Iran deal may transform American Jewry
One of the significant elements to this story involves American Jews opposing the president of the United States that they had helped to elect. One can define this moment as transformational, as it may lead to the redefining of how Jews understand and employ their political power. This contest has in many ways demonstrated the maturation of the Jewish political mindset and the changing social environment, namely that Jewish voters are making choices independent of their historic political and party loyalties.
With each political/military crisis facing the State of Israel, the political divisions among American Jewry seem more pronounced. The Iranian nuclear question has demonstrated the depth and intensity of the Jewish political controversy. Two American-Jewish identities are in conflict with one another over this question. For many, this conversation is defined in terms of seeing themselves as “American Jews,” where their liberal political values and Jewish prophetic ideals inform their civic engagement. They enter this particular debate holding a number of competing concerns but are prepared in the end to place their trust in the president. For others, whom we might identify as “Jewish Americans,” their political framework and identity are constructed around their Zionist passions. For these individuals, Israel and its security concerns inform their perspective on this agreement and shape their general political antennae around the centrality of the Jewish story as it intersects with their American citizenship.
What is profoundly evident is that no Jew is expected to remain “neutral” as the political battlegrounds have been drawn. National organizations, community institutions and rabbinical leaders are all being called upon to declare themselves in this test of Jewish political activism. It is estimated that this mobilization may be one of the most expansive and expensive political organizing initiatives in modern Jewish history. This issue has triggered new avenues of political expression, including the formation of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran and other forms of political activism involving high-level meetings, public debates, ads and petitions reflecting both perspectives within this debate.
This is a contest that has implications for the entire Middle East and, more directly, the place of Iran in the nuclear club. For Israel and the Jewish people, the political outcome in this matter may well reshape the nature of the Israel-United States relationship and the future role of the U.S. in this region.
Israel’s leadership has directly entered the American domestic arena as political actors, seeking to mobilize the Congress, the general populace and, more directly, American Jewry to act on a matter that has a specific impact on the future of the Jewish political enterprise. What are the longer-term implications of such intervention into the internal affairs of one nation by another?
In their efforts to identify with this cause, politicians and journalists have adopted various historical comparisons. One such scenario aligns this moment with Munich in 1938 and the act of appeasement, but is this a brilliant diplomatic maneuver designed to ultimately move Iran away from its current policies and lead to the unseating of its radical political base? Yet in the 1930s, Jewish organizations and their national leaders were at loggerheads over the best strategy to combat the rise of Hitler and to manage the case to defend and protect European Jewry. A divided community in that setting would fail to make its case with the Roosevelt administration. What are the contemporary as well as historical implications surrounding this policy debate?
In studying the tenor of this debate, we are likely to experience various forms of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel fallout, as well as an internal Jewish backlash, as the rhetoric accelerates and intensifies in connection with the forthcoming congressional vote. In the aftermath of this vote, will Jews be identified as “undermining” the administration’s foreign policy objectives? Will there likely be internal Jewish recrimination that follows this intense political contest?
What will be the impact of this issue on the 2016 elections and beyond, and what might be the spillover effect? Who will be seen as the political “winners” and “losers” in the aftermath of this battle?
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This article is reprinted from
Food flight: Perusing American Jewry’s past and present
Two relatively new books tell the story of American Jewry, weaving together its past and present by examining tradition and making it relevant to today’s reader.
Where Sue Fishkoff’s “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” (Schocken, 2010) is robust and detailed, Leah Koenig’s “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen” (Universe, 2011) is spacious and adaptable.
With the “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America has attempted to free itself from the matzah ball-and-chain and community cookbooks of its nearly 90-year past and plunge itself into the present-day reality of America’s Jewish kitchen.
An increased interest in local and healthy food, and the amplified availability of kosher-certified products—with an assist from popular television shows—have created a market of ever-more sophisticated American Jewish consumers, and Koenig doesn’t shy away from using trendy food items such as quinoa, miso and pomegranate.
Food is an important part of the Jewish home during Shabbat and holidays, but Jewish sensibilities don’t always kick in on the days and weeks between. “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” attempts to fill in the gap.
The recipes are simple and fast—no six-hour braising times or intimidating French techniques. The book is meant to be used, and through its use will continue the story of American Jewish cooking. The recipes are kosher, of course, and Koenig’s tone throughout is clear, concise and friendly. She informs the reader immediately that she is not a chef, and that a more experienced cook should “think of these recipes as flavors and ideas to riff off of.”
