June 26, 2019

1989: Putin, the Professor and Prejudice

On June 16, 1989, four Jews arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Italy, where they had waited for months after having escaped post-revolutionary Iran.

This month marks 30 years since my father, mother, sister and I arrived in the United States, although it took me another nine years to become an American citizen. I didn’t mind the wait; I knew I was an American the first time a teacher at my public school was kind to me without knowing I was a Jew. In fact, she didn’t seem to care what religion I practiced. 

If this is America, I thought while enjoying some miraculous concoction called a Slurpee, I’ll be happy and well-fed.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush was president. Vladimir Putin was a 37-year-old KGB officer stationed in Dresden who asked Moscow for backup against demonstrators at the office of the East German secret police but received a fateful message from headquarters that permanently changed his views about the Soviet Union. 

The message? “Moscow is silent.”

In 1989, Bernie Sanders was finishing an eight-year term as mayor of Burlington, Vt., and Donald Trump was on the cover of Time magazine, holding an ace of diamonds playing card. The headline read, “This man may turn you green with envy — or just turn you off.” 

How little some things have changed.

As a 7-year-old in 1989, I wasn’t concerned with politicians or real estate moguls. I figured that the world was ruled by incompetent men (my belief had sprouted in Iran), so I focused on something far more important: pop culture icons. 

For a newly arrived refugee from of one of the world’s most oppressive countries, the U.S. in 1989 was a glorious place and time of learning and acculturation, even if my father threw himself over furniture in a rush to turn off the radio as soon as the song “Me So Horny” came on. 

“For a newly arrived refugee from of one of the world’s most oppressive countries, the U.S. in 1989 was a glorious place.”

It was on television — the bastion of security that Homer Simpson once called, “Mother! Teacher! Secret lover!” — that I learned one of the most important truths about America: In this country, people will hold you accountable for your hatred. 

In May 1989, rap group Public Enemy was condemned after one of its members, Professor Griff (born Richard Griffin), said in an interview in The Washington Times that Jews are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”

I had been in the U.S. only a few weeks when the controversy blossomed, but I was familiar with Public Enemy. 

I pieced together enough English from the evening news to understand that someone from the group didn’t like Jews. 

And? I wondered. We simply called that a Tuesday back in post-revolutionary Iran. 

And then it happened. The group ousted Professor Griff over his anti-Semitism. Just like that, he was gone. 

If this is America, I thought as I dipped a french fry in some glorious goo called “barbecue  sauce,” I’ll be safe and well-fed. 

And 30 years later, as I begrudgingly drink some liquified spinach leaves, I wonder if my realization still holds true. 

In 2019, President Donald Trump is the ruler of the free world, and although I’m grateful for his support of Israel, as far as nearly every other policy is concerned, I sometimes wonder whether the cards up his sleeve came from the wrong deck. 

Putin is trying to ensure that those once impotent words about Moscow are never repeated, although his silence over Russian election interference in the U.S. is loud and clear.

And Professor Griff lives in Atlanta, gives lectures on world politics, and teaches classes on “The 7 Hermetic Principles for Self-Mastery.” From time to time, he performs with Chuck D. (born Carlton Ridenhour) and other members of Public Enemy. 

As for me, I’m a strict devotee of the “Homeric” principles: Love thy beer and thy TV. And give of yourself for every blessed and free day that you’ve been in this country.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker. 

Jews in the West: An Embattled Community

Official unveiling ceremony of the statue to Nazi collaborator Garegin Nzhdeh in Yerevan, Armenia on May 28, 2016. Photo from President.am

Seventy four years after the Nazi death camps were liberated, Jews in the West are more embattled than they have been in decades. This is the shocking finding of a new report on anti-Semitic violence released in May by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University. Commenting on the report, the President of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, said that among Jews in many European countries there is a  “sense of emergency,” with concerns about both personal safety and their place in society. According to the report, more Jews were killed in anti-Semitic violence in 2018 than during any other year in decades.


“Anti-Semitism has progressed to the point of calling into question the very continuation of Jewish life in Europe,” said Kantor. According to the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, 38% of Jews in the EU have considered leaving Europe because they fear for their safety. Small wonder, when the French interior ministry states that “not one day passes without an anti-Semitic act” in France.  France is the home of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as well as the recent killing of Jews in a kosher supermarket. Tombstones have been overturned, swastikas painted on businesses, and prominent Jewish intellectuals harassed. Nine out of ten Jewish students in France report having experienced anti-Semitism at least once during their studies.


France is not alone. In Germany, the government has warned Jews of risks of wearing a kippah in public. This month’s annual Quds Day march in Berlin included hundreds of participants calling for the killing of Israelis. The atmosphere that allows these things to happen even extends to the German court system, which ruled a 2014 attempt to set fire to a synagogue in Wuppertal was not anti-Semitic.


In Belgium, a café owner placed a sign on his business welcoming dogs but not Jews. When a man was convicted of hate speech for shouting about killing Jews, a lawyer for the Belgian organization to combat racism, UNIA, protested that the conviction distorted justice. Meanwhile, a jihadi gunman shot dead four people in May 2014 when he attacked the Jewish Museum of Belgium.


In Armenia, authorities have declared a Nazi collaborator, general Garegin Nzhdeh a national hero and erected a statue to him. In addition to the statue, a square and metro station in Armenia’s capital Yerevan are also named after Nzhdeh, and his “legacy” is taught to children in Armenian schools. Nzhdeh cooperated with the Nazis as one of the commanders of the infamous “Armenian League” of the Wehrmacht. This unit fought in Crimea, the Caucasus, and southern France, as the Nazis rounded up Jews and resistance fighters to be marched to the death camps. For his war crimes and collaboration with the Nazis, a Soviet court sentenced him to 25 years’ imprisonment. Nzhdeh’s political theories were as repugnant as his collaboration with the Nazis. He was the founder of a movement called Tseghakronism, which translates as “carrier of race.” It refers to those who supposedly represent and carry what is the spiritual and biological essence of the “classical” Armenian. Echoing the theories of Aryan supremacy of his Nazi colleagues, Nzhdeh divided people into true nationalist by blood, mixed races (Hitler referred to “mongrel races”), and the anti-nationalists whom he called ‘bastards’. According to the theory, it is the responsibility of the ‘master race’ to rule Armenia.


In England, a Jewish candidate for parliament from the Brexit Party had a 10 meter swastika painted on his company’s building in east London. The UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission has opened an investigation into whether the Labor Party unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish.


The anti-Semitic acts are not limited to Europe. The United States has seen 11 Jews killed in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and a Passover shooting in Poway, California that left one dead and three wounded. Harking back to cartoons published in Nazi Germany, the international edition of the New York Times published a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog wearing a Star of David collar, on a leash held by a kippah-wearing President Trump. In Australia, Jewish members of parliament are being spammed with anti-semitic emails.


There are many possible explanations for the rise in anti-Semitism, including an increase in immigration from the Middle East and the rise of far-right political parties. While these no doubt contribute to the problem, amnesia about the efforts of allied forces to end the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany also contributes. According to a 2014 international poll by the Anti Discrimination League covering 100 countries, 35% of respondents had never heard of the Holocaust. More frighteningly, 32% who had heard of the Shoah believe it was a myth or was greatly exaggerated. Only 33% who heard of the Holocaust believed it was accurately described by history.


Shootings, monuments to mass murderers with political theories reminiscent of Hitler, threats and intimidation: these are not the hallmarks of civilized countries or people. The world must remember the madness of the Second World War and stop this descent into chaos. John Donne said, “No man is an island.” The Christian Bible says the same: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me.” We must protect the rights of Jews to live in peace, safety and dignity, free of hatred, racism and bigotry, because, in doing so, we protect the rights of all.

US to Send 1,000 Additional Troops to Middle East As Tensions Rise with Iran

U.S. acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan walks through the subway system at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The United States will be sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East while tensions increase between the U.S. and Iran, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced June 17.

Shanahan said in a statement that Iran’s “recent hostile power” necessitated the extra troops in the region.

The action today is being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests,” Shanahan said. “We will continue to monitor the situation diligently and make adjustments to force levels as necessary given intelligence reporting and credible threats.”

The additional troops come after the U.S. accused Iran of attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13; Iran has denied involvement. The Pentagon released two photos on Monday showing Iran removing a mine from one of the tankers that hadn’t detonated and a hole on the side of the same tanker that purportedly came from a mine. The photos are evidence that Iran was behind the attack, the Pentagon argued.

Also on Monday, Iran threatened to breach the uranium enrichment limits set under the Iran nuclear deal in 10 days if Western countries don’t agree to a new nuclear deal after President Donald Trump exited from the deal in May 2018. Former International Atomic Energy Agency head Olli Heinonen estimated on June 5 that Iran could develop nuclear weapons in six-to-eight months.

The Trump administration has been ramping up sanctions against Iran, including possible sanctions cracking down on European countries’ trade with Iran.

The Burden of Freedom

“How does it feel to be here?” I asked my father while we were standing inside the magnificent rotunda of the U.S. Capitol a few weeks ago, during his first trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.

“I feel burdened,” he responded.

“Burdened?” I exclaimed. “Here?!

“Yes,” my father said. “Here, I’m weighed down with the burden of freedom.”

Can freedom be burdensome? That depends. 

Three decades ago, my father and mother, along with their two young daughters, escaped the destruction of the Iran-Iraq War and the anti-Semitic aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and were admitted as protected refugees by the United States. This June will mark 30 years since our arrival in Los Angeles after temporary resettlement in Italy, through the help of HIAS, formerly known the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The redemptive space that was where the blessing of our asylum was made possible is the U.S. Capitol. 

It was there that Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a permanent and systematic process by which protected refugees could resettle in this compassionate country. 

For many years, I dreamed of taking my father to visit the Capitol. Standing in the space where American lawmakers decided the fate of his family, he felt a sense of unequivocal joy that was nonetheless mired with the despondency of reality. 

That despondency began in Italy more than 30 years ago, when my father tried desperately to bring his mother, father and other relatives out of Iran. The attempt failed for many reasons, and we never saw them again.

But during these past 30 years, my father has enjoyed the freedom and opportunities that make day-to-day life in this country something of real quality.

In this country, while he was witnessing his oldest daughter — my sister — graduate with a master’s degree from Harvard University in 2006, some of our family members in Iran were living under the rule of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made even the most oppressive Iranian leaders look like progressives.

“Can a person ever truly be free if he is still emotionally shackled to another’s physical oppression?”

In this country, while my father was welcoming the birth of his first grandchild in 2009, Iranians were being murdered in the streets for demanding free and fair elections during the Green Revolution. 

By the time his fourth grandchild was born here in 2017, my father was receiving news from Iran that the country’s dismal economy was making daily life so unbearable that there was a national shortage of infant formula, prompting mothers in some provinces ro give their babies sugar water instead. 

Can a person ever truly be free if he is still emotionally shackled to another’s physical oppression? It depends on how much burden that person is willing to place on his or her own shoulders. 

There’s also another aspect to my father’s “burdensome freedom,” and that entails the infinite possibilities that this wonderful country offers. 

Back in Iran, my father was the revered man of the house, and both our family and Persian culture in general imposed certain norms that his daughters were expected to follow. 

Here, the life that my sister and I enjoy has come against the backdrop of the “wild, wild West” of American freedom (and the glory of women’s rights); this means that for the past 30 years, my father couldn’t dictate how his daughters chose to test their freedom. 

For my sister, that meant attending Harvard, 3,000 miles from her family. For me, my chutzpah with testing freedoms began the day I moved into the college dorm. Those stories are best saved for another time. 

Watching from the sidelines, our father had to trust in his daughters’ sense of responsibility and morality, while knowing that his will, however reasonable, was no match for our newfound American freedoms.

There’s also another burden: the overwhelming loss of control that comes with unfettered access to information in this country. 

I’m referring to the fact that in Iran, the regime controls the media but at least its citizens know what they’re getting: blatant propaganda that can’t be masked as anything else. 

Like other Americans of his generation, my father, who is 70, is so enthralled by the sheer amount of “news” — especially on YouTube — that he often has a hard time distinguishing what’s legitimate and what’s not. 

That, too, is the price of ready access to information. I would never go back to state-controlled media, but I wish that my father would frequent fewer “media” sites dedicated to topics ranging from which world leaders are secretly Jews (he takes great pride in this “information,” even if it was posted by anti-Semites) to which members of Congress have had firsthand experience with extraterrestrials. 

I implored my father not to share any “exciting” developments he had seen or heard on YouTube during our time in Washington because we were joined by 20 young Jewish professionals from Los Angeles who constitute 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship, the nation’s only young leadership training program for Iranian-American Jews.

It was a blessing to have seen my father — my rock and my teacher for everything ranging from Zionism to American patriotism — interact with the Maher Fellows, all of whom were born in the U.S. They asked him about what life was like in Iran, and he was bewildered that none of them had heard of his favorite YouTube channels.

On our last day in Washington, we stood inside the Capitol — me, my father, and 20 first-generation Iranian-American Jews — and thanked America for our freedoms. 

“Please,” I begged my father. “Don’t feel so burdened. Look at me. Look at them,” I said, pointing to the Maher Fellows. “We exist here because of you … because of our mothers and fathers.”

“I know, Tabby, and thank God for this country,” my father observed, but not before adding, “Let’s see if we can visit the actual room where Congress meets and find a few aliens.”

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and director of 30 Years After’s Maher Fellowship.

UC Davis BDS Resolution Overturned

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Associated Students of UC Davis (ASUCD) Judicial Council struck down a 2015 Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution on May 13, Campus Reform reports.

According to the Aggie, UC Davis’ student-run newspaper, the Judicial Council unanimously ruled that the resolution violated Article II, Section 2 of the ASUCD Constitution, which states the ASUCD “shall promote the welfare and interests” of all students on campus, as well as the portion of the Student Bill of Rights barring “discrimination and harassment on the basis of your race, gender, sex, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, status within or outside the university, or political belief in all activities sponsored or conducted by the University.”

