shop-a-holic Italian women on “The Sopranos.”

And despite rumors to the contrary, the girls on “Sex and the City” can’t possibly be Jewish: Carrie only shops retail, Samantha is a nymphomaniac, Miranda is too thin, Charlotte is married to the only Scottish doctor on Park Avenue, and they’re always picking at a salad and getting tanked on cosmopolitans at lunchtime.

In short, Jewish viewers are likely to find this season as unsatisfying as countless others. As in real life, Jews on television this year are still married to, or dating, non-Jews. It cuts down on interesting sources of conflict, according to the writers, if two characters both celebrate Chanukah and know the difference between a matzah ball and kreplach — as if the writers never noticed the surfeit of conflicts within the Jewish community.

And there are still many Jews who, while they have Jewish names and look Jewish, never identify themselves as such. But, of course, we’ve never heard of that in real life, have we?

Forging a New Vision


While visiting Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, Henry James wondered how the sweeping tide of immigrants would ultimately affect “the idea of” America. Comparing the incorporation of foreigners to sword- and fire-swallowing feats at a circus, James reflected on what it meant for America to share its patrimony with those “inconceivable aliens.”

Yet throughout American history, immigrants and minority groups, seeking to make room for themselves, have broadened the definition of America. Minority experiences have acted as a powerful force in the creation of America’s self-image.

For the first half of the 20th century, Jews were the paradigmatic American minority by which all other minority experiences were understood. In the second half, African Americans, the descendants of a forced migration, set the standard for a racial debate that altered the nation’s vision of itself. Now, with Hispanics poised to become the largest minority group, Mexican Americans — who make up two-thirds of all Latinos in the United States — could change how the nation sees itself in the 21st century.

Their unique perspectives on racial and cultural synthesis may fundamentally alter the nation’s attitudes, for they are the second largest immigrant group in American history — the largest when including illegal immigrants. Mexicans, themselves the product of the clash between the Old and New Worlds, could shift this country’s often divisive “us vs. them” racial dialogue.

A Census Bureau study released January found that about 10 percent of United States residents are foreign-born, midway between the high of 15 percent at the turn of the 20th century and the low of 5 percent in 1970. And Mexicans are by far today’s biggest immigrant group. As such, they are the most likely to leave a permanent imprint on the culture.

For instead of simply adding one more color to the multicultural rainbow, Mexican Americans may help forge a unifying vision. With a history that reveals an ability to accept racial and cultural ambiguity, Mexican Americans could broaden the definition of America unlike any earlier immigrants.

The early 20th-century debate about the &’9;”melting pot” evolved as Jewish writers envisioned an America that might better accommodate Jews. Their historic experience as a minority prompted them to take the lead in reimagining America for an entire wave of immigrants. The playwright Israel Zangwill, in a 1908 drama about a Jewish immigrant rejecting his faith’s prohibition against intermarriage, developed the optimistic American civic faith that a fusion of ethnicities will create a stronger nation. For Zangwill, the United States was both a safe harbor and a crucible that melted Old World ethnics into a distinctly new American culture.

But by the 1960s, America’s exclusion of African Americans from the mainstream forged a new vision based on multiculturalism. Though it encompassed other minority groups, including women and gays, blacks gave the multicultural movement its key moral impetus. The civil rights movement had begun by advocating racial integration, but by the late 1960s its message had fused with a reemergent black separatism that fueled the nascent multicultural movement.

Multiculturalism — the ideology that promotes the coexistence of separate but equal cultures — essentially rejects assimilation and considers the melting-pot concept an unwelcome imposition of the dominant culture. Race became the prism through which all social issues were perceived.

But because their past and present is characterized by a continual synthesis, a blending of the Spanish and indigenous cultures, Mexican Americans could project their own melting-pot vision onto America, one that includes mixing race as well as ethnicity. Rather than upholding the segregated notion of a country divided by mutually exclusive groups, Mexican Americans might use their experience to imagine an America in which racial, ethnic and cultural groups collide to create new ways of being American.

It was never clear where Mexican Americans belonged on the American racial scale. In 1896, two white politicians in Texas grew worried that more Mexican immigrants would naturalize and vote. They filed suit against a Mexican-born citizenship applicant, Ricardo Rodriguez, because he was not white, and so, like Asians and American Indians, not eligible to become a citizen. Citing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which citizenship was granted to Mexicans in the conquered region of the Southwest after 1848, the court rejected the suit on the grounds that Rodriguez’s national origins qualified him for citizenship regardless of his racial background.

