Elad Salomon with his wife, Michal, and three of their children. Elad, his father and his sister were stabbed to death on July 21 in a terrorist attack at Halamish.

Lessons from the house of mourning in Halamish

Three days after an Israeli father and two of his children were stabbed to death on Shabbat by a Palestinian in a West Bank settlement, I found myself with 16 other progressive rabbis sitting shivah for the deceased, the Salomons, in a Charedi neighborhood.

It was perhaps the hardest moment of a recent visit to Israel — sitting with the other Americans, our shoulders, heads and legs covered as we paid our respects to this grieving family. We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we found many surprising similarities between us and were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude that it moves me deeply just to recall it.

I have been coming to Israel for more than 20 years, and these visits have never been picture perfect. I lived here as a rabbinical student in the 1990s, during the huge marches for peace, which then brought about the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed the Oslo peace accords. Shortly after I arrived with a group from my congregation in 2006, the second Lebanon war broke out. And a few years ago, when I brought another group, our ice-breaker the first morning ended with the sound of sirens and instructions to head to shelters because missiles had been launched and Iron Dome activated.

I’m used to arriving in Israel and having things change dramatically within hours or days, but I was hoping this time would be different. It wasn’t.

As Tisha b’Av approaches — it begins the evening of July 31 — I am keenly aware of the dual realities that animate Israeli life. The destruction of the Temples in flames, the massacre of other Jews in so many other times and places, all of the hatred that has been and still is directed at us as a people is real and palpable here as Israel continues to fight for legitimacy and the safety of her people. It pervades every political conversation, every heated argument, every major decision. The pain of the past and the fear our people have internalized, coupled with the fact that this is the Middle East, makes this place a tinderbox ready to ignite at any moment.

It took no time for me to be reminded of all this when I came last week for the American Israel Education Foundation Rabbinic Seminar to travel across the country with colleagues and learn from experts about the complex issues at play here. We arrived hearing that the government had rescinded the agreement that took years to craft, granting egalitarian services at the Western Wall. Local people and delegations from the United States turned out and protested the government’s reversal of policy.

But that was just the beginning. The big news as we arrived was the government response to a challenge from the Israel Religious Action Center, opposing government discrimination against gay and lesbian couples wanting to adopt children. The government alleged that being raised by a same-sex couple would prove harmful to a child because it would “load extra baggage on the child.” As a social liberal and as a lesbian mother, this was particularly painful and disappointing for me, as it was for all of our delegation.

We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude.

Immediately, 90,000 people signed a petition against the decision, including professional organizations of psychologists, mental health professionals, social workers and others. They argued that all research proves that children are better off in a loving home with loving parents of any kind. What amazed me was that, in Tel Aviv, 15,000 people turned out to protest the government’s position. I was deeply moved by how far ahead of the government so much of the Israeli public is on issues like this.

But as soon as there is a march to further the cause of social justice, there is another mass gathering resulting from another kind of deep tension here. Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians we’ve met with all agree on one thing: Narratives and symbols have great power here in Jerusalem and go beyond reason to powerful emotion very quickly. Actions taken even for good reasons become flash points because they trigger a deeper struggle — the struggle between two peoples and the narratives that express their existential understandings of themselves and their place in the world. And this is what is at the heart of what’s been happening recently on the Temple Mount.

On July 14, two Israeli Arabs murdered two Israeli Druze police officers guarding the Temple Mount. As a result, the government decided to place metal detectors at the entrance to the area. The decision to physically put them in place just hours after the shooting prompted a heated reaction from Palestinians, who saw this as a breach of the status quo at their holy site. Protecting Israelis from those who would murder them makes sense, and the Israeli government has every right to take any action it deems necessary to protect its citizens. What is so sad and shortsighted is that the decision was implemented in a way that completely ignored how this action would be perceived and used by extreme elements within the Arab world.

And it was used: Extremists claimed that Jews were preventing Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa and called on their faithful to protest in massive numbers. Clashes with police happened on a large scale hours after 15,000 Israelis marched for LGBT adoption rights in Tel Aviv.  

After incitement by Hamas and other radical groups, thousands of Palestinians clashed with police July 21 in the West Bank, and three Palestinians were killed. Later that night, a 19-year-old Palestinian climbed the fence of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank where three generations of the Salomons were celebrating Shabbat and the birth of a new baby. The suspect stabbed three people to death and wounded another, leaving a bloody scene in his wake.

