What Really Happened at Lydda in 1948? Ari Shavit and His Critics

Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” is arguably the most important book to come out of Israel in the last twenty-five years (see my review from January 14, 2014 – http://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/the-most-important-book-to-come-out-of-israel-in-years-my-promised-land-the-triumph-and-tragedy-of-israel-by-ari-shavit/.

A number of Israeli scholars, however, have questioned Shavit’s characterization of what happened at Lydda during the 1948 War of Independence. Based on interviews Shavit conducted with the brigade commander and other eye-witnesses, the author concludes that the killing of 250 Palestinian men, women and children by Zionist troops was a necessary tragedy in the young state of Israel’s history:

“Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contact between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.” (p. 108)

Many of Shavit’s critics disagree. After reading the articles below (I am grateful to my friend Rabbi Uri Regev in Jerusalem for forwarding them to me), I am left with significant questions: Was Lydda really a “massacre” or a tragedy of war?” Were there 250 dead, or was the number closer to 100, or even less? What actually happened at Lydda and why?

The historian Benny Morris says that many Arabs were compelled by Israeli troops to flee their homes and villages, and many others fled from fear of what their own leaders claimed would happen to them should Jews take over their villages. He says that the evidence does not show the intentional creation of a massive refugee problem designed ahead of time by Israeli leadership, but rather a spontaneous response to military conditions by low-level commanders in the field.

The massive flight of Arabs from Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, the Jewish Coastal Plain, and the Upper Jordan Valley began even before a formal outbreak of war, soon after the 1947 UN Partition plan (1948, by Benny Morris, p. 94). He writes that Ben Gurion considered Ramle and Lydda in particular as dangerous “thorns” in Israel’s side  threatening Tel Aviv. He called for them to be “destroyed” (Ibid. p. 286).

The Israeli poet Natan Alterman published his poem “Al Zot” (Davar, November 1948) describing the Lydda battle soon after the event occurred thus providing context and a sense of immediacy after the fact.

The discussion among Israeli critics raises a number of questions that have special resonance today: What should be the status of Israel’s Arab citizens? Are Arab citizens of Israel treated equally to Israeli Jews as Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised? What is the future of Arab-Jewish co-existence in Israel in light of our seminal sacred moral texts:

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Adonai your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

The following link will take you to the articles listed below. It is a lengthy read (40-50 pages) but for those seriously interested in the meaning of Lydda in the history of the War of Independence, it is a necessary read – http://njbrepository.blogspot.co.il/2014/08/what-happened-at-lydda-by-martin-kramer.html

What Happened at Lydda. By Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. In his celebrated new book, Ari Shavit claims that “Zionism” committed a massacre in July 1948. Can the claim withstand scrutiny?

The Meaning of “Massacre.” By Benny Morris and Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. The debate between Benny Morris and Martin Kramer over Israel’s wartime conduct enters its second round.

Distortion and Defamation. By Martin Kramer. Mosaic, July 2014. The treatment of Lydda by Ari Shavit and my respondent Benny Morris has consequences even they didn’t intend.

Zionism’s Black Boxes. By Benny Morris. Mosaic, July 2014. Martin Kramer shows how Ari Shavit manipulates and distorts Israeli history; but Kramer has an agenda of his own. 

The Uses of Lydda. By Efraim Karsh. Mosaic, July 2014. How a confusing urban battle between two sides was transformed into a one-sided massacre of helpless victims.

Lydda, 1948: A City, a Massacre, and the Middle East Today. By Ari Shavit. The New Yorker, October 21, 2013.

What Primary Sources Tell Us About Lydda 1948. By Naomi Friedman. NJBR, February 19, 2014.

Myths and Historiography of the 1948 Palestine War Revisited: The Case of Lydda. By Alon Kadish and Avraham Sela. The Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 4 (Autumn 2005).

Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramle in 1948. By Benny Morris. The Middle East Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter 1986).

Ari Shavit with David Remnick: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel. Video. 92nd Street Y, November 26, 2013. YouTube. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox/14986978be7120d8?projector=1

 

Jewish Prague is Now Little More Than Memory – Last in a Series

If there is to be any renewal of Jewish life in Prague today, according to Prague’s Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon of the Beit Praha (“House of Prague”) congregation, it will be due to foreign expatriates (“The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe,” by Eli Valley, p. 278).

This is not to say that some young Czech Jews are not trying to create community. Those who remain in Prague – a small number – have divided into two congregations, Beit Praha (Orthodox) and Beit Simcha (“House of Joy” – Reform/Conservative) and are doing the very best they can.

Prague is an exciting city by any standard. A feast for the eyes, the city’s multiple architectural styles and beautiful buildings, narrow streets, restaurants, shops, and magnificent churches, its burgeoning economy, and the past 25 years of Czech freedom make it a welcome residence and an exciting destination for visitors.

