Reflections on the Charleston murders from Berlin: A conscience

I was sitting at the lunch tables yesterday here at the language school in Berlin, checking the news, when I read of the massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston. My heart stopped in grief, thinking of the horror in that church. A very deep sadness came over me, for the victims and their families, for Emanuel AME, for Americans and especially for African Americans. And a wider sadness that I have felt since I arrived here two weeks ago rose again. Evil people abound.

The school organized a field trip to the rather impressive Natural History Museum. The route from our school (we walked), took us along Bernauer Street, where a long stretch of the Berlin Wall stood. When I chose this school, I unwittingly chose a neighborhood, in a corner of Prenzlauer Berg, which was one of the sites where the first breaches in the Wall were made. Memorials to the Wall shape the landscape along Bernauer Strasse. The place where I jog in the morning is the Mauer (Wall) Park, the site where a piece of the Wall was dismantled on November 9, 1989, allowing a flow of East Berliners to flow into the West. The Iron Curtain was crumbling.

That Wall, and now its remains, stands as a memory to the carnage of the 20th century.  It is there because of the evil that Hitler unleashed on the world, especially against the Jews, and especially against Eastern Europeans and other “undesirables”.  Germany was only subdued because of the military might of the Allies. The brunt of the fighting was carried by the Soviet Union – a nation that far exceeded the Nazis in the murder of innocents. The Wall stands for defeat of Germany, and then the imprisonment of millions of people in Communist tyranny.

The Holocaust, the Second World War, the depredations of Communism, haunt the city.

The horror in Charleston is being followed by the voice of grief, outrage and condolences from every level of American government and in every corner of American society, except the most evil, hiding under the rocks. A voice of hatred that wanted to kill because some group is “trying to take over the world” (this is what I read) has been furiously shouted down by a roaring wave of human decency.

I could not stop myself from making the comparison. We Jews were accused of wanting to “take over the world.” Very little human decency stood in the way of the path from that accusation to government led genocide. The outpouring of support for Emanuel AME is a light in the midst of this tragedy. Our nation stands as one in grief and resolve. That racial hatred has no place among decent people. No place. The conscience of the American people has made itself known.

I feel that conscience in Berlin, as well, on big and small levels. Nearly every day here at the school, as new students flow in, I am asked my name. “Ich heisse Mordecai”, I say. Inevitable befuddlement occurs. I clarify, “It is a Hebrew name.”  Still quizzical.  “From the Bible”, I say. “Ich bin Jude” I finally clarify. I watch carefully. No negative reaction. In fact, usually great interest, and often sympathy for the victimization of the Jews.

I truly cannot shake the eeriness of saying, “Ich bin Jude” in Berlin. The memorials for Jews in Berlin are profoundly present in the city. The city refuses to forget, to ignore. We visited a deeply disturbing museum today called “The Topography of Terror”, a history of the SS and the Gestapo, focusing on the war against the Jews. The word “Jude” was in most of the displays. It was gut wrenching.

Earlier today my class took a walk to the Prenzlauer Berg (where I am staying) museum. That museum was filled with memories of Jewish life here, up until the Jews were deported. A short walk from the school is Rykestrasse Synagogue, one of the largest and most beautiful in the world, restored to its former glory but alas – stands mostly empty.

Today, in reading the news of the outpouring of grief, support and resolve in America in response to the shootings in Charleston, I saw profound evidence of American decency and conscience. I see similar evidence here in Berlin, in the dedication to remember the Jews as well as the resolve never to forget the history of the German terror state and the atrocities committed.  I said to myself today: So some big swathes of the world, too small, but big, have developed a conscience. I am very moved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Jerusalem streets quiet after terror attack

This story originally appeared on The Media Line

At least five confirmed terror attacks have ravaged Jerusalem’s streets during the past month, spreading fear and havoc among Jerusalemites and encouraging debates about whether the violence augurs the start of a Third Intifada.

The latest, on Nov. 18, left five Israelis dead, four of them rabbis. Witnesses described seeing two men entering the synagogue during prayer, one armed with a gun and one armed with a knife, and then hearing shooting from inside. The incident culminated in a shootout outside the synagogue, where police officers shot and killed the terrorists. Four people were pronounced dead at the scene while another eight people were taken to two hospitals, four of them with serious wounds. Among the wounded was a Canadian citizen, Howard (Chaim) Rothman of Toronto. A police officer was later pronounced dead from wounds from the confrontation.