The Judicial Council’s ruling stated that the resolution “caters to the welfare of a group of students… at the expense of the welfare of other students” and “has led to the discrimination and harassment of students whose ethnicity, national origin or political beliefs are in opposition to the content of the Resolution.”

Former ASUCD Senator Daniella Aloni, one of the students who challenged the resolution’s constitutionally, told the Aggie that the resolution “has created a toxic environment for students on campus.” She argued that “this academic boycott also prevents American students in the U.S. from attending Universities in Israel. These boycotts lead to discrimination against students from Israel, and from the United States.”

ASUCD President Justin Hurst argued in favor of the resolution’s constitutionality, telling the Aggie that the resolution “specifically targeted against the actions of the Israeli government, not the individuals of Israel.” He also said the ruling “would have a chilling effect” on free speech, per the Aggie.

The ASUCD Senate had passed the resolution by a vote of eight in favor, two against and two abstentions in January 2015; the ASUCD court struck it down a month later. The ASUSD passed the resolution again in May 2015 with 10 votes in favor, zero against and two abstentions. The resolution called on the UC Board of Regents to divest from companies that conduct business with Israel.

Several pro-Israel groups and figures on Twitter celebrated the Judicial Council’s decision:

UC Davis now joins UC Santa Barbara as the only UC campuses that currently don’t have a BDS resolution endorsed by their respective student government.

Anti-Zionism Worse than Anti-Semitism

I always get suspicious when I hear someone flaunt their pro-Israel credentials by saying, “I firmly believe in Israel’s right to exist.” Gee, thanks. I firmly believe in your right to exist, too.

The real question is: How did Israel’s “right to exist” ever become an issue in the first place?

After all, we never hear about Syria’s right to exist or Libya’s right to exist or Sudan’s right to exist or Yemen’s right to exist. A country can commit genocide against its people and inflict the worst humanitarian disaster and no one will ever bring up its “right to exist.”

So, why is it OK to single out Israel?

Here’s my theory: If you hate Jews so much that you want to challenge their very presence, your best bet is to go after Israel. Jew haters know they can’t start a movement to eliminate the Jews, so they do the next best thing: They work to undermine, in sneaky ways, the world’s only Jewish state.

Anti-Semitism revolves around an emotion — hate. Anti-Zionism revolves around an action — destruction.

A stark example is the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the leading global force against Israel. Its very name is misleading. Words like “boycott” “divestment” and “sanctions,” which are taken straight from the social justice manual, create a façade of genuine protest to hide a purely destructive agenda.

This charade shouldn’t shock anyone who’s been paying attention. In recent years, it has become more and more evident that the BDS agenda is not to criticize Israel but to crush it.

Even prominent BDS activists, like Ahmed Moor, have come clean: “OK, fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.” Or university professor As’ad
AbuKhalil, another BDS activist: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the State of Israel.”

Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS himself, has said on the record: “Definitely most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

To undermine the 3,000-year Jewish connection to the land, Barghouti uses language like “acquired rights” and “indigenized.” His vision includes “de-Zionization” of Israel and the return of up to 5 million Palestinian “refugees” to flood the Jewish state.

Had BDS called itself the WIN movement — Wipeout Israel Now — no one would have taken them seriously. Instead, it uses the messaging of protest and intersectionality to attract well-meaning activists who don’t want to see Israel wiped out. This subterfuge is their strategy, and for the gullible crowd, it’s working.

BDS’s core success is sucking in much of the mainstream media and others who believe in “two states for two people” and assume that BDS is a way of pressuring Israel to get there.

It is far from that. The BDS mission originates straight from the founding mission of the PLO in 1964, before any Jewish settlements existed, which was to eliminate what is still seen as the unacceptable and humiliating sovereign Jewish-Zionist presence in Arab-Muslim lands.

Jew hatred may fuel the Israel hatred behind BDS and other anti-Israel forces, but after that, Israel-hatred wreaks havoc on its own. This is why, in my eyes, anti-Zionism is more lethal than anti-Semitism: It carries the virus of elimination.

As author Gil Troy writes in an email from Jerusalem, “Thousands have been killed and maimed by modern anti-Zionism, which requires the ideological and rhetorical inflammation to get people to blow themselves up and kill innocents. As a result, not only have we absorbed the notion that Israel’s existence should be up for grabs, but our outrage has been dulled –— we accept attacks on Israel as normal.”

Demonizing Israel and singling it out for special condemnation is immoral and discriminatory regardless of any claims of anti-Semitism.

Underlying the whole assault on Israel, he adds, “is the rejection of us as a people — we are just supposed to be a ‘nice’ religion confined to our synagogues and JCC’s, not a people taking up real space in the international arena.”

In sum, it is hardly enough to argue that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. In at least one crucial way it’s worse than that. Anti-Semitism revolves around an emotion — hate. Anti-Zionism revolves around an action — destruction.

Anti-Zionism must be fought on its own terms. Demonizing Israel and singling it out for special condemnation is immoral and discriminatory regardless of any claims of anti-Semitism.

Israel doesn’t just have a right to exist. Like any other imperfect state, it has a right to thrive, whether you hate Jews or not.

San Diego and Palo Alto Among 100 Communities Celebrating Ohr Torah Stone Anniversary

Ohr Torah Stone Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander addressing an emissary group in Cancun. Photo courtesy of Ohr Torah Stone

More than 100 Jewish communities in 20 countries will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel programs over Shabbat, May 17-18.

Based In Israel, Ohr Torah Stone is a modern Orthodox movement founded in 1983 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and these trained Shabbat emissaries from various communities will discuss Israel-Diaspora affairs.

Countries participating in the event are the United States, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa, Sweden, China, Finland, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, Australia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Austria.

In California, the San Diego and Palo Alto Jewish communities will also take part in the event. 

President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander said that the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel programs were created to bring Israel and Diaspora communities together by training rabbis to strengthen Jewish identity and existence in communities around the world.

“This Shabbat we celebrate the integral role that these programs have played in bringing the Israel-Diaspora relationship closer on a grassroots level,” Brander said in a statement. “We’re very proud of our emissaries and the critical role they have played in building and helping to sustain communities in the Diaspora. We have graduated more than one thousand emissaries in the last two decades. While the emissaries offer a tremendous service to the communities where they serve, they also receive so much. They come back to Israel enthused about engaging the Jewish community along with new skills and perspectives on teaching, educating and serving communities that they put into use here in Israel. It is why upon return to Israel 90-percent of our shlichim serve in positions of Jewish communal service.”

American Contributions to Israeli Independence Depicted in ‘Eyewitness 1948’

Eyewitness Logo from Website.

Coinciding with Jewish American Heritage Month and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), the Ruderman Family Foundation announced May 8 they are releasing never-before-seen archival footage that shares the stories of the American Jews who helped establish the State of Israel.

Partnering with Toldot Yisrael, they are making the material publicly accessible and user-friendly for the first time.

“Eyewitness 1948: The American Contribution” — a film series produced in partnership with Toldot Yisrael — focuses on the efforts of Americans in the period leading up to the modern State of Israel’s establishment. The film shares insight on World War II veterans who fought in Israel’s war of independence; volunteers who smuggled weapons, machine parts, and uniforms overseas; businessmen who raised funds to help bring Holocaust refugees to British Palestine; and doctors, nurses, journalists, students, and others who were eyewitnesses to Israel’s establishment.

“The individual stories of these American Jews combine to make an unparalleled collective impact,” Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said in a statement. “The ‘Eyewitness 1948’ film brings to life inspirational stories of solidarity, peoplehood and shared destiny that deserves a broad audience in the American Jewish, Israeli, and other communities.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation — which works to educate Israelis about the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel — is releasing these films during the annual Jewish American Heritage Month in order to showcase a little-known aspect of 20th century Jewish history that links the U.S. and Israel together.

“We want to convey the message that the State of Israel is a collective enterprise of Jews around the world,” Eric Halivni, Director of Toldot Yisrael, said in a statement. “These short films will help educate Israelis about the unique contribution that American Jews made to Israel’s founding and give American Jews a sense of pride that this is their story, too.”

For more information on “Eyewitness 1948” click here

A Time for Mourning, Reflection, Celebration, and Gratitude

The following was adapted from a speech given at Aish San Diego at a service following the end of Yom Hazikaron

We are at the beginning of a most unusual transition – that to my knowledge is the only one of its kind in the world – a national and intentional move from sorrow to jubilation – due to the pairing of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).

Israel has two major memorial days: Yom Hazikaron (the Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism) and Yom HaShoah Vehagevurah (Israel’s Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day). Yom Hazikaron is a reminder of the cost we pay, and sadly continue to pay, in order to have a Jewish State; while Yom HaShoah is a reminder of the cost of not having a Jewish State.

One of the most unique features of Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron is the siren that sounds across the entire State of Israel at 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. (respectively); bringing the entire country to a complete halt. If you haven’t been in Israel to witness the sounding of these sirens, I highly recommend you make travel plans to do so. It is one of the most moving things you can experience.

Across the country, people stop what they are doing and stand at attention for the two minutes that the siren blares. Tel Aviv’s crazy traffic (think NYC traffic on steroids) stops in the streets, even on the highways; and drivers and passengers alike step out of their cars to stand at attention. As Israelis say, from Metula in north to Eilat in the south, the country stops in its tracks to mourn and honor the fallen as one.

Remarkably and exceptionally, less than 8 hours after the sounding of the Yom Hazikaron siren, the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations begin. After 24 hours of grief and remembrance, of watching heart-wrenching news story after news story, featuring the many brave soldiers who sacrificed everything, of crying for the numerous young men and women taken from our small nation way too early, Israelis celebrate their independence madly, wildly, passionately, and gratefully.

It is this thankfulness that I want to discuss today. During our Maariv service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, we will shortly be reciting prayers of Hoda’a (of gratitude). And as Jews – blessed to be alive in 2019 – we have much to be grateful for when it comes to the existence of the modern state of Israel.

Most of us have no memories of a time when Israel didn’t exist. A significant number of us also have no living memory of a time when Israel last fought (in 1973) an existential war. As a result, it is only natural that many of us take Israel as well as its existence for granted.

The existence of Israel, of a Jewish state, which we all know (in an age of growing antisemitism) is the safe haven, the proverbial “escape hatch” for all Jews worldwide, is as much a part of our reality, of our everyday lives, as the cup of coffee most of us have in the morning.

But the Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron sirens, which stop everyone in their tracks in Israel are there to remind us that this reality is nothing short of a miracle, that while it may be our “normal;” in the history of the Jewish people, it is very plainly a “new normal.” A “normal,” which we should never take for granted and that we should understand is not only necessary to prevent future Shoah’s, but was also hard-earned with the blood and sacrifice of heroes.

And that is why Israel’s founders wanted to have Yom Ha’atzmaut immediately follow Yom Hazikaron. So all of us, before we turn to the joy and jubilation of celebrating having a safe haven as well as sovereignty and freedom in our indigenous, historical and religious homeland, pay homage to those who sacrificed and lost so much in order for us Jews to have our miracle of state, after nearly 2000 years of dreaming, longing, and praying for it.

As David Ben Gurion famously said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

And a miracle Israel truly is. And as our tradition, and the “Al Hanisim” prayer teaches us – we should always be thankful for miracles.

On the eve of this past Passover, Bibi Neyanyahu sent out a message via social media where he said: Citizens of Israel, Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, each year on Seder night, I am deeply moved,  … Passover touches upon the roots of our national identity. Thousands of years ago we raised the banner of freedom and liberty. We went from slavery to freedom, from subjugation to independence. We began our long journey from Egypt to our home — Zion and Jerusalem.”

The incredible story of our people has no parallel,” Bibi continued. “Even in bitter exile, under unbearable conditions, we maintained our unique identity. We did not surrender. We kept our faith. Generation after generation, we read in the Haggadah, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ We held on to our hope. And that hope, my friends, became reality.” Netanyahu went on to say that “Israel is systematically and persistently becoming a global power.”

After 2000 years of exile, after 2000 years of persecution, and out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the worst attempted genocide in modern history, the Jewish people have their own state. And what a state it is …

Over the last 35 years, Israel has experienced dramatic – almost miraculous – certainly unprecedented and unexpected – improvements in its economy. The inflation rate declined from 447% to 1.5%. Thanks to the growing economy, defense expenditures as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) went down from 20% to 5.8% (2016), higher than the U.S. military expenditure of 3.8%, but still a vast improvement. Exports in 1984 were $10 billion and in 2018 they exceeded $110 billion. And while per capita income in 1984 was $7000, in 2018 it was nearly $42,000, surpassing many European countries, and almost exactly the same as our former colonial master, England. Women in Israel’s labor force were 30% in 1984; that number now stands at almost 60%. And while the GDP in the U.S. (2017) grew by 2.3%, in the U.K by 1.8%, and Italy by 1.5%, Israel’s GDP growth was 3.3%; and it has grown at that pace for most of the past decade.  

And Israel is not just an economic success story. After all, money is not everything. Israel is #1 in the world in the number of museums per person. It has over 200 museums, and counting. Israel leads the world in the recycling of waste water (close to 90%) while in second place, Spain is only 20%. Israel leads the world in the number of people employed in research and development; and in a related stat, Israel is the second most educated nation in the world following Canada, above Japan. And Israel, with barely 9,000,000 citizens has 2 universities in the top 100 in the world, comparing incredibly well with countries over 10 times its size, like Germany and Japan, which each have 4 universities in the top 100. And Israelis, despite all of the trials and tribulations, and the incredibly rough neighborhood they live in, are happy. Recent surveys and studies regularly rank Israelis as the 10th happiest people in the world.   

And Israelis have reason to be happy. And proud. Again, despite the trials and tribulations, the enemies who regularly threaten and attack Israel (as we just saw this past weekend when Hamas indiscriminately fired nearly 700 rockets and missiles at Israel in under 36 hours), the British Economist survey on the best places in the world to be born and live placed Israel as 20th, ahead of countries such as the U.K., France, Italy, and Japan.  

