November 21, 2018

Hezbollah: Uncertain future, but still dangerous

Hezbollah may have hurt Israel with last week’s bus bombing in Bulgaria, but the Lebanese terrorist faction faces an uncertain future as one of its main sponsors—Syria’s Assad regime—faces a serious revolt and weakening support from once Arab allies, according to analysts.

Still, no one is predicting the quick demise of Hezbollah.

As has been the case throughout the Arab popular uprisings of the past 20 months, Israelis have viewed the turmoil gripping Syria with wariness. President Bashar Assad was no ally of Israel’s—the countries technically remain in a state of war—but the Syrian regime has kept its border with Israel mostly quiet for nearly 40 years under Assad and previously his father, Hafez Assad.

“We don’t feel reassured that those who are trying to topple the Assad regime are a great improvement,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. The Assad government, he said, “for its own interests, kept the armistice” with Israel.

Some Israeli policy experts, however, are looking forward to a Syrian regime change because it is one of Hezbollah’s main backers, along with Iran. Syria has acted as a crucial pipeline for Hezbollah to receive money and weapons from Iran and elsewhere.  A new Syrian government might close that route.

“Hezbollah is losing support in the Arab world,” said Shlomo Brom, a former chief of the strategic planning division of the Israel Defense Forces. “It’s on the wrong side of history. Syria was a central source of support.”

Hezbollah, however, remains a serious danger on several levels.

In an address at an IDF ceremony on Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak cautioned that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons may fall into Hezbollah control if they are transferred over the border due to a weakened Assad regime.

“The State of Israel cannot accept a situation whereby advanced weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Lebanon,” Barak said. “There is no doubt that we are facing a global terror campaign, against Israel in particular, with Hezbollah at its center, inspired by Iran.”

Barak did not elaborate on the Israeli military’s plans. In a statement, the IDF said it “is carefully following events in Syria as they unfold, as they may have significant regional repercussions.”

Further, Hezbollah is now reported to have up to 50,000 missiles—more than three times the 13,000 it reportedly held when it began launching rockets at Israel six years ago, leading to the Second Lebanon War. In that nearly monthlong conflict, almost 4,000 missiles landed on Israel, killing 43 civilians and wounding more than 4,000.

Israeli authorities also are worried about the security of the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights as Assad loses control of the country. Last Friday, Syrian rebels took control of several posts on the country’s borders with Iran and Turkey.

In May 2011, masses of Syrians stormed the Israeli border in commemoration of Palestinians losing their homes in Israel’s War of Independence, which they call the Nakba. More than a dozen people died as Israel fired on the protesters.

Now analysts fear that a rebel takeover could lead to a porous border that allows terrorists to infiltrate the country.

“The Golan may become a kind of Sinai, with ideological extremist organizations that are on our border,” Brom said, referring to the current state of Israel’s border with Egypt in the Sinai desert.

Regardless of the possible scenarios, the analysts all dismissed the idea that last the July 18 terrorist attack in Bulgaria was a direct result of the Syrian fighting. Senior Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have blamed Hezbollah for the attack, which they say is the product of a global Iranian campaign of terror aimed at Israeli targets.

Hezbollah and Iran have rejected the allegations.

Middle East professor Eyal Zisser said that “Bulgaria is a story with Iran and Hezbollah that is a long story,” while Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, called the attack “part of the ongoing hidden war between Iran and Israel and part of Hezbollah’s ongoing effort to attack Israel.”

Shoval noted, though, that the attack in part could be Hezbollah’s way of asserting that it can survive without Syrian support.

“Obviously there is a connection between what happened in Bulgaria and the situation in which Hezbollah finds itself these days,” he said. “Maybe it wanted to prove that it can also act indirectly or directly with Iran, and not only through the intermediary of the Syrians.”

But Shoval said that Israelis should not necessarily rest assured that Assad’s fall means Hezbollah’s decline, even though Hezbollah is a Shiite group while most Syrians are Sunni.

“This is presented as a Sunni-against-Shia struggle, but with regard to terrorism and enmity against Israel, they won’t have any difficulty to cooperate,” he said. “One can’t rule out the possibility that Hezbollah will be supported by a Sunni regime in Syria.”

While most Israelis are worried about what Syria will look like when Assad falls, others are more optimistic.

“In the Middle East there is a struggle between extremist Islam and moderate Islam,” said Alon Liel, who has advocated in the past for an Israel-Syria peace agreement. “In the long run, moderate Islam is not bad for Israel.”

Suspected suicide bomber had fake U.S. I.D.; Surveillance camera captures image

A suicide bomber carried out an attack that killed seven people in a bus transporting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the interior minister said on Thursday, and Israel said Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants were to blame.

Iran denied it was behind Wednesday’s attack at Burgas airport, a popular gateway for tourists visiting the Black Sea coast.

Video surveillance footage showed the bomber was similar in appearance to tourists arriving at the airport, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said.

The bomber had been circling around a group of buses, which were about to take Israeli tourists to a resort near Burgas, for about an hour before the explosion, the footage showed.

“We have established there was a person who was a suicide bomber in this attack. This person had a fake driving license from the United States, from the state of Michigan,” Tsvetanov told reporters at the airport.

“He looked like anyone else – a normal person with Bermuda shorts and a backpack,” he said.

The bomber was said to be 36 years old and had been in the country for between four and seven days before the attack.

Special forces had managed to obtain DNA samples from the fingers of the bomber and were now checking databases in an attempt to identify him, Tsvetanov said.

The foreign ministry said seven people were killed in the attack, including the Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber. The Israeli foreign ministry confirmed that five Israelis were killed.

The tourists had arrived in Bulgaria on a charter flight from Israel and were on the bus in the airport car park when the blast tore through the vehicle. Body parts were strewn across the ground, mangled metal hung from the double-decker bus’s ripped roof and black smoke billowed over the airport.

AIRPORT CLOSED

On Thursday, the airport in Burgas – a city of 200,000 people at the center of a string of seaside resorts – remained closed and police prevented people from approaching.

Beyond the cordons, about 100 holidaymakers waited for their flights but had been told they would be there until midnight. Officials were setting up portable toilets and tents for stranded travelers and Bulgaria’s parliament opened with a one minute silence in memory of the bombing victims.

“It felt like an earthquake and then I saw flying pieces of meat,” said Georgi Stoev, an airport official. “It was horrible, just like in a horror movie.”

“Yesterday’s attack in Bulgaria was perpetrated by Hezbollah, Iran’s leading terrorist proxy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We will continue to fight against Iranian terror. It will not defeat us. We will act against it with great force.”

Israel however indicated it would not hasten into any open conflict with Iran or Hezbollah.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would “do everything possible in order to find those responsible, and those who dispatched them, and punish them” – language that appeared to suggest covert action against individuals.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev linked the arrest of a foreigner in Cyprus this month on suspicion of plotting an attack on Israeli tourists there with the Bulgaria bombing.

“The suspect who was arrested in Cyprus, in his interrogation, revealed an operational plan that is almost identical to what happened in Bulgaria. He is from Hezbollah … this is a further indication of Hezbollah and Iran’s direct responsibility,” he told Reuters.

“BASELESS ACCUSATIONS”

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman dismissed Israel’s “baseless accusations” that Tehran was involved in the bombing.

The blast occurred on the 18th anniversary of a bomb attack on Argentina’s main Jewish organization that killed 85 people. Argentina blamed Iran, which denied responsibility.

Medical officials said two badly injured Israeli tourists were taken to hospitals in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. One woman was in intensive care with head and chest injuries and a man was in a critical state with burns covering 55 percent of his body.

About 70 Israeli tourists, including those lightly injured by the blast, left Burgas on a Bulgarian government airplane to Israel, the interior ministry said.

The European Commission and NATO condemned the attack, joining criticism from the United States, Britain, France and Germany, and the mayor of Burgas announced a day of mourning.

Israeli officials had previously said that Bulgaria, a popular destination for Israeli tourists, was vulnerable to attack by Islamist militants, who could infiltrate via Turkey.

Israeli diplomats have been targeted in several countries in recent months by bombers who Israel said struck on behalf of Iran.

Some analysts believe Iran is trying to avenge the assassinations of several scientists from its nuclear program, which Israel and Western powers fear is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment work is strictly for peaceful ends. Both Israel and the United States have not ruled out military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Writing by Sam Cage; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood

Strangers to hate crimes, Bulgarian Jews reeling from Burgas bombing

Until this week, leaders of Bulgaria’s small, generally placid Jewish community said felt untouched by hate crimes or terrorism.

But after Wednesday’s apparent suicide bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Borgas, Jews in the country are speaking of a basic change in their sense of security.

“We used to convene without a shred of fear in the Jewish community’s buildings,” said Kamen Petrov, vice president of Maccabi Bulgaria. “I guess we had been unprepared. Things will have to change from now on. We thought something like this could not happen in Bulgaria.”

Wednesday’s explosion outside Sarafovo Airport in Burgas killed six Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the suspected suicide bomber. More than 30 Israelis were injured. The Israelis had just arrived on a charter flight from Israel.

Maxim Benvenisti, president of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, said that three years ago the community had drafted emergency plans to respond to potential terror attacks.
“We discussed such scenarios. But we see that it’s one thing to discuss them, and it’s another to see the scenario happening before your eyes,” he told JTA. Bevenisti said security measures will now be tightened. “The situation needs to be improved,” he said.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said Wednesday that at a meeting a month ago, with representatives of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service did not warn Bulgarian officials of the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Bulgaria’s Jewish community had increased its security arrangements in February, following warnings from the local Israeli Embassy, according to Martin Levi, vice chairman of the Jewish community in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Among other measures, security at the entrances to the community building in Sofia and other Jewish institutions were tightened. Bulgarian authorities had been made aware of the warnings, he said.

That came in the wake of the discovery by Bulgarian authorities of a bomb on a charter bus for Israelis that was heading to a Bulgarian ski resort from the Turkish border.

“We took the alerts seriously and upped security, but the Bulgarian authorities were dismissive,” Levi said. “Some argued Bulgaria was immune because it had such excellent relations and cultural attachment to Muslim populations. I am deeply disappointed in how the authorities handled this.”

He learned of the attack while in Hungary, where he is helping instructors run a summer camp for some 260 Jewish children from the Balkans. Next week, a summer camp for Bulgarian Jewish children will open in Bulgaria.

The camp has taken additional precautions as well, he said, without offering details.

“We want to beef up security without causing panic,” Levi said. “We try to tell the children as little as possible about the attack and continue with our program. We don’t want this to become ‘the summer camp of the terrorist attack.’”

The flow of Israeli tourists into Bulgaria picked up in 2009, following the deterioration in Israel’s relation’s with Turkey. Bulgaria’s minister of tourism was quoted as saying that nearly 150,000 Israelis were expected to visit Bulgaria this year. Some 20 percent of standing reservations from Israel have been canceled since the attack.

Tania Reytan, a sociologist at the University of Sofia who is Jewish and promotes interfaith dialogue, said she has limited faith in the effectiveness of additional security measures in the long run.

“The biggest security gap is in the extremist’s mind,” she said. “We need to reach out more to the other communities and explain who we are and what our values are.”

Though Bulgaria has a pro-Israel foreign policy, she said, “Israel is always mentioned in a negative context in Bulgaria.” The terrorists picked Bulgaria, she said, “because they sought for the weakest link in the European Union, and they found it.”

Some observers are worried that the attack could have negative repercussions for the generally positive relations between Bulgarians Jews and Muslims. Approximately 8 percent of Bulgaria’s 7 million people are Muslim, the vast majority of them ethnic Turks.

Bulgaria has an estimated 3,500 to 5,700 Jews.

Relations between Jews and Muslims in Bulgaria have historically been “peaceful and friendly,” said Benvenisti, president of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria.

On Thursday, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said the bomber was believed to have been about 36 years old and had been in the country between four and seven days. “We cannot exclude the possibility that he had logistical support on Bulgarian territory,” the minister said. He declined to elaborate.

Nitzan Nuriel, former head of Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau, speculated that the suicide bomber might have been homegrown – either recruited locally or having crossed over from Turkey.

Representatives of Bulgaria’s Muslim community issued strong condemnations of the attack, as did representatives of various other ethnic and religious groups and associations.

“We refuse to believe that the bomber is a Bulgarian Muslim. We don’t believe that any of them could undertake such action,” said Ahmed Ahmedov, spokesman for the chief Bulgarian mufti.

Mufti Mustafa Alsih Hadzhi, in an official statement to the Bulgarian media, denounced Wednesday’s attack as a “barbarian act” and expressed condolences with the families of the victims. Ahmedov said that the attack should not be interpreted as a religious act, but as some kind of “economic provocation” aimed at crippling the local tourist business.
Despite the attack, some Israelis seem undeterred from coming to Bulgaria.

Rabbi Yossi Halperin of Varna – a city situated about 50 miles north of Burgas and where flights to and from Burgas were rerouted after the attack – said he found “a good number of recent arrivals” from Israel when he went to Varna’s airport “to help people through all the confusion.”

Svetlana Guineva reported for this story from Sofia, Bulgaria; Cnaan Liphshiz reported from The Hague, and Dianna Cahn contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.

WITNESS ACCOUNT: ‘We think that (it was a suicide bomber)’

A suicide bomber probably caused an explosion on a bus at Bulgaria’s Burgas airport which killed three people, an Israeli woman who was on the bus said.

“We think that (it was a suicide bomber),” witness Aviva Malka told Israeli Army Radio in answer to a question in a telephone interview from the scene.

“We sat down and within a few seconds we heard a huge boom and we ran away. We managed to escape through a hole on the bus. We saw bodies and many people injured,” she said.

Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland

Family murder-suicide devastates Arizona Jewish community

Following a businessman’s destruction of his family, the Jewish community of Tempe, Ariz., has “no answers,” according to a local rabbi.

Sometime during the early hours Shabbat, June 1-2, James Butwin murdered his 40-year-old wife, Yafit, and their three children—Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7. Then, he killed himself.

“There are no answers for something this tragic,” Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, where James Butwin was a member of the synagogue board, told mourners during a June 6 service. “It is time to come together, to be together in our shock and horror and fear… Expect no answers tonight.”

Although in the process of divorce, Yafit had celebrated her husband’s birthday, posting a photo and a message—“Happy Birthday Jim, I am so proud of my three children :) and they know why”—on Facebook.  Hours later, in the middle of the desert, all were dead. Pinal County officers found the burned SUV holding their five unrecognizable corpses June 2.

The Butwin family was an active part of the Jewish community in Tempe, Ariz. Rabbi Shapiro said the family had a “circle of friends full to bursting.” Only friends mourned the Butwin family; no relatives had yet arrived from Israel, Yafit’s homeland, or from New Jersey, where James is from. JointMedia News Service spoke with Temple Emanuel member Paul White June 6, just prior to a “service of grief.” More than 600 attended “a very brief service, bringing the community, the schools together,” White said.

The service was not a funeral. In the tradition of placing a stone on a grave, for more than 20 minutes the 600 mourners filed past five holders, placing symbolic glass beads.

Temple Emanuel board member Steven Gotfried has been designated as the congregation’s spokesperson, a role he called “very challenging and difficult.” In an interview with JointMedia News Service, he said “the word that comes to mind is shock.” “Disbelief and a sort of a numbness…We are trying to grasp this, to get an understanding…sad,” he said.

Gotfried said a Butwin neighbor had commented that “this was not the Jim that we know. There was something going on that caused this—something physically going on with his brain and his mind. The Jim we knew and loved and played with was not the Jim that did this.” James Butwin, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, was described by Gotfried as having been a “warm, personable person… just a nice guy, kind, very laid-back, a man who listened more than he spoke.” 

“There was a profound sense of shock and grief when the news was known,” said Gotfried. “A need for people to get together, to comfort each other.”

JointMedia News Service asked Gotfried, whose daughter had shared a Hebrew school class with Daniel Butwin, the older boy, if anyone in the family had sought help, either from the rabbi or any other community resource. “Even if so,” he said, “they were private conversations, not to be shared.”

Now, after the tragedy, Jewish Family Services of Phoenix has responded very publicly, providing counselors for adults and children and helping form a Jewish community crisis group, offering advice to staff and lay leaders “trying to make sense of it,” and providing “advice on how to talk to your children,” Gotfried said. 

Gotfried noted that the investigation is revealing “more and more information” about the Butwins’ once private lives. Court records confirm the divorce proceedings, but with no history of domestic violence. Jim Butwin’s divorce lawyer, Bill Bishop, told the Arizona Republic that domestic and financial issues “were being handled professionally,” and that “there was no indication whatsoever that he was upset or anything.” He said “this is one of the most cowardly acts that anybody could ever do.”

Cowardly, but not unplanned. Tempe police revealed that during the week before the devastating murder-suicide, James Butwin had sent a key to the family’s Corona Estates home and a letter to his business partner. Sgt. Jeff Glover of the Tempe Police Department on June 7 said a police inspection of the home revealed “suspicious and concerning evidence” including blood and shell casings in bedrooms and two guns inside the torched SUV found in the Sonoran desert June 2. A second suicide letter has also been found.

Steven Wolfson, Yafit’s attorney, confirmed that the Butwins’ continued to share their home during the divorce proceedings. An order issued by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jay Polk charged that “both parties shall be cordial to each other in the marital residence and respect each other’s privacy.” 

“This is out of the blue as far as we’re concerned,” said Wolfson.

James Butwin was involved in commercial-property deals. Yafit Butwin, a devoted mother, had recently graduated from Northern Arizona University and started an interior design business.

Neighbor Robert Kempton, speaking to the Associated Press, called the tragedy “totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable.”

Tempe family died of gunshot wounds, medical examiner determines

The Tempe, Ariz., family found burned to death in the family’s SUV died of gunshot wounds.

Police believe that James Butwin died of a gunshot wound that was likely self-inflicted, according to the Arizona Republic. His wife, Yafit, 40, and their three children—Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7—also died of gunshot wounds, according to the Pima County chief medical examiner.

Police also found two detailed suicide notes, which has convinced them that the deaths were a murder-suicide, according to the newspaper.

The bodies were found in a burning SUV on June 2 that was registered to the Butwins but had been missing from the family home, Tempe Police said.

Butwin and his wife were going through divorce proceedings but still lived together with their children.

The Associated Press reported that James Butwin had sent his business partner detailed instructions on how to run the business without him. AP also reported that the couple was fighting in court over their assets, which caused tension. Neighbors of the Butwins also said that James had a brain tumor, according to reports.

Case of murder-suicide of Jewish Phoenix family develops

While it has not been officially determined as such, police are convinced the case of James Butwin and his family was a carefully planned murder-suicide, the Tucson Citizen reported.

A charred SUV was discovered 35 miles in the desert outside of Phoenix, said to contain the bodies of James Butwin, his wife Yafit Butwin and children Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7. Evidence uncovered in the investigation showed that the Butwins were in divorce proceedings, and James Butwin was battling a brain tumor.

The family were active members of the Jewish community in Tempe, Arizona. “He was totally soft-spoken and a devout Jew. He was very peaceful like that, very even-keeled,” said Steffani Meyers, a lawyer who handled Butwin’s business deals from 2001 until 2007 according to theTuczon Citizen. “He was like, ‘Oh, it will work itself out.’ I never saw a flash of anger from him.”

Q&A with an expert on bullying

Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.

Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying?
Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.

JJ: Who are the prime targets?
RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.

JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean?
RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles. 

JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? 
RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.

JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? 
RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like. 

JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research?
RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.

JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that?
RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.

JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues?
RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.

JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States?
RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.

JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood?
RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN —  the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.

The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most

At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”

Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”

The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.

[Q&A with an expert on bullying]

Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.

Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.

All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.

“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”

All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”

As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.

“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”

Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”

It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.

“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Ruth Madoff says she and Bernie attempted suicide in 2008 [VIDEO]

Ruth Madoff said in an interview that she and her husband, Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, attempted to commit suicide in 2008.

Ruth Madoff told The New York Times that she and her husband made the attempt on Christmas Eve of that year in their Manhattan penthouse by overdosing on Ambien, a common sleeping drug.

She told the Times that although she could not remember whose idea the attempt was, she and her husband “were in agreement—we were both sort of relieved to leave this place. It was very, very impulsive.”

Story continues after the jump.

The suicide attempt came two weeks after Bernard Madoff was arrested for running a $64.8 billion Ponzi scheme. Three months later he pleaded guilty; he is serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison.

The Madoffs’ son Mark committed suicide last December. His widow, Stephanie Madoff Mack, revealed recently in interviews that it was his second attempt.

Bernie Madoff told the Times via e-mail that suicide “crossed my mind” after his arrest, but he felt he could help make restitution to his victims and he “could not abandon my family.”

Ruth Madoff broke her seclusion at the request of her estranged son Andrew, who had asked her to help promote a new authorized biography, “Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family.” Madoff Mack has also been promoting her own memoir, “The End of Normal.”

Ruth Madoff talks about the suicide attempt on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” airing Sunday.

Bombing at Moscow airport seen as terrorism [VIDEO]

A bombing at the busiest airport in Moscow that killed at least 31 and injured 130 is being called a terrorist attack by Russian officials.

“From the preliminary information we have, it was a terror attack,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said of Monday’s attack on the Domodedovo Airport in a televised briefing.

Medvedev also said that those responsible for the attack would be “tracked down and punished.”

All Moscow transportation services went on high alert following the attack. Israel canceled all flights to Moscow.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it was not sure whether any of the victims were Israeli.

In March 2010, two female Chechen suicide bombers blew themselves up in the metro system, killing 40. In 2004, two suicide bombers boarded separate planes at the same airport and blew themselves up in midair, killing all 90 people aboard the two flights.

Matthew Mezza, Santa Monica High School Freshman, dies at 14

Santa Monica High School freshman Matthew Mezza, 14, died on Friday, Jan. 14, when he jumped to his death from the 10th floor of the Sheraton Delfina hotel in Santa Monica.

According to reports, Mezza ran to the hotel after abruptly leaving a campus baseball practice, telling his teammates that he intended to jump. Several of Mezza’s teammates chased after him before losing sight of him.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Santa Monica’s Beth Shire Shalom knew Mezza well and has offered his eulogy from Mezza’s funeral, below. Comess-Daniels said in an interview that Mezza continually showed a commitment to helping others.

“[He was] a wonderful human who was only about passion and compassion and doing the right thing,” Comess-Daniels said.

Mezza became a bar mitzvah at Beth Shir Shalom and volunteered in the synagogue’s religious school as a teacher’s aide.

Refusing to speculate about what drove Mezza’s actions—saying only that he “died from an emotional tsunami that hit him”— Comess-Daniels offered insight for how to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.

“When [anyone is] feeling anything that causes them to lose their hope and lose options and lose possibility, they need to talk right away to somebody,” Comess-Daniels said. “Suicide is a disease, it’s an illness, and Jewish law looks at it that way.”

Mezza’s funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, January 19, at Hillside Memorial Park and Cemetery.


Eulogy for Matthew Mezza delivered by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

Beth Shir Shalom, Santa Monica, CA-  Jan. 19, 2011

In June of 2009, Matt became a Bar Mitzvah.  I had the privilege of working with him as he developed his sermon for that day.  We studied together for three months.  It was great to see his mind move and create.  He enjoyed getting idea upon idea, understanding things in new ways and gaining a sharper and clearer perspective.  That’s what Matthew’s mind was all about.  This is why what brings us here today makes no sense.  What brings us here is NOT the kid we knew.  I never knew Matthew not to exude confidence, not to have joy at the ready and that smile!  Most people in the world who pack a set of braces like Matt had usually find that those braces inhibit their smile.  That was not Matt.  He made his braces part of his smile.

Matt was only the slightest bit gangly because of his exceptional height for someone his age.  He considered his height an attribute.  He wasn’t done growing yet, in that way and in so many ways.  He carried his height well. 

Matt was only the slightest bit gangly because of his intelligence.  His was not a cold, medicinal intelligence either.  He coupled what he knew and what he learned with his passion and his compassion.  Matt wanted to change the world with what he knew.  He had a fervor in him to find what was wrong in the world and go about the business of fixing it.  He felt mandated to fix the world.  He felt that we are ALL mandated to fix the world.  He demanded it of his family and his friends.  He carried his intelligence well. 

Matt wasn’t old beyond his years.  He used every bit of maturity that was available to him and mixed it with his youthful exuberance and it came out…Matt.  He loved to play, to play around, to just be.  He was able to turn, seemingly on a dime the way his peers saw it, and get serious about a need in the world.  One might say that because of the subtleties in the way he comported himself through life that he was a leader.  I wouldn’t say Matthew was a leader… he just led.  He did it without trying.  You could see that his peers were sometimes a little stunned by this guy, who was still a little bit sweaty from putting his all into a few minutes of shooting hoops, and was now sitting up straight, as I always remember him doing, and putting as much energy into a comment, question or answer as he did on the court.  His friends got it, and they participated, too.  Thanks, Matt.

Everyone here who knew Matt has moments, experiences and appreciations to share.  All of us at Beth Shir Shalom do, from the young children he helped to teach in his role as a Teacher’s Aide, to his fellow Aides to the teachers who knew they could rely on him, to his friends in his and our Youth Group, who depended on his encouraging presence to the adults who knew that in Matt they had a burgeoning helpmate in addressing the world’s needs.  How is it that someone so young touched so many so quickly, so easily and so deeply?  How is it that someone so interested and interesting, who was always about the business of giving and receiving positive feedback, could, in what seems like a moment, only perceive negativity, desperation and hopelessness?  It was perhaps in the nature of what went horribly wrong inside of Matthew that kept us from getting even an inkling of a hint about his pain.  Perhaps we didn’t know because Matthew was being Matthew and, caring human that he was, didn’t want to burden any of us with his confusions and sadness.  It makes us frustrated.  It makes us angry.  Let’s not be angry at Matthew!  The Matthew whom we knew wouldn’t do this and the answers we seek are shrouded in the mystery of his death and the way he died.  We must say the word…suicide, and we must see suicide as an illness.  It was a terrible, vicious illness that caused a young man with such an incredible history of finding goodness to only see one, dark, irrevocable option in his life.  He died from suicide – it was an emotional stroke, short-circuiting all the incredible wiring that was laid by his family, his friends and him.  Don’t speculate about him any more than you would speculate about why someone you know gets cancer.  Matthew is worth much more than that.  In Jewish tradition, we have a closed casket and we do so because it is considered to be insulting, uncaring, unkind and even bordering on the obscene to look at someone who no longer has the ability to look back.  Matthew’s casket is closed.  It is not a good or honorable or honoring use of our energy to try to pry it open.

What we CAN do with our energy now, in Matthew’s memory is help one another the best we can on this relatively brief and definitely fragile journey of life.  For all of us, but for Matthew’s peers in particular, when we are hurting, let’s not hesitate to share our pain with those whom we can trust because we feel we might burden them if we do.  Go ahead – burden us!  True friends will embrace you WITH your hurt and won’t use it against you.  We should be unafraid to hold one another, to listen and to speak.  The great majority of Matthew’s life was all about holding those who were dear to him and listening and speaking.  It was only his dying that was otherwise.  Let’s remember how he lived. 

What we CAN do in Matthew’s memory is to recognize how precious our families are.  No, we can’t choose our relatives, but Matthew knew, seemingly innately, that developing and maintaining family relationships are worth any small hills we need to climb or minor compromises we need to make.  What we CAN do in Matthew’s memory is have a great baseball season at SaMo Hi – and that’s not only about winning.  I hope you do, but you may not.  What it’s about, in Matt’s memory, is the honor that he felt being part of the team and what it meant to be in the struggle with you to make each other your best.  What we CAN do in Matthew’s memory is to treasure our friends and ask and ANSWER “how are you” within the trust that only friends can develop.  What we can do in Matthew’s memory is learn and teach with joy.  For Matthew, knowledge was the way in which he could make the world better.  We should learn that way, too.  Matthew seemed to be searching for that one idea, that one understanding that he could contribute that would make this world better, that would bring us some peace, some understanding and some cooperation.  Along the way, he would honor and cherish all the ideas and bits of fact he could gather, but he was still looking.  In Matthew’s honor, in Matthew’s memory – trying to muster and echo that incredible youthful excitement of his, trying to capture his joy, his emerging vision, his commitment – let’s care, let’s be concerned, let’s get something done in this world. While we’re doing it, let’s smile, braces and all.

The Madoff tragedy and personal legacy

As seen in The Jewish Week

With Mark Madoff’s suicide over the weekend, we witnessed the burden of a father’s sins. The Madoff Family’s tragic narrative reinforces why a person’s legacy truly matters. To expand on this teachable moment, JInsider looked to better understand personal legacy through the perspective of Jewish wisdom. (See full video discussions on www.jinsider.com)

Pride and Self-Worth
How do I want to be remembered? What do I want people to think about me? What do I want people to say about me? What do I want my children to remember? What do I want my grandchildren to remember? I’d like to be able to give them some pride in who I was. I may not be able to give them a great deal of money, but I may be able to give them a sense of pride that this was my father, this was my grandfather, this is what he stood for, and this is what he taught. And even though we cannot give them things, we can give them something that is more immortal than things. Things break. Things get lost. The legacy that has been handed down, that’s a part of me now, because I inherited that. Maybe I didn’t inherit it genetically but I inherited it as part of my history – and that’s who I am. So I think that a legacy is important because, yes we want to leave our children things, but we also want to leave our children a sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

Rabbi Dr Abraham J. Twerski is a noted psychiatrist and the author of more than 60 books. (www.abrahamtwerski.com)

Heavenly Court’s Question

There’s an unusual passage in the Talmud in which the rabbis speculate on what are the first questions the heavenly court asks us after we die and appear before it. I like to study this passage with people and ask them, “What do you think the rabbis would think are the first questions we are asked?” And people traditionally say, “Did you believe in God?” “Did you keep the Sabbath?” Or maybe, “Did you fast on Yom Kippur?” And they’re taken aback to learn that the first question is “Nasata V’Natata B’Emunah?” “Did you carry out your business affairs honestly?” The first proof of whether you lived a religious life is not how you act towards God, but how what you’ve learned about God influences how you act towards other people…. So that’s an important thing to keep in mind when we start trying to organize the priorities in our life. Obviously being a committed Jew and the keeping of Jewish laws are important, but what the rabbis view as central is the keeping of the law between people and honesty between people – so that when people meet you, people can assume you are the sort of person worthy of trust.

Joseph Telushkin, rabbi at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, is the author of 16 books, including Jewish Literacy, The Book of Jewish Values, and Hillel: If Not Now, When? (www.josephtelushkin.com)

Reputation with My Children
If I could get into my children’s heads – to see what they think about me – they are going to reference only a few areas in their lives. First, they are going to look at whether I loved them unconditionally. Was I really there for them? Did I make the time for them? Did I have experiences with them? Are there memories that were fun and loving and also memories that made claims on them and claims about what they should be in the world? Next is: Did I actually use my talents beyond my own family? Did I stretch? Did I cross any boundaries? Did I cross any borders? Did I do things with my own talent that ensured that I would also fail, for example? Or did I take the safe route all the way through my life? What did I really contribute?

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Rabbi Irwin Kula, author, media commentator and expert in Sacred Messiness and Partial Truths. (www.irwinkula.com)

Madoff’s eldest son, Mark, found dead in suicide

From NYTimes.com:

Mark Madoff, the older of Bernard L. Madoff’s two sons, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Saturday, the second anniversary of the day his father was arrested for running a gigantic Ponzi scheme that shattered thousands of lives around the world.

“Mark Madoff took his own life today,” Martin Flumenbaum, Mark Madoff’s lawyer, said in a statement on Saturday. “This is a terrible and unnecessary tragedy.”

One city official said that the first notification, via 911, was at 7:27.18, on Saturday morning, and the call was for a, “possible suicide.” The call came from a fourth-floor, private house at 158 Mercer Street, a 13-story building on the edge of Soho.

Read more at NYTimes.com.

Ronni Chasen update: Gun is a match in ‘person of interest’ suicide

From The Beverly Hills Courier:

The Beverly Hills Courier has learned exclusively that preliminary ballistics analysis of the bullets that killed famed Hollywood publicist Ronnie Chasen came from the same gun that the “person of interest,” suicide victim Harold Martin Smith, used to kill himself.

Beverly Hills Police Department: ‘Ronni Chasen killed by lone gunman on a bike’

Paul McCartney is ‘shocked but not intimidated’ by jihadi threats re Israel concert [VIDEO]

LONDON (JTA)—Suicide bombers will target Paul McCartney unless he cancels his concert in Tel Aviv, a Muslim cleric said.

Omar Bakri said the ex-Beatle’s decision to perform in Israel “is creating more enemies than friends,” London’s Sunday Express reported.

“If he values his life Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there,” Bakri said. “The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him.”

Bakri made the comments on his weekly Internet broadcast from his home-in-exile in Lebanon after being banned from returning to Britain, according to the Express.

McCartney is scheduled to perform for thousands of Israelis in Hayarkon Park on Sept. 25 as part of a world tour.

Several pro-Palestinian and political groups have asked McCartney to cancel his show, but he has refused.



From The Express . . .

SIR PAUL: TERROR TARGET
Sunday September 14,2008
Dennis Rice
SIR Paul McCartney has been threatened that he will be the target of suicide bombers unless he abandons plans to play his first concert in Israel.

Self-styled preacher of hate Omar Bakri claimed the former Beatle’s decision to take part in the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary celebrations had made him an enemy of all Muslims.

Sources said Sir Paul was shocked but refused to be intimidated.

In an interview with Israeli media yesterday he said: “I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come here. I refused. I do what I think and I have many friends who support Israel.”

Sir Paul, 65, should have gone to Israel with the Beatles in 1965 but they were barred by the Jewish nation’s government over fears they would corrupt young people.

Yesterday a number of websites described him as an infidel and suggested he was going to Israel only because of the reported £2.3m fee for the one-off concert.

A message posted on one website said: “Shame on you Paul McCartney for day trippin’ to apartheid Israel” and vowed never to buy his music again.

Bakri, who made his weekly internet broadcast to fellow extremists from his home in Lebanon, where he has lived in exile since being banned from returning to Britain, said Sir Paul was “making more enemies than friends”.

Syrian-born Bakri, 48, went on: “I heard today that the pop star Paul McCartney is playing as a part of the celebrations.

“If you speak about the holocaust and its authenticity never being proved historically in the way the Jewish community portray it, people will arrest you. People will you say you should not speak like this. Yet they go and celebrate the anniversary of 60 years of what?

“Instead of supporting the people of Palestine in their suffering, McCartney is celebrating the atrocities of the occupiers. The one who is under occupation is supposed to be getting the help.

“And so I believe for Paul McCartney, what he is doing really is creating more enemies than friends.”

Explaining his comments, Bakri told the Sunday Express: “Our enemy’s friend is our enemy.

“Thus Paul McCartney is the enemy of every Muslim. We have what we call ‘sacrifice’ operatives who will not stand by while he joins in a celebration of their oppression.

“If he values his life Mr McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there. The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him.”

Lawyer Anjem Choudary, who last week chaired a meeting in London at which extremists claimed the next 9/11-style atrocity would be in Britain, said Sir Paul had allowed himself to become a propaganda tool for Israel.

He added: “Muslims have every right to be angry at Paul McCartney. How would the world react if he wanted to have a
concert in occupied Kashmir?

“They would not allow it to happen but because it is Israel he can play. A country which, as the celebration indicates did not exist 60 years ago, only exists thanks to stealing and occupying another country’s lands.” Yesterday the comments drew condemnation from Palestinian sources and outsiders.

Omar Barghouti, of The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, described the threat as “deplorable”.

Patrick Mercer, the Conservative MP for Newark and a former Shadow Security Minister, said: “One could dismiss Bakri as a ranting extremist but history has shown that he has an ability to twist minds, so his comments should not be underestimated.

“If Sir Paul McCartney wants to play at the 60th anniversary then it is the worst form of illiberalism for Omar Bakri to restrict the artist’s freedom in this way.”

A spokesman for Sir Paul declined to comment on the threat, saying: “Paul’s Friendship First concert is about his music. Paul’s is a message of peace.”

Tickets for the concert range from £70 to £230.

Last night Sir Paul performed his first concert in the Ukraine, playing to tens of thousands in the capital Kiev.

Fan video welcomes Sir Paul to Israel

 

 

A Persian tragedy

Few things in life are as tragic as the death of a child. Bianca Khalili died on Memorial Day when she fell off a balcony on the 15th floor of an apartmentbuilding in Century City. Bianca was 17 and was in her senior year at Beverly Hills High School. The tragedy occurred late at night. The only other person with her was Dora Afrahim, 18, who lived in the apartment.

Bianca and Dora were close friends. Dora told me that Bianca was like a “sister” to her. In the moments after the tragic fall, Dora went into a state of shock.

In their investigation, the police found no evidence of foul play. There were no signs of a struggle. Dora was never held, arrested or charged. The police released a statement saying that Dora was not a suspect.



Karmel Melamed’s latest article reports on discussions in the Iranian Jewish community about violence.



This, however, did not stop the beginning of a second nightmare. This was the nightmare of a community acting out its grief through anger and accusations.

Immediately after the tragedy, rumors started to spread that Dora was responsible for Bianca’s death. Dora and her family were asked not to show up at the funeral or the shiva. People in the Persian community were saying that Dora had been arrested and was in jail. Wild speculation and angry messages started flying around the Internet.

Within days, Dora received a death threat.

Dora and her family have been holed up in their homes, afraid to face the wrath of many members of their community. On the few occasions that some family members have ventured out, they have been subjected to hostile stares and accusatory remarks.

For security reasons, Dora has moved into a gated community. She has stopped going to school and rarely goes out. The day I met her, she had a dazed look on her face. She was obviously still traumatized by everything that was happening.

I came to this story and met Dora and her family through my friend Rabbi David Wolpe. We had set up a lunch last week to discuss his upcoming book, but when we sat down he immediately brought up the Bianca Khalili tragedy.

The rabbi was quite shaken by the death and its ugly aftermath in the Persian community. He had met with Dora and her family and had read the police statement and other reports. He had no reason to doubt Dora’s innocence. In his Shabbat sermon, he had urged the community to resist the temptation to engage in lashon hara, which was deepening an already tragic situation.

He asked if I would meet with the family, and then see if I might write something for the Persian community to help calm things down. Stopping a campaign of wild rumors is like trying to unring a bell, but I agreed to write.

The first thing I should say is that on the basis of the police statement alone — which absolves Dora Afrahim of any guilt — people should stop making spurious accusations against Dora and harassing her family. This is putting an unfair stain not just on the Afrahim family, but on the whole Persian community.

Jewish law goes even further: Even if there is suspicion as to someone’s guilt, it is a grave sin to bear false witness and spread slanderous rumors about that person.

In fact, slander is so serious that the Torah considers it like murder.

Of course, it’s easy for me to talk. I didn’t know Bianca Khalili. She wasn’t my friend or my sister. I never laughed or cried with her. Losing someone you are close to — especially a young girl in the prime of her life — can make anyone lose their head.

Also, the notion of someone possibly taking their own life (which hasn’t been determined in this case), is not only taboo, but hard to fathom. So I can understand how some people might want to point fingers and find someone to blame. It’s human nature. It helps us cope. It gives us a safe place to detonate our grief and anger.

And it’s profoundly un-Jewish.

The Jewish way is not to be slaves to our emotions. We’ve survived for millennia as the People of the Book by leading with our heads; our sages have taught us the importance of controlling our passions.

I am a Jew from the Middle East (Morocco); I know how easily human emotions can explode in that part of the world.

But before I am from the Middle East, I am a Jew. That means I have an obligation to follow the Jewish way, even if it goes against my nature.

When someone dies, there is a dignified Jewish way to honor the passing. No matter how angry we might be, we channel our emotions toward the solemn rites of grieving that our ancestors have followed for generations, from the souks of Persia to the shtetls of Poland.

The most important thing I can say to all my Persian friends is that before we are anything, we are all Jews. What binds us together is not just our humanity, but the collective Jewish identity we forged at Sinai some 3,300 years ago. It’s from that painful birth that we gained the Jewish values that have sustained us to this day.

One of the greatest of those values is to be extremely careful when we talk about other people. Our words can honor, but they can also destroy.

We should honor Bianca Khalili’s memory not by spreading rumors and destroying someone else, but by spreading her goodness and praying to God — the same God who made us a people at Sinai.

The Khalili tragedy is one of those times that begs all of us to be quiet and respectful.

That’s not just Jewish — it’s human.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Iranian Jews grapple with tragic death and violence in the community


Bianca Khalili’s friends posted this tribute on YouTube

On May 26, 17-year-old Beverly Hills High School student Bianca Khalili fell to her death from the 15th floor of an apartment building in Century City.

The girl’s passing — homicide has been ruled out by the police — has left members of the local Iranian Jewish community shocked and speculating on the unusual circumstances of the girl’s death.

Despite many inquiries, no one from the tight-knit community would comment publicly on the tragic incident, but, privately, local Iranian Jews have been abuzz with rumors and perplexed by how to properly resolve a new and growing problem of violence within their ranks.

Lt. Ray Lombardo, commanding officer of the West Los Angeles Detective Divison, said there is still an ongoing investigation into Khalili’s death.

“Unfortunately this was a very tragic incident, but there is no evidence to substantiate that there was any foul play,” Lombardo said. “We do have reason to believe it may have been an accidental fall, or possibly a suicide,” he added.



David Suissa writes about Bianca’s death in this week’s Live in the Hood



West Los Angeles detectives said there was one witness to the incident, who has been interviewed but is not a suspect in the case. While police investigators did not disclose the name of the witness, an internal Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) memo, circulated via e-mail and obtained by The Journal, has identified the girl as Dora Afrahim, who is also Iranian Jewish and a student at BHHS.

Khalili’s death is just one of the recent incidents of community distress that have left many local Iranian Jews speculating among themselves, unsure of how to address circumstances of violence they are encountering.

In February, Alfred Hakim, an Iranian Jewish resident of Beverly Hills, was shot at his family home on the 400 block of N. Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, allegedly by his brother, Adel. That shooting has prompted local Iranian Jews to struggle with the notion that violence can happen in their normally peaceful community.

“The Jewish Iranians have been brought up to help and protect each other,” Jimmy Delshad, Iranian Jewish Beverly Hills City councilman and former mayor, said after the shooting. “This incident is not at all a typical situation in Beverly Hills, and especially not in the Persian community — my heart goes out to the family, and I pray for the speedy physical and mental recovery of all the family members.”

On March 27, 47-year-old Adel Hakim was arraigned at a Superior Court in Beverly Hills, where he plead not guilty to a felony charge of first-degree attempted murder of his 49-year-old brother Alfred Hakim, according to Sandi Gibbons, a spokesperson for the L.A. County District Attorney’s office.

Sgt. Lincoln Hoshino of the Beverly Hills Police Department said that within two hours of the shooting incident, Adel was identified as the suspect and arrested by California Highway Patrol following a traffic accident he was involved in at an undisclosed location in the San Fernando Valley. No date has been set for Adel Hakim’s trial, and his attorneys did not return calls for comments.

He is currently being held at Los Angeles County jail in downtown L.A. in lieu of $1 million bail, while the victim remains in critical condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Gibbons said. Neither Beverly Hills police nor Gibbons would name a motive for the shooting, but said Adel Hakim’s next appearance in court will be a preliminary hearing currently scheduled for June 19.

If convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, according to the California state Penal Code.

The Iranian Jewish community has been preoccupied by these incidents, but a community-wide taboo against openly discussing violence, for fear of public embarrassment, has kept the community and their leaders from talking openly. The community’s legal experts called this mentality among Iranian Jews unproductive, and said it has resulted in minor incidences of violence continuing in the community and now developing into more serious cases.

“Generally, the very deep-rooted cultural ethos of hiding all problems and pretending that everyone’s life is perfect is what ends up fueling the unchecked anger that leads to the situations where someone ends up getting physically hurt,” said Nazila Shokrian-Barlava, an L.A. County Deputy Alternate Public Defender. “Our community does not have the tools to deal with percolating situations before they reach that violent level.”

Despite the proscription against publicly discussing the shooting, Rabbi Hillel Benchimol, who is not Iranian but works within the community, recently gave a sermon about violence in the community to a group of young Iranian Jews at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. Benchimol said he was not familiar with the Hakim incident, but believes the community problem with violence may be rooted in more serious disputes involving finances that have remained unresolved over the years among some local Iranian Jewish families.

“There’s a lot of divisiveness and resentment over money issues among some Iranian Jews, because the community since it left Iran in 1979 has always been looking to restore its glory and financial prowess,” Benchimol said. “So many of them are relentless in their pursuit of the American dream. I think this incident is a personification of that extreme mentality, and it’s a malady that should be rooted out of the community.”

Shokrian-Barlava said that while she knows of only 10 incidents in the last 30 years involving guns where either the perpetrator or the victim have been Iranian Jews, domestic violence among Iranian Jewish families has been a more substantial problem that has not yet been addressed by local Iranian Jewish leaders.

“What I hear, usually from the victims, is that there was no support for them when they wanted help, and they were discouraged from speaking to anyone outside of the family,” she said. “If they seek support from our community leaders they are told to just try harder to avoid any violence — the language does not exist, the will to solve these problems does not exist, and there is no real and productive support system for anyone to go to for help.”

Dara Abaei, an Iranian Jewish activist and head of the L.A.-based Jewish Unity Network, said violence between Iranian Jewish parents and children and between spouses was a growing dilemma up until 15 years ago. Following their arrival in the United States nearly 30 years ago , local Iranian Jews were initially unfamiliar with American laws concerning domestic violence, since such physical abuse was tolerated in Iran, he said.

Films: Suicide victims seek love in limbo

Despite their focus on death and suicide, Etgar Keret’s stories keep finding new life after publication — from foreign reprints to re-imaginings as graphic novels and films.

The latest of those incarnations, the award-winning independent film, “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” has finally landed U.S. distribution with After Dark Films’s sister distributor, Autonomous Films, and is in limited release — opening today in Los Angeles. The debut feature film from Los Angeles-based Croatian director Goran Dukic is based on Keret’s 1998 short story, “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” a surrealist road story following three suicide victims searching limbo for a lost love.

The film chronicles the travels of pensive Zia (Patrick Fugit), Russian blowhard Eugene (Shea Whigham) and winsome hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon) through a bleak, oddly comic purgatory reserved for people who have “offed” themselves, in search of Zia’s ex-flame, Desiree (Leslie Bibb), who has also done herself in.

Despite a seasoned cast — which also includes Tom Waits and Will Arnett — a premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, solid reviews, and several awards and nominations from the film festival circuit, a distribution deal remained elusive.

“I think it was because the topic — young people who commit suicide — is very controversial,” said Keret, who at 40 is Israel’s top young literary star as well as a popular writing professor at Ben-Gurion University. (In fact, several of the screenings attracted protesters.) “Distributors thought people would be offended. But, if anything, it’s a commercial for life — that suicide doesn’t solve your problems. But when you’re dealing with a taboo subject in a different way, people don’t bother trying to understand it first. The irony is that I didn’t write it out of despair, but when I was finding my connection with life after a period of feeling lost.”

Keret first met Dukic in 2001 at his L.A. book signing for “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” his first collection of short stories published in the United States. By the time Dukic asked Keret for the film rights more than a year later, the novelist was in negotiations with an established French director who was much more likely to get the film made. But despite having no funding or feature film track record, Dukic kept at it — sending Keret a spec script of his story and a short film he’d done as a film student. Keret was impressed with both and finally relented. His agent thought he was nuts.

“I said, ‘If it gets made, I know he will do a good job,'” Keret said. “And, against all odds, he made it.”

Save for a few suggestions about the script, Keret left Dukic alone to shoot his own interpretation of the story. He used music from musicians who had committed suicide and worn-out props — chipped cups, dented cars, and uneven table legs — to give the sense of the characters ending up in an even worse place. He instructed actors not to laugh or smile, as a way of transmitting their deep trauma. The result was quirky and deadpan.

“I loved what the story had to say,” Dukic said. “Appreciate life when it’s there and don’t give up when you have problems, because wherever you go, you’ll only take those problems with you.”

That a French and Croatian director could vie for an Israeli story and the film ultimately be made in America typifies the universal appeal of Keret’s stories, which often focus on people’s attempts to fit in. A 1998 recipient of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award for Literature, Keret’s stories have been published in some two-dozen languages. As far as Keret knows, “Bus Driver” is the only Israeli-authored book published in the territories since the second intifada began in late 2000. He has also written for Israeli television and movies, garnering a 1996 Israeli Academy Award for his short film, “Skin Deep,” which he co-wrote and co-directed with documentary filmmaker Ran Tal.

Most of his literary work has made it to the United States: The short story compilations “The Nimrod Flip-Out” and “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” the children’s book “Dad Runs Away With the Circus,” and the graphic novels “Jet Lag” and “Kamikaze Pizzeria.” Another collection, “Pipelines,” and the children’s book, “Moonless Night,” are only in Israel, while “Gaza Blues,” a collection he co-authored with Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef, is just in the United Kingdom. And he was one of 34 writers from around the world in the running for this year’s Frank O’Connor Award for the best short story collection, for “Missing Kissinger” (not published in the United States.).

Meanwhile, Keret seems to be seamlessly stepping into the role of auteur. Two more films he’s involved with will be out next year. The first, “Jellyfish” (“Meduzot” in Hebrew) which Keret and his wife, actress Shira Gefen, co-directed from a script she wrote, beat 32 competitors for the prestigious Camera D’Or Prize for first-time filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The film, which will screen at next month’s AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, involves three intertwining stories revolving around Tel Aviv beach culture.

The other — which wraps next month — is “9.99,” a clay animation feature from New York-based Israeli filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal, primarily based on his story “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” but also containing elements from four other stories. The film, which Keret co-wrote with Rosenthal in English, is shooting in Sydney with voiceovers by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia.

Keret, ever the wry and unassuming observer, regards this flurry of international attention like some amusing adventure. His unorthodox path across mediums — not to mention the gut feeling that aligned him with Dukic — has long been part of his process.

“Most of the decisions I’ve made in my life were along this route,” he said. “If you do the thing you love the most, then if it fails, you can say, ‘Well, at least I tried to do the thing that’s best creatively.’ There’s something ridiculous about experts making calculated decisions when it comes to art. An artistic attempt is not something you can analyze. It’s like love. Matchmakers can’t really computerize it. You just have to go with your heart.”

“Wristcutters” opens Oct. 26 in Los Angeles. “Jellyfish” screens Nov. 4 and 6 at the Arclight Cinema. For more information, visit

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Family Feud — with my family, it’s no game

I would take my mom against Clint Eastwood in any movie. Sure, he usually plays a grizzled, gunslinger with cat-like reflexes and something to prove, but if you cross my
mother, you will find yourself, like the title of Clint’s greatest Western, “Unforgiven.”

Make no mistake; this isn’t a cute story about my “zany” Jewish mother and her unswerving ability to hold a grudge. Cute stories rarely involve relatives who suffocate themselves with plastic bags, but more about my Aunt Maurine’s untimely death in a minute.

No one really knows why my mother stopped talking to her sister. I think it was something about a china cabinet that once belonged to their mother. After my grandmother died, there was a duel over the mammoth piece of furniture. My mother got it (which I only know because I grew up with it in our dining room, our only piece of furniture not from a flea market). As anyone with even one screwed-up relationship in life knows, the squabble is never about the china cabinet, but about the heap of slights and injustices that could fill it. The cabinet just stores the resentments, puts them on display.

That cabinet was my grandmother’s favorite. So was my mother, so this isn’t a family feud syllogism that’s difficult to decode. Apparently, if your parents make it obvious that you’re the favorite, your siblings hate you, they unconsciously take out their feelings of rejection and hurt on you and you become spoiled and unpleasant. Put these feelings on simmer for about 30 years, and the flavors really intensify.

Here’s the thing. I’m just guessing and speculating about all of this. All I know for sure is that after a nine-year feud, during which my aunt and mother never once spoke, Aunt Maurine effectively ended the stalemate by killing herself about six years back.

I’ve never written about it before, nor did I give it much thought, until I got into my own feud with my mom two years ago and wondered who would get the last word — or leave the feud in a stretcher.

Back to my aunt and the resounding way she stuck it to my mom by offing herself.
I should mention here that I don’t mean to be cavalier about her death or her pain; but we’re Jews. That’s how we deal. Just the other day when I was sounding depressed on the phone with my dad he asked, voice filled with concern, “Are you eyeing your plastic bag collection?”

If we took every family tragedy seriously we’d be killing ourselves. I mean, in even greater numbers.

Aunt Maurine’s death didn’t seem like one of those “cry for help” suicides, because of the aforementioned plastic bag method, a technique she got from one of those “how-to-kill-yourself” books, which was found a few feet from her body.

She left a note, too, something about how her grown children didn’t love her (a feud may have been percolating there, too; feuds are big in my family). The suicide note contained no mention of my mother. My aunt had silenced herself yet still managed to get in the last word with one final snub. Score one: Maurine.

My mother went to Aunt Maurine’s funeral, but I don’t know if she regretted the feud.

Mom has about as much gray area in her personal relationships as the linoleum floor of a 1950s diner. The point is, like Clint Eastwood, she is not likely to be lukewarm on you. There are good guys and bad guys, and once you cross over, you are dead to her.

I lived in fear of saying no to her, displeasing her in some way as to flip the off switch on her loving me. Because she raised me alone and it was just the two of us, I was so close to her that the idea of her wishing me to her emotional cornfield rattled me to my core.

In essence, I should have spent my 20s wearing a yellow ribbon because I was a hostage; I did what she wanted, gritting my teeth every second of it, but complying nonetheless. I couldn’t lose her, but I also couldn’t stand her.

If she came to visit me, she stayed however long she wanted, we ate dinner when and where she wanted, she listened when she wanted (which wasn’t often), and I basically watered and manicured my grudge garden until it was overgrown and lush, and I was often petulant and bitter. She was the kind of mother, and lots of us have them, that demand we mother them. This so flies in the face of nature that you either become the codependent wife of an alcoholic or addict — continuing to mother people you shouldn’t — or you get very, very angry. Or you get yourself some therapy. I’ve done two out of three.

Here’s where I admit something. That part of me that loved “The Bell Jar” in junior high didn’t feel so bad about the incident with Aunt Maurine and the sinister feud preceding it. It added to my “crazy family” mystique. I didn’t choose to have a family chock full of the mentally ill, but once I realized there was no way of passing them off as normal, I decided to embrace it as part of my identity.

I had met my aunt only once at a family reunion when I was kid. I remember she had red hair, wore a crisp white pants suit, lived in Orange County, seemed like she couldn’t possibly be the sister of my hippie mother and generally seemed like a nice lady. I was 6; what did I know?

I certainly never predicted I would also have a blow-up with my mother leading to a long silent feud. Curiously enough, my feud also followed a funeral. Watch out for this; in my family, one of the stages of grief is creating a vendetta with someone living.

Here was our cabinet incident: Before my stepfather’s funeral two years ago, my mother insisted I speak at the ceremony.

Palestinian terror reaches Eilat

Eilat generally has escaped the violence of the six-year Palestinian intifada, but even its remote setting couldn’t forever insulate the Red Sea resort city from the region’s tensions.

A suicide bomber struck Monday morning at a small bakery in the usually serene city, killing three Israelis when he detonated his explosives belt in a residential area. It was the first suicide bombing in Israel’s southernmost city, built on the edge of the Red Sea with views of Jordan and Egypt.

“It was awful — there was smoke, pieces of flesh all over the place,” Benny Mazgini, 45, who ran to the bakery from a building across the street, told Israel Radio.

The scene was a foreign one in Eilat, whose luxury hotels, restaurants and nightclubs have made it popular with foreign tourists and Israelis.

“It’s without a doubt a terrible incident that the town of Eilat is not accustomed to,” Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi said. “The thought that infiltrators could enter Eilat alive and disrupt the running of the town is very worrying.”

Israel decided not to resume assassinating Palestinian terrorist leaders in the wake of the bombing. Security sources said Tuesday that Defense Minister Amir Peretz turned down a request by top military brass to permit targeting of heads of Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigades, which both claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The Defense Ministry declined comment, but Peretz hinted that Israel wanted more time to decide on its response.

“The initiative will be ours, and we have no intention of relaying what we plan to do,” he told reporters during a tour of Eilat. “We will examine all means available for tackling the conduits, the current threats and the infrastructures” of the terrorist groups, he said.

The suicide bombing came after a relatively long stretch of calm inside Israel, and was the first such successful attack in nine months. Other attempted attacks have been foiled by Israeli security forces.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a Kadima faction meeting that for “a long time, Israel [had] enjoyed the illusion of quiet.”

Olmert stressed that in recent months, Israel had prevented numerous terror attacks.

The prime minster extended his condolences to the victims’ families and said that he had spoken with Halevi.

“I believe Eilat will overcome this blow and remain a happy city,” Olmert said.
Among the most worried in Eilat are those who work in its tourism industry, the basis of the city’s livelihood. Eilat was just beginning to recover from the wave of tourist cancellations that followed Israel’s war with Lebanon last summer, but some fear the attack could again scare off foreigners.

Miri Eisin, Olmert’s spokeswoman to the foreign press, tried to assuage fears.
“In 2006 we prevented many suicide attacks, and we will continue to do so,” Eisin said. “It’s safe to come to Israel, as it was in the past.”

Several Palestinian groups claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Islamic Jihad said the bomber was Mohammed Faisal al-Saqsaq, 21, from Gaza City.
Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Eilat suicide bombing.

“My position regarding this operation is that I do not accept it, and I reject and condemn it,” the Palestinian Authority president said Tuesday after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But Abbas voiced optimism that a truce he declared with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December would hold.

“I do not think that this operation in particular will impact the calm between us and the Israelis in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Monday’s bombing was an embarrassment for Abbas’ Egyptian hosts, as the terrorist traveled to his target through the Sinai Peninsula.

Although peaceful by Israeli standards, the Eilat area has seen at least one other terror attack. In November 2003, a Jordanian armed with a Kalashnikov rifle crossed the border near Eilat and opened fire on a group of Christian pilgrims from Ecuador, killing one woman and injuring five others. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility at the time.

Israeli media reported that about six months ago, the Cabinet was informed by security officials that Egypt was observing an al-Qaida network operating in the Sinai desert. Several attacks in recent years have targeted Israelis and other foreigners along Sinai’s beaches.

Oprah … Shoah … Shoah … Oprah

This is how naive I am: I never understood why Primo Levi killed himself. I’d long admired and devoured the works of the Italian chemist who wrote of his experiences surviving the Holocaust. When he committed suicide in 1987, at the age of 67, I couldn’t fathom it. Hadn’t he survived the worst? Hadn’t he transformed his suffering into art? Hadn’t the worst memories softened over time, the worst scars healed?

That’s the American way of grief: stuff happens, you get over it.

Maybe for some people, in some situations, that’s true. But the Holocaust is different, too, when it comes to memory. Its shadows darken and lengthen; its pain grows more, not less intense.

This may be the result of the process of recovering memory, something writers like Levi must feel compelled to do. When historian Iris Chang also took her life in 2004, at the age of 36, she left a note blaming her immersion in the horrid details of the Japanese occupation of China, which she chronicled in “The Rape of Nanking.”

But it’s not just a professional hazard. A study published in Israel in August found that elderly Holocaust survivors are “at an increased risk for a reactivation of the symptoms of trauma, depression and suicide.” The study of patients at a psychiatric hospital in Tel Aviv found nearly 25 percent of the Holocaust survivors studied attempted suicide compared to 8.2 percent among those with no World War II experience.

Or, as Elie Wiesel said at the news of Primo Levi’s death: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”

Just a month before Auschwitz Liberation Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, Oprah Winfrey selected “Night,” Wiesel’s own memoir of his internment in Auschwitz, as one of her Book Club books, guaranteeing that slim, searing volume a new audience of millions of people whose exposure to the Shoah might, until now, not extend beyond those clips of nominated documentaries they show during the Academy Awards. Boy, will that ever change.

I walked into Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade last Sunday afternoon and was confronted by a stack of “Night” a yard tall. And that’s the beginning: Oprah will accompany her Book Club selection with a televised visit to Auschwitz, guided by Wiesel, discussions on air with survivors and experts, plus additional readings and segments on the Holocaust.

Good for her, really. People are ascribing all sorts of nasty motives to Oprah for picking “Night,” such as the need to choose a real, factual memoir when her last pick turned out to be, at best, faction. Any way you can get the Holocaust and its lessons down the gullet of an anti-historical nation, good. Her challenge, I suppose, will be how she can she give her audience a taste and still leave them, as shows like hers must, with an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming and commercial-selling message. In an age and a format where every sorrow must have its silver lining, every tragedy its release, the Shoah is stubborn: there’s nothing therapeutic about confronting the Holocaust.

Last week I had dinner with Hannah Lessing, the woman in charge of the Austrian government’s reparation funds to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Lessing is vibrant, young, quick-witted (that means she laughed at my jokes) and articulate.

Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who with his wife, Susan, hosted Lessing, began his toast to her by repeating an old, tongue-in-cheek aphorism: “It used to be said that Austrians are Germans who don’t apologize.” But thanks to a series of proactive measures by the Austrian government — beginning with a much-belated statement of apology to Shoah victims in 1991 and continuing on to this week’s much-belated decision to return priceless paintings to their rightful Jewish owners (see story on page 14) — that perception has changed.

And for that Weiss also credited Lessing, the Viennese-born granddaughter of survivors. For more than 10 years she has traveled the globe, meeting with Austrian Holocaust survivors, collecting and processing their claims, hearing their stories.

Lessing said that success takes its toll. She and her staff of more than 100, “almost all non-Jews,” undergo regular therapy. Generations removed from the horrors of those years, they often find themselves unable to shake the darkness to which they’ve been exposed.

In “The Truce,” Primo Levi wrote of a recurring dream, in which he wakes up to find that his normal life is but a dream, and the reality is he is still in Auschwitz.

“I am in the Lager once more,” he writes, “and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, Wstaw?ch.”

I’ve found the more I read about the Holocaust, the more survivors I speak with, the less I get it. This is what the Holocaust is for the rest of us: a journey into sadness, with no end, no meaning, no exit. Welcome, Oprah’s Book Club members. Hope you enjoy the show.

To link to more information on Hannah Lessing and the Austrian claims process, see this article at www.jewishjournal.com.

Nation & World Briefs

‘Paradise’ Golden; Weisz Blooms

The Golden Globe awards, often seen as a curtain raiser and preview of the Oscar ceremonies, picked a tense drama about two Palestinian suicide bombers as best foreign language film on Monday night, while shutting out Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

“Paradise Now” by director-writer Hany Abu-Assad is the first Palestinian film to receive wide critical recognition and is considered a serious contender for Academy Award honors.

“Munich,” the controversial movie about the Israeli hunt for the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, was earlier nominated in two categories. Spielberg vied for best director and Tony Kushner and Eric Roth for best screenplay, but none got the final nod from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which sponsors the Golden Globes.

In the movie acting categories, Britain’s Rachel Weisz, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Europe, received the best supporting actress award for her role in “The Constant Gardner.” Philip Seymour Hoffman was honored as best actor in the title role of “Capote.” In some references, Hoffman is listed as Jewish, in others as of mixed Catholic-Protestant background.

Paul Newman, who is half-Jewish, was recognized as best supporting actor for his role in the television movie “Empire Falls.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Oprah Selects Wiesel Book

Oprah Winfrey will visit Auschwitz and make Elie Wiesel’s “Night” her next book-club selection. The New York Times reported that Winfrey, the talk-show host, will visit the site of the death camp with Wiesel later this month. “Night” chronicles Wiesel’s experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The edition of the book selected by Winfrey is a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, Marion.

High Court Upholds Suicide Law

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s assisted suicide law. The high court ruled Tuesday that Oregon’s law, permitting doctor-assisted suicide, was not a violation of federal drug laws. The Orthodox Union had filed a brief in the case, siding with the federal government and against euthanasia. Numerous other Jewish groups chose not to weigh in on the case, but have been interested in the case’s impact on end-of-life issues, a controversial subject in the Jewish community.

Six justices ruled in favor of Oregon, which allowed doctor-assisted suicide in a 1994 ballot initiative. Justice Anthony Kennedy said former Attorney General John Ashcroft went “beyond his expertise” in enforcing drug laws to prevent the Oregon decision. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in dissent.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

Briefs

 

Bush Expected to OK Palestinian Aid

President Bush is expected to sign legislation that gives $200 million in aid to support the Palestinians. On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed the supplemental spending bill, which provides aid to support the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including $50 million for Israel to improve crossing points into the Palestinian territories, and $5 million for an audit of Palestinian finances. The bill does not give direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, but Bush may use a presidential waiver to allow some of the money to go to the organization.

AIPAC Elects New President

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) named Baltimore philanthropist Howard Friedman as its president-elect. Friedman, a longtime member of the board of the pro-Israel lobby, will assume the presidency in 2006. Friedman, the president of JTA’s board of directors, will succeed Bernice Manocherian at AIPAC.

“Howard Friedman represents the best of America’s pro-Israel movement,” AIPAC spokesman Josh Block said.

OU Wants Assisted Suicide Law Blocked

The Orthodox Union (OU) filed a brief supporting the blockage of an Oregon law that would allow physician-assisted suicide. The organization joined several Christian groups in an amicus brief in the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, which asserts the U.S. Justice Department’s right to block the use of federally controlled drugs for the purpose of assisted suicide. Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the Bush administration’s position is consistent with Jewish teaching.

“The Bible instructs us to ‘surely heal’ the ill, not to speed their departure from this earth,” Diament said. “The attorney general’s directive restricting the resort to physician-assisted suicide was the correct law and policy on this matter, and we believe well within the power of the federal government to determine.”

