Amsterdam to pay Jewish community $11M for Holocaust survivor taxes


The city of Amsterdam will give its Jewish community $11 million as compensation for taxes imposed on Holocaust survivors who returned home to the Dutch capital following World War II.

Upon their return, according to an article in The Telegraph on Monday, the survivors were made to pay a tax because their homes were left empty during the Holocaust. They also had to pay back taxes for the years they had been taken away from the city, as well as insurance fees.

The taxes were discovered by a student in 2013, and that year, Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan said the city should “put it right,” according to The Telegraph. On Friday, the city said it would pay the $11 million — an estimate of the total taxes paid by survivors following the war.

“Amsterdam has 5 million to 10 million euros in its coffers that it doesn’t want, and we have no right to it, so we want to give it back to the Jewish community to be used for important projects,” a spokesman for the mayor said, according to the Telegraph. “Finding the individual people or their relatives would be very costly and complex, and that is not the idea.”

The city has suggested the money be put toward a Holocaust memorial monument or community programs.

El Al plane damaged in Amsterdam with passengers aboard, none injured


An El Al plane was badly damaged in an accident caused by a local employee of Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands’ main hub for international traffic.

The accident Friday morning at Schiphol, in which no one was injured, ruptured the tip of the wing of the El Al Boeing 737 airplane as it taxied on the runway with 150 passengers aboard, a Schiphol Airport spokesperson told the Dutch AT5 television channel.

The plane, which was headed to Israel, bumped into a perimeter fence while being pushed back by a Schiphol vehicle. The passengers were evacuated from the plane and housed in hotels at El Al’s expense. They are to stay in the Netherlands at least until Saturday evening, as El Al will be unable to bring them back to Israel before the Jewish Sabbath.

The accident attracted considerable media attention in the Netherlands, where an El Al cargo plane in 1992 crashed into an Amsterdam housing project, killing 47 people. Aviation experts described the crash as the result of a mechanical malfunction, and several committees of inquiry found no evidence to substantiate rumors that the plane was carrying weapons and substances connected to biological and chemical arms.

Anti-Semitism a ‘recurrent problem’ in Dutch schools, gov’t report says


Anti-Semitism is a persistent problem in some Dutch schools and especially among Muslim pupils, according to a new government-commissioned report on discrimination in education.

The findings appeared in a 55-page report titled “Two Worlds, Two Realities – How Do You Deal with It as a Teacher,” which was published last week by the Dutch-Jewish journalist Margalith Kleijwegt at the request of the Dutch Ministry of Education.

The report, which is based on visits to schools and conversations with dozens of teachers since January 2015, say teachers sometimes feel powerless to change the deep-seated biases and violent attitudes of some pupils, including against Jews.

One female teacher of high-schoolers in Amsterdam told Kleijwegt that following a program about democratic values and against discrimination, a female pupil of Moroccan descent stood up and said: “If I had a Kalashnikov [assault rifle], I’d gun down all the Jews.” She then made shooting gestures and sounds.

Shocked, the teacher tried to make the student empathize with the Jews.

“I wasn’t getting there,” the report quotes that teacher as saying. “I asked her to imagine a 5-year-old Jewish girl who lives here. What would she have to do with Israel’s policies? Unfortunately, there was no place for empathy. The pupil didn’t care about that girl. She had only one message: The Jews should die.”

In parallel, the report also found racist behavior directed at Muslim children by some classmates, particularly following the arrival in Europe of hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East last year.

“Anti-Semitic behavior is a recurrent problem in some schools,” Kleijwegt wrote. “Some see it as a provocation [by pupils], others fear it goes deeper: That pupils receive anti-Jewish attitudes at home. The same applies to the growing group of Dutch pupils who say foreigners should rot and die. Is this provocation? Do they receive it at home?”

In the report, Dutch Education Minister Jet Bussemaker wrote that the document “shows a reality that is inconvenient and sometimes painful” but must be confronted and dealt with “in accordance to democratic values.”

Record number visit Anne Frank House


The Anne Frank House had a record number of visitors for the sixth consecutive year.

In 2015, some 1,268,095 people visited the Anne Frank House, located at the site in Amsterdam where the young diarist hid from the Nazis with her family. That is 40,633 more than the previous record of 1,227,462 set the previous year.

“It’s impressive that so many people from all parts of the world visit this place and learn about this chapter of history,” Ronald Leopold, executive director of the Anne Frank House, said in a statement.

The Anne Frank house also organizes educational projects worldwide, exposing millions more people, most of them young, to the life story of the teenage diarist.

“The life story of Anne Frank encourages young people to reflect on the social developments of then and now, and inspires them to combat prejudice and discrimination in their own surroundings,” Leopold said.

On Friday, a French lawmaker and a French scholar each published the “Diary of Anne Frank” online in a challenge to the Swiss foundation established by the teen’s father, Otto, to allocate the book’s royalties to charity. European copyrights generally expire 70 years after an author’s death, thus the copyright was expected to expire at the end of 2015.

The diary, which chronicles two years of hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, may be the most famous Holocaust-era document and has inspired several play and film adaptations. Anne died in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp.

France train gunman identified as Islamist militant


Fingerprint evidence shows that the gunman overpowered by passengers on a train in France is a Morrocan known to European authorities as a suspected Islamist militant, according to a source familiar with the case.

Two people were wounded in the struggle to subdue the Kalashnikov-toting attacker aboard the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. Three young Americans, one of whom suffered knife wounds, were among the passengers who stopped the gunman.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters the gunman appeared to be a 26-year-old Moroccan who had been “identified by the Spanish authorities to French intelligence services in February 2014 because of his connections to the radical Islamist movement.”

Cazeneuve did not give a name, but the source named him as Ayoub el Khazzani and said he was believed to have flown from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10 this year. Turkey is a preferred flight destination for would-be jihadists heading for Syria.

According to a Spanish counter-terrorism source, Spanish authorities had a suspect they identified as Khazzani under surveillance before he left Spain for France in 2014, traveled to Syria, and then came back to France.

In Spain, he lived in Madrid between 2007 and 2010 before moving to the southern port of Algeciras. He was arrested in Spain at least once for a drug-related offence, the Spanish counter-terrorism source said.

Cazeneuve said he had also lived in Belgium and that inquiries “should establish precisely the activities and travels of this terrorist”.

French newspaper Le Voix du Nord said the suspect may have had connections to a group involved in a suspected Islamist shooting in Belgium in January. The Belgian government confirmed an inquiry was under way but would not comment further.

French authorities have been on high alert since January, when 17 people were killed in shootings by Islamist militants in and around Paris.

KALASHNIKOV, PISTOL, AND BOX CUTTER 

The train attacker was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an automatic pistol, both with accompanying ammunition clips. He also had a box cutter knife. Cazeneuve said the struggle started when a Frenchman on his way to the toilet tried to stop the man entering a carriage.

The wounded American, Spencer Stone, an airman from the U.S. air base in Lajes, Azores, was treated on Saturday at a specialist hospital for hand injuries in the northern French city of Lille.

Among the other passengers who helped stop the attacker were Stone's friends: National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and another American, student Anthony Sadler. Skarlatos had returned last month from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the three were on holiday together in Europe.

Cazeneuve said the other wounded person was of Franco-American nationality and hit by a bullet while seated. Hospital authorities said the person had a chest wound and was in a serious but stable condition.

French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade was also slightly hurt, and had stitches in his hand.

“We were stuck in the wrong place with the right people,” Anglade was quoted as saying on BFMTV. “It's miraculous.”

President Barack Obama hailed the passengers as heroes: “It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” he said in a statement.

President Francois Hollande is due to thank them in person on Monday.

The gunman was transferred on Saturday to the Paris region from Arras in northern Francewhere the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.

The shooting took place on a Thalys high-speed train. The Franco-Belgian state transport group runs international trains linking France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

All four countries are part of the Schengen area through which people travel without the need for passports and security check-ins. Experts have long said the trains are a potential target for attacks.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in January there were more than 3,000 potentially dangerous Islamists under surveillance in France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim community.

Most of the attacks and foiled attacks this year in France have been carried out by people who were on that list, but government officials say the surveillance cannot be constant.

“When there's nothing to justify an arrest, there comes a time when you move on to other individuals,” said Sébastien Pietrasanta, a Socialist lawmaker who drafted France's latest anti-terror legislation.

“Given the number of individual linked to radical Islamism its becomes complicated,” he told Reuters.

“We take 100 percent precautions but that does not mean 0 percent risk.”

Shots fired on Amsterdam-to-Paris train, three injured


Three people were wounded in a shooting incident on high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris on Friday, the French Interior Ministry said.

A man was arrested when the train stopped at Arras station in northern France but his motives were not yet known, a ministry spokesman said. Three U.S. Marines were on board the train and overpowered the man, French media said.

The wounded included an American and a Briton.

Train operator Thalys said that travelers were safe and the situation was under control.

“A man opened fire on this Thalys train between Amsterdam and Paris,” ministry spokesman Pierre Henry Brandet said on BFM-TV television.