In 2018, Bloomberg ranked Israel’s health system as the sixth best in the world, ahead of the U.S. and many European states. At 84.4, the life expectancy for Israelis is the 7th best in the world, and Israel is generally considered the 10th healthiest country in the world. And U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Israel as the overall 8th most powerful country in the world behind only the 5 UN Security Council countries, Germany and Japan. Think about that … 75 years after the Holocaust; 71 years after the nascent Jewish state with only 600,000 citizens and an army made up of many Holocaust survivors fought off 7 Arab armies in order to achieve the independence we are celebrating tonight, Israel is ranked as the 8th most powerful country in the world.

71 years since the Jewish people reconstituted our state in our indigenous homeland, Israel is already the 10th oldest uninterrupted democracy in the world. Israel is a country where army generals don’t plan coups and revolutions, but they do often run in elections as leftists and centrists. That is, in and of itself, something to be proud of and not take for granted. After all, very few of Israel’s original 600,000 citizens or early immigrants who came to the country fleeing persecution or ethnic cleansing from either Europe or Arab controlled lands, came from countries that had any experience with democratic rule.

But while all of these rankings and statistics are important and impressive, they are not what truly captures for me the miracle of Israel. The reason, those of us who have been blessed to be alive at this time, have so much to be thankful for, so much to be celebrate.

What really moves me is the everyday miracles, the extraordinary becoming the normal, the utterly impossible and amazing, becoming routine and for many, even mundane.

In 1896, when Herzl published “The Jewish State,” most people thought the very idea of Jewish state was not just improbable, but impossible. They also thought that the idea of Jewish nation-state where our people’s mother tongue would be Hebrew once again, was pure folly.

So every time I am in Israel, I am amazed by the little things, and I promise myself I will not take them for granted. Hearing a toddler speaking Hebrew; listening to commercials in Hebrew selling everything from mortgage loans to bubble gum; a Star of David on a 747 passenger jet; everyone from my taxi driver to the radio broadcasters on Friday saying “Shabbat Shalom;” or practically the entire country shutting down on Yom Kippur.   

To be amazed by, and thankful for Israel: I don’t need Israel to be a technological leader; to be the “start-up nation.” I don’t need it to have the most per-capita Nobel Prize winners in the world; I don’t need it to produce incredible TV shows like Shtisel, Fauda, or Kfulim (False Flag). Or to have one of the most amazing restaurant scenes in the world.  All of that is a bonus. 

Nevertheless, and despite all of Israel’s incredible accomplishments; despite it representing the first successful movement of an indigenous people to regain their sovereignty in their land, as we know all too well, and memorialize on Yom Hazikaron, there are still many in the world who find the existence of Israel as offensive as they previously found the existence of Jews. There are still those who continue to attack us and who seek to return us to being weak, defenseless and wandering people without a national home. A people whose plight can once again be ignored by the nations of the world, as the dictators and tyrants seek our annihilation.

And as a country surrounded by enemies, by some of the worst dictatorships and terrorist groups on the planet, it would not be far-fetched to assume that Israel and Israelis would retreat into their own shell whenever possible. To save their energies for “fighting their own battles” as it were.

But Israelis do not do that. Not even close. So, in addition to appreciating and being so thankful for the “mundane” or the “normal” of having a Jewish state after 2000 years of exile, oppression and persecution; and for the realization of 2 millennia of dreaming and praying for that state, for “next year in Jerusalem;” I am also thankful for how incredibly moral and good that state is. How charitable it is.

Israel always offers a helping hand. Whether it is in response to tragedies in Haiti, Japan, Nepal, Mexico, or the Philippines; Israelis are there, saving lives and rescuing people. Israeli charities are also all over the world. Providing clean water resources where once thought impossible. Helping farmers in 3rd world countries discover the miracle of Israeli farming and irrigation techniques that drained swamps and made the desert bloom.   

And Israel’s charity and helping hand is not limited to Israel’s friends. During the Syrian civil war, Israeli soldiers regularly brought Syrian victims to Israeli hospitals, frequently provided life-saving and life changing care to thousands of Syrians. Israel’s “Save A Child’s Heart” also often saves the lives of children from countries that not only do not have relations with Israel, but are also avowed enemies of Israel.

In the early 1700’s, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, authored what many consider to be one of the premier works on Jewish ethics, called “The Path of the Righteous,” which expounds on how – according to the Talmud – one can achieve righteousness. Per Rabbi Luzzatto, there are three main categories of charity: giving of one’s wealth, giving of oneself physically, and giving of one’s wisdom.

As we see, by sending its soldiers, doctors, and field hospitals all over the world in times of crisis, by sharing its water innovations, agricultural techniques, and solar power technology with 3rd world farmers, and by providing life-saving heart surgery to children from all over the world; and without regard for whether they come from nations that are friend or foe, Israel excels in all 3 categories of charity.

Something every Jew, every member of Am Yisrael, can and should be incredibly proud of.


Recently, Michel Bacos, the Air France pilot who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish hostages at Entebbe, died. At his funeral, the Hatikva was played at his request. Thinking about his bravery and solidarity led me to re-watch Operation Thunderbolt, the movie about the incredible rescue of the Jewish hostages led by Bibi Netanyahu’s amazing brother, Yoni Netanyahu. And that got me to reading some of Yoni’s amazing letters (as documented in the book by Herman Wouk, “The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu”).

While most of Yoni’s letters are deeply inspiring, and I commend the book to all of you, one passage, which he wrote on March 17, 1969, stood out to me as I thought about this Yom Ha’atzmaut and how thankful we should be, as members of Am Yisrael at a time when the State of Israel is celebrating its 71st independence day. What Yoni wrote was:

“On me, on us rests the duty of keeping our country safe.  …we are united by something that is above and beyond political outlook. What unites us produces a feeling of brotherhood, of mutual responsibility, a recognition of the value of man and his life, a strong and sincere desire for peace, a readiness to stand in the breach, and much more. I believe in myself, my country, my family and my future. This is a special people, and it’s good to belong to it.”   

Yoni Netanyahu, like so many of the brave and incredible soldiers of the IDF, understood how special it is to be alive at a time when there is once again a Jewish state, and a Jewish army, to defend the Jewish people. To be a safe haven for us, a country that will – as it did on July 4, 1976 – send its best, brightest and bravest over 2000 miles to rescue Jews who were about to be massacred by terrorists.

Like Yoni so eloquently identified  at the tender age of 23, those of us who are blessed to live at a time that our ancestors could have only dreamt of, have a duty to be more than just thankful (though that it is certainly a start). Just like the brave Air France pilot who stood shoulder to shoulder with all of his passengers, we Jews – who have so much to be thankful for as we celebrate Israel’s independence – owe our brothers and sisters in Israel a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. To support them. As Yoni wrote, to demonstrate a “readiness to stand in the breach” for them, for Israel.

To be active in Synagogues, which like our Shul (B’H) support Israel and demonstrate Ahavat Yisrael in both word and deed. To support organizations that do the same, like StandWithUs, FIDF, and AIPAC. To never shy from stating our opinion, and by standing up for Israel and against antisemitism in the court of public opinion.

Anyone who knows Jewish history knows how special it is that after 2000 years we are no longer homeless wanderers; and that today we have a Jewish army flying a Star of David, ready to defend us, as well as a sovereign and free state in our homeland ready to welcome us as brothers and sisters.

That is something to be incredibly thankful for, and it is something worth fighting for. Chag Sameach.

Escape From Iran

The tale of how Albert Elay Shaltiel escaped the clutches of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is not for the fainthearted. It was 1987 and the 17-year-old Persian Jew knew he had to make his escape before being forcefully conscripted into the army and sent to war with Iraq. 

Leaving his parents at home in Tehran, Shaltiel embarked on a treacherous journey to the tripoint border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was smuggled among the cargo of a truck that included weapons, opium and hoards of cash. The Revolutionary Guard seized the truck and Shaltiel was held captive for about three weeks.

Placed in solitary confinement, he was given just enough food to keep him from dying. He was routinely beaten and kicked and was made to wear sackcloth over his head. He defecated and urinated in his pants and was given no extra clothes to shield himself from the freezing desert air near the Iranian city of Zahedan.  

Sometimes his torturers would connect his fingers to a box that sent electrical currents through his body in an attempt to force him to give up the names of his smugglers. The only name Shaltiel knew was that of a Jewish family friend who organized his escape. However, he also knew revealing the name would place his friend and his children in peril. “I was ready to die in order to keep this secret,” Shaltiel said. 

The days and nights blurred together and the haunting call of the muezzin for daily prayers was the only way Shaltiel could mark time. Eventually, he was thrown into a coffin-like box and hauled into the back of a van to be transported back to Tehran. But along the way, the van crashed and the coffin was hurled outside. Shaltiel subsequently was transferred to something resembling a field hospital. There, he met and made friends with a group of around 15 Baluchi tribesmen who also were being held captive by the IRGC. 

He was smuggled among the cargo of a truck that included weapons, opium and hoards of cash. The Revolutionary Guard seized the truck and Shaltiel was held captive for about three weeks.

One morning, Shaltiel awoke to the sound of gunshots. Their kinsmen were rescuing the Baluchi. They took Shaltiel with them and he lived with the Baluchi for close to a month. 

Shaltiel maintains the Baluchi are part of the 10 lost tribes of Israel and said that during his time with them he witnessed a circumcision, men wearing tzitzit and women lighting candles on Friday night. 

Shaltiel eventually escaped two months later via Karachi in Pakistan. He sought asylum in Austria and from there traveled to the United States. He remained in America until he made aliyah in 1998. In Israel, he met his future wife, Yael, who was born in the same year and in the same Tehranian hospital as Shaltiel. 

In 2005, after years of infertility, Yael gave birth to a baby boy, Ilai. In honor of their “miracle child,” they set up the ILAI Fund. The nonprofit has helped more than 1,000 children with special needs from difficult socio-economic backgrounds gain access to the tools and therapies they need. Each year, Shaltiel takes part in the ceremony organized by Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, laying a wreath to honor the 280,000 disabled victims killed by the Nazis. 

Shaltiel has told his story to thousands of people all over the world. “If I am able to inspire just one person to be able to overcome challenges and give hope for a better tomorrow,” he said, “then I have done my job.”

My Favorite Mothers

She stands extremely close to the mechitzah — the partition that separates the men and women as they dance — wondering whose bright idea it was to separate the sexes during the wedding. When she decides that the moment is right, she moves quickly, fueled by her conviction that she knows best.

Before anyone can stop her, she rips down the mechitzah, dismisses those who implore her to honor the bride and groom’s wishes, and pulls the couples toward one another, motioning for them to dance together. 

The rebellion spreads like fire over coals, and soon most of the men and women are dancing together. She gently brushes past the bride and dances with the groom herself. Nothing is going to stop her from dancing with her grandson at his wedding.

She didn’t escape the Islamic Revolution, endure 50 years of a stable but loveless marriage, hold together a traumatized family in the United States and demand that all of her grandchildren marry Jews but not become “too religious” — just to stand on the sidelines at her grandson’s wedding.

I like Persians, but I love Persian grandmothers, especially those who are so out of their element in this country that it’s taken them 40 years to accept the fact that rice cookers are real things. 

I’m referring to the grandmothers who would rather poke out their eyes with rusty kabob skewers than add tofu to their Persian stews in order to accommodate one “enlightened” granddaughter; the ones who still remember what pre-Passover chametz purification was like in Iran, where they had to open pillows and clean the feathers, slowly chip away at a giant block of solid turmeric because kosher for Passover spices weren’t sold in stores, or wash heavy Persian rugs in a nearby stream until their bulging veins were as blue as the azure fabric. 

These are the women who gloriously cook everything in oil and salt while their daughters (my mother’s generation) use some terrible product called “nonstick spray” and very little salt, because our mothers have become dangerously empowered by healthy living in this country.

These are the women who have seen everything, who married before they could be considered adults, who endured childbirth without epidurals, set their tables the night before so no one would suspect that they were fleeing Iran in the morning and who continue to hope that even one of their American-born grandchildren will ask them to share their stories about Iran during Shabbat family dinners. 

These women know more than we do because they’ve seen more than we have. And they won’t listen to anyone.

In truth, I’m not sure I want to live in a world where Persian grandmothers follow the rules or defer to anyone else — including their husbands. 

Are they all like this? Absolutely not. But I adore the ones who are. 

My maternal grandmother was a menace. I spent my childhood with her in Iran, and I’ve never seen anyone rub her skin to such a healthy, fire-red glow with a hard piece of pumice as that woman did in the shower. The way that my grandmother would attack her skin — in the name of Godliness and cleanliness — was simultaneously charming and awful but when it was my turn to take a shower, she would toss the pumice and use her warm, loving hands on my back and face in a way that made me feel sublimely secure and adored. 

“I like Persians, but I love Persian grandmothers.

I’ve been loved by old, rigid Persian women; I’ve been taught by them, inspired by them and even yelled at by them. I’ve also grieved for them, but only from abroad. I wasn’t able to attend either of my grandmothers’ funerals. 

My maternal grandmother — the pumice aficionado — died in Israel decades after escaping Iran. My paternal grandmother, in whose chunky arms I would abandon all worry and doze off to the smell of cumin and fried onions that lingered in her blouse — died in Iran, and we never saw her again after we escaped. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that had my grandmothers lived to attend my 2014 wedding in Los Angeles, one of them would have pulled down the mechitzah (if we’d had one) and the other would have asked to speak with the Persian caterer because no one had salted the eggplant stew. 

I always wished that at least one of my grandmothers had been able to accompany me to the mikveh, or ritual bath, days before my wedding. Nervous and cold, I slowly walked into the warm water and, for some odd reason, felt as though my heart was beating thump thump to two syllables, sounding out the name, “Le-ah, Le-ah.”

Some time afterward, my mother had a routine surgery, and I wanted to pray for her recovery using a Hebrew name.

