The Upgrade Generation

I often think about the kind of life my grandfather led.In his small Jewish neighborhood of Marrakesh, the days resembled each other — you worked, you prayed, you learned, you spent time with family and neighbors. The days and weeks followed the same Jewish pattern, year in and year out.

The environment also followed a predictable pattern: You were born without a phone, and you died without a phone. The same things that were there at the beginning of your life were there at the end. If anything caused agony or disrupted the rhythm, it was an unforeseen event, like an illness, accident or personal setback.

Rarely did Jews agonize over their Judaism. They were more likely to agonize over which tomato looked more ripe at the local souk.

Well, like they say, if my grandfather could see me now.

In particular, if he could have seen me last week while I attended a three-day conference in Atlanta called “The Conversation,” sponsored by The Jewish Week, which brought together Jews from across the country to engage each other on the big Jewish questions of the day.

There we were, at least 50 of us, agonizing, debating, challenging, questioning, brainstorming and schmoozing during every waking minute on subjects as weighty as the future of Judaism in America, and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

I can just see my grandfather, wherever he is, looking down and saying, in Arabic: “Daouid, my boy, are you feeling OK? Why don’t you lay down a bit?”

We are living in interesting times.

What I found most remarkable about my experience in Atlanta was how familiar it all felt. It reminded me of these business retreats with clients, where we spend days trying to reinvent and upgrade everything about a company. In those retreats, the big question is always: How can we better understand our consumers so we can better cater to them?

To answer this, we put everything on the table: Reinvent the product, eliminate failing programs, test new approaches, upgrade the technology, change the advertising, challenge all assumptions — in short, be open to anything that will make your brand more relevant to the consumer.

We did pretty much the same thing in Atlanta, but with Jews and Judaism.

Here’s a sampling of what we debated in break-out groups: Can personal Judaism be reconciled with communal Judaism? What’s the difference between Americanism and Judaism? How do we leverage tech trends to build community? Is compromising selling out? Is Birthright Israel useful or a waste? What are rabbis for? What’s the next big idea? Is there a distinction between Jewish values and human values? What do we teach our kids if we don’t believe what we were taught as kids? Do Jewish artists have any special obligations? Why can’t we talk about Israel without feeling like we’re being censored? And so on.

Believe me, I’m glad I brought my Tylenol.

For three days, we dissected Judaism like a group of Apple engineers trying to upgrade the iMac or create an iPod. We had Jewish “engineers” from all walks of life — professors, activists, spiritual leaders, musicians, community leaders, historians, a stand-up comic, a gay Orthodox rabbi, a poet, a Chabadnik, a New York Times reporter, a filmmaker, web geniuses and, yes, even a Sephardic Jew (me).

Now, you’re probably thinking: Did anything come out of this “conversation,” besides lots of e-mail addresses and a hangover from a great selection of kosher wines? The answer, of course, is that it depends on what each person took away.

I took away two things: One, I love my people more than ever. I can’t tell you what it feels like to spend three days with Jews who absolutely, undeniably and positively care about their Judaism. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but like a client once said to me: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

These Jews cared.

The second thing I took away is that Judaism in America is going through a whirlwind like we’ve never seen before. A generation of Jews has been raised on a culture of continual upgrades — with an ever-changing technology keeping this generation constantly wired, stimulated and connected.

Like the technology that fuels them, they want their Judaism “upgraded” so it can help them navigate their speedy lives. This means everything is open for debate and up for grabs — peoplehood, the synagogue, Zionism, community, prayer, rituals, philanthropy and denominations. In a 100 million blog world that glorifies personal expression, this group is not defined by their Judaism. Rather, they define their own Judaism, and only as one of many facets of their lives.

And these are the Jews that have not turned their back on their faith.

A lot of what we talked about in Atlanta was trying to understand this restless “upgrade generation,” and how — or whether — Judaism needs to adapt to become more relevant to them. We are at the beginning of this debate. Since we can only assume that the frenetic, wired world we have entered will only get more frenetic, the Jewish world should buckle up for a wild ride.

Luckily, Judaism can hold its own in this wild ride — because it already has a very big “buffet” that can appeal to a wide range of different tastes. We get in trouble when we focus on only one part of this buffet as if it’s the whole thing. That smells like dogma. If we can display all the spiritual, cultural, mystical, intellectual, historical, ritual, artistic and communal courses of the great Jewish feast — and invite Jews to partake in its many delights — maybe the new generation will stop dismissing or trying to “upgrade” Judaism, and, instead, will explore what’s being offered until they find something that turns them on.

And when they do, who knows, they might even marry Jewish, move to a Jewish neighborhood, make Jewish babies and become as predictable as my grandfather was.

Now that would be a serious upgrade.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Law Committee’s gay ruling stepped outside Halacha

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last week validated three responsa, or teshuvot, on the general subject of homosexuality.

In fact, the primary technical issue was the Jewish legal status of sex between members of the same gender. From the answers offered to that question followed the views of the authors as to the permissibility of commitment ceremonies — implying, of course, a need also for “uncommitment ceremonies” — and the ordination of gays and lesbians as clergy, who serve as exemplars of commitment to halachah.

Two of the papers reaffirmed the classical position of Jewish law forbidding such sexual activity and, therefore, forbade commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The third paper permitted most sexual activity between men — forbidding only intercourse — and sexual activity between women. As a result, the authors of this paper permit commitment ceremonies and ordination.

I was the author of one of the papers that reaffirmed the classic Jewish legal position, a position I had affirmed in 1992 when this subject was last on the law committee’s agenda.

Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general.

