From left: Bruce Ramer, former American Jewish Committee (AJC) national president; Ruth Kahanoff, Israeli ambassador to Japan; and Hideo Sato, former Japanese ambassador to Israel, at an AJC dinner honoring Sato on May 15. Photo by David Medill

Japan and Israel are invested in having strong ties, former ambassador says


When Israel’s ambassador to Japan took the stage at a special dinner on May 15 in Beverly Hills, the 65th anniversary of the first diplomatic ties between the two countries, she had a historic surprise.

Ruth Kahanoff had done some homework. Having unearthed the minutes of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs Committee from 65 years ago, she read from then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s remarks to the Knesset committee.

“Like us, [the Japanese] have no natural resources,” she read “and have managed to achieve great things only with human spirit and wisdom, excellence, hard work. We should be friends.”

The dinner, hosted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), cast a spotlight on a partnership between that has come a long way since Ben-Gurion’s pronouncement in 1952. The event honored Hideo Sato, Japan’s former ambassador to Israel and a longtime booster for cooperation between the two nations.

In an interview earlier that day, Sato cleared his throat before launching into a history of his personal ties with Israel.

“Where shall I begin?” he said.

His love affair with Israel starts with an actual love affair. He was living in Athens in the summer of 1976 when a Japanese woman brought him a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, an Israeli student whom they had tutored separately in Japanese while living in Tokyo. Soon, the two were married. In 1977, they traveled to Israel to visit that mutual friend, who by then was back in Tel Aviv. The newlyweds were enamored of the place and moved there.

Sato described his early years there as his “best time and experience in Israel,” even as he and his wife struggled as new immigrants to establish their new life. Then in 1985, while working toward a master’s degree in classical studies at Tel Aviv University, he was recruited by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, launching a long career in foreign service that culminated in his ambassadorship to Israel.

His diplomatic career evolved alongside the relationship between the two countries.

In the 40 years since Sato first arrived in Tel Aviv, the Japanese-Israeli relationship has improved considerably, he said.

Today, he said, “I would say it’s excellent. If you compare the relationship today with that of, let’s say, even 10 years ago, 20 years ago — it’s hard to imagine.”

Japan was the first Asian country to establish ties with Israel. But the distance of half a globe always  strained the relationship, Sato said. Moreover, while the lack of any appreciable Jewish population in Japan meant there has been little anti-Semitism, it also sometimes results in “a lack of understanding” between the two countries, he said.

So, by 1988, three years after Sato arrived back in Tokyo, the relationship had soured. The long years of the Arab boycott against the Jewish state had made Japanese businessmen hesitant to work in Israel, fearful that they would alienate the much larger Arab market. Anti-Semitic literature, such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was in vogue in Japan.

That year, “while other American organizations were just criticizing Japan, the AJC decided to send its delegation to talk with us, to see what’s happening and to see whether it’s true or not,” Sato said.

Sato was among the Japanese statesmen who received the delegation, which included current AJC Chief Executive David Harris.

“The ensuing friendship, which I have always cherished, is the reason why I’m here this evening,” Sato said at the dinner.

Sato, 68, received the Madeline and Bruce Ramer Award for Diplomatic Excellence, honoring his “decades long dedication and accomplishments in strengthening the Japan and Israel relationship … and deepening the ties of friendship between Japan and the Jewish people,” according to the award’s inscription.

During his ambassadorship, Sato presided over a number of benchmarks in the relationship. In 2013, he celebrated the dedication of the Jericho Agro Industrial Park, an economic development project to support small Palestinian businesses, which Japan has funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2014, he oversaw the signing of the “Joint Statement on Building a New Comprehensive Partnership” by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, committing to stronger economic and military ties.

Since Sato returned to Japan from his post in Tel Aviv, investment in Israel from Japan has exploded from 5 billion yen to 22 billion yen (or about $45 million to nearly $200 million), and visits back and forth by government ministers have been frequent.

The recipe for economic cooperation between the two countries is simple, according to Sato: “Israel is not a manufacturing country. We are. So, we buy a lot of technologies. And so, here I see a lot of potential between the two countries.”

Sato also is committed to the idea that Japan can help create peace in the Middle East by fostering economic stability for the Palestinians and by helping create conditions for negotiations to proceed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

During his address at the AJC dinner, he hinted that the Japanese and Israeli people may be more than just friends — they might be family.

“There are scholars, both Japanese and Jewish, who claim that the Japanese are one of the lost tribes,” he said. “If that were true, we would have to add 127 million to the current world Jewish population.” n

Episode 31 – Tokyo Vice: A Jewish journalist against the Yakuza with Jake Adelstein


To many of us, Japan is still a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Mysterious of all is the Yakuza, Japan’s notorious crime organization, which has been growing and spreading dread for decades.

When Jake Adelstein, a nice Jewish boy from Minnesota, decided to leave everything behind and follow his passion and fascination to Japan, he didn’t know much about the Yakuza either. But soon enough, he learned more than he’d ever imagined he would. Pursuing a career as a Tokyo investigative crime reporter, he wrote in Japanese for one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers.

Jake visited Israel recently for the first time, as a guest of Penn Publishing, who just printed his 2010 book Tokyo Vice. The book tells the mind boggling real-life incidents that took place throughout Jake’s impressive and dramatic career. 2NJB sat with him to talk Japan, Yakuza, and journalism.

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The Fugu Plan: How the Japanese saved Jewish refugees


“You know how when you’re at a seder,  you talk about freedom and slavery and so forth? The conversation was about the Holocaust and how Jews would go to Canada or Mexico or Argentina. And this couple sitting next to me said, ‘Oh, we went to Tokyo.’”

It was at that moment at a friend’s Passover seder in the 1980s, Howard Teichman recalled, that his idea for a play was born. The play, called “Fugu” — about the Japanese plan to offer sanctuary to European Jews during World War II and the bizarre rationale behind that campaign — will be presented Jan. 28 to March 19 by the West Coast Jewish Theatre, where Teichman is the artistic director.

“I did some research and then I realized, my goodness, there’s this story about how Lithuanian Jews were given exit visas so they could come to Japan — and all of a sudden there’s this Fugu Plan. And I became so totally enamored with the story. It just kind of blew me away,” said Teichman, the play’s director and co-writer with Steven G. Simon.

While the couple at the seder had been able to stay in Tokyo posing as Nazis, Teichman learned that other Jews were allowed to settle openly in such cities as Kobe, where the play is set.

The Japanese admiration and friendly feeling for the Jews was solidified during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), when wealthy Jewish banker Jacob Schiff helped the Japanese prevail by extending them a multimillion-dollar loan.

Then, in 1922, Japan sided with Soviets who made up the White Army in its war against the Communists. The notoriously anti-Semitic Soviets introduced Japanese Col. Norihiro Yasue (a character in the show played by Ryan Moriarty) to the infamous “Protocols of the Jewish Elders” (also known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), a fabricated document purporting to be the minutes of a meeting during which prominent Jewish figures formulated plans to take control of the world’s economies, governments and media. However, while the fake document was used to justify anti-Jewish oppression around the world, it prompted the Japanese to admire what they believed was the Jews’ wealth and influence, which they hoped could be used to help advocate for Japan in the United States. Yasue even traveled to what was then Palestine in the 1920s, meeting with Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, and later got his foreign ministry interested in the Fugu Plan.

“According to the plan,” Teichman explained, “the Japanese wanted one Jewish man to go to America because they believed [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt was Jewish, and they felt that if they could show Roosevelt that they were being good to the Jews, he would lift the oil embargo that was placed on Japan in 1935 — because Japan had attacked China, and China was an ally of ours. If they showed they were nice to the Jews, somehow that would translate into not going to war. That would translate into, hopefully, getting Jewish-American money to Japan to help the Jews who were in Japan.”

As the play begins, leaders of the Jewish community in Kobe, including Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (Peter Altschuler) and Dr. Avram Kaufman (Warren Davis) — in real life, Dr. Abraham Josevich Kaufman — invite Yasue to Shabbat dinner. Yasue decides the dinner should take place at his home and be overseen by his aide, Setsuzo Kotsuji (Scott Keiji Takeda), who has learned about Judaism and studied Hebrew in Palestine. Also present is another member of the Jewish community, along with Kaufman’s daughter (Rosie Moss) and Captain Matsuoko (Marcel Licera), a fervent Japanese nationalist.

During the dinner, the Japanese pressure their guests to participate in the Fugu Plan or end up in a concentration camp. Although he is bewildered by the idea and knows he has little chance of success, Kaufman agrees to be Japan’s emissary to the United States.

In the play, the three main Japanese characters and the leaders of the Jewish community are all based on historical figures, Teichman said, but the Shabbat dinner is a dramatic invention to further the story line, as is the character of Kaufman’s daughter and a fictional love story between her and Kotsuji.

“We decided that, during our process of writing this play, we wanted to create a sense of urgency,” he said. “And the way we did it was to have everything happen in one day. … And so, the Shabbat dinner was a way of introducing the Fugu Plan to the audience.

“That’s why we set it the way we did. That’s why we took dramatic license the way we did, because the story is a long story. It takes up time and time. We tried to synthesize the story so it could be theatrical.”

Into the mix comes Gestapo officer Col. Josef Meisinger (David Preston), known as “the Butcher of Warsaw,” making an unexpected appearance. His entrance effectively puts an end to the Fugu Plan and poses a dire threat to the Jews. “Josef Meisinger was a real person who had come to Japan to ask the Japanese to kill the Jews,” Teichman said. “And the words that we wrote came from his transcripts.”

But the Japanese, who occupied Shanghai, refused to kill the Jews, opting instead to create a ghetto for them in that city. “Go to YouTube and see these people from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Shoah’ who speak about their time in Shanghai,” Teichman suggested. “These people talk about it being difficult. They didn’t have all the amenities, all the food, but they look back on it as a time when they survived. They were living in conditions that were better than being in a concentration camp. They were able to come and go. They had newspapers. They may not have had fancy clothes and all the amenities, but they were able to survive. And to me, that’s the real story — that these people survive.”

Why Sugihara’s selflessness still matters


Most Jewish Americans are familiar with the story of heroism told in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” about German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust. 

Far fewer know the story of how Chiune Sugihara — often called the “Japanese Schindler” — sacrificed his diplomatic career and defied his government to issue thousands of transit visas to Jews in 1940 from his post in Lithuania. It is estimated that 40,000 people are alive today as a result of his actions.

On June 23, the Los Angeles branches of the Japan America Society of Southern California, the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania and American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined forces to present a panel discussion regarding Sugihara’s legacy and for a screening of the historical drama about the diplomat, “Persona Non Grata,” at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre. 

The film, which had its American premiere in January at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, coincides with the 75th anniversary of Sugihara’s survivors arriving at the Port of Tsuruga in Fukui, Japan, and the 30th anniversary of Sugihara’s death at age 86. Other events honoring Sugihara include debuting a street named for him in Netanya, Israel, on June 8. 

“It is extremely important to highlight this kind of story, especially as the film details a uniquely positive chapter in a period of history known for its immeasurable inhumanity,” said Janna Weinstein Smith, AJC regional director. “This event is a part of our ongoing efforts to build greater understanding between Jewish and non-Jewish communities here and throughout the world.”

Oriha Sugihara, great-granddaughter of the late Japanese diplomat, opened the panel, welcoming Weinstein Smith, Lithuanian Consul General in Los Angeles Darius Gaidys, Japanese Consul General in Los Angeles Harry Horinouchi and Akira Kitade, author of “Visas of Life and the Epic Journey,” about a Japan Tourist Bureau employee who helped ferry Jews with Sugihara visas to Japan. 

But it was Holocaust survivor Nathan Lewin, attorney and lecturer at Columbia Law School, who provided a living — and lively — testament to Sugihara’s legacy. 

Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1936, Lewin came onstage with a warm smile and a spring in his step. He immediately had the capacity crowd rapt when he announced, “The film starts out with the statement, ‘Based on a true story.’ Here is another true story, told by somebody who remembers almost none of it, as it happened before I was 5 years old.”