Some of its best recipes are among the more unusual. Honey-Glazed Carrots with Za’atar presents a synchronicity of the unexpected sweetness of carrots and honey and the zing of za’atar, a dried spice mixture common in Middle Eastern cooking, and lemon zest. Sweet Potato Kale Soup with White Beans and Caramelized Vegetable Soup utilizes familiar flavors in updated ways.
“Jewish” and Israeli foods make an appearance in the form of Cheesecake in a Jar, an attractive dessert inspired by a classic Jewish sweet; Quick(er) Borscht, a 30-minute remedy to an Eastern European comfort food; and Sabich, a fried eggplant sandwich commonly on the menu at falafel joints.
Generally the recipes in “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” are global and health conscious, and more often than not vegetarian, reflecting an increased consumer consciousness of non-meat alternatives.
“Kosher Nation” contextualizes how it is that American Jewry got to a point where Walnut Pesto and Portobello Burgers, two foods not at all associated with traditional Jewish cuisine, appear in Koenig’s Jewish cookbook published by a major Jewish organization.
Written with the probing voice of a journalist like the JTA’s Fishkoff, “Kosher Nation” is a series of vignettes: the mashgiach in China hopping from factory to factory; the kosher winemaker experimenting in Napa; the Reform rabbi negotiating kashrut with a conflicted congregation.
Connecting these stories are data and history lessons on the building of today’s behemoth kosher infrastructure that shows no signs of slowing its growth.
“Today one third to one half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher,” Fishkoff informs the reader in her opening chapter.
This means that most people who buy kosher products are not even aware of what the small symbol on the label implies, but that many manufacturers see kosher as a hot food trend and kosher often is associated with cleaner, superior food in the American mind.
Kosher can even be connected with “hip”: The popular television series “The Office” in a recent episode had a character slap a “K” on bottles of pesto made by his mother without actually having the product certified. In his defense he remarks, “I meant like, it’s cool, it’s kosher, it’s all good.”
Fishkoff’s book helps make sense of that kind of pop culture reference.
It wasn’t always this way. Until only several decades ago, meat was the primary concern of kosher authorities and strictly kosher food in general was relevant to only a small number of observant Jews. Many Jews kept some form of kosher, refraining from pork or the practice of “eating out,” but American Jews often rejected dietary laws in an attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture.
With an increase in the number of baalei teshuvah, newly observant Jews, who refuse to settle for syrupy wine or processed cheese, combined with the increasing appeal of the kosher symbol to celiacs, vegetarians and many other demographics, the kosher industry has become relevant to manufacturers as far away as Thailand.
Fishkoff explains the rules of kashrut to the layperson, from biblical to Talmudic injunctions to modern-day stringencies that wouldn’t have been an issue even a generation ago. She breaks down the kosher industry, from “The Big Four” certifying agencies to slaughterhouses to kosher caterers, and brings the reader up to date on some of the most relevant issues facing today’s kosher consumer. They include the ethics involved in the scandal at the Agriprocessers meat plant in Postville, Iowa, and the burgeoning New Jewish Food Movement.
Throughout “Kosher Nation,” Fishkoff regards her subjects with objectivity. Even the most zealous figures—like the Chasid on a one-woman campaign to prevent Jews from ingesting insects—become sympathetic and even relatable. It is clear that Fishkoff was fascinated by the subject; the reader cannot help but be fascinated, too.
For anyone who remembers when Oreos became kosher, notices when sushi is served at an Orthodox wedding or simply wants to take a bite out of Jewish Americana, “Kosher Nation” offers a readable, in-depth exploration into the cultural shifts and subtleties surrounding the rise of an industry.
Paired with “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” readers have a chance to re-examine food traditions far beyond the holiday table.
Dipping back into the origins of the kosher industry in America and then cooking recipes that reflect a contemporary kosher reality prove a filling and fulfilling experience.
Amid rancorous debate, a voice for American Jewry pushes civility
When disagreement among American Jews on Israel-related issues runs deep, how does an organization that bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community formulate policies and priorities?
By emphasizing civility in public discourse, for starters.
That was one of the main areas of focus at this week’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which drew delegates from Jewish community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American Jewish public policy priorities.
Plenum organizers said the goal was to show that while differences within the Jewish community factions are substantive, particularly when it comes to Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.
“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations—it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s vice president.
