January 23, 2019

Religion and The Poetry of Order

The evening before I watched the new film “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” — a dialogue between religion critics Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz — our Yemenite neighbor, Saya, came to our apartment to light our seventh-night Hanukkah candles. I told her how the menorah had been in our family for more than 100 years and that the Hebraic script on it spelled out “Israel.” My 9-year-old son, Alexander, taught her how to use the shamash. “Everything has an order,” he told her rabbinically.

Having lived through a strict Muslim upbringing that included two arranged marriages, Saya now calls herself an atheist — as does Harris, who was born to a Jewish mother. In many ways I feel closer to Nawaz, who calls himself a liberal Muslim and sees no contradiction between maintaining a tough, rational mind and having a love for the poetry of religion.

At its core, that’s what the film, based on Harris and Nawaz’s 2015 book of the same name, is about: How to move forward so that both Muslims and non-Muslims can see that there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between the two. Saya rejected much of what she was taught as a child, including a fierce hatred of Jews, and therefore can come to our home to light our candles with an open mind and heart. Nawaz got to his place of understanding via a stint as an Islamist and his near-execution in an Egyptian jail. 

But instead of rejecting Islam flat-out, he seeks to reform it. How? First, by distinguishing between Muslims and Islam (conflation leads to bigotry); second, by distinguishing between the four types of Muslims: jihadis, who seek to create an Islamic caliphate through violence; Islamists, who seek to impose a caliphate through nonviolence; strict religious Muslims, who believe in following the Quran but don’t want to impose Sharia law on others; and secular Muslims. Most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Nawaz says, fall into the third group.

It is when the conversation turns to scripture that things get dicey. “Words are not infinitely elastic,” Harris says. You cannot simply ignore or reinterpret the more barbaric parts of the texts. “There will always be a temptation toward literalism, as well as a link between belief and behavior.”

“Dialogue is the only remedy. Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views.”

— Maajid Nawaz

Nawaz, who started the group Quilliam in 2008 to help make Islam compatible with liberal democracy, counters that Islamic texts should not be read literally: “I don’t accept that there’s a ‘correct’ reading of scripture; it’s open to myriad interpretations.” In some ways, Nawaz is trying to do for the Quran what the Talmud did for the Torah: show, for example, that some passages are metaphorical, not to be followed literally. 

“Nawaz is borrowing the very ancient (and very Jewish) tradition of interpretation,” said Rabbi Eli Fink, adding that Talmudic interpretation did not begin in earnest until 200 BCE and continues today. Still, though I am rooting for Nawaz wholeheartedly, he clearly faces an uphill battle.

Sadly, the battle is not just from Islamists and jihadis. “I was expecting pushback from Islamists,” Nawaz says. “But most disappointing is the opposition from those who call themselves liberal.” Nawaz coined the term “regressive leftist” to describe liberals who are so mired in identity politics that they end up losing all sense of morality, let alone rationality. 

Nawaz talks about how Islamists, when he was among them, would purposefully exploit the multiculturalism of the left. They once put up a poster on a campus in the UK that read: “Women of the West: Cover Up or Shut Up.” They snuffed out all opposition to the poster by calling university administrators “racist.” The poster stayed up — and spurred a murder. 

That tale alone makes this documentary worthwhile, although neither Nawaz nor Harris is under any illusion that it will solve every problem. But it provides a much-needed beginning. Their hope is to inspire nuanced dialogue.

“Dialogue is the only remedy,” Nawaz says. “Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views. And we need to give people permission to talk across ‘identity’ lines — you don’t need to be Muslim to challenge Islamist theocracy. That alone will lead to a less identity-driven — a more rational — conversation.”

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

GOP Congressional Candidate: No Peace in Middle East Until Jews, Muslims Convert to Christianity

Screenshot from Twitter.

Mark Harris, a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, reportedly said in 2011 that there would never be peace in the Middle East unless Jews and Muslims converted to Christianity.

Harris, who was a pastor until his congressional run, reportedly said in a 2011 sermon after he visited Israel, “There will never be peace in Jerusalem until the day comes that every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Harris added, “Jesus, when he went into Jerusalem, said, ‘I am the vine. I am the true vine,’ and until those that are called in Islam realize that and until those that are called in Judaism realize that, for that matter, until those that are caught in the religion of Christianity and are missing the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, realize that, there’ll never be peace in their soul or peace in their city.”

Harris’ campaign did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment at publication time.

Harris is running in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, which includes Charlotte, where President Trump is popular and the current representative for that area is Republican Robert Pittenger. However, myriad election forecasts have projected the race as a toss-up between Harris and his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready.

Letters to the Editor: Islam, Mensch List, Trump and Immigration

A Meaning Lost in Translation

In his Jan. 12 column “A Hunger for Memory,” David Suissa quotes Aomar Boum’s book “Memories of Absence” as translating the word dhimmi as “people of the book.”

The term dhimmi always has been translated inaccurately as meaning “people of the book” or “protected people,” who are exempt from Islamic law. However, the term is not native to Arabic and its usage is descriptive rather than factual translation. It is borrowed from Hebrew, related to the biblical Hebrew word d’mama, which means silent or still (as in the kol d’mama daka, the “still, small voice” that the prophet Elijah hears in 1 Kings 19:12 and as in numerous Psalms such as in Psalm 62:2 (al dhomi lach, “don’t hold Yourself silent”).

The Quran does not mention dhimmi and it is stated only in the Hadith in various agreements between the Prophet and Jewish tribes in Medina. It has always struck me as a derogatory and humiliating term referring to Jews in the Muslim world as a “silent second-class,” who were expected to stand when a Muslim walked by, not allowed to ride horses or own a piece of land. In most Arab countries, Jews were allowed to live only in limited closed quarters called hara. In contrast, Hebrew has the term ger, referring to non-Jews who live among the Jews and accept and observe the seven Noahide laws. The term, as used in the Torah and discussed lavishly by Maimonides, never implies discrimination or humiliation against the ger but rather full acceptance and total respect.

Ed Elhaderi, Los Angeles

Journal’s Hits and Misses

My compliments on Larry Greenfield’s reflections on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“King’s Dream,” Jan. 12”). He promotes King’s vision of racial friendship, and points out the growing voices of black separatism and leftist violence. The Journal is to be commended for thoughtful diversity of views. “Antifa” is not our friend.

Norman Epstein, San Francisco

Just wanted to tell you I like your new format and human interest stories. Very good — sharing how people are helping people. But I miss some of your columns that offer intellectual and challenging thought — like Dennis Prager.

Karen Rae, Sherman Oaks

The 11 vignettes in the “Mensch List” cover story (Jan. 5) were heartwarming. But one omission troubled me. Our species is devastating the biosphere, including countless wild species. Reportedly 98 percent of U.S. charitable contributions are to organizations whose concern is our species whereas only 2 percent are to organizations whose principal concern is the environment or wild species. The Journal’s list follows in the same spirit. The efforts of all 11 honorees are human-focused. Was there no one in the “overwhelming influx of inspiring nominees” who works to protect nature and who is deserving of recognition?

Ben Zuckerman, Los Angeles

Susannah Heschel’s essay was a “blast from the past,” bringing to the fore the incredible insights, acumen and razor-sharp mind that characterized her father’s work (“What Would My Father Say?” Jan 12). Most importantly, Heschel emphasized her father’s unrelenting search for the truth and the homeostasis that was universally acknowledged between his fiery words and his concomitant nonviolent actions of resistance.

Contrast that with the dissembling screed that Ben Shapiro penned about the reported scatological remarks made by President Donald Trump in his self-deified role of a (“who shall live and who shall die”) present-day Nero. To offset this treasure trove of conservative tried but not true journalistic legerdemain, Shapiro sprinkles in a few seemingly apolitical political crumbs about Trump being a charismatic boor with a volatile yellow streak running down the center of his back.

Defending that which is best about Judaism (defining a religious person as maladjusted; attuned to the agony of others and never satisfied but always questioning) is the gist of Heschel’s gift to the Journal reader, while Shapiro’s gift is the benighted defense of that which is indefensible.

Marc Rogers, North Hollywood

President Trump has been in office for a year, so let’s look at the facts. Third-quarter economy grew 3.2 percent. Unemployment at a 17-year low. Stock market sizzling. Stopped foreign college graduates from coming here and taking our jobs. Illegal immigrants are leaving. Foreign countries are opening plants here. American companies are coming back. Retail sales for December were up over the previous year. All this despite two major hurricanes and major wildfires in California. If you bashers are going to bitch in good times, what are you going to do in bad times?

Joseph B.D. Saraceno, Gardena

Ben Shapiro hit the nail on the head. When the entire Michael Wolff affair is said and done, it won’t be Donald Trump who emerges worse off. It will be the fake news mainstream media who subscribe to Wolff’s journalistic style, namely, if you like what you read, take it as truth. That’s the essence of confirmation bias that the mainstream media are foisting on the public.

The mainstream, liberal, left media blew their integrity in the desire for a cheap hit by defending Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury.” They relied heavily on the falsehoods of Wolff’s book while ignoring some of the major achievements of Trump, such as tax relief for the middle class, defeating ISIS, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcing the moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

Trump’s Comment About Certain Nations

I am the daughter of an immigrant. As we are confronted with the most recent profane and derogatory comments by President Donald Trump concerning groups who have sought and wish to seek refuge in the United States, we must remember Jews who were turned away from entry into this country only to be returned to a country where they were murdered.

Some Jewish groups have ignored previous vulgar and bigoted comments made by Trump. How can they remain silent now? Every Jewish organization that claims to promote freedom and tolerance should denounce his words.

Cynthia Hasday, Los Angeles


‘Sacred Protectors,’ Jan. 12:

I have spent time in Morocco and this is mostly true. Of course, like anywhere on Earth, there will be some Moroccans who will not behave so gallantly. One of the most beautiful, oldest Jewish cemeteries is in Marrakesh. … Rabbis request being buried there. It is like little else you’ve ever seen; simply breathtaking and moving. The old Jewish quarter is pretty amazing too.

La Pickwell

Respect is due to these Moroccan, Muslim protectors of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. A good story of humanity gone unnoticed.

Herman Meltzer

We need to hear more stories like this. I’m sure that they are out there.

Ginny Baldwin

Thank you, Aomar Boum. Shalom. Aleikum-as-Salaam. Peace be upon you.

Eb Hoene

‘A Hunger for Memory,’ Jan. 12:

Beautiful and touching story.

Ruth Solomon Wolitzer

Nice to hear a positive story about living in a Muslim land.

Beth Anderson

Dispute Over Bias in LAUSD Course on Islam

Screenshot from Twitter.

After community activists alleged a continuing education class for Los Angeles public school teachers was biased against Israel, a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) official has contradicted them, reporting the class free of bias.

“My staff did not observe evidence of the concerns raised about the course,” Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian wrote in a letter to the school board.

Complaints about the two-day teachers course reached board members after Linda Cone, a retired schoolteacher from Orange County, attended the first session of “Learning About Islam and the Arab World” on Oct. 14.

She shared the course material with Jack Saltzberg, who runs the Israel Group, a nonprofit in Westlake Village that claims to defend Israel against attacks on its reputation. Saltzberg then wrote to the LAUSD board, claiming the course presented a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and shared his letter with thousands of his email subscribers.

LAUSD dispatched an observer to the second session of the course on Oct. 21. There, the observer found “diverse viewpoints were encouraged,” Ekchian wrote on Oct. 25.

Ekchian wrote the observer found that the course presenters “provided multiple sources to help participants formulate their own opinions” and “respectfully responded to two non-District individuals who repeatedly challenged the presenters,” one of whom was Cone.

Responding to Ekchian’s statements, Saltzberg said in an email, “Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss any of these self-serving characterizations in light of anticipated litigation.”

He added that he is awaiting responses to California Public Records Act requests from LAUSD for documents related to the course and the Orange County Board of Education for documents about a similar course held Oct. 4 and Oct. 25 for public school teachers in Orange County.

Cone also took issue with Ekchian’s characterization, saying course materials were biased and participants were discouraged from challenging presenters. Cone said she attended both sessions of the LAUSD course along with another self-appointed observer, after learning about the Orange County course and attending the first session. She said both women are activists with ACT for America, an organization that describes itself on its website as a grass-roots network of national security activists, but which the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center label as an anti-Islam group.

Cone said in an interview that at the first session of the LAUSD workshop, participants were told that the term jihad, often applied to terrorist ideologies, in fact referred to internal religious struggle, and that any other definition is “a lie, a mistranslation, a misrepresentation.”

On the second day, the course shifted to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said. She described the materials and discussion as skewed toward a pro-Palestinian narrative.

“We are being told that the Palestinians are the victims and the Jews are the oppressors, categorically and totally,” she said of the course. “And we are being told that Hamas” — the political entity that controls the Gaza Strip — “is not a terrorist group; Hamas is a noble entity defending the rights of Palestinians.”

“When looking at a posted syllabus, I wasn’t convinced that the allegations were without merit.” – LAUD board member Nick Melvoin

A course primer that Cone shared with Saltzberg described Hamas as a “national liberation organization” and speculated that missile attacks on Israel hope “to send a message to the governments of the world that have not responded to Israel’s ongoing inhuman and illegal treatment of the Gazans.”

Jeff Cooper, the lead instructor on the course, declined to comment on Cone’s allegations.

After LAUSD received complaints prompted by Saltzberg’s emails, board member Nick Melvoin, who is Jewish and whose district includes parts of West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, responded by saying he would seek a review of the district’s approval process for continuing education courses.

“While the District staff ‘did not observe evidence of the concerns raised about the course,’ I nevertheless insisted that we no longer continue the course until we can re-evaluate the course’s objectives, instructors, and materials,” he said in a statement posted to Facebook on Oct. 26. “When looking at a posted syllabus, I wasn’t convinced that the allegations of bias were without merit.”

The course is due for reapproval in 2018.

Ekchian concluded in her letter to the board, “L.A. Unified stands resolute in its dedication to diversity and respect for students and families from all backgrounds. I will keep you apprised of updates.”

LAUSD Accused of Hosting Anti-Israel Teacher Course

Screenshot from Twitter.

A local pro-Israel organization has accused the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of hosting an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel continuing education course for its teachers.

In an Oct. 20 letter to the LAUSD school board, Jack Saltzberg, executive director of a nonprofit called the Israel Group, wrote that a two-day course for L.A. educators promoted “the Palestinian cause, while blatantly vilifying and polarizing Jews and the State of Israel, based on false history, lies, mistruths, and standard anti-Semitic canards.”

He pointed out that the Fellowship of Reconciliation, whose L.A. chapter offered the course, indicates on its website that it supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, known as BDS. According to its website, Fellowship of Reconciliation is a national network of community organizers dedicated to rallying for “domestic and international peace and justice, nonviolent alternatives to conflict, and the rights of conscience.”

The continuing education course, “Learning About Islam and the Arab World,” took place on Oct. 14 and Oct. 21 at the Koreatown headquarters of the district’s largest teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Educators who attended the course received salary points, a district metric used to allocate raises.

Taught by two LAUSD teachers, the course included a Socratic seminar titled “Palestine/Israel” and a presentation called “Palestine Today: No Way to Treat a Child,” according to an agenda the Israel Group said it obtained. Saltzberg posted the agenda and other materials he said he obtained from the course on his website, theisraelgroup.org.

The Israel Group also sent a letter of complaint to the Orange County Board of Education about a course of the same name being offered by Fellowship for Reconciliation members to Orange County teachers. That course first convened on Oct. 4 and was set to continue on Oct. 25.

Other pro-Israel groups including the Los Angeles-based StandWithUs picked up Saltzberg’s letters. StandWithUs posted a call to action on its website that included contact details for district board members and a sample letter of concern.

District spokeswoman Shannon Haber said in an email to the Journal the district received complaints from concerned citizens, but did not say if they included parents or teachers.

In a separate statement, she said LAUSD approved the course in 2013 after it was “reviewed for multicultural awareness, respect for diversity, dialogue, and non-violent conflict resolution.” The statement added that course approval “does not constitute an endorsement of the L.A. Unified. Outside vendors, educators, and foundations are encouraged to submit classes for consideration.”

School board member Nick Melvoin, who is Jewish and whose district includes parts West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, said in an email he is working on “ensuring that there is no promotion of hate speech, violence, or religious intolerance” in professional development courses.

He said a district staff member attended the Oct. 21 session to observe whether “the program presented an unbiased view. I have heard no developments that suggest otherwise, but I have and will continue to press the Superintendent and her staff for a full report to evaluate all relevant information.”

The teacher’s union where the course took place also said in a statement it was working with the district to identify the next steps.

