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Freedom and lies: The Swedish newspaper affair

Abraham H. FoxmanOp-Ed
Published: 11 September 2009
 
 

Christian student group case poses dilemmas for Jewish groups

WASHINGTON – Is it discriminatory for government to fund some forms of discrimination and not others? And what does “funding” mean?

These questions are at the center of a case concerning the right of a Christian student group to recognition on its campus.

The Christian Legal Society’s quest for official status at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law has wound its way through the courts and now is under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court took up the case in December; it has yet to set a date for hearings.

On the Orthodox side, Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union have filed separate briefs friendly to the Christian Legal Society. So has the National Council of Young Israel, joining a brief that includes Muslim, Christian, and Sikh groups.

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Orthodox Jewish groups say a Supreme Court case dealing with a campus ban on an exclusively Christian society would adversely affect Hillel — some of its participants are shown meeting on campus — and other Jewish student organizations. Max Orenstein

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are planning to file separate briefs friendly to the university. The American Jewish Congress chose not to file a brief.

The Orthodox vs. secular alignment is not unusual in such church-state cases. However, subtle differences over the case’s ramifications and over strategy have emerged between groups on the same side.

The crux of the dilemma for Jewish groups is whether the greater threat to Jews is posed by groups that exclude — or by marginalizing groups that exclude. The Christian Legal Society requires a signed commitment to what it defines as Christian principles, including proscribing premarital sex and defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. The society wants Hastings, which receives state and federal funds, to allocate it the same funding due other on-campus groups and it wants equal access to campus facilities.

The Orthodox Union’s brief emphasizes the threat that the law school’s lower court victories pose to the ability of OU’s student affiliates, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and the Jewish Student Union, as well as other Jewish student associations, to control membership and leadership.

“A Jewish campus organization such as Hillel would be compelled to admit adherents of Jews for Jesus into its membership,” the OU brief says. “Not only would such requirements redefine the group, they would likely drive away members who wish to congregate with co-religionists, free from proselytizing.”

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director and its counsel in this case, said the school’s refusal to recognize the Christian society violated the group’s constitutional rights.

“They are excluding this group because of a viewpoint,” he said. “This is a state university, and the state is not entitled under the First Amendment, under the free exercise of religion or freedom of association, to say these are the conditions under which to exercise your rights.”

For the ADL, the danger lies in the prospect of federal funding for a group that not only requires Christian commitment but the exclusion of gays.

“We really see this is as a discrimination case,” said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s civil rights director. “What if a club formed that said no Jews? Any organization that says they’re opposed to Jews, women, blacks, gays — if CLS succeeds, public-funded universities will have to fund it.”

The ADL and Agudah, from opposing sides, see far-reaching consequences for funding for faith groups in general. The Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Committee see the case more narrowly affecting student activities.

Lauter says the case has ramifications for the efforts by Jewish civil rights groups to get the Obama administration to make good on promises to restrict faith-based funding for social activism to groups that do not proselytize or discriminate in their hiring.

“This would open the door up for federal funds to be used to discriminate in the hiring and firing of people,” Lauter said. “It’s antithetical to democracy.”

The AJC joined the ADL in its letter this month to the White House regarding faith-based funding, but Richard Foltin, the AJC’s legislative director, said the Hastings case was unrelated.

“I wouldn’t say one motivates the other,” he said.

In fact, Foltin said, AJC was driven to file an amicus brief because the Christian society insists on receiving the same direct funding from the university that other groups receive. Had the society simply asked for the same on-campus status of other groups — access to space and facilities, Foltin said — AJC might not have joined the case.

Lauter says ADL sees any university sanction of the group as crossing a line.

“There’s no distinction — once you open the door up, it’s open,” she said, adding that the Christian society was free to meet off-campus.

Similarly, whereas the Orthodox Union’s brief focuses principally on the ramifications for student groups, Agudah tells the Supreme Court in its brief that upholding lower courts’ decisions favoring Hastings would have dire consequences for expression of faith generally.

“Applying these laws to Orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues, federal, state, or local governments could relegate Orthodox Jews and our institutions to second-class status, ineligible to participate equally in society,” the Agudah brief says. “Such a result cannot be reconciled with our nation’s foundational concept of religious freedom.”

