Where the olives grow

For Jews who came of age any time between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, there were plenty of reasons to take to the streets and demonstrate.  In addition to close-to-the-heart causes such as Israel’s very existence in two wars (1967 and 1973) and the effort to free our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union, Jews were also at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans, as well as the anti-Vietnam War movement.

And American Jews didn’t just march.  Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi while trying to register blacks to vote;  three of the four unarmed students killed at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war protest were Jewish.

So what stirs the passions of young Jews today?  In the case of one 23-year-old USC med student, those same unresolved, intractable issues of racism, anti-Semitism and war and peace sparked a remarkable video that is starting to go viral on Youtube.

Roee Astor has been writing poetry and rapping since the age of 12, which is also when he and his family moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Woodland Hills.  He attended the Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino, public middle school, and New Community Jewish High School in West Hills before his undergraduate studies at USC.

In recent months, Astor became increasingly agitated over the killings of unarmed black men by police, growing global anti-Semitism, and the bloody conflict in Israel and Gaza.  He decided to voice his frustration and outrage in a poem called “Where The Olives Grow”.

“I call it a poem”, Astor told the Jewish Journal, “but it’s really a hybrid of Slam Poetry and Rap.  I’ve jokingly been calling it ‘SLAP Poetry’, but that’s a good way to describe it, since I’m using this art form as a wake-up call, a kind of slap in the face”.

Astor’s longtime friend Aviv Gilboa urged him to record the poem;  they enlisted another friend, writer and filmmaker Oren Paley, to shoot the video.

The result is a riveting seven-minute discourse that references everything from Ferguson to Auschwitz, and everyone from Natalie Portman to Astor’s legendary ancestor, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

Astor had never before publicly shared any of his poetry.  Why now? “I felt a moral responsibility as a Jew to be outspoken on these issues.  I am against all forms of discrimination, and I wanted it to be clear that I am against discrimination especially because I’m Jewish.  I was hoping that others would see this and take their own stand in some way.”

Astor, who has done volunteer work at HIV clinics and with homeless youth in the inner city, doesn’t feel he’s suffered much from prejudice in his own life.  “The worst anti-Semitism I witnessed was when a groups of boys in my middle school etched swastikas into their arms and ran around the field yelling ‘Heil Hitler’.  And once, my Jewish fraternity was in a basketball game and our opponents chanted ‘big-nosed Jews’”.

He calls those kinds of events few and far between.  What really stunned Astor over the summer was what he saw happening in Europe.  “The fact that the streets so quickly and easily filled with anti-Semitic riots and signs saying “Death to the Jews”, within the lifetime of Holocaust survivors, made me feel almost hopeless”.

That sensitized him even more to the national outrage over the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.  The details of the shooting of Brown and the choke-hold death of Garner, he believes, are largely irrelevant.  “When blacks or Jews feel a gut sense that they’re being discriminated against, trust them.  We’ve suffered from it generation after generation.  It’s not about technicalities at this point.  If a community speaks to you, listen”.

Astor finds common ground in the diversity of discrimination.  In “Where The Olives Grow”, he says “We share the same fear and share the same bravery, both persecuted and both were in slavery”.

His poem speaks of ethnic identity, and how Jews “can be perceived as white, but we really don’t feel that way.  I want to be recognized as Jewish, and I want you to associate my Judaism with positive things, not with age-old stereotypes”. 

In the wake of hatred and killings, in the aftermath of Gaza and Garner, Astor has issued a fervent plea for change.  “All people should take part in this, regardless of your perspective on the individual cases.  It’s not only about that anymore.  It’s much bigger”, he insists.

In 1964, a 23-year-old Jewish guy named Robert Zimmerman… better known as Bob Dylan… wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.  Exactly 50 years later, 23-year-old poet Roee Astor hopes that dream can still come true.

U.N.’s Ban bemoans upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks over Gaza

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “deplored” the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks, particularly in Europe, as a result of Israel’s operation in Gaza.

Ban “emphasizes that the conflict in the Middle East must not constitute a pretext for prejudice that could affect social peace and harmony anywhere,” read a statement issued Monday by his spokesman in New York.

Anti-Semitic attacks, violence and hate speech have increased as a result of demonstrations throughout Europe and elsewhere against Israel’s military effort in Gaza to eradicate Hamas tunnels and rocket fire from the coastal strip.

Ban in the statement also called for an “immediate cessation of violence” in Gaza and negotiations.

The statement came a day after Ban condemned the shelling of a U.N. school serving as a shelter for displaced Gazans, calling it “yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law.” The United Nations and the Palestinians blamed Sunday’s shelling, which killed at least 10 Palestinians, on Israel.

In U.S., Gaza conflict reverberates on air and in the streets

In Europe, the fight over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has prompted violent street battles, firebombs thrown at synagogues and even a mid-game attack against a visiting Israeli soccer team by protesters in Austria.

In America, it has been more a battle of commentary, slogans and demonstrations.

There were 134 anti-Israel demonstrations in U.S. cities during the first 15 days of the conflict that began July 8, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Californians led the nation in anti-Israel agitation, followed by New York, Ohio, Washington State and Texas, the ADL said.

At many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, the ADL has documented comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, such as a placard at a protest in New York that read, “Jerusalem 2014 smells like Berlin 1939… #Zionazism.”

Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network, the American Jewish communal security initiative, said that at first he was concerned that anti-Israel protests in the United States might turn violent, but that hasn’t happened.

“I would say at this juncture we are cautiously optimistic that we will not see the type of violence we have seen in Europe,” he told JTA.

“People are afraid to go to synagogues and Jewish community centers abroad. I don’t want that to happen here. That’s not what we have here in this country,” Goldenberg said. “People need to continue going to synagogue, going to federations, going to their community centers. At this point there’s no imminent or specific threat that we are aware of.”

There have been a few cases of anti-Semitic vandalism.

On Monday morning, an Orthodox synagogue in North Miami Beach, Fla., Congregation Torah V’Emunah, found a swastika and the word Hamas scrawled on the outside of the building. A day earlier, cars owned by a Jewish family in Miami Beach were egged, smeared with cream cheese, and defaced with graffiti reading “Jew” and “Hamas.”

In Malibu, Calif., graffiti reading “Jews=Killers” and “Jews are Killing Innocent Children” appeared near the entrance to a Jewish summer camp. Pro-Palestinian graffiti was sprayed on a Chabad center in Las Vegas and on an Orthodox synagogue in Lowell, Mass. 

In Chicago, leaflets threatening the Jewish community were left on car windshields on July 19, a day after hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters held a rally in downtown Chicago. That rally included a “die-in” where 400 people lay supine to represent the Palestinians said to be killed in the conflict up to that point.

Last week, Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization focused on criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, organized a “die-in” outside the New York office of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The demonstration resulted in nine arrests of protesters who entered the office and refused to leave, including Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director.

Meanwhile, pro-Israel supporters took to the streets in a variety of U.S. cities to voice their support of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Pro-Israel rallies in New York and Chicago on Monday drew thousands of Israel supporters, including U.S. senators and congressmen.

“We are here today to say we cannot have any cease-fire before Israel gets rid of Hamas’ weapons,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the New York demonstration, held in midtown Manhattan outside the United Nations.

Many of the battles in the United States over Israel have taken place in cyberspace. Use of the Twitter hashtag #Hitlerwasright has soared since the launch of Israel’s operation in Gaza, according to the ADL.

The website of Cong. Beth Am Israel, a synagogue in Penn Valley, Pa., was hacked, with the homepage replaced with images of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teenager killed in Jerusalem in early July by Jewish extremists.

On a JetBlue flight from Florida to New York on July 7, just before the IDF launched its Operation Protective Edge, an argument over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out between two passengers that got one of them, a Jewish doctor from Queens named Lisa Rosenberg, kicked off the flight before takeoff. Later it emerged that the passenger with whom Rosenberg argued, who on the plane had identified herself as a Palestinian, was in fact Jewish.

In a much talked-about July 14 “Daily Show” episode, host Jon Stewart aroused the ire of many Israel supporters with a segment in which he lamented the “asymmetrical nature of this conflict.” Noting the Israeli military’s practice of warning Gaza residents to leave before their building or neighborhood is bombarded, Stewart said, “At that point what are Gazans supposed to do?

“Evacuate to where? Have you [bleeping] seen Gaza?” Stewart said. “What – are they supposed to swim for it?”

David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, slammed the segment as unfair and misleading. “Jon Stewart — so funny, so wrong on Israel-Gaza,” he wrote.

Stewart responded to critics with a follow-up bit caricaturing the pitfalls of wading into commentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the segment, a gaggle of critics popped up around Stewart’s chair and yelled at him every time he tried to open his mouth to talk about the conflict. The segment was called “We need to talk about Israel.”

Days after the segments aired, a Gallup poll conducted July 22-23 showed that younger Americans — Stewart’s core audience — are much less likely than older Americans to view Israel’s actions against Hamas as justified. Fifty-five percent of those over age 65 said Israel’s actions were justified, compared to 53 percent of those between 50 and 64; 36 percent of those 30-49, and 25 percent of those 18-29.

While celebrities who took stances on the war were alternately hailed and criticized for their comments, two pro-Israel outbursts drew special plaudits in pro-Israel circles: radio shock jock Howard Stern’s on-air tirade ripping fellow celebrities who opposed Israel’s campaign against Hamas, and Joan Rivers’ rant to TMZ about how the Palestinians are to blame for the conflict.

“They started it!” she yelled in the impromptu interview with TMZ outside an airport terminal. “You’re all insane! They started it!”

Morton Williams, a New York supermarket retailer with a history of pro-Israel marketing efforts, went a different way to demonstrate its support for the Jewish state. The company pulled all Turkish products from the shelves of its 12 New York-area stores in response to a boycott in Turkey of Israeli products.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been an ardent critic of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, branding Israel a terrorist state and saying its actions in Gaza “surpassed what Hitler did to” the Jews.

“Israel is the one true democracy in the Middle East trying to survive against hostile neighbors seeking its destruction,” CEO Morton Sloan said in a statement cited by CBS News. “Turkey, by siding with those who would destroy Israel, deserves our condemnation. We will lift our own boycott of Turkish products when Erdogan changes his anti-Semitic course.”

With the Gaza conflict now in its fourth week and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to press on until all of Hamas’ tunnels into Israel are destroyed, Goldenberg says the greatest security concern for American Jews should be the prospect of so-called lone wolf attacks.

“My concern is as this goes on it’s that lone wolf — the individuals that are being inspired by the Internet or media as the media attention continues on the casualties in Gaza — that may become inspired to act much more violently,” he said. “If you see something, say something.”

(JTA’s Miriam Moster contributed to this report.)


With Venezuela in a tailspin, growing number of Jews opting for ‘Plan B’

They left after Venezuelan secret police raided a Jewish club in 2007, and after the local synagogue was ransacked by unidentified thugs two years later.

They left after President Hugo Chavez expelled Israel’s ambassador to Caracas, and when he called on Venezuela’s Jews to condemn Israel for its actions in Gaza in 2009.

They left when Caracas claimed the ignoble title of most dangerous city in the world — and when inflation hit double digits, food shortages took hold and the country’s murder rate reached 79 per 100,000 people.

With Venezuela now roiled by anti-government demonstrations — the death toll reached 18 last Saturday — Venezuelan Jews who remain have yet another reason to leave their country: growing despair.

“There’s less hope about the future,” said Andres Beker, a Venezuelan Jewish expatriate in the United States whose parents still live in Caracas. “My parents are huge fans of Venezuela. Until last year I thought they would stay no matter what. Now, for the first time, they’re talking about Plan B: leaving Venezuela.”

Over the last 15 years, from the time Chavez came to power and in the year since Nicolas Maduro has ruled the country, the Venezuelan Jewish community has shrunk by more than half. It is now estimated at about 7,000, down from a high of 25,000 in the 1990s. Many of those who left were community leaders.

It’s not just Venezuelan Jews who are leaving. Hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans have relocated in recent years, swelling the size of expat communities in places like Miami, Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.

The exodus of Venezuelan Jews has put a great strain on the community’s institutions.

“Emigration has really played a big factor in the community — that’s our main problem,” said Sammy Eppel, a Caracas journalist and Jewish community member who also serves as director of the B’nai Brith Human Rights Commission in Venezuela.

“When we were a numerous and prosperous community, we built numerous and heavy institutions,” Eppel said. “A lot of our members have left, and we are left with the same institutions but with less people to take care of them. We have to make serious adjustments while making sure the services we provide to the community don’t suffer.”

A high school junior named Allan who attends the Jewish community school, Hebraica, says his grade has shrunk to 85 students from 120 six years ago. The younger grades are much smaller, with 40-50 kids each. The school is now considering combining the first and second grades, he said.

Interested in keeping as low a profile as possible, leaders of Jewish institutions in Venezuela declined to be interviewed by JTA for this story.

The massive anti-government demonstrations that began on Feb. 12 were sparked in part by new lows for Venezuela’s economy and an upsurge in violence.

“It started deteriorating to the point where a couple months ago you couldn’t get milk, chicken, eggs, toilet paper,” Beker said. “It’s really started to affect all families.”

Allan, the high schooler, said the streets long have been off limits for him and his friends, due to threats of violence and kidnapping. But these days, it’s hard to leave the house to go anywhere.

“Now it’s more dangerous,” Allan said. “Nobody goes out, nobody goes to parties, nobody goes to dinner. Everybody’s in their houses.”

Outsiders might puzzle over why anybody would stay given the challenging circumstances of daily life. But Venezuelan Jews say leaving home is never easy. There are those with jobs that can’t be shifted overseas, and those who lack the money or energy to leave and start over somewhere else. And the changes have been gradual enough that, time and time again, Venezuelan Jews — like their gentile countrymen — simply have adjusted to the new reality.

“It’s a matter of adjusting, I think, not a matter of survival,” Eppel said. “That’s what the community has been trying to do: adjust to adverse circumstances.”

Sandra Iglicki, who left Venezuela for South Florida a decade ago but still goes back often, says it’s also been emotionally difficult to leave a country that for decades was good to Jews, serving as an anti-Semitism-free refuge for European Jewish families who fled the Nazis.

“It’s very painful for the community in Venezuela,” she said.

And there’s still some hope, even among expats, that the country eventually will right itself.

“If you talk to a lot of Venezuelans that are here, they’re waiting for this to be over,” Iglicki said in a phone interview from Florida. “I would love to go back to Venezuela.”

Many emigrants still work in Venezuela, commuting back for weekdays to run their businesses while their families adjust to life in a new country.

In Miami, the last few weeks have been particularly fraught for Venezuelan expats, filled with anxious phone calls to relatives back home and endless agitation on social media.

With state media in Venezuela blacking out news of the massive demonstrations, the expats have occupied the peculiar position of funneling news to relatives back home in Caracas about what’s happening in Venezuela, often via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Offline, there have been large demonstrations in Miami against the Maduro government, which is blamed for Venezuela’s tailspin.

“This is something that in Miami is top news every day,” said Juan Dircie, associate director of American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute in Miami. “The exile community of Venezuelans has been holding rallies, doing interviews on TV, writing letters to the editor. The demonstrations are in favor of democracy and human rights, but of course there is a big component of opposition to the Maduro government.”

Beker, who left Venezuela eight years ago at age 17 to go to Emory University, said he recently did a quick tally to calculate whether he had more family members in Miami or Caracas. He said he was shocked when he realized Florida won out.

“It’s a little sad,” Beker said. “You think: I’m just going to college for a couple of years and coming back. But that never happens.”

From Hate to Hoax in Claremont

To many of the 700 Jewish students on the seven ClaremontColleges campuses, it was their first direct encounter with anti-Semitism, andthey reacted with rage, fear, confusion and a new sense of solidarity.

The car of visiting psychology professor Kerri Dunn, who wasgiving a lecture on racism, had been vandalized. The tires had been slashed,windows broken and the spray-painted letters spelled out “Kike Whore,” “NiggerLover,” “Bitch” and “Shut Up.” A fainter, half-finished swastika completed thetableau.

Reports were also circulating that Dunn, a 39-year-oldCaucasian woman, was converting from Catholicism to Judaism.

Reaction was immediate and forceful. The day after the March9 incident, all classes were dismissed, and students, staff and faculty stageddaylong sit-ins, teach-ins, forums and rallies. Speakers emotionally denouncedthe hate crime on the campus of Claremont McKenna College, one of seven privatecolleges and universities in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Education professor Jack Schuster and mathematician HenryKrieger, both faculty leaders on the Hillel Council, attended many of thedemonstrations and were puzzled by a noticeable omission. While speaker afterspeaker blasted the racism and sexism of the vandal’s graffiti, there waslittle or no mention of the anti-Semitic slur.

The reason for this omission was surprising. Most of thenon-Jewish students, and many of their Jewish classmates, didn’t know what”kike” meant and were unaware that it was a derogatory slang word for Jew.

“The day of the incident, I was working in the computer lab,and I told another guy about the ‘Kike Whore’ slander, and he asked, ‘What doyou mean by kike?'” said D’ror Chankin-Gould, 20, student president of theHillel Council.

To raise campus awareness in a rather drastic way, Hillelstudents posted fliers with the word “kike,” followed by an explanation of itsoffensive meaning.

After a full day of campus protests, Hillel convened ameeting of Jewish students, staff and faculty. It lasted from 10 p.m. tomidnight, with rabbis and community leaders from Claremont and Pomonaparticipating.

“For four years, I’ve been avoiding Hillel, but when mynon-Jewish friends didn’t get it how I felt about the anti-Semitic message, Ifelt marginalized,” one student said. “For the first time, I felt a differencebetween them and me.”

“In time of crisis, Jews come together,” said Rabbi LeslieBergson, Hillel Council director and a university chaplain.

Long indifferent Jewish students turned up at Hillel and thenear-dormant Jewish Student Union has gotten a new lease on life and isplanning various activities, Bergson said.

In smaller ways, Jewish students groped for mutual support.

“Just walking along the campus, a Jewish student would walkup to another, just to ask how he was doing,” Chankin-Gould said.

From Los Angeles, the regional chapter of theAnti-Defamation League contacted college officials and the Jewish campuscommunity to offer counsel and assistance.

After the intense emotions of the days following thevandalism, students and their professors left for a weeklong spring break. Thecampuses were largely deserted when another bombshell exploded.

Claremont police announced that according to twoeyewitnesses, Dunn had vandalized her own car and perpetrated a hoax on thecampus community. The FBI and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Officeentered the case, and on Monday, a district attorney’s spokeswoman said adecision was likely within a week on whether charges would be filed againstDunn.

Dunn has maintained her innocence, and has refused requestsfor press interviews. Her lawyer criticized the police report as”irresponsible” and charged that it had “irreparably damaged her reputation andemotional health.”

At the same time, reports on Dunn’s conversion to Judaismbecame increasingly vague. Newspaper stories changed from “undergoingconversion” to “considering conversion” to “a possibility of conversion.”

“No one seems to have any firsthand knowledge about thismatter,” Schuster said.

Krieger, the mathematics professor, was at a tennistournament in Indian Wells when he first heard about the alleged hoax.

“I was very shocked,” he said. “How can you believesomething like that?”

Pamela Gann, Claremont McKenna College president, said in aphone interview Monday that Dunn had been placed on a paid leave of absence,and that college officials were meeting regularly with students to discuss theimplications of both hate crimes and the police report.

“In my five years here, I have never before seen a swastikaon campus,” Gann said.

As the students return after the spring break, most arereserving judgment until the final verdict is in, but others are worried aboutthe impact if Dunn is found responsible.

Warren Katzenstein, 21, student body president of HarveyMudd College, a sister institution of Claremont McKenna, told a reporter, “I’mjust afraid that all that community spirit is going to be lost and becomecynicism and anger.”

But Chankin-Gould, the Hillel student president, doesn’treally care whether the slur came from Dunn or another perpetrator. “It doesn’tmatter who did it,” he said. “It’s anti-Semitism and it’s unacceptable.”  

Israelis for Israel

Amidst a sea of Israeli and American flags and elongated balloons decorated with the Star of David, more than 1,000 Israeli residents of Los Angeles rallied in front of the Federal Building in Westwood on Oct. 15 to demonstrate support for their native country in the face of heightened violence and confrontations.

The mood, placards and songs at the noontime rally, watchfully monitored by police, sheriff’s deputies and private security personnel, reflected more a longing for peace than hatred of Palestinians or Arabs.

“Live and Let Live,” read one sign, while others urged “Put Down the Rocks” and “Stones Also Kill.” Only a small contingent from the Jewish Defense League demanded “Death to Arab Terrorists.”A steady stream of cars along Wilshire Boulevard noisily complied with the request “Honk to Support Israel.”

Demonstrators were confined to the sidewalk in front of the Federal Building because the rally’s sponsor, the Council of Israeli Organizations, could not obtain permits in time to access the building’s grounds or to set up a stage and sound system.

After an hour, however, police relented and the crowd quickly swarmed across the grassy grounds, set up an impromptu stage and formed hora dancing circles to the accompaniment of an accordion player. Several young Chabadniks circulated with palm fronds and citrons to mark the second day of Sukkot.

Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem told the crowd that “At the end of the day, the Palestinians must understand that we, the Jewish people of Israel, are in our homes and that we are here to stay. …We will have to learn to live side by side.”

Across the street, some 25 Arab counter demonstrators, more than half of them women wearing head scarves, held signs proclaiming “Over 50 Percent of Palestinians Killed are Under 18” and “$5 Billion in Aid Goes to Israel Every Year.”

Their spokesman, who identified himself as Ahmed Shama, said that “Barak and Arafat are responsible for the killings. Both have sold out the Palestinians.”

Earlier last week, some 600 people joined in an Israel support rally at the West Valley Jewish Community Center on Oct. 12, while on Oct. 14, several hundred Palestinians and other Arabs demonstrated in front of the Federal Building.

On Oct. 16, a community-wide rally, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other organizations, was held at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

The same evening, Israelis and other Hebrew-speaking Angelenos were updated on the Middle East situation by Consul General Rotem at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.