Jewish name-calling: a note on Michael Oren, Leon Wieseltier and the art of insult


SHAKESPEARE said it so sweetly.

“What’s in a name?” the Bard mused in “Romeo and Juliet,” his immortal romance about hostile households. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

In Jewish tradition, names are taken a tad more seriously. Families give deep consideration to the perfect, commemorative, or even prophetic names for their newborns. And every Shabbat, parents bless their children that they should be like “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” These names are not arbitrary, and the qualities of character they signify are singular.

But what about insults?

Last week, Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate mogul with aims for the oval office saw fit to describe at least most Mexicans crossing the border as “killers” and “rapists.” His offensive blitz sadly deprived the world of the finer points of the Miss Universe Pageant, and cost him some tens of millions of dollars and counting, but it also had the stunning effect of driving up his polling in Trump’s wishful bid for the White House.

Name calling, it turns out, is cool.

This is good news for the Jews, or at least a very slender bunch of Jewish men, who have made headlines throughout the last year for carping at each other through a combination of crude, clever or simply comical name-calling.

We might say it started back in October 2014, when Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg fearfully reported that “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here[!] (emphasis mine).” Goldberg wasted no time getting to the good stuff up top: In his lead, he declared that a senior Obama administration official had referred to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as “a chickenshit.

Forget Cairo; forget settlements; forget a nuclear Iran: The implication of this juicy jibe was that if high-ranking government officials were disparaging each other with salty smears, things between Washington and Jerusalem were really falling apart!

Even in reverse, the name-calling episode again proved propitious in the polls, and the slighted Netanyahu later won re-election.

For those of us who love a clever cut-down, there is at least one upside to the fact that the U.S.-Israel squabbles have not since subsided. In fact, they have been recently refueled by the release of MK Michael Oren’s book “Ally.” The former Israeli Ambassador’s tale of disappointed expectations at America has spawned a vociferous series of Jew versus Jew quarreling, much of it defamatory.

Let’s start with the book’s title: “Ally,” which is itself a kind of name-calling, since Oren goes on to critique Israel’s allies, including: the American President, American Jews and American Jewish journalists.

Things get worse inside the book for all of the aforementioned but especially, apparently, for Leon Wieseltier, one of the Jewish world’s leading intellectuals and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. In his indictment of American Jewish journalists, some of whom Oren claims use their Jewish identity as a credential for criticizing Israel, Oren also had the chutzpah to parallel Wieseltier’s sustained and searing critique of Bibi Netanyahu (he once referred to the Israeli PM as “a gray, muddling, reactive figure…a creature of the bunker”) with the same pathological hatred of Jews we call anti-Semitism.

Right or wrong, Wieseltier interpreted the slight as an accusation. “I don’t take kindly to being called anti-Semitic and I don’t take kindly to having Jewish self-hatred attributed to me,” he told Moment Magazine’s Nadine Epstein during a recent interview at the annual Association of Jewish Libraries conference. Wieseltier then penned a savage response to the epithet for the Atlantic, calling Oren, “my Javert,” a reference to the antagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, an unforgiving police inspector who obsessively pursues the hero of the story.

That’s when things got really fun — like during a schoolyard fight, when a whole bunch of boys rush in, start yelling and take sides? Only this was the Jewish version, which is to say, with words:

In the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens belittled Wieseltier as “the gray eminence of minor magazines.” (Wieseltier must be so relieved that he is no longer literary editor of The New Republic and now writing for the not-so-minor Atlantic.) In the Forward, Raphael Magarik went to the mattresses on Wieseltier, naming him, alternately, “the king of spurious and lazy accusations,” “a fine ironist,” “the Grand Inquisitor himself,” “the gray-haired sage of D.C.” (though, it must be said here that Leon’s hair is actually bridal-white), and best of all, “the lion of Brooklyn.”

On the other side, Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of the political blog TalkingPointsMemo.com took Oren to task, calling him “The Ridiculous Mr. Oren,” an “over-clever asshole,” and also, incidentally, throws in a few barbs for Netanyahu, coming up with perhaps the most creative (and facetious) name of all, “the embodiment of the Jewish people which brings together both Maimonides and Herzl into one unified deluxe Jewish person.”

Wow! Out of petty name-calling, we now all have something to aspire to.

In the end, Oren backpedaled on his incendiary treatment of Wieseltier, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I’m Leon’s buddy, why would I want to hurt Leon? And I write about him lovingly in the book.”

Who knew so many serious, high-minded men could be so emotional? Over name-calling! But rather than call this fracas uncharacteristic, or uncivil, or dare-I-say a little bit juvenile, I’m going to chalk it up to the Jewish penchant for ascribing meaning to names. We’ve all been called them, good or bad, and even the ugly ones tell us something about who we are or who we don’t wish to be.

In her famous window-side soliloquy, the young ingénue Juliet fears the revelation of her name will preclude Romeo from loving her. So she devises a scheme: A name is just a title, she decides, something to flick off or cast away, leaving her and her beloved to embrace their core, indescribable selves. Why should a name hinder true love?

And why should an insult break up the tribe?

“People,” Wieseltier told Moment, “have got to recover the pleasures of being insulted. Having your feelings wounded is the price you pay for living in an open society.”

So maybe names are no big deal. Maybe they mean nothing until we make ourselves worthy of them.

‘Anonymous Soldiers’ looks at terrorism from another troubling angle


“Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947” by Bruce Hoffman (Knopf) offers an uncomfortable but crucial message: Terrorism works. And the book is all the more disturbing because the examples Hoffman considers are the Irgun and Lehi (perhaps better known as the “Stern Gang”), which he bluntly describes as “Jewish terrorist organizations.”

“(E)ven if terrorism’s power to dramatically change the course of history along the lines of the September 11, 2001, attacks has been mercifully infrequent,” Hoffman writes, “terrorism’s ability to act as a catalyst for wider conflagration or systemic political change appears historically undeniable.” 

To be sure, Hoffman concedes that the Zionist enterprise depended on far more than physical violence. “The struggle for Jewish statehood employed almost every means possible: diplomacy, negotiation, lobbying, civil disobedience, propaganda, information operations, armed resistance …” But he ends the sentence with the object of his current inquiry: “… and terrorist violence.”  

Working largely in the newly declassified archives of MI5, the British secret service and the Palestine Police Force, Hoffman has been able to view through British eyes such momentous acts of terrorism as the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944, the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, and the kidnapping and hanging of two British sergeants in 1957.  

Britain created the problem in Palestine for itself, or so Hoffman argues, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which favored “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” but also noted that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Despite the “benevolent prose and altruistic intent” of the diplomatic letter, history shows that Britain now faced the task of “navigating between two peoples’ historical, cultural, religious, and political claims to the same land.” By 1929, Arab violence against Jews was one of the “facts on the ground” that confronted the Zionist movement in Palestine.

Hoffman usefully points out that Arab violence was not purely spontaneous. A radical imam called al-Qassam — now the name of a rocket used by Hamas — preached a holy war to the Arabs of Palestine: “You must know that nothing will save us but our arms.” In 1936, a gang of his followers stopped and robbed a bus and murdered two of its Jewish passengers. A Jewish reprisal took the lives of two Arabs. As violence erupted yet again around Palestine, the British authorities declared a state of emergency. “The Arab Rebellion,” Hoffman writes, “had now begun.”

The question in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, was whether Jews ought to answer Arab terrorism with terrorism of their own, an issue that divided the left-wing Labor Zionists from the right-wing Revisionists and resulted in two parallel Jewish defense forces, one called the Haganah and the other called the Haganah-Bet. The Labor Zionists embraced the doctrines of havlaga (self-restraint) and tohar ha-neshek (purity of arms), but the Revisionists insisted that the escalation of Arab violence called for new and more brutal tactics: “By blood and fire Judea fell,” was the slogan of the Irgun, “and by blood and fire Judea shall arise.”

Significantly, the Irgun commenced its operations with the bombing of an Arab cafe as an act of revenge for the killing of five Jewish farmers a couple of days earlier. “The shame of restraint has been removed,” declared David Raziel, the first commander of the Irgun. Indeed, Irgun violence grew steadily bolder and bloodier as the “Irgun launched a succession of shootings, bombings, road minings and various acts of sabotage and vandalism against British and Arab targets alike.” Against self-restraint and purity of arms, a new principle was announced: “A hitting fist must be answered by two hitting fists — a bomb explosion has to be replied with two bomb explosions.” 

As Hoffman shows in gripping detail, the emergence of the Irgun meant that the fighting front had divided into several lines of conflict. The Jewish Agency conducted a counterterrorism campaign of its own against the Irgun (and, later, the spin-off known as Lehi), and a Jewish civil war threatened to break out more than once. The British authorities sought to suppress both the Irgun and Lehi, as well as the Arab guerillas that operated in Palestine, and the Arabs set themselves against both the British and the Jews. “By the fall of 1938, Palestine was coming apart at the seams,” Hoffman writes.

“Anonymous Soldiers” can be seen as a corrective to the understatements and misstatements about the role of the Revisionist movement in the history of Zionism and, especially, the creation and defense of the Jewish state. Hoffman, a scholar who specializes in security studies at Georgetown University, succeeds in giving us an even-handed work of history that is, at the same time, a morally illuminating and challenging work about the role of violence in politics. But he also confronts us with the unsettling truth that sometimes, and especially when the adversary is a democracy that has lost its will to fight, terrorism will succeed.

“That Jewish terrorism played a salient role in helping to create and foster the sense of hopelessness and despair that … influenced the Labour government’s decision to leave Palestine is clear,” Hoffman concludes, although he insists that it was only one of many factors at work in the fateful decision.  

That’s not the end of the debate about terrorism, but “Anonymous Soldiers” is a good starting place, especially when we consider the price of not fighting terrorism. 

Providing books to Jaffa preschoolers makes Israel stronger


The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.  

In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories. 

The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.  

Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts. 

Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.  

“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.

Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education. 

On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom. 

“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.  

A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.   

When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book. 

Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market. 

Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq. 

Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.  

“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents. 

These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.  

“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools. 

Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”

The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”

The illusion of a solution


Of all the incendiary books that have been written about Israel over the last year or so, none is quite as fiery as “Israel: The Will to Prevail” by Danny Danon (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).

Danon is a young activist in the Likud Party and serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset. He agrees with the various critics and commentators on the left on only a single point: “We are now at a critical juncture in our brief but momentous history,” Danon writes, “and our very survival is once again at stake.” Unlike Peter Beinart or Jeremy Ben-Ami, however, Danon rejects the notion that the United States (or, by implication, American Jews) is entitled to tell Israel how to conduct its affairs.  

“Israel must take firm hold of its own destiny, with a ready willingness to act decisively on its own behalf,” he insists. “[H]istory shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are not only better for Israel but for world peace as a whole.”

Lest anyone mistake his political colors, however, Danon pointedly insists on using the words “Jewish communities” and “residents of these communities” in place of “settlers” and “settlements.” The West Bank, of course, is referred to as Judea and Samaria. “The Jewish people’s claim to Israel,” he writes, “is older and stronger than any other people’s in the history of the world.” Indeed, Danon presents his fierce little book as nothing less than “a road map for Jewish victory — achieved with or without backing from her allies.” 

Danon insists that it is in the strategic best interest of the United States to support Israel, by which he plainly means the hard-line policies of Likud. “It’s an unfortunate fact that Israel has grown more distant from the United States,” he writes, “and I believe this puts both our countries in peril.” And he cites President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as advocates of what he calls “the growing acceptance in the United States and abroad of a left-wing, so-called progressive position on Israel” and “a one-sided view of Palestinian aspirations.”

“Discomforting behavior continues to come from the White House, which makes Israelis wonder whether the United States is really on our side,” Danon writes, “and strengthens the case that we must be confident to take matters, when necessary, in our own hands despite world or U.S. opinion.”

Nowadays, of course, the demarcation between left and right is blurry. Who, after all, would disagree with Danon’s assertion that “Israel’s experience with Gaza demonstrates the folly of those who say that the only pathway to peace involves handing over our land to the Palestinians.” Yet Danon also insists on salting his prose with fighting words — “our land” is a phrase that simply ignores the fundamental question of where the boundary is to be drawn between Arabs and Jews. Even when he claims that he “actively welcome[s] a healthy debate on the subject of Israel and the United States,” it is hard to discern where “healthy debate” leaves off and “criticism that demonizes Israel” begins.

The conclusion he reaches is that Israel cannot afford to take the risk of a compromise with the Palestinians: “Over and over again,” he complains, “Israelis are exhorted to concede more and more, while the Arabs are only asked to stop incitement and killing.” And, crucially, he argues that “any manufactured claim to a Palestinian state” is trumped by the inevitability that “such an entity would be a serious and ongoing threat for Israel.”

Danon calls instead for “a three-state solution,” an antique approach to peace-making in the Middle East that would assign sovereignty over the Palestinians to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Clearly, his plan is not likely to succeed, and I suspect that’s the real reason why he advocates it: “Before we can make the three-state solution a reality,” he warns, Israel must be afforded “real recognition” by the existing states, and “Israel must take on and defeat those who are against us — Hamas, Hezbollah, and others.” 

“Israel: The Will to Prevail” leaves me in   exactly the same place I found myself after reading books by his adversaries in the progressive wing of Zionism — it’s a locked room in which the doors and windows are only a trompe l’oeil on solid walls. How Israel and the Jewish people are to extricate themselves from our unhappy predicament remains unexplained.


Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht.

Israel’s ‘Unmaking’


No book review I’ve written for The Jewish Journal has prompted as much feedback as the one I wrote about “A New Voice for Israel” by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street. His argument that Israel must make uncomfortable compromises and take dire risks in order to secure peace with the Palestinian Arabs is clearly unsettling to a great many Jews, both in Israel and America.

But Ben-Ami will find a kindred spirit in Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli author (“The Accidental Empire”) and journalist who comes to some of the same conclusions in “The Unmaking of Israel” (HarperCollins: $25.99), which he describes as “a selective and personal journey through Israel’s past and present, for the purpose of presenting an argument: that Israel is unmaking itself, and must put itself back together.” Gorenberg provides a deft but penetrating and highly nuanced account of the recent history and current politics of Israel, and he offers a prescription for curing the ills that afflict the Jewish state.

“Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation movement of the Jews,” Gorenberg begins. But the land on which a Jewish homeland was to be built was also the homeland of an Arab community. “Seen from the shores of Palestine, Zionism was a movement of foreigners coming to settle the land, to colonize it.” The struggle between these contending points of view must be put aside, he writes, if we hope to find a path to peace.

What’s at stake, according to Gorenberg, is nothing less than the character and destiny of Israel itself. “[A]t the moment of its triumph, Israel began to take itself apart,” he writes, referring to the history-changing victories of the Six-Day War. “Long-term rule of Palestinians was a retreat from the ideal of democracy. … The settlement enterprise was a multi-pronged assault on the rule of law. … [T]he government’s support of settlement has fostered the transformation of religious Zionism into a movement of the radical right.” Above all, Gorenberg insists, all of these trends “now threaten Israel’s democratic aspirations and its existence.”

The current crisis, as Gorenberg demonstrates, can be seen as an accident of history. He reminds us that the founders of Israel lived in a world where the exchange of populations was one of the tools of geopolitics, and “it should be no surprise that Zionist leaders thought about transfer.” Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled from Israel during the War of Independence, a kind of de facto population transfer. By 1967, however, an even greater number of Arabs were back under Israeli rule. Thus began the “unmaking” of Israel, as Gor-enberg puts it.

The dilemma, of course, is that Israel cannot remain both Jewish and democratic for very long if its population includes a substantial and growing number of Arabs. Then, too, Gorenberg points out that Jewish settlement in the West Bank was undertaken by what he calls a “radical religious culture” that was itself a danger to democracy.

“A new generation of settlers has come of age, as radical or more in its theologized politics, alienated from the institutions of the state that have so assiduously fostered its growth,” he writes. “The meaning of these changes is a democracy in greater danger, a state that is weaker and less capable of ending the occupation.” Indeed, he puts it even more bluntly: The radical fringe of the settler movement “barbarized Judaism” by encouraging the kind of violence that ultimately took the life of Yitzhak Rabin.

Gorenberg warns that the growing role of observant Jews in the Israeli army is itself an obstacle to peacemaking. Only 9,000 settlers were removed from Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces, but no fewer than 65,000 Jews — and possibly many more — would need to be removed from the West Bank under even the most grudging version of an Israeli withdrawal. “The army would have to confront a young generation of settlers determined not to repeat the ‘shame’ of Gaza,” he points out. “Yet since 2005, the army’s dependence on soldiers coming out of the Orthodox academies … and other yeshivot aligned with the theological right has increased.”

Gorenberg is quick to characterize himself as “a religious Jew” and “an Israeli by choice.” He issues a heartfelt and heart-rending plea for the repair of the Jewish democracy: “I write from an Israel with a divided soul,” he writes. “It is not only defined by its contradictions; it is at risk of being torn apart by them.”

“For Israel to establish itself again as a liberal democracy, it must make three changes,” he concludes. “First, it must end the settlement enterprise, end the occupation, and find a peaceful way to partition the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Second, it must divorce state and synagogue. … Third and most basically, it must graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.”

Gorenberg does not provide us with much reason for optimism that any of these things will happen soon, or at all. But he seems to embrace the old Zionist aphorism — If you will it, it is no dream — and he sees something uniquely Jewish in the argument that he hopes to provoke in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.

“This, perhaps, is the best definition of a Jewish state,” he concludes, “the place where Jews can argue with the least inhibition, in the most public way, about what it means to be Jews.”

The J Street Zionist


“Israel’s existence is in fact threatened by a progressive, terminal illness,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J Street, writes in “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation” (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).  According to his diagnosis, the illness is a kind of willful blindness that prevents both Israeli and American leaders from seeing a way out of the dire predicament that the Jewish state now faces.

J Street was founded by Ben-Ami and others in 2008 in a bold, creative but also highly controversial effort to “change the American conversation on Israel.”  Instead of “unquestioning support for Israel,” J Street insists on calling attention to “the moral and ethical implications of occupation and its impact on both the Palestinian people and Israel itself.”  Ben-Ami’s book serves a manifesto for J Street and, at the same time, a political memoir and a Jeremiad about the fate of the Middle East.

“If things don’t change pretty soon, chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers,” Ben-Ami writes. “As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears.”

Ben-Ami’s politics would be unremarkable in Israel, but — as he readily concedes — they represent something new in America, where “politicians, community leaders, media and academics have been told you’re either with Israel or against it.”  He readily concedes that Israel faces an existential threat from its enemies in the Arab world, but he also insists that the very survival of Israel requires “a new definition of victory for pro-Israel advocacy:  “[I]t is now time for friends of Israel to perform the ultimate act of Zionism — to tell Israel the truth,” Ben-Ami argues, quoting a former head of Israel’s secret service.

Ben-Ami describes himself as “a preppy, private-school kid from the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” but he is also a fourth-generation Zionist whose great-grandparents made aliyah from a shtetl in what is now Belarus to the port of Jaffa during the First Aliyah. His father was a follower of Jabotinsky, the founder of the right-wing Zionist movement that is today manifested in the hard-line politics of Likud and its political allies. As a member of the underground militia called the Irgun, he changed his name from Rosin to Ben-Ami — “Son of My People” — and traveled to Vienna to participate in rescue efforts inside the Third Reich.

Fatefully, Ben-Ami’s father reached America before the outbreak of the Second World War, and so it was that Jeremy was raised in America rather than Israel. “I often wonder,” he writes, “how shocked my grandparents would be that their grandchildren were born in New York City and not in the city or country that they helped to build.”
He was taught to feel love and loyalty toward the Jewish homeland and to regard the struggle between Arabs and Jews as “a tale of good and evil, a morality play pitting David against Goliath.” 

All of his assumptions began to change when, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995, he traveled to Israel to participate in a Hebrew language program.  “I was simply shocked to be sitting in kita aleph — basic first-grade Hebrew — learning my letters and basic grammar with Palestinians from Gaza.”  He also learned what he calls “a basic rule of history — that one people’s victory is likely to be another people’s catastrophe.”  And he realized that Israelis were far more willing than American Jews to talk openly about the real interests of the Jewish state.

“Everywhere I went,” he explains, “there was a lively and engaged argument over the future of the peace process, the proper course of action for the government, the legacy of Rabin, the intentions of Netanyahu.”

Back in the United States, Ben-Ami joined Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, where he came to understand that a different rulebook was in use.  When Dean called on the United States to “take an even-handed role” in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, for example, the candidate was breaking the rules. “Abraham Foxman,” Ben-Ami realized, “will say it’s code for being pro-Palestinian.” That’s when he decided that another voice needed to be heard.

“What about my views, and the views of all my many friends and colleagues who had lived and worked in Israel, who passionately believed that it will serve Israel’s and America’s interests for the United States to be more evenhanded in its approach to the conflict? What isn’t anyone standing up for us?”

Thus began the idea for J Street and the role Ben-Ami has come to play in the conversation about Israel.  He insists, for example, that the only basis for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a land swap that would give the Palestinians land inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel in exchange for Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and a relinquishment of the Arab right of return in exchange for compensation, and shared jurisdiction over Jerusalem, which would serve as the capital of both states.

Ben-Ami’s vision of a path to peace is not new or original or wholly without support inside Israel. What makes Ben-Ami and J Street so unsettling to Jewish conventional wisdom is his insistence that the United States must put pressure on Israel to take risks that the Jewish state has found to be unacceptable. “[L]eft to their own devices,” he insists, “the Israelis and Palestinians will remain locked in a divisive status quo that at some point will spark another regional conflagration or worse.”

I know how Ben-Ami’s book will be received in some Jewish circles, because I have experienced the same visceral reaction that makes his position so controversial — how can American Jews, who live in peace and prosperity in the United States and who will not be called upon to fight in defense of the Jewish state, dictate peace terms to those whose lives are at stake?  Yet he makes a plausible argument that the threat to the security and even the survival of Israel may be even greater if the stalemate is not broken.

Ben-Ami and the American Jews who share his point of view are regarded as nothing less than traitors by some supporters of Israel, but he insists that he is an ardent and earnest Zionist who dares to speak truth to power: “Israel finds itself at a critical fork in the road, facing a choice of existential proportions,” he writes. “The lack of strong and politically courageous leadership on either side is one of the great tragedies of the conflict.”  And he insists that he has the best interests of Israel at heart when he demands that the decision-makers in the United States to take an “even-handed” stance.

“The truest act of friendship today is to ask our Israeli friends and relatives to open their eyes to the critical choices ahead and to the consequences of failing to take these choices seriously,” he concludes. “This is Zionism in the twenty-first century.”

Ben-Ami’s father, the former Irgunist, must be turning over in his grave, and I am confident that Ben-Ami’s book will raise the blood pressure of a great many of his readers.  But they are the exactly the ones who need to hear what he has to say.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

Shimon Peres remembers Ben-Gurion


The overly creased and still tender face of Shimon Peres looks like he has always been crying; he seems to carry centuries of Jewish suffering upon his strong shoulders. Still, there is some flicker of hope in the old man’s eyes; a stubbornness and a determination that his life’s work will mean something.

Peres wants what is best for Israel, is desperate to save it, perhaps even from itself. He speaks to reporters eagerly and is comfortable on the world stage, where he has spent almost seven decades, but on matters personal he is quiet. One senses a man concerned with his final legacy, and perhaps this is the genesis of his latest project, a book about his mentor, the founding father and future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.

Peres wrote “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” (Schocken: $25.95), the nineteenth title in the Jewish Encounter series from Schocken and Nextbook Press, with the assistance of David Landau, the former editor of Haaretz. Landau conducted extensive interviews with Peres over two years, asking him probing questions about Ben-Gurion and the founding of Israel, and from the book we learn a great deal about Israel’s early years, but ironically we also seem to learn just as much about Peres.

Landau cleverly prints verbatim some of his interviews with Peres and presents them to be read in their entirety at the end of various chapters. These dialogues sometimes border on confrontational and allow us to hear for ourselves how Peres thinks. He seems, for the most part, a reasonable and practical man prone to compromise and negotiation. He is not a warrior like Sharon, or single-minded in his vision like Golda, or angry and self-righteous like Netanyahu. Rather, he seems Obama-like, a man who rejects ideological passion in favor of the bigger picture that is present at any given moment. Until very recently, this mentality has lost him favor among the Israeli public. Finally now, in his old age and in his role as President and elder statesman, his popularity has soared.

Twenty years ago, Avishai Margalit wrote in the New York Review of Books that Peres has often been perceived by the Israeli public as unreliable. Margalit wrote that the facts prove otherwise. He pointed out that during one of Peres’ terms as prime minister, he was able to eliminate the obscene inflation rate he inherited from the Shamir government. He was also able to withdraw the army from Lebanon. Peres was acknowledged with a Nobel Prize for his work on the 1994 Oslo Accords and is regarded as the key figure responsible for Israel’s achieving nuclear capability. During critical times in Israel’s fragile history, he was able to secure armaments for his country from France and South Africa. In spite of all of this, Margalit maintained, it did little to help his reputation, explaining that “reliability in Israel politics does not depend on a commitment to tell the truth and honor agreements. Reliability means having an aura of authenticity which has much to do with toughness of manner. Shamir and Rabin are perceived as authentic, while Peres is perceived as slick.”

Peres himself has acknowledged that he has often been misunderstood. He once explained to Benny Morris that leadership is fraught with complications, stating “I told you Prime Ministers are not divorced from reality. Life is full of contradictions. Most prime ministers don’t do what they promise to do. More than prime ministers direct reality, reality runs them. Whoever thought Sharon would dismantle settlements?” Peres is not an ideologue. One senses that had the Holocaust, and the Jewish persecution that preceded it, not ripped open his heart, he would have been satisfied to remain living in the city of his birth.

Shimon Peres was born Shimon Persky in 1923 in a small Jewish shtetl in Poland, 37 years after Ben-Gurion. He studied Hebrew and immigrated to Palestine when he was only 10. His father was a lumber merchant and his mother a librarian. He met his future wife on a kibbutz, and they would eventually raise three children. He has always claimed an affinity for the Bible that fuels his Jewish identity and reveals that his beloved grandfather Rabbi Zvi Meltzer studied Talmud with him when he was a young boy. His own father’s home was not observant. All of Peres’ relatives who remained in Poland perished under Nazi brutality, including his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Meltzer, who was burned alive in the town’s synagogue.

Ben-Gurion chose Peres to be his trusted aide when Peres was only 23. He was soon assigned to be the director general of the Defense Ministry, from 1952 to 1959. He was enamored with Ben-Gurion’s strength of character and his vision. Peres tells us that after Ben-Gurion returned from seeing one of the Nazi death camps, he had “a more thorough understanding of how the reaction of the rest of the world had contributed to the fate of Europe’s Jews. Not only had the Allies failed to save them, not only had they failed to bomb the death camps or the railway lines, but British warships had kept the gates of Palestine shut to any Jews who managed to escape from the European hell. His conclusion was stark and unequivocal. We must have our independent state at once.”

Peres was always devoted to Ben-Gurion’s vision of a secure and strong Jewish state. He respected Ben-Gurion’s ability to take decisive action and his bold decision to break with Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Congress, who was still advocating patience. Peres also agreed wholeheartedly with Ben-Gurion about the Soviet Union. Both men had flirted with romantic notions about Bolshevism, but these dreams were quickly extinguished when Ben-Gurion returned from a trip to the Soviet Union. Ben-Gurion was horrified by the inherent anti-Semitism there, and the Soviet complete lack of human rights for all of its citizens.

Peres was always mystified by certain parts of Ben-Gurion’s personality that seemed unreachable. He explains that his mentor did not believe in the rabbinate and viewed it as an archaic hierarchical structure, but loved Judaism as a faith. Ben-Gurion embraced the vision of the biblical prophets and saw the Hebrew language as a living reflection of his belief. Peres believes Ben-Gurion’s unique powers stemmed from his ability to distance himself from the perceptions of others, something one detects Peres still has difficulty doing.

Ben-Gurion’s early life was marred by tragedy. He was born David Gruen in 1886 in Plonsk, a town in north central Poland. His father was an unofficial attorney who stopped wearing the traditional Jewish garb and instead chose to dress in a modern frock coat and winged collar, which other attorneys wore at that time. His mother died in childbirth when he was barely 12; it was her eleventh pregnancy. By 14, he was studying Hebrew and convinced that Jews should one day have a territory of their own. The czarist regime made it difficult for him to gain acceptance into college for engineering, and, by 1906, the 20-year-old Ben-Gurion arrived in Jaffa with his first love, the daughter of a prominent Jewish scholar.

This is a wonderfully intimate and important book about the brave men and women who created Israel against all reasonable odds after the devastation of the Holocaust. A desperate euphoria in these young Zionists fueled their abundant energies, a sense of mission and rage, as well as a glimmer of hope that is described eloquently by Amos Elon, who wrote about them in 1995, claiming they “were of that species of revolutionaries who lived in their own world of radiant expectations. The leftists looked forward to a perfectly just society. The rightists postulated the rebirth of the so-called ‘Muscle Jew.’ All upheld the need for assimilation on a collective basis: to become like all other people and peoples. Assimilation, as they understood it, did not mean that one ceased to be oneself. They did not intend to slavishly abandon their historical or ethnic identity, but rather to shed only the uniquely religious identity Jews had insisted upon during the Middle Ages.”

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

An insider’s view of Ariel Sharon


Ariel Sharon was a figure of controversy throughout his long career in war, politics and diplomacy, but no one can deny that he looms large in the making of the Jewish state.

Sharon was hailed as “Arik, King of Israel” when he returned from battle in the Six-Day War, a kind of latter-day David. But some of his critics still recall his role in the events leading up to the mass killings of Palestinians by Christian-Lebanese Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila, while others are second-guessing his courageous decision to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. Today, because of the strokes he suffered in 2005, Sharon is no longer an active participant in debate or decision-making in Israel, but people all over the world still ask: “What would Arik do?”

“Over the course of nearly sixty years my father has been on the front line of all major national events in Israel,” his youngest son, Gilad Sharon, writes in “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” (HarperCollins, $29.95), a biography that is, at once, intimate and magisterial. “His fingerprints can be found all across the length and width of this country — in the form of over one hundred blooming settlements in the Galilee, the Golan Heights, Samaria, Judea, the Negev and the Arava.”

As part of a national book tour, Gilad Sharon will be in Los Angeles on Nov. 4 to participate in a public conversation with Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal, part of the annual Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University. (For tickets and information, call (310) 440-1246.)

“Sharon” has been released simultaneously in Hebrew and in an English translation by Mitch Ginsburg. As we should expect from a biography written by its subject’s son, “Sharon” is sentimental rather than critical; indeed, Gilad opens the book with a touching account of the death of his father’s firstborn son, Gur, in a gun accident, an event that cast a long shadow over the life of his father and their family. “Even an early age, I had the feeling that I was supporting my father,” Gilad writes, “despite the objective fact that he was big and strong and I was small and young.”

Yet often this intimate relationship plays to the book’s advantage. When Gilad describes his father’s celebrated experiences in combat — the beginning of the Sharon legend — he is able to offer a wholly surprising insight: “During the Yom Kippur War,” he writes, “soldiers would cling to his shirt, needing to touch him amid the madness.” To be sure, Gilad offers a detailed account of his father’s high-profile experiences as prime minister of Israel, but he always includes a telling detail that an impartial biographer might never know: “ ‘If you’re invited to dinner with the queen, you’d better know your table manners,’ our parents would say.”

In a telephone interview, Gilad Sharon spoke from the family farm in Israel in advance of his visit to Los Angeles.

Jonathan Kirsch:  I think the whole world will be interested in the very last pages of your book, where you describe how your father is today.  Am I correct in my understanding that he is not in a coma?

Gilad Sharon: “Minimal consciousness” is the medical term for his condition. Unfortunately, I cannot talk to him the way I am talking to you right now. When he is asleep, he is asleep, and when he is awake, he opens his eyes. He moves fingers when I ask him to.

JK: If I asked you to single out the one thing your father will be remembered for — and the one thing for which he ought to be remembered — would they be the same thing? Is he misunderstood in any way?

GS: If you ask me why my father was controversial in the early years, I’d say he was so dominant that no one could stay indifferent toward him. His abilities, his achievements, the victories he led the [Israeli Defense Forces] to achieve — all of these put almost everyone else in the shade. As prime minister, however, he enjoyed love and support across political boundaries and all over the world. That’s what counts. Fighting terror is something he did since the end of the 1940s, but for me, the human side of him, which is less known, is the most important part the book. A warm and loving family man with a great sense of humor — these are the qualities that I most care about.

JK: You write that you prepared a position paper for your father on the question of “unilateral action,” which ultimately led to his decision to withdraw from Gaza. What was the extent of your role in that decision?

GS: It was clear that we had to destroy terror, or terror would destroy us. It was clear that the Palestinian Authority would do nothing.  For instance, building the fence to prevent terrorists from coming from Judea and Samaria was also a unilateral step. No one ever put it as a policy. Coming up with an idea is a nice thing, but the ability to listen to people and to decide and then to execute, this is real leadership. I don’t see anyone else in those days, or even today, who would have been able to do it.

JK: Given the troubled state of affairs in Gaza, what is the verdict of history on the decision to withdraw from there?

GS: Some people used to say the results from Gaza brought rockets on Israel. That’s false. The first rocket was fired on April 16, 2001, more than four years before the withdrawal.

There were more rockets and mortars fired during the year before withdrawal than the two years after. There was, and is, a consensus that if we have a peace treaty with the Palestinians, we will not be in Gaza. The only question remaining was: Should we wait for the Palestinians or should we get out of Gaza now?  When my father realized that there was not going to be a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and that we cannot count on them even if there were a treaty, he decided not to wait. 

JK: Your father, it seems to me, had the stature that was required to lead Israel into a very tough decision. Do you think that the current prime minister — or any prospective prime minister — comes anywhere close to your father in terms of stature?

GS: In a moment of honesty, the current prime minister would admit that he still has a long way to go. That’s not a secret.  And that’s what I think, too.

JK: Do you think that the Palestinians will be successful in achieving statehood without a peace treaty with Israel?

GS: The Palestinians declared statehood in 1988, and many countries recognize it. I don’t think that the Palestinian state is the big obstacle. The question is borders.  Israel has lived without fixed borders, too, but we cannot accept the 1967 borders from which we were attacked with no provocation in the past.  If the Palestinians had accepted the U.N. partition in 1947, they would now have a state as old as Israel is right now.

JK: There is one question that I guarantee you will hear on your book tour: What would your father make of President Barack Obama?  Would he regard President Obama as a friend of Israel?

GS: The answer is, yes. The friendship between Israel and the United States is deep and is based on shared values of peace and justice.  We are engaged in a mutual fight against fundamentalist Islamic terror. After the 9/11 attacks, the feeling of mutual destiny became even stronger. It goes well beyond the personal. Prime ministers and presidents come and go, but the ties remain.  Of course, it is much better to have relationships like the one my father had with President Bush. They reached a high level of mutual understanding, and it helps a lot when you have someone whom you know and trust.

For more information about American Jewish University’s Festival of Jewish Books, please visit ” title=”jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve”>jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Obama vacation reading includes Israeli novel


President Obama’s vacation reading list includes the best-selling Israeli novel “To the End of the Land” by David Grossman.

According to a White House statement, the novel is one of three that Obama took to his 10-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. Since arriving on the island he has bought two more books, according to reports.

Published in 2008 in Israel to enthusiastic reviews, “To the End of the Land” became a bestseller in the United States and Germany. Finished after the death of Grossman’s son in the 2006 Lebanon War, it tells the story of an Israeli mother to a soldier who leaves home on an extended trip so as not receive the possible news of her son’s death.

Book on Israeli start-ups bolsters Israel’s image


When Intel’s Israeli division proposed a new strategy to vastly improve the processing speed of the company’s laptop computer chips, Intel’s U.S. management had no interest.

The idea required a fundamental change in Intel’s technological approach, which had been to build what were known as faster “clock speeds”—essentially, faster “engines”—to accelerate processing. Israel’s division proposed to run the engine of the chip slower, but to gain even more power by configuring a system that used gears like a car.

The project was mothballed.

But exercising typical Israeli chutzpah, the Israelis were persistent in advocating their out-of-the-box solution. They traveled back and forth to Santa Clara, Calif., incessantly pressing their case to Intel’s higher-ups. Staying the course, they argued, was riskier for the company than adopting the paradigmatic changes they were proposing.

Eventually the Americans caved.

Upon its release in March 2003, the new Centrino chip was widely hailed as an important innovation and became the basis for Intel’s edge in faster and more powerful chips. Originally code-named for a spring in northern Israel, the program eventually became known in the industry as “the right turn.”

The anecdote is one of dozens of stories recounted in “Start-Up Nation,” a book by Israeli journalist Saul Singer and former U.S. foreign policy adviser Dan Senor that seeks to unpack the ingredients for Israel’s extraordinary success in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Since its release last November by the Council on Foreign Relations, where Senor is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies, “Start-Up Nation” has garnered widespread attention and prompted a rare wave of unabashed praise for Israel. Journalists, pundits, business leaders and policymakers have cited the Jewish state as a model for emulation.

In an uncommon case of good public relations for Israel, the book has helped generate discussions about what Israel is doing right in media more often focused on what’s going wrong in Israel.

“Start-Up Nation” has reached the best-seller lists of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, spurred Op-Eds in Newsweek, the Times, Forbes and CNN, and been covered in numerous other news outlets. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singled out the book for praise in a speech a few months ago, it has become a best-seller in Singapore and it was a centerpiece of a recent half-hour feature on the Israeli economy by Germany’s leading TV network, ARD. The book is being translated into Chinese, Russian and Hebrew.

At a time when Israel is trying with limited success to rebrand itself beyond the conflict, the book promotes a positive view of Israel without wishing the conflict away. On the contrary, the conflict is cast as part and parcel of the reasons for Israel’s success.

The relatively non-hierarchical nature of the Israel Defense Forces, and the leadership skills and maturity the army develops among its young soldiers, are important factors in fostering Israeli entrepreneurship, the authors write. The adversity Israel faces surrounded by hostile forces is cited as a reason for Israeli inventiveness. The perils of investing in a country seemingly always on the verge of war spurs Israelis to go the extra length to show foreign financiers that Israel is a smart place to invest and build.

Singer, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, said the phenomenon of the book’s success has been uplifting.

“People are tired of looking at Israel just as a conflict,” he told JTA. “They find it refreshing to hear about a completely different side of Israel.”

His co-author, Senor, a private equity executive who served as a Defense Department adviser in the last Bush administration and is married to CNN anchorwoman Campbell Brown, is considering running as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Senor reportedly is expected to announce his decision in the next few days.

Singer said the pair did not write the book to bolster Israel’s public image but to tell a story about a real success.

“This is the first book to look at an entire side of Israel that no one has paid attention to previously,” he said from Jerusalem. “It’s a huge story that’s essentially been missed with thousands of correspondents here.”

“Start-Up Nation” considers what elements of Israeli culture make it an ideal incubator for innovation and entrepreneurship. In the process, the book tells the stories of myriad Israeli companies and connects their successes to some quintessential elements of Israeli society: its small size, dearth of natural resources, ubiquitous army service and, of course, the common national traits of chutzpah, informality and persistence.

Israeli qualities that in some circumstances might be considered shortcomings, the authors find, are essential ingredients for entrepreneurial success.

On Israeli unruliness: Mooly Eden, who runs Intel’s cross-cultural seminars to bridge gaps between the company’s Israeli and American workers, tells the authors, “Israelis do not have a very disciplined culture. From the age of zero we are educated to challenge the obvious, ask questions, debate everything, innovate.”

On Israeli impetuousness: Mark Gerson, an American investor in Israeli start-ups, says that “When an Israeli man wants to date a woman, he asks her out that night. When an Israeli entrepreneur has a business idea, he will start it that week. The notion that one should accumulate credentials before launching a venture simply does not exist. This is actually good in business. Too much time can only teach you what can go wrong, not what could be transformative.”

On the lack of natural resources in Israel, Harvard professor Rocardo Hausmann tells the authors, “What’s striking about Israel is the penchant for taking problems—like the lack of water—and turning them into assets—in this case by becoming leaders in the fields of desert agriculture, drip irrigation and desalination.”

Having immigrated to Israel 15 years ago from New York, Singer said the book never occurred to him until Senor, who lives in the United States but travels frequently to Israel for business, approached him with the idea.

“When you’re looking from the inside, you tend to look at problems and tend to complain,” Singer said. “When you’re looking at Israel from the outside, you see how amazing it is. We need to appreciate what we’re good at and how important it is.”

Read more on Israeli healthcare startups here.

A birthday gift


Here we are, Jews in every corner of the world, awash in a frenzy of celebrations for Israel — all because of a birthday. And not just any birthday, mind you, but one that ends in a zero.

In a marketing-obsessed world, milestones give us an easy way to promote our brands. For lovers of Israel, promoting the brand of Israel is important business, especially since the country has taken a real beating over the years. So naturally, when a chance comes up to give that brand a little shine — like a 60th birthday — we run with it.

That’s why this year, Israel@60 has become the hot Jewish brand.

Every Jewish newspaper in the world has devoted a special section. Every Jewish community is doing multiple celebrations. Israeli embassies and consul offices are busy squeezing every ounce of Israel@60 good will from their local communities. World leaders are sending messages of congratulations. Elites from everywhere are gathering in Jerusalem at the invitation of President Shimon Peres. And, of course, every Jewish writer of note is weighing in with their personal reflections on the state of the Zionist project. (My favorite is Yossi Klein Halevi’s piece in this week’s issue.)

There’s something intoxicating about all this activity. I feel like I’m getting drunk on Israel. The Jewish world is rising up and giving my cherished Israel a celebration for the ages.

So why, then, do I also feel a certain emptiness?

Is it because I’m too aware of the growing dangers that Israel faces? Or that I know most of the world will go right back to hating us once the party’s over, or that these kind of big-bang celebrations just leave us with one big hangover?

Maybe, but I think there’s more. I see a missed opportunity. I love the sense of pride that the celebrations have fired up, but I wish someone had launched the Israel@60 campaign with this theme: “What will you give Israel for her birthday?”

That’s right: What will you give Israel for her birthday? What I think is missing from all the hoopla is a birthday gift from each of us to the Israel we love.

And I don’t mean money. Money is the gift for normal times. A 60th anniversary is not a normal time. It’s a time to celebrate, yes, but also to reflect, take stock, look deep inside of ourselves — and offer a special gift.

Imagine going to celebrate your parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. What kind of gift would you bring? Would it be personal? Would it have special meaning?

Now imagine going to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. What’s the most personal and meaningful gift you can make? What is your unique passion or talent? What can you bring to the party to show your love for the honoree?

Whatever your thing is, it’s worth bringing. If you’re a musician, organizer, writer, artist, environmentalist, cook, teacher, activist, comedian, doctor, architect, rabbi, Web designer, business tycoon or filmmaker, whatever your passion, it can become your personal gift to Israel.

Make a film. Write a poem. Start a Web site. Help at a soup kitchen. Organize a trip to Israel. Find a cause dear to your heart. In short, look at what Israel needs, and see how your talents match up.

So, what about me, what’s my “thing” for Israel?

These days, the advertising guy in me would love to promote a side of Israel the world rarely sees — the good side. God knows the anti-Israel propaganda machine has done a remarkable job of turning Israel into a globally reviled country. And God knows Israel has more than enough critics who expose her many mistakes and weaknesses. But who is balancing the picture? Who is showing the other side? Who is spreading the word on Israel’s many contributions to the world?

Of the $1 billion a year in Jewish philanthropy, how much do you think goes to advertise in the mainstream media the numerous contributions Israel makes to humanity? Virtually zero.

So this is my birthday gift to Israel: Ads4Israel.com.

It’s a new organization whose mission will be to create and run ads worldwide that show Israel’s incredible gifts to the world, in such areas as combating disease, developing alternative fuels, fighting world hunger, creating life-changing technologies, revolutionizing agriculture and much more. There are literally hundreds of areas where Israel has helped make the world a better place, and Ads4Israel will do its share to let the world know. The Web site will offer a variety of ads that donors will be able to support and help run.

Why ads? They’re dramatic, quick and efficient. You can reach 100 million people with a powerful message in a few seconds. Grass-roots efforts, conferences, articles, books, Web sites, etc., are all valuable, but when 99 percent of the planet has been poisoned by three-second visual sound-bites about Israel, the best way to fight back is with equally powerful sound-bites.

Will this solve Israel’s image problem overnight? Nothing can. But we can at least raise immediate awareness of Israel’s value to the world, and that’s a gift.

We each have a gift. What will be your birthday gift?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Books: Nusseibeh ‘Once Upon a Country’ memoir ends in disillusionment


“Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life” by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $27.50).

Sari Nusseibeh’s political memoir is a monumental achievement both in breadth and boldness. There is little like it on the Palestinian side, certainly nothing from Columbia University Palestinian academic Edward Said, now deceased, who found only the holes in Zionism but never the heart. Nusseibeh reminds me most of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s spokesman and novelist, Ghassan Kanafani, who before a Mossad car bomb obliterated him in Beirut in 1972 wrote seminally honest short stories and novels, such as the symbolic “Men in the Sun,” whose Palestinian protagonists die in a water carrier in route from The West Bank to Basra, lacking help from their Arab brothers.

Nusseibeh never obfuscates, grandstands or justifies Palestinian excess. In a way no Palestinian has ever risked in print, he castigates the corruption of Yasser Arafat’s leadership in the territories:

“Politically, the center shifted suddenly from the intifada activists on the ‘inside’ to returning PLO functionaries, and geographically from East Jerusalem to Gaza and the West Bank, where the ‘outsiders’ now lived. Needless to say, the bulk of the ministers were ‘outsiders,’ whereas their undersecretaries were, by and large competent local people, many of whom had worked in the technical committees and hence had two years of preparatory work behind them…. Unfortunately, they faced the reality of working with the returning apparatchiks. The new ministers, dazzled by the trappings of power — the cars, the adulation — had little inclination to study reports or listen to local underlings. Ignoring the multiple volumes already on their desks, our potentates preferred commissioning new reports, which is after all what ministers do. One favorite pastime of many ministers was to gather around Arafat’s desk in Gaza, watching him conduct business and wanting to get their instructions directly from the Old Man. Some ministers, who behaved like demigods to the people under them, journeyed to Arafat’s desk in Gaza, to get his permission to hire an office secretary.”

Nusseibeh details the financial fraud of the ring around Arafat with painful precision — automobiles bought abroad with public funds then sold to the local populace the profit pocketed, collusion with unscrupulous local Jews in smuggling in gasoline. He argues persuasively that Arafat gained no personal financial benefit and was not squirreling away millions as has been charged. However Arafat read every report, knew everything and turned a blind eye to the corruption. Nusseibeh characterizes Arafat as someone “playing the trapeze act, carefully balancing himself between moderates and militants, unwilling and perhaps unable to come down firmly on either side.” Like many of us, his greatest strength was simultaneous his destructive weakness.

Painful for a Zionist like myself to read are the depictions of life in the West Bank and Gaza, something I frequently witnessed myself prior to the first intifada: roadblocks with yellow license plated settlers cars waved through while blue-plated Palestinians cars were stopped in a seemingly endless line at checkpoints; the squalor of the Dehasisha Camp near Bethlehem, where children were chased by soldiers for hurling a Palestinian flag in the electrical wires; the endless dusty dirt roads through the Gaza refugee camps in sight of the high chain-link fences of the settlements with sprinklers rotating over lush green grass. Failure to find sympathy for the Palestinians’ human suffering is as impenetrable a roadblock to peace as any.

The scion of an aristocratic Jerusalem family, Nusseibeh traces his roots back 1,300 years to one of the tribal leaders who joined Mohammad on his seventh century pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A family member still shares jurisdiction over the entrance key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and twists the lock on those doors open each morning.

The idea for this memoir sprang from his reading Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” as Nusseibeh discovered that they had grown up 100 yards apart in Jerusalem separated by the uncrossable “no man’s land” that partitioned the city from 1948 to 1967.

Oxford educated, a philosopher by training, happiest teaching and in metaphysical reverie, Nusseibeh is repeatedly forced into the political fray by its concrete existence around him. A good man in a turbulent sea, he is relentlessly tossed around, beaten by radical Palestinians for his moderate stance and jailed by the Israelis in Ramle Prison, charged with being an Iraqi spy who guided undirectable Scud missile launchings while in reality he hid under his kitchen table with his wife and children as the errant rockets regularly fell short and landed in Arab territory. To the Israeli right wing he was far more dangerous than an Iraqi spy; he is a thoughtful, passionate and fair-minded moderate.

Probably the most tragic segments of the book detail the Camp David accords and how the dual egotism of Ehud Barak and Arafat prevented an accord “by a whisker.” Nusseibeh’s political trajectory moved from support of a binational state to a two-state solution to a sadly disillusioned stance. He no longer finds the erection of a Palestinian state preeminent and now focuses on the achievement of freedom and human dignity. The politician has returned to philosophy but I suspect only the politicians can ultimately bring the freedom and human dignity he and his people seek.

Howard Kaplan is the author of three novels on the Middle East.

New books chronicle new exodus — Ethiopians’ journey and its aftermath


“Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” by Howard M. Lenhoff (Gefen; $24.95).

“The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” by Len Lyons (Jewish Lights; $34.99).

Roughly 20 years ago, Sudan, whose western Darfur region has been engulfed in genocide for four years, watched another other tragedy unfold — the deaths of thousands of Ethiopian Jews trying to escape to Israel via Operation Moses.

Nearly one-fifth of the fleeing Falashas perished on their journey due to murder, famine, drought and various illnesses. But tens of thousands reached the Holy Land; and the ancient Jewish community (known to themselves as Beta Yisrael), which had an almost invisible presence in Israel until the late 1970s, now numbers more than 100,000 people.

Two new books explore the Ethiopian Jews, one from the perspective of an advocate who helped forge a consensus behind the mass aliyah in the 1970s and 1980s, and the other from an admittedly apolitical jazz aficionado who has dedicated two and a half years of his life to interviewing an array of Ethiopian Jews some 20 years after the exodus.

Former activist Howard Lenhoff, author of “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” might not consider himself one of his book’s eponymous heroes. He never traveled to Ethiopia, never risked his life, never engaged in the kind of swashbuckling derring-do of some of his colleagues.

Yet he played a critical role as president of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) in negotiating with and, in some cases, applying pressure to the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to change policy on Ethiopian Jews.

Typical of the response of the Jewish establishment in the 1970s was this remark by one American Jewish woman: “These blacks are not Jews.” Nor were the Israelis immune to demeaning characterizations of the Beta Yisrael.

Lenhoff quotes a letter from professor Aryeh Tartakower, another leading activist at the time, that spells out the one-time Israeli attitude toward the Ethiopian Jews: “They were to be considered as ‘Aliens’ like other people of this category, to be admitted as tourists only for a short period of time….

Things went so far, that certain overzealous Israeli officials threatened to deport those Falashas who would be tempted to come over illegally.”

As much as this letter may remind us of the present debate over illegal immigration in the United States, the Israelis ultimately did rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Not only that, they provided them with food, shelter and education at absorption centers throughout the country.

How much of that was due to the advocacy of groups like Lenhoff’s is hard to know, but Lenhoff and other AAEJ officials met on many occasions with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, obtained more than 50,000 signatures on behalf of the Ethiopians, mobilized protests, distributed literature, got the Jewish press to report on the plight of the Falashas and even commanded a few rescues themselves.

Lenhoff first became conscious of race as a young boy growing up in North Adams, Mass. Most of the blacks in his hometown worked as “janitors and garbage people. It sort of bothered me,” he said from his home in Oxford, Miss. “Naturally, I became friends with them.”

He later served on the faculty at Howard University and participated in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, but his interest in the Falashas did not blossom until he visited Israel just after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973 and early 1974. It was then that he read a Jerusalem Post article by famed newsman Louis Rapoport about the Ethiopian Jews who were being denied the right to the Law of Return. Shortly thereafter, Lenhoff, through Rapoport, got in contact with some members of the Beta Yisrael and even provided one, Rahamim, with $1,000, which enabled him to bring his older brother to Israel.

Over the phone, Lenhoff, a former UC Irvine biology professor, said he was concerned about the rescue missions, thinking at the time, “We’re amateurs. What if somebody gets killed. I’ll be responsible.”

He has also been responsible for his daughter, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder known as Williams-Beuren syndrome. Last fall, he came out with “The Strangest Song,” a book about his daughter, who displays rare musical gifts despite her condition.

The same compassion he shows for his daughter comes through in “Black Jews.” He speaks glowingly of some of the Ethiopian men he has met, like Hezi, the first one he encountered, a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, whom he describes as “a towering figure, over 6 feet tall, with a trademark long, black handlebar mustache.”

The book could do without its many subheads, like “Meeting Rahamim — The Professor Hooked.” Likewise, it could do without definitions of such obvious terms as the Mossad and kibbutzim. Any reader will know that the former is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA and the latter the plural form of kibbutz.

Despite these stylistic flaws, the book offers a primer on grass-roots activism and documents a modern-day Exodus, a story that makes for compelling reading on Passover.

Len Lyons, who has previously written books about jazz and computers, first came into contact with the Beta Yisrael through the Boston-Haifa sister city exchange program, when he and his wife hosted two Ethiopians at their home.

Although he said over the phone from Boston that he did not grow up in a politically active home, he could always “relate to the idea of not fitting in completely with my own world.”

In his new book, “The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” he interviewed the top stratum of Ethiopian Israeli society. Almost no one is unemployed. Not one interviewee seems to live in a broken home, even though there is a high prevalence of divorce among Ethiopian Jews. No one suffers from any of the other pathologies of the community — spousal abuse, depression and alcoholism.

Lyons admits at the outset that he has not presented a random sample or a true cross-section of Beta Yisrael. He tried to interview some inmates in a prison, but they, like other “people on the margins … failing to engage constructively in society, don’t really want to talk about themselves” because of the stigma and shame of being imprisoned, homeless or even unemployed.

Book review: Are Christian Zionists good for the Jews?


“A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance” by Zev Chafets. (HarperCollins, $24.95)

A book about the serious matters of religion and nationalism and politics and war is not usually laugh-out-loud funny. “A Match Made in Heaven” shatters that stereotype.

The author, Zev Chafets, shatters stereotypes with his life choices, not just his prose. Reared in Pontiac, Mich., Chafets moved to Israel after graduating from the University of Michigan. By then, he had gotten over the idea held by so many Jews that evangelical Christians are devils in disguise. In fact, Chavets exhibited outright curiosity about Christians, so he asked questions of his acquaintances uninhibitedly, the way children often do.

He remained in Israel for 33 years, becoming a well-known journalist as well as communications director for Prime Minister Menachem Begin and then, eventually, moved back to the United States.

Without his expert grounding in American and Middle Eastern culture, combined with his irreverence, Chafets would lack the credibility, the raw material and the attitude to write such a mind-shattering book.

First, the serious message: War in the Middle East could wipe out the nation of Israel any time, and its Jewish-hating enemies are unlikely to relent.

That means Israel needs all the assistance it can get, Chafets says, including the support of American evangelical Christians who otherwise seem incompatible with Jewish values.

Jews doubt the sincerity of evangelical Christians’ support for Israeli survival, Chafets contends, worriedly. “Many believe that evangelicals want to convert them, or use them as cannon fodder in some End of Days Armageddon battle. They suspect that behind the warm, toothy smiles of the evangelicals is a cold-hearted desire to establish a Christian theocracy in the United States.”

Jews who care about the survival of Israel should welcome the faith, the influence with Republican White House occupants, and the money supplied by the likes of preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than turn it away, Chafets says.

He is not hopeful, though, because Jewish history is filled with misjudgments. “The Jewish impulse to deny danger, misread political reality, and choose the wrong enemies isn’t unique to this generation. The ancient Hebrews were out of Egyptian bondage for about 10 minutes before they began clamoring to go back. Jews wandered around the world homeless for two thousand years while every other nation got itself a state (even the Belgians figured out nationalism faster).”

“In Eastern Europe, Jews defended themselves by praying to a God who didn’t listen or building grandiose political theories about the brotherhood of man that pissed everyone off.”

As for today, Chafets worries that American Jews too easily conclude “it is more satisfying to fight the Falwells than to join them.”
That attitude is perhaps easy to understand intellectually, but difficult for Chafets to grasp emotionally when a war to the death is a daily reality.

In Israel, Chafets learned during his 33 years living there, Jews see nothing unusual about evangelical Christians supporting their right to exist in Ground Zero of multiple world faiths. It is the American Jews who find the match strange. So what if Pat Robertson exhibits a skewed view of kingdom come from a Jewish viewpoint?: “The simple fact is that, nuts or not, Robertson is a man with his own university, an army of lawyers, and a million viewers a day. In short, he’s a good man to have on your side.”

Chafets shows the warmth exhibited by Israeli leaders toward visiting Christian Zionists: “One day [celebrity American singer-songwriters] Johnny Cash and June Carter came by for a photo op” with Begin.

“Cash was a lover of biblical history and came to see Begin directly from a visit to Masada, the mountain fortress where Jewish zealots had, 2,000 years earlier, staged a sort of kosher Alamo in their futile rebellion against the Roman conquerors of Palestine. The early Zionists adopted Masada as a symbol of steadfastness and courage.

When Cash told Begin he had been there, the prime minister slammed his hand down on his desk and proclaimed, ‘Masada will never fall again!’ The Man in Black was so startled he nearly jumped out of his cowboy boots.”

The phrase “kosher Alamo” is a classic example of Chafets’ irreverence and humor.

There is nothing irreverent or humorous about Chafets’ final message, though: “I looked hard for evidence that the evangelicals are insincere, cynical, or devious in their attitude toward Israel and the Jews, and I didn’t find it. They may love Jews too much. They may love Jews for the wrong reasons. They may, in the future, not love Jews at all. But for now, the evangelical Christians of America are not the enemy. They are the enemy of the enemy and they want to be accepted and appreciated. In return they are offering a wartime alliance and free partnerhip in a Judeo-Christian America. It is an offer the Jews of America should accept while it is still on the table.”


The Circuit


Choirs Rock the House

Temple Emanuel was rockin’ recently when it hosted the Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church Choir that performed with Emanuel’s choir at a Shabbat Shira Service. The entire congregation and guests were on their feet singing and clapping in joyous rapture.

Behind the Camera

The Peninsula Beverly Hills was filled with aspiring future filmmakers at the Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA) 13th annual Student Filmmakers Pre-Oscar Scholarship Luncheon. Actors, cinematographers, writers, and directors came together for the annual luncheon, to show support for the next Spielbergs and Hillers.

Seven students selected for their outstanding achievements, creative vision and technical talent received financial awards toward their tuition, certificates of merit and grants from film providers like FUJIFILMS and Eastman Kodak.

MMPA President Jarvee Hutcherson, said it was “an honor to pay recognition and award scholarships to a particularly fine group of up-and-coming filmmakers this year.”

The scholarship recipients include Vineet Dewan, Dwjuan F. Fox, Margaret C. Kerrison, Nathan D.T. Kitada, Anthony Sclafani Jr., Phyllis Toben and Ashley York.

Readers and Leaders

Third-graders from Maimonides Academy, Los Angeles, recently donated 48 Jester books and 24 Jester dolls to the Pediatric Hematology Oncology Unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The philanthropic youngsters read more than 19,000 pages for a penny a page during the one month Jester & Pharley’s Reading to Give campaign and collected additional funds, as well.

“I’m delighted by the incredible efforts of Maimonides Academy students to help ill children at Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” said Barbara Saltzman, executive director of The Jester & Pharley Phund. “Many people talk about how important it is to help others, but Maimonides students and their families have demonstrated what it really means to actually do something to help others, something that will make a difference for many years to come.”

A Big Step

Beit T’Shuvah held its annual “Steps to Recovery” gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel recently.

Young and In Charge

A new generation of Jewish leaders is taking the reins of philanthropy and making a difference through its efforts. Young WIZO, an organization dedicated to helping battered women and children in Israel, has brought together young Jewish professionals and business leaders across the L.A. area.

Bernard Hoffman, Lisa Gild, Joyce Azria-Nasir, Sabrina Wizman and many others have found that focusing their energy on Jewish community leadership brings profound meaning and unequivocal fulfillment to their day-to-day lives.

Through participation in organizations like The Jewish Federation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Young WIZO, they are realizing their goals of helping to build a vibrant, thriving Jewish state.

If you are between the ages of 21-40 and would like to know more about upcoming events, contact Sabrina at Sabrina@mdpropertiesla.com or call (310) 278-8287.

Animal Crackers

Philanthropist Suzanne Gottlieb, and her company, Greenview Inc., gave the Greater Los Angeles Zoo $2 million for expansion and renovation of zoo. Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Zoo officially christened the zoo’s veterinary facility the Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, in honor of Gottlieb and her late husband, attorney Robert J. Gottlieb. With Gottlieb, is GLAZA trustee and animal activist Betty White.

Friends in Israel

Women’s Alliance for Israel (WAIPAC) welcomed Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Consul-General of Israel Ehud Danoch at a reception hosted by Michal and Danny Alpert and Barbara and Jeff Scapa. WAIPAC is a bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee that supports candidates for and members of Congress who believe that Israel, an important ally and friend, deserves American friendship and support.

 

Library Group Draws Fire Over Web Site


With more than 64,000 members, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest organization of its type in the world. The group aims to improve the quality of libraries and to ensure equal access to information for all. This mission has included advocacy when libraries or librarians are in danger.

The Chicago-based ALA also provides an impressive array of research tools on its Web sites, including links for a multitude of subjects to help guide the work of scholars, students, library patrons and even library professionals.

But critics fault the ALA for endorsing a Web site for children that arguably takes an anti-Israel worldview. It’s the latest skirmish between pro-Israel groups and the ALA, which has intermittently devoted a great deal of energy to singling out Israel for criticism.

The offerings of the ALA matter, say observers, because the organization is both so well respected and influential. The ALA accredits librarian graduate programs, funds awards and scholarships and also is generally considered the voice of American libraries in the halls of Congress.

Through its recommendations, conventions and seminars, the ALA also influences the book collections in nearly 170,000 libraries, as well as informing the views of nearly 400,000 people who work in libraries — not to mention the patrons who use these facilities.

These days, the ALA’s reach extends into cyberspace, which is where children are directed to a Web site that Jewish groups say distorts Israel’s past.

In the world history section of the association’s Great Web Sites for Kids, the only information on the current political situation in the Middle East comes from an ALA-approved, Saudi-funded site called ArabNet.

Much of the material is cultural and not objectionable, but some entries are notably one-sided. In an entry titled, “Netanyahu — the Peace Sabotage,” young readers would learn that the former Israeli prime minister, and he alone, “had definitely slowed the [peace] process with predictable results in all quarters most directly affected by it.”

That explanation is simplistic and doesn’t take into account the political machinations of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his continuing collusion with organizations that were directing terror attacks, said David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a professor of Jewish history.

The ALA-approved ArabNet Web site also talks of the 1948 expulsion of Arab families from Israeli-controlled areas but makes no mention of the departure or expulsion of up to 850,000 Jews and from Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other Arab countries after 1948. Nor does it note, in a section about modern Lebanon, the lengthy Syrian occupation of that nation.

ALA bylaws state that Great Web Sites should be accurate and unbiased.

To be sure, the ALA Web site’s resources for adults contain a plethora of links to organizations with contrasting views. It has links to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament — and also to Al Jazeera, the controversial Arabic television news channel and the Arab League.

The organization also has made efforts to reach out to American Jews. In 2004, the ALA launched a reading and discussion program for libraries called, “Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature — Identity and Imagination.” Recently, the organization established a new award for excellence in Jewish literature, which will be handed out later this year.

The Great Web Sites entries, on the whole, include many valuable resources for children, including a Web site on the Holocaust.

Still, the absence of a pro-Israel link to balance the pro-Arab link on the ALA-approved Web sites for children, troubles Jewish advocates. They argue that young children lack the sophistication to analyze and process complex information and might take the material presented by ArabNet as gospel. That’s why they have sought — unsuccessfully so far — to rectify the situation.

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the ALA division responsible for running the Great Web Sites, recently turned down proposals from Jewish organizations, including the Los Angeles-based advocacy group, StandWithUs, to add at least one pro-Israel link to counterbalance the pro-Arab site. Janet Sarratt, co-chair of the ALSC Great Web Sites Committee, said she never shared the concerns raised by Jewish advocates with her committee colleagues because she didn’t want to influence their evaluation of the proposed pro-Israeli sites.

The frustrations of several Jewish groups notwithstanding, ALA President Michael Gorman said he had no intention of intervening in the online controversy, calling it “a divisional matter.”

Retired Texas librarian Barbara Silverman, who serves on an American Library Association committee that deals with children’s books, said the reluctance to address legitimate concerns raised by her and other Jewish librarians troubles her.

“I don’t know whether I’d say [the Great Web Sites Committee] is anti-Semitic, but they’re certainly anti-Israel,” she said.

There’s a long history to the discomfort felt by some Jewish organizations toward the ALA. Over the past 15 years, the ALA has passed three resolutions critical of the Jewish state, more than of any other country, save the United States. During that period, the ALA failed to pass a single resolution critical of Syria, China, Sudan, Iran and North Korea — countries where library rights and other freedoms are at risk on a daily basis.

“It seems like the leadership should be most concerned about issues of literacy and publishing, but rather, they focus attention on political institutions they don’t agree with,” said Paul Gertsen, a non-Jew who is a librarian at the St. Paul Public Library in Minnesota. “Naturally, that bias filters down to administrative and acquisition levels.”

It would be absurd to argue that opposing Israel heads the agenda of the American Library Association. The top-ticket items — which are bannered on the group’s Web site — include protecting and enhancing library funding and monitoring the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which threatens privacy protections.

But Israel has popped up periodically on the agenda, most recently in 2002, when the ALA passed a resolution calling on the United States and “other governments” to prevent further destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives and other cultural institutions.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) blasted the resolution, calling it biased, without factual basis and a throwback to the bad old days of the early ’90s. At the time, an Israeli government spokesperson denied that the army ever targeted books or libraries but noted that any building “used as a safe haven for terrorists and snipers” could have been “caught in the cross-fire.”

Credible reports in the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times recorded instances of damage and vandalism to cultural resources in the Palestinian city of Ramallah during an incursion by the Israeli army in response to terrorism.

The same year that the ALA condemned Israel for allegedly destroying Palestinian libraries, it failed to blame Arab terrorism for the murder of American Israeli library staffer Dina Carter, who lost her life when a bomb detonated at Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem in 2002. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. In response, the ALA generally condemned “the violence that resulted in the loss” of her life and said it “abhors the loss of all innocent lives, including Dina Carter’s, during the recent conflict in the region.”

Asked why the association failed to single out Palestinian terror, ALA President Gorman called it a matter of semantics. Gorman, also the dean of library services at California State University Fresno, said he could not explain why his organization had officially criticized Israel three times since 1991, although he vehemently denied that anti-Zionism played any role. (The ALA later rescinded one of the anti-Israel resolutions).

“The idea that there’s some kind of hotbed of anti-Israel feeling that constantly bubbles up is simply at variance with the truth,” he said.

The other two resolutions were in 1992. In one, the organization protested the deportation of a librarian at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Also that year, the ALA called on Israel to “end censorship and human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and in Israel itself.”

Under intense public pressure from the ADL and other Jewish advocacy groups, the ALA rescinded the resolution a year later in 1993. The ALA has rarely, if ever, condemned the extensive censorship practiced routinely in Middle Eastern countries outside of Israel, nor the strident anti-Semitism in many textbooks used in Muslim countries.

Moreover, the ALA issued no statement in 1999 after an arsonist destroyed a Sacramento synagogue library that housed thousands of historic Holocaust books, documents and videos. Similarly, the ALA passed no resolution in 2004 condemning the firebombing of a Jewish day school in Montreal, a hate crime that destroyed its library.

The ALA Council’s reluctance to criticize such actions suggests that it “doesn’t seem to be concerned about the destruction of any Jewish libraries, archives and resources,” said Elliot H. Gertel, Judaica curator at the University of Michigan.

In his view, ALA members by no means share a monolithic anti-Zionist viewpoint, but a number of influential association leaders apparently do. Gertel, as a member of the ALA’s Jewish Information Committee, unsuccessfully attempted to get ALA to rescind the group’s 2002 condemnation of Israel.

An ALA official explained the discrepancy by making a distinction between the acts of individuals and the acts of a government. Michael Dowling, director of the ALA International Relations Office, said his organization has not, in the past, adopted resolutions relating to the destruction of libraries by individuals.

The ALA magazine, he added, ran short articles about the attacks in Sacramento and Montreal to “make people aware of the destruction of these libraries, and those interested could assist in the rebuilding efforts.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday 25

Israel Prize laureate Ehud Manor passed away in April but his beloved songs live on in the hearts of Israelis. Tonight, the UJ pays tribute to his memory with a concert by Einat Sarouf, accompanied by Tali Tadmor and other guest artists.

9:30 p.m. $40 (includes wine and hors d’ouevres). Gindi Auditorium, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246.

It’s official. Poker is now everywhere. Tonight, American Friends of Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel raise funds “in support of our historic mission of preserving the democratic future of Israel.” And what better way than with some Texas Hold ‘Em? A tournament and black-and-white party complete with jazz ensemble and party lounge fill out the night of “Poker at the Shore.”

3:30 p.m. 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. www.cecisrael.com.

Sunday 26

It’s official. Poker is now everywhere. Tonight, American Friends of Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel raise funds “in support of our historic mission of preserving the democratic future of Israel.” And what better way than with some Texas Hold ‘Em? A tournament and black-and-white party complete with jazz ensemble and party lounge fill out the night of “Poker at the Shore.”

3:30 p.m. 1541 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. www.cecisrael.com.

Monday 27

Big-time comedy in the comfort of your own home now comes courtesy of Big Vision Entertainment. “The Comedy Shop” host Norm Crosby has released a five-disc collector’s series of best-of moments from his show titled “The World’s Greatest Stand-Up Comedy Collection.” Watch three- to four-minute sets by more than 300 comedians including Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Phyllis Diller until your stomach hurts.

$24.95. www.bigvisionentertainment.com.

Tuesday 28

Yiddishkayt L.A. partners with ALOUD at Central Library today for a unique conversation between film critic Kenneth Turan and Aaron Lansky, aka “the man who rescued a million Yiddish books.” Lansky also authored a book about his quest to save Yiddish literature, a read that Cynthia Ozick said is “as stirring as it is geshmak.” Live klezmer by the L.A. Community Klezmer Band rounds out the evening.

7 p.m. Los Angeles Public Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (213) 228-7025.

Wednesday 29

In “The Talent Given Us” the retired parents of three adult children decide to embark on a road trip with their two unmarried daughters in a quest to see their uncommunicative son who lives in Los Angeles. In a novel concept, Andrew Wagner directs his real-life parents and siblings in this comedy about familial angst that has been hailed by critics. Catch a sneak preview tonight at the Egyptian Theatre or a regular screening tomorrow and next week at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

7:30 p.m. 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. www.americancinematheque.com. www.laemmle.com.

Thursday 30

In “The Talent Given Us” the retired parents of three adult children decide to embark on a road trip with their two unmarried daughters in a quest to see their uncommunicative son who lives in Los Angeles. In a novel concept, Andrew Wagner directs his real-life parents and siblings in this comedy about familial angst that has been hailed by critics. Catch a sneak preview tonight at the Egyptian Theatre or a regular screening tomorrow and next week at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

7:30 p.m. 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. www.americancinematheque.com. www.laemmle.com.

Friday 1

“Layali Al Saif.” Translated from Arabic, it means “Summer Nights,” an apt title for the sensual offerings of this dance show, which runs for three days only. The multicultural celebration of Middle Eastern dance includes Egyptian raqs sharqi (women’s solo dance), Persian banderi, Rom (Gypsy) circus and Turkish styling, as well as fusion pieces.

8:30 p.m. (June 30 and July 1 and 2), 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (July 3). $20. Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 315-1459.

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Behold, You Are Fair


What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We’ve asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b’nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at

“>Click here to discuss this book

The Song of Songs.

I fell in love with the Song of Songs when I was 19, living on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, near Haifa. Israel was itself only 16 — a poor agricultural Israel, where the food was simple and scarce but the springs of the Galilee flowed with clear water, and hope and promise lit the quiet air. I was studying half-days at the kibbutz ulpan, and I kept notebooks in which I wrote down the songs I loved:

To the garden of nuts I went, to see the buds of the valley, to see if the vines had flowered, the pomegranates were in bloom….

The words seemed so fitting for this old/new land — biblical words that were vividly alive all around me in the fields, and made the reclamation of this land that was laden with meaning, somehow, holy. After a day of studying Hebrew and washing floors in the children’s houses, I’d pore over the words in my notebook, and write out more phrases from the Song of Songs. I felt as if the ancient Hebrew was at once a holy language and a celebration of the body, a love language, a language of longing: If only I could love like that, if only I could be desired and beloved like that!

Over the years, I returned over and over again to the Song. I read it for comfort. I read it in graduate school, for so many of its lines had infiltrated English literature. I read it when, at 23, I was living in Israel again — black-haired, dark-skinned, lonely; I felt like a Daughter of Jerusalem wandering around the city in search of “He whom my soul loveth. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved tell him I am sick with love” (5:8).

Along the way, I learned that Rabbi Akiva said that while the Ketuvim, the Writings of the Bible, were holy, the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies. But it is not because he saw it as the most impassioned love song he could possibly sing to his wife.

No, Rabbi Akiva was singing to God.

God! My beloved, sensual, Song of Songs, allegorized into a love song between Israel and God! At best, I was disdainful.

But very recently, while unexpectedly hospitalized for a painful illness, I came upon Christian poet Kathleen Norris’ “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith” (Riverhead, 1999), and found these words: “I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.”

“Religious belief as a relationship” — one to which you are profoundly committed, that involves the whole of you, yet also demands trusting the unknown. Now Norris may not be the only one to have said that, but the way she said it struck me powerfully. For whose beloved can ever be entirely known? And who can ever know what a deep relationship will demand “in the long run?”

All of a sudden I could feel why Rabbi Akiva experienced the Songs of Songs as a love song between Israel and God.

A love song to God? How strange the words might seem to us. True, when we say the Shema we remind ourselves that we should love the Holy One with all our heart, all our soul, all our might. And before we ever say the Shema we say that God has loved us “greatly.” But what does such “love” actually mean to us? Can we imagine intimacy? Yearning? Passion?

Rabbi Akiva could.

What would it be like just to taste what he might have felt as he chanted the Song of Songs? For all the nuances of a deep relationship are there: the ache of loneliness; the longing for connection; the profound sensual pleasure in the other’s presence. Yearning, desire, appreciation, awe, ecstasy, wonder.

Our liturgy reminds us repeatedly that God is sovereign of the universe, creator of the cosmos, Redeemer from Egypt, Bestower of Torah and Lover of Israel. The Shema commands us to love God, and tells us that God loves us. But to experience that love, to revel in it, to ponder its nuances, we need to set aside our 21st-century skepticism — and our inhibitions — and open up the Song of Songs.

Read it alone or read it with friends; imagine the lover of your dreams or read it with your beloved, because the Song of Songs magnificently celebrates human love.

And then let Rabbi Akiva’s heart inspire you. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”: Read it now as a love song between the Holy One and your own soul.

A match made in heaven, indeed.

Miriyam Glazer is in her final year of rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of the University of Judaism, where she is also professor of literature. Her books include “Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration and Love” (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and “Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers” (State University of New York, 2000).

Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’


“Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting” by Ruth Linn (Cornell University Press, $20).

There is a fierce anger at the core of Ruth Linn’s work, the anger of a woman who suddenly and irrefutably discovers that the story she has been told by her Israeli teachers, Israeli society and Israeli culture from childhood onward regarding the Holocaust is but a partial narrative. Her teachers selected materials from the events of Holocaust history to fortify Zionist ideology, to reinforce the importance of Israel and to indoctrinate a new generation. This unraveling of her seemingly naïve trust in her elders revolves around one of the truly important and fascinating events of the Holocaust.

On April 7, 1944, two men, Rudolph Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Slovakia. There, with the help of the Jewish Working Group, they wrote a report, complete with maps, detailing what had occurred at Auschwitz over the past two years and the plans — soon to be realized — for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who were deported en mass only weeks thereafter. Their report made its way from Slovakia to Hungary, where Hungarian Jewish leaders had a clear idea of what indeed was happening at Auschwitz — mass murder — before the deportations. Those leaders chose not to share this information with ordinary Hungarian Jews who reported for the trains not knowing that “resettlement in the East” was deportation to death factories and who didn’t know what Auschwitz was.

As Elie Wiesel wrote in his memoir “Night”: “Auschwitz, we had never heard the name.”

Many Hungarian Jews, young and old, echo his statement. Vrba’s work has been translated into many languages, but not into Hebrew until 1999. Why? Vrba had not been honored by Israel until he received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Haifa due to Linn’s initiative. Why?

The story of Vrba is well-known in the West. Claude Lanzmann interviewed him at length in his classic film “Shoah.” I personally published the Vrba-Wetzler Report in my collection of Holocaust documents “Witness to the Holocaust,” and his report formed a centerpiece of “Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp” (Indiana University, 1998), which I co-edited with Israel Gutman, and “Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It” (St. Martins, 2000), which I co-edited with Michael Neufeld, based on an international conference held at the Air and Space Museum honoring the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Vrba was a featured speaker at a 1994 conference on Hungarian Jewry and his words from the Lanzmann interview are permanently inscribed in the Museum’s exhibition at a pivotal point just when one exits the box car. They are nothing less than poetic.


There was a place called the ramp where trains with Jews were coming in.


They were coming day and night,


Sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day


From all sorts of places in the world.


I worked there from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.


I saw those transports rolling one after another,


And I have seen at least 200 of them in this position.


Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing,


And they were arriving to the same place,


With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport.


I knew that within a couple of hours after they arrived there 90 percent would be gassed.

Linn’s anger, however justified, seems quite innocent and quite naïve. For decades now, a new generation of Israeli historians have challenged the “preferred narrative” — to use the term developed by Edward Linenthal in his masterful work “Preserving History: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Memorial” — developed by earlier historians who sought to present the past in a manner that is conducive to creating a national future. If anything, the historian that Linn criticizes so intensely, Yehuda Bauer (and to a lesser extent Gutman), has been more open and more willing to stray from the Zionist historiography than the generational that preceded him.

The Psalmist proclaimed: “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”

The place from which we remember an event shapes the manner in which it is recalled.

For the past two decades, the divergence of national historiography relating to the Holocaust has been the subject of intense historical scrutiny in Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. In the 15 years since the demise of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary in particular — have rewritten their history of the Holocaust to better serve a free people and to better comport with the evidence. Even as this review is being written, Romania is going through that agonizing task as an international commission — chaired by Wiesel and featuring the work of Radu Ioanid, a Romanian immigrant to the United States — investigates Romania’s role in killing its Jews.

Anger has its place. Linn shakes up the Israeli status quo. She reminds us — within months of the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum that will retell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of Israelis who now are more than a 60 years from the event — that the Israeli perspective, however important, is limited and must be balanced by other presentations of the very same history. Linn points out that the decision not to translate certain books into Hebrew such as Vrba’s memoirs, Hilberg’s masterpiece “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, 1985) and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (Penguin, 1994) limits what an Israeli public can understand of the Holocaust. Still, to a younger generation of Israelis whose English is fluent — and to Israeli scholars who want to make their reputation by writing in English for the international community — there is a press to present a broader history.

Her role in understanding the importance of the Vrba report is also limited. She does not seem to know the way in which it changed a June decision of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem not to press for the bombing of Auschwitz since that would result in the death of innocent Jewish non-combatants incarcerated there. Yet one month later in London, Moshe Shertok (later Sharret) and Chaim Weizmann were pressing for the bombing and secured the support of Winston Churchill who told Anthony Eden “get what you can out of the Air Force and invoke my name if necessary.” She also does not seem to know the role that it played in the U.S. War Refugee Board forwarding a request to bomb Auschwitz to the War Department, which led to the famed — infamous — reply by John J. McCloy in August 1944. The full text of the report was not available in the United States until November.

The work is interesting. Her passion is genuine. Her disappointment is apparent throughout. Righteous anger fuels her work, righteous anger, but still limited learning.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and the co-editor of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?”

Q & A With Benny Morris


Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labeled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, that’s completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didn’t read it with the same detachment, the same moral neutrality, with which it was written. So they came to the mistaken conclusion that when Morris describes the cruelest deeds that the Zionist movement perpetrated in 1948 he is actually being condemnatory, that when he describes the large-scale expulsion operations he is being denunciatory. They did not conceive that the great scribe of the sins of Zionism in fact identifies with those sins. That he thinks some of them, at least, were unavoidable.

Whereas citizen Morris turned out to be a not completely snow-white dove, historian Morris continued to work on the Hebrew translation of his massive work "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001," which was written in the old, peace-pursuing style. And, at the same time, historian Morris completed the new version of his book on the refugee problem, which is going to strengthen the hands of those who hate Israel. In the past two years citizen Morris and historian Morris worked as though there is no connection between them, as though one was trying to save what the other insists on eradicating.

The book on the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict was published in Hebrew by Am Oved in Tel Aviv, while the Cambridge University Press published "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" (it originally appeared under the CUP imprint in 1987).

He is short, plump and very intense. The son of immigrants from England, he was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and was a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement. In the past, he was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and refused to do military service in the territories. He is now a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. He gives the observer the feeling that this agitated individual — who with his own hands opened the Zionist Pandora’s box — is still having difficulty coping with what he found in it, still finding it hard to deal with the internal contradictions that are his lot and the lot of us all.

Ari Shavit: In the month ahead, the new version of your book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem is due to be published. Who will be less pleased with the book — the Israelis or the Palestinians?

Benny Morris: The revised book is a double-edged sword. It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-State defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.

At the same time, it turns out that there was a series of orders issued by the Arab Higher Committee and by the Palestinian intermediate levels to remove children, women and the elderly from the villages. So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself.

AS: According to your new findings, how many cases of Israeli rape were there in 1948?

BM: About a dozen. In Acre, four soldiers raped a girl and murdered her and her father. In Jaffa, soldiers of the Kiryati Brigade raped one girl and tried to rape several more. At Hunin, which is in the Galilee, two girls were raped and then murdered. There were one or two cases of rape at Tantura, south of Haifa. There was one case of rape at Qula, in the center of the country. At the village of Abu Shusha, near Kibbutz Gezer [in the Ramle area] there were four female prisoners, one of whom was raped a number of times. And there were other cases. Usually more than one soldier was involved. Usually there were one or two Palestinian girls. In a large proportion of the cases the event ended with murder. Because neither the victims nor the rapists liked to report these events, we have to assume that the dozen cases of rape that were reported, which I found, are not the whole story. They are just the tip of the iceberg.

AS: According to your findings, how many acts of Israeli massacre were perpetrated in 1948?

BM: Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field — they are shot. A woman is found in an abandoned village — she is shot. There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.

The worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and, perhaps, Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.

That can’t be chance. It’s a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. [David] Ben-Gurion silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.

AS: Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?

BM: From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created.

AS: Ben-Gurion was a "transferist?"

BM: Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish State with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.

AS: I don’t hear you condemning him.

BM: Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish State would not have arisen here.

AS: For decades you have been researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?

BM: There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.

AS: We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.

BM: A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.

AS: So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 people expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?

BM: I definitely understand them. I understand their motives. I don’t think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldn’t have felt pangs of conscience. Without that act, they would not have won the war and the state would not have come into being.

AS: They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

BM: There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide — the annihilation of your people — I prefer ethnic cleansing.

AS: And that was the situation in 1948?

BM: That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish State would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

AS: What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hardhearted.

BM: I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish State here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.

Remember another thing: the Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them.

AS: And morally speaking, you have no problem with that deed?

BM: That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.

AS: And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?

BM: You have to put things in proportion. These are small war crimes. All told, if we take all the massacres and all the executions of 1948, we come to about 800 who were killed. In comparison to the massacres that were perpetrated in Bosnia, that’s peanuts. In comparison to the massacres the Russians perpetrated against the Germans at Stalingrad, that’s chicken feed. When you take into account that there was a bloody civil war here and that we lost an entire 1 percent of the population, you find that we behaved very well.

AS: Besides being tough, you are also very gloomy. You weren’t always like that, were you?

BM: "My turning point began after 2000. I wasn’t a great optimist even before that…. When the Palestinians rejected the proposal of [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak in July 2000 and the Clinton proposal in December 2000, I understood that they are unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.

AS: If that’s so, then the whole Oslo process was mistaken and there is a basic flaw in the entire worldview of the Israeli peace movement.

BM: Oslo had to be tried. But today it has to be clear that from the Palestinian point of view, Oslo was a deception. [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat did not change for the worse, Arafat simply defrauded us. He was never sincere in his readiness for compromise and conciliation.

AS: Do you really believe Arafat wants to throw us into the sea?

BM: He wants to send us back to Europe, to the sea we came from. He truly sees us as a Crusader state and he thinks about the Crusader precedent and wishes us a Crusader end. I’m certain that Israeli intelligence has unequivocal information proving that in internal conversations Arafat talks seriously about the phased plan [which would eliminate Israel in stages]. But the problem is not just Arafat. The entire Palestinian national elite is prone to see us as Crusaders and is driven by the phased plan. That’s why the Palestinians are not honestly ready to forego the right of return. They are preserving it as an instrument with which they will destroy the Jewish State when the time comes. They can’t tolerate the existence of a Jewish State — not in 80 percent of the country and not in 30 percent. From their point of view, the Palestinian state must cover the whole Land of Israel.

AS: If so, the two-state solution is not viable; even if a peace treaty is signed, it will soon collapse.

BM: Ideologically, I support the two-state solution. It’s the only alternative to the expulsion of the Jews or the expulsion of the Palestinians or total destruction. But in practice, in this generation, a settlement of that kind will not hold water. At least 30 percent to 40 percent of the Palestinian public and at least 30 percent to 40 percent of the heart of every Palestinian will not accept it. After a short break, terrorism will erupt again and the war will resume.

AS: Your prognosis doesn’t leave much room for hope, does it?

BM: It’s hard for me, too. There is not going to be peace in the present generation. There will not be a solution. We are doomed to live by the sword. I’m already fairly old, but for my children that is especially bleak. I don’t know if they will want to go on living in a place where there is no hope. Even if Israel is not destroyed, we won’t see a good, normal life here in the decades ahead.

The above excerpt reprinted with permission of Haaretz.

Herb Brin


Herb Brin, one of the most colorful writers and editors inthe annals of Los Angeles Jewish journalism, died of congestive heart failureon Feb. 6 at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.

His death came 11 days before his 88th birthday and shortlyafter he completed his autobiography, pecked out, like countless exposes,features and editorials, with two fingers on a manual typewriter. For some 45years, from the mid-1950s to the end of the 20th century, Brin was theeditor-publisher of the Heritage weeklies in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and the Central Valley.

He “was the last of the old-time Front Page newspapermen,absolutely committed to every cause he felt just,” said his youngest son,Daniel J. Brin, who worked at his father’s side for 25 years, succeeded him aseditor and, with his brothers, supplied most of the material for this obituary.

Amidst deadlines, soliciting ads and even printing hisweeklies, Brin authored six books of poetry and two books on post-Holocaust Germany,based on his frequent travels.

In some respects, Brin was a throwback to the mid-19thcentury editors of the Wild West, whose newspapers were an extension of theirpersonal passions and prejudices, and who settled differences of opinion withhorsewhips and six-shooters.

His overriding passion was for Israel, which he visitedcountless times, and in whose capital city he was buried earlier this week. Hebattled real — and sometimes perceived — enemies, or even lukewarm supporters,of Israel and the Jewish people, with every fiber of his being and applied thesame passion, and often blunt language, to a long list of causes, from civilrights to conservancy of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Never a very astute businessman, he fought bitterly againstThe Jewish Federation and the realities of a corporate society to maintain hischain of community papers, but, at his death, only the San Diego Heritage,under different ownership, has survived. Brin was born in Chicago of immigrantparents and cut his journalistic teeth at his birthplace’s fabled City NewsBureau, immortalized in Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page.”

After World War II Army service, Brin moved to Los Angelesand found his niche as a lively feature writer of oddball human intereststories at the Los Angeles Times.

In 1954, with a wife and three small sons, Brin quit TheTimes, mortgaged his home and started the Los Angeles Heritage as a 12-pageweekly.

He continued to write occasionally for his old paper andcovered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the Los Angeles Times. Throughoutthe years, Heritage published his investigations of white supremacy andneo-Nazi organizations, his early meetings with Soviet Jews, and his picketingof the 1979 Oscar ceremonies to protest an award to British actress VanessaRedgrave, a PLO sympathizer.

Elie Wiesel, who learned of Brin’s death while traveling in Europe,said, “Herb and I were very close. He was a great editor and a superb poet. Allthose who knew him will miss him.”

Brin was married and divorced three times. He is survived byhis sons, Stan, a business reporter; David, a bestselling author of sciencefiction novels; and Daniel, an editor; and six grandchildren.

On Sunday, a memorial service at the Jewish Home for theAging, with Rabbis Louis Felman and William Kramer officiating, honored Brin’slife and work.

To learn more about Herb Brin, sample his autobiography,or to offer condolences, visit www.davidbrin.com/herbbrin.html .

Childhood’s Sweet Sharp Imprint


It is summer, a long time ago, and I am lying on a terrace overlooking an ancient garden full of rosebushes and fruit trees. The days have been so hot, the asphalt on the sidewalk melts under my feet if I dare step out of the house. At night, the temperature drops. My sisters and I take the hose to the yard and stand there as the day’s heat rises out of the brick floor in a cloud of white steam. My mother spreads our bed on the terrace, and we crawl into it, hours before we can actually fall asleep. We thrash about in the cool sheets that smell of dust, summer and lavender bleach; listen to the music that drifts up from our grandmother’s radio downstairs; eat fresh mulberries we have picked from the tree in our own yard.

Our mother, 16 years old when she had her first child, has already lived a lifetime by 20. She is so young that she can play with us all day without losing her patience, so old she knows a thousand tales from a thousand lives already spent.

"Tell us a story," I ask, and she does.

"There is a girl," she says, "so fair, boys follow her home from school just to get a glimpse of her on the way, so kind, she cries at the sight of poor children begging on the streets of Tehran. Her mother has to buy her shoes every week because she keeps giving them away to kids who come to school barefoot. Once, she gives her uniform to a girl who doesn’t have one and walks home herself in her undershirt.

"Who is this girl?" I ask.

"My sister," she says.

"What happened to her?"

"She died of typhoid fever. Her spirit became a white butterfly and came back to visit our house every year."

The summers in Tehran are long and slow and smeared with boredom. I play cowboys and Indians in the yard with my sisters. My mother teaches me to cook rice, to embroider white handkerchiefs. My teachers have given me homework for all three months of vacation: "Copy the text and the drawings of entire books, word for word, including title and copyright pages. It’s good for your penmanship," they say. "It’s even better for your parents’ peace of mind. "

Sometimes my parents take us to the seashore in the North. We get up in the dark, four in the morning, so we can be there by sunrise. My sisters and I haven’t slept all night from excitement. We drive out of the city and into the mountains beyond. We cross passes so narrow, one false move would land the car at the bottom of a valley. We go through emerald jungles, past crystal waterfalls, across golden rice fields. On the other side, we can smell the sea.

"Tell us a story," we ask my mother in the car.

"There is a woman," she says, "so alone, she lives in a single room in the basement of a house in a town no one visits. She’s not old, but she’s beaten, not mute, but she won’t talk. She sits in her room all day and embroiders white handkerchiefs, signing her name and a blue butterfly in the corner. She has embroidered so many handkerchiefs, her room is overrun by them, stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. In her youth she had been so beautiful, her father used to hide her for fear of avid suitors, so cherished, her mother braided her hair into a dozen strands, then tied each braid with a golden coin. But she fell in love with a man who wasn’t a Jew, and she ran away with him, and when he became old and died, she could not go home to her own people anymore.

"What are the handkerchiefs for?" I ask.

"To dry her tears," she says, "over her sorrow for leaving her home."

In the fall, my mother sends us to school wrapped in coats and shawls and too many sweaters.

"Eat your lunch and keep your sweater on," she says every morning. "Pay attention in class and study hard. You have to go to college, get a job, have a career. A woman is nothing if she doesn’t have a job. Most of all, though, remember not to take your sweater off."

Years later, in America, my son will call her "the sweater police."

"Why does Giti always make me wear sweaters?" he asks, and I find that the answer is on the tip of my tongue, embedded in my consciousness, ready to pour out.

All winter, we walk through snow piled knee-high on the streets to get to school. At home, we do homework till the late hours of the night, watch "Days of Our Lives" on television once a week, eat salami sandwiches on white bread with pickles. My father’s relatives visit every week, sometimes every day. A few of them live with us year-long; a few stay for months at a time. An uncle leaves for Canada with $700 in his pockets and will become one of the richest men in the world. Another uncle sits by a brazier day and night and smokes something I am told is tobacco. My older sister listens to Barry White albums and declares she is going to live in Europe, or America, or anywhere people make that kind of music. My younger sister plays with Barbie dolls and speaks French like a native. I linger around the house, watching my mother and the people she interacts with, listening to their conversations, recording their emotions.

"I am going to send you to Europe to study," my mother declares. "You’d better get good grades and go to a good college. A woman needs higher education, independence, freedom."

I am 13 years old. I must have gotten good grades because I’m about to leave for Europe. My mother buys me a suitcase full of new clothes. She gives me a bracelet made of gold, my name carved on the plate. The day before I am to leave, her own grandmother, the famous Peacock, comes to say goodbye. She’s 80 years old by her own account, 110 by others’. She walks around the streets of Tehran dressed in layers of pink and red and yellow chiffon, her head covered with a scarf, her hair dyed with henna and tied in braids. She gives advice whether you asked for it or not. She tells my mother that birth control is a sin — especially if you are preventing the birth of a boy. She says antibiotics kill people. She says divorce is madness: "A husband," she says, "is like a crown of jewels. With it, a woman is a queen. Without it, she’s nothing but a woman."

She should know, I think. She divorced her own husband a thousand years ago, refused to go back, made a life for herself selling jewels to women with husbands.

In our dining room that day, she puts her hands in her pockets and scoops out fistfuls of color.

"Look here," she says, letting a string of jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires the color of the night — roll off her hands and onto the table. "You can pick what you like."

Through the years of school in Europe and later in the United States, I carry these stories, the voices of the people who spoke them, the mystery that surrounded them, as if they were an arm’s-reach away. In America, I hear different versions of the same truths. I discover facts that my mother had censored in her long-ago tales, I come to conclusions that she will neither deny nor confirm. I find humor, tragedy, drama. I even learn what the great-uncle really smoked in that pipe.

When my stories are published, my mother goes to every one of my readings and brings along her entire family. She reads all the reviews, checks the best-seller lists every week, buys copies of the book at every store in town. She gives the books to her friends, her hairdresser, her kosher butcher, the Israeli Minister of Defense. She brings them to me to autograph before she gives them away. "Write something good," she says. "Make it personal."

I am signing books by the dozen, wondering how to get personal with the butcher, what the Israeli Defense Minister will think of my tales of women who cry into tear-jars and men who balance gold coins at the tips of their male organs.

"Who’s buying all these books?" a reporter asks me when the sales figures show up.

"My mother and my sisters," I say, and the woman laughs, thinking it must be a joke.

But then the dust settles, and the excitement wears off, and my mother actually begins to read this book she has a thousand copies of. She calls me daily to tell me what I got wrong, what I have neglected to mention, what I should have left out. She asks other people what they thought of the book. Everyone has an opinion, especially those who have not read it and do not intend to. They, in fact, are most convinced of what I should and should not have put in these stories, and my mother records their thoughts and repeats them to me loyally.

As if to help her along, my friends confront me and say they never knew what kinds of thoughts circled in my mind. Strangers come up to me at parties and complain that they cried reading a passage, that they were pregnant when they read the book, that crying is bad for pregnant women. American audiences come to my readings and ask me specific questions about individual Iranian neighbors and business partners — as if being Iranian has given me a window into the mind of each and every one of my countrymen, as if we are all the same — predictable and uniform as they have imagined us to be.

I should be writing by consensus, I think. I should take a poll before I start my next book.

This is what I want to say to my readers, what I have tried to conferee in the books: that we are all one and the same — Iranians and Americans and everyone in between; that with a bit of luck, perhaps a bit of skill, I can tell a tale, however personal, which will resonate with readers as foreign to me and my culture as they want to be. That it will resonate with them and remind them of their own lives and bring us, neighbors and strangers alike, together.

It’s spring, just before Mother’s Day, and my mother has called.

"Sign one more book for the rabbi at my temple," she says. "Write something good. Make it personal. I’m coming over to pick it up."

I hang up the phone and watch my children, dressed down to their T-shirts, scramble around the house, looking for their sweaters.

Community Briefs


What do you give the country that has everything?The thousands of children in Jewish day and Hebrew schools throughout Los Angeles are planning to give Israel a very special present for its 50th birthday — an ambulance.

Over the course of the school year, children fromall day schools, Reform to Orthodox, will contribute their tzedakah money and hold special fund-raisers in order to purchase a $50,000 ambulance for the country’s Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent to the Red Cross. “Given all the negative intra-Jewish news,” said Dr.George Liebowitz, chairman of the Day School Principals Council, “we thought it would be very good to have people come together for the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh,” or saving souls.

Each school will organize its own fund-raising program. The organizers are hoping to raise $4 from each of the 9,000 Jewish day-school students and $2 from each of 12,000 Hebrew-school pupils.

There also will be an educational component to the efforts. A fully decked-out ambulance will make the rounds of the campuses so that children can see where their money is going. The ambulance the students actually purchase also will be displayed to the children before it is shipped to Israel. Accompanying the vehicle will be a sign reading, “From the Children of Los Angeles to the People of Israel.” Happy Birthday. — Robert Eshman, Associate Editor


Books for South Africa

Marilyn Woods, assistant principal at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, shares curriculum information with the staff from Hewat/Capetown Institute of Education and Training.

Like the abolition of slavery in this country, the end of apartheid in South Africa hasn’t brought instant equality to people long divided by class and color. This is particularly evident in the schools in the black and colored townships, according to Marilyn Woods, assistant principal at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. Woods recently returned from a trip to South Africa, where she was a guest lecturer at the Hewat/Capetown Institute of Education and Training, a teaching college.

Having made extensive visits to township schools,the Heschel administrator was appalled at the conditions she found –cramped classrooms of 70 or more students, crumbling walls, broken windows, no heat or electricity, and blackboards on which nothing could be written. Woods was particularly struck by the lack of materials. “I visited some classes where there were three or four books. The teacher writes everything on a blackboard that you can hardly write on or see.”

Upon returning to Heschel, Woods rallied support for a book drive among elementary- and middle-school students, with the books to be sent to the townships. In a stroke of serendipity,she had met on the plane home a man who offered free space in grain containers that are being shipped from Decatur, Ill., to Cape Town,where the books will be warehoused before distribution. The project has caught fire not only at Heschel but at Moorpark High School, Adat Ari El Day School and Rand McNally, which will ship some surplus maps.

At press time, Woods was preparing to make a presentation to the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Principals Council,with the aim of expanding the project to other Jewish schools. Shehopes that the initial book drive, which ends on Dec. 16, will spawn an ongoing mission to provide desperately needed materials not only to South African schools but to other needy students around the world.

“This is just a pilot project,” she said. “We don’t want it to get too large immediately.” — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

Retracing History


Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration has brought forth a stream of reminiscences, not the least by American veterans seeking recognition for the contributions of overseas volunteers in the fledgling state’s 1948-49 War of Independence.

A useful overview of the role played by the men and women of Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Outside the Land) is presented in “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” (Schiffer Military History Press, $29.95).>Some 3,500 volunteers from English-speaking and other Free World countries fought in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, including 1,400 from the United States.

Most were World War II veterans, including a number of Christians, and their impact was greatest in the branches the Haganah had to create from scratch — foremost in the air force and Air Transport Command, as well as in the small but aggressive navy.

The scanty literature on the Machal’s role has until now focused mainly on the air force, whose dashing pilots, flying an odd assortment of fighter planes and bombers, lent themselves most easily to exciting stories of genuine derring-do.

It is the special merit of this book that it pays equal attention to the Machalniks who fought in the less glamorous infantry and other ground forces.

Also receiving their due are the sailors of Aliyah Bet, who braved the sea and the British blockade in rickety vessels to smuggle Europe’s refugees into pre-state Palestine.

The American authors of the book are Jeffrey Weiss, an attorney, and his brother Craig Weiss, a law student. They have tried to make up for their lack of both military and writing experience with conscientious research and interviewing no less than 160 participants in the 1948-49 war.

The authors succeed only partially. With enough exciting stories for a dozen Hollywood action pictures — from the clandestine airlift of German Messerschmitt fighters to the kidnapping of an arms ship destined for Syria — the writing is largely pedestrian, as are the accompanying photos.

It is difficult to judge the accuracy of the material, since the Weiss brothers had to rely on the memories of veterans reliving their glory days 50 years later.

A sampling of the American volunteers cited in the book, whom this reviewer contacted, seemed broadly satisfied with the authors’ narrative.

However, one of the book’s principal characters, flying ace Rudy Augarten, whose photo graces the cover, is more cautious. “The reporting is fairly good,” he said, “but there are lots of little things I would question.”

This evaluation is borne out in the section on the “Anglo-Saxon” 4th Anti-Tank Unit (not “Squad”), in which this reviewer served.

While the basic facts check out, they are frequently overlaid by a patina of romanticism. This holds particularly for the persona of Jesse Slade, an enigmatic half-Native American from Texas, whose deeds have taken on near mythical proportions with the passage of time.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has written a foreword to the book, in which he praises the contributions of the American and Canadian volunteers, noting that “they brought with them World War II experience, Western efficiency, exemplary dedication and infinite courage.”

The creation of Israel’s Air Transport Command in early 1948 is chronicled with considerable gusto by novelist and screenwriter Harold Livingston in “Destination: Israel” (Gates & Bridges, $14.95).

Livingston was among the American World War II veterans who ferried barely airworthy C-46s and Constellations, with desperately needed guns and ammunition, to Israel, via adventuresome stops in Panama, Brazil, Africa, Italy and Czechoslovakia.

Running parallel to the action is Livingston’s search, to define his identity as a Jew.

Toward the end of the book, regrettably, much space is devoted to the author’s battle with the commanding brass to keep the independence-minded air transport unit from being integrated into the regular military structure.

Such battles were earlier fought — and lost — by the left-wing Palmach and the right-wing Irgun. They seemed matter of high principle then, but should merit little more than a footnote now.

Yet, looking back, Livingston defines the emotions of the small band of overseas volunteers, including the non-Jews, as well as anyone.

“To a man,” he writes, “that year in Israel was the penultimate experience. Nothing before or since can equal it. A true life-changing experience. Nothing afterward was ever the same.”

“Destination: Israel” is a paperback and was previously released in hard cover under the title “No Trophy, No Sword.”

An interesting and constantly evolving project is the self-published “Volunteers in the War of Independence” by Orange County resident Dr. Jason Fenton.

The London-born Fenton was the youngest recorded Machal volunteer and his book has expanded from a slim unit history into a full-fledged 500-page work.