Archive for the ‘Jews and Judaism’ Category

Bush Packs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council

January 7, 2009

In a rush of appointments prior to leaving office, President Bush is naming key supporters to a number of presidential commissions. Today Bush left his stamp on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, which I wrote about a few weeks back. Here is the list of appointments:

 

Elliot Abrams, of Virginia, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Joshua B. Bolten, of the District of Columbia, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Alan I. Casden, of California, for the remainder of a five-year term expiring 01/15/11;

 

Michael Chertoff, of New Jersey, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

William Danhof, of Michigan, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Sanford Gottesman, of Texas, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Cheryl Feldman Halpern, of New Jersey, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

J. David Heller, of Ohio, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Amy Kaslow, of Maryland, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

M. Ronald Krongold, of Florida, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Michael B. Mukasey, of New York, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09;

 

Daniel Silva, of the District of Columbia, for a five-year term beginning 01/16/09.

 

The list includes many of Bush’s biggest allies in the Jewish community. Notice Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

What makes Bush’s appointments here interesting is the degree to which the Holocaust Memorial has become an object of bipartisan support — to the point where appointment to its council is considered a political plum with which to reward diehard backers.

There was a time during the Clinton Administration, when conservatives, particularly neocons viewed the Holocaust Memorial with suspicion.  In 1993, Philip Gourevitch (not really a neocon, but writing for the Forward in its conservative incarnation) wrote a groundbreaking piece critical of the memorial in Harpers. Jonathan Rosen critqued it in the New York Times the same year. And my friend Ira Stoll described the museum as a “a playpen for Clinton loyalists” in the Wall Street Journal in 2001.

Now the Bushies will have the Memorial with which to play.

 

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More Caroline Kennedy: Supports Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

December 22, 2008

I just left a memorial luncheon for the great David Nyhan, presided over by Ed Jesser and Marty Nolan. The Kennedy Room in Doyle’s was abuzz with talk of Caroline Kennedy’s quasi-candidacy. Seasoned political hand Jim King recounted his efforts on behalf of Ted Kennedy back in 1961!

While I soaked up the political color — more than I can get into here — I received a news flash via the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Kennedy had just come out in favor of an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Caroline Kennedy expressed support for Israel and for Jerusalem as its capital.

The scion of the Kennedy clan, who recently expressed her interest in assuming the seat of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) should Clinton be confirmed as secretary of state, answered a New York Times political questionnaire on Saturday, her first such policy statement.

Kennedy expressed “strong support for Israel,” the Times reported, “and said an undivided Jerusalem must be the country’s national capital.”

This recalled another aspect of the Senator Moynihan-Hillary Clinton-Caroline Kennedy connection. Moynihan urged Clinton to embrace the cause of Israel as part of her advocacy of New York. She not only agreed, but broke with President Clinton over it. And I scooped the world on it.

Here’s a caution from a pro-Israel activist on this issue. The comment relates to Clinton, but it could possibly apply to Kennedy as well:

Morrie Amitay, who is a former director of Aipac, a Washington lawyer, and a pro-Israel activist, cautioned against reading too much into Mrs. Clinton’s statement. “What a candidate says before they’re elected is fairly meaningless. She’s become a friend of Israel only recently. You do not know what she really believes,” Mr. Amitay said. Pre-election statements on Jerusalem have bedeviled political candidates on both sides of the aisle. Asked about moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv by Morton Klein at a private fundraiser in 1999, President Bush, then the governor of Texas, replied, “I’m afraid that might screw up the peace process. I don’t want to screw up the peace process.” An aide later stated Mr. Bush’s intention was to move the embassy to Jerusalem and that he would “set the process in motion as soon as he becomes president.” Neither President Bush nor President Clinton followed the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995, which declared the city Israel’s capital and ordered the moving of the embassy to the city.