During his presentation and in a subsequent interview with the Journal, Lewin, 80, credited his parents for making sure he was well versed in the details of the family’s carefully planned escape from World War II Europe via Poland, Lithuania, the Trans-Siberian Railway and, finally, a boat to Japan. 

Lewin described how, when he was born, the newspapers were full of Hitler’s threats, and his mother, Pessla “Peppy” Sternheim, feared Poland would not be a good place to stay. She convinced her husband, Dr. Isaac Lewin, to agree that if the Germans crossed into Poland, the family would head east. 

In September 1939, the family escaped over the border in the middle of the night with other Jews. Lewin’s paternal grandfather, Aaron Lewin, a respected rabbi who was elected twice to the Polish parliament, made an attempt to escape but was murdered.

“The story I was told years later was that as a 3-year-old carried through the forest, they warned me if I made any sound, the wolves would come out from behind the trees and eat me up,” Lewin said. “We made our way across the border into Lithuania and headed to Vilnius, which not only had a historic Jewish community but also many other refugees who came in before us. I even attended the kindergarten there. However, my mother intuited that Vilnius was also not a good place to stay.” 

Years later, he and his older daughter (and law practice partner), Alyza D. Lewin, discovered that Lewin’s Dutch-born mother played a key role with Netherlands Consul General Jan Zwartendijk in the logistics that would allow Jews to make it out of Lithuania through Sugihara.

Upon learning Lithuania was about to be annexed by the Soviets, Lewin’s mother eventually convinced the Dutch ambassador in Riga to write in her passport that permitted her to enter Suriname, Curacao and other possessions of the Netherlands in the Americas without an entry visa. She then went to Zwartendijk and asked him to copy the same words onto the travel documents of family members. Based on Zwartendijk’s notation, Sugihara then granted them transit visas through Japan on the purported trip to Curacao. This strategy, in turn, eased the way for other “visa” holders — despite orders to the contrary from the Japanese government. 

According to Yad Vashem’s website, none of these refugees ever arrived in Curacao — more than half went to free countries while about 1,000 ended up in Shanghai, where they survived the war.

Lewin still has a Sughiara visa as a family heirloom — it is said that the diplomat continued to hand out visas from the window of his train even as he departed Lithuania after consuls and embassies were closed — and stressed that it’s crucial to remind the world of what people like Sugihara and Zwartendijk did.

“Once Sugihara was recognized at Yad Vashem among the Rightious Among Nations in 1985, the question of Zwartendijk’s involvement in the whole Sugihara episode came to the forefront of my consciousness. There were also several other survivors who knew about Zwartendijk. We wrote to Yad Vashem to ask he also be listed. On the basis of testimonials we provided, he was recognized in 1997,” Lewin said.

The influence of Sugihara’s actions reverberated long after the war, according to Lewin, who explained that his father was involved in rescue efforts for Jewish refugees and that he himself dedicated some of his law career to supporting Jewish causes and arguing cases on behalf of the Jewish community (especially Orthodox Jews), going all the way up to the Supreme Court.

“I have done many of those cases pro bono, and people ask me who financed them,” he said. “I argued these cases out of my own volition, and these choices can be attributable to the example my father set in the years after he arrived in the United States and, perhaps, to the Sugihara story, as well. If I knew I existed because a Japanese man did the right thing when his government told him not to do it, that does have an influence to some extent.” 

Lewin concluded his pre-screening speech with a reflection on the appropriateness of Sugihara’s first name: “Chiune is a very interesting name, especially if you’re Jewish and know Hebrew,” he said. “Although you can pronounce it ‘Chee-un-eh’ in Japanese, in Hebrew you could pronounce it ‘Chi-uni,’ which means, ‘You’ve given me life.’ ”

JDC mobilizes Ecuador, Japan relief efforts


The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is organizing relief efforts in response to a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador that has killed at least 272 people and injured more than 2,500.

The New York-based JDC said in a statement released Monday that it has begun assessing needs and coordinating relief efforts with the Ecuador Jewish community and Heart to Heart International focusing on medical care, medical supply provision, and water purification efforts.

In addition to the group’s response in Ecuador, a $25,000 JDC grant for emergency supplies including food and non-food items was made to JDC’s longstanding partner, the Japanese humanitarian agency JEN, to aid people impacted by the recent earthquakes in the Kumamoto province.

“As devastating images from Ecuador surface, JDC extends its deepest condolences and joins our partners to deploy a speedy response that ensures relief to survivors at their greatest time of need,” JDC CEO Alan Gill said in a statement. “Our response in Ecuador, and in Japan, are proud expressions of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and are fortuitous as we lead up to the Passover holiday when we celebrate our redemption from great odds. May all those impacted by these crises experience the same solace and strength that can be found in family and community.”

JDC’s disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. The organization coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction and the United Nations.

Donations for these efforts can be made at www.jdc.org/ecuador

Major quake hits near Japan’s Kumamoto; tsunami advisory lifted


A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck southern Japan early on Saturday, just over 24 hours after a quake killed nine people and injured at least 1,000 in the same area.

The Saturday quake triggered a tsunami advisory, though it was later lifted and no irregularities were reported at three nuclear power plants in the area, Japanese media reported.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in the Saturday quake though there were several reports of damage, including some collapsed buildings and cracked roads.

The epicenter of the quake was near the city of Kumamoto and measured at a shallow depth of 10 km, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake on Thursday evening in the same region was of 6.4 magnitude.

“Thursday's quake might have been a foreshock of this one,” Shinji Toda, a professor at Tohoku University, told national broadcaster NHK.

The Japan Meteorological Agency said the Saturday quake was 7.1 magnitude and it initially issued a tsunami advisory, which identifies the presence of a marine threat and asks people to leave coastal regions, for the Ariake and Yatsushiro seas.

NHK said the advisory suggested a possible wave of one meter in height. The advisory was later lifted.

Several aftershocks rattled the region later on Saturday, including one of 5.8 magnitude.

NHK quoted an official at a hospital near the epicenter as saying it had lost power after the Saturday quake and had to use its generators.

Most of the casualties in the Thursday quake came in the town of Mashiki, near the epicenter, where several houses collapsed.

A magnitude 9 quake in March 2011, to the north of Tokyo, touched off a massive tsunami and nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima. Nearly 20,000 people were killed in the tsunami.

Trump defends proposed Muslim ban from U.S. as outrage mounts


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, comparing his plan to the World War II detainment of Japanese-Americans and others in dismissing growing outrage from around the world.

U.S. leaders from both political parties, the prime ministers of France and the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and Muslim residents of Asian countries all denounced the comments byTrump, the Republican front-runner for the November 2016 presidential election.

But the real-estate mogul said his ideas were no worse than those of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who oversaw the detention of more than 110,000 people in U.S. government camps after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“What I'm doing is no different than FDR,” Trump said on ABC's “Good Morning America” program.

“We have no choice but to do this,” he said. “We have people that want to blow up our buildings, our cities. We have to figure out what's going on.”

Trump called for blocking Muslims, including would-be immigrants, students, tourists and other visitors, from entering the country following last week's California shooting spree by two Muslims who authorities said were radicalized. 

It was the most dramatic response by a presidential candidate following the San Bernardino, Calif., rampage, even as other Republicans have called for a suspension of President Barack Obama's plan to allow in some refugees from Syria. 

Backlash quickly came from all corners. In the social media reaction, hashtags such as #racism, #fascism and #bigot trended heavily after Trump's proposal on Monday.

The Philadelphia Daily News put a photo of Trump with his right arm extended on its cover with the headline “The New Furor,” a play on Adolf Hitler's title – fuhrer – in Nazi Germany.

Critics said Trump's plan would likely be unconstitutional for singling out people based on their religion. But Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told MSNBC the U.S. Constitution does not apply to non-citizens. 

Republicans warned that if Trump is the party's nominee, his stance could hurt in a general election against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton's Christmas gift wrapped up under a tree,” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said on Twitter.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, told reporters the plan was “not conservatism.” But he said he would support the party's presidential nominee.

Democrats, meanwhile, blamed Republicans for Trump's extreme language and warned it could help him with primary voters.

“Donald Trump is standing on the platform of hate, and, I'm sorry to say, hate that the Republican Party has built for him,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton, sent a fundraising email Monday night declaring her own Muslim faith. “Unfortunately, Trump is leaning into the kind of fear of progress that very well could help him win the nomination,” Abedin wrote.

Polls have shown a stark divide between Republicans and Democrats in how they view Muslims. 

Outrage also came from abroad. In France, where shootings and suicide bombings on Nov. 13 in Paris killed 130 people, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Twitter, “Mr Trump, like others, is feeding hatred and misinformation.”

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron called Trump's comments “divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong.” A group started a petition to revoke Trump's honorary degree from Robert Gordon University in Scotland.

A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected Trump's comments, and Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia also denounced him. 

Trump warned repeatedly that an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, could happen again if officials do not act first. He said that he did not know how long a ban would remain in place and that Muslim Americans would be allowed into the country after overseas trips. 

Trump told MSNBC that people would be asked about their religion at U.S. borders and that the ban would extend to Muslim leaders of other nations. He said he would not support internment camps.

Some observers poked fun at Trump. British author J.K. Rowling wrote on Twitter that Voldemort, the archvillain of her popular Harry Potter series, “was nowhere near as bad” as Trump.

The Democratic mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rick Kriseman, said in a tongue-in-cheek tweet that he was barring Trump from visiting the city.

“I am hereby barring Donald Trump from entering St. Petersburg until we fully understand the dangerous threat posed by all Trumps,” Kriseman wrote.

Israeli bumblebees sent to Japan following mass death of local hives


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Japanese culinary curiosity gives hummus moment in the rising sun


At the end of his 13-hour workday, Hidehiko Egata takes a seat at the bar at his regular eatery in this city’s upscale Shibuya neighborhood.

A senior adviser at a local financial firm, Egata sips sake and nibbles on traditional Japanese pickles as he chats with the owner in Japanese. Then he orders his usual dish: hummus topped with warm chickpeas, tahini and olive oil.

“I first ate hummus a few years ago on the other side of town,” said Egata, a slender man in his 50s who keeps fit by practicing Japanese martial arts daily. “I found that it was more healthy than my usual dinners then. It was filling, but it didn’t make me tired the way a noodle dish would. When this place opened, it became my regular spot.”

This place is Ta-im, an intimate 16-seater that is one of no fewer than eight Israeli restaurants to open in Japan in the past five years, serving up hummus and other Middle Eastern staples to the novelty-oriented and health-obsessed urban elite. In January, the Chabad House in Tokyo joined the trend when it openedChana’s Place — the capital’s only kosher certified restaurant — serving hummus, shakshuka, matbucha and other popular Israeli dishes.

“The urban population in Japan only recently became exposed to real international cuisine beyond the obvious dishes like spaghetti, pizza and hamburgers,” said the Israeli businessman Dan Zuckerman, 54, who moved to Tokyo in 1985 and ran a deli before he opened Ta-im in 2011. “Now they are discovering the more exotic foods like Mexican, Portuguese, Spanish and Greek.

“As new foreign restaurants open in Japan — Taco Bell announced its entry to the island nation in January — Israeli and Arab food enjoys an advantage because of its reliance on fresh vegetables and other lean substances, according to Rabbi Binyomin Edery, a Tokyo-based Chabad rabbi who supervises King Falafel, the city’s only certified kosher food stand.

“In a city where the population is so health conscious that about a third of them regularly wear surgeon masks whenever they go out, a lean, fiber-rich food that’s full of vitamins is going to have a serious advantage compared to fat-dripping tacos,” Edery said. “Israeli food is becoming super trendy in this country, and hummus is leading the charge because people here are already used to the idea of bean paste from their local food. It just fits.”

Chana’s Place, housed in the Tokyo Chabad center and run by the movement’s envoy to Japan, Rabbi Mendy Sudakevich, is small, accommodating only 14 diners at a time. The restaurant’s profits are used to fund activities for Tokyo’s Jewish community of a few hundred people.