Abba Cohen, Agudah’s Washington director, counted off the programs that could be adversely affected, including state and federal assistance for disabled students, remedial teaching, disaster relief, and homeland security assistance for securing Jewish institutions.

“So much of our religious life involves separation between the genders and services and activities that are exclusive to the Jewish faith,” he said. “This really hits at the hearts of our religious practice.”

Hastings’ inclination to protect gays from discrimination — a key factor cited repeatedly in the university’s brief — is a matter of “contemporary mores” and not law, Cohen argues.

“One would need a much, much higher level of state interest to infringe upon” the rights of religious groups, he said. “You’re dealing with association rights, free speech rights, you’re dealing with the very things which make religion what it is.”

The AJCongress’ board debated whether to file a brief, but found itself torn between the dangers each side sees and decided against, said Marc Stern, the group’s legal counsel and acting executive director.

Stern says the dilemma reflects broader Jewish community tensions.

“Does Jewish security lie in eliminating any vestige of discrimination in a public space?” he asked, “or does it lie in people drawing lines for ideological reasons to meet privately?”

JTA

 
 

Pro-Israel groups set to counter campus apartheid claims

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An “apartheid” wall erected during the last week of February at UCLA features information critical of, if not hostile, to Israel. StandWithUs

At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off, and Jewish students and pro-Israel groups have been readying themselves to respond in force.

Unlike past years, when intense pro-Palestinian activity in the wake of Israel’s offensives in Gaza and Lebanon caught many Jewish students off guard, this year the pro-Israel community is ready with initiatives of its own.

The largest effort, Israel Peace Week, is helping to coordinate responses at 28 campuses and counting. StandWithUs, the Los-Angeles based pro-Israel group, is promoting a U.S. speaking tour by Israeli soldiers to counter claims that the Israel Defense Forces engaged in widespread misconduct during 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The David Project, the Anti-Defamation League, and CAMERA all have made material available online to counter the apartheid charge and help students disseminate pro-Israel literature.

Hasbara Fellowships, a campus Israel group affiliated with the outreach group Aish Hatorah, is promoting a film about anti-Semitism on campus through the Website Campus Intifada. And in Canada, where Israel Apartheid Week activity is often far more intense than in the United States, a pro-Israel initiative called Size Doesn’t Matter enjoyed a brief spell of notoriety when it released a sexually suggestive video that spoofed Israel’s smallness.

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In advance of Israel Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel public relations house BlueStarPR released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — anti-Israel fixation syndrome.

Continuing the below-the-belt theme, the pro-Israel PR house BlueStar released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — Anti-Israel Fixation Syndrome.

“On the pro-Israel side, I think there’s much more of a focus on this week than I’ve ever seen before,” said Eliot Mathias, the director of Hasbara Fellowships. “So many different organizations and groups. There is more of an awareness of what’s happening.”

Now in its sixth year, Israel Apartheid Week is actually two weeks, running March 1 to 14. Mainly confined to university campuses, the internationally coordinated series of events aims to reinforce the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa and strengthen the activist tools that helped bring that regime to its knees.

Events often employ an element of political street theater — obstructing campus byways, for instance, with mock Israeli checkpoints or an “apartheid wall” — in addition to more conventional lectures and film screenings. Israel Apartheid Week is closely aligned with the so-called BDS movement — an acronym for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — and calls for an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

Given the harsh rhetoric and strident anti-Israel policies encouraged by the events, Israel Apartheid Week has united a broad spectrum of Jewish groups that while often agreeing on few other Middle East questions, have all condemned the Israel-South Africa analogy as illegitimate and anti-peace.

Joining StandWithUs, the David Project, and Hasbara Fellowships in their condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week are J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.

J Street has taken a slightly different tack from the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus fliers in favor of a campaign it calls Invest Don’t Divest, which aims to promote fund-raising for cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians that “help set the context for a sustainable peace.” A spokesperson for J Street told JTA the group did not want its “nuanced pragmatic” approach to get lost in the “shouting match” that some groups engage in during Israel Apartheid Week.

And inevitably, the shouting does happen. Israel Apartheid Week reliably brings at least a few speakers each year who shock the campus Jewish community by tiptoeing ever so close to the line separating ant-Zionism from outright anti-Semitism — and arguably marching right over it.