That approach led to sessions featuring polar opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in a discussion on energy independence.
The liveliest session, delegates said, was when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Young Jews in Israel, he said, have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin with whom they serve in the army than with American Jewish college students.
Oren said it was critical to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.
“We are united at the heart, a rambunctious, often fractious people,” he said. “While the experiences of American Jews have made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and our disappointments, Israelis have become somewhat skeptical of peace.”
Despite his plea for dialogue, Oren was among those who boycotted the J Street conference last month after a campaign by mainstream and right-wing pro-Israel groups to keep centrist and Israeli figures away from the conference.
In a separate appearance at the JCPA plenum, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a J Street favorite, told a questioner who urged him to denounce those who describe Israel as an “apartheid” state that such rote statements are besides the point.
“We don’t need more cheerleaders for both sides,” he said. “We need more peacemakers for both sides.”
The applause for Ellison underscored the continued liberal bearings of a large segment of the Jewish community. So did the warm reception accorded Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish.
Jarrett went out of her way to suggest that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.
She referred to the March 1 meeting between Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying that the president “made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakeable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to delegitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”
The meeting’s participants described the meeting as friendly, but some were rankled by Obama’s remark that they and Israeli leaders should “search their souls” about whether Israel is serious about peace.
Most of Jarrett’s speech was devoted to the president’s domestic agenda and his efforts to push back against plans by the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash spending on education and infrastructure and assisting struggling families. She pitched legislative efforts to close the income gap between men and women.
“Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low-paying jobs, it affects the entire family,” she said.
Jarrett’s message of sustaining the social net resonated with a JCPA agenda that focused, in resolutions and in Hill lobbying, on alleviating poverty.
JCPA’s seven resolutions hewed more to the Democratic agenda than to Republican goals—unsurprising for a community that still consistently votes Democratic in substantive majorities. A resolution on supporting the elderly poor called for “robust funding” of anti-poverty programs, and one on immigration rejected efforts by some Republican lawmakers to remove “birthright” citizenship from children born here to illegal immigrants.
A measure on peacemaking hewed to the mainstream pro-Israel consensus, blaming the Palestinian leadership for scuttling peace talks by insisting on a settlement freeze and pushing for international recognition of a Palestinian state.
The Reform movement proposed a passage that called on Israel “to meet its obligations under prior agreements” and “avoid actions that do not enhance security”—a reference to expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—but it was rejected.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the conference’s most senior Republican speaker, recognized the community’s Democratic tilt in his address Tuesday morning, before delegates lobbied their representatives. Glancing through the JCPA’s agenda, Kirk noted that as a moderate Republican he supported much of it, including two initiatives against discrimination against gays.
“I was one of the few Republicans that voted to eliminate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said, referring to last year’s repeal of a law that forced gays in the military to hide their sexual orientation.
That was greeted with applause.
“It appears I will become the lead Republican on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” he said, referring to a law that would end sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.
He looked up; more applause.
View on Eisen From L.A.: Thumbs Up
Local reaction was positive — with an element of wait and see — to the choice of Stanford professor Arnold Eisen as the new, de facto leader of the Conservative moment. Eisen, who isn’t a rabbi, will take over this summer as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Rabbi Issac Jaret, president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, focused immediately on Eisen’s position on gays — the seminary does not currently ordain openly gay rabbis.
“On the one hand, Eisen has stated he is in favor of the ordination,” he said. “On the other hand, being that he is not a rabbi, professor Eisen may have less impact upon this decision than another chancellor might have had with similar views.”
Jaret would not articulate his own position on gay ordination but added that “any decision on this matter [would] leave a significant segment of the movement dissatisfied.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a prominent innovator in the movement, also foresees a period of division and discontent, adding, “The Conservative movement must become much more responsive to the world and not live by quotations of halacha [Jewish law] alone.”
Schulweis, a longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, called the movement behind the times: “To be a movement that will excite its people, you have to be on the cutting edge, and you can’t be too little too late.”
He joked that the definition of a Conservative Jew “is someone who is willing to do something, but never for the first time.”
Schulweis quoted the Passover Torah portion to underscore his point: “The question Ezekiel asks is, ‘Will these dry bones live?’ The challenge to the new chancellor, the seminary and the Conservative movement is whether or not we can resurrect the dessicated bones of apathy.”
His colleague at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, put it another way: “The most important issue is what it means to be a religious movement in a completely voluntary and individualistic culture. How do you build contemporary spiritual community?”
