"On Tyranny" author Timothy Snyder. Photo from Wikipedia

‘Tyranny’ historian warns Americans: Don’t forget lessons learned

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has spent the better part of his career studying 20th- century authoritarian regimes, from fascist Germany to the communist Soviet Union. Educated at Oxford, Snyder has written extensively about the rise and fall of modern political systems and the catastrophes that ensue when civil society breaks down.

His latest work, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” is addressed to Americans who are disturbed by the radical new politics introduced into American democracy by the Trump administration. It is both a warning and how-to manual, urging citizens who cherish American democracy to defend democratic institutions and their own independent minds.

Snyder will appear in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills through Writers Bloc.

DANIELLE BERRIN: At what point did you start to consider the threat of tyranny — a serious charge — a legitimate critique of the current administration?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I’m trying to adopt the perspective of the Founding Fathers, [who thought] that we need to be very thoughtful about [democratic] institutions, because if you’re not thoughtful about the institutions, the system can fall apart at any time. What I’m trying to do is look back at recent examples of modern tyranny — Nazi Germany, fascism, communist regimes — to see how democratic republics tend to break down. I have to point out, if the book seems relevant now, I wrote the “Twenty Lessons” in November, and had [finished] the book by Christmas. So I couldn’t even judge the present administration. What I was judging were the tendencies of a [president-elect] who seemed to be entirely indifferent to the foundations of our political system.

DB: What did you find most alarming about him?

TS: In Donald Trump’s campaign, there was an absence of support for democracy and an absence of support for human rights. He never talked about those things, whereas other American politicians do. The second thing that concerned me was the Russia connection; I don’t think American politicians should be seeing foreign tyrants as models of leadership. The third thing was the war on truth — not just lying at the margins the way all politicians lie — but the broad-gauge full-on attack on the truth. [Trump] was using language to build up a kind of counter-world, an alternative reality, a myth in which his supporters could live … that’s fascist.

DB: In the book, it’s clear you’re trying to address a wide audience — both left and right. But do you really think the same people reading Breitbart are going to read a work of scholarship?

TS: Look, this book is written from the position of an American citizen who thinks that the American republic is in danger. And the various kinds of moral and intellectual commitments I have don’t line up perfectly with one party or the other. In a lot of ways, I’m sympathetic to conservatism — when it’s actually conservative.

DB: You talk a lot in the book about truth and lies. How do you combat propaganda when truth itself has been politicized?

TS: Without the enlightenment — without the belief that there is truth on earth, and that we can discover that truth — there will not be democracy. There will not be rule of law. If we let truth go, we’re not going to have the system that we have. Journalists are now in a position where you get to be pioneers; you get to be the stars. Because the mainstream is now all this junk. People still say “mainstream media” but the mainstream [has changed]. You guys are now edgy. You guys have a chance to be heroes in 2017.

DB: In order for Hitler to be successful, you write that he needed the complicity of ordinary citizens to carry out his policies. That puts a lot of responsibility on citizens. How much power does the populace actually have to make or break a dictatorship?

TS: Citizens have a huge amount of power and usually what they do is give it away without thinking about it. We [learn] the rules and we adapt. That’s how we survive. But sometimes things change so drastically, we have to check our social impulses and be an individual. We have to stop and say, “This situation is different. I’m not going to automatically adjust.” The smartest analysts of authoritarianism, they all make the point that it depends upon consent. That the little choices you make matter. Just going along is a choice; and when you go along, you’re making regime change happen.

DB: Some people are deeply disturbed by what is happening within our government, but others argue that democracy remains intact — the press is still functioning, we still have rule of law. Even you could write a book “On Tyranny” without fear of repercussions. How close do you think we are to fascism? 

TS: There are things that are short of fascism that are absolutely terrible: If America becomes a kleptocratic, authoritarian regime where we have ritualized elections in which everybody knows who will win in advance; where you can’t become prosperous or wealthy without the support of the people in power; where you think about what you’re going to say before you say it — we’re not very far away from that. It won’t take too many pushes to get into a situation where it’s normal for us to think that the president is the richest person in the country and that the next several presidents need to be named Trump. Fascism would be something more. Fascism would be [White House chief strategist Stephen] Bannon succeeding in creating a sense of white nationalism in the U.S. [with] lots of internal violence deliberately directed toward creating a national identity. That’s a higher bar for evil.

DB: Trump has targeted and maligned many minority groups. Why is it important for an authoritarian leader to have scapegoats?

TS: If you want to change the regime, you take a group and say, “This group is not your neighbors, it’s not your fellow citizens; this group is an element of an international plot.” For Hitler, it was Jews, but it can be anybody. The mechanism is the same. So with American Muslims, you’re taking a group that is basically assimilated, basically small, and you’re saying, “Don’t think of them as individuals. Don’t think of them as citizens or as customers. Think of them as part of some larger threat.” That is politically important because it changes domestic politics [to become] about fighting the larger global threat — whether it’s terrorism or the Jewish international conspiracy. And that means that the normal things of domestic politics — like prosperity, group interest or freedom — those things are suddenly less important.

DB: The president hasn’t targeted Jews the way he has Muslims and immigrants, but the political climate has enabled an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. As a historian of the most anti-Semitic period in history, is the current surge of anti-Semitism here significant?

TS: Those who are saying that anti-Semitism isn’t as bad as it seems is what the Orthodox community in Poland did in the second half of the 1930s; it’s exactly what the German Jews did in 1933. If Jews are going to remember the Holocaust, they have to remember the whole thing — including that normalization burst right after Hitler was elected. That impulse to rationalize — you have to check yourself: What do I think it means as an American Jew that the [headstones in] cemeteries are going down? What do I think it means that there’s all this hate speech? That there are now swastikas in places where there weren’t swastikas before? It sounds crazy and obvious, but this is a time for American Jews to be thinking about the Holocaust — not so much from 1944 in Auschwitz, but from early 1933 and the transition. Because if you only think about the end, you forget about the beginning. And if you only look at the end, nothing is ever as bad as the end — until the end.

Timothy Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m. on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Tickets are $20.

Navigating heartache when a marriage ends

Jerusalem-based writer Avigail Rosenberg — who goes by her pen name — had been divorced for nearly nine years when her book “Healing From the Break: Stories, Guidance, and Inspiration for Anyone Touched by Divorce” was published last year. The tome shares the stories of men, women and children affected by divorce as well as advice from professionals.

Rosenberg’s own divorce was traumatic, and she recently remarried someone who also went through a painful divorce. In the aftermath of her experience, she was inspired to create an informal support system that lends books on topics such as divorce, single-parenting and remarriage for adults and kids; she calls it the Divorce Resources Gemach (free-loan association). 

The Journal recently interviewed Rosenberg about her take on divorce within Jewish culture in light of her book and personal experience. What follows is an edited version.

JEWISH JOURNAL: What did you take away from the stories in your book?

AVIGAIL ROSENBERG: The stories in my book were all carefully selected to portray people who overcame their challenges and grew from the process. No one gets through life without facing challenges; the question is whether a person can focus on the positive and come out stronger, or will they get stuck in the anger, bitterness and frustration. My goal was to show that, yes, there is life after divorce, and even despite the curveballs, we can all reach fulfillment.

JJ: What would you say to someone who is staying in a loveless marriage to avoid the stigma of divorce? Are such pressures greater in certain Jewish communities?

AR: The first question I would ask is whether the person has children or not, as that makes a big difference in whether I’d recommend staying in the marriage. The second question is what’s their definition of loveless? If it’s simply two people who no longer find themselves compatible but are willing to stick it out for the sake of the children, that would be ideal, at least until the children are grown and out of the house. If one partner is truly miserable, feeling misunderstood, under attack, battered (physically or emotionally), and unable to function because of his or her pain, they should consider their options seriously, and take a look at how they want to move forward. In my experience, stigma is no longer as much of a factor as it used to be, at least not when there’s no hope of the couple having a future together.

JJ: Children are obviously affected by divorce. How can shalom bayit (peace in the home) be upheld in the wake of a divorce?

AR: If a divorcing couple makes every effort to put their children first, the children will only benefit. Using children as weapons or pawns in a divorce battle isn’t going to make for very happy, well-adjusted children. Many couples go to therapy sessions pre-divorce simply to keep things as civil as possible for the sake of the children. I highly recommend not bad-mouthing your children’s other parent to them; whatever you say will only end up rebounding on you. 

JJ: What do you find is the most common myth about remarrying?

AR: Many people who don’t get along with their spouses indulge in a daydream of: “If only I could find someone more understanding/put-together/what-have-you.” I have news for them — remarriage doesn’t happen so fast, especially if there are now children involved, as well. Don’t use the dream of remarriage as an excuse to break up a home.

JJ: What aspects that are uniquely Jewish in the practice of divorce do you think are helpful? Which do you think could improve?

AR: In the Orthodox community, divorce is considered a last resort, an option only when the marriage is truly untenable. Studies have shown that children growing up in an intact home for the most part do better than their peers, and married men and women tend to live longer than their contemporaries. Putting marriage first is an important value that I believe the rest of the world can gain from. The flip side of this is that people occasionally stay in a marriage way past the point of no return, enduring shame and humiliation from an abusive partner. There’s no reason for this, and young people should be taught when it’s time to get out.

JJ: One of the more controversial practices is that of the get (a Jewish divorce decree). Do you see any real movement to reform the practice?  What are your thoughts on agunot (women without a get who cannot remarry)?

AR: I would just say that as an Orthodox Jew, I don’t believe the problem is with the system but rather with people who abuse the system. Both husband and wife have to agree to a divorce; a get can’t be given if the wife refuses to accept it. So using the get as a weapon is something that both spouses can do. A person who is in this unfortunate situation should look for the spiritual/emotional guidance they need to deal with it in the best way possible.

JJ: We thank God when a couple comes together in marriage. What is God’s role in divorce?

AR: The Talmud tells us that the altar weeps when a couple divorces. On the other hand, divorce is a valid option in Judaism, and there’s an entire tractate dedicated to its laws. I don’t think anyone goes into marriage expecting to divorce, but if that’s where they find themselves, and they’ve done their best, they can look to God to hold their hand in the challenges to come.

JJ: What can engaged and married couples learn from the cases of Jewish divorce?

AR: Make sure you have a solid base to your relationship before jumping in. Do you share the same values, hopes and dreams? Do you have a healthy sense of respect for one another? Do you have open communication? If yes, you know that marriage isn’t easy street for anyone, and if you put the effort in, you’ll create something that you can look back on with pride after 25 or 50 years. On the other hand, if you’re already married and your marriage isn’t doing well, don’t give up just because everyone else seems to be. Go to therapy if necessary, and get the help you both need to survive and thrive. 

Writer-director talks about adapting Roth’s ‘Indignation’

“Indignation,” the new movie based on a novel by the immortal Philip Roth, opens with a skirmish in Korea in 1951 and ends with a scene so shocking that I cannot reveal it here, although readers of the book will know what’s coming. In between, however, the movie focuses on the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of a troubled Jewish adolescent from Newark, N.J., whose childhood home is a battleground, and a college deferment means the difference between life and death. He is a highly indignant young man, as the title suggests, and his indignation plays out in both comic and tragic ways.

“Indignation” is one of Roth’s “late” novels, but it is a gem. As re-imagined by James Schamus, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, life in America in the early 1950s comes fully alive, as does the experience of a generation of Jewish Americans for whom the second world war was a fresh wound and the prospect of making a life among the goyim is burdened with anxiety and gloom. When it is announced that young Marcus Messner will leave Newark upon graduation from high school to attend a small, private college in the town of Winesburg, a friend of the family frets out loud: “How will he keep kosher in Ohio?”

Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he is a formidable figure in the entertainment industry. He worked closely with director Ang Lee over many years, serving as a writer and producer on films ranging from “Eat Drink Man Woman” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and producing “Brokeback Mountain.” He also oversaw production of many other movies of distinction as the founder and head of Focus Features. With “Indignation,” Schamus reveals himself to be a gifted director whose work is elegant and yet poignant, superbly well observed and even painterly, informed by Schamus’ own Jewish upbringing and identity, driven by powerful performances, and capable of moving us and surprising us.

Working from New York afforded Schamus resources that would not have been available on the West Coast for a movie with a modest budget. While the star of the show is Logan Lerman, a winning young actor who already enjoys a fan following among the 20-somethings, the cast also features several Broadway veterans and luminaries, including Danny Burstein (who re-created the role of Tevye in the recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Linda Emond (who was nominated for a Tony for her recent role on Broadway in “Cabaret”) as the afflicted parents of the story’s young hero.

An outstanding performance is delivered by Tracy Letts, a playwright and stage actor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit “August: Osage County.” Most filmgoers, however, will recognize him as the CIA director in “Homeland,” and his role as the dean of the Midwestern college Marcus attends is unforgettable. Indeed, the on-screen encounters between Marcus and his college dean are the dramatic center of gravity in a movie that offers one intense scene after another, many of them explicitly erotic.

I had the opportunity to talk to James Schamus on two occasions, first in his production office in a gentrified building in the old Garment District in Manhattan and again at a sold-out preview screening of “Indignation” presented by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.  

Jonathan Kirsch: Has Philip Roth seen the movie yet, and if so, how did he respond?

James Schamus: Yes, he has, and, thank the Lord, he responded very well!

JK: What was the career path that led you from your work with Ang Lee to writing, directing and producing “Indignation”?

JS: Your question assumes that there is a path, when it was more like stumbling through the brush. We tend to think opportunistically in terms of what’s stirring the imagination. I was at an airport a number of years ago, and I picked up a copy of “Indignation,” which had just been published in a mass-market paperback edition. This was a time when Wi-Fi was not available, and a long flight was one of the few places left on the Earth where I could really unplug. I just fell in love with the characters, and I acquired the rights to the book.

JK: Roth discloses a shocking fact about Marcus Messner early in the novel. Based on my first viewing of the movie, it is not revealed until the end. Am I right? And, if so, what was your reason for delaying the disclosure?

JS: It is disclosed, but in a way that is not necessary for you to register it consciously. I played around a lot with when to disclose. And I am playing with the audience a little bit in one scene, where it is suggested in the lighting and the set. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt, and I was trying to figure out a way to reproduce the sense of what’s left at the end of the book, when you know you have a consciousness who’s reaching out from young adulthood. That’s where I created the framing devices for the film, which are not in the book. 

JK: Your cast is deeply rooted in theater, and especially the Broadway theater. Was that a principle of selection in casting the film?

JS: It wasn’t a principle of selection. It was a requirement of budget. But I knew I could get actors who would precision-target that world and just live it. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are theater royalty, and I think of Tracy Letts as the king of American theater.

JK: One of the glories of your movie is the way in which it conjures Jewish life in midcentury America in such authentic detail. But the counterintuitive moment for me, both in the book and the movie, is the scene in which Esther Messner objects to her son’s romance with the Gentile character called Olivia Hutton, a beautiful young blonde played by the stunning Sarah Gadon. Esther notices the scars on Olivia’s wrist and tells her son that he can date or marry anyone he wants, even a non-Jew, as long as it isn’t one who has tried to commit suicide. 

JS: Clearly, Roth gave me the gift of this character, and it would have been a mistake to depict her as a caricature of the Jewish mother. This is a mother who knows what she’s doing. Esther Messner is probably the first person in Olivia’s entire life who gets her the minute she sees her. Esther knows who Olivia is and what she’s gone through. Nobody else gets it. But maybe Esther is just thinking: Let’s solve the problem of Olivia and move on. If there’s another battle to fight later on, I’ll figure out the next move in my campaign.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal

Changing Three Cultures: A Q&A with Joe Domanick

We all feel awful about last week’s violence; we all wonder what can be done. Well, author and investigative journalist Joe Domanick has been feeling awful about police conduct and urban violence for decades. 

When I called Domanick to ask him to write about the tragedies that unfolded last week in Minnesota; Baton Rouge, La.; and Dallas, he said he couldn’t.

“Even though I knew I had things to say that most people don’t know, I have said it so many times that it just rang hollow to me,” Domanick said. “I guess I just shook my head and said, ‘Oh, not again.’ ” 

In a series of seminal articles and books, the Queens, N.Y.-raised Domanick has studied the failure of American police forces, largely by focusing on the cops in his adopted city, Los Angeles.  

Domanick began his career 30 years ago at the Jewish Journal — really. He wrote the first issue’s cover story on school integration and busing, but passed on a promotion partly because he didn’t think an Italian Catholic should be editing a Jewish paper.

Currently, Domanick is the associate director of New York’s John Jay College’s Center on Media Crime, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. He’s written two books about the LAPD: “To Protect and to Serve” and “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” out in paperback this August.  

When current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck read Domanick’s 1994 history of the LAPD, “To Protect and to Serve,” he told the author it was like reading an angry letter from his first wife — but Beck took the book to heart. 

“At least that’s what he tells me,” Domanick said. 

In his latest book, “Blue,” Domanick charts how the LAPD has changed — how one of the country’s worst and most divisive forces has gone from being an “occupying force” in minority neighborhoods to a partner in building community. 

I wondered how those lessons can apply to forces nationwide, and asked Domanick to explain how to untangle the knot of urban and police violence that all too often sends us all into anguish.

Rob Eshman: What was your reaction as the events of last week unfolded?

Joe Domanick: I wasn’t at all surprised about either one of the two killings by the officers, because [each is] just one of the string of shootings that have come to public attention, really, ever since Ferguson [Mo.], because of cameras and other technologies.

And then when the five officers were killed in Dallas, that made me very anxious because, No. 1, we had a chief of police in Dallas who was really doing all of the right things to alleviate these kinds of situations.  

RE: You’ve said there were 900 officer-involved shootings that led to fatalities in 2015, and 2016 is on track to have even more. Why? Iceland has one in 71 years. Germany has six.

JD: An even better comparison is Canada, which per capita has more guns than the United States, but has very few shootings. 

I just think that America is a very, very violent country. It was born in violence. It started with genocide. Then it followed up with the most brutal, dehumanizing kind of slavery, which was enforced strictly through brutality. Then you had the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, when it really became the job of the police to closely monitor African-Americans, and that became a tradition. And the whole country, of course, was racist —  it wasn’t just the South.

So I think that this is a very violent country. We worship violence. We see it everywhere in our advertisements. It’s hard for me to think of a movie star, man or woman, who I haven’t seen on a billboard off Sunset Boulevard holding a gun, holding a .45, wearing a police badge. So I think that we worship violence, we do, and I think that’s a big part of it.

REYou really can draw a direct connection from the Fugitive Slave Law to what’s going on now in these communities?

JD: You had decades of people living in very violent communities, and the violence becoming almost a norm. And the African-American people that could get out of the ghettos got out, but what you had left was a kind of social pathology that imploded. That’s what’s made our ghettos so dangerous. We refuse as a society to do anything about it, to take the steps to alleviate, to change the values in that subculture.

RE: Like what?

JD: Well, there’s so much that can be done. One thing that can be done is community policing, which Charlie Beck is trying to do, and good police chiefs like the one in Dallas are trying to do, which represents an entire change. 

The other thing is just the old liberal bromides, which happen to be true. You’ve got to put money into these communities. You’ve got to get the best schools and health care. All these things have to be done, and then you have to understand it is not going to change overnight. 

RE: A lot of people say that the focus on acts of police violence obscures the greater problem, which is Black-on-Black crime in places like Chicago, which leads to many more deaths.

JD: We keep hearing people say we have to have a conversation about race, but you notice that we never really have. My supposition is that we don’t have it because liberals and many African-American leaders don’t want that to be a subject of conversation, because it’s further stigmatizing an already stigmatized people. 

You have such a strong, vital African-American middle class and working class right now. So they’re trying to get out from under that stigma. But, at the same time, there is this rage at the police because the police have always, always, always screwed them over. And you have this inherent racism, and that exists in most white people in this country. It’s a difficult thing to get rid of.

What you need is to change three cultures. You need to change police culture. You need to change the value system that exists among these young Black guys in these communities — many of whom can’t even conceptualize a way out. It’s intra-tribal violence — powerless people warring with other powerless people, a rage turned inward on itself. 

And you need a change in the white culture. I would say that this generation, 35 and under, they get it. I think they are much more multicultural, much less tolerant of any kind of racism or sexism or ethnic prejudice. The coverage of Ferguson and then of Eric Garner [who died in police custody in 2014 in New York] and all the other shootings and killings that happened were amazing to me because it was so critical of the police — a far cry from the ’80s and ’90s. 

RE: So you agree with what Newt Gingrich said, that white people “don’t understand being Black in America.”

JD: Absolutely. White people tend to think that because of the Civil Rights Acts of 1963 and ’64, African-Americans suddenly had equal opportunities, and centuries of cultural degradation and extreme disadvantage would disappear overnight. The attitude was: “What more do they want from us?” Most white Americans have no idea of the killing nature of the Black experience. They really don’t.

Take Jewish Americans — sure there was anti-Semitism against Jews. There was discrimination against the Irish, the Italians, Mexicans and against the Japanese and Chinese. But I would argue that it’s nothing compared to what has been done to African-Americans.

They feel hurt and they feel enraged. If people would just read history and understand sociology and anthropology, they’d understand it. 

RE: Then why were there no riots in L.A. last week? 

JD:  Because I think the Los Angeles Police Department has done a good job of changing its culture and behavior. LAPD’s Charlie Beck has been working hard on that. 

He’s really built on all of the good things that [former LAPD Chief William] Bratton started, but he hasn’t changed one of the things that Bratton brought, which was an increase at stop-and-frisks. 

The one thing that the LAPD is still challenged by is the amount of people that they’re shooting. It’s way less than it used to be, but it’s still high compared to other cities like New York. 

I think part of that is because of stop-and-frisk. They don’t call it “stop-and-frisk” here and they might not be frisking everybody, but they’re stopping a hell a lot of people, most of them minorities.

So when that happens, officers get themselves in a position where people are pissed off after being stopped. They didn’t do anything, and one thing leads to another, and people end up getting shot.  

RE: In your book “Blue,” you documented how a policing culture in the LAPD that seemed so entrenched really could change. Why hasn’t that message gone out to other police forces?

JD: There’s great resistance to it. The criminal justice system in this country is criminal. It’s just awful, it’s terrible. It’s not just the police. It’s prosecutors and their political careers. It’s politicians, the jails, it’s the prisons. They’re  just hellholes. 

The whole system is not designed to salvage human beings, to stop people from committing crimes. It’s not designed to reform people. That used to be the goal. Now, no more.  

RE: Do you believe that when groups like Black Lives Matter capitalize on this legitimate hostility, they create a mentality that leads to events like the murder of police officers in Dallas?  

JD: It’s not for me to say how African-Americans should react to the police. There’s enough African-American leadership and enough African-American young people who understand everything that’s going on. They’ll decide on how they should act.

But to bring about change, you have to have all levels of pressure. Some of the pressure is from journalists writing about the police. Right now, Black Lives Matter is pushing from the grass-roots level and you need to have that. I do agree, however, that it’s really counterproductive to be violent. But for the most part, I think  Black Lives Matter hasn’t been violent. They’re speaking their truth.  

RE: And what about the rest of us?  We often feel so hopeless; what what can we do?

JD: I would argue now is the time to support Charlie Beck, because Charlie Beck and police chiefs like him are the best folks for solving this problem.

RE: You started by saying you feel burnt out writing about these issues. Are you at all optimistic? 

JD: I don’t feel the tension is anywhere near what it was in the ’60s, but I do agree that it’s a dangerous time. And I think it all depends,  so much depends, on this election. 

And I think that you see that things can be optimistic if you look at California, things are getting done. So it’s hard to say which way we’re going to go. Human nature is human nature, so I just don’t know. I’m hopeful but not optimistic.

This interview was edited and condensed

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Westside congressman facing first re-election bid discusses Israel

Los Angeles Rep. Ted Lieu is quick to shoot off a friendly tweet. With a computer science degree from Stanford University, he’s one of the more tech-savvy members of Congress. 

After a panel on cybersecurity at Politicon, a political convention held June 26 in Pasadena, Lieu stuck around to shake hands, pass out business cards, connect digitally with his constituents — and speak with the Jewish Journal.

Five members represent the Jewish population centers of Los Angeles in Congress. Lieu, who immigrated with his family from Taiwan when he was a child and represents the 33rd District, is the most junior among them. In November, he’ll face his first bid for re-election, against South Bay surgeon Kenneth Wright in a district stretching from Malibu to Palos Verdes and jutting into Beverly Hills.

As a Democrat, he is expected to again win the heavily liberal district. His predecessor, Henry Waxman, who is Jewish, maintained his seat for 40 years.

A large portion of the voter base is Westside Jews, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lieu takes a staunchly pro-Israel position. A reserve Air Force colonel, his military service also may contribute to his desire to see Israel maintain a qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

Sitting down with the Journal after his Politicon panel, Lieu took stock of the national security issues his Jewish constituents care most about — namely, Israel and its less-than-friendly neighbors.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: You participated in the Democratic sit-in last week on the House floor calling to reform gun laws in this country. Why should voters care about gun violence in places like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, which you represent?

Ted Lieu: There are some common-sense reforms we can do right now that don’t take anyone’s guns away, but makes America safer. … If you’re going to be on a no-fly list, 85 percent of Americans believe you shouldn’t be able to go in and buy an assault rifle. The reason people should care in the 33rd District is that every single day, 297 people in America are shot. That means every five minutes someone gets shot. Who will that be? Will it be someone you know? Will it be a child? Will it be an acquaintance or relative?

JJ: What do you say to people who feel the issue Congress should be discussing is Islamic terror, or perhaps mental health, rather than gun reform?

TL: Mental health is an incredibly important issue, and I believe we can get bipartisan support on both mental health, in terms of providing more funding to people who are doing the work of delivering mental health services, and also addressing it in the context of gun violence. Unfortunately, right now there is no bill moving. The Republican majority has pretty much put a hammerlock on any sort of gun-safety legislation. … In terms of terrorism, I served active duty in the Air Force. I’m still in the reserves. My view is we need to hunt down terrorists and kill them. And there are a lot of ways to try and mitigate terrorism in the United States, but clearly, having easy access to guns is something I think that benefits terrorists more than it will hurt terrorists.

JJ: It’s been about a year since the Iran deal was ratified. You opposed that deal. Are you confident that you made the right choice?

TL: Yes, but not because of the last year. We won’t actually know for about five to 10 years whether this was a good deal, a bad deal or something in between. But what the last year showed is that Iran has in fact not moderated. They have continued to launch ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions; they have continued to fund terrorist networks. In the elections they had, they basically hand-selected those who could run. … So to me, there is no indication that they are any closer to moderation than they were a year ago.

JJ: Are there any steps that could be taken to change that?

TL: Iran needs to suffer consequences for violating United Nations sanctions in a far greater way than they have. And I also think we need to reauthorize the expiring U.S. sanctions so that if, in the future, Iran were to violate the Iran deal, the president, whoever she may be, can implement those sanctions immediately.

JJ: The Obama administration has hesitated to sign a memorandum of understanding that would grant Israel an increase in military aid. What’s your view on military aid to Israel?

TL: Let’s take a step back. One of the predictions I had for the Iran deal was that it was going to increase military sales to the Middle East, that it was going to cause a Middle East arms race. We are starting to see that happen. The U.S. has sold large amounts of munitions to Saudi Arabia. We’ve sold them ships. We’ve sold them rockets. Other countries are asking for military equipment from the U.S., as well, and you’re going to see, I believe, a buildup of military arms at exactly the wrong time, when the Middle East is on fire. It’s like putting fuel on the fire. Having said that, I think it’s critical that Israel retains its qualitative military edge, and I fully support the U.S. military aid to Israel. … It’s very clear to me that Israel is at the tip of the spear. They’re the only democracy in a very troubled region of the world, and they are a bulwark against terrorists and terrorism networks, and the U.S. needs to do whatever we can to protect Israel and her security. 

JJ: In terms of the amount of aid, do you support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for an increase?

TL: I would support Israel’s request.

JJ: You were a member of the California State Assembly, where a proposal is now floating around to legislate against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeted at Israel. What is your view on legislating against BDS at the state and federal level?

TL: At the federal level, I am one of the founding members of the Bipartisan Taskforce for Combatting Anti-Semitism in Congress. The goal is to push back against the false facts of BDS. … One way to fight back is to talk about the enormous benefits of a U.S.-Israel relationship, across a whole variety of different areas. So I have legislation that talks about the economic benefits of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and all the technologies that California, the U.S. and Israel work on together, such as technology to help the drought. It passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a bipartisan basis. One reason I introduced that legislation is to try and reframe the issue so that people have a much fuller understanding of the U.S.-Israel relationship instead of just focusing on one narrow issue.

Hollywood’s reform Rabbi takes on a top American zionist role

The Israeli Reform movement is a shadow of its American counterpart. Look no further than a recent Pew Research Center poll: Whereas 30 percent of American Jews identify as Reform, merely 3 percent of Israeli Jews say the same.

Yet Reform Judaism is far from irrelevant in Israel.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi John Rosove rattled off a list of issues for which he thinks the American Reform movement can provide much-needed support in Israel, from African immigration to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Earlier this month, Rosove assumed the position of board chairman for the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Zionist wing of the national Reform movement. The position puts him among the most prominent figures in American Zionism.

Already, he said, Israeli Reform leaders have been central in the struggle to wrest power from the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate on issues such as civil marriage, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall Plaza and conversion to Judaism — a religious insurgency that Rosove said draws on traditions of American Reform.

“That’s the nature of the American Reform movement: We are on the cutting edge,” he said.

Rosove, 66, assumed the head post at Temple Israel nearly three decades ago but was active in the Reform movement long before, dating from his youth at the Leo Baeck Temple in the Sepulveda Pass.

He described himself as a lifelong advocate for Israel and said he has been involved with ARZA for the majority of its three-decade history. (He also happens to be a second cousin of the Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin.)

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Rosove discussed ARZA’s role in the broader picture of American Zionism and the civil liberties battles it fights in Israel. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: What is ARZA’s goal or mission?

John Rosove: It’s simply first to organize and expand the reach of Zionism in the Reform movement in America, to educate and to stimulate activism on behalf of the State of Israel, to get people there on congregational trips and also to support the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which is the Reform movement there. There are 45 Reform congregations in Israel; there are many, many social justice projects; there are two kibbutzim in the south, there’s the Leo Baeck school in Haifa; there are a number of ganim [kindergartens] in synagogues all over the place. … There’s also the Israel Reform Action Center, which is the most prominent social justice organization in Israel arguing before the Knesset and the courts on diversity issues and rights for all citizens of the state.

JJ: ARZA asks Americans to “take ownership” over Israel. Where do Americans get that right? Why do we deserve a say in what goes on in Israel?

JR:  We won’t be telling the government what to do. I don’t believe we have that right. What I do believe personally, and this is very personal, is that we are partners with Israel — secondary partners. Israeli citizens are the ones who have to make the decision. Their government makes the decision. They’re the ones who pay the taxes and go into the army. We support them as a statement of love. … There’s Klal Yisrael, there’s Am Yisrael, there’s Eretz Yisrael, and there’s Medinat Yisrael [the community of Israel, the nation of Israel, the land of Israel and the State of Israel]. We have to distinguish what we’re talking about here. For us, it’s all of them. It’s all of them together. We have a stake in what Israel is and becomes and does. Our security here is dependent on that.

JJ: You served as a regional co-chair of J Street, an organization that is often critical of the Israeli government. A lot of people don’t think of J Street as a Zionist organization, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you to square the circle for those people.

JR: All you have to do is look at the J Street website. It is a pro-Israel Zionist organization that’s on the middle-left with regard to the two-state solution. Those who say it’s not pro-Zionist have a very narrow definition of what Zionism is, and I just beg to differ. I think it’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s exclusionary. What we’ve seen happen is that the fastest growing element of J Street is on college campuses — J Street U — those students are the first line of defense against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel]. Everybody recognizes it. Those are the kids who are eloquently and with strength standing up against BDS on college campuses around the country. … So those who say it’s not a pro-Zionist organization, they’re just flat wrong.

JJ: Does ARZA or the Reform movement more generally have a position on the peace process or the two-state solution?

JR: Yes. A two-state solution is the only way that Israel can remain democratic and Jewish. The Union for Reform Judaism is on record with resolutions, ARZA is on record — it is a Reform movement position. But we are also a very strong pro-Israel community.

JJ: How can ARZA change or help or move the conversation on the Western Wall Plaza, allowing egalitarian prayer, which is so deadlocked in Israel right now, and so contentious?

JR: The agreement that was made was so carefully struggled for, any change will mean it will collapse. And now, what [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants] — because he’s gotten pressure from the religious parties — is he wants to go back and renegotiate it. It won’t work. And so our position has been, the Reform movement and the Conservative movement, that you have an agreement, that’s the agreement, and that’s it. And if you renege on this agreement, Mr. Prime Minister, you will be basically — what’s the right word? — you will go back on a promise and on a commitment to Diaspora Jewry. If you follow it through, you’ll be a hero on this issue. It’s that simple. Either you violate a vow and a commitment, or you become a hero, and it’s your choice. And we’re not negotiating anymore. The negotiations have taken place. This is the line — we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go.

JJ: Despite the best efforts of Reform leaders, their movement hasn’t caught on in Israel. Why is that, and how you can change that?

JR: Surveys have been done that indicate that 30 percent of Israelis would go to a Reform or Conservative synagogue if there were one near them. They’ve been exposed to a different kind of Judaism, in Orthodoxy, which they won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. There’s a hunger for liberal Judaism in Israel, as there is in the United States. 

A veteran of the peace process discusses its failure

Decades of watching from a front-row seat as efforts toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement repeatedly fizzled have left Yossi Alpher less than optimistic about the prospect of a resolution.

The title of his new book is telling enough: “No End to Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.”

Alpher’s resume spans decades of unsuccessful peace talks, as well as 12 years in the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. 

In the lead-up to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Alpher ran a think tank at Tel Aviv University, where he engineered a roadmap for peace that came to be known as “the Alpher Plan.” During the Camp David Accords in 2000, he acted as a special adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Now, Alpher, currently an independent security analyst, has soured on the idea of a lasting, Oslo-style peace.

“As we enter the 50th year after the occupation of the West Bank, with fully 10 percent of Israel’s population living across the Green Line [1967 armistice line], with Oslo having failed, it’s time to draw some lessons from that failure,” he told the Journal, speaking by phone from Israel.

On June 23, Alpher will be speaking at the InterContinental hotel in Century City at a 7:30 p.m. event hosted by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (lawac.org). In advance of the event, he talked about his book and the prospects — or lack thereof — for lasting peace.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jewish Journal: Tell us about your new book and what you argue in it.

Yossi Alpher: My contention is that we are in the post-Oslo era. There is no near-term sense for a successful peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. … We find ourselves today on a slippery slope toward some sort of ugly reality, which might look in some ways either like apartheid or like a binational state. My contention is that the agenda of people who are interested in the peace process — in the diplomatic community, among journalists, think tanks — should be, “How are we going to deal with this slippery slope?” A realistic agenda would realize that it’s pointless at this point to talk about how to make the peace process work. … The most that can be done, and the most realistic approach for the coming years, is how to slow that dissent down that slippery slope.

JJ: What do you mean when you say a slippery slope? That sounds pretty alarming. 

YA: If you take the totality of the Palestinian population, it is more or less at parity with the Israeli population between Jordan River and the sea, and with no prospect of an end of conflict, no prospect of a full-fledged two-state solution, with the messianic settler right wing increasingly the dominant and most dynamic element of the Israeli government. … The further away we move from any sort of progress, the more Palestinians and Israelis will say, “The two-state solution is a failure; we have to look at something else.” 

JJ: How should the rhetoric of Diaspora Jews change to accommodate the new reality you’re describing?

YA: Diaspora leaders have to begin asking themselves: Is their agenda for discussing Israel with their children and grandchildren still a realistic one? … They have to begin to recognize that what is emerging on this slippery slope is not very pretty, and in terms of Jewish values is problematic. I would suggest that this has to be on the Diaspora’s educational agenda. … It’s not going to do any good to keep planning how to renew the Oslo process. This is what [Secretary of State] John Kerry did just three years ago: He tried to renew the Oslo process. It’s not only useless, but it can be counterproductive. We saw three months after Kerry’s peace initiative ended, in the spring of 2014, we were at war with Hamas and Gaza. There was a connection between the two. The Palestinian reaction to the failure of that process brought on an attack from Gaza.

JJ: Do you hear anything from the candidates for president of the United States that suggests they may be able to move peace talks forward?

YA: I don’t want to comment on the candidates. … I’m saying the way the diplomatic leadership talks, the rhetoric has to change, the rhetoric of statements like, “The outlines of a two-state solution are perfectly clear, and the parties just have to get back to the table.” People in this part of the world simply laugh at that. It’s pathetic because it indicates how detached the people that say these things are from the reality. … It indicates serious lack of knowledge and lack of understanding of just where we are and to what extent the Oslo process has failed, to what extent we need to draw some lessons and change the paradigm.

JJ: The French government has recently made overtures toward leading peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected them. Is there a place for France in this process?

YA: First of all, anyone who knows the Israeli and Palestinian leadership should conclude that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are not candidates for a serious peace process. This is what Kerry should have understood in 2013. It can’t possibly succeed, because Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] is weak on the Palestinian side [and] doesn’t control the Gaza Strip … and Netanyahu repeatedly sets up coalitions that seek more and more territory on the West Bank, which is contradictory to any genuine attempt to move ahead. … [A peace process] should focus on post-1967 issues and set aside the pre-1967 issue of Palestinian refugees, a right of return and holy places in the West Bank. Oslo is built on a slogan of, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The pre-1967 issues have made it impossible to reach any kind of agreement. … The current leadership is incapable of agreeing even on the post-1967 issues. It’s a very sad situation. People are very depressed on both sides of the Green Line because they do not see a way forward. 

“The biggest threats in the Middle East” Q-and-A with Dennis Ross

Listen to a full discussion with Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin and Dennis Ross about the Israeli-U.S. relationship and his new book, “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama.”

A Rabbi’s path for recovery

Thirty years ago, after what he’s called his “umpteenth” arrest for fraud, forgery and bad checks, Mark Borovitz had a “spiritual awakening.” While incarcerated, he “immersed” himself in Torah, and reinforced it with the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and other rabbis.

In the introduction to his recently published book, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah,” Borovitz talks about how his Torah immersion — while in jail — took him on a transformational journey from a life of crime to becoming a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, a Los Angeles addiction treatment center, to being rabbi and CEO at Beit T’Shuvah, where he’s ministered to thousands going through recovery. (Beit T’Shuvah’s approach, developed largely by Harriet Rossetto, who founded the treatment center and is married to Borovitz, involves three prongs: Torah study, the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program and intense psychological self-examination.)

Subtitled “A Daily Spiritual Path to Wholeness,” “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah(Jewish Lights) dedicates one page to each day of the year. “You don’t have to be an addict to find recovery in Torah,” Borovitz writes. The book’s daily devotional can be used by anyone “searching for a deeper connection” to oneself, to others and to Torah. Every page ends with profound personal questions — inspired by that week’s parsha — that urge the reader to examine his or her own life. If answered honestly, these queries call for thoughtful self-assessment. 

Bearded, wearing a flat cap, often throwing out funny asides, Rabbi Mark — as he’s called at Beit T’Shuvah — has the look, manner and self-deprecating rhythm of an Old Testament prophet as played by Richard Dreyfuss. We met at Beit T’Shuvah to talk about his book.

Jewish Journal: In “Finding Recovery,” the way you frame your comments about the parsha, and your questions following those comments, are not the traditional way of reading Torah.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz: I hope not! [laughs] If you just go with the same old stuff, it’s not new; it’s not dynamic; and it’s not personal. Torah is a personal document for each of us. It’s the love song, the love story. It’s my daughter telling me, “Daddy, here’s what I need for you to be a better daddy.” It’s my mother telling me, “Son, here’s what I need for you to be a better son.” It’s my brother and sister saying, “Here’s what we need. Here’s the way, here’s the path because we want you.”

On one level, [the book] may not seem traditional … but I think it’s the most traditional way of seeing Torah, because I’m immersed [in Torah] and I’m making it mine, and I’m making it ours. And each week I’m finding God and finding other people, and I’m being connected.

JJ: Some of the questions you pose, at the end of each page, can be answered easily, while others require a great deal of critical thinking and self-exploration.

MB: I think that some [answers] are more evident than others. The point is to help people get into the habit of asking and finding the right questions. … It’s also to give people permission and a way into the text that’s different from the traditional, or at least the traditional commentaries that have been printed. It goes back to this idea of immersion. You have to immerse yourself. 

JJ: There are more than 1,000 questions in your book, some of which come back again and again in different forms, like: What are you doing to rebuild your life? In what ways do you blame others for your own failures? How can you guard against inner demons that would pull you into relapse? What false gods are you following?

MB: All the questions are to help people be in recovery. Recovery is not the same as abstinence. Recovery is where I do the next right thing … not just to stay sober, but to be human. … How does this help me to be more human? Because it’s a process, being human. 

So for me it’s the sense of, “How do I recover? How do I recover the joy, the joy that I had as a parent when my daughter was born? The joy I experienced in the arms of my parents and my family? How do I recover the joy and the love I first experienced with my wife? With my friends? And how do I grow it each day?” 

JJ: Clearly, this book is meant to be read one page per day, and to take time to answer the questions at the end of each page. Is that the way you’d recommend that people use this book?

MB: Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel said that religion is here to help us recover the questions. Today we’re so busy trying to find answers that we often don’t ask the right questions. So in my own history, I felt defective, not fitting in. At that time, I asked myself: “How do I get out of this feeling?” Alcohol and crime were the answers to that question. The real question is not how do I get out of this feeling, but how do I live as a member of a community, a member of a family? That gets a different response: Let me stop worrying about my own needs and realize that I’m needed. Let me stop asking what am I getting out of life and rather respond to God’s question — what is life getting out of me, as Rabbi Heschel so beautifully put it. 

When I’m immersed in my life and I see that I’ve done something that harms somebody, I immediately have this deep experience of regret. So I have to be able to hear and give power to my soul, so that my soul has veto power over my rationalizations and over my emotions. And my soul propels me to do the next right thing. That’s the core: doing the next right thing.

JJ: You use words and phrases from the Torah, but you could use virtually any book of ancient wisdom and take words or phrases from those in order to get at the issues of self-reflection in the 12-step program. What added value do you get from using the Torah?

MB: I see Torah as God’s gift to humanity, the love song of God to humans. It gives us the opportunity to reciprocate our love to God. Torah speaks to each of us in our own way, in our own language, according to our own experience. I choose Torah because I’m communicating with my ancestors, with my peers and with God. 

JJ: Could this book have been written without reference to God?

MB: Well, that depends. If you’re talking about God as the man in the sky … absolutely. But if you’re talking about God as the creative force in the universe, what connects me to you, absolutely not. That’s the energy that says we all have a purpose. Without God, we get the craziness of senseless hatred. With God, we get the joy of shalem and shalom. Wholeness and peace. 

Marvin Kalb discusses the U.S.-Russian game of chicken

The voice of Marvin Kalb, deeply familiar to any baby boomer, is calm, measured and authoritative.  He was one of “Murrow’s boys” — the young reporters mentored by iconic broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — but he was dubbed “the Professor” because he had been recruited to join the CBS News team from a doctoral program in Russian history at Harvard in the 1950s. Over the next four decades, he continued to bring both wisdom and gravitas to television news.

Now, Kalb is re-entering the public conversation with a timely and wholly fascinating book about a man and a country that have seized our attention even during the wackiest moments of the presidential campaign. “Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War” (Brookings Institution Press) is a book for the ages, to be sure, but it could also be a briefing book for our next president.

In “Imperial Gamble,” Kalb drills deeply into Russian history, a subject that is as timely as a news crawl at the bottom of the television screen. “Putin’s gamble in Crimea (and it was a gamble) was reckless, even dangerous,” he explains. “Why had he acted so impulsively, so Russianly?” The answer lies in the roots of Russian history, but it casts a shadow over the world in which we live now: “If there is a Putin doctrine, hidden somewhere in his rhetoric, it would be that people who consider themselves Russian, no matter where they live, cannot and will not be abandoned by Moscow.” 

The crisis in Ukraine, as Kalb sees it, marks the re-emergence of Russia as America’s strategic adversary and a decisive player in world geopolitics: “Putin is not the reckless, unorthodox, swaggering Kremlin chief usually depicted in the West, but rather one operating in the mainstream of Russian policy for the last 100 years and more… [l]ike Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Stalin, and Lenin before him.”

I was privileged to hear Kalb’s memorable voice in a conversation about his remarkable career, his new book and what it means for America’s future.

Jonathan Kirsch: Let me start with the notion that you are the last of “Murrow’s boys.” Do you look on what passes for television news nowadays with some despair?

Marvin Kalb: Yes, very much so, but I am also aware that, just as Murrow represented a significant change in the way in which the American people picked up their information about the world, today there are other journalists working with a totally different technological advantage in the way in which they accumulate information and pass it on to the American people. The danger there is that the technology not end up fashioning the message. [When] I had to do an important story on Russia from Russia, I would be shooting footage, I would then have to get the footage to New York, which would give me a day or two to think through what I wanted to say that would be the voiceover for the film. I didn’t have to be an instant analyst.  Today, everything is instantaneous, and we have to be mindful of the incredible responsibility on every reporter to be a great genius in an instant. 

JKYou write that for some Russians, including Putin, Ukraine has never really been a separate country of its own, which puts me in mind of the argument that is made about the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Syria and Iraq. Does it really matter whether Ukraine or Palestine have ever been countries in the past, if that’s how they think of themselves now?

MK: The Jewish people in prayer have always said: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why? Because a couple of thousand years ago, we were there. And so you want to recapture something. From the point of view of modern-day nationalism, if you have the opportunity to recapture something from the past, you seize that opportunity.  These days the Ukrainian nationalists, in order to strengthen their claim, state that the core of their country goes back to a place called Kievan Rus in the 10th or 11th centuries. That would be fine, except that the Russians, including Putin, say exactly the same thing about the starting point of Russia.

JK: You write that Putin represents an insurmountable problem for Ukraine, but that, in a larger sense, “Ukraine is Ukraine’s biggest problem.”  What is that problem and how can it be solved?

MK:  Sure, the problem can be solved, but probably not for another 50 years, and that’s taking an optimistic view. Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent country. Fine, but then you have to act like an independent country. You have to do something about the corruption in your state, which has paralyzed the Ukrainian economy. The people who run it know exactly what has to be done, but they can’t do it because they live in the midst of Slavic sloppiness combined with communist ineffectiveness. It is a disaster.

JK: You write that Putin wants the world to see him as “a cool, modern intellectual and not just a powerful Russian leader.” How do you see him?

MK: Putin is a Russian nationalist leader without any fixed ideology except a belief in the effectiveness of raw political and military power.  Putin agrees with the expression that we hear in the Middle East about establishing facts on the ground.  Putin believes that if you establish a fact on the ground, the world will have to adjust to it.  In the face of what he regards as a direct existential threat to Russia — the rise of a Western, nationalist, democratic Ukraine — he is prepared to put boots on the ground.  His question to Obama is: “Are you?”  And the answer is clearly, “No.” So Putin says to himself, “Thanks very much, I am going to do what I want to do.”  And he is.

JK: You write that Putin “is without doubt the strongest Russian autocrat since Stalin, but oddly the most vulnerable.” What is his greatest vulnerability?

MK: The greatest problem that Putin has stumbled into is that he has made himself the leader of a Shiite group taking on the Sunni part of the Islamic world in Syria.  Russia is now a country of 142 million people. Twenty-one million are Sunni Muslims. Two million Sunnis live in Moscow. If you go down to Dagestan, south of Chechnya, on any Friday or Saturday, you will hear clerics giving sermons absolutely comparable to what you would hear in an ISIS mosque in Syria right now. There is a great danger of an explosion of Sunni wrath, disappointment and anger at the Russians.  And Russian leaders from Lenin on have always been concerned about it. In my judgment, it’s something that Putin will pay a price for. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

A dialogue with Rabbi Wolpe

The first time I heard Rabbi David Wolpe teach was a few years ago in an international convention of Jews, both lay leaders and rabbis, from all over the world. I remember the topic. It was about Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Wolpe was dealing with the historical and mythological aspects of one of the most formative and fundamental stories of the Jewish people. He has a unique and brave reading of that story. Rabbi Wolpe’s exodus from Egypt is a case study that is not so easy to come to terms with if you had only been taught a literal reading of it. This was not a lecture; it was a lesson given in a brave, scholarly, halachik, humoristic, engaging, poetic, balanced and nuanced manner by a Conservative-Masorti rabbi who teaches passionately about something for which he dedicates his life – traditional Judaism for modern Jews. 

I remember how I left the room. I was thinking to myself what Israel would look like if more opportunities for that kind of Judaism were accessible.

As Rabbi Wolpe, one of the leading voices for a pluralistic Israel, is soon to be honored at the National Masorti Gala in Los Angeles on April 11, 2016, I took the opportunity to dialogue with him.  10 short questions. 10 short answers.  

Hess: When was your first visit to Israel?

Wolpe: I first visited Israel with my parents when I was 12 years old. 

H: What is most “Israeli” in your eyes? 

W: I don’t believe Israel has a single essence. The Wall, the sea, the shuk, the startups  – they are all Israel to me. 

H: What would you say are Israel's two biggest challenges today?

W: External enemies and internal dissension.  Both are powerful.  In addition to being in the midst of hostile nations, there are class and religious divides in Israel that are dangerous to its future.

H: How do you see Israel 20 years from now?

W: I am an optimist by nature.  Things will get better. There is a deep desire among the best in Israel and abroad to see the society flourish.

H: Do you think Jewish pluralism will win the day in Israel?

W: It must. Gradually Israel will realize that the entanglement of synagogue and state is bad for both.  Masorti Judaism will not only make Israel stronger, it will make Judaism stronger.

H: How do you see Masorti's advancement in Israel today?

W: So often Israelis come to the US and have their first experience of pluralistic Judaism.  Their reaction, inevitably, is – “If this existed in Israel when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have been so estranged from Judaism.”  Now it is here.  In schools, in synagogues, Masorti is representing a different model, a powerful one, that engages Israeli minds and hearts.

H: Why does Masorti matter for American Jews?

W: If we care about Israel, we care about its soul as well as its safety. Masorti can help save the soul of modern Israel. It combines the best of who we have been with the best of who we can be. Judaism that should not confine itself behind walls to keep out modernity.

H: How should a caring/involved Jew in North America deal with the frustrating fact that: “the only democracy in the world where Jews cannot celebrate freedom of religion is Israel?”

W: By supporting religious pluralism in Israel, Masorti and other groups who seek an open and vibrant Jewish life.

H: Is there a holy moment you most remember from your visits to Israel?

W: I remember many holy moments; one I will choose is seeing the first Ethiopian immigrants in the mid 80’s arrive in Israel.  This was the Israel of which we dreamed.

H: If I'm alone in an elevator with Israel's Prime Minister for 60 seconds, I would tell him what?

W: I would tell him that his security is lax if they let him get in an elevator alone with someone he barely knows.

Yizhar Hess is the CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel

Q&A with Ron Wolfson

Ron Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, has long been at the forefront of reinventing and sustaining synagogue life. His emphasis on what he calls “Relational Judaism,” stressing personal connections over programing, has influenced congregations throughout the United States. He talks here about what he believes is working and what gives him hope for the future of synagogue congregations.

Jewish Journal: Now that we’re 15 years into the millennium, what practices from Synagogue 2000/3000 — your continuing project to work with a variety of communities to revitalize synagogue life — seem to have the most resonance?

Ron Wolfson: Three things: First, our call to transform the ambience of welcome — you cannot find a synagogue that does not say it is “warm and welcoming.” Second, there is much more variety in the kinds of worship experiences offered; and third, we are beginning to see the paradigm shift from synagogues of programs to synagogues embracing what I called in my book “Relational Judaism,” meaning putting relationships first. 

We also raised the question, “Why doesn’t everyone love synagogues?” I share some honest and humorous answers in my new book, “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights, 2015).

JJ: In the past, you’ve emphasized the need for community interaction that’s not just virtual, and yet our world seems to be becoming even more Internet-Twitter-Instagram dependent. Do you have any hope of changing that in the next generation?

RW: There is no doubting the impact of the Internet and social media. I can easily get all the Jewish information I want with a click of the mouse. I can get my kid bar mitzvah prep online. I can even watch any number of streaming synagogue services. So, the value offer of a synagogue has to be much deeper than the usual transaction — I pay you dues, you give me a religious school for the kids, High Holy Days seats and a rabbi. 

Yes, I can find a kind of community on Facebook, but I still believe many crave a face-to-face sacred community of relationships with people who care about you and will be there for you — in person — in good times and bad. A relational congregation offers something else: a place for spiritual discovery. Where I can find meaning: what’s it all about?  Purpose: what am I to do with my skills and talents? Belonging: where everyone knows my story. And blessing: where I celebrate the life-cycle moments of my life. 

JJ: As you travel, speaking to synagogues across the country, what do you think is the biggest challenge to traditional synagogue membership?

RW: Financial sustainability. Some smaller and midsize synagogues have moved to voluntary contributions, sensing that money is a significant obstacle to membership, especially among some Gen-Xers and millennials. The congregations that have succeeded with this are not simply saying, “Pay what you want.” They have had healthy and transparent conversations about the culture of money.

A second challenge is the need to be upfront and unapologetic about the mission of a synagogue — to bring people into a relationship with Judaism and with God, to enhance what my rabbi, Harold M. Schulweis, his memory and teaching is a constant blessing, called the godliness in each of us. Synagogues should be unafraid to say, “We can change your life.” 

JJ: Do you think that in the next decade there will be radical changes in the landscape of synagogues? In the next 50 years?

RW: Since my book “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights) was published in 2013, many synagogue boards and leadership groups have begun to embrace the 12 principles of engagement I identified from six case studies of organizations that understand it’s all about relationships, including Chabad. 

Major congregations have changed the way new members are embraced and current members are engaged in the life of the community. Rabbis and cantors are redoubling their efforts to meet their people, often outside the walls of the synagogue. 

Twenty years ago, synagogues created program director positions; today, some are hiring relationship directors. If this trend continues, we will see synagogues where there are more focused strategies for building relationships between the congregational staff and members; between members and other members in a variety of affinity groups; and between members and Judaism itself. The goal is to enable everyone to find their place in the congregational community, some point of connection that is so rewarding that they wouldn’t think of dropping out after their youngest child’s bar or bat mitzvah. 

In 50 years? Well, synagogues have been a bedrock institution of the Jewish community for a long time, and I certainly hope they will continue to be.

JJ: What gives you hope for the future of the Jewish community?

RW: “Hope” — “Hatikvah” — is the anthem of our people. But, there is a thin line between hope and fear. We have plenty of angst right now, for good reasons. And yet, as the new year dawns, I think it’s important to remember the extraordinary progress of the American-Jewish community in the past 100 years. My Russian immigrant grandfather came to Omaha, Neb., in the early 20th century with nothing but hopes and dreams. He cherished the opportunity he found there to build a family, a business and a community in his adopted country. He called me — and called me to be — the “best boy” I could be in his beloved United States of America. I, along with other Jewish baby boomers, was born into a generation “between” — between the dark shadows of the Holocaust and the bright brilliance of the heroic founding of the Jewish homeland in Israel.  We have been fully shaped by America. 

While some of our ancestors taught us, “Schwer zu sein ein Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew” — as it certainly was in the Russia of my grandparents and the Europe of my in-laws — it is not in the United States of America. Here in this blessed country, here in this land of freedom and choice, we have sought to craft a unique American Judaism, reinventing old traditions in new ways, a joyous Judaism of inspiration and spiritual uplift. My hope for the future rests on my ability to say to my children and grandchildren not, “It’s easy to be a Jew”; rather I want to say to them: “It’s wonderful to be a Jew,” for Judaism can lead you to a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. If they believe and embrace that for themselves and their children and grandchildren, the future of the Jewish community in the United States of America will be very bright, indeed.

Ron Wolfson’s new book is “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights). He will be telling his stories at AJU at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27. Excerpts at

Michael Berenbaum Q&A: ‘I thought we would have done better’

On March 16, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., will honor Michael Berenbaum with the museum’s National Leadership Award at a dinner in Los Angeles themed “What You Do Matters.”  Berenbaum, currently director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University (AJU) and a frequent contributor to the Journal, oversaw the creation of the USHMM from 1988 to 1993, serving as its project director and as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. In advance of the honor, Berenbaum reflected upon his own work as well as his challenges in continuing the fight against anti-Semitism in the world today.

Jewish Journal: You’re being honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at a time when talk of anti-Semitism seems more heated than ever. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress sounded the alarm, as if the next Holocaust is around the corner. Do you feel that kind of talk is warranted?

Michael Berenbaum: About a dozen years ago, I convened a conference at the AJU and published its proceedings in a book titled “Not Your Father’s Antisemitism” because I was disturbed by all the ill-informed talk of 2003 being 1933, 1939 or even 1942. I feel that those who refight the last battle lose sight of the current battle and do not understand our contemporary situation.

To say it is not 1933 or 1939 is not to say that the situation is not serious, concerning or disturbing; it is merely to reiterate the obvious — we are different, and the world is different.

How are we different? There is a dramatic imbalance between the way Jews perceive themselves and the ways we are perceived by others. We have become an empowered people. Israel is a regional military superpower and a significant economic power in a world of knowledge-based economies. And Jews in the United States are dramatically more powerful than we were a generation or two generations ago. We are perceived as Goliath, yet we perceive ourselves as David. We are perceived in Israel as the oppressor and not the oppressed. And yet we see ourselves as oppressed. Goliath does not generate much sympathy, but it is hard to view the Jews today as David with a slingshot.

To illustrate the change, there is much talk of an Iranian attack on Israel, for such an attack has been threatened. And yet, if one had to bet on a scenario of which is more likely — will Iran attack Israel, or Israel attack Iranian nuclear installations? — which way would one bet? The very fact that this issue can be raised shows how dramatically the Jewish condition has changed.

And the world is different: Hitler ruled 22 countries. Anti-Semitism was the province of those with the power to impose their will on the Jews. Today, anti-Semitism is opposed by Europe’s governments, and their leadership is speaking out — witness the behavior of the president and prime minister of France and the prime minister of Denmark. The anti-Semitism expressed in these countries is the product of alienated radical Islamic minorities, joined by some on the left who are anti-Israel. Yet they cannot strike an alliance with the right, because the right is anti-immigrant. Thus we do not face wall-to-wall, state-sponsored or state-endorsed, state-condoned anti-Semitism.

Arab and radical Islamic anti-Semitism is another matter, but there, too, it is rather different than what drove the Holocaust because these anti-Semites lack the capacity to achieve their goal, and the politics of rage has generated more Muslim-on-Muslim violence than anti-Jewish violence.

JJ: Do you feel your ongoing work of explaining the Holocaust has helped in ensuring “Never Again”? 

MB: Frankly, I am ashamed to live in the world that we are bequeathing to our children. I thought we would have done better. My generation has known many triumphs. I was part of the civil rights movement. We defeated segregation and apartheid in our society. We achieved a modicum of voters’ rights and civil rights for African-Americans — indeed for all Americans.

I was a volunteer in the Six-Day War and experienced what was a joyous victory, seemingly a transformation of Jewish destiny “from Auschwitz to Jerusalem” in one generation. I participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement that forced President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election and that helped end an awful war. I traveled to the Soviet Union and, along with many activists and committed Jews of my generation, helped Soviet Jews free themselves and one another. I repeatedly traveled behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the peaceful revolution that destroyed communism from within. I was in Europe when the Berlin Wall came down. And I witnessed, albeit from afar, the second miracle of the late 20th century — the demise of apartheid and the transformation of a white racist regime in South Africa without violence.

And yet genocide persists — in Cambodia, Biafra, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur, genocide has taken new forms. Violence is pervasive, and the politics of rage endures.

It is also not clear in hindsight whether Israel ever won the Six-Day War or whether that battle continues to this day. It is not clear whether the great victory and the great unity that we experienced then, that that victory may actually have divided the Jewish people and threated the future of the Jewish democratic state and the essence of Jewish values.

JJ: Do you find yourself discouraged?

MB: I find myself repeating the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, these days: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.” And the words that Adlai Stevenson used to eulogize Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” If we become discouraged, if we despair, we will turn the world over to the forces that hate and rage.

JJ: We’ve seen the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement gain momentum on college campuses, including at UCLA — most recently, an outstanding Jewish student almost didn’t get appointed to a student judicial post, apparently because being Jewish seemed a conflict of interest until a school official intervened. Was that anti-Semitism, and what do you make of the situation on college campuses today?

MB: BDS is an effort to delegitimize Israel, and some of its proponents cannot contain their anger from morphing into overt, direct anti-Semitism. It is also, in part, a fraud. Because if its proponents were serious about BDS, they would give up their cell phones and iPads; they would cease using Intel chips and Microsoft Windows; they would cease using drip irrigation and water desalinization; they would avoid vaccinating their children against diseases or performing hypersensitive medical procedures that save lives. I understand opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank, but Israel is hardly the most offending of countries in the world today, and BDS singles out Israel for special condemnation, ignoring fully the many magnificent contributions that it makes to the world today and to the very quality of our lives.  

JJ: When you started this work, did you envision a more peaceful world today?

MB: I have a dream that the study of the Holocaust will become irrelevant; that one will look back at the museum in Washington and say, “Look how absurd it is that 20th-century humanity treated one another with racism and lethal anti-Semitism. Imagine that they thought that state-sponsored annihilation of a people merely because they were of a different religion was a reasonable policy, that human rights could be so violated and human dignity so trampled upon, that cultural achievement, technological acumen and scientific knowledge could be divorced from respect for human right and reverence for human decency.” 

Would that we lived in such a world, but we do not.

JJ: So, what role does the USHMM play in this conversation, and how effective can any museum — even a really good one — be in combating entrenched ideas?

MB: I am enormously proud of the museum, now visited by more than 40 million people and teaching people from all walks of life — judges and policemen, Army cadets and Naval midshipmen, governmental leaders of so many nations, to ordinary — extraordinary — school children, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and of so many other faiths — teaching them the basic history of the Holocaust and its implications. I am proud of its work to sensitize people to ongoing and impending genocides. I am honored to have played a role in its conception and its creation and in the launching of its archives and academic endeavors. It cannot be blamed for the crises of our world today, and yet it must continue its efforts. 

Washington and the United States would be less without those efforts. Yet, we still can neither be satisfied nor complacent.

JJ: Have anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism merged?

MB: How do we distinguish between legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism? Natan Sharansky has suggested three ways: delegitimation, double standards, demonization.

If we move from criticism of Israeli policies to the notion that Israel has no right to exist, we move over the line to anti-Semitism.

If we judge Israel by one standard and the rest of the world by another, then we are perilously close to, if not already, anti-Semitic.

If we move from the notion that Jews or Israelis do bad to the notion that Jews or Israelis are the source of all or most evil, or are inherently evil, then we have crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

For many, anti-Zionism is an easy way to proclaim, “I am not an anti-Semite, even though I fundamentally oppose the way that many Jews have chosen to live their future and to lay stake in the future of the State of Israel.”

I am currently teaching a course on the history of Zionism and the tension in the various schools of Zionist thought and about the thinking of its major thinkers and actors. I oppose some schools of Zionism. I think they are disastrous to the Jewish future or anathema to Jewish historical values, yet I remain a Zionist, though not uncritical of Israel’s achievements and not without an understanding of its failures.

On a deep level, we Jews face a paradox that is at the core of the Zionist experience. We learned from the Holocaust that powerlessness invites victimization; therefore we have sought power, and yet however much power we have achieved, it has not ended our sense of vulnerability.

Zionism promised that the Jews would become independent, and yet Jews became independent precisely as the world became interdependent, so however much we imagine that we can act alone, we live in a dramatically interdependent world. 

Zionism also imagined that the Jews could become a normal people, a nation like other nations — dull, boring, tranquil, marginal, ignored and ignorable. We are not that people and perhaps can never be. 

JJ: So, where do you find hope for a brighter future?

MB: We have to find it in ourselves and in one another, in the resources of our tradition and the best aspirations of our people. 

Studying torah with the Pope: Q&A with Rabbi Abraham Skorka

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi, chemist and writer, met with the staff of the Jewish Journal. 

Skorka’s trip was sponsored by Masorti Olami, the worldwide organization of the Conservative movement, and his prominence is due in part to his position as rector of the Conservative rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires, where he is also a rabbi at Benei Tikva congregation. But it is Skorka’s longstanding, deep friendship with then Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, that has given Skorka an international platform.  

The two friends co-authored a book on interfaith dialogue titled “On Heaven and Earth,” based on more than 30 television shows they co-hosted in Argentina, and the pontiff chose Skorka to write the introduction to his official biography. In May 2014, Skorka accompanied the pope, as part of the papal entourage, to the Middle East.

At the Journal’s offices, Skorka, 64, ate pizza and salad — famished after a day of nonstop meetings. He is of medium height, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and an academic’s well-worn suit and tie. He switched easily among English, Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish — all languages in which he is fluent.  

The focus of his visit was to promote the Masorti/Conservative worldwide movement, but the conversation began with the week’s shocking news out of Argentina, the alleged murder of Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor charged with the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Just before Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment, he had pointed to a cover-up in the case involving both Iranians and Argentinians at the highest levels of government.

Jewish Journal: What is your reaction to the news of Alberto Nisman’s death?

Abraham Skorka: There are many, many questions to ask, and we don’t know exactly if we will receive answers within a short time or in a long time. This I say taking into account our waiting of 20 years since the bombing of the AMIA, 22 years since the bombing of the Israeli embassy. 

We, as Jews, are suffering, especially because all of the story is related to the drama of the bombing of the AMIA. But this is not a specific Jewish drama attached to the Jewish community; this is an Argentinean drama.

JJ: Do you trust that the authorities will pursue this with rigor?

AS: I don’t know. This is not a matter of faith, of trusting. This is a matter of evidence. Look what occurred in Paris. The same day, or the day after the attacks [on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher market], they knew exactly at whom to look. 

JJ: In the book you wrote with Pope Francis, “On Heaven and Earth,” you wrote about how the AMIA bombing created a separation between the Jewish community and the government.

AS: Look, in the history of what occurred after the bombing, yes, it was a separation. Why? Because there are black holes in this history where [evidence] disappeared. Because we know from the security agencies exactly the people who prepared the attack, but who were the local connections? This is a mystery nowadays. And this provoked some gap between the government and the Jewish community. But the first steps that [former Argentine President] Néstor Kirchner and [Néstor’s widow and current President] Cristina Kirchner took were very important steps in order to decipher exactly what happened. With time, the story, in accordance with Nisman’s words and concepts, [changed].

JJ: What do you feel is the benefit or the impact of creating interfaith relations at a time when the more extremist sects of religion seem to be creating more divisions than ever?

AS: They are very, very closely related. Why? Because all fanaticism is based on the idea that the truth is in their hands. Interfaith dialogue shows that we, as religious people — Muslims and Jews and all the Christian denominations — know that we share a truth. 

Empathy means that you have the capability to put yourself in the place of the other, to understand the other. It’s when you embrace this attitude, this is the best answer to those fanatics, to say, “I am very religious, as religious as you, but I understand that what God is asking from us, first and foremost, is to respect the other.” Why? Because in the other is the image of God. 

JJ: But how does that affect the fanatics within that religion? They’re not going to sit with you.

AS: Look, what the interfaith dialogue can do — or must do —  is it must give answers to violence.

I’ll give you a very simple example regarding this point. Some people in Argentina prepared a declaration against what occurred in Paris, quoting the words of the pope, and they asked all kinds of very important Argentinians to sign this document. The first three signatures were from the archbishop of Buenos Aires — the new archbishop of Buenos Aires — my signature and the third was of the Islamic teacher — Omar Abboud. So this is a symbol, a very, very important symbol, that can make a very strong impact. A Muslim, a Jew and the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the three of us with a special history in dialogue are the first signatures condemning in the harshest terms what occurred in Paris.

JJ: Did you agree with the pope’s comments against cartoons mocking religion?

AS: I do. Look, don’t forget that he blamed in the harshest terms the murder of the people. Regarding the cartoons, I agree with him. Why? Look, this cannot be in any way an excuse to kill the other, but remember the role played by caricatures of Jews in the Nazi era?

JJ: What drew you to interfaith work?

AS: The theme of the Shoah was a central theme in my life for several reasons. All my family, from my father’s side and my mother’s side, perished.  

So this was a trauma in my father’s life, and he transmitted this anguish to me. This is point one.

Point two, I was very shocked by an article written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “No Religion Is an Island.”     

At the first congregation where I served as a rabbi, the local rabbi had developed a special relationship and done interfaith work with the Catholic priest of the area, in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. On Kabbalat Shabbat, the priest was invited to speak to the congregation, and he said a phrase that impacted me a lot: “Look, you can build up hate, you can demonize the other, only on the basis of ignorance.”

So I arrived at the conclusion that I would work on this theme. A similar sentiment happened with the archbishop of Buenos Aires [now the current pope], and he opened the doors of his heart, and we began working together. 

JJ: Why do you think he chose you?

AS: I asked him this question. It was a very special moment. I went to be with him when his brother died, and there are special places where the corpses rest — in Spanish, they call it “velatorio” [funeral parlor]. So we spoke about life, and suddenly I asked him, “Let me ask you a question.” “Yeah, ask.” “Why did you choose me?” And he said, without hesitation, “It came out from my heart.” And he revealed to me at so many opportunities a deep sentiment of love, of real love. This is the highest stage of dialogue, the highest stage.

There is a very important Catholic university in Buenos Aires that is related to the Vatican, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Argentina. In recognition of 50 years since the beginning of the sessions of the second Vatican Council, they prepared a special celebration. And what was the center of the celebration? To bestow upon me a Ph.D. degree, an honorary doctorate. 

The symbolism of this moment was tremendous. Why? Because [Pope Francis] tried to emphasize very clearly: A rabbi can also be a teacher for us Christians and Catholics. 

At a certain moment in this ceremony, he stood before me. He told me, “You cannot imagine how long I have dreamt of this moment.” He has a very deep feeling regarding a Jew with whom he bound himself to Judaism.

JJ: Why do you think that was important to him?

AS: Because he very much relates to the image of Jesus. And he knew that Jesus was a Jew, and that Christianity and the rabbinic Judaism developed in the same way.

JJ: Have you studied Torah with the pope?

AS: Yes, at several opportunities, yes.

JJ: Do you know if there’s part of Hebrew Scripture that the pope has mentioned as having an impact on his thinking?

AS: Oh, his favorite Torah. The figure of Abraham is very important to him. The attitude of Abraham. 

JJ: In terms of questioning God or challenging God? That part of Abraham?

AS: Yes. He very often quotes verses from the Tanakh.

JJ: So do you consider him your friend?

AS: Of course!  The last email I received from him — and you can feel that he wrote the email so very, very quickly — he began the email with these words: “Dear Brother.”

JJ: What’s his email address?

AS: That’s a good question! 

JJ: Why do you think that there continues to be such reverence toward the pope, even as the world becomes more secular?

AS: First of all, you must separate two concepts: religion and religiosity. Religion means the church, the synagogues and institutions. Religiosity is the fire.

Maybe that the world is, from an institutional point of view, more secularized, but the fire still exists. Without this fire, you cannot continue living because life loses its meaning. To live, you need some hope. 

The second point is that when you study the prophets, [they] emphasized that to worship God means, first of all, to honor the human being. And this is the message that [the pope] is spreading throughout the world, because he revealed himself not only as a leader for the church, but for the world.

This interview was condensed and edited. 

Is Europe too dangerous for Jews? Leading Holocaust historian shares her rising level of alarm

Deborah Lipstadt, author of the celebrated book “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier,” has eerily impeccable timing. Long before the terrorist events that shook France last week, the Dorot professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University was scheduled to speak at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles on the rise of European anti-Semitism. The event, sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will address the massacres in Paris and a troubling new trend Lipstadt has called “soft-core” Holocaust denial. Lipstadt was reached by phone literally as details unfolded of the terror attack at the kosher supermarket in Paris. Her book, “History on Trial,” a courtroom drama in which Lipstadt had to prove the Holocaust happened, has been optioned for film. Here she talks about the rising threat to Jews, its relationship to Israeli policy, and why, despite recent events, it is not 1939. 

Over the last few years, the rise of European anti-Semitism has caused alarm in Jewish circles, even before the events that took place in Paris last week. What should we make of this recent escalation?

Deborah Lipstadt: We’ve been warned about this. We’ve seen the signs of it. We’ve seen the attacks on Jews — and maybe the authorities took it seriously, but it certainly hasn’t been taken seriously enough by others — and now, in the most obscene, horrible way, [it] has percolated out to the general community. French Jews have been under assault [for years] and where’s the outrage? Not just for what is happening to Jews, but outrage at what’s happening to [European] society. The Jews are the litmus tests; the Jews are the weathervane.

Even before the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris, there was something uncanny about the violent massacre of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Even when Jews are not the targets, it’s hard to see these acts as anything other than repetitive iterations of dark Jewish history.

DL: This is not just a Jewish issue. Anybody who values a multifaceted, multicultural, liberal, democratic society should be terribly concerned. My thought is: It starts with the Jews, it never ends with the Jews.

Last August, in an op-ed for The New York Times, you wrote that people concerned with rising anti-Semitism tend to “overstate what is going on now and completely understate the situation in 1939.” What’s different now, from then?

DL: Things can be bad without it being a Holocaust. What happened at the supermarket in Paris was horrifying; what happened at Charlie Hebdo was horrifying. But the police were there to stop it. The government was there to condemn it. When these things happened in 1939 in Europe, there were no governments speaking out. [Anti-Semitism] was a government action! This is entirely different.

And yet, you also noted in your op-ed that far right, often anti-Semitic political parties have been gaining more and more traction in European parliaments.

DL: And that’s disturbing too. People who are not on the streets shooting anyone, but who are very respectable, sort of feel that if only Israel would solve the [conflict], everything would go away.

Are Israeli policies at all to blame for the rise of Jew hatred in Europe?

DL: When there are problems in the Middle East, these situations exacerbate, they get worse. Let’s just take Paris, for example. You have Ilan Halimi [the French-Jewish citizen of Moroccan descent] who was kidnapped and killed, held hostage in the most horrific way; then you had the murders in Toulouse at the Jewish day school; you had the murders at [the Jewish Museum in] Brussels; none of those things had anything to do with Gaza. Now, when things happen in the Middle East, do things get worse? Yes. But to simply link it all to Israel and put it all on Israel’s shoulders gives the perpetrators a free ride.

Historically, whenever anti-Semitism rears its head, certain conditions within the larger culture make it ripe for scapegoating the Jews. You’ve blamed “a distinct strain of Muslim anti-Semitism” for the latest resurgence. So when we say “European” anti-Semitism, we’re not even talking, really, about the average European.

DL: I’m talking in the main about Muslim extremism. You have a real problem in the Muslim community — which certainly doesn’t mean all Muslims or all European Muslims — of an extremist element that is deeply anti-Semitic, deeply hostile, and willing to cause pain and lash out. And that has been sort of coddled by European society, as opposed to saying, “These people are dangerous.” But I [also] think many Europeans have lost patience with Israel. There’s this feeling, “Well, the Jews have sort of brought this on themselves.”

So, how would you describe the phenomenon that what used to be exclusively anti-Semitic acts are now also happening to ordinary, secular Europeans?

DL: It’s a failure to be able to live and accept a multicultural, liberal, democratic society. And there’s been a certain infantilization of Muslim extremists in much of Europe, by saying, “Oh, we shouldn’t reprint these cartoons because they’re insulting.” That’s an infantilization and capitulation to extremists. Too many people are willing to say, “They’re anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t really affect me. My ox is not gored.” Well, your ox has been gored.

Why does it take an act of extreme violence against non-Jews for people to wake up and take to the streets?

DL: Because there’s a certain attitude of, “Well, this happens to the Jews; this is all because of Israel, and if only Israel would solve the problem with the Palestinians, all this would go away.” It’s a way of blaming the victim.

Last summer during the Gaza war, the U.K.’s Sainsbury grocery store removed kosher products from its shelves in response to anti-Semitic threats, which signaled to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel and Judaism had been “thoroughly conflated.” And yet, those who hold anti-Israeli views will argue that they are critical of Israeli policies, not Jews.

DL: The two have been tied together. I mean, like BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] people who immediately after Charlie Hebdo said, “This was the Mossad.” [Note: On Jan. 8, an article in the Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner reported a BDS conspiracy theory linking the Mossad to the Charlie Hebdo shooting.] Those are the crazies. Those are the extremists. But to them, it’s one and the same. Kosher food has nothing to do with Israel, but I can assure you that the next time those supermarkets that were targeted want to order soup nuts, they’re going to see whether there’s a non-Israeli brand they can buy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to conflate the anti-Semitism in Europe with what he perceives as an anti-Semitic regime in Iran, which has avowedly denied the Holocaust but hasn’t publicly sanctioned anti-Semitic violence. What is the relationship between Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism?

DL: I don’t think Iran’s Holocaust denial is very important right now. Each time [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would talk about Holocaust denial, his status in the free world would go down a little bit. He could talk about wanting to kill Israelis and wiping Israel off the face of the Earth — but [when] he said, “There was no Holocaust,” people got upset. I think hard-core denial has really diminished; what I see more of is a trivialization of the Holocaust — the “genocide” of the Palestinians, the “Nazi-like” tactics of the [Israel Defense Forces]. It’s not outright denial, but it’s denying the true nature of what’s going on. That’s what I call soft-core denial.

What would change if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were reached tomorrow?

DL:The solution extremists want is the end of Israel. So a two-state solution is not going to suddenly calm them down. These are people who have been bred on terrorism, and bred on distrust, and bred on Sharia law. These people aren’t going away.

So how can Jews and liberal, democratic societies guard against acts of terror?

DL:I don’t know. I’m not a policy analyst. I’m a historian.

How would you characterize your current state of alarm?

DL: My state of alarm is higher than it’s been in the past and getting higher.

Having studied Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism for so long, don’t you ever get tired of these topics?

DL: (laughs) So tired. So tired! But, on the other hand, I feel lucky that I get to write about, study and teach something I care so much about. My vocation and my avocation come together, and that’s pretty nice.


“The Longest Hatred: Confronting the Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe” is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required. Individuals interested must register by Jan. 16 at ushmm.org/events/lipstadt-los-angeles. Contact the museum’s Western Regional office at (310) 556-3222 or email at western@ushmm.org with questions.

Garcetti: ‘My support of Israel is kind of an unshakable thing’

In late June, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti hit his one-year anniversary in the job, local media outlets gave him only passing reviews.

The Los Angeles Times characterized his governance style thus far as “low-risk,” while the L.A. Daily News said his policies have been “free of drama.” He was also criticized by one UCLA professor in the L.A. Times for being more focused on day-to-day things such as infrastructure repairs and 311 wait times than on big-picture items like the city’s poorly performing public schools.

So it may have come as a surprise to mayoral observers when, on Aug. 5, he took the mildly risky move of joining eight other local elected officials at City Hall for a press conference to show solidarity with Israel in its war with Hamas. The event included playing a recording of an
Israeli red-alert siren, the sound blasted in Israeli cities when a rocket is incoming.

As should be obvious from the dramatic uptick in anti-Israel rallies across the United States, overt support for Israel is not risk-free. At the Aug. 5 press conference, a reporter asked the officials present whether the gathering could be perceived as “anti-Palestinian.” 

City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield responded that the group of politicians is anti-Hamas, not anti-Palestinian. Fair or not, the possible perception that support for Israel is anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian could be risky for Garcetti — who is Jewish — given the estimated 83,000 Arab-Americans who live in Los Angeles, according to recent data from the Arab American Institute Foundation.

On Aug. 21, Garcetti, 43, met with the Jewish Journal for an interview in his City Hall office.  

During the 20-minute discussion, Garcetti was polished, well-spoken and a few times took a roundabout way of answering some tougher questions on topics such as alarmingly low support for Israel among Hispanic-Americans (Garcetti’s grandfather was Mexican, and the mayor speaks Spanish) and decreasing voter participation in Los Angeles — only 23 percent of L.A.’s 1.8 million registered voters participated in Garcetti’s successful 2013 bid against former City Controller Wendy Greuel.

An edited transcript of the interview follows:

Jewish Journal: What are your thoughts on the current war in Israel?

Eric Garcetti: It’s heartbreaking as a Jew. It’s heartbreaking as a supporter of Israel. It’s heartbreaking as someone who has been a human-rights activist. The loss of life is extraordinarily tragic. I think [former Israeli President] Shimon Peres put it best when he said [paraphrasing a recent interview with the Associated Press], ‘Of course it’s immoral, but what else is there to do?’ It’s a situation that’s untenable. To see the depth of suffering and the lack of leadership in Gaza that would sacrifice lives in place of something that both Israel and the Palestinians have a huge stake in, which is peace.

JJ: You attended a press conference a few weeks ago in which you expressed your solidarity with Israel. Were you concerned that your participation might alienate Arab-Americans who live in Los Angeles?

Garcetti: My support of Israel is kind of an unshakable thing. Just as we criticize this or that that happens in America, as Americans, and that’s part of our loyalty, I think Jews do that all the time [with regard to Israel]. This is not the time to level the deepest of criticism [toward Israel]. When a nation is under attack, I think it’s time to rally around them, and that’s why it was important for me to be there [at the gathering].

JJ: Has your office received any negative feedback from the local Arab-American community?

Garcetti: Not that I know of. We always [get] individual calls about all sorts of things. I’ve been a good friend to the Arab and Muslim communities here. I broke the fast with folks during Ramadan. They’ve seen me over the years. It’s not a brand-new relationship, and they trust the work that I’ve done. There might be individuals who called, but the leadership? No, we remain very close.

JJ: A July Pew Research Center poll found that Hispanics in America have significantly less support for Israel than whites or blacks. Why is that? And is it a concern for you?

(The poll, released on July 28, showed that among Hispanics, 35 percent blamed Israel for this summer’s war and 20 percent blamed Hamas, while 47 percent of whites named Hamas as the war’s instigator and 14 percent blamed Israel.)

Garcetti: I don’t know. I didn’t experience it ever in my family. Maybe it reflects global opinion, and with such a high percentage of Latinos being immigrants or children of immigrants, maybe they just haven’t had much of a connection to understand Israel and the Jewish community. That said, most Mexicans I know, there’s almost a source of pride. Everybody in some family is like, ‘Oh maybe we were actually Jews way back that converted.’ I’ve always sensed quite the opposite, a real sense of connection and pride about people’s either Jewish roots or the Jewish community.

[Knowledge about Israel] is much less in those [native] countries a day-to-day experience than here in the United States, where people know Jews [and] know the importance of Israel as our strongest ally in the region. I think our work remains to continue to educate.

JJ: So it sounds like you think the views of Hispanics toward Israel become more favorable as they spend more time in America?

Garcetti: Absolutely. I don’t know the poll, but it would be interesting to look at third- or fourth-generation Latinos [compared to the] Latino population at large. 

JJ: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been growing nationally and locally. Does this concern you?

Garcetti: In City Hall, we were able to dismiss it pretty quickly. We passed a policy that we would not be boycotting; we would not factor that into any of our business decisions here. To see it out there, whether it’s growing in actual impact or growing in noise, I’m not sure. While I respect people’s opinions — I’ve certainly been a part of boycotts and divestiture movements in other countries, like Burma or South Africa — the isolation it would cause to Israel would be damaging to Los Angeles on economic, social [and] political terms.

JJ: Would you denounce it publicly if local public universities considered adopting BDS as a matter of policy?

Garcetti: Sure. I have — at UCLA.

JJ: In recent local elections in Los Angeles, a record low number of registered voters have been actually voting. Is that a problem?

Garcetti: I could say no, because I won, but I won’t say that. [Laughs] Of course it is [a problem]. People vote when they feel there’s something at stake and/or they are connected to civic life, not to the election itself. … I’m trying to build more civic participation in between elections. You see voter turnout going down throughout the United States — part of that is a younger and higher immigrant population, so we also have to spend a lot of time building a civic activism culture within the Latino and Asian immigrant communities. You see both of those communities rising [in] population in direct contrast with voter turnout going down. You can’t just expect people to show up and vote by telling them, ‘You have to vote.’ The election is just the cherry on top — the cake itself needs to continue to be built in between.

JJ: But what does it say about the current state of civic life and local government that people aren’t voting?

Garcetti: I think that we’ve got to build an understanding that we all are interconnected in the Los Angeles area. You’re proud to be from Pasadena, and you’re proud to be from a neighborhood like Canoga Park. You might be from the Inland Empire and embrace that. Really, when we all leave here, we are Angelenos, and we say we are from Los Angeles. 

Q&A with Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom has succeeded in striking an important chord in all of us — the intrinsic human desire to discover what lies beyond, the need to believe that the way we conduct our lives matters and that “the end is not the end,” after all, but another beginning. These intertwined themes are evident in most of Albom’s best-selling books, which have sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages, each time rendered in an accessible style that belies the profound message his stories carry. 

Albom spoke with the Jewish Journal about his much-anticipated novel, “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” which Publishers Weekly has hailed as “another winner from Albom.” 


Jewish Journal: I’ll start our interview with the opening sentence of “The First Phone Call From Heaven”: “On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.” 

Your decision to marry the most extraordinary event, a phone call from heaven, with the most ordinary act of unwrapping a box of tea bags, is an authorial act of genius that immediately draws the reader into the story. Did that come to you easily or after many edits? 

Mitch Albom: I could not have asked for a more precise reaction to that line — the most extraordinary thing and the most ordinary. It’s amazing how people skip right over that, and so I thank you for recognizing that. You don’t just start a book anywhere you feel like starting. 

I spend a lot of time thinking how to begin my books, because it puts me in the frame of mind I want to continue from. If I don’t start well, I never land where I want to go. I spent forever trying to figure out the first line of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” because it was such a big thing in my life. By the time the paragraph was over, you knew he was dying and teaching a course on the meaning of life. 

In “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” one of the themes is that miracles interweave themselves within every day of our lives. I thought it was a great juxtaposition to have that extraordinary thing (first call from heaven), with a mundane thing of life (opening a teabag). I thought, ‘OK, that works, that’s good.’ Usually, if I labor over it too long, then I have to throw it out because that means I’m forcing it. When it comes quickly, as that one did, I stick with it.


JJ: “The First Phone Call from Heaven” offers readers an added bonus, a page-turning mystery interwoven with fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell’s relationship with his deaf wife and how it led to the invention of the telephone. Was it difficult for you to make that leap into the realm of history and mystery?

MA: It was an accident. I was a fifth of the way into the book when I looked up how the phone was invented. The more I researched, the more fascinating the story of the telephone became. When I read that Bell’s first phone conversation was, “Come here, I want to see you,” I thought that paralleled my story. 


JJ: You mention that each of your books taught you something, “both in the writing and in the reaction.” What did “The First Phone Call From Heaven” teach you?

MA: The human voice and its preciousness. My mother suffered several strokes and lost her ability to speak. Once I lost that voice, I lost the biggest part of her, the essence. So, I created this story, which was the reverse of that; you get the voice back, even if you don’t get the body. 


JJ: If you could get one call from heaven, who would you like to be on the other line?

MA: I’d want it to be one of those phone calls where I could say, “Can you please pass the phone and give it to somebody else?” Because there are about 20 people I’d want to talk to.

But, the most interesting conversation would be with Morrie, because he died before one word of “Tuesdays” was written. I’ve always wondered whether he’d be happy that his words are now taught in schools all over the world. 


JJ: Did you work hard to master this accessible voice that makes your stories universally loved or did this style come to you naturally, perhaps because of the columns you write?

MA: Probably a bit of both. “Tuesdays” was a unique experience, because I wrote that book to pay for Morrie’s medical bills, and I plowed right into the idea without knowing what kind of book I’d make. While Morrie was still alive, I went around New York to find a publisher. Most said no, thinking it would be boring and depressing. I said, “I know I’m learning something very special and unique,” but I didn’t have the story fully formed in my head. When somebody finally agreed to publish it, I felt like I had done what I set out to do — pay his bills. 

After he died, I struggled with the beginning. Then I went to the attic and got out some of my old stuff from college. I found a stack of papers I’d turned in to Morrie; I took about eight classes with him. In the ’70s, a term paper had a specific style — didactic and stripped down. I thought that might be the way to approach writing this. Almost like a term paper. Any time I was being too maudlin or flowery, I’d edit myself. I thought, I don’t care how short it ends up, the story will tell itself. It served me well.


JJ: The transient quality of time looms large in your books. You mention that before writing “Tuesdays” you were “a harried, ambitious sportswriter who never spent five minutes thinking about mortality.” You are a sports writer, a radio host, a lyricist, pianist, producer, director, playwright and a philanthropist to boot. With all this on your plate, has your relationship with Father Time changed in the last 16 years since “Tuesdays”?

MA: The truth is, I don’t do anything full time. I still write for the newspaper, but mostly out of loyalty because they believed in me long before I was well-known. I’m happy to be a voice of the community — this is my home; this is where I live. And I’m off a few months a year from my radio program. So I’m not as impressive as you make me out to be. 

I do a lot but keep things in their place and protect what’s precious to me. I get up and turn on the coffee maker, say a few prayers, come down to my little office and write. I don’t take any phone calls; I don’t read any newspapers; I don’t watch the news; I don’t turn on the television. There’s no input of any kind between that cup of coffee and the three hours of creative writing I have in me each day. Then, I come back upstairs and turn the phones back on and begin my life.

To answer the question about my relationship with time, I’m very aware of our mortality and very grateful to be alive. I don’t take any of that for granted. One common behavior of almost everybody in America is that we take time for granted. So, if my books can be a bit of a reminder of the importance of time, then maybe there’s some value to them. 


JJ: Although you never portray death in a negative light in your book, I imagine it might still be difficult or depressing to write about.

MA: I don’t feel that I write about death. I use death as a reflector of life: time, family relationships, faith, finding meaning in your work and this one about miracles. So, there’s no reason for me to be depressed. 


JJ: Tell us something about Mitch Albom that will surprise us.

MA: I’m a huge Elvis Presley movie fan, the early movies. They’re corny, but always happy, and reflective of an innocent time. Every now and then Elvis picks up a guitar; it’s not even plugged in, and he starts playing and it manages to work.


JJ: You were raised by observant parents, attended Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Penn. How does Judaism inform your writing?

MA: That’s an interesting question. Some of the earliest stories and storytelling I was exposed to were biblical stories with a message, as opposed to just entertaining. I must have gravitated to those stories early on. Even Yiddish proverbs always have a point about life. Almost everything that you hear through Judaism has some kind of message. 


JJ: When you get to heaven, what would you like to hear God say to you?

MA: I would want to hear God say, “You were pure of heart and you did things for the right reasons.” 

Dora Levy Mossanen is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels “Harem,” “Courtesan,” and T”he Last Romanov,” which have been translated into numerous languages.  She is a regular contributor to the Jewish Journal and the Huffington Post. Her widely anticipated novel, “Scent of Butterflies,” will be released in January of 2014.

Q&A with Alan Dershowitz

No one can accuse the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz of understatement, but the subtitle of his new autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law” (Crown, $28), is a bit misleading. It’s true that Dershowitz’s claim to fame began with his work on a long list of famous cases, but Dershowitz is really an activist, a gadfly and a public intellectual on a global scale. His interest and engagement goes far beyond the courtroom as evidenced by the blurbs on the back cover, which make the point with rollicking good humor. Most blurbs offer enthusiastic endorsements of an author and his book. But the back cover of “Taking the Stand” consists of the pairing of opposites: “I don’t read Dershowitz,” says Jimmy Carter, while Barack Obama thanks him “for your friendship and counsel.” And Noam Chomsky complains that “Dershowitz is not very bright [and] he’s strongly opposed to civil liberties,” while Henry Louis Gates calls him “a subtle and compelling theorist of civil liberties.” Alan Dershowitz spoke with the Jewish Journal by phone about “Taking the Stand” in advance of his Nov. 3 appearance at American Jewish University.

Jonathan Kirsch: Whose idea was it to use the point-counterpoint approach on the back cover of “Taking the Stand”?

Alan Dershowitz: That was my idea. Because I am controversial and I thrive on that fact. People either love me or hate me. I am proud of the fact that the people who hate me also hate Israel, hate civil liberties and hate the position I espouse, which is the liberal case for Israel. This is part of a long-term policy. For years, I have been putting my hate mail on the door of my office so my students can see what it means to be a controversial lawyer. 

JK: You write that you were told in school that you ought to be a counterman in a deli; you grew up in a Brooklyn home that was “barren of books, records and art” and your academic performance in high school was “abysmal.” How did you achieve your current stature as a Harvard law professor, a sought-after courtroom attorney and best-selling author, among various other accomplishments?

AD: I used all the things that were negative and tried to pick a career in which they became a positive. I was always feisty and provocative. That wasn’t good in the yeshivah I went to, but it was good in the courtroom, the classroom and television. I tried to turn my weaknesses into strengths.

JK: You write in your book that your son, Elon, “can instantly tell whether someone knows ‘the Dersh Character’ [as he appears in the media] or ‘the real Alan.’ ” Who is the real Alan?

AD: The real Alan is someone who never argues with his friends and his families. Last night, there was a dinner celebrating my 50 years at Harvard. The nicest thing that was said is that I never said an unkind word about my students or the people who work for me. I take out my anger on leaders. In my private life, I am a pushover. My wife wins every argument with me. How I appear on TV is very different from I how I really am in person.

JK: Does it please you or concern you that you have been pilloried both from the right and the left? 

AD: It pleases me. I am very comfortable with my enemies. They are people of the extreme left and the extreme right, well known for their intolerance. The thing that’s interesting is that you get real ignoramuses like Andrew Sullivan, who calls me a greater Israel advocate, but I’ve been opposed to the greater Israel concept since 1973. Ask [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas whether I am against the two-state solution; I’ve met with him on several occasions, and he doesn’t think I am in favor of a greater Israel approach. Thank God Israel has to make peace with Abbas and not with Andrew Sullivan.

JK: Perhaps the most remarkable story you tell in “Taking the Stand” is about how you protected your son from more than one peril by threatening or even using physical violence. It’s quite the most remarkable story in your book and shows a very different Alan Dershowitz than the man we know from the media. Do you believe that the resort to violence or the threat of violence is ever justified?

AD: Sure, it is when you have to protect your own children. You have to protect your family; you have to protect your children. I hadn’t hit anybody in many years, but it was unthinking. I just punched him, and I would do it again. I am not a pacifist. I believe that Israel did the right thing when they attacked Egypt preemptively in 1967. Violence would have been perfectly appropriate in 1935, when Germany started to violate the Versailles Treaty. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if France and Great Britain had attacked Germany. We waited too long to go to war. To everything, there is a season, and, tragically, there are times when it is appropriate to attack. 

JK: The Forward has called you “the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” I fear that Israel is not faring well in that court. Do you see a way for Israel to balance its security issues and its stature in world public opinion when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank?

AD: It’s very hard. The reason is this: One of the greatest accomplishments that Zionism ever achieved is bringing a million Jews from the Soviet Union. I am proud to have been part of that process. That’s what has resulted in Israel turning dramatically to the right. The good sometimes produces negative results. People like me and other liberals haven’t done a good job of convincing Soviet Jews to have a more accommodating attitude toward the Palestinians. It would strengthen their hand with Iran; it would help them build alliances in Europe and the Middle East. There couldn’t be a better time for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Yes, they would have to give up land and some of the settlements, but those are not security issues. I am in favor of making peace, and I know that Binyamin Netanyahu shares many of those views. He would like to be like Nixon in China, and this may be a season in which the climate is right for peace.

JK: You write that your celebrity is “largely derivative,” because it is based on “the famous and infamous clients I have represented over the years.” Isn’t it true that you are a celebrity in your own right? After all, you concede in your book that “my commitment to full disclosure requires that I not hide behind the distorting shield of feigned humility.” On that point, I think your audience has the impression that you enjoy the spotlight. Is that an accurate perception?

AD: I hate feigned humility, and I am not a falsely modest person. I was in the White House, having a conversation with President Obama and a few people on his national security staff, [and] he asked me what [was] the hardest thing about writing an autobiography. I answered: “To balance the need to be truthful with the need to be humble.” He said: “Alan Dershowitz, humble?” So I am frank in staying that “Taking the Stand” is the best legal autobiography ever written, the most substantive, the most serious autobiography of a lawyer ever written. I stand behind that! 

JK: You tell a hilarious story about how Prime Minister Netanyahu invited you into his private office and told you he had a question he had always wanted to ask. His question was: “So, did O.J. do it?” Does it trouble you that your work on the O.J. Simpson case casts such a long shadow? Is there something else that you would prefer to be remembered for?

AD: I want my tombstone to say: “He asked hard questions and he never accepted simple answers.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; Wilshire Boulevard Temple and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21. 

Q&A with Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky

The Russian-born Israeli Natan Sharansky, 65, a former member of the Knesset and now chair of the Jewish Agency, visited Los Angeles last week, hosted jointly by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills. A refusenik who spent years in a Soviet prison accused of spying is now running an 83-year-old, $400 million organization with a very broad mandate, and he has become the go-to Israeli leader on a host of controversial issues, ranging from conversion to the Kotel. He sat down with the Journal for a wide-ranging conversation about the role of religion in Israel, the spread of democracy in the Middle East and what he thinks he can — and can’t — accomplish in the three remaining years of his term. 

Jewish Journal: You’re dealing with some of the biggest questions facing the Jewish people today, including trying to broker a deal that would create a new section for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Is the compromise still viable? 

Natan Sharansky: It’s up to the Jewish people. I think there is surprisingly broad consensus around it, so I think it has a good chance. 

JJ: Both sides — the religious authorities and the Women of the Wall — seem to have stepped back some of their support, particularly following an Israeli court’s decision saying women can pray near the Kotel as they wish. 

NS: Everybody has his or her reservations. The Women of the Wall [a group holding monthly prayers at the Kotel] are fighting for having something specific for one group, one hour in a month. My proposal deals with this issue strategically, to make sure there is enough space near the wall for everybody. Each side wants to improve it in a way that will make it unacceptable to the other, but in the end everybody is loyal to this compromise. 

JJ: The Kotel was one of the first places you went to when you first arrived in Israel. How do you describe it? As a place of prayer?

NS: That’s what people don’t understand; they try to make the Kotel much less than it is. Many in American Jewish federations will say, “Why don’t we have this problem at the Lincoln Memorial?” Or, to the contrary: “Nobody will think to try to change the prayer in the Vatican, so why are we trying to change it here?” The Kotel is not the Lincoln Memorial; it’s not the Vatican. There is no other civilization that has such a symbol, which at the same time is the central symbol of their national identity, the central symbol of their historical redemption and at the same time the most important religious place, the closest to God. 

JJ: In a way, it also might be called a town square. 

NS: A town square is not a place for prayer. You are not putting pitkaot [notes] to God in the town square. At the same time, the Kotel is not only a synagogue, because it’s also a town square, it is also the place where the parade of your national pride is the most appropriate. That is why it is very important that there will be place for everything: for the oath of the military, for prayer, and for the place where new immigrants are getting their citizenship. That’s the uniqueness of this place. 

JJ: The “town square” was the metaphor you used in your 2004 book, “The Case for Democracy,” to assess whether a society allowed the free expression of dissent. Seen one way, the dispute at the Kotel raises the question of whether Israel today is, in your words, a “free society” or a “fear society.” 

NS: You’re simply trying to play with the words. What does that have to do with the town square? I said that a free society is one where, in the center of the city, you can come and express your views. 

JJ: Isn’t Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, doing just that? 

NS: Can you come to the Catholic cathedral in the middle of New York and have Muslim prayer there? And if not, does that mean that America is not a free country? No, simply that a Catholic cathedral is not a town square where everybody can say whatever he wants. Anat Hoffman comes to a place which, at this moment, it was decided it’s an Orthodox synagogue and says no, it’s not a synagogue, it’s a place for my prayer, and the debate in the society is whether it should continue to be only an Orthodox synagogue
or it should be a place for all the other prayers as well. 

JJ: Let me push back a little bit, because I think that the debate is happening in the context of a number of other debates, about where religious power and authority lies in Israel. Whether it’s segregated army service or segregated bus lines.

NS: Oh, segregated bus lines. I just was told about some area in New York, near Monsey, where there are streets where women go on one side and men go on the other side, and the buses have segregated places for men and women. Somehow I didn’t hear that anybody goes to the Supreme Court in the United States of America and appeals to the First Amendment. I’m very much against all those phenomena, but these attempts to say that it turns Israel into some kind of restricted democracy, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. As long as we have the most independent Supreme Court in the world, the most independent free press and all these institutions, we are absolutely a free society. 

JJ: You seem to get all of these hot topics that really get under the skin of American Jews. Take conversion: In 2010, when the Jewish federations in the United States were up in arms about the Rotem bill, someone said,“OK, Natan will fix it.” So, where are we?

NS: We fixed it. With the Rotem bill, it was the Jewish Agency which warned the government that it’s a nonstarter. When, nevertheless, it went to a first hearing, we, together with the Jewish federations, orchestrated the campaign of bringing different delegations, and organizing meetings with many different members of Knesset. For many members of Knesset, this was the first meeting of their lives with Conservative and Reform leaders. And, in the end, it was stopped.

JJ: Earlier this year, you were given four more years in your current position. What do you hope to accomplish? 

NS: We just developed some proposals with the prime minister’s office, over increased cooperation between the government of Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The idea is to have 100,000 young Jews visiting Israel on different programs, strengthening their identity, to have 1,000 Jewish institutions all over the world with strong presence of Israel there, to designate 150 university campuses all over the world as Israel-engaged campuses with much stronger connection to Israel, and to double the opportunities for the absorption of young Jewish academicians. And of course, I’d like to finally find a common approach to the question of how the conversion should look. And I’m not speaking now of non-Orthodox conversion; I’m speaking now of Orthodox conversion, which is a big debate in Israel. 

JJ: What about marriage? Does the Jewish agency have something to say about freeing up the marriage establishment and who’s in charge? 

NS: (Laughs) Really? You want the Jewish agency to be —

JJ: I don’t know how far your mandate goes. These issues seem connected.

NS: There was a period when I was receiving a lot of e-mails from the members of Reform Jewry: “We were fighting for you; make sure that our rights are respected.” The Orthodox establishment probably began to understand that they also have to be organized better, so now I’m receiving an increasing number of e-mails, almost more than the Reform, saying, “We were fighting for you, make sure that our Judaism is protected in Israel and not destroyed.” All of them they are fighting for me, and all of them are part of the Jewish people. I don’t think that the role of the Jewish Agency is to protect the rights of Reform Jewry against the Orthodox, or Orthodox Jewry the other way. The role of Jewish Agency is to make sure that every Jew in the world feels that the State of Israel is also his or her state, and that’s a big challenge, believe me. 

The fact that there are people who are citizens of the State of Israel who don’t have the normal way of registering their marriages in Israel has to be dealt with. We in the Jewish Agency can bring together Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, government, opposition — that’s what can facilitate the discussion. But we can’t solve the problem of civil marriage in Israel. We don’t have a mandate from our electorate. 

JJ: In a 2011 interview with The Jerusalem Post, you expressed optimism about what was then still developing as the Arab Spring. What do you see now? 

NS: The source of my optimism is the same and the source of my fears is the same. In “The Case for Democracy,” I was speaking about “inevitable revolutions” in Egypt, Syria and Libya. It was, what, seven years before the Arab Spring? You cannot keep the people all the time in the state of mind of “doublethink”; the longer the dictatorship, the bigger the desire is of doublethinkers to get rid of this doublethink. Sooner or later these regimes will be overthrown. 

The mistake of the free world is that each time they build their hopes that their dictator will be forever. And the source of my skepticism is that it is very difficult to hope that the free world, in the end, will decide — not only for a short period of time, but for the long term — not to support “our” dictators, but to support development of civil society.

JJ: You’ve had a remarkable life and a remarkable career, first as a dissident and since your release. What’s next? 

NS: You say “dissident” or “minister” or “chairman of Jewish Agency” as if it is some value in itself. It’s all different positions from which you are dealing with the same issues. I spent my life dealing with the issue of identity and freedom, the connection between that and the life of our people. It’s a great topic, which never ends, and I am going to continue dealing with it.

Is there a place in religious life for marijuana? Ask Yoseph Needelman

After graduating from a Modern Orthodox high school in New York, 30-year-old author Yoseph Needelman moved to Jerusalem to explore the use of marijuana in Jewish tradition. For eight years he bounced around religious institutions, interviewing spiritual leaders to find out if there was indeed a place for drugs in the Jewish world.

The result of his research is compiled in “Cannabis Chassidis,” a book that explores the Jewish use of marijuana. The book was published originally in 2009 under Needelman's pen name, Yoseph Ibn Mordachya.

With Colorado and Washington having recently voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, popular views of the drug are rapidly evolving. Needelman’s book may find an audience among those seeking religious and practical advice on the use of marijuana.

JTA caught up with Needelman while he was on a book tour in America.

JTA: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to write this book?

Yoseph Needelman: I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and went to Modern Orthodox day schools. I went to Israel after high school to find things in Judaism that I felt must have been part of ancient traditions of how to live well, notably cannabis. I was introduced to drinking in a religious context, but relating to marijuana [religiously] was a big question for me. If the Torah is a religious framework that guides us in enjoying everything that is good, it must relate to other things I connected with, like pot or yoga.

I wrote this book because I think kids need advice and counsel on doing drugs that they are going to do anyways. If they are smoking pot and taking other drugs, they need to know how to do it effectively. My book discusses how to do those things in a helpful, effective and responsible way. That might include noticing the point where you don’t need a particular drug anymore.

Why do you think religious institutions have a negative outlook on drugs like marijuana?

Judaism is defined by its certain rejections. It is designed to protect us from foreign ecstasies and bad habits. I think here in America, certain Western values became the law, and they reject smoking and using herbs for a bunch of reasons. Judaism, which emerged from the ashes of Jerusalem's survivors, the people who were able to make themselves seem most unthreatening to the state, demands that its successful leaders not threaten anyone, especially not the state, so it’s become taboo. Marijuana is not identified as being especially Jewish, even though a lot of big rebbes traditionally were associated with it.

Where is it written that Chasidim use drugs, and who are some of the famous ones?

The Vilna Gaon [an 18th century rabbi and opponent of Chasidism] wrote in his cheirim, or writ of excommunication, that Chasidim are untrustworthy because they dance, sing and smoke. Some famous rabbis that sound like they used drugs were Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, or Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of the Chasidic movement. A Baal Shem/Doktor is someone who picked wild grasses and barks, and made medicines out of them which he would sell, along with advice on how to use [them] properly. He used to smoke from a water pipe to experience an “aliyat neshama,” or ascension of the soul.

His biographer, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, said that he would give his entire portion in this world, and in the world to come, just for a taste of what the Ba’al Shem Tov got from his pipe.

Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn used to smoke a pipe, too, and fill up the entire room before Shabbat. He would open a window and say, “These are the clouds of the week leaving, and the clouds of Shabbos are coming in.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev used to smoke a pipe before he prayed.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who came much later, was actually opposed to drugs, but he would smoke occasionally [in order to gain trust] by the people who were already on a high level of spiritual awareness and curiosity. Carlebach, however, was always frustrated by the sense of dependence the group had on it.

Was marijuana ever used for Jewish practices?

In Exodus 30:23, it talks about the anointing oils and there’s an ingredient called “knei bosem.” [The 11th century commentator] Rashi says it is “important,” and the Ramban explains in greater detail that the ingredient is “universally valued, in every country, and every empire.” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, a later redactor, gives over other opinions, one which is this ingredient is marijuana because it was globally popular, especially in traditions of lands like Yemen and Morocco.

Are there any biblical references to psychedelic use?

There is an opinion circulating amongst some academics and theoreticians lately that the Jews in the desert [experienced hallucinations] from the matzah they ate. Matzah was unbaked, raw, rye dough that was carried around and slowly cooked in the sun. It went through a process called St. Elmo’s fire, where their food turned into psychoactive substances, causing the entire nation to start hallucinating. The text alludes to these hallucinations when it talks about the splitting of the sea, like the nation seeing the skies crashing down on the Egyptians or seeing visions of all their ancestors. The text also talks about hallucinations when the Jews received the Torah, how they saw the voices and heard the lightning. Eventually the hallucinations got too overwhelming and the priests had to intervene.

In your book, do you talk about using drugs for a spiritual experience?

No, I don’t like when people say that. The drugs don’t create a spiritual experience. Maybe the intentions of why you are using can be spiritual. But pot alienates you from your responsibilities and needs. It’s not like alcohol that makes you feel warm. But then again, marijuana is the least dangerous drug — the worst thing it can do is make you lose track of your priorities.

What are the benefits of marijuana? 

The main advice I suggest are a few things. The best framework for smoking pot is when you are on your own and you have an activity to focus on. It’s also good to be in a small group of people that you really love. It’s also really important to make sure that smoking pot won’t become a problem for you, and that it won’t keep you from noticing what’s really important.

The good effects are that it [can give] a sense of peace of what’s going on around you. It can help you break down daunting issues that might be on your mind and help you process things more easily. Weed is also great for praying, especially if you’re not in a hurry. And of course, the best way to use it, spiritually, is to share it with someone.

Do you think people’s view on pot will change now that efforts to legalize its use are gaining momentum?

Honestly, I don’t know. Historically, Chasidim never cared much about what was legal and not legal. I’m not sure if people will change their view on it. I’d love to watch and see. But the people who are interested in using marijuana in a good way are already doing it. They are already aware of the powers and limitations of these things, so I’m not sure how things will change. But things will change, and the more people know how to take responsibility for being awesome and whole, the more we all can't help but to change for the better eventually. L'chayim!

There’s more than one way to support the Jewish state

In the landscape of American Jewish organizations, The New Israel Fund (NIF) has long occupied a prominent place on the left side of the aisle. Back in 1979, almost three decades before the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street was established, when Peter Beinart was still in elementary school, NIF began supporting Israeli-based non-profits that advanced the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel.

In the years since, NIF has donated more than $200 million to civil- and human-rights organizations in Israel. Its current list of grantees includes groups advocating for women, Palestinian Israelis, Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis, and Reform and Conservative Jewish practice, to name a few. 

The Journal caught up with NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch, formerly the founding executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, to discuss changes he’s seen in Israel, how NIF is advancing its mission in the Jewish state and how he manages to stay optimistic about the future.

Jewish Journal: You lived in Israel in the 1990s; how has the country changed since then?
Daniel Sokatch: I went to Israel in 1994 to go to rabbinical school. I realized pretty quickly that what was exciting to me was less the rabbinate than it was Israel. I dropped out of rabbinical school and stayed in Israel for a year and a half, working and soaking up what was a completely golden age, and went back to the United States in September 1995, just about five weeks before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Today, [Israel is] a very different place in terms of the hopes and aspirations that people there feel are realistic. It’s a very different place in terms of the demography. The situation of the Arab-Israeli sector was quite different than what it is today. Many of the fractures and schisms that are so apparent in today’s Israeli society were less exacerbated then.

JJ: Benjamin Netanyahu, both in his time as finance minister and now as prime minister, seems to have really transformed the country.
DS: Netanyahu led a series of economic shifts that have transformed the country in ways that have resulted in great prosperity for some and — as we saw this summer, when almost half a million people took the streets — massive amounts of discord for many others. But it was a mélange of factors that caused this transformation, and it’s an ongoing transformation.

JJ: Your organization recently launched a new campaign with an ad in The New York Times focusing on extremism and the treatment of women in Israel. It was inspired by one NIF supporter’s trip to Iran, and his concern that there might be parallels between the situation of women in Iran and Israel. Did you worry about that comparison?
DS: The ad doesn’t mention Iran at all. Murray Koppelman — this is a pillar of the New York Jewish community [who traveled to Iran and pledged to match all contributions to NIF for the new campaign, up to $500,000] — wasn’t afraid Israel was turning into Iran. He worried, though, because he saw things that reminded him of developments in Israel that have been unsettling to him in recent years, like the segregation of buses, like the removal of images of women in the public sphere, like the attempted crackdown on human rights or civil rights organizations to do their jobs. These things disturbed him, and he came home and said, ‘I don’t want to see my beloved Israel go down that path.’ That’s what the campaign is about.

JJ: NIF will have a booth at this year’s Celebrate Israel festival in Los Angeles and representatives of the group will be marching in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade, even as there have been some calls for NIF to be banned, calling the group anti-Israel. What’s it like to be at the center of that contention?
DS: These are charges made either by extremist right-wing organizations who have vowed to — to use their terminology — “delegitimize” any organization or any individual that doesn’t subscribe to their definition of what it means to be pro-Israel. But we don’t have anybody who gets to dictate what it means to be pro-Israel, and I’m deeply gratified by the response of the Jewish establishment of this country — for the most part — in refusing to blacklist organizations like NIF.

JJ: You brought up the Jewish establishment, so I have to ask you about Peter Beinart.
DS: I knew you were going to ask me about Peter Beinart.

JJ: Is there something that you usually say when people ask you about him?
DS: (Laughing) No, but I’ll say this. I think that our community prides itself on being a big tent. And lots of people say things and put forth ideas. If they do it with good intentions and civility and respect for the opinions of others, I think that we’re crazy not to encourage them.

JJ: How do you hold onto your idealism?
DS: One thing I picked up when I was in rabbinical school was the belief that there are two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah and Yerushalayim shel mata — in the rabbinical tradition, a heavenly aspirational Jerusalem and a real, actual city where people live. One day, I was walking home and I looked up at the sky when I heard the roar of a jet. There was a big airplane, which flew from the east over Jerusalem, circled the city twice, and flew back to the east. This is 1994, when you can’t do that without violating some enemy country’s airspace.

When I got home, I learned it was King Hussein of Jordan in the plane, the flight was to signal the surprise signing of the peace accords between Israel and Jordan, and Rabin had been in the control tower at the airport talking to him. At that moment, I saw the coming together of the heavenly and the actual Jerusalems. I saw what’s possible, I tasted it — we all did. I just don’t think that’s dead or over; I just think it’s a long hard road to get back there.

Q&A With Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, is a social and political activist and among the foremost leaders of the women’s rights movement in America. In town recently to honor the retirement of Rabbi Sheryl Lewart from Kehillat Israel, Steinem spoke about the feminist myth of Superwoman, why men should take on equal parenting responsibilities and why reproductive freedom should be a fundamental human right.

Jewish Journal
: Besides being a forerunner of the feminist movement, are you aware Wikipedia has given you the distinction of being ‘one of American history’s most important women’?

Gloria Steinem: That’s very impressive. I looked up affirmative action once in Wikipedia, and it said, ‘a measure by which white men are discriminated against,’ and I got so mad.

JJ: You first made a name for yourself as a journalist by going undercover as a Playboy bunny. Does it bother you that your beauty has played a role in your success?

GS: First of all, the basic problem is that women are assessed by how we look, whether we look conventionally pretty or conventionally not pretty. The problem for all women is we’re identified by how we look instead of by our heads and our hearts.

JJ: Would you deny that physical beauty has qualities that have helped you?

GS: It has inherent qualities, but some of them are bad and some of them are good. And incidentally, I am now 75 years old, and yet I’m still being asked those questions.

JJ: I’d be flattered if I were 75 and being asked those questions.

GS: No, you wouldn’t. Trust me.

: How has your perspective shifted as you’ve aged?

GS: Age brings a freedom. When you’re young, you’re much more subject to the idea of what feminine is or how you should look or how you should behave.

JJ: Early feminism wrestled with the fact that women were forced to choose between a career and marriage. Today, women have more choices,  but they struggle to ‘do it all.’ Is this what feminism was supposed to be?

GS: If I had a dollar for every time we tried to kill off the myth of Superwoman in Ms. Magazine, I’d have a lot of money.

JJ: I know loads of women who are still under the impression that feminism encourages that myth.

GS: It’s not possible; you can’t be both full time outside the home and full time inside the home. That idea came from the resistance to feminism. What feminism has been saying consistently for 30 or 40 years is that job patterns need to change so that both parents of small children — men and women — can have a chance to lead a full life. And that men need to become as responsible for raising small children as women are. As long as women have two jobs and men have one, it will never work.

JJ: So it is misunderstanding feminism to assume it’s about women having more opportunities and choices. It’s really about transformational change.

GS: We’re the only modern democracy in the whole world without a national system of child care and health care; that’s ridiculous.

JJ: Does it disturb you that issues like abortion rights are still being debated in the 21st century?

GS: It’s not surprising at a deeper level, if you consider that the whole reason for patriarchal cultures is to control reproduction. I find it very encouraging to realize that only 5 percent of human history has been like this. The Native American cultures on this continent, most of them, were matrilineal, and some women were the chiefs. Societies were about balance.

JJ: How does Nicholas Kristof’s book ‘Half the Sky,’ which has some startling statistics about the number of women suffering from atrocities like genital mutilation and sex slavery, fit in with the feminist agenda?

GS: What Kristof and Sheryl [WuDunn], his wife, are reporting on is the women’s movement — the women’s movement has been multinational and international from day one, because we always understood that our problems were not that dissimilar. The goal in all those countries is reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right.

JJ: Maureen Dowd wrote a column last year about recent studies that suggest women have become unhappier since the birth of the feminist movement. More choices equals more stress. 

GS: Why is Maureen Dowd an authority just because she’s a female? She’s a very smart person and a good writer, but her trademark is being against everything.

JJ: Even so, many women do feel burdened by a guilt that comes from their inability to devote themselves entirely to either their career or their family.

GS: Guilt is a way of getting a group to conform; you get them to oppress themselves by making them feel guilty. In the earlier stages of feminism, women were told they could not be whatever it was they wanted to be. After women became those things anyway, then society said, ‘All right, you’re now a lawyer or a mechanic or an astronaut — but that’s only OK if you continue to do the work you did before — if you take care of the children, cook three meals a day and are multiorgasmic until dawn.’


>: What have been the major costs of feminism, in your opinion?

GS: What’s the cost of freedom? What’s the cost of self-determination? The cost is growing up, but to remain a child when you are an adult is much more painful.

JJ: Without children of your own, has your credibility ever been challenged in the debate over balancing career and parenthood?

GS: The important point here is that men ask that question. Men have to ask, ‘How can I combine career and family?’

JJ: It seems unrealistic to move society toward that balance in a country that is career-centric and capitalist.

GS: I think people have started. Because it turns out that raising and socializing baby humans is a lot more interesting than most of what goes on in the workplace.

JJ: How have Jewish women contributed to the feminist fight, as compared to other women?

GS: For many years, the anti-feminist movement accused feminism of being a Jewish plot to destroy the Christian family.

JJ: Was your desire to pursue feminist justice at all inspired by your Jewish background?

GS: My mother, who was not Jewish, was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition. She really tried to stress that, and she loved her mother-in-law, adored her mother-in-law [who was Jewish]. You know the passage [in the Torah], ‘Wherever I shall go, you shall go?’ That was always how I knew it was a woman speaking to a woman — because of my mother.

JJ: Do you feel you’ve failed at anything?

GS: I haven’t written nearly enough.

JJ: Any regrets about feminism?

GS: Yes, we’ve been much too nice.