“Mom, do you even have a Hebrew name?” I asked, since I’d never heard any reference of it.

“I’m named after your grandmother,” she responded while seated at my table, eating bites of feta cheese. 

“You’re named Iran?!” I cried. That was my maternal grandmother’s Persian name. 

“I’m named Leah,” she responded while trying to hide the cheese from my slightly husky father. “That was your grandmother’s Hebrew name.”

“I’ve never heard about this!” I exclaimed, feeling slightly ashamed. “And what was my great-grandmother’s name?” She had died in Iran long before I was born.

At that point, my mother and father got into an argument over whether he should eat the cheese or stick to a healthier Persian cucumber. She won the quarrel, and holding the last piece of cheese in her vindicated hand, said, “Your great-grandmother? Oh, she was named Leah, too.”

The hairs under my lip, which I had tried dying blond since middle school, stood up straight. 

“God bless her soul, I never did see anyone nearly scrub their skin off as your grandmother used to do,” my mother said. And then, looking down at the piece of cheese, she scowled and added, “This feta has too much salt!”

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

Southern Avenue’s Ori Naftaly ‘Keep On’ album and His Journey from Israel to Memphis

Southern Avenue; Photo by David McClister

Shortly after forming in Memphis, Tennesee in 2015, the band known as Southern Avenue had a deal with Stax Records. Its self-titled debut album not only entered the US Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart at number six in 2017, but it would reach the #1 spot on the iTunes Blues Chart. This would lead to gigs alongside the likes of Buddy Guy, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Lobos and the North Mississippi Allstars and all sorts of international coverage for vocalist Tierinii Jackson, guitarist Ori Naftaly, keyboardist Jeremy Powell and drummer Tikyra Jackson.

The second full-length from Southern Avenue, “Keep On,” is set for release via Concord Records on May 10th. “Keep On” was produced by producer Johnny Black (Jessie J, Daughtry, Estelle) at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording, and it includes guest appearances by seminal Stax Records artist William Bell, noted Memphis musician Gage Markey (who serves as guest bassist on most of the album) and a horn section comprised of Art Edmaiston (JJ Grey & Mofro, Gregg Allman) and Marc Franklin (The Bo-Keys, Gregg Allman). Its first single, “Whiskey Love,” was recently premiered by Relix.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with guitarist Ori Naftaly – a Memphis transplant by way of Israel – about his personal and professional journeys. Highlights from that Q&A are below for your reading pleasure.

Jewish Journal: “Keep On” is your new album. How long did you spend writing it?

Ori Naftaly: We spent two years writing it, it was an amazing experience that we learned a lot from.

JJ: Do you have a favorite song on Keep On?

ON: Yes! For me, it’s “We’re Gonna Make It.” We wrote it in Australia at the golden coast. We played the Blues On Broadbeach Festival and between shows I kind of started jamming the chords and humming the melody and then Tierinii joined and we wrote most of it that day. Weeks later we came back to it and brought Tikyra our drummer to help with the outro. It is the perfect combination of Southern Avenue that I want to see more and more of as time goes by.

JJ: How did you wind up in Memphis?

ON: I represented Israel at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee in 2013. I did well enough to book a tour and make important friendships that last until this day. I went back to Israel to record another full original album and then came back to the United States in October 2013 and never came back home. I visited a few times but that was never for more than 10 days.

JJ: And how did you meet your bandmates in Southern Avenue?

ON: I was touring in 2013, 2014 and the start of 2015 with my solo band, the Ori Naftaly Band. In February I realized I needed a musical change. My personal life took a big turn and I found myself homeless, staying with fans. I wrote “Don’t Give Up” at that time. I asked my fill-in drummer at the time, who’s the best singer in Memphis. He showed me a clip of Tierinii and I literally saw my entire future flash in front of me. From there everything went by so quick. We met in-person and clicked right away.

She introduced me to her sister and together we started rehearsing new songs and Tierinii and I began writing. After a few months, I realized that we could do something bigger. I saw the potential and had a vision. I offered the girls to join me and start a band together and be musical partners. It took them a few days to agree. The following January of 2016 we competed at the International Blues Challenge and made it to the finals. A month later we got offered to sign to Stax [Records].

I feel blessed. My weakest moment brought me my biggest joy and love of my life.

JJ: How many of the States had you seen before moving to Memphis?

ON: I’d never been to the United States before landing in Memphis in 2013. It was my first experience in this country and I LOVED every minute of it. I was so nervous that I started developing high fever and stomachaches before the flight to Memphis. I passed out at the airport before check-in. At the airport hospital, they told me I couldn’t go on my flight because I just had an IV for an hour and needed to rest. Somehow with the help of God, I managed to convince them to let me fly. My first week in Memphis was full of joy but pain! Totally worth it.

JJ: Have you met any other people of Israeli descent in Memphis?

ON: Other than the Israeli Jewish agency Shlichim, no. I met two Israelis at the mall one time but they were working there temporarily and couldn’t wait to leave. They were not fans of Memphis. It was hilarious. I represent my country everywhere I go and I’m very proud of that.

JJ: Back to Southern Avenue, what is coming up for the band in the near-future?

ON: Other than the new album, we just announced a tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band and more festival shows around the world including a tour in Europe and in Canada. I’m super-excited about just playing with my bandmates in beautiful settings and for our amazing fans.

JJ: When not busy with Southern Avenue, how do you like to spend your free time?

ON: I listen to a lot of music. I play video games and love reading about politics and news. I enjoy the outdoors and love off-road driving but don’t get to do that as often as I would like. I’m a huge fan of TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” I love writing and producing at home. But that’s work I guess, right?

JJ: Right. I feel compelled to ask: What memories do you have of your bar mitzvah?

ON: I wish I could organize another bar mitzvah! It was so much fun. The family and the energy and I even got to do a few songs with my band at the time with my teacher. I am so proud of my heritage and love to celebrate it.

JJ: Finally, Ori, any last words for the kids?

ON: Believe in yourself. I have played guitar since I was five years old. But I only met friends my age who also liked to listen to what I liked when I was 13. I did the unbelievable and somehow moved to another country with no family there and built myself from scratch. I never gave up. I failed way more then I succeeded. Never be afraid to jump in the water and then learn how to swim. When you learn how to swim, always, listen to those who have been there before you and take their advice. Life is about perspectives.

More on Southern Avenue can be found online.

Sheikh Works to Clarify Islam, Understand Judaism

Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa

Since his appointment as secretary-general of the Mecca, Saudi Arabia-based Muslim World League (MWL), Sheikh Mohammad Al-Issa has been making headlines all over the world. He has visited the Vatican, condemned the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, spoken out against those who use Islam to promote violence and terror, and organized interfaith and outreach conferences. One of these initiatives was the 2nd Conference on Cultural Rapprochement between the United States of America and the Muslim World, an interfaith summit in New York City this past October that brought together hundreds of activists from all over the world, as well as speakers from different faiths.

“Our mission is to clarify the truth,” Al-Issa said.

In January, Al-Issa authored two pieces on the importance of Holocaust remembrance, one of which was written in English for American audiences. He also explained why he broke with taboos and openly discussed Muslim-Jewish relations. The MWL’s statement after the terrorist attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was the first time the organization condemned anti-Semitic violence. Despite these examples of “responsible leadership,” as Al-Issa described them, much skepticism surrounds the MWL, which has been known to support religiously stringent Salafist groups and partner with the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, despite Al-Issa’s rejection of all forms of extremism and his consistent course of action in that regard since joining the MWL in 2016, questions remain about the sincerity of MWL’s intentions, its independence from Saudi government policies and whether Islam as a religion is as dedicated to peace and tolerance as Al-Issa’s message. After all, Al-Issa is a former Saudi justice minister. How can he keep regional politics out of religious activity?

During Al-Issa’s last visit to New York in early February, shortly after the publication of his articles regarding International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I interviewed him for two hours to clarify these and other issues.

Al-Issa told me that the MWL is a completely independent organization. As an example, he cited his recommendation for a “peace caravan” that he presented at the October interfaith summit. The idea for the caravan, which would consist of representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — traveling to Jerusalem, came “completely, 100 percent separated away from politics,” he said. For now, the MWL remains the only organization considering this caravan and the details have not yet been worked out.

However, Al-Issa said the MWL has other plans in the works, including a program to introduce some form of Holocaust curriculum to educational systems for Muslims.

The MWL, Al-Issa said,  is attempting to spread a message of peace and tolerance, and it is combating ideological extremism through the dissemination of “clarifying facts” about Islam through education, traditional media, social media and by organizing conferences — “trying to get deeper into [extremists’] ideology and by dismantling this ideology from within.” The strategy is the same, he said, whether the extremists in question are hardline Muslims or hardcore critics who reject Islam as a legitimate religion.

“We are  never satisfied with regular replies,” Al-Issa said. “We get deep into deterrence. We also discuss scriptures. Then we start dialoguing: ideology against another ideology.” He added that when the MWL lays out the facts about Islam being a “moderate religion,” people’s reactions are often very positive. The MWL also works to reveal certain groups’ hidden agendas and misleading messages. “We deal with everybody,” he said.

To prevent undesirable entanglements, the MWL requires prospective partner organizations or institutions requesting funding and support from MWL to demonstrate a track record of success on the ground, he said. 

To combat dangerous stereotypes of different groups of people; and to overcome acrimony introduced to the Middle East through centuries of feuds, grievances and, more recently, Western disinformation and conspiracy theories, the MWL utilizes workshops and conferences aimed at humanizing others and promoting tolerant attitudes, he said.

Most recently, the MWL held a conference in Mecca for 1,300 Muslim clerics and scholars from all over the world.  The aim of the conference, held next to the Kaaba, was to combat terrorism and religious extremism, and to inculcate the attendees with the message about seeing humanity in every person, Al-Issa said. That particular conference produced a historic statement that the “Creator, in His Wisdom, created people different,” he said. “We should respect other religions. If we see someone making a mistake or doing something inappropriate, we shouldn’t blame the religion for it, but hold the individual personally responsible for that. We believe that no religion is extreme. On the other hand, we also believe that absolutely no religion has no extremists. We find extremists in every religion throughout the world.” 

Since his installment as the secretary-general of the MWL, Al-Issa has traveled extensively, meeting with dignitaries and counterparts from other faiths all over the world, and organizing events in many different countries. In Morocco, Al-Issa met with local Islamic leaders to review the application of Sharia law and to sign a research and data-based agreement with Morocco’s Muhammadian League of Scholars to encourage “enlightened Islamic speech” and “combat extremism.” MWL also has held gatherings  in the Shiite-majority Azerbaijan and brought approximately 700 leaders and activists to a summit in Sweden. 

Al-Issa said that everywhere he goes, he sees many people in need of assistance from international organizations such as the United Nations. “God commanded us to help the others who are less fortunate,” he said. “The power we have, the money we have, is God’s money. God has been generous to us. And we, as brothers and sisters to those people, have a duty to help them.”

One way MWL offers its assistance is directly through governments, to avoid falling into traps with unreliable organizations and to guarantee that its money will not go to extremists, Al-Issa said, adding that even if a government is corrupt, it can still be held accountable for distribution of services. 

Exchanging ideas with foreign dignitaries and addressing large and diverse groups are nothing new for Al-Issa, although having a faith-based agenda to counter extreme ideas is certainly a new direction for the MWL, he said.

All of that, however, is gradual. Currently, the MWL does not have a program for normalizing the image of other groups or countering biases for Muslim communities around the world; however, the organization welcomes proposals from schools and other organizations, with creative ideas on how to address the problem in a way suitable for a particular community. 

Much of the time, the best way to educate children is through empathy. “We have to make sure that we teach ethics of loving others, even from different religions, and for children to learn to respect one another despite differences in faiths and ideas,” he said. 

The MWL also assists in countering mistranslated Qurans and faulty theological messaging by organizations with agendas, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades had a near monopoly on English-language translations of the Quran, Al-Issa said. An example is the word “kafir,” which has been widely translated as “infidel” but which, Al-Issa said, is better translated in English as “disbeliever.” “We have a right to disbelieve each other’s ideas. That does not mean that either of us is against this ideology or this religion,” he said.

Misconceptions about the use of these words are being promoted by extremists with their own agendas, according to Al-Issa.  Any nation striving to defend itself against an aggressor can call a war “jihad.” 

Would it have been possible to expand Islam in the early days without the use of force, just through preaching and education? “You cannot impose religion by force,” Al-Issa said. “Anyone who tries to impose religion by force has a special, private kind of agenda, and it has nothing to do with religion. … Only Prophet Mohammed was infallible and could know the ultimate good for the religion. Other people could not. Furthermore, some of his followers — not all of them — also had political agendas and waged wars in the name of Islam, even though they had other reasons for it.”

While Al-Issa is striving to reintroduce the concept of a moderate, tolerant and peaceful Islam into theological discourse, Muslim communities are facing apostasy and conversions to other religions as a result of disillusioned people judging Islam by the actions and rhetoric of some of its misguided practitioners; reacting to abuse and overreach by Islamic governments, communities, families and imams; or facing movements by Westerners seeking to introduce atheism and secular humanism as an alternative in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Al-Issa said Muslim and non-Muslim governments are doing well in respecting the teachings of Islam, while others are using their support or opposition as a cover for their own political actions and abuses. The best way to address this issue and to help everyone is through education, he said. The MWL is working to develop a conference that will touch on this topic, which thus far is titled “Belief in the Ever-Changing World.”

Reflecting on the compatibility of science and faith, and MWL’s role in tackling thorny issues in an educational way, Al-Issa stated that he sees the mission of MWL as reigniting the spirit of Al-Andalus, which at its best symbolized a great exchange of ideas between scientists, philosophers, poets and theologians of the Abrahamic faiths, who lived and worked side by side in harmony.

Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer.

U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator Leading Delegation to Israel

State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales announcing rewards for the capture of two Hezbollah leaders during a press briefing, Oct. 10, 2017. (Screenshot from C-Span)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The U.S. Coordinator for Counterrorism will lead a delegation to Jerusalem.