“If this restaurant is to succeed, it needs to appeal to the Japanese public,” Sudakevich told JTA. “The Jewish, kosher-observing community is too small to sustain this business.”

Unlike Zuckerman’s Ta-im, which feels like a typical Tel Aviv hummus bar, complete with the Israeli pop radio station Galgalatz playing in the background, Chana’s Place fuses Middle Eastern cuisine with a local Japanese design, including a miniature Japanese garden.

Sudakevich says he realized he would need to adapt hummus for the Japanese after he served the dish at an event he catered for an Israeli firm in Tokyo. Hummus is consumed typically by wiping the paste from a plate with pita bread, but the Japanese cut the bread into pieces and made tiny hummus sandwiches.

“The Japanese marry an almost impossible mix of hunger for new stuff with a deep conservatism,” Sudakevich said. “If you want to serve them something new, you need to make sure you do it in familiar ways.”

Roy Somech, a 33-year-old Israeli who last year opened his second restaurant in Sendai, 220 miles north of Tokyo, takes a different approach. Somech believes in totally immersing his patrons not only in the Israeli experience, but that of the entire Middle East.

“When you come to our restaurants you find three flags: Israel, Turkey and Tunisia,” Somech said. “There’s Arab and Israeli music, there’s hookahs — all the fun stuff of the Middle East and Israel that many Japanese don’t know because they only hear of terrorism and bombs from that part of the world.”

Somech says he receives approximately 200 patrons daily at his two restaurants in Sendai and that 70 percent of them are returning customers.

The Israeli restaurants are able to supply their patrons with fresh pita thanks to the only bakery in the country that produces the flatbread, an operation set up a decade ago by the Israeli entrepreneur Amnon Agasy. But white tahini, the sesame spread that is a key ingredient of hummus, must be specially imported — a constraint that has 3 1/2 ounces of hummus selling in Japan for about $6.

“There’s demand for hummus, sure,” said Somech, who opened his first restaurant, Middle Mix, five years ago.

But, he added, in a country where even cheap street food is expected to meet strict standards, and whose capital city has more Michelin stars than Paris, “competition is very, very tough.”

In Japan, the Holocaust provides a lesson in dangers of nationalism


In the auditorium of this country’s main Holocaust education center, a teenage actor explains the dilemma that faced a Japanese diplomat during World War II.

“My conscience tells me I must act a certain way, but doing so means defying my commanders,” says the actor portraying Chiune Sugihara, the Empire of Japan’s wartime vice consul in Lithuania. In 1940, Sugihara rescued 6,000 people by granting them transit visas to Japan in defiance of Tokyo’s orders. Some of them survived the war.

To Western ears, the play’s message of placing independent thought above blind obedience may seem banal. But in an increasingly militaristic Japan, Sugihara’s story is instructive — a tool for sensitizing children to the dangers of nationalism not only in Europe, but also in Japan.

“It’s a bold position to take in a society that has remained ultra-conservative and extremely hierarchical,” said Alain Lewkowicz, a French Jewish journalist who has studied Japanese society’s attitudes toward the Holocaust.

Since it opened in 1995, the Fukuyama Holocaust Education Center — situated just outside Fukuyama and about 60 miles from Hiroshima, the site of an atomic bomb in 1945 — has welcomed tens of thousands of Japanese schoolchildren. Founded by Beit Shalom, a Kyoto-based Christian pro-Israel organization, the center relocated in 2007 to a larger, donor-funded 20,000-square-foot facility.

(Beit Shalom’s theater troupe’s is now preparing for its first international tour in nine years. The group, which will perform in the United States this spring, is composed of 20 Japanese girls who sing in Yiddish and Hebrew about such themes as life in wartime Jewish ghettos.)

At the heart of the building is a Holocaust museum with a display about the buildup of hate against Jews in Germany and replicas of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the Auschwitz gate. The center also features a replica of the Amsterdam room inside the annex where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, as well as objects that belonged to her family. The garden is home to a statue of the teenage diarist and a sapling that is actually a cutting from the tree that once grew outside the building where the Frank family hid.

While Anne Frank is well known in Japan, the strong alliance and similarities that connected the island nation to Nazi Germany — during World War II, Japan, Germany and Italy made up the Axis alliance — are rarely taught in schools here. Similarly, speaking about Japanese war crimes of the 1930s and ’40s — including mass murder in Nanking, China, and the forced sexual slavery of tens of thousands of Korean women — is largely taboo in a country whose right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has repeatedly visited a shrine that was built for some of the perpetrators.

Abe’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine remains a major point of contention between Tokyo and the capital cities of Beijing and Seoul. China and Korea have warned Abe not to backtrack on his partial admission to Japan’s wartime atrocities when he delivers a speech later this year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

Abe has promised “a departure from the postwar regime” and said he regretted that he had not visited Yasukuni sooner. Meanwhile, he has been expanding Japan’s military capabilities to unprecedented levels after ending in July a ban on operations abroad that had been established soon after World War II ended. His government is also encouraging military recruitment and exploring for the first time in decades the possibility of acquiring offensive weapons.

Against this backdrop, independent NGOs like the Holocaust Education Center are “taking up the educational task that the government is neglecting on purpose because it wants to promote a more nationalistic agenda,” said Naoki Maruyama, a professor of history at Japan’s Meiji Gakuin University.

The passage in 2003 of controversial education reforms that reintroduced such nationalistic elements as obligatory anthem singing, patriotism lessons and the flying of the national flag in schools, he added, suggests that it might be a while before schools tackle any of these divisive issues in a manner comparable to what has been done in postwar Germany.

“We have not given much attention to educating children to think about why the war happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence,” said Makoto Otsuka, a reverend at Beit Shalom and the center’s director. “More than anything else, this is what the Holocaust Education Center tries to do.”

Japanese educators, he added, typically teach about the use by the United States of atomic weapons in Japan to “show how much Japan suffered as the victim,” but have failed to follow the example of Germany, where “it is now required to look back objectively at the facts of history.”

Neither the Holocaust nor Japan’s wartime occupation of Asian countries and human rights abuses against prisoners of war are mandatory subjects in the national history curriculum of schools.

And the Holocaust Education Center here does not deal directly with Japan’s war crimes either, said Akio Yoshida, the museum’s deputy director, citing the “need to focus on that uniqueness of the Holocaust to prevent it from blurring with other events that were war-related, including the actions of Japanese troops in Korea and China, or the atomic bomb.”

Instead, Yoshida said he hopes that teaching the Holocaust in Japan “will expose children to the process of indoctrination that preceded the murders, and leave it to them to make the final conclusion about which path they want their society to take.”

Jordanian king vows ‘relentless’ war on Islamic State’s own ground


Jordan's King Abdullah vowed a “relentless” war against Islamic State on their own territory on Wednesday in response to a video published by the hard-line group showing a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

Jordan hanged two Iraqi jihadists, one a woman, on Wednesday and vowed to intensify military action against Islamic State.

“We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles and our war for their sake will be relentless and will hit them in their own ground,” state television quoted the king as saying during a security meeting.

Jordan, which is part of the U.S.-led alliance against Islamic State, had promised an “earth-shaking response” to the killing of its pilot, Mouath al-Kasaesbeh, who was captured in December when his F-16 warplane crashed over northeastern Syria.

Government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said on Wednesday: “We are talking about a collaborative effort between coalition members to intensify efforts to stop extremism and terrorism to undermine, degrade and eventually finish Daesh.” Daesh is used as a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

He said it was a continuation of Jordan's long standing policy in fighting hard-line Islamist militants and that King Abdullah, who cut short a trip to the United States, headed a meeting with senior security officials on Wednesday.

“All the state's military and security agencies are developing their options. Jordan's response will be heard by the world at large but this response on the security and military level will be announced at the appropriate time,” Momani said.

Islamic State had demanded the release of Sajida al-Rishawi in exchange for a Japanese hostage whom it later beheaded. Sentenced to death for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack in Amman, Rishawi was executed at dawn.

Jordan also executed a senior al-Qaeda prisoner, Ziyad Karboli, an Iraqi man who was sentenced to death in 2008.

The Jordanian pilot was the first from the coalition known to have been captured and killed by Islamic State.

Jordan is a major U.S. ally in the fight against hardline Islamist groups and hosted U.S. troops during operations that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is home to hundreds of U.S. military trainers bolstering defences at the Syrian and Iraqi borders, and is determined to keep the jihadists in Syria away from its frontier.

CALLS FOR REVENGE

The fate of Kasaesbeh, a member of a large tribe that forms the backbone of support for the country's Hashemite monarchy, has gripped Jordan for weeks.

Some Jordanians had criticised the king for embroiling them in the U.S.-led war that they said would provoke a militant backlash but the pilot's killing produced a wave of outrage and calls for revenge.

Jordan's authorities have not commented on how many missions the air force has carried out against Islamic State.

In a televised statement to the nation, the king urged national unity and said the killing was a cowardly act of terror by a criminal group that has no relation to Islam.

Muslim clerics across the Middle East, even those sympathetic to the jihadist cause, also expressed outrage, saying such a form of killing was considered despicable by Islam.

President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday vowed to understand and resolve reported delays in U.S. arms sales to Jordan.

There was widespread shock and anger across Jordan at the brutality of a killing that drew international condemnation.

The European Union combined a statement of solidarity with Jordan over the killing of the pilots with criticism of its immediate execution of two Iraqi jihadists.

Kasaesbeh's father said the two executions were not enough and urged the government to do more to avenge his death.

“I want the state to get revenge for my son's blood through more executions of those people who follow this criminal group that shares nothing with Islam,” Safi al-Kasaesbeh told Reuters.

Islamic State has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, Jordan's neighbours to the north and east.

In the pilot's home village of Ay, mourners said Jordanians must rally around the state. “Today we put our differences behind us and rally behind the king and nation,” said Jabar Sarayrah, a shopkeeper.

DAWN EXECUTION

The prisoners were executed in Swaqa prison, 70 km (45 miles) south of Amman, just before dawn, a security source who was familiar with the case said. “They were both calm and showed no emotions and just prayed,” he added without elaborating.

Rishawi, in her mid-forties, was part of an al Qaeda network that targeted three Amman hotels in suicide bombings in 2005. She was meant to die in one of the attacks – the worst in Jordan's history – but her suicide bomb belt did not go off.

Only two other prisoners are on death row in Jordan – Mohammad Hassan al Sahli, a Syrian who was convicted of plotting and executing a rocket attack in August 2005 against a U.S. navy vessel and the Israeli port city of Eilat, and Jordanian Muamar Jaghbeer, a leading al Qaeda operative.

There are at least 250 Islamist militants in prison, almost half of them were arrested in the past year and are Islamic State sympathisers.

Jordan said on Tuesday the pilot had been killed a month ago. The government had been picking up intelligence for weeks that the pilot was killed some time ago, a source close to the government said.

“The horror of the killing, the method of killing is probably going to generate more short-term support for the state,” said a Western diplomat. “But once that horror dies down, inevitably some of the questions revert on Jordan's role in the coalition.”

The Syrian government condemned the killing and urged Jordan to cooperate with it in a fight against Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria. The United States has ruled out Syria as a partner in the campaign against Islamic State, describing President Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem.

The executed woman came from Iraq's Anbar province bordering Jordan. Her tribal Iraqi relatives were close aides of the slain Jordanian leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, from whose group Islamic State emerged.

Islamic State had demanded her release in exchange for the life of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. However, Goto was beheaded by the group, video released last Saturday showed.

Jordan had insisted that they would only release the woman as part of a deal to free the pilot.

Jordan prisoner swap on hold, fate of Japanese ISIS hostage unclear


Jordan said on Wednesday it had received no assurance that one of its pilots captured by Islamic State insurgents was safe and that it would go ahead with a proposed prisoner swap only if he was freed.

The fate of air force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh was thought to be tied to that of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, a veteran war reporter who is also being held by the insurgent group.