Los Angeles rabbis interviewed for their reaction were unconcerned that Eisen is not a rabbi.
“They made an important statement in the scholar they chose,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “They didn’t take a biblical scholar or a scholar of rabbinic literature. They took someone who is an expert on American Jewry and American Jewish life — not in a historical context but in a contemporary sociological context,” he said.
Eisen’s books include “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America” (Indiana University Press, 2000) and together with Stephen Cohen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (Indiana University Press: 2000).
Vogel called Eisen “someone who can speak more on the condition of American Jewry and help to form a vision for American Jewry.”
More praise came from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who took his own name out of consideration for the seminary job.
“Professor Eisen is a deep and subtle thinker about Judaism and American Judaism in particular,” Wolpe said. “This can only be a very powerful shot in the arm for a movement that was looking for a very powerful shot in the arm, that was looking for reinvigoration.”
Sharonism vs. Building a Wall
Any attempt to resolve the crisis in the Middle East forces us — the American people and American Jewry — to appraise the motives and the ultimate goals of the leaders involved.
Endless disputes have raged over whether Yasser Arafat and the other Arab leaders merely seek a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel or whether they continue to harbor the ultimate goal of exterminating what they once derided as the “Zionist entity.”
But just as important, perhaps even more so, is reaching an understanding of the true goals of Israel’s current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his close associates. They — even more than their Arab opponents — hold the fate of the Israeli people in their hands.
Consider the facts: Over the past 18 months, Israel has suffered over 400 civilian dead and thousands more wounded, primarily from the suicide bombings that have so horrified the world. These losses are the per capita equivalent of over 100,000 American civilian casualties.
During nearly all previous wars, danger in Israel had been largely confined to those in the military or civilians living on the border. Now all patrons of a pizza parlor or disco are suddenly on the frontlines. This change is inflicting terrible damage to Israeli morale. By any reasonable standard, Israel now faces the gravest threat to its survival since 1967, perhaps even since 1948.
Israel’s leaders have certainly recognized this threat by their rhetoric and by their actions, launching punishing military strikes against the Palestinian organizations and towns whence the suicide bombers have issued. Faced with resulting criticism from various world quarters, the Sharonists have defended themselves as the security-conscious guardians of a small, embattled nation, unwilling to take risks with their people’s very survival. They have reasonably asked how America itself would have responded to waves of attacks that together completely dwarf those of Sept. 11 in relative terms.
But perhaps this is the exact question that we ourselves should be asking. Suppose that over the past year and a half, over 100,000 American civilians had been killed or grievously injured by Mexican terrorists who crossed our border and filled our cities from Los Angeles to New York with daily explosions.
Certainly, we would have taken punitive military actions against the terrorist organizations claiming responsibility and also against any Mexican government that we judged complicit in these massacres. But surely the first and most obvious response on our part would have been — NAFTA or no — to completely fortify our Mexican border with the best possible safeguards, perhaps an electrified security fence studded with machine-gun turrets.
Israel has not. Today, America’s long border with Mexico is far better defended against the dire threat of Mexican nannies and gardeners than Israel’s own border is secured against suicide bombers. An unknown number of these recent attackers, perhaps even including the bomber who killed over two dozen at their Passover seder, simply walked across an unguarded frontier into Israel or else drove to their targets using well-known but unpatrolled back roads. This is madness, pure and simple.
Why have the Sharonists suffered through 18 months of terrorist incursions without building a simple fence? Such a fence would have provided much greater security than endless attacks on Ramallah and Nablus.
By all accounts, the Palestinians of Gaza are considerably more militant in their anti-Israel Islamic fervor than those of the West Bank, yet Gaza’s simple existing fence has prevented the infiltration of even a single suicide bomber and also kept ordinary terrorist attacks to a negligible level. If a border fence has worked so well in Gaza, why have the Sharonists not considered one for the West Bank as well?
Consider the above analogy. Perhaps an American president would have similarly done nothing if he and his close political allies firmly believed that God had granted them the land of Mexico, and that any American fence along that border would be a dangerous concession to the border’s legal validity.
Israel’s ruling Likud coalition contains a powerful political strain of individuals who fervently believe that the Palestinian territories of the West Bank — Judea and Samaria to them — are incontestable portions of the once and future homeland of the Jews, granted them by the One Himself. A fence would be a huge step backward from achieving that dream of a Greater Israel.