“The course is based on false history and mistruths.” – Jack Saltzberg

Fellowship of Reconciliation said the course was organized by a grass-roots chapter in L.A. rather than the national office in New York. Grass-roots chapters “are independent entities that coordinate their own campaigns and educational programming on a wide range of peace, justice, and human rights issues,” Ethan Vesely-Flad, the group’s director of national organizing, wrote in an email. The group’s local chapter could not be reached before the Journal’s deadline.

After receiving reports about the course, the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement calling it “problematic,” saying it contained “substantial misrepresentations and distortions of established historical facts, omissions of relevant facts, and inflammatory language.”

However, the ADL stopped short of condemning the district, adding “the instructor openly stated that the workshop presented only the Arab perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “encouraged participants to both fact-check course content.”

Saltzberg, who founded the Westlake Village-based Israel Group in 2014, said in an email that he heard about the L.A. course after a non-Jewish teacher attended the Oct. 14 seminar and sent him the course material.

He wrote that his goal is not just for the district to cancel the workshop or sever ties with the organizer, but rather “for every public school district in the nation to be on notice and warned before they decide to sponsor such an anti-Semitic and one-dimensional course.”

Toward a Radical Middle

People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

I never thought I’d be writing a column for a publication that had the word “Jewish” in its name. Trained as a reporter, I moved fairly quickly into the realm of opinion journalism, mostly at The New Republic. Owned by Marty Peretz at the time, the magazine often covered Israel, but my deeply personal relationship to Judaism was never a part of my writing or professional identity.

That changed abruptly in June 2014 when the Gaza War broke out. I had been pushed to have a “social media presence” to help promote a book on design. Facebook seemed the least objectionable option, so I had built up a mélange of artist and designer friends. Much to my shock, many of those friends — smart, sophisticated people — took Hamas’ side in the conflict. And then they began to spread lies about Israel.

For the first time in my life I went from being a private Jew to a public Jew.

Even before I began, this caused problems. A friend of nearly 25 years said to me: “If you’re going to defend Israel publicly, I’m not sure we can still be friends.” And so began a rather rude awakening about where Israel stood in elite, leftist circles. When I started to defend Israel, to provide facts, the spouses of two of my closest friends blocked me. Two close friends took me out for dinner for an intervention — they thought something must be horribly wrong in my personal life for me to oppose leftist doctrine so blatantly.

I quickly learned that the banning of free speech didn’t involve just Israel. One wasn’t allowed to criticize President Barack Obama — not a word or you would be called racist. Strange ideas had pervaded the discussion: Truth and reality apparently no longer existed. Identity politics reigned, and if you were at the top of the Victim Olympics — the Arab/Muslim world — criticism was verboten.

Jews, of course, were at the bottom. Why? Because, to the left, we were “white colonialists” who were — worst sin of all — successful. Despite the expulsions, pogroms, the Holocaust. Despite the fact that our grandparents had arrived in this country with nothing, did menial work and never complained (OK, they complained, but not publicly). Despite the fact that we aren’t white.

Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz also had a problem with what the left had become. He had dared to denounce terrorism, to link it to a radical, politicized version of Islam — and leftists went nuts. Nawaz coined the term “regressive left” to describe the illiberal takeover of the left, the slow chipping away of every liberal value.

I eagerly awaited the 2016 election. I saw it as a moment that would begin to turn around things, to bring the left back to its senses. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. Donald Trump — inexperienced, impetuous, a bull in a china shop — was elected. There was little self-reflection on the left as to its part in his election. And then the Trump right began to mirror the left: hyperpartisan, unable to criticize Trump, demanding adherence to a very specific agenda — or you would be publicly shamed.

How do we get out of this mess? For one, we need to return to real — classical — liberalism. But what does that mean?

The easiest way to describe real liberalism is that there are certain principles — freedom of speech; freedom of religion; a dedication to liberty, justice and individuality — that are nonnegotiable.

But — and here’s a very big but: Liberalism allows for policy differences. You and I don’t have to agree on immigration, tax reform, even abortion — but our arguments must be rooted in liberal principles. Freedom of speech, for instance, involves defending the right of others to express their opinions, even if we disagree with them.

But No. 2: Politics need not color our culture or our lives. You can watch a movie or see an art show and — get this — just enjoy them, even if they have no connection whatsoever to social concerns.

Finally, But No. 3: Along with rights come responsibilities. There is a set of values attached to liberalism, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the content of your character.”

Because of how skewed the political spectrum is, classical liberalism now sits in the center. That’s OK. It is precisely this ideology that can create common ground between the right and the left and nurture a saner society.

Call it the rebellion of the radical middle.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and curator. Author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday), her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.


American Muslims are even ‘prouder’ than American Jews

Students chant while marching at a rally against Islamophobia at San Diego State University in San Diego, California, November 23, 2015.REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker

There are many ways to read a new survey by PEW on Muslims in America, and as I was reading it I realized that I can’t avoid reading it the Jewish way. That is, reading it and keeping an eye on the similarities and differences between Muslims and Jews in America (to a lesser extent, I was also looking at how American Muslims differ from Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East).

The survey is almost 200 pages long, so I suppose not everybody is going to read it in full. For you – Jewish non-readers (and possibly some readers) of the survey – I have a few highlights that I found interesting.


As the JTA reported – this was the headline they chose – Muslims in America are lesser in number than Jews but grow much faster. “Pew found that there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, a little more than 1 percent of the population. U.S. Jews, by contrast, stand at 5.3 million — around 2 percent of all Americans.” The difference in growth is due to two main things: birthrate (Jews do not have many children) and immigration (most Muslims are new comers – they have a much larger pool of immigrants to draw from). In a previous study, PEW predicted that by 2050 there will be more Muslims than Jews in America. Of course, this will only happen if the current immigration patterns continue.


Until that happens, Muslims feel like a part of the American mainstream less than Jews do. 62% of Muslims think “the American people as a whole do not see Islam as part of mainstream American society.” They hear the talk about Judeo-Christian culture, and identify their religion’s absence from this (problematic) term. Pew reports that, indeed, a plurality of U.S. adults (50%) say they do not see Islam as part of mainstream American society. Muslims are still the group toward which Americans feel the least “warmth,” but an uptick “in positive feelings toward Muslims is notable.” The warmth gap, as measured by Pew’s “thermometer” of feelings was 23 degrees three years ago; now it is 19 degrees. But Jews are still at the top, and Muslims at the bottom.


Muslims are devout in practicing their religion, and they do not intermarry. Of course, all of the above is connected. But the story is hardly about the level of religiosity vs. the level of intermarriage. Two things have to be considered as we compare these two populations. One – Muslims are immigrants. When Jews were immigrants they also did not intermarry as much as they do now. Two – Muslims are a less coherent group than Jews. That is, because Islam is a religion and Judaism is not. It is the culture and religion of a people. Comparing the two groups is comparing apples and oranges.


If an American Jew hardly practices the “religious” part of Judaism, but travels to Israel every year, helps Jewish immigrants in the US, sends a letter to the newspaper protesting anti-Semitism in Hungary – we’d consider him an engaged Jew. The measures applied to Muslims are almost all “religious” in nature. Do they pray, do they follow the Quran, do they eat Halal food? Most Muslims in America (85%) think that believing in God is essential to being Muslim. Most Jews (68%) said that not believing in God is compatible with being Jewish.


Jews were asked a lot about Israel. Why? Because they are a people, and their homeland is Israel. Muslims were not asked about a specific country. Why? Because they are people who come from many countries and do not share a “homeland.” In fact, one of the most important things to know about the Muslim population in America is how diverse it is. “No single country accounts for more than 15% of adult Muslim immigrants to the United States (15% are from Pakistan). The countries with the next-highest totals are Iran (11% of Muslim immigrants), India (7%), Afghanistan (6%), Bangladesh (6%), Iraq (5%), Kuwait (3%), Syria (3%) and Egypt (3%).”


As you compare Muslims and Jews (apples and oranges) you see that some questions in the Pew survey that Jews tended to think were of great importance, are really quite vague. “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish” – thus the Pew report on Jews began when it was released in 2013. Some ink was spilled in an attempt to make this into proof of the Jewish community’s strength and vitality. Well – Muslims are even prouder: “Pride in being Muslim is nearly universal among U.S. Muslims, 97% of whom ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ agree that they are proud to be Muslim.” And of course, it is good that everybody is “proud,” but in context it seems quite meaningless.


Subgroups – especially the one of black Muslims – merit special attention. There is a measure of alienation among these groups that is worrying. “U.S.-born black Muslims are less likely than other U.S.-born Muslims to say they have a lot in common with most Americans, and they are more likely than all other U.S. Muslims to say natural conflict exists between the teachings of Islam and democracy… [they] are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America.”


Muslims feel – they know – that they suffer more discrimination than members of some other groups. They complain about it, they worry because of it, they are clearly not happy thinking about it – and still, the overall tone of the report about them is not at all pessimistic. They are growing in numbers, they believe in the political system, they accept the supposed American deal – work hard, progress in life. Some of them are radicalized. But a clear majority integrate into society with vigor. One can only hope that one day more Muslims around the world will be like the Muslims in America.

Metal detectors out, sophistication in: Temple Mount deja vu

Israeli border police officers stand guard as Palestinians pray at Lion’s Gate, an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, in protest over Israel’s new security measures at the compound housing Al-Aqsa Mosque on July 20. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

The holy site presents authorities with a millennia-old dilemma

For a long-serving prime minister of Israel, a country that rarely rests, everything is deja vu.

A crisis roiling Israel over the past two weeks — one that threatened to explode into a holy war across the region — found its epicenter once again at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site revered equally by Jews and Muslims.

On July 14, two Israeli Arabs shot and killed two Israeli Druze policemen guarding access to the Temple Mount. That led to a temporary closure of the area by Israel, the installation of metal detectors at the entrance and charges of violating the status quo by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the Temple Mount administering authority.

Protests built throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank — joined by international voices of condemnation from the Muslim world. On July 21, three Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli security. Later that night, a 19-year-old Palestinian stabbed three Jews to death as they were celebrating Shabbat in a West Bank settlement. In Jordan, a man enraged by Israel’s perceived sins against Al-Aqsa, stabbed an Israeli guard at the Israeli embassy, who shot and killed the attacker. The Jordanian government detained the security guard.

And Benjamin Netanyahu, the long-serving prime minister, found himself yet again trying to prevent isolated acts of violence escalating into all-out war.

A reasonable attempt to change the status quo near the Temple Mount? Bibi has been there — in September of 1996, shortly after he became prime minister, Netanyahu opened the tunnels below the Western Wall.

Riots as a response to this trivial act? Done that — after the opening of the tunnels, and on several other occasions.

An Israeli combatant captured in Jordan? Netanyahu experienced that in 1997, when two Mossad agents attempted to take Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal’s life in Amman. They were arrested by the Jordanians.

An exchange of these combatants in return for Israeli concessions? In 1997, Netanyahu was forced to release the radical leader Ahmad Yassin from jail.

For a long-serving prime minister, climbing off a tree is a routine. Netanyahu has climbed off shrubs, low branches and tall trees. His skin is thick, his ability to flip-flop well-developed, his rhetorical acrobatic skills impressive. His relative calm draws from another frequent deja vu: In two or three days — maybe after Tisha b’Av next week, when Jews around the world begin a day of fasting to remember the destruction of the Temples by the Babylonians and Romans — it will all be forgotten. A new scandal, development or crisis is going to draw away the attention from the embarrassing month Israel just concluded.

On the night of July 24, Jordan agreed to release the Israel security guard who shot and killed the attacker. That same night, Israel announced it would dismantle the metal detectors that were installed near the Temple Mount.

Israel clumsily insisted that these two events were separate, but we all know the truth. A mishap in Jordan provided the prime minister with the ladder he needed. Yes, it is somewhat humiliating to announce with such bravado that the rules are changed — and then cave under the pressure of violent response. But the public is more forgiving when the excuse for caving is the urgent need to save one of our warriors besieged in a foreign country.

As a political event, this was a problematic moment for Netanyahu. He exposed himself to criticism from the left — why did you not think before acting? And from the right — why did you cave under pressure? As a security-related decision, it also was problematic: The decision to change course means that security is not a priority, or that the detectors were never really needed, or that better options were available.

But most of all, this month created an image problem for Israel. It created the impression that the Temple Mount is too sensitive and too explosive for Israel to truly rule it, as it claims to do. It created the impression that violence against Israel changed its leaders’ minds. Both these impressions are dangerous. They are dangerous because they undermine Israel’s claim to the Temple Mount. They are dangerous because caving to violence is an invitation to more violence.

There is no better time than the first nine days of the month of Av to remember that the Temple Mount is a place where violence is a recurring problem. It is a place where plans made by leaders are frequently aborted. It is a place where a clash of religious sentiments is not a rare occurrence.

Jews believe the Temple Mount is the biblical Mount Moriah, where an angel intervened to stop Abraham from following God’s command to slay Abraham’s son Isaac and later became the site of the First and Second Temples until they were destroyed.

Israeli security forces remove metal detectors which were recently installed at an entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad


In the mid-first century, writing about the Jewish Temple several decades after its destruction, the Jewish historian Josephus seemed to expect that the Temple would be rebuilt. But the Roman general Titus already advanced the idea that the defeat of the Jews was a main justification for his and Vespasian’s seizure of power in Rome. Another Roman, the pagan Julian, planned to rebuild the Temple almost 300 years after its destruction. His plan was designed, it has been said, more to insult the Christians than to please the Jews.

For 1,000 years, a Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount. When it was destroyed, the site lay desolate until late into the seventh century, when Muslim caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan constructed a shrine, Dome of the Rock, which still stands. Muslims believe the Temple Mount is where their prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on his steed Barak.

In 1967, when Israel captured the area, a short term of uncertainty ended with a decision not to rock this religious boat more than it already was shaken. In the government’s archives, there are few letters and documents attesting to this time of uncertainly. In late October 1967, four months after the Six-Day War, a letter to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol from the Waqf, the body in charge of the mosques on the Temple Mount, was distributed among the relevant offices. Jews, the Waqf complains, are entering the Temple Mount to pray and read from the Book of Psalms.

“Jews that are visiting Temple Mount are trying occasionally to do things of this nature, and thus are disrespectful of Muslims’ feelings,” the Waqf warns. The letter includes a reference to the Israel Defense Forces Chief Rabbi at the time, Shlomo Goren. He was one of this group of naughty Jews. It also includes a warning of “unpleasant consequences.” The Israeli government, as the archive testifies, never sent a response to the letter.

“As agreed,” writes Eli Amir, the adviser to Arab affairs in the prime minister’s’s office who became a well-known Israeli novelist, “we did not respond nor confirmed that we received this letter.”   

Those were the days when Israel might have had the option to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. The debate as to whether it was a mistake not to take this opportunity, while stimulating, never can be resolved. Maybe the shock of the great victory provided Israel with an opportunity to re-establish a Jewish presence on the holiest center of Jewish civilization. Maybe attempting to use this opportunity would have resulted in disaster.

It is interesting to wonder what the current government would have done had it been in power when Israel captured East Jerusalem. It is interesting to wonder if a government more traditional, more nationalistic, would have made a different call.

The Israeli governments that ruled Israel after 1967 — headed by Eshkol and later Golda Meir — were reluctant to make any decision concerning Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. In many ways, the governments’ discussions back then are reminiscent of those of the current government.

Rather than making a principled decision, the hot potato of the Temple Mount policy was handed to the police. “I suggest we don’t make a formal decision on this matter,” argued Minister Menachem Begin of the Likud Party and a member of the unity coalition of that year. Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira concluded that “on principle, it is permissible [for Jews] to go and pray. Legally, it depends on the police … you [the police] have to carry this burden.” Shlomo Hillel, representing the Foreign Ministry, agreed, suggesting “to define this matter as a matter of the police.”

Well, the police recommended to install metal detectors following the July 14 attack and recommended to uninstall them 10 days later. Relying on the police has the advantage of keeping things vague and pragmatic.

It also has disadvantages. The Temple Mount is not a matter for the police to deal with; it is a matter for the government and for considerations larger than the riot of today or the outcry of tomorrow.

Since 1967, all that Israel achieves in the Temple Mount are small alterations, at times successful, at other times less so. Its recent clumsy move was of the latter type, aimed not at annoying the Muslims, nor at making a dramatic change. Rather, it was a quick response to a dramatic change in the status quo made by three terrorists who used the Temple Mount as a base to attack and kill Israeli policemen.

The response was necessary; Israel cannot accept such actions and not respond. The haste also was understandable. When the government responds to terrorism, it needs to do so quickly, when the blood is still boiling and when the message is still clear.

But the result was not quite what Israel was hoping for. It was also not a complete disaster. Although not Israel’s finest hour, violence was reasonably contained, the outrage was clearly manufactured, the criticism from abroad was tolerable.

Israel caved not because of its inability to withstand the mounting pressure of violence and diplomatic hurdles. It caved because its leaders realized the implications of their actions are unworthy of the trouble. The price was too high compared with the estimated reward.

It remains to be seen if alternatives to the metal detectors — sophisticated cameras and other high-end equipment to be installed over the next six months — won’t ignite the same response and a similar process of trial, error, negotiations and back to Square One.

On July 25, Muslim worshippers were asked by their leaders to stay put and refuse the invitation to go back to business as usual.

The Waqf said it is not going to accept cameras or any other new means.

Israel says it needs them and will install them.

I always prefer to believe my own government more than I believe other nations, organizations and groups. But this month, only a fool would not be cautious.

An iftar … at the Israeli consul general’s house?

(Left To Right): Rabbi Marc Schneier (President - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Russell Simmons (Chairman - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Consul General Sam Grundwerg, Mahomed Akbar Khan (Muslim community activist). Photo by Michelle Mivzari

Sunset in West L.A. A swank little outdoor get-together, rosé and single malt at the bar, men in their Bonobos and Untuckits. The chat among a tribe of writers, managers and producers turns to that week’s plans.

“So, I’m going to this iftar,” one says. “At Wilshire Boulevard Temple.” An iftar is the traditional evening break-fast meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Oh,” says a young TV exec. “I went to the NewGround iftar there last year. I’m going to one in Culver City.”

Suddenly, the game was on — that competition that happens when men gather in small circles and compare. And I wanted to play.

“I’m going to two,” I said. “One at the Israeli consul general’s house.”

“Oh!” one guy said. “Wow.”

I was feeling good. Winning.

“I was invited to that one,” the producer countered. “Couldn’t make it.”

We were five Jews, standing in a circle, one-upping one another over who was invited to the better Muslim break-fast. Could it be, I wondered, that in Los Angeles in 2017, iftars are the new Oscar party?

The first one I attended this year certainly felt exclusive. It was billed as the Jewish Muslim Leaders Summit. There were a couple dozen Muslims and Jews, half and half, in a function room at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue. A lot of lawyers and accountants — and I’m talking about the Muslims. 

“People ask me to describe the American Muslim community,” one lawyer told me. “I always say, ‘We’re boring.’ ” Muslims go to school, work, raise families, he shrugged. What’s to say?

Edina Lekovic, one of the Muslim conveners, said Ramadan is the perfect time to engage in what we Jews call tikkun olam

“The absence of food and water can mean the presence of something else,” she said. Plus, she added, when you have to fast from dawn to past sunset, “It’s good to have something to keep you busy.”

We spoke of the current state of division in America, the sense of discrimination and how we can work together to create better polity and politics.

At 8:06 p.m., the fast was over. We each ate a date stuffed with a walnut, the traditional break-fast treat (note to Jews: excellent post-Yom Kippur idea). Across the hall, the imam chanted the call to prayer. We all were invited to pray, or to wait until the prayers finished. Then we ate — a banquet of hummus, salads, kebab, falafel and pita with za’atar. 

It was Lebanese food, someone pointed out.

Two days later, I was at the home of Sam Grundwerg, Israel’s new consul general in Los Angeles. Grundwerg, his wife, Julia, and their children had just moved into their new home in Los Angeles and were hosting their first event, an iftar.

“Thank you for helping us open up our home for the first time,” Grundwerg said. “I think it’s really making a statement.” 

That was an understatement. For 69 years, Israel has worked toward more equality, more integration of its 20 percent Muslim population, with many ups and downs. But the message of this evening was one of welcome and acceptance. At a time when Muslims are feared and singled out in America, including by our president, the consul general of Israel made them the first guests in his new home.

Getting Muslims to come the first time, Grundwerg recognized, would be a challenge. He lit on the idea of inviting someone with a high enough profile to lead the way, like, say, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. 

“I thought it would be difficult to get him,” Grundwerg said of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers and UCLA legend. “But he loved the idea right away.”

About 50 guests sat in white folding chairs in Grundwerg’s living room. Abdul-Jabbar, stately, serious, towering over the second-tallest guest (me) by a foot at 7 feet 2 inches, led a panel discussion on tolerance and Muslim-Jewish relations with music impresario Russell Simmons; Mohammed Khan, director of interfaith outreach at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City; and New York Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  

“As a Muslim and as someone who loves my country,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’m really concerned about what’s happening in our country. People are at each other’s throats. This is avoidable if we can talk to each other and learn to respect each other.”

Abdul-Jabbar, author of several books on history, spoke of the Golden Age of Spain, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and flourished.

“The beginning of the Renaissance came out of Spain and North Africa,” he said, “because Muslims, Jews and Christians cooperated and shared knowledge and shared solutions. That’s what I want to get back to, and that’s why I’m here this evening.”

Simmons, who identifies himself as a yogi, said he and Schneier have been doing Muslim-Jewish dialogue for 10 years, in 40 countries, but recently the need for it has become more urgent.

“Today it’s gotten so bad, it’s impossible to avoid a public discussion,” he said. “This idea of the children of Abraham being so separate is so disturbing. We need to give others what we want for ourselves.”

When the clock struck 8:06 p.m., marking the end of the fast, the consul ended the discussion. As the guests broke the fast with dates, consular officials and Julia Grundwerg hurriedly cleared the chairs and laid down a large rug. An imam issued the call to prayer, his voice echoing through the room. About a dozen of the Muslim guests then held a prayer service in the consul’s living room.

Allahu Akbar (God is great),” called out Khan, who led the prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” they repeated.   

There was a kosher buffet meal in the backyard: hummus, salads, kebab, braised lamb, stuffed grape leaves and pita with za’atar.

“Israeli food,” someone said.

The night wound down. Abdul-Jabbar took selfies and signed autographs. The Persian actor Navid Negahban, who played the Jew-murdering arch-terrorist Abu Nazir on the TV series “Homeland,” gave a moving, funny speech about empathy.

As I walked to the parking valet, it occurred to me that the surest path to empathy is experience — sharing one another’s lives, rituals and holidays, in person. Sure, we can imagine ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes, but it always will be more powerful to spend a few hours walking beside the person. May the competition for the best iftar invitations in L.A. only grow, I thought.

And as if I needed a sign that I was right, it was there on the booth where I picked up my car. The sign said, “Abraham’s Valet Parking.” 

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

The Ramadan Project

The NewGround Iftar in 2016. Photo courtesy of mjnewground.org

After spending my formative years in Jewish day school, it was only natural that I’d rebel in college: I signed up for a class in the New Testament. Not because I was considering conversion, but because I was at an academic disadvantage. My professors assumed basic literacy in Christianity, while I had learned only about the persecutive aspects of the faith — blood libels, the Inquisition, the Crusades, Passion plays.

I never had such a primer on Islam; it never seemed quite as necessary. But in January the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions (or ban, depending on who’s speaking) on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries heightened debate over the treatment of Muslims. I realized that even those who would not consider themselves Islamophobic or who, like me, know a handful of Muslims, often came to a communal tables with more baggage than information. And that’s even without mentioning the Israel-shaped elephant in the room.

So, this year I decided to use Ramadan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month-long fasting holiday that ends this year on the evening of June 24  — as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect the dots and find the common DNA between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these two ancient faiths.

The internet and my network of friends and acquaintances seemed a good place to start, and both turned up a few good nuggets. For instance, while segments of Torah stories appear in the Quran, only the story of Joseph is told from start to finish, and it often is referred to as “the most beautiful of stories.” And when Muslims are preparing to address a crowd, they recite Musa’s Prayer — named after Moses, known for his leadership despite a speech impediment.

I also attended a June 7 community iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, marking the end of that day’s fast and sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I listened to the presenters — NewGround board members, local city officials and graduates of NewGround’s interfaith fellowship programs — share their stories. As Muslim attendees knelt for Maghrib, the evening prayer, I stood at the back and realized how little I knew.

I did pick up on some comforting similarities. As a language nerd, I noticed that in Ramadan’s traditional greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I barely had to squint linguistically to see a mevorakh (Hebrew for “blessed”). And I had read that the Ramadan fast is known as sawm; the Hebrew word tzom also means fast. My Ramadan project was working its magic already, connecting my Hebrew influences to their Arabic ones.

To guide me further into the semantics of Semitics, I reached out to my childhood friend Shari Lowin, now a professor of religious studies. In one example, she said, there are two words for charity (tzedakah in Hebrew): For Muslims, zakat is like a tithe — a portion of a Muslim’s salary donated to charity — and the language is about “making something pure,” similar to Hebrew’s zakh (shemen zakh, pure oil, is what fueled the miracle of Chanukah).

“According to Muslim scholarly theory,” Lowin said, “giving a portion purifies the rest of your money, makes it yours,” while the other word for charity, sadaqa, is from a root meaning “speak the truth, be sincere,” and denotes a voluntary giving of alms. And Maghrib means “sun” or “west,” phonetically similar to Hebrew words ma’arav (“west”) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

Another friend I worked with about a decade ago, Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel at Patheos.com, filled me in on more worldly similarities between the adherents of our two different faiths — like concerns about assimilation’s impact on her teenage daughter.

“What are the foundations of faith inside of her? Is she strong in those foundations? I love the empowerment and [conversation around] owning your image and story, but I hope she’s still doing her prayers, still fasting, doing whatever is fundamental, and I hope [it] doesn’t get lost along the way,” she said.

The Ali family aims to “be respectful of differences and find similarities,” said Dilshad, whose parents are from India. “We try not to put ourselves in a silo. We are not only friends with people who are Muslim, or only people who are South Asian. I think that is a good model for them, having relationships and friends with people who are different.”

All of this dialogue inspired me, not just to learn more about the Muslim community but to build bridges to it, as well. Here are a few practical ways that I’ve decided to move my own Ramadan project forward — and you can, too.

1. Host Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner and other meals. I’ll account for dietary restrictions around food and alcohol, and strive for accessible conversation about the world, our faiths and our passions. When friends introduced me to my friend Marium, they told me she was “the Muslim Esther,” and that was pretty spot-on. Maybe there’s a “Muslim you” out there, too.

2. Learn about the Quran. Most Jews know very little about the Quran, even though Muslims know stories from the Jewish Bible. What is in the Quran, and how do its stories compare to those in the Torah?

3. Consider my own narrative in light of an interfaith (or multifaith) conversation. What do I need to tell Muslims about Judaism and what do I need to know about Islam for us to understand each other’s stories and be allies for each other’s communities?

4. Learn about programs that use education, dialogue and experiential discovery to connect Muslims and Jews. NewGround runs programs, as well as more in-depth fellowships. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute invites North American Muslims to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Encounter Programs brings Jewish leaders to Israel for “transforming conflict through face-to-face understanding.”

As Dilshad noted, these relationships take honesty and time.

“It’s who you meet and engage with one on one,” she said. “It works slowly. Our world views expand one person at a time.”

Can you change the mind of a jihadist?

Of all the things I’ve read about the latest jihadist terror attack from London, one line in particular from Prime Minister Theresa May stood out.

Terrorism will only be defeated, she said, when we make young people “understand that our values, pluralistic British values, are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”

But at the same time, May spoke about the need to crack down harder on those “young people” and the extremism that feeds them.

So, on the one hand, May wants to get tougher with the killers, while, on the other, convince them that British values are superior.

Maybe that represents, in a nutshell, the dilemma of fighting jihadist terrorism. To really win the war, you have to fight them physically and psychologically, but when you’re so busy with the physical, who’s got time for the psychological?

The focus in England right now clearly is on security, on preventing the next attack. Is there anyone on May’s team working on her goal of influencing values? I doubt it. The mood in the country is to stop the bad guys from killing — not to change their values.

But let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that, simultaneous to the crackdown, May would hire a marketing agency to create a campaign that might positively influence the bad guys. What would that look like?

One of the first things you learn in the advertising business is never to use the word “impossible.” There’s always the “best possible” answer to a problem, however unlikely it is that you can solve it. It’s about moving things forward — will the campaign make things a little better? Will it improve the odds of success?

Something else advertising teaches is to boil everything down to its essence — a few words, an image, a single thought. The goal is to light sparks, plant seeds, break the ice.

In our case, a key question is: How would you plant seeds of doubt in the mind of a jihadist who believes he’s doing God’s work when he slices the neck of a woman enjoying a beer in a British bar, or runs over pedestrians strolling happily on a Saturday night?

The easy thing to do would be to throw our hands up and give up. If someone thinks killing is holy, how do you counter that? But, like I said, this is a thought experiment. If the prime minister of England wants an ad campaign to influence the minds of religious extremists, what do you recommend?

In my mind, I see only one thing: We must fight holy with holy. They say killing is holy? We say life is holy.

The idea would be to rally leaders across all cultures and religions — especially Muslim leaders and preachers — to launch a “Life is Holy” campaign. The advertising would provide the sparks, but community leaders would preach the message on the ground.

A pervasive “Life is Holy” movement will, at the very least, put killers on notice that they no longer own holiness.

The campaign would reclaim holiness on behalf of life. We would promote the holiness of life with the same passion religious killers promote the holiness of killing. Instead of playing defense, life would play offense.

A “Life is Holy” message has some clear benefits: It’s true, believable, simple and passionate.

Of course, no marketing campaign can solve the problem of jihadist terrorism. There are too many jihadists who are moved by verses in the Quran that speak of killing the infidels, and too many preachers who feed this violence.

What marketing can do, however, is provide an aspirational vision. It can tell future generations of potential jihadists that real holiness lies in life, not killing. If enough Muslim preachers throughout the world reinforce this message in their sermons, we might begin to make a dent.

In her remarks, Prime Minister May spoke of cracking down on “safe spaces” online and in self-segregated Muslim communities that can harbor extremism.

If she is serious about doing this, she must infiltrate these extremist “safe spaces” with messages that promote the holiness of life — with billboards and memes, for example, that show the faces of people of all colors and religions as being worthy of holiness. Most critically, she must enlist local Muslim preachers to lead the way.

In sum, a “Life is Holy” campaign, if done right, can ignite an in-your-face pushback to the culture of death that infects the minds of jihadist killers. The “Life is Holy” message must be ubiquitous — it must be on T-shirts, street corners and social media. It must be loud enough to marginalize anyone who doesn’t support it.

In combination with a serious security crackdown, a pervasive “Life is Holy” movement will, at the very least, put killers on notice that they no longer own holiness.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The problem with Jerusalem

The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem. Photo via WikiCommons

In 1967, when Israeli paratroopers stormed the Old City of Jerusalem and commander Mordechai “Motta” Gur proclaimed, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu (the Temple Mount is in our hands!)” — the Six-Day War had reached its historic and emotional climax.

“The events of 1967 did for Judaism what 1948 did for Jewish nationalism,” B’nai David-Judea Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said during the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Six-Day War conference.

The reunification of Jerusalem and the assertion of Jewish religious primacy there “returned Judaism to the stage of world history,” he said.

For the first time in two decades, the Jews had regained access to their holiest sites — including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall — and brought a “reunified” Jerusalem under their control for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

But a Jewish-controlled Jerusalem came with a price: East Jerusalem, the location of the holy sites, was an Arab-majority neighborhood. And the Temple Mount — where Jews believe the world began, where the first human was created, and where Abraham bound his son Isaac — also happens to be one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Known in Arabic as Haram esh-Sharif, the Temple Mount is home to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and is the place Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on the Night Journey. It is considered the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

While Jews have made the Western Wall the focus of their prayer life, the Temple Mount remains the most contested holy site in the world. And yet, it is only one aspect of a larger quarrel over Jerusalem, in which Christians also have a stake: Jesus Christ arrived in Jerusalem to preach his message to the masses, and, according to Christianity, was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven from there.

Throughout history, the “City of Peace” also has seen violent discord. Even as Jerusalem remains under Israeli control, efforts to discount one another’s claims to the city persist.

Before the anniversary of reunification, I asked Israeli tour guide Michael Bauer why Jerusalem remains a quandary. He identified several areas that explain, at least in part, the gaps separating the aspirations of each faith tradition and the reality of political Jerusalem.

Knowledge: Both within Israel and the Palestinian territories, there is a concerted effort to teach identity-building, nationalistic versions of history that do not leave room for learning about other faiths or alternative perspectives.

