Happy Birthday from Berlin

At precisely 8 a.m. one day last year, I was awakened by a phone call. When I picked up the receiver, I heard a man’s voice say “Happy Birthday from Berlin.”

Since I
knew no one there who could possibly know my birthday, I took it to be a practical joke. But it wasn’t. The caller was Ruediger Nemitz, an official of the Senate of the Federal State of Berlin calling to invite me to come “home” as a guest of my native city.

Along with some other German cities, Berlin, since 1969, has had a program to invite “former Berlin citizens who were persecuted or forced to emigrate during the National Socialist period.” By the time I received my call, more than 33,000 former Berliners had been invited, and now, finally, it was my turn. I left Berlin in 1933, when I was just 3 years old, and I have visited the city a number of times as an adult on business, but I had no memories of my life there. I accepted the invitation and considered it a wonderful birthday present.

When my wife and I reached the London airport en route to our Berlin flight last spring, we noticed a small cluster of people with luggage tags similar to ours.

“Those must be our people,” I said to my wife, and went over to introduce myself. They were, indeed, part of our group, and we quickly played “Jewish geography.” As it happened, one of the couples lived within a block of my first London home after leaving Germany, and another, now thoroughly British, knew Los Angeles well, having worked there on several movies, most notably the James Bond series.

We were all roughly the same age, and at least one member of each couple was a Berlin native. Our group of 84 came from nine countries, with the “U.S. delegation” numbering just eight. The largest group came from Israel, followed by Chile, Argentina, England, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Belgium.

Our common origin notwithstanding, we all had become totally assimilated into the countries in which we live, and we stuck together with those who spoke our language. Moreover, I found it remarkable that we all got along well, and that there was not a single “kvetch” among us.

Yet we all came to Germany with our own “baggage.” Some knew the country from previous visits or military duty and felt no animosity toward the present generation of Germans. Others, a number of whom had lost family members or experienced Nazi atrocities themselves, were still bitter and unforgiving. Still others had lived a life of denial in their new homelands and didn’t want to admit their origins, even to themselves.

Our program included several receptions with speeches by senior government officials — all women. They expressed their gratitude that we returned to a city from which, as Mayor Karin Schubert put it, “you were driven away … exposed to profound hostility … humiliated, excluded and persecuted.”

One speaker characterized the Berlin Jewish community as “a piece of the mosaic that makes up our history” and emphasized the importance to the city of today’s Jewish community, which numbers approximately 30,000. Schubert also said that the city goes to great lengths to promote integration among various groups, including the Muslim community.

“We made mistakes in the past,” she said, “believing that different cultures can live peacefully in parallel. We have learned that integration is essential!”

Nevertheless, I found it quite remarkable that today’s Berlin contains so many reminders of the Nazi regime. Among them a billboard in front of a railway station listing the names of concentration camps to which Berlin’s Jews were deported, and so-called “Stolpersteine” (copper memorials in the shape of cobblestones) embedded in the sidewalk in front of the former homes of many Nazi victims. Our tours included these and many other important landmarks of “Jewish Berlin.”

My most indelible memories, however, are focused on three extraordinary experiences.

Visit With a German Family

We spent one afternoon with a German family, Cato and Annette Dill, two young lawyers who live in a delightful home in a Berlin suburb with their two children — their daughter, Benita, 18, and son, Dario, 14. All speak English well and have traveled widely.

Cato, 49, is treasurer of the Liebermann Society, which operates the country mansion of the German Jewish expressionist painter, Max Liebermann. Together we visited this spectacular home, filled with the artist’s paintings and located on the shores of Lake Wannsee — not far from where the site of the infamous conference where the “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” was planned.

The mansion and its gardens have been beautifully restored and only recently opened to the public. Our time together ended at the Dill home, where we got an insight, if ever so brief, into a sophisticated young German family whose interests and values were similar to ours and far removed from the Germany of the Third Reich.

Shabbat Dinner

By sheer coincidence, the daughter-in-law of my oldest friend was in Berlin on business during our stay. Leah Salter is an observant woman who lives with her family in Alon Shvut, an Orthodox community in Israel. We arranged to meet her for Shabbat dinner at the glatt kosher restaurant Gabriel, located in the Jewish Community Center on Fasanenstrasse. The center occupies the lot on which Berlin’s largest synagogue stood prior to its destruction on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Of that synagogue only a portion of the entrance arch remains and now frames the entrance to the center.

Leah and my wife, Barbara, began the evening by lighting and blessing the Sabbath candles, and we continued with my celebrating Kiddush. The restaurant has only about a dozen tables, and each was set in Sabbath finery, with starched white table linen. As the evening progressed, other family groups arrived, and the head of each household celebrated Kiddush at his table. Judging by the melodies they chanted, they were most likely from Eastern Europe.

The menu was traditional Eastern European: chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and so on. But that was the least important element of the evening. I was deeply touched by the spirit of Shabbat, which was palpable, and the realization that here we were, all survivors, celebrating “Shabbos” on the very spot the Nazis had chosen to eliminate us. What a demonstration of “Am Yisrael Chai!” (the people of Israel live.)

Jewish Resistance Fighters

The final day of our tour began with a visit to Weissensee Cemetery. Since I believed I had no family members buried there, I remained near the entrance and admired some of the monuments to holocaust victims and Berlin’s Jewish aristocracy.

My lonesome vigil was soon interrupted by one of our guides, Caroline Naumann, a young woman active in Berlin’s nascent Jewish community, who approached me saying “Come, I want to show you something.” She led me a short distance to a memorial honoring about two-dozen young German Jewish men and women in their 20s who rose up against the Nazis during the war. They were members of a movement similar to the “White Rose” student uprising and, tragically, all were shot.

Among this small group, were three who bore my family name of Rothholz. Although I have no idea whether they were relatives or not, they made me feel very proud.

Some Final Thoughts

At our farewell reception in the ballroom of the Jewish Community Center, Dr. Otto Lampe, director of the “homecoming” program, promised to do everything in his power “to keep alive the memory of the Nazi terror and to pass it on to future generations.”

Dr. Gideon Jaffe, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany suggested that “we Jews are a warning system, because we are often the first victims of crimes, but usually not the only ones.” He concluded by saying “I hope you have convinced yourselves that Germany has changed a lot, and changed for the better.”

I, for one, left Berlin convinced.

Peter Rothholz, who headed his own Manhattan-based public relations agency, now lives in Santa Monica and East Hampton, NY and is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications.


Presbyterian Church Fixes Divestment Damage
Two years after it angered Jews by passing a resolution calling for divestment from Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is trying to undo the damage.

At this year’s General Assembly in Birmingham, a church committee agreed Saturday night to ask the full assembly to replace its 2004 resolution calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” with a policy of “corporate engagement” that would restrict investments in Israel, the Gaza Strip and West Bank to peaceful pursuits. The full assembly was to vote on the resolution Wednesday.

The committee overwhelmingly agreed to the motion after days of deliberation in which it held open hearings and heard dozens of proposals.

Although the resolution does not formally rescind divestment, most took it to mean that the drive toward divestment had been stopped, and that the call for “corporate engagement” shows a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution approved by the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee:

  • Calls on the church to restrict its investments that relate to Israel, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank to peaceful pursuits;
  • Urges peaceful cooperation among Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, and Jews, Muslims and Christians;
  • Calls for dismantling Israel’s West Bank security barrier where it ventures beyond the pre-1967 boundary;
  • Aims to submit these proposals to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian politicians and religious leaders.

Klimt Paintings to Leave LACMA
Los Angeles’ loss is New York’s gain, with the sale by local resident Maria Altmann of an iconic Gustav Klimt painting to the Big Apple’s Neue Galerie, owned by Jewish cosmetics heir and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

The gold-flecked 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt, was sold for a reported $135 million, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

In addition to the portrait, four other Klimt paintings were recently returned to Altmann and her family by the Austrian government, after a seven-year legal and diplomatic battle waged by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

The art works were seized from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, after their takeover of Austria in 1938.

