A row of more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in St Louis on Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/Reuters

Poll finds majority of Americans concerned about Anti-Semitism


More than half of Americans are concerned about anti-Semitism and more than three-quarters are concerned about violence against Muslims, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found in two new public opinion polls.

The results show that a majority of Americans, 52 percent, are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and 76 percent are concerned about violence directed at Muslims. The ADL based its findings on 1,500 interviews conducted last October and 3,600 in January and February.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL chief executive, said he was heartened by the survey results, showing that people are concerned about Jews and Muslims.

“We conducted two polls to ensure that we fully understood the mood of the country,” he said in a statement. “The good news in this research is that today a large majority of Americans do not subscribe to common anti-Semitic stereotypes. It’s also encouraging that a record number of Americans are concerned about violence against the Jewish and Muslim communities, and are troubled at how intolerance has infected our politics.”

The polls are part of ADL’s continuing research into anti-Jewish attitudes under the ADL Global 100, a project begun in 2014 to establish a worldwide index of anti-Semitic attitudes.

Released on April 6, the new surveys measured, among other things, perceptions of President Donald Trump and whether he holds prejudiced views. A third of respondents agreed with the statement “Donald Trump holds anti-Semitic views,” while half disagreed. The remaining 17 percent “don’t know,” said Todd Gutnick, vice president of communications at the ADL.

The surveys also found that 14 percent of the American population holds anti-Semitic beliefs.

Nearly half of Americans, 49 percent, said Trump could have done more to discourage anti-Semitism, the survey found, and more than 8 in 10 Americans, 84 percent, said they believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

A majority of Americans, 52 percent, are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and 76 percent are concerned about violence directed at Muslims.

The polls also examined anti-Semitism in politics and whether “Americans believe there was more anti-Semitism in the 2016 election than previously.” Nearly half of those surveyed, 47 percent, said there was more and 39 percent said the level was no more than in previous campaigns.

Last October, the ADL released “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign,” a study that concluded that although Trump may not be the cause of anti-Semitism, people who were responsible for spreading hate online often were supporters of Trump as a candidate.

Regarding Muslims, the survey found that 59 percent of respondents agree that “Donald Trump holds anti-Muslim views,” and 64 percent said they do not believe the government is doing enough to ensure their safety.

Perceptions of Trump bias against Muslims may be due, in part, to his efforts to use executive orders to bar individuals from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Federal judges have twice stuck down his orders.

“It’s discouraging to know that Muslims and other minorities feel unsafe. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do,” Greenblatt said.

Overall, the survey found that 34 percent of American Muslims hold anti-Semitic views, compared with 55 percent of Muslims in Europe and 75 percent in Middle East/North Africa.

The poll’s release comes on the heels of several incidents of vandalism targeting Jewish cemeteries and waves of bomb threats that have targeted Jewish community centers, schools and other institutions, including ADL offices, across North America over the past several months.

Authorities arrested two people in connection with the bomb threats, all of which turned out to be hoaxes: Juan Thompson, a discredited journalist in St. Louis who was apparently seeking revenge against an ex-girlfriend; and Michael Kaydar, an Israeli-American teenager who his lawyer said may suffer from mental illness.

The ADL was one of several organizations that compiled data on the more than 150 bomb threats that targeted Jewish centers.

The ADL has been polling anti-Semitic attitudes in the U.S. since 1964. Later this month, the organization plans to release an audit of 2016 anti-Semitic incidents, drawing on data from ADL regional offices, including ADL Pacific Southwest, which serves Los Angeles.

The October survey, conducted by Marttila Strategies, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. The more recent poll, conducted by First International Resources, had a margin of error of 1.6 percent for the general population and 3 percent for American Muslims.

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/REUTERS.

Stop celebrating Muslim decency


Being congratulated for basic civility is no compliment

Since the recent wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, vandalism, and cemetery desecrations, journalistic and social media have vocally celebrated condemnations, fund-raising, and volunteer efforts by Muslim groups in an attempt to bolster interfaith cooperation and rehabilitate the reputation of the Islamic community precisely when its very welcome in America is being questioned like never before.

But nobody deserves congratulations for basic decency. Condemning bomb threats and making donations to repair damage from bias crimes is something good people of all backgrounds do. Liberal hoopla over proper Muslim responses to anti-Semitism is no more than a religious riff on the soft bigotry of low expectations. When Muslims go to extraordinary lengths to show they embrace their Jewish neighbors – and they sometimes do – public praise is appropriate. But headlines about Islamic press releases condemning cemetery vandalism send the opposite message – that in normal circumstances Muslims are callous and heartless.

Imagine these headlines:

  • Asian Driver Arrives At Work Without Incident
  • Jamaican Musician Passes Drug Test
  • Black Man Marries His Children’s Mother

 

While those headlines aim to challenge nasty stereotypes, they actually reinforce their legitimacy.

News stories about broad community efforts to help besieged Jews that contain a sentence “Even the local Muslim community turned out in force” are entirely appropriate. But special congratulations when Muslims act like, well, people are not compliments.

I know how it feels to have my own group celebrated for simple propriety.

As a Zionist, I am perpetually annoyed by hasbara (roughly, propaganda) that celebrates Israeli actions that are only minimally admirable – like an Israeli soldier who shares her sandwich with a starving Palestinian child or an Tel Aviv hospital that provides an impoverished dying Arab woman with free medical care. Yes, I understand that these examples are intended to debunk the idea that Israelis are not decent (although I have yet to see anti-Israel discourse accusing Israelis of withholding sandwiches from orphans). But the very act of highlighting basic decency legitimizes the slander, which is particularly offensive given the many good Israeli actions that are far from just minimally proper.

The people spotlighting Muslim attempts to repair desecrated cemeteries may think they’re rebutting negative stereotypes. But they aren’t. Sorry to say it, but Americans who fear or hate Muslims don’t do so because they think Muslims tolerate vandalism. They do so because they think Muslims tolerate terrorism. These stories will not dent that perception.

Americans are rightly proud of the way its citizens of many groups came together to help one group among them recover in a time of distress – and Muslims should be part of that celebration. But breathless reports that American Muslims aren’t jackasses after all help nobody – including American Muslims.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Ami Horowitz signing New Yorkers to a fake petition in support of police officers in 2016. Photo courtesy of Horowitz.

Meet the gonzo Jewish filmmaker behind Trump’s fake news on Sweden


Pressed to explain his false claim that something terrible had happened in Sweden last week, President Donald Trump traced the canard back to the reporting of Ami Horowitz, a gonzo Jewish-American filmmaker who spoke about Sweden’s problem with Muslim immigrants on Fox News.

On Saturday, during a campaign-style speech in Florida on border security and immigrants, Trump urged listeners to “look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” leading to widespread puzzlement and mockery from Swedes who said no terrorist attack had taken place there the previous day or even recently.

Karl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, wondered on Twitter what Trump “is smoking,” and the Aftonbladet paper ran a daily roundup from Friday featuring nothing more sinister than a small northern avalanche.

Later Saturday afternoon, Trump indicated that the only thing that happened Friday is that he caught Horowitz talking about Sweden on Fox News.

The president’s reference was arguably a breakthrough for Horowitz, focusing rare international attention on Sweden’s immigrant crime debate, which Horowitz has spent considerable — and controversial — efforts investigating.

In his Fox News interview Horowitz, a former investment banker turned activist with a camera, claimed violent crime by refugees was out of control in Sweden and that the government there is covering up reports of rape to protect “vulnerable” migrants.

Coming amid a polarizing debate about the millions of immigrants arriving in Europe from the war-torn Middle East and Africa, the comments by Trump touched off a discussion about the president’s shaky handle on the facts.

But, Horowitz told JTA, it also “put a spotlight on the main issue: Sweden’s problems with immigration and crime. Which is positive.”

Horowitz has also reported on what he and others call Sweden’s “no-go zones” – areas that are densely populated by mostly Muslim immigrants from Africa and the Middle East that many native Swedes, and Jews especially, avoid for fear of harassment and robbery.

A 43-year-old father of two, Horowitz last year went filming in a no-go zone in the Stockholm neighborhood of Husby, where he recorded an alleged assault on himself by several Arab speakers who objected to his filming on the street.

“My crew ran off when they approached, but since I was miked we have the first few seconds of the attack,” Horowitz, a Los Angeles native who lives in New York, told the Daily Mail. “They repeatedly punched, kicked and choked me as a number of bystanders watched. Eventually they dragged me into a building, which at the time I assumed was to finish me off.” Horowitz ultimately was released.

On Monday, violence erupted in another no-go zone, Rinkeby, where locals torched several cars after police arrested a man there, the Dagens Nyheter daily reported.

Horowitz, a vocal critic of Trump during the campaign, describes himself as “at times conservative, at other times liberal.” He said the incident in Husby was not his first close call while making films that offer a hard look at liberal causes or defend Israel.

In 2016, he took an 11-hour road trip in the West Bank to counter claims that Israeli security forces restrict movement there. At a crossing point into Israel, an adrenaline-filled Horowitz was filmed throwing rocks back at Palestinians who hurled them at him and others waiting to enter.

In 2009, while filming a prickly documentary about the U.N. double standard on Israel and other issues, he traveled to war-torn Cote D’Ivoire to investigate incidents in which U.N. soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. In the same film, Horowitz seized the microphone at the controversial 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva, telling attendees that they should be “embarrassed and ashamed” by their anti-Israel bias. The incident was also captured on tape by JTA.

And in 2015, he sailed with Syrian immigrants infiltrating Europe across the Aegean Sea, reporting that he saw an ISIS recruiter attempting to recruit some of the would-be newcomers.

In 2014, he filmed the reactions of students at the University of California, Berkeley, as he variously waved Israeli and ISIS flags on campus; students are shown ignoring the ISIS flag but reacting angrily to Israel’s. In another film he asked New Yorkers to sign a petition titled “Cops’ Lives Matter.”

Initially, Horowitz’s no-go experience in Sweden generated little attention in the country, where “mainstream media tend to not report the ethnicity of perpetrators of crimes,” according to an employee of the Swedish Migration Board who spoke to JTA on Tuesday on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired.

But Trump’s remarks focused intense attention in Sweden to the link between crime rates in the country of 9 million and its admittance since 2013 of more than 300,000 asylum seekers mainly from Muslim countries.

Sweden had been one of the most welcoming nations in Europe to refugees, but in 2016 drastically cut back on asylum quotas. The government said it was over housing issues.

Some have cited Sweden to defend Trump’s executive order limiting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Some regard Sweden as an inspiring role model for its efforts to resettle asylum seekers. But others see it as a failed experiment, and say it has contributed to an unprecedented rise in the popularity of far-right anti-Islam parties that are riding a wave of discontent over the arrival of unskilled immigrants at a time of economic stagnation.

As for Sweden’s 20,000 Swedish Jews, they have seen an explosion of hate crimes against members of their community in recent years. Dozens of incidents are documented annually in Malmo alone, a southern city with only 1,000 Jews where a third of the population of 300,000 are Muslims.

Trump’s remark also exposed Horowitz to criticism for his gonzo style of journalism, which owes more to Michael Moore and “The Daily Show” than CNN. In the past he has filmed interviews without permission, provoked onlookers’ reactions with outrageous stunts  and edited footage to ridicule interviewees. Horowitz defends his methodology as accurate, though he admits it is “confrontational and provocative.”

On Monday, two police officers he interviewed for his Sweden documentary, in which Horowitz claimed Muslims are overrepresented among perpetrators of criminal activity, said he edited their answers manipulatively. Horowitz denied the charge and attributed their reactions to pressure from their superiors.

In an op-ed published Tuesday by the Svenska Dagbladet, Linda Nordlund, a former chairwoman of the Liberal Youth of Sweden, criticized Horowitz for relying on anonymous sources in asserting that a majority of women waiting at a police station were there to report rape. She said Horowitz “is known for his xenophobic views” and that his report is “full of inaccurate statistics and innuendo.”

But in that same op-ed, Lund also said that Trump’s “false claims” and Horowitz’s “fake news” eclipse a necessary discussion on real problems – including the undisputed overrepresentation of foreigners in criminal activity. Authorities in Sweden do not publish precise data on the nationality or ethnicity of perpetrators, which the media also squelch.

Lund also noted an increase in sexual harassment in public swimming pools, though she wrote that Horowitz’s claims that rape is increasing are false.

Still, while there was a dip in the number of reported rapes in 2015, the average has risen in Sweden by 18 percent in the years 2011-2016 to an average of 6,341 cases annually, compared to 5,260 cases in the years 2006-2010, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. (Some attribute that to a change in the types of acts that can be classified as rape.)

“There’s been a lot of discussions about statistics, a lot of back and forth,” Horowitz said of the effects of his reporting in Sweden. “There’s a lot of disinformation but on the whole, this overdue discussion is a good thing for Sweden and Europe.”