In the 1920 census, Mexicans were counted as whites. Ten years later, they were reassigned to a separate Mexican “racial” category, though in 1950 they were white again. Mexican Americans and Hispanics as a whole are commonly viewed as a mutually exclusive racial, linguistic and cultural category in a country of competing minorities. But Mexican Americans do not share the overarching ethnic narrative of Jews or the shared history of suffering that has united African Americans. For all the discrimination and segregation Mexican Americans suffered in the region, the Southwest was never the Deep South. In any case, as the memoirist John Phillip Santos wrote recently, “Mexicans are to forgetting what the Jews are to remembering.”

By the late 1990s, both the largely ethnic-Mexican Hispanic Congressional Caucus and the powerful California Latino Legislative Caucus had adopted “Latino issues are American issues” as their mantra. Mexican Americans are using their growing political power to enter the American mainstream, not to distance themselves from it. The new chairman of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, was once a high- ranking Border Patrol official and the architect of Operation Hold the Line, the labor-intensive strategy to stem illegal immigration along the West Texas border.

Perhaps assuming that Mexicans would (or &’9;&’9;should) follow the organizational model of Jews or African Americans, East Coast-based foundations contributed to the founding of national ethnic-Mexican institutions. The New York-based Ford Foundation was instrumental in creating three of the most visible national Mexican American organizations — all modeled after similar black organizations.

But with the exception of some scattered homegrown social service organizations and political groups, Mexican Americans have developed little parallel ethnic infrastructure. One national survey has shown that Mexican Americans are far more likely to join a non-ethnic civic group than a Hispanic organization. There is no private Mexican American college similar to Yeshiva University or Morehouse College. In Los Angeles, which has the largest Mexican population in the country, there is no ethnic-Mexican hospital, cemetery or broad-based charity organization. Nor does Los Angeles have an English-language newspaper for Mexican Americans similar to the black Amsterdam News and the Jewish Forward in New York.

Though the Spanish-language media is often referred to as the “Hispanic media,” it generally serves first generation immigrants and not their English-dominant children and grandchildren.

In the late 1920s, Rep. John C. Box of Texas warned his colleagues on the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee that the continued influx of Mexican immigrants could lead to the “distressing process of mongrelization” in America. He argued that because Mexicans were the products of mixing among whites, Indians and sometimes blacks, they had a casual attitude toward interracial unions and were likely to mix freely with other races in the United States.

His vitriol notwithstanding, Box was right about Mexicans not keeping to themselves. Apart from the cultural isolation of immigrants, subsequent generations are oriented toward the American mainstream. But because Mexican identity has always been more fluid and comfortable with hybridity, assimilation has not been an either/or proposition. For example, Mexican Americans never had to overcome a cultural proscription against intermarriage. Just as widespread Mexican-Anglo intermarriage helped meld cultures in the 19th-century Southwest, so it does today. In fact, two-thirds of intermarriages in California involve a Latino partner.

According to James P. Smith, an economist and immigration scholar at the RAND Corporation, by 2050 more than 40 percent of United States Hispanics will be able to claim multiple ancestries. “Through this process of blending by marriage in the U.S.,” he says, “Latino identity becomes something even more nuanced.”

The fact that people of mixed ancestry came to form a greater proportion of the population of Latin America than that of Anglo America is the clearest sign of the difference between the two outlooks on race. Mexican Americans bring the New World notion encompassed by the word mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) to their American experience. In 1925, the romantic Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos wrote that the Latin American mestizo heralds a new post-racialist era in human development. More recently, the preeminent Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez stated, “The essential beauty and mystery of the color brown is that it is a mixture of different colors.”

“Something big happens here at the border that sort of mushes everything together,” says Maria Eugenia Guerra, publisher of LareDos, an alternative monthly magazine in Laredo, Texas, a city that has been a majority Latino since its founding in 1755. As political and economic power continues to shift westward, Mexican Americans will increasingly inject this mestizo vision into American culture. “The Latinization of America is so profound that no one really sees it,” asserts Kevin Starr, the leading historian of California, who is writing a multivolume history of the state. The process of they becoming us will ultimately force us to reconsider the very definition of who we are.