Madoff and Anti-Semitism

December 20, 2008

Well, this didn’t take long. Less than a week after the Bernie Madoff scandal broke — a Ponzi-scheme which largely victimized the American Jewish community — an epidemic of anti-Semitism is breaking out. Last night, I was jarred to hear the Klezmer-tinged notes of “If I Were a Rich Man”  coming from the McLaughlin Group. I found this pretty distasteful given that one of Madoff’s victims was Jewish philanthropist and McLaughlin Group regular Mortimer Zuckerman.

Now the Anti-Defamation League is drawing attention to what is happening.

“Site users have posted comments ranging from deeply offensive stereotypical statements about Jews and money — with some suggesting that only Jews could perpetrate a fraud on such a scale — to conspiracy theories about Jews stealing money to benefit Israel,” the ADL said in a statement.

“Jews are always a convenient scapegoat in times of crisis, but the Madoff scandal and the fact that so many of the defrauded investors are Jewish has created a perfect storm for the anti-Semites,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director.

There’s one surprise in all this. I was sure the trigger for the anti-Semitism was going to be the closure of the financial markets right after the initial crash back in September for the Jewish New Year. My sense is that this is one problem that is going to get much worse before it subsides.

Ray Allen and the Holocaust Memorial

December 17, 2008

Ray Allen has one of the sweetest jump shots in the NBA. He was a vital component of the Boston Celtics first championship since 1986. It turns out he’s also a mensch. 

I was very surprised to read in the Boston Herald that Allen has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a number of times and took the Celtics there last week. I’d love to learn more of the background on what prompted Allen to begin visiting the site.

“So many times we get caught up in our everyday lives and what’s going on around us, and that was an opportunity for us to see something that I think is about the human condition,” Allen said before last night’s 122-88 win over the Washington Wizards. “I’ve been five times. It’s something that’s affected all of us, and it affects society today. It gets to you. (Glen Davis), it affected him greatly. When you see stuff like that, you think about how you can take better care of humankind now in the position we’re all in.”

Righteous!

The Madoff Scheme

December 13, 2008

I am stunned this morning to learn of the sweeping fraud that investor Bernard Madoff undertook. The Boston Globe does an excellent job of showing the damage Madoff caused here locally. Local institutions, such as the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Museum of Fine Arts, could all potentially be hurt by Madoff’s deception.

It seems that Madoff, a member, until recently, of Yeshiva University’s Board of Trustees, leveraged his connections in the organized Jewish world to target Jewish institutions and family foundations. His victims include Carl and Ruth Shapiro, Avram and Carol Goldberg, the family who ran Stop & Shop, and the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, which, according to the Globe, “financed trips for Jewish youth to Israel” and subsequently had to close after losing its entire endowment.

The New York Post captures the scene in the lobby of the so-called “Lipstick Building” where Madoff had his office.  It describes panicked investors storming the building demanding to learn about their investments. The paper quoted one anonymous lawyer on Madoff’s scheme: “The guy was totally respected. He was a heymishe Jewish guy…This guy was dealing with all the rich Jews in Roslyn and the rich Jews in Palm Beach. This was passed down from family member to family member.”

The paper also catches up with a pair of unlikely victims, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, Lawrence Velvel. When last Gitell.com encountered Velvel, he was hosting a conference at his school in Andover to determine whether President Bush could be prosecuted for war crimes. He sounds like he’s got his ire up about somebody else now. “This is a major disaster for a lot of people…You work all your life, you finally manage to save up something, and somebody who’s entrusted with it, it turns out suddenly he’s a crook.” You’ve got to feel for Velvel.

This story has a lot of resonance for me. Back when I worked at the Forward, I was the first reporter to be given the beat of the Jewish philanthropic world. I wrote the first special section on Jewish family foundations and a profile of Yeshiva University. (Here’s the Forward’s report — and the Wall Street Journal’s.) During my time as a lawyer, I worked two buildings down from the “Lipstick Building” on Third Avenue. Throughout all that work, during which I lived in a tiny rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side, I observed the rich and the powerful. How immune they seemed from the daily struggles I faced as an energetic but relatively-impoverished Manhattanite on the make. Rather than taking any schadenfreude in the fact that these people can be hurt too, my entire reaction is disgust and revulsion at the pain one man can cause.

Bogus Rumor: Sarah Palin Is Jewish

October 27, 2008

David Bernstein included a curious anecdote in his insightful long article on Sarah Palin — that tears came to Palin’s eyes when a supporter likened her to Queen Esther of the Bible. In the story of Purim, Esther is a Jew who keeps her identity hidden until put into a position where she can save the lives of her fellow Persian Jews. (Bernstein’s piece, incidentally, represents the best of journalism in the Phoenix, a long article that combines reporting, color and analysis.)

Now comes a rumor in a strange new light. Several websites make the assertion that Sarah Palin, like John Kerry and Madeleine Albright before her, has hidden Jewish roots.

Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, has investigated the claim and come to the conclusion that it is false. Kampeas links to a genealogy of Palin that appears to put the story to bed. Kampeas has every incentive to check this story out. When I was the Washington bureau chief for the Forward, a national weekly Jewish newspaper, I spent a month trying to discern whether Hillary Clinton had a similar story in her background. (She had a Jewish step-grandfather.)

Having said that, I think Bernstein’s Phoenix piece provides some detail as to why the claim is resonating on the right. By the way, it seems to also be circulating among those suspicious of the “Israel Lobby’s” power on the Left as well.

I found the contraband signs in the damp grass. They had been rounded up and now lay in two piles by the opening in the chainlink fence where security and campaign officials had screened the 5000 or so people who came to see Sarah Palin speak at Salem High School’s Grant Field this past Wednesday, October 15. It was the third Palin rally in New Hampshire I had attended that day, and I knew that the security guards were keeping out more than just dangerous weapons — campaign staff was also filtering out signs, pins, and shirts that might, to a now highly attuned national audience, appear harsh or offensive.

So, while the crowd was still cheering Palin, who had finished her 30-minute speech and had begun signing autographs, I headed to that entrance and found about a dozen handmade cardboard signs. I don’t know whether other rejected slogans had already been removed, but most in these piles were pretty tame. The only potentially offensive phrase on one was “NOBAMA.” Another read “CONSERVATIVE WOMEN HAVE RIGHTS TOO.” “ACORN IS NUTS,” one claimed, while another, carefully lettered, declared “PALIN — BABIES GUNS JESUS.”

But the two most striking were adorned with Jewish stars. One read “PALIN — TRUE NORTH.” The other, “SARAH — FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS.”

That last phrase comes from chapter four of the Old Testament Book of Esther. Apparently, the idea of Palin as the Queen Esther for our time has made it to New Hampshire.

The theory has been around since before John McCain picked Palin in late August — it was circulating on religious Christian blogs in early June when news outlets reported that she was on McCain’s short list. After the announcement, it picked up steam — particularly after it was reported that Palin, at the suggestion of her pastor, had, upon becoming governor of Alaska, patterned herself after Queen Esther.

Soon after the Republican National Convention, an e-mail went viral in conservative Christian circles, in which Pastor Mark Arnold claimed to have found himself next to Palin at a rally in his hometown of Lebanon, Ohio. According to the account, Arnold came face-to-face with Palin, and God spoke through him, telling the governor that “God wants you to know that you are a present-day Esther. . . . Keep your eyes on God and know that He has chosen you to reign!”

Palin, according to the account, immediately began to cry — as did her husband, Todd, when Arnold then repeated the news to him. Arnold also told McCain that the Palins are “called of God and she is an Esther.”

Esther, for those not up on their Old Testament, was a Jewish woman plucked from obscurity to become Queen of Persia after winning a beauty contest. This placed her in the right place, at the right time, to intervene in a plan to annihilate the Jews. In a nutshell, when she revealed herself to be Jewish, the king halted the slaughter and instead hanged Haman, the official behind the plot.

Jews recount the tale on Purim with much gaiety and, for most, little concern about historical accuracy.

Palin, of course, was a beauty-pageant participant (while McCain has oft commented that he “never
won Miss Congeniality in the Senate,” Palin won that title in the 1984 Miss Alaska contest), now plucked from obscurity to be in a position to advise the powerful should John McCain become president.

The big question, of course, is for what vital role — what “time such as this” — is Palin being groomed?

One common theory among the Christian cognoscenti is that, just as Esther stopped a threat in Persia to wipe out the Jews, Palin must stop a threat from modern-day Persia — Iran — to wipe out Israel (which would be anathema to conservative Christians, who believe Jews must control that land when Christ returns).

Jon Wiener, blogging last month on thenation.com, took note of this suggestion and pointed out that, in the Biblical account, Esther also got the king to grant the Jews the right “to destroy, to slay . . . every people and province that oppress them,” including women and small children. Wiener suggests that, to the Christian fundamentalists, the Book of Esther appears to authorize the bombing of Iran — regardless of civilian casualties.

Jonathan Rosen at the Harvard Book Store

March 17, 2008

Everyone who lives anywhere near the Arnold Arboretum — a classification that includes everyone in Roslindale — is, or could be, a bird watcher. This isn’t my particular hobby — food is! — but even I’ve marveled at some of the birds I’ve seen outside my window during the last six months — a robin and a blue jay.

Jonathan Rosen has written a new book about the subject, “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.” He’ll be speaking Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store.Rosen is a Jewish writer I’d place in a school with Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. He’s the author of such books as “The Talmud and the Internet” and “Eve’s Apple.”

Rosen is also the editorial director of the fabulous website Nextbook.org, interesting to bibliophiles, philo-semites and Jews alike. I know Rosen from my stint at the Forward, where he edited the cultural pages. That’s how I know Rosen’s bird watching spot is Central Park.

Israel’s Livni in Boston

March 12, 2008

Israel's Foreign Minister

Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, made the rounds in Boston today. A rising star, she was the subject of a memorable profile in The New York Times Magazine. I caught most of her remarks to a gathering at the Park Plaza organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. She later appeared at the State House and will speak at the Kennedy School later today.

Her speech timed to coincide with Israel’s 60th anniversary, the tone of Livni’s remarks was subdued. Israel faces uncertain borders on at least two fronts — Lebanon to the north and Gaza to the south. “Israel is still fighting for its existence,” she said.

Much, if not most, of Livni’s speech focused on the renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, at least the portion of the PA’s Fatah faction that controls the West Bank. Gaza, Livni acknowledged, is run by Hamas, which showers missiles down upon the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

Livni’s central point that the negotiations are necessary for Israel’s survival. “Time is of the essence,” she warned, adding that “more and more changes in the conflict” are coming. Some of the forces that dictate attempting to make a deal now, she said, include anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, Arab League diplomatic action, and potential United Nations resolutions. She went so far as to allude to “international forces” being inserted into the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I took that to mean that she fears the international community will attempt to place some kind of international peace-keeping body on Israel’s borders. “Time is not working for us,” she said.

Livni also offered a slightly different take on events which followed the failed conclusion of the Oslo discussions between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David. “Frustration can lead to violence,” Livni said. “We faced an intifada after Camp David.” The general pro-Israeli view has been that Arafat and his cronies launched the violence or allowed it to start to distract from their refusal to make peace with Israel. It was, for example, not frustration that prompted Nabil Shaath, a key Arafat ally, to say as early as 1996, according to a story in the Jerusalem Post, that when negotiations eventually deadlocked, the Palestinians would return to the armed struggle and “all acts of violence” would return.

Iran, which I heard so much about during my last reporting trip in Israel, merited very little attention in the organized portion of Livni’s comments. “It needs to be stopped when it comes to its aspiration to have a nuclear weapon,” she said.

The job of being both Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians and top diplomat with members of the often hostile world community is not an easy one. She tempered her remarks with realism, even pessimism, in parts. The substance of her comments reflects the indifference and anger Israel faces from the international community, which seems to be grinding Israel’s will down as it approaches its 60th birthday.

Major Obama Warning Sign: Too Lawyerly on Farrakhan

February 27, 2008

The strength of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is his use of sweeping rhetoric that attempts to bring everyone together. Typically, this is best done in general terms, but with little reference to specifics.

When Obama was drawn into a specific discussion of the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, he gave an answer that left me cold.

Here it is in part:

“I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel’s. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct, and that the United States is in a special relationship with them, as is true with my relationship with the Jewish community.

And the reason that I have such strong support is because they know that not only would I not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form, but also because of the fact that what I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community.”

So, the first part of an answer calling for him to distance himself from Farrakhan amounts, basically, to a “some of my best friends are Jewish” response. And then he devolves into articulating his campaign’s talking point on Israel. Awkwardly, I might add. I mean, what does Obama mean by continuing to repeat “they?” Israel, Israeli Jews, American Jews? I have no idea. Then, since he’s on the topic of Israel, one might think he might make reference to Israel’s security or the threat Israel faces either from terrorism or enemy nations, such as Iran.

But it was bizarre because the primary concern American Jews have about Farrakhan is domestically-based: his record criticizing the Jewish religion and American Jews. Farrakhan’s prominence in the African-American community is relevant to American Jews who live here in this country. Israel is a secondary issue.

Furthermore, despite the praise that Obama is winning on MSNBC and elsewhere for “cleaning up” a potentially unfortunate answer, I found his rejoinder to Clinton’s call that he “reject” Farrakhan’s support disturbing: “I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There’s no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word ‘reject’ Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.”

What is this, the Harvard Law Review? To me, the Farrakhan question called for a straight-forward rejection without this lawyerly “concede the point” business.

Despite numerous e-mails from concerned relatives and some hysterical e-mail traffic, I’ve refrained from opining on the questions of Obama and the Jewish community and Obama and Israel. Most of it is way, way out of line. But there’s no question that Obama seems completely out of his comfort zone here, which, coupled with some of his foreign policy advisers, makes me worry about where a President Obama would come down when he is tested in the Middle East. His comments singling out a political party in Israel — again without reference of Israel’s security position– for criticism were also bizarre.

Sickening WordPress “Hawt Post”

February 15, 2008

 

I find it sickening that for the second day the WordPress “Hawt Post” comes from the vitriolic “Desert Peace” blog.

The “Hawt Post” is typically a WordPress blog post with the most hits that particular day, but it can be one that WordPress technicians deem hot based on their own criteria. My blog is also a WordPress blog.

This particular post, titled “Legal Slave Trade in Israel” combines a routine criticism of the security wall between Israel and the Palestinian Authority along with a critique of the treatment of non-Arab foreign workers in Israel. The post makes no reference to the wave of suicide bombing terrorist attacks which prompted Israel to construct the barrier; nor does it mention the fact that it succeeded in curbing violence against innocent victims.

It then segways into an indefensible rant against Israel and everything connected to Zionism. “Israel does not discriminate in who they discriminate against… racism, exploitation, occupation, and now slavery are an integral part of their system… I wonder what Abe Foxman would say about all of this…. I’m sure one of his cronies will direct him to this post.”

Typical of the site are the comments the post draws. Consider this from “Sharpinchitown”: “Why do they always have animal names like Foxman, Wolfson, Wolfowitz? Are they human or animals? by their behavior our answer is received.

“I understand that comments do not reflect the views of the blogger. I don’t agree with many of the comments made by commentators to Gitell.com. Having said that, I do note that the likening of Jews (such as the names listed in the comment above) to animals was a classic component of Goebbels-Hitlerite anti-Semitic propaganda.