Holy to half of humanity – the polluted water of the Jordan River

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

When US Naval officer William F. Lynch became the first Westerner to sail the lower Jordan River in 1847, he traversed the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan to the Dead Sea over current so strong that, according to his journal, he required four metal boats, one of which was smashed on the rocks of the powerful rapids. Lynch goes on the recount the broad and forceful flow of the then-mighty river.

Today, though, the Jordan is barley a trickle – just four meters wide and two meters deep in some parts. Its color is an opaque brown; and despite being holy to the world’s three major religions, a mouthful of the river’s water would most likely lead to a variety of rather unpleasant effects.

Throughout the years, successive governments in Syria, Israel and Jordan have redistributed the water supply for various reasons. Sewage has been leaked or directly pumped into the river; while a variety of overflows from agricultural and fish farming add to the flavor. A variety of plants and wildlife, including willow trees and otters, which had formerly followed the banks of the meandering river can no longer be found along its shores.

If you had told William F. Lynch that a rejuvenation program costing billions of American dollars would be required to restore an adequate flow to the Jordan River within a mere 150-years, it is a fair guess to say it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

EcoPeace, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Friends of the Earth Middle East, sees the restoration of the Jordan River as a problem for all people of the region: especially Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Not only is the degradation of the water supply harmful to the environment and the communities which rely on it, but it is wasting the huge financial potential of the valley which could improve the living standards of many.

The successful transformation of the river would lead to huge economic and environmental advantages, argues Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s director in Israel. He told The Media Line that EcoPeace believes that if its proposals were enacted, the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Jordan Valley would increase to as many as ten million each year –a tenfold increase that Bromberg called “a game changer” for the region’s economy.

EcoPeace has put together a series of policy proposals which it has termed the “Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley.” A variety of measures ranging from pollution control, water resourcing and ecological management; to the development of tourism and cultural heritage sites make up the organization’s wish list, forecasted up to the year 2050.

The benefits would be felt in agriculture and industry as well as in the tourism and environmental sectors, Bromberg said, while explaining that changes in perception would need to be made. “It requires that we treat the river differently – as a livelihood source, as the healthy economic engine, instead of seeing the river as the sewage canal and as the dumping ground.”

“We feel that the Jordan Valley is part of the common cultural heritage of this region and it is being shared between three parties here: the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, said, keen to show that the EU was a partner to the Master Plan.

The benefits of cooperation and of sustainable development when living in a well-populated compact area were clear to see, the ambassador said, suggesting that this is true in Europe and in the Jordan Valley as well. Bottom-up cooperation, as evidenced by EcoPeace’s past work, could lead to peace building, Faaborg-Andersen said, adding, “We hope that the (local) governments will take inspiration from this.”

Europe’s economic and political integration following the Second World War, and the decades of relative peace which have followed since are a model to follow according to Bromberg, who argued that just as steel and coal, the continent’s two most important resources, were were able to form ties in Europe, water and energy could do the same in the Jordan Valley.

Yet, inevitably, as with everything in the region, the discussion devolves into a political one. “Water is not a problem, it is not a zero sum game. Some people, especially in Israel, have a surplus of water,” Dr. Nader Al-Khateeb, EcoPeace’s director in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. Politics, and not a shortage of water, was causing the pollution and lack of economic resourcing seen in the area, he charged. According to Al-Khateeb, it is for this reason that the NGO EcoPeace weighs in on politically-charged issues and debates and is “very clear about our political position, [supporting] a two state solution, within the international (consensus) on recognized 1967 borders.”

A stance on politics is not unnatural Bromberg said, “Our name is EcoPeace: ecological peace – we are an environmental organization at heart but we are also a peace organization.” In order to move forward on the environmental agenda, Bromberg argued, such issues have to be touched on and therefore EcoPeace advocates for a two-state solution.

“We don’t think that this is particularly radical – our Israeli Prime Minister says he’s in favor of a two-state solution,” Bromberg pointed out.

But he did acknowledge that EcoPeace is not without its detractors. Activists in the Palestinian Territories and in Jordan have received threatening phone calls and activities by the organizations have been disrupted by individuals aligned with the “anti-normalization campaign”[Editor’s Note: a movement in the Arab world opposing all efforts to “normalize” relations with the state of Israel or institutions located inside the Jewish state.] In Israel, EcoPeace has found itself labelled as traitorous.

Extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hostile to EcoPeace’s work, Bromberg said. Such individuals believe that any cooperation with the other side prior to a resolution of the conflict is an attempt to maintain the status quo or is collaboration against your own people, the Israeli Director said. “We think that has no analytical or practical basis what so ever,” Bromberg concluded.

A pro-Israel think tanks maintains that water has increasingly become a politicized weapon in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is being used as a tool to delegitimize the Jewish state. NGO Monitor, an organization which aims to expose anti-Israeli sentiment among many of the groups working in Israel, listed a number of NGOs it felt were using water as a political tool. EcoPeace was not among the list, reinforcing its assertion that “it focuses on the environment and not on the conflict.”

In the meantime, while the politics is debated, the Jordan continues to trickle by and thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized in its sickly beige water each year. If environmentalists are able to get their way, within a few decades the water such visitors bathe in might even be clean.

Mormons limit genealogical access to stop baptisms of Shoah victims

The Mormon Church is restricting access to its genealogical records relating to Holocaust victims in a move to protect their names from posthumous baptisms.

“The church is committed to preventing the misguided practice of submitting the names of Holocaust victims and prominent individuals for proxy baptism,” church spokesman Michael Purdy said this week, according to The Associated Press. “In addition to reiterating its policy to members, the church has implemented a new technological barrier to prevent abuse.”

Access to names flagged as not eligible for proxy baptism would be denied, according to Purdy.

The move comes amid embarrassing revelations that Holocaust victim Anne Frank and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal had been baptized in Mormon temples. The baptisms fly in the face of a church policy prohibiting proxy baptisms of Holocaust victims unless requested by one of their descendants.

Daniel Pearl baptized in Mormon proxy ritual

Daniel Pearl was baptized in a Mormon proxy ritual in another case of a prominent deceased Jew discovered to have been baptized posthumously in recent weeks.

Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and executed by terrorists in Pakistan in February 2002, was baptized by proxy on June 1, 2011 at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho, the Boston Globe reported Wednesday.

“Danny was Jewish and his last words were ‘I am Jewish,’ Pearl’s mother, Ruth Pearl, said in an interview with The Journal on Wednesday. “It was inappropriate and insensitive to posthumously baptize him.”

The rite was discovered by Helen Radkey, a former member of the Mormon church who has become a whistleblower on such activity.

Only Mormons have access to the church’s genealogy database, which also can be used to submit a deceased person’s name for proxy baptism.

The discovery comes in the same month that it was discovered that the parents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal were posthumously baptized last month, and Anne Frank was posthumously baptized earlier this month.

Also earlier this month, the names of the father and grandfather of Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel were found to have been submitted for proxy baptism.

Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth, told the Boston Globe that learning of the proxy baptism was “disturbing news.”

“To them we say, we appreciate your good intentions but rest assured that Danny’s soul was redeemed through the life that he lived and the values that he upheld,” the Pearls told the newspaper in an email. “He lived as a proud Jew, died as a proud Jew and is currently facing his creator as a Jew, blessed, accepted and redeemed. For the record, let it be clear: Danny did not choose to be baptized, nor did his family consent to this uncalled-for ritual.”

Pearl’s widow, Mariane, who is a Buddhist, called the posthumous baptism “a lack of respect for Danny and a lack of respect for his parents,” and echoed Wiesel in calling for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon, to apologize on behalf of the church.

Danny’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, reflect on his life and last words in this webcam video shot 1/18/2007 in the kitchen of their Encino, CA home.

Daniel, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan on February 1, 2002.

In a widely-circulated video, Danny proudly affirmed his identity as a Jew and Zionist, last words that have inspired books, movies and music.

Maybe they’ll inspire you.

For more information, visit the Daniel Pearl Foundation at DanielPearl.org.

Video by Dennis Wilen for JewishJournal.com

Shoah group halts talks with Mormons on posthumous baptism of Jews

A Holocaust survivor organization has broken off negotiations with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) over its practice of posthumously baptizing Jewish victims of the Nazis.

At a news conference Monday, leaders of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, seated in front of panels listing names of Holocaust victims they say were baptized by the Mormons, said that 14 years of quiet negotiations have proven fruitless.

“We felt we had come to the end of the line,” said Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering. “There is no further point in meeting with them.”

Mormon leaders reacted with surprise to news of the American Gathering’s decision. In a statement, the church said it stood by its 1995 commitment to stop baptizing Holocaust victims and remove their names from the database if they become known — the only remaining question was how best to do so. As recently as Nov. 6, the church wrote to Michel to describe further steps to allay the concerns of survivors.

“We empathize with the depth of feeling of all Jews regarding the Holocaust,” the church said in the statement. “It is our regard and empathy that have kept us talking for so many years.”

The concern of Holocaust survivors stems from the Mormon belief that individuals retain the opportunity to accept or reject church sacraments, including baptism, even after death. Under church policy, members are supposed to submit names only of their relatives. The church has become a global leader in genealogical research to facilitate the research of family histories.

In 1995, the church agreed to remove the names of Holocaust victims from its database, known as the International Genealogical Index, or IGI — a rare suspension of church practice, the church says, done because of the singular nature of the Holocaust and the sensitivities of survivors.

Michel claims, however, that new baptisms continue to be performed and new names submitted to the database, though he acknowledges the complexity of preventing new submissions. Millions of church members submit 30,000 new names a day, the church says, and improper submissions are always expected. A new system under development would make it easier to flag submissions as Holocaust victims for whom temple ordinances should not be performed.

“That’s their problem; it’s not my problem,” Michel said. “They put them in; they got to take them out. That’s the bottom line.”

Jewish communal leaders have been reluctant to back Michel’s campaign, saying that at a time of mounting challenges on several fronts, the internal practices of another religious group — offensive as they may be — should not be a top Jewish agenda item.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Michel expressed interest in discussing the matter with him. But the Reform leader said that he does not see making it a high-priority issue. Yoffie said the internal processes of the Mormon Church are something over which Jews have no control.

“I don’t think this is going to become a major focus of the Jewish community, which now is dealing with a whole range of issues,” Yoffie said. “I wish them well in their efforts.”

But Michel, who frequently stresses that his negotiations with the Mormons have always remained polite and respectful, said the practice is hurtful to Holocaust survivors. He also worries about the uses to which Holocaust deniers may some day put the Mormon records.

“They tell me that my parents’ Jewishness has not been altered,” said Michel’s prepared remarks for the news conference, which was held on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. “But in 100 years, how will they be able to guarantee that my mother and father of blessed memory, who lived as Jews and were slaughtered by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, will some day not be identified as Mormon victims of the Holocaust?”

A Righteous History

More than 20 years ago, as I looked over family papers with my late father, I came across a letter referring to my "conversion." Curious, I asked
what that meant. With some self-consciousness, my father first shared with me the fact that I had a Catholic baptism as a 2-year-old child in Vienna, Austria.

My parents and I had been baptized near Vienna in 1938, as we sought to flee Austria, newly a part of Nazi Germany. We hoped we might find refuge in some Latin American country that would not accept Jews, but would accept Catholic refugees. According to my father, the priest who performed the baptism understood that ours was not a religious conversion, but one of survival.

"Why did you wait until now to tell me this?" I asked.

My father replied, "I promised your mother never to tell you. She was afraid you might lose your job at the temple." I am executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I was a bar mitzvah in the congregation and had served for many years as a teacher, educator and the temple’s camp director.

I was thrilled to hear of a Righteous Gentile who reached out to us in those threatening days. My father provided me with the certificate of my baptism. I proudly shared the story with my friends, colleagues and students. The framed certificate hangs in my home today. I came to understand my parents’ 45-year silence. They were of a place and time when blood, origin and faith could mean life or death.

We fled Austria shortly before Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Our journey took us through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy. The affidavit of an L.A. relative was accepted, and that city became our final destination.

Over the years, my family’s silence and self-consciousness was no doubt fueled by survivor guilt and a sense of apostasy. As a child, I was neither told nor overheard stories about their terrible experiences. The story of our baptism was provocative. Who was this priest, Dr. Ludwig, who signed my baptismal certificate? Why had he acted boldly, unlike so many of his fellow priests and their congregants?

In April 2003, my wife and I traveled to Europe to uncover truth behind my baptism. We arrived in Korneuberg, a small town on the north side of the Danube, opposite the great abbey at Klosterneuberg.

My baptismal certificate identified the church as St. Agyd. Entering, we approached an aging priest just leaving the confessional and told him the purpose of our visit: We sought information about a Dr. Ludwig who baptized Jews during the Nazi era. Had he heard of Ludwig? Were there records we might see?

Warily, the priest satisfied himself regarding our motives. He introduced himself as Dr. Jochlinger, the senior parish priest. He said that he not only knew of Ludwig and of his wartime activities, but he had known him personally. Ludwig had survived the war, living until 1958. Jochlinger had known Ludwig as his teacher at the abbey in Klosterneuberg.

Jochlinger recalled that Ludwig was close to the artistic community of Vienna, which included many Jews. In fact, his niece was the famous singing actress Krista Ludwig. Apparently, Ludwig participated in more than 300 "emergency baptisms."

I asked if there were written records we might see. In response, he led us into a private room in the neighboring parish house. He opened the doors of a large wooden cupboard to reveal dozens of large worn leather-bound ledgers. These proved to be the registers of weddings, births and baptisms dating back more than 200 years. Based on information from my baptismal certificate, we found the appropriate volume. After leafing through pages to find the correct date, there we were: My family history was spread across two large pages in large formal calligraphy.

Ludwig was listed as officiator, Alois Holzer as "sponsor." There followed my father’s name with his birthdate and his address at birth. My paternal grandfather was identified on the facing page, listed as "of the mosaic confession" — a Jew. My father’s mother, listed with her maiden name, was similarly identified. These were the grandparents who were killed in Auschwitz. On the next line, my mother and her family were identified, with names, addresses, also of the "mosaic confession." These were the grandparents who, in 1940, made a dramatic journey through Russia and Japan, to finally join us in Los Angeles.

Then there was my name, written as the others in a bold European cursive. Because my parents were baptized first, I was listed as having two Roman Catholic parents. The pages before and after our names included dozens of baptisms performed by Ludwig, all of members of the "mosaic confession."

The amiable Jochlinger let us photocopy the relevant pages. He explained his earlier wariness was due to a recent warning regarding those critical of the passivity of Austrian clergy during the Holocaust. Jochlinger felt personally insulted, because his own mother had sheltered a Jew. In September 1938, the Gestapo called in those whose names appeared in the church records. Concerned about his potential arrest, Ludwig was reassigned to the abbey at Klosterneuberg. There he taught church history until his death.

We thanked Jochlinger for his time. How remarkable to learn about Ludwig’s efforts — more than 300 Jewish "conversions." Jochlinger was gracious and modest.

"It was my pleasure," he said. "After all, you are the only ones who have ever asked."

Apparently, neither the church nor any beneficiaries had as yet come forth to credit Ludwig. It will be my mission to add his name to the rolls of the Righteous Gentiles. He is already inscribed in the Book of Life.

Stephen E. Breuer has served as executive director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple since 1980.