“I’m shocked when I see kids finishing high school and they literally don’t know anything about Christianity, which is, in a way, part of our history and part of our surroundings,” Bauer said. “I also teach the Palestinian narrative in a pre-army program, and if I don’t do that, no one does it. I’m always shocked at the lack of knowledge.”

The same is true of Palestinians: Most are not taught about Jewish religious and historical claims to the land, leaving both sides mostly ignorant of the other’s place there.

Emotion: “Jerusalem is where all the emotions are,” Bauer said. “For things to get better in Jerusalem, things need to be solved around Jerusalem.”

After 1967, Bauer pointed out, Arab Muslims were humiliated at losing control of Jerusalem, a defeat made worse by the fact that they had to pass through Israeli security checkpoints to visit their holy sites. Until their dignity is restored through political compromise, Jerusalem remains a proxy for conflict.

History versus faith: “When you walk in Jerusalem, you’re looking at stories which for one person is history and for another is faith,” Bauer said. “If I say the words ‘Jesus,’ and ‘resurrected,’ one person in front of me has heard not only a fact but maybe one of the most important facts of his life, because to believe in resurrection is a fact that defines his Christianity. But for a Jew or Muslim, they’ve heard something that they think is just not true.”

Historical and spiritual claims are equally fraught in a place that encompasses both.

Human frailty: “Religion is not the problem in Jerusalem. The problem is people,” Bauer said. “They don’t know how to get along with ‘the other’ too well. And in Jerusalem, there are a lot of ‘others’ in one small place. As long as people do not know how to live with someone different, Jerusalem will be challenged.”

This pretty much explains why we need religion in the first place.

But let’s face it: Except for periodic skirmishes and flare-ups, and the intrareligious conflicts that plague all three faiths’ holy sites, Jerusalem has been in pretty good hands since ’67.

“Most days, it works,” Bauer said. “It depends what you want to focus on. You can choose to see a reality that is very conflicted. Or you can take another look, walk the same route in a different mood, and you will see coexistence.”

A historian, Bauer prefers to look at the precedents of the past rather than predict the future.

“Through everything that has happened over 3,000 years, there were eras of stability,” he said. “Last year was terrible in Jerusalem; there were stabbings all the time and al-Aqsa was a horrible place to visit. There were kids and women yelling at every Jew that went up there, singing songs, ‘With blood we will redeem Palestine.’ But it’s not happening there now. It’s a different Jerusalem from last year. It’s like a roller coaster. Things get better and then they get worse again.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle for existence, the world does little to help

A young Yazidi girl rests at the Iraq-Syrian border. Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

It was well before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014, when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) streamed out of the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, heading east. By daybreak, the Kurdish forces protecting the region’s civilian population had melted away. They fled with few warnings to the villagers, most of them Yazidis, members of an ancient and oft-persecuted religious minority.

The hundreds of settlements dotting the region, known together as Sinjar, are the locus of the global Yazidi population, which counts about 1 million souls worldwide. Across the arid expanse, the ISIS fighters who overran it seemed to follow the same script: Men and women were separated. Prepubescent boys were kidnapped for indoctrination as ISIS fighters. Women and their young children were sequestered into sexual slavery. And the men — those older than  12 — were forced to convert or else murdered, either shot in the head, sprayed from behind with bullets or beheaded as their families watched.

The picture painted in United Nations reports is dim. Within days, 5,000 were dead and about half a million displaced from their homes. One report, in June 2016, called the genocide “on-going,” estimating that 3,200 Yazidi women are still held as sex slaves by ISIS — bought, sold and raped by some of the same men who murdered their husbands and fathers. The bulk of Yazidis in Iraq who remain free stay in squalid refugee camps where basic needs are met barely or not all, while an untold number have embarked on the journey west, over perilous seas to the uncertain promise of refuge in Europe or the United States.

What’s worse is that the genocide of this tiny religious group didn’t take its victims by surprise. “We had a sense that it’s going to happen,” one Yazidi activist in Houston, Haider Elias, told the Journal.

In fact, ISIS has been remarkably forward about its genocidal intentions. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [ransom] payment,” explained an article in Dabiq, a glossy ISIS propaganda magazine. “Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists] say cannot be enslaved.”

A group of Islamic law students reviewed the Yazidi question, Dabiq reported, and ruled that unlike Jews and Christians, who are monotheists, Yazidis are pagans to be exterminated in preparation for Judgment Day. (In fact, Yazidis are monotheists whose Mesopotamian creed predates Islam by thousands of years.)

The Obama administration helped break a siege that stranded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar shortly after the Aug. 3 massacres, but it was a brief show of American airpower. The United States has done little else to ameliorate the situation; the West can claim neither ignorance nor impotence.

A handful of Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and at least one, IsraAID, has even offered on-the-ground assistance (see sidebar). But with the global population of forcibly displaced people topping 65 million, most of civil society is tuned to the larger picture. A network of Yazidis in the U.S. seeks its aid and protection for their coreligionists, but their numbers are few.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters


Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days, according to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.  The order makes an exemption for religious minorities, but at present, the procedures for exercising that exemption are unclear. At press time, the order had been blocked by the courts and was awaiting appeal, but the constitutionality of a religious exemption appeared murky in the first place. Meanwhile, the president has promised “safe zones” in Syria but the majority of Yazidis in the Middle East are in Iraq.

The persistence of genocide into the second decade of the 21st century makes a cruel joke of “never again,” just as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia did in the second half of the 20th century. More than two years after the Yazidi genocide began, the question remains: Shouldn’t we do something about it?

‘Nobody helped’

Salem Daoud is Mir of the Yazidis in the United States, the community’s chief religious functionary, serving alongside a council of elders. He speaks a halting English that would be difficult to fully comprehend even if he weren’t describing some of the most trying days of his life. So his son, Seif, who goes by Sam in the U.S., and Rabbi Pamela Frydman, an activist in Los Angeles, joined him on a recent conference call from Glendale, Ariz., to make sure he was understood.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

In such a tiny community, no family is unaffected by an event on the scale of the genocide. Salem’s sister and brother-in-law were kidnapped and then rescued six months later; they’ve never been quite the same since, Salem said. It’s hard to know what to ask a person who sat, more or less helplessly half a world away, while his relatives and countrymen were slaughtered and enslaved.

When Salem’s phone began to ring in early August 2014, there was little he could do to help the man on the other end, a local leader in Sinjar by the name of Ahmed Jaso.

“Till the last minute, till before they killed him, he was calling my dad, like, every, I would say, hour,” Sam said on the phone. “And he’s saying, ‘Do something for us, to save us from their hands.’ ”

Jaso was in a village called Kocho, where ISIS troops were lining up the villagers in groups of 60 or 100 and demanding payment to spare the locals’ lives. When the ransom was not forthcoming, they killed residents in a hail of gunfire, Jaso told Salem. Sam explained that his father has many contacts, people who might have been able to help, “whether here in the U.S., in Iraq, Russia, to people in Germany” — even people close to the White House. “Everybody put their hands on their eyes and their ears,” Sam said.

“[Jaso] would call, ‘[ISIS] said they just killed a hundred, so we need support to save the rest. … They killed another hundred, they need money.’ ” he said. “But nobody wanted to pay.”

“We give the information to a lot of people,” Salem added in his imperfect English. “Just nobody helped. No government, and nobody.”

The village of some 1,800 people was cleared out — the men slaughtered, the young boys kidnapped, the women enslaved.

“Very hard time, that was,” the Mir said. The last time he called Jaso back, the local leader was awaiting his turn at the death squad. “The last time, I hoped I’d be one of these people with them,” Salem said.

The activist

Frydman — known more commonly as Rabbi Pam — is a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Northern California, having moved here in May. There, she started the San Francisco congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community 25 years ago and spent a decade as a social justice activist and educator.

One January morning, Frydman sat down in front of her laptop at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Pico Boulevard. In front of her, a manila folder contained a manuscript of a book about the Holocaust she’s writing that she put on hold two years earlier, when she first learned about the genocide of Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. She finally was finding time to get back to work on the book. Asked to describe how she became active in the struggle for Yazidi survival, she scribbled an impromptu timeline on the back of the manila folder.

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

In November 2014, Frydman saw an email from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California about an event at a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area. “It said, ‘Act before it’s too late,’ ” she recalled. At the gathering, she saw footage of Yazidis being marched up to the heights of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped.

“We heard about children who were dehydrated because there just wasn’t enough water,” she said. She heard a story about a woman being driven up the mountain by ISIS forces and struggling to carry both of her children — one of many such stories to emerge from these forced marches. When this particular woman grew too exhausted to hold both children, she put one of them down.

“As soon as she put that child down, the child was slaughtered, was killed, and I said to myself, ‘This is a death march! This is what our people went through in the Holocaust!’ ” Frydman said, her voice wavering. “The fire was in my belly and my heart was shattered, and I felt that I had to do something. And I returned to my home and I started to contact Jewish and interfaith colleagues, and I said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ”

Soon, she organized a program called Save Us From Genocide, a consciousness-raising campaign for the plight of the Yazidis and Assyrians, hosted by four Bay Area interreligious councils in concert with the United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith network. A project of Save Us From Genocide administered by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called Beyond Genocide, hopes to gain attention and relief specifically for atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis.

In addition to helping finance university scholarships for Yazidis studying outside Iraq, Beyond Genocide assists in Yazidi migration and resettlement. On that last score, Frydman could describe her efforts only in vague details, out of abundant caution against putting Yazidis in danger.

Asked how much Beyond Genocide had raised for resettlement, she responded, “A very small amount. But with this very small amount, we have performed miracles.”

‘My brother’

Frydman’s resettlement and advocacy work runs primarily through tight-knit networks of American Yazidis such as the one operated by Saeed Hussein Bakr, whom she calls “my brother.” Bakr arrived in the U.S. about five years ago and found his way to Phoenix, where currently he works as a cook for a local Panda Express. As the disaster in Sinjar unfolded, groups quickly sprang up among American Yazidis to help those fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, managed by people like Bakr.

“Yazidis are not a big community,” he said. “So, almost, we all know each other.”

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Headquartered in places such as Lincoln, Neb., the largest American Yazidi population center, these networks raise money when possible, though the community is in large part newly arrived and not a wealthy one. More often, they deploy contacts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East to help Yazidi migrants who find themselves in trouble.

Bakr’s group, Yazidi Rescue, will alert Coast Guard officials in Greece, for example, when a boatload of Yazidi refugees is abandoned or waterlogged in the Mediterranean or Aegean sea. In other cases, they’ll help Yazidi women escape from slavery or help refugees who are imprisoned abroad. There are no rules or standard operating procedures for this type of operation, only dire phone calls to anybody who might be able to do something, whether civilians or government officials.

“Some nights, I can say we help 1,000 people in one night,” Bakr said.

Bakr first became involved after one of his sons, Layth, on his way to the U.S., got on a boat headed to Greece from Turkey. His boat capsized, and some of the refugees on board with him drowned. “That’s why I work to help those people,” Bakr said.

Remarkably, though, his son’s near-death experience in the Aegean Sea was not the most harrowing episode for Bakr. That would be earlier, in August 2014, when Bakr’s son and other relatives were turned out of their homes and driven up Mount Sinjar.

“For seven days, they were in the mountains, no power, no communications. We don’t know at any time if ISIS, they captured them,” he said. “It was horrible days. Those seven days, they were the worst seven days in my life.”

An ancient people long oppressed

The Yazidis are an ancient people, born in the cradle of civilization. Consecrated to one God, they survived through the ages. In each generation, the yoke of oppression found them, and they cried out for deliverance — except sometimes their savior was a long time in coming.

Sound familiar?

“In each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us,” Jews recite each Passover. It would be equally true on the lips of a Yazidi.

The parallels between Jews and Yazidis become uncanny at a point. Both are ethnically distinct religions dating to the birth of monotheism. Both have been singled out by Muslim rulers for persecution based on their strange and foreign faith, slandered as perversions of Islam.

But somewhere along the ages, the historical arcs of the two people diverge. Whereas the history of Jewish genocide ends after the Holocaust, Yazidis have had no such luck.

Since the 15th century, Yazidis count 74 farmans against them — literally, decrees, calls by rulers for their destruction that inevitably result in mass slaughter. They’ve faced genocide at the hands of Kurds, Turks and Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslims backed by the Ottoman Empire. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of persecutors.

More: A sex slave survivor fights back

Invariably, Yazidi customs and belief are offered as the reason for their oppression. The religion has no central texts that have survived the ages, but its folklore is vivid and distinct from any other faith. Adherents claim to descend not from Abraham but from Adam. Their legend has it that Adam and Eve, as a sort of competition, each placed their seed in a jar. When Eve’s jar was opened, it held an unpleasant stew of filth and insects. Adam’s contained a beautiful baby boy, ibn Jar, literally the son of Jar, who became the ancestor of the Yazidi people.

Ironically, it is their guardian angel that has earned them the fanatical ire of radical Islamists. Yazidis regard as sacred Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, a fallen angel who refused to bow to Adam when God requested he do so, and who consequently gained dominion over the fates and follies of man. This origin story bears a similarity with that of the Islamic legend of Iblis, the archdevil in Muslim theology. The resemblance between the tales has historically motivated the slander of Yazidis as devil worshippers, a kind of Middle Eastern blood libel that continues to claim the lives of its subjects.

“They have made Iblis — who is the biggest taghut [idolator] — the symbolic head of enlightenment and piety!” the article in the ISIS magazine Dabiq exclaims. “What arrogant kufr [infidels] can be greater than this?”

One irony to emerge from this account is that peacocks don’t exist in the region where Yazidi civilization arose. If the community of nations is not watchful, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a Middle East with no more Yazidis, either.

‘Never again requires a lot of energy’

Google searches for “Yazidis” saw a massive spike in early August 2014 and then returned, but for a few small flutters, to a flatline. But things never went back to normal for Haider Elias, a Yazidi activist in Houston who is the president of Yazda, an advocacy, aid and relief organization.

That’s not the role he’d imagined for himself before ISIS began to wreak catastrophe. A former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who immigrated in 2010, Elias was raising three children and studying biology as an undergraduate in the hopes of attending medical school. When his brother was murdered in Iraq and the rest of his family displaced from their homes, he dropped his medical school dreams to dedicate himself to advocacy.

Haider Elias

Haider Elias

Elias and his peers at Yazda run a gamut of programs aimed at helping those displaced by the genocide. They’ve presented on the catastrophe in more than 10 states, including California, and in Europe. In Iraq, the group offers psychological and psychosocial therapy to help reintegrate women who have escaped or been rescued from ISIS. On top of all that, Yazda runs documentation projects to record video testimonies about the genocide and document mass graves.

Elias is still a full-time student at the University of Houston, though he’s switched majors to psychology at the recommendation of some American friends. A social science degree would better suit him for advocacy work, they told him. His days are long and busy, but he’s motivated by the knowledge that his people still face imminent danger.

“Many people want to come back [home] but they’re afraid that the security forces again are going to fail and run away, and this time it’s going to be more fatal, more catastrophic,” Elias said.

And so Yazda now is advocating for international protection for Yazidis, without which resettling Sinjar is unfeasible. “Without some form or guarantee of protection, this community is terrified,” he said.

Elias admits to still being angry. He’s angry with ISIS, naturally, and with the world for standing idly by; but more specifically, he’s angry with the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, for abandoning their posts before the Islamists’ murderous advance.

“It’s not a battle and they lost — they ran away,” he said. “They did not tell the population. When you lose many lives and you think you lost the battle, the first thing you do, you inform the population. The second thing, you run away.” To hear Elias and other Yazidis tell it, the Peshmerga didn’t quite bother with the first.

Though most Yazidis are behind Kurdish lines for the moment, their situation remains precarious and their advocates few. Elias made note of a chilling silence in Congress, broken only on occasion by legislators who represent Yazidi population centers, including two Republicans, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“We need a campaign in 2017 to help the Yazidis, whether to advocate for international protection or accepting Yazidi refugees in the U.S. or sending more humanitarian aid to the areas,” Elias said.

Responding to the genocide, Yazda took up “never again” as a rallying cry. But Elias is not naïve about the prospects of his people.

“Never again requires a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of work,” he said.

‘Save us!’

The Yazidi call for aid is neither subtle nor nuanced. Even before the genocide, theirs was a struggle for existence. There is no conversion into the community, and a child with even one non-Yazidi parent is considered to be outside the faith. The massacres and enslavement of Yazidis compound an already dire population problem.

“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, told the legislature on Aug. 5, 2014, in a tearful plea that briefly went viral on the internet. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!”

Before she could finish the next sentence, she collapsed, weeping.

The Yazidis interviewed for this story made clear they are open to any help they can get — military, political, financial and otherwise. Currently, Frydman and her colleagues are advocating for a real immigration pipeline to allow Yazidis to come to the U.S. notwithstanding the Trump administration’s refugee policy.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. From left: Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein and Hussein Saeed Hussein, and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein (right) and Hussein Saeed Hussein (left), and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.


The Trump order, before a federal judge blocked the bulk of it on Feb. 3, in theory allowed Yazidi immigration to continue largely unimpeded. In practice, though, the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates refugee admission, has told Yazidi refugees their immigration has been canceled until further notice, Reuters reported. A faith-based exemption raises constitutional questions and its legality is a matter for the courts to decide.

But not all displaced Yazidis want to leave Iraq, anyway. Many simply want to resume their lives in the villages where they were born and escaped death, according to Salem Daoud, the Yazidi Mir. Much of that territory is still held by ISIS.

For now, the totality of a people’s homeland lives in limbo and its diaspora finds only limited means to help them. Often, prayer is the only recourse. Frydman recalled a joint prayer group near Phoenix with Yazidis, Jews and Universal Sufis. After the prayers were over, a Yazidi elder approached her and showed her a tiny book in a plastic pouch. Peering through her bifocals, she discovered it to be the Book of Psalms. A Jewish friend had given it to the elder, he told her, shortly before immigrating to Israel after the declaration of the Jewish state. “He said the prayers in this book will protect me,” the elder told Frydman.

The themes reflected in the Book of Psalms, as it happens, are more topical now for the Yazidi people than they ever have been in recent memory. As it says in Psalm 7:

O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge; deliver me from all my pursuers and save me, lest, like a lion, they tear me apart, rending me in pieces, and no one to save me.

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
(415) 369-2860

(832) 298-9584


Marine Le Pen: French Jews should sacrifice yarmulke in struggle against radical Islam

French far right party leader Marine Le Pen and candidate for the 2017 French Presidential elections presenting her New Year’s wishes to the press at her campaign headquarters in Paris, Jan. 4. Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said French Jews should give up the wearing of yarmulkes as part of the country’s struggle to defeat radical Islam.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that aired Friday, Le Pen expressed support for banning the wearing of yarmulkes as part of her broader effort to outlaw religious symbols in public, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle reported Sunday.

“Honestly, the dangerous situation in which Jews in France live is such that those who walk with a kippah are in any case a minority because they are afraid,” Le Pen said, using the Hebrew word for yarmulke. “But I mainly think the struggle against radical Islam should be a joint struggle and everyone should say, ‘There, we are sacrificing something.’”

Referring to French Jews, Le Pen added: “Maybe they will do with just wearing a hat, but it would be a step in the effort to stamp out radical Islam in France.”

Le Pen is a leading contender in the upcoming French presidential contest, with a recent poll showing her advancing to the second round of balloting in May but still losing handily to front-runner Emmanuel Marcon. Her political party, the National Front, was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who routinely minimized the Holocaust.

The younger Le Pen has sought to move the party past her father’s controversies, but French Jewish leaders still consider the National Front anti-Semitic.

A tempered Ayaan Hirsi Ali preaches Muslim integration in the Age of Trump

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Somali-born author and activist best known for her outspoken and sometimes-incendiary critique of Islam. 

Throughout four books, she has compared Islam with Nazism, described it as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and suggested that well-meaning Muslims “pick another God.” 

Her overblown rhetoric has gotten her into trouble on more than one occasion — but that was before overblown rhetoric could pave a path to the White House. Based on her statements, Hirsi Ali could easily fit in with the next administration’s anti-Islamist foreign policy. But at age 47, she’s recently begun softening her critique, publicly distinguishing Islamic culture, with its 1,400 years of tradition, from political Islam, the fuel of extremists.

Given her intellectual evolution, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d agree with Donald Trump’s rhetorical jihad on Muslims — including calls for a nationwide Muslim registry and a ban on Muslim immigration. So when she visited Los Angeles last week to speak at the women’s-only salon series Inher Circle, founded and curated by philanthropist Beth Friedman, I thought I’d ask her.

“If I look at just the Islamic statements [Trump] made during the campaign, he’s someone who knows that something is up,” Hirsi Ali said to the room of 100 women who paid $135 each to hear her speak at The Peninsula. But then she digressed into a prolix answer that belied her accord with the president-elect.  

“If he had said, ‘Let’s ban all Hindus until we figure out what is going on,’ I think everyone would have thought, ‘What’s up with the Hindus?’ 

“After 9/11, I think we should be very specific about making a distinction between Islam and Muslims. I take the position that not all Muslims are violent or misogynistic; I think in fact that the majority of Muslims are like all other people — many are peace-loving and many suffer because of Sharia law. And it’s crucial that we understand this diversity — those who are advancing an agenda that is hostile to our way of life, [those] who are on the fence, and [those] who are risking their lives to reform Islam from within,” she said. “If we fail to make that distinction, then we are lost. Then we get into a place where we start to make really bad policy mistakes.”

Behold, the woman who has called for Islam to reform its views has modeled moderation by reforming her own. This is to her credit; a capacity for critical thinking that enables even critical self-reflection is disabling to critics who accuse her of being radical herself. And it’s no secret Hirsi Ali was declared persona non grata by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labeled her an “anti-Muslim extremist,” which caused considerable backlash of its own. Is a staunch critic of Islam necessarily anti-Muslim?  

“I grew up in a Muslim household, and I have the common sense to say I can distinguish between those who mean harm, those who don’t, and those who are in between,” she said. “President [Barack] Obama, and before him President [George W.] Bush, stood before us on world platforms and said, ‘Islam is a religion of peace.’ Excuse my language, but that’s bull—-. It is not bigoted to say that that is bull—-.”

So she hasn’t softened entirely. But one expects a devoted fearlessness from a woman whose biography tested her will at every turn. Having spent her childhood crisscrossing between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, Hirsi Ali was thoroughly indoctrinated into the Wahhabi sect of Islam. Shortly after she was born, her political activist father was imprisoned for opposing the ruling government in Somalia. While he fulfilled his prison sentence, Hirsi Ali’s grandmother defied his wishes and arranged for 5-year-old Hirsi Ali to undergo female genital mutilation. 

By the time she was a teenager, Hirsi Ali had adopted a lifestyle in compliance with the strictest dictates of the Quran. But the final straw was when she was forced into marriage with a cousin in Canada. “If I went to Canada, I would then live as the wife of that man, I would have children with him and I would be forever miserable just like my mother was miserable, just like all the women around me were miserable.”

On her way there, she seized the opportunity to escape the Sharia shackles of her youth, skipped her connection in Germany and took a train to the Netherlands where she was granted political asylum. 

What if a Muslim ban had prevented her from the liberation she relishes now? 

“I have been in the place where I had to knock on the door of a free country and say, ‘Please let me in,’ ” she said, responding to a question from former CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin. “And as soon as I was let in, I started to adapt.” 

Hirsi Ali differentiated, however, between different kinds of immigrants — those who adapt, those who are ambivalent about integration and “fanatics” who want to impose their way of life on their host country. Not everyone uses their new freedom to fight for the rights of others as she has for oppressed women, “but the minimum is that you adjust.” 

“One has to remember that whatever [immigration] policy is applied, it’s applied to human beings. It changes lives — it’s men, it’s women, it’s children, it’s families.”

I asked her privately if, now that she has a free life in America, she fears what the next administration might bring. “Trump isn’t regime change,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You know what keeps me up at night? [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal

Letters to the Editor: Hillary, Islam, and reflections on Mom’s stuff

Going Through Mom’s Stuff

I am an 88-year-old mother of two, grandmother of five and great-grandmother, recently widowed. I strongly relate to the article regarding Teresa Strasser’s mother, since I have a lot of stuff, which I love and cherish (“Can You Rest in Peace While Your Stuff Rests in a Dumpster?” Sept. 2). It breaks my heart that the only place she could find for her mother’s stuff was a dumpster! 

Surely someone who has no mother or stuff to inherit would treasure something that was loved! I sincerely hope that my family will not only cherish what I loved, but in reverence donate this mother lode of belongings to a better place. I could never have done that with my mother-in-law’s “treasures,” nor my mother’s. 

Donna Rothman



How happy I was to see Teresa Strasser’s name on your cover. I, too, am an avid collector, a retired dealer, and although in my 80s, I am still out there looking for stuff.

However, when I read the article, I felt so sad. I almost cried when I read about the box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill. The “shady dude” who was going to cart it all away was, in reality, earning a living by sorting it all out and either selling it to other dealers or selling it himself at a flea market. And those customers who are lucky enough to see the possibilities in giving these tchotchkes a new life are reaffirming her mother’s passion for the charm or beauty of things created by others.

Recently, I moved from a house to an apartment. The kids took some stuff and the things I still wanted were moved to my new digs. The rest was sold by a hard-working crew of estate liquidators. And I was there, watching as prospective buyers fell in love, hondled and acquired my treasures. My children know that when I die, the same estate sale people will dispose of my collections to appreciative new owners.

Evelyn Bauer


The Hard Truth

Reading David Suissa’s column, you might imagine that respect for the truth is primarily a Hillary Clinton problem and the fact that Clinton is only somewhat “better than [Donald] Trump” is what leads Suissa’s friends to overlook her lack of truthiness (“The Problem With Hillary,” Sept. 2). Wow! Suissa says nothing about Trump’s relationship with the truth, let alone that Politifact found 76 percent of Trump’s statements to be untruthful and that The Huffington Post found that Trump uttered one falsehood every 1.16 minutes during a town hall.  

Most of my friends who support Hillary are more concerned that Trump wants to take away medical insurance from millions of Americans, that he cannot imagine why we don’t consider using nuclear weapons in regional conflicts, that he would accept Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, that he has encouraged a level of hate and racism that no other presidential candidate in recent memory has done, that he would threaten women’s reproductive rights, that Trump is a climate change denier of the first order, and that he promotes economic policies that would add $11.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Edward Friedman

Beverly Hills


The Republican outrage about the Clinton Foundation is itself outrageous. Republicans think giving money to politicians is free speech, not legalized bribery, and they think it’s good for America and good for democracy. Republicans brought the case of Citizens United before the Supreme Court, and they love the ruling and the results.  

When Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers and other Republican billionaires give millions of dollars to gain access to politicians, Republicans have no problems with any of that. But if Hillary Clinton plays by the same rules as the Republicans, suddenly the Republicans are up in arms about money for access.

As a Democrat, I think the whole thing stinks. I hate it when Hillary takes money for access just as much as when any Republican politician takes money for access. It doesn’t really matter to me if there is no quid pro quo. And I don’t see any meaningful distinction between the money for access coming from domestic or foreign sources. Having said that, Republicans are being totally inconsistent and intellectually dishonest about Hillary. The hypocrisy of the Republicans is appalling. 

Michael Asher

Valley Village


Trump and the Jews

Upon reading Rob Eshman’s article “Donald Trump, the Jewish Savior” (Sept. 2), we feel it necessary to express our total disagreement with the so-called Jewish majority view. Although Mr. Trump had not been our favorite candidate in primaries, the way he is treated by the “almighty” media (including the Jewish one), which distorts every word he ever said and then uses their own interpretation of his suggestions and ideas to influence public opinion, makes us sick. 

It is sad that so many American Jews can’t see beyond the political correctness and are ready to vote for a completely corrupt, lying individual, whose so-called “achievements” are bringing harm to our country and to our staunch ally Israel. Having lived for over 40 years in the former Soviet Union (a champion of politically correct lies) before coming to the USA in 1979, we can see clearly which direction Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and the like are leading our country, and it scares us a lot.

Nina Ryskin, Geta Sukharev

via email


Soar Like an Eagle

I truly enjoyed the article about Yekutiel Greiff (“On the Wings of Eagles,” Sept. 2) and was privileged to attend a court of honor where he was awarded his Eagle rank with Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood. He is one of many young men who have earned the Eagle rank through local Boy Scout troops. Many local Jewish organizations have been the beneficiaries of their Eagle projects.

Now is a great time for parents and children to consider following in Yekutiel’s footsteps and learning more about Jewish values through Scouting. Those who are interested should contact scoutmaster@bhtroop360.org to learn more about local Jewish Boy Scout, Cub Scout and Girl Scout units.

Hal Schloss

Scoutmaster, Troop 360


A Differing View of Islam

I don’t know Jannah Jakvani, but her piece in the Sept. 2 issue displayed either astonishing ignorance of her own religion (Islam) or deliberate falsehood (“A Muslim Joins With Jews to Complete the Circle of Courage Against Hate”).

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, did not stand “for dignity of all people.” (If he had, there would have been no slaughters at his orders of the Jews of the Banu Qurayza or the Khaybar Oasis.) Nor does Islam literally mean peace, as Jakvani says — it means submission to the Islamic deity. The history of Islamic invasions, massacres, robbery, destruction, enslavement, contempt for unbelievers, and institutional degradation and unequal treatment of them in Islamic law is known to anyone who bothers to read up on the subject.

Perhaps the worst thing in this article is the writer’s attempt to equate anti-Semitism with so-called “Islamophobia,” a term invented to cover up the justified fear of jihadist attacks.

Chaim Sisman

Los Angeles


Jungreis Deserved Better

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, an icon of American Jewry, died on Aug. 23. I awaited your issue of Aug. 26 to see a cover story on this amazing woman who inspired both Jews and non-Jews worldwide. No mention of the highly esteemed Rebbetzin Jungreis.

Well, they’re planning something special for an upcoming issue, I thought hopefully. Something befitting the most mesmerizing speaker of my lifetime. What do I find? An impersonal obituary from the JTA on page 34 (“Esther Jungreis, Orthodox Jewish Outreach Pioneer, 80,” Sept. 2). 

The cover is devoted to Teresa Strasser’s disposing of her mother’s “stuff.” Duh? Tamara Strasser and her stuff obviously “merited”  numerous photos and nine times the space that Rebbetzin Jungreis received. I fear that something is seriously wrong with your values and priorities.

Frederica Barlaz

Los Angeles


Apostates, Then and Now

I wholeheartedly agree with Dennis Prager’s premises and argument presented in the article “The Left (Still) Is Not Our Friend” (Sept. 2). However, I beg to differ on the last sentence in the article, “The only difference is that there were no Jews then who supported those Christians.” As far as I know, the first claims of “Blood Libel” were made by Jewish apostates. I consider Jewish leftists and other “fellow travelers” as modern-day Jewish apostates, betrayers of their own people by spreading lies about Israel.  

Jerry Kraim



Mattering Less

Regarding your cover art on the August 19 issue, which says “Black Lives Matter: Where Do We Fit In?” The answer is we don’t. All you needed to do was see the emphasis on the coverage at the recent Olympic Games of Black gymnast Simone Biles versus the coverage received by Aly Raisman. We’re old hat.

Martin Goldstein

Woodland Hills

They’re all crazy!: The language we use when reporting terror attacks

But I don’t want to go among mad people, Alice remarked.
Oh, you can’t help that,”said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”

Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland

It has become fashionable to invoke the M’Naghten rules as soon as there is a terror attack in Europe. Typically the perpetrator shouts “Allahu Akhbar” and murders innocent bystanders at some restaurant, bus stop, theatre, night club or what have you. Authorities quickly follow up by darkly muttering that the terrorist was actually a person with mental health issues. Their job is to convince the public how to engage in denial.

Whereas Freud explained a hundred years ago how defence mechanisms such as denial, projection and rationalization affected human behaviour, today we embrace these concepts as an integral and essential part of political correctness. For instance, politicians have suddenly become theologians and experts in comparative religion by stating that shouting Allahu Achbar has nothing to do with the real Islam. Security officials backed up by government ministers on the other hand, suddenly transform into psychologists and psychiatrists and become mental health experts. It’s a new form of multitasking.

The M’Naghten rules stem from 1843 after Daniel M’Naghten was acquitted on the charge of murdering Edward Drummond whom he had mistaken for British Prime Minister Robert Peel. He had  believed that Mr Peel was conspiring against him. The court found him not guilty by “reason of insanity” which resulted in a public outcry to the extent that Queen Victoria intervened and recommended stricter criteria for insanity.

Unlike today’s government spokespeople and security officials, courts grapple with complicated insanity issues in criminal matters despite the input of expert mental health witnesses.

Of course, labelling each Islamist attack as a mental health issue could be counterproductive.

Anyone walking along a major boulevard in Berlin or elsewhere, would notice a fair amount of homeless people begging or bedding down for the night. Many of them would have mental issues, yet people walk past them without the slightest concern, let alone fear. Heaven forbid however, if one of these beggars would shout “Allahu Achbar,”—just these two words would be the game changer! If the beggar actually attacked a passerby, he or she would be labelled a criminal. Likewise, to stab or to mug someone in a park or bus stop is pure crime. Shouting the magic words whilst stabbing someone however, turns you into a mental health case. These people, it is routinely said, “became” radicalised just as others contracted some disease. Hence diminished responsibility.

From the terrorist’s, or in PC language, the “patient’s” point of view, the danger is, that by being called mentally ill, society steals his thunder. After all, ascending to Paradise as a psychiatric patient rather than a martyr, would certainly spoil the party. Welcoming virgins would also feel cheated and worse still, could find themselves in an abusive relationship.

Despite knee jerk responses to terror attacks by quickly reassuring the public that the stabber/shooter had “mental health problems,” the German government has nevertheless recommended that the public stock up with ten days of emergency  food and water supplies. People with “mental health problems” have thus become a national security issue. Street beggars must be shaking their heads in dismay as they get overlooked. They might also fantasise where they should store their ten days of emergency supplies. Whatever, they have every reason to hold a grudge.

Since security measures and terrorists are involved in a cat and mouse game of one upmanship, authorities may be put on the defensive if terror groups started calling themselves the Al Neurosa Front, the Psychosis Caliphate or the Front for the Liberation of Acquired Organic Brain Disorder.

If that, heaven forbid, occurs, security officials will be outmanoeuvred and certainly out-diagnosed. The M’Naghten rules would no longer apply.  EU officials in Brussels would have to come up with a new creative solution. They have already tried to regulate washing up gloves for the kitchen, the permissible shape of bananas and cucumbers, prohibited drinking water being falsely advertised as stopping dehydration, and made it illegal for prunes to be promoted as a fruit assisting bowel function. Creative thinking is certainly one of their strong points.

There is however one country which has had its fair share of terror attacks, but oddly enough, the perpetrators do not get labelled as having mental health issues. When it comes to Israel, the theologians and mental health experts in Europe and increasingly in the US, are either silent or rely on-you guessed it-the occupation.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—nothing more nor less.”  Indeed.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is a Fellow at the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. He is the author of the recent satire ”The trombone man: tales of a misogynist,” available through Amazon, Lulu.com and other outlets.

Steven Sotloff’s parents implore Obama to bring home a missing American journalist

The parents of Steven Sotloff, the Jewish freelance journalist beheaded by the Islamic State nearly two years ago, have joined the families of three other killed U.S. hostages in urging President Barack Obama to bring home a missing American hostage.

Shirley and Arthur Sotloff, in an essay published Wednesday in the McClatchy newspapers, called on Obama not to leave behind any Americans when he leaves office in January, referring to freelance journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in August 2012. Tice is the only American reporter known to be held hostage anywhere in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The other authors of the essay are Diane and John Foley, the parents of journalist James Foley; Ed and Paula Kassig, the parents of humanitarian aid worker Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, and Carl, Marsha and Eric Mueller, the parents and brother of humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller.


The families pointed out that one year ago this week, Obama “made a commitment to improve our government’s dismal record on the return of American hostages.”

“We are four families bonded together by tragedy and terror,” they wrote. “We will never fully recover from the horrific outcome of our own hostage crises. But there is something that still can be done: Bring Austin Tice safely home.”

Each family also wrote a personal message.

The Sotloffs read: “We, the family of the late journalist Steven Sotloff, remind President Obama of the following: You told us in person that if it were your daughters, you would do anything in your power to bring them home. We implore you: Bring Austin Tice home.”

Tice, now 34, was working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and The Washington Post when he was taken captive. Besides a brief video clip posted about six weeks later showing him with unknown gunmen, there have been no other signs of life.

The hate narrative and Muslims in America

On the sixth night of Ramadan, June 11, I broke my fast at a synagogue during a Havdalah-Shavuot celebration. Around 10:30 p.m., at almost the same time that Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., I called an Uber to get from the Westwood synagogue to my apartment in midtown Los Angeles. The driver took an unusual route. “I’m not going through West Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t want to see all that gay parade stuff.” He was a white, middle-aged, Christian man. A beaded cross dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked me where I was from. I said I was Pakistani. “You don’t look like them,” he laughed and added, “That’s a compliment.”

Let us be frank about what it is. The two most acceptable forms of discrimination in America today are discrimination against gays and Muslims. It is politically, socially, legally acceptable to be a bigot with regard to practicing Muslims and a person’s sexual orientation. In the past six months alone, countless politicians backed by the Christian right have pushed for hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills through state governments. These include bills like North Carolina’s sweeping HB2, which denies even basic legal protections to gay and transgender people. 

At the same time, Muslims in the United States have to tolerate the racist ravings of presidential candidates and television anchors. The word “terrorist” is now reserved exclusively for Muslims, a dubious indignity that the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world must accept as theirs alone. The political causations behind the rise of ISIS are no longer debated, but every time a madman pledges allegiance to it, the rest of the Muslim world is immediately answerable for his motivations. 

There are more than 3 million Muslims in America, and some of them, like some Orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians, do not support gay rights. The route to acceptance has been a morbidly slow evolution across all major world religions, made worse by the lack of political and legal institutions to contradict widely held religious beliefs. 

The four major schools of Islam are in utter disagreement on homosexuality and challenge one another on the legal premise of punishment, if any. Islamic literature has been rife with homoeroticism over the ages, and in modern narratives, progress is being made as global acceptance increases. It is also true that the state of gay rights is most abysmal in seven Muslim majority countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. In yet others, including Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan, homosexuality is legal and LGBTQ rights are improving. 

But is homophobia in Islam relevant to the case of Omar Mateen, a non-devout, possibly gay Muslim man with unproven links to any fundamentalist organization?

Yes and no. It should not be completely ignored that Mateen’s violent motivations might have found their root in his parents’ religion, or that he declared allegiance to multiple (albeit contradictory) terrorist organizations in a last-minute 911 call. Having said this, that cannot be the primary or even secondary point of focus.

Religious leaders at the Islamic Center of Southern California speak about solidarity in the wake of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Amal Khan

Once more, much of the conversation in America disowns what is inconvenient to include in its political and cultural narratives this election year. Mateen was a gay-hating, gun-touting Muslim terrorist with Afghan parents, according to the media narrative. But what Mateen was, was a mentally unstable American terrorist with legal access to assault rifles.  

The only thing that separates Omar Mateen from Adam Lanza, from Aaron Alexis, from James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh, Christopher Harper-Mercer or Dylann Roof is his name. That this point needs to be raised in 2016 America is a humiliating measure of the state of racism in this country. On Saturday night, it was Omar Mateen, born to Afghan parents, who killed 49 people. On the morning of June 12, James Howell, born to white parents and from Indiana, was arrested with a cache of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition in Santa Monica on his way to the West Hollywood gay pride parade.

The fact is that homophobia, like hate, is not a Muslim problem. It is a global problem. Legal and immediate access to automatic assault weapons, however, is solely an American problem.

So, no, America should not get to choose who it owns. America should not get to embrace the Muhammad Alis as its own, but reject the Omar Mateens as somebody else’s. It should not get to turn a debate about its own gun laws, its intelligence failures and its homegrown homophobia into a hate-filled, racist narrative about immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, which is exactly what political opportunists like Donald Trump are now doing.

On June 13, one day after the murders in Orlando, the Islamic Center of Southern California was a champion of common sense and solidarity. In the settling chill of dusk, an interfaith vigil welcomed speakers from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Sikh clergies, gay and straight, who denounced violence, oppression and the war of religions in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Arik Greenberg, founder of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, identified himself as a secular Jew. He expressed concern over a systematically instilled anti-Islamism, likening America today to the climate of hostility in Nazi Germany, when ordinary Germans were brainwashed into believing that there was not a single decent Jew who lived among them. “I see this tactic used by many American leaders, making people believe that if they scratch the surface of any Muslim, they’ll find a terrorist underneath,” he said. 

For over an hour, people in headscarves or kippahs, tattooed women and priests, police officers, gays, lesbians, Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and Christians spoke of a common human dignity. “To the wicked opportunists,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “you are on the side of ISIS because you believe in a war of religions and getting cheap political votes through fear and violence.”

With an array of rainbow flags fluttering behind them, the gathering was solemn. Stephen Rohde, chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), ended the vigil by saying, “It is a matter of our survival as a nation, as a widely decent and good people to stand here together.” 

And stand they did, long after the day’s Ramadan fast broke, and the sun set. When people finally dispersed, it was in the silent spirit of hope, holding white candles and reflecting upon the true diversity of America’s greatness.

Why are we afraid to talk about Islam?

If a white, homophobic Christian fundamentalist had murdered 49 people in a gay nightclub, would we go out of our way not to mention his religion for fear of offending all Christians?

Mass murderer Omar Mateen, the man who went on a rampage in an Orlando nightclub, is not just a “hater” or a “homegrown extremist,” as President Barack Obama characterized him. He’s a Muslim terrorist who called 911 and pledged allegiance to an Islamic terror group while committing his slaughter.

As FBI Director James Comey told reporters on Monday, “There are strong indications of radicalization by this killer and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations.”

But if these “foreign terrorist organizations” are indeed Islamic, as we all know they are, why can’t Comey just come out and say it? What is he afraid of?

Since 9/11, according to the website Jihad Watch, 28,589 deadly terrorist acts have been committed around the world in the name of Islam. Why can’t we talk about that? How can we treat a disease if we don’t identify it?

Omar Mateen was radicalized by Islamists like Abu Taubah, a man whose teachings are described in the Daily Beast as “virulently homophobic.”

Of course, if Mateen needed any Islamic inspiration for his homophobic act, all he had to do was watch a video of gays being thrown off rooftops in Iraq by ISIS terrorists, or one of Shiek Farrokh Sekaleshfar, a Muslim preacher who has given sermons in the Orlando area and has called for gays to be executed.

“Death is the sentence. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about this,” the shiek says in one of the videos. “We have to have compassion for people. With homosexuals, it’s the same. Out of compassion, let’s get rid of them.”

It’s easy to dismiss all this hate speech as a “perversion” of Islam, as the president and many others have done. But the holy texts of Islam contain some genuine bile against homosexuals and even specify the punishment: “Execute the one who does it and the one to whom it is done.”

This may help explain why homosexuality is so reviled in Muslim-dominated countries. As a 2013 Pew study reported, over 90 percent of people surveyed in predominantly Muslim countries like Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia and Pakistan say homosexuality should be rejected.

When such religious-based homophobia leads to violence, our politically correct reflex is to separate the religion from the interpretation, and say, “This is not Islam, it’s only a twisted interpretation.” This helps us move on and talk about things more in our comfort zone, such as gun control.

But if the twisted interpretation leads to violence, why should we dismiss it? Why should an instrument (guns) be taken more seriously than a motivation (religious hate speech)? If we condemn a Christian or Jewish preacher for inciting violence, why not a Muslim preacher?

Judaism frowns on separating interpretation of text from religion.

“Interpretation is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the act of revelation itself,” Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, “The Great Partnership.”

“No word, especially the word of God, is self-explanatory. Exegetes and commentators are to religion what judges are to law. They are essential to the system, and they can make all the difference between justice and injustice, right and wrong.”

Instead of dismissing the hateful interpretations of Islam, we must confront them directly and candidly and counter them with humane and scholarly interpretations that would distinguish right from wrong and bring honor to the faith.

Fortunately, such a movement exists — it's called the Muslim Reform Movement.

This is an initiative started in late 2015 by a dozen Muslim scholars and religious leaders in the United States to spawn a more liberal and tolerant Islam for the next century. The movement, which I wrote about last December after the terror attack in San Bernardino, has yet to gain traction with the mainstream media. I hope that changes.

The group’s manifesto reinterprets Islamic texts and calls for many things we take for granted, such as “secular governance, democracy and liberty.” It also asserts that “every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam.”

It rejects “bigotry, oppression and violence against all people based on any prejudice, including ethnicity, gender, language, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression.”

Most importantly, the authors call on the Muslim world and others to sign on and help the movement grow and flourish globally.

Everyone on the planet who believes in freedom and human rights should sign on. Every Muslim preacher and leader who believes Islam is a religion of peace should get behind the movement.

We need to create a world where all present and future Omar Mateens will enter their favorite mosque and hear about an Islam that doesn’t tolerate homophobia or bigotry or misoginy of any sort. An Islam that brings honor to Islam.  

That world would be good for the LGBTQ community, and for all of humanity.

Can Belgium protect its Jews? A community has its doubts

The hundreds of rifle-toting police and soldiers who patrol Isaac Michaeli’s neighborhood have done little to improve his sense of safety.

“When the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, the soldiers might as well be cardboard cutouts,” he said.

A jeweler in his 40s, Michaeli lives with his family in Antwerp’s Jewish quarter, a small neighborhood of 12,000 that is one of the largest haredi communities in Europe.

The troops have been assigned to protect the neighborhood, with its 98 Jewish institutions, since May 2014, after four people were killed in a terrorist shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium. Since then, their presence has been beefed up at periods of elevated risk — including after Tuesday’s string of terrorist attacks that left at least 31 dead and 300 wounded in Brussels.

Belgian Jewish leaders have praised the patrols and the government allocation of $4.5 million for the community’s protection. But amid reports of repeated failures in Belgian authorities’ counterterrorist efforts, Michaeli’s dismissive attitude is shared by other Belgian Jews. Many feel that their government is less competent in defending civilians, Jews and otherwise, than its neighbors, including France.

On Thursday, Menachem Hadad, a Brussels rabbi, told Israel’s Army Radio, “Belgian authorities have no understanding of security issues — zero.” He said soldiers posted outside a synagogue and the city’s Chabad House told him that for months, they used to guard the area with no bullets in their rifles. “It was just a show. It’s not normal,” he said.

Responding to Hadad’s claim, a Belgian Defense Ministry spokesperson wrote in an email to JTA that the soldiers posted in Brussels “are adequately armed and trained,” adding the ministry is nonetheless looking into the claims about the synagogue and Chabad House.

In Antwerp this week, hundreds of soldiers and police patrolled the Jewish quarter, where children wore costumes for Purim. One of a handful of European cities where the Jewish holiday is celebrated on the street, Antwerp’s Purim event this year paled in comparison to previous ones. Revelers were prohibited from playing music, wearing masks and using toy guns to avoid alarming soldiers and offending a grieving nation.

“We celebrate but we are broken,” said Mordechai Zev Schwamenfeld, 57, a member of Antwerp’s prominent Belz Hassidic community. Holding a basket of sweets he was delivering to friends – a Purim custom — he noted that two Belz yeshiva students were lightly wounded in the Brussels attacks. “It affects everyone, we’re not in a bubble,” he said.

Jewish children in Antwerp, Belgium, dressed as soldiers on Purim, March 24, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

Following the attacks, Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign over the alleged failure to track one of the attackers, an Islamic State militant, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, expelled by Turkey last year. He blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday. An accomplice suicide bomber struck a subway station less than an hour later. Authorities are hunting for more accomplices, who they fear might strike again, possibly at Jewish targets.

Turkey said it warned Brussels specifically about El Bakraoui. According to Haaretz, Israel told Belgium just weeks ago that an attack was planned at the airport. European Union security agencies recommended airport security measures that were not implemented, according to reports.

The attackers also struck at obvious targets when officials should have been on high alert, said critics. Just four days before the attacks, authorities in Brussels arrested Salah Abdeslam, an Islamist alleged to have participated in a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in November.

The arrest, too, led to charges of incompetence. After four months on the run, Abdeslam was found on March 18, hiding a couple thousand feet from his parents’ home. He escaped police several times, including in November, thanks to regulations prohibiting home searches between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Having confirmed his whereabouts after midnight, police found an empty apartment in the morning.

Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Belgium, said that despite these apparent lapses, “Belgian authorities are now doing all they can following the trauma at the museum.” The attack on the unguarded building in 2014 prompted authorities to significantly beef up security “in an unprecedented way,” Guigui said. But asked whether Belgian authorities have the desire and the ability to stop attacks, he said: “I don’t know, I’m not a security expert. I’d like to believe so.”

Guigui’s hedged response differs markedly from that of French Jewish leaders. The heads of CRIF, France’s Jewish umbrella group, have often proclaimed their “utter confidence” in authorities’ ability to combat terrorism and protect the community against jihadism.

“I wouldn’t say I have full confidence,” said Joel Rubinfeld, founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism and a former president of the CCOJB umbrella of French-speaking Belgian Jewish communities. But after a long period of half-measures, he said, authorities took “robust steps to secure Jewish sites in 2014. It’s a positive step for which we are grateful.”

Amid increases in anti-Semitic incidents and a worsening sense of personal safety, immigration to Israel from Belgium has increased dramatically over the past five years.

People gather to show solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Nov. 14, 2015. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Last year, 287 Jews immigrated to Israel from Belgium, which has a Jewish population of about 40,000. It was the highest figure recorded in a decade. From 2010-2105, an average of 234 Belgian Jews made aliyah annually — a 56-percent increase over the annual average of 133 new arrivals from Belgium in 2005-2009, according to Israeli government data.

France too has a jihadist problem that is driving record numbers of Jewish immigrants to Israel, but “It is also a superpower with a strong army and a determined leadership, which Belgium seems not to have,” said Alexander Zanzer, an Antwerp Jew who runs Belgium’s Royal Society of Jewish Welfare. “I don’t have the same confidence that many French Jews have in their authorities following the attacks in their country.”

While in France, “there is leadership capable of making decisions, in Belgium the [bureaucracy] runs itself,” he said. And while this may be the sign of a functioning democracy in times of peace, he said, “in case of emergency, strong leadership is a necessity.”

Zanzer recalled how for 20 months in 2012-2013, a political standoff prevented the formation of a government in Belgium — a binational federal state of 11 million people divided between the richer Flemish, Dutch-speaking, population and the French-speaking south. Like Michaeli, Zanzer said that what most gives him a sense of security are Antwerp Jewry’s own volunteer neighborhood patrols — a service that is far more robust in Antwerp than in Brussels.

Michael Freilich, the editor in chief of the Antwerp-based Joods Actueel monthly, said the violence and the security presence in the Jewish quarter are taking a psychological toll, though he commended the work of special police patrols. After the Brussels attacks, one of Freilich’s three sons had a mild anxiety attack at his Jewish school, which is under constant military protection.

In their spacious home in the heart of the Jewish quarter, Freilich and his wife, Nechama Freilich, said they are unsure of what they should tell the 8-year-old.

“You want to reassure them that things will be alright and we tell them we’re safer here than in Brussels, but you can’t tell them it won’t happen here. It might,” Michael Freilich said.

Obama, in mosque visit, says an attack on Islam is an attack on all faiths

President Barack Obama visited a U.S. mosque on Wednesday and declared that attacks on Islam were an attack on all faiths in a move to counter rhetoric from Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates that have alienated Muslims.

“We have to understand that an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” Obama said at a mosque outside Baltimore. “When any religious group is targeted we all have a responsibility to speak up.”

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States after a California couple who killed 14 people last December were described by authorities as radicalized Muslims inspired by Islamic State militants.

Republicans vying to be the party's candidate for the Nov. 8 presidential election also have argued against Obama's plan to accept 10,000 refugees fleeing Syria's war, saying it raised national security risks.

Obama urged people watching who had never been to a mosque to think of it as similar to their own houses of worship.

“Think of your own church or synagogue or temple, and mosques like this will be very familiar. This is where families come to worship and express their love for God and for each other,” he said.

The president, who is a Christian, said it was important to have more Muslim characters portrayed on television who were not related to national security themes, and he said engagement with Muslim American communities must not be a cover for surveillance.

Turkey unsettled by ‘anti-Islamic’ messages in U.S. presidency race

Turkey is unsettled by “anti-Islamic” messages in the U.S. presidential campaign, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday, citing the 2016 race for the White House that has seen the Republican front-runner advocate a ban on Muslim immigration. 

Donald Trump, the businessman-turned-politician leading the polls ahead of the November 2016 election, last month said that all foreign Muslims should be temporarily prevented from entering the United States, a proposal he repeated in his first TV ad last week.

In November, Trump said he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center, an assertion fact-checkers have not supported.

“It's election year in the U.S., we're disturbed by anti-Islamic remarks by some of the candidates,” Cavusoglu told a conference of ambassadors in Ankara. 

Over the weekend, a Muslim advocacy group called on Trump to apologize after a Muslim woman who silently protested at one of his rallies was removed by security personnel.

Another Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, has said Muslims are unfit for the U.S. presidency, although he later said he would be open to a Muslim candidate if they renounced Sharia law.

Candidates have also raised questions about Syrian refugees, but few have directly challenged Trump's Muslim proposal.

Representatives of the Republican National Committee and Trump could not be immediately reached for comment.

NATO allies Turkey and the United States are part of a Washington-led coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But differences of opinion over which opposition groups should be backed in Syria have recently caused tensions, with Ankara summoning the U.S. ambassador last October over support to Kurdish groups.


In a wide-ranging policy speech to the annual meeting of Turkish ambassadors, Cavusoglu defended Turkey's deployment of a force protection unit to Bashiqa in northern Iraq, a move which has caused a diplomatic row with Baghdad.

He repeated that Ankara respects Iraq's territorial integrity and said the deployment was made after security deteriorated at Bashiqa, where Turkish soldiers have been training an Iraqi militia to fight Islamic State.

Cavusoglu also said Turkey was ready to make “every effort” to help resolve tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have worsened since the execution of a high-profile Shi'ite cleric by Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

But he appeared to dash any hopes of an imminent normalization in ties with Israel, saying there was no agreement yet on Turkish demands for compensation for the deaths of 10 Turkish activists on an aid ship in 2010 or for an end to the Gaza blockade.

An Israeli official said last month Israel and Turkey had reached a preliminary agreement to normalize relations. 

Cavusoglu also said Ankara would fulfill its responsibilities to ensure the resolution this year of the dispute over Cyprus, split since a 1974 Turkish military intervention.

Why the Saudis are just like Trump

The online bickering between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his fellow billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal over Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration is seeped with irony: For decades, Saudi Arabia has had a near-total ban on granting visas to Jews. 

In a December 11 tweet, Alwaleed called on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race, prompting Trump to call him a “Dopey Prince.” Many Saudis have promised to stop doing business with Trump-affiliated enterprises. And one Saudi billionaire accused Trump of “creating war” and “hatred between Muslims and Christians.” 

But Saudi policies over the years have made it virtually impossible for Jews to visit the kingdom: 

• Israeli citizens are explicitly barred from receiving Saudi visas, as are all would-be visitors who even have an Israeli stamp in their passports. 

• In 1991, after the United States protected the Saudis by defeating Iraq in the Gulf War, 17 U.S. Senators applied for visas to visit the kingdom. Only one, the Jewish Sen. Frank Lautenberg, was refused entry and had to get a new passport because he had previously visited Israel.

• 2004 a Saudi government Web site promoting tourism stated an explicit “no Jews” policy. Though that statement was later taken down, Saudi Arabia did not deny the policy had every existed. In fact, in the 1970s would-be visitors had to swear they were not Jewish to be allowed in.

• Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal was once asked if Jews could enter, and he could think of only two who had: U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, then Americas top diplomat; and the fiercely anti-Israel Rabbi Elmer Berger. 

• Last year, the Saudis denied entry to only one journalist who planned to cover President Obama’s visit to the kingdom: Jerusalem Post reporter Michael Wilner, who is Jewish. However, Wilner is not an Israeli and has never lived in Israel. 

America’s protestations of this blatant bigotry have been largely muted, apparently in deference to the sensibilities our oil-rich ally. 

Clearly, the Saudis are not taking a principled stand against religion-based visa discrimination. They think discriminating against a religion is perfectly fine – as long as it’s not their religion. 

(To be clear, I abhor Trump’s proposed policy. That does not detract from the outrageous Saudi inconsistency on the matter.)

The Saudi approach is consistent with Muslim attitudes toward “blaspheming” their prophet. During the 2005 controversy over cartoons depicting Mohammad, Muslims around the world claimed it was wrong to criticize people’s religions – but they never objected to images and artwork criticizing Christianity and other non-Muslim religions. 

And that’s the point. Most Muslim countries and many of their citizens do not share Western-style values of tolerance and respect. They do not tolerate and respect other religions; they just want special treatment for Islam.

The Democrats and Republicans who have been rushing to attack Trump’s comments about Muslims who visit America would be wise to condemn religion-based discrimination in all parts of the world. And the Saudis could demonstrate that their protests are based on principle rather than self-interest by changing their visa policies and finally welcoming Israelis and other Jews who wish to visit.

I’m not holding my breath.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Jews against Trump

In ways direct and subtle, the Jews of America and the Jews of France, the Jews of the left and the Jews of the right, the Jews of the Reform movement and the Jews of the Orthodox movement, have sent Donald J. Trump a message: Feh.

“Feh” is a Yiddish expression of disgust.  And the fact that Trump could provoke such a uniform reaction from such a fractious people is a credit to the dumbness and darkness of his ideas.

His increasingly xenophobic and racist rhetoric reached a low point this week when he declared that under a Trump administration, America would close its borders to Muslims.   

“We need a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States while we figure out what the hell is going on,” Trump said to cheers of approval from his supporters.

If Trump thought Jews, so often the targets of Islamic terrorism, would join the cheers, he really doesn’t get Jews.   The reaction from Jewish organizations and leaders was immediate and uniformly negative. 

Trump’s plan was “unacceptable and antithetical to American values,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said in a written statement.

“The U.S. was founded as a place of refuge for those fleeing religious persecution, and religious pluralism is core to our national identity,” Greenblatt continued. “A plan that singles out Muslims and denies them entry to the U.S. based on their religion is deeply offensive and runs contrary to our nation’s deepest values.”

Greenblatt’s words echoed similar statements from across the Jewish political, religious and ideological spectrum.  Last month, even the Orthodox Union joined in opposing Trump’s call to keep Syrian refugees out of America.

Trump must be scratching his – insert your own hair joke here. Jews are a particular target of Islamic terror.  The coward who shot up the disabilities center in San Bernardino was “obsessed” with Israel, his father told reporters. 

According to the FBI’s most recent statistics, Jews still are the prime target for hate crimes in America—59 percent are directed at Jews.  Second place, but rising faster, are Muslims.

But Jews understand that the democratic safeguards built into America’s Constitution, including the separation of church and state, form our strongest safeguard against hate and discrimination.  When those crumble, we all fall down. 

Beyond the danger posed by the threat to civil liberties and religious freedom, there is the practical issue.  In Trump’s mind, the best way to stop Islamic terror is to target all Muslims.  But that just encourages Muslim radicalism, creates the “holy war” between Muslims  and non-Muslims that the extremists pray for, and pushes moderate believers to the extremes.   

Liberal claptrap?  Ask the French Jews and the Israelis. 

When Trump’s recent foulness exploded across the Web, I was having coffee with an Israeli official.  Israelis, he told me, are simply bemused by Trump’s antics.   If Muslims in and of themselves are the problem, how to account for the success of Israel, a democratic Jewish state with a 20-percent mostly Muslim Arab minority ?  

Israel faces threats from Islamic extremism that, to use a Trumpism, would make your head spin, but Israeli leaders from David Ben Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu have known that the best way to increase radicalization is to persecute the majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens, or to insult the Muslim religion itself.

French Jews have seen their own and their fellow countrymen slaughtered on the streets of Paris and Toulouse at the hands of Muslim terrorists – but they know the moral and practical dangers of a discriminatory France are a far greater threat.

This week, the Jews of France issued a stinging rebuke to their homegrown anti-democratic forces, and, by extension, to Trump.

On the eve of the upcoming regional elections in France, the Alsace chapter of CRIF, the umbrella Jewish organization, came out strongly against the Muslim-baiting National Front, led by Marine Le Pen.

“The Alsace chapter, strongly attached to the values of the Republic,” the statement read, “calls upon all voters to participate at the upcoming elections – since so much is at stake. We are calling to reject the extremist parties that advocate hatred and try to prosper at the expense of the divide within the society created by fear.”

CRIF president Roger Cukierman called on the Jewish community to vote “in order to block the National Front, a party of xenophobia and populism.”

It was heartening this week to see Republican presidential candidates and Party leaders all denounce Trump’s ideas.  And it was especially thrilling to hear the silence and jeers that met Trump at the recent meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

If Jews in America, France and Israel can all agree on the danger to their countries and their liberty in the kind of ideas Donald Trump espouses, then there’s not a lot more to be said about Trump or his candidacy.

Except, feh.

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

The longest war

No matter how many wars we fight and how many precautions we take, as long as enough people believe they are killing in the name of God, the war against Islamic terror will continue. The killers of San Bernardino were motivated not by grievance but by religious fervor. California’s tough gun laws, a sophisticated U.S. anti-terrorist program and even the American dream were no match for them.

President Barack Obama can promise to “destroy” terror groups such as ISIS, but let’s not fool ourselves. Terror is a symptom, a tactic, not a cause. The root cause of the violence is a medieval and literalist interpretation of Islam that fires up zealots toward jihad and the dream of martyrdom. No missile can destroy that fervor.

It’s a mistake to dismiss Islamic extremism as belonging to only a fringe minority. In too many countries, extreme beliefs have become all too common. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center report, for example, 88 percent of Muslims in Egypt and 62 percent of Muslims in Pakistan favor the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim faith. Significant majorities in many Muslim-dominated countries believe Sharia should be the law of the land. 

Unless a more moderate and progressive interpretation of Islam gains serious traction throughout the Muslim world, you can forget about winning any war on terror.

Until now, the general approach of progressive Muslims has been to condemn Islamic terror while dismissing it as “not Islam” and defending the real Islam as a religion of peace. 

After so much violence committed in the name of Islam, this defense has started to wear thin. The problematic texts in the Quran that are used to justify violence are real. What Islam needs today is not better PR but serious reformation. A good starting point would be for influential Muslims to endorse a formal declaration of principles that defines a liberal, modern vision of Islam for the next century. 

Luckily for us, that declaration has arrived. It’s called the Muslim Reform Movement. It was announced on Dec. 4 in Washington, D.C., by a dozen or so Muslim scholars and activists from around the world. Here is the preamble: 

“We are Muslims who live in the 21st century. We stand for a respectful, merciful and inclusive interpretation of Islam. We are in a battle for the soul of Islam, and an Islamic renewal must defeat the ideology of Islamism, or politicized Islam, which seeks to create Islamic states, as well as an Islamic caliphate. We seek to reclaim the progressive spirit with which Islam was born in the 7th century to fast forward it into the 21st century. We support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by United Nations member states in 1948.

“We reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam. Facing the threat of terrorism, intolerance, and social injustice in the name of Islam, we have reflected on how we can transform our communities based on three principles: peace, human rights and secular governance. We are announcing today the formation of an international initiative: the Muslim Reform Movement.

“We have courageous reformers from around the world who will outline our Declaration for Muslim Reform, a living document that we will continue to enhance as our journey continues. We invite our fellow Muslims and neighbors to join us.”

The declaration, which has been in the works for a year, outlines a series of principles based on a modern view of Islam that reinterprets outdated texts for the new century. Some sections read as if they were written by a die-hard liberal: “We reject bigotry, oppression and violence against all people based on any prejudice, including ethnicity, gender, language, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression.”

An essential principle is the separation of mosque and state: “We are against political movements in the name of religion.”

Above all, the declaration honors life and freedom: “We believe in life, joy, free speech and the beauty all around us. Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights. We reject blasphemy laws. They are a cover for the restriction of freedom of speech and religion. We affirm every individual’s right to participate equally in ijtihad, or critical thinking, and we seek a revival of ijtihad.”

According to one of the authors, Raheel Raza, founder of Muslims Facing Tomorrow in Toronto, the goal is to take the declaration to mosques, Muslim institutions and Muslim leaders throughout the world and seek their formal endorsement.

Even if it takes 100 years, getting those endorsements is the real war we must win.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

At two Inland Empire Mosques, Muslims shocked by attack, disgusted by ISIS

For the last two years, multiple times each week, Gasser Shehata prayed around lunchtime at the same San Bernardino mosque as Syed Rizwan Farook, the 28-year-old Muslim who, with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, recently carried out the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He prayed with us shoulder to shoulder. That’s why we are in shock,” said Shehata, a 42-year-old San Bernardino resident, originally from Egypt, who was outside Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America on Sunday afternoon with his friend, 18-year-old Rahemaan Ali.

Muslims from around the area expressed horror and shock that a man they thought to be peaceful and immersed in Islam committed such an atrocity — and emphatically distanced themselves and their religion from the Dec. 2 rampage inside the Inland Regional Center that left 14 dead and 21 wounded.

A memorial near the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino for the victims of the terror attack.

According to officials, the attack began at 11 a.m., when Farook — a public health worker for the county — and his wife stormed a holiday party at the center, armed with semiautomatic rifles and pistols. They opened fire on a room filled with many of Farook’s co-workers and led police on a chase around San Bernardino, which ended in their deaths during a shootout that also left one police officer wounded. Officials later collected thousands of rounds of ammunition from the couple’s SUV and the garage of their nearby Redlands apartment, where reportedly there were also 12 pipe bombs.

Malik reportedly pledged allegiance on Facebook to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State. Officials are also probing the couple’s online communication with known Islamic extremists.

And although the FBI is uncovering Farook’s path to Islamist radicalization, those who knew him at the two mosques he frequented in San Bernardino and Riverside said they are shocked by the attack, and angry that groups such as ISIS say they represent Islam and are attracting some young Muslims to its destructive cause.

“He never really talked about politics, never said he’s pro-ISIS or against ISIS,” Shehata said. “We are all anti-ISIS. We hate them. We wish the whole world could go beat them up. We’re actually surprised that America hasn’t beaten them. They beat Saddam in one week.”

Almost immediately after the attack, national and international media outlets swarmed Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah and the Islamic Center of Riverside, where Farook also prayed, trying to piece together how and when he became radicalized.

“We understand every time there’s a terrorist attack, the rumor is that this person got radicalized at the mosque, so the media right away comes to see the mosque,” Shehata said. “If we hear a Muslim having extremist ideas, we will call the FBI.”

“Right away,” Ali added.

“I will call the FBI on Abdurraheman even though I love him,” Shehata said, using another name for Ali.

The problem, though, he said, is that it creates an atmosphere where ISIS supporters understand they must stay under the radar.

“Now nobody trusts anybody,” he said. “If I get crazy ideas I will not tell it to nobody because I know my Muslim brother will call the FBI on me.”

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in a telephone interview that Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS have adapted to and effectively used the rise and influence of social media “faster than the traditional domestic extremist groups” in the United States.

“I’m not sure if monitoring somebody’s search terms would be helpful, realizing that they ought not put all their thoughts and feelings online,” Segal said. “It’s going to get even more difficult to track these people.”

An ADL report released in April and updated in November identified 69 American residents known to be linked to Islamic extremist plots in 2015, more than double the number linked to such terrorism in 2014, and triple the year before.

“It adds to this sort of obvious trend that this threat is continuing to grow,” Segal said.

Still, he cautioned that any backlash against Muslims in the United States would be wrong — and used by ISIS as recruiting propaganda.

“Beyond the fact that you can’t blame the acts of terrorists on an entire religious community, what people don’t understand is when you engage in that kind of activity, all you’re doing is actually acting in the way that ISIS is claiming that Americans are,” he said.

At the Islamic Center of Riverside, Mustafa Kuko, the mosque’s imam, said he spoke many times with Farook, and offered him guidance regarding Muslim laws for finding a spouse. He said Farook never discussed politics with him or gave any hints of his radicalization.

“[He was] looking for someone who’s committed religiously — not about money or fame or beauty,” Kuko said of Farook’s search for a wife.

Shortly after Farook returned in July 2014 from Mecca, Saudi Arabia — where he married Malik after meeting her on an online Muslim dating site — Kuko was among those who joined them for a small wedding celebration at the Riverside mosque. Shehata and Ahmaan said they saw Farook’s wife at the wedding celebration, but never spoke with her and didn’t know what she looked like because she wore a full facial covering, called a niqab.

Kuko said Farook came to the mosque daily, including to the Fajr prayer, which is at dawn, and would sit in the corner of the room until prayer was called.

Amir Abdul-Jalil, a Muslim who was surrounded by media while giving an impromptu television interview in the mosque’s parking lot on Dec. 4, said he learned about the attack that day, and found it hard to believe that Farook did it.

“My first reaction, and my reaction to this point, is there’s no way this brother … he’s not that type of person,” Abdul-Jalil said. “I would describe him as one of the most sweet people I’ve met in my 50 years.”

Abdul-Jalil said Farook, who also repaired cars on the side, fixed his automobile and asked that he pay only for the parts. He added that Farook “knows Islam very well,” which is one reason he was so shocked to hear about the attack.

“Maybe someone else who doesn’t really know Islam could’ve done it — but not him,” Abdul-Jalil said.

Another member of the mosque, Salihin Kondoker, said his wife, Anies, was Farook’s co-worker and was shot three times in the attack, narrowly avoiding two other bullets that whizzed above her head as she walked out of the restroom when the attack began. Kondoker said the only time his wife, who is now out of the hospital and recovering at home, ever mentioned Farook was a few years ago when she spent a day training him, and mentioned a new Pakistani co-worker. (Farook is an American-born citizen, but his parents are from Pakistan.)

Kondoker said he views the attack as a crime that would not be condoned by any religion, and that ISIS (a name he rejects, opting to call them Daesh, an anti-ISIS Arabic acronym) has a political — not religious — agenda.

“That’s one reason we’re coming forward and talking. This absolutely has no connection with the faith,” Kondoker said. “Let’s say 2,000 people act this way. [That] does not really change [the] dynamics of 1.9 billion.”

He expressed his support for an American-led military campaign to destroy ISIS, and added that he believes “there’s more behind” ISIS than what is seen, without elaborating.

“I’m pretty sure there’s a power, something behind there, which we don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, conspiracy theory stuff out there on the Internet. We don’t know what to believe.”

Kuko said he’s sure that ISIS will eventually fall, just like other extremist entities.

“There are so many sects and groups that were deviant [in Islam’s history],” Kuko said. “They disappeared. I’m sure they’ll vanish. ISIS will vanish.”

At the Riverside mosque, a 34-year-old Muslim named Brent, who declined to provide his last name, said he and his fellow Muslims do not recognize ISIS as Islamic, and that Americans should understand that the San Bernardino attack “is not an Islamic attack.” He described ISIS as “a cancer in the body of Islam, but at the same time, we reject them as being Muslims and being a part of the body.”

“While the cameras are off, you have people that are fervently against ISIS and what they represent,” he said. “I cannot stop ISIS with my hands but I’m speaking against them, what they represent. And their actions in the world are not tolerated by the majority of the Islamic community.”

That ISIS is not Islamic was a common theme in interviews at the two Inland Empire mosques where Farook prayed.

“There’s nothing religious about ISIS,” Shehata said. “It’s about politics. It’s about power. It’s about conquering lands. And they’re using religion to their advantage.”

He said the key is for Muslims to study Islam, as ISIS tries to brainwash young, ignorant Muslims. “Muslims need to learn their religion, that is all,” Shehata said. “There’s nothing to modernize. The old message was loving.”

“Islam teaches us that if you kill one innocent soul, it’s as if you killed the entire humanity,” Ali said. “He [Farook] cannot bring any scholar, any verse in the Quran, any narration from the prophet, anything from a religious point that could support him to what he has done.”

In the meantime, people such as Shehata said he and other Muslims repulsed by ISIS should do what they can to speak out against and discredit the group.

“[W]hat’s incorrect — we say it’s incorrect. If we hear that there’s an imam somewhere saying crazy stuff, we’ll criticize him,” he said.

“That’s all we can do. We cannot travel to Pakistan and fight him.”

Thousands of Arab-Israelis protest ban on Islamic Movement

An estimated 15,000 Arab-Israelis protested Israel’s outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Several Arab-Israeli Knesset lawmakers and Arab leaders attended the protest Saturday in the northern Israeli town of Uhm al-Fahm.

“With our spirit and blood we shall redeem you, al-Aqsa,” the protesters chanted, according to Reuters, referring to the mosque located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “We will not shut up. We’re all with the Islamic Movement. Outlaw the racists.”

Israel’s Security Cabinet outlawed the Islamic Movement, a group popular with Arab citizens of Israel, last month over accusations of incitement and links to terrorism. Under the decision, any person who belongs to the organization or acts on its behalf is subject to arrest and imprisonment. Property belonging to the organization can also be seized.

The northern branch of the Islamic Movement, headed by Sheik Raad Salah, has fomented the campaign that accuses Israel of intending to harm the Al-Aqsa mosque and violating the status quo on the Temple Mount, which bars Jews from praying there. It established the network of activists called the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat to initiate provocations on the Temple Mount.

In addition, the organization is a sister movement of Hamas, which Israel and the United States label as a terrorist group, and is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Letters to the editor: Islamic extremism, contamination at Brandeis-Bardin and more

Hydra vs. Islam

As a friend and fan of Rabbi Reuven Firestone, I was disappointed by “Heads of the Hydra” (Nov. 20). He writes: “Let’s be clear. This terrible violence is not about Islam. That accusation is a canard. It’s an excuse, a pitiful substitute for careful analysis and consideration.”

He downplays Islamic textual support for violence by citing equivalently violent verses from the Bible — as though they’re on the same footing. They’re not. Long ago, Jewish legal authorities confined application of those verses to biblical times. Muslim legal scholars have yet to do the same with their holy books. 

He also excuses Islam by blaming terrorism on pathologies afflicting Muslim youth, including victimhood, alienation, corruption and hopelessness. But countless children worldwide suffer similarly — without the same terrifying results. To cite one example: Palestinian-Christian teens don’t aspire to kill Jews. Why? It’s about religion.

A religion is the totality of the expressions of people who speak and act in its name. In the Greek Hydra myth, Hercules’ cousin helps him kill the monster. We Jews stand ready to help our Muslim religious cousins kill their Hydra. Our first act is to help them see their monster for what it is.

Jon Drucker, Los Angeles

Contamination of Information, Continued

In Rob Eshman’s Nov. 13 column, “Brandeis-Bardin Needs to Be Transparent About Contamination,” he references a link to the letter that American Jewish University (AJU) sent to Brandeis/Alonim families, in which AJU asserts that Brandeis-Bardin is safe. In that letter, AJU referred to people who raised questions as “disgruntled ex-employees.”   

I am one of the former employees that phrase seems to reference. Questioning my love for Alonim is hurtful, considering I was born there, my sandek for my bris was Shlomo Bardin, my bar mitzvah was there, my wedding was there. I spent nearly every summer and winter break of my life there. The friends I made there are my friends today.

In 1995, Brandeis filed a lawsuit against Rocketdyne (now Boeing) for the release of hazardous materials “disposed of and released into the soil, air, and groundwater.” In 1997, just before the trial, Brandeis settled confidentially. It never made sense to me how the institute could have it both ways — that Brandeis filed a contamination lawsuit, yet the public, as well as Brandeis employees, were told the land was safe.

KNBC did not invent the issue of contamination at the Santa Susana site. As late as June 13, 2014, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times headlined “Santa Susana Toxic Cleanup Effort Is a Mess.” That was the focus of the NBC report: Boeing — Rocketdyne — Nuclear Cleanup. 

This is not a “for or against” Brandeis/Alonim issue. AJU needs to be fully transparent and release any test results. That’s the only way we will know if, as AJU said in its letter, Brandeis is safe.

We all want to see Brandeis/Alonim continue and thrive. 

David Dassa, Los Angeles

Modern, Meaningful

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, in her powerful opinion piece “A View From the Women’s Section” (Nov. 13), not only describes the practices embraced by large segments of the Orthodox communities throughout the world, it also answers the question: Who is Modern Orthodox? 

She poignantly conveys that her actions, as practiced by many other families, ultimately define Modern Orthodoxy. Proclamations by the Rabbinical Council of America are not conclusive. Those of us who are committed to halachah know who we are and those who understand our commitment define us as Orthodox. There is an admonition in the Talmud that rabbinic rulings should not impose decrees on the public that they know the public will not be able to abide. Where the exclusion of women from spiritual leadership is not tolerable among multitudes of those who define themselves as Orthodox, it is wise not to render such decrees.  

Esther Macner, Beverly Hills


A story about gap years in Israel, “Filling the Gap: The Case for a Post-High School Year in Israel” (Nov. 13), misspelled the name of student Mati Hurwitz and misidentified the school he is attending, Yeshivat Har Etzion. Also, the story suggested Masa Israel Journey will provide funding for thousands of students attending such programs this year, instead of throughout several years.

The article “Aviva Plans for an Inclusive Future” (Nov. 13) mischaracterized the boy in the photo caption as having been adopted with Aviva’s help, when, in fact, the couple’s pending adoption of another child is through Aviva.

Ron Dermer to ZOA: We must defeat ‘militant Islam,’ but Islam is not the enemy

Taking center stage at what organizers dubbed an all-star night of Zionist heroes, Israeli envoy Ron Dermer called on the international community to wage war against “militant Islam” and simultaneously cautioned his audience against viewing Islam itself as the enemy.

Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, issued his declaration Sunday night during his keynote address at the annual Louis Brandeis Award Dinner of the Zionist Organization of America. He warned of a global network of diverse Muslim terrorist groups waging a relentless war to create a world where “women are chattel, gays are hanged and minorities are either eliminated or persecuted” — and one where Israel and the United States do not exist.

At the same time, Dermer rejected the idea that the “problem is Islam itself.”

“Faiths tend to be very malleable things,” Dermer said. “They get interpreted in different ways at different times. For most of the last 1,400 years, Islam was much more tolerant to minorities than Christianity was. Jews, of all people, should know this.”

But in the 21st century, Dermer said, “It is Muslims, not Christians, who are killing Jews in the name of religion.”

Dermer added that just as Nazism quickly came and went in Germany, the Islamic world could change again. “But for that to happen,” he said, “it is not only important to define the enemy, it is important to defeat the enemy.”

The Israeli ambassador then criticized those in the media and the international community who strongly condemn ISIS attacks in Paris but make excuses for Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Dermer did not directly criticize members of the Obama administration, but he did take aim at several of their frequent talking points — rejecting as “drivel” the idea that Palestinian terrorism is in any way fueled by Israeli policy and mocking those who respond to Palestinian attacks with calls for an end to the cycle of violence and restraint on both sides.

Dermer, who received the Dr. Bob Shillman Award for Outstanding Pro-Israel Diplomacy, stopped short of including the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, on his list of Islamic terrorist groups. But ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, did — using his speech to compare Abbas and the P.A. to ISIS.

Klein in his more than two decades at the helm of ZOA has turned the group into a relentless opponent of the Oslo process, Israeli territorial concessions and a Palestinian state. In addition to accusing Abbas of anti-Jewish incitement, Klein called for a new law requiring the deportation of parents and siblings of terrorists who failed to condemn their relative’s actions in Hebrew and Arabic. He also issued an impassioned call to block the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States, saying many of the refugees hate Jews and Israel.

Other high-profile speakers at the ZOA dinner included casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a mega-philanthropist and Republican donor; Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate; actor Jon Voight; and Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

During his speech, Dermer also praised the ZOA — a frequent critic of the Obama administration — for its dogged defense of Israel, and he hailed Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, as the “greatest Jewish philanthropists of our time.” Event organizers offered their own tribute to Adelson, hanging a “Heroes of Zionism” banner under the dais with his image alongside seminal Zionist leaders who either laid the groundwork or were directly involved in the creation of the Jewish state — Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Zeev Jabotinsky, Edmond De Rothschild, and two previous ZOA presidents, Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

Voight, who received the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Award, drew large applause — and a standing ovation from Adelson — with his call for a Republican to be elected in 2016. The actor, an ardent defender of Israel, was introduced by Bachmann. The former Minnesota congressman is staunchly pro-Israel, but recently found herself in the middle of controversy after telling a Christian radio show that Christians needed to “share” Jesus with as many people as possible, including Jews, because “he’s coming soon.”

Despite the controversy, Klein introduced Bachmann as part-Margaret Thatcher, part-Esther for her defense of Israel and the Jewish people. Afterward, he told JTA that Bachmann had apologized, explaining that she did not intend for her comments to be widely publicized. Klein defended Bachmann and other evangelical Christians, saying that while they believe the key to salvation for all people, including Jews, is the acceptance of Jesus, they also defend Jews and Israel. Klein said it was no different than how he as a Jew rejects fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Klein added that he would have a problem if he knew that [Bachmann] was actively trying to convert Jews.

The ZOA’s Louis Brandeis Award went to Jack Halpern, a businessman and philanthropist who has worked to promote Israel’s development of energy sources. His father won the award nearly four decades ago.

Susan Tuchman, the director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, warned of increased harassment of Jewish students on multiple college campuses, citing the organization Students for Justice for Palestine and the calls from some of its leaders for a third intifada. She called on university presidents to condemn SPJ and to hold the group’s members accountable under their schools’ anti-hate and -harassment rules.

The night also featured taped remarks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alan Dershowitz, who received the Mort Zuckerman Award for Outstanding Journalism. And a late addition to the program was one of Jonathan Pollard’s attorneys, Eliot Lauer, who lamented what he described as onerous parole conditions facing his client after his release from a federal prison after serving 30 years for spying for Israel.