In the Trump era, imams and rabbis struggle with a strategy to counter anti-Muslim hostily


A year ago, when several dozen Washington-area Jewish and Muslim religious and lay leaders jostled for spots in a group picture, the mood was convivial.

The most novel item on the agenda for that November 2015 confab was bringing in non-Middle Eastern Muslims into the Jewish-Muslim dialogue. The meeting and the venue — an Indonesian-American Muslim center in Silver Spring, Maryland — helped “dispel the myth that Muslims are inherently of Middle Eastern descent,” a release said.

On Sunday, the meeting of the third Summit of Greater Washington Imams and Rabbis was better attended – a hundred or so leaders were on hand at Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in the District of Columbia, about 30 more than last year – and the group picture was just as friendly. But in that anxious “we’re in this together” way.

Following an afternoon packed with tales of Muslims enduring taunts, vandalism and bullying in schools, the host rabbi, Ethan Seidel, sang a Hasidic melody to calm the rabbis, imams and lay leaders as they scrambled into place (“short folks in front!”).

What changed? The name some said they could hardly mention: Donald Trump, the president-elect.

“Think of the rhetoric of a person I won’t name,” said Ambereen Shaffie, a co-founder of the D.C. chapter of the interfaith Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, addressing the group after the photo shoot.

Shaffie described Thanksgiving break at her parents’ Kansas City home, when all 40 people in her extended family said they encountered hostility in recent months, from bullying in schools, where younger relatives were called “terrorists,” to a fire set on her parents’ porch, to a bullet through the window of a male relative’s home.

She blamed Trump’s campaign, and his broadsides against Muslims, which included what an aide described as launching a database of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States, a pointed religious-based attack on the family of a Muslim-American Army captain killed in Iraq and Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that he saw “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheering as the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.

Similar tales of harassment and threats against Muslims abounded at the summit, an initiative of several local dialogue groups and the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Imams, rabbis, and Jewish and Muslim lay leaders posing for a group photo at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C., om Dec. 11.

And throughout the event, the Trump impact was often implied, if not explicitly cited.

The first session broke the gathering into lunch groups, and participants found printouts on their tables asking them to discuss how Jews and Muslims should “respond to the present social and political climate.”

“Basically, they want us to react to the results of the last election,” said Dr. Ira Weiss, a physician who is involved in the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Greater Washington, tossing the printout back onto the table. “Some of what Trump said during the campaign was not only intolerant but dangerous.”

The coming-together, where rabbis and lay leaders represented the spectrum of Jewish religious streams, was “especially significant at a moment of increased bigotry, when both communities are feeling vulnerable,” Seidel said in the release announcing the summit.

Police in Maryland’s Washington suburbs have reported a spike in vandalism, particularly in schools, that invokes Nazi imagery. Nationally, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have reported an increase in incidents since the election targeting blacks, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBT community and women. The latest FBI hate crimes report showed a 67 percent rise in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the past year.

In the roundtable discussions and in plenary sessions, participants struggled to pin down what they could do to ameliorate the current climate.

Participants described initiatives, like mosque and synagogue twinnings, that began after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when there was more of a national consensus that Muslims in America deserved protection from counterattacks. But these initiatives had been in place for years and had not prevented the acceleration of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

What went wrong? Participants seemed at a loss to understand.

Rabbi David Shneyer said his progressive congregation, Kehila Chadasha, had a post-election meeting with a strong turnout – 50 members from a 100-family community – and that one of its conclusions was to “hold media more accountable.”

“What does it mean, holding media more accountable?” Seidel asked.

“I can’t explain at this point,” Shneyer said.

Some participants said the rabbis, imams and lay leaders needed to break out of their bubbles of mutual affection and travel to the America that had elected Trump.

“We need to reach out to communities where the likelihood of a difference of opinion exists at a higher rate,” said Abdul Rashid Abdullah, representing the National American Muslim Association on Scouting and sporting a scoutmaster’s shirt.

Abdullah said he had been raised a Roman Catholic and converted to Islam when he was 18.

“I came from a household that’s probably supporting Trump,” he said. “By God’s will, I’m not on that route – but I could have been.”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, outlined to the larger group what his lunch table came up with, including volunteering to register as Muslims should Trump make good on his campaign proposal to set up a national Muslim registry. (The ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, proposed the same idea last month at his organization’s plenary in New York.)

But Schwarz also voiced a sense of helplessness that permeated the discussion.

“There’s got to be a more proactive agenda to counter the way Trump has characterized Islam as radical,” he said.

“How do you get out of the vacuum?” a participant asked.

“Reverse freedom rides,” someone else said. “We take our bubble into the hinterlands.”

Some practical ideas emerged, including synagogue members appearing outside mosques during Friday prayers bearing signs expressing support, and setting up volunteer systems that would accompany children to school who had been subjected to harassment there.

Rabbi Jason Kimmelman-Block, the director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, spurred participants to sign his group’s petition urging President Barack Obama, before he leaves office, to dismantle the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System, an existing structure that Trump could use to facilitate a Muslim registry.

Walter Ruby, the Muslim-Jewish relations director for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said a 10-person steering committee would be chosen from those attending the meeting. Rabbi Gerald Serotta, the executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, circulated an outline of a rapid response system should hate crimes occur.

Ambereen Shaffie of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom addressing a Muslim-Jewish gathering at Congregation Tifereth Israel on Dec. 11.

Shaffie said Muslims and Jews should set an example by broadening the current paradigm of “utilitarian” collaborations — joining in legal challenges, for instance — to establish deeper friendships. She described how the women in her group, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, visit each other’s homes “when babies are born, when someone passes.”

“Loving someone else for the sake of God,” she said, is a means of “standing together as protectors, not defined by common victimhood, but a common heritage of dignity and love.”

Seeds of Peace: The summer of our discontent


At age 15, I had barely interacted with a boy, let alone a Jew. 

For a teenager living in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2001, the Middle East was a faraway place of despair and blood, and I knew almost nothing about it. From my father’s BBC fixation, I’d picked up that it was a place where restaurants were sometimes blown up by suicide bombers. At the time, the idea of a war that came to the city streets strapped to the chests of men was terrifying and new. 

I was to learn a great deal about the nature of war when my parents allowed me to attend a summer camp called Seeds of Peace in the United States, just a few months before 9/11 transformed the world. Located in Maine, the camp was founded in 1993 by John Wallach — a journalist who had covered the Middle East for decades as foreign editor for Hearst Newspapers and the BBC. His radical idea was to cultivate future leaders from communities divided by conflict, with an initial focus on Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers. From only 46 campers in its first year, the program has by now grown to 300 teenagers each summer, including an American delegation every year. Headquartered in New York, the program has offices in Kabul, Afghanistan; Amman, Jordan; Mumbai, India; Lahore and Jerusalem, with more than 6,000 alumni who partake in regular local and international follow-up engagements. 

In the summer of 2001, I was a member of the first India-Pakistan delegation to attend the camp; a dozen of us came from Lahore and a dozen from Mumbai — that strange city by the Arabian Sea manufacturing the famed ballads of Bollywood. Our two nations have been at de facto war since 1947, when the decolonized Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries: Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. Kashmir — the land of valleys — is the bloody legacy of that partition, with both countries laying claim to the northern state, where 12 million people reside. 

Despite rigid brainwashing endorsed by our respective education ministries, we quickly grew to be friends with the Indians. We laughed together in Urdu and Hindi, argued about cricket and spent hours debating our history, within days realizing we had been taught different versions of the same events. On the first morning after our arrival, I hung my head upside down from the top bunk to say hello to the enemy below. Her name was Tulsi Mehta, and, 15 years later, ours continues to be a great friendship.

The first time we saw the Israelis and Palestinians at camp, however, they were intimidating. They held onto a breed of anger separate from ours, they knew too much, they talked too much — on both sides they were the unafraid spokespeople for their states. Though they were the same age as the rest of us, nothing about them made them seem like children. Their war made our war seem like a bit of a farce; a sham skirmish fought through propaganda and by soldiers in faraway mountains we had never seen. 

In the years immediately after my summer in America, it was difficult to foresee the extent of the violence that would come to Pakistan, a relatively stable state with an enormous security apparatus. Nobody could have imagined that in only 10 years, the country would be left mutilated by suicide attacks, reeling beneath the weight of the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, which morphed into domestic terrorism and major military operations in the north. War came marching down our streets, into our playgrounds, schools and bazaars, strapped to the chests of terrible men. 

So many years on, what remains of that camp in my memory is a hazy recollection of laughter and bewilderment. There was swimming, rock-climbing, singing and dancing, but also “dialogue sessions,” during which opposing delegations participated in daily three-hour debates. After one, a Palestinian boy ran by our group in tears, then sat on the pier overlooking the lake until the sun nearly set. Two Israeli girls joined him, and I still recall the three small backs bent against the horizon. Sometimes it struck us that we were children hunted and haunted by each other’s people. Most of the time, we forgot.

At that age, we did not comprehend the profound impression the camp would make on our lives, freeing our minds in ways that would affect us as we became adults, parents, professionals and leaders in a world of ever more globalized conflict. I know politicians, writers, activists and soldiers who are Seeds graduates. Many of us have gone on to become journalists, among us Mujib Mashal, now a reporter for The New York Times, who was part of the first Afghan delegation to attend the camp in 2002; and Nergish Sunavala, a reporter for the Times of India, who was at camp with me. I recognize the skinny girl with the gentle voice and bushy hair in the impassioned stories she writes for her country.  

Most of the campers who attended Seeds of Peace were chosen by their governments, and we came armed with sacred agendas, in the end surrendering the only truths we knew to the cause of civic discourse. As true of the Palestinian refugees and the Israeli Jews, the Pakistanis and the Indians, Seeds of Peace broke us all. Though it has now been 15 years since I first ate at a table with Jews and Hindus, those lessons guide my hand when I write my stories even today. I have Jewish friends from camp with whom I am still in touch, and knowing them has made it easier for me to challenge the problematic generalizations rampant in Pakistan’s religious and political discourse. Nobody could have anticipated then how much more important this would become for us, that in just a few months, our conflicts would merge and re-create themselves in almost all regions of the earth. This changing world order made the inclusion of a U.S delegation all the more important, with young American campers able to engage without bias in political dialogue with Afghans, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Pakistanis, to name a few — people they might never otherwise encounter in their lives.

Attacks of terror occur daily around today’s world, like the trio of suicide bombs that went off in Istanbul, in Europe’s third-busiest airport last week, targeting the heart of Turkey’s internationalism. Or, two days later, the horrifying, senseless murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel as she slept in her Kiryat Arba bedroom.

The hate, racism, corruption and violence of war is now so pervasive that no place is truly safe from it, except for, perhaps, the minds of children, where different ideas may still flourish like they did in ours. 

It was a great gesture of grace for our parents to knowingly expose us, their children, to Seeds of Peace — to a narrative that would challenge theirs. For Palestinian and Israeli families, I imagine this act of letting go must be downright traumatic. Still, it leaves me with great hope in the institution of parenting, and the belief that even in cynical and fearful adult hearts, there exists the awareness that there is a better way to win our wars. 

Amal Khan, a journalist from Pakistan where she serves as features editor at The Nation, is currently contributing to the Jewish Journal as part of her fellowship with the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

UK vows action after racist attacks on Poles and Muslims in wake of Brexit


Polish and Muslim leaders in Britain expressed concern on Monday after a spate of racially motivated hate crimes following last week's vote to leave the European Union in which immigration was widely regarded as a key factor in the outcome.

Police said offensive leaflets targeting Poles had been distributed in a town in central England, and graffiti had been daubed on a Polish cultural center in London on Sunday, three days after the vote.

Meanwhile, Islamic groups said there had been a sharp rise in incidents against Muslims since last Friday, many of which were directly linked to the decision for a British exit, or Brexit.

Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the attacks in parliament and said he had spoken to the Polish counterpart Beata Szydlo to express his concern and to reassure her Poles in Britain would be protected.

“In the past few days we have seen despicable graffiti daubed on a Polish community center, we've seen verbal abuse hurled against individuals because they are members of ethnic minorities,” Cameron said.

“We will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks. They must be stamped out,” he added.

Immigration emerged as one of the key themes of the EU referendum campaign, with those who backed a British exit arguing membership of the bloc had allowed uncontrolled numbers of migrants to come to Britain from eastern Europe.

A few days before the vote, Sayeeda Warsi, a former minister in Cameron's ruling Conservative Party, quit the Brexit campaign accusing it of spreading lies, hatred and xenophobia.

There has been a large Polish community in Britain since World War Two and that number has grown after Poland joined the EU in 2004. There are about 790,000 Poles living in Britain according to official figures from 2014, the second-largest overseas-born population in the country after those from India.

OFFENSIVE LEAFLETS

Cambridgeshire Police said they were investigating after offensive leaflets were left on cars and delivered to homes in Huntingdon. According to the local paper, the Cambridge News, the cards, which had a Polish translation, read: “Leave the EU/No more Polish vermin”.

At the Polish Social and Cultural Association in London, which opened in 1974 and is home to the majority of Britain's Polish organizations, graffiti was painted on the side of the building calling on Poles to leave the United Kingdom.

“This is an outrageous act that disgusts not only me and the Polish community but everyone in Hammersmith & Fulham,” local lawmaker Andy Slaughter said on Twitter.

The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group for many of the organizations which represent the country's 2.7 million Muslims, said more than 100 hate crimes had been reported since the result of the referendum.

“Our country is experiencing a political crisis which, I fear, threatens the social peace,” said Shuja Shafi, the MCB Secretary General.

Fiyaz Murghal, the founder of a group which monitors attacks on Muslims, said it had received details of some 30 incidents including a Muslim councillor in Wales who was told to pack her bags and two men shouting “We voted for you being out” at a Muslim woman wearing a hijab as she went to a mosque in London.

“The Brexit vote seems to have given courage to some with deeply prejudicial and bigoted views that they can air them and target them at predominantly Muslim women and visibly different settled communities,” Murghal said.

How about ‘M for Muslim’ patches?


Welcome the refugees


In the 1940s, politicians and the State Department saw the war ravaging Europe and said only Christians could enter this country as refugees, and only a select few at that. No Jews welcome here. A favorite argument for turning away Jews fleeing Europe was that they somehow had been infiltrated by Nazis.

With ISIS on the rampage and war devastating Syria, among other places, many politicians today are singing a similar tune. Only a select few refugees can come in, and they must all be Christians, say Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush.

“No Muslims welcome here” is the theme frequently invoked in the name of national security.

No Syrian refugees in my state, said 26 governors — all but one Republicans — who refuse to admit any Syrian refugees, whatever god they worship. That includes Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Rick Scott, whose states have some of the country’s largest populations of Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Christie said not even “orphans under the age of 5 should be admitted.” Taking care of them would be too much of a burden, he complained.

Jewish-American leaders are struggling with the question of refugees. Many organizations have been raising money for humanitarian groups, particularly in Jordan, helping Syrian refugees, reports New York-based The Jewish Week, but when it comes to admitting them to this country, they urge caution.

Rabbi Mark Dratch of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America told The Jewish Week that Muslim countries should be pressured to take greater numbers. He’s right. Jordan and Turkey are overwhelmed with refugees, but the others could and should do a lot more.

But that does not mean our own doors should be slammed in their face, and Jewish leaders, more than most, should know that.

HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is virtually alone among Jewish organizations supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to admit 10,000 refugees by the end of 2016.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that although Israel has treated some 1,000 wounded Syrians, it will not take in any Syrian refugees because the country is “too small.” Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog disagrees. “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.”

Some Republicans who aspire to be the leader of the free world sound like bigoted xenophobes. Most conspicuous are ones whose own parents were refugees from brutal dictatorships or are married to immigrants.

Their rationale is that some jihadi terrorists may sneak in with the refugees (one apparently who did was among those in the French attacks on Nov. 13), so all refugees should be banned. 

Critics like to point to the 9/11 hijackers to justify anti-immigration attitudes. Sen. Marco Rubio, who favored immigration reform before he was against it, said “some” of the hijackers “had overstayed [their] student visas.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said all 19 were here on expired student visas.

Neither presidential wannabe did his homework. All 19 had entered the country legally; only one on a student visa, which he did not overstay, and the others on tourist or business visas, according to Factcheck.org.

The only Jew running for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pledged to stand against Islamophobia and racism and backed Obama’s decision to admit some 10,000 refugees. So have his two Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, both of whom suggested raising the number to 65,000.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said, “We can protect our safety and our humanitarian values,” and we shouldn’t “slam the door on them.”

But that’s exactly what Republicans want to do.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would shut down the government in order to keep them out. Presidential candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee have written to Speaker Paul Ryan demanding he block all funding for Syrian refugee resettlement.

Donald Trump, warning that Syrian refugees could be ISIS’ “Trojan horse,” said if he were president, he’d consider closing American mosques that have radical clerics and limiting civil liberties for all Americans.

Sen. Cruz (R-Texas), the son of a Cuban immigrant, said we should permit only Christian refugees because, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”

Has no one told Ted or Jeb about Dylann Roof, who killed nine worshipers at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C.; neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Cross, who got the death penalty last week for killing three people in 2014 in Kansas who he thought were Jews; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; or the Unabomber?

Or about those law-abiding folks of the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, the Army of God and the Phineas Priesthood?

And what about the mass murderers responsible for shootings at Newtown, Conn.; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo.; Centennial, Colo.; and Roseburg, Ore., to name only a few?

Ted and Jeb, there wasn’t a foreigner among them. No Muslims, as far as I could learn. All Christians.

Obama said, “We don’t have religious tests to our compassion. That’s not who we are.” He may not, but many of those who want his job do, and that should scare a Jewish community that remembers — or should — what it’s like to be shut out when the alternative is discrimination and maybe death. 

Douglas Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist; Washington, D.C., lobbyist; and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Most religious Zionists want Arabs out of Israel, study finds


During the previous wave of terror in Israel, 11 months ago, Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett said in a speech, “99.9 percent of Arab-Israelis are loyal to the State of Israel, and there’s a very small minority that acts against it.”

Apparently, his religious Zionist constituency disagrees.

A new poll by the Miskar agency, which surveys Israel’s religious Zionist population, found high levels of antagonism and mistrust toward Arab-Israelis. Contrary to polls of Arab-Israelis themselves, most religious Zionists believe that Arab-Israelis are hostile to Israel. A large majority see Arab-Israelis as a threat and would like to see the government push them to leave the country.

“The religious Zionist sector takes very extreme and unequivocal positions in terms of Israeli Arabs’ loyalty to the state, their posing an immediate and long-term security danger, and the need, therefore, for declarations of loyalty and a prepared plan for [population] transfer,” the poll’s analysis section read.

The pollsters surveyed 480 religious Zionists — defined by Jewish observance level and self-identification. The margin of error was 4.5 percent. Here’s a closer look at some of the major findings.

Religious Zionists view Arab-Israelis as an existential threat to the country. Four-fifths of religious Zionists believe Muslim Arab-Israelis are hostile to Israel and its Jewish citizens. Nearly 70 percent believe they pose a short-term existential threat to Israel, and 84 percent believe they pose a long-term existential threat. Less than one-fifth believe Arab-Israelis oppose violence and want to integrate into Israeli society.

These findings contradict the stated feelings of Arab-Israelis. According to a 2014 Israel Democracy Institutepoll, nearly 60 percent of Arab-Israelis “feel part of the State of Israel and its problems.” Nearly two-thirds feel proud to be an Israeli. Forty percent say integrating Jews and Arabs should be Israel’s top priority.

Most religious Zionists want Arab-Israelis to leave. A majority of religious Zionists support reopening a public discussion about the forced transfer of Arab-Israelis from the state. Three-quarters want the government to prepare a practical plan to encourage Muslim Arab-Israelis to emigrate. And should Arab Muslims stay in Israel, two-thirds of religious Zionists believe they should have to swear a loyalty oath to the state.

Most religious Zionists boycott Arab businesses. Seventy percent of religious Zionists support a boycott of Arab businesses. Less than 38 percent believe economic cooperation between Arab and Jewish Israelis is important.

Religious Zionists don’t believe Israel is racist toward Arabs. Only one-third of religious Zionists believe Arab-Israelis face significant racism. Only 17 percent believe Arab Muslims have difficulty integrating because of discrimination. And only 30 percent believe Arab-Israeli communities suffer from a lack of government investment, despite research showing that Israeli Jews receive greater government investment per capita than Arabs.

According to theIsrael Democracy Institute poll, a majority of Arabs-Israelis do feel discriminated against.

The New York Times’ ‘Big Lie’ about the Temple Mount


Last week, I opened The New York Times to Rick Gladstone’s article, “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” happy that the newspaper of record would explain to its audience the historical context of this embattled piece of real estate.

As I read on, I was horrified.

“The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone,” Gladstone reported.

The article received an avalanche of comment from scholars and lay readers, Jews and Christians, who well understood that beneath this article was an attempt to problematize the very existence of the Jewish temples on Mount Zion.

While it is true that the temple shrine has not been found, the entire platform of the Temple Mount was built by Herod and his successors and are part of the temple complex — visible to the eye and described in detail by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and others. The attempt to throw doubt on this is obfuscating, taking advantage for political or religious benefit of the appropriate willingness of historians to question sources.

While this is quite disheartening, what is most disturbing about this article is that The New York Times gave voice to yet another Big Lie about Jews and Judaism. Joining claims of deicide and ritual murder, which are broadly believed in the Islamic world, Muslim commentators in recent years have purveyed the belief that there never was a Jewish temple on the Haram al-Sharif.

“They claim that 2,000 years ago they had a temple,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has written. “I challenge the claim that this is so.”

Palestinians have much to gain in claiming that there was no Jewish temple. If there was no temple on Mount Zion, then Jews have no claim on that hill, nor to the land of Zion and Jerusalem. Hence, no Zionism.

The Big Lie that there was never a Jewish temple is thus a cipher for discrediting and undercutting the entire Jewish claim to the Holy Land — the very claim that, in fact, makes this particular land holy.

What Palestinians stand to lose by purveying this untruth, however, is the trust of those, like me, who are willing to listen carefully to legitimate claims and to act on them. The claim that there was never a temple is offensive and in no way furthers Palestinian national aspirations.

The claim that there is no “Palestinian people” is similarly offensive to Palestinians. But while that claim has mostly disappeared among Jews and Israelis, the Big Lie that Jews are foreign to the Holy Land, and that the temple never existed, is alive and well.

What disturbs me most is that The New York Times totally missed this complicated history and unintentionally gave the Big Lie a voice on its pages, as if it is equal to actual historical fact.

The Times deserves credit for (somewhat) correcting the article online, but what about the millions who read only the paper version?

Steven Fine is the Pinkhos Churgin professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and director of the university’s Center for Israel Studies and the Arch of Titus Project.

Did Jewish visitors to Temple Mount spark current tensions?


A leading Sephardic rabbi who advises the haredi Orthodox Shas party criticized Jews who have been visiting the Temple Mount, saying they “sparked all the current tumult.”

Rabbi Shimon Baadani, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, said Thursday on a Shas radio program,according to Haaretz: “Do not provoke the nations, even if we are in control here, there is a halakha. I don’t know on whose authority they permit themselves to provoke and cause an armed struggle like is happening now … they are forbidden.”

Israel’s chief rabbis first ruled in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, that halakha, or Jewish law, forbids Jews from visiting the Temple Mount to prevent them from inadvertently stepping over the “Holy of Holies,” where the Ark of the Covenant was said to be stored in the First Temple.

The rabbis reaffirmed the prohibition in 2013. In addition, Israeli law bars Jews from praying at the site, which is administered by the Muslim Waqf.

However, a number of Orthodox Jews, among them Rabbi Yehuda Glick, have questioned the ruling and advocated for Jews to have the right to pray on the mount. Such activists have visited the Temple Mount, the site of frequent tensions between Jews and Palestinians, more frequently in recent years.

In his remarks Thursday, Ba’adani said that saving life trumps any mitzvah, and thus asked, “Why enter the Temple Mount?”

On Thursday, in an effort to calm tensions there, Netanyahu ordered members of his cabinet and members of the Knesset, including Arabs, not to enter the Temple Mount.

Should Europe take in a million Muslim refugees?


Should Europe take in about a million Syrian and other Muslim refugees? Should America take in tens of thousands? 

In a recent column in the British newspaper The Guardian, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the distinguished former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, argued passionately in favor of Europe doing so, comparing the situation to that of Europe’s Jews before and during the Holocaust:

“One of the dark moments in that history occurred in July 1938, when representatives of 32 countries gathered in the French spa town of Evian to discuss the humanitarian disaster that everyone knew was about to overtake the Jews of Europe wherever Hitler’s Germany held sway. Jews were desperate to leave. … Yet country after country shut its doors. Nation after nation in effect said it wasn’t their problem.”

It is emotionally difficult to differ with this argument. How can the argument not tug at the heart and conscience of anyone, especially a Jew? 

Little seems more obviously moral than to allow these benighted Syrians, Iraqis and others to flee from hell into what is comparatively heaven. And, as a Jew, one is particularly sensitive to any parallels to the Holocaust. Looking at photos and videos of families trying to escape Syria, where two monsters — the Assad regime and the Islamic State — are devouring each other, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, how can a Jew not think back to a time when Jews sought to escape the Nazi monster devouring them?

How, then, does an ethical person — Jew or non-Jew — deal with the emotionally powerful Holocaust argument?

Here are some ways:

First, every Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe — man, woman, child, baby — was targeted for death. The Syrian nation is not targeted for extermination. The only such targets in the Middle East — aside from the Jews of Israel — are Christians and Yazidis, every one of whom should most definitely be allowed into Europe and the United States. 

Second, the majority of the Jews of Germany and many other European countries were assimilated citizens of their respective countries, who — more importantly — thoroughly embraced Western culture and values. In contrast, many of the Muslims of the Middle East — and the largely Muslim population (from non-Arab countries) already in Europe — hold values that are not merely different from, but opposed to, those of Europe. 

Third, it is not as if Europe has no experience with large numbers of Muslim immigrants. And the experience has been largely negative. Most European countries are bad at assimilating people from other cultures, especially from Muslim cultures. And large numbers of religious Muslims from Muslim cultures are bad at assimilating into non-Muslim cultures. Many Muslim immigrants in the U.K., France and Sweden live in Muslim ghettos.

Fourth, and of particular importance, children of the immigrants — the ones born and raised in European countries — are usually the most radical and anti-Western. Many of the children of these immigrants will not remember Bashar Assad or ISIS, but they will resent their likely inferior socioeconomic status and lack of full integration into European society. Some of them will then undoubtedly cause havoc in Europe.

It is worth recalling that the 9/11 terror attack on America was planned by young Muslim immigrants living in Germany. Muhammad Atta (the leader), Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad Jarrah, Said Bahaji and Marwan al-Shehhi had lived in Germany for between five and eight years, respectively. And Bahaji was born in Germany. 

Fifth — and of particular interest to Jews — just about all Syrian and other Middle East Muslims seek Israel’s destruction. Why would any decent person, let alone any Jew who cares about the Jews of Europe and Israel’s survival, want to import into Europe hundreds of thousands of people carrying the world’s greatest hatred?

And if one denies that these Syrians and other Middle East Muslims seek Israel’s annihilation, why not argue that Israel offer to take in its proportional share of Syrians? Israel, after all, is richer than some European countries and one doesn’t have to cross a sea to get from Syria to Israel.

Sixth, on what moral basis can the European Union object to bringing in the million and a half mostly non-Muslim Nigerians who have fled their homes because of Boko Haram terror and the Islamist government war in that country? 

Seventh, the economic growth and unemployment rates of the EU countries — Germany included — are not robust enough to handle a vast number of destitute newcomers. And as the British writer Janet Daley pointed out in The Telegraph, what about “the pressures on their hospitals and GPs’ surgeries, and of shortages of housing and school places …”?

Eighth, it is as certain as night follows day that the Islamic State and other terror groups will place terrorists among the refugees coming into Europe.

Ninth, as a result of all of these factors, some European countries will be threatened by far-right political movements that will arise in opposition to the threat to their national identity, values and economy.

So, then, why does any European leader assume that things will turn out better with a million or more new Muslim immigrants from the Middle East? Or assume that the number will stop at 800,000? 

Europe means well in taking in a million refugees from the Middle East. But when good intentions trump experience and wisdom, you’re asking for trouble — in this case, civilization-threatening trouble. 

None of this means Europe and America should do nothing. Indeed, it was precisely Europe and America doing nothing about Assad that helped to create this horror. The West should supply the good guys in the Muslim Middle East — the Kurds — with the military hardware they need. And we should spend — and demand rich Arab states spend — upward of a billion dollars to help feed and clothe Syrians who flee to neighboring countries. One day, after all, the Syrian civil war will end, and they can again be financially aided to return home. Then real good will be done. And Europe will be spared the choice of Islamization or civil war.

Finally, as always, some will label this outlook racist. But that would be a libel designed to avoid confronting the real issue — values, not race. America welcomed — and was right in welcoming — the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people and other Vietnamese escaping communist totalitarianism. Ultimately, America took in well over 1 million Vietnamese — people of another race. Why? Because the Vietnamese refugees share our values. Too many Syrians and others from the Arab world do not. That, not race, is all this is about. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com

Arab-Israeli lawmaker: Jews have no religious ties to Temple Mount


An Arab Knesset member claimed that Jews have no religious ties to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

On Monday, Masud Ganaim of the Joint Arab List told Israel Radio that “historically, religiously, it is a Muslim site, period,” the Religion News Service reported.

The remarks came a day after Tisha b’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples on the Temple Mount, the scene of Palestinians rioting on Sunday. Four Israeli police officers were lightly injured and three Palestinians were arrested in the clashes. A similar riot occurred there last year on Tisha b’Av.

The Temple Mount, located adjacent to the Western Wall, is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, making it one of the most contested religious sites in the world. Israeli law bars non-Muslims from praying on the site, which is managed by Muslims and is the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Many rabbis, including Israel’s two chief rabbis, have ruled that visiting the Temple Mount is a violation of halachah, or Jewish law, although in recent years, several modern Orthodox rabbis have argued that Jews should be allowed to visit the site and pray there.

In his comments to Israel Radio, Ganaim said, “The State of Israel knows that Jews and Israel have no legitimacy to the site, except for their legitimacy as an occupier — a legitimacy [won] by force.”

Formerly a member of the Islamic Movement party, Ganaim, 50, has been in the Knesset since 2009 and joined the Joint Arab List in the lead-up to the 2015 elections, when the new party formed as an alliance of four Arab parties.

Monday’s comment about the Temple Mount was not Ganaim’s first inflammatory remark. In May 2010 he said the State of Israel should be replaced with an Islamic caliphate.

Ramadan tours promote coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews


The group of Jewish-Israelis sat in a semicircle on the thick, red carpet of the mosque. The women wore headscarves; everyone’s feet were bare.

They had come to this Arab town in central Israel to experience a slice of Ramadan, the monthlong daytime fast observed by Muslims that ends this week. But before they left the mosque to visit Kfar Qasim’s Ramadan market — a nightly, open-air food bazaar — tour guide Shawkat Amer sounded a note of reassurance.

Amer told the crowd that just before the fast ended that evening, loudspeakers would sound calls of “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” across the city. Although it’s a phrase some Jewish-Israelis may associate with the final cry of terrorists before an attack, Amer urged his guests to remain calm. The call, he said, is in fact a message of goodwill.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a threat,” he said. “If I say it, you should feel pleasure.”

The nearly 50 men, women and children who joined the group on Sunday night were among some 1,500 Jews who have toured Arab-Israeli cities in the past month for a small taste of iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. In spite of tensions between the groups, it’s common for Jewish-Israelis to visit Arab towns for discount shopping or Middle Eastern food. But these tours aimed to take that experience deeper by teaching about Arab-Israeli culture and religion.

“If the only narrative is a Jewish narrative and the only history is Jewish, and you just buy hummus from Arabs, that’s not good,” said Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Jewish-Arab coexistence nonprofit that organized the tours in Arab cities across central and northern Israel. “I don’t object to people buying hummus in Kfar Qasim, but for relations between Jews and Arabs, you need more than that.”

A city of 21,000 residents adjacent to the West Bank border and the middle-class Jewish city of Rosh Haayin, Kfar Qasim is one of Israel’s poorer towns. The Hebrew signs on the shops lining its streets are meant to entice Jewish customers.

As Koranic verses signaling the break-fast echoed across the city, the tour group flooded into an open-air food market set up for Ramadan. Merchants sold the tourists delicacies such as sticky pastries, fruit, pickled vegetables and falafel, fried on the spot in a giant pan. Part of the idea behind the tours, Gerlitz said, is to boost the Arab-Israeli economy, which has less exposure to tourism dollars than Jewish cities.

“Tourism is a meaningful tool for economic development, and tourism right now is mostly in Jewish towns,” he said. “Government investment is mostly in Jewish towns. That means there aren’t investments in Arab towns.”

But the tours also aim to confront historical wounds. Near the center of town, an austere black-and-white monument that looks like an upside-down obelisk with the year 1956 emblazoned on top commemorates the Kfar Qasim massacre, when Israeli border guards killed 48 fieldworkers returning home at curfew. In 2007, then-President Shimon Peres formally apologized for the incident, but residents say they are still pained by its memory. Some said they value dialogue with Jews as a way to move past historical trauma.

The tour group “doesn’t make a difference for me — but for my kids it does, so they won’t say Jews are animals,” said Amer Amer, a vendor of pickled vegetables whose father died in the massacre. “I want Jews to feel trusted here, at home here. I don’t want them to just say, ‘Those are Arabs.’”

The tour provided few opportunities for informal conversation with residents, focusing more on basic information about Islam and Arab-Israeli culture. But Adi, a Hebrew tutor who declined to give her last name, said the group’s exposure to Arab culture and Islam was still more than Jewish-Israelis normally receive.

“I think it was at a more informative level, but as an Israeli I got more of a taste [of Arab-Israeli life] than I get day to day,” she said. “It gave more familiarity than what I’m used to.”

At the mosque visit ahead of their trip to the market, the Jewish group heard Eyad Amer, a local imam, alternate between outlining the basics of Ramadan and answering the group’s questions about Islamic worship. Was there space for women in the mosque? (Yes, in another room.) Does Islam have egalitarian movements, like Judaism? (No.) How many of the city’s 25,000 residents observe the fast? (80 percent, based on mosque attendance.)

“They just hear about extremist Islam,” the imam told JTA after the tour. “They don’t know what moderate Islam is. If we don’t talk about Islam, they’ll just have a negative outlook toward us because they’re just exposed to the dark side, not the enlightened side of Islam.”

Speaking to the group, both the imam and the tour guide complained of discrimination against Arabs in Israel. (In fact, in an interview, Imam Amer said he lived under Israeli occupation, despite being a citizen).

Still, there are hopes for improvement. A two-hour tour wouldn’t fix the longstanding challenges Arabs face in Israel, tour guide Shawkat Amer said — but he hoped that greater Jewish familiarity with Arab-Israelis could help chip away at tensions between the communities.

“I can’t fix the whole world, but even if I do 1 percent of good, it will get better and better,” he said. “The more Jewish people I bring to Arab towns, the happier I’ll be.”

Muslims and Jews forge friendships over dinner


Some Jews wore kippot, while Muslim fellows wore hijabs and niqabs as 300 members of the two religious communities came together over an iftar dinner June 25 during Ramadan at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

The break fast — which featured kosher and halal foods — was much more than a meal. The event was filled with interfaith dialogue and a practice known as “Two Faiths One Prayer” in which Muslims and Jews pray side by side. 

Organizers from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change said it was a gathering to make friendships, connections and harmony in order to help reduce Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Los Angeles, the home of an estimated 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims.

Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, a community-building organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish-Muslim relations, told the Journal, “[The event] connects Jewish and Muslim communities. Each of them that we host, they have one-on-one conversations and build connection and relationships. … It really focuses on community building.”

Attendees participated in a Q-and-A session and shared different aspects of their culture, religion and experiences. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Susan Goldberg said having such a dialogue in which both the Jewish and Muslim communities learn about their differences and commonalities is vitally important.  

“I think that both of our communities have experienced an incredible amount of discrimination. … Unfortunately for Muslims, Islamophobia is a really pervasive occurrence. So I think we have empathy for each other from those experiences,” she said.

“It is really important that we stand up for Muslims when they are dealing with a level of discrimination,” added Goldberg, who is also a NewGround board member. 

Through a number of initiatives, NewGround strives to transform Muslim-Jewish relations and advance a shared agenda for change. Its annual fellowship program this year elected students — half from one faith, half from the other — to participate in the nine-month program. 

Soraya Ahyaudin, a NewGround fellow and one of the recent graduates honored during the evening at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the program taught her how to engage in difficult conversations — and then how to take action. 

“It is just a skill that you learn during [the] sessions, but it is also a skill that you can implement in your life, in your career and in your relationships that you have outside the fellowship,” Ahyaudin told the Journal. 

She said she realized that being uncomfortable while listening to others is not a bad thing. 

“It is something that you should embrace because if you are unconfortable, that means you learn something new about other cultures, other religions and other people,” Ahyaudin said. 

“I had learned about how to engage better with people in conflict conversations. So, I definitely see this is [a] very useful skill to implement in my job that I’m applying for right now because I’m looking for work in interfaith and human rights fields,” continued Ahyaudin, who studied public diplomacy at USC.

Jewish independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, a NewGround fellow who graduated last year, echoed these sentiments.

“We learned how to [make] a really difficult conversation become [a] very productive conversation,” he said.

“You see on the news every day now a situation in which people are communicating violently,” added Ungar-Sargon, who just finished a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They are … lacking tools that are necessary to have important conversations to sort of move this thing in a nonviolent direction.”

In Britain, Jewish and Muslim women connect over Mitzvah Day


Good deeds can be contagious. Just ask Laura Marks, a British Jew who is widely credited with creating one of her community’s most widely celebrated new traditions: an annual Mitzvah Day, now in its 11th consecutive year, in which thousands of British Jews perform charity work in retirement homes, homeless shelters, hospitals and even neglected cemeteries.

Inspired by the custom of some American Jewish communities, including in Los Angeles and Detroit, Marks thought the activity not only promised to brighten people’s lives but would give American-style confidence to a community where “many feel being Jewish is slightly embarrassing,” as Marks put it.

The idea took off — and its scope has reached far beyond the Jewish community. In 2010, inspired by Mitzvah Day, Britain’s Hindu community launched a date of good deeds called Sewa Day. And in March, the Muslim community held its first Sadaqa Day.

“I took the inspiration and the model completely from what Laura is doing, and I have no hesitation in saying that,” said Julie Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Britain and the founder of Sadaqa Day.

Marks facilitated the creation of Sadaqa Day, and the cooperation between the two women gave birth to a new interfaith initiative that launched last week with an event at the Jewish Museum in the London Borough of Camden attended by 100 women.

In working together to adapt Mitzvah Day to the Muslim community, Siddiqi, a British-born convert to Islam, and Marks “realized charity and social action were an effective basis for strengthening women’s involvement in communal life in both communities,” Marks said.

For Muslim men and women, “Sadaqa Day’s a good way to show what their faith is about as opposed to what people think and read about Islam,” Siddiqi said. For Muslim women especially, she added, “it’s a way to do something self-led in a way that they are not given, or feel they’re not given, the opportunity to do normally in their male-led faith communities.”

Muslims and Jews unite around Mitzvah Day in Detroit, where members of both communities hold joint charitable activities each year. But Muslim-Jewish relations are far more strained in Britain, where Jews last year were the target of at least 1,168 anti-Semitic attacks, of which many are believed to have been perpetrated by Muslims over Israel’s actions last summer in Gaza.

Across Europe, interfaith dialogue took a hit in recent years as Jewish communities reported attacks at record levels. In France, the French Council of the Muslim Faith pulled out of the annual dinner in February of its Jewish counterpart, CRIF, an umbrella of French Jewish communities and groups, after CRIF’s president said that most anti-Semitic attacks were the handiwork of Muslims. And in the Netherlands, the Jewish-Moroccan Network was disbanded amid fights over Israel.

“It’s true that when something happens in Gaza, people all over social media talk about it and it becomes very toxic,” Siddiqi said. But while politics can sometimes poison relationships, “Mitzvah Day and social action are apolitical, helping to form friendships that will hopefully stop the dynamic in the next round of violence,” she added.

At the interfaith event, participants divided into four tracks — sports, culture, business and social action — to brainstorm and draw up plans for interfaith work in those fields.

Women especially have the potential of changing the dynamic, according to Rabbi David Rosen, the England-born, Israel-based director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

“Despite the setbacks, interfaith dialogue is expanding and is actually more robust now than it has ever been,” Rosen said. He cited Vatican initiatives and a host of joint Jewish-Muslim actions to curb the radicalism that led to the slaying of 12 people in three attacks on Jewish targets in France and Belgium by Islamists since 2012.

In this context, Rosen added, the development of women’s initiatives “has great potential because it expands interfaith beyond the male-dominated establishment” of Muslim and Jewish communities, “reaching new audiences”— an  elusive goal for interfaith activists seeking to extend beyond their own progressive circles to compete for the rank-and-file’s hearts and minds.

“The contribution of women, who, I think we can all agree tend to be more sympathetic, can be profound,” Rosen said.

Back in London, Marks and Siddiqi’s new initiative is already bringing down barriers for Nicola Gee, a London Jewish mother of four who, despite having many Muslim friends, has never visited a mosque in Britain.

“Instead of writing 13 emails to arrange a tour or whatever, I called one of the women I met last week at the launch,” she said. “I’m going to the mosque Friday.”

‘Paloma’ examines interfaith relationships


Playwright Anne García-Romero, talking about her latest work, “Paloma,” said three of the world’s major religions are represented by the three main characters. “One is Muslim-American; one is Puerto Rican, and she’s Catholic; and then the third character is also American, and he is of the Jewish faith.  And so, in the play, I do bring out aspects of each of their faiths.”

She does so by depicting the relationship of the characters to their respective religions. The main conflict of the play, which is currently at the downtown Los Angeles Theatre Center, arises from a romance between Ibrahim Ahmed (Ethan Rains), a Muslim, and Paloma Flores (Caro Zeller), a Catholic. “There is a lot of discord around being able to have a relationship with an interfaith situation,” García-Romero said.

The contention between the two characters arises from Ibrahim’s desire to follow certain tenets of Islam, particularly the rule that one must remain chaste before marriage. “I wanted to explore how a character like that would exist in a modern context,” García-Romero said, “when peers that he has, or, in this case, Paloma, his romantic interest, don’t share those same values.”  

Not only are her religious values different, but Paloma, a free spirit, also pressures Ibrahim for a sexual relationship. García-Romero described Paloma as a “nominal Catholic.”

“However,” she said, “she talks about the importance of going to Christmas Eve Mass and the importance of the rosary that her mother gave her. So, for her, it’s a touchstone to her family, and it’s something that she does not want to relinquish.”

García-Romero herself is an observant Catholic and said she learned about the Muslim faith from experts at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches theater.

Regarding the Jewish character of Jared Rabinowitz (Jesse Einstein), García-Romero said, “The play doesn’t really discuss his current practice of his faith, but, for him, the notion of tradition and family are very important. He talks about his grandfather, who was a rabbi, whose life inspires his current profession. He’s a lawyer, and he’s working, in this play, to help his friend, Ibrahim, who needs his legal assistance.”

Throughout the play, we watch Jared preparing Ibrahim’s defense for an impending trial, but we don’t learn until later exactly what charges he’s facing. And, despite Ibrahim’s frequent lack of cooperation in the face of what he insists are unjust accusations, Jared persists in his desire to help his friend.

“For Jared, his faith is reflected in the desire to seek tolerance and justice in his work and in his life, and to continue his grandfather’s legacy of spirituality through justice,” García-Romero said, adding that she is very familiar with Jewish life, having grown up with numerous Jewish friends.

“When I was growing up, I went to several bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs, and so I had experiences of going to temple with my friends. And, in my adult life, I have several very close friends who are Jewish, with whom I talk a lot about faith and religion, and how it’s influenced their lives,” she said. “I had one of my friends read the script to get her opinion on the Jewish character.”

In addition, she said, “I was a part of an interfaith dialogue in my last year of college, where I attended Masses and also Jewish services. So I think all of that experience really informed the play.”  

One of the inspirations for “Paloma” was an 11th-century book on the art of Arab love called “The Ring of the Dove” by Ibn Hazm, written while Spain was under Muslim rule. In the play, Ibrahim and Paloma are studying the book as students at New York University and reading the book aloud to each other when they are alone. García-Romero, who read a Spanish translation of the text, which was originally written in Arabic, translated it to English for her play.  

“I began to look at this book and was really so intrigued by not only the poetic nature of the book, but the fact that there was this remarkable culture of poetry and science during this Muslim era in Spain, when most of Europe was, essentially, having a hard time reading and writing,” she said. 

She was also impressed by the fact that, at the time the book was written, the three religions represented in her play coexisted harmoniously in Spain. That notion of harmony is at the heart of her play.

“The universal theme for me is coexistence and tolerance,” she said. “How do we live with someone who has vastly different beliefs? How do we love them? How do we reconcile our differences?   

“I would like audiences coming away with an awareness of the complexity of interfaith relationships, and the ability to question differences in others, and being motivated to learn more about those differences versus making judgments that are uninformed,” García-Romero said. “I hope that people come away from this knowing a little bit more about each faith and really discussing how we can coexist in this modern era.”

For tickets or more information, “Paloma”, visit web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/946306 or call 866-811-4111

Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles
Runs through June 21, Thursday- Saturday 8 p.m. | Sunday 3 p.m.

 

Mixing cocktails and conversation


Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles don’t often get together for drinks. After all, religious Muslims don’t drink, and the two groups have had their differences. 

But a new project aims to get individuals from both backgrounds talking to each other, while crafting simple yet delicious non-alcoholic beverages, or “mocktails.”

On a recent Monday evening, about a dozen people gathered around a table at the Silverlake Independent JCC as Howard Seth Cohen demonstrated how to make a drink called a mule — featuring ginger beer, blackberries and more, but no liquor.

“What we’re doing is getting all the juice from the berries out, and we’re expressing out the oils from the mint,” Cohen, an actor, told the group, as he slapped a handful of mint leaves together.

Cohen squeezed lemons and limes using a heavy-duty stainless steel bar press, poured the juice through a strainer into a mixing glass, placed that glass into a tin cup filled with ice, and shook vigorously. He then strained that liquid into another ice-filled glass, poured in ginger beer and added a bit of grapefruit peel, twisted into a garnish. He finished it off with an edible orchid flower on top.

The workshop participants scribbled away in notebooks, but they were clearly eager to get started on their own drinks. They paired up and started mixing fruit and liquids, tasting the results, and adding sweet or sour elements to get the taste just right.

This workshop comes with a somewhat inflammatory name: “72 Virgins.” It’s Cohen’s playful take on the idea — based on a mistranslation of a quote by the prophet Muhammad — that every Muslim martyr will be rewarded in heaven with 72 beautiful and pure sex slaves.

“I thought it was absolutely kind of hilarious in my head, like, what if a martyr finds themselves in heaven and are presented with 72 virgin cocktails?” Cohen said.

The name also confronts the negative stereotypes that people have of Muslims.

“As a Muslim, and as a woman and a feminist, it was always something that annoyed me and frustrated me because it was people taking the language away from what it actually meant,” said Saba Mirza, who organized the workshop with Cohen. 

When Cohen first made Mirza a non-alcoholic cocktail — a tamarind sour — she said it was a revelation.

“It looked like the sunset and sunrise all at once, and it tasted like the best tamarind candy that you’d want to sip on and then chug down at the same time, but then you wouldn’t because you want to sip it,” Mirza said. “It was lovely.”

Cohen and Mirza created the “72 Virgins” workshop with a micro-grant from the nonprofit NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

“My husband and I were traveling to the Middle East, maybe five years ago, and we had all these fancy amazing drinks at one of the coffee shops. And we were like, this doesn’t exist in the U.S., it just doesn’t,” said Aziza Hasan, NewGround’s executive director. “And so that’s also kind of the appeal tonight, is to be able to experience really great drinks that have nothing to do with alcohol.”

At the recent workshop, Paula Dromi, who is Jewish and lives in Koreatown, paired up with Maryam Saleemi, who lives downtown. They made an orange-ginger mule with egg foam.

“I’m Muslim, so I don’t drink alcohol,” Saleemi said. “So I love this, because whenever I go to the bar with my friends, I’m like, ‘I don’t really want another Coke. Is there something else?’ And there usually isn’t. So I love this.” 

Before long, the participants relaxed and started sharing recommendations for their favorite qawwali singers (a type of Sufi devotional music), how to make the best hummus and, of course, the best cocktails. 

Dromi and Saleemi asked Cohen if they could start drinking their concoctions.

“You should be drinking the whole time! What fun is the class if you can’t enjoy yourself, right?” Cohen said. “So you should be drinking, you should be sharing, getting other people’s opinions of the drink, think, ‘How can I make this drink even a little bit better?’ ”

Danielle West, who came with her friend and co-worker Annie Cavanaugh, muddled cucumber, mint and ginger in a glass, but couldn’t taste the ginger. She kept adding more ginger, but it didn’t help. So, with Cohen’s advice, she added ginger shrub (made of ginger, sugar and apple cider vinegar), agave and lime juice.

“Now it’s lovely. … It’s spicy and it’s sweet and it tastes like cucumber and ginger,” West said. 

“I actually don’t drink alcohol at all. I’m a Mormon and we choose not to drink alcohol, and so when [West] found this, I got so excited, because I love fancy glassware, I love fancy drinks but without the alcohol, and so this was everything I love,” Cavanaugh said.

Heavy topics such as politics and religion didn’t come up the entire evening. The group was more focused on making delicious drinks. 

“I happen to love to cook, so this is just fun,” Dromi said.

“But I’ve never cooked with someone I don’t know, and I like this,” Saleemi told Dromi, laughing. “I feel like I know you more already!”

At the end of the workshop, everyone sat in a circle and described the last drink they’d made: ginger beer with hibiscus juice, a ginger cucumber mint soda, and sparkling tangerine juice with egg foam and an orange twist on top. 

Cohen said his next project will be to get Muslims and Jews to square dance together. And, he said, you can bet there’ll be nonalcoholic cocktails there as well.

Muslims and Jews gather to combat anti-Semitism


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

When Abderrahim Chaibi was seven years old, his teacher in a Muslim school in Morocco told him that Jews were bad people who murdered the Prophet Mohammed. Now decades later, Chaibi is in Jerusalem for the fifth Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism, sponsored by the Israeli government.

“Our fathers and our teachers told us that Israel is a monster that murders Palestinians,” Chaibi, a professor of educational psychology told The Media Line. “But now I see that there is true multi-culturalism here, and that people from different religions and different cultures can co-exist. This is something we need to learn in Morocco.”

Morocco, he said, protected its Jews during World War II, and before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there were more than 260,000 Jews in the country. Today there are about 2500, he said, and many of the young people have immigrated to Israel.

“My mission is the change this image of Jews,” he said. “We don’t know anything about Jews or their heritage. That is the first step towards changing people’s attitudes.”

His compatriot, Mounir Kejji, a Berber activist, said there have long been ties between the Berbers, a minority group in Morocco and the Jews.

“Anti-semitism in Morocco is sponsored politically by some religious political parties and some organizations that believe in pan-Arabism,” he said. “At the same time, Morocco is the only Muslim country where you can find a Jewish museum.”

Several imams, or Muslim prayer leaders, also spoke at the conference. Imam Yahya Pallavicini is the preacher of the Al-Wahid mosque in Milan, and an advisor to the Minister of Education in Italy. He said anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe.

“We had hoped as European citizens and as Muslim leaders that diseases such as anti-Semitism would decrease,” he told The Media Line. “But unfortunately the misleading interpretations and mentality and narrative of the anti-Semitic approach is increasing and influencing the young generation in Europe.”

He said that many Muslim leaders are concerned about the growing appeal of Islamic State, especially among young, poor Muslims.

“They are trying to influence and recruit the youth with an idea of an adventure, saying it’s like playing war games in the Middle East,” he said. “We have to make them understand that there is adventure in murder or in violence.”

In France, conference organizers say, more than 1000 youth have returned from fighting with Islamic State in Syria. Many of them are armed, and could carry out attacks against Jews or other targets. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, followed by the attack at the Jewish supermarket in Paris, left 17 people dead.

European delegates said they saw an increase in anti-Semitism after last summer’s fighting between the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and Israeli soldiers that left more than 2200 Palestinians and 73 Israelis dead. Many Europeans have more sympathy for the Palestinians, who they see as the underdog, and some cross the line from political support for Palestinians to anti-Semitism.

It is important for Jews worldwide to enlist allies in the fight against anti-Semitism, delegates here say, and for Jews to help in the fight against bigotry and racism.

 

“We’re not going to defeat anti-Semitism alone—we’re the victim but we need allies to help,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told The Media Line. “What’s happening to the Yazidis (in Iraq), to the Christians in the Middle East, to endangered Muslims, has to be part of our collective consciousness. This is a whole new war of which anti-Semitism is just a piece.”

U.S. citizens in Israel warned ahead of Nakba Day


The United States’ diplomatic missions in Israel have called on U.S. citizens to exercise caution due to demonstrations and violence associated with Nakba Day.

Nakba Day is observed on May 15, the Gregorian anniversary of Israel’s Independence Day in 1948. The Palestinians, and Arabs throughout the Middle East, observe the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” with marches and protests.

The warnings issued on Wednesday by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem call on U.S. citizens to be cautious on May 15, and the days preceding that date, It also warns of traffic congestion and road closures in Jerusalem for the Muslim holiday of the Isra and Miraj on May 16 and for Jerusalem Day on May 17.

According to the warning, on Nakba Day there “may be a significantly higher level of Israeli National Police patrolling around Jerusalem, especially following afternoon prayers. In the past, demonstrations or clashes have occurred in multiple areas such as the Qalandiya Checkpoint, Damascus Gate, Bethlehem, and Ramallah City Center, as well as other checkpoints and refugee camps.”

The warning reminds U.S. citizens in Israel to “be aware of your surroundings at all times, monitor the media, and avoid demonstrations and other crowds as events can turn violent without warning. We further advise you to follow police instructions and avoid areas of heavy police presence.”

Arabs and Jews quarrel over Acre’s Old City


This story orginally appeared on The Media Line.

Minarets, green domes and an Ottoman-era clock tower look out over the brightly painted fishing boats that line the quayside. Tourists stroll beside gaggles of children on outings from nearby Muslim schools. The old city of Acre is made uniquely beautiful by the sparkle of blue water from the Mediterranean Sea surrounding the ancient port town on three sides. For its examples of Ottoman architecture – a citadel, mosques, khans and a Turkish bathhouse – and for the Crusader ruins buried below, the city was awarded UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) heritage status in 2001.

Acre features heavily in the long history of the region, with the remains of both the largest Crusader town left in the world and evidence of permanent habitation dating back five millennia. The modern day city’s 46,000 residents are mixed demographically with around two thirds being Jewish, and one third Arab.

The winding alleys and timeworn buildings are what gives the old city its atmosphere, valued by both tourists and UNESCO alike. But many of these ancient buildings are in need of repair. The beauty of such structures goes hand-in-hand with the difficulty present in maintaining them – any repairs must be done using materials which preserve the ancient look of the old city. This makes repairs unaffordable to many of the residents of the old city, an area which suffers from high levels of poverty. In an effort to counteract this, investment has been brought into the old city seeking to harness the potential income from the numerous tourists who visit the town each year. There are new bed and breakfasts and restaurants catering to tourists.

The Jewish-led municipality of Acre is using this investment as a means of permanently changing the character of the city, accuse Basel Ghattas and Aida Touma-Suleiman, both members of the mostly Arab Joint List party. Arabs make up around 28% of the city’s population but almost all of the residents in the old city. This, charges Ghattas, is something the Israeli government wants to change.

The poor state of housing in the old city, Ghattas told a small group of journalists on a recent tour, is perpetuated by the mayor in order to drive out Arab residents. Most of the people living in Acre’s old city do not own their properties, but rent them from the municipality. These buildings are in dire need of repairs, said Ghattas, but the authorities refuse to let tenants alter the buildings, in the hopes that this will eventually cause them to leave.

“They’re homes are in a very bad situation because they prevent them from maintaining the buildings. As a result, they think, the people will leave. The hidden agenda is to evacuate Acre of its Arab citizens… to throw them out of their homes,” Ghattas told The Media Line.

The aesthetics of the buildings, due to the city’s UNESCO heritage status, is being used as an excuse to refuse permission to residents to conduct repairs, argues parliamentarian Aida Touma-Suleiman. At the same time the historical buildings of the old city have been earmarked for redevelopment. Several of the khans – historical courtyards that make up several of Acre’s most iconic sites – will be converted into expensive hotels for tourists, she said, and a number of Arab families have been informed they will be evicted, Touma-Suleiman told The Media Line.

“For many years the aim was to evacuate most of the old city of its own inhabitants and to turn it into a touristic city that is mostly inhabited by artists and investors, hotels, small boutique hotels – businesses that are mainly for tourism,” Touma-Suleiman said, adding that a combination of racism against Arabs and naked capitalist interest were behind the drive to force out Arab families.

The mayor’s office sharply rejected claims that they are trying to force Arab residents out of the old city.

“This is of course not true,” Daniel Arama, Head of Tourism in Economic Companies and a representative of the municipality of Acre told The Media Line. He insisted that the municipality had in fact sought to invest in residents of the old city through projects aimed at helping locals to set up sustainable businesses – guest houses, small restaurants and crafts centers.

He dismissed claims that investment in the old city would impact on the character of the heritage site and said the city often gave permission to residents who wished to conduct repairs on their homes.

The Arab parliamentarians have written a letter to Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, asking that the organization send an investigative team to Acre to decide if the terms of the city’s heritage nomination have been breached.

Ghattas believes that status has been compromised in two ways: firstly that certain renovations, namely large hotel constructions, will impinge on the visual atmosphere of the city; and secondly that the cultural heritage of the city is being deliberately diminished by the municipality. The MKs pointed out that improvements in the economic and social condition of local residents was identified as an important part in maintaining the city’s cultural identity and a prerequisite to Acre being recognized by UNESCO.

Ghattas and Touma-Suleiman believe that the threat of Acre losing its UNESCO heritage status will be useful political pressure to apply against the municipality – especially in the context of an Israeli government which is increasingly finding itself criticized by the international community. Acre is one of eight UNESCO heritage sites in Israel.

UNESCO is unlikely to revoke the city’s heritage status, said Arama, of the mayor’s office, adding that risking Acre’s standing was “a stupid thing to do.” He added that Acre doesn’t directly gain money from UNESCO but that the acknowledgment of the city’s unique value was important.

A level of suspicion among Arab residents towards the municipality is sometimes understandable, Professor Itzchak Weismann, of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University, told The Media Line. He pointed to Acre as the best example of a mixed city in Israel, where relations between Jews and Arabs were historically “much better” than other integrated cities in the country. But he admitted that there were incidents in the past that still lingered in Arab residents’ memories and prevented them from trusting the authorities.

In Jaffa, also a mixed city next to Tel Aviv, gentrification made rents skyrocket and many Arabs were forced to leave. Their homes were replaced with upscale restaurants and art galleries. People are afraid that will happen in Acre too, Weismann said.

“There are reasons (for Arab resident) to be worried – the state could do more,” Weismann told The Media Line, but he pointed to Shimon Lankri, the mayor of Acre, as an example of progress. Weismann suggested that Lankri was doing more for Arabs and Jews in the city and this could be seen in the last election result – “He has some support from Arabs, not 100% but maybe around half.”

“The city is very dear to my heart,” said Weismann, “there is still much to do but the city is (going) in the right direction.”

The Jew, the Copt and the Yazidi


I’ll get to those three in a minute but first, let me tell you what a Muslim friend said to me a couple of months ago. He’s an Iranian-born reporter who lives and works in the United Kingdom — one of the many used-to-be-Muslims who gave up religion once the mullahs took over in Iran. In the past few years he’s spent a lot of time in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. 

We were having dinner at his cousin’s house in Topanga. This was shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris. We talked about how strange and unreal it seemed to have Jews killed in Europe just because. 

“I think I finally have an idea what it’s like to be a Jew in most parts of the world,” my friend said. 

“When I’m in Iraq, I feel relatively safe with other Shias. But I can walk a hundred feet and find myself among a bunch of Sunnis, and I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get out alive.” 

It doesn’t matter that he identifies neither as a Shia or a Sunni. 

“They find out I was born in Iran, and they assume I’m Shia, and that’s all they need to decide I deserve to die.”

And he certainly can’t let on that he’s renounced religion altogether: For a Muslim, that’s apostasy, punishable by death. 

“So I’ve been trying to explain this to people when they talk about Jews and Israel: This is why Israel must exist.” 

I don’t know if it’s because it came from a “former” Muslim, or because he had arrived at it by finding himself an endangered minority in what we know as “the Muslim world,” but his assertion struck me as especially poignant. I thought about all the times I’ve heard young Jews in this country proclaim that they are American, not Israeli; that they don’t care about Israel and have no connection to it; that Israel doesn’t have to be a Jewish state; and that one’s not Jewish unless one identifies as a Jew. 

It doesn’t matter what you identify as, I want to tell these dreamers. 

On Feb. 26, at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Natalie Farahan of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) had put together a program titled “The Fate of Religious Minorities in Today’s Middle East.”

JIMENA states its mission as “the preservation of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture and history, and recognition for the nearly 1 million Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who were displaced from their country of origin in the 20th century.” On this occasion, however, the religious minorities in question were not only Jewish, but also Coptic Christian and Yazidi. 

Copts, who number somewhere between 5 percent and 23 percent of the Egypt’s 83 million population, are the native Christians of Egypt. Until Islam conquered the country, they — the Copts — were the majority. After that, especially under Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Pan-Arab ambitions, they became second-class citizens. Much like Jews in hostile territories, they were used as scapegoats by leaders and groups vying for control of the region, hated by local populations and viewed as “not really belonging” after centuries of being there. Most recently, the rise of militant Islam has augured for them what many call a “silent genocide.” Think staged beheadings, complete with cinematic scores, of men in orange suits. 

Yazidis, too, predate Islam by centuries. Smaller pockets exist today in Syria, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Germany, but the largest population, approximately half a million, live in the area north of Mosul in Iraq. Whether by Ottoman Muslims or secular Baathists, they have been massacred, persecuted, forced to convert and ordered to emigrate en masse since the 1500s. Last year, ISIS forced 50,000 of them to flee into the mountains around Sinjar, where they faced starvation or death from exposure. Those who didn’t escape were slaughtered or forced to convert. Their women were treated as sex slaves and sold at the local market; their girls were forced to convert to Islam and sold as brides, or raped and killed. Children born to mothers in captivity were taken away. 

As for the Jews — represented, that night, by Iranian-American reporter and blogger for the Journal, Karmel Melamed of Los Angeles — the largest remaining Jewish community in the Middle East is in Iran. Their numbers have sunk from 100,000 in 1977 to somewhere around 5,000 today (official reports by the government of Iran place them at around 10,000, which is almost certainly a gross exaggeration). For the most part, these remaining Jews feel safe enough to have chosen to stay. 

“What do you think the region will look like for you in 10 years?” someone in the audience asked the three panelists at Kol Ami. 

The Jews of Iran believe they can outlast the current regime by keeping a low profile and making clear that they condemn Israel at every turn, lest they be identified by the regime as Zionists. The Copts and Yazidis, on the other hand, are engaged in an existential battle with no end in sight. Even if they manage to escape the areas in which ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups have trapped them, there’s little help or even understanding waiting for them anywhere in the world. Their only options seem to be to stay and die, or leave and fall into the hands of hostile forces, or perish on the journey. 

It doesn’t matter that Yazidis are monotheists, their religion derived from Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions; Muslim extremists view them as devil worshipers and therefore deserving of death. It doesn’t matter that the Copts view themselves as Egyptian; the extremists care only that they — the Copts — are Christian. 

Elias Kasem, a Yazidi activist who’s traveling the world in a desperate attempt to summon help for his people, put it this way: “To survive, we would need the protection of outside governments, and they’re not interested.” 

Where have we heard this line before? 

Kasem was born in Sinjar, Iraq and fled the 1991 Gulf war with his family to a refugee camp inside Syria. He traveled at night, and on the way lost his 8-year-old sister. A 2007 bombing of two Yazidi villages in which 800 were killed prompted him to seek international support for his people. Since then, he’s been “everywhere,” including to Washington, D.C. 

“The only real help we’ve received [from a foreign government] has been from Israel.” 

He sat there on the stage, dressed all in black and looking anxious and exhausted. He had flown into Los Angeles that afternoon to take part in the panel and was flying out again the next morning, to Portland and Arizona and wherever else he may find a willing audience. With him was another Yazidi man whose family was last seen stranded in the mountains. He had no idea what’s become of them. 

“The world is not interested in what happens to us,” Kasem said, “because we have nothing of value to offer.” 

Nothing of value, that is, but an ancient culture, a thousand years of history, tens of thousands of human lives — which isn’t much in the world of realpolitik compared to oil, industry or the promise not to use one’s nukes. 

It doesn’t matter what you identify as, I want to tell the young Jews who are so cavalier about their origins; that the Holocaust was 70 years ago; that Jews were driven out of Arab countries on a fortnight’s notice. It doesn’t matter what you think of the politics or policies of one Israeli government versus another, how you feel about the Palestinian issue, or about Judaism, or other Jews. Every day in some part of the world, for some minorities, extinction is a concrete, imminent reality. For them, help will not come soon enough or at all. 

This is why, as my friend the reporter said that night in Topanga, Israel must exist.  

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Anti-Semitism, an atrocious ‘trend’


Our world has seen its fair share of brutality. From Hulagu Khan, who boasted about killing 200,000 Muslims during his violent week-long rampage in the city of Bagdhad which also resulted in the complete destruction of centuries-old heritage, to Vikings that took what they deemed desirable by force and violence, to the modern day Syrian regime targeting its own people, we can say that our world has witnessed some unspeakable acts of violence.

However, throughout the history, some groups were targeted more than the others. Like the Jewish people. Their ordeal started at the hands of Pharaoh, who killed their boys and let only their girls live. The oppression against Jews continued throughout Antiquity, at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylon and the Romans, who massacred and exiled Jews and destroyed their temples and cities. In Medieval times, Jews were once again targeted, labeled, discriminated against and chased away from wherever they took shelter. The oppression continued in recent history when six million Jews were slaughtered by Nazis.

Today, the persecution still goes on.

Anti-Semitism in Europe lingers in the form of harassment in public areas, offensive remarks and discriminatory behavior in social life and more terrifyingly, in the form of brutal assaults; The vandalizing and looting of Jewish businesses, burning of cars, hundreds chanting “gas the Jews”, “kill the Jews” in violent protests, shooting and molotov cocktail attacks at the synagogues, and the recent Creteil attack in France where a Jewish couple was brutally attacked in their homes. The incident was a horrible reminder of the 2006 incident -again in France- that involved a young Jewish man being captured, tortured for weeks and then left naked to die. He later died from his injuries.

France is not the only place that witnesses anti-Semitism. From Argentina, to Tunisia, from Ireland to Spain, Jews seem to be caught up in a constant cycle of hatred targeting their communities. Even in the USA, which is known for its unwavering support for Israel, Jewish people are wary of divulging their identities, or practicing their religious duties in public. An unprovoked attack on a 24-year-old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke by four men in Brooklyn, NY; the assault of a 12-year-old Jewish girl who had a bottle thrown at her by a group of girls, including one who yelled, “You dirty Jew”; and the attack on a Jewish man in Los Angeles, CA, who was surrounded by five male suspects who yelled “Heil Hitler!” before striking him, can be listed amongst the disturbing incidents in the USA.

The Middle East is home to the worst cases of anti-Semitism. Especially after the recent Gaza/Israeli war, hatred towards Jewish people regardless of their age, gender or involvement in any of the conflict, has gone up in a disturbingly fast manner. But why does some people seem to think that it is legit to hate Jewish people?

In the past, some people disliked Jews as they saw them underhanded conspirators who segregated themselves from the societies they lived in due to widespread antisemitic propaganda as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The sentiment was further fuelled with notorious lies like the blood libel, portraying Jews as the veritable embodiment of evil. Today, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the driving force behind this ubiqutious Jewish-hatred, and often used as a cloak to justify violence against ordinary Jews on the streets.

Surely political administrations or individuals within a community might make mistakes. However, persecuting a whole community based on the acts of few would be neither Quranic nor moral.

The Jewish people are known for their calm and modest demeanor. They are a quiet people that like to occupy themselves with their daily routine and religious practices. Therefore it is even more surprising that such calm and reserved people have been on the receiving end of such persecution throughout the history.

Any resentment towards the policies of Israel should be voiced in a civil manner, without putting the blame on the entire community. God prohibits Muslims from such a behavior. In the Qur’an, God warns believers as such:

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.” (Qur’an 5:8)

It is most natural for there to be good and bad people in every group, community or nation. Just like there are countless murderers, liars, criminals, people with bad morals in the Muslim communities, it is natural for Jewish communities to have people with less than commendable actions. Yet, it is a most absurd and ridiculous act to feel antipathy towards a group in its entirety for the actions of a few. Most importantly it is diagonally opposite to the teachings of Qur’an.

According to the Qur’an, Jewish people are People of the Book and are to be respected, protected and approached with love. God allows Muslims bonding with them through marriage, which alone explains the extent of friendship and closeness God expects from us to have with them. As when people marry, they become their significant others, lovers, confidants, and companions. God also allows us to have social bonds with Jews, to have dinners with them in their homes. God never tells Muslims to hate them, or discriminate against Jews or Christians. God praises Jews in many verses for their devotion and piety and indeed, Jewish people set a great example to Muslims with their unwavering loyalty to the Prophet Moses.

All these facts make it clear that there is no basis, neither in Islam nor in Judaism, that could lead to such friction. Once everyone realizes that God created this world for love and it is against God’s wishes to harbor hostile feelings towards each other, brotherhood and peace will prevail.

 

The writer is a TV commentator who has authored more than 300 books in 73 languages on political, faith-related and scientific topics. This essay first appeared in the Daily Caller.

L.A.’s Jews and Muslims partner in ‘twinning’ events


When Jews and Muslims came together for a “twinning” event on Nov. 16, the Pico Union Project was filled with jamming, rapping, rhetoric, dancing and more.

“It’s the only way we will ever find peace — through the arts and dialogue. So this is a really good start,” Genie Benson, Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble executive director, told the Journal.

As she spoke, IKAR Chazzan Hillel Tigay’s band played, and dancing attendees — approximately 400 people turned out — swarmed the open space between the front row of the venue’s pews and the stage.

The event, titled “Together in the City of Angels: A Musical Celebration of Muslim Jewish Unity,” was part of the Weekend of Twinning, which is actually a monthlong season of events that involves faith communities around the world, as far away as Morocco. It involves social justice-oriented, educational and cultural events that promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims. It is the brainchild of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), an organization founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who serves as chair, and New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who serves as president. In partnership with the Islamic Society of North America, it promotes Jews standing up for Muslims, and Muslims standing up for Jews. It also works on Jewish-Latino relations and Jewish-African-American relations.

The goal of the group’s work with Jewish and Muslim communities is to push back against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, FFEU Muslim-Jewish Program Director Walter Ruby told the Journal during a reception following last weekend’s concert. To that end, faith leaders in Los Angeles recently created the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum (SCMJF). 

The event at the Pico Union Project also marked the launch of SCMJF, which includes leaders of synagogues and mosques advocating on behalf of one another. Members include Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg, King Fahad Mosque’s Mohammed Akbar Khan, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue’s Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Imam Jihad Turk, the president-designate of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University.

“The relation[ship] between Israel and its neighbors in the Muslim world is quite tense, and that sentiment spills over to relationships here,” Turk said in an interview at the Pico Union Project. “Our aspiration for events like this and for the many different Muslim and Jewish organizations that were represented here today is that religion is not tribalism, that religion is something that, when done right, calls us as human beings to our higher selves and, when we take religion and faith seriously, both of our faiths, Islam and Judaism, call us to combat immorality, criminality, violence, hatred, wherever it’s found.”

The group aims to serve as an umbrella body in L.A. that focuses on strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations locally — instead of, say, the Anti-Defamation League on the Jewish side and the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council, one of SCMJF’s partner organizations, on the Muslim side, Ruby said.

The concept of twinning in the Jewish community dates back to the time of the Soviet Union, when the country placed restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews. American Jews volunteered to be twins with Soviet-Jewish counterparts as a statement of solidarity. 

Last weekend, Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz made sure that hip-hop was part of the occasion in a performance that likely would have made Simmons, who was not in attendance, proud. Dillz joined Tigay and the IKAR cantor’s multicultural musical outfit, Judeo — which performs music in Hebrew and Aramaic — in a performance of “Hallelu.” 

Their song closed out the two-hour afternoon event. During Tigay’s performance, members of Keshet Chaim (Hebrew for “colors of life”), an L.A. dance ensemble, brought the crowd to its feet. 

The event was co-sponsored by FFEU, the interfaith nonprofit reGeneration, Claremont Lincoln University and the Pico Union Project 

Additional Los Angeles-area twinning events this year included a food-packing event on Nov. 9 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in partnership with the Islamic Society of Southern California, and NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change organized a Muslim-Jewish storytelling event on Nov. 15, according to FFEU press materials. 

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, spiritual leader of Santa Monica’s Beth Shir Shalom who attended the Pico Union Project event, said his community has been hosting twinning events since 2008, the inaugural year of the Weekend of Twinning. On Nov. 14, Comess-Daniels’ synagogue held a Muslim-Jewish Shabbat service in cooperation with the King Fahad Mosque. 

“It went beautifully. It was our first time twinning with the people from the King Fahad Mosque from Culver City. It was a really wonderful experience. It felt very shared, and they joined in just about everything we did. We had a lot of time for interaction, and people just very naturally went up and introduced themselves to people they didn’t know,” Comess-Daniels said in a phone interview. “It was really quite wonderful.” 

Cartoon: After hell freezes over and pigs fly


Idan Raichel: Music with meaning


For Israeli superstar Idan Raichel, sometimes it’s not the musical notes that matter most; it’s what happens in between.

Such is the case when a Jewish singer-songwriter teams up with a Muslim guitarist — in this case, Vieux Farka Touré, from the West African country of Mali.

“What is important for us, between the jams, when we are talking, is to create a dialogue, to create a bridge, between different cultures,” Raichel said in an email interview while on tour. “Because I can think one thing, and Farka can think another thing, and maybe a friend of Farka from Mali can think a third opinion. So what is really important is not the opinions itself but the ability to create a dialogue in times when sometimes the leaders, the political leaders, are failing, even on this.”

Touré agreed that dialogue is key to overcoming differences, saying in a Web video: “He comes from Israel, he’s Jewish. I come from Mali, I’m Muslim. It shows at a certain point there are no real differences between people.”

The duo and the rest of their band, who together comprise The Touré-Raichel Collective, will appear Nov. 7 at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge, (CSUN) in support of their recently released album, “The Paris Session” (Cumbancha), a follow-up to the group’s 2012 debut, “The Tel Aviv Session.”

While the album’s press materials describe it as apolitical, Raichel, 37, said he hopes listeners take as much inspiration from an Israeli Jew working closely with a Muslim as Raichel did from the process of working with Touré.

The professional relationship between the two began with a serendipitous meeting at an airport in Berlin in 2008. It helped that Raichel was already a fan of the music of Touré’s father, Ali Farka Touré. (The latest album features a cover of one of the elder Touré’s songs, “Diaraby.”) There was immediate chemistry, which resulted in the album that was recorded in Tel Aviv.