For the Jewish traveler there are many sites of interest including the Altneuschul (“The Old New”), Spanish, and Pinchas Synagogues, several Jewish museums, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish quarter’s cemetery with graves of significant rabbis including Rabbi Judah Loew (the MAHARAL) of Golem fame.

Despite the long and rich history of the Prague Jewish community, it has suffered a fate similar to that of other Central European Jewish communities decimated by genocide, assimilation and immigration.

Over the last 800 years, the fate of the Moravian and Bohemian Jewish communities in this region was dependent on the largess of the king, and though at times Jews thrived, Prague suffered the entire list of classic anti-Semitic decrees at one time or another, including the prohibition against Jews owning land, living among Christians, belonging to guilds, and holding public office. At times Jews were forced to wear identification marks on their clothing, were restricted to peddling or money lending, paid high taxes, and were compelled to make “loans” to the royal treasury.

In good times, Jews held the status of “servi camerae – servants of the king” in which they were defended against pogroms provoked by the infamous blood libel accusation.

By the beginning of World War I, Jewish assimilation was so widespread that Judaism was all but gone from Prague though such luminaries as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka were born and raised there. By 1940, the Prague Jewish population had swelled to 55,000 to include refugees escaping the Nazis from the Sudetenland, Austria and elsewhere. After the Germans occupied Prague on March 15, 1939, Jews were expelled from all facets of the economy. Their property and belongings were stolen, and they were excluded from schools, trams, parks, and restaurants. Most of Prague’s Jews were eventually deported to Terezin, of which only 7500 survived.

After WWII, 20,000 Jews moved to Prague from the east thus making it a center of Jewish life in central Europe for a brief while. In 1948, large numbers made aliyah to Israel. After the communists came to power in 1950, 26,000 more Jews left as life became precipitously worse for those who remained.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Judaism experienced a kind of revival and became fashionable for the small remnant of young Jews whose survivor parents had remained, but assimilation and intermarriage had a continuing deleterious effect.

Today, Prague claims only 1350 registered Jews, half of whom are over the age of 70, though unofficial estimates range from between 5,000 and 20,000 of Jewish lineage.

The chronicler of Central European Jewish history, Eli Valley, blames the current Jewish leadership of Prague for its lack of organized, serious and sustained outreach to those of Jewish heritage living in the city, and he despairs of Prague’s Jewish future (Ibid, p. 26-27).

My synagogue group celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat with the Reform Beit Simcha in the magnificent Spanish Synagogue. Beit Simcha has no rabbi, and so services that evening were led by a brilliant young woman who works as a professional translator. Our group of 30 dwarfed the number of locals present. The prayer leader and the Orthodox son of the Executive Director of the organized Prague Jewish community joined us later for dinner and conversation.

Though these two young Jews were upbeat about what is happening in their respective congregations, I was not persuaded that the seeds for renewal were there. Though there is a kosher restaurant in the city, the Jewish communal organization oversees and maintains all Jewish sites, and Shabbat and holiday services are held, little else seems to be going on.

My own sense of this very small community is that it will remain small. Anti-Semitism in Prague is currently insignificant, but the history and state of the community does not suggest that a large scale revival is imminent. Indeed, despite the magnificence of Prague, the rich history of Jewish life there reaching back a millennium, the beauty of its synagogues, and the material wealth of many Prague Jews, Judaism in Prague is now little more than memory.

This is the fourth and last in a series of blogs on Central European Jewish communities – see:

Only the Guilty are Guilty – Reflections About Germany Then and Now on Kristallnacht – Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Dark and Heavy Cloud of Memory Hovering Over Budapest’s Jews – Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pavel Stransky – Terezin, Auschwitz and the Death March of a Survivor – Tuesday, November 18, 2014

BDS Is Not The Way at UCLA – Statement by Assembly Member Richard Bloom

What is needed today vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not BDS votes against Israel or Israeli collective punishment against innocent Palestinian families who happen to be related to terrorists (i.e. illegal and proven ineffective home demolitions). What is needed are Israeli and Palestinian statesmen whose cool heads, calming rhetoric, condemnation of violence, and commitment to return to serious negotiations to achieve a two state solution to this conflict before more blood is shed and suffering is experienced.

I wish to commend California State Assembly member Richard Bloom who released a Statement on UCLA’s student government’s endorsement of divestment policy against Israel yesterday. Here it is in full:

“I am outraged by the decision of the UCLA student government to pass a resolution supporting the divestment of University funds from American companies lawfully doing business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Ironically, this vote – targeting only Jews and Israelis – takes place while Palestinians have been openly celebrating the vicious murder of five innocent individuals in Jerusalem.

The supporters of the UCLA student government measure claim it is in the interest of promoting human rights. Yet, there are no human rights concerns voiced about the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli civilians by Hamas this past summer. Nor is there thought given to human rights violated by the premeditated, Hamas-led murders of three young men that preceded that shelling. The hypocrisy is undeniable.

Fortunately, a vote of eight student leaders does not represent, in any way, the majority of UCLA students, 2,000 of whom were brave enough to sign a petition opposing the short-sighted and polarizing resolution. I am gratified by Chancellor Block’s statement that “The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.

The press release notes that This action is contradictory to U.S. and California economic policy.  In fact, just this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to increase business between California and Israeli-based companies. This MOU recognizes that Israel and California house many top environmental and technology businesses specializing in areas like water efficiency and renewable energy.

Sadly, this action only increases the already hostile campus climate for Jewish students at UCLA and directs undue anger towards the Jewish community as a whole.  Instead of focusing on promoting conflict, the student government should be enacting on constructive policies that have real objective and positive goals and that don’t endorse vitriol and alienate their fellow students.”

Richard Bloom chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation.  He represents California’s 50th Assembly District, which comprises the communities of Agoura Hills, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Hollywood, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Topanga, West Hollywood, and West Los Angeles.

 

Pavel Stransky – Terezin, Auschwitz and the Death March of a Survivor

As we drove into Terezin where 33,000 Jews died and from which 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz, the place appeared as a charming medieval walled-town graced with a central square beneath gentle-leaved trees.

Terezin, a medieval town constructed by Joseph II for Maria Teresa, was established by the Nazis in 1940 to be a model camp used to persuade the International Red Cross that Jews were there for their protection and led a normal life.

The camp would receive 150,000 Jews including 15,000 children from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Most Jews stayed 6 months before being transported to Auschwitz. The camp crammed 80,000 souls together. Today, 1000 people live there.

Pavel Stransky was one of only 17,247 survivors. At 93, this warm-hearted, articulate and loving grandfather guided us through the camp and shared his story.

He was born in Prague and met the love of his life, Vera, as a young Jewish girl in 1938. They became engaged but before the marriage could occur he was taken to Terezin in 1941. By chance, Vera and her parents were on the next transport.

Vera and Pavel married in Terezin on December 16, 1943 in a non-Jewish ceremony one day before he would be transported to Auschwitz. Not knowing what would meet them there, Vera and her mother (her father had already died) voluntarily joined him. Upon arrival, Vera’s mother was gassed. Pavel and Vera were selected for work and separated.

Pavel lost half his weight by the time he was liberated. At 70 pounds and starving, he was forced on a 150-mile death march from Auschwitz and back to Terezin before Soviet troops liberated him.

Of Auschwitz, Pavel wrote:

Had Dante Alighieri seen the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of the night of December 20, 1943, he probably would have been ashamed of his sober description of Hell.” (Pavel Stransky – “As Messengers for the Victims”, publ. 2000, p. 14).

Before being deported from Prague at the beginning of the war, Pavel had fortuitously taken a teacher training seminar, a role he credits with saving his life.

The Children’s Block [at Auschwitz] was conceived by Fredy Hirsch, a handsome man who … could have been a model in ancient Greece… Fredy loved children and they …worshipped him.”

In October 1943, Fredy asked Dr. Mengele to make a children’s block out of one of the barracks, and Pavel became one of the coordinators.

The Czech Israeli writer, Otto B. Kraus, tells the story of the 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau in which Fredy and Pavel worked. The children’s instructors organized clandestine lessons, sing-alongs and staged plays and charades (all described in Kraus’ novel “The Painted Wall”).

Mengele sustained The Children’s Block to provide the Nazis with an alibi to refute the rumors of the Final Solution. It became a shelter and haven for the children, who would all eventually perish in the gas chambers. 83% of the 50 Children’s Block coordinators, however, were still alive in May 1945 because they had spent days inside and out of the bad weather. The coordinators’ mission to create a make-believe world for the children, humanize and bring happiness into the last days of life for the most innocent victims also helped sustain them. (Ibid., Stransky, pps. 44-45)

Upon liberation, Pavel returned to Prague and advertised in local papers with the hope that Vera survived. One day she knocked on his door. Ecstatic, they married a second time under a chupah with real wine and a glass for breaking, and they bore and raised four children and six grandchildren. Vera died fifteen years ago.

As we toured Terezin, Pavel told us that the Nazis’ intention wasn’t just to murder Jews, but

…to systematically humiliate people’s human dignity …, until the person had been transformed into a starving skeleton that for days and nights without end longs only for a piece of bread… in order [for the Nazis] to hate and despise the product of their own perversion …No one who has not gone through it … can imagine how hours, days, weeks, and months of an empty stomach can hurt; how it can dominate all the thoughts of someone who is eternally hungry, and how it focuses those thoughts on only one thing: just once to eat one’s fill!” (ibid. p. 37)

Pavel showed us a most remarkable synagogue in the camp, one that was hidden from the Nazis and that he (Pavel) did not know existed when he lived there, a windowless 20 X 20 feet room at the end of a drive. Its interior was painted in beautiful Hebrew calligraphy with passages inscribed from Tanakh and Tahanun prayers. Here is but one inscription from the Shacharit service:

Concerning our brethren from the house of Israel, who in sorrow and in bondage, who between the sea and dry land – May God be merciful to them and deliver them from hardship to ease, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, and let it happen speedily.”

A Dark and Heavy Cloud of Memory Hovering Over Budapest’s Jews

I have been acutely aware of the Holocaust since I was a young child in the mid-1950s and first saw on my parents’ bookshelf a copy of Life Magazine’s photo display of the liberated death camps.

When I became a young adult I read and studied everything I could get my hands on about the Shoah, and over the decades I have seen countless documentaries and feature films on that singular tragedy in Jewish history.

However, when my synagogue group recently visited Central Europe, I felt overwhelmed in a completely new way by the dark clouds of memory that hovered everywhere we visited. I have found myself rethinking what it means to be Jew even now after all these years. Our journey to those places where Jewish communities once thrived but are no more, standing on the streets and in the plazas where Nazis deported and murdered Jews, where Hitler screamed at the masses and brown shirts burned books, where magnificent synagogues are now empty or were destroyed, and stood in the room where the Nazis decided on the Final Solution changed me. It will take some time, I suspect, for me to understand fully how.

Of the three major cities we visited – Budapest, Prague and Berlin (we also spent time in Bratislava and the Terrezin Concentration Camp), I was most depressed by what we found in Hungary. Despite its rich Jewish history dating back 1800 years and its once large Jewish population in Budapest and the surrounding country-side, today only 80,000 Jews remain in the city, and most are highly assimilated and elderly.

The Jewish community estimates that there are today only 8000 members of Jewish communal organizations, and only 500 Jews are active and regularly attend synagogue. There are, however, 1000 Jewish students attending Jewish schools. It is those children who offer the only real hope of any kind of Hungarian Jewish revival – such that it is.

Modern Hungarian Jewish history is well-known. Once the Germans invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, Adolph Eichmann quickly and efficiently coordinated the liquidation of all the Jews in the Hungarian countryside. Within a year the Nazis, in alliance with Hungarian anti-Semites, murdered 700,000 of Hungary’s 800,000 Jewish population. Indeed, between May and July, 1944, the Nazis sent 12,000 Jews daily to the gas chambers all but extinguishing what had been the largest Jewish community in Central Europe.

During this onslaught some Jews escaped the terror in the country-side by flooding into Budapest, thus swelling that population to between 250,000 and 280,000 Jews. Though a few famous statesmen tried to save Hungary’s Jews (e.g. Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Charles Lutz of Switzerland, and the Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasco – along with the Jewish attorney Rudolph Kastner), Hungarian Jews were essentially doomed.

The Hungarians were among the most vicious anti-Semites in Europe. In Budapest, the Nazis stepped aside and allowed the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen to do much of their dirty work. The Arrow Cross shot ten to fifteen thousand Jews in the ghetto and marched hundreds to the Danube River where they ordered the Jews to remove their shoes and then shot them into the waters that turned blood-red.

The “Shoe Memorial” of 50 bronze shoes, conceived by film director Can Togay and the sculptor Gyula Pauer, marks the place at the river’s edge just three hundred meters from the ornate Hungarian Parliament building where the crime was done (for photos, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoes_on_the_Danube_Bank). It is noteworthy, as well, reflective of Hungary’s refusal to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust, that the plaque at this site mentions only “victims,” not “Jewish victims” of the Arrow Cross militia.

At the end of the war only 100,000 Jews were left alive in Hungary and only because the Nazis took over Hungary so late and didn’t have time to finish what they set out to do before the allies won the war. The Soviet Communists promised an end to all forms of discrimination thus giving Jews a measure of hope, but the persistence of Hungarian anti-Semitism resulted in 20,000 Jews (one fifth of the city’s Jewish population) fleeing Hungary during the 1956 uprising.

Today, the Hungarian government is right-wing and authoritarian. Though it officially condemns anti-Semitism, it has done little to stop anti-Semitic skinhead activity and the publication of anti-Semitic books and periodicals. Hungary has not at all processed the past and takes no responsibility for the crimes it committed, as has Germany. Nonetheless, the writer Eli Valley (see below) notes that since the end of the Communist era in 1989 all religious groups, including Hungary’s Jews, have experienced a kind of revival.

There are two small Progressive Reform Jewish communities in Budapest (see http://www.reformjudaism.org/budapest-culture-community) and there is a Jewish Studies program at the Central European University in Budapest that has taken on an important role in revitalizing Jewish studies in the former Soviet bloc (http://web.ceu.hu/jewishstudies/).

For those who remain, there are only a few options to live a Jewish live in Budapest. However, most Hungarian Jews now wonder whether, indeed, they even belong in Hungary. Our Jewish guide told us that if conditions worsen she, her teen-age son and husband (a journalist who was fired when he reported candidly on the government’s right-wing authoritarian policies) will certainly, despite generations of their family having lived in Hungary, leave.

For a detailed description of the Hungarian Jewish community and its history, see the excellent work The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide and Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, and Budapest, by Eli Valley (publ. Aaronson, 2005). It is out of print, but can be purchased through Amazon.

A Weeping Isaac Alone in the Field

Chayei Sarah is a monumental Torah portion in the Book of Genesis (23:1-25:18) that establishes Hevron as one of our people’s holiest cities in the land of Israel and tells the story of the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah. Thus, for the first time in Jewish history we witness the passing of the baton of history from one generation to the next.

We, the current generation, however, have yet to fulfill our Jewish destiny. Until there is peace between the tribes of Israel and between Israel and the Palestinians, we will not have fulfilled our raison d’etre as a people to be rod’fei shalom, pursuers of peace.

I offer a poetic midrash on Isaac’s and Rebekah’s encounter leading to their marriage. I love this story because their meeting is pure and sweet, and it suggests a paradigm of what is possible not only between individuals, but between the tribes that comprise the Jewish people today (e.g. Hareidi, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, liberal and right-wing Zionists, American, Israeli, Russian, British, European, Latin, etc.), and the peoples of the Middle East who know far too much polarization, suspicion, distrust, and hatred of each other.

A Weeping Isaac Alone in the Field

To be alone amidst shifting wheat
And rocks and sun
Beneath stirred-up clouds
And singing angel voices
Audible only by the wind.

‘I’ve secluded myself
As my father did
When he went out alone
Leaving all he knew
For a place he’d never been
That God would show him.

I can do nothing else myself
Because my father broke my heart
And crushed my soul
When he betrayed me
By stealing me away one early morning
Before my mother awoke
And nearly offered me up to his God.

When my mother learned what he had done,
Her soul passed from the world.

O how she loved me!
And filled me up
With laughter, love and tears.

Bereft now of them both,
I’m desolate in this world
And in this field.

O Compassionate One –
Do You hear me
From this arid place
Filled with snakes and beasts,
hatred and vengeance?

I sit here needing You.’

As if in response,
Suddenly from afar
There appears a caravan
Of people and camels,
Led by Eliezer, Abraham’s servant,
With a young girl.

Isaac, burdened by his grief
Does not look nor see.
He sits still
Lasuach basadeh
Meditating and weeping
Beneath the afternoon sun
And swirling clouds
And singing angels
Whom he cannot hear.

Rebekah asks:
‘Who is that man crying alone in the field?’
Eliezer says:
‘He is my master Isaac, Your intended one,
Whose seed you will carry
Into the future.’

Vatipol min hagamal
And she fell from her camel”
Shocked and afraid
Onto the hard ground
Yearning.

She veiled her face
And bowed her head
And together Rebekah and Isaac
Entered Sarah’s tent,
And she comforted him.

President Ruvi Rivlin’s Remarkable Speech to the Israeli Arabs of Kafr Qasim

The new President of the State of Israel, Ruvi Rivlin (my cousin), makes me enormously proud of him and his Presidency, now just several months old. He was invited to visit an Israeli Palestinian village that had suffered a massacre on October 26th, 1956, perpetrated by Israeli Border Police.

My colleague, Rabbi Ron Kronish, the Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council of Israel, recently wrote in The Huffington Post of both the Israeli crime and the invitation given to President by the village’s mayor to speak there (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-kronish/the-president-of-israel-r_b_6120054.html). Recalling the crime Ron wrote that Israeli police

“…killed 48 Arab civilians who had violated a curfew (that they had not heard about in time). The border policemen who were involved in the shooting were brought to trial and found guilty and sentenced to prison terms (but all received pardons and were released within a year)”

President Rivlin’s speech may go down in Israeli history as one of the most important speeches ever delivered by a sitting Israeli President promoting mutual respect between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians. He delivered it at the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim in the Israeli “Triangle” in central Israel near the “green line” where the massacre took place.

Ruvi notes that his visit is not the first time in our family when efforts were made to make peace between Arabs and Jews in that location. His uncle, and my great-great uncle, Avram Shapira, came to Kafr Qasim in 1957 after the massacre to try and restore peace between its town’s Israeli Arabs and Israelis Jews.

President Shimon Peres had already apologized on behalf of the people and State of Israel for this  crime against the Kafr Qasim population, and this past month President Rivlin went further still in this speech.

You can read the entirety of the speech – see link below. Though Ruvi is against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has based his presidency in part on promoting democracy and equal rights for all Israeli citizens, including the 20% (1.5 million Israeli citizens) that is Arab Palestinian. He acknowledges in this speech that Arab Israelis have and continue to suffer second class citizenship status and that this must change.

President Rivlin’s outreach to the Arab community of Israel, which began last month in a video in which he sat silently with a ten-year old Arab boy from Jaffa calling out for an end to bullying, racism and discrimination. (see http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4577276,00.html) have had in this short time a profound impact upon the Arab citizens of Israel and Israelis who are fearful of the rise of racism and intolerance in Israeli society.

It is a travesty that Ruvi’s open-hearted and supportive outreach to Israeli Arab citizens is not being repeated by some members of the Israeli government of PM Netanyahu, who are calling instead for Israeli Arab citizens who don’t like current Israeli policies towards their communities to be transferred to the West Bank and to live under the Palestinian Authority (e.g. PM Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman).

And it is a calumny that Israeli right-wing fanatics have branded President Ruvy Rivlin a traitor to Israel. In the last two months, like the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before him who sought an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these right-wing fanatic Jews have dressed Ruvi in a kafiya and sent it streaming everywhere over the internet.

I pray for Ruvi’s good health and for his success. He represents the very best of Israel. Like President Shimon Peres before him, President Ruvi Rivlin is lifting the nation beyond politics that the state of Israel may fulfill its destiny as a democratic society for all its citizens.

He said in his speech:

We have to find a path. This path it seems will not be laid on the foundations of love, but it can and must be built with an objective perspective, and with mutual respect and commitment.”

President Rivlin’s speech at Kfar Qasim – http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/PressRoom/2014/Pages/President-Rivlin-addresses-Kafr-Qasim-memorial-ceremony-26-Oct-2014.aspx

Only the Guilty are Guilty – Reflections About Germany Then and Now on Kristallnacht

Only the guilty are guilty.

I am not one who accepts the Biblical transference of guilt from one generation to the next (i.e. “…punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Exodus 20:5, 34:7, and Numbers 14:18).

Innocent children should not have to suffer punishment for the evil deeds of their parents.

My predecessor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Max Nussbaum (z’l), who served the liberal Jewish community of Berlin from 1936-40, would often travel the Jewish world and report back to our community about what he learned.

Max had become an international Zionist leader, and one year the West German government invited him to visit Germany. He returned and told our community, “It is not yet time for us to buy Volkswagens.”

My trip two weeks ago with 30 congregants to Budapest, Prague, Terrezin, and Bratislava was deeply moving and disturbing, yet in some respects also hopeful. (In future blogs I will offer more reflections).

I had visited Germany for the first time in 1969. As a college student, I crossed by train from Austria through East Germany into West Berlin, and then I walked through Check-Point Charlie into East Berlin and back. Thirty years later, in 1999, I visited yet again.

In each of the first two trips, I suspected any German over the age of 40 in 1969 and 70 in 1999 of being implicit in the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others (e.g. Romas, homosexuals, Catholics, communists, the elderly, children, disabled, and infirm). I felt exceptionally uncomfortable spending any money in Germany at that time.

This time, I saw few people walking the streets over the age of 85 who might have been suspect, though the elderly I did see may have been Russian Jews who settled in Berlin in the last 25 years since the FSU’s dissolution.

This time as well, I was struck by how deeply Germany has taken responsibility for the crimes against Jews and humanity perpetrated by the Nazi generation. Memorials to the victims and museums commemorating those events are everywhere. The large Holocaust Memorial and museum, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, and located walking distance from the Brandenburg Gate, is a powerful statement of memory in the very heart of Berlin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_to_the_Murdered_Jews_of_Europe).

The Berlin Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind (http://www.jmberlin.de/main/EN/04-About-The-Museum/00-about-the-museum.php) is also a moving record of past and present Jewish life in Germany.

And there are other museums that highlight Nazi terror and former Jewish life. We visited the Wannsee Conference Center (now a memorial) where Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich and the top leadership of the SS formalized plans to murder all Jews in German-occupied territory and beyond (the total was 11 million).

We visited the Berlin-Gruenwald Train Station (“Track 17 Memorial”) which between 1941 and 1945 was one of the major sites of deportation of the Berlin Jews to the ghettos of Lizmannstadt and Warsaw, and the camps at Terrezin and Auschwitz.

Of all the memorials in Berlin, however, the most powerful to me are the more than 40,000 brass-topped cobblestones (stolperstein – from the German “stumbling blocks”) created by German artist Gunter Demnig, who has installed these small memorials at the front entrance of the residence where a Holocaust victim last lived or worked before being deported. On each cobblestone Demnig stamps the details of the individual – the name, year of birth, the fate, the dates of deportation and death, if known. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein).

German school children visit all these sites as part of their curriculum and learn of Nazi crimes. Indeed, today Germany is the hope of Europe. Jews are more welcome there than in most other European countries.

US Ambassador to Germany John Emerson (friends to a number of us from his years living in Los Angeles) met with us at the American Embassy just meters from the Brandenburg Gate for more than 80 minutes. He described candidly a Germany that is not only a very close ally to the United States despite NSA eaves-dropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but of Israel as well. He affirmed that there is little if any significant anti-Semitism in Germany, but cautioned against becoming complacent.

Despite this, I felt everywhere the ghosts of murdered Jews. On this anniversary of Kristallnacht 76 years ago today, I am grateful to the people and government of Germany for the t’shuvah they have sought to make.

I am grateful, as well, to the state of Israel for being our people’s refuge and strongest defense.

And I am grateful to the United States for being a nation where Jews and every other minority and religious community can live and thrive unfettered.

I came across a moving poem by Kenn Allan remembering Kristallnacht (a term, by the way, that was coined by the Nazis – lit. “Night of Broken Glass” – and not by Jews. Jews call November 9, 1938 “The Day of the Pogrom”). See – http://kennallan.com/poems/time/kristallnacht.html

Zichronam livracha. May the memory of the righteous be remembered for a blessing.

Congressman Henry Waxman – An American Hero

Few in the history of the United States Congress have so positively impacted the lives of millions of Americans and changed the way the US does business as has Congressman Henry Waxman, who leaves office January 2nd after serving in the House of Representatives for forty years.

Henry has served the district of my congregation for most of that time, and this past Shabbat evening hundreds in our community came to honor him and express our collective gratitude for his life-time of service not just to us here in Los Angeles, but to the nation as a whole.

Henry is a strong and principled man. His Jewish values have guided him from his earliest years growing up in Boyle Heights, and he believes that good government can overcome any entrenched power that eclipses the public’s interest and bring important benefits to people all over the country.

One must wonder, however, in light of the current dysfunction of our federal government, how he has been able to be so remarkably prolific as a legislator. I believe he has succeeded for many reasons. Henry is legally and politically skillful, keenly intelligent, moral, savvy, patient, persistent, perseverent, and blessed with a quick wit and disarming sense of humor.

When Henry entered the California legislature as a young man, and then Congress in the post-Watergate years (1974), he also took seriously the challenge of mastering the legislative process. He became an expert in the health care system and the science of the environment, as well as a thoughtful advocate of the American-Israel strategic relationship. Henry also mastered the budgetary process and devoted himself as both a majority leader and then minority leader to government oversight. He reached out across the aisle and successfully included Republican co-sponsors in all legislation he authored (one of the secrets to his legislative success), except one, the Affordable Care Act, which frustrated him because so many of the ideas incorporated in the bill had been suggested by Republicans.

Five years ago Henry gave me a copy of his memoir The Waxman Report, (still available from his local office) a title drawn from his family’s early east Los Angeles newspaper called “The Waxman Reporter.” His book is a chronicle of the challenges, successes and failures that he faced in his 40-year congressional career and in the California legislature, and is a veritable guide in how to be effective as elected public servants.

Most members of Congress would be thrilled to claim success in shepherding one or two bills into law. Henry’s record of accomplishment is one of the most expansive and distinguished in the history of the House of Representatives. Here is a partial list of what he has succeeded in bringing into law:

• He challenged Big Tobacco, forced a showdown with the CEOs of all the major tobacco companies, shined a light on the threats to the health and well-being of millions of Americans by emphasizing the addictive character of nicotine and its many health risks, the tobacco companies’ deliberate marketing of cigarettes to children, their manipulation of the nicotine level in their products, the number of consequent deaths, and the drain on the America’s health care system;
• He passed bills to ban smoking in restaurants and on domestic airplanes;
• He passed the Clean Air Act limiting toxic air emissions thereby protecting the ozone layer of the atmosphere, limiting the release of cancer-causing toxic emissions and other hazardous air pollutants thus saving tens of thousands of lives;
• He expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor and elderly;
• He funded the first government-sponsored HIV/AIDS research;
• He passed bills lowering drug prices through generic alternatives thus saving the American taxpayer trillions of dollars;
• He fostered the development of hundreds of new drugs to treat rare diseases (Orphan Drug Act);
• He got nutritional labels placed on food packaging (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act; Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act);
• He passed laws to keep food free of pesticides (Food Quality Protection Act);
• He cleaned up the nation’s water supplies (Safe Drinking Water Act);
• He held hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball resulting in the Clean Sports Act;
• He established federal standards for nursing homes to protect the elderly from abuse and neglect;
• He sought to stop taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse in areas from Wall Street to Hurricane Katrina clean-up, and to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Henry Waxman has been as effective as any legislator in the last century of the American Congress. He succeeded because he and his staff were always prepared, always smarter and more skillful than his opposition and the most powerful special interests. No one ever intimidated him.

All the while, Henry attended to his district. Recently, a woman told me that she had approached Henry after her husband got sick as a consequence of his army service in the first Gulf War. He had lost his health insurance, the family had gone bankrupt and was on the verge of losing their home. He eventually died, but Henry saved this woman’s home from dispossession.

His support for the security of the state of Israel and for the liberation of Soviet and Syrian Jewry, distinguishes Henry as well in late 20th century Jewish history.

Henry is blessed with an extraordinary wife and life-partner, Janet, who is as smart, sophisticated, insightful, astute, refined, and decent as he. Her support, counsel and partnership with Henry have not only served him well, but also our nation. Together, they have a wonderful family and are deeply committed and educated Jews.

My wife Barbara and I consider Henry and Janet Waxman as dear friends. As they begin a new stage of their lives together, I wish them good health, joy with their children and grandchildren (note: Henry is the only sitting member of Congress who has three sabra grandchildren), and their many friends.

Despite Henry’s retirement from Congress, something tells me that America has not heard the last of Henry Waxman. He has still much to contribute to the nation, and I suspect he will do so with his characteristic intelligence, passion and skill.

May Henry Waxman’s legacy of service to our nation be the standard against which all current and future members of Congress be evaluated.

The Jewish Vote in Mid-Terms – No Significant Change Polling Reveals

Despite the successes of the Republican party in these mid-term elections resulting in Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, polls suggest that American Jews (representing 2-3% of the voting public) have not shifted in our attitudes and policy preferences over the last three congressional elections.

I participated today in a national J Street conference call featuring the Founder and President of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s Political Director, Dan Kalik, and Jim Gersten, a well-known and veteran pollster who conducted surveys on election night with 800 representative American Jews.

The following points were made:

1. The American Jewish vote is still a rock-solid Democratic constituency. 70% of American Jews voted for Democrats suggesting that efforts by those on the political right to score points by continually attacking President Obama in his relationship with the State of Israel did not resonate with Jewish voters.

2. 84% of American Jews support a reasonable deal with Iran in current discussions that would permit Iran to have use of nuclear power for civilian purposes as well as continual in-depth international inspection of Iranian nuclear sites.

3. 80% of the American Jewish community supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in theory. 77% support a two-state solution when details of an agreement are spelled out.

4. 57% of the American Jewish community gives President Obama a positive  approval rating, 16% greater than the American community as a whole. American Jews give the Republican Congress 18% approval and Republicans a 71% unfavorable rating.

5. 85% of American Jews support active United States involvement in seeking an Israeli-Palestinian two state solution. 72% of American Jews support the US publicly disagreeing with Israeli and Palestinian positions. However, if the US would publicly disagree only with Israel, 48% would approve as opposed to 52% who would disapprove, suggesting that American Jews do not like Israel being singled out unfairly for criticism.

6. 80% of American Jews still support a 2 state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite this summer’s Gaza War.

The three panelists were asked what they thought President Obama would now do relative to foreign affairs having lost both houses of Congress. They reasoned that little will be done on the domestic front, but as other past presidents have focused much of their time on foreign affairs in their final two years in office, they expect the Administration to do the same.

Despite the current tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, a chief concern of the Obama Administration has always been that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves American interests in the Middle East. It is very possible, therefore, that the President will re-launch a new peace effort, despite well-known personal antipathy between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

7. 53% of the American Jewish voting public favors Prime Minister Netanyahu, about the same as we favor President Obama.

8. When asked if Bibi’s policies have helped or hurt the US-American strategic relationship, 21% of American Jews say that it has not hurt the relationship; 40% say it has harmed the relationship; and 40% say it has had no effect. [Note: The figure that 40% believe that Bibi’s policies and treatment of President Obama have hurt the US-Israeli relationship is stunning in the history of American Israeli history. These statistics suggest that whereas American Jews respect the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, we do not necessarily respect his views, policies and behavior towards the American Administration.

In this election, J Street endorsed 95 candidates for the House and Senate and raised $2.4 million for races representing by far the largest single source of pro-Israel funds in the nation’s capital. Of the 95 races, 77 J Street endorsed candidates won their contests including both Democrats and Republicans. Candidates endorsed by J Street agree to advocate for a strong US-Israeli relationship and American engagement in advocating for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

A concluding thought: For Democrats, a certain amount of despair has accompanied this mid-term election. That being said, the results may be the very impetus the President needs to achieve foreign policy goals that include Iran, ISIS, Ukraine, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. If that is the case, then this mid-term will not have had a negative effect on achieving important American foreign policy goals.

For all the polling data, see J Street’s website home page http://www.jstreet.org and follow links.

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