President Donald Trump signs an executive order restricting immigration. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Broad-based L.A. Jewish coalition forms to respond to Trump actions


A Los Angeles-based coalition of more than 1,800 self-identified Jews launched this week by releasing a statement that responds to executive actions on immigration and refugees and affirms a commitment to Jewish and American values.

“Frankly, I’ve never seen in my life in L.A. a coalition this broad, that’s come together for this single purpose,” said former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of six members of the organizing committee at the helm of the new group calling itself Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ).

The other committee members are former L.A. Congressman Mel Levine, civics scholar and social entrepreneur Shawn Landres, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, political consultant Dan Loeterman and attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

On Feb. 28, the six organizers sat down over breakfast in Myers’ Pico-Robertson home, the coalition’s impromptu command center, to explain the group’s goals to a reporter.

“We’re not aspiring to be another Jewish organization in the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. … We certainly imagine ourselves not displacing, but working alongside other organizations that are engaged in the same kind of work,” Myers said.

The group’s statement of principles doesn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, but addresses a perceived threat to democratic institutions posed by his administration.

“JUDJ is deeply concerned about rising threats to religious tolerance, equal rights, a free and fair press, human dignity, and long-held norms of decency and civil society,” the statement reads. “We will speak out and take action when our shared Jewish values require us to counter those threats.”

It lays out, in broad strokes, values it sees as threatened by the executive branch, including “America is a nation of laws” and “America is a nation of immigrants.”

“There’s an almost daily assault on one or another foundation of our democratic tradition — kind of aerial bombardment,” Myers said. “And I think what we’re saying is that in the midst of the confusion that is sown, we want to be a voice of clarity.”

The coalition came together after a Feb. 5 meeting of Jewish leaders in Myers’ living room, called in response to a Jan. 27 executive order by Trump that restricted admissions of refugees to the United States. After that meeting, members formed five working groups: immigration, long-term strategy, coalition building, lawyers and rabbis.

The statement of principles, first circulated widely on Feb. 24, represents the coalition’s public debut. By Feb. 28, the list of signatories included more than 110 clergy members, 55 current and former elected officials and 270 board officers and senior executives of Jewish communal groups and philanthropies.

The list incorporated members of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as well as other Jewish membership organizations; elected officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; all three citywide elected officials in Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer, Controller Ron Galperin and Mayor Eric Garcetti; philanthropists; university professors; and clergy from every major denomination.

The move to establish a new coalition comes as some members of the Jewish community see a lack of organized leadership opposed to Trump’s actions. After Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson sent a community-wide email that addressed the refugee order without denouncing it, for instance, alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project wrote a letter expressing their disappointment and requesting that he take a stronger stance.

But members of the JUDJ organizing committee insisted the group wouldn’t compete with Federation or any other Jewish organization, but rather lend political capital to groups that can use it.

“We are not in competition with anybody else,” Levine said. “We’re inclusive and draw people from all of these organizations.”

Levine said one of the primary purposes of the coalition would be to support and join with communities targeted by the administration, naming in particular the Muslim and Hispanic communities. But it also seeks to unite Jews across political and demographic lines in support of democratic values.

“A lot of people in my generation weren’t around for the fights that Zev was around for,” said Loeterman, who is 28. “We weren’t around for the fights that David and Janice and Shawn and Mel were around for. … They see this as kind of our generation’s chance to join with other generations.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy

Jews against the Muslim Ban


Last Friday night, my rabbi got all political on me.

It came as something of a shock. I know Rabbi Naomi Levy really well — we’ve been married 25 years. During that time, I’ve heard Naomi give at least 1,000 sermons. Not one took an overt stand on a hot political issue or candidate. She would call for understanding between Israel and her neighbors, for instance, but the words “two-state solution” never escaped her lips.

It’s not that she hasn’t always had passionate and astute political opinions. I know. We talk.

But inside the sanctuary, her focus always has been on helping people grow spiritually, to find their life path through faith, tradition, learning and community. When she calls for social action, it is of the nonpartisan sort: feed the homeless, plant trees, engage with other faith communities. Her sermons move people to tears, laughter and introspection, not to petitions.

“That’s what people come to shul for,” she always told me. “That’s who I am.”

She also understood that politics could easily divide a congregation, or alienate some members. Both when she was the senior rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and after she founded Nashuva, an outreach congregation based in Brentwood, she wanted everyone to feel welcome and accepted. If people wanted a pundit, they could watch cable.

So imagine my surprise this past Friday night:  The usual standing-room-only crowd, some 400 people, packed inside Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Nashuva holds its services. Naomi began her sermon as she often does, with something true, funny and personal.

“I’m a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m scared of so many things. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of snakes. After my bout with skin cancer, I’m scared of the sun.” Then she asked, “But you know what I’m not scared of?”

Voices from the congregation responded, “No, what?”

Muslims,” she said. “I’m not scared of Muslims.”

There was a momentary pause.  We didn’t see it coming.  It took a split second to clock the punch. The rabbi was speaking out, loud and proud.

And all at once, applause. A loud, long spontaneous ovation.


Listen to Rabbi Naomi Levy’s sermon:


Naomi went on to hammer away at President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees from Syria. She spoke of her own mother, Ruth, who arrived from Poland at age 6. The rest of Ruth’s large extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins — all were murdered in the Holocaust.

Naomi urged her congregation to fight the ban and to oppose the administration’s efforts to demonize Muslims. When she finished, the applause went on for a while. One couple did get up and walk out — maybe they had to use the restroom?

Why now? I asked Naomi. Why is this issue the first one you chose for making a strong political stance?

“I had no choice,” she said. “Welcoming the stranger is at the core of what it is to be Jewish.”

Of course, I agree. As an American, I know our country’s success is tied directly to immigration. As a Jew, I know how our country’s open doors literally saved our lives. And I know how many more Jews would be alive today — helping make America even greater — if the voices of fear and hate hadn’t all but closed the door to Jewish immigration after 1924. Those same forces tried to shut out Iranian Jews in 1979, and Soviet Jews in 1989, but thankfully they failed.

There is something in this immigration ban that is particularly noxious and motivating. It’s why Jewish organizations ranging from Yeshiva University to the Reform movement have taken stands. Why leaders who don’t ordinarily bring politics to the pulpit, like Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein and Stephen Wise Temple’s Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, have spoken out.  Why many disparate parts of a very diverse, fractured community are fighting it together.

That unity makes the silence of some leaders and institutions even more apparent.

Without naming names, it’s all too clear that many rabbis and leaders who deeply oppose the cruel, hateful and self-defeating order cannot publicly say so, for fear of alienating some supporters. Some worry it will tear congregations or boards apart along partisan lines. Or, they worry about upsetting large donors.

I don’t envy any rabbi or community leader this choice. There are costs to speaking out, and those of us who don’t have to pay shouldn’t be so quick to expect others to foot the bill. Their silence in any case should not be an excuse for our inaction.

At the same time, there is a cost to not taking a public stand. How dare we do any less than we would want others to do for us? History will record who stood by and let the doors slam shut, and who, even if they failed, tried to jam them back open.

I’m proud of my rabbi, my wife. I hope to be proud of us all.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Thousands gathered to protest at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Eitan Arom

When an executive order prompts civil disorder


Shortly before Shabbat fell on Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively slammed the door on refugees seeking entry to the United States — at least for now.

Shock and dismay had been building in the Jewish community since a draft of the order was leaked days beforehand, and on Jan. 28, those sentiments exploded onto Rabbi Susan Goldberg’s cellphone in the form of concerned messages from her congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“When Shabbat ended last night, my phone was blowing up — emails, photos,” she said Jan. 29 as a crowd milled past her at the arrivals gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “For Jews, there’s a clear line that’s been crossed.”

The airport protest came as a grass-roots reflection of simmering anger in the organized Jewish community. The days before the executive order saw statements from Jewish organizations ranging from the Orthodox Union to the Anti-Defamation League expressing their ire, and in some cases promising to fight the administration.

At LAX, where a number of travelers had been detained because of the order, thousands poured through terminals and onto the curbs the afternoon of Jan. 29. Police cut off traffic through much of the airport and largely gave protesters the run of Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Many protesters were Jews from congregations across the city, and even on signs held aloft by non-Jews, a certain Jewish influence could be detected in references to 1930s Germany and proclamations of “Never again.”

“Our country once made the mistake of shutting its doors to nearly 1,000 refugees on the S.S. St. Louis — people died as a result,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, reached by phone shortly after the order was signed. “We don’t want to see that happen again.”

To be sure, there are plenty of Jews who support the ban or parts of it and others who dispute analogies to the Holocaust. “Analogy to 1930s Jews is recklessly false,” a statement from Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), declared the day before the order was signed.

But some community members who voiced their support for Trump’s order did so at their own peril, including Simon Etehad, a personal injury lawyer in Beverly Hills, who was born in Iran and fled the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

img_4102“You have no idea how many friends I lost on Facebook because of my opinion … but I believe that he’s doing a wonderful job,” he said.

“Even if I would have been personally affected by this ban, I would still support it,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “Because I am not willing to endanger the life of a single U.S. citizen so that my family members might have an easier travel experience in the next 90 days!”

The people who showed up Jan. 29 at LAX didn’t quite see it that way.

“There are a lot of Jews here — a lot,” Goldberg said from the airport, joined by her three children and her husband, who translated as she spoke in sign language, since she’d lost her voice.

‘Let them in!’

As weary travelers emerged to boisterously chanting crowds, Adam and Noah Reich held a sign reading, “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.” While they spoke with a reporter, a short woman with olive skin, a total stranger, walked up and hugged both of them. That type of thing had been going on all afternoon.

“Maybe like, a dozen so far,” Noah said. “We’ve been here for a couple hours and people just come up to us.”

“The collective power of everyone here is saying, ‘You’re not alone; we’re all here for you,’ ” Adam said. “And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

Emerging from the crowd, Jesse Gabriel, an attorney and executive board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

Kol ha-kavod,” he told the pair, using a Hebrew expression for “Well done!”

Gabriel was one of dozens of attorneys swarming the terminal, many with signs reading “lawyer” and announcing their foreign language proficiencies, hoping to be of help to stranded travelers or those recently released by Immigration and Customs officers.

“When you have individuals whose rights need to be protected, that’s when lawyers need to step in,” Gabriel said.

In fact, there was little work for the attorneys at the terminal, since those detained were stranded elsewhere, in the bowels of LAX, incommunicado. The crowds were chanting, “Let them in!” but lawyers were struggling even to make contact with those stranded.

“Our understanding is that there are a number of people with legal travel documents who are being detained in customs and border patrol, in custody,” said immigration attorney Michael Hagerty.

Hagerty was serving as ad hoc media liaison to a group of attorneys at the airport (as announced by a cardboard sign reading “media liaison”). Among his charges were representatives from legal aid clinic Public Counsel and the local American Civil Liberties Union. But information about those in limbo -— even a basic head count — proved difficult to come by.

“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know exactly what their legal status is on an individual basis, but in all likelihood, they are legal permanent residents, they are refugees with legal refugee travel documents, people with student visas,” Hagerty said.

As he spoke, wayfarers cut through surging crowds, pushing carts and lugging suitcases. For those just arriving, it must have presented an overwhelming scene: shouts of “USA!” from flamboyantly dressed protesters, their signs decorated with images ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Trump with a Hitler mustache, and outside, drums banging out an incessant beat.

Marchers mobbed the sidewalk on both the upper and lower levels, along with the international terminal itself. The crowd lined the curb, waving signs at passing cars, and some took to the upper levels of parking garages across the street to look down over the scene.

Some travelers decided to join the protest, including Zoe Lister-Jones, a filmmaker who had just stepped off the plane after screening her new comedy, “Band Aid,” at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

“I’ve been witnessing the injustices occurring from Park City and I came straight from the arrivals terminal to protest,” she said. “As a Jew, I think it’s part of our bloodline to stand up to injustice and resist fascism.”

Mollie Goldberg from Los Angeles

Across Airport Way from the mass of protesters stood Michael Chusid, a kind of greeter. The tall, bearded, middle-aged Encino man held a sign that read “Welcome” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

“My grandparents came from Lithuania and Ukraine,” Chusid said. “My grandfather was the only one to survive from his whole family. The only thing that is left in Lithuania is tombstones.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said as he teared up.

Clergy respond

News of the order quickly raised a chorus of rabbis in opposition.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, for instance, a consortium of Reform clergy, has been abuzz with outrage at the new policy, Feinstein said.

“We know full well when people come after minorities, they don’t stop with one,” he told the Journal. “History shows this to be the canary in the mine.”

At the airport, the crowd included enough rabbis to start a seminary.

“This country is an expression of the best of what the world has to offer,” Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple said at LAX. “And to be that, it has to be open to immigrants. It has to reflect the values that we hold dear as Jews.”

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica stood alone on the sidewalk outside the terminal wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl, having been unable to locate his congregants in the chaos.

“I wanted people to know that the Jewish people feel a chill up our spine because this is happening,” he said.

Leading up to the refugee order, HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, recruited more than 1,700 rabbis across the denominational spectrum to sign a statement welcoming refugees to the United States. They included Rabbis Sharon Brous of IKAR, Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am, Stan Levy of B’nai Horin, and Yoshi Zweiback of Stephen Wise Temple, as well as Feinstein and Stern.

Reached by phone Jan. 27, shortly after Trump signed the order, Kligfeld noted that the Exodus story obliges Jews “to advocate for our country to continue to have its arms and heart open to the bedraggled and impoverished and persecuted.” But he sounded a note of sympathy with community members who want to protect the nation’s ports of entry.

“I find myself in a centrist place on this issue,” he continued. “I’m proud of our country’s history regarding Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. I think we also live in a scary world.”

Representing the nation’s Orthodox rabbinate, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America reaffirmed a joint statement issued in December 2015 blasting the idea of a Muslim ban. Taken together with reproving statements from the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, the Orthodox groups’ opposition brings every major strain of American Judaism into alignment against the immigration measures.

Struggling over security, Holocaust memory

The Orthodox rabbi’s statement fell far short of other proclamations by large Jewish organizations, some of which promised an outright battle with the administration.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nonpartisan group that was critical of candidate Trump, found fighting words: “ADL relentlessly will fight this policy in the weeks and months to come,” CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement, responding ahead of time to a leaked draft. “Our history and heritage compel us to take a stand.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris also reached for Jewish heritage to motivate his opposition.

“We are all related to those fortunate enough to have been admitted to this country — in my case, my mother, father, wife, and daughters-in-law,” he said in a statement. “And we believe that other deserving individuals merit the same opportunities to be considered for permanent entry.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center protested the idea of a nationality-based ban in a statement the day of the order while steering clear of Holocaust imagery. But the same day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it criticized Trump for not mentioning Jews in a statement about the Holocaust — a week after the Wiesenthal Center’s founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration.

Among the leaders of large Jewish institutions, ZOA’s Klein offered a rare note of support for Trump’s measures, saying in the statement his group “is appalled that left-wing Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Reform Movement are ‘strongly condemning’ this draft Executive Order.”

He took umbrage with comparisons to Jewish refugees.

“No Jewish immigrants flew airplanes into buildings, or massacred scores of innocent people at a holiday party or nightclub or marathon or drive trucks into innocent citizens,” Klein said in the statement.

Though unusual within the Jewish establishment, Klein’s thesis found support in some pockets of the community, including some who are recent immigrants themselves.

“It is simply disgraceful to compare Trump to Hitler or his actions to those of the Nazi era,” Etehad wrote in the email.

Eugene Levin, president of Panorama Media Group, which operates a radio
station and two Russian-language  weekly newspapers in Los Angeles, said he supports Trump’s ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries because there is no way of doing a thorough background check and knowing if someone is not a disguised terrorist.

“Many individuals with questionable backgrounds from the Soviet Union moved here as refugees. Think about [the] Tsarnaev brothers, who were able to immigrate here as refugees,” he said, referring to the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

“I believe what Trump did was a necessary step,” he added.

Muslims “are against the Jewish people,” said Roman Finarovsky, who grew up in Ukraine at a time when going to a synagogue could result in losing one’s job if caught by the KGB.

img_4085But some saw in the struggle of Soviet Jews cause to oppose the ban. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was an activist in the free Soviet Jewry movement as a student at UCLA. While several members of the Russian Jewish community expressed support for the ban, Yaroslavsky strongly denounced it.

“I find it to be abhorrent and contrary to every fiber of my being as a human rights activist, as an activist for Soviet Jewry in earlier years, as a civil libertarian, which I am,” Yaroslavsky said of the executive order in a phone interview. “This is un-American, literally un-American.”

Galvanizing young Jews

Shay Roman, 27, stood with two friends at LAX, all three wearing T-shirts from the group IfNotNow, a network of Millennial Jews that protests the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza.

“I’m here especially as a Jew,” Roman said. “I feel it’s so important to show support for other communities, especially the refugee community.”

“Our generation is absolutely not apathetic,” one of his companions, Jonah Breslau, 25, added. “We’re a group of young Jews and our core values are about freedom and dignity for all people — Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.”

Danit Osborn, 22, cited her background as both Jewish and Cambodian as part of her reason for being there. She said she wasn’t sure the protest would accomplish any specific policy reform.

“I’m not sure we’re gonna change Donald Trump,” she said. “But I have to be here for my mother and I have to be here for my father.”

Olga Grigoryants, Ryan Torok, Danielle Berrin and Rob Eshman contributed to this report.

Photo by Rob Eshman

Trump’s anti-American immigration ban


The most astonishing moment for me at last Sunday’s protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees came when I was standing by the arrivals area at Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.

Suddenly a cheer cut through the din of chants.  A mob of photographers pushed past me to take pictures of someone walking up the exit ramp. This being LA, I was sure George Clooney had just arrived.

I elbowed my way through the crowd, and saw the source of all the excitement.  It was a stout old Muslim woman. Her head and much of her face was wrapped in a thick black hijab.  She was schlepping up the ramp, alone.

A swarm of cameras flashed in her eyes.  The crowd chanted, “Salaam aleikum!  Saleaam aleikum!”   There was applause and whistling and clapping.

The excitement bewildered her.  The photos I snapped show something close to panic in her eyes. A middle-aged Jewish woman I recognized burst through the mob and practically jumped on the older lady, stroked at her arms and said, “Salaam Aleikum ShukranSalaam Aleikum Shukran!

I couldn’t imagine what she made of the mob, the noise, the strange woman who blurted “Hello thank you! Hello thank you!”

Her family rushed to greet her. The old woman gave a get me the hell out of here look, and they spirited her away.

That’s Donald Trump for you, I thought.   The Executive Order Trump signed was so ill-conceived, slapdash, illegal, pandering, and un-American, only he could turn an innocent Muslim bubbie into an unwitting Rosa Parks.

There is something funny about the unsuspecting grandmother turned hero, or it would be funny if the actual consequences of the Muslim ban weren’t so devastating to people, to our democracy and to the actual fight against Islamic extremism that it was purportedly designed to help.

By now we have all read the stories of citizens and green card holders deprived of their rights, of chaos and confusion, of ISIS’s using the ban for recruitment, of cooperative Muslim countries being insulted, of the hypocrisy of leaving out countries that breed actual radical Muslim terrorists, like, say, America, and of the fact that countries  in which Trump does business are excluded from the ban.

In this week’s Jewish Journal, you can read even more stories of Jewish refugees whose American success stories grew from their ability to enter the United States when their lives depended on it.  They fled Nazi Germany (like the grandparents of Jared Kushner). Or they fled  Eastern Europe (like the ancestors of young Stephen Miller, who helped write the ban), or they escaped Iran.  Because politicians and people spoke up loudly to shout down the voices of xenophobia and ignorance, America opened her doors to them.

But this time, the xenophobes are in charge.

Their apologists point out that the executive orders call for only a  temporary ban at best, though a full ban on people fleeing Syria.  The masses that gathered at LA and airports around the country know better.  They get that the Syrian refugees are the German Jews of 1930, or the Persian Jews of 1979, or the Eastern European Jews fleeing the Czar or the USSR.  The hijab is the streimmel. The beard is the payes. What was foreign and threatening to Americans then is just as scary to them now.

That’s why, in frightening times, our safest bet is to rely on our deepest values.  The crowd at LAX understood that, even if their president does not.

That’s why the most common message people held up on their protest protest posters were the words written in 1883 by a 34 year-old Jewish woman in New York, Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those posters were heartwarming, but they were my second- favorite posters I saw at the rally.

My favorite?   It was held up by a quiet young woman inside the terminal.  It read: “INVEST IN SHARPIE STOCK BECAUSE WE’RE NOT STOPPING.”

img_4107

Activists gather at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Steve Dipaola/Reuters

Invite a Muslim for Shabbat


It will be a very long time before I forget the news I heard this week of a 5-year-old Muslim child handcuffed at Dulles Airport on Saturday because he was deemed a security threat. News outlets later reported that this boy is a U.S. citizen who lives in Maryland.

While that news continues to disturb me, I can only imagine what it does to Muslim children living in our country.

This past Monday night my wife came home and told me that a Muslim acquaintance of hers who she knows through work told her that his child is very scared and is crying non-stop since Saturday.

We started talking about what we could do to help this child.

Every Friday night we host lively Shabbat dinners in which we usually entertain members of our congregation.  But after hearing that story, my wife and I decided that we should invite this Muslim family for Shabbat dinner.

A Shabbat dinner is a powerful opportunity to connect while breaking bread together.

Recently the Washington Post wrote a story about a former white supremacist who changed his racist views and entire world view after celebrating Shabbat dinners with his classmates.

In our case we would have a different goal. Our goal in inviting Muslims would not be to convert each other or to engage in interfaith dialogue or to give each other political litmus tests. Indeed, the best Shabbat meals we have are the ones that accept an informal policy of not talking politics.

Rather, we must simply demonstrate that we are embracing and giving respect to our Muslim neighbors.  In this specific case, our goal would be to tell this Muslim child that there are people in this country who are not Muslims but who care very deeply about him and his well-being. Not only do we not want him to leave our country, we want him to grow up and be one of our future leaders. Nothing says I care about you and I believe in you like freshly baked challah bread and homemade bread.

From the perspective of Jewish law the Talmud specifically authorizes inviting a non-Jew to a Shabbat meal (Beitzah, 21b).

Indeed the Midrash (Bereishit 11:4) tells of the time that the Roman ruler, Antoninus went to visit the great sage of the Mishnah, Rebbe for a Shabbat meal. He was so impressed with the lukewarm Shabbat food that was served that he returned during the week for another meal. But this time the food was served piping hot and it wasn’t good. He asked Rebbe what was missing. Rebbe said, “We are missing one spice. The spice of Shabbat!”

We should all follow Rebbe’s lead and share the spice of Shabbat.

Now that I think about it I am embarrassed to admit that through no specific intent or plan it so happens that we have never had a Muslim join us for Shabbat dinner. We just don’t run in the same circles.

It feels like now is the time to change that. Now is the time for people of all faiths to reach out and give some extra love to our Muslim neighbors.

The President campaigned on the promise of putting a ban on Muslims coming into this country. This past week through his Executive Order many law abiding Muslim citizens including green card holders, students, and people who have served the US Army, were handcuffed at airports and detained like criminals. Even though many were released, I don’t remember hearing an apology.

In light of what happened this week, Muslims in this country have every right to feel scared and marginalized.

It is our job as citizens, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, to reach out and embrace our Muslim neighbors. We must tell them that having a 5-year-old boy in handcuffs is not what we want our country to be. We must say to our Muslim neighbors  that we want you in this county.

For this reason, I am asking my fellow Jews this week to reach out and invite a Muslim family to their own Shabbat meal this week.

Now is the time to show our love to those who are scared and marginalized.


Shmuel Herzfeld is the Rabbi of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Jewish presence felt at LAX protest on Trump refugee order


Shortly before Shabbat fell on Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively slammed the door on refugees seeking entry to the United States – at least for now.

Shock and anger had been building in the Jewish community since a draft order was released days beforehand. On Saturday, those sentiments exploded onto Rabbi Susan Goldberg’s cellphone in concerned messages from her congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“When Shabbat ended last night, my phone was blowing up – emails, photos,” she said Jan. 29 as a crowd milled past her at the arrivals gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “For Jews, there’s a clear line that’s been crossed. People felt kind of not okay. But now, it’s different.”

Thousands gathered at LAX, where a number of travellers had been detained because of the order. Police cut off traffic through much of the airport and largely gave protesters the run of Tom Bradley International Terminal.Many protesters were Jews from congregations across the city, and even on signs held aloft by non-Jews, a certain Jewish influence could be detected in references to 1930’s Germany and proclamations of “Never again.”

“There are a lot of Jews here – a lot,” Goldberg said, her husband translating from sign language, since she’d lost her voice. Her three children joined the pair at the Jan. 29 protest.

As weary travellers emerged to boisterously chanting crowds, Adam and Noah Reich held a sign reading, “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.” While they spoke with a reporter, a short woman with olive skin, a total stranger, walked up and hugged both of them. That type of thing had been going on all afternoon.“Maybe like, a dozen so far,” Noah said. “We’ve been here for a couple hours and people just come up to us.”

“The collective power of everyone here is saying, ‘You’re not alone, we’re all here for you,’” Adam said. “And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

Emerging from the crowd, Jesse Gabriel, an attorney and executive board member at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

twit3“Kol ha’kavod,” he told the pair, using a Hebrew expression for “Well done!”

Gabriel was one of dozens of attorneys swarming the terminal, many with signs reading “lawyer” and announcing their foreign language proficiencies, hoping to be of help to stranded travellers or those recently released by immigration and customs officers.“When you have individuals whose rights need to be protected, that’s when lawyers need to step in,” Gabriel said. In fact, there was little work for the attorneys at the terminal, since those detained were stranded elsewhere, in the bowels of LAX, incommunicado. The crowds were chanting, “Let them in!” but lawyers were struggling even to make contact with those stranded.

“Our understanding is that there are a number of people with legal travel documents who are being detained in customs and borders patrol, in custody,” said immigration attorney Michael Hagerty. Hagerty was serving as ad hoc media liaison to a group of attorneys at the airport (as announced by a cardboard sign reading “media liaison”). Among his charges were representatives from legal aid clinic Public Counsel and the local American Civil Liberties Union. But information about those trapped – even a basic head count – proved difficult to come by.

twit4“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know exactly what their legal status is on an individual basis, but in all likelihood they are legal permanent residents, they are refugees with legal refugee travel documents, people with student visas,” Hagerty said.As he spoke, wayfarers cut through surging crowds, pushing carts and lugging suitcases. For those just arriving, it must have presented an overwhelming scene: shouts of “USA!” from flamboyantly dressed protesters, their signs decorated with everything from the Statue of Liberty to Trump with a Hitler mustache, and outside, drums banging out an incessant beat.Marchers mobbed the sidewalk on both the upper and lower levels, along with the international terminal itself. The crowd lined the curb, waving signs at passing cars, and some took to the upper levels of facing parking garages to look down over the scene.

Yet some travellers decided to join the protest, including Zoe Lister Jones, a filmmaker who had just stepped off the plane from screening her new comedy “Band Aid” at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I’ve been witnessing the injustices occurring from Park City and I came straight from the arrivals terminal to protest,” she said. “As a Jew, I think it’s part of our bloodline to stand up to injustice and resist fascism.”

Many Jewish protesters made their religious identity abundantly clear for passersby.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, stood alone on the sidewalk outside the terminal, having been unable to locate his congregants in the chaos, wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl.

“I wanted people to know that the Jewish people feel a chill up our spine because this is happening,” he said.

Senior writer Danielle Berrin contributed to this report.

Several Jewish families affected by Trump’s refugee ban, says HIAS


The U.S. ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries has affected several Jewish families, according to the refugee support and advocacy group HIAS.

The ban, which came Friday in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, has plunged into further uncertainty the lives of a Jewish Iranian man in his late 20s and his middle-aged mother, who for the past year have been waiting in an unnamed country for a reply on their application for asylum in the United States, HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, told JTA Sunday.

Citing privacy concerns and a desire not to further complicate the application process, Hetfield declined to name the applicants or reveal their whereabouts. The man and his mother, he said, are trying to reunite with two of the mother’s daughters who are already in the United States.

Last year, HIAS handled 159 applications by Jews for asylum in the United States, among them 89 Iranians and several Jews from Yemen.

Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS was recognized in 1976 by the Justice Department as an agency authorized to assist immigration. It now has hundreds of staff and is active in over 30 countries, processing more than 4,000 refugee asylum applications annually – most of them for non-Jews.

HIAS applicants from the Middle East — who are vetted and screened in a process which can take as long as two years – often travel to the United States through Ukraine or Austria if they have a visa.

HIAS is among several American Jewish groups that have protested Trump’s executive order.

“The ban affects hundreds of our clients, for whom it may be the difference between life and death,” Hetfield said.

The executive order prohibits refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, with an indefinite ban on those fleeing war-torn Syria. Citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are barred from entry for 90 days.
Hetfield also noted a case involving a non-Jewish family of asylum seekers from Syria, which despite having obtained on Jan. 20 visas to enter the United States as refugees following a Homeland Security Department vetting, were turned back in Ukraine to their camp in Jordan on Jan. 27. Airline officials cited Trump’s executive order in nixing the family’s flight to the United States.

The mother and her daughters, ages 5 and 8, seek to reunite with the father of the family, who is already in the United States. They were allowed back into Jordan, “but in such cases, there is a risk that people who leave to become refugees in the United States will not be let back in, or worse,” Hetfield said.

Twitter account tells tragic tales of Jewish refugees killed after US turned them away


In May 1939, as the Holocaust was beginning, the United States turned away the M.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 mostly Jewish refugees from Europe. Returning to Europe, 288 were taken in by Great Britain; of those trapped in Western Europe when Germany conquered the continent, 254 died.

Now a Twitter feed is recalling their names and their deaths, one by one.

@Stl Manifest, launched Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, goes line by line through the ship’s manifest, or list of passengers, then tells how each passenger was killed. Some of the posts include photos.

The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg carrying 937 Jewish refugees on May 23, 1939. Twenty-nine were able to disembark in Havana, though the Cuban government wouldn’t allow the rest to enter. Subsequent appeals to the United States to let the refugees enter through Miami were rejected. A 1924 law severely restricted immigration from Germany, and anti-immigrant sentiment was prevalent in the United States at the time.

The feed, a project of Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator, comes as the question of whether to admit refugees is again roiling the country. A draft order expected to be signed soon by President Donald Trump would temporarily bar all refugees from being admitted to the United States, and also would ban nationals of several Muslim-majority countries from entering.

Several Jewish groups have opposed the ban, citing the Jewish experience as refugees. In the description of @Stl_Manifest, Neiss wrote #RefugeesWelcome.

Americans fighters in Israel get overdue thank you


Grandfathers and grandmothers looked at the photos on the wall and saw themselves again as young, strapping soldiers, sailors and pilots, far from home andclose to the face of history.
 
They were the American and Canadian volunteers who had fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-1949 and manned the “illegal” Aliyah Bet ships carrying refugees to the Jewish state.
 
The veterans, their bodies aged but memories undimmed, brought their children and grandchildren to the University of Judaism last Sunday to inaugurate the first permanent West Coast exhibit to honor their services.
 
Film producer Lou Lenart and attorney Mitchell Flint marveled at the silhouettes of patched-up Mustangs and Messerschmitts from which they “bombed” Egyptian armies advancing on Tel Aviv with hand grenades lobbed out of their cockpits.Norman Zimmerman of Sun City, Ariz., and I saw again the jam-packed refugee ship Pan York, which had brought us from Marseilles to Haifa, despite a United Nations ban on the entry of men of military age.
 
The exhibit consists of cabinets framing eight large and eight small panels. In documents, graphics and text, the display documents the history of Zionism and American support, arms acquisition, recruitment of volunteers, Aliyah Bet and navy service and Machal (the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad) service in the Israel Defense Forces.
 
One of the panels commemorates the 40 North Americans, among them seven Christians, who were killed in action. Another focuses on the specific contributions of some 450 volunteers from the West Coast, as well as of those who risked prison by smuggling desperately needed arms and aircraft to the embattled state.
 
The dedication program was exemplary in the brevity of its speeches, and the high spirits of the songs from the 1948 and 1967 wars, presented by vocalist Ayana Haviv and pianist Amir Efrat.
 
UJ President Robert Wexler welcomed the audience of 200 and said that the exhibit will remind future generations of the linked destiny between Israel and American Jewry.
 
Yaron Gamburg, Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles, noted that the Machal spirit of 1948 was revived during the recent fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon, when his office was swamped with calls from volunteers seeking to help Israel.
 
Max Barchichat, president of the Los Angeles-based Machal West, lauded the service of his fellow volunteers by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s tribute to the Royal Air Force that “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”Keynote speaker was Dean Ralph Lowenstein, director of the Machal Archives and Museum at the University of Florida, who created the original exhibit at his university’s Hillel House, with the support of the New York-based American Veterans of Israel.
 
He paid tribute to Jason Fenton, who initiated the West Coast version of the exhibition, Sharona Benami of Machal West and a Yom Kippur War veteran, and Iris Waskow of the University of Judaism.
 
Some 1,400 North American volunteers, mostly World War II veterans, participated in the War of Independence, and played particularly crucial roles in the nascent Israeli air force and navy, Lowenstein said.
 
A joyous dedication is usually not the time for critical analysis, but as a combat infantryman in World War II, a squad leader in an anti-tank unit in Israel, and an army editor during the Korean conflict, I ask the reader’s indulgence if I step out of my reportorial role.
 
Without diminishing the contributions of the volunteers from abroad and the arms “smugglers,” it must be said, first, that it was the Israelis who won the war itself and paid by far the highest price in military and civilian casualties.
 
Secondly, the role of the American Jewish community was perhaps the least glorious among the 43 nations who provided volunteers,In proportion to the size and power of their Jewish communities, every other English-speaking country sent much larger, and better prepared, contingents than the biggest Jewish community in the world, and it was one of the few to emerge from the war with greater strength than before.
 
The difference lay mainly in the communal attitude and civic courage of the different Diaspora communities. South Africa’s Jews, and Britain’s to a slightly smaller degree, set up their own selective service systems, complete with physical and psychological testing, and rallied fully behind their young men and women heading for the battlefield.
 
By contrast, organized American Jewry, fearful of accusations of double loyalty, generally averted its collective eyes and prayed silently that those crazy kids going over would not prove an embarrassment.
 
Happily, the flip side of this sorry record is that in the last half century, American Jewry has largely left behind the shameful timidity of the 1940s and the Holocaust era. It is my hope that should American Jewry ever face a challenge similar to 1948, we will acquit ourselves with greater honor.

Fleeing Nazis Breaks His Father’s Spirit


My father, rarely impetuous, married my much younger mother when he was 46, and he was 49 when I was born.

When I was a toddler and we went occasionally together to the Berlin zoo, people came up and congratulated my father on his cute grandson. So there was this age gap, to begin with. We went on vacations together to a Baltic Sea resort or Denmark, but we never kicked a soccer ball around (who knew about baseball?).

My father, Dr. Gustav Tugendreich, was a well-known pediatrician and a pioneer in infant health care who had served as a frontline medical officer for four years in the Kaiser’s army during World War I.

He was profoundly steeped in German culture, could probably recite most of Goethe’s and Schiller’s works by heart and was an enthusiastic classical music buff.

As in most upper-class German Jewish families, the upbringing of my older sister and I was left largely in the hands of a devoted governess.

Typical of the time and class, my parents were completely assimilated, much more so than American Jews of that era. My earliest recollection of any religious rite was standing around the Christmas tree with the servants and singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”).

Yet, my father’s assimilation had its limits. When he was offered the directorship of the Berlin municipal hospital, on condition that he convert to Christianity, he refused.

Everything, of course, changed in 1933, when Hitler came to power — but only gradually. First, my father could no longer treat his “Aryan” patients. Then our beloved governess had to leave under a new law that no Aryan woman under 45 could work in a Jewish household.

For me, living in cosmopolitan Berlin, the change was hardly noticeable. I had gone to a private Montessori school, so didn’t have to switch. Now I was sent to a suburban Jewish boarding school, where I had the time of my life, the best teachers I have ever known and lived in Albert Einstein’s summer home, which he had donated to the boarding school.

In the beginning of the Nazi era, my father, thanks to his international reputation, was offered various positions abroad, including, oddly enough, at the main hospital in Tehran, but he couldn’t conceive of leaving Germany. Like many old-time German Jews, he looked on Hitler as a temporary aberration, which the good sense of the German people would soon reverse.

We still spent our family vacations abroad, the only prolonged stretches of time I recall with my father.

It’s odd what sticks in your mind. In 1935 or 1936, we vacationed on the idyllic Danish island of Bornholm, staying at a boarding house. One morning, a German man and his family arrived, and when the Danish host tried to introduce him to my father at the breakfast table, the German bowed briefly and stiffly but did not shake hands. My father responded in kind.

What puzzled me at the time was why the German wouldn’t shake hands, and later, how he knew immediately that we were Jews.

Finally, in 1937, two years after the Nuremberg laws consigned all Jews to third-class status, my father reluctantly agreed that it was time to leave. As in most families faced with life-changing decisions, it was my mother who was the more flexible, resolute and pragmatic.

But by now, all potential countries of refuge had pretty well closed their borders, and there was a line stretching ahead for years to get an American visa.

We were saved, in retrospect, by one of those odd happenstances that determine our lives.

Back in 1919, British and American Quakers sent missions to defeated Germany to help feed its hungry children, and my father was appointed liaison to the Quakers by the German government. Now my father recalled the brief relationship and tracked down the Quakers.

By a quirk of the U.S. immigration laws, academicians who had taught at a foreign university before emigration, and were guaranteed a one-year position at an American college, were granted a “nonquota” visa and skipped the immigration line.

Though my father had never been a professor, the British and American Quakers went to work and arranged a lectureship in public health, first at the University of London, and then at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia.

So it was decided that my father would go ahead, spend 1937-38 in London and 1938-39 at Bryn Mawr, at which time the rest of the family would join him.

My mother was then head of the German WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and reluctant to leave her post, and, anyhow, what was the hurry? Everybody in Germany knew that Hitler was so shrewd that he would get what he wanted without a war, and of course, anything like a Holocaust was beyond imagination.

My father was always a bit of a worrywart, and I clearly remember how we chuckled over his increasingly urgent letters, especially after the 1938 Munich pact, begging us to forget about bringing the furniture and money and come to America right away.

So we took our time and left flag-bedecked Berlin in style on April 20, 1939 — Hitler’s 50th birthday — flying from Tempelhof Airport to London, and then traveling on a German passenger ship from Southampton to New York, arriving in the middle of May.

We were met at the harbor by my father and some old Berlin friends (I believe we skipped Ellis Island), but I have no emotional recollection of the reunion.

I do remember that a few weeks later, the reunited family left for a couple of weeks for New Hampshire’s scenic White Mountains. There the Quakers had set up a camp with young American counselors to introduce the new refugees, mainly Jewish, to the native customs of their new country.

One lesson was that after each meal, the assorted ex-professors, doctors and lawyers and their wives and children had to bus and clean their own dishes. You have to know the ingrained European class distinctions to realize what an absolute shock this request represented.

My father, who had a great sense of humor, laughed the whole thing off and complied readily. But as I was carrying my dishes, an elderly refugee came up to me to express his shame and horror that the son of Herr Doctor would be asked to perform so menial a task.

Of course, the “yekkes” — German Jews — who arrived in Palestine in the 1930s had to undergo similar adjustments but perhaps with less sympathy from the old-time inhabitants.

Three months after that experience, and to my immense astonishment, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II was under way.

My father tried hard but unsuccessfully to overcome his heavy Teutonic accent, but, in truth, the forced emigration had broken his heart and spirit. After his Bryn Mawr lectureship expired, he was too old, too ill and too weary to start from the beginning and try to study for an American medical license.

I was then a pimply teenager, completely self-centered, trying to cope with a new culture and language. I was of little help and solace to my father and happily enlisted in the U.S. Army as my first chance to get away.

My father died in 1948 at the age of 71. I recently received a very polite letter from the German Association of Pediatricians, mentioning my father’s name and expressing remorse for the treatment of Jewish physicians by their Aryan colleagues during the Nazi era.

It was a little too late.

 

Jews Forced to Flee Arabs Want Redress


Jews who fled Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel are preparing to launch a new campaign for restitution.

Meeting in London at a forum organized by the World Organization for Jews From Arab Countries and Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, Jewish representatives from 14 nations met for two days last week to create the steering committee for the International Campaign for Rights and Redress.

The group plans to conduct an international advocacy and public education campaign on the heritage and rights of former Jewish refugees, documenting human rights violations against those who fled Arab countries, as well as their lost assets.

The director of the justice group, Stanley Urman, said the summit was a landmark occasion.

“It is a commitment by Jewish communities in 14 countries on five continents to once and for all document the historical injustice perpetrated against Jews in Arab countries,” he said. “It is not just a theoretical and educational exercise; it is concrete.”

Supported by the Israeli government, the plan also has the backing of Jewish communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia, with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the World Sephardi Congress involved.

“We are delighted to play a key role in this crucial project,” said Henry Grunwald, president of British Jewry’s umbrella group, the Board of Deputies. “The plight of Jews from Arab countries is all too often a cause that we in the wider Jewish community forget, and we must act to educate and raise awareness of this important issue.”

Organizers long have been unhappy that the issue of Palestinian refugees largely has eclipsed the question of the nearly 900,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries around the 1948 creation of the State of Israel. They want the Jewish refugees’ fate addressed as well in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Approximately 600,000 of these refugees settled in Israel; by 2001, fewer than 8,000 Jews remained in Arab countries. The displaced Jews were recognized as refugees by the United Nations, but there was virtually no international response to their plight.

The only way that the rights of former Jewish refugees can be asserted, organizers believe, is through an international advocacy campaign. They will launch the campaign in March with a special month of commemoration to highlight the torture, detention, loss of citizenship and seizure of property suffered by many Jewish refugees.

“This is a milestone in the effort to address the historic injustice to the Jewish communities in Arab countries,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We hope that this renewed, unified campaign will not only succeed in creating a comprehensive data bank, but will also put this issue on the agenda of the international community, which has neglected it for so long.” Data on the communal and individual assets lost in the mass displacements — incorporating public education, the collection of testimonies and programs to lobby media and governments — will be collected and preserved in a special unit established in Israel’s Ministry of Justice.

Urman declined to speculate on the value of the Jewish refugees’ assets, insisting that the fundamental issue was justice rather than compensation. Redress might come in many forms, he said, from a commitment to protect and preserve historical Jewish sites in Arab lands to the endowment of chairs at universities to preserve Middle Eastern Jewish culture.

In Iraq, the Jewish community numbered around 140,000 before being mostly dispersed in the 1950s. Like many others in his community, Maurice Shohet, president of Bene Naharayim, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York, abandoned his possessions when he fled Iraq with his family in 1970 at age 21.

The combined assets Iraqi Jewry left behind now could be worth billions of dollars. When the U.S.-led Iraq War began in 2003, the prospect of an elected, post-Saddam government offered some hope of restitution for the community.

But “so far, all we are hearing is the voice of the insurgents,” said Shohet, who visited his hometown of Baghdad last year, but cut short his trip because of violence.

With divisions rampant within Iraq society and the government still going through a transition period, compensation still seems far away. Yet that makes the issue more urgent, Urman said.

After Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, there might also be a new impetus toward fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“If Gaza results in renewed commitment by the Palestinian Authority to advance serious peace negotiations, it will have moved us forward to a resolution of both the Arab and Jewish refugee issues,” Urman said. “But it’s a big if.”

 

Groups Pitch in With Housing, Tuition


Critics have long derided Jewish federations as functionally outdated and overly bureaucratic — the organizational equivalent of dinosaurs on the brink of irrelevance, if not extinction.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, though, the array of Jewish organizations under the umbrella of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shown that they are far from moribund. They have raised large sums of money, moved critical resources to devastated areas and coordinated Jewish agencies to address victims’ needs.

In a few days, The L.A. Federation collected $600,000 to aid Jews and non-Jews alike in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and other parts of the Gulf Coast.

The philanthropic group has also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and interest-free loans to storm refugees who make their way to the Southland. And it will be trucking supplies donated by area synagogues to Jackson, Miss.

“I’m always impressed how, in a crisis, this community pulls together, how people communicate, how people coordinate, how people cooperate,” L.A. Federation President John Fishel said (see Fishel’s commentary, on page 13). “It’s acting like a community can and should act.”

To the south, the much smaller Jewish Federation of Orange County has raised $110,000. The nonprofit organization is in the process of resettling a married Jewish couple from New Orleans into a Newport Beach house donated and furnished by members of the community, said Kathleen Ron, director of branding and community development. About a dozen Orange County Jews have offered to make available houses or apartments to evacuees, she said.

Much of the money from the nation’s federations and Jewish agencies is going to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the national umbrella organization. As of Sept. 7, the UJC and affiliated groups had raised $4.3 million to help storm victims, the organization said. Donations are going to Jews and the general community to pay for such basic necessities as counseling, shelter, health care and food.

Like the local federations, L.A. Jewish agencies have reacted quickly and generously.

Several social workers at the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles have undergone emergency training by the Red Cross on the expectation of taking paid leave to provide refugees counseling and other mental health services on the Gulf Coast, said Lisa Brooks, director of communications and donor relations. Closer to home, JFS has begun to offer crisis counseling to newly arrived evacuees.

Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) has helped four freshmen who had been enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans transfer to UCLA, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere, said Vivian B. Seigel, the organization’s chief executive. Without the agency’s intervention, these students — all recipients of JVS scholarships for needy Jews — might otherwise have had to forgo their studies this year because of Tulane’s closure.

The Bureau of Jewish Education plans to refer to local Jewish schools any Jewish student refugees relocating to the Southland, Executive Director Gil Graff said. The bureau, which provides educational services to 150 Jewish schools serving 30,000 students, has also disseminated material to local educational institutions on the Jewish response to calamities.

Synagogues have also made important contributions of food, clothes and money. And such efforts will be ongoing, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the largest rabbinic organization in California with 270 members.

Over the next couple weeks, synagogues throughout the greater Los Angeles area will collect bedding, nonperishable food items — including pasta and cereal — and personal hygiene products, such as soap and shampoo. The donated goods will be consolidated locally and later trucked to a Jewish camp in Mississippi for distribution, Diamond said.

The Board of Rabbis also has called on temple members to contribute Visa gift cards to evacuees, which, he said, helps them preserve dignity, because they can select and pay for their own essentials. Going forward, there is talk of sending volunteers to the battered region to help with the actual rebuilding of homes.

“I am overwhelmed by the generosity, by the humanity and by the willingness across Southern California to respond to the crisis,” Diamond said. “I think this is the highest form of the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, the mitzvah of saving and redeeming lives.”

To donate to hurricane relief through The Los Angeles Federation, call (323) 761-8200 or visit www.jewishla.org.

For the Orange County Federation, call (949) 435-3484 or visit www.jewishorangecounty.org.

 

U.S. Rejects Israel’s Offer of Aid Workers


The United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Instead, the United States solicited material assistance from Israel that was probably superfluous by the time the shipment arrived on the evening of Sept. 8.

The reasons behind the decisions are unclear. Experts have offered a number of explanations, including the bureaucratic difficulties involved in absorbing thousands of foreign first-responder personnel, the belief that the existing first-responder infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was well equipped to handle the crisis and the potential political fallout from asking foreign nations to help the world’s greatest power save lives on its own turf.

Such a request would have been “a tremendous admission of failure,” said one official of a nongovernmental organization involved in current rescue efforts, who asked not to be identified because of his relationship with U.S. government officials.

Critics have excoriated federal, state and local officials for their alleged failure to attend quickly to a disaster that for days left tens of thousands of people stranded, exposed to disease and at risk of drowning. Democrats and some Republicans, as well as a welter of newspaper editorials, have especially targeted President Bush and his administration for what Democrats contend was a slow and at times remote response to the crisis.

Israel would have been uniquely qualified to help, because a cadre of medical experts originally trained to respond to terrorist attacks has honed its expertise at earthquake and hurricane zones across the world. Most recently, Israel rushed medical personnel to Sri Lanka within hours of the tsunami in late December. In 1998, Israel’s lightning response to Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa — hours ahead of the arrival of U.S. rescuers — was credited with saving dozens of lives.

The original Israeli offer after Hurricane Katrina was for “the dispatch of medical teams numbering hundreds of people, considerable medical equipment, medicines and additional necessary equipment,” according to a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. But the Bush administration turned down that and other offers of first-responder and medical-professional help from abroad, although Bush did cite Israel’s assistance in a speech last Friday, thanking countries for their offers of help.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Israel’s offer on Sept. 1, a day after the Bush administration declared Katrina’s aftermath a public health emergency, came within the four-day window when such assistance is crucial. Israel might have had personnel on the ground by Sept. 2. Authorities did not start evacuating the New Orleans Superdome, where most refugees from the hurricane had gathered, until Sept. 3.

Officials involved in coordinating assistance did not want to comment on the record, but they said complex U.S. regulations regarding accreditation of doctors and other personnel might have been a factor, in contrast to Israel’s experience in developing nations, where such rules are more flexible. Additionally, no one anticipated that the most advanced medical system in the world would be so easily overwhelmed, experts said.

First-responder assistance from outside the region would have been crucial in the first days, said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“These communities lost their firefighters,” he said. “Buildings don’t exist, homes don’t exist, equipment doesn’t exist.”

Briese, who has a relationship with Magen David Adom (MDA), the Israeli relief agency, dating back to the 1970s when he helped train MDA medics, said Israel would have been uniquely able to assist. But he wondered if the Israeli experts could have arrived in time, given the travel distance.

There no longer is a need for first-responder assistance, and his organization has called on its members to stop going to the region, Briese said.

In the end, the United States asked Israel and other countries to deliver equipment and material. Israel came through on Sept. 8 with 80 tons of food packages, diapers, beds, blankets, generators and other essentials on an El Al flight, partially funded by the Jewish National Fund, that landed in Little Rock, Ark.

“Jewish tradition says, ‘To save a life is to save the entire world,’ and this comes from the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Eyal Sela, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who accompanied the material.

Dean Agee, a vice president of International Aid, a relief group known for its work in the tsunami zone. foresees the need for more long-term assistance from Israel and other nations in rebuilding the region.

“In Mississippi alone there are 200,000 roofs needing to be repaired,” he said. “I have two photographs in front of me of Sri Lanka in March and of Gulfport [Miss.] now. In terms of damage, you can’t tell the difference.”

Chanan Tigay contributed to this story.

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Aspirations and Anxiety in America


“The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner (University of California, $29.95)

In the late 1970s, a time when Jews in the United States had arguably achieved more status and social acceptance than in any previous era of their long Diaspora, American Jewish groups began work on a project that culminated in 1993 with the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall, of course, is the heart of monumental Washington. It pays tribute to the nation’s most revered icons and heroes. The new museum was a powerful symbol of how thoroughly integrated Jews had become in the fabric of American life and culture. The museum itself was dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi fascism. At the very moment that Jews had become an accepted part of the majority culture, they were memorializing their history as a persecuted minority.

The dueling combination of aspiration and anxiety has always characterized the American Jewish experience. But paradoxically, over the past several decades, as Jews have risen to admirable prominence in U.S. society, victimization has become ever more central to American Jewish identity. Even as the last vestiges of anti-Semitic barriers were removed and the vast majority of Jews achieved comfortable, upper-middle-class lives, the Holocaust was elevated to iconic status. The struggle against oppression and discrimination remained at the core of the American Jewish narrative.

But unlike in Europe, where they had long been the quintessential “other,” Jews were never the paradigmatic outsiders in America. While they were at times stigmatized for not being Christian, Jews were nonetheless white people in a nation whose social hierarchy was based on race, not religion. Although some may have questioned Jews’ claim to whiteness, no movement in the United States ever sought to strip them of their citizenship, nor deny them the political rights — voting, holding office and serving on juries — to which white men were entitled. In other words, the discrimination that Jews did face was never comparable to that experienced at various times by blacks, Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Indeed, since the Colonial era, the religious and ethnic tolerance of America has been a relief to the many Jews who’ve arrived on these shores.

In her book, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, seeks to recast history in light of that fundamental fact. Without ignoring the significant anti-Semitic episodes that did occur nor disavowing the real sense of vulnerability that Jews have often felt, she nonetheless attempts to balance the realities of prejudice and progress. She chronicles Jewish life in America since the first Sephardic refugees arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1654. She explains how both the fluid nature of American identity and the pragmatism at the core of American culture worked to the benefit of Jews. In the 17th century, the relative tolerance Jews enjoyed stemmed from their usefulness to the colonial enterprise. As Diner writes, “trade made the colonies, and Jews made trade.”

Under European colonial rule, Jews did not enjoy full political rights, but from their earliest days of settlement in America Jews sought relief from the highest seats of power. Indeed, their refusal to accept America as it was is what distinguishes the Jewish experience from so many others.

When Peter Stuyvesant sought to exclude the first Jewish refugees from the colony for fear they would destroy its Christian character, the settlers appealed to the Jews of old Amsterdam to intercede on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company. By the time of American Independence, a handful of Jewish merchants had amassed huge fortunes and become pillars of society. Some, like Haym Salomon, who has been called the “financier of the American Revolution,” utilized their trade connections on behalf the colonies’ struggle for independence. The Constitution, which framed America as a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identity, created a “Jewish comfort zone.”

From 1820 to 1920, millions of Jews, primarily from Russian and Eastern Europe, migrated to America. Their growing numbers brought greater confidence and communal diversity. They also drew greater resistance from society at large. By the 1880s, a racialized view of Jews had emerged and some rights were compromised. Jews were refused entry into luxury hotels and denied access to jobs at some elite universities and law firms. At the same time, however, their political rights remained unchallenged. Indeed, their political influence only grew. As anti-Semitic rhetoric rose, greater numbers of Jews entered the political arena. Indeed, political participation, along with philanthropy and programs for self-improvement, were part of a broader effort at Jewish self-defense. As Diner writes, Jews “believed that if they met with the right officials, showed their deep patriotism as Americans and behaved respectably, they could prevail.”

And they did. Even at the peak of American anti-Semitism from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jews progressed. Elite colleges imposed quotas on Jewish students, and affluent neighborhoods sometimes imposed restrictive covenants to prevent Jews from buying homes. But there is nonetheless little indication that these restrictions hampered Jewish mobility. Furthermore, they were also an indication of Jewish ascendance in American society. By the mid-1940s, the majority of Jews were white-collar workers. In terms of education and income, they “far outpaced” the children and grandchildren of other European immigrants. In the postwar years, Jews could afford to suburbanize more than most other Americans. As of 1953, one-sixth of American Jews had graduated from college, compared to one-20th of the population at large.

Even as they moved out of their ethnic urban enclaves, Jews tended to cluster in suburbs that had a strong Jewish presence. Their choice to live with other Jews was driven by preference rather than anti-Semitism. Unmoored from the neighborhood bakeries, bookstores and delicatessens that once defined Jewish life in the city, suburbanites had to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Suddenly, American Jews, who had been observing fewer and fewer aspects of Jewish ritual, returned to synagogues as the locus of their religious and ethnic identities. The postwar years saw a remarkable explosion in synagogue construction. Between 1945 and 1950, American Jews spent upwards of $500 million erecting new religious buildings. More Jews were affiliated with synagogues than at any other time since mass migration began in the early 19th century.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, no fields of endeavor denied access to Jews. That Jews were prominent in nearly every sector of American life was no longer a subject of much discussion. Indeed, this very diffusion of Jews into all aspects of American society challenged Jewish identity. For many, Jewishness no longer determined “with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided, or how they spent their leisure time.” To be Jewish increasingly became a matter of choice. As a result, many of the organizations that had been founded to defend Jews began to spend more energy on preserving Jewish culture and identity in America.

Diner pays particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Jewish identity throughout American history. Just as Jews never felt obliged to accept America as they found it, neither were they afraid to reinterpret Jewish identity to fit the times. “The Jews of the United States” is both balanced and comprehensive. For that reason, however, it is not Diner’s finest work. The sweeping format prohibits her from injecting the texture of the Jewish experience into her interpretation.

While solid and authoritative, “The Jews of the United States” lacks the intimacy and detail that characterized two of Diner’s previous books, “In the Almost Promised Land” and “Hungering for America.”

Still, Diner’s willingness to take on some of the shibboleths of the popular American Jewish narrative is welcome. Indeed, it is what keeps this book from being just another history textbook.

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life


At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

"Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

"Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

"I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

60th Anniversary Reunites Orphans


When Miriam Weichelbaum and Henri Dybnis were married on March 26, 1943, their future did not look promising. Their wedding took place in wartime France, where the two young educators — he a refugee from Russia, she from Germany — ran a home for displaced Jewish children. Ten orphan teenagers formed their minyan, and they gave the rabbi a live chicken for performing the ceremony. Six months later, the young couple fled to Switzerland, one step ahead of the Nazis. With them came 22 children they didn’t dare leave behind.

In those bleak days, the Dybnises could not have imagined the long, full life that awaited them. They had two children of their own, one born in Switzerland and the other in France, where they returned post-war to run another orphanage. In 1952, the family immigrated to California, pouring their energy into founding Jewish nursery schools. As their 60th wedding anniversary approached, it seemed time for a party.

The Dybnises knew daughter Monique was bringing her own family from Israel for the celebration. And they knew that son Sacha and daughter-in-law Bunni had asked close relatives to share in the day. But they weren’t aware invitations had also gone out to the orphan children of long ago. So they were astounded to see 60 men and women, who had gathered from around the globe in their honor. A commemorative album was crammed with tributes in French, German, English and Hebrew from others who couldn’t make the trip.

Annette Safatty flew in from Paris to tell the Dybnises, “Thank you for my life. Thanks to you, I was able to marry and have a life of my own.”

Miriam Dybnis, vivacious at 83, insists she and her husband never expected to be honored for their deeds. Still, she’s deeply gratified that so many of the young orphans have thrived as adults:

“It really showed us Hitler did not succeed,” she said. “This is the biggest satisfaction.”

Always, The Next Generation


I suppose it comes under the heading of accident and happenstance, but the response last week of The Jewish Federation to the plight of the Kosovar refugees seems to me very much on target. The Federation’s staff and leaders acted quickly and effectively. There was relatively little bureaucracy to be seen, though considerable work and planning was conducted behind the scenes by a hard-pressed staff. To their credit, they found ways for volunteers to reach out a helping hand. The whole, improvised effort offers a useful window from which to view the future.

That future, it should be emphasized, is in need of change. It seems clear, for example, that The Federation will have to market itself to many small and diverse groups. At the moment one idea calls for local Federations to align themselves with a growing number of synagogues, many of whose new members are searching for ways to renew a Jewish identity in America.

Presumably the different community Federations will have to expand some of their current mechanisms — e.g. the women’s and men’s divisions focused on fundraising — and introduce additional programs that involve families working together. A Federation initiative in Los Angeles aimed at helping schoolchildren learn to read might be ideal here. It is currently in the planning stage and will require volunteers — maybe (a suggestion here) husbands and wives and teen age offspring could all participate, though not necessarily together. There are also other possibilities: Study groups, forums, challenges to the ways in which we relate to one another, as well as to the wider roles we might play in a non-ethnic America; these are all ideas “out there” for The Jewish Federation to test and sample.

This of course barely scratches the surface. The hopeful side in all of this is that national leaders within The Jewish Federation movement recognize the organization must change if it is to survive into the next century. A structural reorganization on the national level has already taken place, with empowerment now delegated to the local communities, whereas in the past it resided with the UJA, the UIA and the national Council of Jewish Federations.

The problem here is that organizational readjustments touch only those who are already committed; that is, members of the Federation bureaucracy and lay leaders, rather than the large majority who still are seen as indifferent. It is in fact a realignment primarily for the current players, without reaching many of those who continue to remain outside The Federation world.

The Federation is still burdened then with a narrowing base of constituent-contributors; still confronted with an older generation of leaders who are beginning to retire, with fewer successors at hand; still competing for who often turn looking to all sorts of American organizations — Ivy League universities, museums and hospitals, libraries and education programs. Nor are they interested in merely donating money. Many wish to participate; others want to connect with their Jewish roots, hidden from view until recently.

What united Jews in the past generation was a set of commonly shared experiences and perceptions: Of struggling in an America that was anti-Semitic; of remembering images of a Europe callously indifferent to their fate; of recognizing that many who died in the Holocaust were relatives, often unknown but talked about by parents who had been bold and fortunate enough to have fled Europe in an earlier day. Their outlook stemmed from the world they knew in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; even in some cases, on into the 1960’s.

Their success today looks like the American dream come true. And their contributions, their shaping of The Jewish Federation these past decades as a way to help large numbers of other Jews should not go unremarked: They were instrumental in assisting those in need here; in Israel; and in other parts of the world (e.g. Russia, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, the Balkans) who were oppressed and/or discriminated against.

But I believe The Federation served another purpose as well. It became a way for many of these benefactors to reify their identity as Jews. In some cases they had discarded the more traditional forms of observance in their daily lives, had moved away from the rituals of Judaism. That had been their ticket of admission to America. In The Jewish Federation movement they discovered a way to knit past and present together.

Ironically, one result of the philo-Semitic America that has emerged these last two decades has been that many younger Jews do not feel the need to become active within Jewish organizations. The rallying cry of anti-Semitism, the images of the Holocaust are less effective today, even as knowledge of survivors and victims who perished becomes more familiar and widespread. These after all are young men and women unfamiliar with the Second World War, and with no recollection of a time when Israel did not exist.

I realize as I write these words that there is a personal subtext present for me. I remember, as though it were yesterday, meeting my father years ago for lunch in New York. It was, as they say, another time and another place. And a different America. We talked about friends and relatives; about his and my summer plans; about my recent honeymoon; things like that. Then in a shift that caught me unaware, he invited me to join his men’s club.

It actually was part of a large national fraternal order, with a philanthropic core at its center. But in reality it served as a social club for him and his friends, all of whom had been president at one time or another, and who acted as the organization’s power brokers. Now that you’re a married man and so an adult, he began, warming to his favorite theme, well, maybe almost an adult, perhaps I should put you up for membership. It was said casually, almost as a throwaway line. Who knew, he joked, ten or fifteen years down the road I too might become the presiding officer.

There was one problem: I did not want to belong. It was his world… and it reflected attitudes and a style that I associated with his America, not mine. And I would always be viewed as his son there. I tried to decline gracefully, murmuring regrets and seeking to buy time: I was newly married; there was the press of work and career; not possible at the present moment. We both put a good face on it. Two years later my father was dead.

I wish I had been able to see more clearly those many decades ago when I turned down my father. I am not sure I would have behaved differently. But I would have liked to have shared some of these thoughts with him. I suspect he would have found a way to bring us together. — Gene Lichtenstein

Life’s Ironies are Beautiful


For Italian expatriates Lotte Katz Singer of Beverly Hills and Ann Signett of the San Fernando Valley, life is surprising as well as beautiful. The two were recently reunited 50 years after sharing a residence during the German occupation of Rome.

As part of its “The People and Nation of Italy” Yom HaShoah commemoration, on Friday, April 16, Valley Beth Shalom will honor and bring together Signett and Singer, as well as Maria Julianelli, who assisted many Jewish refugees during the war.

“Someone was protecting me,” Singer recently said of her experiences as a child growing up in Italy during World War II. “I never thought of myself as anything. It wasn’t until I couldn’t go to school anymore that I became conscious of being a Jew. It was the Germans who made me Jewish.”

Conflicting Stories


During World War II, did an anti-Semitic Swiss government split upJewish refugee families, require the men to perform backbreaking workin forced labor camps, and treat Jews markedly worse than Christianrefugees?

Or, on the contrary, were Jewish refugees generally treated withdecency and respect at a time when all Swiss had to work for thecommon good and share tight rations?

Talk to former refugees who escaped the Nazi dragnets and foundsafety in Switzerland, and their reports are often wildlycontradictory.

The latest furor about Switzerland’s questionable role in WorldWar II was triggered earlier this month by a British televisiondocumentary on Channel 4 that amounted to a powerful indictment ofSwitzerland’s treatment of Jewish refugees.

Historian Alan Morris Schom presents his report, “TheUnwanted Guests:

Swiss Forced Labor Camps, 1940-1944.” Photocourtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

The harsh picture took on even darker hues in a report byhistorian Alan Morris Schom, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced LaborCamps, 1940-1944,” commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center andreleased last week in Los Angeles as Wire services, newspapers and TVnetworks immediately picked up on the report and delivered it aroundthe world, often with provocative headlines and graphics. And it’snot over, with both Time and Newsweek coming out with major stories.

The new list of accusations hit Swiss officials like a blow to thesolar plexus. They were already reeling from earlier charges thatSwiss banks had filled their vaults by appropriating the accounts setup by Holocaust victims and by laundering Nazi gold — but at leastthese transgressions dealt mainly with bankers and money. The newreport went further by attacking the fundamental image of the Swissas a decent and humane people.

An official with the Swiss Embassy in Washington phoned The JewishJournal and reported, in a choked voice, on a CNN news segment thatopened with footage of Nazi concentration camps.

The implied comparison was obviously odious, and even the harshestcritics of Switzerland have rejected it. No Jews were killed in Swisscamps — though there were some cases of medical negligence — andnone were deliberately worked to death.

Now a number of Jewish veterans of Swiss camps have rallied to thedefense of Switzerland, hailing the country as the savior of some28,000 Jewish refugees (although roughly the same number were turnedback at the Swiss border).

Al A. Finci of Sherman Oaks, a native of Sarajevo, crossed theSwiss border as a teen-ager with his family in the spring of 1944. Atall times, he said, “we were treated courteously and with respect …and sent to a boarding school for me, a Swiss family for my 10-yearold sister, and a vacant hotel, used to accommodate refugees, for myparents.”

In an interview, Finci said, “I have no special love for theSwiss; they are a cold and often gruff people, but they saved mylife.”

Arthur P. Stern, a Holocaust survivor who spent much of the war inSwitzerland, described parts of the Schom report as “a lot ofgarbage.”

A self-described “professional Jew,” who holds leadershippositions in numerous Jewish organizations and retired as presidentof Magnavox Advanced Products, Stern said that it violates Jewishtradition when false accusations are leveled for the sake ofpublicity.

The Swiss government did a number of bad things, such assuspending the country’s traditional right of refuge to limit Jewishimmigration, but “compared to Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and eventhe United States, which only admitted 50,000 Jews when 600,000unused visas were available, Switzerland comes out very well,” Sternsaid.

Alex Koron, a native of Munich now living in Desert Hot Springs,was assigned to a camp at Birmensdorf in October 1942.

“We lived in military barracks and slept on straw mats. The foodwas sufficient and was rationed even for the Swiss. I worked in thekitchen, did repairs, removed tree stumps and blew up rocks to clearfields to grow food,” said Koron.

“I worked eight hours a day, there were no guards, no barbed wire.Almost every weekend, I went into town. I never encounteredanti-Semitism.”

Despite such testimony, the Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Schom, theauthor of “Unwanted Guests,” and Simon Reeve, the writer of theBritish documentary, stand fully by their reports and have witnessesto back their charges.

Reeve said in a call from London that he interviewed 25 veteransof the Swiss camps, of whom only one “had a positive experience.”

“I found that there was a broad policy of anti-Semitism inSwitzerland before and during the war, and there is no doubt thatJewish refugees were exploited, not just for Switzerland’s survivalbut to further the country’s economy,” Reeve said.

One of his witnesses was Manfred Alexander, who, after escaping aGerman concentration camp, made it to Switzerland.

Alexander told The New York Times: “[There], I was put in a prisonwith murderers. Then I was sent to camps where they put us intostriped uniforms and we worked from daybreak to sundown in thefields. A guard beat people. Those who tried to escape, they sentdogs after them.”

Other former inmates cited examples of senseless cruelty or sheergreed. Michael Jacobovitz of New York, then a 17-year-old OrthodoxJew from Cologne, would not eat non-kosher food in his camp, and whenhe begged a guard for a second slice of bread, he was threatened withforcible

Wiesenthal Report:


Jewish refugees fortunate enough to make it into Switzerlandduring World War II, were, in most cases, interned in forced-laborcamps, required to perform hard physical labor under primitive livingconditions, and separated from their families.

By 1944, the Swiss had established about 100 such camps, manysurrounded by barbed wire, which held some 22,500 refugees, most ofwhom were Jewish.

The charges were presented Tuesday in a press conference by Dr.Alan Morris Schom, an American historian, who attributed in hisjust-completed report the harsh treatment of Jews to “a pattern ofconsistent anti-Semitism” by Swiss officials.

Schom’s report, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced Labor Camps,1940-1944,” was prepared for and presented at the Simon WiesenthalCenter.

In his report and presentation, Schom identified 62 camps by nameand added the following charges:

* Men up to 60 were forced to work on road gangs and in forestswith shovels and pickaxes, from dawn to dusk, in summer and winter.

* Women and girls were assigned to institutions and privateresidences to perform the most menial labors.

* Camp commandants separated men from their wives, and mothersfrom even infant children.

* Recalcitrant refugees were sent to one of two special”punishment” camps or taken to the border and handed over to FrenchVichy police or German officials.

Throughout the war, Schom said, Switzerland maintained a two-trackpolicy for Jewish and Christian refugees. While the Swiss governmentprovided for Christians, the small Swiss Jewish community andAmerican Jewish relief organizations were required to pay the entirecost of maintaining Jewish refugees.

In addition, a special “Jew tax” was imposed on all wealthy Jewishrefugees, who also had to divulge full information on any bankaccount they might hold.

Schom also charged that throughout the Hitler era, the presidentof the Geneva-based International Red Cross, Dr. Max Huber, profitedfrom arms sales to Italy and Germany and owned a manufacturing plantin southern Germany run by the SS and employing slave labor.

In a letter to Swiss President Flavio Cotti that accompanied thereport, the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier asked that thetreatment of Jewish refugees be investigated by the BergierCommission of eminent historians.

If the charges are validated, Hier said, Switzerland should offerapologies and compensation to former camp inmates. Hier alsoemphasized that the forced-labor camps, though harsh, could not becompared to Nazi concentration camps, and that many individual Swisscitizens sought to succor the refugees.

Schom received a doctorate in history but is not affiliated withany academic institution. He lives in France and has written fourbooks, put out by respected publishing houses, on aspects of Frenchand British history.

In a brief interview, Schom said that he had talked to one formerSwiss camp commandant but had received no cooperation from otherSwiss officials. The historian said that he had been in contact withthree German Jews, now living in London, who had been interned by theSwiss, and he had researched recently declassified British wartimedocuments.

“As a historian, I fit together bits and pieces until I find apattern,” he said.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, a government spokeswoman, MarieMarceline Kurman, said that the Schom study was littered withhistorical inaccuracies and that the existence of work camps forrefugees has long been documented by Swiss historians.

Of various former camp inmates interviewed by The AssociatedPress, some praised their treatment by the Swiss, while otherscomplained of harsh conditions and anti-Semitic incidents.

However, some of Schom’s charges were endorsed by an unscheduledwitness. Annette Glazman, herself a wartime Belgian refugee inSwitzerland, testified that her first husband had been interned in aSwiss camp, where “he was treated like a slave,” and where mothersand children were separated.

“The Swiss were very anti-Semitic, and they treated people asbadly as they could,” the 77-year-old Glazman, a Camarillo resident,said. “We knew exactly when Germany began to lose the war, becausethe Swiss attitude toward us changed radically.”

During daylong sessions at the Wiesenthal Center, state InsuranceCommissioner Chuck Quackenbush took testimony from six witnesses whoaccused European insurance companies, particularly in Italy andGermany, of failing to make good on policies taken out by parents andrelatives.

Quackenbush warned the only insurance company representativepresent at the hearing that he and commissioners of other stateswould use their regulatory power over American subsidiaries of theEuropean companies to see “that justice is done.”

At another session, a Belgian and a Russian art expert relatedtheir labyrinthine efforts to track down art and literary workslooted by the Nazis.

For instance, Jacques Lust of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts inBrussels told of finding a rare book in Amsterdam in 1996 that hadbeen originally confiscated by the Nazis from a wealthy Belgian Jew.In tracing the book’s journey over 50 years, he found that it hadchanged owners in Berlin, Silesia, Minsk, Moscow and Amsterdam.