Dating 101 – Baggage


Men often say women have a lot of baggage and they don’t want to deal with any drama. I read as much in countless profiles of men dating online. They are very specific about not wanting to deal with the damage of all the men who have come before them. I get it, but if men think it is only women who have baggage, they are delusional. Men are also scarred by previous relationships and it is funny when they insist they are not. Men not only have baggage, but it is much heavier.

I have spent the past week speaking to a man from Santa Monica. He is 61, divorced with 2 kids, and painfully fragile. We didn’t have any interactions that did not include him telling me he did not like what I was saying. If I said something sarcastic, as I am known to do, he would say “I don’t like that.” He spent a lot of time telling me what he didn’t like, what he wouldn’t do, and letting me know he was desperate for acceptance and kindness. It was sad and exhausting.

We spoke and texted for little while, then in what would be our last conversation, he had what can only be described as a nervous breakdown. We were chatting about relationships and sex. I asked him if he was still sexually active, which I think is an acceptable question. We are adults, he is 61, and I thought the question in the context of our conversation was fair and appropriate. He didn’t think so and started to scream at me that he doesn’t answer those questions.

One might of thought he was rude, or perhaps assume he’s dealing with sexual issues, or conclude he has been treated unkindly, but either way it was weird and his reaction was disproportionate to the situation. He was angry, confused, flustered, and embarrassed. This is a man who is carrying around so much baggage he is weighed down and simply walking around in circles. It was strange, then funny, then really quite sad. Needless to say, we won’t be speaking again.

Relationships are hard and more complicated at age 51. Everyone is coming to the table with history, and with history comes baggage. I don’t expect someone to not have needs or reactions based on their past, but I do expect someone to not yell at me, and certainly not approve or disapprove of everything I say. To this man who felt he could yell at me, I hope you take a moment to step back and reevaluate what it is exactly you are doing in terms of your dating style.

I would recommend you focus on your kids and work and not date right now. You are emotionally not ready. The truth is that any woman who is willing to date someone at your level of pain, is equally as unavailable. You’ll end up having a relationship that is unsatisfying for you both. There is nothing wrong with having baggage. We are adults and that is life, just be careful how you pack it. I am continuing to date, doing a little unpacking of my own, and keeping the faith.

Prayers for Manchester


Last week I flew to London with my son, where we spent a day together, then he left on a wonderful adventure. He is spending 6 days on a whirlwind European trip. It freaks me out of course, because the world is scary, but I am happy for him. He is travelling alone so he can make his own schedule, see what he wants, and do what he wants, when he wants.  I am thrilled he is brave, and very proud he gets that quality from me.

Following the attack this week in Manchester, I feel frightened all the time. I walked to the market in London today and was so nervous I went home before making it there. I watched kids on scooters, enjoying a sunny London day, and I wanted them to all go home and stay safe. It is horrible to be on edge like this. I worry about my son being on his own, but am thankful he’s not here, where we are on a high terror alert.

Last time I was in London there was an attack on Westminster Bridge, and now innocent children have been murdered in Manchester. My heart is broken and I want to look away, but find myself unable to turn off the news. I am on edge, which makes me angry. The attack in Manchester makes me really angry. The targeting of children is beyond horrific and my heart breaks for the families who have been touched by hatred in this way.

From the mothers who were killed while waiting to pick their kids, and the kids who saved up money to see their favorite singer, I am unable to process what it was like for them. The world is dark and I am seeing it from a scarier perspective in London. There are police and armed guards everywhere, which is comforting, but they are in the same danger as those of us they protect. How can we feel safe when these attacks come with an element of surprise?

We are living in a time of great unknown and it can be paralyzing. I want to empower myself to be brave and not let terrorism dictate how I live my life, but I am a mother and so it does. My son has been checking in every few hours while he is on holiday, and it is keeping me sane. In the end he does it as much for his sake as mine. He is worried about me being in London when there is so much going on. The communication matters.

My boy will join me in London on Saturday and we will spend another few days in Europe together before returning to Los Angeles. It will be wonderful to be in London with him as this is my favorite city and he is my favorite person. We will be cautious, and we will be together. Life goes on, but we must never forget these attacks and never forget the souls who were lost. To the amazing people of Manchester, my prayers go out to you. I am holding you close and keeping the faith.

The San Bernardino terrorists’ 6-month-old


Think about the day she finds out who her parents were.

For a while, all she’ll know is that, yes, she did have a mommy and daddy, but they died. But one day, whoever is then caring for her may be unable to avoid telling her the rest of the story — how they abandoned her to do a terrible thing, and how they died.

My heart goes out to her. Her parents’ hearts, though, did not go out to the 14 people they killed and the 21 they wounded. They gave their victims as much power to control the story of how their lives ended as they gave their daughter to control the story of how her life began.

She will not be safe. There will be people who wish her harm. If she knows it, and she likely will, she is doomed to live out her days in the shadow of perpetual dread, the same sentence her mother and father intended their act to mete out to you and me, the same fear of some next hell that can befall anyone, anywhere, without warning. Except that, thanks to her parents, now we all have been warned. 

To protect her, I can imagine that her identity will be changed. The surrogate family that envelops her will serve as a kind of witness protection program. They may even choose not to tell her who she really is. Why not spare her that unbearable burden? If they keep it from her, as a mercy, surely she will never need to learn the truth.

But we know in our bones that is not how stories like this ever go. Some day, without meaning to, someone who does know the truth will let something slip. Or she will stumble across an inexplicably troubling photo or letter, and with the relentlessness of an Oedipus, she will dig and dig until she eventually discovers that what she thought was her life story is actually a cover story, until she finds out that who she really is a horror beyond belief.

I wonder where she will fit into the master narrative of terrorism we have been telling ourselves since we began living it on 9/11. For us in the West, it is a story that includes London, Madrid, Paris and the criminally catastrophic war of choice in Iraq. For many in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, daily life under the perpetual threat of terrorism is a story with older and deeper roots. For Americans, what may make San Bernardino an inflection point in this narrative is our nauseating awareness of how easy it is for evil to conceal itself from our vigilance.

After San Bernardino, sleeper cells are not pulp fiction. Their members may give off no whiff of loner or zealot. They may bring casseroles to our holiday potlucks. They might have cribs in their bedrooms and bombs in their garages. Say what we want about the manifest injustice of racial profiling, but in the wake of San Bernardino, when our love of liberty meets our moral panic in the back alley of our soul, we know which part of human nature packs more heat. In the privacy of our fears, beyond the grasp of our better angels, in the anxious age we inhabit, how many faces will we soon be scanning for murderous intent simply because they are brown? 

That defines a danger that leaders of a democracy are obliged to confront. In such a climate, it is hard enough to say, as did George W. Bush and Barack Obama, that our war is not with Islam. Harder still, for a politician, is resisting the temptation to fan paranoia, because as we know now, even paranoid people can have monsters for neighbors. But in the hothouse of this perverse campaign, there is no apparent downside to being as demagogic or extremist as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

When Trump proposes that all Muslims should be registered in a data bank, when he says that bombing the crap out of ISIS should include bombing their families, when he warns that “there is something going on with [Obama] that we don’t know about” — which is code for: Obama is a foreign-born Muslim — I wonder whether the fascism in those sulfurous words is the stink of the quadrennium to come. I fear that Trump and his rivals on the right have lit an uncivil wildfire, have unleashed a zombie ferocity that will continue to terrorize us even after, God willing, their own presidential campaigns are dead.

Which will mean that the terrorists will have won. They may never stop us from shopping, but already they are stopping us from being as proud as we once were of our diversity, as confident as we once felt about our generosity, as limitless as we once believed was our capacity for democratic freedom.

San Bernardino County will soon hold a dependency hearing to determine where the 6-month-old will live, at least in the short term. Her father’s sister told ABC News that she and her husband would like to adopt her. “For the time being, we want her to enjoy her innocence,” she said. “We don’t want her to know everything, but I think eventually she will find out, probably on her own.” Enjoying innocence, even if only for the time being: For the terrorists’ baby, it’s a sweet wish. Too bad the rest of us can’t get in on it.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

After San Bernardino, don’t let fear change our daily routines


With the recent shooting in San Bernardino, television and social media have yet again brought images of fatalities and injuries and the grief of those directly affected into our homes. For many Americans, and in particular the Jewish community, the constant streaming of these images may cause a diminished sense of security, a demoralized public and reduced confidence in the ability of our community to remain resilient in the face of ongoing attacks.

With Chanukah being this week, and with it many public celebrations across the country, individuals may seek to change their routines, modify their behavior or alter their perspective to remain safe and secure. In Boston, the marathon bombing led an entire city to shut itself down. In Brussels, an entire western European capital shuttered its stores, schools, houses of worship and government facilities, bringing everyday life to a virtual halt.

While the American public may change the way they view and assess their priorities, we must remind ourselves that loss of life, injury and property damage are often the least ambitious of the objectives of many terrorist organizations. The greatest impact that terrorists seek is to strategically erode our public morale. The 24/7 news cycle – where terrorist attacks are breaking news, footage is played again and again, and victims and relatives are interviewed constantly – sensationalizes the incidents. This is enhanced by the ability of social media not only to amplify the impact and message of terrorist organizations, but also convey them to larger audiences than ever.

Given this, homeland security strategies must address the psychological factor of terrorism.

If a terrorist organization believes that its attack on a particular community is not likely to create mass chaos and fear, it may have less reason to devote resources to such an attack. Citizens who are immunized against the psychological influence of attacks have a greater ability to resist such manipulation.

Fear and anxiety can be prevented. Homeland security efforts are enhanced by including a component to offset the psychological impact of terrorism. Adequately preparing our communities and the general public at large for the terrorist threat is essential to maximize not only the public’s confidence in their ability to weather a crisis, but also to understand the psychological manipulations of the terrorists and counter them by controlling their reactions to terrorist incidents.

In other words, strengthening the resilience of the American Jewish community should be a key goal in any homeland security strategy that aims to deter terrorist attacks and minimize the traumatic impact on the community in the event of an attack.

In that vein, timely and honest public messaging from senior officials is more critical today than ever and has become a fundamental pillar of our collective security efforts, not only informing citizens through credible information sharing but empowering them through trust, transparency and assurance.

Empowerment comes through knowledge, awareness and better understanding of how to mitigate risk and threats to our communities and institutions.

The Secure Community Network, working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been concentrating on efforts that strengthen the endurance of our communities and working to counterbalance terrorists’ manipulation of public opinion. Through training, information sharing, testing our response and emergency management protocols, we are empowering our community. Through knowledge comes power. Through preparation comes resolve and confidence. Our efforts – working together – not only reduce the level of fear and anxiety that some may experience in our communities, but make us safer and more secure.

The American Jewish community must accept the reality that at times it may be targeted, but at the same time Jews must not allow their daily routines to be redefined by fear and cannot allow their religious identities to be destroyed by terror. They must remain informed, and by doing so, be stoically vigilant and alert.

Through SCN, and with the leadership and support of The Jewish Federations of North America, we’re leading a national homeland security effort to ensure vigilance is eternal and our communities and neighborhoods can remain safe from harm. We’re building a culture of awareness, not a community of fear. In doing so, we’re protecting our families, friends, neighbors and our way of life.

(Paul Goldenberg is the national director of the Secure Community Network, the official homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.)

To be a Jew means ‘I love you’


On Thursday last week, a suicide bomber murdered forty three human beings in Beirut and injured two hundred and forty. On Friday last week, a suicide bomber murdered nineteen human beings in Bagdad and injured thirty three. In Paris, seven men murdered one hundred twenty three human beings, and injured four hundred thirty. On Tuesday and Wednesday, this past week, forty nine human beings were murdered and over two hundred injured in Yola and Kano, Nigeria. That is more than 1,140 human beings, murdered or injured. In Israel, as for the last couple of months, attacks have come almost daily. On Thursday, a terrorist attack in the West Bank killed five Jews, including an 18 year old American student. (239 lives, 903+)

It is so much. We have witnessed so much violence this week. I’m angry and sad, my heart hurts, I am filled with grief and fear.

This has caused some to lash out. This desperate response is fueled by one thing, and one thing only: Fear. It is fear that prevents us from thinking clearly, responding appropriately, and from feeling all of our naturally conflicting emotions, in being whole selves. It is ok to be afraid, I feel afraid. When we allow that fear to push away everything else, that is when there is a problem.

In one of my favorite books, Dune by Frank Herbert, he writes the following mantra for his character to remember.

“I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The question becomes, what kind of person remains, how does that person respond? Who am I, when my fear is gone?

The way we must respond, the way the Tradition would have us respond, the way a Jew should respond, is with love. I’m still angry and I’m still deeply saddened. It is this tension that the Tradition guides us the way it does.

In Masechet Yoma, the tractate of the Talmud primarily focusing on Yom Kippur, transmits a Tradition that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to שינת חנם, through baseless hatred. Let’s break that down for a moment. God’s residence on Earth and among the Jewish people was destroyed because we hated each other for no reason. We kicked out God because we would not stand beside each other, because we did not try and understand each other, because we allowed ourselves to be drawn in by hate. Take a moment and think about that, because the Rabbis are telling us something truly profound.

Hate causes God to leave us.

It can be easy for us to place all of the terrorists into the tight little box and blame all Muslims for their actions. But this response is hypocritical. In Israel, the group Tag Machir, Price Tag, attacks Christian, Palestinian, and left-wing Israeli institutions. Do we blame all Jews for their acts? When settlers in the West Bank attack Palestinian farmers, are they a reflection of your beliefs?

Only a couple of weeks ago, a Jewish man attacked Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Director of Rabbis for Human rights, for protecting those Palestinian farmers. Were we expected to denounce them on behalf of all Jews? No, we weren’t asked to do that. Why? Because, it is ludicrous to do so. Despite that, there were many statements decrying such terrorism from the Jewish community. Muslim leaders, scholars, and communities around the world decry the terrorism of Daesh regularly. To blame any whole population, much less a billion and a half individuals is simply racist and hateful.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine in 1921 until his death in 1935. He teaches: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to שינת חנם, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with אהבת חנם, with unbounded love. Unbounded love is the way we respond to hate. It is the way we bring God close.

In Conservative/Masorti siddurim, you will see something special. In the morning blessings, we recite first, the blessing for our physical bodies. Praised are you God, who made us with bodies that have the ability to function. Following that, we recite the blessing for our souls. Without our souls, without the spirit that makes us all unique, we could not be here.

After this, there is the following line:
הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך.
Behold, I accept upon myself the commandment of the Creator: And you shall love your friend, neighbor, fellow human, as yourself.

We take it upon ourselves to fulfill God’s will, to place ourselves within the divine flow of the universe, when we love. ואהבת לרעך, and you shall love your neighbor, כמוך, who is just like you, who is you. This power is already within us, it is contained by us to see the other. The other who is like me.

What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? It means that I strive to bring forth God’s vision of love into the world devoid of fear and hate. We must live up to our potential, we must stand up and love.

It means that I don’t blame or hold responsible all Muslims for the acts of individuals. It means that I will not turn my eyes away from the refugees from Syria fleeing the violence of Daesh. It means that I will not stand idly by as presidential candidates, state governors, and our elected officials spout fear and hate. To be a Jew means that I love you. It means that I love Jews. It means that I love Muslims. It means that I love Republicans and Democrats, Europeans and Africans. It means that I love Palestinians and that I love Israelis.

You may have seen on the news, or through social media, an interview with a man and his son in Paris, themselves previously immigrants to France. His son, who is maybe five or six years old, is asked by the interviewer, “do you understand why those people did this?”

“They are bad guys and are not very nice” the boy explained, “and we must be very careful, otherwise we might have to move to a new home.” His father places his hand on his shoulder and says, “Don’t worry, we won’t have to move. France is our home.” His son looks up at him and says, “But there are bad guys here.” “Bad guys are everywhere,” his father tells him.

“They have guns and can shoot us because they are really nasty.” the boy responds. And here, the father says something really important. He says, “They might have guns, but we have flowers.” Our response to this statement might be just like his son’s, “Flowers don’t do anything.” His father points to the people placing flowers and lighting candles at the public memorial in Paris. “Look, everyone is leaving flowers. [The flowers] are to fight against the guns. And the candles are so we won’t forget the people who have gone.”

After a moment of watching the people, the boy turns to the interviewer and says, “The flowers and candles will protect us.”

This is not a naive response. What this young child understands, and what we need to remember, is that no amount of violence can take away our love of each other.

While, the heat of my anger still consumes me, and the cold of fear and sadness still comes to me at night, and the struggle to sleep remains. I refuse to let that bring me to hate. The only response for me, is to love. Even when it is hard, especially when it is hard.

Jeremy Markiz is a fifth year Ziegler student.

The Republicans’ rhetoric of hate and fear


Fear, laced with paranoia, is driving the American response against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States.

President Obama has said he would accept 10,000 refugees, all of them subjected to intense scrutiny before being admitted to the country. France, with a population about one-fifth that of the United States, despite the worst attack on its soil since World War II, will accept 30,000 refugees.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told the Senate, “We are not a nation that delivers children back into the hands of ISIS because some politician doesn’t like their religion.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), a Jew, said the nation should “not allow ourselves to be divided and succumb to Islamophobia,” and that when “thousands of people have lost everything—have nothing left but the shirts on their backs—we will not turn our backs on the refugees.”

They are among a minority. Only 28 percent of Americans believe the nation should allow Syrian refugees into the United States, according to an independent Bloomberg poll. Fifty-three percent say absolutely deny any Syrian refugee, and apparently anyone who is a Muslim, a place in the United States; 11 percent say admit only Christians; 8 percent aren’t sure.

The governors of 30 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have also said they don’t want Syrian refugees in their states. Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has even ordered his state agencies to deny residence to two Syrian families who had undergone extensive background checks by the FBI and other agencies and were scheduled to be relocated in Indianapolis. The governors’ opinion, fueled by politics not compassion, really doesn’t matter; the acceptance and relocation of refugees fleeing oppression is a federal not a state issue.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), born in Canada but with dual American and Canadian citizenship, doesn’t want Syrian refugees in his adopted country. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), born in the United States three months after his parents left India, doesn’t want his adopted country to admit Syrian refugees.

Donald Trump, with a northern European heritage and currently the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, had previously declared if he was the president he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and round up and deport 11 million undocumented aliens, actions clearly in the fairy-tale netherland of impossibility, but definitely in the land of rhetoric meant to pander to his extreme right-wing following. In response to the murders in France, he says he would close mosques. However, not one terrorist attack in the United States was hatched and carried out in a mosque. More important, Trump’s actions would be a violation not only of the First Amendment but everything the Founding Fathers believed.

Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, among a few hundred thousand Americans, said the U.S. should admit only Syrian refugees who are Christians. It was a stupid comment when they said it; it was just as stupid when Bush later “clarified” it by saying if the U.S. admitted any Muslim, it should only be after extensive screening. As President Obama tried to explain to the fear-mongers, it takes up to two years for the U.S. to admit any refugee from any country, and only after extensive screening. Even more important than screening refugees, the Constitution clearly doesn’t allow either acceptance or rejection of those who seek U.S. residency because of their religion, something Bush and the conservatives should have known, especially if they wish to run for any office, from local constable to the presidency of the United States.

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) says he has an idea how to defeat ISIS. The proselytizing presidential candidate wants to create a government agency to promote Judeo-Christian values around the world. It’s doubtful that many conservatives will be promoting any “Judeo-” values, because American Jews tend to lean more to liberal beliefs than other religions.

State Rep. Glen Casada, Republican caucus leader in Tennessee, wants the Tennessee National Guard to round up all Syrian refugees who are lawful residents of his state and to deport them—if not back to Syria, at least to some other state. State Sen. Elaine Morgan (R-R.I.) wants to create internment camps for any Syrian refugee admitted into her state. Most Pennsylvania republican legislators, spewing their caucus’s talking points, said they had “grave concerns” about Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to allow Syrian refugees to live in the state where the Declaration of Independence was written.

Texas State Rep. Tony Dale, one of the nation’s most ardent defenders of the right to own guns, and who consistently receives grades of “A” from the NRA, added yet another reason to deny Syrian refugees admission to the United States. Without recognizing the irony and the hypocrisy, he said it would be too easy for refugees to buy guns.

In the history of the United States, just the members of the white-hooded Protestant-professing fire-and-brimstone Klan killed and maimed more Americans than all the murders by non-Christian terrorists—and that includes 9/11. Add in the number of serial killers, the racists who killed children in churches, the zealots who killed health care personnel because they performed legal abortions, and the people like the Oklahoma City bombers and the Unabomber, and the number of pretend-Christians killing Americans rises to hundreds of times greater than any Muslim attack.

Responding to the Islamophobia perpetuated by braggadocio-spewing politicians, an outraged President Obama said that the conservatives believe they could stand up against the leaders of any country, but “Apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States.” There are some conservatives who say the U.S. should take care of their own first before admitting any refugee. But, conservatives, true to their political ideology, consistently vote against social programs, including aid to combat veterans. When not resorting to inane arguments, the extreme right-wing says the way to destroy ISIS is for the U.S. to send a few hundred thousand soldiers into Syria. It’s jingoistic hysteria couched in fear. It’s also the same logic that didn’t work in Iraq, and isn’t working in Afghanistan.

In 1939, more than 60 percent of Americans, according to a poll by the American Institute of Public Opinion, said the U.S. should not admit 10,000 European Jewish children. Later that year, the U.S. turned back the MS St. Louis, carrying 908 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees.

During the early 1930s, there was a politician who blamed Jews for his nation’s problems, and who used the rhetoric of fear, hate, and paranoia to become the elected leader of his countrymen. None of the Republican presidential candidates or their right-wing followers rise to the level of that politician who became a dictator. But, their poisonous hate and Islamophobic rhetoric matches that of Hitler.

Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, syndicated social issues columnist, professor emeritus of mass communications, and author of 20 books. His latest book is 'Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.'

Welcome the refugees


In the 1940s, politicians and the State Department saw the war ravaging Europe and said only Christians could enter this country as refugees, and only a select few at that. No Jews welcome here. A favorite argument for turning away Jews fleeing Europe was that they somehow had been infiltrated by Nazis.

With ISIS on the rampage and war devastating Syria, among other places, many politicians today are singing a similar tune. Only a select few refugees can come in, and they must all be Christians, say Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.

“No Muslims welcome here” is the theme frequently invoked in the name of national security.

No Syrian refugees in my state, said 26 governors — all but one Republicans — who refuse to admit any Syrian refugees, whatever god they worship. That includes Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Rick Scott, whose states have some of the country’s largest populations of Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Christie said not even “orphans under the age of 5 should be admitted.” Taking care of them would be too much of a burden, he complained.

Jewish-American leaders are struggling with the question of refugees. Many organizations have been raising money for humanitarian groups, particularly in Jordan, helping Syrian refugees, reports New York-based The Jewish Week, but when it comes to admitting them to this country, they urge caution.

Rabbi Mark Dratch of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America told The Jewish Week that Muslim countries should be pressured to take greater numbers. He’s right. Jordan and Turkey are overwhelmed with refugees, but the others could and should do a lot more.

But that does not mean our own doors should be slammed in their face, and Jewish leaders, more than most, should know that.

HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is virtually alone among Jewish organizations supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to admit 10,000 refugees by the end of 2016.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that although Israel has treated some 1,000 wounded Syrians, it will not take in any Syrian refugees because the country is “too small.” Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog disagrees. “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.”

Some Republicans who aspire to be the leader of the free world sound like bigoted xenophobes. Most conspicuous are ones whose own parents were refugees from brutal dictatorships or are married to immigrants.

Their rationale is that some jihadi terrorists may sneak in with the refugees (one apparently who did was among those in the French attacks on Nov. 13), so all refugees should be banned. 

Critics like to point to the 9/11 hijackers to justify anti-immigration attitudes. Sen. Marco Rubio, who favored immigration reform before he was against it, said “some” of the hijackers “had overstayed [their] student visas.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said all 19 were here on expired student visas.

Neither presidential wannabe did his homework. All 19 had entered the country legally; only one on a student visa, which he did not overstay, and the others on tourist or business visas, according to Factcheck.org.

The only Jew running for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pledged to stand against Islamophobia and racism and backed Obama’s decision to admit some 10,000 refugees. So have his two Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, both of whom suggested raising the number to 65,000.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said, “We can protect our safety and our humanitarian values,” and we shouldn’t “slam the door on them.”

But that’s exactly what Republicans want to do.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would shut down the government in order to keep them out. Presidential candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee have written to Speaker Paul Ryan demanding he block all funding for Syrian refugee resettlement.

Donald Trump, warning that Syrian refugees could be ISIS’ “Trojan horse,” said if he were president, he’d consider closing American mosques that have radical clerics and limiting civil liberties for all Americans.

Sen. Cruz (R-Texas), the son of a Cuban immigrant, said we should permit only Christian refugees because, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”

Has no one told Ted or Jeb about Dylann Roof, who killed nine worshipers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C.; neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Cross, who got the death penalty last week for killing three people in 2014 in Kansas who he thought were Jews; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; or the Unabomber?

Or about those law-abiding folks of the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, the Army of God and the Phineas Priesthood?

And what about the mass murderers responsible for shootings at Newtown, Conn.; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; Centennial, Colo.; and Roseburg, Ore., to name only a few?

Ted and Jeb, there wasn’t a foreigner among them. No Muslims, as far as I could learn. All Christians.

Obama said, “We don’t have religious tests to our compassion. That’s not who we are.” He may not, but many of those who want his job do, and that should scare a Jewish community that remembers — or should — what it’s like to be shut out when the alternative is discrimination and maybe death. 

Douglas Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist; Washington, D.C., lobbyist; and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

In wealthy Paris hamlet, some Jews reconsider their future


Babette and Sasha Bergman lead what many would consider a charmed life.

Both Jewish high-tech professionals in their 30s — they met while working at Google’s European headquarters in Ireland — the Bergmans settled in this capital city shortly ahead of the birth of their now 4-year-old daughter, Daniella.

On weekends, they enjoy entertaining friends in their spacious apartment in the 17th arrondissement — an upscale and heavily Jewish district where the anti-Semitic incidents common throughout the rest of Paris are more rare. Many Jews in the poorer quarters say this area is the ivory tower of upper-middle class French Jewry.

Living on a street with three synagogues and near many kosher shops, observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher is far easier in Paris, where some 350,000 Jews live, than it was when they were living in Dublin, says Sasha, who was born in Russia and grew up in the Netherlands.

But in the wake of the jihadist attacks that killed at least 129 in Paris last week, even the Bergmans are finding it increasingly difficult to imagine a future for themselves in a country where Islamist terrorism and violence — including attacks that target the Jewish community — are putting wind into the sails of a rising far-right.

“I love this city, I love my country, but after the initial shock from the attacks and the pain, my first thought was regret that we decided to settle here,” said Babette, who is Sephardic and grew up in the French city of Lyon. Two of her three sisters moved recently to Israel.

In January, soldiers with automatic rifles were posted regularly outside the Bergmans’ building to guard an adjacent synagogue. It was a precaution taken following the slaying by Islamists of 12 people at the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper, followed by two other terrorist attacks, including one at a a kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, in eastern Paris that killed four people. The supermarket attack came about three years after an Islamist killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

“We pass them by sometimes with Daniella,” Babette said of the soldiers guarding Jewish institutions. “We’re grateful, but it’s not a normal way to live.”

Two days after Friday’s deadly attack, Babette’s family from Lyon and Israel gathered in Paris for a cousin’s wedding at the historic Synagogue des Tournelles in the Marais, the city’s historic Jewish district.

After the ceremony, the congregants left the synagogue quickly, mostly to make room for the next wedding — there were four Jewish wedding ceremonies planned there that day — but also because some guests said they felt uncomfortable gathering among groups of Jews at a time when terrorists believed to have been involved in the attacks are still at large.

“We’re not too scared to come here and continue our lives as usual,” said Ness Berros, a French Jew in his 20s who attended the wedding. “But we’re too scared to feel exactly at ease right now.”

The synagogue is under heavy guard by soldiers and police officers. Security was even tighter at another event the same day at the Synagogue de la Victoire, also known as the Grand Synagogue of Paris, at a ceremony honoring the victims of Friday’s attacks. The road leading to that synagogue was cordoned off as the participants were patted down for concealed weapons.

Outside Jewish institutions, many of which had suspended their activities following the attacks, streets usually bustling with tourists and locals were much emptier than they otherwise would have been on a sunny Sunday afternoon in November.

Fears were just as pronounced outside the city, in its poorer suburbs, where tens of thousands of Jews live in close proximity to many Muslims — and where tensions often run high. Such neighborhoods provided the majority of Paris-area Jews who immigrated to Israel last year, according to Jewish Agency figures. In total, 6,658 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year, more than triple the total number in 2012.

In Pavillons-sous-Bois, a northeastern suburb, Sandra Sebbah, a Jewish mother of four, says the soldiers outside her children’s Jewish school “might as well be cardboard cutouts” because “they won’t stop an attack by the people with the kind of determination we saw.” Sebbah said she cannot leave France because of her husband’s work, but encourages her children to “live somewhere else, like normal people and not like this, where I am afraid every minute they’re not home — especially when they’re at school.”

Soldiers guarding staff and children at a Chabad school in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015. (Israel Bardugo, courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

Soldiers guarding staff and children at a Chabad school in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015. Photo by Israel Bardugo, courtesy of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews

Meanwhile, many French Jews worry the attacks will strengthen the popularity of the National Front,  a far-right, anti-immigrant party that French Jewish groups have largely shunned for the anti-Semitic track record of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, the party’s current leader, recently removed her father as the party’s honorary president because of anti-Semitic statements he made that she called unacceptable.

In a poll conducted two weeks before the Paris attacks, Marine Le Pen emerged as an early favorite candidate in the 2017 presidential elections. Some 30 percent of those polled said they would vote for her over the incumbent Socialist Party president, Francois Hollande, who would garner 19 percent of the vote.

Back at the Bergmans’ apartment in central Paris, Babette’s father, Gerard, said the attacks reminded him of his childhood. A dentist in his 60s, he  left Constantine, Algeria, in the 1960s amid a bloody civil war, in which local nationalists fought France for independence and each other for dominance. Gerald, who did not want his last name used in print, said his family narrowly survived a bombing outside their home because they were at a restaurant when the explosive detonated.

“Now it seems to me the same barbarians are coming to drive me and my family once again, this time out of France itself,” said Babette’s father, adding he will probably leave for Israel within the next few years.

His wife, Jacqueline, who was born in Morocco, said she believes the war in Algeria may have traumatized her husband.

“I had a very different childhood in Casablanca,” she recalled. “When we talk about coexistence, I know it’s possible because I lived it, with neighbors, Arabs and Muslims, living together, acknowledging each other’s holidays.”

Still, Jacqueline said, she also sees no future for Jews in France.

“Something happened in the 1990s, a bad wind started blowing from the outside,” she said in reference to hateful sermons and jihadist propaganda that began to spread through satellite television and continue to be disseminated online. “We didn’t have this external influence, poisoning everything in its wake.”

After the wedding celebration, a visibly tired Sasha puts Daniella to sleep and prepares to drive for an hour and a half to a university campus in Fontainebleau, where he is completing an executive MBA program.

The master’s degree, he says, may be important for his young family’s future.

Besides, he adds, “It’s so peaceful out in the countryside.”

The politics of fear threatens Israel from without and within


There was something surreal about visiting Israel last week. I had come to learn about Israel’s independent sector, and it was inspiring to see how nonprofits were taking up the task of shaping Israel’s future, regardless of who forms the next government.

Partisan politics still abounded, which wasn’t surprising in the run-up to an election. What was astonishing was witnessing how the politicization of issues had extended to the critical question of how to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran.  

Rather than building consensus around one of the most momentous challenges facing Israel since its inception, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s miscalculated decision to address a joint session of Congress had transformed the issue into an object of partisan politicking. 

The controversy not only has exacerbated tensions between Israel and its most important ally, it also has diverted attention from serious challenges Israel is facing internally. It is an intermingling of strategic prerogatives and political maneuvering that would have befuddled Israel’s founders.

The pioneers of Israel knew they could not succeed in establishing a sovereign democratic state at peace with its neighbors without the support and strategic partnership of the world’s most powerful nation, which itself is grounded in a fundamental commitment to democracy. They could not have imagined a time when the question of whether the Israeli prime minister should address a joint session of the U.S. Congress would be a controversial issue.  

The founders of Israel also would not have imagined a time when legislation to limit the rights of non-Jewish citizens was proposed by members of its governing coalition. Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which, not coincidentally, recalls the words of America’s founding documents — proclaimed that the Jewish state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel [and] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” 

Israel’s founders almost certainly would not have anticipated a situation in which Israel maintained control over millions of Palestinian Arabs without equal rights for almost half a century. They would have been heartbroken to know that, 67 years after it was born, dangerous currents inside Israel and serious threats from outside would threaten Israel’s existence as a democratic and Jewish state

The reality of this moment in Jewish history is that adherence to the principles of democracy does not carry the weight it did when Israel was created. In the eyes of many, including a significant percentage of Israel’s political leadership, the principles of democracy have become subservient to external threats.  

The synergy and interdependence of democracy and national security have been transformed into a zero-sum game. As a result, fear is progressively defining the ethos of the Jewish people — in Israel and the Diaspora — to the point of causing serious harm. 

Israel’s early pioneers believed it was dangerous to give disproportionate influence to fear or any emotional response to the profoundly painful past of the Jewish people. Rooted in the traditions of both Judaism and enlightened Western democracy, they were wary of allowing fear to skew their ability to discover and develop solutions at the most precarious time in modern Jewish history.

In the 21st century, fear has become an all-too-common tool for recruiting political support. It is the Achilles’ heel of democracy, the lowest-common denominator of a citizenry, which is why demagogues and fearmongers on both the right and the left have successfully exploited it. Fear, as Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz puts it, “overrides not only thinking but, more important, all other emotions.”  

In the case of Netanyahu, fear is a basic operating principle. He uses it deftly, invoking the Holocaust to frame virtually every threat Israel faces. I believe he does so because he is sincerely afraid of Israel being existentially reliant on another country or entity. He associates this dependence with weakness, rather than acknowledging that interdependence is a global phenomenon,  to which Israel is not and must not be an exception.  

Netanyahu presents himself as the only person strong enough to prevent a U.S./European-led agreement with Iran, which he asserts would jeopardize Israel’s existence. Rather than forging a positive relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, he preaches fear of the intentions of the United States, Israel’s closest ally. He revives our collective fear of anti-Semitism and questions the viability of European-Jewish communities. He fuses his own fears with his penchant for manipulating others’ fears, resulting in an unnecessary political controversy, a diplomatic crisis and the absence of measured national discourse.

Fear is utilized so effectively in Israel because it fills a vacuum left by the absence of collective political norms rooted in democratic values. As the veteran Israeli civil libertarian Amos Gil observes, “There are no values and no rules of the game, there are only goals.” The challenge for Israel is to reaffirm its founding values and agree upon guidelines for political engagement.  Otherwise, its democracy will be truly imperiled, as will its greatest strategic asset — the Israel-U.S. partnership and the support of the Diaspora Jews. 

Military rulers spread fear throughout Egyptian media


The ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one year ago was supposed to be the harbinger of an era of democracy, freedom, justice and, ultimately, freedom of press. But only a few days removed from the anniversary of Mubarak’s “departure,” journalists – foreign media and locals alike – are facing the heavy hand of the Egypt’s governing military council as they seek, day-by-day, to do their jobs.

On Saturday, the military again showed its face by detaining Australian journalist Austin Mackell, Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi and American graduate student Derek Ludovici in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. The three were then transported hundreds of kilometers over two days, charged with “incitement of violence” and “bribing” local residents to demonstrate. All three deny the charges.

The incident triggered new widespread outrage, with activists and professional media colleagues demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) release the trio immediately while calling for an end to the near constant crackdown on journalists in the country.

For the Australian, the detention has affected his entire life. Locals from his neighborhood ransacked his flat, increasing his fear for his personal safety while in Egypt.  Mackell told The Media Line, “I don’t feel safe. This is not just affecting my work; it’s my entire life.”

[RELATED: Felice Friedson talks with Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Editor-in-Chief of The Yemen Times]

Late Tuesday evening, Mackell, Alwi and Ludovici were barred from leaving Egypt while an investigation is ongoing.

The situation of Mackell and the others was the latest in a string of attacks against media in the country. In December, this Media Line reporter was beaten and detained for 13 hours in downtown Cairo while attempting to photograph the barbed wire fence that had been erected near the Cabinet building. Like Mackell – who described citizens being tortured and beaten in the cell nearby – the military at that time also appeared unfazed by a foreign presence; attacking, assaulting and eventually killing one protester in plain sight.

But the crackdown on media in Egypt goes farther than the detention of foreign journalists. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published an extensive report in which it documented at least fifty cases of intimidation, arrests, summons and attempts to silence what many believed last March were indicators of nascent freedoms.

According to Egyptian journalists, the message the SCAF is sending through the systematic arrests and detentions during the past 12 months is “don’t criticize the military.” 

The beginning of what many media professionals are calling the “full-on assault” in conversations with The Media Line came last May when activist Hossam Al-Hamalawy, who blogs at arabawy.org, and two journalists were summoned by the army after they were critical of the military’s actions during two separate broadcasts carried by popular independent television station OnTV.

Program host Reem Maged and reporter Nabil Sharafeddine, along with Hamalawy, were questioned personally by Adel Morsi, the head of the Military Justice Authority.

Maged, whose program is called “Baladna Bil Masry,” told reporters that the army claimed she was not being investigated, but that it need to “clarify” statements made on the talk show. On the program, Hamalawy had accused the military police of rights abuses, claiming he had proof of violations committed by officials he named. He said after his interrogation that the military demanded that he provide all documents pertaining to the alleged violations. The quizzing of Sharafeddine was related to his comments regarding the military that were made on the same program.

Although the three were not detained, they insist the message was made clear by the military: criticism will not be tolerated. Weeks before, the military council had issued a formal communiqué stating that media could face fines and possible jail time for criticizing the military’s actions – a policy that continues to this day. 

In April, an Egyptian military court sentenced Internet activist and blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for criticizing the armed forces. He was arrested on March 28 after posting on his blog comments that were critical of the army’s role during the massive protests throughout the country that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Nabil, 26, was a prominent secular activist who gained notoriety for his movement on Facbeook called “No for the compulsory conscription.” He was the first blogger to be jailed following the fall of the Mubarak regime; his case in retrospect a sign of things to come. Nabil was released in January, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising.

One leading editor speaking to The Media Line under the condition of anonymity because of fear for his safety said bluntly that, “it’s not the civil prosecution to be worried about, it’s the military.”

The editor asserted that currently, “things are touchy. More people are facing military interrogations over insulting the military and most of [what they said] isn’t even that bad.”

But for media professionals, the military’s long reach has led to censorship, with even the most outspoken independent newspapers seemingly acquiescing under the military’s might. Late last year, Al-Masry Al-Youm – the leading non-government run publication – refrained from publishing an interview with U.K. journalist Robert Fisk and an editorial in its English language sister publication for fear it would stir the wrath of the military junta.

Both incidents, coupled with dozens of incidents in which reporters were attacked while covering protests – at least five photographers have lost sight in at least one eye – and the fear of being arrested or summoned because of what he or she writes, has led to an outpouring of anger.

Ahmed Aggour, a leading protester, argues adamantly that the problem facing Egypt and its media was state television.

“Look at what they are showing,” he began. “The state tells the people lies about what is going on, talks of foreigners’ involvement, and this hurts the country.”

This coercion of media has been seen following every violent outbreak in the country over the past 6 months, with the military detailing how protesters “used excessive force;” “were being directed by invisible hands;” followed by the assertion that “the military does not use force or kill its citizens,” despite evidence to the contrary. If a reporter speaks up, or a publication writes negatively about the military, they face charges of “insulting the military.”

For the mainstream Arabic press, reporting and discussing military initiatives or actions, is fraught with self-censorship. Adel Hammouda, a leading editor with Al-Fagr newspaper – who has experienced being summoned by the military – told The Media Line in a recent interview that now when media cover the military’s actions, they have begun to remove anything that is critical of its performance.

“There’s too much fear going around right now,” Hammouda said. “Nobody wants to have their names revealed when dealing with the army, so it is frustrating. And now we are already censoring our work because we don’t want to have our reporters get detained or face charges for anything that they write.”

Fear of an Obama Planet grips some Americans


As soon as I saw The New Yorker cover spoofing right-wing fear mongering over Barack and Michelle Obama, my first thought was that my friend, Sanjay, in Mumbai, India, hada point about Americans and stupidity.

What was it but stupidity that left so many Americans gullible to right-wing accusations that Obama was that turban-wearing, Osama bin Laden-loving Muslim on the magazine’s cover, bumping fists with his militant, rifle-toting wife, Michelle, as the American flag burned in their fireplace.

Where was Barry Blitt’s cartoon months ago, when a loud “So what?” might have nipped in the bud those ridiculous “Obama is a secret Muslim” rumors? So this Muslim, at least, was relieved to see the stupidity lampooned so starkly.

But as soon as I began to revel in the caricature, a little dismayed hand-wringing began. Because now the very people who were offended by right-wing accusations about Obama were acting offended by a cartoon lampooning those very same right-wing machinations. It is as if America has gone mad, or worse, gone brainless.

I remember a dinner-table conversation in Mumbai a couple of weeks ago when Sanjay — an architect and businessman — turned to me quite earnestly to proclaim, “Americans are inherently stupid.”

“How do you live with them?” he asked.

There we were — an Indian and an Egyptian — discussing America over dinner at the Royal Yacht Club, built by British colonialists for the enjoyment of white privilege and off limits to us brown people back when they ruled India.

Then Manique, a Sri Lankan woman, joined the conversation to tell us that during a visit to the United States a few years ago, someone actually asked her if they had bread in Sri Lanka. I asked her, half-jokingly, if it was the same American who asked my dad at an Athens hotel over dinner years ago whether we had fruit in Egypt.

More than just shocked amusement, these incidents show why all of us would vote for Obama if we could. He would never ask us if we had bread or fruit in our countries. Why? Obama is much like us. He has traveled. He has lived abroad. And he has family in several countries. He has a different script for what an American is. He is an American who is comfortable as a citizen of the world — with or without his lapel pin.

This is what makes the right-wing “secret Muslim” accusations and the stupid gullibility surrounding them all the more ludicrous and imperative to lampoon — just as Blitt does in this week’s New Yorker.

Those howls of “offensive” and “tasteless” flung at The New Yorker suggest to me Blitt’s ability to lampoon not just the right wing but even some on the left wing who have promoted fears about Obama.

Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton’s campaign that leaked pictures of Obama in Somali traditional garb, looking just like that crazy figure on the cover of The New Yorker? And didn’t Clinton herself suggest that white, working-class America wouldn’t vote for black, hypereducated Obama?

And wasn’t it The New York Times that published an op-ed by a right-wing commentator that was such an ignorant and embarrassing display, claiming that Obama wasn’t Muslim enough and would be hunted by Muslims because he had abandoned the faith of his father — who was an atheist, by the way.

Just as we were amused at how confounded Americans are that we, too, have bread and fruit in our countries, the Obamas confound because they don’t fit with in simplistic boxes meant to keep them securely in their place. They’re not at all the black stereotype, and it seems to scare the hell out of some Americans.

Jack White points out in an essay on The Root Web site: “We are all, including Obama, in a place we never really thought we would be, and it has knocked us off our feet. We don’t know how to act. We don’t have a plan. We’re searching for our equilibrium. And until we regain our footing, we can expect all sorts of bizarre behavior from people who ought to know better. Hold on to your hat.”

Which is why methinks the outrage over Blitt’s cartoon is less an issue of genuine offense and more a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” It touches on a fear of the world changing much too fast for many Americans to keep up.

The New Yorker cover ridicules an America that is being left behind, grappling with quaint notions of Muslims in regulation turban and white robe and militantly angry black women. And whether other countries have bread or fruit.

We, the children of a post-colonial world, don’t fear an Obama planet. It has been our world for a long time. We’re happy finally to see the growing success of one of our own.

No, I didn’t mean a Muslim. Stop hyperventilating.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning, New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

Bipolar Express: ‘Idiot Box’ takes a trip


Rhoda, Mary, Laverne or Rachel would feel instantly at home in Donna Marquet’s quirky-cute set for “The Idiot Box,” a play currently at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood.

The cloying “anyplace and no place” flatmates in the big city vibe is spot-on for “The Idiot Box,” a shrewd, bittersweet pop-culture critique of American sensibilities post-Sept. 11.

“I waver back and forth between light pop-culture and darker stuff,” says playwright Michael Elyanow, who teaches screenwriting at Hampshire College and whose recent credits include such diverse fare as “Eat Me,” a comedy he penned for Disney, and the not-so-family-friendly “Banging Ann Coulter,” an entry in Chicago’s 10-minute play festival.

The frozen yogurt swirl of light and dark themes in “The Idiot Box” could have easily been reduced to a sticky, unappetizing puddle in the hands of a less able writer. And even with his dexterous handling of complicated themes, Elyanov overreaches once or twice.

“There’s a new will” guiding the country, one of the flat-mates remarks early in the second act, not long after the sitcom set has literally come undone at the end of the first. “The will of the people has been put on ‘block sender.'”

Aside from the rare shrill note, “The Idiot Box” is one of the most intriguing artistic forays into the darker corners of the American psyche either before or after 2001. That the characters and even the physical space of a sitcom — arguably the national opiate of choice — could crack open at the seams to reveal a world based on fear is itself an audacious premise. To succeed at taking a fine-grained and steadily engrossing look at the web of denial that holds those seams together is an even more impressive feat.

“I love Mark,” Elyanov says of his New York City paramedic, played by Kelly Van Kirk, whose “everyday hero” exterior masks the disturbed mind of a character who ends up with blood on his hands. “I understand Mark — he reveals the kind of incredible fear we all have. He’s the voice of what’s deepest and darkest in all of us.”

Part of Elyanow’s inspiration for “The Idiot Box” came from a production of Chekov’s “Three Sisters” directed by Tony-winner Robert Falls.

“It was an eye-opening, consciousness-raising experience,” Elyanow recalls. “When I read Chekov in high school, I thought, ‘I don’t understand anything these people are complaining about.’ When I saw ‘Three Sisters’ as a young adult, I said, ‘I didn’t know you could talk about the things Chekov was talking about.'”

Elyanow does his audience the favor of talking about Chekovian matters through the voices of characters whose banal familiarity becomes a source of both drama and farce. Coaxing those twin muses of the theater onto the stage at the same time is a sorcerer’s business, and with “The Idiot Box” Elyanow has certainly earned his pointy, star-spangled hat.

“The Idiot Box” continues at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood through Aug. 25. For more information, visit

European anti-Semitism spurs controversial comparison


Across Western Europe, thousands cheer neo-Nazi rockers calling for the killing of Jews, synagogues are defaced, Holocaust memorials and cemeteries are desecrated, Jewish schoolchildren are attacked and their parents are afraid to wear yarmulkes or religious jewelry on the streets of major cities.

In “Ever Again,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center, having documented the Holocaust and its aftermath in earlier films, presents a frightening picture of a rising wave of European anti-Semitism, fueled by Islamic fanatics and neo-Nazis.

During 74 minutes of graphic footage and wide-ranging interviews with both victims and perpetrators of abuse and violence, “Ever Again” tracks the new anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Britain.

The film by the Moriah Films division of the Wiesenthal Center and narrated by actor Kevin Costner opens Dec. 8 at the Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas.

Some of the most disheartening interviews are with moderate Muslims who are afraid to speak out against extremists, and with public school teachers who won’t mention the Holocaust in class in the face of threats by their Muslim students.

Coming from the opposite ideological end, but aiming at the same target, is a revived neo-Nazi movement, especially among disaffected young people.

Director Richard Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier, producer and founding dean of the Wiesenthal Center, are Academy Award recipients for previous Moriah Films documentaries.”I doubt that many Americans realize the amount of fear the Jewish communities of Western Europe are living under, due to physical violence and terrifying threats from neo-Nazis and Islamic fanatics,” said Trank. “Tragically, young Jews told us that the situation has become so bad that they no longer see a safe future for themselves and their families in their own countries.”

Hier warned that “many American Jews who have recently visited Europe have come to feel it is no longer safe for them there. The world in which a Jew can safely raise his or her children has become greatly diminished in recent years.”

However, noted Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said he objected to the film’s title, with its clear allusion to the Holocaust-era battle cry, “Never Again.”

“There is no doubt that the situation in Europe must be taken seriously, but it’s a mistake to link it to the Holocaust,” he said.

Berenbaum, a University of Judaism professor, is currently editing the soon to be published book, “Anti-Semitism: Then and Now,” with contributions by 20 American, European and Israeli experts.

“Today’s anti-Semitism is a different and more complex phenomenon than it was 65 years ago,” he observed. “To a large extent, what we see now is the revolt of an underclass, spurred by anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and anti-globalization.

“A major difference from the 1930s and ’40s is that anti-Semitism is not supported by governments. A country like Poland is Israel’s best friend in Europe, and Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish population anywhere.”

The Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas are located at Pico Boulevard and Overland Avenue. Call (310) 281-8223 for screening times. For more information about the film, go to www.wiesenthal.com.

Sderot’s Kids Living in Fear


Eleven-year-old Shir Lazmi says she loves going to school. Why? Because she’s not really allowed to go anywhere else.

That’s because Shir lives in Sderot, where months of intense rocket fire by Palestinians from the nearby Gaza Strip have all but confined schoolchildren like her to the few places where they have both adult supervision and close proximity to a room with a reinforced roof, strong enough to keep a Kassam rocket from breaking through.

“I’m less scared in school,” Shir says after a Bible competition marking the last week of the school year. “I can’t go out with friends. I can’t go to the pool anymore. But I can see my friends here at school.”

Years of Kassam rocket fire at Sderot have shattered the sense of normalcy in this desert town. The fire has become so intense in recent weeks — often three or four rockets a day — that daily life here has come to a virtual standstill. Real estate values in town have plummeted, businesses have closed, people are moving away and nearly everyone says they live in constant fear of sudden death from above.

Sderot’s schools have been particularly hard-hit, and not just by the Kassams that have fallen on kindergartens, classrooms and schoolyards. The schools also have been trying to cope with the challenges of maintaining the routine of education in a place that has become a veritable war zone — all the while trying to convey a sense of normalcy for Sderot’s children.

With summer vacation starting, many parents say they don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids all summer.

“Our job at school, that we’re trying to accomplish within all of this, is to maintain routine,” says Dina Hori, principal of Sderot’s Torani Madani elementary school. “You have to project security, community, the sense that everything is OK.”

Like most of Sderot’s schools, Torani Madani is sponsored and administered by AMIT, the Orthodox Zionist educational organization.

Hori confesses that it’s hard to project normalcy when the Red Dawn emergency system goes off and the kids have no more than a few seconds to rush into reinforced-roof classrooms before a rocket lands somewhere in town with a loud boom.

The children have learned to huddle under their desks and put their hands over their heads, in a scene reminiscent of the 1950s United States. The difference is that the feared Soviet nuclear attack against the Americans never came, while in Sderot, the rockets are raining down.

Just two weeks ago, a rocket hit AMIT’s yeshiva high school in town. Nobody was injured.

But the damage in Sderot has been far more than physical: The rockets have terrorized an entire city and, in the process, transformed life here.

“Everyone gets scared,” Shir says. “Sometimes I cry. I went to the psychologist together with my mother. They taught us how to deal with the Kassams. They told us when we’re afraid to count to three and take three deep breaths.”

Teachers at Hori’s elementary school often whip out guitars and try to get the kids singing after an attack, in a bid to distract them and revive their spirits.

Nevertheless, many students appear to be developing psychological problems, insisting on sleeping near their parents at night, experiencing frequent bouts of panic and easily bursting into tears.

The long-term psychological effects of the attacks, which have been a presence here since 2001 but have intensified since Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, remain unknown.

“The nation of Israel is sick with a spiritual sickness,” laments Rabbi Yoel Bar-Chen, who teaches in one of Sderot’s centrist Orthodox schools. “The nation of Israel does not respond. It does not fight. When they fire upon us, we must respond.”

“This is the worst lesson to the kids: defeatism,” Bar-Chen says. “They learn that we’re weak. It’s a very deep wound that can’t be measured with simple psychology.”

Perhaps most difficult, teachers and students say, is that families are moving away. That means that those who remain are losing their friends, too.

“My best friend is moving to Rosh Ha’Ayin. I’m very sad he’s leaving. I blame only the Arabs,” Ben Harari, 11, says. “Even my uncles are scared to visit us.”

School officials here estimate that the student population has fallen by at least 15 percent over the past year. Some parents have sent their children to live with relatives in safer cities. Others have pulled their kids out of school and insisted on keeping them home. A few have moved away — even though there are practically no home-buyers to replace them.

“Life here has been completely overturned,” says Arie Maimon, representative of the AMIT network of schools in Sderot. On Sunday, Maimon met with a representative from the prime minister’s office to explain that Sderot schools need additional funding for reinforcing roofs and walls against rockets, additional psychological counseling for students and teachers and more field trips out of town.

But no amount of funding will stop the rocket attacks, he says.

“Money doesn’t solve everything,” Maimon says. “You sit here like a duck in a shooting gallery and wait for a miracle. That’s all.”

Since the rocket attacks intensified, Ben says he hasn’t been allowed to stay home alone, play outside or wander around on his own. Once, he says, when the Red Dawn siren sounded at 3:30 a.m., he tripped down the stairs and hurt himself trying to rush to his home’s safe room.

Still, children in town say they don’t want to leave.

“I don’t want to leave because my friends are here,” Shir says. “I love my house. I love my school. I love everything in Sderot.”

 

O.C. Incidents Raise Anti-Semitism Fears


The president of a Los Alamitos high school’s Jewish students’ club came out to the school parking lot last October to find swastikas and “Jew Bitch” scrawled on her car. Across the county, a San Clemente high school student was harassed last year with anti-Jewish slurs to the point that she transferred out of the district.

These two instances in which Jewish students from Orange County were targeted by peers coincide with a broader rise in anti-Semitism, including in schools. Local Jewish groups have sounded an alarm, while the reaction of local school officials has varied.

“There has been a significant rise in the past four years in anti-Semitism generally and on school campuses,” said Dr. Kevin O’Grady, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Orange County/Long Beach Region. O’Grady’s office recorded 43 cases of harassment and vandalism last year, nearly 50 percent more than in 2003; one-third of these involved public schools.

In its 2004 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the ADL documented 1,821 cases of harassment, threats, assault and vandalism against Jews nationwide — up 17 percent from the previous year. This jump was due in part to a spike in reports of anti-Jewish harassment in American middle and high schools.

These incidents have included defacing lockers with swastikas and anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, bullying and intimidation in hallways and Internet chat rooms. Incidents tend to be spread evenly throughout the county, although Los Alamitos and San Clemente have the most reported cases, according to ADL research. In the northwest corridor, skinheads, with their white supremacist ideology, are actively recruiting teenagers in schools, said ADL regional director Joyce Greenspan.

School administrators are responding to these incidents with varied intensity. In some cases, their actions have been resolute. One Costa Mesa middle school principal notified police and suspended 18 students after a girl was harassed on the Web site, My Space, O’Grady said. In San Clemente, a high school principal met with Jewish leaders following reports of several incidents, and ran tolerance programming for the student body, said Rabbi Mendel Slavin of the Chabad Jewish Center of San Clemente, who attended the meeting.

At Los Alamitos High School, administrators banned clothing bearing an iron cross and other paraphernalia associated with white supremacy.

Districts have also adopted zero-tolerance policies for ethnic-based intimidation and offer sensitivity and diversity training programs to prevent problems before they arise.

“When you see that firm and clear response, you see a drop in anti-Semitic incidents,” ADL’s Greenspan said.

Other schools deny the presence of anti-Semitism on their campuses, even in the face of some evidence to the contrary.

Parents of a Tustin-area 10th-grader perceived the administration’s response to be deficient after reporting that their daughter was being continuously harassed by a fellow student.

“He’d walk by and sneeze and say ‘a Jew,’ and say ‘shalom’ and laugh,” said the 15-year-old girl, who asked to be identified only as K. “In class, I’d hear him talking and I’d hear the word ‘Jew’ and [my name] and I knew he was talking about me. He actually called me a ‘kike’ one time.”

The boy described himself as a Nazi and would talk about how Jews killed Jesus, according to K., who said she felt scared and intimidated.

She reported the harassment to a counselor and was instructed to document the incidents in a statement to the vice principal. Because she was afraid to confront the boy and his parents in a face-to-face meeting, she was told that he could be disciplined only if caught in the act.

When the abuse continued, K.’s parents met with the vice principal, who allegedly said that he would direct teachers to send the boy to the office if he made offensive comments. Not all teachers followed this instruction, according to K. In the face of the boy’s unrelenting taunting, the distraught parents removed their daughter from the school.

“What I’m most upset with are the teachers and the way they allowed it to happen, and the way that the vice principal, after receiving such a powerful statement from K., just did not respond,” said K.’s mother. “I feel that they allowed it.”

Tustin Unified School District officials denied knowledge of this incident, but stated that they do not tolerate racial or religious harassment.

“The safety and security of our campuses is our first priority,” said Ron Heape, Tustin Unified’s district administrator for child welfare and attendance. “We are not timid at all about going after these kids.”

Peer-to-peer anti-Semitism is not limited to high schools.

“Our most recent phone calls have been third- and fourth-grade related,” said the ADL’s O’Grady. In one case, a fourth grader was called “dirty Jew” by two classmates, who then wrote the word “Jew” on a piece of paper, circled it and drew a line through it.

“This is what we do to Jews,” Grady says they said.

ADL officials suspect that only a small percentage of incidents gets reported.

“The numbers are staggering,” agreed Robyn Faintich, director of the Orange County Board of Jewish Education’s (BJE) youth education program. Faintich recounted that at a recent gathering of 110 public school 10th graders, more than 90 percent said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments, vandalism or other encounters.

“Schools are not mandated to collect data [on hate incidents] so there is no global perspective,” said Georgiann Boyd, student services coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education.

For that matter, many incidents never leave the school yard. Fear of being further ostracized prevents some students from reporting confrontations to school or community officials.

“We are aware that there is anti-Semitic activity in the schools,” said Orange County Human Relations Executive Director Rusty Kennedy. “Each year we learn of at least a half-dozen incidents in schools that we’re concerned with, and I’m sure there’s more.”

He said that while the number of cases is too small to indicate a trend, he believes that school-based anti-Semitism is comparable to hate acts in the adult community, in which Jews, African Americans and gays and lesbians are most frequently targeted.

“These things that are happening at an early age are concerning, because this is a taught or learned behavior,” said Heather Williams, director of gang victim services at Community Service Programs, Inc. “These children are learning to be anti-Semitic by their parents and people who they’ve been around for a long time.”

 

Iranian Colored Band Report Discredited


When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri’s article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims “to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]”.

The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.

Nevertheless, Taheri’s report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge — and careful — the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.

“To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups,” Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. “I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around.”

Kermanian also said that while Iran’s Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.

The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.

“It’s a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless,” Afroogh said. “There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill.”

Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament,” Motamed said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to “wiped off the map” late last year.

“The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran,” Kermanian said in his press release.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.

In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.

Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad’s comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction.

“We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI “Radio Sedaye Iran,” a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. “Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.”

 

Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow


“Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $25.95).

Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”

Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”

Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial; and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.

One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.

The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.

If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.

This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket.”

Although it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.

This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.

 

Out of the Shadows


It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.

Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.

I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.

Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.

Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.

“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.

See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.

Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.

Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”

In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.

He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.

He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.

His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.

Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.

Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Burton’s ‘Corpse’ Has Jewish Bones


Once upon a time, a bridegroom jokingly recited his marriage vows over a skeletal finger protruding from the earth. After placing his ring on the bone, his mirth turned to horror when a grasping hand burst forth, followed by a corpse in a tattered shroud, her dead eyes staring as she proclaimed, “My husband!”

This chilling Jewish folk tale hails from a cycle of stories about the great 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, in what is now northern Israel, said Howard Schwartz, a top Jewish folklorist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It also apparently inspired Tim Burton’s charmingly ghoulish animated film, “Corpse Bride.” Yes, the film features a bridegroom who accidentally weds a cadaver. But the feature eschews the folk tale’s grotesquerie for romanticized gloom and Halloweeny fun — a trademark of Burton fare such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Corpse Bride” is among more than a dozen fantasy films slated to open this year, including Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which some analysts attribute to the yen for escapist cinema during wartime.

“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges (voiced by Burton’s real-life fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine.

“When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said.

The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. On these occasions, a maggot pal pops out of her exposed eye socket. This damsel-past-distress whisks Victor off to the Land of the Dead, a lively place where skeletons party, forcing Victor to leave his living fiancée (voiced by Emily Watson) bereft.

So why did Burton — who is known to dress like a mortician — brighten the Jewish tale?

“We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” said co-screenwriter John August, who also wrote Burton’s “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“The parts that are ‘scary’ are really parodies of classic horror-film moments, such as when our bride’s detached hand crawls after Victor.” The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”

Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.

“It seemed right for this particular type of [stop-motion] animation,” Burton said in an interview with studio publicists. “It’s like casting — you want to marry the medium with the material.”

The director saw elements in the tale that he could transform to match his love of protagonists who seem bizarre but who are actually tragic and isolated. In interviews, Burton has traced this preoccupation to his lonely childhood as an eccentric, artistic boy growing up in Burbank. No wonder his characters have included the titular disfigured innocent in “Edward Scissorhands,” the reclusive Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and now the corpse bride.

“On the surface, she appears to be a monster but in fact she is kind and sweet and misunderstood,” screenwriter August said.

The Jewish folk obsession with the macabre — encompassing tales such as the corpse bride — comes from strikingly different cultural sensibilities than Burton’s obsessions, said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism.

“Over the centuries, the Jews were very helpless and very beset by outside forces,” Giller said. “Bad luck could always come about, and it was a real act of Providence that bore a couple to the wedding canopy.”

Schwartz, author of “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), retells the corpse tale in his 1987 book, “Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural” (Oxford University Press), in a story titled, “The Finger.” His source was the 17th-century volume, “Shivhei ha-Ari,” which collected earlier stories about the alleged feats of the real Rabbi Luria. The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. He is a member of the rabbinic court (the beit din) that eventually rules against the corpse, stating that she is not married because the dead have no claim upon the living, among other reasons.

The real Luria lived in the 16th century, but the origin of tales about nuptials with supernatural entities is far earlier. Schwartz traces them to a biblical commentary that suggests Adam had an insubordinate first wife, Lilith, who became a seductive demon. Later variations on this storyline include “the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said.Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (also the subject of a new movie), the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior.

“It tells us, ‘Be careful, don’t ever take an oath in vain. Don’t take it lightly,'” said Peninnah Schram, a professional Jewish storyteller and associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College in New York.

In “The Finger,” the wayward bridegroom gets lucky. After the rabbis rule against the validity of the corpse’s marriage to the careless suitor, the would-be bride — after emitting one last shriek — collapses in a pile of bones and dies, this time for keeps.

The movie has a more Hollywood kind of ending, with that Tim Burton twist.

“Tim’s characters tend to wear darker colors and some, like the corpse bride, are no longer living, but they have a pluck and a spirit that makes you fall in love with them,” August said.

“Corpse Bride” opens Friday in theaters.

 

A Challenge to Cowards


 

In the play “2 Across,” a man and a woman — who have nothing in common but their crossword puzzles — are on a 4:15 a.m. train leaving San Francisco International Airport for the East Bay. She takes crosswords (and life) very seriously; he treats everything like a game. By the time they reach East Bay 80 minutes later, their lives have changed. And it all starts with the man taking the first step: making a light comment to her.

It got me thinking about the times in my life when I failed, for various reasons, to take that first step of reaching out to someone I wanted to meet. Coming back from college one day, I struck up a conversation with an attractive woman my age at the bus station. We had a nice rapport but when it came time to part, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for her number. So our brief relationship ended there — and, of course, I’ve never seen her again.

This was back when I was still shy. I’ve since gotten over my shyness. These days, I’m perfectly comfortable crossing the room to ask for a supermodel’s phone number while she’s chatting with Hugh Grant. After all, she can meet wealthy and famous movie stars any day. How refreshing would it be for her to hang out with a struggling Jewish writer. I’d even let her use my apartment’s parking space and access to the building’s washer and dryer. I’m a giver.

But say I had reached out to that woman at the bus station that day, asked for her number and called her. There might have been one of many responses. She could have said, “Thanks but I’m already in a relationship.” She might have said, “Thanks but I’m not interested.” She might have offered her phone number but when I called it, I find I’m connected to her local police department.

Of course, something positive might have resulted, as well. We could have gone out, hit it off, entered into a long-term relationship, gotten married, had kids, lived happily every after.

The point is, I’ll never know what might have happened with that woman who could have turned out to be the love of my life — simply because I was too chicken to ask for her number. And when you think about it, my cowardice doesn’t make sense, because in a situation like that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s all about taking that leap of faith and reaching out.

OK, so if you’re rejected, perhaps your self-esteem takes a little hit. If you’re rejected a lot, perhaps it gets bruised. And if you experience nothing but rejection, maybe your self-esteem ends up in the trauma ward of Love General Hospital. But enough about my pain.

Eventually someone is going to open her arms and her heart.

Let’s get back to that supermodel. How many times have we read interviews with supermodels, gorgeous actresses and other high-profile beauties, in which they complain that they sit home alone, because for whatever reasons — fear, intimidation, assuming women that lovely must already have boyfriends — they’re just not asked out on dates?

Well, I say to my fellow male daters — let’s end that fear here and now. Whether she’s an average woman doing a crossword puzzle on a commuter train, or Gisele Bundchen doing a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shoot on a Jamaican beach — reach out. Put those insecurities on hold.

The Talmud states: “To facilitate a union between man and woman is as difficult a task as parting the Red Sea.” Granted. But if you don’t take that first step, the union is downright impossible.

“2 Across” is on stage at the Santa Monica Playhouse through Dec. 19. $25. 8 p.m. (Fridays), 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. (Saturdays), 6 p.m. (Sundays). $25. 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. For tickets, call (800) 863-7785.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

 

Racist Repeats Election Stratagem


The Republican primary victory on Aug. 5 of white supremacist James Hart in Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District is eerily familiar to Southern Californians.

It seems like a page out of the 1980 playbook of Tom Metzger, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who won the Democratic nomination for Congress in San Diego County against the then-entrenched Republican incumbent, Rep. Clair W. Burgener.

Because the popular Burgener, a soft-spoken conservative, was considered such a shoo-in for a fifth term, no well-known Democrat wanted to oppose him. Why be a sacrificial lamb? So the campaign for the Democratic nomination started as a contest for the party privileges that go with becoming an official, albeit losing, Democratic nominee.

Insider party privileges, such as winning an automatic seat on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and having the right to appoint members to the Democratic State Central Committee, drew party worker Edward Skagen into the race. Bud Higgins, another political unknown, similarly was eligible for these low-profile prizes.

Metzger, better known and not yet well understood, changed the dynamics of the primary election. He received 33,071 votes, or 37.1 percent of those cast in northern San Diego County, southern Riverside County and all of Imperial County. That was enough to come in ahead of Skagen by 392 votes and to win the Democratic nomination in what was then California’s 43rd Congressional District.

Well-known Republicans in Tennessee similarly believed it pointless to challenge Democrat John Tanner in this election cycle. He is in his eighth term, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and is a leader of the so-called "blue dog" Democrats — moderates who joke that they’ve been squeezed so hard by the left and right wings of the party, they fear turning blue.

Although write-in candidate Dennis Bertrand sought to stop Hart in the primary election, Hart triumphed with more than 80 percent of the vote in a district that covers 19 counties in northwest Tennessee.

The political parties were reversed in the California and Tennessee scenarios, but the cynicism is the same.

What motivated Metzger and what now drives Hart were opportunities to get media for their message of white supremacy. The fact that we read in newspapers across the nation about the Tennessee candidate proves the publicity value of the congressional nomination.

Metzger probably didn’t expect to beat Burgener, any more than Hart really anticipates unseating Tanner. For Hart, the reward will be all the attention he can stir up for the discredited Nazi theory of eugenics — that some racial groups are genetically superior to others.

I became press secretary to Burgener’s campaign in 1980, after Metzger won the Democratic nomination. It quickly became apparent that there were two major problems with which we had to contend. The first was that news reporters thought that it was unusual, offbeat, even a matter of human interest, that a real live Ku Klux Klansman was running for office in California. It was sort of a "man bites dog" story, interesting because it was different, without much thought given to what that difference was all about.

The second problem was that Burgener didn’t want to say anything about Metzger. The congressman’s first instinct was to ignore Metzger, so as not to build a tent for his opponent.

That strategy might have worked against an unknown, but Metzger already knew how to command media attention. The task for Burgener was to define Metzger and white supremacy for San Diegans. Tanner will have a similar responsibility in Tennessee’s general election campaign.

Ultimately, Burgener came to understand that Metzger was a symbol who needed to be confronted and not simply a political opponent. The campaign got hold of a documentary film about the faces of hate, in which Metzger’s group was pictured, and in which Metzger said some intolerant things. Burgener’s campaign held a screening for the media, and Metzger and some followers thought they could make light of it by showing up uninvited in Nixon masks.

After the media heard on film the kind of hatred that Metzger and his followers spewed about African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jews, suddenly having a Ku Klux Klansman as an official Democratic nominee from San Diego didn’t seem like a human interest story anymore. Reporters demanded of Metzger whether he really believed in the hard-core hate he had been filmed spouting in the documentary, or did he believe the softer line he had been taking in the campaign?

Metzger was unmasked, and from that day until Election Day, stories focused not on how unusual Metzger’s philosophy was but on how un-American it was.

To illustrate that Metzger was outside the mainstream of American politics, the Burgener campaign adopted what it called the "Hatfield and McCoy" strategy. It found rival Democratic and Republican candidates, some of whom were long-time political enemies, and had them stand together at the same lectern to endorse Burgener.

A typical formulation was, "We never agree on anything else, but when it comes to this election, we can agree — enthusiastically. We urge everyone to reject the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and vote for Clair."

To their credit, Democrats were willing to put aside partisan differences and urge the reelection of the Republican incumbent. In Tennessee, the test will be whether Republicans will be willing to return the compliment.

Burgener won the contest with more than 86 percent of the vote — the outcome no surprise. The Ku Klux Klan and the racist doctrine of white supremacy were dealt a resounding rejection at the polls.

After the election, Metzger went on to become the leader of the White Aryan Resistance, eventually losing millions of dollars in a court suit brought against him for instigating the beating death of an Ethiopian student in Oregon.

The leadership of our mainstream political parties meanwhile vowed that in the future, they would prevent the hijacking of their congressional nominations by extremists. For a quarter of a century, they were mostly able to keep that vow — up until now.


Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage.

Donor Pool Swim


Few days have haunted me like April 15, 2002. It was the day Time magazine screamed out from its cover that women cannot have it all.

Like a slap to the face, the writer reported that the biological odds are against getting pregnant after 35 and that stories of women conceiving into their 40s are anomalies, and nothing more.

I was approaching 33 and panicked. My biggest fear was becoming one of those women who troll the Bay Area’s Jewish singles scene, frantically searching for a husband. So I visited my doctor.

Dr. Silvia Yuen strode into her Sutter Street examination room.

"How are you today?" she asked.

"OK," I began, "but I read that Time magazine article."

"Uh-oh."

"Yeah, so what I’d like to do is freeze some of my eggs."

I wanted insurance that my biological clock wouldn’t blur my dating judgment. Putting eggs on layaway would take off the pressure, I told her.

She offered me a fertility clinic brochure, but cautioned that while the freezing and thawing out of sperm had been perfected, the science wasn’t yet there for women and their eggs. Frozen embryos were the best bet, she said, but they’d require committing to a sperm — a step I wasn’t ready to take.

But the discussion got me thinking. How is a woman supposed to choose the right man when he’s reduced to a Petri dish?

My good friend, I’ll call her Beth, had to find out. After trying to get pregnant for more than a year, she and her husband learned that he’s shooting blanks. They mulled over their options and turned to California Cryobank (CCB), the mothership of sperm banks. Around for more than 25 years, CCB is spreading its seeds in all 50 states and at least 30 countries worldwide.

Agreeing on a donor was trying, Beth admitted: "We thought we’d found the perfect one, but when we pulled up his baby photo, he looked like a frog!"

Then there were those her husband rejected.

"I found one who was great, but he said he was too tall," she said. "I’m thinking about the best donor to help us have a child, and he views the sperm as competition."

Beth waved me over to her computer, selected a file named "Little Swimmers," and introduced me to their chosen sperm: Donor 5378.

I asked how she honed in on 5378, and she navigated to the donor catalog. Up top it read, "Click here to view our list of donors with at least one Jewish ancestor."

There were only 13 choices, and 5378 was off the menu, sold out.

Later, I called CCB. I wanted to know about the demand for Jewish sperm, why there’d been such a run on 5378.

"People choose on all different criteria," said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing. "It’s almost the same as what they encounter when looking for a mate."

High demand for Jewish donors, she said, prompted CCB to create the special search field Beth had used.

But how Jewish can a sperm be? I appreciate wanting a compatible gene pool, but it’s not like the little swimmer comes equipped with Torah knowledge or understanding of Jewish mothers and good deli. If halacha says a baby born to a Jewish woman is Jewish, does the donor’s background matter?

For Beth and her husband, it did.

"The spirituality and values of the Jewish culture is so much of who I am and who [he] is," she said. "Knowing that the sperm was Jewish … made us feel like we were connected."

This approach is common for Reform Jews like Beth, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of bioethics at the University of Judaism. But in the Orthodox community, he said, the opposite is true.

Based on a 1950s decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, non-Jewish donors are recommended to prevent incest and to protect against Jewish genetic diseases.

Beth felt safe knowing sperm at CCB is genetically screened.

I caught up with Dr. Cappy Rothmann, the co-founder and medical director of CCB, to see what he made of my sperm-shopping query.

"I don’t understand. I just try to help the best I can."

He asked about my interest in this topic, and I admitted my age. Before saying goodbye, he offered, "Next time you’re in L.A., come see me."

I hung up the phone, hoping I’d never have to.

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s degree in journalism at UC
Berkeley. Her e-mail address is jessica_ravitz@yahoo.com.

No Half Love!


Will I fall in love again?

After 17 years of marriage? At 42?

Will I even recognize the feeling? How soon will I allow myself to feel that vulnerable? That trusting?

Here’s a shocker: I’m cynical. I tend to regard women who come into my life with the narrow-eyed acuity of a fact checker. I have quickly become an instant documentarian, a sharp-eared debriefer in the Guantanamo Bay of the heart.

An astute interviewer, I listen for instant disqualifiers — gross insecurities, knee-jerk judgmentalism, debt, uncontrollable recoiling at the mention of sex.

Call this the Yiddish model of wary romance. At best, this model is worldly and practical.

"Love is a fine thing," the Yiddish saying goes, "but love with noodles is even tastier."

At its worst, this model is as despairing as Kafka, who let us know that "there is infinite hope — just not for us."

My Yiddish model admits that there is indeed infinite love between men and women, but that I’m destined for membership in the other 99.8 percent of the population.

It’s a seductively comfortable working model for dating. Why? Because it begins in fear, and so keeps me armored, garrisoned, provisioned and snugly out of the range of fire.

But, as Goethe’s Faust famously cried, "Two souls dwell, alas, in my breast."

And so my Yiddishe kop rides atop a body suffused with a Hebraic soul. Built of love, not fear, it belts out the Hebrew of the Song of Songs — "Love is stronger than death," and "Let me lean against the stout trunks, let me couch among the apple trees, for I am sick with love."

My Hebraic heart doesn’t fact check women, it listens optimistically for a singing partner — for spontaneous appreciation of beauty, for playful verbal dexterity, affection, exuberance, sensuality, beneficence.

This Hebrew model of love is far more uncomfortable. It pounds at the ribs. It is a ready conflagration under the skin. It is a psycho inner-puppy that persistently leaps to imagine a future of conjugal bliss. Hebraic love, as the Song of Songs reminds us, is a promise of love that, in its fullness of heart, is so expansive, so complete, that it can serve as nothing less than a metaphor for God’s love of us and for the human love of God.

Whoa. Yeah. I want love like that. And outsinging Kafka, there’s an optimistic voice in me that believes I, single, unfettered, can have it.

Because the great thing about starting out fresh at this point in my life is that, past the anxieties of youth, and before the frailties of age, I’m at full power.

For the first time in almost 20 years, unable to blame someone else, unburdened of the need to please someone else, I get to create the life I want. As ideal as I want to it to be.

And so, when I met a woman with an inspiringly buoyant, happy heart, I found myself blurting to her, "No half love." I was spontaneously striking a deal right from the start. A veteran of an increasingly listless marriage herself, her whole face lit up.

"No half love," she repeated. We weren’t in love yet, but if we were going to be, we were pledging ourselves at this important threshold to an idealism of, well, biblical proportions. What does that translate to in everyday life? To me, it means drawing from a bottomless well of generosity; it means kindness under stress, patience when gloom visits, quiet amid chaos and an almost giddy joy in the other’s happiness. All in all, it means maintaining a steadfast X-ray vision through the inevitable husks of daily imperfection to the divine creamy filling within.

Will I fall in love again? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that though I crack wise in Yiddish, my heart soars with a more ancient yearning…

Set me as a seal upon thy heart

As a seal upon thy arm

For love is as strong as death…

Many waters cannot quench love,

nor can the floods drown it.

Undrownable. Amen.


Adam Gilad is a writer, producer and CEO of Rogue Direct, LLP. He also
teaches creative writing based on Jewish texts at the UJ and privately. He can
be reached at adamgilad@yahoo.com

Religions Hold Mix of Justice and Mercy


Religion did not begin with compassion. The gods of the
ancient Near East were not exactly epitomes of goodness.

In the flood story of the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods destroyed humanity not because they
were reacting to unbridled violence and sin, as in the biblical (and quranic)
versions, but because humans were making too much noise and disturbing them.

The ancient gods were worshipped but not out of love. They
were worshipped out of fear.

In the old polytheistic systems of the ancient Near East,
the gods fought each other and their competitors’ human worshippers. People
made offerings to the gods to placate their anger. They bribed them for their
beneficence.

The gods acted out the birth, maturity, decay and death of
nature in their own cycles of violence. Some exhibited the attribute of stern
justice observed in the Bible, but one hardly observes compassion among the
gods of old.

The idea of a compassionate God is an innovation of monotheism.
Only when the one God of all life became manifest could humanity conceive of a
divinity that combined both justice and mercy. The innovation was the
compassion. But the old attribute of stern justice did not disappear.

That combination of justice and compassion (din and rachamim
in Jewish religious parlance) offers a broad repertoire of divine responses to
human behaviors. While we may resonate with the stories of compassion in the
Bible, we must not ignore the cases in which God brings mass destruction upon
Israelites and non-Israelites for the sins of the few. Not all the children
killed in God’s plagues, fires and wars were guilty.

Like the Bible, the Quran portrays God in terms of justice
and mercy. God is al-Jabbar, “the powerful,” sometimes even understood as “the
oppressor,” whom no one can resist, but God is al-Rachman as well, “the
merciful.” God is also al-Salam.

Islam displays the same broad spectrum between the poles of
harsh justice and compassionate mercy that we observe in Judaism. All the
options are available, and the huge compendium of religious literature in Islam
attests to a long and venerable history of struggle (which is the meaning of
jihad) with applying the Quran and its interpretations to the exigencies of
real life.

Different methodologies are used to plumb the depths of the
divine will. As a result, some schools of interpretation tend to be harsher,
some more lenient on a variety of issues.

I know of no criteria by which one can accurately judge a
religion as more just, loving, hateful or compassionate than others. Every one
of these attributes is found abundantly in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Because the range is there, religious interpreters find
themselves attracted to what resonates with their own human experience. There
are cruel Muslims, to be sure. There are also cruel Christians, Hindus and,
yes, cruel Jews.

Particularly since Sept. 11, we hear Muslim spokespersons
stand up and claim that those who engage in certain behaviors or
interpretations of the Quran are not really Muslims. According to this
argument, cruel individuals who consider themselves Muslims are only cruel
individuals. They cannot be Muslims, because Islam teaches reason and
compassion.

Islam does indeed teach reason and compassion. But Islam can
also express passionate anger and violent aggression. The claim that cruel
Muslims are not Muslims is disingenuous and abdicates responsibility for the
behavior of religious compatriots who are acting immorally against others.

There are indeed religious Muslims who engage in terrorism
in the name of Islam. These are true Muslims.

They may practice expressions of Islam that are neither
normative nor commendable, but “normative” and “commendable” are subjective
terms. Terror in the name of religion fits historically within the broad range
of options that must be considered authentic to Islam, and it must be
acknowledged as such by Muslims.

It is certainly true that the current trend toward militant
and violent radicalism carried out in the name of Islam is a hearkening back to
pagan, pre-Islamic Arabian values. It is also true that these values were not
successfully purged by the softening overlay of religion.

We observe the same tensions playing out in Christianity and
Judaism, of course, but by our generation these religions seem to have been
more successful than Islam in neutralizing the excesses of human nature. At the
very least, it is much more difficult today for cruelty to be acted out through
religious channels within the broadest parameters of Judaism and Christianity
than Islam.

In the final analysis, neither pre-Islamic Arabian standards
nor Islamic or other religious values create human cruelty. The inclination for
cruelty comes from somewhere else in the complex tangle of what is the human
psyche. Cruelty is not Islamic, Jewish or Christian.

On the other hand, in every case I know of human cruelty on
a public and mass level, the perpetrators claim to find justification by
association with some norm or value that is thought to provide legitimacy.
Sometimes the false legitimacy is religious. But this is only an attempt at
justification. Religion or culture is not a cause.

Then again, if pseudo-legitimacy for human cruelty can be
hung easily on a great religious system like Islam, there is a problem. That
problem can be fixed, but only when alternative channels for aggression and
alternative means for resolving disputes are stressed within the system.

And that’s where America comes into the picture. In the
free, open and safe society that is America, I observe American Muslims
engaging in a new jihad. This jihad is an open struggle to stress the Islamic
values of reason, tolerance and nonviolent means of resolving disputes. I see
this jihad being played out every day in the Muslim community of Los Angeles.
There are other voices in the American Muslim community as well –  some that
are quite problematic, in fact — but this is the way it should be in an open
society.

The struggle of the American Jewish community to integrate
the best of Jewish values with the best of American values can be a model. Here
in America, the voices of reason and compassion can prevail because Americans,
whether Muslim or Christian or Jew, will not allow threats and intimidation to
win the day.  


Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Community Briefs


L.A. Officials Honor Israel

Senior City of Los Angeles officials, visiting Israel under the auspices of the L.A. Jewish Federation, presented a proclamation from the L.A. City Council to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai praising Israel as a “bedrock of stability, democracy and modernity with shared common values of pluralism and cultural diversity.” (From left) City Council President Alex Padillo, Huldai, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Councilman Jack Weiss. Photo courtesy Israeli Free Sun

Kuehl: Anti-Hunger Groups Shouldn’t GiveUp

About 22 percent of Israelis suffer from the fear a food shortage called “hunger insecurity,” according to Los Angeles-based Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. That figure is an increase from prior Israeli surveys on hunger.

“It’s a spike because of three years of terrorism,” MAZON Executive Director H. Eric Schockman told The Journal. Though Israel lacks regional food banks and other American solutions to hunger, Schockman does not believe in creating a new Israeli government hunger office but said that Israel’s 150 anti-hunger agencies must start communicating. “They don’t talk to each other.”

California’s various MAZON-funded anti-hunger groups met Nov. 9-10 in Santa Monica, and heard state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) outline how she sees the new Schwarzenegger-run California government handling budget cuts, especially to social service agencies.

“There is very little else to cut but education and social services,” Kuehl said to about 100 nonprofit executives. “It’s always going to be a struggle. We have to be the squeakiest wheel we can possibly be.”

Kuehl also said that anti-hunger groups should never stop asking for state funds because, no matter how much money a nonprofit raises, “It will never be as much as I’ve got to give out.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Wolpe Recovering From Surgery

Rabbi David Wolpe was released from the hospital last week following a successful surgery to remove a brain lesion. Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s senior rabbi for the last seven years, first experienced a seizure on Oct. 23 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was speaking at the dedication of a new Hillel House.

Wolpe is recuperating at his home and plans to return full time to his duties at Sinai and in the community at large. He and his family thank the community for their prayers, concern, calls, e-mails, letter, donations and most of all, love.

In lieu of flowers, balloons or food, donations can be made to Sinai Temple or Sinai Akiba Academy. Any inquiries, cards, or well wishes should be directed through Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, Attn: Tracy Schatz. — Staff Report

Israeli Cultural Attaché Resigns

The Israeli cultural attaché in Los Angeles, Moti Reif, resigned this week following a sexual harassment complaint filed against him in Israel’s Foreign Ministry earlier this month. Reif, a former model and TV producer, was appointed to Los Angeles some three months ago, amid heavy criticism from Israeli ministry officials who said Reif had no diplomatic experience. There are no current plans to replace him. — Staff Report

Walk Your Dog


The two suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Rishon LeZion occurred Tuesday, the day I was booking my flight to Israel for later this fall.

I fear what I’ll find when I get there is a country caught up once again in a crescendo of violence. The brief calm that offered the barest of reasons for hope is no more. "We have to learn to see the lulls as the exception to the rule," an American diplomat told me last month. At the time, I could only hope he was wrong.

Then again, this is September, a month that optimists measure in dog years: the Sept. 5, 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes; Sept. 28, 2000, the beginning of the intifada, which has cost hundreds of innocent human lives; Sept. 11, 2001; and Sept. 13, the 10th anniversary of the Oslo accords, the failure of which is as much a result of terror as it is a cause of future terror.

On Tuesday morning, I attended a meeting with John Miller, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, and it became clear to me that American Jews are in the midst of completing a double major in terrorism. America’s war on terror is far from over, and we watch in horror as Israelis suffer its consequences abroad. Being ahead of the curve on this test is no comfort.

Miller is the former ABC News reporter and anchor who landed the only interview any American journalist has ever conducted with Osama bin Laden.

On May 24, 1994, bin Laden’s fellow sociopaths took Miller and his camera crew on a tortuous journey into the Afghani highlands. Someone at the American Jewish Committee briefing asked Miller why, if he could find bin Laden with $70,000 and an SUV, our military cannot. Simple, said Miller, "He wanted me to find him."

Bin Laden used his prime-time appearance to declare war on the "Jews and the Crusaders," meaning Israel and America. His organization, which Miller said is less of a terrorist band and more of a sponsor and facilitator — "the Ford Foundation of terror" — has been active ever since. We’ve bagged some of its chieftains, but many others, including all the bombers of the U.S.S. Cole, are at large, and stocks of the deadly nerve agent ricin, which we know they’ve been working on, are unaccounted for.

So our war on terror is not over, and according to Miller, the war in Iraq (which evidently isn’t over either) has, if anything, distracted us from making our own city safer. Two years after President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security swore to help cities finance anti-terror measures, the money is finally beginning to trickle in from Washington, Miller said, and even then it is not enough.

Los Angeles is a "target-rich environment," Miller said, from our amusement parks to our government buildings, our infrastructure and our film studios. The sharp eye of a single U.S. Customs agent averted what would have been a calamitous explosion at LAX planned for Jan. 1, 2000, but Al Qaeda isn’t done with us. More than a dozen of their operatives are known to have passed through Southern California (three of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived in San Diego), and training tapes captured in Afghanistan show operatives practicing English 101 on pretend hostages. "Why are they training in English," asked Miller, "if they don’t intend to use it?"

Several immediate fears bubbled up at the briefing. Will suicide bombers strike our malls and cafes? Miller suggested instead that Al Qaeda’s MO is large-scale, well-planned and well-spaced attacks, about every two years. Are our synagogues safe during the High Holidays? Miller said that religious institutions, some of which his bureau identifies as "high-quality targets," receive extra attention at sensitive times of year. But, he added, Al Qaeda plans and executes operations when they’re ready, not according to any holidays or anniversaries.

The question is not if we are we safe, but what can each of us do to be safer? The idea is to find the balance between alert and alarmed, between giving in to our fears (and to fear mongers) and giving up.

The best intelligence the task force has received recently, said Miller, came not from CIA signal intelligence in the mountains of Afghanistan, but from a woman in Los Angeles out walking her dog.

"She saw something that just didn’t feel right and called us, and the information is panning out," he said.

Miller refused to go into more detail, but there was a strange comfort in the anecdote. To make our city safer we should call our City Council representatives and tell them to fund counterterrorism in Los Angeles. But we should also keep living our lives, walking our dogs and buying tickets to Israel.

Teen Feared Kidnapped in Israel


Danna Bennett finished her waitressing shift at a Tiberias restaurant at 1 a.m., caught a taxi to a designated stop less than one mile from her house, started walking home and has not been seen since.

The Aug. 1 disappearance of the 18-year-old Los Angeles native has her family fearing their daughter might have been kidnapped. Despite intensive searches involving more than 200 police officers and civilians, appeals in the Israeli media for knowledge of Danna Bennett’s whereabouts, and a $50,000 reward for any information related to the disappearance, the Bennetts have not been able to uncover any clues about her disappearance.

Danna Bennett’s disappearance came only a week after a U.S. yeshiva student, Eliezer Zusia Klockhoft, 19, from Brooklyn, went missing after visiting the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, another northern city. He, too, has not been found yet.

Unlike disappearances in the United States, which are often a case of runaways or kidnapping by criminals, disappearances in Israel are often feared to be a case of terrorism. Indeed, both Danna Bennett and Klockhoft disappeared just days after Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah broadcast a call to kidnap more Israelis. Moreover, since the July 27 broadcast, several Israelis in the north — the site of Danna Bennett’s and Klockhoft’s last appearances — reported kidnapping attempts at gunpoint from which they were able to escape, according to The Jerusalem Post.

But Danna Bennett’s family is not giving up the search.

"The first two weeks I was part of search parties," said Raphael Bennett, her 20-year-old brother who lives in San Francisco. "There was a base camp where people gathered, and we went out everyday literally searching fields. But now there is nothing to do except support my family."

Nancy Newport, a close family friend of the Bennetts who lives in Carthay Circle, said that since there is no body and no clues, the family fears that an Arab man posing as a Jew seduced Danna Bennett and lured her into a neighboring village, such as Kfar Kana, to work as a domestic slave. This has happened to other young Jewish girls in Israel, some of whom managed to escape.

The family does not want to discuss details of the case, for fear it would jeopardize efforts to locate their daughter.

But Raphael Bennett did say that although the FBI had come to Israel to help investigate the disappearance, he did not think that the American government was doing enough to help find his sister.

"I believe that the Israeli government is probably doing what they can, and if the American government is doing anything, I think they can probably be doing a lot more," he said. "The FBI came, but they didn’t contact me or my parents, and whether they know something or don’t know something is what we are going to try and find out. But I think they need to be over in Israel doing whatever it takes to find some idea of what happened."

A representative for the FBI would not comment on Danna Bennett’s disappearance or efforts to find her.

Danna Bennett was raised in the Fairfax area where she attended Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school. When she was 14, her parent’s divorced and Danna moved to Israel with her mother and attended high school at a kibbutz.

Prior to her disappearance, she had been working as a waitress at her uncle’s restaurant on the Tiberias boardwalk during the day. On July 30, two days before she disappeared, she had taken a night job at another restaurant in Tiberias. She was planning on returning to the United States in October to live with her brother, work at the YMCA in El Cerrito and decide what she was going to do in college.

"My sister is a very responsible girl," Raphael Bennett said. "She liked hanging out with my grandmother, helping her cook and writing down her recipes."

Raphael Bennett said that his sister is religious, keeps Shabbat and prays every day, and hasn’t gotten serious about boys yet.

He also noted that police in Israel have closed the investigation into his sister’s disappearance.

"They spent lots of money and manpower and didn’t get any leads, so there was nothing for them to really do," he said. "But that doesn’t mean that the other authorities like Shabak aren’t working on it," he added, referring to the General Security Services.

He also said that his father had hired private investigators, but would say no more.

In Los Angeles, a number of Danna Bennett’s friends from elementary school are getting together to pray for her, and Etz Jacob principal, Rabbi Shlomo Harroush is helping to raise money for the $50,000 reward.

"She is a wonderful girl," Harosh said. "She was very involved, very active, and this is really sad."

Raphael Bennett said that his family was trying to hold up under the pressure.

"My dad is still trying to stay optimistic, and so is my mother, but it is definitely tough," he said. "Instead of getting easier every day, it just gets more difficult. Hope has become a very difficult thing."

Interfaith Ties Bloom


In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Sande Hart grew increasingly disgusted by disparaging remarks some of her friends — both Jewish and not — made about Muslims. The Koran, they said, preached killing Jews and other infidels; Islam was a hate-filled religion, with few redeeming qualities.

Hart, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident with two young children, said she knew in her heart that the anti-Islamic remarks were small-minded and a reflection of the overwhelming fear engendered by the terrorist attacks. But with no Muslim friends and a limited knowledge of the religion, she felt unequipped to do battle with the hate-mongers.

So Hart, a longstanding supporter of multiculturalism, decided to educate herself. She and her friend, Theresa Barnett, vowed to form an interfaith group that would bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together. In June 2002, the two Orange County residents founded Sarah, a women’s group that meets monthly to dispel stereotypes, build cultural bridges and increase understanding.

In less than a year, Sarah’s size has more than doubled to 42 members, made up of 18 Jews, eight Muslims, 15 Christians and one Baha’i. Because of that growth, members’ homes can barely accommodate meetings. Some future gatherings will be held in community centers.

"What we’re saying is it’s time to express love and appreciation," Hart, 42, said. "We’re becoming each other’s friends, and our kids now play together. We’re trying to create a culture of peace, one where people are no longer pointing guns at each other."

The organization — named after Abraham’s wife — is more than just an armchair salon for highly educated, liberal women. Sarah has sponsored several events to raise money for a variety of causes, including world hunger.

The group recently put on a seminar on domestic violence. To promote unity, members have given away handmade "peace tapestries" to like-minded organizations.

Sarah’s popularity reflects a major political and social shift underway in Orange County, said Bill Shane, executive director of the local branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice — formerly the National Conference of Christian and Jews — which is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism. Once a bastion of white Protestant conservatism (and former national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan) the county now has 24 synagogues, 12 mosques, a Jain Temple and a new Buddhist Temple in Irvine.

As religious diversity has flourished, so have links among the various faiths. Shane estimated the county now has 25 interfaith groups, up from 20 in 2002.

"There’s no question that Orange County today is very different than Orange County of just a generation ago," he said.

Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo applauded the changes. Krause, whose synagogue dispatched more than two dozen volunteers after Sept. 11 to serve as security guards at local Muslim parochial schools, said Sarah and other interfaith organizations "are making the world a little nicer."

Not all groups promoting cultural understanding have fared as well. The Cousins Club of Orange County, a 15-year-old Jewish-Palestinian organization that advocates peace in the Middle East based on Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, has seen interest wane as the cycle of violence has spiraled in the Holy Land.

Many Palestinian members have ceased attending meetings, because they feel "desperate and depressed" about the situation overseas, said Robby Gordon, Cousins Club co-chairman. Similarly, Jewish participation has dropped off due to a sense of impotence.

"I hope we get a new wind of members," Gordon said. "But I can’t predict the future."

Thanks to the enthusiasm of members like Nadia Miri-Ali, Sarah membership, by contrast, has soared. A 36-year-old Muslim mother of two, Miri-Ali said the warmth of fellow group members has helped renew her faith in the United States, a bond that was temporarily shaken by the upsurge of anti-Muslim prejudice post Sept. 11.

The Trabuco Canyon resident said she particularly enjoys the wide-ranging discussions at Sarah meetings.

Among other subjects, the women have talked about prominent female religious figures, the tenets of their respective faiths and how their grandmothers used to stuff them with food when they visited.

Miri-Ali said she was fascinated to learn of the many cultural similarities between Muslims and Jews, including respect for the elderly, strong family values, love of food and dietary laws forbidding the consumption of pork.

Sarah member Karen Mueller, an Episcopalian, said she liked the group’s focus on women’s spirituality.

"I think ‘woman energy’ can make a big contribution to healing and reconciliation in the world," she said.

‘Terrorist’ Helped Israeli Heal


In August 1978, El Al stewardess Yulie Cohen Gerstel stepped off the bus at London’s Europa Hotel and saw a man hatefully staring at her.

“I think he’s going to start shooting at us,” Gerstel, now 46, told a supervisor.

Seconds later, she was cowering behind a car while the man and an accomplice opened fire on the rest of her El Al flight 016 crew. Shrapnel pierced her arm as one stewardess bled to death, another lay comatose and an attacker blew himself up with his own grenade. Police captured the other terrorist, Fahad Mihyi, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the man who had hatefully stared at Gerstel.

“The piece of shrapnel was removed from my arm and kept as evidence for [his] trial,” she recounts in her powerful one-hour documentary, “My Terrorist.”

The film explores the deeper psychic injuries Gerstel endured and how she overcame them by meeting Mihyi in 2000 and campaigning for his release from prison. The straightforward but intensely personal piece stands out amid the flurry of third-person documentaries emerging on the Middle East crisis, including Ilan Ziv’s 2002 suicide bombing expose, “Human Weapon,” and Oliver Stone’s “Persona Non Grata” (see page 26). Gerstel’s film has been controversial in Israel, where one columnist called the director a traitor.

In a phone in interview from Tel Aviv, Gerstel said, “Of course when I read these things I feel upset. But I have to raise my daughters in a war zone. And I want to show my little girls there is another way.”

Back in the late 1970s, however, Gerstel was overwhelmed by negative emotions. Around the time she testified in Mihyi’s trial, she said she “gained 20 kilos [44 pounds], my eyes were swollen … my heartbeat disordered. The diagnosis was hyperthyroid, [caused by] post traumatic stress disorder.”

While a daily pill stopped the physical symptoms, Gerstel continued to suffer from fear and survivor’s guilt. Every year, she scrupulously avoided the memorial service held for her slain El Al colleague.

Nevertheless, she began sympathizing with the Palestinian cause after the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatilla; by 1999, she was shooting a documentary about an exiled PFLP activist, Imad Sabi.

She said she was sitting in the Nablus living room of some Palestinian friends in 2000 when “suddenly I thought, ‘My terrorist could be sitting here in this room and I wouldn’t recognize him….’ After the Camp David agreement, I felt, ‘If Barak and Arafat can shake hands, everyone should find it within himself to meet his enemy. And Fahad Mihyi was my enemy.”

The filmmaker began tracking him down and, after locating him at Britain’s Dartmoor prison, she sat down to write him a letter in July 2000.

“Fahad, Salaam,” the letter began, “Are you aware of the Camp David agreement? I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to you personally and to Palestinians in general that turned us to be enemies.”

To her surprise, Mihyi responded with a deeply remorseful letter and in September 2000, Gerstel nervously waited to meet him at Dartmoor prison. The muscular, youthful-looking Arab who greeted her looked familiar, “except the hatred was gone from his eyes,” she said.

Over the next hour, Gerstel was mostly silent as he talked nonstop, profusely apologizing for his terrorist activities and touching on topics such as his childhood.

“The whole encounter was so emotionally loaded,” she said. “I looked at the window, trying to get oxygen.”

As she left the prison, however, she felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I had felt so much fear and hate and guilt and trauma, that to meet the person who had created these emotions was to let go of them,” she said.

Gerstel agreed when Mihyi’s attorney asked her to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf. She learned that while he should have already been released from Dartmoor, he could not be deported, as required under British law, because he was stateless.

“So he was rotting in prison,” she said.

But Gerstel vacillated when the second intifada broke out two weeks later — and when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in September 2001.

“I felt I could not go on helping Fahad, because everything was destroyed inside of me,” she said. “But then I realized that he believes in nonviolence, which is completely the opposite of the Sept. 11 attackers.”

Gerstel finally wrote to the parole board, and then gave up corresponding with Miyhi.

“His attorney told me that he was expected to be released, and that he wanted to disappear, to live a normal life, and I’ve respected that,” she said.

Assisting Mihyi has helped Gerstel return to a more normal life.

“Facing your worst fears is a difficult journey, but it’s worth it,” she said.

“My Terrorist” screens May 30, 8:30 p.m. at theDirectors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, as part of the AmnestyInternational Film Festival. For information, call (310) 815-0450. To purchasethe videotape, contact the U.S. distributor, Women Make Movies, at orders@wmm.com .

Home of the Free


The first floor of the building in downtown Paris was shielded by black-tinted glass. It wasn’t the clandestine offices of some secret government agency or a gay bar. Rather, it was the synagogue in which my nephew was to be bar mitvahed, with anyone entering the building searched by a security guard posted by the door.

Later, worried that someone who was arriving late might not be able to find us, I stood across the street after the security guard asked me not to wait in front of the synagogue, which might draw attention.

After the hours-long ceremony, the rabbi urged us to disperse immediately rather than milling on the sidewalk, once more ensuring a low profile for the synagogue. This, he said, would help protect against vandalism, as well as local residents who might use such vandalism as a pretext to kick the synagogue out.

Anti-Semitism, I learned on a recent trip through France, is alive and pervasive. Nor, I discovered with some surprise, was the rabbi or those in charge of the synagogue overreacting.

For what else was I to make during a stroll around Montmartre, when I overheard a 20-something man tell a couple, in French, that he was Moroccan. Then he shouted to me, in perfect English, "I hate Sharon."

I could have replied that I’m no fan of Sharon’s, either, but somehow I didn’t think that was his point. Shocked, I just waved back.

"See," he triumphantly turned back to the couple. "An Israeli."

Not quite, but close enough. He had been able to identify a Jew.

A few days later, in the city of Tours, a teen stared straight at me, then noted in French to his two companions, "He’s a Jew."

I was used to being identified as an American abroad. But here, for the first time, my religious identity superseded my national identity.

And suddenly I started wondering how strangers could tell my religion. Do I really have a Jewish nose? Is there really such a thing as Jewish features?

So self-conscious did I become that, going to the beach at the Cote d’Azure, I considered removing the religious medallion I’ve worn around my neck for over 10 years, the Sephardic hand of God. I didn’t, but I became quite aware of when my medallion was covered by my shirt and when it wasn’t.

Back home again, I once again wear my medallion to the beach without a second thought. Recently, seeing a street sign giving the address and pointing the way to a synagogue several blocks away, I also knew that this was something I would never stumble across in France.

And there is something I’ve also taken away from this experience.

We Americans have no idea how truly free we are in our day-to-day lives. Sure, discrimination exists here. But we still see discrimination against any minority — Jew, Muslim or other — as something to be stamped out. In France, discriminatory attitudes have become part of the very air the people breathe.

To quote those famous lyrics, I am proud to be an American; proud and relieved at the same time. The alternative to living freely is living in the same fear that, more and more, pervades the rest of the world.

Increasingly, however, that fear is coming here, masked under the guise of patriotism and homeland defense.

We cannot allow fear to run this country. Otherwise we all become outsiders, the "other" waiting for the finger of blame to point at us. And hiding our place of worship, or who we really are, ain’t much fun.

Just ask the French Jews.


Joseph Hanania is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the
Los Angeles Times.

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