I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues:

  • How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? None of the authors of any of the papers denied what the uncontested precedents of Jewish law are, and that the preponderant majority of decisors of Jewish law from time immemorial considered all types of sexual behavior between members of the same sex to be a prohibition of biblical status, d’oraita, based on rabbinic interpretation of scriptural verses, midrash halachah.
  • What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which
  • Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition?

The authors of the permissive paper argued that the Talmudic category of “human honor,” which they translated as “human dignity,” allowed for its abrogation. I argued that the category is entirely inapplicable to the case under discussion, even if we assumed that the prohibition is rabbinic and not biblical.

In almost all of the cases in which the category is invoked, the claim is that X may violate the law out of deference to the honor of Y. In the case under discussion, X is to be entitled to violate the law out of deference to his own honor, for which claim there is no real precedent.

What’s more, such a claim is theologically weak, since no law-abiding Jew would ever entertain the possibility that his honor would supersede that of God. And in the few cases of application of the category, which can possibly be understood to imply that X may violate the law out of deference to his own honor, X is always literally in a social context and in the presence of others.

For example, X may wear a hearing aid on Shabbat in the synagogue lest he be embarrassed by his inability to hear the Kaddish being recited and not answer the communal lines when the community does. In our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.

How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark? We all understand and agree that decisors of Jewish law often approach the subject before them with a predisposition to give a specific answer. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

What, then, distinguishes a good decisor from a poor one?

The good decisor is able to judge his decision with enough dispassion to see whether his predisposition has blinded him to the indefensibility of his answer, and the poor one is not.

It is my opinion that my colleagues have here been blinded to the indefensibility of their conclusion. It is based on three pillars — I have not discussed one of them here — each of which is either quite clearly false or, at a minimum, is debatable.

For their conclusion to follow, however, all three must be considered as true and valid. This leads me to conclude that their decision was arrived at entirely independent of halachic reasoning, and that the defensibility of their after-the-fact reasoning was not relevant to them. The decision simply had to be as it was.

The combination of the above leads me to believe that the permissive position validated by the law committee was really outside the halachic framework, and I resigned from the committee.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

With Friends Like These…

I didn’t show up to see Jimmy Carter sign any of his other 20 books, but I have a feeling none of those signings drew quite the crowd of the one Monday night in Pasadena.

At the other appearances, I bet there weren’t angry protestors from the Jewish Defense League waving signs saying: “WORST PRESIDENT EVER!” and counterdemonstrators — mostly from a group called “LA Jews for Peace” marching under signs saying “PEACE NOT APARTHEID!”

At the other signings, I bet a security guard didn’t have to ask three attractive dark-haired young women holding an Israeli flag to step back from the entrance to Vroman’s Bookstore, where the 39th president was inside signing books. I asked one of them what organization they represented.

“We’re our own group,” she said. “Call us Shirlee, Aviva and Michele United.”

Carter was scheduled to start signing copies of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” (Simon and Schuster 2006) at 7 p.m. By 1 pm the store had sold every book and had passed out all 1,800 tickets. Ticketholders stomped their feet in the chilly night in a line that ran down Colorado, around the block and back up.

“It’s a big one,” said a cashier. “But we had more for Howard Stern.”

Sure, a lot of the people showed up for the celebrity factor — parents taking their young children to see a real president; many people holding any of the Carter oeuvre just to score an autograph, a “good Christmas gift,” said one elderly lady.

But the television news trucks, the young woman in kaffiyehs passing out flyers demanding a “Just Peace in Palestine,” the heated arguments by the magazine racks over who started the Six-Day War — the general circus-like atmosphere was solely due to the partisan passions the book has stirred.

“He’s right on the money,” said Bob, a middle-aged studio musician in a coat and tie waiting in line. “I think he’s being kind in calling it ‘apartheid’ and not ‘genocide.'”

I have a feeling the protestors — pro and con and just plain strange — will be following Carter for as long as the 82-year-old former president is out flacking “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid.”

Write a factually sloppy, unfairly partisan polemic about a complex and sensitive issue and you get just what you’d expect: controversy at every whistle stop, major face time with Larry King and a book that shoots up the best-seller list. By Tuesday there wasn’t a copy to be had at a single L.A. bookstore. It’s like “A Million Little Pieces” for the foreign policy set.

I read the book and found it remarkably shallow. Carter’s bottom line: Israel is to blame. America, urged on by the “Jewish lobby,” is the co-conspirator.

By now numerous intelligent, detailed critiques of the book are available — The Journal printed Alan Dershowitz’s dissection several weeks ago — and former friends and allies of Carter have distanced themselves from this book.

Professor Kenneth Stein resigned his post from the Carter Center last week. The book, he wrote, “is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.”

On Monday, I phoned Los Angeles attorney Ed Sanders to get his reaction.

When Carter was President, Sanders was his liaison to the Jewish community. He flew seven missions to the Middle East. Sanders was with Carter at Camp David and was an official witness to the Camp David Accords.

“I bet I know what you’re calling about,” Sanders said.

He said he hadn’t read the book — he still can’t find a copy to buy — but he read an op-ed Carter published in The Los Angeles Times summarizing his arguments and has followed the controversy closely. And his reaction?

“I’m shocked and dismayed,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”

Sanders can’t understand why Carter couldn’t at the very least present the Israeli argument for the barrier it has erected between the country proper and the Palestinian territories. “The wall is being erected because Israeli citizens were being murdered,” Sanders said.

He is flabbergasted that Carter could present the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as little more than a kindly old man, when it was Arafat’s duplicitous, kleptocratic rule that helped derail peace efforts and destabilize Palestinian society.

“Arafat couldn’t make a deal if his life depended on it,” Sanders said.

Sanders was the national president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when he resigned to serve the president. Doesn’t that prove Carter’s point on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby or, as Carter now repeatedly refers to it, “the Jewish lobby?”

Sanders doesn’t see it that way: “There was never any restraint on a discussion of the facts.”

That discussion led to the Camp David Accords, an outstanding legacy of peace. But Carter evidently sees no difference between the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace in full recognition of Israel, and the leaders of Hamas who have at most offered Israel a cease-fire on the way to Armegeddon. Between Hamas and Egypt, Sanders said, “there is a difference.”

Dismay and disappointment are Sander’s gentlemanly, judicious way of saying the book is a huge missed opportunity. What’s so disappointing to me is that by the last thin chapter, Carter finally proposes the best possible course for Israel: a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s security and allows the Palestinian a viable state.

But one-sided diatribes don’t engender the kind of debate that can help bring that solution closer. Israel is far from perfect, and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza have, as the conservative Ha’aretz columnist Shmuel Rosner pointed out, amounted to apartheid. But Israel’s enemies are far from blameless in this tragic history, and in his book, Carter all but sanctifies their heinous methods and awful aims. A fair deal can’t begin from a false premise.

“This book,” Sanders said, “doesn’t help.”

Prager won’t apologize after slamming Quran in Congress

Conservative pundit Dennis Prager has come under fire from Muslim and Jewish groups after he attacked an incoming Muslim congressman who plans to bring a Quran to the House swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4.

But Prager said he stands by statements made in his column published Nov. 28 on the Web site and has no intention of apologizing to Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or his critics.

“I called on [Ellison] not to break a 200-year tradition,” Prager, who is also a radio talk show host, told The Journal. “He thinks it’s important, and I think it’s important.”

“If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” Prager wrote, adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”

Ellison’s decision to carry a Quran into the ceremony has infuriated some conservatives, who draw a fine line between constitutional rights and American tradition. However, Ellison has some defenders in the GOP. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told McClatchy Newspapers that Ellison’s ability to hold the book of his choice while he takes his oath embodies freedom of religion.

Prager is also being taken to task for equating Ellison’s proposed use of the Quran at the swearing-in ceremony with a racist toting a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” “On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?” he wrote.

Prager defends the Quran-“Mein Kampf” parallel in his Nov. 5 column, saying he was presenting a slippery-slope argument and was not defaming Islam. He writes thatpeople who draw such conclusions are “deliberately lying to defame me rather than respond to my arguments. A slippery slope argument is not an equivalence argument.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called for Prager, who broadcasts locally on KRLA-AM 870, to be removed from his recent appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prager’s five-year term as a presidential appointee to the council expires on Jan. 15, 2011.

CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote in a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, council chair: “No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had and continues to have on every society.”

The Anti-Defamation League labeled the Nov. 28 column as “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American,” adding that Prager’s recent appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council holds him to a higher standard.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wants Prager to apologize directly to Ellison, who converted to Islam from Catholicism as a 19-year-old college student. “The notion that the exercise of your first amendment rights should be banned because someone else might misuse your words or misinterpret your actions violates two centuries of Supreme Court rulings,” Saperstein said.

Prager is a popular speaker among Jewish groups around the country,
commanding appearance fees upwards of $10,000.

While most of these groups, contacted this week by The Forward newspaper,
declined to comment on Prager’s remarks, several said they would reconsider
inviting Prager barring an apology from him.

“There’s lines you draw, and Dennis probably crossed the line,” Stephen
Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said in
an interview with the Forward. “Just because we can get by with the first
Five Books and some people say it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay for the next
guy to stand up and say if they can’t swear on a Christian Bible, they’re
not qualified. He’s pandering… [and] I wouldn’t want the Muslim community to
bring in a panderer. So that’s what we’d have to think about.”

In his Nov. 28 column, Prager claimed that all members of Congress, including Jews, use a Christian Bible for the swearing-in ceremony.

However, members of Congress are sworn in together in a simple ceremony that only requires that the representatives raise their right hand. Individuals may carry a sacred text, but its presence isn’t required. Representatives can bring in whatever they want, said Fred Beuttler, House of Representatives deputy historian.

In his column, Prager also claimed that no “Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.” In 1997, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), a Mormon, carried a Bible that included the Book of Mormon to his swearing-in ceremony.
But Ellison’s use of a Quran isn’t without precedent. In 1999, Osman Siddique became the first Muslim to serve abroad as a U.S. ambassador, and he took his oath using both a Quran and a Bible.

Prager told The Journal that he would have no problem if Ellison brought along a Bible in addition to the Quran. And while he agrees that Ellison has the constitutional right to use only the Quran, Prager thinks the incoming freshman should consider the cultural and historic implications of his act.

“It’s an unbroken tradition since George Washington, and he wants
to substitute it with his values,” he said.

Prager said he will not take Saperstein up on his call for an apology to Ellison. Instead, he believes groups like the ADL and the Religious Action Center have wronged him.

“I think Saperstein owes me an apology,” Prager said. “It’s chutzpah … arrogance on his part.”

To read Dennis Prager’s column on Ellison, click here.

Why Are We Jews?

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?

“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.

Iranian President’s Call Helps Israel

Israel often comes under international criticism for its counterterrorist and settlement-building policies. But comments by Iran’s president calling for Israel’s destruction have elicited international sympathy for the Jewish state.

In itself, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s televised late October call for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map” wasn’t so new.

But since the comments came not from one of the country’s ayatollahs but from its president, and came soon after Israel garnered international plaudits for its Gaza Strip withdrawal, and as international scrutiny on Iran’s nuclear program intensifies — they drew a lot of attention.

Israel found its objections to the radical rhetoric echoed worldwide — from the United States to Europe to the United Nations.

Even Russia, which is helping Iran build its Bushehr nuclear reactor and has long been hesitant to criticize its trading partner in the Persian Gulf, joined in.

“What I saw on television is unacceptable. We will bring this to the attention of the Iranians,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in a landmark United Nations address in September bemoaned the fact that “no one opens their mouth” when such threats are made against his country, launched a campaign to have Iran expelled from the forum.

“A country that calls for the destruction of another people cannot be a member of the United Nations,” Sharon said.

Jerusalem officials admitted that a U.N ouster of Iran was unlikely, given that it would require a Security Council recommendation and two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly — traditionally a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment.

“I don’t know if it has any chance of success,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres said of the campaign. “But it is something we must say. I don’t think it is a matter of what one thinks is worthwhile or not. This is intolerable.”

The U.N. Security Council has rebuked Iran for Ahmadinejad’s comments.

For its part, Iran over has accused the West of using its president’s comments about the destruction of Israel in order to intensify pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.

At the same time, Iran’s Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the government’s official stance “is that the occupation of Palestine should end, refugees should return and a democratic state should be formed with Jerusalem as its capital.”

According to some Jerusalem officials, the international community responded so strongly to Israel’s diplomatic offensive in a bid to avert an Israeli military offensive.

Sharon, like President Bush, has long hinted that force could be a last resort for preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Ahmadinejad’s speech at the “World Without Zionism” rally — where the title was posted in English, not Farsi, for international consumption — coupled with his lack of cooperation with European-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, have made this specter of confrontation loom ever larger.

“Such a country, with nuclear arms, is a danger, not just to Israel and the Middle East, but also to Europe,” Sharon said. Similar comments came from the White House.

Still, no one expects military escalation before the exhaustion of U.S.-led efforts to bring Iran before the Security Council and impose sanctions unless it abandons its quest for weapons of mass destruction.

Ahmadinejad has made this possibility more likely.

“I cannot fail to recognize that those who favor transferring the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council now have an additional argument,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

Is There a Smart Gene in Ashkenazis?

The idea that some ethnic groups may, on average, be more intelligent than others is one of those hypotheses that dare not speak its name. But Gregory Cochran, a noted scientific iconoclast, is prepared to say it anyway. He is that rare bird, a scientist who works independently of any institution.

He helped popularize the idea that some diseases not previously thought to have a bacterial cause were actually infections, which ruffled many scientific feathers when it was first suggested. And more controversially still, he has suggested that homosexuality is caused by an infection.

Even he, however, might tremble at the thought of what he is about to do. Together with Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending of the University of Utah, he is publishing in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Biosocial Science a paper that not only suggests that one group of humanity is more intelligent than the others, but explains the process that has brought this about.

The group in question is Ashkenazi Jews. The process is natural selection.

History before science.

Ashkenazim generally do well in IQ tests, scoring 12-15 points above the mean value of 100, and have contributed disproportionately to the intellectual and cultural life of the West, as the careers of Freud, Einstein and Mahler affirm. They also suffer more often than most people from a number of nasty genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and breast cancer.

These facts, however, have previously been thought unrelated. The former has been put down to social effects, such as a strong tradition of valuing education. The latter was seen as a consequence of genetic isolation. Even now, Ashkenazim tend to marry among themselves. In the past they did so almost exclusively.

Cochran, however, suspects that the intelligence and the diseases are intimately linked. His argument is that the unusual history of the Ashkenazim has subjected them to unique evolutionary pressures that have resulted in this paradoxical state of affairs.

Ashkenazi history begins with the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in the first century CE. When this was crushed, Jewish refugees fled in all directions. The descendants of those who fled to Europe became known as Ashkenazim.

In the Middle Ages, European Jews were subjected to legal discrimination, one effect of which was to drive them into money-related professions, such as banking and tax farming, which were often disdained by, or forbidden to, Christians. This, along with the low level of intermarriage with their non-Jewish neighbors (which modern genetic analysis confirms was the case), is Cochran’s starting point.

He argues that the professions occupied by European Jews were all ones that put a premium on intelligence. Of course, it is hard to prove that this intelligence premium existed in the Middle Ages, but it is certainly true that it exists in the modern versions of those occupations. Several studies have shown that intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is highly correlated with income in jobs such as banking.

What can, however, be shown from the historical records is that European Jews at the top of their professions in the Middle Ages raised more children to adulthood than those at the bottom. Of course, that was true of successful non-Jews, as well. But in the Middle Ages, success in Christian society tended to be violently aristocratic (warfare and land), rather than peacefully meritocratic (banking and trade).

Put these two things together — a correlation of intelligence and success and a correlation of success and fecundity — and you have circumstances that favor the spread of genes that enhance intelligence. The questions are, do such genes exist and what are they if they do? Cochran thinks they do exist, and that they are exactly the genes that cause the inherited diseases that afflict Ashkenazi society.

That small, reproductively isolated groups of people are susceptible to genetic disease is well known. Constant mating with even distant relatives reduces genetic diversity, and some disease genes will thus randomly become more common. But the very randomness of this process means there should be no discernible pattern about which disease genes increase in frequency.

In the case of Ashkenazim, Cochran argues, this is not the case. Most of the dozen or so disease genes that are common in them belong to one of two types: They are involved either in the storage in nerve cells of special fats called sphingolipids, which form part of the insulating outer sheaths that allow nerve cells to transmit electrical signals, or in DNA repair. The former genes cause neurological diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and Niemann-Pick. The latter cause cancer.

That does not look random. And what is even less random is that in several cases the genes for particular diseases come in different varieties, each the result of an independent original mutation. This really does suggest the mutated genes are being preserved by natural selection. But it does not answer the question of how evolution can favor genetic diseases. However, in certain circumstances, evolution can.

West Africans and people of West African descent are susceptible to a disease called sickle-cell anemia that is virtually unknown elsewhere. The anemia develops in those whose red blood cells contain a particular type of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen.

But the disease occurs only in those who have two copies of the gene for the disease-causing hemoglobin (one copy from each parent). Those who have only one copy have no symptoms. They are, however, protected against malaria, one of the biggest killers in that part of the world.

Thus, the theory goes, the pressure to keep the sickle-cell gene in the population because of its malaria-protective effects balances the pressure to drive it out because of its anemia-causing effects. It therefore persists without becoming ubiquitous.

Cochran argues that something similar happened to the Ashkenazim. Genes that promote intelligence in an individual when present as a single copy create disease when present as a double copy. His thesis is not as strong as the sickle-cell/malaria theory, because he has not proved that any of his disease genes do actually affect intelligence. But the area of operation of some of them suggests that they might.

The sphingolipid-storage diseases, Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s and Niemann-Pick, all involve extra growth and branching of the protuberances that connect nerve cells together. Too much of this (as caused in those with double copies) is clearly pathological. But it may be that those with single copies experience a more limited, but still enhanced, protuberance growth. That would yield better linkage between brain cells, and might thus lead to increased intelligence.

Indeed, in the case of Gaucher’s disease, the only one of the three in which people routinely live to adulthood, there is evidence that those with full symptoms are more intelligent than the average. An Israeli clinic devoted to treating people with Gaucher’s has vastly more engineers, scientists, accountants and lawyers on its books than would be expected by chance.

Why a failure of the DNA-repair system should boost intelligence is unclear, and is, perhaps, the weakest part of the thesis, although evidence is emerging that one of the genes in question is involved in regulating the early growth of the brain. But the thesis also has a strong point: It makes a clear and testable prediction. This is that people with a single copy of the gene for Tay-Sachs, or that for Gaucher’s, or that for Niemann-Pick should be more intelligent than average.

Cochran and his colleagues predict they will be so by about five IQ points. If that turns out to be the case, it will strengthen the idea that, albeit unwillingly, Ashkenazi Jews have been part of an accidental experiment in eugenics.

It has brought them some advantages. But, like the deliberate eugenics experiments of the 20th century, it has also exacted a terrible price.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Economist magazine.


Freeing Barghouti Could Benefit Israel


Once again, Israel is facing one of those moral dilemmas that are so much a part of life in the Middle East. This time, the question at hand is whether Jerusalem should release a convicted terrorist, Marwan Barghouti.

The convict, a former head of the Palestinian grass-roots movement, Tanzim, might be the only person who could unify the fractured Palestinian entity and lead it to a peace deal with Israel. At first glance, the stakes are clear; substantive and procedural notions of justice suggest that Barghouti should serve his time in full.

He was involved in the killing of Israeli citizens and was convicted for his deeds. Pragmatism, on the other hand, dictates for a release.

Israel’s long-term political interests could be best served if Barghouti is out of jail. Faced with similar choices in the past, Israel has always preferred pragmatic calculations over the subtleties of justice.

Israel, after all, allied with dictatorial regimes in Africa and South America in the ’60s and ’70s and made multiple deals with the PLO and Hezbollah in the ’90s and ’00s, in which hundreds of terrorists were released. In the latest demonstration of pragmatism, Israel freed hundreds of terrorists last January in return for one Israeli citizen who was deemed valuable because he had access to highly classified information.

Even if we leave behind the simple pragmatic argument in favor of Barghouti’s release, there are other good reasons why he should be freed.

First, releasing Barghouti may, in fact, be morally justified. Many experts think that Barghouti is the only person that stands between chaos, or even worse, a Hamas government in the Palestinian areas. Both outcomes would be bad for Israel and would lead to many more years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in which thousands more innocent civilians would suffer.

So isn’t the right moral decision the one that will prevent further fatalities? The one that will create a moderate Palestine that one day will live at peace with Israel?

Second, there is the issue of Barghouti’s trial. He is the only Palestinian leader that has been brought to trial in Israel in four years of conflict.

Israel’s preferred strategy in dealing with leadership figures in the Palestinian uprising has been, simply put, to kill them. By mid-October, Israel had assassinated 179 people who were suspected terrorist leaders.

A number of those assassinated were as central as Barghouti in the Palestinian struggle: Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi both killed in 2004, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Abu Ali Mustafa killed in 2001.

In other words, Israel made an informed choice to keep Barghouti alive and in jail. One Sharon adviser admitted recently in The New York Times that in arresting Barghouti, Israel “had in mind possibly releasing him some day as an alternative to Mr. Arafat.”

It is no surprise then that Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz suggested two weeks ago that releasing Barghouti is a possibility. In short, freeing Barghouti will merely conclude Israel’s original strategy.

Third, Barghouti’s arrest and trial expose an inconsistency in Israel’s position. Israel has treated the conflict with the Palestinians as more of a war than a law enforcement issue.

Military forces bore the brunt of the conflict, and suspects in terrorism were killed rather than arrested. Yet, when it came to dealing with Barghouti, the paradigm of law enforcement was invoked.

Those who object to his release argue today that it is his conviction that should prevent Israel from releasing him. Although Israelis don’t like to admit it, Barghouti’s status is more akin to that of a prisoner of war than that of a common criminal. By freeing Barghouti, Israel will merely be applying to his case the same standards that have been applied to the conflict as a whole.

The Barghouti issue is not a simple one, and a decision to allow a convicted murderer out of jail is a stomach-turning choice. Yet there is a lot at stake. With Arafat’s death, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is coming to a crucial crossroad, and Barghouti’s release offers at least one possible road to a more stable future.

Given that there are good moral arguments both for and against releasing Barghouti, in terms of consistency with Israel’s broad strategy in the conflict to date and for good pragmatic reasons, allowing Barghouti to go free is the right decision.

In the last four years, Israel missed a number of opportunities to end the cycle of violence. Let’s not miss this one.

Ehud Eiran is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University and a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School. He served as an assistant to the foreign policy adviser in the Israeli prime minister’s office (1999-2000).


Both Sides of Seal Debate to Fight On

It came from Redlands like a fever: one of the most divisive religious battles to hit Los Angeles in years.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fresh from successfully challenging the Redlands city seal a month earlier, set its sights on removing a Christian cross from the Los Angeles County seal in late May, claiming that it represented government endorsement of a religion. County supervisors acquiesced. Nearly 7,000 angry calls and letters promptly poured in, and approximately 2,000 people assembled before the supervisors’ offices. Right-wing radio hosts and columnists marshaled crowds.

Though religious issues are always emotionally charged, in this case the conservative media whipped its supporters into a veritable frenzy. In his column, journalist Dennis Prager proclaimed: "What we have here is an American version of the Taliban," regarding the ACLU.

"It will have to go to the Supreme Court, which is perhaps where it belongs," Prager told The Journal.

The road to the uproar passed through four Board of Supervisors votes. First, a 3-2 vote, (Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke against Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich), favored a settlement with the ACLU. That was followed by two identical 3-2 rejections of a proposal to entertain litigation offers from anti-ACLU law firms and a bid to estimate the costs of replacing the seal, a difficult exercise since the ACLU agreed to a gradual phaseout of the seal, not immediate removal. The fourth vote blocked Antonovich’s proposal to put the entire issue to a November referendum.

"Our own county [attorney] opined that we would lose this case if we defended it because our seal was unconstitutional based on a half a dozen [similar] cases," Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky’s office bore the brunt of the complaints, including accusations that he was anti-Christian.

"If the court cases allowed for religious symbols on government seals, even though I didn’t agree with them, I would live with it," Yaroslavsky said. "We are a nation of laws, not of men. That’s what we buy into as Americans. The rule of law on this issue is clear."

"Since when do county supervisors vote on what they think will happen in a courtroom?" Prager countered. "Those on the left are trying to destroy the fact that this is a country founded on one specific religion –Christianity — and one specific value system, called Judeo-Christian."

Prager has publicly vowed not to drop the issue.

Supporters of the cross on the seal employed a combination of historical and religious arguments to bolster their position, simultaneously claiming that the cross is no more a religious symbol than the Greek goddess Pomona (also on the seal), but also that the seal represents a Christian legacy of the United States that should not be erased.

Bruce Einhorn, Pacific-Southwest chair of the Anti-Defamation League, saw the debate differently.

"Those who argue for [no cross on the seal] are those who believe that religion should be left alone, that government involvement in religion is not only unconstitutional but unproductive," Einhorn said. "It’s almost like a Faustian bargain to let government endorse religious symbols, because in return our religions can become dependent on government and weakened."

Supporters of the cross on the seal tried to stress the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism in forming American values.

"It is almost mind-numbing that Jews watching European anti-Semitism, seeing how America alone is supportive of Israel, would ever want America’s value system to change," Prager said.

That emotional argument, however, also faced opposition.

"When I hear the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian,’ my experience has been that it has always been used to defend uniquely Christian symbols," Einhorn said. "That doesn’t mean that I’m offended by the cross, I just don’t understand how it enhances my religious tradition."

For its part, the ACLU has tried to avoid appearing anti-Christian or offensive. "We become involved when people in the community contact us," said Tenoch Flores, an ACLU spokesman. "I think there’s been a misunderstanding there — people thinking we’re going around collecting notches on our belt."

It appears that this round of the county seal fight is drawing to a close. Opponents of the ACLU vow to collect enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, but time to do that is short.

In the meantime, there are four other counties and 11 cities in California with some sort of religious symbol on their seals.

L.A. County Supervisors are set to gradually replace the cross with a picture of a Catholic Spanish mission, including an homage to the Native Americans who built those missions.

That compromise, however, is unlikely to satisfy everyone.

"How do I know it’s not a Taco Bell?" asked Prager when informed that there will be no cross on the building.

Hillel Head, Writer Clash on Campus

Having Alan Dershowitz speak on behalf of Israel at a university event was meant to be provocative, but nobody could have predicted the fracas that erupted after the prominent author and attorney spoke.

Outside the auditorium, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, allegedly kicked freelance journalist Rachel Neuwirth, after she reportedly called him "worse than a kapo."

The city attorney concluded an investigation of the incident late Wednesday afternoon and recommended the parties involved in the case meet with a hearing officer in the city attorney’s office to determine a resolution.

"The facts [of the case] are in dispute," said Eric Moses, director of public relations for the city attorney, "and the best way to handle a situation like this is to get the parties together to talk."

Neither Seidler-Feller nor Neuwirth will face criminal charges, Moses said.

The incident has upset many in the community, and highlighted ongoing disputes between Jews on different sides of the debate over Israel.

Donald Etra, attorney for Seidler-Feller, told the Journal that his client was seeking to resolve the case. "He has been an incredibly effective Hillel rabbi, and he intends to remain so," Etra said.

According to Daniel Hakimfar, a fourth-year UCLA student who is involved in some pro-Israel campus groups and was present at the event, Seidler-Feller approached a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who were standing outside Royce Hall as the event let out. At least one protester was holding a placard that said "Edward Said Lives," referring to a recently deceased critic of Israel.

Seidler-Feller introduced himself to them and started talking to them about Israel and invited them to a Hillel event featuring former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon and Palestinian representative for Jerusalem Sari Nusseibeh.

Upon hearing Nusseibeh’s name, Rachel Neuwirth, a freelance journalist and pro-Israel activist who had also approached the protestors, took Seidler-Feller aside and objected to him approaching the protesters in what Hakimfar described as an "apologetic manner" and countered with the allegation that Nusseibeh advised Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missiles toward Israel’s population centers for maximum casualties.

Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth got into a verbal argument and Seidler-Feller grabbed Neuwirth’s arm. Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller a kapo (a Jewish guard in the concentration camps during World War II) and then said he was worse than a kapo because she could never judge a kapo.

Whether Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller a kapo before or after he grabbed her arm is in dispute.

At that point, Seidler-Feller allegedly pushed and kicked Neuwirth.

"When a rabbi does that, he pretty much goes against everything he has been teaching," said Hakimfar, who thinks Seidler-Feller should resign.

Etra would not comment on specifics of the incident, citing ongoing legal issues.

Neuwirth went home, but told The Journal she had trouble sleeping because of the pain. According to Neuwirth, the next day she went to the hospital where a doctor prescribed Vicodin and Ibuprofen. Neuwirth then filed a report with the campus police, who investigated the incident and passed on their recommendations to the city attorney’s office.

Etra told The Journal that Seidler-Feller has tried to apologize to Neuwirth and others for his actions.

"What he did was sad and shameful," said Allyson Rowan-Taylor, program director at StandWithUs. "When he called to apologize, I said to him, ‘as a rabbi, as an educated man and as a scholar of Torah, you should know better.’ The thing he did was an offense to all of the things he represents."

Rowan-Taylor suggested Seidler-Feller take anger-management courses.

David Myers, professor of history at UCLA, told The Journal that he suspected that people would use the incident to manifest grudges against the controversial Seidler-Feller. He blamed a "a political culture that is really toxic" for increasing the overall tensions in communal discourse.

"This is a man who has devoted his life to the Jewish community and the Jewish State," Myers said. "I fear this [incident] will not be used as an opportunity for introspection, but rather to attack an agenda, and to act on long standing animosity toward Chaim."

Etra, Seidler-Feller’s attorney, said his client would not resign.

"From what I gather, the person that started the incitement perhaps should also consider that type of course," he said, referring to suggestions that Seidler-Feller take anger management classes.

Jeff Rubin, public relations director for Hillel in Washington, would not comment on the incident.

Hillel UCLA boardmember Laurie Levenson said Tuesday the board will wait for the city attorney’s office to issue its findings before making any comments.

Ross Neshaus, the president of Bruins for Israel, a pro-Israel student subsidiary of UCLA Hillel, also did not comment, telling The Journal that his organization was still deciding on a statement.

Campaign by PETA Profanes Holocaust

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took its campaign equating factory-farm animals to Holocaust victims to the streets of Los Angeles this week with a protest in front of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Tuesday at noon (see story on page 12).

The protest speaks to PETA’s well-earned reputation for disordered priorities and its utter lack of sensitivity in promoting its cause, whatever the merits of that cause are. For the record, I am all for treating animals ethically and humanely.

But PETA’s exploitative campaign that expropriates photographs of starving victims of the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps and compares them to chickens that are waiting to be slaughtered for food is abhorrent. On its Web site, PETA justifies this campaign, in part, because the late Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, a vegetarian, once took the literary license of stating that, “in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for [them] it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Of course, whether or not the Nobel Prize-winner would have actually lent his name to PETA’s outrageous effort is open to question, at best.

In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, (“Animals Suffer a Perpetual Holocaust,” April 21, 2003), Singer’s grandson, Stephen R. Dujack, a Washington-based environmentalist, professed to speak for his deceased grandfather and proclaimed, “My grandfather would have been proud of PETA’s bold campaign.”

If that is the case, then in the face of such obscenity, I must speak for my grandfather, whose ashes lie buried somewhere in the dust of Auschwitz.

To begin with, attempts to genericize the term Holocaust are generally misguided. The Holocaust was a unique historical event and describes the attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to systematically destroy and physically eliminate European Jewry. To be sure, there were also other victims, including homosexuals, the disabled, the psychiatrically disturbed, political dissidents, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs and others who were targeted for elimination.

For the record, Dujack’s assertion in his article that lampshades were made from bodies of Holocaust victims is also historically inaccurate, because no evidence for this has ever been produced.

While it is tempting to compare all acts that we may individually find abhorrent to the Holocaust and while the event itself has become the benchmark for abject evil in the world, wholesale use of the term desecrates the memory of what actually happened during those terrible years.

Whatever the arguments are for or against animal slaughter for food, it is simply not the Holocaust. Dujack may as well call it the Crimean War.

Why can’t PETA and Dujack let the victims of the Holocaust rest in peace and leave them out of it? How do the Jewish people (as usual) get dragged into the middle of this argument?

The irony is that in Jewish law there are numerous examples of mitzvot (praiseworthy deeds) that advocate for the humane treatment of animals. An example is that a young bird should never be removed from the nest in the presence of its mother so as not to hurt the latter; indeed, the prohibition against eating milk together with meat derives from a similar sensibility.

In fact, the laws of kosher slaughter of animals are far more humane than was the slaughter of Jews by the Nazis, which was notable for its excessive and intentional cruelty.

Human consumption of animal products as food appears to be instinctual, has occurred for millions of years and is the accepted norm in most societies. The systematic suspension of human rights, imprisonment, torture, experimentation on and murder of a people that went on in full view of the world for 12 years in the middle of the 20th century is, thank God, an inexplicable aberration in human behavior that is so far out of the norm that it had to be given its own name — the Holocaust.

To conflate the two activities is absurd. To examine just how absurd and dangerous this game can be, we just need to turn it inside out a couple of times. If killing of animals for food is the same as exterminating Jews, then how convenient would it be the next time someone wants to commit a pogrom against the Jewish people just to turn it around the other way with the reply, “They kill chickens, don’t they?”

In the name of my grandfather and all other victims of the Holocaust, I call on PETA to retract and apologize for its shameful campaign. The shock value and attention have already been wrung dry.

Whatever the arguments for or against vegetarianism, in the interest of decency, let us leave the memories of the unfortunate victims of the Holocaust out of it.

Dr. Joel Geiderman is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C.

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support

A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.

David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.

‘Dance’s’ Conflict Is Center Stage

In Mirra Bank’s unflinching documentary, “The Last Dance,” legendary children’s author Maurice Sendak passionately describes the Holocaust piece he hopes to create with members of the acrobatically virtuostic Pilobolus Dance Company. He envisions a train station, a menacing figure and refugees. He imagines a double bill with the children’s opera, “Brundibar,” once performed at Terezin. “It’s [my] loyalty to all the dead,” said the 75-year-old author (“Where the Wild Things Are”), who lost numerous relatives in the Holocaust.

During such conversations, Pilobolus’ three artistic directors squirm uncomfortably. “I just don’t find waiting around at the train station … very interesting,” the troupe’s Jonathan Wolken said. The directors suggest the story shouldn’t be concrete but should evolve through improvisation.

“But I’m the storyteller,” Sendak retorts at one point.

The tense moment is one of many Bank captured after Pilobolus members invited Sendak and his partner, writer-director Arthur Yorinks, to become their first outside collaborators in 1998.

Speaking by telephone from his Connecticut home, the author and set designer told The Journal he agreed, in part, because he loves collaborating with dancers and Pilobolus’ work isn’t unlike his own. “Their playful, almost shameful use of the body reminds me of babies and children,” he said.

But as the partnership got underway, Bank captured the stormy, often hilarious clash of egos, as well as the vibrant creative process. In the film, the collaborators argue about the piece’s title, whether it should specifically reference the Holocaust or involve nudity. “Those who went to the ovens were stripped naked,” Sendak said of the nudity.

“It’s a kind of stupid striptease,” Wolken said.

The edgy, cinema verite style film joins a budding subgenre of movies, including Matthew David’s 1998 documentary, “Dancemaker,” that explore the sometimes prickly choreographic process.

Looking back on the Pilobolus partnership — captured by Bank’s handheld digital camera — Sendak said he was “baffled by their tenacity, and I’m sure they’d say the same of me.

“It was unpleasant,” he said of the tension. “I don’t like getting angry or in an emotional condition, because the Holocaust subject was emotional enough.”

Wolken, who also lost family in the camps, sees things differently. “Flying sparks can vulcanize a project,” he told The Journal. “And Maurice loves a good argument. It energizes him. If he doesn’t have one, he manufactures it.”

“The Last Dance” began when Bank, an acclaimed PBS filmmaker whose work often involves Jewish themes, attended a Pilobolus performance in summer 1998. “I asked [artistic director] Michael Tracy what the company was doing next, and he said it would be a dark, Eastern European, possibly Holocaust-driven Grimm’s fairy tale with Maurice Sendak,” she recalled. “I said, ‘My God, that sounds like a film.'”

Over the next eight months, Bank videotaped 125 hours of the collaboration, which sometimes seemed destined for failure. After one particularly turbulent session, Sendak dejectedly told Bank he felt “bumped off the rails.” At 11 p.m. that night, he called her and threatened to quit.

“I think Maurice thought he could control the process more than he did,” Bank said. Of why Wolken became his primary antagonist, she said, “within Pilobolus, his role is often that of provocateur.”

The filmmaker found the discord “gut wrenching. I felt deeply connected to everyone involved,” she said. “I also had a great deal personally invested in the project, and there were a number of times I thought it might fall apart.”

Instead, the tense partnership eventually yielded a powerful dance piece, “A Selection,” which received rave reviews in New York in 1999.

Bank’s documentary also received rave reviews, not just from the critics but from the protagonists involved. “However, I cringed the first two or three times I saw it,” Sendak said. “I didn’t like to see myself carrying on like that. I became the big … noisy Jew and Jonathan became the uptight, ‘No, I don’t want to go there,’ Jew.”

Wolken, for his part, called “The Last Dance” “a great film. But it presents just a narrow slice of what went on. In a good movie, you have to have conflict, and Mirra searched for it. As a good filmmaker, she at times manufactured it.”

Both Sendak and Wolken told The Journal they are old friends, which isn’t depicted in the movie. They said they’d collaborate again in an instant. But Bank isn’t so sure. “Everyone was proud of the dance piece they created, but they also may never work again,” she said. “Which is why I called the film, ‘The Last Dance.'”

The film opens April 24 at the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles, coinciding with Pilobolus’ performance of different works at the Ahmanson May 2 and 4. Bank and Pilobolus members will appear for a discussion after the “Last Dance” screening at noon on May 3. For information, call (323) 461-2020. n