Sale of the “Golden Adele” is a cultural blow for Los Angeles, and especially the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), which is currently exhibiting all five Klimt paintings.

LACMA tried hard to keep the collection intact and permanently on home grounds, but was unable to come up with the necessary funds.

Altmann, a lively 90-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, is now planning a trip to Europe with her grandchildren, but doesn’t plan to change her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the house where I’ve lived for 30 years, keep driving my ’92 Ford, and I don’t need any new clothing,” she told The Journal in an interview earlier this year.

Angelenos have one more week to view the Klimt collection at the LACMA exhibit, which closes June 30. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Ethiopian Immigration to Israel to Remain Flat?
An Israeli ministerial committee recommended that the government postpone a decision to double the number of Falash Mura allowed into Israel from Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity and who are now returning to Judaism. The government decided several years ago to increase the number allowed into Israel each month, from 300 to 600. However, the decision was never implemented, and the committee said the move should be postponed further because of financial considerations. The recommendation comes as Israel’s High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition next week on the government’s failure to expedite the aliyah.

Reform Movement Center Opens in Jaffa
The Reform movement in Israel inaugurated a $12 million cultural center in Jaffa on Sunday. The facility, to be opened officially in October, will be called Mishkenot Daniel. The decision to put it in Jaffa was part of the movement’s efforts to reach out to middle- and working-class families in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The inauguration coincided with the first annual convention of the Association of Reform Zionists in Israel to be held in the Jewish state. The center is to include a youth hostel, auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue. Some prominent American Jews have donated to its building, and Israeli Reform movement officials hope local Reform congregants will help raise additional funds for the complex.

Israel Expands Residency Law
Israel expanded a law granting residency to children of non-Jewish foreign workers. On Sunday, the Cabinet approved a proposal by Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On to ease the minimum age requirement for children whose parents work legally in Israel and who want to become citizens themselves. Previously, only children who were born in Israel or arrived before age 10 were eligible, but the bar has now been raised to 14. Other requirements for candidates are that they speak Hebrew and have lived in Israel for at least six years. After completing mandatory military service, they will become eligible for citizenship. The amendment was opposed by Cabinet ministers from the Shas Party, which said it would threaten Israel’s demographic balance. But Bar-On argued that it applied to only a few-hundred potential candidates.

Kosher Restaurant to Open in Turkey
Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that Silence Park, a new holiday resort to be launched in the city of Antalya next month, includes a glatt kosher restaurant, the first in Turkey. The restaurant will serve both meat and dairy meals, using both local fare and products imported from Israel. Antalya is especially popular with Israeli vacationers given its geographical proximity and cheap prices.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Sweet Sixteen and Ready to Rise

Even though 16-year-old singer Liel Kolet was born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, she’d prefer to be called an international artist rather than an Israeli one. That largely explains why many of the younger generation of Israeli rock/pop buffs would know little about her. Nor is she routinely counted among the growing crop of Israeli pop princesses, such as Shiri Maimon, who also will be performing in Los Angeles later this month. She hasn’t released an album in Hebrew for wide distribution, and her English songs don’t get Israeli radio play.

And that’s just fine with Kolet. While the dark, curly-haired singer remains deeply connected to her Israeli roots — even while trotting the globe in America, Europe and Canada — she has her sights on the big leagues.

“From the start the idea was to build me as an international singer,” she said.

And there are parallels with her idol, Celine Dion. As young singers, both set their sights on international stardom with the backing of a dedicated manager (Kolet’s manager is Irit Ten-Hengel). Kolet, like Dion, has a clean and wholesome image, singing heartfelt songs about love, humanity and “the children.” On May 20, Kolet will represent Switzerland at the Eurovision singing contest, just as Dion, originally from Canada, did in 1988. The title of Kolet’s debut album is “Unison,” also the title of Dion’s hit debut.

“I’m not trying to be Celine Dion — we don’t have same kind of music — but what she achieved in her career and the steps she’s been through and what she represents are an example to me,” said Kolet in a very slight Israeli accent during a telephone interview. “She is an example of what an artist should be: She has an amazing voice and presence on stage that really touches to the heart of people. People come to hear her voice. That to me is what an artist is about.”

Kolet has a powerful voice and range, but Israeli-born female vocalists have notoriously failed to make a successful U.S. crossover. With the possible exception of Ofra Haza, another of Kolet’s favorites, Israeli divas usually fare better in Europe, which is generally more open to musical diversity.

Still, Ten-Hengel, Kolet’s international manager, left her prestigious career as a music executive at Sony Europe to focus solely on Kolet, because she has little doubt that Kolet will achieve her dreams.

“Mark my word: When she’s 18, she’s huge in America,” said Ten-Hengel. “She has the whole package — voice, personality, love for music, passion and angelic beauty.”

A select audience will judge for themselves when Kolet headlines the May 24 black-tie award dinner of the International Visitor’s Council. Music industry bigwigs are expected to be there for their own look, including Grammy-award winning producer David Foster, who has produced several of Dion’s hits. Ken Kragen, Kolet’s U.S.-based manager, is the dinner’s honoree for his production of humanitarian projects, including We Are the World and Hands Across America.

A veteran manager of such artists as Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Olivia Newton John and the Bee Gees, Kragen came across Kolet two years ago when he saw a video of her performance at the 80th birthday celebration for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. At the star- and diplomat-studded event, Kolet spontaneously called Bill Clinton to the stage to sing a duet with her of Lennon’s “Imagine.” It happened to be one of her best career moves.

“I realized this lady had amazing poise and ability and was a wonderful singer with an amazing voice,” Kragen said.

Two years ago, Kragen introduced the aspiring starlet to American music industry executives in Los Angeles.

With no major American record deals were in the offing, Kolet spent the last two years building up an impressive resume of performances in Europe, particularly in Germany, where she has won several awards. Her management believes that she’s now poised to conquer North America, making her upcoming visit to Los Angeles all the more significant.

“It’s not easy,” Kragen said. “The record industry today is much less inclined to sign new acts. The difference now is that there’s a track record in Europe.”

Kolet’s participation in charity events has put her onstage with artists such as Elton John, U2’s Bono and, most recently, Andrea Boccelli. She has developed a close working relationship with Klaus Meine of the legendary German rock band, the Scorpions, having performed with him last year in Israel.

Her first international album, “Unison,” is a potpourri of ethnic-tinged love ballads, upbeat pop songs and music with a “message”; it includes three duets with Meine. Their take on Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” is the most Israeli song on the album, reflecting the Israeli pride she says she’ll always carry with her.

As Kolet put it: “Singing for peace and everything that I do and my charity events are because I grew-up in Israel.”

For more information on Liel Kolet, visit www.liel.net.

PASSOVER: Don’t Be a Slave to Tradition

When I was growing up, I never had to ask my mother what she would be serving at the seder. It was essentially the same menu every year: dishes like homemade chopped liver, chicken soup with matzah balls, turkey with gravy, mom’s special “Shabbos potatoes” (first boiled then roasted with seasonings) and matzah farfel with mushrooms. All tasty foods, of course, but the predictability was not that exciting, to put it mildly, in deference to my mother, who surely worked hard.

Why is this night the same as every other seder night? I’d ask. “Because that’s what my mother made,” she’d reply.

As she talked about the seders she’d had with her parents and grandparents, her face glowed, as if they were there preparing the seder with her. She even used my grandmother’s cooking methods: She chopped the liver by hand, in a large wooden bowl, using a hockmesser — a sort of cleaver with a rounded blade. She cut up fresh horseradish for maror, instead of using milder romaine lettuce.

Here was my dilemma when I came of age and began making my own seders: Should I maintain tradition even though I didn’t have the same associations with these foods that my mother did? Since Passover celebrates freedom (another traditional name for the holiday is Zman Cheiruteinu, or The Time of Our Freedom), I wanted to express my freedom by making foods of my own choosing, rather than feeling bound by a menu that was “traditional” only due to its roots in Eastern European cuisine.

Over the years I’ve served at some nontraditional dishes at seders, including beanless chili, gazpacho, short ribs and bruschetta served on small pieces of matzah instead of the traditional toast. But my favorite dishes are those that tap back into the deep roots of this holiday. They allow me to create new traditions via foods that took on Passover-related significance.

Another name for the holiday is chag ha’aviv, or the spring holiday. So I focus on foods that are seasonal, whose flavors evoke the freshness of spring. Other dishes aim at connecting with the many ceremonies associated with Passover.

Ceviche is a fish dish of Peruvian origin, now served widely across South America. The fish is marinated in lime or lemon juice, with the citric acid actually cooking the fish without the use of heat. In this version, the two different kinds of fish present a nice mix of color and texture, while the vegetables also add color and flavor. The tangy freshness of this blend awakens the palate, as spring weather does to the body.

While Sephardim have it a bit easier on Passover, Ashkenazim have basically two starches to choose from: potatoes and matzah. Nearly every other starch falls under the category of kitniot, which are literally legumes, but include rice and corn, and are forbidden to Eastern European Jews.

There is, however, another choice that offers variety, along with taste and healthfulness. Quinoa. The grain was never classified as kitniot because it was unknown in Europe at the time the custom was established. It has a vaguely nutty taste, is extremely high in protein and low in carbohydrates. In this recipe, the lemon juice picks up on the ceviche’s citrus, and the dish is prepared almost like tabouli. But the key ingredient is certainly the fresh mint, which adds a perky crispness that clearly recalls spring.

A great centerpiece dish is lamb and Jerusalem artichoke stew. Lamb has particular Passover significance, connecting with the paschal lamb offering both in Egypt, and later in the Temple. And although Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes (they are actually sunflower tubers with an artichoke-like flavor), the name still reminds us of our annual seder proclamation to celebrate “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Plus, they are fresh in season during March and April, as are many of the wild mushrooms in this hearty stew.

Of course, there are many other dishes that can tap into the seasonal and customary aspects of Passover. Express your freedom by cooking almost anything you’d typically make for a Sabbath meal, just leaving out certain ingredients!

Two-Fish Ceviche

1 1/4 pound tuna steak
1 1/4 pound firm white fish (tilapia, trout or sea bass work great)
2 medium jalapenos, seeds and membranes removed, diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
juice of five to 10 limes
lemon juice
1 avocado, sliced

Remove any skin from fish, using a sharp paring knife. Cut tuna into cubes about 1-inch wide. Slice white fish into strips, about 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inches.

In a glass or plastic bowl, mix fish with jalapenos, cilantro and lime. Add juice of limes. If limes did not yield enough juice to cover all fish, add enough lemon juice to cover.

Refrigerate, covered, for 90 minutes to two hours, stirring mixture every 15-20 minutes.

Serve in small bowls or cups. Garnish each with a half-moon of avocado.

Serves eight.

Note: If made earlier in the day, remove most of the juice after two hours (or once all fish has darkened in color) to avoid over-marinating.

Quinoa Pilaf With Fresh Mint

2 cups raw quinoa (available in specialty markets)
4 cups water
1/2 medium red onion, diced
2 scallions, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix quinoa and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce flame and simmer covered for 15 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed.

Remove quinoa to a large bowl and let cool.

Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.

Serves eight.

Lamb and Jerusalem Artichoke Stew

2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dry light red wine (Chianti or Cote-du-Rhone, for example)
2 cups water
1 1/2 pounds Jerusalem artichokes, peeled, larger ones chopped to uniform size with smaller ones (available in specialty markets, sometimes sold as “sunchokes”)
2 pounds mixed wild mushrooms, chopped thick (cremini or shitake, for example)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 carrots, chopped large
2 small turnips, chopped large
2 white or golden potatoes, chopped large
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh thyme

In a Dutch oven, brown lamb in 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, approximately five minutes. Add Jerusalem artichokes, wine and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and skim any excess fat from the top of the pot.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add brown mushrooms, stirring, approximately five minutes. Remove to bowl. Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, sweet onions and garlic for about three minutes. Add to mushrooms.

Add carrots, turnips and potatoes to lamb pot. Stir to cover vegetables, and cook for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are softened.

Add mushroom mixture, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered until liquid reduces by about one-third, then continue covered, 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Remove thyme and bay leaves, and serve on plates.

Serves eight.

Joel Haber (funjoel.blogspot.com) is a freelance writer and screenwriting consultant. He loves to cook because he loves to eat.

A Cup of Irony

When I first met Howard Schultz at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1998, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks Corp. was in Israel as part of a mission with Aish HaTorah, a religious outreach organization renowned for its aggressive marketing tactics and ability to make traditional Judaism attractive to nonobservant people.

The yeshiva brought Schultz and his family to see Israel with other semi-celebrities, such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a U.S. senator and a congresswoman.

Schultz had just announced his plans to bring Starbucks — and the Starbucks culture — to Israel, vowing to open some 10 branches in Israel, beginning in 2000.

Raised Conservative and a member of a Reform temple in Seattle, Schultz said it was his first trip to Israel. "I was blown away. I had a sensory overload," he told me for a story in The Jerusalem Post.

In the five years since we spoke, I have no idea if Schultz remained involved in the yeshiva — he might have become a rabbi, for all I know — but I am sure that he is at least as connected to Israel and Judaism now as he was back then.

Which is why it came as such a big surprise when I received dozens of the following e-mail marked URGENT!!!:


Just heard that Starbucks Coffee is closing all their stores in Israel. Starbucks says that it is a business decision, not a political decision. They ARE NOT CLOSING any stores in Arab or Muslim countries.

Let us as, Jewish people, let them know that we will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel. When they lose enough business, maybe they will get the message that we, as a Jewish population, will not tolerate their actions.

We have to get the word out, so please send this message to any and all Jewish people."

As the month of May progressed, the e-mail took on more exclamation points and capital letters, with added urgency and additional commentary.

Needless to say — needless, because it is written in the e-mail itself — the store closures are a business decision. A quick search of the Web provided the information that analysts attributed the failure of Starbucks in Israel to competition from established cafes. Indeed, anyone who has ever been to Israel understands that the "hanging-out-at-cafes" culture — which Starbucks made ubiquitous in the United States beginning in 1982 — has long been a staple of Israeli life (think "government office coffee break").

Israel’s leading business daily, Globes, found that 22 major international chains that came to Israel in the last decade didn’t make it. Globes attributed the failure of the chains to three factors:

  • Oversaturation: Especially in estimation of the "new peace in the Middle East," which failed to materialize and led to the creation of more franchises than Israel’s tiny market could sustain.

  • Arrogance: Franchises like Starbucks did not adapt to local traditions, believing that "American know-how" would trump the population.

  • Changing the hordes: Successful franchises partnered with the right local companies to adjust to the Israeli market, rather than force the opposite situation. But Starbucks and other failed ventures did not do so.

But I suppose the "facts" mentioned in the e-mail above are beside the point, or at least they are to the dozens — probably thousands, by now — of people taking the one second to forward the Starbucks e-mail to everyone they know, without pausing for a moment to check if it might be true.

"We will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel," the e-mail states. Why the quick rush to condemn?

Perhaps I should understand that in these tumultuous times — with anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and anti-Zionism extremely problematic even here in America — that people are not wrong to find motives where none exist. And yet, what does that make us? At best, ill-informed, and at worst, paranoid.

Last week, as my e-mail account was being shut down by junk mail like the aforementioned boycott messages, a woman called me to request an investigation of Coca-Cola and its use of swastikas in Japan. Apparently, the soft drink manufacturer was giving out toy prizes with the symbol, which in Japan actually signifies something other than the Nazi emblem. By the time she called me, Coke had recalled the product and the issue was resolved.

Before I could explain this to her, she shocked me with the following statement: "I think we should do what one restaurant in New York did — boycott Coke and buy only Pepsi."

"Buy Pepsi? Do you know how long Pepsi was involved in the Arab boycott of Israel?" I asked her incredulously. She did not. And perhaps she did not understand the irony.

Starbucks could not be reached for comment. Perhaps because it too is struck by the irony of the other call for a boycott against it by a pro-Arab group that was incensed recently by Schultz’s comments at a Seattle temple in which he condemned Palestinian terrorists.

"It is obvious that Mr. Schultz is unconcerned with the suffering, humiliation and torment, which the Palestinians endure daily at the hands of Sharon’s forces," the group wrote. "This letter is to inform you that an immediate boycott on all your products is in place. It will remain in place until Starbucks ceases all monetary support for Israel’s terrorist apartheid regime."

If we are so quick to point out the silliness of reactionary boycotts — for example, against Israeli academics, scientists or medical professionals — perhaps we should think for a minute or two before we start one of our own.

Baklava and Bombs

Sami Michael, an Iraqi-born novelist who writes about the clash of Arab and Jewish cultures, knows what it’s like to be a part of a beleaguered minority. In Iraq, he was always labeled a Jew; in Israel, he is still known as a Jewish writer from an Arab country. The irony is hardly lost on him.

Born in Baghdad in 1926, Michael became active in the communist underground and was forced to flee to Iran in the first year of his university studies. In 1949, he was able to make his way to Israel, where he has lived ever since. To date, he has written nine novels, the latest of which is titled "Water Kissing Water" (Am Oved, 2001). Other books have included "Refuge," "A Handful of Fog," "Trumpet in the Wadi," and his best-selling novel, "Victoria," which depicted a family saga set in Baghdad and was translated into several languages. he writes all of his novels in Hebrew. In addition to three honorary doctorates, Michael has also been awarded numerous prizes, including the Ze’ev Prize, Kugel Prize and (twice) the Prime Minister’s Prize.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview, conducted in Hebrew in his apartment overlooking Haifa’s bay.

F.M. Black : As a Jewish writer born and brought up in Iraq who now lives in Israel, how do you see the situation today?

Sami Michael: It’s very bad. It’s quite dangerous, especially since we are emphasizing that we are bringing European culture to the Middle East when the Middle East has suffered so much from colonialism and they really see us like a part of the Crusaders. The two sides have really been poisoned by a century of conflict, of bloody conflict. We look at them as monsters and that’s the same way they look at us.

F.B.: Have you gotten used to this, to both sides pummeling each other?

S.M.: The truth is that it’s not a matter of my getting used to it. I foresaw it 50 years ago. If I took out articles that I wrote in Baghdad in the mid-’40s, it’s like I wrote them today. The Middle East is not ready yet, not ripe yet to accept both a Jewish and a democratic state at the expense of some of its territory. I knew it long ago. It’s not a surprise for me.

F.B.: How do you deal with it?

S.M.: I’m not in a good frame of mind. I’m not a youth anymore. I already have children here. I have a house here and this is my homeland today. We’ve created a lovely country, a delightful place, and there’s a danger that it will all be lost, if not through warfare, then through an economic collapse because of the conflict.

F.B.: Do you think that the writer has an obligation to take a political stand?

S.M.: That would be a disaster. That’s what happens in the Arab countries; it kills literature. As soon as a writer writes out of an obligation, he becomes a politician, not a writer. I think that the only obligation of a writer is to be honest with himself and to obey the unknown masters and not the known masters. The known masters are the prime minister, the secretary of the Communist Party, Arafat and so on. But, on the other hand, one can’t be divorced or disengaged from the place where one’s living.

F.B.: Tell me, do you feel part of the majority or the minority in Israel?

S.M.: I’m not only part of the minority, I’m alone.

F.B.: How’s that?

S.M.: Because the Israeli left is ridiculous. The Israeli left talks for the television cameras and radio, but it has no roots among its own people. It always claims that it’s part of European culture and there’s nothing that Arabs hate more than European influences. From Europe came the Crusaders and the British, French and Italian imperialists who committed atrocities in the Middle East. And we proclaim morning, noon and night that we’re part of Europe, knowing what the fate was of the Europeans who came to the Middle East.

F.B.: So you don’t feel a part of the left?

S.M.: I can’t define myself as a part of the Israeli left because it’s a left of cliques and salons. After a month in Israel, I said to myself that I’m going to establish a country of one.

F.B.: Of one?

S.M.: I have my own personal opinions and I say to every party when it puts on a show, "Bravo." I’m very glad that my wife, Rahel, has joined my country of one. It’s a small island, very small.

F.B.: What’s holy to you?

S.M.: Human life. That’s the holiest thing. Life itself. And, unfortunately, human life is the cheapest thing here in the Middle East.

F.B.: You’ve written that you’re both inside and outside of the Israeli reality at the same time.

S.M.: That’s right. Because I came from another place, from across the border of the war. Once I saw the war between Israel and the Arabs while I was on the Arab side, as a Jewish Iraqi citizen; and now I’m in Israel and see the war from the perspective of the Jewish Israeli.

F.B.: Does it look different from here?

S.M.: I see how idiotic both sides are.

F.B.: How so?

S.M.: This is one of the richest parts of the world — in oil and minerals and quarries and what are we fighting over? Over the most idiotic things. It’s as though we’re living in the past and want to reestablish former empires — from Saddam Hussein to the rebuilding of the Second Temple, and back again. It’s the stupidest thing that could ever be. Under conditions of peace, this could be one of the most flourishing places in the world.

F.B.: Do you think that the Israeli, the sabra, is a ‘new’ Jew?

S.M.: That’s the disaster of the so-called ‘new’ Israeli and the ‘new’ Arab. The new Arab is an Arab whose ideal is a Muslim who existed 1,500 years ago and the ideal of the new Jew is the Maccabees from 2,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago. There is no such thing as a ‘new’ Jew.

F.B.: But doesn’t being a ‘new’ Jew or an Israeli mean, in part, that Jews now have the means to defend themselves? That Israel will be a refuge from anti-Semitism?

S.M.: Is it possible? Is it possible? I think that the Israeli experience shows more than anything else that this is impossible. Why? Because you are not living alone in the world. Our security doesn’t depend on our mightiness, on our force or on our ability to defend ourselves, but it … depends on our relations with our neighbors.

F.B.: So Israel has failed to provide a place of refuge?

S.M.: I think that we achieved the exact opposite of what we said, of what the founders were trying to achieve: the most dangerous place for a Jew to live today is in Israel. The difference is that here you have the freedom to die proudly! But a secure place here? That’s the biggest lie.

F.M. Black was a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times from 1988-1991. He now contributes to The Los Angeles Times, The Forward, Chicago Tribune and Archaeology Magazine, among other publications.

Community Briefs

UCLA Hosts Conference on ItalianJews

When Guido Fink was growing up in Ferrara in the late 1930s,the northern Italian city had 1,000 Jews and a German synagogue — where hisgrandfather served as cantor — an Italian one, a Spanish one and a fourth ownedby a private family.

After a pogrom in the city on Nov. 15, 1943, the young boyand his mother went into hiding on a farm and survived the Holocaust, whichclaimed his father and 14 other relatives.

Today, Fink represents the Italian government as director ofthe Italian Cultural Institute, located in Westwood, during a leave of absenceas professor of English and American literature at the University of Florence.The animated scholar accepted a four-year assignment at the institute,partially because he missed UCLA, where he had spent a year in the 1960s, andpartially because “I asked myself what it means to be Jewish.”

He frequently drops in at Valley Beth Shalom, welcomes manyJewish patrons at the institute’s varied cultural events, and hopes to co-sponsor a program with the Israeli consulate.

To his considerable amazement, his son, Enrico, afterteaching astrophysics at Cornell, gave it all up and became a professionalklezmer musician. Currently, he is featured on the Italian stage in “Fiddler onthe Roof,” in which the dialogue is in Italian and the songs in Yiddish.

As an Italian Jew, “I am not an outsider,” said Guido Fink,”but when I see an anti-war rally in Italy and notice signs equating Israeliswith Nazis, it makes the situation difficult.”

Currently, he is readying for a scholarly conference onApril 4, 6 and 7 on “Acculturation and Its Discontents: The Jews of Italy fromEarly Modern to Modern Times.” Sponsored by UCLA, Clark Library and the ItalianCultural Institute, speakers from Europe, Israel and North America will examinethe “complex process of Jewish interaction with non-Jewish Italians,” focusingon the 16th to 19th centuries.

Advance registration is required and closes March 28. Forinformation on registration, fees and location, call (310) 206-8552. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

CAMERA Puts Anti-Israel Bias inFocus

“National Public Radio [NPR] has an Israel problem,” saidAndrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle EastReporting (CAMERA), to a crowd of 100 people at Sinai Temple on Sunday, March23. “While the network continually emphasizes what a superior, enlightened anddistinctive news source it is, in fact NPR is one of the most unremittinglyskewed, shoddy, and unresponsive outlets we’ve ever encountered.”

NPR was only one of the media outlets under fire at CAMERA’sannual Los Angeles conference, where various journalists and media experts fromaround the country addressed concerns and provided guidance for combatinganti-Israel bias.

Throughout the conference, speakers offered explanations forthe prevalence of skewed reporting.

“In most cases it’s probably not anti-Semitism. In mostcases it’s probably a tendency of the press to root for the perceivedunderdog,” said Dr. Alex Safian, adding that ignorance, successful Palestinianpropaganda and a lack of vigilance by the Israeli government toward fightingmedia bias, are also factors.

Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, blamedphysical intimidation.

“Journalists don’t have to fear that the Israeli governmentis going to punish them or kill them if they don’t print exactly what theIsraelis want to hear,” Jacoby said. “But that wasn’t true for journalistscovering the PLO in the 1980s and it’s not true for journalists covering thePLO now.”

Levin gave examples of the current work that CAMERAvolunteers and staff are doing to combat the problem, including writing lettersand Op-Eds; speaking out on radio and giving feedback on television toproducers, hosts and reporters; suggesting story ideas; and encouragingbalanced reports and challenging false reports.

 We are positive because we see progress as a possibility ofmore progress,” Levin said. — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Conservative Rabbinical Assembly Comes toL.A.

More than 300 Conservative rabbis from around the world willgather at the Sheraton Universal hotel next week for the annual RabbinicAssembly (RA)convention to explore such issues as the war and how it affectsIsrael, the message of Conservative Judaism and how God fits into therabbinate.

“The day to day rabbinate can be pretty highly stressful,and you need a few days with colleagues to discuss ideas, to talk about whatworks in your place and doesn’t, find out what works for others and to learnfrom each other and get strength from each other,” said Rabbi Steven Tucker ofRamat Zion in Northridge, who is chairing the convention. “I think it makes usbetter rabbis and ultimately better Jews.”

Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am will receive an awardfrom Israel Bonds, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism,will be honored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Masorti movement inIsrael for distinguished service.

While the schedule includes some study sessions on humansexuality, there are no major sessions where the question of homosexuality willbe examined, despite the fact that the movement is currently engaged in ahigh-profile discussion over whether to ordain gay rabbis or perform same-sexcommitment ceremonies.

Tucker said that RA executive vice president Rabbi JoelMeyers believed that the question should remain within the private andscholarly realm of the law committee, where it is currently on the agenda andis expected to be resolved next year.

“We are not putting our heads in the sand. We know it’s abig issue and a hot-button issue,” Tucker said. “Our leadership has decidedthere is nothing effective we can do with it at the convention, so we’releaving it for the law committee to handle.”

Sessions and plenaries are open to registered rabbis only. Afair featuring Israeli vendors and publishers is open to the public, Wednesdayfrom 2-10 p.m. at the Universal Sheraton, 333 Universal Terrace, UniversalCity. For more information, call Shira Dicker at 917-403-3989. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

A Just War May Be Great Risk to Israel

There are very few people I know who have an unambiguous
perspective on this war. I think we are quite unanimous in our belief that
Saddam Hussein is a bad guy who should go — for the sake of his own
people and all the people in the Middle East.

As a stand-alone goal, the removal of Saddam, even killing
him, is morally justified. From the Jewish point of view, he is a rodef, a

He has, on more than one occasion, brutally killed large
groups of people and is a threat to repeat such offenses. We are commanded to
preemptively kill a rodef before he can kill us.

What complicates the matter of Saddam as rodef is that in
order to accomplish this moral goal, we may have to sacrifice the lives of
many, and we may end up killing as many as the rodef did. That then begs the
question: Would that make us a rodef in the eyes of others? Hence the

There is another facet of this war, however, that gives a
Jew pause. What will be the war’s impact on Israel?

There are those who suggest that if Saddam is removed, a
major source of support for terror against Israel will be eliminated, a major
destabilizing factor in the Middle East will be neutralized and the
Palestinians will be better able to deal with the radicals in their midst and
in a better position to negotiate with Israel. Some also suggest that if Iraq
can be democratized, it will be a giant first step toward the democratization
of the whole region, and this can only work to Israel’s benefit.

This is what has me worried. I have read commentaries on
both sides of this issue, and I come up with the conclusion that the optimists
in this case are being naïve and are assuming too much with regard to how
ready the Middle East is for democracy.

I also think that if the United States remains in Iraq for a
protracted period, whether it is to wage war or to clean up after the war and
make the country ready for democracy, it will stoke the fires of Arab
anticolonialism, energize the radical Islamists, who constitute the principle
terror groups — Al Qaeda, the ayalollahs, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah —
and heighten, rather than reduce, the level of tension and terror in the Middle
East and around the world.

It will push the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia even further toward
extremism, weaken the regimes of Jordan and Egypt, which are struggling with
the extremists in their lands, and, in the end, put Israel at even greater
risk. And the United States, branded by the Arab world as the colonizer in
their midst, would lose its capacity to be a broker for peace in the region and
would be of no help to Israel as sympathetic friend.

Indeed, the United States might feel the need to assume a
more pro-Arab stance in order to restore its status in the Arab world, and,
discredited in the eyes of Europe because of the chaos that emerges from its
presence in Iraq, the United States would also lose its ability to serve as a
moderating force against European pro-Arabism.

The military might of the United States cannot, by itself,
guarantee any results. The days when Arabs run away at the sound of the
Davidka, as they did in the Israel War of Independence, are over. As we have
seen, the opposite is the case: the radicals glory in attacking the giant and
powerful Satan, because they believe Allah is on their side.

The United States is big enough and strong enough to absorb
such a loss of face. After a while, the world will recognize that it needs us,
and things will be OK.

Israel is not big and strong, and if I am right, then the
destabilization in the Middle East that a prolonged American presence in Iraq
could generate will actually endanger Israel. I am afraid of this outcome, and
because of this, I hope America can find a way to get out of Iraq as quickly as
possible and let someone else assume the responsibility for democratizing the
Middle East. It is a noble goal, but I do not believe that we are the ones to
do it.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. This essay is an abridged version of his sermon delivered March 22.

Absence of ‘Justice’

“Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the
Unfinished Business of World War II” by Stuart E. Eizenstat (Public Affairs,

“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s
Courts” by Michael Bazyler (New York University, $34.95).

In the last moments of the Clinton administration, Stuart
Eizenstat was breathless. From his posts at the European Union and the
Commerce, Treasury and State departments, Eizenstat was the administration’s
“point man” on Holocaust restitution, with a unique portfolio to pursue the
assets that were looted from Nazi victims. This was to be the final financial
accounting for the crimes of World War II. In the frenzied final days of the
Clinton presidency, Eizenstat was wrapping up deals with the Austrians and
French that — together with earlier agreements with the Germans and Swiss banks
— were worth some $8 billion.

In his memoir, “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave
Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II,” Eizenstat, who will be
speaking at the University of Judaism on Sunday, March 30, recounts his five
peripatetic years as a facilitator-mediator sprinting among the various parties
in the most emotional legal and diplomatic issue of the time. On one side were
the Western European governments and businesses that faced lawsuits in U.S.
federal courts assailing them for their failure to honor war-era insurance
policies and demanding compensation for slave labor and the restoration of
dormant and unclaimed Jewish accounts in Swiss banks. On the other were the
lawyers, Jewish organizations, American regulators and Eastern European
governments that pressed victims’ claims.

“I felt like the manager of an insane asylum,” he writes.

It’s a valuable, if lopsided, book, and it contains some
surprises. The U.S. government jumped into this fray without any thought.
Eizenstat was based in Brussels, nudging the post-communist governments of
Central and Eastern Europe to restore communal properties confiscated during
the Nazi-era to religious communities, when, in June 1995, he read a Wall
Street Journal story about the dormant accounts in Swiss banks. He asked
Richard Holbrooke, his boss at the State Department, for authorization to
extend his restitution work to Switzerland. Holbrooke did not hesitate to

“No one in Washington held any meetings or weighed the
pluses or minuses,” writes Eizenstat, now an international trade lawyer in
private practice in Washington and special counsel to the Commission on Art
Recovery of the World Jewish Congress. “I just plunged in, initially with no
goal other than to find out the facts about the numerous dormant bank accounts
in Swiss hands for over five decades. There were no grand plans or strategies;
these came later.”

Eizenstat’s work on the issue entailed juggling conflicting
interests as the Swiss banks issue snowballed. Eizenstat was attempting to help
Nazi victims while trying to steady the United States’ diplomatic and economic
relations with European governments, which were roiled by the American lawsuits
and regulators’ threats of sanctions. Much of it was far beyond his control,
and he routinely battled with state and local regulators, arguing that their
threats of sanctions interfered with U.S. foreign policy. The $1.25 billion
Swiss banks settlement was under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Edward
Korman in Brooklyn, not the U.S. executive branch. Where Eizenstat did take
some control — to deal with claims against German and Austrian interests — he
freely admits in his memoirs that he used “creative accounting” and “dubious”
arithmetic to reach deals that looked better than they were.

He also was creative with funds that the U.S. government set
aside for Holocaust survivors. The funds were supposed to be “redress” for the
American failure to turn over to Jewish successor organizations the heirless
Jewish assets held by American banks after the war. Eizenstat was “rarely more
proud” than when he announced in 1997 that the United States would contribute
$25 million to a new international fund for Nazi victims. The money, he writes,
was to be used for food and social programs for Holocaust survivors in Eastern
Europe. However, 150 pages later, he recounts that, in the midst of the slave
labor negotiations, the Polish delegation was balking at the amount of
compensation being offered to its war-era forced laborers, so Eizenstat made a
“secret” deal in which Poland would receive $10 million of the $25 million.

The public did not notice Eizenstat’s efforts until May
1997, when he issued a U.S. government historical report on Switzerland’s
commercial links to the Nazis. His statement that these links helped “prolong”
the war was the sound bite that made the news. In his memoirs, however, he says
that these were “ill-chosen words” and that he could have made the same point
less harshly by saying these links helped “sustain” the German war effort.
“Prolong” is not the only thing from which he is backtracking. The cover of the
book — a swastika-shaped image superimposed over the Swiss flag — raised a hue
and cry. Eizenstat has said he regrets that the book cover offended the Swiss.
Apparently, that is not good enough. In January, a lawyer in Zurich filed
criminal charges against him, under a Swiss law that protects the flag from inappropriate

Eizenstat seems to have an aversion to giving others proper
credit — even to the government he served. He refers repeatedly to the fact
that over 50 years, Germany paid DM 100 billion [$44.25 billion based on
conversion rates] to Nazi victims, without stressing that it was American
military occupation authorities who, after the war, compelled the German states
in the American Zone to enact restitution and compensation measures for
victims, and that in every subsequent treaty dealing with German sovereignty,
including reunification, the U.S. insisted that Germany retain its commitment
to Nazi victims.

In his chapter on Nazi-looted art, he discusses the “poster
child” of all successful claims: a 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the
Elder that was looted from the collection of Philip von Gomperz, a Viennese
industrialist, and turned up at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Gomperz
heirs, so impressed that the museum agreed to return the painting, agreed to
sell it to the museum for half its value. Eizenstat mentions by name everyone
except the woman who mediated between the museum and Gomperz heirs, arranging
both the recovery and the sale: Monica Dugot of the Holocaust Claims Processing
Office of the New York State Banking Department.

“Imperfect Justice” focuses on the political and diplomatic
aspects of Holocaust restitution. The legal dimensions are covered in
“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts” by Michael
Bazyler, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa. (I should disclose
here that Bazyler mentions me in the acknowledgments, for reading part of the
manuscript in draft.) The book, which is due out in April, is valuable as a
play-by-play of litigation on the Swiss banks cases, slave labor, Nazi-looted
art and Holocaust-era insurance policies, the latter being a topic Eizenstat
ignored. But to tell the story, Bazyler relies heavily and indiscriminately on
news accounts, especially those that bolster his points. However, most of the
news reporting of the litigation, negotiations and settlements was shoddy. Most
reporters were ignorant of the relevant history and law, and the stories were
only as accurate as the sources cited. Thus, the stories routinely were
incomplete, ahistorical and often served as platforms for partisans in the

Despite these flaws, taken together, the two books provide
the most realistic picture yet of the road to Holocaust restitution settlements
at century’s end. Try to overlook the titles. Bazyler’s title implies that the
courts provided a remedy, although the major suits — against German companies
for slave labor compensation — failed. The Swiss banks’ settlement was not a
triumph of law and legal rights, but instead was due to Korman jawboning
everyone to reach a settlement. As for Eizenstat’s choice, it suffices to say
that Nazi victims rarely call this justice, imperfect or otherwise.

Stuart Eizenstat will be speaking and signing his book on
Sunday, March 30, at 8 p.m. at the University of Judaism, Gindi Auditorium, 15600
Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-9777 ext.

He is also scheduled to speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on Sunday, April 27 from 2-5 p.m. For more information, visit

The Film No One Wanted

Not far into the arduous journey of making “Max,” Menno Meyjes’ controversial film about the early life of Adolf Hitler, John Cusack debated with his father, a World War II veteran. “He said, ‘John, this is a worthy piece, but it disturbs me,'” said Cusack, who plays a German Jewish art dealer who befriends Hitler during his artist years. “He told me, ‘I just don’t want to see that man as human.’ And that paradox excited me. I also knew intellectually that Hitler was human but emotionally I didn’t want to accept it. It was easier for me to imagine him as Grendel in the cave, breathing fire and drinking blood. And within that discomfort lies the brilliance of the film.”

It’s also the reason the provocative movie — dubbed a “‘Pulp Fiction’ -sized shot of intellectual adrenaline” by the Los Angeles Times — raised ire despite having one of Hollywood’s most popular actors as its star and champion. While cliched or cartoonlike images of Hitler have long graced the silver screen, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to Mel Brooks’ 1968 version of “The Producers,” “Max” breaks precedent by depicting the future Fuhrer as caustic but human.

Shattering the cinematic taboo made the film, and its filmmakers, virtual pariahs in Hollywood and beyond. “No one wanted anything to do with us,” said Dutch-born Meyjes, best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.”

Prospective investors avoided the project, going so far as to pretend they were someone else on the telephone, Meyjes said. A number of viewers stormed out of the “Max” premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, according to the Los Angeles Times; the right-wing Jewish Defense League labeled the movie “a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors”; the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust declined to host screenings, and a cynical New York Times column lumped the movie in with several other projects on the young Hitler (including a proposed 2003 CBS miniseries, “Hitler: The Early Years).

After reading the column, titled “Swastikas for Sweeps,” Cusack — who took no salary for the film — promptly telephoned columnist Maureen Dowd. “I pointed out that she had mocked ‘Max’ but hadn’t even seen it, like most of the film’s detractors,” said the intense, soft-spoken actor, leaning forward in his chair over a bottle of Pellegrino at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “But she wouldn’t admit that her comments felt caustic and dismissive. She just said, ‘Oh, I love your work; I’d love to see the film.’ I said I thought her approach was lazy.”

The idea for “Max” began with Meyjes’ childhood in post-war Holland, a milieu “absolutely drenched in Hitler,” according to the 48-year-old writer-director. His father, Johannes, spent his late teens in a German slave labor camp, where a Nazi smashed out his front teeth with a rifle butt. “To my family, the Fuhrer was a one-dimensional beast,” said Meyjes, who became obsessed with the question of whether Hitler was human.

While perusing Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler” around 1998, Meyjes read a quote by Nazi architect Albert Speer: “If you want to understand Hitler, you have to understand he was an artist first.” “Suddenly I had a way into a movie about my [question],” he said. “I decided to make a film about a man who chooses to become a monster.”

After extensive research, Meyjes said he wrote Hitler (played in the film by a riveting Noah Taylor) as a marginally talented, virtually homeless painter who is petulant, self-pitying, puritanical, grandiose, maladroit, with “a tortured relationship with his physical self and the caprices of the body.

“There is almost a sexual element to his artistic failure,” Meyjes said. “Because he loathes himself, he cannot penetrate his paintings.”

The fictional gallery owner Max Rothman, maimed in World War I, meanwhile, is suave and worldly while trying to persuade fellow veteran Hitler to channel his pent-up rage into art instead of politics. Meyjes said Rothman is “loosely based on a Viennese Jewish gallery owner, Josef Neumann, who was always telling Hitler that he had to work harder and that he was lazy.”

The quintessentially assimilated German-Jewish character immediately intrigued Cusack, 36, who grew up in a liberal, activist Irish-Catholic family (the radical Berrigan brothers were frequent guests in his Chicago-area home and his mother has been arrested for her anti-war activities). The secular, casually idealistic Rothman “is Jewish in the way I am Catholic,” said Cusack, who is renown for playing heartsick heartthrobs in films such as “Say Anything” and “High Fidelity.” “It informs who he is but it is not how he primarily defines himself.”

“I also strongly identified with Max because he is an intellectual, a sensualist, a modernist, a man who is flawed but who understands that art can change the world,” the actor said. “In him I saw some part of myself that is damaged and something I would like to be.” Max’s relationship with Hitler, Cusack added, “is like Europe having a conversation with its shadow.”

Leelee Sobieski, 20, who plays Max’s glamorous artist-mistress Liselore, also felt a connection to the project because of her family history. Her French-born father, Jean, a painter, shares bloodlines with the 17th century Polish King Jan Sobieski, for whom, legend has it, the bagel was invented. Her beloved maternal grandfather, the late Navy captain Robert Salomon, was Jewish and attended synagogue near his New Jersey home, sometimes with Sobieski. “I’m sure that relatives on both sides of my family suffered because of Hitler,” said Sobieski, whose role was further informed by her work in the 2001 NBC Holocaust miniseries, “Uprising.” “Liselore is the only character who immediately despises Hitler, and after playing a Warsaw ghetto partisan it was very easy for me to look at Noah Taylor and think, ‘I hate you.'”

Taylor, not surprisingly, was the actor with the most reservations about signing on to “Max.” The slender, affable Australian actor had brilliantly portrayed another tortured artist in the acclaimed 1996 film, “Shine,” based on the life of the mentally-ill pianist, David Helfgott, the son of a domineering Holocaust survivor. But playing Hitler was another matter. “I was debating whether this was a role that I could live with, plus the usual narcissistic concerns of ‘What will this do to my career?'” he sheepishly said during a Journal interview. “But eventually I realized my fear of the role was precisely why I should do it.”

To prepare, Taylor read numerous biographies and studied the Fuhrer’s body language in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will,” which he practiced in front of a mirror. “I wanted to provide little glimpses of what was to come for Hitler — such as the vain gesture he had of smoothing his hair,” said Taylor, 33. “It was like mincy military. Hitler had all these incredibly odd and effete gestures, the hands on hips, for example, which I combined with his rigid body language from having been a soldier. It was like he was so self-conscious that his body didn’t ever relax.”

He felt he’d done his job a bit too well when, on the set in Budapest, he glimpsed himself in a mirror and felt like he was “wearing a horror mask.” At the movie’s premiere in Toronto, Taylor worried, “It could all end up with me being spat on.”

It didn’t happen, although the very idea of a movie about the young Hitler has since disturbed some Jewish leaders. “A film about the young Hitler is only half the story, which isn’t truthful history,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance. “Next we’ll have the Young Saddam Hussein, which won’t bother to mention the Gulf War.”

Rachel Jagoda, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said the film’s conceit confused her survivor constituents. “They would say, ‘Why should I go see a movie about the young Hitler?'” Jagoda said. “They don’t care that he was once an artist. They just care that he killed everyone they knew and loved.”

Cusack, however, insists “Max” has an important message, one that resonates today. “It would be much easier for me if Osama bin Ladin didn’t have a mother or father,” he said. “‘It would make the world a lot simpler if he arrived on earth in a pink vapor, did his business and disappeared in a puff of smoke. But the reality is more painful. He’s a human being like you and me.”

Q & A With Steven Spielberg

Prior to the Shoah Foundation’s annual banquet on Dec. 5, Contributing Editor Tom Tugend conducted an e-mail interview with its founder, director Steven Spielberg.

Tom Tugend: Why have there been so many Holocaust-themed books and films in recent years?

Steven Spielberg: I think with the passing of time, and with current world events, survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to share their stories. Racism and terror are not isolated to World War II Europe, and atrocities continue to occur around the globe.

I think Americans came to realize this on a much more personal level after Sept. 11. I remember many people saying, "Why would they do this to us?" The Jews said the same thing back in the 1940s.

I hope that each book and film about the Holocaust brings us closer to understanding why such horrific events continue to take place, and how to prevent them in the future.

TT: Do you feel the success of "Schindler’s List" helped pave the way for these projects?

SS: "Schindler’s List" introduced the Holocaust to a new generation of filmgoers, and for this I am grateful. I’m delighted that films, as well as television miniseries, can continue to examine this part of history. There has also been a string of independent films produced in Europe about the Holocaust, and these films have also been well received throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S.

TT: Is there a danger that too many such films will cause people to become uninterested in the subject?

SS: Every time these films are shown, they reach a whole new audience — children, teens and adults. They encourage young viewers to ask questions, and this leads to dialogue.

There is a term called "Holocaust fatigue," which is slightly offensive, but I understand it. Most of us don’t want to hear about things that are disturbing and upsetting. On the other hand, the stories of survivors are hopeful stories … of people triumphing over oppression and racism and rebuilding their lives.

TT: What are you proudest of vis-à-vis the Shoah Foundation?

SS: I had no idea the Shoah Foundation would evolve into such an amazing global organization. We have collected almost 52,000 eyewitness testimonies around the world, and I am inspired by the courage these individuals have shown by sitting in front of a camera and reliving these events. To have this archive is, indeed, a gift to all of us.

And, I have seen students watch testimonies and become transformed by the experience. This is very rewarding. To affect one person at a time. To change a life in even the smallest way, so that they might stop and consider the consequences of their actions or choices. This is why the Shoah Foundation exists.

I want the Shoah Foundation to make a difference in the world. I want to someday look back and be able to say, "The survivors came from the ashes to change the world."

At the foundation, we continue to index the testimonies so that they will be available for research, and we are currently disseminating the archive in a variety of ways: through collections in museums and other institutions and through educational products, such as documentaries and educational CD-ROMs.

It is vital the testimonies be returned to the countries and communities from which they came, and we are establishing partnerships with institutions across the globe to do this. Our President and CEO, Douglas Greenberg, has just returned from Australia, where he met with potential partners and supporters to help bring the Australian collection to that community.

TT: Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in places like Eastern Europe and in the Arab world? Do you feel this means people have not learned from the example of the Holocaust?

SS: Everyone should be concerned about anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred throughout the world. That’s why the mission of the Shoah Foundation is to work toward understanding among all people, so that hatred and bigotry can be diminished.

TT: Is the Shoah Foundation planning to do anything to reach out to people in the Arab world?

SS: The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to bring its message of tolerance to underserved populations throughout the world. We are currently focusing on communities throughout Europe and parts of the United States, and this is a mammoth task to undertake. While there are no current plans, I’m sure there will come a time when the foundation will reach out to the Arab world.

TT: Do you have any plans to revisit the Holocaust in a future feature film project?

SS: I think the global educational work of the Shoah Foundation is the most effective way I can reach an audience about the history of the Holocaust and the consequences of hatred and violence.

"Schindler’s List," while based on facts and historical incidents, is a feature film with actors and sets. There is nothing more powerful than watching a survivor look the camera — and you — in the eye and recall the personal events that occurred in his or her life.

TT: What is the Jewish content of your life today?

SS: We observe the High Holidays and the prime holidays throughout the year. My wife, Kate [Capshaw], bakes challah for the Sabbath, which is something the whole family observes to honor our tradition.

Last year, one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life was my son Theo’s bar mitzvah. Kate and I and our family are looking forward to other joyous celebrations.

TT: Have Jews in Hollywood been outspoken enough in support of Israel at this time? If not, please explain your theories as to why they have not been outspoken enough. How do you personally feel about the situation in Israel?

SS: We know there is a crisis that has been devastating to innocent victims, but it would be inappropriate for me to make a generalization about the Jews of Hollywood.

E.U., U.N. Want Their Say

With the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters and Palestinian cities, the Arab world is again ratcheting up its campaign to "internationalize" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jewish analysts see a concerted Arab effort to exhort the U.N. Security Council and European Union to marginalize U.S. influence and seize a greater role for themselves.

But U.N. and E.U. diplomats, at least in their public comments, appear less vitriolic about the string of lethal suicide bombings in Israel than the Israeli response to them and often seem to morally equate the two.

This reinforces the notion among pro-Israel advocates that both bodies are biased against the Jewish state, and cannot supplant Washington as the primary third-party interlocutor.

"The U.N. and E.U. are under heavy pressure from the Arabs, so you may have the appearance of greater involvement," said one Israeli diplomat.

"Are we happy about it? No. Can we live with it? Yes, because for any party to be truly involved, it must have the consent of Israel. And Israel will not accept a party that isn’t legitimate in this process. This mounting pressure doesn’t shift the Israeli position."

Yet, a sudden shift in the U.S. approach to the United Nations has caught the attention of Jewish observers, who say it could have long-term repercussions.

The United States has traditionally believed that the Security Council is the improper venue for addressing the Middle East conflict.

Though the council is entrusted with ensuring global peace and security, and its resolutions are legally binding, it has been heavily politicized.

Washington has consistently used this line of argument to block, or veto outright, anti-Israel resolutions, often asserting that the two parties themselves must resolve the conflict.

In response, the Palestinians and the Arab world have long accused Washington of a pro-Israel bias and of obstructing council action that would force Israel to alter the status quo, through, say, the insertion of international peacekeepers.

However, with the 15-member council increasingly frustrated with the bloodshed and its own inaction, the United States March 12 on sponsored — for what was said to be the first time in a quarter-century or so — a Mideast-related resolution.

It articulated a vision where "two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders."

Then on Saturday, Washington supported a second Security Council resolution, which called for a cease-fire and for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities.

On Monday, the White House and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan disagreed whether the cease-fire or withdrawal should come first, with the Bush administration advocating the former.

Annan on Monday also urged council members "individually and collectively" to pressure both sides, while Arab states called for another council resolution that would demand "implementation" of Saturday’s resolution, which had only called for the withdrawal.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference this week in Malaysia, the 57-member group lauded the "blessed intifada," rejected the notion of Palestinian terrorism and said Israel is in fact guilty of "state terrorism."

While Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested any deliberate attack on civilians — even by Palestinian suicide bombers — be classified as "terrorism," the Islamic group ultimately punted responsibility for defining terrorism to the United Nations.

There, debate over a definition for terrorism has dragged on for three decades, along the lines of the one-country’s-terrorist-is-another-country’s-freedom-fighter argument.

As for the Security Council, the sudden U.S. activism surprised some observers.

"It undermines Washington’s consistent, rhetorical, principled position, that resolution of the conflict is best decided by the parties themselves," said Felice Gaer, a U.N. specialist and director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Washington may have initiated the March 12 resolution, observers said, to blunt a harsher anti-Israel resolution in the works, or out of political calculation to curry both Arab and U.N. support for future action against Iraq. Or both. But in lending credibility to the Security Council, some wonder if it may complicate U.S. efforts to fend off undesirable anti-Israel resolutions in the future.

Washington still maintains its right to veto. At the same time, the United States has been working more closely with the United Nations since its post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism.

But as a former White House official told The New Republic, "We may well see this decision come back to haunt us in the future when others try to use the council and build on this resolution."

The concern now is that the Europeans on the council — like veto-empowered France and Russia — may become more assertive. Russia was an official co-sponsor of the Mideast peace process begun in 1991, while France has been one of Israel’s fiercest detractors.

On March 15, France presented the E.U.’s European Council with a proposal for immediate and formal recognition of the Palestinian state. The effort failed, as Germany, Britain and the Netherlands echoed the U.S. stance and defended Israel’s need for security.

However, the Europeans have recently grown more vocal, apparently egged on by the Arab world and because the intifada has dented the E.U. investment in Palestine.

The 15-member European Union is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, to Palestinian refugees, to Israel’s four Arab neighbors and to the Oslo peace process itself, donating hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The European Union, which is currently chaired by Spain, started off the week by presenting to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva its take on events in the Middle East.

According to the Geneva-based group U.N. Watch, three of the speech’s 22 paragraphs criticized the Palestinian Authority.

The remainder assailed Israel for settlements, targeted killings, incursions into Palestinian refugee camps, checkpoints and closures, indiscriminate and excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, failure to protect journalists and other alleged transgressions.

Europe’s rhetoric heated up further over the weekend.

A review of the world’s two most influential news services the New York-based Associated Press and the London-based Reuters reveal that European leaders concentrated far more on Israel’s response to suicide attacks and its occupation.

By week’s end, the "Passover massacre" in Netanya, for example, was rarely mentioned. From Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to French President Jacques Chirac to E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the Europeans have uttered words of condemnation for terrorist attacks, but seem more outraged by the moves against Arafat.

The Europeans also seem to harp on the "cycle" or "spiral" of violence, which Jewish observers suggest indicates a lack of distinction between attack and response, or between an attack on civilians and one on alleged perpetrators of terrorism.

Why this perspective?

Jewish observers point to Europe’s large Arab and Muslim populations, heavy reliance on Mideast oil, trade and investments and in some cases, latent anti-Semitism. Which is why Israel will continue to look to Washington as its "honest broker."

"The E.U. has more links to the Arab world than to the Israeli world, and the Israelis understand that well," said Dina Siegal Vann, whose handles U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International.

"Realistically, only the U.S. is seen as a credible intermediary both by the Arabs and the Israelis."