Even so, the wider significance of Israel Apartheid Week is a matter of some dispute in the pro-Israel community. At many, if not most, American schools, little or nothing is done for Israel Apartheid Week, whose official Website lists events in 45 locations, only about a quarter of them in the United States. Anti-Israel activists at some schools — like the much-discussed University of California, Irvine — run apartheid activities other weeks that are not listed on the official site.

“In the U.S., I’m aware of some isolated pockets of activity, but in five years that IAW has been running, we haven’t seen it catch on in the mainstream campus community,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 30 groups.

Still, virtually everyone in the pro-Israel campus community agrees that the frequency and intensity of apartheid/BDS activity is growing. And some even link it to a spike in anti-Semitic activity on campuses. At the University of California, Davis last week, a Jewish student found a swastika carved into her dorm door.

“I think it’s absolutely a big deal,” said Lawrence Muscant, the acting executive director of the David Project. “The fallacious lie of Israeli apartheid is seeping into the maintream. It’s extremely disturbing.”

JTA

 
 

Police still investigating graffiti at Wayne school

The discovery of swastikas spray-painted on an elementary public school in Wayne Saturday night, the eve of Yom HaShoah, drew swift condemnation from the township’s Jewish community but its leaders remained unconcerned about a spike in anti-Semitism.

The graffiti — which included the message “I love Hitler,” swastikas, and several sexual messages — were found on playground equipment and a wall at Randall Carter Elementary School. They were cleaned up by the end of the day Sunday. No other incidents were reported across the state during the weekend, according to Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s office of the Anti-Defamation League.

Police were continuing their investigation on Wednesday. Because the swastikas were accompanied by graffiti of a sexual nature, police believe the perpetrator or perpetrators were juveniles, said Det. Sgt. Charles Ahearn. Police do not suspect a larger trend within Wayne.

“As of right now it’s an isolated incident,” Ahearn said. “We’re treating it as that. We are taking it extremely seriously, however.”

Youths, Neuer said, continue to be the No. 1 perpetrators of bias crimes in New Jersey, but he warned against assuming that the perpetrators are connected with the school.

Police routinely patrol the township’s schools, and that led to the discovery of the graffiti. Holocaust education can be a powerful tool but “is no automatic inoculation against bias incidents,” Neuer said. “Incidents like this point to the need for increased attention to youth. With the distance of the Shoah, we worry about the solemnity of [Yom HaShoah] and the cheapening of the meaningfulness of the Holocaust.”

Ahearn said investigators are taking Yom HaShoah into account but added that there is no indication yet of a link between the commemoration and the graffiti. Though the timing may be a coincidence, it is still troubling, according to Neuer.

“For many people, the Holocaust is a distant event and exists only in crumbling yellow newspapers,” he said. “For survivors, memories are vivid. Imagine the pain when they opened the newspaper on Monday morning and saw ‘Hitler’ spray-painted on a school wall.”

Such incidents elicit strong emotional responses from the community, Jews and non-Jews alike, said Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah. Of greater concern, however, the rabbi said, is subtler demonization of Jews, such as misrepresentations in school textbooks and in anti-Israel letters to area newspapers.

“It’s the subtler but more consistent forms of demonization against the Jews that does us more damage,” he said. “I’m concerned the Jewish community is less reactive toward those things.”

Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah intends to raise the vandalism issue with the Wayne Clergy Fellowship. Mark, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, does not plan to raise the issue with the board. The incident, he said, can be an opportunity for education. He praised the Wayne schools for past responses to past anti-Semitic incidents after which they brought in the ADL for tolerance curricula.

“Every time something negative happens it’s an opportunity to do something positive with it,” he said.

The Wayne police have asked those who have any information regarding this incident to call them at (973) 633-3549.

 
 

Yom HaShoah marked in area

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Survivors, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren stand in silence during Kaddish after lighting candles in Teaneck. From left are Hanka Lew, Jerry Stein, Gaby Erdfarb, Sharon Schild, Adele Rozenes Wertheimer, Ilana Erdfarb, Yakov Schindel, Tzipora Schindel, Norbert Strauss, Talia Aronoff, and Esther Perl. Steve Fox

The community marked Yom HaShoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust, at various sites this week.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey held its observance, which also marked the 67th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, at the Frisch School in Paramus on Sunday. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was the keynote speaker. (See also page 36.) Foxman, who had been a hidden child, told the audience of some 500 people, “The world knew about the Holocaust, but did nothing about it. Only Bulgaria saved all of its 50,000 Jews, and Albania saved its 20,000 Jews. They did what they could. Today, we stand up and say no to hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.”

