Netanyahu, Peres condemn lynch incident


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack by Jewish teens on three Palestinians in the center of Jerusalem.

“In the state of Israel, we are not prepared to tolerate racism; neither are we prepared to tolerate the combination of racism and violence,” Netanyahu said Tuesday as he signed signed a document to encourage the absorption and integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society and economy, and to prevent discrimination and racism.

Netanyahu said he was following the medical progress of the victims of the Aug. 16 assault.

“This is something that we cannot accept – not as Jews, not as Israelis. This is not our way; this goes against our way, and we condemn it in word and deed. We will quickly bring to justice those responsible for this reprehensible incident,” he said. “We will be persistent in our complete opposition to racism and violence.”

Also Tuesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said during a visit to an Israeli-Arab town in the northern Galilee that he was “ashamed” by the attack.  He called for new efforts to be made to bring Arab and Jewish youth together.

Hundreds of people, including a police officer, watched the Aug. 16 assault but did not intervene, according to reports. Some two dozen Jewish teens were involved in the attack, egged on by a female Jewish teen, police said.

Nine Jewish teens have been arrested so far in the incident.

The attack has been condemned by Arab and Jewish organizations in Israel and around the world.

2 Palestinians indicted in 2000 Ramallah lynching


Two Palestinians involved in the lynching 12 years ago of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah have been arrested and reportedly confessed to their involvement.

Marwan Maadi, 51, and Yasser Hatab, 40, were arrested in June, according to a media gag order lifted Thursday. They were indicted last week on charges of murder in the Judea military court.

The lynching took place in October 2000 at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, when the two soldiers drove accidentally into the West Bank city of Ramallah. They were arrested and then beaten to death and mutilated by an angry mob of Palestinians who stormed the police station where they were being held.

Two other Palestinians convicted of participating in the lynching were released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap deal, according to Haaretz.

Q & A With Steve Oney


Los Angeles writer Steve Oney’s book, "And the Dead Shall Rise" (Pantheon Books, 2003), details two infamous, unsolved crimes: the 1913 murder of non-Jewish preteen Mary Phagan in an Atlanta factory and the arrest, trial, conviction, death sentence commutation and 1915 abduction and lynching by a 25-man mob of Leo Frank, the factory’s Jewish, 29-year-old Northern-born supervisor. In 1995, on the 80th yahrtzeit of Frank’s death, Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Ga., helped place a plaque on the building built on the spot where the tree used to lynch him grew. Oney, a 49-year-old former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, whose wife is Jewish, spent 17 years researching the 742-page book.

Jewish Journal: This book genuinely seems to have taken a chunk out of you as a writer and as a person.

Steve Oney: If somebody had told me I was going to spend 17 years on this book when I got started, I would have quit — immediately. The deeper I got into it, the more entranced I was by the subject; this double-murder mystery, two unsolved killings, the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank. So, yeah, it was a chunk of my life. But I don’t know how I could have spent it better.

JJ: Were you trying to give this case, journalistically speaking, a proper, dignified burial?

SO: I took it as a point of pride to get the truth of who lynched Leo Frank. He was the most celebrated convict in America; he was in the state prison, and he was abducted from the state prison without a shot being fired. And then after abducting Frank, these 25 [lynch-mob members] drove by circuitous routes over 150 miles on unpaved roads in Model Ts and lynched Frank the next day at dawn. Not a one of them was arrested or even inconvenienced.

JJ: There’s a body of Leo Frank literature and writing that most people don’t know about; why is there so much of it?

SO: Well, the material is so inherently dramatic. A little girl, Mary Phagan, beautiful, busty, murdered on Confederate Memorial Day, 1913, in a society that is in transition from the old South to the new South. Her boss, a Northern Jew named Leo Frank, convicted of her murder and then lynched — and out of that lynching rose … the modern Ku Klux Klan, and it galvanizes the Anti-Defamation League.

JJ: Do you think it was romanticized?

SO: In many of the previous accounts of this case, there’s the inevitable section where the writer will say, "Outside the courthouse where Leo Frank was tried, people yelled, ‘Hang the Jew or we’ll hang you!’" In my book I say it didn’t happen. It was something that someone wrote a couple years after the crime, and then it got stuck into subsequent recountings of the story.

JJ: I was specifically fascinated by your use of the term, "Negro." You use it not in quotes and not in italics, but as a common term in parts of the book. What made you choose that term?

SO: I agonized over that choice. Frank was convicted largely on the testimony of a black, self-confessed accomplice named Jim Conley. For one of the first times ever in a capital murder case in America, especially in the South, an all-white jury accepted a black man’s word over a white man’s word. I thought I could never express how stunning a fact that was if I used polite terminology of today. I had to situate you back in the South of 1913 to make you feel what the racial tension was like and to make you see through the use of the word, Negro, how all white people would view a black man at that moment. Even with that rationale, I agonized over it. I can’t impose the polite parlance of contemporary usage on the time. So that’s why I decided to use the word, Negro.

JJ: Many of the Atlanta Jews, in the fallout of the entire tragedy, leave Atlanta, but they stay in the South, as opposed to some of the [non-Jewish] characters who move north. Didn’t that strike you as odd?

SO: Southern Jews are Southerners and Jews second, or they’re both simultaneously. But they are as wed to the land and to the Southern way of life as any Southern [non-Jew]. The Jews of Atlanta in particular, the German Jews into which Leo Frank married, they fought for the Confederacy or their forebearers did. They were very much Southern patriots and that was, on the one hand, why they stayed, on the other hand, why Frank’s lynching was such a shock to them. They stayed, but they nursed very quietly this grievous wound.

On Feb. 22, Oney will give a talk from 10 a.m.-noon at a private Westside home. For more information, call Judi Book at (310) 470-8986.

Caught Red-Handed


Israel has arrested two more Palestinians it said were involved in the brutal lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in October, bringing the total arrests up to 15.

The front-page photos in the Hebrew dailies couldn’t have told the story more graphically: There was Abed al-Aziz Tzalha, 20, grinning in triumph, raising his bloody hands to the lynch mob in Ramallah. and there he was again, raising his handcuffed hands on command for the camera, expressionless, now in the custody of the Shin Bet.

Until now, nobody knew Tzalha’s name, but most of the world knew his face — and his hands. He became famous from that Oct. 12 photo — a symbol of the savagery to which the then-two-week-old intifada had descended.

Two Israeli reserve soldiers, Vadim Norzhich and Yosef Avrahami, took a wrong turn into Ramallah and were stopped by Palestinian police, who brought them to the Ramallah police station. A mob learned of the arrest, stormed the station, attacked Norzhich and Avrahami, then threw them out of the window. The crowd below then attacked the two with whatever weapons they could find.

By the time Norzhich and Avrahami were dead, their bodies mutilated, the crowd had grown from 1,000 to 2,000. Some danced on the Israelis’ blood. People applauded, chanted, held their babies aloft. It was like Carnaval in Rio.

Tzalha, 20, admitted to his captors that he ran with the mob into the police station, then began choking one of the soldiers while the victim was being beaten. When Tzalha saw that his hands were red with the soldier’s blood, he raised them out the window to the excited crowd below.

The scene was filmed by an Italian TV crew. The throwing of the soldiers out the window, the mob’s attack on them, and the celebration that followed the lynching was broadcast over and over on CNN.

The incident had a transforming effect on Israelis, extinguishing nearly all of the sympathy for the Palestinians that had existed in this country. As a destroyer of dovish sentiments, it surpassed even the Gulf War legend of Palestinians "dancing on the rooftops" as Scuds flew overhead on their way to Tel Aviv.

The photo of Tzalha, and the footage of the lynching, also featured prominently in Israel’s propaganda campaign for the intifada. They were Israel’s answer to the searing images of 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammed al-Dura crouching in terror behind his father, both of them caught in a crossfire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers, before an Israeli bullet killed the boy.

Arrested along with Tzalha was Mohammed Nuara, 18, a guerrilla who admitted stabbing one of the two soldiers in Ramallah. Both were captured in Palestinian villages that are under Palestinian Authority civilian rule, but subject to Israeli security control.

In all, Israel has arrested 15 Palestinians involved in the lynching — mainly Palestinian policemen. Israeli security authorities have vowed not to rest until all the perpetrators are captured. Depending, though, on one’s definition of the word "perpetrator," that could make for a very long "wanted" list.

‘Strange Fruit’ and Stalinism


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

David Margolick, writer of books and articles on legal issues for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, has hit a raw nerve with his haunting book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Running Press). The book is an account of the scalding impact of one song – a song about a lynching – on scores of Ameri-can activists, writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals.

When I interviewed him, Margolick told me of how he discovered “Strange Fruit”: “I got into Billie Holiday 15 years ago and bought a record. When I saw the song’s title, I thought it might be a sort of goofy long song with that playful title, kind of exotic and sexy. So I was utterly unprepared for what it actually was. I was amazed by two things: what it was about, and that I didn’t know about it.

“I fancied myself a student of civil rights a little bit. I grew up reading about it, caring about it, and I never knew anything about this. So I sensed there was a void. I always had at the back of my mind to write something about it. It stayed and grew in my mind. I just knew there was a story.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, who used the nom de plume “Lewis Allan,” combining the names of two of his children who died as infants.

Meeropol, a Communist who adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 when they were executed as Soviet spies, first wrote the song as a poem, later setting it to music, when he saw a photograph of a horrendous lynching in a civil rights magazine. In 1939, Meeropol brought the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, a legendary, integrated Greenwich Village club. Josephson gave the song to Billie Holiday, who made it indelibly her own.

Columbia refused to record the song, and Holiday took it to Milt Gabler, a producer who ran his record label out of his Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan. Gabler recorded it, and it has never gone away. In recent years, the song has been performed by Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Cassandra Wilson, Sting and UB40.

“Decades later,” Margolick writes, “the experience of listening to, and watching, Billie Holiday perform ‘Strange Fruit’ – her eyes closed and head back, the familiar gardenia over her ear, her ruby lipstick magnifying her mocha complexion, her fingers snapping lightly, her hands holding the microphone stand as if it were a teacup – lingered in many memories.”

As Pete Hamill has commented, “Strange Fruit” was not concocted by a songwriter with a fedora and a cigar sitting at a piano in the Brill building hoping for a hit. It put a searchlight on one of the ugliest facets of the American experience from 1889 to 1940, when, according to a study by the Tuskegee Institute, 3,833 people were lynched in the United States, 90 percent of them in the South.

Margolick’s concentration on just one song’s impact is an illustration of the power of the written word to change and transform our lives. I will never forget my own epiphanies of this kind – among them Kay Boyle reading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” to my writing class at the New School for Social Research when it came out in The New Yorker.

I come to Margolick’s book from a somewhat unique perspective. While writing my novel about the Rosenbergs, “Red Love,” I researched the Communist Party’s deeply cynical and exploitative role in the campaign supposedly to free them (in fact, the party, at Soviet direction, wanted nothing of the kind). I also drew upon my own personal adolescence experience, when Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, chronicler of slave rebellions, with his blazing red hair and equally blazing eyes, gave his last lectures at the crumbling Jefferson School of Social Science after Khrushchev’s speech about Stalin’s crimes in 1956.I loved to watch Aptheker; he was highly intelligent, and there was an inspired lunacy about him.

Sometimes he started “talking black.” And sometimes he turned his back to the class for long periods of silent contemplation. We would wait patiently. Stalin’s words of inspiration were on the blackboard, and in a shaking voice, Aptheker defended Soviet troops in Hungary and quoted a Brecht poem that Communists did not kill, they stopped killing. Yeah, right. I remember Aptheker once whispering to me that Tennessee Williams was “on our side,” that Stanley Kowalski was a “splendid revolutionary,” and that Williams’ plays were magic (he was right about that).

Aptheker also told me of his own youthful days risking his life battling Jim Crow in the South. On that score I believed him then and I do today. American Communists could betray a good cause in a heartbeat (and Ralph Ellison writes brilliantly of their abrupt abandonment, literally overnight, of Harlem in “Invisible Man”), but like other ideologues, if instructed to do the right thing, they could do it with passionate hearts and sometimes even do it well.

Which brings me to the only difficulty I have with Margolick’s elegant and compact book, as enduring an achievement as it is. Margolick uses the word “progressive” to denote everything good, and that includes Henry Wallace, his leadership of the Communist-dominated Progressive Party, and the Communist Party itself. By not critically examining the party’s historic role, Margolick almost unwittingly lends himself to the currently fashionable revisionist view of the party as somehow, maybe in spite of itself, a force for democracy-that it really was indigenous, radical and progressive, and not a servile defender of a brutal, anti-Semitic and murderous Soviet status quo that embraced the Hitler-Stalin pact, barbarous repression and concentration camps.

Abel Meeropol’s great and beautiful song helped pierce the American conscience and transform society, and that is almost entirely what David Margolick’s book is about. But there is an inherent problem in embracing an ethos that somehow suggests, if only by historical omission, that democracies have “no enemies on the left.” Stalin and Pol Pot, among many others, would hasten to disagree.