When the persecution comes from within our community

Jewish people are very familiar with the experience of persecution.  It’s a significant part of our history, and it’s part of what defines us as a people.  Prejudice, fear, and hatred proliferate when groups of people make assumptions and have false beliefs about “others” who are different from them, and usually considered “lesser than.”  In the worst extremes, it leads to the horrors of genocide.  In less extreme circumstances, it can lead to harassment, bullying, and the belief that the “others” have no right to share the same space, or attend the same events.  Sadly, this is exactly the type of prejudice that we experienced at the Celebrate Israel Festival, and the persecution came from within the Jewish community.

The Celebrate Israel Festival was meant to be a joyful event, which it was, and we were so happy to participate in it!  Those of us in leadership at Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills had recently decided to purchase a booth for the event.  We love Israel, we love Israeli music, and we love to dance! Why wouldn’t we be there?

When we were setting up our booth in the morning, I mentioned to a couple of nearby Security guards that we would appreciate them “keeping an eye” on us and our booth since we anticipated that there might be some people who were not happy that we were there.  Our booth was at the very end of the Vendor Village so it was easy for them to stroll by now and then.  One of these Security guards later told me, “My wife and my mother-in-law are Messianic Jews, so I understand!”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz wrote an article last week titled, “Missionaries Invade 2015 Israel Festival in Los Angeles,” and he implied that those of us representing Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue were there by deception. I personally submitted the application for the booth at the festival, and filled out all the required information, including the complete name of our synagogue.  The coordinators of the event did not question it.   There were no questions about our beliefs on the application.  Why did he feel that that we should have been required to provide that information when it was not asked of anyone else?

We are very offended by Rabbi Kravitz’ comments in his article.  We do not consider ourselves missionaries, nor did we do anything at the festival other than have friendly conversations with people who stopped by our booth, just like all the other people staffing booths.  We did not distribute flyers outside of our booth, we did not lure anyone into any conversations, nor did we go to other booths to try to convince other people to believe what we believe. If they had questions, we responded.  I can’t say that the same peaceful approach was true for Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz and his team.


Early in the day, Rabbi Kravitz approached me and angrily asked if the organizers of the event knew who we were.  I assured him that I had completely submitted the application.  He began to harass me, challenged my beliefs, and called me an idolater.  I told him that we were not there to argue or debate, and we just wanted to enjoy the festival. He said he would like to meet with me to continue this conversation and he gave me his card. Nothing to indicate that he is the founder of Jews for Judaism.  He stopped by later in the afternoon to personally apologize to me for being abrasive and offensive, and I thanked him for his apology.  He told me I had a “sweet neshama.”  He asked for my phone number and I declined to give it to him.  I silently questioned the sincerity of his apology, and that lack of sincerity has now been validated by the comments in his article.

Rabbi Kravitz also sent several people to talk to me throughout the day, as well as bringing literature from his organization.  Some of these people were upfront about the fact that they were representing Jews for Judaism, while others denied it, but were later observed staffing their booth.

One of the people he brought over to talk to me was an Orthodox Rabbi, who later looked me up on Linked In and sent emails to me.  I acknowledged his first two emails, and I shared with him that I treasured my Conservative Jewish upbringing very deeply, to which he replied, “Growing up Conservative may not have been sufficiently meaningful or afforded you that personal connection to G-d in a Jewish way.  Conservative Judaism admittedly distances itself from many of the mitzvos that follow the Sinai revelation leaving out much of a profound personal relationship that would follow. If Conservative Judaism had any real meaning for you, you might still be identifying as a Conservative Jew, and perhaps not as a messianic Jew. Is that fair to say?”  I briefly responded by saying, “Let’s just agree to respect our differences, and bless one another in our spiritual journeys,” to which I received a very lengthy insulting response.  I have not responded, nor do I plan to do so.

So apparently, Conservative Judaism is not an acceptable form of Judaism to Jews for Judaism either.  Apparently, their version of Judaism is the only correct one!

Rabbi Kravitz called us “missionaries targeting Jews for conversion.” Those of us at Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue do not “target people for conversion,” because we have not converted.  For those of us who were born Jewish, we are still Jewish. We worship in the same way as many other Jewish congregations.  We observe Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays, we have a weekly Torah service in Hebrew and English; many of us do not eat treif; my parents, grandparents, and all of their ancestors were Jewish! I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew, regardless of what Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz and his team want to call me!

So we were not the ones who were being deceptive, distributing literature and trying to convince others to change their beliefs.  In contrast, we were the ones who were targeted by Jews for Judaism doing that to us!  We were just there to be in solidarity with other Jewish organizations in support of Israel, to enjoy the festival, and to have a peaceful visible presence just like the people in most of the other vendor booths. 

Rabbi Kravitz has raised the art of exaggeration to a new level. He has exaggerated what happened at the Israeli Festival for his own gain. His organization “Jews for Judaism” thrives on controversy. As long as he can create fear and misunderstanding, he can use that misperception to justify his organization’s existence. It’s so sad when the persecution comes from within.

It is time for us as Jews to move beyond fear and misunderstanding, and recognize that Messianic Jews are a legitimate part of the Jewish community who love and support Israel. We share the same desire as religious Jews; that Kol Yisrael will embrace HaShem in all of His fullness and wonder.

Barbra Miner is the Chairperson of the Board of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills.  She is also the Principle Consultant of Barbra Miner and Associates, a consulting firm that provides leadership training and development, coaching, and consulting services.

Anne Frank diary resonates with Cambodians

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (JTA)—As a young girl in the early 1990s, Sayana Ser often spent the night cowering in fear with her family in an underground shelter her father had dug beneath their home on the outskirts of this capital city.

Outside, marauding bands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas battled it out with government forces. Meanwhile, brutal mass murder was still fresh on civilians’ minds.

A decade later, as a 19-year-old scholarship student in the Netherlands, Sayana chanced upon the memoirs of another girl who had feared for her life in even more dire circumstances.

It was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, the precocious Jewish teenager who hid from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam until her family’s hiding place was discovered and she was sent to her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“While reading the book I couldn’t hold my tears back,” Sayana recalls. “I wondered how Anna must have felt and how she could bear it.”

Sayana now is the director of a student outreach and educational program at a Cambodian research institution that documents the Khmer Rouge genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, up to 2 million people—a fourth of the population—perished on Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in one of the worst mass murders since the Holocaust.

Sayana, who wrote her master’s thesis about “dark tourism,” or touristic voyeurism at genocide sites in Cambodia and elsewhere, also visited several Holocaust memorials and death camps.

“I couldn’t believe how one human being could do this to another, whether they were Jews or Khmers,” she says.

On returning home, she sought permission to translate the Anne Frank diary into Khmer.

The Holocaust classic was published by the country’s leading genocide research group, the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It is now available for Khmer students at high school libraries in Phnom Penh alongside locally written books about the Khmer Rouge period. Such books include “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, which recounts the harrowing experiences of a child survivor of the killing fields.

“I have seen many Anna Franks in Cambodia,” says Youk Chhang, the head of the documentation center and Cambodia’s foremost researcher on genocide.

A child survivor himself, Chhang lost siblings and numerous relatives in the mass murders perpetrated by Pol Pot and his followers.

“If we Cambodians had read her diary a long time ago,” he says, “perhaps there could have been a way for us to prevent the Cambodian genocide from happening.”

Anne Frank’s message, he adds, remains as potent as ever.

“Genocide continues to happen in the world around us even today,” Youk says. “Her diary can still play an important role in prevention.”

Although the story of Anne and her resilient optimism in the face of murderous evil has touched millions of readers around the world, it may particularly resonate with Cambodians, Sayana adds.

“Under Pol Pot, many children were separated from their families. They faced starvation and were sent to the front to fight and die,” she explains. “Like Anna, they never knew peace and the warmth of a home.”

Inspired by Anne’s diary, she adds, some Cambodian students have begun to write their own diaries to chronicle the sorrows and joys of their daily lives.

Children in Laos, too, can soon learn of Anne’s story and insights.

In the impoverished, war-torn communist country bordering Cambodia, almost a million people perished during the Vietnam War, while countless landmines and a low-level insurgency continue to take lives daily.

Yet with books for children almost nonexistent beyond simple school textbooks, Lao students remain largely ignorant of the world and history. In a private initiative, an American expat publisher is now bringing them children’s classics translated into Lao, including Anne Frank’s diary.

“I was describing the book to a bright college graduate here and gave him a little context,” says Sasha Alyson, the founder of Big Brother Mouse, a small publishing house in Vientiane, the Lao capital, which specializes in books for Lao children. He recalls the student asking, ‘World War II? Is that the same as Star Wars?”

Anna Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” he says, will provide Lao children with a much-needed lesson in history.

VIDEO: Tel Aviv rally protests religious persecution in China

Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy lead rally protesting Chinese persecution of Falun Gong and China’s involvement in Sudan

Who’s afraid of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University the other day, he did not emerge with the “propaganda victory” that neocon pundit Bill Kristol assured us he would receive. He didn’t seem to be having fun either.

Instead, he had to listen while Columbia President Lee Bollinger lambasted him for the terrible state of civil liberties in Iran: the executions, the political prisoners, the persecution of homosexuals. Bollinger also questioned Iran’s foreign policy — sometimes skating past the province of the proven, but never beyond the realm of legitimate inquiries-and he challenged the Iranian for suggesting the Holocaust is a “myth.”

Agence France-Presse called the introduction “a humiliating and public dressing down.”

And then, after presenting his point of view, Ahmadinejad faced frequently hostile questions from the audience. Immediately before the Columbia speech, he had spoken via satellite to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he also had to answer audience questions. Before that he appeared on “60 Minutes,” where he had faced still more questions. For a few days in September, the president of a repressive religious regime actually had to engage his critics.

No wonder the hawks were up in arms. For months, Kristol and company have been telling us that engaging Iran is a dreadful, futile mistake. When they complained about Columbia’s decision to let that country’s president speak on campus, they were simply continuing this crippling inability to distinguish conversation from surrender. Maybe they were genuinely afraid that this would be a PR triumph for Ahmadinejad, and maybe they just didn’t like the idea of a pause for reflection as they steamroll us to war. Either way, they were wrong.

Bollinger’s critics didn’t restrict themselves to complaining. The speaker of the New York Assembly, Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), has suggested the state could cut back its assistance to the university to punish it for hosting the Iranian. As it happens, I’d like to see that support slashed anyway, in part because-as Silver’s threat demonstrates-such money often comes with strings attached. But what freedom-loving American can help but be repelled at the impulse behind Silver’s proposal, this idea that the government should use the power of the purse to shut down a discussion it dislikes? Who can help but be repelled at the implication that Columbia’s students can’t hold their own in a debate with the president of Iran?

Interviewed by The New York Sun, Silver explained his position.

“What makes it more outrageous is the fact that some dean yesterday said he would have invited Adolf Hitler,” he said. “It’s totally outrageous. This is not a matter of academic freedom. This is a matter of legitimizing people, one who was the perpetrator of the Holocaust and one who denies its existence.”

I prefer the attitude of the Jewish students who turned out to listen to their Iranian visitor, to ask him questions and to boo and jeer when they disapproved of what he was saying. If you saw C-SPAN’s abbreviated coverage of the event, you may have noticed the many yarmulkes adorning heads in the audience. I doubt the people who wore them admire Ahmadinejad any more than Silver did. But they apparently understand that the solution to bad speech is more speech, and that even bad speech can be valuable. In response to one query, about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad claimed that there simply are no gays in his country: “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you that we have it.”

Anyone listening to that lie learned a lot about Iranian society. Ahmadinejad himself may have learned a thing or two from the laughter that swept the room after his answer.

Silver isn’t the only politician looking for ways to punish Columbia. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon.) tried to juice up his bottom-tier presidential campaign by announcing he’d “introduce legislation in Congress to disqualify Columbia University from any future federal support.”

Another Republican contender, Mitt Romney, grandstanded even more shamelessly, proclaiming that the Iranian shouldn’t have received an entry visa in the first place. If you suspected that Silver and Hunter represent just a tiny sliver of the electorate, Romney’s statement should give you pause. Romney isn’t an ordinary flesh-and-blood candidate, after all; he’s a machine calibrated to say whatever is most likely to emerge from a focus group of Republican primary voters.

The most desperate attacks on Columbia have charged the institution with hypocrisy. One argument — Kristol trots it out, and so do John McCain and The Wall Street Journal — faults the school for allowing Ahmadinejad to speak while barring ROTC from campus. The two policies might have been comparable, I guess, if Ahmadinejad had used his time to train the audience for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Others note that the Columbia Political Union just cancelled its plans to have Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrest speak at the university. That might have been damning if the Columbia Political Union had sponsored Ahmadinejad’s talk, but the latter was a project of the School of International and Public Affairs, an entirely different organization.

But even if the Political Union had run the controversialevent, so what? The organizers would be hypocrites, sure, but that would prove only that they acted spinelessly when Gilchrest’s speech was at stake, not that they acted improperly when inviting the president of Iran.

One more critic — Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League — has called Columbia’s decision “a perversion of the concept of freedom of speech,” declaring, “There’s no requirement, no moral imperative, to give him a platform that he will not give [his opponents] in Tehran.” Foxman is right, to an extent. President Ahmadinejad does not have a right to give a lecture at Columbia, and Columbia does not have a duty to let him in. Columbia does not have a right to receive our tax dollars, either, and politicians do not have a duty to subsidize it. If you’re a libertarian looking for a loophole, a reason you shouldn’t feel obliged to defend the event, it’s not hard to find one. The First Amendment is not at issue here.

But free speech is at issue, because this tempest gets to the heart of a key argument for the open marketplace of ideas: the idea that hearing what other people have to say and confronting their ideas is good, and that doing so makes us not weaker but stronger.

Healing’s Many Colors

Imagine the shock Temple Knesset Israel members felt when they came to Shabbat services five weeks ago and found scrawled on their wall, “Jews die” and a swastika. The Los Feliz congregation is largely elderly; many are Holocaust survivors.

A shock of a different sort awaited them last Saturday: scores of black and Latino teenagers and community leaders convened at the shul for a “Day of Healing.”

Inside the sanctuary, a comforting, yet uncomfortably familiar, ritual took place as one speaker after another deplored another act of hate crime. Angela Sanbrano of the Central American Resource Center likened the synagogue defacement to the persecution of immigrants. The Rev. Leonard Jackson of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church compared this forum to an ecumenical group in Jasper, Texas, coalescing to fight the Ku Klux Klan. Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, proclaimed that, “Any time a synagogue is desecrated, it’s a concern of us all.” Xavier Becerra, 30th District congressman, argued that fearmongers who commit acts of hate are truly the ones in fear. And David Lehrer, the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest regional director, welcomed this coalition to the podium where he’d been bar mitzvahed and quoted the rabbis as saying, “a single reed can be broken, but many reeds bundled together cannot.”

Outside in the lobby, however, an equally notable community event was occurring. Non-Jewish students of color from nearby Marshall High School were setting foot inside a synagogue, most for the first time. They were here to support a part of their community they hadn’t even known existed.

“We were very interested because this [hate crime] could hurt a lot of people,” said 11th-grader Ludin Chavez, “and that could happen to us.” Chavez, along with about 15 other students, decided to come after discussing the defacement in class with teacher Steve Zimmer. “What happened to this synagogue isn’t right … I wouldn’t want it to happen to my church,” 10th-grader Doris Hernandez agreed.

To Zimmer, Service Learning coordinator at Marshall, this cross-cultural identification was a valuable lesson. “It’s hard sometimes when you’re attacked all the time — in a structural or institutional way — to reach out to another community that [you] might see as privileged.”

While washing dishes after the reception, the pony-tailed 29-year-old Zimmer described himself as Jewish, but not a member of the synagogue. The same is true of Lisa Blank, the dynamic young Los Feliz woman who instigated and organized the event. Both were publicly made honorary members by synagogue President Harvey Shield.

The significance of the students’ help — which also included publicizing the event in the community — was not lost on the grateful congregation. Retired restaurateur and 22-time Sisterhood President Helen Klasky claimed that, “[This event] made people aware that other people are in the same boat they are … [it showed] other minorities that they’re not alone.”

The Years of Persecution

As the decades pass, why does the Holocaust retain, and even expand, its grip on the consciousness of the world and of its scholars, writers and filmmakers?

Argues Professor Saul Friedländer of UCLA, it is not because the extermination of 6 million Jews marked a major turning point in world history, as in the sense of the French or Bolshevik revolutions, or even the Great Depression.

Rather, the Holocaust, in its most profound sense, forces mankind to face the ultimate questions: What is the nature of human nature? What are the limits of human behavior?

The agonizing questions recur implicitly throughout the first volume of Friedländer’s “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939” (HarperCollins, $30).

While maintaining a rigorous scholarship, much of it based on fresh documentation, the distinguished historian of the Holocaust never loses sight of the human factor — the response of the victim, the attitude of the German bystander, and even, when possible, the mental processes of the Nazi hierarchy.

Friedländer, a professor of history at both UCLA and Tel Aviv University, documents just how unprepared German Jews were for the trials ahead. On the day of Adolf Hitler’s accession to power, the chairman of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith wrote in the organization’s newspaper: “German Jews will not lose the calm they derive from their tie to all that is truly German. Less than ever, will they allow external attacks, which they consider unjustified, to influence their inner attitude toward Germany.”

Even so keen a mind as Martin Buber’s could pronounce two weeks later that “as long as the present condition holds, there can be no thought of Jew-baiting or anti-Jewish laws, only of administrative oppression.”

In the months and years ahead, Jews were excluded from Germany’s professional and cultural life, step by small step, until the first watershed year, 1935, and the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws “for the defense of German blood and honor.”

The minutiae of these laws, with their “scientific” distinctions of quarter, half and full Jews, makes for mind-bending reading even 60 years later — as witness the following Kafkaesque ruling:

“A full-blooded German who converts to Judaism is to be considered as German-blooded after that conversion as before it; but in terms of the racial belonging of his grandchildren, he is to be considered a full Jew.”

The Nuremberg Laws were welcomed by most Germans (and even some Jews), who thought that by designating the Jews as an officially segregated minority, some of the physical “excesses” against them might be controlled.

“The majority of Germans,” writes Friedländer, “although undoubtedly influenced by various forms of traditional anti- Semitism and easily accepting the segregation of the Jews, shied away from widespread violence against them, urging neither their expulsion from the Reich nor their physical annihilation.”

In this interpretation, Friedländer differs from some Holocaust scholars, notably Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen. In his recent book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” Goldhagen posits that the German people were driven, for hundreds of years, by an “eliminationist” Jew hatred that welcomed the Final Solution.

The reality was more complex, maintains Friedländer. While there was hardly any active, and little passive, opposition to Hitler in the 1930s, most Germans were unenthusiastic about the disorder introduced by Nazi brutalities, fearing civil instability at home and possible economic boycotts abroad.

Of course, the promulgators of the Nuremberg Laws, foremost Hitler himself, saw the new edicts as part of a process to completely disenfranchise the Jews and push them out of Germany.

What drove Hitler and his hard-core followers was, as Friedländer describes, “redemptive anti-Semitism.” The term refers to Hitler’s maniacal conviction that the world was dominated by international Jewry and that the German and “Aryan” races could only be “redeemed” by a struggle to the death against the Jews.

This “redemptive” obsession runs in a constant line through Hitler’s thinking and action — allowing for occasional tactical deviations — from his first political statements, in 1919, to his last will, written just before his suicide in 1945.

Just how Hitler came by his “apocalyptic” vision is still not clear. Friedländer traces its ideological paternity to Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth circle, which was continued by the composer’s son-in-law, the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and by the German journalist Dietrich Eckart, whom Hitler recognized as his mentor.

“Nazi Germany and the Jews” has been greeted by historians and reviewers as the new standard reference on the period. In an interview, Friedländer talked about his own background and the special responsibility of an author writing about the Nazi era and the Holocaust.

Born in Prague in 1932, Friedländer was hidden in a French monastery during the war years. His parents sought refuge in Switzerland but were turned back and later perished in Auschwitz.

He emigrated to Israel in 1948, studied in Tel Aviv, Paris and Geneva, and has published nine previous books on the Nazi era and Holocaust.

Writing on so emotional and tragic a subject as the Holocaust, the professional historian must take exceptional pains “to keep to a rigorous scientific standard,” Friedländer says. “One must check oneself continuously so as not to fall into the trap of making facile interpretations.”

Friedländer is concerned about the misuse of the Holocaust by some Jewish institutions and organizations, which exploit the Shoah “in a simplistic and emotion-arousing way to push their self-serving agendas,” he says.

Even within the academic world, Friedländer fears some “slippage in standards,” but he is encouraged by the emergence of a new generation of “very serious and professional” scholars, particularly in Germany, Israel and the United States.

However competent such younger researchers, they cannot re-create the personal memories retained by Friedländer and his contemporaries.

“We are the last generation to have lived through some of the actual events and to have acquired the knowledge produced in subsequent decades,” Friedländer says. “It is enormously difficult to retain the image of the immediately experienced moment and meld it with the later-acquired knowledge.”

He is now fully engaged in writing the second volume, which will take his history from 1939 to 1945. He will use the same approach as in the first volume, meshing the perspectives of the decision makers, their followers and their victims.

His task will be even tougher in the second volume, says Friedländer, because he will have to go beyond Germany to encompass all of Europe and, indeed, all the world.

In addition, he will have to absorb and interpret the excellent research that seemingly comes out every day, not to mention an immense amount of new and original documentation from the former Soviet Union.

“It is an immense challenge to order this material and keep the structure from becoming utterly chaotic,” he says. “However, I have the advantage of having dealt with this subject all my life and can thus draw on a considerable fund of knowledge.”

By keeping to a strict writing schedule, which usually starts at 5 a.m., Friedländer hopes to complete the second volume by 1999.