The Frisch choir led the audience in the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, as well as accompanying a children’s candlelighting procession.

Rosalind Melzer and Allyn Michaelson chaired the event.

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Suvivor Mordechai Nitka, 91, of Fair Lawn, is honored in Paramus as he lights the third candle in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Other survivors honored included Richard Klepfisz, 89, Glen Rock; Jeanette Berman, 89, Saddle River; Emmi Apfel, 95, Elmwood Park; Harry Zansberg, 84, Fort Lee; and Doris Kirschberg, 83, Hackensack. KEN HILFMAN

The Teaneck Jewish Community Council held its observance at Teaneck High School on Monday. More than 1,000 people heard testimony by Margrit Wreschner Rustow, who survived three concentration camps before being liberated from Theresienstadt and eventually returning to her native Holland. Rustow later became a psychoanalyst researching and working with child survivors of the Holocaust in Switzerland and Israel.

Meir Fox sang the national anthems and Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, and his son Avram gave a presentation of Yiddish songs and poetry. All are from Teaneck.

Survivors and their families took part in a candlelighting ceremony while the names of township families who lost relatives during the Holocaust were read by Rabbi John Krug and Arline Duker.

Blanche Hampel Silver, Amy Elfman, and Mashy Oppenheim chaired the event.

Observances were held as well in Englewood and Teaneck.

 
 

White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

Jewish groups call for civility

WASHINGTON – Americans have witnessed racist epithets, homophobic slurs, and spitting on a congressman in the realm of public discourse. Now a number of Jewish groups are saying enough is enough.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a call for civility.

The “Statement on Civility in National Public Discourse” was unveiled during a panel discussion on “Restoring Civility to Passionate, Partisan, Political Debate” at the ADL’s National Leadership conference in Washington.

“We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse,” the statement says. “Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned. Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies. Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous; pointed but not personal or hostile. We reject appeals to bigotry, racism, and prejudice. We reject calls to violence. In our national discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light.”

The ADL call for civility comes on the heels of a similar measure adopted in February focused on combating incivility among Jewish groups, particularly those with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. It was passed in Dallas as part of a resolution at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, local Jewish communities, and several national organizations, including the ADL.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recounted the events that led to his organization’s declaration.

“The level of incivility and debate relating first to the health-care bill and now the immigration debate, the Arizona legislation — it has been a crescendo, a back-and-forth of not discussing things civilly,” he said.

The ADL plans to reach out to its 30 regional offices to bring the pledge to elected leaders to sign in an effort to “lessen hostility in the language of debates,” Foxman said.

The first to sign were Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Matt Brooks, his counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition — two groups that have not enjoyed the most cordial of relationships.

The groups even argued as to the wording of the pledge, with Forman not entirely pleased with what he described as the final “watered-down” version. Brooks requested the removal of “mean-spirited” before he would sign, Forman said. Brooks replied that neither the ADL nor the NJDC pushed back over the changes and that his edits “made for a tighter, cleaner, neater document.”

Foxman brushed off the quibble saying, “Yes, people gave input, but ultimately they were signing on to our statement.”

Forman also was willing to shift into a conciliatory mode.

“Congratulations are due to the ADL, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, for we start with this minimal statement and build on it,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the health of democracy and Judaism that we bring back civility in discourse.”

Brooks agreed, saying, “I believe very strongly that we need to vigorously debate issues of the day, but in a way that’s respectful of the political process, that doesn’t engage in racial or religious or ad hominem attacks.”

With most forms of incivility happening in the public eye — at town hall meetings, on the Senate floor — the ADL believes that the media and the public are the best-positioned to police the matter.

Foxman said, “People can argue strongly and passionately about what they believe, and when they realize being uncivil is counterproductive to them and their cause, there will be a positive response.”

The JCPA has particularly focused on the increased heat in recent years among Jewish groups when dealing with Israel, with the rise of pro-Israel groups like J Street that perform open criticism of the Jewish state.

J Street has taken shots at Jews who associate with right-wing Christian evangelicals, saying that they are abetting a movement that imagines Israel’s destruction. More conservative groups have accused J Street of consorting with Israel’s mortal enemies.

“We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory,” the JCPA resolution said. “Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael —our very sense of peoplehood — and is a cause for profound concern.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of JCPA, said that though the details are not yet firm, a committee representing Jews from “left to right” will be put in place by June and will be charged with designing a multi-year plan to combat incivility and teach proper discourse.

“We need to know how to show respect when we agree,” Gutow said, “and when we do not.”

JTA

 
 

Passion Play continues to excite strong feelings

Play still problematic, scholars say

The 2010 Oberammergau script shows the “results of significant work to distance the Passion Play from its long history of anti-Jewish characterizations and animosity,” according to the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. But, said the CCJR in a report issued last Friday, it also “recalls perennial demeaning depictions of Judaism.”

A network of organizations that aims to promote understanding between Jews and Christians, the CCJR, together with the Anti-Defamation League, had assembled a team of nine scholars to assess the script ahead of the May 15 premiere. (The report is also supported by the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, and the National Council of Synagogues.)

Based only on the text, which the scholars had been provided in both German and English, the report did not address production factors but it did note that, in performance, the play “will be significantly affected by casting, lighting, music, and other staging elements.”

Among the changes it viewed as positive was the representation of “Jewish society in Jesus’ day … as variegated and vibrant” and the fact that “Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew.”

It also viewed as positive the fact that “the relationship between Caiaphas,” the Jews’ high priest, “and Pontius Pilate,” the Roman prefect, “is nuanced…. Happily missing from the script is a patent role-reversal in which Pilate is a weakling manipulated by Caiaphas into doing something that Pilate does not want,” as has been the case in Passion Plays that have depicted Jews as “Christ-killers.” That depiction has led to violence against Jews throughout history.

Nevertheless, according to the report, “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas,” the former high priest, “are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified. As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well. In short, Jewish opponents of Jesus are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms as to risk impressing on the audience a negative image of the entire Jewish community.”

Among the report’s suggestions for future scripts, perhaps most resonant for Jews is that “The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear, and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”

The report concludes: “As the Second Vatican Council declared in Nostra Aetate, 4: ‘All should see to it … that they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.’”

Meanwhile, a delegation from the ADL attended a preview of the play on May 8, concluding that, in the words of Amy-Jill Levine, ADL special consultant and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, “There have been welcome changes that emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were practicing Jews within a vibrant Jewish context under cruel Roman occupation. Sadly, the play continues to depict damaging stereotypes of Judaism and presents Jewish leadership as deceitful, legalistic, vindictive, and xenophobic.”

 
 

Little-known rabbi brings down Helen Thomas

WASHINGTON – Teenager Adam Nesenoff and his father, Rabbi David Nesenoff, are pretty far down the media food chain.

The son, an active member of the National Council for Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s affiliated youth group, runs his own newsy site, Shmoozepoint.com. Dad operates a website called RabbiLive.com and sometimes portrays the satirical character of Julio Ramirez, a Hispanic priest who teams with a rabbi to deliver “Holy Weather” reports.

So it was impressive enough that both managed to snag media credentials for the American Jewish Heritage Month celebration May 27 at the White House. But in the past week, the senior Nesenoff took things to another level, turning his few hours as a hobnobber into 15 minutes of fame as the YouTube journalist who brought down a media icon.

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Helen Thomas, known for her rough questioning of presidents, resigned this week after being assailed for saying that Israeli Jews should “go home.” Michael Foley/Flickr

It was the rabbi, armed with a camera and accompanied by his son and his teenage friend, who went around asking notables if they had any “comments on Israel.”

As the world now knows, Helen Thomas sure did.

“Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” the doyenne of the Washington press corps said, and laughed. “Remember, these people are occupied, and it’s their land.”

Nesenoff asked where she thought they should go.

“Go home,” she responded.

Asked to elaborate, Thomas said, “Poland, Germany,” and after more prompting by the rabbi, added “and America, and everywhere else.”

The rabbi didn’t post the video until June 3, but it quickly gained national attention, unleashing a flurry of demands for Thomas’ marginalization, if not dismissal.

On Monday, Thomas, 89, heeded the calls and quit, according to her employer, the Hearst Corp. Thomas’ phone number was not answering.

The Nesenoff video went viral after being picked up by Yidwithlid, a popular site run by the conservative commentator Sammy Benoit, and then posted to the hyper-popular conservative video site Breitbart TV.

That’s when the complaints started: First out of the box was B’nai B’rith International, which issued a June 4 statement from its president, Dennis Glick, demanding that Thomas be fired.

A diverse slew of other Jewish organizations soon followed with their own condemnations. Officials of the two most recent administrations — Ari Fleischer of the Bush administration and Lanny Davis of the Clinton administration — also slammed Thomas and called for her to be sacked.

The first death knell for Thomas’ career, though, probably came when she found herself being criticized on liberal Websites such as Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, which have long lauded her for asking discomfiting questions of presidents — particularly her encounters with George W. Bush during the Iraq War.

Joe Klein, the Time magazine scribe who has been a tough critic of Israel’s Netanyahu government, called her views “odious” and said she should no longer have the privilege, accorded by the White House Correspondents Association, of a front row center seat.

Thomas’ apology, posted June 4, preceded most of the broadsides against her.

“I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” she said in the apology. “They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

Critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, said it did not go far enough.

By Monday, such requests appeared moot: After a series of blows, it was clear her career was finished.

On Sunday, Thomas was dropped by her speaking agent, Nine Speakers. The following day, the Washington Post reported that Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. — a Washington suburb with a substantial Jewish population — was withdrawing its invitation to Thomas to be commencement speaker.

The final blow was a one-two: The White House Correspondents Association met to consider her front-row center perch. And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the remarks “offensive and reprehensible.”

The die was cast: Midday Monday, Hearst announced her retirement.

“Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately,” said a statement issued Monday by the corporation. “Her decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.”

It was a rapid fall for a woman who had become a liberal icon.

Thomas was a perennial, admired for becoming, during the Kennedy administration, one of the first women to cover the White House beat. She was granted the first question at news conferences, and finished each conference with a “Thank you Mr. President.” She earned the ultimate Washington status symbol: cameos in movies about politics.

Thomas, for decades a consummate insider who had watched her beloved UPI diminish into irrelevance, embraced her new status as an irascible outsider. In 2006 she published the book “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public.”

Her posture as maverick was something of a feint: Washington has long nurtured an establishment journalist culture that cozies up to power, and Thomas since the 1960s was one of its denizens, hobnobbing with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, and their confidants.

Thomas, the child of Lebanese immigrants, was known to be a fierce critic of Israel and what she saw as the unwillingness of successive U.S. administrations to speak out against Jerusalem’s supposed misdeeds.

Her most recent encounter with Gibbs, after Israel’s raid on a Turkish-flagged aid ship, came after her remarks to Nesenoff but before he revealed them to the world.

She called Israel’s raid a “deliberate massacre” and said the White House’s expression of “regret” was “pitiful.”

Dan Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith, said Thomas’ comments should have come as no surprise.

“There’s a Yiddish expression, ‘What’s on your lung is on your tongue,’” he said. “She has a long record of being purposefully hypercritical of Israel.”

Mariaschin acknowledged that the timing was against her. B’nai B’rith would have called for her dismissal even without the opprobrium visited on Israel after the flotilla raid, but it didn’t help, he said.

“The timing was such that, coming as it did right after the flotilla issue, I think perhaps it brought her comments into even starker focus,” he said.

Nesenoff, of Stony Brook, N.Y., said he had accompanied his son and his friend to share the joyful experience of the White House’s Jewish celebration.

Adam Nesenoff, 17, who in addition to running his own Website is his father’s Webmaster, had applied for a media credential after hearing that the event would have a youthful emphasis. The elder Nesenoff asked the White House if he could join his son, explaining that otherwise he would be stuck outside the whole day waiting to drive him home.

They wandered the grounds near the White House press room before the event. Rabbi Nesenoff said he pointed out Thomas to the teens because she was a press icon. He was vaguely aware she had views critical of Israel, but did not think she would be so outrageous.

“People can have their opinions, but this was ‘Get out of the whole land, cleanse the whole land of Jews,’” he said. “We’re there in our Shabbos best, we had driven down — we were taken back. If it was a skinhead in a parking lot — but here’s this sweet little old lady on the White House grounds. We were hurt.”

Nesenoff said he still hopes for a more expansive apology from Thomas.

“She has to do a little ‘tikkun olam,’” the rabbi said. “I hope to God she lives a very long time; she has business yet.”

JTA

 
 

A new context for the swastika

 
 
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