Avi Steinhartz, a first responder for the United Hatzalah emergency response organization who was on the scene, told The Media Line that his two young sons were in school across the street from the scene of the attack and that two of the victims, Moshe Twersky and Arye Kupinsky, were his study partners. Coincidentally, Steinhartz was also present at Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill light rail stop in October when a Palestinian man rammed his car into a crowd getting off the train, killing a 22-year-old Ecuadorian woman and a 3-month-old baby.

The incident on Tuesday morning is the latest in a series of violent confrontations in Jerusalem during the past six weeks. With tension at the highest level it’s been in years, many are asking whether this marks the beginning of a new intifada. 

“I hate the word ‘intifada,’ it translates to ‘uprising,’ this is not an uprising, it is targeting innocent civilians,” said Mordecai Dzikansky, a retired New York Police Department detective and author of two books on terrorism. “This is definitely a concentrated effort which went from cell-oriented terrorism to lone-wolf terrorism, but they are both state-sponsored; the lone wolf is more dangerous because it’s more difficult to obtain information from them,” he said.

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld disagreed but said that terrorists were taking advantage of the situation because of the freedom the blue ID cards, which indicate that the holder is a Jerusalem resident, affords them. 

“Instead of being interested in coming in to work or going to a hospital, and because of the incitement by the Palestinian media and social networks, they’re taking advantage of the situation and that’s why we have terror,” he said. Earlier in the day, Rosenfeld had stated that over the last 24 to 48 hours, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian media had been inciting violence.

Following the Nov. 18 morning attack, Jerusalem’s streets were noticeably quiet, many apparently afraid to venture into public places, the current venue of choice for attackers. Parents now are restricting children’s movements, while cafes and restaurants are already reporting a dearth of customers.

According to Dzikansky, all of these incidents are being carried out by people who work in the area and who are extremely familiar with routines in their neighborhoods, looking for the best time to commit an act of violence. 

“People should think twice about who they’re employing. You have to raise the level of awareness as to who is working for you. Every synagogue or place where large numbers of people congregate needs to be guarded,” Dzikansky warned. “For example, in our synagogue we have a rotation of people who stand guard. Every synagogue in the world should have at least one person who’s armed and trained,” he added.

But some Israelis fear that taking protection into their own hands could have unexpected consequences. A local moneychanger told The Media Line that many of his friends are licensed to carry guns but have put them in the vault because they fear being arrested themselves. Dzikansky disagrees. “There’s an expression in the NYPD: ‘I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.’ ”

Dzikansky, who was involved in intelligence-sharing between the New York Police Department and Israel during the Second Intifada, said there needs to be a more aggressive approach — both governmental and nongovernmental — to combat the lone-wolf attacks.  

“There were periods of suicide bombings, hijackings. Right now, it’s the random attacks — which are the latest in terror — and you will see copycats. It happened in Antwerp, it happened with the policemen in New York; this is the latest rage,” he said.

Matty Goldstein, a first responder with ZAKA, a humanitarian terror-response organization, said he is sure the Israeli government “will do anything and everything” to ensure attacks like these don’t happen again. 

Adding roadblocks and reinforced checkpoints were among the measures suggested to buttress security in the city, something Rosenfeld said was already being done after the Nov. 18 attack. Also immediately after the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought different security agencies together to discuss how to best combat the threat. 


“We’re setting up security checks and roadblocks and working with other intelligence organizations, so that they can assess and find the terrorists. They are also setting up police checkpoints in different neighborhoods, not just East Jerusalem,” Rosenfeld said. “As of this afternoon, the security assessment was to set up more police and volunteer units in the quieter neighborhoods around Jerusalem.” 

Book: Jack the Ripper was a Jewish barber from Poland

The serial killer Jack the Ripper was identified through DNA as a Jewish barber who immigrated to London from Poland, according to a new book.

Businessman Russell Edwards, an amateur Jack the Ripper sleuth, and molecular biologist Dr. Jari Louhelainen of Liverpool John Moores University made the discovery through DNA traces found on a shawl recovered from one of the crime scenes that allegedly belonged to one of his victims.

The discovery is announced in a book by Edwards that is scheduled to be released on Tuesday, the Daily Mail first reported on Sunday.