Nathan Sales will arrive in Israel on Tuesday for the annual meeting of the U.S.-Israel Joint Counterterrorism Group, the State Department announced on Monday.

It is the State Department’s longest-running strategic counterterrorism dialogue, the statement said.

“The United States and Israel will discuss the shared terrorist threats facing our two countries, including from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, and develop strategies for bolstering collaboration and cooperation in these critical areas,” the statement said.

Meanwhile U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton met on Monday with the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to discuss their “shared commitment to countering Iranian malign activity & other destabilizing actors in the Middle East and around the world,” Bolton said in a tweet on Sunday.

Bolton visited Israel in January, after President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, to reassure Israel of U.S. support for Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.

The Easy Answers Fallacy

Benny Gantz speaks at AIPAC Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Recent events in both the United States and Israel highlighted two of the most intractable problems that have plagued the Israeli-Palestinian and American Jewish scenes over the past decade. Speakers at the AIPAC Policy Conference talked about Jewish unity while Israeli politicians sounded increasingly hawkish as rockets from Gaza targeted Israeli civilians and destroyed a home near Kfar Saba. It was an in-your-face reminder that American Jewish frustrations with Israel and Israeli frustrations with Hamas are ever present. But it also should be a reminder that these problems are stubbornly persistent because there are no easy answers to them, and that the lies we tell ourselves about how they can be resolved are an attempt to make ourselves feel better rather than figure a way out of the morass.

Given the recent angst among American Jewry about its role in Israel and to what extent the Israeli government respects or values American Jewish views and priorities, Benny Gantz’s AIPAC debut was guaranteed to address these anxieties. Gantz did not disappoint, talking about the strength of the Jewish people emanating from Jewish unity, the importance of American Jewish support for Israel and the respect that Israel has for American Jews. The most memorable line of his speech was when he said that he has been to the Western Wall and that it is long enough to accommodate everyone, in reference to the deal for a mixed-gender prayer space to be controlled by the Conservative and Reform movements that was nixed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The first section of the Kachol Lavan party’s platform, which deals with security and diplomacy, refers to the relationship with American Jewry as a component of Israel’s security and pledges to heal the rift between Israel and American Jews. I have no doubt that Gantz is sincere in these beliefs, and it is easy to imagine a Gantz premiership being the key to solving this nagging problem of American Jewish distancing from Israel.

But the truth is that while Netanyahu has exacerbated the divide, it is not just about him. It is tempting to place all of the blame at his feet, and liberal American Jews will remain furious at his evident disregard for them and the way in which he made the Iran nuclear deal debate even more divisive and uncomfortable for American Jews than it already was. Yet the issues between American Jews and Israel are structural ones that go way beyond one man and his politics. Even if Gantz is able to form the next Israeli government and he does his utmost best to assuage American Jewish concerns, there will still be a disconnect between what Israelis and American Jews feel the proper role is in Israel for non-Israeli citizens. There will still be fundamental misunderstandings in Israel about how American Jews conceive of their Judaism and transform their theology into practice. Most saliently, there will still be enormous discontent among American Jews over Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the conviction that Israel is not serious about a two-state solution, and enormous frustration among Israel’s Jews that their American counterparts do not appreciate their security dilemmas and are too blithely and naively willing to gamble with their safety. Netanyahu is part of the problem, but he has also been conveniently used as a set of blinders that make the Israel-American Jewish rift appear a lot narrower than it really is.

Hamas’ wanton disregard for life and eagerness to terrorize civilians also lends the appearance of providing an easy answer — namely, that if Hamas continues to shoot rockets at Israeli towns, send incendiary balloons to burn Israeli farms and organize violent riots with the intention of breaching the border fence, then Hamas should be removed by force. Nearly every Israeli politician running to replace Netanyahu and nearly every potential Netanyahu coalition member competing with Likud for right-wing vote share criticized Netanyahu’s approach to Gaza from the right, painting him as too cautious and pledging to restore deterrence. For all the tough talk, you may have noticed that not one of Netanyahu’s critics — not Gantz, not Avi Gabbay, not Naftali Bennett and not even Avigdor Lieberman — came out in favor of actually going into Gaza and removing Hamas.

“For all of the bluster, there is no plausible Israeli prime minister who would go into Gaza with full force and end Hamas rule once and for all. It is too risky, too prone to disaster.”

It is true that Netanyahu is famously cautious and risk-averse when it comes to sending Israeli ground troops into battle. It is also true that Israel has fought three conflicts with Hamas in Gaza since 2008, and none of the prime ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of staff or heads of Southern Command in charge during any of those three conflicts has advocated Israel removing Hamas from Gaza. It is because “Destroy Hamas!” is an easy slogan, but not one that can be practically carried out absent enormous costs — not only the costs of actually fighting to remove Hamas, but the costs of then occupying and administering Gaza in the middle of a political and security vacuum and a humanitarian nightmare. The problem of Hamas is immune to easy answers, and yet we like to tell ourselves that the solution is as simple as “overwhelming force” or “restoring deterrence” or “making Hamas pay.”

Netanyahu has spent a decade trying to avoid tough decisions on Gaza, hoping that applying spurts of pressure combined with spurts of limited openings will be enough to keep Gaza quiet. It is the reason that Gaza is his political Achilles’ heel, since it is always at risk of exploding and everyone knows that Netanyahu has done nothing over a decade in power to fundamentally alter the situation and remove the threat of Hamas. As with the situation between Israel and American Jews, he has his fair share of the blame. But it is critical to recognize that for all of the bluster, there is no plausible Israeli prime minister who would go into Gaza with full force and end Hamas rule once and for all. It is too risky, too prone to disaster and carries with it the entirely different problem — as the U.S. knows all too well from its experience in Iraq — of what to do on the day after. And unlike the U.S. in Iraq, Israel cannot decide one day to just pick up and go home thousands of miles away. Potential solutions to Gaza do exist, but they aren’t easy and they don’t involve fantasies of wiping out Hamas militarily in one fell swoop and having everything else fall into place.

Amid the largest annual show of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and in the shadow of an Israeli election, it is easy to think that we have all of the answers and that solving problems is easy. The reality, though, is a lot more complex than a pep rally speech or a campaign slogan.

A version of this story originally appeared in Israel Policy Forum.

Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy director, based in Washington, D.C. 

U.S. Officials Meet Disabled Israeli Soldiers

A group photo from the visit to the IDF airbase. Photo courtesy of Special in Uniform.

United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and former Chairman of the U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities Chris Neeley, visited the Palmachim Air Force Base this week together with a delegation from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Task Force on Disabilities.

They went to observe and learn how the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) incorporates 50 young men and women with assorted disabilities into military life through the program Special in Uniform. The long-term goal is to adapt the program for soldiers in the United States Armed Forces.

“A year ago, I read an article on the internet about Special in Uniform, and I’m overjoyed that I now have the opportunity to see it up close,” Neeley said in a statement. “It’s an incredible program by any estimation and we look forward to introducing a sister program back home in America.”

Special in Uniform focuses on ability, not disability, helping participants to find a role within the IDF that encourages them to contribute to Israel’s military and help keep their citizens safe. The program is funded through JNF through the organization Lend A Hand to a Special Child.

“It’s our moral obligation to ensure that each and every Israeli enjoys a life of dignity, belonging, and purpose,” JNF President Dr. Sol Lizerbram said in a statement.”

Currently 400 youth with special needs in 30 bases participate in Special in Uniform across Israel. According to the statement it was rare, if not impossible, to meet a soldier with autism or Down’s syndrome only a few years ago, but now they are incorporated in many bases in Israel and valued as integral members of the IDF with each soldier contributing his utmost to defend the country.

One of the soldiers Friedman and Neeley met was Roi Schiffman, who has cerebral palsy. Schiffman works in the Palmachim infirmary where he prints and issues documents.

“I’ve visiting many army bases and observed the arms and brain of the IDF. Today, I see the heart of the army,” Friedman said in a statement.

Chairman of Lend A Hand to a Special Child and one of the founders of Special in Uniform Lt. Col. (res.) Gabi Ophir shared through a statement that she joined the project 27 years ago when her daughter Ronit, who has William’s syndrome, was integrated into the Anatot Base.

“I was fortunate and blessed to observe the incredible changes that it made in her life, yet I never dreamed how far it would go or how it would transform the fabric of the IDF and nation itself,” Ophir said. “I’m proud of our military and Israel which is the world’s pioneer of inclusion.”

Israel is currently the only country that integrates citizens with special needs and disabilities into its military.

Thomas Friedman Gets AIPAC Wrong

Thomas Friedman; Photo from CNBC

Thomas Friedman, the venerable Middle East commentator, has a problem with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the pro-Israel lobby group whose mission is “to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”

In his most recent column in the New York Times, Friedman accuses Aipac of being “a rubber stamp on the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has resulted in tens of thousands of Israeli settlers now ensconced in the heart of the West Bank, imperiling Israel as a democracy.”

When I read that, I thought: What is Friedman asking for, exactly? Would piling on the attacks on Netanyahu really help Aipac’s mission to strengthen, protect and promote the US—Israel relationship? Aipac is a lobby group, not a think tank. As a rule, it respects and honors the democratic choices of Israeli voters, whether they choose Labor leaders like Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak, or Likud leaders like Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.

Friedman seems to blame Aipac for Israeli voters who have put their faith in more security-driven, right-wing coalitions over the past decade. And if anyone is to blame for Israel becoming a more partisan issue in Congress, which Friedman also attributes to Aipac, I would look first at the alarming anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist vibes arising out of new members like Ilan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. If anything, Aipac’s efforts are mitigating this trend.

Apparently, in Friedman’s fantasy world, there’s no end to Aipac’s power. If only Aipac had taken on Netanyahu, if only they had attacked his right-wing policies that have resulted in “tens of thousands of Israeli settlers now ensconced in the heart of the West Bank,” maybe the Palestinian leaders would have come to their senses and a two-state solution would have been more likely.

Never mind that there were already “tens of thousands of Israeli settlers” well before Netanyahu took office, and it was the Labor party not the Likud party that started the settlement enterprise in the first place.

And as much as people may hate Netanyahu, he was still the only Israeli prime minister who implemented a settlement freeze that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “unprecedented.” And despite the constraints of his right-wing coalition, according to a January 2019 piece in the Jerusalem Post, “The growth rate in the settler population has slowed under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to its lowest point in over 23 years and possibly its lowest point ever.”

Never mind all that.

In full melodramatic mode, Friedman wants to put the weight of the highest Jewish ideals on Aipac’s back: “I don’t like Aipac,” he writes, “because I strongly believe in the right of the Jewish people to build a nation-state in their ancient homeland — a nation-state envisaged by its founders to reflect the best of Jewish and democratic values.”

Is he implying that Aipac doesn’t believe in all that?

It’s clear that by putting so much undue pressure on Aipac, Friedman is unfairly maligning the group. First, he should know better. He should know, for example, that it’s not Israeli policies—right wing or left wing—that have most stymied the peace process, but the pathological rejectionism of a Palestinian leadership that refuses to do anything that might be good for the Jews or even their own people. Israeli voters have figured that out. 

But by implying that Aipac could have done something about an epic failure to resolve an intractable conflict that has jeopardized “the best of Jewish and democratic values,” Friedman is doing more than unfairly maligning Aipac.

Unwittingly, he’s reinforcing the age-old canard of dark, all-powerful Jewish forces that control the levers of power and can get anything done.

No Israeli government, left or right, has succeeded in making peace with the Palestinians. By suggesting Aipac has the power to influence that, Friedman is treating the group the way anti-Semites treat any Jewish lobby group: Too powerful. 


Bibi’s Disgraceful Act Tarnishes All Jews

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool/File Photo

I have a tip for Israeli prime ministers: When not even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) can stomach your shtus, you have gone well off the rails.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing the possibility of political loss, has gambled — much like President Donald Trump — on currying the favor of the worst of his compatriots to help pull him through to victory. Netanyahu orchestrated the merger of a coalition partner, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, with Otzma Yehudit, the racist, annexationist party of the Kahanist movement.

Netanyahu’s move to legitimize Otzma Yehudit was too much for AIPAC and the AJC, who tweeted their objections to the potential presence of what they called a “racist” and “reprehensible” party in the next Israeli government. This is an extraordinary development. Netanyahu has managed what J Street and other pro-peace groups could not do. He has extracted from AIPAC an unequivocal denunciation of an Israeli leader’s policies with regard to internal Israeli affairs and the government’s relationship with the Palestinian people.

Otzma Yehudit was formed in 2012 but has never won enough votes for a seat in the Knesset.  The party has been called Kahanist, due to its members’ adherence to the ideology of the late U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League in the U.S. in 1971 and served in the Israeli Knesset before being banned in 1988 on the grounds that he was a “racist” and “undemocratic.” Kahane was linked to violent attacks on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians before he was assassinated in a Manhattan hotel in 1990.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamir Ben Gvir displays in his home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of a mass murder of Palestinians at prayer in 1994; and his party advocates ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel, which they consider to encompass not only the occupied territories of the West Bank but also the entire biblical territory from the Euphrates River (in Iraq and Syria) to the Mediterranean Sea. Their platform also calls for the denial of reproductive rights to women and, interestingly, “Jewish capitalism.”

By bringing a party that celebrates murder and ethnic cleansing into the political mainstream, Netanyahu has committed a disgrace. The state of Israel is linked with the Jewish people, so we have all been tarnished. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches a crucial meaning to be found in the story of God’s creation of the first human in the Divine image: “For peace among the created ones [human beings] so that a person will never say to their companion, “My father is greater than your father.” In other words, racism is not a Jewish value.

Surely, this development will finally exhaust the idea that American Jews may not criticize Israel for fear of accusations of internalized anti-Semitism. We don’t criticize President Trump because we hate the U.S. but because we love our country and object to its degradation. Why shouldn’t the same view apply to Israel? At this point, we have no choice, because failure to object to current events is to collude in an insult to the entire Jewish people.