In support of this dream, Israeli governments have, for decades, encouraged some 200,000 Jewish settlers to make their homes in these Palestinian territories, and the ultimate disposition of these settlers is regularly cited as the most nettlesome part of any future peace agreement.
Most of these settlers are peaceable Israeli suburbanites, lured to the West Bank environs of Jerusalem by heavy government housing subsidies, many of which were established by Sharon in his past role as housing minister of the Begin government, and whose costs are ultimately paid by the American taxpayer.
But a hard core of these settlers, perhaps up to 50,000, are messianic and militant Jews, often from around the world, who are
absolutely convinced that God has commanded them to settle and thus control this portion of Eretz Yisrael, whether or not Palestinians have lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. Although less than one percent of Israel’s population, these determined individuals are a powerful force within the Sharonist coalition, many of whose leaders publicly or privately share their views.
And these Jewish militants in their hundreds of small settlements do not merely restrict themselves to lobbying. A few years ago, Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Yitzhak Rabin became the first Middle Eastern leader in years to fall to an assassin’s bullet, killed by a Jewish militant for his impious desire to make peace with the Palestinians.
A year earlier, a Brooklynite settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred dozens of peaceful Muslim worshipers kneeling at prayer in their mosque, before he himself was overpowered and killed. Random acts of senseless violence occur throughout the world, but Goldstein’s grave is still venerated as the tomb of a holy martyr by thousands of other Jewish settlers, who treat it as a pilgrimage site.
Some of these Jewish militants possess beliefs that would strike most Americans as strange and extreme even by the standards of the Middle East.
For example, over the years Israeli security forces have discovered and thwarted various militant plots to destroy by explosives the Muslim world’s holiest mosques in Jerusalem, an action intended to help ensure the outbreak of the biblical battle of Armageddon and thereby the ultimate restoration of the Kingdom of David. And just recently, the birth of a red heifer has been widely heralded by some of these militant leaders as a divine portent instructing them to redouble their efforts to cleanse Jerusalem of its defiling Muslim religious presence.
By any reasonable criteria, many of these 50,000 militant settlers — and they include at least some of my own relatives — are best understood as being bearded, Jewish Taliban, as uncompromising and difficult as their Islamic counterparts in Afghanistan.
Yet they are also the heart and soul of the Sharonist movement, and while an Israeli border fence might effectively protect close to 99 percent of Israel’s population from terrorism, it would also leave these militant settlers on what was obviously the wrong side of the eventual border. This terrible dilemma between protecting Israeli lives and preserving messianic Greater Israel ideology has so far been resolved entirely in favor of the latter.
And this ideology represents an almost complete abandonment of traditional Zionism. The modern state of Israel was founded by secular socialists from Eastern Europe, men whose own attitude toward Judaism ranged from mild distaste to deepest hostility.
Israel was intended to be a national homeland for a long-persecuted people, a place of refuge and safety for Jews threatened everywhere else. Yet today, in part because of the policies of men like Sharon, Jews enjoy less physical security in their own country than perhaps anywhere else in the world, certainly far less than in our own America. The founders of the Jewish national movement would surely regard a successor who sacrificed Jewish lives and safety to his dreams of a Greater Israel as an absolute traitor to Zionist principles.
They would not be the only ones. For decades, numerous rabbinical scholars, of the deepest Talmudic learning, have regularly denounced the supporters of Greater Israel as individuals who have disgustingly perverted their Jewish faith into a nationalist golden calf that they worship in place of the Almighty. For centuries, such false Jewish prophets have periodically arisen and invariably led their misguided followers into disaster.
If the current leaders of Israel are indeed willing to continue sacrificing the lives of their own people — including those of young, innocent children — to their imperial dreams of expansion and glory, then according to these learned Jews they are committing sins on a truly biblical scale.
How would Americans view a president who regarded over 100,000 dead and injured American civilians merely as unavoidable collateral damage toward his ultimate goal of annexing Mexico? We would view him as a madman.
If Sharon continues to wantonly sacrifice the lives of his people for messianic expansionism, then his arms are the ones elbow-deep in the blood of innocent Jews. He faces the world not as a David Ben Gurion or as our own Washington or Lincoln, but instead as someone whose extremism leads his own followers to their doom.