Edwards identifies the killer as Aaron Kosminski, who would have been age 23 at the time of the murders.

Kosminski, who came to England in 1881 with his family, reportedly lived near the scenes of the murders. He was brought in by police as a witness at the time of the murders and later released. Kosminski died in an insane asylum in 1919.

The serial killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper is accused of killing five women over about three months in the fall of 1888 in and near the Whitechapel district of London. The victims’ throats were cut and their bodies mutilated.

Edwards bought the shawl, which allegedly came from the murder scene of the fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes and still contained bloodstains, at an auction in 2007. Louhelainen was able to find blood that matched the victim and other body fluids that ultimately were linked to Kosminski.


Arab restaurant torched in Jaffa

An Arab-owned restaurant in Jaffa was torched and graffiti pointing to a price-tag attack was spray-painted on its walls.

The Abu al-Abed restaurant, which has been in existence since 1949, was set ablaze early Monday morning. It serves Palestinian and Lebanese food.

The words “price tag” and “Kahane was right” were spray-painted on the building. The latter invective refers to the late Kach leader Meir Kahane, who advocated the transfer of Arabs out of Israel. Price tag refers to the strategy that extremist settlers have adopted to exact a price in attacks on Palestinians and Arabs in retribution for settlement freezes and demolitions or for Palestinian attacks on Jews.

Police investigating the incident told Ynet that they are not ready to say it was politically motivated.

In recent weeks, incidents labeled as price tag include the cutting down of 20 olive trees belonging to an Arab family in eastern Jerusalem, the desecration of two cemeteries in Jaffa and the torching of a mosque in a Bedouin town in northern Israel.

Also Sunday, the tomb of Elazar Hakohen, the son of Aaron, was discovered desecrated. The tomb, which is located near the West Bank village of Hawarta and is a popular destination for Jewish worshipers, was painted with graffiti including drawings of rocket launchers, and the headstone was shattered.

Meanwhile, Israeli police and soldiers on Sunday demolished four structures under construction in an outpost near the Bat Ayin settlement in Gush Etzion.

PA settles lawsuit for Americans’ murders

The Palestinian Authority reportedly has settled a lawsuit over the murder of two American citizens living in Israel.

Court papers indicating that a settlement agreement was reached were filed Monday in a Rhode Island District Court, but no details were provided, The Associated Press reported.

A $116 million default judgment awarded by the Rhode Island court in 2004 was vacated by the agreement, according to the papers, the AP reported. The agreement also lifts a freeze on PA assets in the United States.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last year had sent the case back to the district court for more arguments on whether the unpaid default judgment should be set aside after new P.A. attorneys said they would fight the judgement.

The Rhode Island court had awarded the judgment to the family of terror victims Yaron and Efrat Ungar, American citizens killed in 1996 when they were attacked in their car by Palestinian terrorists as they drove home from a wedding near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Their infant son survived the attack. 

Lawyers for the Ungar family and the Palestinian Authority would not comment to AP.

Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years


The storied tale of Jewish Northerners heading South in the 1960s to fight for blacks’ voting rights has taken its place as one of the most distinctive cross-cultural relationships in U.S. history.

Until now, the 1964 murders of three civil rights campaigners has been unresolved. The recent arrest of a suspect in the Mississippi murders of Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner — both Jews — and James Chaney, a black man, has re-focused attention on a relationship once bound in blood.

As Jews prepare to mark Martin Luther King Day, however, to what extent have black-Jewish relations shifted from their historic marriage?

A long way, academics and Jewish community officials say.

The black-Jewish relationship began in the 1920s and 1930s as blacks moved into neighborhoods Jews were leaving. Still, Jewish businesses often remained, serving the black community.

A common bond rose in response to anti-Semitism and racism in the United States, culminating in the civil rights movement. But black riots against Jewish-owned businesses in the mid-1960s and the rise of black nationalism that carried undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.

Today, many of the flashpoints in the relationship, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots — when blacks rioted against Jews after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a black child in Brooklyn — are in the past. Reports of anti-Semitic remarks by black nationalists such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan also have tapered off.

Now, a new phase has dawned as both groups focus their energies on internal issues, and quieter ties have emerged. Whether the new phase will lead to a new, strengthened relationship or a cooler approach to one another remains in question.

“We’ve passed through a period of hostility and animosity,” said Murray Friedman, director of Temple University’s Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and author of “What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance” (Free Press, 1994).

“The black-Jewish alliance as it once was is dead,” he said. But “it has moved in the direction that has been normal in American life, where groups join together on certain issues and break apart on certain issues.”

Rabbi Marc Scheier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Russell Simmons, the foundation’s chairman, said in a statement that the recent arrest in the Mississippi murder case calls to mind the historic black-Jewish alliance and challenges members of both groups “to continue the ongoing struggle for human justice.”

In fact, blacks and Jews continue to come together to advocate for political issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that the Black and Jewish caucuses on Capitol Hill don’t work together,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, who is also on the NAACP board.

Saperstein said young, black NAACP board members also show an increasing interest in the Jewish community.

According to Saperstein, collaboration among blacks and Jews is strong across the country, and his own group’s black-Jewish activities are as robust as he can remember. Because of that, when tensions do arise, “there’s much greater disappointment and sometimes anger than when either of us has similar kinds of problems with other ethnic or religious minorities,” Saperstein said.

Sherry Frank also says that in her 24 years as director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), black-Jewish relations have grown stronger.

A black-Jewish coalition initiated by the American Jewish Committee has a mailing list of about 400 people, with approximately equal numbers of blacks and Jews, she said. Top black leaders in Atlanta invite local rabbis to speak at their pulpits, and Atlanta’s black mayor has helped raise funds for the local Jewish federation’s Super Sunday.

But Ann Schaffer, director of the AJCommittee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, said national relations aren’t so rosy. In comparison to Jews’ relations with other groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship” with blacks, she said.

Many black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and lifting their people out of poverty, Schaffer explained. In addition, the black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism, she said. In part, that’s because blacks identify with the Palestinians, who they see as disenfranchised like themselves, Schaffer added.

An AJCommittee 2000 study showed that few blacks feel much in common with Jews.

Yet anti-Semitism has never been as strong among blacks as among the mutual enemies of blacks and Jews, said Marshall Stevenson Jr., dean of social sciences and director of the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations at Dillard University in New Orleans, a black college heavily endowed by Jews. Anti-Semitism among black Muslims, for example, rarely is translated into action against Jews, he said.

Academics say the turning point in the black-Jewish relationship was the 1967 Six-Day War, which they say prompted Jews to turn inward and focus on Israel and the Jewish community’s concerns. In subsequent years, the Soviet Jewry movement occupied the energies of Jews who once had worked for civil rights, Temple University’s Friedman explained.

Around that time came the rise of black nationalism, which as part of its quest for black empowerment aimed to muster internal strength and resources and rejected Jewish outreach.

“Would Jews allow blacks to run their organizations?” was the rationale of the time, Stevenson said.

Both groups largely turned inward, a trend that continues today. The relationship is “more or less neutral today,” Stevenson said.

It takes a common threat to revive the relationship, he said — citing, for example, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s runs for the U.S. Senate and the Louisiana governorship.

“For there to be any kind of serious dialogue, there would have to be a major kind of racial backlash in this country that would affect African Americans and Jews,” Stevenson said.

Renewed relations also could come about as a result of efforts to strengthen the Democratic Party, he said. In the 2004 presidential election, about 75 percent of Jews voted Democratic. Among blacks, the proportion was even higher, 89 percent.

Friedman, who views the landscape of relations as a “return to normalcy,” frames Jews’ civil rights agenda as a Jewish quest for identity. Jewish civil rights workers would cite the Jewish values of social justice, but “they didn’t know a blessed thing about Judaism.” Goodwin and Schwerner were even buried as Unitarians, he said.

“We were finding our own identity by working through another group,” said Friedman, who himself labored for civil rights until a growing sense of Jewish identity landed him squarely in the field of Jewish studies.

Jewish groups also are less involved in race relations today than they once were, focusing now on buttressing Jewish causes and identities.

“Saperstein believes both agendas are intertwined.

“In America, the treatment of the black community remains a symbol of the hope for equality and justice for all people in America, and we who have been persecuted so often as a minority have a deep feeling that we have to stand by those who are persecuted more than we are today in America,” Saperstein said.

“What we do on behalf of a group like the African American community and with the African American community,” he continued, “is a test of whether or not we’ll live up to the values and the lessons of our history.”