Finally, it is long past time for American Jews to quit conflating their Jewish identity with the State of Israel and parking it overseas. Judaism is not an “identity,” it is a way of life that each of us needs to embody in ourselves, in community and in relationship with other Jews, HaShem and with all of creation. Perhaps this shanda, this outrage, will provoke a sense of insult in American Jews whose relationship with Judaism has been on the casual side. Perhaps this will impel more of us to find out more about this heritage that we have been assuming will take care of itself, to learn about our ethic of mutual interhuman obligation and take up our part in it.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland and blogs .

Serious Semite: Brexit Blues

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leads his colleagues to the unveiling of the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett on Parliament Square, in London, Britain, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union (EU) on March 29 and could enter its worst period of economic turmoil in decades. As an English Jew, I’m very concerned. The Conservative government might be forced into a general election if Brexit plans fail; the opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, could win power; and Britain could have its first prime minister who is regularly and openly accused of anti-Semitism. Seven members of Parliament (MP) made the bold move of leaving the parliamentary Labour Party, and one of those departing, Jewish MP Luciana Berger, said Labour has become “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

On March 29, Article 50 will be activated, allowing a member state to leave the EU. There will be severe implications if Britain fails to strike a deal and faces the “no -deal Brexit.” British voters, who approved the referendum to withdraw from the EU in June 2016, might have created the worst constitutional crisis in the U.K. for centuries.

Divorces are rarely easy. The EU has offered what it sees as the best terms, but some think that Europe is like a jilted lover, saying “Fine! You are leaving me. No, I won’t discuss who keeps the puppy, the vintage art we bought on vacation, or the Vitamix. Go on now, go! Walk out the door!”

Except we’re not discussing puppies, but borders, trade deals and workers.
What happens to the estimated 300,000 French people living in the U.K., or 153,000 Brits in France? How will Germany sell BMWs in Britain, or French winemakers get bottles to English markets? Today, I can get on a train from London to Paris on a visa-free U.K. passport, but what about tomorrow?

A no-deal Brexit would spark confusion. There would need to be some kind of customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, after 100 years of peace processes that removed walls between the two countries. Yet Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, so if there is no border, then the EU has a back door entry to Britain. This threatens British sovereignty on its own land. 

If Britain stops Brexit or calls another referendum, it undermines the U.K. democratic process because the voters already approved Brexit. There is also the strange situation where the prime minister, who voted to remain in the EU, is now responsible for engineering Britain’s exit from the EU. 

“The EU has offered what it sees as the best terms, but some think that Europe is like a jilted lover.”

What if Scotland holds another referendum to leave Great Britain and rejoin the EU? Will Braveheart’s descendants build a wall?

Corbyn is the problem for British Jews.In the past, I was reluctant to call Corbyn a raging anti-Semite, reasoning that he is an old-school Marxist who dislikes Israel because it is a nation state, and Marxists don’t like nation states.

Corbyn is reminiscent of the “I am not anti-Semitic because some of my best friends are Jews” approach. He represents the new strain of anti-Semitism, typified by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that has spawned sickening “apartheid walls” on California college campuses.

There is a difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and disproportionate criticism. One is fair, the other is anti-Semitic. Why not talk more about Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya? I won’t play the “Jewish victim” card, but this is different. Enough is enough.

If May is ousted then Britain’s best new prime minister option might be Boris Johnson, a boisterous, says-what-he-thinks, womanizing politician with unkempt blond hair. Sound familiar? I look forward to the entertainment value of “The Trump and Johnson Variety Show.” Why not have a fun distraction while Rome burns?

It is possible that Anglo-Jewry will be safe from Corbyn. Brexit will take place a few weeks before Passover, and as Jews, we know that miracles can happen.

Marcus J Freed is a Los Angeles-based actor.

Why I’m Angry About Trump’s Speech

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

The president of the United States laced this year’s State of the Union with references to anti-Semitism. He invited a Holocaust survivor of Dachau and an American World War II veteran who liberated the camp to the address. He acknowledged last year’s horrific massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, honoring a survivor and a first responder who was injured terribly in the attack. Good, right? Then why are so many Jews so very, very angry?

Because, in the context of this speech, to think about the Holocaust is to think about the St. Louis, the ship transporting hundreds of Jewish refugees in 1939, turned away from the United States and sent back to Europe, where many passengers eventually died in the Holocaust. It is to remember that Jewish refugees were slandered as invaders and cultural polluters by the politicians whose slogan was “America First.”

So when President Donald Trump pairs invocations of the Holocaust with calls to militarize our southern border against refugees who are fleeing horrendous violence in their own countries — the social breakdown of which is attributable directly to the lingering effects of American intervention on behalf of brutal dictatorships — Jews get angry. Because the same calumnies that Trump is aiming at immigrants of color were aimed at us.

Because, to honor the courage of Judah Samet, who survived the Holocaust and the Tree of Life massacre is to remember why that massacre was perpetrated. The suspected killer of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh made it clear in writing that he was especially incensed at HIAS, the Jewish agency that assists them, writing, “It’s the filthy EVIL Jews. Bringing the (sic) Filthy EVIL Muslims into the country!! Stop the kikes then Worry About the Muslims!” Yes, this killer was angry at Trump for not being racist enough — but woven throughout his rants are tropes derived from Trump.

As Pittsburgh’s Bend the Arc Moral Minyan put it, “We will not let you use the Holocaust, our most painful history, to distract us from the real dangers at hand — the dangers you yourself have nurtured with your racism and xenophobia …. There are refugees seeking safety in America today, just as our Jewish parents and grandparents did during the Holocaust, yet once again America is calling them dangerous .… There are internment camps at our southern border and thousands of children separated from their parents by your administration.”

Trump’s pre-emptive deployment of outrages visited on the Jewish people only served, for many of us, to bring into sharp focus the great danger that his movement represents. We have seen what happens when demagogues whose actual policies favor corporate wealth and lead to an ever-greater gap between rich and poor evoke the “working class” in order to divert the anger of struggling workers away from the wealthiest and aim it at the most vulnerable: at a racial and religious other.

As Stacey Abrams observed genuinely working class-friendly policies not only address such issues as health care, student loan debt and wages that don’t rise with the cost of living (not a mention in the president’s speech), they also speak to the different histories and cultures within the working class. They address embedded and systemic racial and gendered and religious inequality. They certainly do not seek to pit one group of workers against another.

In response to the SOTU, Abrams addressed the precariousness of all working people’s lives in the United States today and managed to do that while honoring the particular struggles of people who have to persevere against additional obstacles because of who they are. The contrast between those speeches and Trump’s performance demonstrates why “populism” is such a useless descriptor.

Trump has indulged in a coy flirtation with neo-fascism throughout his presidency. This is the person who was able to discern “fine people on both sides” of a clash between neo-Nazis and their opponents; who did not use the State of the Union address to issue a firm denunciation of white nationalism. Bend the Arc is right. Keep our people out of your mouth.

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland. She serves as a Jewish Community Engagement Fellow at J Street. 

Palestinian-American Sent to Prison for Life by PA for Selling Land to Jews

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a news conference following the extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey, December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

A Palestinian-American was sentenced to life in prison in the Palestinian territories for selling land to Jews.

The Jerusalem Post reports that the man, identified as 53-year-old Issam Akel, was found guilty on Monday by the Palestinian Grand Criminal Court of brokering a deal for the Jewish group Ateret Cohanim to purchase a house in Old City Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Akel is an East Jerusalem resident, where he has an Israeli ID card that provides him immunity from the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Under PA law, selling land to Jews is a crime that could result in the death penalty.

Akel was reportedly in Ramallah when he was arrested in October; it’s not known if he was visiting the city or if he was kidnapped by the PA from East Jerusalem and taken to Ramallah for prosecution.

Akel’s father, Jalal, told the Times of Israel that he was “surprised” by the sentence and rejected the notion that his son had sold land to Jews.

“We knew there was a trial happening, but we didn’t know this would happen,” Jalal Akel said.

A United States official told the Times of Israel that they were “aware” of Akel’s sentencing.

“When a U.S. citizen is incarcerated abroad, the US government works to provide all appropriate consular assistance,” the official said.

Israel is investigating the matter and arrested two members of the PA in response, although they have both been released on bail.

A Shameful Jewish Silence at the U.N.

“Do not stand idly by” is a popular mantra of Jewish activists who fight injustice. Whether the injustice is genocide in Sudan or child migrants separated from their parents or Israel undermining its democracy, these activists know how to make themselves heard.

But last week, when it came time to condemn terrorism in a high-profile vote, Jewish activists fell largely silent.

There were no online petitions or demonstrations in front of the United Nations in support of a resolution to denounce the terrorist group Hamas. As expected, the General Assembly rejected a U.S.-sponsored resolution that called for an end to violence, encouraged intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and condemned terrorism.

“Over the years, the U.N. has voted to condemn Israel over 500 times . . . and not one single resolution condemning Hamas,” U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley said in response. “That, more than anything else, is a condemnation of the United Nations itself.”

“The United Nations’ sorry record on Israel and terrorism is an issue that should unite the Jews, as well as anyone who cares about justice.”

To add insult to injury, as David May wrote in National Review Online (NRO), “The U.N. indicated that Jews’ praying at the Western Wall is more worthy of condemnation than Hamas’s lobbing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians,” as the General Assembly passed another resolution calling for “an end to ‘Israel’s occupation . . . including of East Jerusalem,’ the location of Judaism’s holiest shrine.”

The fact that the U.N. is a cesspool of anti-Israel sentiment, virtually immune to any activism, is no reason not to protest. When the cause is worth it, Jewish activists have no problem fighting against the odds.

We saw them do just that a few months ago when eight Jewish organizations — T’ruah (the rabbinic call for human rights), the New Israel Fund, J-Street, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, the National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and the Union for Reform Judaism — rose up to protest Israel’s new Nation-State law.

They published an online “pledge” encouraging people to confront those who voted for the law: “Sixty-two members of Knesset voted to approve the Nation-State Law, which denigrates minorities within Israel, as well as Jews outside of Israel,” the statement read. “Take the pledge to hold these MKs to account for their vote, which threatens democracy and equality in Israel, by demanding answers from them.”

The pledge, which followed months of active protests and public condemnation, provided a list of the MKs and suggested five tough questions for them to answer.

It makes you wonder: Why can’t these warriors of justice do the same against Hamas and the United Nations? If speaking truth to power makes sense for Israel, why doesn’t it make sense for the horribly biased U.N.?

I looked on the websites of the eight Jewish groups that protested the Nation-State law and couldn’t find one statement or press release in support of the anti-terror resolution. Why is that?

“If speaking truth to power makes sense for Israel, why doesn’t it make sense for the horribly biased U.N.?”

If their answer is, “It’s not our mission,” my response is, “Why not?”

After all, Jewish activists take special pride in standing up against discrimination and injustice. If the pathological anti-Israel bias at the U.N. doesn’t qualify as discrimination and injustice, nothing does.

And if the mission is the “search for peace,” anti-Israel bias undermines that goal.

As May writes, “By continuously condemning Israel and encouraging Palestinian maximalist demands, the U.N. harms prospects for peace. It only makes matters worse by giving terrorists such as Hamas a free pass. [The UNGA resolution] was a major test for the United Nations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and it failed miserably.”

The U.N. does not deserve a free pass when it appeases terror groups while singling out Israel for special condemnation. If this injustice is a stain on the U.N., it’s also a stain on Jewish activists who stand idly by.

There are so many divisions in the Jewish community when it comes to Israel, we ought to pounce when we find an issue we can all agree on. The United Nations’ sorry record on Israel is an issue that should unite the Jews, as well as anyone who cares about justice.

So, here’s my simple question for Jewish activists who love to pounce on injustice: Why aren’t you pouncing on the U.N.?

UN Fails to Pass Resolution Condemning Hamas

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City.

A resolution that would have condemned Hamas as a terror organization failed to pass in the United Nations, falling below the two-thirds threshold needed to pass.

The resolution, which was spearheaded by the United States, denounced Hamas for using rockets and tunnels to attack Israel and “inciting violence.” While the resolution received a plurality of the vote with 87 in favor, 57 against and 33 abstentions, a motion was passed prior to the vote that required a two-thirds threshold to pass a resolution.

Hillel Neuer of U.N. Watch has the breakdown:

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley excoriated the U.N. for failing to pass the resolution.

We can’t talk about peace in the Middle East until we can agree on a basic condemnation of Hamas and its terrorism,” Haley said. “The U.N. had a chance to do that today, and it failed.”

Similarly, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon said, “Wait when you will have to deal with terrorism in your own countries. Your silence in the face of evil reveals your true colors.”

“It tells us what side you are really on: a side that does not care for the lives of innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians who have fallen victim to the terrorists of Hamas,” Danon continued.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zhari tweeted that the resolution’s failure “represents a slap to the U.S. administration and confirmation of the legitimacy of the resistance.”

However, Danon did note in a tweet that “a record 87 countries condemned Hamas for its rocket fire & use of civilian infrastructure for military purposes against Israel.”

“I thank @nikkihaley for her hard work in forming an unprecedented coalition. We will continue to fight for the truth!” Danon wrote.

Germany’s Lesson for America

Twelve years ago, a young German Christian woman sought my assistance in converting to Judaism. As I listened to her reasons for wishing to become Jewish — her marriage to a Jewish man, her partnership in raising a Jewish daughter, her affection for the customs and traditions of Judaism — I could see tears welling in her eyes.

When I inquired about those tears, the dam burst, and she began to weep openly.

“My marriage and family are inspiring me to convert,” she told me, “but my history stands in my way. How can I ever become a Jew, after the horrors my people brought upon the Jews? How can I ever be forgiven? I can’t even forgive myself.”

“But you weren’t even born until two decades after World War II had ended. You hold no guilt for the Nazi atrocities,” I countered.

“But I feel such terrible guilt,” she lamented. “So many young Germans do. We carry the shame of being descendants of those crimes.”

I found her suffering to be at once heartbreaking and puzzling — until earlier this month, when I visited Berlin and Dresden with the North American Board of Rabbis at the invitation of the German government. We were welcomed for Germany’s national observance of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored “Night of Broken Glass,” which ultimately led to the murders of 6 million Jews.

Days before the commemoration, we paid a visit to the Evangelisches Kreuzgymnasium in Dresden, where hundreds of Christian high schoolers packed an auditorium to hear our stories and share their statements of commitment to combat anti-Semitism. The sincerity in their presentations and the heart-heavy sense of duty in their questions moved us deeply. Clearly, these teenagers carry their own shame from being descendants of Nazi crimes — but also a robust resolve to write a different story for Germany’s future.

Their determination is going to be sorely needed as the incitement to violence against Jews, both among German nationalists and some segments of Germany’s Arab immigrant population, continues to ritse. German Chancellor Angela Merkel soberly noted in her remarks at Berlin’s beautiful Rykestrasse Synagogue, “There are two urgent questions that we need to answer. First, what did we really learn from the Shoah, this rupture of civilization? And second, to the first question: Are our democratic institutions sufficiently strong so that amid an increase of anti-Semitism, or even if a majority presents anti-Semitism, it can be prevented in the future?”

To be sure, Germany faces a daunting challenge, as the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party continues its political ascent, fomenting hatred directed at Jews and other minorities. Surely, however, Germany’s leaders and citizens will be strengthened in their effort to repel this darkness by their unequivocal national reckoning with their past. A nation that names and acknowledges its greatest moral failures must certainly be less likely to repeat them. When the seedlings of those same evil impulses are replanted generations later, a people guided by responsibility for its history is best poised to deny those seedlings any water or sunlight.

As a Jewish American blessed with freedoms and opportunities my family first discovered as Eastern European immigrants generations ago, I find myself wondering about the implications of what I observed in Germany for my own country. After all, Kristallnacht happened 80 years ago, and yet it remains a persistent subject in German schools, as well as a cause for national events of accountability, long after the perpetrators of its crimes have died.

How might the United States meet its moment of moral challenge today if our nation were to engage habitually in acts of collective responsibility for our past, as Germany does?

How might our national soul be impacted if our country’s brutal dispossession of Native Americans was regularly and solemnly commemorated?

How might our treatment of endangered immigrant populations be altered if we were consistently reminded of the moral degradation of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II?

How might the plight of African-Americans on our streets and in our courts be aided by a sincere acknowledgment of accountability for the slave ships that brought the ancestors of many millions of our modern-day citizens to the United States in chains?

The still-piercing shame from the Holocaust felt by many in Germany today should be seen as neither heartbreaking nor puzzling. Rather, it is a badge of enduring conscience that just may save today’s German Jews from the same hatred that engulfed the Jews 80 years ago. Might we, as Americans, draw upon our shared history to steer clear of repeating our collective past sins?

The great 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught: “Some are guilty. All are responsible.” There is nothing wrong with feeling the weight of responsibility for our national past. It is noble and just to feel responsible. It’s what enables us to become the best people we can be. It is also what enables us to become the best nation we can be.

Rabbi Ken Chasen is Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple and vice chair of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Connecting to My Immigrant Grandmother

My grandmother was formidable, strong, built to last. After surviving the trauma of Auschwitz, she moved to the United States only to become a stranger in a strange land, struggling to make a decent living and learn a new language. In the face of all her challenges, she was indefatigable, unflappable.

At least that is the only way I saw her. During my entire childhood, I never glimpsed what was underneath all that strength, and while I grew up, it seemed as if there could only be more strength. For me, it took her death to really begin to understand who she was and what she meant to me.

Growing up as her deliberating, Americanized granddaughter, I felt as if we were on different wavelengths. I consistently second-guessed myself and got nervous about what to say when speaking with her because she always struck me as so serious, so sure of her opinions. There was not an indecisive bone in Grandma’s Hungarian body. She never deliberated or thought through things because that reflective process was unnecessary. Grandma possessed an innate sense of knowing that came from the old country and powered her through life. 

It was not that my grandmother had a handle on all knowledge. In fact, she wasn’t very worldly and didn’t care to know much about people and things that stood outside of her purview. But she had no questions or uncertainty when it came to things that were within her scope, her world. Lack of certainty would have been weakness. After conversations with her, I hoped that although I didn’t inherit her sense of sureness, maybe I could become more confident by osmosis.

My only real breakthroughs with my grandmother came from eating food she prepared. I think that is where she put most of the love she had for her grandchildren. She baked, fried, rolled, wrapped and stuffed it into her challah and kokosh and cheese danishes and nuckerlie and handmade pasta and tultott kaposta (stuffed cabbage). The vats of chicken fat we found in her freezer after her death were like finding a sacred storehouse, the secret ingredient that had held together our family for all these years. 

“She had no questions or uncertainty when it came to things that were within her scope, her world.”

Her stuffed cabbage was the Holy Grail and remains my favorite food to this day. She would often send my father home with portions just for me. On the one hand, she had this awkward habit of sending food to an individual person when there was an entire household of people who wanted to eat it. On the other hand, when it was my turn, and my father walked in the door with special stuffed cabbage just for me — well, those were the best days. Even after I moved away and got older, when I would come to visit, her first words were, “How you are? Vat you need? Stuffed cabbage, I made you. Go get it from the freezer.”

On some subconscious level, I may have chosen to live in Hungary with my husband for six months soon after we got married to work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee just so that I could be closer to her. Not because the committee brought her and my father to the U.S., but so I could learn about these foods she made. I tried taking Hungarian cooking classes, but could not replicate my grandmother’s dishes (at the time, I was unaware of the secret chicken schmaltz). 

She died less than a year ago, and as I look at the few leftover portions of stuffed cabbage still sitting in her freezer, I still wonder what was underneath all of Grandma’s strength and gumption. I sometimes wonder if she even knew, or if she had puffed up herself with so much confidence over the years that even she forgot about the insecurities and bad memories simmering below the surface. Maybe as an immigrant and Holocaust survivor, she needed to forget in order to move forward with her life. 

What I do know is that she left a legacy of looking forward in life that has had a lasting impression on me. It is unlikely that I will ever fully inherit my grandmother’s level of certainty and willpower, but she has given me something to aspire to. And if all else fails, I think I have a decent shot at replicating her stuffed cabbage.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel teaches English literature at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

After Pittsburgh, What Now for Jews?

Hate is not welcome here. Photo by Kelly Hartog

Anti-Semitism has been growing in the United States for years, and we have seen numerous signs of it, including the physical abuse and harassment of Jews wearing religious clothing, Jewish women accosted and insulted in their car and our youth endlessly discriminated against, intimidated and silenced on campuses all over the nation. There have been thousands of incidents, for years, and now a big explosion. We are not even sure if this is not the beginning of many more. As an Israeli French friend visiting recently said, now it is like in France and Europe. I have been expecting these developments with much concern and looking at our reactions.

I saw us being on high alert and unable of escaping the triggers of our Holocaust trauma. I have seen when we have overreacted, accusing the wrong people (such as the 400 hoax threats against Jewish Community Centers) and politicizing every incident. I have worried that each overreaction just inflamed the feelings against our community. I believe it will be crucially important that we do not react with our usual fears and patterns to every tragedy that hits us.

For political reasons, we have separated ourselves from parts of our people, from each other. We have unwittingly added to the polarization of our country as much as anyone else, and to the hostility in political discourse. We have demonized other Jews, the country’s political leaders and half of the population. We are unaware and self-righteous in our absolute certainty that we hold the moral ground and “the other” is either stupid or evil, or both.

At this historically tragic time, I invite each one of us who is absolutely convinced that only our side has access to the absolute truth on any particular issue, and that only we hold the moral compass better than anyone else, to just wake up and realize how we are unwittingly contributing to this extreme atmosphere of misunderstanding, distrust, hatred, and enmity that has taken over the country. Polarization is at its extreme, and it could not be if one side does not contribute to it.

We have lived in a topsy-turvy, upside down world for many years now, where words have lost their common meaning and where it has become unsafe just to speak. I have heard the voices of those who feel incredibly infuriated to be under the onslaught of blame and accusation, where any incivility goes and there is no more retinue from anyone, anywhere, and all is excused because “the other side is so evil”. When we adopt this kind of speech, are we not all contributing to this atmosphere of mistrust, hatred and condemnation?  We have to become aware of the consequences of our own actions. We cannot add fuel to the fire and then accuse someone else of arson.

It is time to stop all accusations and demonization of any one community, party and/or leader. We must understand that:

  • We are ALL responsible for the tone of the political discourse.
  • We must stop immediately.   Every word of ours that is blaming, accusatory, and attributing evil intentions, thoughts, and agendas to the other side (Jewish and non-Jewish) just poisons the discourse.
  • We must reach out to all communities, make peace with the existing leadership, even if we do not agree with them.  We must talk about unity and connection, and reassurance and safety for all, not just those with whom we most resonate.  
  • We must engage in a bipartisan way to resolve the issues dear to us, and stop with the generalizations, the immediate and distorted-by-hatred accusations, that further polarize, confuse and anger people.

We can only do that if we recognize the pattern and learn to release our feelings of fear and anger.

If we are able, right now, immediately, moved by this terrible tragedy fueled by a hatred that does not discriminate between different parties, politics, values among Jews, etc. to come together as Jews from the Right and the Left, from the secular and from the religious, from the Reform and from the Orthodox, from the United States and from Israel, we can fulfill the promise of our Torah destiny and be a light in the world.

If, for example, we chose two or three issues close to our heart and approached them Torah-like, simultaneously from gevurah (judgment and law) and chesed (all- encompassing compassion), looking at all the aspects, integrating the needs and issues that arise from all sides, without demonizing any, in a flash we would accomplish the most tikkun olam possible and achieve a balanced point-of-view for the most important issues of our times. We would demonstrate a process that could pull our people and the rest of the country out of the emotional and moral marasm we have allowed ourselves to dive into.

We would fulfill our full destiny. The world needs our unity and our wisdom. We must heal our traumas.

Gina Ross, MFCT, is founder/president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the United States (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). She is the author of a series of books “Beyond the Trauma Vortex Into the Healing Vortex,” targeting 10 social sectors implicated in amplifying or healing trauma.  

Welcoming Refugees as Neighbors

Miry Whitehill (right) with two refugees she has helped. Photo courtesy of Miry Whitehill

Refugees usually arrive in a new country with little to their names, isolated because their language and customs are different. But some refugees who arrive in Los Angeles benefit from Miry’s List, an organization founded by Miry Whitehill, an Eagle Rock mother of two who knew that her local community could provide direct help to people who are strangers in a new land. 

In July 2016, Whitehill’s friend introduced her to a local Syrian refugee family, sponsored by her friend’s church. They went over to drop off baby supplies and discovered the family had no crib mattress and that the apartment was sparsely furnished. With two other local mothers and the family’s permission, Whitehill compiled a list of the family’s needs that included blankets and shoes, toys and school supplies, kitchen utensils and cleaning supplies. She posted her list on Facebook, and in two weeks, all the items had been collected.

“This was the original Miry’s List family,” Whitehill said. 

Today Miry’s List is a nonprofit with a team of 31 people, mostly in Southern California, with over 130 volunteer listmakers around the world using Amazon wishlists to send gifts directly to the door of needy refugee families in Los Angeles. “Personal shoppers on behalf of resettlement families,” Whitehill said.

This year, LA2050, an initiative driving and tracking progress toward a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles, chose Miry’s List’s “Welcome, Neighbor” program as one of five winners in the My LA2050 Activation Challenge.

Refugee resettlement in the United States is federally funded and managed by the State Department, Whitehill explained, with nine licensed agencies to resettle families and refugees. The agencies’ local affiliates oversee the first 90 days in the U.S., picking up families from airports, arranging culturally appropriate food and somewhere to stay. Resettlement agency funding is based on the number of cases; when the annual refugee cap goes down, so does funding. Last year, one partner scaled down the number of caseworkers from nine to just one. And while the federal government hasn’t stopped the refugee program, it has slowed the number of accepted refugees from Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan, predominantly Muslim countries that are “facing a very real ban by this federal government,” Whitehill said. 

Even in the best of scenarios, it’s hard for refugees to acclimate, she added. “There’s a mourning process. There’s grief because you’re missing people, but it’s more than that. It’s the acceptance of the reality that you are likely never going to see most of those people again. It really takes years to accept and come to terms with, if at all.”

According to Miry’s List’s annual report, over 53,000 refugees were resettled in the United States in 2017. Miry’s List programs benefited more than 1,500 people resettling in Southern California from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, and Miry’s List volunteers have organized more than 500 events, ranging from birthday parties to English lessons to doctors’ appointments for refugee families. Because many refugees go into debt to buy their airline tickets to the U.S., coming in 2018 is a “Fly Me Home” initiative, through which Miry’s List hopes to pay for the cost of travel loans for 500 newly arrived resettling families, totaling $2 million.

Miry’s List has three chronological pillars — Survive, Hive and Thrive — that help families after arrival. Survive provides temporary housing, food delivery and basic supplies to make families feel safe. After a family moves into a permanent home, Hive provides the wish lists and arranges for English tutoring, playdates, rides to appointments, employment mentoring and pregnancy support. Thrive is when families feel so safe and supported that they volunteer to help as other refugee families arrive. 

“Everyone of every political party and religion believes that families should have what they need to take care of themselves, the opportunity to feel safe, to feel normal.” — Miry Whitehill

The “Welcome, Neighbor” program will activate 100,000 Angelenos over the next two years to work through neighborhood councils to help resettle refugees while promoting volunteerism. The program began with a New Arrival Festival celebrating the city’s designation of June as New Arrival Month and featuring educational panels, music and food. Future stages include Neighborhood Councils voting on and adopting the Neighborhood Welcoming Resolution, written by Whitehill and adopted by the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council and the City of Los Angeles in 2017; forming welcoming committees to foster refugee and immigrant inclusivity; and leading Welcoming Actions like hosting a town hall meeting on refugee resettlement to educate neighbors.

Whitehill notes that the program also is easily replicable in other cities that want to become a home for new immigrants.

“We are trying to be great neighbors,” she said. 

She also named Westside spiritual community IKAR, which partnered on a refugee assembly in June, and the Cool Shul, a Westside emergent community, which partnered with Miry’s List for the High Holy Days. Still, not all Jewish community leaders are publicly supportive. 

“Some Jewish community leaders have said, ‘I personally support what you do but I’m not going to talk about it [from the pulpit],’ ” Whitehill said. “When congregations reach out to me and want it to be official on behalf of the synagogue, I really notice that. It’s one thing to personally align [with the issue], it’s another thing for the community to come together. But what we do is not controversial. Everyone of every political party and religion believes that families should have what they need to take care of themselves, the opportunity to feel safe, to feel normal.” 

Whitehill is originally from an Orthodox Jewish background, has lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew with her children but says, “We don’t come with any faith-based hat on. We come as neighbors.” 

The third family Miry’s List ever served were Palestinian refugees coming from Jordan. The mother revealed that she had never met an Israeli or a Jew who wasn’t a soldier. “I’m happy to be your first,” Whitehill told her. That was more than two years ago and the two have become close friends. 

Another time, Whitehill sat with a family of Palestinian refugees, sharing stories from the Torah and the Quran. “All the big stories are recorded in both,” she said. “Moses at the burning bush, where a voice calls for Moses and he replies, ‘Here I am’ — hineni. Whether you call it God or a burning bush or a person asking for help, that’s the moment when you can step up and say, ‘I’m here for you,’ ” she said, ‘Ana Huna’ is our slogan. Its Arabic for ‘I’m Here.’ ”

Another family, the Alawads, came to the U.S. from Syria two years ago with five children. Last February, they named their sixth child Miry, after Whitehill, who regularly visits them in San Diego. 

“I feel so connected with them. It’s beyond helping one family,” Whitehill said. “It’s creating a new path for people to just help each other.” 

Why Trump Is Good for Israel

I know the risk I take when I say anything positive about President Donald Trump in today’s climate of self-congratulatory partisan idiocy. My friends in Washington, D.C., who dared weigh things on their merits, who wrote things like “regardless of what you think about him in general, on this one issue he may be right,” have been assaulted like a bad implant swarmed by antibodies. 

As an Israeli, I will be forgiven for caring less about newly minted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, dog whistles, white supremacists and what happens at the U.S.-Mexico border than I do about foreign policy and, especially, Israel policy. 

And in that arena, Trump, in his brash style, his flouting of norms, his calling allies to order and enemies by name, his willingness to use power unpredictably to advance clearly defined interests, his intuitive and accurate grasp of regional and global power maps, and his rebuilding of American military might and sovereign will — he has not made America weak, and certainly has not made Israel weak. 

Very much the opposite.

When I was in high school in Boston in the 1980s, I was surrounded by teachers and friends who were convinced that Ronald Reagan was the worst president in American history, and that words and actions toward the mighty Soviet Union were “crazy” and going to result in “everybody dying in a thermonuclear war.” 

Nothing drove them more nuts than American victory in the Cold War. To this day, they scramble to attribute the fall of the Soviet Union to anything other than Reagan.

So write it on the balloons at your next gala dinner: Donald Trump is, so far at least, very good for Israel.

What does Israel really need? 

Well, what does any small country need when it’s trying to succeed in a volatile neighborhood? It needs geostrategic tailwinds from powerful allies. It needs enemies and friends alike to think the country should not be messed with. It needs help carving out a strategic “safe space” so it can navigate complicated and changing power constellations, and the room to let its economy grow. 

Yes, advanced weapons and money help. But more important is the clarity: the consistent, unambiguous public backing, in words and deeds, from the most powerful country on Earth. 

“What does Israel really need? Yes, advanced weapons and money help. But more important is the clarity: the consistent, unambiguous public backing, in words and deeds, from the most powerful country on Earth. In this, Trump is helping Israel more than his predecessor did.”

In this, Trump is helping Israel more than his predecessor did, and maybe even more than the ones before did. 

Former President Barack Obama was, at best, an unreliable ally. He never failed to remind Israelis that he kept up the aid money. But he knew and we knew that the actual importance of that $4 billion has shrunk dramatically when seen as a percentage of Israel’s budget or its GDP (now around 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively). Today the money is the least important component of the United States’ strategic support. The U.S. could cut it off tomorrow without much of a blip on Israel’s balance sheet, much less the instant holocaust that American Jews usually assume would follow.

Yet on the things that counted, Obama worked against Israel’s strategic needs. He cut a deal with Israel’s most dangerous enemy, Iran, that delayed its nuclear program (which it didn’t really need), but gave the regime instead what it desperately did need — billions of dollars and a U.S. commitment to turn them into a “very successful regional power” (Obama’s words). Obama waffled on Syria, fueling its instability and expanding Iran’s reach. And let’s not forget his unprecedented slam-the-door-behind-you abstention on the anti-Israel U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016, after the moving vans had arrived on the White House lawn. These were not the acts of a friend. 

Trump’s support has, by contrast, been unambiguous where it counts: The words and actions that tell everybody which way the winds are blowing. 

This is why moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem was so valuable, as were closing the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, restoring sanctions on Iran, and main-taining intolerance for U.N. hostility and Palestinian pay-to-slay policies. Taken together, these actions have sent a clear signal to the world, one that makes my children safer. 

And we have seen the results. Did anybody notice how Russia entered into an uncomfortable alliance with Iran to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, and yet has been forced by the new reality to tolerate Israeli air strikes against Iranian military assets across the country? Did anybody notice that these airstrikes ramped up immediately after Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal? I’d love to be in that room where the Russians are trying to explain to the Iranians why they keep letting Israel do that. 

That’s why I’m a lot less worried about a Trump peace plan than I was about the Oslo Accords and the other very bad ideas American diplomats have tried in the past. 

Things have changed. The Palestinians, whose cause went global in the 1960s because the Arab states and the Soviet Union needed a propaganda weapon against the West, now have lost both of their backers: The Soviets are gone, while Egypt and the Gulf States have understood the power of the Israel-U.S. alliance. For them, the Palestinian cause has outlived its usefulness.

Yes, you still have hordes of hung-over students shouting, “Apartheid!” and cheering on while Hamas sends fire balloons across the border. But in terms of real power, the Palestinians are today isolated, flat-footed, flailing for money, internally torn, rudderless, with leaders who do nothing to advance either their economic or national aspirations, who only perpetuate their misery. 

In such a context, we can imagine the impasse being broken. For in most conflicts, peace happens only when one side loses, or senses it’s about to. Most peace deals are little more than a resignation to prevent the indignity of a checkmate. It’s not likely in this case, but it’s far from impossible.

So, as much as you want to incorporate Israel into your narrative about how horrible Trump is for everything, in the case of Israel, it just sounds like a silly, desperate talking point. And it surely doesn’t help the prospects of peace.


David Hazony is an author and executive director of The Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Israeli culture in the world.

The Light From Within Is Stronger Than Hate

On the afternoon of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation, Reese, our new Yemenite neighbor, was visiting our apartment, playing with my son Alexander. We’d had a Shabbat soiree the evening before, so the refrigerator was stacked, as my son would say.

“What would you like?” I asked Reese. He surveyed the fare and pointed to the chocolate wafer cubes. “Those are epic,” he said. I smiled and gave him a handful. He came back 15 minutes later asking for more. “Please,” he said, “where can my mom get these? I want her to get cartons.”

“In the Israel section,” Alexander piped up from the next room. Reese, 14, looked at me quizzically. “The market Morton Williams has an Israel section,” I explained. “All kinds of stuff that they import from Israel.” Nothing I said made Reese flinch. “OK, can you please tell my mom? And may I have some more?”

I told him I would give him more on one condition: that at some point I could explain to him why the store has a special Israel section, and the politics surrounding those delicious chocolate cubes. “Sure,” he said, popping another into his mouth. 

I later relayed the story to his mother, Waseif — Saya — who had been a child bride in Yemen and just completed a film on the subject. “Islam is a beautiful religion,” she said. “But the culture and politics of some countries are completely warped. I have never taught my children hate; they don’t know what it means to hate a group of people and never will.”

I nodded. “No one is born with hate in their heart.”

Meanwhile, the Kavanaugh confirmation was unloading on social media, and scathing hate toward groups of people — white men, white women, conservatives — was all over my newsfeed. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was being targeted as a “rape apologist” for voting to confirm the judge based on her thought process. In other words, for being a feminist. 

Linda Sarsour tweeted: “Senator Susan Collins is the mother & grandmother of white women in America who gave us a Donald Trump presidency. She is a disgrace & her legacy will be that she was a traitor to women and marginalized communities.” No one can ramp up a race and gender war like Sarsour. Still, I was shocked that she hadn’t found a way to blame it all on Jews. 

“Is there a point when hate has so hardened the heart that little can be done to let the light back in?”

I woke up the morning of Oct. 7 to the horrific news of another terrorist attack in Israel. Kim Levengrond Yehezkel, 29, a mother of an 18-month-old; and Ziv Hajbi, 35, a father of three, were shot at close range reportedly by a Palestinian co-worker at a factory in the West Bank where they all worked in the Barkan Industrial Park.

Is there a point when hate has so hardened the heart that little can be done to let the light back in?

How has the United States, through the vile hatred inherent in identity politics, come so close to this point, when even the nomination of a Supreme Court justice brings the country to the brink of a vitriolic civil war?

That evening we all got together for a Yemenite-Moroccan Columbus Day feast. Ahmed, a handsome Lebanese actor, joined us. Saya confessed to an attraction to Judaism. Ahmed confessed to an attraction to Israeli women. We talked about the lies people believe and the tribal hatred that keeps people apart. I told them about the terrorist attack that morning.

“That’s horrific,” Saya gasped, covering her mouth. Ahmed just shook his head, speechless.

Their reactions couldn’t have been more distinct from the reactions of my friends on the left, who offer up immediate political rationalizations for the random killing of Jews. Saya and Ahmed had been taught to hate Jews, but the hatred never stuck. The light within had always been stronger than the hatred and the lies.

I don’t know the road to peace in this country, let alone in Israel. But I can keep the light flowing between these two apartments, especially between Reese and Alexander. Perhaps one day these two “cousins,” a Muslim and a Jew, will expose the sham of identity politics. Perhaps one day they will be able to rewrite the stars because we never taught them to hate.  

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

Israel, the U.S. and Partisanship

There’s a trendy view these days that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has committed the grave sin of turning support of Israel partisan. This is the view of many on the Democratic left, who seem perturbed at Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Donald Trump. “Netanyahu refuses to even pretend that he cares what liberal American Jews think or feel about Israel,” sneers Eric Alterman of The Nation. 

But what, precisely, is Netanyahu supposed to do in the face of the left’s gradual move against Israel over the past two decades? Alterman, for all his sneering, is a harsh anti-Israel critic — he says that Israel is either practicing apartheid today or on the verge of doing so, and has endorsed the idea behind boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel on the international stage. Can that be attributed to Netanyahu?

The left’s anti-Israel move has been brewing for decades. Republicans have been somewhat more pro-Israel than Democrats since the Six-Day War — Israel’s victory in that war led to an onslaught of Soviet propaganda against the Jewish state as the Soviets attempted to consolidate the support of Muslim states. Still, until 2001, the two parties remained largely pro-Israel; in 2001, 38 percent of Democrats supported Israel against the Palestinians, with 50 percent of Republicans doing so.

Then 9/11 hit. Suddenly Republican support for Israel began to climb and Democratic support for Israel began to drop. That drop was exacerbated by the advent of former President Barack Obama’s administration, which took the line that Israel’s failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians lay at the heart of broader conflicts in the region. The American left began to parrot the line of the European left that Israel’s intransigence represented the root of imperialistic Western power politics. 

After 9/11, Republican support for Israel began to climb and Democratic support for Israel began to drop.

I attended the Democratic National Convention in 2012, where constituents booed Jerusalem in the Democratic National Committee platform; there was no doubt in the room which way the Democratic Party was moving. The Obama administration established a “daylight with Israel” policy and ran roughshod over Israel’s concerns about Iranian terrorism in promotion of a hollow Iranian nuclear deal. Today, just 27 percent of Democrats say they support Israel as opposed to the Palestinians — even though the Palestinians are governed by a three-headed terrorist monster in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — as compared with 25 percent who support the Palestinians. Controversial Louis Farrakhan acolyte Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) nearly became the head of the DNC last year with the support of supposed pro-Israel advocate Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader in Britain, is openly anti-Semitic. He took tea with Raed Salah, a man he called an “honoured citizen” despite Salah’s use of the actual Blood Libel; he wrote a letter defending Stephen Sizer, a now-retired vicar who blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks; and he hosted “his friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah in parliament. Now, Corbyn has attempted to cover his tracks. But he’s fooling no one.

Meanwhile, the American right continues to embrace Israel at record rates. Republicans favor the Israelis over the Palestinians at a rate of 79 percent to 6 percent. Contrary to self-flattering left-wing opinion, that isn’t because of Christian millenarianism — it’s not because Christians think that support for Israel will immanentize the eschaton. It’s because religious Christians in the United States truly believe that those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed; they see Israel as a representative of Western ideals in a brutal region of the world; they recognize in Israel ideological allies and religious kin. Even those on the right who aren’t particularly religious support Israel because they recognize that Israel represents the canary in the coal mine for the West; Israel’s battle against Islamic terror is part of a broader battle the West must fight.

That’s not Netanyahu’s fault. Perhaps those on the left who remain pro-Israel ought to consider that the problem isn’t Israel or Netanyahu: It’s a left wing that has lost touch with reality in favor of multicultural utopianism and flattered itself into believing that sympathizing with some of the world’s worst regimes represents standing up for human rights.

Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author and editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire.