Fleeing ‘place full of death,’ Jews from eastern Ukraine weep for homeland

DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine (JTA) — Anatoly Lazaurenko’s face betrays no emotion as he watches footage of an old woman he used to know lying in the rubble of what once was his home in the war-torn city of Slavyansk.

Oblivious to her mangled face, Anatoly, 8, points to a corner of the computer screen to indicate the bombed-out apartment in eastern Ukraine that his family fled last month as a tense standoff between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces escalated into urban warfare.

Like many Ukrainians, the boy has become inured to disturbing sights after months of violent conflict in his country. Even after watching the video, Anatoly says he would rather be home — under fire, but with his friends and classmates. But his mother insists they are staying with relatives near Dnepropetrovsk, far from the battle zone, as long as the fighting persists.

“Every day Anatoly asks me in tears if we can go back yet,” says his mother, Ludmila.

The Lazaurenkos are among hundreds of Jews made refugees by the fighting in eastern Ukraine, part of a larger movement of tens of thousands of people who have fled since pro-Russian militias — some toting heavy caliber machine guns and mortars — took up arms against government troops in March.

Hundreds already have died in the fighting, including the 200 passengers and crew aboard a Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday by what American and Ukrainian officials say was a Russian anti-aircraft missile fired from rebel-controlled territory.

On Friday, two Jews — Svetlana Sitnikov and her daughter, Anna — were killed in an explosion in the eastern city of Lugansk.

The Jewish refugees are surviving on assistance from local and foreign Jewish groups that in recent weeks have launched major rescue and relief operations. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and community officials are helping to provide housing, monthly stipends, food and medicine in what they describe as one of largest mobilizations in the history of Ukrainian Jewry.

“We’re talking about a multi-element package designed to improve the situation of each and every person who left the battle zone,” said Yoni Leifer, the head of operations in the Dnepropetrovsk region for JDC. A separate relief operation is being carried out by the Chabad-led Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk.

The Lazaurenkos decided to leave Slavyansk last month after government forces began engaging the separatists. But Ludmila Lazaurenko does not blame Ukrainian troops, who launched their offensive following the standoff with the rebels.

“We were pro-Russian,” Lazaurenko said of herself and her parents, Nadezhda and Alexander Belovol, who fled with her and Anatoly. “But that changed after we saw how they fought from inside the houses of civilians, with no regard for their lives. There is no excuse for that.”

Two weeks after the family left, they learned from a television news broadcast that their house had been blown up.

“We started crying when we saw that nothing was left,” Lazaurenko said. “We have nothing now.”

For those without relatives to take them in, JDC and the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk have arranged rooms in the community’s various institutions. The Beit Baruch old age home reached its capacity last week after 28 people were given spots in vacant rooms.

Among them are Rosa Dvoskina and Sofia Sanina, two women in their 80s who fled Slavyansk and Lugansk, respectively, earlier this month.

“I made it out, but I can’t stop thinking about my poor friends and neighbors who are still trapped there without water or medicines in a place full of death,” said a weeping Dvoskina, who had lived in her apartment building for 40 years before having to leave.

Like most refugees, Dvoskina and Sanina say they fled out of a general concern for safety unrelated to the fact that they are Jewish. But their neighbors at Beit Baruch, an Orthodox family of seven from Donetsk who requested not to be named, said anti-Jewish graffiti began to appear in the city as the rule of law weakened.

“We started seeing swastikas painted on park benches, buildings,” the family’s grandfather said.

Amid lingering uncertainty about the future of Ukraine’s embattled eastern border cities, Dvoskina and Sanina are thinking about immigrating to Israel, though they would prefer to return to their homes. Other refugees, including Elena Libina from Donetsk, are determined to leave permanently for Israel.

Libina is staying in a community facility in Dnepropetrovsk only until her immigration application is approved. Meanwhile, the Jewish community is arranging for the rescue of her 91-year-old aunt, who remains trapped in Lugansk.

“We felt the tension rising and noticed that bus tickets out of the city were increasingly becoming more expensive,” Libina told JTA. “When they bombed the administration building, I left.”

Dnepropetrovsk is one of Ukraine’s largest Jewish communities, with 50,000 members. Several oligarchs, including the banking magnate Igor Kolomoisky, have poured millions into the community’s institutions, including several Jewish schools and the $100 million Menorah Jewish Community Center, a 450,000 square-foot facility that includes luxury mikvah baths, kosher restaurants, a Holocaust museum and a day care center.

Zelig Brez, the community’s director general and right hand of the city’s influential chief rabbi, Shmuel Kamenetsky, said organizing the rescue and relief operation isn’t merely a religious duty but part of his responsibility toward Ukraine’s smaller Jewish communities.

“It comes with the territory of being an engine of Jewish life in Ukraine,” Brez said.

The community has made wide use of its facilities to help house the refugees. Elena Konigina and her 12-year-old daughter, Ksenia, have stayed at a scenic countryside resort near the Dnepropetrovsk suburb of Pavlograd since they fled Lugansk in May.

Konigina would like to immigrate to Israel, but Ksenia is a minor and cannot exit the country without the consent of both parents. Konigina says she does not know how to reach Ksenia’s father, whom she divorced several years ago.

Even if she could go, Konigina worries that the situation in the Jewish state won’t be much better.

“I don’t know what good that will do,” Konigina said. “They are shooting there, too.”

Jewish mother and daughter killed in Ukraine shelling

A Jewish mother and daughter were killed in a shelling in the embattled eastern Ukraine city of Lugansk.

The victims of Friday’s explosion were identified on the website of the Lugansk Jewish community as Svetlana and Anna Sitnikov.

Svetlana Sitnikov, 57, and her daughter Anna Sitnikov, 31, were going to buy shoes, according to  Zelig Brez, a leader of the Jewish Community of Dnepropetrovsk. They were to take along Anna’s 4-year-old son, Vadim, but at the last moment his grandfather took the boy. Five minutes later came the explosion, Brez said.

They were among the most active members of the community,” he said.

Rabbi Shalom Gopin, Chabad’s emissary to Lugansk, was trying to bring the deceased to burial but was waiting on authorization from city officials, the news site ch10.co.il reported Sunday. Gopin was not immediately available for comment.

Lugansk is among a number of cities in eastern Ukraine where the government is fighting pro-Russian separatists who took up arms after the ousting in late February of President Viktor Yanukovych in a revolution that erupted several months earlier over his alleged corruption and close ties with the Kremlin in Russia.

Since fighting erupted, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Community of Dnepropetrovsk have helped more than 650 flee battle zones in eastern Ukraine, settling them in community institutions or providing alternative housing solutions in addition to food, medicine and counseling to help children cope with trauma.

Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed into law a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies, a bitterly contested document which he insists will help end political turmoil and allow him to focus on fixing the economy.

Anxiety about a deepening political and economic crisis has gripped Egypt in past weeks, with many people rushing to buy dollars and withdraw their savings from banks. The Egyptian pound tumbled on Wednesday to its weakest level against the U.S. currency in almost eight years.

The new constitution, which the liberal opposition says betrays Egypt's 2011 revolution by dangerously mixing religion and politics, has polarized the Arab world's most populous nation and prompted occasionally violent protest on the streets.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Morsi had formally approved the constitution the previous evening, shortly after results showed that Egyptians had backed it in a referendum.

The text won about 64 percent of the vote, paving the way for a new parliamentary election in about two months.

The charter states that the principles of sharia, Islamic law, are the main source of legislation and that Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia – a source of concern to the Christian minority and others.

The referendum result marked yet another electoral victory for the Islamists since veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, following parliamentary elections last year and the presidential vote that brought Morsi to power this year.

Morsi's government, which has accused opponents of damaging the economy by prolonging political upheaval, now faces the tough task of building a broad consensus as it prepares to impose austerity measures.


The atmosphere of crisis deepened this week after the Standard & Poor's agency downgraded Egypt's long-term credit rating and warned of a possible further cut. The government has imposed currency restrictions to reduce capital flight.

The pound traded as low as 6.1775 against the dollar on Wednesday, close to its all-time low of 6.26 hit on October 14, 2004, on concerns that the government might devalue or tighten restrictions on currency movements.

“All customers are rushing to buy dollars after the downgrading,” said a dealer at a Cairo-based bank. “We'll have to wait to see how the market will operate with the U.S. dollar, because as you know there is a rush at the moment.”

Keen to be seen as decisive, the government is now in talks with business figures, trade unions and other groups to highlight the need for tax increases to resolve the crisis.

Morsi has committed to such austerity measures to receive a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Al-Mal newspaper quoted Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby as saying the government would not implement the tax increases until it had completed the dialogue with different parts of society.

In Cairo's bustling centre, people openly expressed their frustration with economic instability as they went about their daily business.

“The country's going to the pits. Everything is a mess,” Hamdy Hussein, a 61-year-old building janitor, said angrily. “It's worse than ever. Mubarak was better than now. People were living and there was security.”

Ashraf Mohamed Kamal, 30, added: “The economic situation will be a mess in the next few years. It already is. People will get hungrier. People are now begging more.”


Morsi, catapulted into power by his Islamist allies this year, believes adopting the constitution quickly and holding the vote for a permanent new parliament will help to end the long period of turmoil and uncertainty that has wrecked the economy.

Morsi's government argues the constitution offers enough protection to all groups, and that many Egyptians are fed up with street protests that have prevented a return to normality and distracted the government from tackling the economy.

The charter gives Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists, full legislative powers until the vote for a new lower house is held.

While stressing the importance of political stability to heal the economy, Morsi's government has tried to play down the economic problems and appealed for unity despite the hardship.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country's economy,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub told the upper house in a speech. “We are not facing an economic problem but a political one and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Morsi is due to address the upper house on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy.

Sharpening people's concerns, the authorities imposed currency controls on Tuesday to prevent capital flight. Leaving or entering Egypt with more than $10,000 in cash is now banned.

Adding to the government's long list of worries, Communications Minister Hany Mahmoud has resigned citing his “inability to adapt to the government's working culture”.

The opposition has condemned the new basic law as too Islamist, saying it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection. It said this month's vote was marred by major violations.

Nevertheless, major opposition groups have not called for new protests, suggesting that weeks of civil unrest over the constitution may be subsiding now that it has passed.

The United States, which provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid plus other support to Egypt and sees it as a pillar of security in the Middle East, called on Egyptian politicians to bridge divisions and on all sides to reject violence.

Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp

Egypt’s new politics make Israel ties a target

To mark the day Egypt regained control of the Sinai peninsula from Israel, a group of protesters pledged they would this week cover a memorial to Israelis killed in the war with an Egyptian flag bearing the words: “Sinai – the invaders’ graveyard.”

The gesture will be one of the most public expressions of anger against Israel since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, marking the emergence of a long-repressed hostility among many ordinary Egyptians.

But while some of the new breed of politicians who emerged after the revolution are only too happy to exploit such defiance, there are still powerful reasons why mainstream leaders are not ready to burn their boats with Israel.

Calls for such a public act of protest would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, for whom the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was a cornerstone of regional policy.

Under him, public antipathy towards Israel – a nation with which Egypt has fought four wars – was kept in check, often brutally. It changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted on Jan. 25 last year. Egyptians now openly voice frustrations and are demanding Egypt’s new political class listen.

“After the Jan. 25 revolution, the regime fell and with it everything linked to treaties and protocols,” said Saeed al-Qasas, head of the Revolutionaries of Sinai, which vowed to cover on Wednesday the Dayan Rock memorial, a large stone erected in the desert with names of fallen air force personnel.

Egypt’s transition to democracy from autocratic rule is transforming the political landscape at home but also promises to shift foreign policy of the Arab world’s most populous nation which was the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel.

None of the mainstream politicians emerging in Egypt have said they would abandon the treaty, but the new order promises to make what was often described as a “cold peace” colder still, raising tensions on a sensitive border if mishandled.

Yet, even after handing over power to a new president by July 1, the generals who have ruled since Mubarak’s fall are likely to act as guardians of a deal that brings them $1.3 billion U.S. military aid a year.

Egypt, its economy in tatters, also can’t afford to alienate the United States or other Western states whose governments and investors are likely to be vital in reviving growth and creating jobs, crucial points to any Egyptian political career.

But Israeli politicians are already fretting over the political changes in Egypt and worry about the rise of Islamists, who swept the parliamentary election and are strong contenders in the presidential vote that starts on May 23-24.

One senior Western diplomat said the army, mainstream Islamists and other leading politicians recognised the benefits of maintaining a deal that kept the border peaceful for three decades.

“But there is zero traction in broader society,” the diplomat said, adding that this could encourage Islamists to test how far the boundaries of ties could be pushed.

Islamists and their rivals in Egypt’s presidential race, the final stage of a turbulent political transition, are already using Israel as a political punchbag to chase votes. They are vowing no repeat of Mubarak’s cosy ties with Israel.

“Democracy is about responding to public sentiment and public sentiment has little interest in maintaining a real relationship with Israel,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

He suggested Egypt could follow Turkey’s example where once-close ties with Israel had worsened sharply after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in May 2010 in a raid on a ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip.

“What people should be focusing on is how domestic developments in Egypt will alter its foreign policy. I think the model here is probably something resembling Turkey’s approach to Israel, that you maintain diplomatic cooperation but there is a lot of anti-Israel bluster and symbolic gestures,” he said.

One such gesture may have been a decision this week to scrap a 20-year deal reached in 2005 to export Egyptian gas to Israel. It drew applause among the Egypt public, although both sides said commercial differences not politics were behind the move.

Professor Uzi Rabi at Tel Aviv University said that gas deal decision pointed to a region more “attuned to the street.”

“We are in (the midst of) a continuing deterioration in Israel-Egypt relations. One must hope that the interests will overcome the inflammatory direction,” he added.

The gas deal had long been criticised in Egypt’s opposition media and by the public even when Mubarak was in office. They said the gas was sold too cheaply and benefits were pocketed by Mubarak’s associates. The pipeline was sporadically attacked.

But the number of attacks has soared since the anti-Mubarak uprising. The line has been blown up 14 times in that period, halting the flow for much of the time. Officials and former Mubarak associates behind the deal have also been put on trial for corruption.

Islamists were swift to laud the gas deal’s cancellation and have been among the most critical of Israel, although such criticism crosses the broad spectrum of Egypt’s politicians.

“There is no doubt the peace treaty is unfair to the Egyptian side,” Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman and a senior figure in Egypt’s biggest Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, although he said all treaties would be “respected”.

He pointed to limitations on troop numbers allowed in Sinai since Israeli completed the pull back in the 1980s from the peninsula it occupied in the 1967 war. He also complained that Israelis were allowed into that area of Egypt with no visa.

The outspokenness of politicians taps a deep vein of anger against Israel but also reflects a desire since Mubarak was ousted to be more assertive and end what many saw as Mubarak’s subservience to policies of the United States and the West. Restoring Egypt’s “dignity” is a common refrain in speeches.

“Egypt’s next president can’t be like his predecessor, he can’t be a follower who executes policies put to him from outside,” Mohamed Mursi told his first news conference as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

The challenge for Egypt’s new politicians, keen to win over the public, will be putting the genie back in the bottle as they respond to the popular mood and test the boundaries of how far they challenge ties with Israel.

A miscalculation risks riling U.S. politicians, quick to rally to Israel’s defence, and alienating a major donor with the might to sway international investment and support.

“It is not about explicit policies or some kind of master plan the Brotherhood has, but how misperception breeds misperception,” said Brookings’ Hamid, adding there was a chance that Egypt, Israel or the United States could misjudge events.

Some Israeli officials have shown increasing signs of worry as they have watched Egypt’s political drama unfold.

Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said this month he was “concerned” about future relations with Egypt and said he was “not so sure” the Brotherhood was committed to peace, a break with the usually cautiously optimistic line.

An Israeli newspaper cited Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying Egypt was more dangerous to Israel than Iran, a country Israelis accuse of building nuclear weapons. Lieberman would not confirm those comments when asked later.

One of Israel’s biggest worries is the security vacuum in Sinai where Islamic radicals, some blamed for blowing up the gas pipeline, have gained a foothold as policing of the area collapsed after Mubarak’s fall. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “kind of Wild West”.

Yet, the Brotherhood, the dominant group in Egypt’s emerging democracy for now, may share Israel’s concern for the rise of extremism on its border. The Brotherhood has long been branded too pragmatic by more radical Salafis.

“So I think there is potential for a kind of understanding in the Sinai,” said Brookings’ Hamid, pointing to Gaza nearby where the Brotherhood-inspired Palestinian group Hamas cracked down on hardline Salafi Islamists.

And even the more hostile voices to Israel in Egypt seem to know the “red lines” that shouldn’t be crossed over a peace deal that won back the Sinai, which is now scattered with popular Red Sea tourist resorts where Israelis mingle with other visitors.

The Revolutionaries of Sinai had originally wanted the Dayan Rock memorial destroyed, but now said covering it in a flag would suffice. “We will make do with this,” said Qasas. “Though we call for its removal.”

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood

Soccer fans on the frontline of revolution

Sprinting down a side street in downtown Cairo, the group of young men are outrun by a hissing tear gas canister careening through the air, slamming into the ground beside them. They quickly raise their arms to their mouths in a futile attempt to avoid inhaling the gas. But one of the group turns in the direction of his pursuers, staring at them defiantly as he breathes in the gas as a show of strength.

In case anyone is wondering who the courageous young man is and whom he represents, look no further than the red, black and white flag of Al-Ahly waving to and fro amid the tumult and white clouds.

Al-Ahly is not a political or religious movement, but the legendary Cairo soccer team. And the man who is defying the security forces is an “Ultra,” a hardcore fan of the team. Like thousands of other Ultras, he has been putting forth his street smarts and penchant for confrontation with the police to join opposition activists in their fight against the generals ruling Egypt.

The Ultras and their role in the revolution came to the world’s attention earlier this month when two groups of them clashed at a Port Said soccer match between the visiting Al-Ahly team and the local squad, Al-Masry. At least 75 people were killed in the violence as security forces stood by, fueling a new round of protests against the interim military government.

Sitting and recovering from the sprint down the street, dodging birdshot and rubber bullets, a group of three teenagers sits off to the side. They dab their eyes with a vinegar mixture and peer slowly back down the street. Mahmoud is the eldest of the three and the leader. He holds an Al-Ahly flag in his left hand. The determination in eyes belies the reality of the clashes. The 17-year-old points to his leg, lifting up his pants to reveal wounds suffered in the past few days of clashes.

“They shot me five times,” he told The Media Line as he waited for his friends—also Ultras—to recover before heading back down the street. “We are here because our friends were killed and the police and military are responsible.”

In many ways, the Ultras have become the face of the most recent round of clashes with police that erupted following the soccer riot amid accusations that the government did little to discourage the violence or perhaps even encouraged it as a means of justifying continue military rule.

The Ultras’ flags and the fireworks they like to set off when they protest have become a common sight in downtown Cairo. On the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Mansour Street – the flashpoint of the recent battles between protesters and police – are graffiti memorializing the “martyrs” killed in Port Said.

Last Thursday, tens of thousands of Ultras arrived in Cairo to protest. The police were ready and waiting. They fired barrage upon barrage of tear gas canisters at the protesters, who in return threw rocks at the shielded and masked police. The clashes that followed in subsequent days have left Cairo in yet more chaos, with at least 13 people dead in the capital and Suez to the east.

Leading the protests have been the Ultras, football fans angered at the violence at the Port Said match. This isn’t the first time these football fans have taken to the streets. In fact, their presence in downtown Cairo has become common; their arrival marking an upsurge in confidence and determination among protesters.

Ahmed, a 41-year-old handyman from Aswan, arrived in Cairo on Thursday in the late afternoon to join the protests. “I get a lot of strength by seeing the young people determined to change this country for the better,” he told The Media Line during one of the truces on Mansour Street.

Once devoted wholly to soccer and street fighting, the Ultras have become politicized since the uprising to oust President Hosni Mubarak began last year. They were a major presence downtown during the six days of street battles in November. Their fireworks have become a mark of their will and strength. The rattle of rocks on metal pipes signals their readiness to battle. The Ultras’ motto is: “All Cops Are Bastards.”

In December, their strength became apparent after one of their fellow members was brutally beaten as the military cleared out a peaceful sit-in at the cabinet building in downtown Cairo. The Ultras responded with force, taking to the streets and throwing rocks, which turned into three days of bloody clashes that left at least 17 people dead.

The Ultras of Al-Ahly were founded in the late 1990s by a group of hardcore football fans who traveled around the country following their beloved club to matches. They were known for their virulent chants, feuds with other teams in the stadiums; and clashes with police. Historically, they confined their activity to sports stadiums.

That is, until January 25, 2011, when Egypt exploded in protest against Mubarak. They led the vigilante groups that guarded the entrances to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests. When Mubarak backers attacked the rally on camels a year ago in the so-called Battle of the Camel, it was the Ultras who fought back. As time went on, the Ultras became an integral part of the protest movement, taking the lead in many of the marches and showing their fearlessness in the face of violence.

Their political power, while ostensibly outside the mainstream of opposition movements, is unmatched by any group in the country. When the Ultras take to the street, the police are fearful.

One of their downtown Cairo leaders, a man named Gamal, led chants during the latest round of clashes, urging fellow protesters to remain strong and not back down in the face of police violence. He was at the Port Said match, he told The Media Line, and says the people he has spoken with are as angry as ever.

“We have been at the front of these protests for the last few battles with the police. Football is not political, but when the police allow—even push—for fans to attack others, we can no longer sit back and permit this to happen to Egypt,” he says.

“I want to go to a match and have fun. We are not a violent people, but the police and military want violence and we will protest for them to leave,” he says, resting on the sidewalk as he recovers from teargas. There was no let-up for Gamal and his followers. When the Ultras come out, he says, “We should be noticed for our power and strength. It’s others who want us to stop protesting, but what does that serve?”

Eyewitness weaves tale of Iran’s revolution

On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamist students and militants loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the American Embassy compound in Tehran and captured 52 Americans — a diplomatic crisis that lasted 444 days.

Simon Sion Ebrahimi, a local Iranian Jewish author, remembers that day well. It was the same day employees at his accounting firm, which faced the American Embassy, took him hostage.

Now a 73-year-old retired banker living in Woodland Hills, Ebrahimi has incorporated his hostage ordeal in Tehran as well as other experiences before and during the Iranian Revolution into “Veiled Romance,” the first in a planned series of novels depicting the multigenerational saga of an Iranian Jewish family.

Ebrahimi says he chose to write the novel in English in order to inform a wide audience about the plight of Jews in Iran during the country’s 1979 revolution.

“While numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written in Farsi about the events surrounding the 1979 revolution in Iran, there is a big vacuum — especially in fiction, and more specifically in English — not only on this subject, but also on how Persian Jews have lived in Persia for over 2,500 years,” said Ebrahimi, who is donating proceeds from the novel to the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s emergency fund, which helps local Iranian Jews dealing with financial difficulties.

“Veiled Romance” recounts the love story of two young Iranian Jews swept up in Iran’s revolution. Leila, the novel’s female protagonist, narrates the tale.

Although the characters are fictional, many of their experiences, including the hostage ordeal, are drawn directly from Ebrahimi’s own experience. 

“[I was] an Iranian Jew who was taken hostage by his 500 employees because of his position, knowledge of the world, and perspective on government and law that made me an equal threat to the new regime in Tehran,” said Ebrahimi, who at the time was a partner in a large international CPA firm.

The author says his novel offers an accurate portrayal of the anti-Semitism many Jews faced before and after Iran’s revolution — including some of the intolerance Jews experienced while living in the Jewbareh, or the Jewish ghetto, in the city of Esfahan.

“The brutality of our neighboring nomads was beyond words. Admittedly, some of my childhood memories are vague, therefore I conducted extensive research by interviewing the elders of my community to corroborate my own memories,” Ebrahimi said. “My hope is that with ‘Veiled Romance’ my Muslim readers learn of the intolerance we as Jews experienced in Iran, because it is through knowledge that the walls of prejudice can be destroyed.”

Unlike the 52 hostages held at the American Embassy in Tehran, who were seen by Khomeini as agents of “The Great Satan,” Ebrahimi said his captors viewed him as “a lesser Satan.”

Employees demanded $20 million, telling Ebrahimi to get the funds from his “hidden bank accounts in Israel and America.” Guards were posted outside his office, and he was told by his captors, “Please don’t go home.”

Four months later, Ebrahimi was allowed to leave when he struck a deal to pay $60,000 — the exact amount a French client owed the firm. He flew to Paris to collect the money, and while there he secured a six-month visa. After he returned to Iran and paid his captors, Ebrahimi was miraculously able to flee the country with his family even though he had been placed on a no-fly list.

Despite a difficult captivity, Ebrahimi said he harbors no ill will and is grateful to many of his Iranian Muslim friends who were integral in helping to secure his release from captivity and his escape from Iran.

Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Frank praised the novel, and “Walking the Bible” author Bruce Feiler called the book “an irresistible and touching view into a lost world.”

Ebrahimi said feedback from Jewish and non-Jewish readers has been overwhelmingly positive, and he noted that he has also received feedback from non-Jewish readers in Iran.

“As a woman who lived through the revolution I could easily identify with the issues Leila was facing, albeit in a factually fictional novel,” Homa Oskoui, a Muslim reader living in Iran, wrote in an e-mail to Ebrahimi. “I read a lot of the story with moist eyes, feeling sad, heartbroken, and even angry at times, for the loss of our ‘homeland’ that we won’t get back in my lifetime.”

For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. To read a Q-and-A with Simon Sion Ebrahimi, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Occupy L.A. raises more questions than it answers

From the very beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement, people wanted to know why.

Why did a group of protesters calling themselves “the 99 percent” take up residence in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17?

Why were so many people galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street protest, and why have similar encampments since sprung up in more than 100 cities across the country?

And now that authorities in some cities have begun forcibly removing the protesters, why are the Occupy Los Angeles protesters so determined to hold their ground in the park surrounding Los Angeles City Hall — especially considering that they haven’t yet agreed on what they wish to achieve?

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hinted that the end of Occupy L.A. might be near, telling the Los Angeles Times that the protest “cannot continue indefinitely.” But as of press time on Nov. 1, the encampment was still very much in operation.

And even if authorities somehow do clear the park of the hundreds of protesters and their scores of tents, basic questions about this still-evolving movement likely will remain unanswered for many.

Who are these local occupiers? What drove them to take up residence in the tent city downtown? And could the Occupy Wall Street movement really impact the future of the country?

For the perplexed, or the simply curious, here are a few observations.

Occupy L.A., like the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, is most clear in its generalized outrage at the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country.

Every evening at 7:30 p.m., Occupy L.A. holds a General Assembly (G.A.) meeting. A recent one began with a call and response:

“Who are we?” a young man asked.

“The 99 percent!” the occupiers responded.

The inchoate frustration of the vast majority of the American population at the current economic troubles is what drives the Occupy movement, and the occupiers — the “99 percenters,” as they call themselves — are united in opposition to the excess gains in wealth of America’s super-elite, the top 1 percent.

These days, statistical evidence of the yawning gap between the super-rich and everyone else is easy to come by. A Congressional Budget Office report released on Oct. 26 showed that over the past 30 years, the incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent, while everyone else experienced growth of just 65 percent.

The evidence of economic hardship is also easy to see among the occupiers, many of whom are unemployed. Emilio Arreola, 25, has been involved in Occupy L.A. since its beginning in late September at Pershing Square downtown. Arreola has been unemployed since leaving the Navy two years ago. His tent is his only residence.

“I went out and got all five of my forklift licenses, I’m working on my CDL [Commercial Driver License], and it’s just so horribly hard to get a job,” Arreola said.

Beyond their dissatisfaction with the current economic system, it is hard to discern what the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to achieve — because the members of this leaderless movement themselves have not yet decided on goals.

Like the protests that swept through the Arab world this spring, the movement proudly proclaims itself a leaderless uprising. But unlike, say, the protests that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet targeted a single agreed-upon villain or united behind any clear goals.

It’s time for a Jewish Spring

Recent weeks have not blessed us with much good news. Turkey’s bullying threats to Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Palestinian determination to pursue its bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations this month, and the mob attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo signal a very bleak winter for Israel and a very dark cloud over the entire Middle East.

These are unusual times, and the impending vote at the United Nations, in particular,  illustrates ever more clearly the urgency of Israel’s need for the Jewish people to stop bickering and to unite in support for the very existence of the Jewish state. Even with the U.S. commitment to veto any proposal for Palestinian recognition in the U.N. Security Council, a yes vote for statehood in the U.N. General Assembly would embolden Israel’s adversaries to reject any peace proposal that does not entail her eventual demise, and would further isolate Israel beyond anything we have seen in the past.

We are facing one of those critical moments when a sense of real urgency awakens nations to take charge of their destiny and act together to change the course of history. Are we ready for a Jewish spring?

In view of all this, the only bright light I have spotted in recent weeks’ news is the decision by J Street to oppose the Palestinians’ upcoming move to seek recognition at the United Nations.

I read the J Street statement very carefully, and it struck me as rather odd in its flatness and dryness — it reads like a diplomatic dispatch from the Swiss Embassy in Kamchatka more than a statement from a caring party facing a critical event in the history of our people. It certainly was a far cry from the creative, “out of the box,” “now is the time” statements we have heard from J Street in the past.

True, we can find there the usual “it will [not] advance peace, enhance security and improve conditions on the ground” and the obvious “the creation of a Palestinian state will not necessarily resolve the conflict” and the now dead-tired call for “jump-starting efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” What we do not find there is an earnest assessment of the situation that led to this unexpected decision.

Indeed, if we are to believe previous declarations by J Street leaders, then their decision to oppose the Palestinians’ bid to the United Nations is truly unexpected. If the Palestinians have been craving a peace agreement all along, and the only things that kept them from expressing those intentions were their hardship and hopelessness under the occupation, what could be more effective in boosting their self-esteem than granting them a bona fide state, full membership in the United Nations and a stronger microphone to broadcast their peace proposals worldwide? And if the only things that kept Israel from making painful concessions toward peace have been greed, lack of American pressure and the blindness of Israel’s leaders to Israel’s growing isolation in the word, what could be more conducive to ending this blindness than to shake them into a new reality with a hostile sovereign neighbor — more vocal and more demanding — which would make Israel’s isolation many times more painful and no longer ignorable? So, why did J Street decide to oppose this desirable scenario?

Some commentators are interpreting the J Street move to be a calculated decision to compromise on their agenda and tame their rhetoric in order to increase their influence and relevance among potential Jewish supporters. This makes perfect sense in view of the growing solidarity mainstream American Jewry now feels toward Israel in her new predicament. It might also reflect the understanding that going “all-in” for a conflict-bound Palestinian tactic could mean organizational suicide.

I would like to believe, however, that J Street’s decision reflects a more profound process of introspection, a more realistic assessment of Palestinians’ intentions vis-à-vis Israel’s future and, most important, a more enduring change in the way the Jewish community in general speaks, acts and stands for Israel.

I would like to believe that what J Street’s decision represents is the beginning of a Jewish spring — a period where we do wake up to the urgency of standing united against the rising threats to Israel’s existence, a day of reckoning with the centrality of Israel to our existence as a people, and an earnest commitment to take these threats more seriously than we have done in the past. It is, I believe, imperative to reassess our priorities and to act again as one people, in one big tent, to move toward a genuine and lasting peace.

If others have springs, why can’t we have one?

Israelis watch ‘Arab Spring,’ with fingers crossed

Since Dec. 18, 2010, when the first rebellion in the Middle East erupted in Tunisia — causing a chain reaction called the Arab Spring — Israelis were following the unfolding events with perplexity. Watching the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria chanting “The people want to bring down the regime,” many in Israel have been wondering: Is this a step towards the true democratization of the Arab world, or will it only cause chaos, instability, more repression, or the rise of radical Islam?

Looking at this from an Israeli perspective only might sound too narrow, and maybe even condescending, but being the only democracy in the Middle East gives us some vantage point.

On the theoretical level, of course, the Arab Spring is a blessing. For too long the people of the Middle East and North Africa have been suffering under tyrannical regimes. Now, when they have discovered the power of social media, they have probably found a way to break away from their shackles.

If the Arab states become democracies, then maybe the vision of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant will come true, namely, that democracies, which are not warmongers by nature, will live with each other in a “perpetual peace.”

Israelis want nothing more than to be surrounded by democracies. Assuming that good old Kant was right, just think about the potential of this region if instead of investing huge sums of money in weapon systems and wars, all this fortune would be funneled into higher education, healthcare and leisure. And Arabs and Israelis would then go into each other’s territory not on a military raid, but in tourist buses.

The question, again, is whether the Arab Spring is leading the Middle East towards democracy, because pulling down the regime is not enough.

Almost 10 years ago, the United Nations published a survey prepared by distinguished Arab scholars, titled Arab Human Development Report. After specifying some progress, the report, in the words of its authors, “makes it clear how much still needs to be done to provide current and future generations with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need to build a better future for themselves and their families.

“It notes that quantitative improvements in health and education have not yet reached all citizens, and finds that too often expansion of services has not been matched by needed qualitative improvements in their delivery.

“It underlines how far the Arab states still need to go in order to join the global information society and economy as full partners, and to tackle the human and economic scourge of joblessness, which afflicts Arab countries as a group more seriously than any other developing region. And it clearly outlines the challenges for Arab states in terms of strengthening personal freedoms and boosting broad-based citizen participation in political and economic affairs.”

Excuse the long citation, but this is truly the crux of the matter. If the Arab people, who dared pull down their dictatorial regimes, were now to find themselves helpless again, because of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of civic society, would they not become easy prey for radical Islam? For that kind of extremism flourishes precisely on the hotbed of social despair.

So as far as Israel is concerned, this is the paradox: If embryonic democracy emerges, say, in Egypt, and there are totally free elections, it is not unthinkable that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.

Once in power, overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges, these Islamic radicals will have to use an iron fist to stay in power (see Hamas in Gaza). And then, if not before, they will direct the rage of the people against the usual suspect: Israel. At least, with an authoritarian ruler like Mubarak, we knew exactly where we stood.

I’m not sure Immanuel Kant had the Middle East in mind when he wrote his treatise more than two centuries ago. In the meantime, the Arab Spring is now approaching the Arab Fall. Israelis are watching this with caution.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.

After Gadhafi’s fall in Libya, is Syria’s Assad next?

He was the Arab world’s most quixotic leader.

During the Reagan era, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States. Later, after his apparent cooperation in dismantling nonconventional weapons, he became an ally to President George W. Bush’s administration in the war on terror.

He called for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation called Isratine. He traveled overseas with a coterie of fetching female bodyguards. He slept in an elaborate tent.

Now that Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi appears to have been cast into the dustbin of history – he disappeared this week as rebels overtook Tripoli – the question in the Arab world is: Who’s next?

All eyes are on President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Last week, President Obama and a host of European leaders called on the Syrian leader to step down. While Assad marshaled tanks and troops and sent them into the streets to face off against anti-government demonstrators, pushing the death toll well into the thousands, the United States and European Union countries clamped down with new sanctions against Damascus. Even the leaders of Turkey, an ally of Syria, have called on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

But if you’re waiting for the regime in Damascus to disappear, don’t hold your breath. Syria is no Libya, and Assad is no Gadhafi.

What’s more, Israel may not even want such an outcome.

To be sure, anyone who said a year ago that three Arab dictators would be toppled by popular uprisings in the space of nine months would have been called a naïf.

But that doesn’t mean the Arab world is about to birth another fallen dictator.

A few elements make Syria’s case different from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

For one thing, opposition to Assad has materialized much more slowly, both inside and outside the country. Domestically, anti-government demonstrations have yet to explode into a full-scale armed uprising as they quickly did in Libya and Tunisia. The Assad family long has maintained its iron rule over Syria by stoking the fires of the country’s sectarian divisions, and while Assad might be reviled by some in the country, others—including the Alawite community from which he hails – view him as a patron of sorts.

In Egypt, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime owed at least as much to the military’s decision to side with the people as it did to the protesters themselves. Indeed, for the time being, the uprising there looks more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In Syria, however, the military remains fiercely loyal to the regime.

Within the Arab world, opposition to Gadhafi’s assault against his own people came almost immediately, with the Arab League’s endorsement of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the country. But it took the same body until last week to demand that Assad end his bloody crackdown, months after it began. And even then, the Arab League’s statement fell far short of endorsing military operations, as it did in the case of Libya.

Likewise, it took much longer for Western leaders to call for Assad’s ouster. And unlike with Libya, so far these leaders have given no real consideration to backing up their talk with air strikes.

Why not?

For one thing, it wouldn’t look good for the United States to be involved in four wars in Muslim countries. And unlike with Libya, neither the Syrian opposition nor the Arab League has asked Western powers to intervene.

Perhaps most notably, there is great anxiety in the Middle East and around the world about what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

That’s not to say that either the Americans or Israelis have any affection for Assad, but the instability that doubtless would follow his ouster could prove complicated for a whole host of neighbors.

Israel already is dealing with instability on its borders with Gaza and Egypt, and its frontier with Syria has been at its quietest over the course of nearly four decades – at least, until the protests in Syria began. Change, in Israel’s view, is an unknown and therefore a frightening prospect.

To its west, Syria traditionally has played the role of patron and overlord to Lebanon. Assad’s ouster could strengthen Hezbollah, or even throw Lebanon into complete disarray.

Perhaps most worrisome, a vacuum of power in Syria could be filled by nearby Iran.

For the time being, it seems that so long as the West declines to take up arms, it will be up to the Syrian people to get rid of their leader. Unlike with Egypt, a recipient of U.S. aid and a subject of U.S. influence, Syria long has been a pariah state and has minimal ties with the United States. It cannot be subject to the same kind of moderating pressure that was applied in Egypt.

All this doesn’t mean that Assad will stick around forever. If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected in the Middle East.

But if Assad is to go, it looks like nothing short of a war will convince him.

A transformational revolution in Israel

I am reading the status updates, Tweets, interviews and articles.I read them and I DO believe what I read.

I believe what I read because I knew that we were changing, I just didn’t realize the level of how powerfully inspiring and creatively driven the burst of change would be.
And since (or maybe because) I am not in Israel at the moment, I wanted to write a few words.

I read an article yesterday about the women behind the Social Revolution of Israel and my I had tears in my eyes. They were describing the “female power”; the receiving, listening, vulnerable and ‘accepting of the other’ aspect of this revolution. They talked about their refusal to fall into old patterns of violent and angry debate, and I understood how much this revolution is unlike anything else we’ve ever seen.

So how is this one different from the others?

Well, first it’s not just about the “what”, its about the “how”.

And the first “how”?  The Web of course.

Quicker than I can write 140 Characters, 1000 people got a Facebook update or a Tweet and decided to go to the massive demonstration tonight. This speed is unfathomable to offline people.

The second different ‘how’, is LOVE.

It is not a protest AGAINST something, it is a protest FOR something.

What they DO want, not what they DON’T want. And why is that?

Because some of us have indeed been to Goa, we studied a bit of Kabbalah, we read some Ray Kurzweil or Siddhartha, maybe we were just born a bit more tolerant and open to listening than the
older generation – or maybe we took a meditation class or two, and we understand that from negativity comes more negativity.

This protest is not just about yelling, these are the growing pains of a society.

And what do you call us? ‘New Age’?

I am here to say a very simple thing – YES.

We ARE New Age. What? Do you prefer to be ‘Old Age’?

Because if you feel like staying ‘Old Age’ and labeling me as ‘New Age’, then I am OK with that.

And while you comprehend that we will “Like“ your status and LOL it up, we’ll ask you to RT us as we create a new Meme – and there you go. Half of you already lost me.

But the other half is cracking up laughing.

And I am not in Israel, but the people who have been living in tents around the country in the past month will keep smiling at each other, smoke a Hookah, participate in the free Yoga class which
became available all over the country, debate peacefully and patiently among each other, play a song on the guitar and keep moving forward.

True, this revolution still doesn’t have a clear leader, true there are no focused demands which can be achieved quickly, true we need to watch for anarchy but there is something completely different happening here.

My generation is never going to be the same again – and it is not because of the actual political results we may or may not achieve at the end, but because of the WAY it has been done. All of this has been done with no leader, no centralized organization – but with Google Docs and Twitter. No one person who decides how it goes, but instead it’s a hive mind behind it – a community who decides together and creates our new reality as we go.

And this, my beloved readers, is not just a revolution.

It’s a transformation.

And it moves me to tears.

The solitude of the Arab soul

“This,” I thought, “is what the surface of Mars must look like.”

It was late February, and we were driving on a two-lane highway that spiraled up like a dark ribbon across a barren desert, through red, desiccated plains, along mountainsides with red rock surface and no vegetation — an angry, desolate place with no sign of human life except, here and there, a gray, one-room hut dug into a cliff. We had left Eilat in the early morning, crossed the border on foot, mounted a large, fancy bus that was to take us on a four-hour drive through Jordan, 2,500 feet above sea level, to Petra on the slope of Mount Hor.

I hadn’t been to Eilat for many years, and I was (not so pleasantly) surprised to find that it now looked so much like Cancun, or even, God forbid, Las Vegas — all modern buildings and convention sites and hotels with names like Herod’s Palace and Magic Palace and Royal Garden and Orchid. But the real shock had come at the border itself, on the three-minute walk on a fenced pathway that led into Jordan. A small, weather-beaten billboard displayed a faded picture of King Abdullah II trying hard to look at once forbidding and friendly. Behind it, a pair of shiftless soldiers in crimped, baggy uniforms scanned the tourists with undisguised indifference. You could tell they didn’t like us and didn’t like the Israeli border guards across the way, but you could also tell they didn’t like themselves, or their job, or the baby-faced man on the billboard, either. They watched us cross in a few hundred feet the colossal distance that lay between modern Israel and their own —Third World — country, and you could tell they knew how strange we would find this other place, this country that had changed so little compared to its neighbor in the decades since Israel’s inception.

All the way toward Petra, I stared at the empty landscape outside the bus and asked myself when, if ever, the government of Jordan would build something — anything — within it. Our tour guide was a Palestinian man from Jordan with sarcastic eyes and a smoker’s blue-black lips. At a tourist stop in a “local” teahouse clearly built to cater to foreigners on their way to Petra, I asked him where he had learned to speak English so fluently. He said he had gone to college in the United States, studied English literature, returned to Jordan to marry and raise a family. At lunch in another “local” eatery, I watched as he sat with a few other tour guides, speaking Arabic and smoking Marlboro Lights. The menu consisted of chicken nuggets and penne Alfredo, and when I asked for tea, I was handed a cup of warm water and a Lipton tea bag.

“I mean real tea,” I told the waiter, and he, assuming I didn’t know the difference answered, “Yeah, tea, Lipton.”

My fellow American tourists were staring at me like I thought I was Paris Hilton stuck on the farm, asking for caviar when fish eggs had been served. The tour guide looked up from his corner and muttered something in Arabic to the waiter. I don’t know what he said, but his voice was tired and laced with resentment.

What’s it like, I wondered, to have a bachelor’s degree in literature, only to end up working as a tour guide? To come from an ancient, once-celebrated civilization, only to have to mediate disputes involving the definition of “real” tea? To know you are capable of so much and to be able to do so little? That no matter how well you raise your children, they’re not going to do any better than their parents?

Jordan, to me, is a metaphor for the great tragedy of the Arab experience: bordered by three other Arab countries plus Israel and the West Bank, comprising both the Fertile Crescent and the Great Arabian Desert, heir to many an ancient civilization, it is neither at odds with the West, nor at war with Israel. Its people are its greatest natural asset. Its king and queen are by and large popular with the nation. And yet.

And yet little has changed for the people of Jordan since the end of the British Mandate more than half a century ago. The battles they have fought, internally and otherwise, have been mostly against other Arabs. The financial assistance their leaders have relied on has been provided mostly by the West.

What’s it like to know, in your heart of hearts, where no one will hear you say it, that the great tragedy of your world is not what has been done to it by others, but what your own people, and your own leaders, have failed to do? Because this, I believe, is what ails the Arab world more than any other factor, what lies at the root of the rage — the sense of impotence, the outbreaks of violence that we have witnessed throughout the past half century: More than the looting and robbing of their resources by the West, more than colonization, more than the existence of the State of Israel and the loss of Palestinians’ land, the source of Arab anguish today is the awareness that they have been, repeatedly and in myriad ways, betrayed by their own.

This isn’t to exonerate the West of unabashed plunder of the East, or to overlook the wrongs that Israel, as an occupying force, is bound to make to the occupied. It isn’t to say that one culture is superior to the other. But suppose you get rid of the British stealing your oil, and you find that your own kings and colonels steal even more. Suppose you throw out the colonizer and replace it with a President for Life. Suppose you look around, at the experience of countries like Iran, and fear that the only alternative to the Son of the President for Life would be the Supreme Leader.

I think they know this in Jordan and Libya and Bahrain, just as they learned it in Shiite Iran after the 1979 revolution. I fear they may learn it again in Egypt and Tunisia, just as they learned it in The Islamic Republic after the 2009 elections: The greatest harm done today to the citizens of Arab nations is not by the West or by Israel — it is by their own lunatic presidents and delusional kings, the megalomaniacal mullahs and bloodthirsty generals. The greatest crimes committed by those leaders are not against other nations, but against the men and women who once believed in the promise of salvation, who prayed for the savior to come, paved the road for him with their own children’s blood.

So I follow the goings-on in Libya and the rest of the region, and I pray that history will not repeat itself this one time. I watch those young people baring their chests before police bullets, and pray that from among them, a leader will emerge whose first and ultimate loyalty is — not to God or the West or offshore bank accounts, but — to his or her own nation. Because that, as I see it, is the only way there will ever be peace within the Arab world and between it and others.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Zenga Zenga

On Sunday, I posted a blog about a video on YouTube that had captured the attention of the Libyan resistance movement and become the unofficial anthem of its youth.

“Zenga Zenga” takes Libyan crackpot Muammar el-Qaddafi’s bizarre Green Square speech of Feb. 26, puts it through Auto-Tune, re-edits it to a disco beat and fills out the frame with a gyrating go-go dancer. At the time I first wrote about it, the homemade music video had 500,000 YouTube hits. As of Tuesday, it has nearly 2 million.

What many Libyans didn’t know at first was that the video was created and posted by a 31-year-old Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv named Noy Alooshe.

As that fact became known, the comments section on Alooshe’s post became a founding document of the new Middle East, the history being refashioned each day before our eyes, the one very few policymakers, pundits and Jewish activists seem to get.

Plenty of comments attacked Alooshe for being Israeli, but more defended him and his video. Anyway, the majority of the Arab comments said, the point is that Qaddafi is a fool and a tyrant, and if “Zenga Zenga” can help bring him down, they’re all for it.

Something is happening here: The Internet’s astonishing power is breaking down borders and “flattening” the Middle East. Years ago, it took months of expensive long-distance phone calls, circuitous third-party interventions, and snail-mail letters to get Israelis and their Arab neighbors together. Now, with YouTube, Facebook and a quickly improving Google Translate, the connections are instantaneous. The implications of this force us to take a fresh look at what is possible in the region.

Consider what happened a  few days before the “Zenga Zenga” phenomenon, when Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem posted online a “Letter to the Egyptian People.” The rabbi laid out his hopes for future understanding and cooperation with Egyptians.

“We don’t know, first and foremost, who you are,” Hartman wrote. “You see, for the last 30 years it seems, we never got a chance to talk. We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.”

Hundreds of Egyptians wrote back.

Typical of the many responses was this one from “Hisham — An Egyptian”: “I appreciate your wishes for us. Let’s keep in touch and work together to resolve our differences and build upon achievements of the past.” 

And yes, there were “flames” too:


OK, the last place to go looking for kumbaya is the comments section following any blog. But the exchange shows the importance of beginning the process of winning hearts and minds.

I ran my theory by Yigal Palmor, a spokesman at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the branch of government in charge of the country’s branding efforts. 

“Reaching out to the Arab world is particularly difficult in the case of Israel,” Palmor e-mailed me from Jerusalem, tossing wet hummus on my enthusiasm. “Anything Israeli is systematically distorted when reported in the Arab media, with painfully few exceptions.”

Palmor said the Ministry tries to connect to Arabs through official social media outlets — an Arabic-language Web site and a Facebook page. But he said that the results of these efforts have been negligible. 

“Fear of backlash from neighbors or government prevail,” he wrote. “We haven’t seen any signs so far that the widespread use of social media in the Arab world makes for a more open-minded approach to Israel.”

Palmor might want to recalibrate his pessimism slightly in view of the “Zenga Zenga” reality. What he said is true if the idea of connectivity is limited to state-sanctioned or pro-Israel activist Web sites. Those money pits of communal dollars don’t get traffic or interest from most Jews I know, much less Arabs.

Plenty of pessimists look at what’s happening in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere and point to failed revolutions past, from 1917 Russia to 1979 Iran, to make a point that after liberation comes just one election, then another tyrant. But what’s different this time is that two revolutions are going on simultaneously: real and digital. 

For most of human history, we knew people first by their place of origin. My own last name derives from Oshmyany—a town near Vilnius where my ancestors once rolled cigars and stole horses. On the Internet, countries still matter, but less than values and interests. It occurs to me as I glance over my list of Facebook friends and Twitter followers that I couldn’t tell you for certain what country many are from, much less what state or city.

As social networks improve and deepen, and if the Internet stays open in the Middle East, Arabs and Jews will identify first through interests, values and “Likes,” rather than through nationality. Some 24-year-old Libyan DJ will find he has more in common with Noy Alooshe in Tel Aviv than with the religious kook down the block. What I’m talking about is the unofficial, user-to-user connections, the social network, if you will. The Internet has overwhelmed the old model of “top-down-only” official contact with “all-at-once” unofficial, unfiltered contact.  

It is the frequency, intensity and quality of these connections that can break down barriers and help Israel finally integrate into the Middle East. If that happens, Mark Zuckerberg will take his place in Zionist history, right beside Theodor Herzl. Thanks to him, the free flow of information will open up the blind alleyways of hate.

Oh, the word for “alleyway” in Arabic? Zenga.

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise—if it comes—wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel—including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and North Africa—on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal—something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s Navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

AJC: Suspend Libya from U.N. Human Rights Council

The American Jewish Committee called on the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Libya’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“The Gadhafi regime’s widespread use of brutal force against protestors makes a mockery of the U.N. Human Rights Council,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement released Monday.

“The world must not stand by while hundreds of people are being systematically killed, and many more brutalized and threatened as Gadhafi seeks to hold to the power he seized nearly 42 years ago.”

Hundreds are reported dead in protests calling for an end to Gadhafi’s 41-year reign; Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup. Anti-government protests began Monday for the first time in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Media reported that pro-Gadhafi supporters and security forces were firing into crowds of demonstrators and government buildings were set on fire.

Libya was elected to a three-year term on the Human Rights Council in May 2010. It received 155 votes from the 192-member U.N. General Assembly.

AJC is urging the General Assembly to gather immediately in New York to take up the suspension of Libya’s membership in the Council in a special session.

According to the 2006 U.N. General Assembly resolution creating the Council, “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

The U.N. Security Council was set to convene Tuesday in New York to hold a consultation on the unrest in Libya.

U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said Monday night that the Libyan violence was a “serious violation of international law,” is “unacceptable” and “must stop immediately.”

The uprising in Libya has come at a time when Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi seemed willing to address some of the former Libyan Jewish community’s grievances.

In an interview published Monday in the Jerusalem Post, Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Jewish Libyan Diaspora in Britain, said he had met twice with Gadhafi, who said he was willing to give a proper burial to Jews buried in common graves and to come to a settlement over Jewish money left in the country. Gadhafi also approved a meeting between Jews and Muslims in Tripoli, Luzon told the newspaper.

There were about 25,000 Jews in Libya in the 1930s. Today there are no Jews left in Libya, the last moving to Italy in 2003.

Luzon told the Post that he is in touch with people in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the scene of deadly violence during four days of protests, and that the situation was worse than it appeared in the press and on television. News reports Monday night said that city residents with the help of a defecting army unit had taken over the city.

Unconfirmed rumors Monday night said that Gadhafi had fled to Venezuela, which Libyan officials denied.

Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam went on state television late Sunday saying that his father remained in power and that the government would fight until “the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet” to stay in power.

Gadhafi last week called on Palestinians to mass on Israel’s borders until their demands are met. “Fleets of boats should take Palestinians … and wait by the Palestinian shores until the problem is resolved. This is a time of popular revolutions,” Gaddafi said in a speech Feb 14 on state television.

In Bahrain, at least 3 killed, 231 hurt as army cracks down on protests

The Bahraini army seized control of key parts of capital Manama on Thursday and banned gatherings, after a riot police raid on a protest camp left at least three people dead, 231 wounded and 60 more missing.

Armed vehicles rumbled through the capital after police stormed the demonstration square in a government attempt to quell three days of protest.

“Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us,” one demonstrator told Reuters by telephone as police tried to disperse demonstrators. Another said: “I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us.”

More than 50 armored vehicles rolled down a highway toward Pearl Square, a road junction that demonstrators sought to turn into the base of a long-running protest like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square which led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Courage in Cairo: Reflecting on Jewish martyrs and heroes

As seen in The Jewish Week

Putting politics and Israel aside, the most impressive part of the events in Cairo was the fearlessness and courage of the protesting Egyptians. We asked Rabbi Jill Jacobs to offer perspective on placing life in harm’s way. What should we be prepared to die for?Tell us what you think at con- {encode=”nect@jinsider.com” title=”nect@jinsider.com”}.

The Jewish Obligation

The three categories for which Jews are traditionally expected to mar- tyr themselves are all instances in which the choice is either to die or to violate a serious prohibition — namely, idol worship, murder or certain sexual practices such as incest.TheTalmud also offers examples of rabbis who choose to martyr themselves rather than desist from teachingTorah. In all of these cases, the potential martyr does not put him or herself into the situation, but rather is forced into it by an oppressive government or a powerful individual.

Tahrir Square & Jewish Tradition

In the Egyptian situation, individuals are not necessarily setting out to martyr themselves, but are assuming a significant degree of risk for a greater cause. Anyone who entered Tahrir Square knew there was a possibility of being injured, arrested or even killed.The calculation, then, is whether the risk of death is outweighed by the possibility of bringing about a better life for the majority.

This may be more akin to the Jewish question of whether one must put him or herself in physical danger in order to save a life. In general, there is no expectation, for example, that one must risk drowning in order to rescue another person.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

But no situation comes without risk — a doctor driving a car to the hospital could be involved in a fatal car crash. In every situation, then, a person must weigh whether the chance of saving lives immediately or in the long term outweighs the possibility that she will be hurt or killed in the process. Judaism does not value martyrdom for its own sake, but may permit some degree of risk when lives are at stake.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs On Her Own Martyrdom

I don’t think that any one of us can know whether or when we would be willing to sacri- fice our lives until the choice presents itself. It’s easy for me to sit in my Manhattan apartment and declare what I would or would not do under any circumstance, but philosophical musings may or may not have any relationship to how I would act when called.That said, the chief question for me would be whether I believed that the risk I was taking was justified by the results that my actions would bring about.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall Be No Needy” and the forthcoming “Where Justice Dwells.”

Final Thought: Human Being Not Martyr Or Hero

Rob Eshman

Just the other night in a lecture hall at UCLA, the writer Leon Wieseltier stood beneath a photo of the journalist Daniel Pearl. Islamic terrorists mur- dered the young Wall Street Journal reporter nine years ago, just seconds after he told them, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

But Pearl, said Wieseltier, was not a martyr. “Jews don’t believe in martyrs,” he said. “We believe in heroes. And

Daniel Pearl was a hero.” Martyrs set out to die for a cause. But thevalue Judaism places on life is too high, too precious, to make room for the intention to die. Daniel Pearl didn’t set out to die for his faith; he was killed for it, and he died a hero’s death. So the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” is a question best left to the moment before, when all other options are exhausted, when the only choice left is life or death.

Take away the obvious and immediate an- swers — my family — and the answer is likely just one word: freedom. Given the choice between living an oppressed or enslaved life, robbed of choice and dignity, and a chance to change my fate, I’d like to believe I would risk my life for freedom. I don’t think that makes me special, or a martyr, or a hero, but a human being.

Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corps, which publishes the LA Jewish Journal.

Tunisia: the first Arab revolution

Every July 23 for the past 58 years, Egypt, my country of birth, has celebrated its “July revolution” that overthrew King Farouk and ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was no revolution: It was a coup staged by young army officers.

And so it has been with a series of “revolutions” around the Arab world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in civilian clothes — some kept the olive drabs on — and rob generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked at the Iranians with envy — not at the outcome of their 1979 revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism for a coup.

So you’ll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I’ll forever cherish Jan. 14, 2011 — the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a change.

It’s the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so you’ll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I’m still celebrating. Let’s have no whining about how those thousands of pesky Tunisians who risked their lives to face down a despot ruined the idyllic package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.

The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, but there is no doubt who’s rooting for the failure of this revolution: every Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear. You can be sure the region’s dictators are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.

Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders that they weren’t anything like Tunisia: Egypt.

Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had faced down the bullets of Ben Ali’s security to protest unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime, Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.

If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists — long used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence — nor foreign troops that toppled the dictator: It was ordinary and very fed up people.

Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We’re hearing reports that neighborhood watch committees have sprung up to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben Ali’s loyalists.

Interestingly, both Western observers and Gaddafi have been crediting WikiLeaks but for different reasons. By buying into the idea that leaked U.S. embassy cables about corruption “fueled” the revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he, too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people — and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic inseparable from a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

Gaddafi’s Libya has had its own protests over the past few days. Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.

That’s why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: Relish the revolution that is not a euphemism for a coup.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Iran turmoil likely to benefit Israel

Like the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, the outcome of the post-election unrest in Iran could be of major strategic significance for the Middle East and for Israel.

Israeli analysts see three possible scenarios:

* President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling ayatollahs use force to reassert the authority of their regime.

* Ahmadinejad’s presidential rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, sweeps to power on a wave of popular support and reforms what still remains an essentially clerical regime.

* The unrest takes on a dynamic of its own, driving the ayatollahs from power.

In each scenario, Israel stands to benefit.

Clearly, regime change in Tehran could alter radically the political landscape of the entire region.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Middle East gradually adopted a new but equally bipolar character: Instead of the Soviet Union and its proxies standing against the United States and its allies, Iran has supplanted the Soviet role as the prime adversary. It was Iran that fueled the Arab-Israeli conflict through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza—Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively.

If street demonstrations do lead to regime change in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas could lose their Iranian patron and their major arms supplier, and the prospects for Israeli-Arab accommodation would improve dramatically. A new regime also could put the brakes on the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes even further.

“Under a different regime, the peaceful relations we used to have with Iran could be re-established,” he declared in an interview with the German Bild newspaper.

Israel and Iran had ties until 1979, when the shah was overthrown and exiled.

This best-case scenario, however, is also the most unlikely.

More likely, Ahmadinejad and the radical ayatollahs led by Ali Khamenei will remain in power. Even if this is the case, however, they will be seen to have rigged the election and then used force to suppress the popular will. The regime will be perceived more widely as brutally suppressive, will lose international legitimacy and, if it persists with its nuclear weapons’ program, could face a much tougher sanctions regime than otherwise would have been the case.

Iran in the future may need to be more attuned to domestic concerns and spend less on outside forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This scenario, too, would be favorable for Israel.

If Mousavi comes to power by forcing and winning a new election, he may be ready for a deal with the West on the nuclear issue. He also is likely to be less virulently anti-Israel than Ahmadinejad, and to provide less support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Some Israeli analysts fear that this will end up being only half a revolution: Mousavi would come to power, show a more human face of Shiite Islam to the rest of the world, win international plaudits, and defuse criticism and scrutiny of Iran while maintaining the same anti-Israel and nuclear policies as the previous government. Under a cloak of respectability, this Iran could be even more dangerous than Ahmadinejad’s, analysts fear.

Several leading Israeli Iran experts see the showdown in Iran as largely a family quarrel between members of the same conservative, clerical elite. They argue that there is not a great deal of difference between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and the only slightly less conservative Mousavi, who is backed by Ayatollah Ali Rafsanjani.

Indeed, the protesters seem to be using Mousavi as a rallying figure because they have no genuine reformist of stature to back. By the same token Mousavi, who seeks the presidency to make minor reforms, is happy to use Iranians who want much more than he is offering to build his power base.

The big question for Iran, Israel and the Middle East is whether Mousavi is riding a tiger that at some point may usher in a new more democratic era in Iran, and with it a more malleable and stable Middle East.

Here the role of the armed forces could be crucial. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard surely will remain loyal to the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime, but what of the rest of the army? If there is to be a real revolution, army units would have to join the popular protest in relatively large numbers.

Although this does not seem likely now, Israeli analysts are not ruling it out. They point out that despite Iran’s unprecedented oil revenues over the past few years, the economy is in tatters because of heavy spending on exporting the Iranian revolution rather than on bettering the lives of the Iranian people.

Most analysts agree that Israel should not interfere or give any semblance of interfering in Iran, as to do so almost certainly would be counterproductive. Still, both Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have expressed strong empathy for the Iranian protesters.

“It’s a regime whose real nature has been unmasked and it’s been unmasked by an incredible act of courage by Iran’s citizens,” Netanyahu told NBC.

“Let the young people raise their voice for freedom,” Peres declared in a Jewish leadership forum. “Let the Iranian women voice their thirst for equality.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a lightning visit to Cairo to discuss the Iranian situation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

In the regional divide between pro-Iranian radicals and pro-Western moderates, Israel and Egypt are on the same side, together with other key countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. A major shake-up in Iran could reshape the regional architecture and perhaps pave the way for far-reaching rapprochement between Israel and its neighbors.

Solving the riddle

Overnight, they lost their homes, their jobs, their life savings. At nine in the morning, they were well off; by noon, they were impecunious.

All the hard work and planning, the expensive education, the sacrifices, all the good fortune, the street smarts and common sense and old wisdom they had fallen upon or inherited or learned on their own — gone in a matter of hours, sucked away by the greed and immorality, the cravenness and stupidity of those in charge.

I’ve seen this movie before.

Thirty years ago this month, before Freddie Mac and Bernie Madoff and failing automakers, before Henry Paulson and Merrill Lynch and billion-dollar bailouts that don’t make a dent, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews watched helplessly as their lives unraveled through no fault of their own. It was the height of the Islamic Revolution, the climax of months of anxiety and stalemate.

In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran “for the summer,” to “wait out the troubles” and “return in time for the kids to start school in September” realized there was no going back. From far away, they watched as their homes and businesses were confiscated in Iran, as they and anyone else deemed sympathetic to the shah were fired from their jobs, tried in absentia and condemned to death.

Strangers in a strange land, they had no bank accounts, no credit, no knowledge of the workings of Western commercial systems. One minute they were successful professionals and artists and entrepreneurs; the next minute they were being yelled at by impatient clerks at discount stores, where no one cares who you once were — either learn English or go home.

And yet they endured. Most even triumphed.

I’ve wondered about this for 30 years, and more so in the last few months: How, I’ve asked myself, did our parents do it? How did they suffer so much loss with such grace, find their footing in a foreign land, start over and build again, often better than the first time?

Women in their 20s and 30s, with young children and no income, a husband stranded back in Iran; elderly men who spoke not a word of English, who had survived the ghetto and the poverty of old Iran, thrived under the shah only to see it all disappear; middle-aged couples with elderly parents and teenage sons and daughters — three generations of loss and alienation under one roof.

Where did my parents find the strength, the faith that sustained their own optimism and made the success of my generation possible?

Ironically, it was the economic meltdown of 2008 that helped me solve the riddle of 1978 and ’79. Through the torrent of bad economic news and the sorry spectacle of reckless dealers and malicious trustees and criminally ignorant public officials, I spent the better part of last year reliving the worst moments of the Iranian revolution. Both in terms of personal loss and collective angst, the parallels between us then and us now are obvious.

There must be a lesson here, I thought.

This is what I remember of the years directly after the revolution: my mother on the phone with her sisters a dozen times a day; my father sitting down with friends and strangers from Iran, talking into the early morning hours about what could be done, and how, and at what cost.

My brother-in-law walking every square foot of Westwood Boulevard and the downtown jewelry district, stopping every time he ran into another Iranian so they could bring each other up to date on what they had learned most recently. My cousin moving into her parents’ two-bedroom apartment with her three young daughters and two unmarried sisters.

My grandmother baby-sitting her grandnieces and nephews after school so their parents could work. Entire families moving to small towns in Kansas and Oklahoma, where a son or daughter was attending college.

Kids my age going to school in the daytime and working (illegally) at liquor stores at night to help pay the rent. Shabbat dinners with seven aunts and their husbands and children; Passover seders with 62 cousins and everyone’s in-laws.

We were lost, but never alone.

It’s one of those traits — this enhanced sense of community, this emphasis on the value of friendship and family, even if you don’t like the friends or the family, this recognition that we are defined as much by what we do individually as what we achieve as a group — that have as many drawbacks as advantages.

It’s the old village mentality, the need to belong at almost any cost, that is often deplored in traditional societies such as our own. It’s a tribal force that breeds conformity, nurtures intolerance, stifles the tendency toward originality and privacy on the part of the individual. At the same time, though, it’s a safety net like no other, an organized base of support that can catch a people — even Western people — in free fall, a sure thing when nothing else is for certain. It’s the one place, the one truth, you know holds no surprises.

“Why must we visit our great-great-aunt and her weird children and snooty grandchildren every time she invites us to her house?” my sisters and I used to bug my mother in those years.

“We see her because she’s your great-great-aunt,” my mother would say, as if that was supposed to make any sense.

We didn’t like the aunt, and she didn’t like us, and still, she came to our house, and we went to hers, and we all made nice to each other like little robots on some kind of mission of cordiality, the purpose of which is only now becoming evident to me: She wasn’t important in and of herself, this aunt. She was a link in the chain, a knot in the safety net, and so were we, and so were the weird children and the snooty grandkids.

In a fractured society, amid fear of the future and shame about the past, where so many families are standing at the edge of poverty and unemployment, and so many of the trusted have proven unworthy of trust, the old village may just be the place we all want to go back to.

For the children of those Iranian Jews who weathered the storm three decades ago and are caught in its midst again this year, the question is, have we kept enough of our parents’ values to be able to find our way back to the safety and support of the tribe?

For the rest of the country, descendants of those immigrant communities who came to America a hundred years ago and built the country into what it is today, the question is, will they look to the past, discover the secret of their parents’ survival and come together once again as a family?

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

This time, I remember

We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.

My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”

They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.

They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.

Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.

I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.

Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”

What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.

It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.

I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.

My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.

Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?

“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”

My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”

The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”

“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”

She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.

“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”

At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”

For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.

I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Sion Ebrahami: I was taken hostage by the moujahadeen

If you ask retired Iranian Jewish accountant and author Simon “Sion” Ebrahimi about being held hostage for many months in his office in Tehran during the Iranian revolution, he will tell you the circumstances were a sort of a tragic comedy. Ebrahimi’s office was located across the street from the U.S. Embassy.

In November 1979, when the embassy was taken over by armed revolutionary thugs, Ebrahimi and his partners were also held hostage inside their offices by his armed employees. Now 70 and residing in Los Angeles, Ebrahimi is penning a fictional, multigenerational family saga loosely based on his family’s life in Iran. He talked recently about his experiences as a captive.

Jewish Journal: Can you give some background into your accounting firm in Iran and the circumstances that led up to your being taken hostage?

Simon Ebrahimi: Before the revolution, I was a partner of the largest international CPA firm in Iran, where the employees with excellent performance records would qualify to become a partner of the firm. At the time, we had over 500 employees.

Since all partners came from the employees’ pool, we worked in a close, friendly environment. I always had an open-door policy with my staff. The same bonding was there, even if you became a partner.

At the time, I had nine British and American partners and five Iranians of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They included Muslims, Jews, Assyrians and Armenians.

As clients were both major corporations with international affiliations and also Iranian government institutions, I knew and worked with people at a very high echelon of the private and the government levels.

With the early signs of the revolution in 1978, the staff went on a sitting strike, and as the situation culminated into the takeover of the American Embassy compound and hostage-taking — which I was an eyewitness to. Since our office was facing the embassy, this stimulated our staff more, and soon my partners and I were taken hostage. This situation paralyzed the firm.

With them not going to work, the cash flow started getting messed up. What they were demanding from us was to terminate them all, pay them a termination compensation of $20 million, then re-hire them. Where was the money that we didn’t have going to come from, we asked? ‘Your hidden bank accounts in Israel and America!’ they responded.

JJ: Who were the people that took you hostage?

SE: With the passage of time, we realized that these people were from three factions within the firm, which included the Mojahedeen faction, the communist faction and there were the very fanatic pro-Khomeini faction.

And we had a few people who were still loyal to us and gave us inside information as to how these people were confronting one another. As the unrest escalated and Khomeini ended up coming to Iran, with the hostage situation happening in the embassy, my partners and I were also taken hostage by my employees.

JJ: Typically, people are terrified when they are taken hostage. What did you find humorous about the incident?

SE: The comedy side of this whole thing was more appealing to me than the tragic side, because these were not ordinary factory workers who would put the factory owners in a dark room and threaten to kill them. We had our breakfast, our kebab for lunch and our dinners; they were very polite — it was dead crazy!

But we were not allowed to go home. They assigned each partner a guard, which came from the employee pool. They said, ‘Please don’t go home tonight, because we are thinking of coming up with an answer to your end of the bargain’ — and we knew then that we were hostages.

Then they came to our offices and told us, ‘Please don’t go home.’ They were very nice, polite, civilized — but sons of bitches!

JJ: How did you eventually extricate yourself from this hostage situation?

SE: So here I am in the middle of the hostage-taking, sitting in my office, and one of my clients, a major subsidiary of the French government, calls me. The guy was my connection, and he asked me what was happening with his case.

I thought this was a God-given thing, because they owed us somewhere around $60,000. So I asked my client to come over to Tehran, and he said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you kidding me? Why don’t you come here?’ I said OK, and he agreed to give me the check when I came to France.

By then, my office was being run by a revolutionary committee, which was comprised of my own driver and a few other hoodlums. I called the revolutionary committee into my office and told them my clients have called me to Paris, and I was going to get the $60,000.

Now the office was in a financial mess; no one was paying their salaries, and $60,000 was a ton of money at that time in Iran. My driver — a revolutionary committee member — said, ‘I think he’s going to escape.’

And then I told my captors, ‘Get the hell out of my office; make up your mind, then come back and tell me if you want me to go and get you $60,000!’ Of course, the latter part of my cry worked.

They returned and asked what guarantees I could give them that I would not escape. I said, ‘My family is here; I have no intention of escaping,’ and they agreed to remove my name from the black list — the list of people who were forbidden to leave the country.

I called my client and asked him for a visa. Fortunately, I had my whole family on one passport, and he arranged for a six-month visa to France. After three days of work in Paris in September of 1980, I returned to Tehran with the check, and these people were celebrating the mighty dollars and distributing it amongst themselves.

I had already packed up a few suitcases. I grabbed my family, jumped on a plane and escaped to France. The fortunate thing was that they had forgotten to blacklist me again. We came to France, we applied for a visa to come to America and eventually made it here.

Escape, exile, rebirth: Iranian Jewish diaspora alive and well in Los Angeles

Thirty years have passed since the massive and violent demonstrations against the Shah of Iran that began in September 1978, and for many, the start of that country’s bloody revolution might seem a faded memory. Yet I have carried those shattering events with me all of my life: I was born on in Tehran on Sept. 11, 1978, as chaos unfolded on the streets outside.

For Americans, Sept. 11 has its own painful history, but for me, that day each year has always been, as well, a reminder of another horrific tragedy: Sept. 9 to Sept. 11, 1978, were among the first and most brutal days of a revolution in Iran that would result, among many upheavals, in the uprooting of the country’s ancient and once-thriving Jewish population.

My family’s story is no different from that of thousands of other Jews who fled Iran during and after the revolution, many of whom now live in Southern California, New York, Israel and elsewhere worldwide — the Iranian Jewish diaspora.

While scholars have since debated the true cause of the revolution, it is well known that the massive public protests for “greater freedoms” and strikes crippled Iran’s economy. Violence between the protesters and police erupted in Iran’s capital in January 1978 and intensified later in the year.

These activities eventually resulted in the collapse of the government led by the shah, who fled Iran on Jan. 20, 1979. On Feb. 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, quickly dissolved the monarchy and shortly thereafter established a new fundamentalist Islamic state government.

The new theocratic regime eliminated practically overnight many of the freedoms and civil liberties once taken for granted by Iranians — including the country’s Jews, who under the shah’s reign had experienced one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in their long history in the region.

A day perhaps best remembered in the United States is Nov. 4, 1979, when regime operatives took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held captive 52 Americans in a reign of terror that would last for 444 days — the rationale for this act, in part, was retaliation against the U.S. government, which had granted the exiled shah permission to be treated for cancer in America.

The new regime’s henchmen also quickly executed several prominent Jewish community leaders, accusing them of sympathizing with the fallen monarchy or “spying for Israel and America.” For fear of what calamity might befall them, many Jewish families rushed to abandon their homes and businesses and fled the country — often under cover of night. Others lost everything they owned, as millions of dollars in assets were confiscated by the new fundamentalist Islamist Iranian government.

Under the shah’s rule, Iran’s Jews, as well as other religious minorities in Iran, had become accustomed to being treated with respect, albeit as separate, distinct cultures. Now they were second-class citizens, and the atmosphere of hostility led thousands of them to flee the country.

Looking back, the trauma of that flight has left deep wounds within my community. Many Iranian Jews continue to live in disbelief at what transpired.

“It was unbelievable, unfathomable for us Jews to believe anything would happen to us in Iran because of the incredible power of shah and his government,” Ebrahim Yahid, a local Iranian Jewish activist, now in his 80s, told me in a recent interview. “Nobody in our community believed of the calamity we would face under the new regime of Khoemini.”

Jewish flight from Iran began in earnest, most community members agree, in May 1979, when the new regime’s revolutionary guard executed 66-year-old “Haji” Habib Elghanian, a philanthropist and the leader of Iran’s Jewish community. Elghanian’s younger brother, Sion, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke to me about his brother’s execution, the first time he has spoken publicly about it.

“Haji was in America, and 10 to 15 days before Khomeini returned to Iran, he returned to Iran,” said Sion Elghanian, who is now retired and in his late 80s.

The older Elghanian had been in the United States temporarily, hoping to weather the chaos of the early days of unrest, which had brought the country to a standstill through nationwide strikes.

It was expected that Habib Elghanian might become a target, because he was the wealthiest Jew in Iran and the leader of Iran’s Jews.

“Everyone, including the late Israeli Prime Minister Begin, asked him not to return to Iran, but he said, ‘I was born in Iran, I love my country, I have treated all Iranians — Muslims and Jews alike — with compassion, and I have not done anything illegal,'” his younger brother remembered.

The Islamic regime arrested Habib Elghanian on Feb. 17, 1979, and falsely charged him with being a Zionist spy, along with other trumped-up charges of treason against the state. He was executed on May 9, 1979, after a sham trial by the revolutionary Islamic court, which lasted just over an hour and consisted merely of a proclamation of the verdict, without presenting any real evidence. While he was in prison, family members and friends were able to get some messages to him and receive his replies.

“Haji knew that they were going to kill him,” Sion Elghanian said. “Before he was executed, he requested that that he be given his tallit and kippah to wear. He recited the ‘Shema’ … and then they shot him by a firing squad.

“Afterward, Iran’s Jews were in total shock and grief,” his brother told me. “We told him [Elghanian] that we wanted to arrange to have him sprung from jail in an escape, but he told us not to go forward with it, as the move might motivate the Islamic leaders of Iran to retaliate by executing thousands of Jews living in the country.”

Sion Elghanian said that he respects his brother’s wishes not to be sprung from jail and feels that the family did all that they could to rescue and save him. He views his brother as a hero who sacrificed himself for the good of the community.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — 30 Years After the Iranian Revolution

Iranian Jewish members of the “30 Years After” organization talk about becoming more active in Los Angeles, state and national politics; featuring Assemblyman Mike Feuer and L.A. DWP General Manager H. David Nahai.

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.


Spectator – Spin-Doctors of the Revolution

Rachel Boynton, director of the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis,” was excited when she first learned that American political consultants export their work globally.

While a student at Columbia School of Journalism, she saw a film about the history of 20th century nonviolent conflict that included a segment on how American consultants had gone to Chile in 1990 to produce TV ads for a successful campaign to end Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s long autocratic presidency.

“I thought to myself, ‘There’s my movie. I want to follow an American who is trying to run an ad campaign to oust a dictator,'” Boynton said in a telephone interview. “It seemed to epitomize a lot of things I think of as being fundamentally American — optimism, hubris, political idealism and the profit motive all wrapped up in one event.”

Raised by her Jewish lawyer mother, Esther, after her parents divorced when she was 9 months old, Boynton had already lived in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Denver, Ann Arbor and Paris by the time she was in graduate school. Her film’s subject also dovetailed with her undergraduate degree in international relations from Brown University.

After five years of work on “Crisis,” Boynton, 32, has finally completed her movie, which opens in Los Angeles on April 14. But it didn’t turn out as originally planned.

She documents the campaign waged by the liberal firm of Greenberg Carville (as in James Carville) Shrum (GCS) on behalf of the unpopular but reformist millionaire, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (a.k.a. “Goni”), who was attempting to return to office as president of Bolivia.

“I liked GCS because they were very idealistic about what they did,” Boynton said. “Most people expect to see political consultants being very mercenary. This firm professed to be idealistic about their work.”

Essentially the firm’s strategies for advertising, focus groups, polling and image-shaping worked in Bolivia. “Goni” won in 2002. But the rifts caused by the spirited election set in motion a bloody uprising that forced him to flee from office in 2004.

The turn of events left the firm’s Jeremy Rosner and Stan Greenberg — captured by Boynton in post-revolt interviews — feeling melancholy and disappointed. A revolution was not part of their plans.

“They had this American attitude because we live in a place that’s stable,” Boynton said. “That is not necessarily the normal course of things all across the world. We need to recognize our perspective is not universally shared.”

“Our Brand Is Crisis” opens April 14 at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For showtimes, call (323) 848-3500.


Feminist Desktop Revolution

Don’t have time to shlep to a museum? Too tired to remember if the free museum day is the first or second Tuesday of the month? Want to conquer a large, overwhelming exhibit in small, 15-minute intervals? Then bring the museum to your desktop and browse at your own pace.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” an inspirational and evocative online exhibit. It’s an innovative way to introduce today’s generation of Jewish women to the pacesetting leaders who paved the way before them.

“‘Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution’ brings the story of Jewish feminism into the story of American feminism for the first time, connecting their histories in a landmark project,” curator Judith Rosenbaum said.

The brightly colored site is easy to use and fun to surf. Complete with video clips, documents, posters, flyers, photographs, art, radio news reports and first-person statements, the exhibition explores Jewish women’s significant contributions to the American and Jewish feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. How did these times change the lives of Jewish women, and how did Jewish women create change during the times?

The site organizes material by themes, timeline, people and medium and covers topics like women’s health, female rabbis, sexuality, arts, education and spirituality.

The exhibition features artifacts from the private collections of 74 notable women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Gloria Steinem, pioneering activist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and feminist artist Judy Chicago.

Also featured are three Los Angeles women: Rachel Adler, feminist theologian and professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; UCLA history professor Ellen DuBois, feminist author and scholar of 19th century women’s history; and Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAJC and founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles.

The exhibition can be found at

A Costly Win

Since the start of Israel’s election campaign last October,
the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a
secular revolution in Israel.

This week Yosef “Tommy” Lapid seemed to have a golden
opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui — which became Israel’s third
largest party after the Jan. 28 elections — agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s new Likud-led government.

But the initial signs for a radical shift in
secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset
seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National
Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government.
Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based
on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc — but without the
Labor Party — will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.

The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the
Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively
agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc
would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the
120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset
on Thursday.

The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when
Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance
Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who
turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal
from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the
finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet
appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants
to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition
agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on
secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor
of Jerusalem.

First they agreed to annul the “Tal Law,” which allows for
blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables
fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve
first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major
step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently
Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what
will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new
legislation within a year.

It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains
at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for
all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election
promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP
deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people
barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate — for example, when one of the
partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste
seeks to marry a divorcee.

But the key principle — offering a civil marriage option for
all Israelis — is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public
transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where
they don’t, nothing will be done to introduce them.

Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the
Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no
recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their
secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath
transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.

So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage,
Shinui’s Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by
individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do
is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui
legislators no longer could support a private member’s bill on civil marriage
that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui’s Yehudit Naot
declared Monday, “There are things you just can’t do when you’re in

A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid
insisted that “whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our
agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and
moderate religious people in Israel.”

However, few political analysts would agree.

“Where’s the change?” the left-leaning secular daily
Ha’aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of
Shinui’s name.

The Shinui-NRP deal “raises concern that in their eagerness
to join the government, Shinui’s leaders have given up some of the most
significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from
religion,” Ha’aretz argued.

The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for
the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the
completion of a full-fledged constitution.

“If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda,”
the paper warned, “its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that
preceded it” — all of which quickly disintegrated.

Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition,
missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been
able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.

Labor’s secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that
Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal
with the NRP — the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip — that made Labor’s participation in the government nearly impossible.

The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition
raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be
able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?

NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian
statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the
“road map” toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the
United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly
accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes
that will make the Palestinians’ responsibilities more explicit.

To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government
guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a
reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his
vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.

“Only once a specific phase has been implemented,” Sharon
said then, “will progress to the next phase be possible.”

But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP
stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government,
possibly with Labor?

The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon’s
pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP.
National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a
Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud
negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought
before the Cabinet “if and when it becomes relevant.”

In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced
that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community
would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that
happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching
compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down
when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.

The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased
style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well.
First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly
with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move
on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on
the basis of an agreed peace program.

Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations,
could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition,
Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make — just the
way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with
Egypt from the opposition.

JTA’s Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Two Firms Take Bite Out of ‘Dog’ Market

At Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory on Pico Boulevard, high school boys crowd the place, sinking their teeth into chicken-cilantro sausages and Moroccan sausages with olives and preserved lemons. The hot dogs at Jeff’s are a far cry from the skinny pink Hebrew National ones that most people think of when they think hot dog, and because of this, the franks sell well, even to high school boys who aren’t natural gourmets.

Jeff Rohatiner, who started Jeff’s Gourmet in 1999, and Alain Cohen and Evelyn Baron of Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, are at the vanguard of a kosher sausage revolution in Los Angeles. Both companies were founded by people dissatisfied with the state of kosher sausages and wanted to turn a normally low-cost food item into a high-end treat.

Fortunately for them, they found the right city in which to do it. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Los Angeles is the No. 1 hot dog-eating city in America, with more than 36.5 million pounds of hot dogs sold here every year.

According to the council, sausages — or processed meat stuffed into casings — have a long history and were even mentioned in Homer’s "Odyssey" in the ninth century B.C.E. The term "hot dog" came into parlance in the United States in the late 19th century, when "dog wagons" sold sausages in buns at college dorms.

The name was a sarcastic reference to the origin of the meat, and hot dogs have since found it difficult to shake their bad rap. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote in "The Jungle," his famous expose of the meat-packing industry, that the poisoned rats that fell into the sausage meat were "tidbits" compared with the other things in there.

Despite this, hot dogs have always sold well. They are cheap, easy to prepare and Americans eat 20 billion pounds of them annually.

Kosher hot dogs started going into mass production in 1928, when Isadore Pinckowitz, a Romanian meat peddler on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, started distributing his kosher sausages to Waldbaums, a grocery store chain catering to Jewish households. Since then, many kosher hot dog manufacturers have sprung up, including the famous Hebrew National, whose franks are sold in many ballparks.

In kosher grocery stores around Los Angeles, the beef hot dogs sold come from three main suppliers: Rubashkins, which operates out of Iowa, and MealMart and International Glatt, both from New York.

Despite the fact that kosher hot dogs are believed to be healthier than their nonkosher counterparts, because of the restrictions about their contents, many kosher meat connoisseurs still believe that the majority of sausages are made of heavily flavored abattoir floor-droppings — albeit kosher ones.

Looking at the Los Angeles market for hot dogs, Jeff’s and Neshama saw a business opportunity.

"It was very disappointing to come to Los Angeles and find that basically what [kosher consumers] have a choice of is a hot dog, a few turkey breasts and very inferior quality salami," said Cohen, who moved to Los Angeles from Paris 21 years ago. "I wanted to remedy that and bring people gourmet quality and more choice."

"Nobody was being creative in the kosher meat business," Rohatiner said. "I was looking to bring new products in the sausage category, and provide [sausages made] with fresh herbs and spices and international flavors."

Both Jeff’s and Neshama use only high-quality ingredients in their sausages. Neshama, which makes three varieties of sausage — mild Italian, southwest style and breakfast — uses low-fat, boneless chicken and turkey. It enhances them with nontraditional ingredients, such as apples, cranberries, walnuts and tomatillos.

Jeff’s sausages have a high-profile outlet among the general public as well. They are featured at the All American Sausage Co. food kisok, which is located in the Grove at Farmers Market. Proprietor Marty Katz said his location means that shoppers who keep kosher no longer have to look longingly while other shoppers get a bite to eat in the food court.

For Jeff’s beef sausages, Rohatiner uses chuck and shoulder meat — "whole cuts of meat without any trim" — to which he adds fruits and spices.

To make sausages, the meat is ground together with the flavorings and ice chips — to prevent the mixture from becoming too hot and splitting the casings — and then stuffed into cellulose or collagen casings. Nonkosher sausages are sometimes stuffed into pork casings that come from the animal’s intestines.

Rohatiner said that the difference between a gourmet sausage and a regular hot dog is in the ingredients and the grind. Other sausage manufacturers "are not really putting a lot of effort into flavor. They are not bothering much with fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables, because sausages have a shorter shelf life when you start introducing those things," he said.

"If they want to use the parts of the animals that I never see [such as the lips or the heart], then they need to grind it very finely," Rohatiner continued. "A hot dog is ground up the finest, and almost anything can be hidden in it, and that is why it has such a bad rap."

"In gourmet sausages," Rohatiner explained, "the beef is ground larger than a hamburger grind. The larger the grind, the better the flavor, and we give the customer something that is much more flavorful."

But kosher hot dogs are about more than just sausages. "A lot of people think keeping kosher is total deprivation," said Baron of Neshama. "We’re hoping that by developing high-quality, sophisticated kosher food, more Jews will feel comfortable in observing kashrut."

Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory is located at 8930 W.
Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 858-8590, www.jeffsgourmet.com. For more
information on Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, visit www.neshama.us .

A House Divided

On a blazing hot Saturday in the hills of Calabasas, the streets are deserted, devoid of the usual clusters of children playing ball or teens on bikes and scooters within this gated community south of the 101 Freeway. Houses shimmer in the glaring sun; garage doors hold the heat at bay.

Driving through, one would never know a small revolution is taking place behind one of those garage doors. In a home with a three-car garage, a new congregation, Kol Simcha, has sprung up, the second traditional shul to invade this cloistered community. (The garage is only a temporary solution; the group expects to move to a more appropriately-zoned location within a few months, its rabbi, Dov Fischer, said.)

Comprised mostly of ba’alei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism) and Sephardim, the group represents a new era in Orthodoxy, one where you can have your Mercedes M-Class and your mechitza, too.

However, the new shul’s birth has not been without its labor pains. Many of the members initially met as founders of The Calabasas Shul, the first Orthodox congregation in Calabasas, which still meets for Shabbat services at the nearby Bay Laurel Elementary School and holds classes at the home of their rebbe, Rabbi Yakov Vann. The 7-year-old congregation peaked in number at 65 families about two years ago but ever since the Kol Simcha group began meeting following last year’s High Holy Days, the Calabasas Shul has shrunk to some 35 families, Vann said.

Until now, Calabasas, which is about 78 percent Jewish, had only two synagogues: Or Ami, a Reform congregation which also rents Bay Laurel, and the Calabasas Shul. While Or Ami has grown exponentially since its inception, the Calabasas Shul has not, limited as it is by its location atop a steep hill and by the few Orthodox families willing to move to an area with no kosher restaurants and where housing is astronomically priced.

This split from the Calabasas Shul has caused a deep rift within the community, one that will likely take years to heal, if ever. Some say it was a matter of synagogue politics and social cliques that led to the break-up; others from the original congregation point out, with some bitterness, that it is easier on the checkbook to handle being a member of a shul with such little overhead.

"We rent a public school for services and have a full-time rabbi. They have a part-time rabbi and are using someone’s garage. So when you ask if we can both survive, it’s a difficult comparison," said Shelley Cooper, a middle school teacher at Emek Hebrew Academy and one of the Calabasas Shul’s founders. "It’s no longer a financial problem for them."

More than the financial concerns, the split has caused problems on a social level in this close-knit community — especially for the children. Many of the departing families had young children and the ones left behind do not understand why they have been abandoned.

"It is very upsetting, not only for me, but for our children," David Hofstadter said. He and his wife, Batia, moved to Calabasas from Tarzana five years ago specifically to be closer to the shul. Their children, ages 5 to 12, have grown up in the congregation, but Hofstadter said now it is a struggle for the family. "Their friends now no longer attend, so they don’t feel like going. It’s really had a deleterious effect on the community."

Still, Hofstadter said he could see both sides of the issue. "The people who left felt like they weren’t getting a fair shake and had other priorities that were not being met," he said. "So it’s probably good because there was this feeling of negativity and now that is gone."

Families who left say they simply needed a different experience than they were getting at the Calabasas Shul.

"We just wanted something that met our spiritual needs," said Dr. Sam Fink, an internist in private practice in Tarzana and the president of Kol Simcha. "We are more Sephardic; we have more Persians and more Israelis. It’s a different culture. We bear the Calabasas Shul no ill will; we just wanted something different. "

Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek said the situation in Calabasas is typical of most synagogue communities when there is a break-off.

"Clearly, as you thin out the ranks there are fewer people to share the financial burden and increased responsibility on the survivors and there is some resentment that comes with that," Tendler said, adding that on the other hand, "the people who leave are the ones who are the most unhappy, which leaves behind a more homogeneous, happier group. "

Tendler concedes, though, that the Calabasas Shul was a small congregation to begin with, and that the loss of members had a more significant impact than it would for a shul like Shaarey Zedek. Both Calabasas groups will also face special challenges in terms of growth because of the high cost of housing and the area’s geography, which makes walking to shul a hardship for most people.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, Kol Simcha’s newly hired part-time rabbi, said he is optimistic, even in the face of such challenges.

"It is an Orthodox community that really reflects an evolution in American Orthodoxy," Fischer said. "Until about 15 years ago, it clearly was the case that Orthodoxy was not upscale. But with the proliferation of yeshiva day schools which had faculty who were themselves American-born, you had all these Orthodox children like me who were raised to be Orthodox, but also to go to Columbia University. So you’re going see a lot more upscale people."

The second component, Fischer said, concerns the massive ba’alei teshuvah movement that has snowballed over the course of the last two decades.

"There are many Conservative and Reform Jews who feel they want to go forward and create for themselves something substantive," he said. "Often it begins with the children, coming home from day school with new lessons they want to see actualized," Fischer said. "The parents see that Orthodoxy is not so foreboding and find it’s an exceptionally warm community. That’s why we feel we can be attractive even in an upscale area, because we try to do things in an elegant way that people find comfortable."

Fischer said that he has met with Vann to discuss healing the breach between the two congregations. Despite that effort, the situation has been especially hard on Vann. In addition to running the Calabasas Shul, he and his wife, Chumie, have worked hard to establish themselves throughout the West Valley Jewish community. Chumie runs a small catering business and teaches classes through the Kollel in North Hollywood. The rabbi teaches classes at Emek, serves on the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force and attends meetings of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. It is the possible loss of an Orthodox presence in the greater community if the Calabasas Shul folds that concerns Vann the most.

"There’s a far difference between what I do and what Rabbi Fischer is going to do. Nothing against Rabbi Fischer, it’s just a fact of life," Vann said. "For example, this week several people called me about divorce issues, about suicide issues, about halachic issues and I don’t get paid a penny for people who come to me. The only people who pay me are the shul. If I leave, the problem is we’re going to create a vacuum of leadership. Who’s going to sit in on The Federation meetings, who’s going to advise the community high school?"

But Fink said he believes the two congregations can continue to grow and thrive, even within the limitations of a city like Calabasas.

"They’ve had no trouble getting minyans and we’ve had no trouble getting minyans," he said. "They have a rabbi who is very committed and can provide good leadership. As long as they are meeting people’s needs and [congregants] are happy, they should be fine.

"The goal here is not to be a Sephardic Temple [Tifereth Israel] or a Sinai Temple; you don’t need 2,000 families," Fink continued. "The goal is to be a place where spiritual needs are met, and if you can also meet the financial expenses associated with that, then you can be a successful congregation."

Even if it means meeting in a garage.

Rage Becomes Power in Writer’s Hands

"I still write a lot from anger," playwright Mark Medoff said. "I’ve wanted to flagellate the world."

Medoff, 61, is the author of the smoldering plays "When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" "Children of a Lesser God" and "Road to a Revolution," now at Deaf West Theatre. His intense work often rails against a world he perceives as rife with violence, racism and sexism. Several childhood memories fuel the rage, he revealed during a telephone interview from his New Mexico ranch.

As a boy, he sensed his family lived in a small Illinois town because his Jewish physician father couldn’t find work anyplace else. During summers at a Jewish camp in Georgia, Medoff said bigotry was as palpable as "a compression in the air." After the family relocated to Florida, he learned that his father had to beg an official to grant him a medical license because the Jewish quota was filled. "My father cried in front of this man," the author said bitterly. "I saw him turned away from door after door. All of that has long been boiling in me."

No wonder Medoff’s work rants against every kind of injustice. A shabbily dressed Vietnam veteran spurs the action in "Red Ryder," about violence and American values in the ’60s. A paraplegic Jewish veteran spews bigotry in "Stumps." A deaf woman refuses to be patronized in "Children of a Lesser God," which won Medoff a Tony and was made into an Oscar-winning film.

Now comes "Road to a Revolution," in which three generations of women (some hearing, some not), face off against the backdrop of the 1988 uprising of deaf students at Gallaudet University. It’s the fifth play Medoff has written for actress Phyllis Frelich; his goal, as usual, is incendiary.

"In ‘Children,’ there is a revolt by a deaf woman against her hearing husband," he said. "In ‘Road,’ the revolt leads to a kind of detente between the deaf students and the hearing board and, by extension, between hearing culture and deaf culture."

Medoff, ironically, didn’t rebel against the jock culture of his Miami Beach high school. A star athlete, he remained a closet writer lest he be considered effeminate, he said. He wasn’t above some smug assumptions of his own, however. "I had this clichéd vision of the deaf as those people who sold the little alphabet cards at airports," he admitted.

In the late 1970s, when colleagues told him about an amazing deaf actress named Phyllis Frelich, he thought, "Everyone was overcompensating because she was this poor, handicapped individual."

Yet hours after he had met Frelich, Medoff was so impressed that he announced he was going to write a play for her.

Frelich smiled politely. "I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, sure,’" she told The Journalin sign language, speaking through her hearing husband, Bob Steinberg, a set designer. Surprisingly, Medoff came through. "But we hated the play," Frelich said. "The main character was just so furious about her deafness."

Undaunted, Medoff affably tore the pages to shreds in front of the couple and invited them to work on a new play at his New Mexico state university theater department. Frelich and Steinberg accepted the offer.

"We bought an old, rusty Ford van for $600, loaded up the kids and drove out West," Steinberg recalled. By the end of the semester, the trio had created the drama that would help put deaf theater on the map.

"Road" began when Medoff was glued to the television news of the Gallaudet uprising in 1988. When the deaf college’s board elected yet another hearing president, enraged students protested and succeeded in reversing the decision. The appointment of Gallaudet’s first deaf president became the cornerstone of the deaf civil rights movement. It was Medoff’s kind of story.

He initially envisioned a film (he wrote the screenplays of "Clara’s Heart" and "City of Joy"), but was rejected at every studio in town. In one meeting, a young executive told Medoff, "There’s already been a deaf movie." The disgusted author eventually decided to develop the story as a play.

It’s not just a piece about deaf people, he insists. While the play focuses on the Gallaudet uprising, the character of Edna (Frelich), who is initially timid, reminds Medoff of his father, hat in hand, in the Florida state official’s office. "She is like all my relatives who were afraid of their own shadow, afraid to offend, to present their positions as Jews," he said. "But the play is universal. It could be about the Latino experience or any other experience, because everyone feels isolated and the need to rebel at some point in their lives."

For tickets to the show, which runs through May 27, call (818) 762-2773 or 762-2782 (TTY).