In the same 24 hours, Israel moved from a place with an active debate that would be celebrated in any democracy about social policy to a place where one action that should have made sense tore apart society.

The scene of the Halamish attack. Photo courtesy of IDF

The deep divides between the secular and religious, Palestinians and Israelis, haves and have-nots, hawks and doves will not be bridged in our lifetimes — if ever. As a wise teacher told us on this trip, the oldest Hebrew texts talk about peace and justice in terms of seeking, not of achieving. We are not a people of arrival but of journey “toward.” If there is a people who can model for the world that humans can vigorously pursue ideals they know they never will see fully realized, it is the Jewish people. If there is any country that can make titanic struggles into creative new paradigms, it is Israel.

Our teacher also taught us that he does not view the glass as half full but believes it is important to celebrate that the opportunity exists to pour water into the glass. We break a glass at every Jewish wedding to symbolize what is still broken in our world.

Tisha b’Av reminds us of this so well. What I love about Israel and her people is that even with all that I’ve described, there is a spirit of innovation, creativity, lust for life and defiant hope that also is ingrained in our people. While biblical Israelite religion was destroyed when the Temple burned, Rabbinic Judaism was born at the same time. With every tragedy and act of brutality that happens here, something new and unanticipated is created.

May we have the continued strength to crush glass at our most joyful times so that we remain mindful of the shattered and broken world we live in, the world of conflicting and sometimes flammable confrontation with one another. May we also bless the fact that we are given a glass and the opportunity, as our wise teacher said, to pour water into it at all.

Amid all of the tension and all the misunderstanding and mistrust in Israel these days, our experience of sitting with the Salomons, people in such pain, as a sacred act is an example of the only solution — encountering one another as human beings. As someone very wise once said, “If our hearts must break, let them break open.”

Rabbi Amy Bernstein is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

A crash course in extremism

Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list. 

But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad. 

In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”

Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it. 

“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”

Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.

For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.

“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”

Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.

Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”

Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.

The question is: To what end?

No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?

“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”

Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.

For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.

“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”

She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”

The prayers of the refugees should be our prayers

As we read in last Shabbat's Torah portion, Jacob left Canaan for Paddan-Aram, not knowing whether he would return, asking for divine help. He negotiated with God — if you protect me and return me safely, only then will you be my God, only then will I worship you. (Gen. 28:20-21)

When Jacob left for Paddan-Aram, he left as a refugee, fleeing his brother Esau, and when he returned to Canaan with his wives and family, he was fleeing from his father-in-law Laban. Even while Jacob was in Paddan-Aram, Jacob says, he lived like a refugee, unprotected, robbed of sleep, suffering heat by day, cold by night. (Gen. 31:10) In between, he passed through what is now Syria, and the region where Jacob spent twenty years serving for his wives and flocks is now part of the territory controlled by ISIL.

My great-grandfather Benyamin left Ottoman Jerusalem for the United States in 1910, when the empire started drafting Jews into its army. And my great-grandmother Farida came from Aleppo Syria in 1913, for the same reason, because she was chosen by her family to shepherd her younger brother and a male cousin to the United States when they were approaching draft age.

Of course there was no modern Syria then, and the whole area, from Syria to Jerusalem, was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Benyamin, like Farida, was a Syrian Jew who followed Syrian nusach and customs.

Farida knew when she left that she would never return to Aleppo. But for the rest of his life, Benyamin hoped he would some day return to Nachlaot, near the market in west Jerusalem, to see his family.

If Benyamin, my Gidau (“grandpa” in Arabic), prayed like Jacob, then most of his prayers were answered — he found work in Manhattan's garment district, raised a family, led prayers in his Syrian shtibl on Rivington Street (to use the Ashkenazi word for an intimate neighborhood synagogue), got to play rhythms on his Syrian doumbek for his great-grandson. But he never did get to return to Jerusalem.

Benyamin and Farida were both immigrants, not refugees. I never met any of my other great-grandparents, and I only know a little about their circumstances. One came from Warszawa (Warsaw), the rest from other places in Europe, and all arrived in the U.S. well before the second World War. I don't think any of them ever expected to return to their birthplaces in Europe. I don't know about the names or the fates of the people they left behind. But if they tried to get into the U.S. just a few decades later, when they would have been desperate refugees, they would have been out of luck.

Make no mistake, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were kept out of this country because politicians drummed up fears and put up walls, saying that a wave of Jewish refugees might conceal Nazi infiltrators, that we had to “take care of our own” first, and such — almost ” rel=”noreferrer” target=”_blank”>neohasid.org and the author of

Opinion: Islam navigates the shoals of extremism

Which is the more serious problem today: Islamic extremism or anti-Islamic bigotry?

The latest contribution to this debate comes from The Nation, the leading magazine of America’s left, in its current special edition on “Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic.” Its articles address a real and serious issue — but they also illustrate the pitfalls of ignoring its other side.

There’s no doubt that virulent rhetoric depicting all Islam as inherently evil and violent, and virtually all Muslims as potential jihadists, has gained alarming currency on the right. Such Muslim-bashing is not simply demeaning but also can lead to violence, harassment and infringements on the fundamental liberties of American Muslims. The New York Police Department has been criticized for overly broad surveillance of ordinary Muslims. Recent years have seen a wave of attempts to block construction of mosques and Islamic centers across the country. Bills seeking to outlaw the use of Sharia law in American courts — already illegal if it infringes on citizens’ constitutional rights — could interfere with private contracts rooted in religious law.

Yet nowhere in The Nation will one find recognition that extremism in Islam is a particularly serious problem. One author dismisses the issue by stating that “every group has its loonies.” Another writes that while misogyny and religious repression in some Muslim countries should be denounced, it can be done without generalizing about Islam.

Of course all religions have fringe groups and ideas. But for complex historical and cultural reasons, radicalism in Islam is far closer to the mainstream than in other major religions right now. There is no country today where a Christian government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy or illicit sex; several Muslim states do, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Some supposedly moderate Muslim clerics, such as Qatar-born Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, defend executions of gays, sanction “light” wife beating and peddle hatred of Jews.

Most American Muslims do not share such repugnant views; the Muslim community here is far more integrated into the mainstream than it is in Europe. Yet the problem of radicalization is real. Freedom House, an esteemed human rights organization, reports that many U.S. mosques carry extremist literature. Supposedly moderate Muslim groups such as the Islamic Circle of North America have hosted speakers with extreme ideas. A 2007 Pew poll found that 27 percent of American Muslim men younger than 30 believe suicide terrorism in defense of Islam is at least sometimes justified.

Many American Muslims stress the importance of combating not only anti-Muslim bigotry but also extremism in Muslim ranks. The modernization of Islam is an essential priority for the world. Right-wing Islamophobes such as bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are hostile to this effort, insisting that Islam is beyond reform and any talk of moderation is a deceptive smoke screen.

But where do left-wing defenders of Muslims’ civil rights stand? One of The Nation’s articles attacks philanthropist Nina Rosenwald for bankrolling supposedly Islamophobic causes. Some groups Rosenwald has funded deserve the criticism, but the article also singles out her support for the work of “dissident” Muslims such as Irshad Manji, an openly gay Canadian journalist who argues that Islam must overcome the still-powerful legacy of sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. When a progressive leftist magazine goes after a gay Muslim feminist because she is too outspoken against religious reactionaries, something’s wrong.

Concerns about bigotry are justified. But they should not deter legitimate debate about problems in modern Islam.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”

Dateline Davos: Israelis and Palestinians make their voices heard

“Each one of us needs to understand our power and our responsibility, and take action by asking: What am I willing to do to end the conflict?” That statement was made in a video clip featuring young Palestinians and Israelis presented at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland last week.

The video presentation, which was aired via closed circuit to a conference room filled with hundreds of the world’s most influential leaders, was the kickoff of the grass-roots organization One Voice’s $5 million “What Are You Willing to Do to End the Conflict?” campaign. Among those present for the screening were Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Israel’s Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni.

The short broadcast showed images of One Voice efforts to kick-start a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and root out extremism: town hall meetings in Israel and the West Bank, leaflet dissemination, petition signing, rallies, marches and interviews with moderates on all sides. One Voice, founded by American Daniel Lubetzky in 2002, advocates amplifying and empowering the voices of moderate Israelis and Palestinians while quelling extremist factions. The organization boasts a 250,000-strong membership.

“If we’re going to end this conflict,” former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross conveyed in the video clip, “we need to address matters from the grass roots on up.”

Grass-roots voices included Chrissy Soudain of Jerusalem: “One Voice enables the Israeli and Palestinian people to take steps to propel political representatives toward a comprehensive political agreement.”

“We still haven’t won the war for peace,” noted Miri Olifant of Tel Aviv. “But we will not stop engaging through nonviolent action until we prevail,” concluded Odeh Awwad of Bir Zeit University.

“It is the first time someone is asking Palestinians what they really think,” said an unidentified Palestinian man in the clip.

The clip ended with two kindergarten-age children asking in Arabic and Hebrew: “What are we willing to do to end the conflict?”

Messages from town hall meetings in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Jerusalem were then broadcast to attendees via One Voice directors and leaders stationed in each of the three cities.

“People in the audience — made up of extremely influential people — were teary-eyed. Tens of thousands of people have seen the video and millions have seen reports about the gathering — and all of those felt a much needed ray of hope,” Lubetzky said from Davos following the summit.

After the screening, Abbas, Livni and Peres took turns at the dais expressing their reactions to the clip and voicing plans for the future. Although Abbas and Livni launched into lengthy political addresses, they began by expressing hope and willingness for arriving at a peaceful solution. In her speech, Livni reiterated the need for a two-state solution and expressed commitment to the overall process.

“We all watched it with mixed feelings,” Livni told the audience in Davos.

“Sadness for lost opportunities, but on the other hand, hope. They gave me hope, but I think our responsibility is to give them hope. They are our children and our future. If there is something to come out of this room, it is a promise to generations to come to bring peace to our region.”

Abbas reiterated the need for dialogue on a personal level, saying the presentation had also “instilled hope” in his heart. “In the past century we have lived side by side, but we didn’t have the people-to-people relationship. We have reached that step now, belatedly. Dialogue between sectors of society will lead to peace.”

Peres stressed the connection between politics and economy, telling attendees that the two are inseparable. “The better the Palestinians have it, the better we will have it. That’s the best thing we can do for ourselves. Fatah represents the future; Hamas the past,” he said referring to the moderate and extremist factions within the current Palestinian political realm.

In Ramallah, One Voice Palestine Executive Director Nisreen Shaheen — who watched the historical broadcast with dozens of like-minded Palestinians — expressed cautious optimism.

“For us, as One Voice Palestine and Palestinians in general, it was an exciting moment – to see the people’s voice being heard by important world decision makers. But we felt like leaders listened to the voices in the video and then went back to their top-level political agendas and rhetoric,” Shaheen said. “But for us, it gave us a feeling that now there is a bigger responsibility and more effort to be dedicated.”

And in Tel Aviv, Israel’s One Voice Executive Director Gil Shami said that although appearances would suggest otherwise, he believes One Voice represents a majority in favor of ousting extremism.

“Many people ask me how it can be that Hamas is in power; I’m saying Hamas is a metaphor for desperation. When the Oslo agreement was signed, 88 percent of Palestinians supported it,” Shami said. “They lost hope, and the answer to desperation was Hamas. We saw with Lebanon this summer that missiles can hit Israeli cities. The situation requires urgency because desperation leads to catastrophe.”

Lubetzky summed up the organization’s efforts and results: “We’ve been building this human infrastructure for five years, and, in spite of the horrible atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, we are gaining more members and more momentum. People are ready to stand up and say, ‘Enough!'”

Stephanie L. Freid is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

Olmert goes to China; Hezbollah is back; Euro righties caucus; Jews get blamed again

Olmert Goes to China

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to China for talks on the Iranian nuclear threat. Monday’s trip also marks 15 years of relations between the countries and seeks to expand Israel’s current trade relations. Olmert’s family has historic ties to China: His grandparents fled there from czarist Russia in the early 1900s, and his parents were born and raised there.

“China is the country which hosted my parents. They studied in China. They spoke Chinese. They grew up in China, and the Chinese culture is part of my heritage and part of my earliest memory as a young kid in the State of Israel,” Olmert was quoted as telling the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “So China is not another country for me.”

Hezbollah Rebuilding, UNIFIL Ignoring

Hezbollah is rearming and United Nations forces are doing nothing to prevent it or disarm them, Israel’s military intelligence chief said. Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that the Lebanese terrorist group is rebuilding its rocket-launching capabilities. He also said the Syrian army had lowered its alert level to what it was before last summer’s war with Lebanon.

Yadlin told the committee it seemed clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted to hold peace talks with Israel, but that his intentions were unclear.

Europe Gets Extreme-Right Caucus

Extreme-right parties in the European Parliament are forming a caucus. The Guardian reported Monday that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria this month to the European Union enabled the group’s formation. Under Parliament rules, a minimum of 19 parliamentarians from at least five countries are needed for the creation of a political group.

The group expects the Bulgarian member of the Attack Party and the Romanian members of the Greater Romania Party, both of which are known for their anti-Roma, or gypsy, and racist stances, to join. The faction is to be led by French National Front member Bruno Gollnisch, who is awaiting a court verdict on charges of Holocaust denial. It also would include Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; and Andreas Moelzer, a former adviser to far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider.

Moelzer told the Austrian Press Agency that the group will announce its plans when the Parliament gets under way Jan. 15. By forming a caucus, the group, which is to be called Identity, Sovereignty and Transparency, will be able to avail itself of E.U. funding and easier access to leadership positions in the Parliament.

Jews Blamed for Polish Archbishop’s Demise

Some supporters of a Polish archbishop who resigned amid controversy claimed Jews were responsible. Stanislaw Wielgus, the new archbishop of Warsaw, resigned Sunday at a ceremony at St. John’s Cathedral that was to mark his new post. Documents in Polish newspapers have revealed that Wielgus collaborated with the communist-era secret police, a collaboration he initially denied but finally admitted.

Following the surprise resignation, fights broke out between the bishop’s backers and detractors outside of St. John’s, The New York Times reported Monday. Some of the supporters shouted that Jews were trying to destroy the church. The Vatican will look for a replacement for Wielgus, who was replacing Jozef Glemp. Glemp, who held the post for several decades, stirred controversy when he defended the location of a Carmelite convent and the placement of crosses just outside the former Auschwitz death camp.

Anti-Semitic Attackers Visit Anne Frank House

Ten Belgians convicted of an anti-Semitic attack visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. In the November attack, the 10 youths of Turkish descent threw stones and shouted anti-Semitic slogans at a group of Chasidic teens visiting Beringen, in eastern Belgium. Sentenced to 30 hours of community service, the youths were also invited to the Anne Frank House by Belgian Cabinet Minister Peter Vanvelthoven, who accompanied them on the visit. Vanvelthoven stated that he hoped “to encourage these youths to respect the Jewish people.”

Ahmet Koc, a member of Vanvelthoven’s personal Cabinet and a board member of the Turkish Union of Belgium, accompanied the group as well, saying the incident had been simply “a misunderstanding.” Laura Abrahams, a press officer of Vanvelthoven’s office, stated the Anne Frank House had been chosen over more local sites in Belgium because “it is easier for the perpetrators to identify with a young girl in their age group than with millions of victims.”

Yeshiva Student Attacked in Sydney

One week after a Holocaust survivor was murdered in Sydney, an Israeli yeshiva student may have been attacked less than a mile from the murder scene. Shortly after midnight Jan. 4, ambulance officers responding to an anonymous call found Nitzan Zerach, 23, lying unconscious in the street on which the yeshiva is located. Police initially believed Zerach’s injuries were self-inflicted as a result of intoxication, but hospital reports showed no noticeable alcohol in his system. Doctors discovered he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. Following a review of yeshiva security footage, a police spokesman told the Australian Jewish News that “new facts had come to light and that they were keeping an open mind.”

Jewish Groups Call for Wage Hike

Jewish groups called on the U.S. Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25. Jewish Funds for Justice and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sent a letter to U.S. lawmakers Monday, signed by more than 450 rabbis and rabbinical students and modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal leaders.

“Jewish labor law rests on the assumption that a full-time worker shall earn enough to support his/her family,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Jewish Funds for Justice’s education director. “To begin to realize self-sufficiency for workers as envisioned by Jewish law, we must raise the federal minimum wage.”

Ayalon Joins Nefesh B’Nefesh

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States was named co-chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh. The aliyah advocacy organization praised Daniel Ayalon’s “diplomatic stature, worldly expertise and passionate Zionism” in its announcement Tuesday.”Aliyah is the ultimate means to securing the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Ayalon said. “Having had the distinct honor of serving the State of Israel in Washington and [becoming] intimately familiar with the American Jewish community, I am convinced of the need to further expand Western aliyah over the coming decade.”

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Controversial Muslim leader Hathout gets award despite opposition

At a meeting that featured catcalls, standing ovations and the ejection of a disruptive audience member, Los Angeles' County Human Relations Commission voted again Monday to give an award to Dr. Maher Hathout, a local Muslim leader whose harsh rhetoric on Israel generated accusations of anti-Semitism and extremism.

The four commissioners who voted in favor were outnumbered by five who abstained and four who were absent.

Hathout's victory marks the first time a Muslim-American has received the commission's award.

In what Commission President Adrian Dove called a “tough hearing,” the public body ended weeks of uncertainty by reaffirming its vote to confer the John Allen Buggs Award for excellence in human relations on Hathout, despite opposition from much of the organized Jewish community. Detractors had portrayed the chairman of the Islamic Center and senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) as an apologist for terror and called his past criticism of Israel veiled anti-Semitism. Hathout and his supporters have countered that he supports a two-state solution, has long renounced terrorism on theological grounds and for years has worked closely with local Jewish groups to bridge the chasm between Muslims and Jews.

Five commissioners — Donna Bojarsky, Vito Cannella, Rebecca Isaacs, Eleanor Montano and Mario Ceballos, abstained. Bojarsky, public policy consultant and founder of L.A. Works, a volunteer-service organization, is the child of a Holocaust survivor; she suggested that the honor had been tainted by the process and the controversy and that the commission should recognize Hathout's contributions by making him the keynote speaker at its Oct. 5 awards banquet.

She said she abstained because she believes to do so “was the best thing for human relations.”

In a reflection of the highly charged emotions, Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress Western Region, said she believes commissioners lacked the courage to vote against Hathout.

“They're afraid of the Muslim community burning cars, burning effigies and burning synagogues,” Taylor said after the meeting.

Emerging from the meeting looking exhausted but relieved, Hathout called the outcome a triumph for freedom of speech and tolerance. Extending an olive branch to his critics, he said he would gladly sit down with detractors to find common ground.

“The test of people is not when they agree, but when they maintain humanity, civility and positiveness when they disagree,” Hathout said at a press conference following the commission's vote, with a private security guard hovering nearby.

However, many believe the rancor surrounding the doctor's selection has dealt a knock-out blow to hopes of reviving the multi-agency interfaith cooperation needed to dispel the mutual recriminations and mistrust that now envelope relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Los Angeles. And the ferocity of the attacks against Hathout raises questions as to whether some Jews and Muslims have grown so suspicious of one another in the post-Oslo, post-Second Intifada, post-Sept. 11, post-Lebanese War world that they can no longer find common ground.

Hathout became a lightening rod for criticism soon after the commission tapped him in July for the human relations award, which he is slated to officially receive at a ceremony next month. Following the announcement in July, terrorism expert Steven Emerson wrote an article for New Republic Online depicting the 70-year-old Egyptian-born retired cardiologist, who immigrated to the United States in 1971, as an apologist for terror groups and a strident critic of the Jewish state.

Hathout has characterized Israel as “a racist, apartheid” state”, and has said “the United States is also under Israeli occupation.” Emerson, among others, said Hathout wants to delegitimize the Jewish state and called his remarks code for anti-Semitism.

Hathout responded that he has a long history of moderation; he claims to have been the first Muslim leader to publicly denounce the fatwa issued by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini on the life of author Salman Rushdie.

In the early 1990s, he said, he denied permission to speak at the Islamic Center to Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And he helped organize a Jewish-Muslim Passover seder in 2002.

After the publication of Emerson's article, several major Jewish groups joined the criticism of Hathout, including the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the American Jewish Congress, the Republican Jewish Coalition and, following an initial statement that it had no position, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

However, there were marked absences among Jewish voices, too: The Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, two international Jewish organizations that fight anti-Semitism and other prejudice, did not take a formal stand. Rabbi Marvin Hier, Wiesenthal's dean and founder, said in an interview that he believes Hathout does not deserve the award unless he publicly labeled Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.

Taking a different tact, the Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs tried to derail the award by filing a complaint claiming the commission violated open-meeting laws during the selection process. A source close to the commission, who declined to be identified, said county counsel did uncover several violations, including failure to inform the public properly of plans to consider Hathout's nomination at its July 17 meeting.

In response, to comply with the Brown Act, the commission first voted Monday to rescind its July decision. Then, under advisement from an attorney, it reconsidered Hathout's candidacy and again selected him.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote, Hathout's supporters and mostly Jewish detractors waged a multifront war in the media in attempts to sway public and political opinion. Both sides also blasted their members with e-mails admonishing them to attend the Sept. 18 meeting. The groups and their allies also lobbied supervisors and commissioners. In the end, Hathout did a better job of turning out partisans, with about two-thirds of the roughly 100-member audience supporting him.

“I'm proud to be a Muslim, an American, and I'm proud to see justice prevail,” said MPAC board member Hedab Tarifi, following the meeting. She added that she hopes interfaith dialogue will make a comeback given the support Hathout received from some moderate Jews.

Indifference Enables Moscow Shul Attack

Jewish leaders have blamed Russian authorities, law enforcement agencies and societal attitudes for the Jan. 11 stabbing attack at a Moscow synagogue, saying that the authorities have not responded properly to previous anti-Semitic and hate incidents.

“The entire world has seen what the lack of fight against fascism leads to today,” the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC), Russia’s largest Jewish group, said in a statement.

Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis and a federation leader, demanded that Russian authorities react promptly to the incident.

“We won’t be silent,” Lazar said at a news conference in Moscow. “We are expecting that the state organs, law-enforcement agencies will take real measures so that” these types of incidents will not occur again.

The federation also said the attack was a direct consequence of earlier manifestations of anti-Semitism that Russian authorities left almost unnoticed. In particular, the group cited an infamous letter signed by some Russian lawmakers and public figures that in early 2005 called for a ban of Jewish organizations in Russia.

Some Russians seem to share this view; 81 percent of 3,992 callers to a popular Moscow radio station said that the attack was a sign of rising xenophobia and extremism in Russia.

Many groups are also looking into increased security. The Israeli Embassy is pressing Russia’s Foreign Ministry to install more security at Jewish institutions in the country. “Events in Moscow have aroused grave concerns,” said Mikhail Brodsky, the embassy’s press secretary.

The incident took place just before the evening service, when the Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue in downtown Moscow was full of worshippers. The shul is one of the oldest in Moscow and serves as the base of the Agudas Chasidei Chabad in Russia, a Lubavitch organization.

The man, identified by police as Alexander Koptsev, 20, struck out at random before being pushed to the ground by Yitzhak Kogan, the shul’s rabbi, and Kogan’s son.

The attacker, with self-inflicted injuries, was checked into the same Moscow hospital as most of his victims. Once his condition permitted, prosecutors charged Koptsev with racially motivated attempted murder. Officials quoted Koptsev as saying he stabbed the Jews because “they live better.” He also reportedly will be charged with actions aimed at humiliating religious groups.

All of his victims are in stable condition or better, several were released within days of hospitalization. None of the injuries was life-threatening, medical sources said, despite initial reports to the contrary. Among the injured were Russians, several Israelis, an American — Kogan’s son-in-law, Michael Mishulowin, who had formerly lived in Los Angeles — and a rabbinical student from Tajikistan.

Witnesses said the attacker shouted, “I came to kill you,” and looked like a skinhead, but a source with the Moscow police told news agencies that the attacker is not a known member of any known neo-Nazi groups. Some sources have indicated the young man may suffer from a mental disorder.

Investigators classified the attack as attempted murder and “inflicting injuries out of ethnic or religious hatred,” which in Russia carry a maximum punishment of 12 years in prison.

The FJC leadership called on the authorities to take tough measures against the existing neo-Nazi youth groups and against the publishers and distributors of anti-Semitic books that can be easily bought in public places in most of Russian cities.

Lazar said that the rampage was a direct result of the atmosphere in a Russian society that easily tolerates xenophobia.

In the meantime, the federation said it has beefed up the security measures in all its synagogues across the country.

Russian synagogues usually hire private companies to provide security. Another Russian Jewish umbrella group, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations said it would call on its local constituents later this month in an attempt to raise funds to improve security measures at provincial synagogues and Jewish institutions.

“We should appeal to the authorities for protection,” said Vladimir Pliss, a spokesman for the group. “But in the end we should definitely take care of ourselves; no one will help us on that.”