A night at First AME Church

The first surprise came when I typed 2270 S. Harvard Blvd into my phone, and discovered that it's only 4.8 miles from my synagogue, Congregation B’nai David Judea, in the Pico Robertson neighborhood. I had always assumed that it was much farther away than that. Actually, that it was infinitely far away. But – surprise! – it's right here. And this turned out to only be the first of several surprises on that the evening held in store. 

A handful of our shul-mates and I felt compelled to go to First AME of Los Angeles on Thursday night. The need emerged from a sense that the work of creation itself was teetering. That a brazen, calculated fully intentional attack upon decency, upon goodness, upon humanity, upon hope itself had been perpetrated. That a violation of everything that is sacred, indeed of the very notion of sacredness, had occurred. Indeed, as one of the pastors who spoke at the service noted, the very last thing that the nine victims had done in their lives, was to welcome a stranger into their church, into their prayer gathering, to demonstrate love for another person – a sacred act. We now know that the shooter almost changed his mind in light of the kindness that he had been shown. But in the end, he proceeded to gun them down. He gunned down the pastor. He gunned down an 87 year old woman, and seven others. And the earth seemed to stop dead in its orbit, waiting to see whether or not the decent, the good, the hopeful among human beings, would push back. And so I went, we went, to help push back.

And what unfolded there that evening, was remarkable in so many different ways. On the broadest level, it was the remarkable experience of being inside the kind of drama that we are accustomed to seeing only in the movies. We were, in real life, rising together in the name of Right and Justice and Truth in their most essential, irreducible forms, as pristine and as pure as they were on the day that God created them. It's not often that you can actually feel abstract ideas with your physical senses. And for that alone, Dayenu. That alone would have made it the best two hours I had ever spent in Church. 

But there was so much more. Two of the evening's recurring themes were hope and faith. Not bitterness – even as the history of the Black struggle in America was recounted. Not a lamenting of Black victimhood – even as the story of Mother AME Church in Charleston, a story that began 50 years before the Civil war, and included numerous episodes of racist violence and destruction – was recounted. For as Sari remarked,” the entire history of the AME church is one of hope for the future, belief in a better time to come, the spirit of never giving in or giving up, even when unspeakable horrors unfold.

And in addition to hope and faith, the evening was also about gratitude to God for his love, and trust in God, that He would with us as we continued the struggle. As the Pastor whose ministry is Skid Row remarked, “God may not always come when we call Him, but He'll arrive at the right time.”

And towering above all of these, was the importance of love. Love not as a feeling that one hopes arises spontaneously in one's breast, rather love as a conscious moral decision. A conscious moral decision – a conscious religious decision – that is made in the effort to alter the course of events, to change the course of history, to push violence back through the demonstration of love toward others. Though no one specifically quoted them, the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King were hovering in the air. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And in a real-time expression of love and its importance, one speaker after another, expressed his love for the LAPD officers who had been assigned to protect the event, and asked that this love be conveyed to Chief Beck. As Joey reflected,” at a time when the relations between the black community and the police are somewhat fraught, only graciousness and appreciation were being expressed for the work the police are doing“. I noticed, that as the evening began the officers were standing, lining each side of the room. But at some point, they sat down, in the pews, and became part of the congregation itself. 

And the AME choirs, man alive, do they know how to sing! Not just to sing but to pray, and not just to pray but to soar. There is no way I can do justice in describing what was happening in the room when the choir reached the refrain of a song called “You are Important to Me”, a refrain that just kept getting louder and bigger and more insistent with each of its many, many repetitions, 

I pray for you; you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
The choir began pointing at the audience, who soon began pointing back, 
I pray for YOU; YOU pray for me.
I love YOU, I need YOU to survive. 
It was spellbinding. And God was present in the room. 

And all this faith amidst struggle, and love amidst grief brought home to us again that living in our bubble we are missing out on a big piece of life's beauty and richness and calling. We live in a wonderfully diverse city, which abounds in opportunities to revel in the diversity of God's creation, to learn from one another, and to love in new and unexpected ways.

And though it can honestly be said that we received much more than we gave last night, what we gave was noticed. Residents whose homes we passed as we walked the few blocks from where we had parked, thanked us for coming out. As did the ushers at the doors who welcomed us in. And as we were leaving, a woman who seemed to be an AME regular threw her arms around my wife Sari and then around me. I was thinking about how much we appreciated it when people of other faith communities came to the Bring Back Our Boys rally in Pan Pacific Park, exactly a year ago. Showing solidarity is always worth more than the time or effort it costs. And it really requires nothing more than showing up.

These were without doubt, the best (and only) two hours I've ever spent in church. And the truth is that we do all need each other to survive. And that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles.  He contributes to the blog Morethodoxy at jewishjournal.com.

VIDEO: ‘Don’t Be A Sucker’ — War Dept. tells Americans to fight hatred and fanaticism (1947)

VIDEO: ‘Don’t Be A Sucker’—War Department tells Americans to fight hatred and fanaticism (1947)

From The Prelinger Archives.

Time has come to stress Islam’s positive side

The following is an excerpt from a speech Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered Aug. 3 to the Islamic Society of North America’s 44th annual convention in Chicago. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious movement in North America, consisting of more than 900 congregations and 1.5 million Jews.

There exists in this country among all Americans — whether Jews, Christians or nonbelievers — a huge and profound ignorance about Islam. It is not that stories about Islam are missing from our media. There is no shortage of voices prepared to tell us that fanaticism and intolerance are fundamental to Islamic religion and that violence and even suicide bombing have deep Quranic roots.

There is no lack of so-called experts who are eager to seize on any troubling statement by any Muslim thinker and pin it on Islam as a whole. Thus, it has been far too easy to spread the image of Islam as enemy, as terrorist, as the frightening unknown.

How did this happen?

How did it happen that Christian fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, make vicious and public attacks against your religious tradition?

How did it happen that when a Muslim congressman takes his oath of office while holding the Quran, Dennis Prager suggests that the congressman is more dangerous to America than the terrorists of Sept. 11?

How did it happen that a member of Congress, Tom Tancredo, now running for president, calls for the bombing of Mecca and Medina?

Even more important, how did it happen that law-abiding Muslims in this country can find themselves condemned for dual loyalty and blamed for the crimes of terrorists they abhor?

And how did it happen that in the name of security, Muslim detainees and inmates are exposed to abusive and discriminatory treatment that violates the most fundamental principles of our Constitution?

One reason that all of this happens is the profound ignorance to which I referred. We know nothing of Islam — nothing. That is why we must educate our members, and we need your help. And we hope in doing so we will set an example for all Americans.

Because the time has come to put aside what the media says is wrong with Islam and to hear from Muslims themselves what is right with Islam.

The time has come to listen to our Muslim neighbors speak from their heart and in their own words about the spiritual power of Islam and their love for their religion.

The time has come for Americans to learn how far removed Islam is from the perverse distortions of the terrorists who too often dominate the media, subverting Islam’s image by professing to speak in its name.

The time has come to stand up to the opportunists in our midst — the media figures, religious leaders and politicians who demonize Muslims and bash Islam, exploiting the fears of their fellow citizens for their own purposes.

And finally this: The time has come to end racial profiling and legal discrimination of any kind against Muslim Americans. Yes, we must assure the security of our country; this is absolutely our government’s first obligation. But let’s not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are America’s strength, not our weakness….

….The dialogue will not be one way, of course. You will teach us about Islam, and we will teach you about Judaism. We will help you to overcome stereotyping of Muslims, and you will help us to overcome stereotyping of Jews.

We are especially worried now about anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Anti-Semitism is not native to Islamic tradition, but a virulent form of it is found today in a number of Islamic societies, and we urgently require your assistance in mobilizing Muslims here and abroad to delegitimize and combat it.

A measure of our success will be our ability, each of us, to discuss and confront extremism in our midst. As a Jew, I know that our sacred texts, including the Hebrew Bible, are filled with contradictory propositions, and these include passages that appear to promote violence, and thus offend our ethical sensibilities. Such texts are to be found in all religions, including Christianity and Islam.

The overwhelming majority of Jews reject violence by interpreting these texts in a constructive way, but a tiny, extremist minority chooses destructive interpretations instead, finding in the sacred words a vengeful, hateful God. Especially disturbing is the fact that the moderate majority, at least some of the time, decides to cower in the face of the fanatic minority — perhaps because they seem more authentic or appear to have greater faith and greater commitment.

When this happens, my task as a rabbi is to rally that reasonable, often-silent majority and encourage them to assert the moderate principles that define their beliefs and Judaism’s highest ideals. My Christian and Muslim friends tell me that precisely the same dynamic operates in their traditions, and from what I can see, that is manifestly so.

Surely, as we know from the headlines, you have what I know must be for you, as well as for us, an alarming number of extremists of your own — those who kill in the name of God and hijack Islam in the process. It is therefore our collective task to strengthen and inspire one another as we fight the fanatics and work to promote the values of justice and love that are common to both our faiths.

I am optimistic that we can do this. After all, there is much that we share. As small minorities here, we worry how we will fare and if we will survive in the great American melting pot. As committed God-seekers in an age of moral relativism, we are distressed by the trends that pollute our children’s lives: incredibly trashy television, high divorce rates and media images that demean and objectify women.

At the same time and without contradiction, we are both beneficiaries of the blessings bestowed by this great and wonderful country. For all of its problems, America provides us with a secure sanctuary that safeguards our right to be different. And despite the prejudice that we still confront, America offers a measure of diversity and tolerance unmatched in any place or time in history.

Films at L.A.’s Outfest examines gay life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

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Prager; CAIR; Gibson; The Boot!


It is getting somewhat boring to read yet another letter in The Jewish Journal from such a disingenuous character as Hussam Ayloush (Letters, Dec. 1). Typical of Ayloush and other CAIR officials, he engages only in ad hominem smears and refuses to deal with the substantive claims. One only needs to do a little research to uncover his obvious fabrications.

First, it is ironic that he says that I “resort to deception” by stating that CAIR has engaged in anti-Semitism in the past. It is notable here that Ayloush conveniently fails to address the fact that neo-Nazi William Baker has been invited to speak at several CAIR events — whose presence at those events Ayloush himself has defended.

Also, Ayloush categorically lies when he states that “CAIR has no connection, direct or indirect, to the event he referred to in New York” in which radical Islamist cleric Wagdy Ghoneim made anti-Semitic statements and led the crowd in an anti-Semitic song. In fact, CAIR’s name is listed on the event announcement, along with several other groups including the Holy Land Foundation, as a co-sponsor. The event itself was sponsored by the Islamic Association for Palestine, which was hit with a $156 million civil judgment — along with the Holy Land Foundation and several other entities — by a federal court in Illinois in a case in which the family of a murdered victim of Hamas terrorism successfully sued U.S.-based Hamas front organizations.

Maybe the problem here is one of language and definition. Perhaps, to Ayloush, neo-Nazis and songs lyrics such as, “No to the Jews, descendants of the Apes” are not anti-Semitic.

Steven Emerson
Executive Director
Investigative Project on Terrorism

Ed. Note: The Journal has invited Steven Emerson and Hussam Ayloush to continue their exchange in an e-mail forum at jewishjournal.com. This letter will be posted there awaiting Mr. Ayloush's response.

Hussan Ayloush has managed to manipulate and use The Jewish Journal as his mouthpiece to discredit Steve Emerson. I wonder if any of the Islamic papers would allow such use of their papers for us to discredit Ayloush.

Steven Emerson has been warning the government about radical Islam long before anyone knew about CAIR and Ayloush. Had our government listened to the warnings that Emerson made them aware of instead of trying to appear politically correct, or just naive, more than 3,000 people would be alive today. We would have been prepared for the promotion of Sharia law, and accommodations made for Islam that are not made for either Judaism or Christianity in the United States.

Your paper has allowed an apologist for terror in the United States as well as in Israel to use your pages to promote his agenda, propaganda and lies. This is just shameful.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Valley Glen

Prager and the Quran

I don’t know which is worse; Dennis Prager’s virulent intolerance and Islamaphobia or his pathetic ignorance of what our “American values” really are (“Prager Opposition to Quran Congress Rite Draws Fire,” Dec. 8). Surely even he would agree that the U.S. Constitution reflects cherished “American values” to which we can all adhere.

Article VI, on the very topic of the oath of office, says, and I quote in full to give the context: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

How dare Prager set himself above the Constitution, and claim that anyone who does not take an oath on the Bible can’t serve in Congress?It’s Prager that shouldn’t serve on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council if he does not share the American value of religious free exercise protected by the First Amendment.

Stephen F. Rohde
Los Angeles
The writer is a constitutional lawyer

I wish the journal would do their homework on Keith Ellison. If you simply Google “Ellison Jews” you would find that he defended a colleague’s right to say “the most racist white people are Jews”; that he sat silently while Khalid Muhammand spewed a racist rant; that he defended in writing Farakhan’s not being anti-Semitic; that he his funded by CAIR, a known front group for Hamas. It’s most disturbing that Jewish organizations would defend this guy without knowing the truth.

Joshua Spiegelman
Los Angeles


Dear Jon Drucker, your suggestion that we sneak into seeing Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto” although we paid to see a different movie is bad advice (“Skip Into Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ Now,” Dec 8). It reminded me of last year when I read that Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, had snuck into a free preview of “The Passion” without being invited.

As a Jew, I was totally embarrassed by Foxman’s actions. If you want to see the movie, act like a responsible adult and pay the price. You will be providing a better example for everyone, Jews and non-Jews. Leave “skipping” for the kids.

Jeff Shulman
Granada Hills


I feel reassured to learn that measures are taken to keep sexual predators, evil opportunists and other dark characters away from shul (“Getting Kicked Out of Shul,” Dec. 8). The safe environment this creates makes for a more spiritual experience without, as a single woman, having to fear for my safety.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all the rabbis for taking on the responsibility of doing what it takes to create the safe and loving environment we enjoy at shul, in addition to their already demanding work.

Talar Toprakjian
Beth Jacob Congregation

Your front-page article of Dec 8 shows that we Jews continue to be our own worst enemy — and sadly, The Jewish Journal is leading the way in making us look nasty or foolish to our own community and certainly to the general L.A. community (“Getting Kicked Out of Shul).

Pearl, Ahmed Awarded $100K Prize for Fight Against Intolerance; Shin Bet Seeks High-Tech Experts

Pearl, Ahmed Awarded $100K Prize for Fight Against Intolerance

Judea Pearl and Akbar Ahmed, a Jew and a Muslim, are the joint recipients of a new $100,000 prize for their campaign against intolerance and the roots of terrorism.

The Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. professors were among the five recipients of the newly established Purpose Prize, awarded to Americans 60 or older, who are using their experience and innovative skills to address long-standing social problems.

Pearl, 70, an authority on artificial intelligence at UCLA, is the father of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002.

In response to this tragedy, Pearl and his wife Ruth established a foundation in their son’s name to further cross-cultural understanding between the Eastern and Western worlds through journalism, music and dialogue.

Ahmed, 63, holds the Chair in Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was born in the same city where Daniel Pearl was slain and is a former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain.

Over the past two years, the two scholars have appeared before mixed Jewish, Muslim and Christian audiences in the United States and overseas in dialogues and discussions on the most emotional and divisive issues currently facing mankind.

“We have only two rules,” Pearl said. “No topic is taboo, and we and the audience will behave with civility.”

Civic Ventures is a San Francisco-based think tank and program incubator, which advances the proposition that “Today’s boomers and older Americans are an extraordinary pool of social and human capital that – with the right investment – can yield unprecedented returns for society,” according to Freedman.

The Purpose Prize is supported by two foundations, the Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation.

In separate interviews, both Pearl and Ahmed said they would use their individual $50,000 prize money to further their joint work.

“The prize will serve as a seal of approval and give visibility to our work, especially in the Muslim media,” Pearl said.

Ahmed said that he initially received severe criticism in the Muslim press and was accused of being “the sole Muslim voice in dialogue with Israel,” but that his moderate viewpoint is gaining ground.

Even the increased hostility in the wake of the Hezbollah-Israel fighting, “has only hardened my determination” that Jews and Muslims must reach an understanding, he said.

The other four prize winners are grassroots activists in such areas as racial disparities in preventable deaths, job opportunities for the disabled, housing needs for the elderly poor, and the disrupted lives of millions of children with a parent in jail.

Nominations for the Purpose Prize numbered 1,200, of whom the top 70 are meeting Sept. 7 through Sept. 9 at Stanford University with academicians and venture philanthropists in a “Purpose Prize Innovation Summit.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Shin Bet Seeks High-Tech Experts

Israel’s domestic spy service launched a recruitment drive for high-tech experts. The Shin Bet went public Tuesday with a call for computer programmers and specialists to join its counterterrorism and counterespionage missions in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Salaries and terms would be attractive enough to compete with Israel’s lucrative private high-tech market, the agency said.

“If you thought the only way to fight terrorists was through interrogations in Arabic, think again,” read an ad posted on the agency’s Web site. “Today, more and more preventive operations are carried out using the language of computing.”

On Monday, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, urged Israel’s security services to press ahead with technological innovation, “perhaps even on a type of intelligence hitherto unknown, grounded in revolutionary nanotechnology.” Peres wrote in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “A terrorist might be deterred by the knowledge that new surveillance tools have been developed that could identify him, even in a large crowd; that his weapon could be detected without his knowledge.”

Newsweek Recognizes Hebrew U.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem came in 82nd on Newsweek a magazine’s list of the world’s 100 top institutes of higher learning. Hebrew University was the only Israeli institute represented in Newsweek’s ranking.

The magazine said its ranking system took into account “openness and diversity, as well as distinction in research.” Hebrew University said it placed 60th among a list of the world’s 500 best institutes of higher learning put together by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.

Europeans Bar El Al Planes With Arms

Five European nations are reportedly refusing to allow some El Al flights to make refueling stops at their airports.

Israel Radio reported Tuesday that Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy had announced that El Al planes suspected of transporting weapons to Tel Aviv would not receive services on their territory. It was not immediately clear how the countries cited would determine which aircraft were handling arms shipments, and which were conventional passenger flights.

The decision was seen in Israel as being especially grating given a recent franchise deal signed between the government and Italy´s national airline, Alitalia, the radio reported. El Al declined comment.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth

“My father didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa.”

Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend’s mother.

He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:

“Converts are not welcome in my family.” “No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you.” “You are inadequate to raise Jewish children.”

“I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart,” she told me. “When you’re so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted…. I’ll always feel inadequate.”

As I had recently discovered, Alison’s case was not an isolated incident in Penn’s Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.

Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, “Are you Laura? I’m Julie. I’ve heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there.”

We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn’s pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn’t Jewish yet.

Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: “The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that’s what I was.”

Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.

“I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade” Julie recalled. “It was always, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, so you shouldn’t come to davening.’ Students wouldn’t hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone’s time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were.”

Julie’s list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.

“I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion” she relayed to me matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t there anyone you could confide in?” I asked.

“I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not.”

“So … how did you cope?”

“I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish.”

Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.

I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn’t born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.

“When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there,” she revealed. “People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday … to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn’t I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There’s no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa…. That was very hurtful.”

In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.

“I feel like I have to prove myself” Alison told me. “Because I wasn’t born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it.”

She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel “threatened” by a convert who is more religiously inclined.

My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.

“I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore,” she replied. “I don’t want to be a burden on him…. I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting.”

Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.


Defender of France

Jean David Levitte, France’s ambassador to the United States, is arguably its most effective defender against charges of anti-Semitism, in no small part because he himself is Jewish.

I met Levitte at the Beverly Hills residence of the French consul general, Phillipe Larrieu. It’s a sprawling, modernist home near the Beverly Hills Hotel, the walls lined with contemporary art, the small streetside drawing room furnished in … French Regency. Silver coffee service and a plate of petits fours appear.

Levitte, 60, is youthful, patient and polished. He is used to contradicting accusations that France is anti-Semitic, in no small part because of all the anti-Semitism French Jews have suffered over the past few years.

The worst incident occurred just last February, when kidnappers tortured and killed 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, taunting his parents with anti-Semitic slurs during phone calls. The heinous crime led to an uptick in French Jewish immigration to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and renewed concern that French Jewry’s days were numbered.

I began my interview by mentioning that exactly a year ago, I traveled to Paris to interview French officials and Jewish leaders, all of whom agreed the government had been taking anti-Semitic attacks seriously and that the frequency and severity were in decline. This is what I reported, so my first question to the ambassador was, in so many words: Am I a chump?

Levitte said no. French anti-Semitism continues to be a problem among a disaffected Muslim population egged on by extremist imans, exposed to anti-Israel Arab media and frustrated by its status at the fringes of French society. “If we have a problem with racism,” he said, “it is not anti-Semitism, it is anti-Arab.”

Anti-Semitic attacks, he said — reinforcing what the philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy told our reporter Marc Ballon (see Page 16) — are the smoke from the Israeli-Palestinian fire. “The problem is the connection to the Middle East,” Levitte told me.

Levitte reiterated what I learned last year. The French government has responded to anti-Semitic acts with forthrightness: harsher penalties, better coordination with prosecutors, widespread educational reforms, a crackdown on hate-spewing Iranian and Arab media and ongoing public statements from the president on down.

“When a Jew is attacked in France,” said President Jacques Chirac on Nov. 17, 2003, “it is an attack against the whole of France.”

These steps all contributed to a 48 percent decline in anti-Semitic acts in the first six months of 2005.

Then came the brutal Halimi murder, which obliterated these achievements in the public eye.

Halimi’s parents claimed the French police botched the investigation by, in part, refusing to see it as anti-Semitic in nature. Initial statements by government officials downplayed the role Jew-hatred might have played.

But to Levitte, the official and popular reaction only supports his contention that France is intolerant of intolerance. Tens of thousands of citoyens took to the streets of Paris to express their outrage at the murder. French officials quickly identified 21 suspects. Fourteen are under arrest and 11 are being charged with kidnapping and murder with the aggravating circumstance of anti-Semitism.

The perpetrators, Levitte pointed out, were not all Muslim. They were inhabitants of the often lawless, neglected neighborhoods surrounding Paris and other large cities. (In the French movie, “La Haine,” (“Hate”), the youthful criminal gang from one Parisian slum includes a Jew. “Hate,” in fact, released in 1995, is a cinematic tarot card of what would be in store for France).

Many of France’s 10 percent Muslim population live in these banlieux. Most are law-abiding and loyal.

“The problem is the 10 percent who are not well-integrated,” Levitte said.

He pointed out that the racial unrest that broke out in Paris this winter (not to be confused with the anti-labor law reform riots of the spring) were not in the “new cities” with large Muslim populations, There were no riots in Marseilles, for example, whose Algerian population is second only to that of Algiers.

The rioters also did not take to the streets waving Algerian flags. What they wanted was not separation but belonging.

“Islam is not the demand of these teenagers,” said the ambassador. “They feel excluded.”

Levitte reiterated his government’s approach to the problem: better schools, stricter law enforcement, more work incentives and the creation of tax exempt zones to spur business investment in the worst areas.

Nevertheless, Levitte acknowledged, isolated attacks against Jews have, “triggered feelings of insecurity” among the country’s 600,000 Jews.

But Levitte said the claims of a French Jewish exodus to Israel are overstated. Many Jews will buy apartments or homes in Israel, but they remain in France. Those who go for good, he said, often come back.

Meanwhile, Israelis themselves seem to harbor less ill will toward the French than American Jews. France is the No. 1 tourist destination among Israelis.

And the feeling appears to be mutual. Levitte quoted (correctly) a 2005 poll by the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, which asked citizens in more than 12 countries their feelings about Jews. The Dutch came in first, at 85 percent, and France placed second, with 82 percent of French citizens checking off “positive feelings” about Jews. (The United States scored fifth at 77 percent, and Jordan and Lebanon tied for last, at 0 percent).

Indeed, for Levitte, the (wine) glass of French Jewry is perennially half full: The Dreyfuss Affair? It showed how the republic stood up to an insidious cabal of anti-Semitic army officers.

“Today it is Dreyfuss who is our hero, not them,” Levitte said.

The Holocaust? Seventy-five percent of the nation’s Jews were saved, and many Frenchmen risked their lives to save them. The government of Israel has recognized 2,500 of them with the distinction of “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Levitte’s own grandparents were sent to Auschwitz. His father and uncle joined the resistance, and his father later became the leader of the American Jewish Committee in France for 30 years.

“We will not accept anti-Semitism in France,” the ambassador said, with finality. “We will fight this disease.”


Rabin’s Daughter Seeks Aid for Center


Nearly a decade after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his daughter fears that Israeli society has not yet faced up to the underlying causes of the horrifying crime by a Jewish extremist.

“We are still an intolerant people, afraid of diversity, unwilling to compromise, and our democracy is still in the making,” said Dalia Rabin, a former Knesset member and deputy defense minister on a recent visit to Los Angeles. “We have not yet dealt with our national dilemmas and divisions of secular against religious, newcomers against old-timers, and Sephardim against Ashkenazim.”

But she has not given up on her father’s goal to “create a normal society on a platform of peace” and she looks on the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies as her chief instrument to fulfill her father’s legacy.

The prime minister and war hero was assassinated in November 1995 at a Tel Aviv peace rally and the new Rabin Center building, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, will be dedicated a decade later on Nov. 15, 2005.

Rabin expects many of the world leaders who attended her father’s funeral to participate in the dedication.

The center was established by law in 1997 and housed in temporary quarters. Dalia Rabin resigned from the Knesset two years ago to assume the full-time chairmanship of the center.

During a visit to California in December to speak at the Governor’s Conference on Women and Families, she outlined her vision for the center in an interview.

“I believe in education,” she said, describing the center’s mission as the democratic education of Israeli society, from the army, civil service, teachers and students to immigrants in development towns, Arabs, Druze and other minorities.

Currently underway are a number of programs, such as sensitivity training workshops for Israeli soldiers, border police and police officers serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The workshops address what Rabin sees as one of the most frightening developments in Israeli society.

“We have become much more violent and much more indifferent to human life because of what has happened during the last few years of the intifada,” she said.

One reason is that “we send 18- and 19-year-olds, mainly from the poorer segments of our society, to man checkpoints and we ask them to cope with the responsibility of detecting terrorists while still remaining humane,” she added.

During the one-day workshops, trained moderators use films, role-playing, simulation games, and extensive discussions to drive home the diversity and democratic basis of Israeli society, including its many Jewish strands, Arabs, Druse and Circassians.

In 2003, some 6,000 young uniformed men and women took part in the workshops and most requested a follow-up session, Rabin said.

Other programs include the University Within Reach, which targets 11th-graders, mainly from the country’s disadvantaged and multiethnic communities, and mixes them in semesterlong university courses. The classes seek to give the youngsters a sense of empowerment and some of the tools to qualify them for higher education.

In the Democratic Challenge program, high school students are offered enrichment courses on the values of a democratic society, not as abstract slogans but as concrete problem-solving challenges.

The Handshake Network program twins kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and students in neighboring Jewish and Arab schools, who work together on joint projects for one year.

Cooperating in the programs are the Israel Democracy Institute, Menachem Begin Heritage Center and most Israeli universities, and Rabin said that future efforts will involve civil service officials, young Israelis about to start their military service and student groups from the Diaspora.

The future home of the Rabin Center has quite a history of its own. It is now rising above a bunker in northern Tel Aviv, constructed on order of then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s as an emergency power station in case of a nuclear attack on the city, Rabin said.

The bunker itself, near the Hayarkon Park and Tel Aviv University, is the new site of the Israel Defense Forces Museum.

On top of the bunker, the Rabin Center will include a museum, information center, archives, library, academic research institute and an education resource center “for the promotion of tolerance and pluralism.”

To symbolize the purpose of the center and soften the severe lines of the bunker, Safdie is placing two sets of large dove-like wings on the upper façade.

Dominating the museum will be spiraling, segmented exhibits, intertwining the personal and public life of Yitzhak Rabin with the social and military history of Palestine and Israel from the early 1920s to the present.

The museum will incorporate some aspects of an American Presidential library, while its international planning staff includes experts who helped conceptualize the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Museum of Civil Rights in Birmingham, Ala. and the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government provides the annual operating budget of slightly more than $1 million per year, but the construction cost of about $35 million must come from private donors.

Dalia Rabin, a lawyer and mother of two adult children, is now preoccupied mainly with fundraising. She said that about two-thirds of the sum had been collected, with $12 million coming from private Israeli donors, $5 million each from the German and United States governments and another $5 million from various sources, including the Norwegian government. That leaves $8 million to go, and during Rabin’s three-day visit to Los Angeles, she met with potential large donors and the heads of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation.

In the United States, the American Friends of the Rabin Center has been organized to publicize the center and encourage contributions. For information, contact Jeannie Gerzon at (212) 616-6161, or e-mail jgerzon@vmwcom.com. Information on the center’s mission and plans can be found at www.rabin.org.


Not the Next ‘Passion’

A widely circulated Internet report that Steven Spielberg was planning to produce a trilogy of films exposing Christian brutality has been denounced as a hoax and "mean prank" by the filmmaker’s chief spokesman.

The report, headed, "Spielberg Fights Fire With Fire," quotes him as preparing a movie on the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages, in response to the supposedly anti-Semitic slant of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ."

"I will show Christian brutality in a realistic and most graphic and gory way," Spielberg is alleged to have said.

If successful, the Crusades movie would be followed by a film on the Spanish Inquisition and a subsequent picture, "Hitler and the Pope: A Team Formed in Hell," the Internet message continued.

Spokesman Marvin Levy described the story as "vicious" and "absurd…. Anyone who knows Steven would know that he is dedicated to doing what he can to rid the world of hatred and intolerance, wherever it exists," Levy said.

He added that "It’s a shame that Internet messaging has become a means of spewing anything that fits [the sender’s] distorted agenda."

At a press conference last week to mark the DVD release of his film, "Schindler’s List," Spielberg said that he would not comment on "The Passion" until he had seen the movie.

If and when he views it, "My first call will be to Mel Gibson," Spielberg said.

Fighting the Israel Bash-a-Thon

Critics of the United Nations have been handed a big load of new ammunition as the international body careens toward a high-profile conference that could be the biggest Israel bash-a-thon ever.

The Bush administration is working to thwart the hijacking of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance by some of the world’s leading human rights abusers, including Iran, Sudan, Cuba and China, which are trying to deflect attention from their own atrocious records.

But there is little optimism that Washington — itself facing a backlash by the rights-abusing bloc — will be able to blunt the anti-Israel thrust, which could have a negative impact on the quest for Middle East peace and make a mockery of international efforts to fight human rights horrors across the globe.

Last week, U.N. officials met in Geneva to continue work on a draft program for the conference, scheduled for South Africa in late August, based on working documents created during four regional sessions.

Several of those documents were bent and twisted into anti-Israel screeds.

References to anti-Semitism as a form of racism were carefully expunged. One reference was allowed to stand: Israel was castigated for “Zionist practices against Semitism,” a mind-boggling twist on the concept of anti-Semitism.

In some cases, anti-Semitism was replaced by references to “Islamophobia.”

The draft documents criticize the global mass media for its “racist bias in the reporting of the Palestinian problem and its coverage of the aggression against Iraq.” Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is termed “a crime against humanity, a form of genocide.”

The preliminary meeting of Middle Eastern and Asian nations was particularly virulent, which is ironic in view of the venue: Teheran, capital of a nation where human rights are all but nonexistent.

The anti-Israel surge has not provoked outrage from the European nations; aside from the United States, the world community has been reluctant to confront the Third World and Islamic nations spearheading this ideological hijacking.

The revival of the Zionism-as-racism slur does not help advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. On the contrary, it increases Israel’s feeling of isolation and anger as it fends off a world body that ignores Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli children while elevating new mobile home clusters on the West Bank to the status of major war crimes.

Many Israelis believe the government’s settlement policies are misguided. But the implication that settlements are worse than recent genocide in Africa or slavery in Sudan only helps neutralize that opposition in Israel, which is a democracy, unlike the nations pressing for an international bash-fest.

The anti-Israel venom, if it pervades the August conference, will make it even harder for the U.N. to play any kind of constructive role in the effort to find a fair solution to the Mideast dilemma.

And if the U.N. succumbs to the anti-Israel pressure, it will only encourage those Arabs who reject the very idea of reconciliation with Israel.

The U.N. action also reflects a growing pattern of anti-U.S. activity that decimates support for the international organization in this country.

This is the same United Nations that recently booted Washington off a Human Rights Commission that still includes countries like Sudan, Uganda, Libya and Syria, making the panel a “rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers,” according to Human Rights Watch.

A broad coalition of Jewish groups is working to blunt the anti-Israel surge.

The Anti-Defamation League is pressing administration officials to keep up the pressure. The American Jewish Committee is working with Eastern European nations and B’nai B’rith with Latin American countries to build international support for a more balanced conference. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is coordinating the efforts of Jewish groups.

But pro-Israel groups and the Israeli government, fearing an even bigger and more skewed conference without any U.S. presence, are not pressing for a U.S. boycott.

And they are reluctant to raise the matter in Congress, fearing a new anti-U.N. outburst. Lawmakers are already considering legislation to cut U.S. funding for the international body after Washington was kicked off the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

“This conference is an outrage, but right now what’s needed is carefully calibrated diplomacy, not a big political racket,” said an official with one Jewish group involved in the debate. “But it could come to that.”

Adding to the difficulties Jewish leaders face is the other issue that has come to dominate planning for the session — slavery.

African nations are pushing for a strong focus on slavery and colonialism and for a call for reparations from countries that allowed the importation of African slaves in the 1700s and 1800s.

Many of the same countries that support the emphasis on slavery also favor the anti-Israel thrust of the conference.

Jewish leaders are reluctant to comment on the sensitive slavery issue, but many are uneasy about the way it now seems linked to the anti-Israel emphasis of the conference.

Dear Deborah

Bitterness Once Removed

Dear Deborah,

Eleven years ago my parents divorced after my father found out my mother had been having an affair for four years. Although my sister and I were already in our 20’s, it had a devastating effect on the family. My father stayed single, alone and brooding ever since. He lives in an apartment, goes to his job and doesn’t seem to have much of a life. He still “loathes” our mother, refuses to hear her name mentioned and will not attend any function where she’ll be. My mother is married and happy, and the rest of us have gotten on with our lives and blended well.

As you can imagine, holidays and family functions have been tough because we are so divided. I am getting married in three months and as happy as I am about it, I have always dreaded the moment for obvious reasons. My fiancé and I want a big, family wedding, but of course, my father will not attend if mom is there. This is absolutely devastating to me. I have always wanted him to “give me away,” dance with me, do what most fathers do. He won’t even listen to my pleas, and actually suggested we have a separate ceremony in the rabbi’s office or at home if we want him there. He has even hung up the phone on my fiancé. At this point I am so ashamed of my father, so hurt, that I have started toying with the idea of eloping, but no one else likes that idea, not even me.

Deborah, can you suggest something that will knock some sense into my father? How unfair, ridiculous, selfish and warped is it that he cannot find it in his heart to be a good father at the most important moment of my life?

Devastated Daughter

Dear Devastated,

Knock sense into your father? Fairness in families? Let’s just slip off those rose-colored glasses and take a cold, hard look at the truth.

Your father has been mired in bitterness for 11 years. The poor man has been unable to move on with his life all this time, but you, my dear woman, must do so yourself. You have not yet accepted the fact that you have no power over your father or what you consider to be his “unfair, ridiculous, selfish” behavior. He is just stuck.

So go ahead and have one big, whopping simcha of a wedding. No one will be embarrassed, with the possible exception of your poor fartootst father. In any case, do not punish yourself, your fiancé or the rest of your families by eloping. You would run the risk of beginning this next chapter of your life with your own bitter little tale. You know, the one in which the embittered daughter follows in the footsteps of her father and gets stuck — not at the end, but at the beginning of her marriage.

Timing Is Everything

Dear Deborah,

When is it appropriate to ask a widow out on a date? How long is the proper mourning period? I fancy a lady in my shul, and I want at the same time to be respectful and not to miss my chance. Any advice for me here?


Dear JP,

Shall we begin by quoting a few rabbis, bereavement specialists or perhaps Miss Manners?

Nah. I don’t think so.

Why not? Because the time you spend ruminating over the right move might be the time in which you have missed your window of opportunity. The real expert here and therefore the only person qualified to respond is the widow in question. Let her know the truth — that you “fancy” her, and that while you wish to respect her mourning process you would like to know if and/or when it might be appropriate to call upon her for tea.

No Holy War Here

Dear Deborah,

Just wanted to tell you I enjoy your column. I also wanted to comment on the letter published in the February issue written by a worried mother whose daughter is married to a man becoming too religious for the mother’s taste.

This is a tough issue, and I think you handled it well. But as someone who became more ritually observant as an adult and one who knows at least a hundred others like me, I also know that often it is the secular relatives who become combative, sarcastic and otherwise behave badly in these situations, often because they feel threatened. It does take great sensitivity and responsibility on the part of the person becoming religious to try not to alienate others in the family; indeed, one of the main reasons for people to choose a more frum lifestyle is for the very closeness it can and should engender in families.

It’s possible that in this case the mother was right, and her son-in-law was behaving boorishly; but in my experience, for every insensitive baal teshuva who seems not to care what his or her family thinks, I can show you 50 (at least) who take great pains to include family members, to try to make them feel just as loved an needed in the family as ever. It’s a delicate balance, and everyone needs to do their part.

Judy Gruen

Dear Judy,

While your letter offers a glimpse of another facet of religious intolerance, the dilemma presented by the mother was not, as you implied, an objection to her son-in-law’s becoming “too religious for the mother’s taste.”

Rather, the letter expressed concern for the emotional welfare of her daughter. She said her daughter stated that “she was being forced into a life she hadn’t chosen.” She had begun to complain to her parents about feeling “hopelessness and despair.”

The letter was about a troubled daughter and her troubled marriage. Religious observance just happened to be the conflict du jour. But understand that had it been about the mortgage or chopped liver I’d have given the exact same advice to the parents; which was to encourage the daughter to get appropriate help and then for the parents to stay the hell out of it.

You are right though. Religious intolerance from any angle stinks.

The More Things Change

Steve Glickman, Jewish Student Association (JSA) president at Georgetown University, is battling “muffled intolerance on campus.” He gives a small but chilling example.

“Yesterday, when we were passing out blue ribbons… against intolerance and for diversity, two students approached and said specifically they don’t support Jews here,” he said, his voice thick with fatigue. “The sentiment exists among a larger number of students than it’s currently being given credit for… This shouldn’t be glossed over by students or the administration.”

The hatred hasn’t stopped at talk.

In twin acts of vandalism apparently driven by bigotry, a seven-foot silver Chanukah menorah set up by the JSA was first damaged and then broken.

The incidents drew a striking display of student solidarity. In a break with the past, they also evoked strong, public condemnation from the administration.

At about 3:15 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, a dozen students were keeping vigil by the seven-foot silver menorah set up by the JSA in Red Square on the main campus. A young man approached, shoved the menorah to the ground and yelled an anti-Semitic slur.

When the vandal took off running, the vigil-keepers followed in pursuit. Two students tackled him and held him down until campus and district police arrived shortly afterward.

Media reports have identified the suspect as business school sophomore Michael Byrne of Garden City, N.Y. He was taken into custody first by the campus police, then the Metropolitan Police Department. Charged with destruction of property and released, Byrne was taken back to campus, put on a plane home and, in the words of Georgetown spokesperson Dan Wackerman, “suspended until further notice.”

Prejudice had reared its venomous head on Dec. 4 when vandals toppled the menorah in Red Square. The structure’s central pole was twisted, the nine light bulbs broken. A similar attack had occurred last year.

Then, early on Dec. 7, another chanukiah at the university’s law center near Union Station was also knocked to the ground. A police and FBI investigation has concluded this incident was due to high winds.

The two attacks on the Red Square menorah are still under investigation.

“Part of the environment that allowed it to happen… [was because] the university was careful not to give last year’s vandalism of the menorah too much exposure,” said Glickman. “Only a handful of individuals on campus know what happened.”

Not so this year. An 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. vigil at the Red Square menorah began the night of Tuesday, Dec. 7. The vigil, which ran through Saturday night, showed the strength of the bonds forged between Jews and other religious and ethnic groups on campus.

Scores of other students joined JSA members throughout the week. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic student organization, stood vigil the first night. Students from the Protestant Leadership Team took their place the following evening. Black Student Alliance (BSA) members kept vigil all through the last day of Chanukah. Other organizations furnishing volunteers included the Muslim Student Association, College Republicans, College Democrats and the Catholic Daughters of America.

“Here at Georgetown, we’re a diverse community,” said BSA President Erica Cannon. “If something happens to one group or person, we all need to be there in support.”

Glickman singled out African-American students on campus for special praise.

“The black students on campus have been extremely supportive and want to see some things change,” he said.

The menorah desecrations are not the only hate-inspired incidents troubling these student leaders. During the past few years, resident assistants have testified in campus meetings on diversity about swastikas in the stairwells of freshman dormitories, Glickman reports.

Early Sunday morning, in Kopley Hall, a Red Square dormitory, two swastikas were placed on flyers announcing a Friday vigil and Shabbat service at the menorah.

This time, the administration’s response was swift. A mandatory meeting for students in the dorm was held 9:30 p.m. that Sunday.

More dramatically, Georgetown President Father Leo J. O’Donovan attended a Saturday evening Havdalah service hosted by the JSA. He underscored his condemnation of the vandalism.

The college president listened to Jewish student concerns and helped dispel earlier skepticism about the administration’s seriousness in tackling anti-Semitism.

“After meeting with Father O’Donovan, I and other Jewish students have faith that [the administration] is committed to working with us to make whatever changes are necessary to create a more tolerant and accepting community,” said Glickman afterwards. “This incident affected him almost as much as it affected the Jews.”