“Talking about a terrorist motive would be premature at the moment.”

France has been on high security alert since Islamist militants killed 17 people in and around Paris in January.

“The man was armed with automatic weapons and knives. He was stopped by passengers,” Christophe Piednoel, a spokesman for French railway SNCF said on iTele television.

Police union official Slimane Hamzi said the 26-year-old man had said he was of Moroccan origin.

Thalys is partly-owned by SNCF and Belgian railways.

Coffee in Amsterdam with Anne Frank’s Best Friend


Next month is the 70th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank. The exact date that she died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 is not known other than it is in the first few days of March.

Anne Frank is the most famous victim of the holocaust, her very memory conjuring up the innocent dead six million and the 1.5 million murdered children.

I spent the past few days in Amsterdam at the new production of her diary, called simply Anne at a specially-constructed theater in Amsterdam with a gargantuan stage. The ambitious production is moving, exhilarating, informative, superbly acted, and deeply disturbing. At the end people shuffled out without making a sound. All were engrossed in thought.

Few people outside the Jewish community of Holland are aware that some eighty percent of Dutch Jews were murdered in the holocaust representing the highest percentage of any country except Poland, where ninety percent were murdered. The Dutch Jewish community consists mostly of survivors and their children.

To the rest of the world The Netherlands is a symbol of liberal openness, with prostitution visible and legal, marijuana sold in “coffee shops,” and far-left politics flourishing. How any of this squares, however, with Holland allowing eighty percentage of its Jewish population to be annihilated is anyone’s guess.

I say “allowed” because in nearby Denmark ninety-nine percent of all Jews survived because they were ferried to neutral Sweden, were hidden by their non-Jewish neighbors, and their government staunchly protested Jewish deportations. In Holland there were certainly righteous gentiles who saved Jews – like the five non-Jewish employees of Otto Frank who hid his family – but numbers don’t lie. The vast majority of Jews were murdered. 

Strange thing then that the most famous Dutch personality of the 20th century is a young Jewish girl of fifteen who died seventy years ago. In terms of sheer global name recognition Anne Frank would be on a list of the best-known Dutchman along with Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

Yet, aside from the Anne Frank house with its consistently long tourist lines to enter, and the incredible play now being staged, there are no officials plans by the city of Amsterdam or the government of The Netherlands to mark the seventieth year of her death. Indeed, even at the Anne Frank house her Jewishness is not focused on and there is little discussion of the wider events of the holocaust and the wholesale annihiliation of Dutch Jewry.

On Sunday morning I travelled to Anne’s original home where she lived before being forced to move into hiding at the much more famous Annex. More important, I met with Jacqueline van Maarsenwhom Anne describes in her diary as her very best friend and to whom she wrote a letter in the diary. 

“It’s a strange thing when a friend you have known becomes a global icon,” Jacqueline told me. “I remember her simply as Anne, my childhood playmate and best friend. We met at a special school set up after the Nazis ordered that all Jewish children be segregated from the mainstream. Anne invited me to her home on the day we met and then insisted that I stay for dinner. She was like that. Always bubbly. Always warm, friendly, and forward.”

Jacqueline took out her yearbook from school. “Here is the note that Anne wrote for me in my yearbook. She took up a whole page. Look at how she glued in a picture of herself.”

“And here is a postcard which Anne sent to me for 1942. I had told her it was important to me to receive the postcard.” It was signed, “Anne.”

I was fascinated by the conversation. Here I was speaking to someone who had actually known Anne Frank, a girl who would go down as one of history’s famous personalities. Was I reaching across millennia to someone who had know a figure from antiquity? Was I in some sort of weird time machine? How could I be sitting with someone who gossiped, played, and did homework with Anne Frank? 

Wasn’t The Secret Annex some lost historical time capsule that took place in the early mists of history? It could not be that I was speaking to someone who was one of the last people to see Anne free before the family went into hiding without any notice, and who is mentioned in the diary.

“Anne wrote me a letter in her diary because she never said goodbye. I thought her family had gone to Switzerland. I guess it was too dangerous for her to tell me that she was leaving. I only read the letter after the War.”

It then hit me. The reason I was speaking to a friend of Anne Frank who was alive, spoke a near-perfect English, and was, thank God, in good health at 86 was because the events of the holocaust are still so recent. 

It’s easy for us to look at the black-and-white stock footage of the Second World War and the famous personalities of Churchill, Eisenhower, and Roosevelt and imagine this was centuries ago. But no. There are people alive and well who witnessed all these events, went to death camps, survived then death camps, and are still thank God alive to tell the tale.

All of which makes it even more confusing as to how Europe can allow for such a disgusting outbreak of anti-Semitism in our time, something that the Jewish community of Amsterdam wanted to discuss with me above all other subjects. How short can human memory really be?

At a Saturday night lecture that I gave to the community they informed me that they are currently embroiled in an argument with the government about security for Jewish day schools, synagogues, and communal institutions. The government was set to remove all security this past January but extended it in light of the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market massacres in Paris.

Now the community wonders who they have any future in a country with growing threats and with a government that is not stepping to the plate to protect them long-term. 

It all sounds eerily familiar and more than a bit disconcerting, to use the classic British understatement.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbis,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization defending Israel in world media. He is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and 30 other books, including his most recent, “Kosher Lust.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.    

 

Meet the Fokkens: Amsterdam’s septuagenarian Jewish prostitutes


Like many Jewish grandmothers, Martine and Louise Fokkens enjoy talking about their grandchildren in language laced with Yiddish.

At 71, the twins from Amsterdam also paint, think often about the Holocaust and attend synagogue on Jewish holidays.

But the Fokkens are not like most Jewish grandmothers.

For one thing, they recently retired after 50 years of working as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. For another, they are local celebrities thanks to several autobiographical books and a 2012 documentary carrying the English-language title “Meet the Fokkens.”

In the Netherlands, they are widely known by the Dutch title, which translates to “old whores.”

“The business taught us to get along with everybody, and I do mean everybody,” said Louise Fokkens, who retired in 2010 because of arthritis.

“Everybody” included priests, imams and rabbis, said the twins, who wore matching outfits during an interview last week at a Red Light District cafe.

“One of my Turkish clients shouted about Allah” at the moment of climax, Martine recalls.

“And we both had nice, shy yeshiva boys over more than once,” Louise added. “They’re very introverted.”

Though they speak positively about their years “behind the window” — a reference to the glass booths in which Amsterdam prostitutes attempt to lure customers — their career choice was born out of adversity and came at a price.

Louise entered the business in her early 20s under pressure from her ex-husband.

“He basically beat me into that booth, becoming my pimp, living on my money,” she said.

The couple had four children, but her ex-husband forced her to leave them for a few years at a foster home. Louise was able to visit them only on weekends.

Martine followed her sister into the trade, working first as a cleaning lady at brothels before she began turning tricks herself.

“I was angry at how everybody around us shunned Louise,” Martine said. “I did it out of spite, really.”

Both women eventually divorced their husbands, whom they now describe as “a couple of pimps.” But they continued working in the district “because that had become our lives,” Louise said.

“Our life in the business became a source of pride, a sport of sorts,” Louise added.

In retrospect, both women say they regret becoming prostitutes.

“We didn’t need all the trouble it brought us, the social stigma, the negative people you meet,” Martine said. “But that’s just how things went. Besides, we also met some wonderful people thanks to the business.”

Since retiring, the Fokkens have spent more time with their children — Martine has three — and grandchildren. They also briefly sold their paintings, including scenes of the Red Light District created at a studio near there.

They also receive psychological therapy at the Amsterdam Jewish community’s mental health clinic to deal with family traumas connected to the Holocaust.

“We were too young to experience it, but we were born into a traumatized family because our mother was half Jewish,” Louise said. “Our parents for years were expecting she’d get taken away. We also had Jews hiding in our home. The stress seeped through to us.”

Although the Fokkens’ maternal grandmother was Jewish, they were not brought up Jewish.

“But we remember her praying in the old kitchen and she taught us some Yiddish,” Martine said.

Their parents fiercely objected to their choice of career but eventually learned to live with it.

“Before us, nobody from our family ever went into the business,” Martine said. “I suppose someone had to go first.”

With age, the twins have reconnected to Jewish traditions. Louise now attends services at the Dutch capital’s Reform synagogue.

“When we were still in the business, going to shul didn’t feel right,” Louise said. “How could it? We weren’t unwelcome there, but we felt inadequate ourselves.”

Even today, Louise sits in the back row in synagogue to be as far away from the rabbi as possible.

But the sisters don’t feel excluded from Dutch Jewry. Over the summer they sailed on the Jewish boat in the Amsterdam gay pride parade. Their aim was to protest anti-Semitism, said Louise, who does not wear a Star of David pendant because she fears it would invite an attack.

“Our parents taught us to stand up straight no matter what,” Louise said.

Aboard the ship, they danced on the forward deck in white suits while the announcer touted them as “the old whores.”

But the twins themselves don’t feel like Red Light District symbols. In fact, they no longer even feel completely at home there, Louise confessed.

“The working girls used to be Dutch, now they’re all foreign,” she said. “The clients used to be local, now they’re tourists. And there used to be older girls. But now if you dare be [there] over 25, they stand in front of your window and make fun like you’re some sort of freak.”

Aboard Amsterdam’s Jewish gay boat, activists warn against tolerating hate


Its passengers included celebrities, a rabbi and revelers in biblically themed costumes, but the Jewish boat at Amsterdam’s gay pride parade stood out for more than just its riders.

Following a west-to-east course along the Dutch capital’s Prinsengracht canal on Saturday along with dozens of similarly flamboyant vessels, the Jewish boat was the only one in the parade isolated by police. Two boats with three officers each escorted the ship, while two additional agents sailed aboard the Jewish boat itself.

With increased violence aimed of late at Jews in the Netherlands and across Europe, authorities weren’t taking any chances.

“We’d planned this just to show that we [gay Jews] exist as a community but with all that’s happened, I’m now here to stand up for our rights also as Jews to live as equals without threats by those who want to see Jews or gays silent or dead,” said Gideon Querido van Frank, the Jewish boat’s chief organizer, who boarded the boat wearing a Bronze Age soldier outfit laced with glitter.

As Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has unfolded over the past month, acts of violence and intimidation have risen in Holland, threatening the country’s reputation for tolerance.

In addition to repeated acts of vandalism at the home of a Dutch chief rabbi, police last week confirmed reports that in two separate incidents, a Jewish woman was assaulted for displaying an Israeli flag on her home. One was beaten on the street, while the other had a firebomb and stones hurled at her window.

In The Hague, Muslim extremists twice chanted slogans about killing Jews at demonstrations that featured jihadist symbols, sparking a national debate about limiting freedom of expression because police failed to intervene.

But none of that deterred the 50 people who registered to sail aboard the Jewish boat at the 19th Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade, a world-famous aquatic procession that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from across Holland and beyond. If anything, the attacks led passengers to broaden their message of tolerance for gays to include rejection of anti-Semitism and a demand that authorities crack down on hate speech.

The people intimidating Jews are also responsible for “a reversal in the level of acceptance of gay people in the Netherlands,” said Marianne van Praag, a Reform rabbi from The Hague who boarded the boat even though it sailed on Shabbat because she believes that speaking out against hatred of Jews and gays has become “a matter of life and death.”

In some areas of the city, van Praag told JTA, “gay people no longer dare hold hands on the street because they don’t find it safe.”

“I find it imperative that a statement on this be made also from the religious circles,” she said.

Throughout the parade, participants flew a rainbow flag emblazoned with a Star of David and cheered at spectators waving Israeli flags in solidarity. Organizers referred to Israel over the loudspeaker, not least in introducing the boat’s main attraction: The transgender pop idol Dana International, who led Israel to victory at the 1998 Eurovision song contest with her hit “Diva.”

“I don’t believe in any religion, so I’m here as an Israeli, not as a Jew,” Dana International told JTA. “But it’s time to end the persecution over religion or national reasons. Just cut out all that s***. That’s my message.”

Dressed in a tight black dress and golden leggings on the boat’s main platform, Dana International shouted into the microphone, “Thank you Amsterdam for being so tolerant of gay rights and all minorities. Thank you Holland for being the most tolerant place on earth. Don’t ever change.”

While many Dutchmen are proud of the liberal policies and values for which their country is renowned, some fear it is changing. In particular, the spate of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks has prompted concern that not enough is being done to defend Dutch freedoms from people bent on abusing them.

“Tolerance is important but needs to have limits,” said Ken Gould, a gay Jewish cantor who runs KunstenIsrael, the Netherlands Foundation for Israeli Culture. “Clearly those limits have been breached. I am here also to draw attention to that.”

In the wake of the anti-Semitic demonstrations in The Hague, a petition with 17,000 signatures was sent to the Dutch Senate asking for the resignation of Mayor Jozias van Aartsen because city police denied hearing incitement at the demonstration despite footage that seemed to prove it.

“We can’t close our eyes and pretend there are no problems any longer,” said Louise Fokkens, who with her twin sister, Martine, rode the boat in matching white costumes. “It’s time to fight back and make a stand, and that’s why we are aboard.”

The Fokkens twins, who are in their 70s, are famous in the Netherlands for having worked 50 years as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District before their retirement earlier this year. The fact that they are Jewish isn’t very well known, yet someone painted a swastika near their apartment during Israel’s previous military campaign in Gaza, Louise Fokkens said.

“Last time they targeted the Jews and the gays, nobody said anything,” said Martine Fokkens, referring to the Holocaust. “Well, this is us saying something.”

Amsterdam apartment flying Israeli flag targeted with firebomb


A Jewish woman who displayed an Israeli flag from her balcony in Amsterdam was targeted with a firebomb and death threats.

The firebomb landed on the balcony of neighbors of Leah Rabinovitch, a Mexico-born Jewish woman who flew the Israeli flag on Amsterdam’s Kruger Square, located in an eastern neighborhood heavily populated with Moroccan immigrants, the Het Parool daily reported Wednesday.

The report did not say whether the firebomb ignited and whether it caused any damage, but according to the FokNews website, it landed on a neighbor’s balcony. Fok also reported that a stone that was hurled at Rabinovitch’s apartment smashed a window, and that one of the death threats sent to Rabinovitch read: “Heil Hitler, Hitler is coming back, Jews must die.”

Rabinovitch and her partner put out the flag several weeks ago as a sign of solidarity with Israel’s assault on Hamas in Gaza. Their downstairs neighbors displayed on their balcony a Palestinian flag and demanded that Rabinovitch remove her flag.

Complaints by the downstairs neighbor led the Rochdale housing association that manages the apartments to send letters to both apartments ordering them to remove the flags and warning that they would be held accountable for damages resulting from vandalism, Het Parool reported. Rochdale defined the conflict as an “ongoing neighbor quarrel.”

Rabinovitch told Het Parool she had no previous conflicts with the neighbors prior to hanging the flag.

“They present it as though I was trying to provoke with my flag, but it wasn’t about making a statement,” she said. “We find it difficult to understand why Rochdale, the police and the neighbors want us to remove our flag. Should I feel afraid in my own house? If I remove the flag it means tolerating anti-Semitism.”

From Dutch situation room, pro-Israel volunteers defend Jewish state on social media


Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands Haim Divon nodded approvingly as he surveyed the small army of 50 men and women fighting for Israel.

Around a conference table in an office in the Amsterdam suburb of Buitenveldert, 30 volunteers were writing and collecting pro-Israel materials and transferring them to an editor who posted them on social networks.

Nearby, the graphics department churned out glossy logos and catchy memes that compared weather forecasts from London — partly cloudy with a chance of light showers — to that of Tel Aviv: Rocket volley with a chance of death.

This was not Divon’s operation. In fact, he and other embassy staff were making only their first visit to the situation room set up by Jewish and Christian volunteers to counter anti-Israel rhetoric online. Community leaders say the effort is unparalleled in Europe and a testament to the vibrancy of Dutch Jewry.

“What you have done here is amazing,” Divon told the group. “I think this is unique in Europe and this is exactly what we need to give us enough time to accomplish what we need in order to ensure the safety of the people of Israel.”

The volunteers at the Buitenveldert situation room began working last week out of the the cafeteria of the local Jewish Cultural Center, which they converted into a space where 80 people can work in two 14-hour shifts each day. The volunteers have created hundreds of posts and articles on Israel, which they disseminate through the Holland4Israel Facebook group and on Twitter, among other social networks.

“The idea is to empower pro-Israel advocates who used to work out of their student apartments by giving them a community framework, interaction and facilities,” said Ron Eisenmann, a former community leader from Amsterdam who spearheaded the project with Rabbi Yanki Jacobs, director of the Dutch branch of the Chabad on Campus network, and Christians for Israel, an international network of Christian Zionists.

For some participants, the situation room is the only place outside their homes where they can express support of Israel without rebuke. After one of her classmates posted on Facebook that “f—–g Zionists are something that every Jew should be ashamed of,” one Jewish student decided she needed to be more discreet about her views.

“Most of my friends are left-wing non-Jews, so I knew they were no big fans of Israel,” said Naomi, a student in her 20s from an eastern Holland city with few Jews, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “But I was shocked by their attacks on me because of my comments online about Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Support for the Palestinian cause is strong in the Netherlands, which has seen a string of efforts to divest from Israel over its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Earlier this month, Muslim demonstrators twice chanted menacing calls about Jews at rallies in The Hague. Separately, unidentified individuals smashed the windows of the home of a chief rabbi, the fifth attack on his residence in recent years.

But the kingdom is also home to one of Europe’s most active pro-Israel communities, led by the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, or CIDI. The 40-year-old organization with 10 professional staffers, an online television channel and two research departments has given the Netherlands’ small Jewish community of 40,000 an outsized voice on Israel affairs unequaled by similarly sized communities elsewhere in Europe.

But it is the support of Christian Zionists that gives Holland’s well-organized Jewish community an extra push in its public diplomacy efforts, according to Binyomin Jacobs, the rabbi whose home was attacked.

“The supporters of Israel from Christians for Israel are an enormous help and an important element to the Jewish story here,” said Jacobs.

Representing hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries, Christians for Israel was founded in the Netherlands in 1979. Its international headquarters is still located in the town of Nijkerk, near Amsterdam.

Recently, the group launched several campaigns against PGGM, a major pension firm that divested from Israeli companies, and against several supermarket chains that reportedly agreed to boycott settlement goods. The markets denied they had made such a decision amid protests led predominantly by Christians.

Christians for Israel’s contribution to the pro-Israel effort during the current Gaza crisis was evident at a July 19 demonstration, where approximately 1,000 people — many draped in Israeli flags — packed Amsterdam’s Dam Square.

“I was surprised at how many Jews showed up,” said Sergiusz Licpyz, an Israeli living in Amsterdam. “They sang Hebrew songs and completely dwarfed the counter-demonstration of 30 pro-Palestinians, who ended up looking quite pathetic. I think they were also surprised.”

About 75 percent of the participants were Christians, according to David Serphos, a former Jewish community leader who helped set up the situation room with Eisenmann.

“Thank God for Christians for Israel because without them, that demonstration would have been different,” Serphos said.

Back at the situation room, Timo Erkelens of Christians for Israel’s youth group, Israelity, describes his involvement as a form of compensation for “all the horrible things” that befell Dutch Jewry. The Holocaust wiped out 75 percent of the community, the highest death rate in all of Nazi-occupied Western Europe.

“We are here to change the record,” Erkelens said.

Sole Israeli national on downed Malaysian airliner was son of evangelical Christian


A few hours before he departed Amsterdam for Australia on July 17, Ithamar Avnon was praying for peace with his parents at their home in the Netherlands.

That evening, pro-Russian separatists shot down Avnon’s flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Avnon, 26, was the sole Israeli national on board.

The son of a Dutchwoman and an Israeli who became an evangelical Christian, Avnon loved peace because of how well he and his family knew war.

His father, Dov, served for three years in the Israel Defense Forces before moving to the Netherlands in the 1970s. His older brother, Jonathan, was an Israeli paratrooper. Following his brother’s lead, Avnon voluntarily joined the paratroopers and fought with that unit in the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza.

Friends and family say that Avnon, who was born in the Netherlands in 1988, was a fun-loving man with a penchant for buffoonery who was looking forward to completing his international business degree at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Ithamar liked horsing around, he wasn’t a stern guy,” his mother, Jeannet, told JTA. “I never thought Ithamar would join the army, but he was inspired to do it by his brother. Ithamar completed the training and got that red beret.”

One of his former commanders, Shlomi Biton, said Avnon — Ito, to his friends — was a forgetful soldier who would often lose pieces of gear, including that red beret, just moments after receiving it. Avnon got away with it because of how well-liked he was by his peers and commanders.

“I really loved Ithamar,” Biton wrote on a Facebook page in Avnon’s memory. “I wanted to be the one to give Ithamar the beret — and then another one after he lost the first one, which was typical.”

Dov Avnon moved to Holland after meeting Dutch Christians in Eilat in the 1970s. Even as an ex-Jewish Christian living in Holland, Dov Avnon and his wife raised their children with a love of the Jewish state.

After Avnon’s death, Dov wrote on Facebook: “I am happy that he grew up with the bible and the faith that Christ died for him on the cross.”

Avnon had been in the Netherlands to attend the wedding of his sister, Ruth, who learned of the flight’s demise on the radio.

“I knew immediately that it was my little brother’s flight and it felt as though I was sinking and the world around me was falling apart,” Ruth Avnon said.

In their home near Utrecht, Avnon’s parents were waiting last week for a Dutch forensics team to finish identifying the remains of the dead in the hope of recovering their son’s body.

Though the final remains found at the crash site arrived in Holland last week, the search is ongoing. Full identification of the victims could take months and it’s not yet clear whether all the bodies have been recovered. Dov has little hope of recovering his son’s remains, since he was sitting close to the engine.

“It’s a strange sort of mourning because we have no body,” Jeannet said. “I’m afraid that when and if a body is recovered, we would need to mourn all over again.”

Avnon had a knack for comedy and impersonations and had a face he would make by puckering his lips. “We called it the Berrie face,” Jeannet said.

His thespian skills also helped him at work, according to Nata Sapuga, Avnon’s former boss at a recycling company. During a business trip to India, Avnon got an upset stomach and had to run to the bathroom every few minutes while working at a business fair.

“He would tell visitors to his booth, ‘Excuse me, sir, but i just figured out that I need to exchange a few urgent words with my biggest buyer, who just passed by,’” Spuga recalled.

Holland lost 194 of its citizens on board MH17, prompting the government to declare a day of mourning — the first in a century. The national outpouring of grief has provided some consolation to Avnon’s parents.

“We are consoled by the feeling of a community, by the respect the Netherlands is showing to all victims,” Jeannet said. “It dulls the pain, as did the powerful speech of our foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, at the United Nations.”

In that speech, Timmermans condemned pro-Russian separatists for delaying access to the bodies and urged delegates to imagine they were parents of the victims “and then two or three days later see some thug steal their wedding ring from their remains.”

Western leaders also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of supplying the separatists with the weapons used to bring down the plane and for failing to expedite the return of the bodies. Dov Avnon wrote Putin a scathing letter, accusing him of harboring “people who have lost all humanity.”

On Wednesday, Dov was at the ceremony in Eindhoven Airport, where the first bodies were returned. Organizers had placed a flag for every nation that lost civilians in the crash, including Israel.

“I know that flag is especially for Ithamar,” Dov Avnon said. “I am proud to be an Israeli and a Dutch citizen and grateful for this treatment.”

Citing Brussels attack, Amsterdam ups security for Jewish centers


Following the slaying of four people at Brussels’ Jewish museum in May, the City of Amsterdam has decided to increase security around Jewish centers indefinitely.

The decision was based on the recommendation of the Dutch National Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism and Security, or NCTV, the ANP news agency reported on Thursday. The Coordinator said in an advisory notice that there was no concrete intelligence on planned attacks, AP reported, but added that the May 24 murder of four people in Brussels shows “that such an attack is perceivable,” according to the NOS broadcaster.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard Edzard van der Laan said the extra security measures, which were not specified in Dutch media, will come in addition to existing security arrangements made by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, where most of the Netherlands’ 45,000 Jews live.

“It will increase the community’s security and ability to resist [attacks],” ANP quoted van der Laan as saying.

Dutch politicians and Jewish community representatives have lobbied for years for their government to increase security arrangements around Jewish institutions. The Jewish community of Amsterdam estimates its annual expenditure on security at just over $1 million.

Meanwhile, in the Belgian city of Antwerp, a spokesperson for the local police told the ATV channel that police will soon reduce security around Jewish institutions, which since the attack have been guarded by a special force of approximately 200 officers armed with machine guns.

“We can continue patrolling for a while longer, but not forever,” the spokesperson said Monday.

French police on May 30 arrested Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national, whom Belgian and French authorities believe killed the four victims of the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting in central Brussels, though he denies the allegations. French police said Nemmouche fought in Syria with jihdaists in 2013.

On Tuesday the museum reopened to the public for the first time since the attack, under heavy police surveillance, the news site 7sur7.be reported.

The following day, Belgium’s interior minister, Joelle Milquet, visited the museum with her French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, to express solidarity with the Jewish community and extend their condolences for the dead — two of the museum’s staffers and two Israeli tourists.

 

Jewish boat making waves ahead of Amsterdam gay parade


Its maiden voyage is months away and will only take a couple of hours, but the first Jewish boat of Amsterdam’s annual gay parade-on-the-canals is already making international waves.

On Monday, the Jewish boat got the thumbs up from the British actor Stephen Fry, who described it on Twitter as an “Ace event for LGBT Jews worldwide,” adding: “As one of each I wish I could be there!”

The Jewish boat for the Amsterdam Pride Canal Parade 2014 is scheduled to hit the murky waters of Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht canal on Aug. 2. It was one of approximately 80 boats to win a March lottery ensuring its participation in the world-famous event, believed to be the world’s only aquatic pride parade. Other winners included the first boat for Moroccan gays.

The 18-year-old annual event draws hundreds of thousands of spectators who huddle along the canal to watch the decorated, themed vessels chart a west-east course through one of the Dutch capital’s main waterways. The Jewish boat, and an international Jewish LGBT conference that immediately precedes it, are being organized by a group called Exodays, whose board is made up of several young Jewish activists.

Even before it officially entered the parade, the Jewish boat was making a splash in the local media. Several Dutch dailies led their coverage of the lottery with news of the Jewish boat’s candidacy. And it again made headlines in the Dutch media last month amid erroneous reports that the passenger list — which has not yet been made public — would include Onno Hoes, the Jewish, gay mayor of Maastricht and chairman of CIDI, the Dutch Jewish community’s main advocacy group focusing on Israel and anti-Semitism. Hoes congratulated the organizers on Twitter but said he would not be joining. The mere mention of Hoes, though, was interesting to Dutch journalists because the 52-year-old politician was already in the spotlight after a tabloid in December published photos of him with a younger man in the lobby of a Maastricht hotel. While it wasn’t news that Hoes is gay — he has been quite open about that — it was news that he had been unfaithful to his husband, the television celebrity Albert Verlinde.

While Hoes is not on the boat, passengers include feature sports journalist Barbara Barend — another Dutch Jewish gay celebrity, who is a member of the CIDI board.

Kibbutznik’s history becomes performance art


Yael Davids was frustrated. After more than a week of trying to set up a time to talk from her home base in Amsterdam, she was finally on Skype, but there was a problem. “I want to see you!” she said, somewhat defeated, as she realized that her video connection just wasn’t going to cooperate, so she’d have to use just words to tell her story. For an artist who’s been feverishly working to turn her own story into something more than just words, this is a unique challenge. When Davids performs at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on Dec. 6 and 8, the Israeli-born artist will bring a new version of her narrative performance piece that has captivated audiences in Europe and South America.

“I hardly ever start carte blanche,” Davids said, describing how she sets about creating her work. “In principle, I like the idea of molding and remolding, readjusting.”

The work is a combination of performance and a sculptural installation that will be on view at REDCAT for a month. For the opening, she will swing from a rope, interact with huge hanging sheets of glass and read text from a script that she has tailored for each performance site. Vestiges of the performance will remain on view in the gallery.

She describes herself as something of a historical detective, looking back over her own life to create something new and beautiful for her audience. “I’m trying to find a way to configure words in space … because I’d say words are also quite sculptural for me,” she said. “It really starts from personal testimonies into historical.”

Davids was born in 1968, and raised on Kibbutz Tzuba, just west of Jerusalem, and the kibbutz figures prominently in her current work. “My work is very personal, and I do talk about myself. … It’s my history on the kibbutz,” she explained.  

As the story goes, when Davids was growing up, Kibbutz Tzuba was a beautiful place full of “totally utopian ideals,” but it was forced to face a different reality when its economic situation became dire. Today, it survives by producing glass in three varieties — automotive, architectural and armored, including a very special kind of bulletproof glass. To Davids, this is something of a tragedy, “how a kibbutz with a very leftish background, in order to survive, has to supply this glass.”

According to Davids, the armored glass is sold to the American military, as well as to settlers living in the West Bank. It’s a paradox that both saddens and excites Davids, because while the use of the glass produced in her childhood home hurts her personally, the story makes for great art. “The kibbutz presents the glass as a weapon,” she said. “For me, it has to do a lot with Israel, and where Israel is now, today. Nowadays, everybody can see that Israel is a very aggressive country,” she said.

For her piece, Davids suspends huge sheets of glass above the space, an act she admits is “not without risk. The risk is there that they will break,” she said, “and I actually …  wouldn’t mind if they’d break.”  

Davids’ performances also are reliant upon a good audience. “I need the audience in order to lift myself as a performer,” she said. “If I can inspire people, I’d love it. This is the best.”

Her work is undeniably influenced by Judaism, and particularly by her Israeli heritage, though it’s a heritage she’s struggled with. “Israel is a country that continuously manipulates its narrative,” she said, then quickly revised her thought. “I don’t know if I would say manipulates, but reinvents its narratives, and erases, erases a lot of things. Like the Palestinians.”

And while some of Davids’ politics might cause controversy in some circles, she still cares deeply for Israel: “I must say that I would love to go back to Israel if I could. … Holland will never be my home. I will always feel like a foreigner here — the mentality of the people, the weather, but mainly the mentality.  

“But,” she added, “financially, I don’t think I could make it in Israel.”

In that sense, Davids is a little like the kibbutz she grew up on, forced to make choices based on financial realities, though she’s opted to make art, not armored glass. As she put it, she would rather make her glass into art. “Politically, I think there’s something really wrong there. And maybe it sounds very arrogant, what I say. Maybe the work has to be done from there.”

Davids said no one has yet gotten angry at her for her views on the current state of Israeli politics, but as she confided, “My sister told me, lucky you never did it [the performance] in Israel; they’d never let you do it.” 

Yet, Davids feels her attachment to her Jewish roots goes even deeper than just to modern Israel. After a brief discussion on kabbalistic interpretations of the world literally being formed from words, Davids was quick to exclaim, “I’m totally excited by words! They have the power to bring life. It’s not that they document life, they bring life.”

The whole idea of roots began to disturb Davids during a recent six-month residency in Rio de Janeiro, where even the landscape offered her a different way to see the world. 

“Israel is literally very dry and arid … it’s very reduced.  It’s reduced to the Jewish people,” she said. “In Rio, you see life that has nothing to do with roots. You see the freedom of not relating to the ground.”

But Davids’ strong link to her homeland, despite her problems with it, is why her struggle with her Israeli identity creeps so strongly into her work.  

“I cannot run away from the responsibility,” she said, adding, “Now, I could run away, maybe that’s why I’m not living there.”

Yael Davids’ exhibition at REDCAT opens Dec. 6, with a performance at 6:30 p.m., repeated on Dec. 8 at 4:30 p.m. The exhibition continues through Dec. 22. For more information, visit redcat.org.

Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “Prescribed Grass,” the 2009 documentary that would open the eyes of Israeli politicians to the vast potential of medical cannabis, a group of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans, suffering from army wounds such as phantom pains and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are shown sitting around a table at the Cohens’ house. There, they help trim the harvest, smoke their medicine from a small glass bong and sing the miracles of cannabis.

Those were the farm’s whimsical beginnings. Today, up a country road from the Cohens’ house, at a guarded location hidden by trees but open to steady sunshine, sits the family’s now-massive operation. It’s an almost three-acre setup of greenhouses, high-tech “Twister” trimming machines and huts with labels such as “Flowering House” and “Mother House.”

The Cohens have named their farm Tikun Olam, the Hebrew phrase for “healing the world” — and they believe their marijuana-growing and -processing facilities to be among the most advanced on Earth.

“It was amazing, the professional quality of the guys up there,” said an Israeli psychiatrist who visited the farm and recommends the Tikun Olam product to his patients, but who wished to remain anonymous, as he was instructed by the Ministry of Health not to give press statements. “All the measurements and everything were so precise.”

Despite its impressive new digs, Tikun Olam’s industrial garden retains an air of spirituality. Farmhands play traditional Jewish music to the plants and believe that kabbalah legend Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, buried on a nearby hill, watches over the farm and protects it from harm. A creaky little synagogue on site is hot-boxed with the fragrance of marijuana. “People from the neighborhood come to pray here,” said Ma’ayan Weisberg, spokeswoman for Tikun Olam, on a recent tour of the property.

Israeli lawmakers continue to classify marijuana as a dangerous and illegal drug. The national police force has waged a decades-long drug war against marijuana and hashish smuggled in from Lebanon and Egypt. But beginning in 1995 — when an Israeli government committee recommended that medical cannabis be legally distributed to the sick — a determined set of activists, scientists and politicians have nurtured a small, secure medical-cannabis program that might be just rigid enough to survive where other international efforts have unraveled.

Last November, Tikun Olam hosted a mob of international reporters from BBC, CNN, Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times and more at its homey plantation near Safed. Leading the pack was Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli government’s then-Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. He proudly announced that Tikun Olam had bred a special strain of cannabis that contained super-high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD — a non-psychoactive yet medically diverse component of the plant — but was almost entirely lacking in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the ingredient that makes users feel stoned. This new strain could offer patients relief from various physical ailments, including chronic pain and seizures, without cannabis’ infamous psychedelic high.

Tikun Olam also informed the media that the farm had grown a strain — named Eran Almog, after a patient — that contained 28 to 29 percent THC, which it claimed was the highest THC level ever recorded. (THC is known to prevent nausea in cancer patients and build appetites in people with AIDS, among other applications.)

“The new thing here is that what has always been thought of as just a drug, a negative thing, has become — through the good work of the growers here — a medicine which, in fact, is not a narcotic,” Edelstein told the reporters.

But after dozens of headlines equating “Israel” with “cannabis” hit global news outlets, the Ministry of Health, which runs Israel’s medical pot program, got cold feet and imposed a no-press policy on the farm, Weisberg said.

In tense committee meetings on how to handle the country’s expanding medical cannabis program, Israeli politicians and top brass at the Ministry of Public Security have expressed fears that Israel will earn a reputation as the Amsterdam of medical marijuana.

That fate may already be sealed. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta called Israel “the medical marijuana research capital” in his game-changing summer documentary “Weed,” and dedicated more than five minutes of the film to Israel’s remarkable advances in cannabis research and regulation.

Gupta was amazed to see how seamlessly Israel had integrated cannabis into its health-care system. He visited the Sheba Medical Center, where he was shocked to watch a cancer patient inhale cannabis from a vaporizer installed in his hospital room. He also spoke with Moshe Rute, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor whose nursing home provides him cannabis from Tikun Olam to ease his post-stroke symptoms, as well as his childhood memories. “The marijuana … took him out of the darkness,” CNN’s Gupta narrated as the old man lit up.

Although Tikun Olam is the most widely publicized brand available through Israel’s now world-famous cannabis program — the company calls itself “the flag bearer for the medical use of cannabis in Israel” on its Web site — seven more farms have grown simultaneously in its shadow. They are working within an infrastructure created by the Israeli government, testing the levels of CBD and THC in their product at federal or university labs and distributing it out of a cramped little room behind the high-security gates of Abarbanel, the country’s central mental institution.

To get access, Israeli cannabis patients — of which there are currently almost 13,000 — currently must wrangle a hard-to-get cannabis license from the Ministry of Health, then receive training from experts familiar with the farms’ different strains. Individuals pay a fixed price of about $100 per month, regardless of the amount of cannabis prescribed. With the exception of Tikun Olam customers, who pick up their weed at a closely guarded storefront with prison-like window bars on Ibn Gabirol Street in northern Tel Aviv, the nation’s cannabis patients pick up their monthly rations at Abarbanel Mental Health Center.

This tight-knit system of production and distribution, carried out under the paranoid thumb of the federal government, has positioned Israel to create what could become the world’s first successful, government-run pharmaceutical system for medical cannabis.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel.

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?<

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In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error.

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine.

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000.

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.”

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer.

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results.

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms.

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia.

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it.

“Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.”

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land.

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known.

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success.

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Holland’s largest Hebrew bookstore shutters doors


One of Western Europe’s largest Hebrew bookstores closed in Amsterdam as its former owners prepare to immigrate to Israel.

Samech, located in southern Amsterdam, has been supplying Hebrew-language books to members of Holland’s Jewish community for nearly 40 years and possessed a stock of 100,000 books, according to the website of the Dutch Israelite Religious Community, or NIK.

The store, which used to be the largest of its kind in the Netherlands, belonged to Daan and Shulamit Daniel, who are planning to move to Israel. All their children had already moved out of the Netherlands in favor of “places with richer Jewish lives than Amsterdam,” according to NIK.

The store’s entire stock was sold or given away last month, the NIK report said. Holland has a Jewish population of 41,000 to 45,000, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Immigration from Western Europe brought 3,243 new arrivals to Israel in 2012, an increase of 6 percent from the previous year. However, immigration from the Benelux area  — Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — dropped that year by 26 percent to 209 new arrivals.

Samech used to service Holland’s outsized population of Israeli expats, estimated by the Dutch Jewish community to be approximately 10,000.

According to Dr. Yinon Cohen of Tel Aviv University, some 6,600 Israelis are living in France and fewer than 3,000 in total in Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Britain has the largest population of Israeli expats in Europe, with 40,000 living in London alone, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Anti-Zionist rabbi blames Israel for his assault in Amsterdam


An anti-Zionist rabbi said he was attacked in Amsterdam because of Israel.

Rabbi Josef Antebi, 50, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Amsterdam, told JTA he was assaulted on Sunday in the Dutch capital by a young man who “had relatively dark skin and didn’t look very Dutch, or at least didn’t look like his family has been living in Holland for centuries.”

Antebi said he was kicked in the stomach by a driver who exited his car after nearly hitting the rabbi. He was taken to a hospital, examined and released with minor injuries after filing a complaint with police.

A spokeswoman for the Amsterdam police told JTA that police are investigating but are not certain the attack was anti-Semitic.

“Currently we are assuming it is an argument about traffic that got out of hand,” she said.

Antebi took a picture of the attacker with his cellular phone.

“He shouted negative things about my religion and about my people,” said Antebi, who was born in Israel but says he does not recognize its right to exist and describes himself as a Palestinian Jew.

According to Antebi, he turned to a fishmonger operating a street stall and asked him to call the police as the attacker was approaching, but the fishmonger “just motioned ‘no.’ ”

The attacker kicked him in the stomach, the rabbi said.

“I’m not surprised he did what he did, it’s human behavior,” Antebi told JTA. “The one to blame is the Zionist state, which is doing a lot of bad things to people.”

Sports-related incidents spark slight rise in Dutch anti-Semitism


The doubling of sports-related anti-Semitism last year led to the first increase in overall anti-Semitic incidents in three years in the Netherlands.

In its annual monitor report on anti-Semitism, released Thursday, the Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, or CIDI, counted 114 cases in 2012 compared to 113 cases the previous year. Thus, “2012 put an end to a two-year decline registered in 2010 and 2011 in the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents,” the Dutch-Jewish watchdog group reported.

Sports-related incidents accounted for 10 percent of the total figure in 2012, compared to less than 5 percent the previous year. Six of the cases documented in 2012 involved violence or physical intimidation compared to four incidents in 2011.

Two people told CIDI they intended to leave the Netherlands because of anti-Semitism, the report also said. Earlier this month, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said that “even in the city of Amsterdam, anti-Semitism is being justified because of real and perceived injustices in the Middle East.”

Anne Frank House defends Bieber’s visit, guestbook entry


The Anne Frank House defended Justin Bieber's visit to the museum and his guestbook message hoping that the teen diarist “would have been a Belieber.”

“The Anne Frank House was pleased to welcome Justin Bieber to the Anne Frank House last Friday. We think it is very positive that he took the time and effort to visit our museum,” the Amsterdam-based museum wrote Monday in a post on its Facebook page. “He was very interested in the story of Anne Frank and stayed for over an hour. We hope that his visit will inspire his fans to learn more about her life and hopefully read the diary.”

Bieber came under fire for his entry into the Anne Frank House guestbook following his April 12 visit, before a concert in nearby Arnhern.

“Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber,” the popular singer wrote.

Many of the hundreds of comments on the Anne Frank House Facebook page chastised Bieber for what they characterized as his insensitive remarks.

TMZ cited an unnamed source as saying that Bieber wrote his Belieber comment after learning that Anne Frank was very interested in pop culture.

Dutch Jewish museum wins national popularity contest


Holland’s Jewish Historical Museum won a $130,000 prize for finishing first in the country’s national museum contest for 2013.

The Jewish museum, which was established in 1932, received 40 percent of the popular vote in the online competition among four museums. Some 29,000 people voted through the contest’s website, according to a report Thursday on Amsterdam’s AT5 television station.

The Jewish museum received almost double the votes that went to the second most popular museum — The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

The four finalists for the 2013 Museum Prize — the most prestigious public prize in Holland’s developed museum scene — were selected by a panel of experts out of a list of 43 nominations. In 2013, the panel accepted nominations for museums that “best represented a group or community.”

One of the reasons the Jewish museum was popular with voters is a website it set up which contains a database meant to help Jewish families trace their genealogies and reconnect with lost members.

The cash prize will be given to the Jewish museum by the Bernhard Culture Fund and BankGiro Loterij, an initiative for the promotion of the arts in the Netherlands.

Dutch researcher who exposed anti-Semitism hid out based on mayor’s advice


A Dutch-Turkish researcher who exposed anti-Semitism among Muslims went into hiding, following the advice of a Dutch mayor.

Mehmet Sahin left his home for several days last month after being advised by Pauline Krikke, the mayor of the eastern city of Arnhem, according to De Telegraaf daily.

Sahin, a researcher at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, said he received death threats after a Dutch television show in February aired filmed interviews he conducted with Dutch-Turkish youths who made anti-Semitic statements.

One interviewee said, “I am more than pleased with what Hitler did to the Jews.” Another said, “I hate Jews, period. Nothing you will do will make me change my mind.”

A spokesperson for Arnhem said Krikke advised Sahin “to temporarily stay elsewhere to ensure peace for himself and for others.”

The television channel NTR reported that Sahin checked into a nearby hotel with his wife and two children. Sahin told NTR he has received death threats in emails and does not feel safe in his neighborhood. He has since returned home, according to NTR.

Last month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a number of measures to be taken in cooperation with the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, or CIDI. They include plans “to discuss anti-Semitism with young people,” Rutte wrote in his reply to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had written to the prime minister to express the center’s concern.

“We will also begin discussions with the Turkish Community Advisory Association on anti-Semitism,” Rutte wrote, adding, “As I write, there are also several surveys being conducted to deepen our understanding of the nature and extent of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands.”

Amsterdam Jewish community warns U.S. Jews of ‘dangerous’ Dutch politician


The chairman of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam asked a Dutch politician to warn U.S. Jews about a “dangerous” rightist Dutch legislator.

Ronnie Eisenman, chairman of the executive board of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam, or NIHS, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that the “Amsterdam Jewish community regards [Dion] Graus as a danger for the interests of Dutch Jewish community.”

Graus, an advocate of a ban on ritual slaughter, is in charge of animal welfare for the Party for Freedom headed by Geert Wilders.

Eisenman said the statement was based on “the content of [Graus’] standpoints and his presentation” in debating ritual slaughter.

The message was “conveyed” to Wim Kortenoeven, another legislator, before Kortenoeven’s visit to to the U.S. earlier this month to meet with Jewish groups, Eisenman said on Twitter.

It is rare for Dutch Jewish community institutions publicly to state their positions on individual politicians or political parties.

In June, the Dutch Senate scrapped a ban on ritual slaughter that the lower house had passed last year. The law, tabled by the small Party for the Animals, had passed the lower house largely due to the support of the Party for Freedom—the country’s third largest.

Last month, the Party for Freedom pledged its commitment to legislating a ban in its platform for elections in September.

The Party for Freedom “was never prepared to go into a discussion with the Jewish community,” Eisenman also said.

In the U.S., Kortenoeven—who recently left the Party for Freedom—met with representatives of key Jewish organizations. He says he warned them about Wilders’ support for a ban on ritual slaughter.

Kortenoeven said he spoke with Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, and met with Orthodox Union representatives and other prominent Jewish American groups.

Amsterdam tram company won’t punish conductor accused of anti-Semitism


Amsterdam’s transport company, GVB, announced it would not punish an employee accused of making an anti-Semitic remark.

Two people told the Jewish Community of Amsterdam, NIHS, that they had heard a tram conductor aboard Line 17 say on Aug. 8 that the Anne Frank House was how “the Jews make money.”

The conductor and the driver deny this. According to reports, the conductor’s remark was made on the tram’s intercom in response to a question from the driver. As the tram neared the Anne Frank House, the driver reportedly said: “What are all these people doing here? That woman is long dead.”

Anne Frank was a Jewish teenage diarist who hid during World War II in a house in Amsterdam before she was deported to Auschwitz. She later died in Bergen-Belsen.

Last year the museum attracted more than one million visitors. The GVB company will, however, teach personnel more about Anne Frank’s history, according to an announcement on the GVB website.

Bas van ‘t Wout, a member of Amsterdam’s city council, called GVB’s decision “a sorry conclusion.” Van ‘t Wout, a former aide to Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has convened a city hall debate next month on the incident.

GVB also announced it had removed the historically loaded digit 8 from the devices that indicate the numbers of tram lines. The decision was made after a tram with the number 8 was seen riding around in Amsterdam on May 4, the Dutch Memorial Day. The deportation of thousands of Amsterdam Jews began on Line 8 streetcars.

The Jews would ride the trams to Central Station where trains transported them to concentration camps. Amsterdam’s municipal transport company scrapped the number 8 from its list of active lines out of consideration for Holocaust survivors’ feelings.

Amsterdam had a Jewish population of some 80,000 people before the start of World War II, according to the 4 and 5 May Committee, the national commemoration authority. The last mass deportation occurred in October 1943. Between 41,000 and 45,000 Jews live in the whole of the Netherlands today, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Brazil’s Jewish community announces creation of Anne Frank ‘educational network’


Brazil’s Jewish community sent directors of five Brazilian schools named after Anne Frank on a Holocaust study tour in Amsterdam.

The study trip is the first step in the creation of an educational network, according to an announcement by CONIB, the central body representing the Brazilian Jewish community.

The network’s schools would teach tolerance according to methods developed by the Amsterdam-based Anne Frank House educational institute. 

In the Netherlands, the delegation met Holocaust survivor Nanette König, who studied with Anne Frank. They visited Westerbork concentration camp, where Koning and Frank awaited deportation to Auschwitz. The visitors returned to Brazil last month.

“We learned a lot and there was a lot of crying, a lot of emotion,” said Marcelo Lins, a Brazilian journalist who joined the delegation. “We learned that the Dutch Jewish community was decimated, and we saw that, today, Amsterdam is once more a tolerant city, where tolerance is worked on.”

In Brazil, the schools will apply the Anne Frank House teaching methods and materials “which spread the values which Anne Frank represented, serving tolerance and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism,” the announcement by CONIB read.

The trip was organized the educators’ delegation together with the Sao Paulo Jewish community and the Anne Frank House, an educational institute.

In parallel, CONIB has launched a national essay contest about Anne Frank – a German-born Jewish teenager who hid in the house on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht for two years. She was arrested on August 4, 1944, and sent to Westerbork. The diary she kept became an international bestseller. The house became a museum which last year drew a record 1,104,233 registered visitors.


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Amsterdam to name bridge for WWII savior of 350 Jewish children


The City of Amsterdam will name one of its last remaining nameless bridges for Pieter Meerburg, who saved 350 Jewish children during the Holocaust.

Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and other dignitaries are scheduled to christen bridge 234 the Pieter Meerburg Bridge on Sept. 2.

As a student in Amsterdam in 1942, Meerburg was in charge of a network that smuggled Jewish children to safe houses across the Netherlands. Meerburg died in 2010. The network was known as the Amsterdam Student Group.

One method used by the group to camouflage the Jewish identity of babies they rescued was by allowing foster parents to adopt them. Female couriers working for the group would pretend the babies were their own, telling authorities they wanted to give the babies away for adoption because they did not know the identity of the father.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s authority for Holocaust commemoration, recognized Meerburg as Righteous Among the Nations in 1974.

Bridge 234 is situated at the Hortusplantsoen, some 200 yards from the Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum.

A conversation with Anne Frank’s cousin


Generations of readers, theater patrons and movie goers have been touched and moved by “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but perhaps no one was more astonished by the adolescent girl’s deep inner life – while in hiding from the Nazis – than Anne’s father.

“I didn’t know my daughter until I read her diary,” Otto Frank told Buddy Elias.

Anne and Buddy were first cousins – her father and his mother were siblings – and at 86, Buddy is Anne’s closest surviving relative.

“We were wild kids, running around and playing hide-and-seek,” Buddy reminisced during a phone call to his home in Basel, Switzerland.

Buddy and his wife, Gerti (formally Bernhard and Gertrude), will be in Los Angeles on May 23 for a Writers Bloc conversation with author and Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch.

Much of their discussion will center on the book “Anne Frank’s Family,” based on the discovery of a cache of some 6,000 letters, postcards and photos exchanged between the Frank and Elias families before, during and after World War II.

The book was written by noted German author Mirjam Pressler, and the original German title translates as “Treasures From the Attic.”

Both the Frank and Elias families came from the German city of Frankfurt, but their fates diverged by pure chance.

Buddy’s father was sent by his firm to work in Basel in 1929, and the family was safely sheltered in neutral Switzerland during the Holocaust.

Anne’s father was also transferred to a new job as Hitler came to power in 1933. He and his family moved to Amsterdam, capital of a peaceful and seemingly safe Netherlands, which however was overrun and occupied by German armies seven years later.

During the prewar 1930s, the two families frequently got together for vacations in Switzerland or Holland, and corresponded on a weekly basis. The last time the two cousins saw each other was in 1938, when Buddy was 13 and Anne was 9.

Anne envied Buddy’s ice skating prowess, and in January 1941 she wrote to him that she hoped one day to be good enough to become his skating partner.

However, since the Nazi occupiers forbade Jews from attending public entertainment places, such as ice skating rinks, Anne added that they would “need to have a little patience until the war is over.”

This letter, part of a treasure trove of thousands of letters and memorabilia, was discovered in the Basel home of Helen Elias, Buddy’s mother and Anne’s aunt, after the elderly woman’s death a decade ago.

While checking over the house, Gerti decided to climb up to the spacious attic where she discovered, amid the old furniture, boxes strewn about in 14 different locations.

The find did not surprise Gerti’s husband: “My mother and grandmother never threw anything away,” Buddy recalled, although he wondered why he had never been told about the attic boxes.

Most of the handwritten letters in the boxes were in old-fashioned German script, and Gerti spent the next two and a half years deciphering, sorting and classifying the mountain of material.

The earliest letters from Anne consisted of typical children’s reports about friends and school. “Up to that point, there was nothing deep in her writing,” Buddy noted.

In July 1942, Anne’s older, studious sister, Margot, was ordered to report to a labor camp, and the Frank family went into hiding in a secret annex adjoining the father’s offices.

For the next two years, there were no direct communications from the Frank family, although the Eliases received a few cryptic, unsigned cards from Dutch gentiles who were aiding the Franks, reporting that “the girls are fine,” or “the family is in good health.”

The long silence was broken in May 1945, in a telegram from Otto Frank. He had been liberated by Soviet troops in Auschwitz, although his wife, Edith, had perished, and he was starting the search for his two daughters.

In subsequent letters, Frank wrote that the Red Cross in Amsterdam had confirmed that Anne and Margot had died in Bergen-Belsen. He added an account by one of their fellow inmates that the sisters fell victim to the typhus epidemic sweeping the camp.

After the war, Buddy turned his athletic skills into a career by becoming a comedy ice skater, appearing worldwide in “Holiday on Ice” and other shows for 14 years. He then turned to more conventional plays and to television, performing in German, English and French.

While on stage in a small German town in the early 1960s, appropriately in Anton Chekhov’s “A Marriage Proposal,” he fell in love and married a fellow cast member, the Austrian-born Gerti.

Elias serves as president of the Anne Frank Fund, which receives about $500,000 a year from sales of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and royalties from stage performances and movie screenings based on the book. The fund primarily supports projects to promote peace and children’s health.

Kirsch, who will lead the Writers Bloc discussion, is the author of 12 books, many based on biblical history, including the best seller “The Harlot at the Side of the Road.”

The event will be held May 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., with free parking at the building. Tickets are $20.

For tickets, e-mail reservations@writersblocpresents.com.

Looking into Anne Frank’s unblinking eyes


Is the image of Anne Frank heading in the same commercial direction as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”?

Munch’s Expressionist painting, once an iconic representation of horror, for years has been available as a party inflatable, an action figure mask, even a bobblehead. With the installation of a lifelike wax figure of the famed Holocaust diarist on display in Madame Tussauds in Berlin, could Frank’s image be susceptible to the same misappropriation and exploitation?

Considering that a 1999 issue of Time magazine listed Anne Frank as one of the most important people of the 20th century, and that the “Diary of Anne Frank” is one of the best-selling books of all time, it probably should not be surprising us that publishers and manufacturers are cranking out Anne Frank posters, postcards, limited edition T-shirts and key chains in an effort to cash in on her celebrity.

The fact that Madame Tussauds has locations worldwide indicates tourist acceptance of the museums, which are filled with kitschy wax likenesses of celebrated personalities such as John Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Rihanna—all done up in unblinking cosmetic perfection. But are we ready for a young Jewish martyr and personification of the Holocaust to be melted into the waxy mix?

It’s not entirely clear. The German publication Der Spiegel noted that the wax figure of Adolf Hitler, which the museum reintroduced after it was beheaded by a visitor in 2008, is in the next room. Chris Hale, a producer who lives in Berlin, wrote on his blog that Frank’s likeness is displayed in “the city where the diabolical plan to murder all the Jews of Europe was hatched.”

But with several metal sculptures of Frank already on display in the U.S. and Europe—there’s even one near the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam—why all the fuss? Isn’t a wax figure just a sculpture done in a different medium?

Madame Tussauds did not respond to JTA’s request for comment. But museum spokeswoman Nina Zerbe told Der Spiegel that the museum wanted to convey a “sense of optimism” with the figure and that “It’s important to let the story continue.”

Perhaps it is the motionless three-dimensional quality of the wax likeness. Frank is shown seated at her writing desk in the attic room made famous in her diary, complete with frozen smile that adds a dimension of jittery concern. The projects that put her and her world into motion—a Tony Award-winning Broadway play, a movie, a Japanese animation, a PBS movie of her life and a CD with a virtual tour of the house where she hid—all escape this effect.

An Anne Frank comic book even seems to capture her spirit better.

In 2010, The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam approached two American comic book artists, writer Sid Jacobson and illustrator Ernie Colon, to create “Anne Frank, The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography.” Published that year by Hill and Wang, the book was among the first major projects in print to move beyond the boundaries of presenting Frank simply in word and in photos.

“Can Anne Frank’s Story Be Told in a Comic Book?” Time magazine asked when the book first came out, foreshadowing some of the concern that the boundary-breaking Frank wax figure has received.

“With a graphic format we could make a more truthful presentation of the story,” Jacobson said in a recent interview from his home in Los Angeles. From traveling to Amsterdam and seeing the house and the research, he knew he wanted to put the Frank story in context by also telling the story of the rise of Nazism.

“Seeing a person that you know introduced in a few quick panels is so much more effective than reading,” said Jacobson, a former executive with Marvel and Harvey Comics and one of the writers of the comic book classic “Richie Rich.” Jacobson also was the author of another retelling of tragedy, “The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.”

The book, even in its two-dimensional comic book flatness, is better able than a wax statue to take the viewer inside the attic where Frank hid from the Nazis. It graphically illustrates where the rooms were situated. It also shows us the joy of Frank’s first kiss with fellow hider Peter Van Pels, the horror of her discovery by the SS, and her mother and sister’s awful death from typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

As the book had broken boundaries when it was published—it has since been translated into Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish with plans for a Hebrew edition—I wondered what its author thought about the Frank wax likeness.

“I found it offensive, I think they should have stayed away from it,” Jacobson said, adding that “Ours was done with dignity.”

On the Madame Tussauds website there is this introduction to a museum visit: “You’ll find yourself saying sorry to someone for nearly bumping into them before realizing it’s a wax figure of Penelope Cruz or Johnny Depp. That’s the skill of our sculptors.”

But what if you are not ready for waxen verisimilitude or simply don’t want to bump into Anne Frank?

A few years ago while visiting the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles, I was startled by the engraved lifelike images in a section where many Russian Jews were buried. I had never seen an image of the dead on a headstone. They were done in such realistic detail that they creeped me out.

I had a similar feeling at an open casket funeral, which is not a Jewish tradition. On both occasions I was ready to honor the dead and was curious about their life story. But did I want to encounter them? No.

In Judaism, the viewing of a dead person is considered a violation of their modesty. We can look at them, but they cannot gaze back. In Madame Tussauds, when we look into those unblinking Anne Frank eyes, there is no return teenage glare that says, “How could you let this happen?”

And there can be no look that says, “Don’t let this happen again.”

Anne Frank, The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, $11.29, Amazon.com.

Madame Tussauds, Berlin: Admission, age 15 and older, 18.85 euro (about $25); ages 3-14, 14.35 euro (about $19).

Have something that might be good for Goods for the Jews? Contact Edmon J. Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.

Reinstated Amsterdam chief rabbi rues using title on ‘curing’ homosexuality document


The chief rabbi of Amsterdam, who was suspended for signing a statement on “curing” homosexuality, reportedly has been reinstated and said he was wrong to sign the document using his chief rabbi title.

Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag of New York, who travels to the Netherlands several times a year to rule on matters of Jewish law, traveled to Amsterdam last week to discuss his position, the Dutch news agency ANP reported Thursday.

Along with saying he was wrong to sign the “Declaration On The Torah Approach To Homosexuality” using his title, Ralbag also said that the statement “did not properly reflect his position,” according to APN.

He had been suspended in mid-January by the Executive Committee of the Jewish Community of Amsterdam pending a face-to-face meeting to discuss his signature on the declaration. The Amsterdam community suspended the rabbi over including his title as chief rabbi in his list of positions, saying at the time of his suspension that “Rabbi Ralbag’s signature may give the impression the Orthodox Jewish community of Amsterdam shares his view. This is absolutely untrue. Homosexuals are welcome and recognized as full members of the Amsterdam Jewish community.”

Ralbag was among some 180 rabbis, community leaders and mental health professionals who signed the document, which according to a page on the declaration website was initiated by Jews who say they have overcome their homosexuality. The declaration states that “We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid.”.

The Conference of European Rabbis said in a statement issued Wednesday that “We welcome the reinstatement of Chief Rabbi Ralbag as a wise step in the best interests of the Amsterdam community,” said.

Ralbag said at the time of his suspension that he would not travel to the Netherlands for several weeks due to threats on his life. The Amsterdam community said it will discuss Ralbag’s long-term future in the position, since it is concerned about how well the rabbi can do his job when he lives so far away, APN reported.

The Conference of European Rabbis had criticized the Amsterdam Jewish community for levying the suspension, telling a Dutch newspaper at the time that the rabbi has done “nothing more than restate what the Torah says about homosexuality.”

Its statement on Wednesday said that “The Amsterdam kehilla is known the world over for its proud commitment to its traditions. We are pleased it has decided to address any issues relating to the articulation by its Chief Rabbi or other officially appointed Rabbinic figures of traditional, halachic positions, in a positive and consultative manner.”

Suspension of Amsterdam chief rabbi seen as ‘verging on facism’


The suspension of Amsterdam’s chief rabbi for signing a statement on “curing” homosexuality is “verging on fascism,” the committee of Orthodox Jews that sponsored the statement told a Dutch newspaper.

The Committee for the Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality said in a letter Monday to the Volksrant newspaper that it is “shocking” that a chief rabbi in the Netherlands has been suspended for his statements on “centuries-old religious truths.”

Amsterdam’s Orthodox Jewish community suspended Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag of New York from his position for signing the “Declaration On The Torah Approach To Homosexuality,” which states that “We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. Behaviors are changeable. The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid,” and that “therapy and teshuvah” can overcome homosexuality.

Ralbag travels to the Netherlands a couple times a year to rule on matters of Jewish law.

The rabbi said he will remain suspended until he and community leaders discuss the issue in person. On Sunday, however, Ralbag said he would not travel to the Netherlands for several weeks due to threats on his life.

“I have strong indications that my wife and I would not be sure of our lives if we came to the Netherlands now,” he told the NRC Dutch newspaper.

New Jersey Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a Ralbag supporter who also signed the statement, told the Volksrant that “Dutch society is so tolerant, with legal and open prostitution and a sharp reduction in faithfulness in marriage, that it is impossible for Jews who grow up in such surroundings to embrace the moral message of the Torah. They are in spiritual shock.”