Report: British teachers to Reconsider Boycott

A union of British university lecturers reportedly will call a special meeting to reconsider its boycott of two Israeli universities. The Association of University Teachers decided two weeks ago to boycott Bar-Ilan University for its alleged support of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and Haifa University because of accusations that it mistreated a radical left-wing professor. The decision to reconsider the boycott comes in the wake of protest letters from union members, Ha’aretz reported.

Students Back Columbia Professor

Twenty current and former Columbia students wrote to school administrators insisting that a professor had not harassed a pro-Israel student. The students, who say they were in Joseph Massad’s class on the day of the alleged incident, sent a letter May 3 to Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, to other top members of the school’s administration and to members of a committee that found credible claims that Massad had threatened to kick a student out of class for holding pro-Israel views. The accusations “are unequivocally false,” the letter said. The report, issued March 31, found that Massad “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” in responding to a pro-Israel student’s question about Israeli warnings before military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Falash Mura Tab Listed

The cost for transporting Ethiopian Jews to Israel will be some $23 million over the course of two and a half years. The cost was presented Tuesday to officials of the North American Jewish federation system by its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) , which will coordinate the aliyah. Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity but have returned to Judaism, now immigrate to Israel at a rate of 300 per month. The Israeli government plans to double the rate of aliyah starting in June, so the group’s immigration can be completed in two and a half years. The Jewish Agency is budgeting more than $18 million for the operation; the JDC expects to pay $4.6 million. The figures do not include the cost of absorption once the Ethiopians arrive in Israel, said Mike Rosenberg, JAFI’s director general of immigration and absorption. The federation system is expected to raise the funds for the operation, though it hasn’t begun that campaign yet.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Israel Buries Beersheba Bombing Victims

Avital Etash stares out from the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, a 4-year-old boy in a striped shirt and dark blue kippah, his dark eyes wide and curious.

Etash was the youngest of 16 people killed in Tuesday’s double suicide bombing in Beersheba. His mother lies in the hospital, still fighting for her life.

Again Israel turns to mourning the dead, but this time the list of those killed has been slow in coming. As the bombs used in suicide bombings become more sophisticated, producing deadlier and deadlier blasts, it takes more time to identify the remains of the dead.

But with every hourly news broadcast, the list of names grows longer.

Among the first to be buried Wednesday was a 23-year-old named Karin Malka who was on her way to her job with the Jewish Agency for Israel, working with Ethiopian immigrants at Beersheba’s absorption center. Her friends remember her as always cheerful, always smiling. In photographs she is seen grinning, her almond-shaped eyes sparkling.

Malka’s family recalls her eerie comments that seem now like a premonition: She told them she would likely die in a terrorist attack, and at last night’s Shabbat dinner she spoke at length about death and what might await in the next world.

Curious, her family had asked why she thought God so often lets young people die.

Malka, who about a year ago became observant, told them, "He wants to see them in the next world," Yediot Achronot reported.

Malka also was studying engineering at a nearby college.

"She was an amazing young woman … she gave her all working with the kids here," Tali Ya’akovin, the absorption center manager, told Ma’ariv. "It will be hard to explain to the children that she won’t be coming back."

Beersheba’s absorption center suffered a second loss with the death of Troint Tekleh, a 33-year-old mother of six who was also killed in the attack. Tekleh and her family had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia about a year ago. They had been living in the absorption center but planned to move soon to an apartment of their own.

Tekleh’s youngest child was a 1-year-old baby boy. Members of the Ethiopian community quickly gathered to help, taking the family’s children home to rest while their father went to the hospital to identify her body.

The hero of the day was hailed as Ya’akov Cohen, the driver of bus No. 12, the second bus to explode. He said he stopped his bus as soon as he heard the first explosion.

"I opened the doors, the people asked me to, and I did it immediately," he said. Several people were able to escape before the second suicide bomber, sitting somewhere on Cohen’s bus, detonated his explosives belt.

On bus No. 6, the first to explode, a 65-year-old barber named Nissin Vakanin offered his seat to Tamara Batershuli, also 65.

A few minutes later the blast ripped through the bus. When Vakanin looked back, he saw the seat he had given up to the woman, saw that she was dead — and that the body of the man next to her was in shreds.

"I saw the body of the guy next to her and it was all ripped up. Then I realized he was the suicide bomber," Vakanin said, according to the Washington Post.

"My conscience is not quiet," Vakanin added. "I feel guilty that she died and not me."

Fence Offensive

“People don’t become suicide bombers for the fun of it, you know. They have grievances.”

The statement should have come as no surprise, after all I had heard that day, but still, I was stunned. The speaker was one of two British journalists I’d spent the morning with in and around the West Bank town of Kalkilyah. The Israel Defense Forces were taking reporters to see the security fence late last month; conducting our tour was a lieutenant colonel named Shai, the former battalion commander for the area. Also in the van: Harriet, a foreign editor of the influential publication The Guardian, and Martin, a correspondent for The Times of London.

The Guardian is, by all standards, relentlessly anti-Israel, once questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist. The Times is considered a tad better in its Mideast coverage.

I was, therefore, not particularly expecting objectivity from my fellow travelers, although I embarked on our trip with my own baggage. As a Hebrew-speaking Jew who has spent time in Israel nearly every other year since 1970, I had already come to the tentative conclusion that the security fence was a desperately needed, nonviolent, changeable solution to the murderous wave of terrorism that has taken the lives of 1,000 Israelis over the last four years, injured another 6,000 and wounded the Israeli psyche and the Zionist enterprise in ways that perhaps will not become clear for some time.

Now I was in Kalkilya — the launching point for the suicide bomber who blew himself up outside Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco in 2001, killing 21 young people.

Shai, a wiry, fast-talking Israeli with a desert-dry sense of humor, pointed to the bustling highway that skirts the town. “This is Route 6, the main route between the north and south,” he said. “It’s a toll road. I’m not sure how it is in England, but I don’t know any Israeli that will pay money to get shot. We don’t like that over here, so we built this wall to make sure no Palestinians can shoot onto the road.”

While Shai was in charge of the area, a terrorist had opened fire on an Israeli family returning from a wedding. A 7-year-old girl was killed, and Shai removed her body from the car. “When you take out a child with a big hole in her chest,” he said, pointing to the spot where the attack occurred, “you understand why you need this wall. We measured the angle from the highest house where a sniper might be hiding to the road, and built it accordingly.”

Harriet had a question: “So if they build something higher, you’ll raise the wall?”

No, Shai explained, the army has basically cleared the terrorists out of Kalkilya, so one benefit for the residents is that an Israeli army battalion no longer must be stationed there.

Harriet interrupted: “Wait, are you trying to say that the fence is making life better for the Palestinians?”

“In some cases, yes,” Shai replied, echoing recent comments by Palestinian officials, who say the retreat of the Israeli army has led to a revitalization of business, nightlife and investment in their communities.

Martin was having none of it. “This wall is killing Kalkilya, economically,” he opined, “Do you see signs of ordinary citizens turning into terrorists because of it?”

The questions were coming fast and furious now. “Why do you need so much space for the fence? What if Lebanon or Syria said ‘We need a few kilometers of your land for security, in case Israel invades.’ You’d go mad, wouldn’t you?”

As we stood next to the wire fence and its motion detectors, Martin asked, “Is it electrified?”

“Touch it and see,” Shai suggested. As we laughed, nervously, Shai, then Martin, grabbed the barrier. “It’s electronic,” the soldier said , “not electric. We’re not trying to electrocute them; we’re trying to stop them from killing us.”

But Harriet and Martin persevered: “How long must the Palestinians wait at this checkpoint?” “How far inside the Green Line will the fence go?” “You say you compensate Palestinians if you confiscate land for the fence. What if there are olive trees growing on that section for 100 years? How can you compensate them for that?”

Each description of efforts to ease the disruption caused to Palestinian life was met with skepticism; every mention of death and destruction on the Israeli side was bypassed in favor of intricate debates over land confiscation and access to fields.

As our tour concluded, I faced my journalistic colleagues.

“It seems to me,” I began, “that most of the British coverage I’ve seen of this story is inordinately focused on the inconveniences suffered by the Palestinians due to this fence, as opposed to the Israeli lives it is apparently saving. Why might that be?”

After heated denials, Martin said, “Why is there no coverage in America of the root causes of terrorism? We try to understand why Palestinians feel driven to take such extreme measures as suicide bombings. Terrorists only flourish if they have grievances to exploit.”

“Grievances? You know, I’m from New York,” I responded. “Should I try to understand the grievances of the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center?”

“Well, yes,” Martin answered. “I think Bin Laden tapped into grievances.”

Harriet chimed in, “Do you think they just did it for fun? They have reasons.”

Our conversation was over. I returned to New York, where I later read the International Court’s decision declaring Israel’s security fence illegal, which eerily echoed the deep concern of my English friends about the property of Palestinians over the lives of Jews.

And Harriet and Martin returned to Great Britain, where they may have been enjoying a spot of tea and a scone as they read about the July 11 bus-stop bombing in Tel Aviv, in which more than 30 people were wounded and a strikingly beautiful 19-year-old woman was torn apart by the metal bolts tightly packed into an explosive device. Perhaps the parents of Maayan Naim, who loved to dance and wanted to study and travel the world, would be comforted by knowing the terrorist who so brutally murdered their daughter had “grievances.” Somehow, I think not.

Steve North is a senior producer and radio newscaster at CNBC.

Morocco Bombings Shock Emigres

For most Parisian Jews with roots in Casablanca, the news that their home community had been targeted by Islamic terrorists came like a bolt from the blue.

"Sure, it’s happened in every other Arab country, in Egypt, even Tunisia, but we never thought it would happen in Morocco," Valerie Ben-Chimon exclaimed as she brought her children to school. "People there said they thought it was a gas explosion or an earthquake. Nobody ever imagined it was a bomb."

Ben-Chimon left Morocco for France in 1987, but her parents still live in Casablanca. They recently visited her in France for Passover.

Her father returned to Morocco just after the holiday, but Ben-Chimon’s mother returned May 18, two days after five suicide bombings in Casablanca — four of them aimed at Jewish targets — killed 29 people.

"Of course it’s worrying," she said, "but you know, there’s no security anywhere — not in France, not in Israel either."

Ben-Chimon and other Jews born in Casablanca felt more shock than anger after the attacks.

"People there have always had enormous faith in the king to protect the Jews," she said.

The head of Morocco’s 4,000-strong Jewish community, Serge Berdugo, was minister of tourism under Hassan II, father of the present monarch, Mohammed VI. One of Mohammed’s most trusted advisers, Andre Azoulay, is a Jewish banker.

"We are deeply shocked, but we are not afraid," Berdugo said. "People here know it is a global fight against the terrorists, the same for Muslims as for Jews. There were no victims from our own community, but this has come like a bolt from the blue."

Even in Paris, there was a sense of disbelief. One man, who described himself as "50-50" — half-Moroccan, half-Tunisian — said "they can’t have been Moroccans, they must have been Islamists from outside the country."

But Ben-Chimon corrected him, saying sadly, "They were Moroccans."

According to Simon Attias, president of the Society of Former Moroccan Jews, the king’s visit to the scene of the attacks was important "to send the right message" to the Moroccan people.

"But why didn’t he do anything before the attacks?" Attias asked.

Morocco is "a tolerant country," he said, and the terrorists were "as much against Moroccan Muslims as Jews."

Asked about the community’s future, Attias said things had been going downhill steadily since Morocco ceased to be a French protectorate in the 1950s.

"There’s no future for the Jews there," he said. "Virtually everyone has left for Israel, France or Canada."

Nevertheless, for many of those who left Casablanca — the site of Morocco’s largest Jewish community — the feelings toward Morocco remain strong.

"The king sent soldiers to protect us in Casablanca during the" 1991 Persian Gulf War, "and I remember how he spoke on television during the Six-Day War" in 1967, said Solange Rumi, who still has family in Casablanca. "He said that the Jews were Moroccan citizens, just like everybody else, and no Jew was touched."

"My brother said they congratulated King Mohammed on the birth of his son when he visited the Cercle d’Alliance after the bombing," Rumi said.

The targeting of the Cercle d’Alliance showed that the aim was to kill as many Jews as possible, Ben-Chimon said.

"This is a community where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone goes to the cercle," she said. "It’s a miracle. If they had bombed the Cercle d’Alliance on any day other than Shabbat, many more people would have been killed."

The same is true for Casablanca’s Safir Hotel, another target.

"There are lots of Moroccan Jews living in Israel who go there for the hilula," Ben Chimon said, referring to the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which is marked on Lag B’Omer. "But they hit the hotel too late, because they come for only about two days or so to Casablanca, then head off for Marrakech to celebrate the hilula."

Ben-Chimon said her parents would stay in Casablanca, adding, "We have always been treated well there. It’s very special, really, ‘la belle vie.’"

A Real ‘Baby Boomer’

Israelis are outraged by a picture of a Palestinian baby dressed as a suicide bomber. The baby was photographed wearing a mock suicide bomber’s uniform, complete with sticks of fake explosives and a red headband that read Hamas. Israeli newspapers published the photograph, seized in a raid on a suspected terrorist’s home in Hebron, on June 27. The baby’s family described the costume as a "joke," but a Palestinian journalist said such costumes were common among Palestinians. A Palestinian Authority official said Israel distributed the picture to "tell the world that the Palestinians are teaching their children how to hate Israel and how to act against Israel — and I just want to say this is correct," Ha’aretz reported. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Spartacus’

"My Stroke of Luck" by Kirk Douglas (William Morrow, $22.95)

Five years ago, Kirk Douglas, the legendary tough guy of 84 movies, decided to end his life.

A stroke had left him speechless — an actor’s worst nightmare. A painful compressed spine reminded him constantly of an earlier helicopter crash. A pacemaker was implanted in his chest and his knees were giving out.

In a deep depression, he spent his days "in a black cave far down below the surface of the earth." One day, he took a gun from his desk drawer, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth — and bumped it painfully against his teeth.

He said "Ow!" and pulled the gun out. Then "I began to laugh. A toothache delayed my death. I laughed hysterically," he recalls. Then another thought struck him — a suicide would be such a mess for the housekeeper to clean up. He put the gun away.

Douglas describes the episode in his new book, "My Stroke of Luck." His latest literary effort illustrates both the actor’s despair and the saving humor that helped pull him through.

In a recent interview in his art-filled but relatively modest Beverly Hills home, the 85-year-old Douglas spoke about the book, his life and his return to Judaism, before embarking on a two-month book tour of the United States and Europe.

The actor has taught himself to speak again — slowly but distinctly. His famous dimpled chin still juts out, and with a mane of long white hair he could pass for the movie version of a Viking or biblical patriarch.

Asked about the book’s title, with its seemingly ironic double meaning, Douglas responds that he means it when he talks about "a stroke of luck."

"For all the stroke stole from me, it has given me even more," he says earnestly. "It has led me to a great adventure and changed me into a different person — and one I like better than the person I was before."

Douglas’ earlier persona, during a long Hollywood career, was notorious for its egocentricity — even in a town of mammoth egos — his epic womanizing and his self-chosen role as a loner without real friends.

He firmly believes, and details in his book, that these traits and his lifestyle, as much as the later physical disabilities, led to his deep depression.

Douglas credits his new outlook, and survival, to the love of his wife, Anne, and four sons; his immersion in Torah study, and the gratification of reaching out and helping others.

His new attitude was affirmed and symbolized by his second bar mitzvah, celebrated on his 83rd birthday. In his speech to an audience of Hollywood celebrities, Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) declared, "Today I am a man … but it takes time to really become a man and assume your responsibilities in this troubled world."

After studying with a considerable number of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis ("I know more rabbis than Jews," he writes), Douglas has evolved his own brand of somewhat irreverent theology that mixes spirituality, with an actor’s appreciation of the great dramatic scripts inherent in the Torah, and a touch of humor.

An example of the latter is cited in the book when Douglas recalls his decades as a non-practicing Jew. However, he writes, "I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked in movies, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach."

Douglas’ good deeds have found expression by underwriting several playgrounds in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, an Alzheimer’s hospital unit, AIDS and homeless projects and a $2 million theater now rising opposite the Western Wall, where worshipers will watch films on the history of the Wall, Judaism and Jerusalem.

The veteran actor looks forward to starring with his son, Michael, and grandson, Cameron, in a film this year. "It’s about a dysfunctional family," he says, "but then every movie nowadays seems to be about dysfunctional families."

At the end of "My Stroke of Luck," written in Douglas’s characteristic colloquial and anecdotal style, the author appends six rules in an "Operator’s Manual" for coping with a stroke, or, for that matter, with life.

Among the rules:

When things go bad, always remember it could be worse.

Never, never, give up. Keep working on your speech and your life.

Pray. Not for God to cure you, but to help you help yourself.

Turner Classic Movies will screen 22 of the best Kirk Douglas movies on four successive Mondays in February.

Sharon: No More Words

Trick or treat? That slightly out-of-season challenge reflects Israeli reaction to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s dramatic call on his people for “a complete stop to all armed activities, especially the suicide attacks.”

Analysts noted that it was Arafat’s strongest call yet — in Arabic, on Palestinian television — to end Palestinian terror.

He also mentioned mortar bombing of Israeli settlements which, he claimed, give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a pretext to strike at the Palestinian Authority. That showed that Arafat’s call extended to the territories as well — and not, as some chagrined Palestinians claimed, only to Israel proper.

However, after Arafat has voiced support for so many cease-fires that never materialized, Sharon did not even deign to react.

Indeed, within hours of the speech Sunday, Palestinian gunmen were again shooting at Israelis in the West Bank and firing mortars in the Gaza Strip. Three Israelis were injured Monday, one seriously, in shooting attacks.

“Israel’s patience with empty words and false promises has run out,” Sharon told French President Jacques Chirac in a phone call Monday. “Israel wants to see actions and results.”

Just 10 days earlier, at Sharon’s behest, the Security Cabinet formally declared Arafat “irrelevant” and forswore further dealings with him.

But in the army and the intelligence community, there is a view that Arafat’s speech might — just might — be a turning point, representing his belated realization of just how precarious his position has become.

Arafat spoke from his office in Ramallah, with Israeli tanks parked less than 300 yards away. Other Israel Defense Force armored units had entered Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza over the weekend on search-and-arrest missions that made a mockery of Palestinian pretensions to sovereignty in these territories. Israeli helicopters continued to destroy Palestinian security installations.

Perhaps even more sobering, from Arafat’s standpoint, was the fact that the United States was not publicly criticizing the Israeli military moves. It was as though Sharon had a green light from the Bush administration to mangle Arafat’s state-in-the-making.

Worse yet, Arafat’s standing in the international community, which plummeted drastically after a wave of suicide bombings in early December, showed no real signs of recovery.

Even within the Arab world, Arafat could feel his isolation growing. Egypt and Jordan signaled that they, too, are fed up with Arafat’s prevarication and want to see real action against terrorists such as those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

For Egypt and Jordan, it is not just a matter of the peace process with Israel: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism can spill over into their countries, putting their regimes at risk.

Some Israeli observers therefore say Arafat may have reached a watershed and will finally take meaningful action to quell violence. If he does so, however, he surely will demand a diplomatic quid pro quo — from Israel, the Americans and the international community.

Palestinian officials said early in the week that they had shut dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad facilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and arrested 180 activists.

Sharon’s circle gave little credence to such claims, or to Arafat’s call for an end to violence.

“All bluff,” Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said. “Anyone putting any faith in it will quickly be disappointed.”

Close aides say Sharon wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, but not with Arafat. After endless “last chances,” Sharon has concluded that the veteran Palestinian leader is committed to a “strategy of terror.”

In Sharon’s book, Arafat made his strategic choice back in 1993, as soon as the Oslo peace process began. He doggedly built up illegal armed groups alongside the Palestinian Authority police force — which itself was allowed to grow far beyond its legal size — and stockpiled weapons for them.

Moreover, Sharon sees the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activity as part of Arafat’s strategy. Ostensibly in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, the fundamentalist factions are, in effect, active members in Arafat’s “coalition of terror,” Sharon says, a means of bleeding Israel while leaving Arafat ways to profess his innocence.

On Monday, Hamas activists protested Israel’s assassination of a senior militant, Yakoub Dakidak. As Dakidak’s body was paraded through the streets of Hebron, the more militant Palestinian organizations seemed in no mood for peace.

In a manifest released Monday morning, Hamas and Islamic Jihad called upon all Palestinians to continue violence against Israel. Moreover, in interviews with Arab television networks, the groups announced that they refuse to obey Arafat’s order against suicide bombings.

The premier’s aides concede that Sharon promised President Bush not to harm Arafat physically or drive him out of the country. That, they say, is the meaning of the Cabinet’s “irrelevancy” resolution: Arafat will not be attacked directly, but will simply be ignored and rendered meaningless.

The frustration with Arafat now affecting Washington, Europe and Jerusalem is shared even among some in Arafat’s close coterie, Sharon’s aides say.

“We are not going to intervene in who leads the Palestinians,” the aides say. “But we hope he will be succeeded by someone ready to abandon terror, someone we can speak to. Meanwhile, if Arafat does not do the work of stopping terror, Israel will do it instead of him.”

With this kind of mood at the top in Israel, there is little time left for Arafat to prove to the rest of the world — above all to Washington — that this time he is serious.

Despite the U.S. veto on the stationing of international observers in the West Bank, America has myriad means to determine whether, at last, the Palestinian Authority is acting forcefully against terrorist groups. “Revolving-door” jails — in which terrorists are imprisoned with great fanfare, then quietly released shortly afterward — are no longer featured only in Israeli rhetoric; their existence has been confirmed by American, British and other diplomats who will be watching to see if the latest wave of Palestinians arrested actually remain behind bars.

This is a defining moment, both for Arafat and for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sharon may be earnest when he talks of his desire to see the last of Arafat. But at the end of the day it will be difficult for him to affect that outcome if the American administration does not agree that Arafat has become dispensable.

JTA Correspondent Aaron Lightman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.