Dear Condoleeza Rice:


Last Saturday, on the Jewish Sabbath, I was attending prayer services at one of the big synagogues in Los Angeles, Beth Jacob Congregation, when something unusual happened that made me think of writing you this letter.

After the services, a young black man named Adam Akabar got up to speak. He was a Muslim refugee from Darfur, and he came to tell us his story and ask for our help.

His cause, he said, was to expose and protest the genocide going on in his homeland.

Akabar is a sweet-looking man, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s. In front of a few hundred members of the synagogue, he looked a little awkward, even intimidated. But he got more comfortable as he began telling his story. It started several years ago, when he was in college in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and he heard troubling reports from his home area of Darfur.

He got a digital camera and headed south to Darfur, where, at first, he worked as a translator in the camps for displaced persons. While interviewing people in the camps, he saw the extent of the atrocities, so he made it his mission to document them. For a few years, he secretly investigated and documented the genocide, until he was caught, shot and tortured by the Sudanese government.

By a stroke of luck, he was able to retrieve his memory cards when his camera was confiscated and destroyed and his pictures survived. Through the help of a U.N. official, he managed to flee Sudan, and, for the past year, has been traveling the United States with his photos and personal accounts to expose the ongoing nightmare happening to his people.

The pictures are so gruesome that the activist who accompanied him to the synagogue decided they wouldn’t be appropriate for an audience that included families with children.

The absence of pictures, though, didn’t stop members of the audience from expressing their sadness and frustration at the state of affairs in Akabar’s homeland.

When it came time to ask questions, one person after another, many of them children of Holocaust survivors, wanted to know: “What can we do to stop this genocide?”

The answers, of course, were weak.

How could they not be? When an estimated 400,000 people have already perished, and millions are still being “cleansed,” typical activist ideas like “write a letter to your congressman,” “get on this Web site and make a donation” and “tell everyone you know” are simply no match for this level of crisis.

It’s when I heard those weak answers, Ms. Rice, that I felt compelled to write to you.

Personally, I’ve been hearing about the crisis in Darfur for longer than I want to remember, and I’ve seen how celebrity activists and numerous groups around the world have done their best to expose and protest the genocide.

Yet, somehow, the years go by and the tragedy continues.

In the Jewish community, the word “Darfur” has become a shorthand for tikkun olam (healing the world). Sadly, though, we have reached the point where the infuriating absence of real progress has brought many of us close to “Darfur fatigue.”

So I am calling on you, Ms. Rice, for the obvious reason that as the top diplomat for the most influential country in the world, you have real power.

Still, while I am envious of that power, I confess that when I look at your sense of priorities, I’m not very optimistic.

I don’t understand, for example, how you could go to the Middle East 21 times over the past few years, and agonize for weeks on end on the Israel-Palestinian conflict over things like roadblocks, building permits and border crossings, and, while millions of Darfurians are going through a historical genocide, make only one short, ineffective trip in four years to that part of the world.

Even accounting for my innate cynicism about politics and politicians in this case, you probably not wanting to upset China, which owns a huge chunk of U.S. government debt and which sucks up 80 percent of the oil in the Darfur region your lack of a concerted response to this crime against humanity is disheartening.

Nevertheless, it’s still not too late to save the Darfurians who are still alive. Congress has already passed legislation expressing its outrage and empowering you to act. Your boss would love nothing more than a foreign policy accomplishment to salvage something to his tarnished legacy. And you can bet this won’t come from Jerusalem: You probably realize by now that in the present circumstances, a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians has the same likelihood of happening as Louis Farrakhan becoming an Israel-loving Christian evangelist.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Jews don’t appreciate your 21 trips to the Middle East. It’s just that there are other areas, like Darfur in Africa, where millions of people are in clear and present danger, and they also need your immediate and undivided attention.

So go to Darfur, Ms. Rice, and make a stink. Knock a few heads. Expose the criminals. Do what you should have done a long time ago: Create an urgent global coalition to save the Darfurians.

You’ve already shown how you can bend over backward for the Palestinians, who have been under special U.N. care for decades, and who are easily the most coddled refugees in history.

Now show the world what you can do for the Darfurians, whose cause may not be as “politically relevant” as the Palestinians’, but whose humanitarian crisis has no modern-day parallel.

In the little time you have left, you can still make a difference. Just be as tenacious with Darfur as you’ve been with Jerusalem and Ramallah.

And if you decide to go, I suggest you contact Adam Akabar and ask him to show you some of his pictures. Just make sure there are no kids around.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Todd Solondz, Provoking Again


 

“People call me a provocateur,” filmmaker Todd Solondz said. “I’d say that’s fair.”

Peering out from his oversized thick green glasses, dressed in rose-colored pants, a nubbly gray sweater and yellow sneakers, Solondz looks the part of independent cinema’s presiding nerd incendiary. But in an interview to promote his new film, “Palindromes” — which skewers hypocrisy in both camps of the abortion debate — he insists his films do not shock for shock’s sake.

“There is a kind of prodding, a needling to wake people up from their complacency and smugness,” he said unemotionally. “As a filmmaker you need to do certain radical things to achieve that.”

Considered perhaps more radical than fellow filmmaking iconoclasts Neil LaBute and John Waters, Solondz’s grim satires have featured mocking and mordant takes on subjects such as pedophilia and sadistic interracial sex.

His excruciating 1996 comedy, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — about a geeky four-eyed preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz — (originally titled, “Faggots and Retards”) was a kind of anti-“Wonder Years” that dispelled myths about childhood sexuality. His award-winning 1998 film, “Happiness,” which included a nice suburban dad with a predilection for little boys, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.

In 2001’s “Storytelling,” a New Jersey Holocaust refugee’s daughter mouths platitudes about the Shoah and solicits tzedakah while ignoring the plight of her Salvadoran maid. When the housekeeper gasses the family to death, it is in part punishment for “trivializing and exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust,” Solondz said.

His new film, “Palindromes,” revisits the Jersey suburbs to pit Jewish liberal parents against born-again Christians (and a pedophile) in the great American abortion debate. Stuck in the middle is 13-year-old Aviva, who is played by eight different actors and who gets herself pregnant because “babies are love.” When her appalled mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion, she runs away and finds refuge with Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a perky fundamentalist Christian whose home is a sanctuary for disabled children — and murderous right-to-lifers.

Solondz, 45, whose nasal accent belies his own New Jersey roots, was raised in a kosher home but is now an atheist. He believes the film is neither anti-abortion nor for abortion rights.

“I wanted to look at the moral consequences and ramifications of what it means to take on one of these labels,” he said.

On the one hand, Barkin’s character seems to be “a sensible, progressive parent,” he said. “If she were given a form she would check off ‘anti-war,’ ‘pro-gun control,’ ‘pro-gay rights’ and all the correct liberal causes. And, yet, when confronted with this terrible reality of her pregnant 13-year-old daughter, she is pro-choice so long as she does the choosing.”

Mama Sunshine, meanwhile, virtuously takes in abandoned children while helping to kill abortion doctors.

Aviva is suspended between a “pro-choice family that gives her no choice and a pro-life family that kills,” Solondz said.

“Palindromes” begins with the Jewish funeral of “Dollhouse’s” heroine, Dawn Weiner, Aviva’s cousin, who has committed suicide. Solondz said he wasn’t happy about killing Weiner off; he had hoped to explore her adventures as a young woman but was thwarted when Heather Matarazzo, the actress who had portrayed Dawn, declined to resume the role.

Thus he turned to another source for inspiration for his latest film: the television news and in particular, the controversy over abortion. “This is the only country in the world where people bomb clinics and assassinate abortionists,” the director said.

Solondz was especially struck by a story about a Southern community that rallied around such an assassin.

“I began pondering what it means to perpetuate such an atrocity; what goes through one’s mind, and then I realized it’s profoundly human to think that one is basically a good person, fighting the good fight,” he said. “Narcissism and self-deception are our survival mechanisms, so I think this movie is very responsive to what’s going on out there.”

While Solondz’s new film has received mixed reviews, the filmmaker especially bristles at the charge, by one critic, that “Palindromes” has “no artistic interest beyond the limitless ugliness of humanity.”

“Life is so much more cruel than anything I could put in my movies,” said the director. “Just in terms of reading the newspaper every day, there are atrocities that people and governments commit that make it impossible for me in good conscience to celebrate the wonderfulness of mankind.”

Solondz’s pet peeve is the typical Hollywood film that features attractive protagonists behaving heroically.

“That kind of movie allows viewers to feel better about themselves,” said cinema’s nerd provocateur. “You will never get that from any of my films.”

“Palindromes” opens today in Los Angeles.

 

Concern Grows on Iran Abuses


 

Concern is growing among circles of Iranian nationals and expatriates that European countries are turning a blind eye to the regime’s human rights atrocities in exchange for trade benefits.

Late last year, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution criticizing Iran for human rights violations. It cited new restrictions on freedom of expression and the persecution of political and religious dissenters. The resolution, the 52nd such measure by the United Nations against Iran, was approved 71-54, with 55 abstentions. The world body said Iran was facing a “worsening situation” regarding freedom of opinion and expression.

Human Rights Watch reported that the Iranian judiciary was using threats of lengthy prison sentences and coerced televised statements in an attempt to cover up its arbitrary detention and torture of internet journalists and civil society activists.

However, despite the U.N. resolution and the Human Rights Watch report spotlighting the problems, many Iranians inside and outside the country, as well as human rights activists, are concerned by what they see as appeasement by three leading E.U. countries, France, Britain and Germany. Word has spread that in return last October for Iran’s promise to halt its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to develop nuclear weapons, there would be political concessions made. Reportedly included would be a milder position on human rights issues.

In one Iranian human rights case that drew international attention, Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in custody in 2003. She was arrested while photographing families lined up outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison waiting to visit prisoners. The journalist’s arbitrary arrest, torture and subsequent death were further compounded by refusal to release Kazemi’s body to her son and a sham trial, in which a scapegoat for the death was cleared.

Kazemi’s death was only one of many human rights violations of which Iran has been accused. Last month, Hajieh Esmailvand, an Iranian woman convicted of adultery, was facing death by stoning, according to Amnesty International. The Iranian Penal Code states that women will be buried up to their breasts for execution by stoning, and the stones should “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones.”

The stoning death sentence was not an isolated incident. Zhila Izadyar, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, was sentenced to be stoned to death after being convicted of having an incestuous relationship with her 15-year-old brother, Bakhtiar. The boy was sentenced to 180 lashes, plus prison.

Hanging was ordered for a retarded 19-year-old woman on “morality-related” charges, after being forced into prostitution by her mother, and a religious judge ordered hanging for 16-year-old girl for “deeds incompatible with chastity.”

Boys have not escaped hanging sentences either. One 16-year-old who in self-defense allegedly killed someone attempting to sexually abuse him faces the noose — but not for two years. In this case, there is a law barring the execution of juveniles under 18. As a result, he will be imprisoned until he is legally old enough to be hanged. There are three other imprisoned minors awaiting the same fate when they turn 18.

During 2004, approximately 230 Iranian prisoners were executed or received death sentences. Recently, state-run television aired video of eight prisoners dangling from a gallows in southeastern Iran. Opponents of the regime have compiled the names and cases of 21,676 political prisoners executed by the government since 1981, and they claim this is less than one-fifth of the actual number.

Continuing concern over prisoner executions and other rights abuses rose even higher after an AFP news story on Oct. 21 that said Europeans promised to help on a range of “political and security issues” and would continue to regard the main Iranian resistance group “as a terrorist organization.” On Oct. 24, the state-run Jomhouri Eslami paper wrote: “European counterparts have stated explicitly that they are prepared to close Iran’s human rights file.”

The news confirmed Iranian expatriates’ previous worries that the E.U. had struck a deal with Iran in 2002, in which it would not go before U.N. Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly and accuse it of human rights abuses. Since that date no resolution on human rights in Iran has been sponsored by the E.U. before the commission — unlike the previous 20 years.

Last year’s passage of a U.N. General Assembly resolution accusing Iran of human rights violations is a good sign, but much more needs to be done. Rights violations in Iran are continuing, so international condemnation of them be should be maintained. Otherwise, Iran’s clerics might get the wrong message.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.

 

Do Not Abandon the Jews of France


As the old song goes: "I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall." But for many Jews, Paris, and all of France, is not at the top of their visitor’s hit parade, because of the anti-Semitic activities that have plagued that country in recent times.

Currently, there are 60 million residents of France, of which 600,000 are Jewish, while the Muslin population is now at 6 million or 10 percent of the country. Suffice it to say, this last statistic has been offered as one of the main factors in the increase of anti-Semitic activities in the past few years, this, plus the fact that there is an inordinately high unemployment rate among the Muslim population (18 percent).

Also, the reality of anti-Israel sentiments of nearly all believers in Allah combine to make this a very difficult period for our French Jewish brothers and sisters.

When Carol and I decided to go to Paris on vacation this summer, many congregants and colleagues reacted quite negatively. "Why to a place where Jews are treated so badly?" some asked. Others cited the newspaper articles declaring that many French Jews were contemplating aliyah, a permanent move to Israel.

Now, after having spent a week in Paris and returning home, I can declare to you that the worst thing we can do to show our loyalty to the Jews of France is to not go and visit them.

Carol and I attended and I spoke at Sabbath services at one of Paris’ four Reform synagogues. The 40 or so members present were grateful for our attendance and wanted me to know without hesitation that the French government is not anti-Semitic, and that most of the anti-Jewish problems are being caused by the Muslim population, specifically.

"Do not abandon us," is what I heard over and over from the folks I spoke with on that Sabbath eve in Paris. And frankly, it doesn’t make sense to shun or disconnect from our fellow Jews at a time when they truly need us.

We arrived in Paris at the moment when news of a terrible anti-Semitic incident became known. A 23-year-old woman and her baby were attacked with knives and injured at a train station on the outskirts of Paris. The media covered the story extensively. The government spoke out against the attack. The official Jewish community decried it as one in a series of atrocities.

This event happened on a Thursday. By the following Wednesday, it was announced in the press that the woman, not a Jew, had fabricated the entire beating and had a long history of bringing attention to herself through such fantasies. But the damage was already done, and the situation of the Jews in France was further degraded.

The bottom line: The Jews of France are undergoing an upsurge of anti-Semitism. The causes are complex: unemployed Muslim immigrants, the anti-Israel attitude of so many that is transferred to the Jew on the street and the traditional dislike of Jews that has gone on for thousands of years.

However, the French government is not the main culprit. I met with the emissary of the French government to the Jews of France. He has the rank of "ambassador" and is very sophisticated and sympathetic vis-a-vis the problems of the Jews in France.

I was impressed with him, and he plans to visit Southern California in the fall. I think we should return the favor and not paint all the French with the same brush.

Lawrence Goldmark is the rabbi at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.

Misused by Gibson, Instructor Charges


"It’s all — maybe not all fiction — but most of it is." — Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson’s father, on his opinion that the Holocaust has been exaggerated. Newsweek, March 1, 2004

"I have friends and parents of friends with numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps."

— Mel Gibson to Peggy Noonan in Reader’s Digest, March 2004

At 90 years old, Michel Thomas remains the world’s premier foreign language teacher. Titans of business, foreign ambassadors and the stars of Hollywood readily pay $25,000 for three days of private instruction with Thomas, usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. over a single weekend.

The fee includes two days of follow-up with his teachers. In the late 1990s Thomas taught Mel Gibson his weekend Spanish course at Gibson’s home in Malibu.

"I am outraged, absolutely outraged," Thomas thundered over the phone from London, when I interviewed him in late February. He is in England recording the final CDs for his complete courses in French, Spanish, German and Italian for the prestigious British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

"After having twice escaped deportations to Auschwitz, for Gibson to say I had a job in the concentration camp and survived the concentration camp like everybody else. To misuse me, to use me is an outrage," Thomas said.

I asked if he has spoken to Gibson since the quote appeared.

"No. Abe Foxman of the ADL asked me to write Gibson a letter," Thomas replied. "But I don’t know if I will."

Thomas explained that he and Gibson got on very well, and Gibson later brought his two sons to Thomas’ Beverly Hills office to take taped language courses there. They never discussed the Holocaust, but Thomas said, "He knew I was a Holocaust survivor, and I did send him my book. Whether he read it is another thing."

I first met Thomas in the early 1990s, when he approached me at a UCLA seminar about writing a book about a small part of his life — his service with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). After fighting in the French Resistance, he was assigned in August 1944 as a French liaison officer with the 45th Division of the U.S. 7th Army, serving with combat counterintelligence.

Thomas was nominated for a Silver Star for combat bravery. Later, he became an agent in the CIC, and he established a network of agents behind enemy lines.

On April 29, 1945, Thomas joined the troops in the liberation of Dachau, where he took historic photographs of the crematorium workers. Two days later, he captured Emil Mahl, the "Hangman of Dachau," near Munich.

Around this time, he received a report that a convoy of SS trucks was en route to a paper mill south of Munich. After the liberation of the city, Thomas raced to the mill and prevented a mountain of Nazi documents, including the worldwide membership card files of the Nazi Party, from being turned into pulp. These documents formed the core of the Berlin Document Center, the world’s foremost repository of Nazi personnel documents, which played a vital role at the Nuremberg trials.

In the many weeks and months I spent with Thomas, he let me inspect a mound of historic original documents, many of which he carried constantly with him in a briefcase, never letting them out of his possession.

My book proposal about his wartime experiences made the rounds of publishers. None questioned its veracity, but they felt similar stories had been done, and they would have trouble "breaking it out" commercially.

In spite of his remarkable life, Thomas has remained virtually unknown, remarkable itself, considering that his language students have included business tycoons Edgar Bronfman Jr., Henry Kravis and Saul Steinberg. Grace Kelley, Woody Allen, Barbra Steisand, Otto Preminger, Warren Beatty and Emma Thompson are among the legion of Hollywood luminaries who have studied with him.

Thomas’ revolutionary technique allows no note taking, no memorization drills and no homework. Holding his secrets close to his chest, he talks about dissecting language into minute parts. "It took me many years to see on what basis to reassemble them," he said.

Herbert Morris, a UCLA professor of law and humanities and former UCLA dean of humanities, took the private weekend course with Thomas and said that he retained an equivalent of a year’s instruction from it.

Thomas has always been caught in the tension between seeking the bright lights of recognition and the shelter of privacy, but he has opted primarily for the latter. It is only in the last half a dozen years, after almost five decades of guarding the secrets of his language system, that Thomas allowed his tapes and CDs to be sold commercially.

Previously all students not in private instruction entered his language centers in Beverly Hills or Manhattan and listened to the interactive tapes there. All cassettes were never allowed out of the office.

In 2000, Thomas’ extraordinary life story was finally publicized in "Test of Courage" by British author Christopher Robbins and published by Simon and Schuster. Robbins took a broader and wiser approach than my own, incorporating the language system and Hollywood angle to give it more marketing punch.

The book was favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, then months later, on April 15, 2001, the Times published a long profile on Thomas. Headlined "Larger Than Life," the article cast doubts on the veracity of Thomas’ wartime experiences, clearly implying that Thomas had fabricated or exaggerated them.

Refused a retraction and advised of the long odds of prevailing in a libel case, Thomas nonetheless sued the Times for defamation in October 2001. He has fought the paper fiercely ever since to get it to acknowledge the well-documented facts of his life.

Thomas was denied a trial by a federal judge’s curious pretrial ruling that the article was not defamatory. Although the article, she said, implied Thomas had lied about his past, "no reasonable juror or reader could find that was the message the defendants intended to convey."

Alex Kline, a San Francisco private investigator, helped prepare the defamation case for trial, locating World War II comrades and extensive archival evidence to further bolster the documentation in Robbins’ book. (He created a Web site at www.michelthomas.org that contains the original historical data.)

On Feb. 19, 2004, John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at a UC Berkeley symposium — "Selling Out the First Amendment: The Collision of News, Entertainment and Politics." For a videotape record of this event go to (webcast.berkeley.edu/events/archive/html).

At the symposium, Kline asked Carroll why neither he nor anyone else at the paper had responded to the nearly 400 letters they have received, which include 130 signatures of members of the 180th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, Thomas’ regimental association, respectfully requesting that the paper correctly re-report the story of Thomas’s life. Carroll’s verbatim response was:

"I hate to get into this one, but I figure we’re going to since we’re here at Berkeley. We published a story awhile back, by a very clever reporter named Roy Rivenburg, about a man who published his autobiography. And, if you read the autobiography, you’d be amazed you’d never heard of this man, because he pretty much single-handed won World War II for us. It was a preposterous book, and our review of it was an investigative review. It debunked many of the claims in this book and had some fun doing it, had a few laughs at the author’s expense. When you put yourself out in public and make claims that are preposterous, and publish a book on it, you’re like to get a reviewer who will look into that and set the record straight. I’m very proud of that story, we haven’t retracted a word of it, we don’t intend to because it was true."

Rivenburg is primarily a humor and feature writer for the Times.

He currently teaches courses like "The Mechanics of Biblical Journalism" for a Christian Fundamentalist group called The World Journalism Institute (WJI). The WJI’s mission, posted on the Web, reads in part: "In this age of mass secular media, the mission of the WJI is to overcome the eclipse of God by providing counterthrust to the secular media and tepid Christian media."

The Los Angeles Times has printed nothing about the legal skirmish with Thomas.

My guess is that once such a lawsuit is filed against a newspaper, the plaintiff becomes an enemy of the First Amendment, and they circle their wagons. Your concern is not to be fair but to win.

But having won and extracted your legal fees from the pocket of the plaintiff, as the Times did, does your journalistic obligation to tell the truth end? That is a question the Times does not seem to want to address.

Thomas has found himself in the unenviable position of having the Los Angeles Times question the facts of his life, while Gibson appropriated those same facts to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust.