Hurricane Irma in the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 7. NOAA photo

Holy hurricane


Denial just ain’t what it used to be.

Maybe it’s only me, but as recent news has delivered one gut punch after another, it’s been feeling like magical thinking has lost its mojo.

Case in point: Though I know Donald Trump is pathologically void of empathy, who can process a truth as dark as that? We’re not talking about a Batman villain here; this is the effing president of the United States. So as a coping mechanism, my psyche threw an invisibility cloak over his immorality. It didn’t always work, but it came to a dead stop when neo-Nazis – “some very fine people” – marched and murdered in Charlottesville. I plumb ran out of the strategic ignorance necessary to pretend he’s not complicit in evil.

Or take nukes. (Please.) By all rights, nuclear blackmail, nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear war should have been giving me nightmares for years. But the human capacity for compartmentalization as a way to adapt to the unthinkable did a pretty good job of protecting me from that fear. I don’t know whether, on their own, Kim Jong-un’s accelerating bomb and missile tests would have blown through my soothing self-delusion, but Trump’s crazy rhetoric has undeniably exposed how short-fused those scary scenarios are.

Magical thinking has also Photoshopped my image of the internet. The web’s seductive marvels have had a way of distracting me from mounting evidence of the destruction it enables. But in light of what’s been happening, it’s high time for me to kiss the last vestiges of internet triumphalism goodbye.

Last week the consumer credit-reporting company Equifax revealed that 143 million Americans in their database – half the country – may have had our Social Security and drivers license numbers compromised, as well as the keys to our credit card and bank accounts. Face it: Cyber-security sucks today, and it will suck tomorrow. If you believe your personal data can be reliably protected from hackers, identity thieves, blackmailers, spies, governments, trolls, gamer guys, mean girls and Julian Assange, there’s a Nigerian prince who wants to wire $10 million to your bank account I’d like to introduce to you.

Also last week, the New York Times reported that a cyber-army of counterfeit Facebook and Twitter accounts controlled by impostors linked to the Kremlin had been “engines of deception and propaganda” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, spreading fake anti-Clinton news, pro-Trump memes and stolen Democratic email to targeted American voters. Facebook – having repeatedly denied it – also disclosed that Russian operatives had bought $100,000 in anti-Clinton ads that may have reached as many as 70 million Americans. Here’s a sobering fact: The digital tools already exist, and are getting better all the time, needed to create convincing counterfeit videos of anyone saying anything, and to confect bogus news stories and brand them as trustworthy journalism. Media literacy and critical thinking have never been more urgent, or up against worse odds.

It’d be comforting to think that companies like Equifax and Facebook have learned their lesson and from now on will deploy the technology needed to beat the devils. But believing what’s comforting in the face of ample prior behavior to the contrary is the definition of denial. Counting on Internet providers to voluntarily embrace an opt-in requirement that respects consumer privacy, like counting on a technical fix for security flaws and propaganda targeting, is the triumph of optimism over precedent.

I’ve clung to such optimism; even if I turn out to be wrong, isn’t that preferable to always fearing the worst? But these days the difficulty of turning a blind eye to reality is taxing my talent for self-deception.

Hurricanes have been dominating the news lately, and few events test the strength of denial as frontally as disasters. But while Harvey and Irma have held news networks hostage – with reason: danger is a magnet for attention – it’s the 8.1 earthquake off of Mexico last week that has me still shaking. I’ve lived in Southern California for a long time, and though earthquakes sometimes drop off my radar screen, I’m periodically conscious enough of their risks that I’ve taken disaster preparation to heart. The proximity of the Mexican quake refocused me on the seismic vulnerability of my everyday life: I checked my battery and water supply. But it also, unexpectedly, laid bare a deeper denial I usually bury fairly successfully, if unconsciously.

I carry around, but rarely examine, a point of view about the relationship between the horrors of natural disasters and my notion of God. I know no God sends these hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and floods. I’m secular, so I don’t require an intricate theodicy to acquit an omnipotent God of capricious cruelty or to sentence a sinful humanity to suffering. But I also don’t experience the universe as arbitrary and meaningless; I experience awe at the mystery of existence, and gratitude for its wonders.

How I reconcile the providence of those gifts with the pointlessness of random misery is too tentative, perhaps too childlike, to survive the scrutiny of abandoned denial. But this much I’m secure about: The power of the 8.2 earthquake that scientists predict for California is indistinguishable from the power that made the night sky’s starry sublime.


MARTY KAPLAN is the Norman Lear professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Rob Goldstone. Screenshot from Twitter

Meet the Jew behind Donald Trump Jr.’s Kremlin backchannel


The man behind Donald Trump Jr.’s Kremlin connection is a British-born Jewish publicist who once worked as a reporter for a Jewish newspaper.

Rob Goldstone confirmed July 10 to The Washington Post that he had an exchange of emails with the son of then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 to organize a meeting with Kremlin lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in New York.

“The lawyer had apparently stated she had some information regarding illegal campaign contributions to the [Democratic National Committee] which she believed Mr. Trump Jr. might find important,” Goldstone said in a statement to the Post.

The emails, first reported by The New York Times, have fueled speculation that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Goldstone was born in Manchester, England, and attended a Jewish day school there, according to the Manchester-based Jewish Telegraph newspaper. His father, Isaac Goldstone, helped found the Hillock Hebrew Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue, according to the paper. The younger Goldstone went on to work briefly as a sports reporter for the Jewish Gazette and later as a music journalist before launching a career as a music publicist.

One of his clients is Emin Agalarov, an Azerbaijani pop star and the son of real estate magnate Aras Agalarov, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The elder Trump once appeared in a music video for the Azerbaijani singer.

Goldstone worked with Donald Trump on the Miss Universe pageant that Trump’s organization held in Russia, and appears to have become a link in backchannel communications between the Kremlin and the Republican presidential campaign.

“Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote in an email to Trump Jr. on July 3, 2016. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate [Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

Though the meeting eventually took place, Goldstone told The Washington Post that little came of it.

That hasn’t stopped anti-Semitic trolls on the web from targeting the publicist for his heritage. Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that strongly favors Trump, posted about Goldstone’s background hours after The Washington Post report, calling the story “fake news.”

Emin Agalarov, who goes by the stage name Emin, performed at The Wiltern theater in Los Angeles in May.

France, Russia strike Islamic State; new suspect sought


France and Russia bombed Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday, punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people, and made the first tentative steps toward a possible military alliance.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday and the downing of the Russian jet over Sinai on Oct. 31, saying they were in retaliation for French andRussian air raids in Iraq and Syria.

Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129 people, France made an unprecedented appeal for European Union support and investigators said they were making progress in unraveling the plot, which was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

Seven attackers died on Friday night, but video footage suggested that two other men were directly involved in the operation and subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Police also discovered two places in Paris where the militants probably stayed before the violence and also found a third car abandoned in the city that was used in the operation.

In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people. President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

“Our air force's military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, while French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening — the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

“We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions,” Putin told military chiefs.

Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September. It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past have hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa. Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

JANGLING NERVES

The West blames Assad for the chaos in Syria and says he must quit as part of any political solution to the crisis — a demand rejected by Syria's main backers Russia and Iran.

Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants. 

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU's mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

“This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defense chiefs.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

With nerves jangling across Europe, German police arrested and then released seven people around Aachen, near the Belgian border, and later canceled a Germany-Netherlands soccer match in Hanover, evacuating the stadium shortly before kick-off.

One of the targets on Friday was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday — four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month. 

A Syrian passport was found near his body, but a justice source said investigators doubted whether it was his, suggesting the attacker might have been using someone else's ID. 

Police issued a photograph of the militant and asked the public for help in identifying him.

Despite a massive manhunt across Europe, police have failed to find Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.

Abdeslam drove back to Belgium from Paris early on Saturday with two friends, who have both been detained. A lawyer for one of the men told Belgian media that French police had pulled over their car three times early on Saturday as they headed to the border, but each time let them continue their journey.

The two men in detention deny any role in the attacks.

“DON'T SCAPEGOAT REFUGEES”

The U.N. refugee agency and Germany's police chief urged European countries not to demean or reject refugees because one of the Paris bombers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.

“We are deeply disturbed by language that demonizes refugees as a group,” U.N. spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said after government officials in Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria cited the Paris attacks as a reason to refuse refugees.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Paris would spare no expense to reinforce and equip its security forces and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism, even though that was bound to involve breaching European budget deficit limits.

“We have to face up to this, and Europe ought to understand,” he told France Inter radio.

The European Commission said it would show understanding to France if additional security spending pushed up its deficit.

As France geared up for a long war, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would present a “comprehensive strategy” for tackling Islamic State to parliament. British war planes have been bombing the militants in Iraq, but not Syria.

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that ISIL has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threat against this country are planned and orchestrated,” Cameron said, referring to Islamic State by one of its many acronyms. 

“Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”

For Russia’s Jews, Nemtsov murder is reminder of their vulnerability


During the past two years, Dima Zicer has skipped several political rallies opposing the chauvinistic policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Jewish scholar of education from St. Petersburg, Zicer, 55, has limited hope for change in a country that is ranked 148th in the Press Freedom Index and where several of Putin’s critics have either died under mysterious circumstances or been jailed for what they and many Western observers say are trumped-up corruption charges.

On Sunday, however, Zicer marched through St. Petersburg with 10,000 people, many of them Jewish, in protest of the murder in central Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. Nemtsov, an opposition leader, was gunned down on Saturday just hours after he urged fellow citizens to attend a rally against Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.

No arrests have been made in the killing, which took place on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion into Crimea. Russia has since annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

“This murder and the incitement that preceded it is so shocking that I could no longer remain an observer,” Zicer said.

Whether or not the Kremlin ordered the killing, as some have accused, Zicer holds the Russian president responsible because of the “the wild incitement he allowed on media in recent months against Nemtsov and other opposition figures.”

Kremlin spokesmen have denied any involvement in the slaying.

To many Russian Jews, the murder of Nemtsov — a physicist turned liberal politician, born to a Jewish mother but baptized in the Orthodox Church — is a troubling reminder of vulnerability as members of a relatively affluent minority with a history of being scapegoated, strong ties to the West and a deep attachment to cosmopolitan values and human rights.

The murder hit Russia’s sizable Jewish intelligentsia particularly hard because “nearly all the leaders of the liberal opposition are either fully Jewish or have Jewish background,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a writer for the Jewish monthly magazine L’chaim. “His murder is the low point in a process that started about two years ago which has left the Jewish intelligentsia and its milieu feeling more uneasy than ever before in post-communist Russia.”

To be sure, Nemtsov’s murder shocked countless Russians the world over, prompting vigils and marches in his memory. The main march in Moscow drew 60,000 people, but smaller events were held across the federation for Nemtsov, who at one time was second in command to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, but ultimately was eclipsed by Putin before becoming one of his harshest critics.

In an interview conducted with Newsweek hours before his death, Nemtsov said that because of Putin’s policy, Russia’s economy is collapsing.

Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine was “wading into a costly, fratricidal war in Ukraine and into pointless confrontation with the West,” Nemtsov told the magazine.

“We all feel the effects of this insane policy,” Nemtsov said, adding that Putin’s use of media reminded him of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Putin responded to such criticisms by referring to opponents of Russia’s actions in Ukraine — and especially the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula — as a fifth column. And though Putin did not name Nemtsov, the president was widely thought to be referring to him, the liberal camp’s most senior politician. Russian media considered to have close Kremlin ties published Nemtsov’s name on lists of suspected traitors that started circulating shortly after those included on the lists expressed their opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

In a 2010 televised interview, Putin said that Nemtsov and other opposition figures stole billions from Russians and would “sell off the whole of Russia” if given the chance.

“Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV,” the Russian-Jewish journalist Leonid Bershidsky wrote on Bloomberg View after the murder.

Bershidsky added, “It did not help that he was Jewish. There was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the smear campaign.”

However, some Russians doubt that Putin would go to the trouble of ordering the assassination of a high-profile figure who ultimately may be more trouble dead than alive. Nemtsov, after all, had failed to gain widespread popularity outside the urban elite and thus never constituted any real political threat to Putin.

Edelstein noted that “there may have been anti-Semitic incitement online and in far-right circles,” but “Nemtsov wasn’t perceived as a Jew and wasn’t attacked as such.”

The evidence in Nemtsov’s killing, Edelstein believes, “points to ultranationalists, perhaps militiamen who fought in Ukraine, perhaps only their sympathizers.”

Nemstov himself was open about being born to a Jewish mother and said he rarely felt any discrimination.

“People tend to judge whether you are a thief or honest, competent or not,” he said during an interview in 2001 when he was asked about his Jewishness.

Raised by a single mother, Dina Eydman, a physician, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi and later in her native Nizhni Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow, Nemtsov received his doctorate in theoretical physics at 26.

“I never made it a secret that my mother is Jewish because I love my mother. I’m much indebted to my mother,” he was quoted as saying in a 1999 report about anti-Semitism in Russia. “She has also drawn me into politics, though now she is not happy about this.”

In a telegram he sent Nemtsov’s 87-year-old mother, Putin wrote, “Everything will be done so that the organizers and executors of this vile and cynical murder are punished.”

For Tanya Lvova, a Jewish mother from St. Petersburg and coordinator of the city’s Limmud conference on Jewish learning, said Nemtsov’s murder “does not make life more uncomfortable here because it is already as uncomfortable as can be.”

But Lvova said the killing does present her with a new concern.

“More than being afraid of living in a country where someone can be killed on the street for criticizing the government,” she said, “I am afraid of living in a country where this is considered a normal occurrence that doesn’t even create a very strong response.”

Putin in Passover greeting: Russian Jews make huge contribution


Russian Jews are making an enormous contribution to strengthening Russian society’s cohesion, President Vladimir Putin wrote in a holiday greeting to the Jewish community.

Putin sent the greeting on Monday, the news site shturem.net reported Thursday, after meeting Rabbi Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, at the Kremlin in Moscow.

[Related: Kerry condemns anti-Semitic leaflet in eastern Ukraine]

“The Jewish community in Russia is making an enormous contribution to strengthening the ties between various peoples and religions in our country; increasing trust and mutual understanding between individuals,” Putin wrote in his greeting, which shturem.net reproduced.

Putin also wrote that the Jewish community “works to preserve stability and consensus in the general public and actively participates in the education of the younger generation as well as charity and humanitarian actions.”

At his meeting with Lazar, Putin inquired as to the situation of the 10,000 Jews living in the Crimean Peninsula, which became part of the Russian Federation after its annexation last month from neighboring Ukraine — a move that prompted an international outcry and sanctions against Russia.

Lazar, a Chabad rabbi, told Putin that the Russian branch of the movement organized seders, or Passover meals, in three Crimean cities — Simferopol, Sevastopol and Yalta — the news site col.org.il reported.

Russia ‘disappointed’ by Obama cancelling Putin meeting, Kremlin says


U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is disappointing, but he is still welcome in Russia, a top Kremlin foreign policy aide said on Wednesday.

“We are disappointed by the U.S. administration's decision to cancel the visit of President Obama to Moscow planned in early September,” Putin's foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters.

“It is clear that the decision is due to the situation around the former U.S. special services employee Snowden, which we did not create,” he added.

Obama would still come to Russia in September for a G20 summit in St Petersburg but will not attend a separate meeting with Putin was supposed to take place in Moscow ahead of that.

Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden last week, rejecting U.S. pleas to expel him and letting the former spy agency contractor slip out of a Moscow airport after more than five weeks in limbo there.

Ushakov said the rift over Snowden between the Cold War-era foes showed Washington was not treating Russia as an equal partner and reiterated Moscow's stance that it could not hand the 30-year-old over because Russia and the United States had no bilateral extradition agreement.

“Throughout the years the Americans avoided signing an extradition agreement (with Russia) and constantly refused our requests to extradite individuals who committed crimes in Russia, referring to the lack of such agreement,” he said.

He added that Russia's invitation for Obama to visit Russia was still in force. 

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Michael Roddy

France opens murder inquiry into Yasser Arafat’s death


French prosecutors have opened a murder inquiry into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Arafat’s family filed legal action in July asking French authorities to look into claims that he had been poisoned. Traces of radioactive polonium were found on Arafat’s belongings.

Polonium is a highly toxic substance that is rarely found outside military and scientific circles. It was used to kill former Russian spy turned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 shortly after drinking tea laced with the poison.

Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization for 35 years and became the first president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996. He fell violently ill in October 2004 and died two weeks later, at the age of 75, in a French military hospital.

The medical report published after Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital on Nov. 11, 2004 listed the immediate cause as a massive brain hemorrhage resulting from an infection. Doctors ruled out foul play; some have contended that Arafat died of AIDS.

Many Palestinians continue to believe that Arafat was poisoned by Israel because he was an obstacle to peace. Israel has denied any involvement.

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