A video was released on Tuesday purporting to show the Japanese national saying he had 24 hours to live unless Jordan released Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman on death row for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack.

Government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Jordan was ready to release al-Rishawi if Kasaesbeh was spared, but made clear that she was still being held until the pilot was freed.

“It's not true she has been released. Her release is tied to freeing our pilot,” Momani told Reuters. He made no mention of Goto.

Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said on his official Twitter account that a Jordanian request for proof that Kasaesbeh was safe and well had gone unanswered.

The Jordanian comments have raised concerns in Japan that Goto might no longer be part of any deal between Amman and Islamic State. But CNN quoted Judeh as saying that “of course” the Japanese hostage's release would be part of any exchange.

Kasaesbeh was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against Islamic State, which has captured large tracts of Syria and Iraq.

The voice on the video said Kasaesbeh had a shorter time to live than Goto. Japan confirmed the existence of the video at 11 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday.

“Twenty-four hours have passed since we confirmed the image of Mr. Goto, but there hasn’t been any information of any particular big movement,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

He said Japan would continue to do its best to secure his release, staying in contact with Jordan.

Momani said Jordan's priority was to secure the release of the pilot, who hails from an important Jordanian tribe that forms the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy.

Several hundred people, including Kasaesbeh's relatives, gathered in front of the office of Jordan's prime minister on Tuesday, urging authorities to meet Islamic State's demands.

Al-Rishawi has been held in Jordan over her role in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people in the capital Amman.

MOTHER'S PLEA

A spokesman at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office said he had no immediate comment on the Jordanian statement.

The hostage-taking presents Abe with his biggest diplomatic crisis since he took power in 2012, and there has been a flurry of unconfirmed reports in Japanese media that a swap deal involving Goto might be in the works.

Goto's mother, speaking shortly after the presumed deadline had passed late on Wednesday, said: “My emotions are all over the place.

“A time limit has been set, and that has made me nervous,” Junko Ishido told reporters at her Tokyo home.

She had earlier urged the Japanese government to do its utmost to save his life and reiterated that her son was not an enemy of Islam.

Abe said Tuesday's video was “despicable”. He called on Jordan to cooperate in working for Goto's quick release, but promised that Tokyo would not give in to terrorism.

Goto went to Syria in late October. According to friends and business associates, he was attempting to secure the release of Haruna Yukawa, his friend and fellow Japanese citizen who was captured by Islamic State in August.

In the first of three videos purportedly of Goto, released last week, a black-clad masked figure with a knife said Goto and Yukawa would be killed within 72 hours if Japan did not pay Islamic State $200 million.

The captor resembled a figure from previous Islamic State videos whose threats have preceded beheadings.

A video on Saturday appeared to show Goto with a picture of a decapitated Yukawa, saying his captors' demands had switched to the release of al-Rishawi.

Tuesday's video featured an audio track over a still picture that appeared to show Goto holding a picture of a now bearded Kasaesbeh.

Officials involved in the crisis say Tokyo knew for months that Islamic State militants were holding two Japanese men captive, but appeared ill-prepared when the group set a ransom deadline and purportedly killed one of them.

Japan urges Jordan’s help in ISIS hostage crisis after video


Japan pressed Jordan for help in securing the release of Kenji Goto, a Japanese hostage of Islamic State militants, after a video on Tuesday appeared to show him saying he could be killed in 24 hours.

“Tell the Japanese government to put all their political pressure on Jordan,” says the voice on the video, addressing the Japanese people and saying he will be killed unless Jordan frees would-be suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi from death row.

Jordanian state television, quoting an army source, said authorities were trying to authenticate the video. It would be the third involving veteran war reporter Goto.

“The relevant agencies are working on verifying the authenticity of the voice recording that is attributed to Daesh,” the source said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

The hostage issue is the deepest diplomatic crisis Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has faced in just over two years in office.

Confronting “an extremely severe situation,” Abe ordered his government to continue its policy of seeking Jordan's help in releasing Goto, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters after a meeting of national security officials.

The voice in the video says another Islamic State captive, Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, has a shorter time to live than Goto, 47. Some media reports have said a swap of Goto and the pilot for al-Rishawi and another militant prisoner held by Jordan was being discussed.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video but Suga said it appeared to show Goto and the voice resembled that on a video on Saturday that U.S. and Japanese officials have said appeared to be genuine.

Goto went to Syria in late October in order, according to friends and business associates, to seek the release of fellow Japanese Haruna Yukawa, who was captured in August.

In the first video released last week, a black-clad masked figure with a knife said Goto and Yukawa would be killed within 72 hours if Japan did not pay Islamic State $200 million. The captor resembled a figure from previous Islamic State videos whose British-accented threats have preceded beheadings.

A video on Saturday appeared to show Goto with a picture of a beheaded Yukawa, saying his captors' demands had switched to the release of al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman held by Jordan for her role in a 2005 suicide bombing that killed 60 people in Amman.

“Time is now running very short,” the latest video says, with an audio track over a still picture that appears to show Goto holding a picture of the pilot.

“It is me for her. What seems to be so difficult to understand? She has been a prisoner for a decade. And I've only been a prisoner for a few months.”

He says further “delays” by Jordan would result in the death of the pilot and then himself.

Kasaesbeh was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against the militants.

Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK: “I think Japan should do all it possibly can” to secure her son's release.

After decades of distance, Japan and Israel establish closer ties


Reading his Japanese-language newspaper over breakfast, Rabbi Mendy Sudakevich spotted an ad for a self-help DVD titled “Get rich like the Jews.”

“Almost anywhere else in the world, such an ad” — published in several widely read Japanese dailies — “would have been deemed anti-Semitic incitement,” noted Sudakevich, an Israel-born Chabad emissary who settled in Tokyo in 2000.

But in Japan, he and others said, it’s something akin to a compliment.

“[T]he takeaway is that Jews, and Israel by extension, should be emulated and embraced,” said Ben-Ami Shillony, a historian and lecturer on the Far East at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Indeed, Japan’s government — buoyed by the population’s generally positive bias toward Jews — has been actively seeking stronger economic ties with Israel. That’s especially true now that the nation’s decades-long dependence on Arab oil is waning due to America’s increased energy production and Japan’s decreased reliance on fossil fuels.

In 2014, trade between the two nations rose by 9.3 percent to $1.75 billion, according to Israel’s Ministry of Economy.

Warmer relations also yielded several recent joint memoranda on enhancing cooperation on research, trade, tourism and even security cooperation — an area that successive Japanese administrations regarded as taboo for fear that it would anger oil-rich Arab nations.

And in Japan, government policy has a substantially larger impact on private firms than in the West, Shillony said. This was evidenced in the decisions by nearly all the large Japanese carmakers not to enter the Israeli market until the 1990s, when the Arab oil boycott — a set of sanctions applied against nations that did business with Israel — began to loosen, he added.

Japan’s new certainty owes to the arrival in October of U.S.-produced shale oil, which is expected to put the United States ahead of Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest exporter of black gold. As production in the United States nears the projected rate of 11.6 million barrels a day by 2020, exports to Japan are expected to grow far beyond the current level of 300,000 barrels a month. At the same time, Japan is increasingly relying on green energy.

More evidence of warmer ties between Israel and Japan: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official visit to Tokyo in May, where he and his wife, Sara, dined with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, at Abe’s residence. Their meeting exceeded its allotted time — unusual for a state visit in Japan.

Abe, a center-right politician whose career and worldview in many respects align with that of Netanyahu, is heading to Israel later this month in the first state visit of its kind in nine years for a Japanese leader. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, visited Japan in 2008.

“I am determined, together with Prime Minister Netanyahu, to make further efforts to strengthen Japan-Israel relations, so that the potentials are fully materialized,” Abe told the media in Tokyo during his meeting with Netanyahu.

The feelings appear to be mutual.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved a series of measures aimed at boosting trade to the tune of  several tens of millions of dollars. Israel will open an Economy Ministry office in Osaka and increase by 50 percent government grants for joint Israeli-Japanese research projects.

For Abe, strengthening ties with Israel is part of a larger vision for enhancing innovation and diversifying Japan’s highly centralized industries and markets in an attempt to reverse its declining economy and creeping inflation, according to Shillony.

In Abe’s Japan, the historian added, Israel is a particularly valuable partner because its unique expertise in defense and military technologies fits his plan for beefing up Japanese military capabilities against an increasingly defiant North Korea.

The Arab Spring of 2011 also changed Japan’s view of the region in Israel’s favor, according to Naoki Maruyama, a professor of history at Japan’s Meiji Gakuin University.

“With the region falling into chaos and internal strife, Israel stands out as the exception – and the place in which to invest,” he told JTA.

Abe’s economic doctrine of openness, which analysts often call “Abenomics,”  already is changing the reality of doing business in Japan as a foreigner, according to Yoav Keidar, an Israeli businessman who has been working in Japan for the past 25 years.

“Once the main bottleneck for foreign firms, the government is now actively helping those firms overcome other blockages,” he said. “In Japanese terms, this is nothing short of a revolution.”

In Keidar’s case, the government fast-tracked permits for his telemedicine service — a vetting process that would have taken years in the past, he said.

Despite the dramatic increase in trade between the two nations, it’s still some 30 percent lower than Israel’s trade with South Korea, one of Japan’s main competitors.

That competition is another factor enhancing Israel’s appeal in Japan, according to Peleg Lewi, head of mission of Israel’s embassy in Tokyo.

“It did not escape Japanese industrialists and officials that Israel still has much stronger trade with some of Japan’s strongest competitors,” Lewi said. “At a time when giants like Samsung, Intel and Google are operating research centers in Israel, Japan is beginning to feel left out.”

 

Letter to Japan: Why we mourn, what we lost


Many people I meet in Japan ask, why we Jews revere the memory of Chiune Sugihara. The obvious reason is that this man, along with his wife, through their bravery and steadfastness, saved thousands of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the WWII Nazi Genocide, known as the Shoah.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center had the honor to host Mrs. Sugihara in Jerusalem, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, I had the honor to accompany her to a Beit Midrash—the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva—the very Judaic academy whose students and teachers the Sugihara had been saved by supplying Japanese visas in 1940. “You and your husband not only saved Jewish lives”, I told her as she shared astonished looks with 2,000(!) young religious scholars. “You see Mrs. Sugihara, you also helped save and insure the continuity of Jewish life and the spiritual and humane values of our Torah (written laws) and Mesorah (Oral traditions).

Indeed, Judaism places parents and teachers on the same plane, with the child/student taught to respect and love them both for their nurturing and caring for their physical and spiritual growth.

That is why the entire “House of Israel” is in mourning. The four brilliant, saintly, peaceful scholars, who were butchered while praying in a holy synagogue, are mourned not only by four wives, many children and dozens of grandchildren, but by all their spiritual offspring—including me.  

When word first came that the terrorist attack took place in the Har Nof neighborhood—an area home to many fellow Americans—we feared that there would be numerous personal connections to the tragedy—and there were. Our hopes were quickly dashed.  Of the three American rabbis who perished, my colleagues and I at the Simon Wiesenthal Center learned that we had fairly close ties to all of them.

In the early 1980s Kalman Levine studied at our Yeshiva for two years where he began his journey of scholarship and piety, before leaving for the Holy city of Jerusalem. After a few more years of study at successively more intense schools, he joined the faculty of a Yeshiva there. His love for learning was so deep that his son told reporters of his father sleeping only a few hours a night. He raised a family. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, ten children, and five grandchildren. 

Aryeh Kupinsky stood at 6 feet, 3 inches tall. His friends called him the “Gentle Giant.” Some called him the nicest person they had ever met. He was the kind of person you didn’t ask for help, because he volunteered it before you could ask. Before his marriage, he was the study partner and good friend of the eldest son of one of my colleagues. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife and five children.

Moshe Twersky was a public figure whose scholarship and gentle guidance touched the lives of many Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.  As such, his loss was experienced as everyone’s loss. His grandfather, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, was one of the most important figures in 20th century Orthodoxy as a Talmudist and philosopher. One of his daughters married Dr. Isadore Twersky, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard.  His son, Moshe, blessed with the intelligence of his parents, became the head of Toras Moshe yeshiva in Jerusalem—an academy founded by a former colleague from Los Angeles. Rabbi Twersky had many students. When he was murdered, he left behind a wife, five children, and ten grandchildren.

I hope that these details offer a glimpse into the deep sense of loss felt by millions of Jews from Tel Aviv to Toronto, to Tokyo.

There are of other dimensions to this barbaric attack. It could sound the death knell for—the “Two-State Solution” , where after negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority would eventually lead a new (peaceful) state—abutting the Jewish State of Israel.

But many Israelis no longer view Abbas’ PA as a reliable negotiating partner. In recent weeks, Abbas himself has incited Palestinians with the false claim that Israelis are “desecrating” the Al Aqsa Mosque. According to the New York Times, Abbas condemned the brutal murders of the rabbis only after US Secretary of State John Kerry forced him to do so. His colleagues in the Palestinian Authority actually celebrated the murders and the murderers. Genocidal Hamas distributed sweets to children in Gaza, as the Jewish families were burying the fathers and husbands. In Amman, legislators held a moment of silence—not for the innocent religious scholars but for their brutal executioners!

Last Friday, I attended a conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Instead of using the rostrum to call for an end to recent violence, including the murder by a Palestinian terrorist who used his car to mow down a three month old Israeli girl in her stroller, Palestinian speakers –diplomats and legislators— unveiled a new lie: That Israelis’ continued “desecration” of Muslim Holy sites threatened to transform the struggle to a religious war.

The opposite is true. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects the religious rights of all faiths, including Muslims. It seems that the genocidal religious doctrine of Hamas and the thuggery of ISIS are influencing too many Palestinians, in word and brutal deed. It is they who threaten to morph a political dispute into a religious conflict. If that happens, the Palestinian leadership will plunge their people into an abyss from which there will be no exit.

Vandals destroy copies of Anne Frank’s diary in Japan


More than 100 copies of Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” have been vandalized in public libraries in Japan’s capital Tokyo.

Pages have been ripped from at least 265 copies of the diary and other related books, Japanese officials told the BBC on Thursday. It is not clear who is behind the vandalism, they said.

Anne Frank’s diary was written during World War II, while the teenager hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. The book made her a symbol of the suffering of Jews during the war.

The head of Japan’s library council, Satomi Murata, told the French AFP news agency that five of Tokyo’s wards had reported the vandalism so far. “We don’t know why this happened or who did it,” he added.

[Related: Behind Japanese fascination with Anne Frank]

Toshihiro Obayashi, a library official in West Tokyo’s Suginsami area, said, “Each and every book which comes up under the index of Anne Frank has been damaged at our library.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement that it was shocked and concerned by the incidents, and called for the authorities to investigate.

“The geographic scope of these incidents strongly suggest an organized effort to denigrate the memory of the most famous of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis in the World War II Holocaust,” Associate Dean Abraham Cooper said.

Rotem Kowner, a professor of Japanese history and culture at Israel’s University of Haifa, told the BBC that the book has been exceptionally popular and successful in Japan.

He said that in terms of absolute numbers of copies of the book sold, Japan is second only to the United States.
About 30,000 Japanese tourists visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam every year, about 5,000 visitors more than the number of visitors from Israel.

Japan is also the only East Asian country with statues and a museum in memory of Anne Frank.

Behind Japanese fascination with Anne Frank, a ‘kinship of victims’


She speaks only Japanese and is not entirely sure what country she’s in, but 18-year-old Haruna Matsui is happy to stand in the rain for an hour with two friends to see the home of a person she has never met yet nonetheless considers her soul mate.

“We visited Paris and Brussels, so I just had to come here to see Anne’s home,” an excited Matsui told JTA last week outside Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House.

Matsui has read Japanese manga comic book adaptations of Frank’s diary several times and watched every anime cartoon film she could find about the teenage diarist who spent two years hiding in an Amsterdam attic before her arrest in 1944.

Frank’s story is so well known that dozens of nations are represented in the entry line of the museum established at her former hideout on Prinsengracht 263. Every year, more than a million people visit the museum, making it one of the Dutch capital’s most visited tourist destinations.

But interest in Anne Frank is particularly intense in Japan, where her story continues to reach new audiences through comic books, cartoons, museum exhibitions and educational initiatives.

For some Japanese, this is a source of pride. But researchers who have studied this fascination say it has a dark side, reflecting a tendency to focus on Japan’s victimhood during World War II while ignoring responsibility for atrocities committed by its troops who fought as allies of Nazi Germany.

Matsui thinks Japan was neutral during World War II.

“The Germans fought the French and English and the Jews in Europe, and then America and Japan had a war later,” she said hesitantly through a translator.

Japanese tourists visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam last year. Courtesy JTA

For many Europeans, Anne Frank is a potent symbol of the Holocaust and the dangers of racism. But the Japanese people tend to connect to her story for fundamentally different reasons, according to Alain Lewkowicz, a French Jewish journalist who wrote an elaborate iPad application,”Anne Frank in the Land of Manga,” about his investigation of the Anne Frank phenomenon in Japan. In January, a version of the work was published by the Franco-German television channel Arte.

“She symbolizes the ultimate World War II victim,” said Lewkowicz. “And that’s how most Japanese consider their own country because of the atomic bombs — a victim, never a perpetrator.”

Currently, approximately 30,000 Japanese tourists visit the Anne Frank House every year, 5,000 more than the annual number of Israeli visitors. That figure places Japan 13th in a list whose top 10 slots are all occupied by European and North American nations.

Japan has seen the publication of at least four popular manga comic books about Anne Frank and three animated films. The first Japanese translation of Anne Frank’s diary appeared in 1952, one year before it was first published in Hebrew.

“Basically, every Japanese person has read something about Anne Frank, which is even more amazing considering the shocking ignorance on history of many young Japanese today,” Lewkowicz said. “The older generation has read the book, and they buy the manga adaptation for their children.”

One place where Japanese children encounter Anne Frank’s story is the Holocaust Education Center at Fukuyama City, the only such institution in the region. Run by a Japanese reverend, Makoto Otsuka, the center has welcomed 150,000 schoolchildren since its establishment in 1995.

Located just 50 miles from where the American atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima in 1945, the center is home to a statue of Anne Frank, one of only two such statues found in Japan and the only ones in her memory in the Far East. The children also tour the center’s scale model of the Anne Frank House in Holland.

In 2011, the center received one of two cuttings sent to Japan from the chestnut tree Frank described in her diary. Japan is the only Asian country besides Israel with saplings from the tree. The one in Fukuyama is already nine feet tall, according to Otsuka, who spoke to JTA in Hebrew. He studied the language to improve his ability to study the Holocaust, he said.

“Anne Frank is a powerful symbol for peace in Japan,” Otsuka said. “That’s why her story resonates with so many Japanese, who have suffered the horrors of war.”

Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, meeting with Japanese schoolgirls in 1965. Courtesy JTA

Otsuka began planning a Holocaust education center in 1971 after meeting Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, the only member of the family to survive the war.

“What I instantly saw in the man was how much love he had, despite everything he’d been through,” Otsuka said.

Introducing Japanese people to Anne Frank’s story was important to Otto Frank. His efforts in this regard may be part of the reason for the Japanese interest in his daughter, according to Ronald Leopold, director of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House.

In his book, Lewkowicz juxtaposes Japan’s Anne Frank fascination with what he and many others consider Japan’s failure to fully acknowledge the actions of Japanese troops in areas they occupied in China and Korea.

“The Anne Frank-Japan connection is based on a kinship of victims,” Lewkowicz said. “The Japanese perceive themselves as such because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don’t think of the countless Anne Franks their troops created in Korea and China during the same years,”

In Korea, Japanese troops organized the rape of thousands of enslaved Korean women who were known as “comfort women.” They also perpetrated mass killings of Chinese civilians.

Japan apologized in 1993 to Korea and again in 1995 for having “caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” But many consider the apology insufficient and insincere, citing the absence of reference to war crimes and repeated visits by Japanese leaders to shrines honoring some of the worst perpetrators. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last month to one such shrine sparked strongly worded condemnations from the Chinese government.

Otsuka says his museum is limited to the Holocaust and that other war crimes are not part of its scope. But he notes that the institution’s mission statement extended to “deepening the understandings of the period and helping to enhance awareness for world peace among young people.”

Despite this, Lewkowicz says that Otsuka is quietly working to raise awareness of the divisive issue of Japan’s wartime record.

“Don’t expect Otsuka to advocate adding the issue of Japanese war crimes to the national curriculum,” Lewkowicz said. “Japan is not ready. It may seem from the outside like an ultra-liberal society, but this is a false impression.”

Still, he said, “Slowly, bit by bit, Otsuka and other like-minded people are raising questions and telling people, also through the Anne Frank story, that some of what Japan did in those years is pretty much comparable.”

Snowbirds find common artistic ground


Seven years ago, Benjamin Weissman and Yutaka Sone met on a mountaintop. Rumor had it they shared a taste in skis. “There’s only one person more obsessed with snow than you,” a friend had told Weissman, “and it’s Yutaka.” And so Weissman searched Mammoth Mountain for the mercurial Japanese artist he’d heard so much about. What he didn’t know is that the meeting would change both of their lives, and that their friendship would blossom into a fruitful partnership that’s led to their joint exhibition currently at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA). All Weissman was hoping for, at the time, after all, was to ski.

“We met mysteriously, magically, on a chairlift because I had been told that he would be up there at the same time I was, but we didn’t know each other and didn’t know what each other looked like,” Weissman said recently, sitting in the kitchen of SMMoA.  “It was a perfect snowy day after a big storm. … I was wondering where this person Yutaka would be, and I really did sort of turn around on a chairlift … and the person on the chairlift behind me was Yutaka.”

Sone and Weissman seem something of an odd couple in person. Weissman, who’s in his mid-50s, cuts the figure of a typical Los Angeles intellectual — bespectacled, a fast-talking Jewish Angeleno with strong opinions and a relaxed wardrobe. Sone, by contrast, both looks and seems younger than a man in his late 40s. Although Sone’s English isn’t perfect, he gets his points across, often through wild gestures and sound effects, a mischievous grin across his face. Odder still is the fact that the two were brought together not so much by their love of art, but by their love of hitting the slopes.

“This is a Yutaka-and-Benjamin-style ‘Endless Summer,’ ” Sone said, referencing the 1966 Bruce Brown surfing masterpiece to describe his relationship with Weissman.   

“For skiers, when the season ends in May … it’s, like, ‘Ohhh, it’s so sad,’ ” Weissman said.  “But we have another life because we took the whole summer really seriously to paint, and make art about skiing. So the summer to us was all about skiing with brushes.”

Sone and Weissman’s exhibition is unusual for a number of reasons, perhaps most of all because much of the work was still unfinished before SMMoA Executive Director Elsa Longhauser agreed to show it at the museum. Longhauser said her faith in Sone’s track record as an artist made her trust the finished work would be museum worthy.

“Kiersten,” 2007-2009, acrylic on canvas.

The artists’ colorful, vivid, collaborative paintings form the backbone of the show, which is entirely focused on skiing. Their paintings are supplemented by text and poetry written by Weissman and buoyed by Sone’s grand centerpiece, a massive ski lift sculpture that apparently moves like the real thing.

“Our first paintings were really funny,” Weissman said of their working process. “We were painting them in the kitchen. There’s a photo of us painting with a little canvas on our lap, painting on the kitchen table.”

“If we ski together, we are watching the same landscape … we can share a painting,” Sone explained. “We really know each other. We like each other when we ski.”

Sone and Weissman work so closely that they often cross arms as they share the same canvas. “One of us starts a painting, and the other is just right there to add to it and jump into it,” Weissman said. “What one sees, the other one’s going to start seeing pretty fast. I don’t think we’ve ever really planned out a painting … we don’t even talk about what we’re making.”

“Chair 23,” 2007–2009, acrylic on canvas.

“We’ve never had a disagreement about a painting,” Weissman said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Asked how skiing inspires him artistically, Sone was quick to answer. “Every day I learn new things. New differences. Every day… I’m still discovering new things in the mountains.” And sometimes Sone even feels like a new person on the slopes. “Can you transform?”  he asked, apparently not rhetorically. “I always become a cat.  Meow, meowww, meowww.” He rose from his chair to pantomime his feline self skiing down the mountain.

“I think we see the mountain a little differently,” Weissman said. “Some of the danger is really exciting.  It’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and it’s shocking.” He paused, then added, “It’s so far removed from any city-life experience.”

“I think Ben is 30 Mammoth years old; I’m like 13 Mammoth years old,” Sone said, explaining his youthful exuberance about the subject of skiing. 

“Grandma’s Closet,” 2007, acrylic on canvas.

“I get tired, and I want to go and read and take a nap,” Weissman admitted, “but Yutaka likes to ski till 4:15 or 4:30, after the lifts close, hide in the mountain,” Weissman said. 

You get the sense, talking to them, that if Sone and Weissman had a choice, they might never come down from the mountaintop. “He wants to be there till the very, very, very end,” Weissman said of Sone, “to say goodbye, kiss the mountain goodnight.”

How lucky then, that summer exists, so that we can share in their work.

Yutaka Sone and Benjamin Weissman’s “What Every Snowflake Knows in Its Heart” is on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through April 5, 2014

The long journey from POW to veterans’ advocate


Harry Corre, held as a prisoner of war during World War II by Japanese military forces in the city of Omuta, was behind a brick building when he saw a “tremendous flash.” Looking around the building, he saw an enormous cloud 30 miles across the bay, above Nagasaki, and assumed there had been an air raid in an oil tank field.

In the work camp the next day, said Corre, who was honored by Union Bank and KCETLink at the 16th annual Local Heroes Awards on Oct. 22. “We knew something big had happened.” His fellow prisoners heard the number 25,000, and then 50,000, and presumed there had been a big battle. But on the third day after the flash, the guards of the work camps disappeared. The war that had made Corre a POW twice over had ended.

Raised Jewish in Boston by a single mother, Corre graduated from school at 16, during the Great Depression. 

At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. “I was out of a job at the time,” he said. “The war was getting pretty fierce in Europe,” so he chose to go to the Philippines, the place he thought was least likely to see any fighting. He was “entirely wrong.”

Before the war, American soldiers in the Philippines enjoyed having services like laundry and cleaning done for $1 a month, Corre remembered. When, in 1941, fighting commenced, U.S. Army supplies were sparse and in very bad condition, Corre remembers. “Unfortunately, 90 percent of what we had was from World War I, and a lot had deteriorated.”

Several months into the war, Corre was transferred to Bataan to train Philippine civilians to be soldiers. He remembers it quickly became “an on-the-job type of training,” because of aggressive attacks by the Japanese military. Corre’s men lived on “one-third rations,” less than 800 calories a day. They ate transportation animals, including horses and mules, and, eventually, snakes and monkeys.

Corre recalls his fellow soldiers maintained good morale, but the superior officers ordered them to surrender. “They just did not realize the difference in the culture between the Japanese and American military discipline,” Corre said. “In the American discipline, a superior cannot lay a hand on an American soldier, whereas the Japanese discipline was very harsh physical abuse, such as beating them, and in many cases they would shoot them or cut their heads off.” Corre said the Japanese emperor had declared they should be treated as less than animals.

The infamous Bataan death march followed. By Corre’s estimate, 60,000 Philippine soldiers and 10,000 Americans were forced on the 100-mile trek without food or clean water in sweltering heat. “The men were in very poor physical condition … to begin with,” said Corre, who marched for 24 hours a day with very few stops. Anyone who stopped for any reason, including to get food or water, was shot, bayoneted or beheaded. 

“I found that, after two days, I thought I would not be able to finish [the] march without getting killed for some reason, so I escaped at night in the middle of a storm,” Corre said. He built a raft of any buoyant material he could find and swam four miles in the middle of the night to Corregidor. As he approached, American Marines shot at him, believing he was an infiltrator. Four days after his escape, he arrived in the city of Mariveles. 

Four months later, Corregidor surrendered, and Corre became a prisoner once again. He was moved to the “zero ward” of a prison camp in the Philippines so that he would not spread his recently contracted diphtheria to Japanese soldiers. The disease made him lose control of his right foot, but he could still walk, and he was made to bury some 50 to 70 bodies a day, sometimes as many as 150. 

In 1943, Corre was transported to Fukuoka, Japan, in “more of a rust bucket than anything else,” to work in the coal mines. He worked for a year and a half in a mine that was so hazardous it had been closed to Japanese soldiers, until the atomic bomb was dropped 30 miles across the bay from him, and the war ended.

After spending two months in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion, Corre found a way to return home by boat. Discharged months later at Long Island, N.Y., he sought out a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to inquire about his benefits. The man sitting at the desk in front of him rudely accused Corre of just wanting a “handout.”

“So I gave him the finger and told him to put it where the sun don’t shine and walked out,” said Corre, recalling that the reputation of VA hospitals at that time was “very bad.” 

Corre worked various jobs while attending night school to become an electronics engineer. He worked in the aerospace business for about 30 years, including helping to launch spacecraft from Cape Canaveral and to develop various types of missiles. His last project was at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, working on the “Star Wars” missile defense project. He worked for 26 years for TRW in Redondo Beach, leaving as an assistant project manager. 

After retiring from the aerospace industry, Corre worked in electric repair, before retiring for a second time. Still, he wanted to stay busy. He became a service officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. After about five years of this work, the director of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center asked him to work part time as a patient advocate for the hospital, a job he has now been doing for more than five years. 

Corre guides veterans through the system, helping them access the care they need. He believes veteran services have “100 percent turned around” since he was first snubbed after his return from World War II. The benefits department is now committed to helping all veterans, he said.

Working for the hospital has even allowed Corre himself to access treatment that he had been missing for decades. He said he did not know he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until he began working in the hospital. Now in his second marriage, he realizes his first wife had a “very, very hard marriage” because of his PTSD symptoms. When asked if he thinks if veterans these days are more aware that they might have the syndrome, he responded, “A crazy man does not know he’s crazy.”

“There is no soldier who has seen any kind of combat action … who has witnessed any kind of horrible scenes of bodies being blown apart, or suicide bombings or IEDs [improvised explosive devices], who can come home without having PTSD,” Corre said. 

Corre knows the war changed his perspectives in many things, including religion. “Yes, I am still Jewish, I will always be Jewish,” he said, but his practice is different from the way that he grew up. “The war changed that. … My viewpoint is very wide open,” Corre said. 

He believes he would now be considered an agnostic. “I have a very dim view of religion and what it can do for you. I will respect everybody for their own views and what they believe in. I have my own views, and now I am 90 years old, and I still feel the same way.”

Foreigners still caught in Sahara hostage crisis


More than 20 foreigners were still either being held hostage or missing inside a gas plant on Friday after Algerian forces stormed the desert complex to free hundreds of captives taken by Islamist militants.

More than a day after the Algerian army launched an assault to seize the remote desert compound, much was still unclear about the number and fate of the victims, leaving countries with citizens in harm's way struggling to find hard information.

Reports on the number of hostages killed ranged from 12 to 30, with anywhere from dozens to scores of foreigners still unaccounted for.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, eight of whose countrymen were missing, said fighters still controlled the gas treatment plant itself, while Algerian forces now held the nearby residential compound that housed hundred of workers.

Leaders of Britain, Japan and other countries expressed frustration that the assault had been ordered without consultation. Many countries were also withholding information about their citizens to avoid helping the captors.

Night fell quietly on the village of In Amenas, the nearest settlement, some 50 km (30 miles) from the vast and remote desert plant. A military helicopter could be seen in the sky.

An Algerian security source said 30 hostages, including at least seven Westerners, had been killed during Thursday's assault, along with at least 18 of their captors. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian, with the nationalities of the rest of the dead still unclear, he said.

Algeria's state news agency APS put the total number of dead hostages at 12, including both foreigners and locals.

Norway's Stoltenberg said some of those killed in vehicles blasted by the army could not be identified. “We must be prepared for bad news this weekend but we still have hope.”

Northern Irish engineer Stephen McFaul, who survived, said he saw four trucks full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops.

The attack has plunged international capitals into crisis mode and is a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.

“We are still dealing with a fluid and dangerous situation where a part of the terrorist threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, but there still remains a threat in another part,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told his parliament.

A local Algerian source said 100 of 132 foreign hostages had been freed from the facility. However, other estimates of the number of unaccounted-for foreigners were higher. Earlier the same source said 60 were still missing. Some may be held hostage; others may still be hiding in the sprawling compound.

Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among the seven foreigners confirmed dead in the army's storming, the Algerian security source told Reuters. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.

Those still unaccounted for on Friday included 10 from Japan and eight Norwegians, according to their employers, and a number of Britons which Cameron put at “significantly” less than 30

France said it had no information on two Frenchmen who may have been at the site and Washington has said a number of Americans were among the hostages, without giving details. The local source said a U.S. aircraft landed nearby on Friday.

The attackers had initially claimed to be holding 41 Western hostages. Some Westerners were able to evade capture by hiding.

They lived among hundreds of Algerian employees on the compound. The state news agency said the army had rescued 650 hostages in total, 573 of whom were Algerians.

“(The army) is still trying to achieve a 'peaceful outcome' before neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the (facility) and freeing a group of hostages that is still being held,” it said, quoting a security source.

MULTINATIONAL INSURGENCY

Algerian commanders said they moved in on Thursday about 30 hours after the siege began, because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.

A French hostage employed by a French catering company said he had hidden in his room for 40 hours under the bed, relying on Algerian employees to smuggle him food with a password.

“I put boards up pretty much all round,” Alexandre Berceaux told Europe 1 radio. “I didn't know how long I was going to stay there … I was afraid. I could see myself already ending up in a pine box.”

The captors said their attack was a response to a French military offensive in neighbouring Mali. However, some U.S. and European officials say the elaborate raid probably required too much planning to have been organised from scratch in the single week since France first launched its strikes.

Paris says the incident proves that its decision to fight Islamists in neighbouring Mali was necessary.

Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a pre-occupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.

The most powerful Islamist groups in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in a civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of Al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi's army.

Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year, prompting the French intervention in that poor African former colony.

The Algerian security source said only two of 11 militants whose bodies were found on Thursday were Algerian, including the squad's leader. The others comprised three Egyptians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman, he said.

The plant was heavily fortified, with security, controlled access and an army camp with hundreds of armed personnel between the accommodation and processing plant, Andy Coward Honeywell, who worked there in 2009, told the BBC.

The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough security measures.

Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site. The attackers benefitted from bases and staging grounds across the nearby border in Libya's desert, Algerian officials said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said those respsonsible would be hunted down: “Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere…. Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.”

WARNING OF MORE ATTACKS

The kidnappers threatened more attacks and warned Algerians to stay away from foreign companies' installations, according to Mauritania's news agency ANI, which maintained contact with the group during the siege.

Hundreds of workers from international oil companies were evacuated from Algeria on Thursday and many more will follow, said BP, which jointly ran the gas plant with Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state oil firm.

The overall commander of the kidnappers, Algerian officials said, was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s. He appears not to have been present.

Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani, author of several books on terrorism and editor of Ennahar daily, told Reuters about 70 militants were involved from two groups, Belmokhtar's “Those who sign in blood”, who travelled from Libya, and the lesser known “Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South”.

Britain's Cameron, who warned people to prepare for bad news and who cancelled a major policy speech on Friday to deal with the situation, said he would have liked Algeria to have consulted before the raid. Japan made similar complaints.

U.S. officials had no clear information on the fate of Americans. Washington, like its European allies, has endorsed France's military intervention in Mali.

Santa Claus in Jerusalem?


Santa Claus hands his bell to five year old Ryuya Ando, who energetically shakes it. Ando’s parents, United Nations employees from Japan, get in line for a Christmas tree.

“People don’t usually celebrate Christmas here in Jerusalem,” Hideyuki Ando tells The Media Line. “I’m a little homesick because Christmas and New Years is very important to us.”

It is their second Christmas in Jerusalem. Last year, they didn’t have a tree. But this year, they will have an aqualaria tree about three feet tall, given to them by the city of Jerusalem.

“We’re going to put Christmas tree decorations,” the irrepressible Ryuya told The Media Line, wearing a bright blue winter jacket. His mother, Yoko, said she didn’t know about the tree giveaway but was happy that she stumbled into it.

“Last year we went to a choral concert,” she told The Media Line. “This year we’ll probably go to church but it will be so nice to have a small tree.”

The aqualaria was specially chosen because it can be replanted and can grow very tall. Jamal Amin, a Muslim who is in charge of the project on behalf of the Jewish mayor Nir Barkat, says the city has a special deal with a nursery just outside the city to provide the trees. Each one costs $25, he says, not counting the workers to bring the trees and distribute them. The city gives out a total of 100 trees and there is often more demand that supply.

Amin says the project is meant for Christian residents of Jerusalem only.

“I look in their identity cards to check that Christian,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t want people taking the trees and reselling them.”

Many of those standing on line at the Jaffa Gate were Russian speakers.

“I’m not Christian but in Russia we celebrated Christmas and I continue to do so here,” Sabina Chebonatzski told The Media Line who said she’s been in Israel for 20 years. “Every year I take a tree. I’m really doing it for my daughter who is four years old.”

The focus of Christmas celebrations is not Jerusalem, but nearby Bethlehem. Nazareth in the Galilee also has its share of Christmas cheer. Only about 15,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, out of more than 760,000 residents.

Municipal worker Jamal Amin says the city wants to help its Christian residents enjoy the holiday.

“Just as we decorate for Muslim and Jewish holidays, we give away the trees for Christmas,” he told The Media Line. “We hope people will keep the trees and replant them.”

Hideyuki Ando from Japan seemed thrilled to get his tree.

“Giving them away like this is a message of  peace,” he said.

Israel, Japan mark 60 years of relations


Israel and Japan marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The anniversary, which was celebrated Tuesday, is set to be marked in both countries with a series of special events, including cultural events, academic meetings and visits by senior officials, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Bilateral trade between the countries totaled $3.3 billion in 2011.

Japan is promoting various investment programs with the participation of Israel and the Palestinians, including the Peace Corridor project establishing an agro-industrial park near the city of Jericho with the participation of Japan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Japanese military forces are deployed within the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force framework on the Golan Heights, and Japan also provides financial support to the Multinational Force and Observers deployed in the Sinai Desert.

“Israel appreciates the Japanese contribution to stability in our region,” the Foreign Affairs ministry said in a statement.

Self-styled historian seeks clues to Japan’s Holocaust survivors


Akira Kitade is a former Japanese tourism executive who still relishes the opportunity to show a newcomer the cultural sights of Tokyo. He also delights in showing off photos of his new grandchild and extended family.

But it’s the aging black-and-white snapshots of seven Jewish refugees dedicated to his late boss, Tatsuo Osako, and a memoir written by Osako detailing his experiences rescuing Jewish refugees, that have inspired Kitade to delve deeper into a little-known aspect of Japanese-Jewish history.

“I was profoundly moved by what I had read in this book, not only because of what the refugees experienced, but also harsh, wintery conditions Mr. Osako, his colleagues and the refugees experienced on the journey through Russia into the Sea of Japan,” Kitade said. “With the album, Mr. Osako added impact to his words through these interesting, powerful images of life on the boat and of the people he helped rescue.”

Kitade, who is writing a book about Osako and other like-minded Japanese citizens who aided Jewish refugees during World War II, is hoping to identify the people in the seven snapshots and speak with them or their descendants.

Kitade’s search took him across the United States in 2010, which included speaking with Jewish refugees who had traveled to Japan during the war and a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He plans to return for a trip that would include the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

So far, he has yet to find any of the Jewish refugees in the photos.

In the meantime, he pores over articles, interviews and old manifests that document the Japan Tourist Bureau’s rescue operations, and speaks throughout Japan about the righteous actions of his former boss.

“It is my responsibility to educate others about people like Mr. Osako, who worked behind the scenes and did it without searching for fame or recognition,” Kitade said.

In July 1940, Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania, defied his government and issued Japanese transit visas to Jewish refugees. Despite the Soviet closure of consuls and embassies in Lithuania, Sugihara remained in Kovno and continued to issue visas, the last of which were handed out from the window of his train to refugees as he departed for Berlin on Sept. 4. Known as Japan’s Oskar Schindler, Sugihara is estimated to have saved approximately 6,000 Jews.

After the refugees traveled thousands of miles along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in Manchuria, the Japan Tourist Bureau, with funding from American Jewish organizations and the support of various Japanese government agencies, arranged to transport the refugees to Japan.

From September 1940 until March 1941, Osako, a tourist bureau employee, served as an escort and clerk aboard the Amakusa Maru, a ship that ferried more than 2,000 Jews carrying visas issued by Sugihara — and obvious forgeries — between Vladivostok and Japanese ports every two weeks.

A few of the refugees helped by Osako gave him their photograph with inscriptions of gratitude.

“My best regards to my friend Tatsuo Osako,” is written in French of the back of one snapshot, which is signed I. Segaloff and dated March 4, 1941.

On the back of another snapshot, a woman has written in Polish, “A souvenir to a very nice Japanese man.”

Once in cities like Kobe or Yokohama, Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador in Tokyo, arranged for Jews to immigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel, among other countries. (Those who remained in Japan were eventually deported to Japanese-controlled Shanghai, China.)

Kitade first learned of Osako’s role in the rescue in 1988. While reading a book about the Japan Tourist Bureau’s history, he stumbled upon a short section detailing the bureau’s role in transporting Jews out of Russia. Kitade, who had worked under Osako for more than 20 years, said his former boss’ name jumped off the page. But with Kitade stationed in Seoul and Osako retired, it would be another 10 years before the two reconnected. When they did, Osako presented Kitade with a memoir detailing his observations aboard the Amakusa Maru.

According to the memoir, life on board the ship was often stormier than the sea itself, with food shortages, the stench of illness and Spartan shared living conditions. In his observations, Osako was struck by the refugees’ shared optimism and the respect the crew had for their charges. Kitade said the feeling is best captured in one passage in Osako’s memoir, when he describes coming out on deck and seeing the first rays of sunshine in weeks, recognizing a better day was dawning for refugees escaping the darkness of war.

Given that Japan was allied with Germany, Kitade says it’s natural for people — particularly Jews — to believe all of Japan was pro-German and that the culture may still be anti-Semitic. He hopes his efforts will shed new light on the efforts of Japanese citizens who continued Sugihara’s heroic deed.

“A greater understanding of Osaka’s motivations, actions and relationships with these refugees will wash away that impression and reveal there were several brave Japanese people besides Sugihara who thought otherwise,” Kitade said.

Although he has yet to find the seven survivors aided by Osaka, who died in 2003, Kitade says he is thankful for the moral support he receives from people he has met in the United States.

“They give me continued encouragement, saying things like, ‘Kitade-san, I’m looking forward to reading your book. Ganbatte! (Do your best!),” he said.


To contact Akira Kitade, e-mail him at kitadeakira@hotmail.com.

Opinion: In Japan, pride in the Jewish response to tsunami


As I sit here in Tokyo with the first anniversary of the tsunami fast approaching, I recall my surprise the first time a Japanese person thanked me, as a Jew, for Israel’s immediate response to the disaster. It was certainly not the time to instruct that well-meaning person that not all Jews are from Israel—the average Japanese does not make a distinction between them—so instead I proudly basked in the thought of Israel being the first country to come to Japan’s aid with its emergency field hospital.

The second time, however, I was not caught off guard: I had prepared a little speech in which I told of what the the Jewish Community of Japan, of which I am the rabbi, was doing together with the global Jewish community to help people in the face of crisis. I was able to report on stories of individual members of our community—mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews—who in the first hours after the disaster purchased tons of flour and food, and managed to deliver it to the displaced. I also told them about the many local Jews who organized food drives, raised money and took time from work to volunteer with the cleanup.

Most especially, I told them the tale of the 11-year-old girl from our thriving Hebrew school who singlehandedly organized the first bicycle drive through which she collected nearly 100 pairs of shoes to distribute in a destitute town in the north of Japan.

I have told these stories many times. But what really impresses the people here is the story of the almost instantaneous global Jewish response to the disaster. The effort came in many forms, such as Chabad, the Israeli field hospital or IsraAID. For us at the Jewish Community of Japan, the effort manifested itself in our partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which reached out to us within 24 hours of the earthquake offering its support.

In the first days after the disaster, those who remained in Japan felt the urgency to do something. This desire was combined with the fear and anxiety caused by the conflicting reports about the situation. It was a “time to act for the Lord,” but it was not clear what we could do. Some 2,000 Jews are living in Japan, and none of us had been affected irreversibly by the quake, thank God. However, the tragedy we faced as a nation was overwhelming.

As such, it was deeply important that our individual efforts at the time were soon combined with the help of those from outside Japan. It represented a powerful vehicle for us to act quickly and collectively on our natural desire to help. After all, we wanted our country to know that we care for her and her people, as the Talmud says, “at a time when the community is in distress, none should say: I’ll go to the privacy of my home and have a party.”

Since those early days, we have made a lasting impact on the life of tens of thousands of individuals. By combining the Jewish Community of Japan’s local guidance—including accessing our friends and family, business relationships and closeness to Japanese society—and the JDC’s expertise in disaster relief, we’ve put programs into action to support various groups in the disaster areas – for children, the deaf and hearing impaired, the elderly, the physically disabled and the displaced. Among our many achievements, we have brought in Israeli post-trauma specialists who have worked and trained the local social workers and teachers to help children suffering in fear, and found ways, in addition to our other work, to provide meals for those living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing.

But what I believe is the biggest success yet is the establishment of 13 community cafes in Ishinomaki, the town hit the hardest by the tsunami. I knew full well about these cafes, a venue for displaced people of the area to gather and receive informal psychological support while participating in activities, classes and programs, or plain, old-fashioned schmoozing.

I was pleasantly surprised to have another moment of Jewish pride, when at one of the many interfaith meetings I attend, a church minister lauded the cafes as a successful example of outreach and support. At that moment I could not help myself and expressed with true satisfaction that these cafes had been possible thanks to the generosity and expertise of the Jewish community. Seeing the look of positive surprise on the faces of my fellow clergy, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the bread coming back to us upon the water?”

Perhaps no greater example of this connection between the Jews of Japan and our neighbors is our project to repair the Buddhist Komyogi Temple in Oshu. As part of the effort, we are creating a joint program to provide a respite for the beleaguered children of Rikuzentakata, a city devastated by the tsunami. Through children’s activities and numerous opportunities for exchange between our families and theirs, a dialogue between our communities will be built on the ideals of mutual responsibility and human compassion. All of this, of course, would not be possible without the support of Jews from abroad.

A constant source of “naches” for me as a rabbi, this outpouring of help speaks to one of the Jewish values I cherish most, tikkun olam. It also highlights, perhaps better than anything I have ever seen, the strengthening of bridges existing between the Japanese people and Israel and the Jews. Despite my initial reaction to the compliment from my Japanese neighbor, I have seen in the last year that we are one people. And together we can save lives, wherever in the world we are needed.

Antonio Di Gesu, a native of Italy and graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan.

Months later, Jewish groups and Israel are helping a tsunami-devastated Japan


In northeastern Japan, the area hardest hit by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a team of Israeli post-trauma experts guided local teachers and officials through their lingering pain.

One kindergarten teacher broke down in tears as she related how another teacher saw the great wall of water approaching her school and tried in vain to save her young pupils. Eight of the children were washed away, along with their valiant teacher.

“People were not aware how much the disaster affected them,” said Shachar Zahavi, the founder and executive director of IsraAid, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that is running post-trauma courses in the town of Watari, as well as providing other much-needed material and emotional aid in the region.

More than two months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunami destroyed thousands of homes, entire towns and countless lives in Japan, Jewish groups from North America and Israel continue to offer a helping hand to the Asian island nation.

“It’s not like the scene in Haiti,” said Zahavi, referring to the many international agencies, including several from Israel, that poured into the quake-stricken Caribbean island in 2010. “Most of the other agencies have left Japan by now. A lot of people, in Japan and Israel, are amazed we’re still there.”

The Jewish Federations of North America has raised more than $1 million for Japan. More than $800,000 has come from individual federations; the rest has been raised through donations to the parent organization. Most of the money is funneled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its local agencies on the ground.

The JDC, the Home Front Command and Medical Corps of the Israel Defense Forces, and IsraAid all rushed to the scene of the disaster, offering emergency aid as well as ongoing help.

According to its communications director, Michael Geller, the JDC has raised $2.1 million for Japan aid. Much of it went to emergency supplies sent to the stricken region by foreign agencies, including Chabad, UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee. It also helped fund the IDF field hospital set up in Minamisanriku, a town in the Miyagi Prefecture where half of the 17,000 residents died in the tsunami.

The JDC is working through its partner agencies in Japan. With the American School there, the JDC bought desks and chairs for three schools in the city of Ishinomaki, and in tandem with Tokyo English Life Line is providing psycho-social support services and training to mental health professionals who work with children and the elderly. Geller said that more than 100 people will be trained by mid-June.

When the IDF medical corps pulled out of Japan in early April after treating 234 patients in its field hospital, it left behind more than healed bodies.

At the request of local officials, the Israelis left much of the specialized medical gear they had brought, including X-ray, ophthalmologic, orthopedic and ENT equipment, as well as surgical coats, syringes, bandages and other material supplies.

The team also donated the six prefabricated buildings it had set up for its field clinic, which has become the area’s main medical center, said Col.Ofir Cohen-Marom, an ob-gyn from Assaf Harofeh Hospital and the deputy to the IDF’s chief medical officer.

“We were the only foreign medical delegation in Japan,” Cohen-Marom told JTA, explaining that usually only Japanese physicians are permitted to treat the Japanese population.

At first the Israeli team was escorted by medical personnel from Japan’s Foreign Ministry, he said, presumably to make sure that they were providing proper care. Within a few days, however, the locals and the Israelis were working together, consulting on the same patients.

“It was hard to leave this suffering population after 2 1/2 weeks,” Cohen-Marom said. “It makes me happy to see they’re using the supplies and medical center we left behind. We really did a great thing.”

Marom-Cohen estimated that it will take up to three years for the region to rebuild, including constructing a new hospital. During that time, he said, the locals will continue to use the Israeli clinic and equipment.

IsraAid still has three or four staffers working in Japan, said Zahavi. The organization rehabilitated two kindergartens and distributed toys and school supplies to children via six shelters in Watari, Yamamoto and Sendai, and completed a 10-day post-trauma course for some three dozen teachers in Watari.

It’s the post-trauma help that is most unique, Zahavi told JTA.

Israel’s lengthy experience with war and terrorism, he explained, makes it particularly qualified to offer the fruits of that knowledge to others. In Japan, where emotions are not typically displayed publicly, the teachers seemed grateful for the help, and the organization is receiving much support from the local community and government officials.

“It’s the first time these people have gone through post-trauma sessions where they could share their individual experiences and talk about their feelings,” Zahavi said. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of emotion.

“But it’s not just about talking—we teach how to express feelings through touch, drawing and writing as well. That was new for them.”

IsraAid will offer another course in June with a broader focus, he said.

As with the other Jewish aid to Japan, what’s noteworthy is the partnership between Israeli and North American Jewish communities, Zahavi points out. IsraAid’s emergency relief program in Japan is supported and funded by the Jewish federations of Toronto, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as well as the JFNA, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International.

“This is something that the Jewish people is giving, not just Israel,” he said.

Israeli military aid delegation to Japan returns home


The Israel Defense Forces’ aid delegation to Japan returned home, leaving medical equipment behind for local doctors to use.

The delegation, which brought 62 tons of medical supplies and 18 tons of humanitarian aid to the city of Minami-Sanriko, hard hit by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March, landed in Israel on Tuesday.

In its more than two weeks in Japan, the team of 50 doctors, communications specialists and search-and-rescue experts established a medical clinic and cared for 220 patients.

The team left behind the majority of the medical equipment, including X-ray machinery and lab equipment.

Federations raise $1,349,000 in Japan relief


Jewish federations throughout North America have raised $1,349,000 to help Japan recover from last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

The federations’ Japan, Hawaii and Pacific Relief Fund, opened immediately following the earthquake and resultant tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, has collected the money to support relief and recovery efforts in the damaged areas.

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of the federation movement, has directly raised more than $187,000 through online, mobile and mailed donations.

Several individual federations also have opened funds, which have yielded nearly $680,000 in combined donations. As of April 8, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the UJA-Federation of New York have raised more than $125,000 each, while the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s fundraising has totaled more than $100,000.

The Emergency Committee of The Jewish Federations of North America voted April 8 to allocate $125,000 of the funds raised to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is supporting victims on the ground in Japan through local humanitarian organizations. The allocation is on top of an allocation last month of $135,000. The committee also made an allocation to the Israeli humanitarian umbrella group IsraAID to support their efforts on the ground – specifically in the area of creating Child Friendly spaces.

“The Jewish Federations stand ready to respond to disaster with the strength of our collective action, to ensure that the funds contributed by generous donors are put to work in the most effective way possible,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. “Working in partnership with our trusted overseas partner, JDC, we can be sure that these funds will have the greatest impact where they are needed most in Japan.”

Japanese deputy FM tours Israeli field hospital


Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Makiko Kikuta toured the Israeli army’s medical clinic in the city of Minami-Sanriko.

Kikuta said that the good relationship between Israel and Japan will be strengthened due to the arrival of the medical delegation to help in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March.

“Your excellent work here, which was impossible to ignore in media reports throughout Japan, is very much appreciated by us and the Japanese people,” Kikuta said during Monday’s tour. “Your success and the cooperation that you have been able to establish with local medical officials will create an opening for additional delegations in the future.”

Kikuta added that she recognized many members of the Israeli army’s medical delegation due to the wide media coverage the delegation has received on Japanese television broadcasts.

During her visit, Kikuta was interested in learning about the patients who have come to the clinic and asked to hear about the medical issues they are facing as well as the care they are receiving.

Kikuta praised the Israeli medical team for being the first to offer aid to the Japanese people and promised to tell other Japanese government officials about what she saw during the visit.

Israel sends medical delegation to Japan


Israel has sent a medical delegation to Japan to help victims of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Two doctors and an Israel Defense Forces Homefront Command officer arrived Monday in Japan to determine what is required to send a full-scale medical delegation and the necessary equipment to the devastated area, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Israeli team will be located in the Miyagi prefecture, about six hours north of Tokyo, which was hardest hit by the recent tsunami. The team will establish a field medical clinic geared to handle the casualties and refugees concentrated in the region.

At the request of the Japanese National Disaster Center, the Israeli Foreign and Defense ministries also will send 10,000 coats, 6,000 blankets, 6,000 pairs of gloves and 150 mobile toilets to the stricken area.

Marty Kaplan: The more you watch, the worse you feel


As if the triple whammy of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster weren’t enough to enthrall and terrify us, the war in Libya is now providing cable news viewers a fresh hell to follow 24/7. 

But wait, as they say in the infomercials—there’s more.  In Bahrain, Saudi tanks and troops are violently cracking down on pro-democracy activists; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is moving toward power; in Yemen, security forces, firing from the rooftops, have killed scores of demonstrators; in Syria, troops are shooting into crowds of protesting civilians; and last week’s news from Israel and the Palestinian territories was enough to make anyone rage and wail.

Feeling overwhelmed yet?  In Madison, Wisc. and other state capitals, Republicans are demonizing public employees, stripping workers of their rights and using deficits as an excuse to transfer wealth from the middle to the top.  In Washington, D.C., every Republican on the environment subcommittee says that climate change is a hoax, and every Republican on the financial institutions subcommittee says banks are the victims, not the perpetrators, of the recession.  Who has enough spare neurons to cope with that, let alone the defunding of NPR and Planned Parenthood?  Do you have some mindshare left for a campaign finance system that’s corrupting both political parties?  For the obesity epidemic?  For the worst youth unemployment in history?

These are the times that fry men’s souls.  It’s tough to know which is worse for us: keeping up with calamity, or tuning out the news.  We are brought up to believe that good citizenship requires being informed, diligently following what’s going on in the world.  We are offered so many attention decoys – Charlie Sheen!  William and Kate!  Sarah Palin! – that we can use up all our bandwidth and still know next to nothing.  With considerable will power, we might be able to avoid a lot of empty info-calories, but even a broccoli-heavy media diet can leave us feeling expert but impotent, knowledgeable but exhausted, good critical thinkers but frazzled basket cases. 

Oh, did I forget to mention terrorism?

The temptation is to unplug, go on a media fast, declare a digital Sabbath, pull the covers over your head, yet succumbing to this perfectly reasonable survival strategy is exactly what the bad guys want.  Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s slavery.  The less you know, the easier it is to manipulate you, to fool you into undermining your own interests, to jerk your emotional chains.

Until about 20 minutes ago, the threat that ignorance poses to democracy could be sourced to hedonism, propaganda and the desire to make a buck.  There’s nothing like bread and circuses to stop discontent from boiling over; there’s nothing like disinformation and paranoia to give science and journalism a bad name; there’s nothing like an oligarch to make amnesia profitable.

What seems different today is that the virtuous desire to be well-informed is also the source of its own discontent.  The more you know, the less you want to know.  Maybe the unexamined life is not worth living, but is the examined life – the examined world – worth all of that Maalox and Ambien?  Civic literacy seems to have become a kind of auto-immune disease; you want to attack the world’s problems, but what you end up attacking is yourself.

Social media, of course, makes all of this more so.  I’m always surprised by how often people ask me if I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and when I say yes, they say, “Well, I suppose you have to, because of what you do.”  They say it as though I’m running a risk, like an exterminator inhaling pesticide – in this case, the fumes of triviality: “Why would you want to know every time someone you know goes to the bathroom?” 

I find it hard to convince people who don’t use social media that what most characterizes it isn’t its banality, it’s its density.  Sure, there’s plenty of Justin Bieber clogging its arteries.  But what I mainly get from Facebook and Twitter are links – a torrent of news and opinion only one click away, an exponential increase in the amount of information that I check out, skim, save, consume, forward.  And a good deal of that information (the stuff I actually read) is useful and thoughtful.  It’s a global network of content that I’ve often missed, material that’s curated and syndicated both by people I know and by people I don’t know.  It puts my news intake on steroids.

That’s good news (I know even more), and bad news (I feel even worse).  But as long as I’m addicted to following all the damn narratives going on in the world, I prefer that the headaches that the news gives me be as cosmopolitan as possible.

There’s no comparison between the suffering the people of Japan are enduring, and the anguish of watching and reading about it.  Here, Libya raises wrenching conflicts between our ideals and our interests; there, it’s simpler: life or death.  The risk isn’t that we’ll confuse our anxieties with their catastrophes; it’s that we’ll mistake being informed with being empowered, and being exhausted with being defeated.  Citizenship is doing something, not watching something.  The hundred thousand people who rallied in Madison the other weekend knew that; so did the protesters of Tahrir Square.  The antidote to information sickness isn’t less information.  It’s more politics.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at {encode=”martyk@usc.edu” title=”martyk@usc.edu”}.