The plan was to record the follow-up in Mali, but “logistics, cost and security” prevented that from happening, according to press materials. The artists met in France instead and recorded the album over the course of three days in a studio outside of Paris. An array of musicians, including Israeli trumpeter Niv Toar and Malian singer Seckouba Diabate, appear on the 14-track album.

Highlights abound. Toar, who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and was granted a musician’s status in the Israel Defense Forces that allowed him to hone his craft and tour at the same time as serving, appears on the album opener, “From End to End.” Touré’s trippy acoustic guitar-plucking gives way to Toar’s jazzy blows — the African bush meets Miles Davis. Around the one-minute mark, Raichel joins in with warm piano playing.

The only song on the album with an English title, “From End to End,” gives way to another all-instrumental track, “Tidhar.” Clickity-clack percussion blends with an urgent-sounding guitar riff from Touré that propels the song forward and gives it rapid momentum. Again, Raichel shows off his piano skills.

Raichel lends his voice to “Hodu” (Hebrew for “give praise”), the album’s third track, offering Hebrew lyrics and fuzzy, meditative vocals. These are complemented by Touré, singing in Songhai.

The pair’s collaboration is the latest in a string of successful career moves by Raichel encouraging multicultural understanding. Over the course of a more than decade-long career, Raichel, a vocalist and pianist, has become something of a musical sensation in Israel. He is known for incorporating Ethiopian sounds into his music and for featuring vocals in multiple languages, including Hebrew and Arabic.

In 2002, the then-dreadlocked performer released the song “Bo’ee” (Come With Me). (Raichel cut his trademark locks about a year ago and now rocks a shaved head that he often covers in a towering head-wrap.) The song, which Raichel recorded under the name The Idan Raichel Project, received airplay on Israeli radio. The Idan Raichel Project had its first hit, and, one month later, released its eponymous debut album.

Raichel began performing in the United States and reaching out to American fans in 2005. He has done shows throughout the U.S., Mexico, Ethiopia and Europe and performed at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in 2012.

Most recently, Raichel joined Palestinian singer Ali Amir-Kanoon and Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys on Sept. 27 for a performance that featured the trio performing Keys’ latest single, the hopeful anthem “We Are Here,” at the 2014 Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park.

“Let’s talk about Gaza / Let’s talk about, let’s talk about Israel / Cause right now it is real … / Our souls are brought together, so we can love each other / Brother / We are here.”

Raichel said he believes the song sent a message that society needs to hear, that it “opened people’s minds and hearts to their neighbors around the world.”

The Israeli megastar doesn’t limit his activities to music. The performer is a supporter of the charity Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based organization that offers free open-heart surgery on children from developing countries, including Gaza and the West Bank. It also trains doctors from across the globe to perform life-saving surgeries.

Despite his success, Raichel said he is still grappling with the challenges of playing in the U.S. where his songs aren’t as well known as in his homeland. He has played in Los Angeles before, including at the Israeli American Council’s Celebrate Israel festival last May, and he expressed great admiration for the local music scene.

“L.A. is a musical center, one of the biggest in the world and one of the most important in the world,” he said. “Also, the audience is very open-minded to sounds and music from different parts of the world.

“The main difference [between playing in Los Angeles and performing in Tel Aviv] is that in Israel, when I’m playing, the songs are considered to be hits. When I’m playing outside of Israel, it’s more of an authentic sound, and people would define it not as mainstream music but as world music, and I really appreciate that people are taking an afternoon, an evening, [hiring] a babysitter, taking their lady or taking their man and coming to experience and give music from different parts of the world a chance.”

For more information about the upcoming Touré-Raichel Collective performance at the Valley Performing Arts Center at CSUN, visit http://www.valleyperformingartscenter.org/calendar/the-toure-raichel-collective/

The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan


Buried deep beneath Azerbaijan’s bucolic landscape lie secrets behind the ancient Muslim-Jewish friendship that prevails in this South Caucasus largely Shiite country. The 8th-century leaders of the Khazar Empire, famously, converted from their shamanistic religion and worship of a deity named Tengri to Judaism. A semi-nomadic Turkic tribe, the Khazars originated to the north of and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Khazars ruled lands from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the Northern Caucasus for some three centuries, often listed as between 650 to 969 AD.

The circumstances surrounding both the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism and their relationship to other Jews abound in mystery. Nonetheless the story of the Khazars and their neighbors is more than a missing piece of the Jewish story. Khazar history holds clues to the Azerbaijani tolerance model.

In the 1970s, readers of writer/journalist Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe pondered the intriguing hypothesis that European Ashkenazic Jews descended from Khazars who migrated into Eastern Europe as their empire was collapsing. Scholars since have discredited the book for a variety of reasons. Anti-Semites have used theories of the Turkic Khazars as ancestors of modern Jews to attack Zionist claims of Israel as an ancestral homeland.

The Khazars’ decision to become Jewish may in fact reflect a simple desire to remain independent of both the Muslim Arab caliphate and of Christian Byzantium. Their conversion nevertheless resonates with the existence of another major Jewish community in the region—the so-called Mountain Jews of Quba, a town about 160 kilometers from Baku, today’s capital of Azerbaijan. While large gaps exist in public knowledge of both the Khazar people and the Mountain Jews, oral tradition holds that the Khazars and Mountain Jews interacted and that the Mountain Jews played a significant role in the Khazar conversion.

The Mountain Jews are said to have settled in northern Azerbaijan after leaving the Persian Empire beginning in the 5th century. They developed their own language, Juhuri, or Judeo-Tat, which endures to this day. Over centuries they formed productive relationships with their Muslim neighbors across town.

In recent years the Mountain Jews of the Red Town (the all-Jewish section of Quba; considered to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel) have captured outsiders’ interest. They practice a blend of Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious traditions and maintain customs unique to their community.

Much of what is known about the Mountain Jews’ history is preserved in oral history, although archaeologists also have evidence in the form of artifacts such as sacred texts, architecture, and talismans.

The record supports the strong, positive impression the Mountain Jews left on their neighbors. Literate and religious, the Mountain Jews were also accomplished horse riders and warriors and skilled agriculturists. They displayed an enviable determination to adapt to their environment. And to the region’s rich musical portfolio they added their own complementary repertoire.

Visitors to the Red Town today are struck by the clearly marked Jewish institutions and the ample use of the Star of David as home decoration. But those who spend time in Quba at large also marvel at the fluid relationship between the town’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The history of ethnic relations in Azerbaijan is obscured not only by a lack of historic evidence but also by a long history of intermarriage and conversion. As for the Mountain Jews, many have moved to Israel, even while in many cases maintaining a home in Quba.

Given Azerbaijan’s role as a Silk Road crossroads, and its experience of military invasions, it is not surprising that the country has hosted many ethnic groups in close proximity. Still, the entente between Azerbaijan’s Jewish and Muslim populations contrasts sharply with the relationship in neighboring regions.

Many Azerbaijanis point out that different ethnicities working together, side by side, kept Azerbaijan alive through the course of empires and the Soviet Union. Family friendships across ethnic lines are relatively common. Azerbaijani leaders frequently cite negligible evidence of anti-Semitism, support for synagogues and Jewish schools, and public recognition of the contributions of Jewish Azerbaijanis.

As archaeologists and historians continue to uncover and parse the evidence, Azerbaijanis and their visitors continue to enjoy the fruits of ethnic harmony. No doubt, the Khazars and the Mountain Jews have a place at the table. But, in the words of H.E. Rafael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, “At first, I found the Azerbaijani tolerance model to be something new and unexpected. I have traveled extensively in other countries. But really it is very simple. The Muslims here have never thought of Jews as apart from society.”

Indeed, since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has worked to reclaim and document its history. Enhanced understanding of Azerbaijan’s human story will bring bright new insights to the telling of the human story.


Diana Cohen Altman is Executive Director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501 (c) 3 that celebrates the culture, arts, and heritage of the Azerbaijani people. She previously served as Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum/Center for Jewish Culture/Philip Lax Archive.

Why is criticism of Islam forbidden?


There is apparently no amount of mass murder, no number of innocents tortured or women raped, no amount of female degradation, no number of people enslaved, no number of Christians expelled from or murdered in the Middle East, no amount of Nazi-like Jew-hatred in its societies, no number of beheadings or even crucifixions, and no amount of terror that allows criticism of Islam.

And why is this?

A major Egyptian writer, Aly Salem, who has written 22 plays and 15 books, gave the answer in the Wall Street Journal this week. 

His answer: The left. 

“Many of my fellow Muslims are trying to reform Islam from within. Yet our voices are smothered in the West by Islamist apologists and their well-meaning but unwitting allies on the left. For instance, if you try to draw attention to the stark correlation between the rise of Islamic religiosity and regressive attitudes toward women, you’re labeled an Islamophobe.

“In America, other contemporary ideologies are routinely and openly debated in classrooms, newspapers, on talk shows and in living rooms. But Americans make an exception for Islamism. Criticism of the religion — even in abstraction — is conflated with bigotry toward Muslims. There is no public discourse, much less an ideological response, to Islamism, in academia or on Capitol Hill. …

“My own experience as a Muslim in New York bears this out. Socially progressive, self-proclaimed liberals, who would denounce even the slightest injustice committed against women or minorities in America, are appalled when I express a similar criticism about my own community. …

“This is delusional thinking. Even as the world witnesses the barbarity of beheadings, habitual stoning and severe subjugation of women and minorities in the Muslim world, politicians and academics lecture that Islam is a ‘religion of peace.’ ”

(The italics are mine.) 

Coincidentally, on the same day this article appeared, I had an hour-long dialogue on my radio show with another Muslim who made the identical point: that the left prevents honest discussion of Islam. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser is not only a Muslim, but a believing and practicing one. Despite fatwas issued calling for his death, this courageous Muslim continues to work to fundamentally transform his religion. (It is worth recalling President Barack Obama’s famous pledge right before the 2008 election to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” If a Muslim wishes to fundamentally transform Islam, he is labeled an “Islamophobe,” but if an American wishes to fundamentally transform America, he is not considered an America-phobe; he is merely another Democrat.)

Jasser is a medical doctor who practices in Arizona. He is a Navy veteran who reminds people that America embodies better values than any Muslim country. He wants Muslims and Islam to adopt American political, social and moral values. He wants, in a nutshell, a Muslim Reformation.

Yet, aside from Fox News and talk radio, both of them conservative media, one rarely encounters Jasser on national radio or television. Instead the mainstream — that is, liberal — media feature Muslim spokesmen from organizations such as CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), apologists for Islam and Islamists. 

None of this is about bigotry against Muslims. There are hundreds of millions of non-Islamist Muslims (an Islamist is a Muslim who seeks to impose Shariah on others), including many “cultural” or secular Muslims. And individual Muslims are risking their lives every day to provide the intelligence needed to forestall terror attacks in America and elsewhere.

It is about the left preventing any criticism of Islam, the religion that serves, rightly or wrongly, as the ideological and religious source of the greatest atrocities being committed in the world today.

It is about, among myriad left-wing examples, Brandeis University canceling its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born woman who leads a worldwide effort on behalf of Muslim women and reforming Islam. 

Nothing today better illustrates the subject of my last Jewish Journal column — that the left doesn’t fight evil — than the left’s smearing every critic of Islam, even Muslim critics, as “Islamophobes.” It also proves this law of life: Those who do not fight evil fight those who do fight evil. From the 1960s on, the left fought anti-communists, not communists. So, today, the left fights the anti-Islamists, not the Islamists. Why are so many Jews on the wrong side, again? 


 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

British Jews, Muslims issue joint statement for peace and tolerance


Jewish and Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom issued a joint statement, calling for peace in the Middle East and “constructive dialogue” between the two groups in Britain.

“In spite of the situation in the Middle East, we must continue to work hard for good community relations in the UK. We must not import conflict. We must export peace instead,” read the statement issued Wednesday by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain.

Called “unprecedented” by the London-based Jewish Chronicle, the statement also contends that  “the targeting of civilians is completely unacceptable and against our religious traditions.”

The statement condemned “any expression of Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any form of racism,” including during rallies and on social media.

It also called for a redoubling of efforts “to work together and get to know one another.”

“We need constructive dialogue to limit our disagreements and identify the widest possible range of areas for cooperation. There are more issues that unite us than divide us,” the message concluded.

Meanwhile, a rally to demand zero tolerance against anti-Semitism in London and throughout the United Kingdom is scheduled to be held Sunday outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism announced Thursday.

The rally comes after four synagogues in Britain were vandalized in the past month, Jews were attacked on the street, and a Jewish graveyard and Holocaust memorials were vandalized, also all in the last month. An uptick in anti-Semitic acts occurred during Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza.

“British Jews are afraid. Citizens are looking to the police and government to enforce the law with zero tolerance against anti-Semites, as they do in other cases of racism. It is only through zero tolerance that the tide of anti-Semitism can be turned,” Jonathan Sacerdoti of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism said in a statement.

 

What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire


In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”