Ron Unz, a software developer and a 1994 Republican candidate for governor, led the 1998 initiative campaign to dismantle bilingual education in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young Man on Campus
Last week I worried in this space that our college students were ill-equipped to defend American Jewry’s pro-Israel position. I asked for a volunteer to explain what’s going on. Luckily, Donald Cohen-Cutler, a UC Davis freshman and an international relations major, stepped up to the plate.
I say "luckily" because events on campus are even worse than I had suspected. Of course, I remember the beginnings of the Jewish-Muslim rift on campus during the first intifada. But I don’t remember blatant insults to Jewish ritual and history. That’s what’s happening now (see story, page 10).
Holocaust Remembrance Day at both UC Berkeley and UC Davis was sabotaged by the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Students for Justice in Palestine; 75 were arrested at Berkeley. Prayers for the Jewish dead were interrupted with shouts and jeers equating the martyrs of the Shoah over 50 years ago to Palestinian bombers. At Davis, the Sacramento Bee reported that among 300 protesters were those who called Jews "Nazis" and referred to Israel as a "racist state."
"It infuriates me to hear these insults," Cohen-Cutler told me. "I couldn’t do nothing."
He could take action. In the hours before the Yom HaShoah protest, Cohen-Cutler gathered 65 students, including many non-Jews, for a candlelighting protest.
Their presence helped restore dignity to the Jewish calendar, whose commemoration of the Holocaust is intended to ensure against future racist wars.
"This is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Millions of people died because of the way they believed. Racist rhetoric from either side is what causes hate," Cohen-Cutler told the Bee.
Since the protest, he and his friend Jesse Friedman of Thousand Oaks have been organizing a new national campus group — Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue — that he characterizes as a "Jewish humanitarian group."
"I’m a liberal supporter of Israel," Cohen-Cutler told me. "But the largest majority of my fellow students are standing silent."
What does a liberal supporter of Israel believe?
Cohen-Cutler was born in 1983, and his politics are shaped by the regrettable shadow of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon and the indictment of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. To the Hillel activist and Calabasas High School grad, liberal politics today must face the limitations of Ariel Sharon’s military policies, while insisting on Israel’s right to defend itself.
"My group looks at the whole picture. I’m with Israel, but I’m not with the occupation. There is no justice in suicide bombings. At the same time, Israel can’t succeed by stomping on Arab buildings."
Cohen-Cutler explained that Jewish liberal students today are caught in the middle. A popular organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, is blatant in its anti-Israel stance. It includes many Jews.
The opposition takes the form of Campus Republicans or local groups like Aggies for Israel, or, more vehemently, Students for Justice in Israel, which Cohen-Cutler characterizes as too one-sided. To him, neither the left nor right are acceptable.
"We have to stand up without becoming extremists," he told me. "Jews are told to pursue justice, not just for ourselves but for all humanity. We want to help people see that the Jewish community is not full of evil oppressors but with people who fight the evil oppression."
As for his fellow students, they need educating. Justice, Justice will organize rallies and protest bias in the media coverage.
"We need to let the world know that Israel is still under attack and needs to defend herself," he said. "This campus is not apathetic, it just doesn’t know where to go."
Here’s a young man with an answer.
Discussing Israel, Zionism and Peace
As American Jews join in marking the 50th birthday of the State of Israel and the 100 years of the Zionist movement, there is cause for both celebration and concern.
“As we rejoice in the accomplishments of Israel, Zionism and American Jewry, they each face their own, though interrelated, crises,” says Yoav Ben-Horin, senior fellow at the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies and former RAND Corp. strategic analyst.
Ben-Horin will explore both the triumphs and challenges in a series of five Sunday-morning lectures, sponsored by the Labor Zionist Alliance.
The first lecture, on Jan. 18, will examine “The Modern Middle East: Where From? What About?” with tickets available at the door. This and the following four monthly lectures and discussions will start at 9:30 a.m. at the Institute of Jewish Education, 8339 W. Third St.
Subsequent talks will deal with Zionism, Israel’s middle-age crisis, the peace process and American Jewry’s relationship to Israel.
“Each of these areas is in a state of flux and facing crucial crossroads,” says Ben-Horin. “One purpose of this series is to relate the topics to each other and see where they fit together. For instance, Israel’s struggle intersects with the evolution of American Jewry.”
Tickets are $40 for the entire series, and $10 per individual lecture. For information, call (213) 655-2842.
Organizers of the series are Bernard Weisberg, president of the regional Labor Zionist Alliance chapter, and Ethel Taft. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor