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Moves on Goldstone bar mitzvah spark brouhaha

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Talk about shul politics.

In the interest of avoiding a disruption of his grandson’s bar mitzvah, Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war, told JTA last week that he would not attend the family simcha next month at a Johannesburg synagogue.

But in case Goldstone has any second thoughts, a leading South African Jewish group announced it is ready to protest should he show up.

“We’ll exercise our constitutional right to protest,” the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Avrom Krengel, told the Cape Times on Monday.

Goldstone, a respected Jewish jurist from South Africa, has been persona non grata in the pro-Israel community ever since the release of his U.N. report on the Gaza war, which found that Israel committed war crimes in its three-week war with Hamas in Gaza in 2009. Pro-Israel groups have roundly condemned the report as dangerously one-sided, and say it has helped fuel international condemnation of Israel.

Following negotiations between the Zionist federation and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the synagogue hosting the bar mitzvah service, Goldstone said last week that “n the interests of my grandson, I’ve decided not to attend the ceremony at the synagogue.”

Krengel stressed that Goldstone had not been barred from the bar mitzvah, but that he would not be welcomed if he chose to attend.

Krengel’s position prompted a torrent of responses from around the Jewish world. Many defended Goldstone’s right to attend the bar mitzvah even as they criticized his report on the Gaza war. (See page 16.)

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee, wrote to Krengel that he was “appalled and utterly disgusted by reports that Judge Goldstone will not be able to attend the bar mitzvah of his grandson due to protest threats by Jewish groups in South Africa.”

Describing himself as “an unapologetic critic of the Goldstone report, and of Judge Richard Goldstone’s badly warped perspective on Israel’s right to defend itself,” Ackerman said there was “absolutely no justification or excuse for carrying legitimate opposition and criticism of Judge Goldstone’s (wretched) professional work into the halls of his family’s synagogue, much less the celebration of a 13- year-old Jewish boy’s ritual acceptance of responsible membership in the Jewish community.”

The World Union for Progressive Judaism sounded a similar note. In a statement, Rabbi Joel Oseran, vice president of international development, and Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, chairman of the South Africa Association of Progressive Rabbis, expressed their dismay.

“While we stand with Israel in disputing some of the findings of the Goldstone Commission’s report, Judaism teaches that judgment and forgiveness are not ours to withhold or to give,” they said.

But Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, head of South Africa’s Beth Din, or Jewish religious court, said there were strong feelings in the synagogue against Goldstone attending. He praised the arrangement wherein Goldstone would stay away on his own volition, calling it “quite a sensible thing to avert all this unpleasantness.”

Goldstone has done “a tremendous disservice not only to Israel but to the Jewish world,” Kurtstag said. “His name is used by hostile elements in the world against Israel, and this can increase anti-Semitic waves.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s representative body, said in a statement that while “certain senior Jewish communal and religious leaders were certainly involved in the discussions around the topic, in no way did they attempt to dictate to or otherwise pressurize the family into arriving at their decision.”

The statement went on, “The SAJBD strongly believes that diversity of opinion in our community needs to be tolerated and respected, whether it emanates from the left, right, or center.”

In a separate statement, the Cape Council of the Board of Deputies said it “deeply regrets that a religious milestone has been politicized and disagrees with the manner in which this matter has been handled.”

JTA

 
 

Facebook is home to a new kind of Holocaust remembrance

Anne Frank’s Facebook page looks much like any other teenage girl’s: The profile picture shows Anne leaning against a wall; her hair is tucked behind her ears; and she stares off sideways, daydreaming perhaps, a slight smirking smile lifting up the corner of her mouth.

The comments on her “wall” are typical, too.

“We share the same birthday!” and “I hate this girl.” A string of teenage commentary follows every one of the many photos that have been posted to the page. One, in which Anne is standing outside in shorts and a sunhat, elicits this remark: “she had long legs! woah! model” In response, a prepubescent boy named Ricky laments, “she did have long legs……i hate hitler.”

Whether the fact that Anne Frank has a Facebook page (one set up for “fans”) strikes you as creepy and inappropriate or as completely normal and even charming will depend largely upon your age and the number of hours you spend on a laptop each day.

But the reality is that Holocaust memorialization is moving onto social-networking sites like Facebook and presenting new opportunities for remembering the victims — and bringing a whole new set of complexities. One of the most popular and disorienting forms that this new virtual commemoration is taking is the Facebook profile. Even the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is now involved with providing information to fill out the details of some of these profile pages.

The desire to personalize the identities of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust is not new. What is novel is the combination of this desire with a platform that is premised on empowering anybody to project his or her individuality far and wide.

There’s no more successful example of this fusion than the Facebook profile page of Henio Zytomirski. A small boy who must be no more than 7 or 8 years old appears in a black-and-white photo in the box provided for a profile picture. He looks full of joyful young life. But Henio has been dead since 1942, killed in a gas chamber at the Majdanek concentration camp when he was 9. On March 25, which would have been his birthday, dozens of Facebook users wished him a happy birthday on his “wall.” As of April 12, he had 4,989 “friends.”

One element unique to Henio’s profile is that it is being used to recount a narrative of this little boy’s life. In status updates written in Polish, Henio seemingly tells his story in his own voice. On Sept. 29 of last year, for example, this entry was posted: “Winter has arrived. Every Jew must wear the Star of David with his last name. A lot has changed. German troops walk the streets. Mama says that I shouldn’t be frightened, and always that everything is just fine. Always?”

The person posting in Henio’s name — and with the knowledge of his relatives — is Piotr Buzek, a 22-year-old history student from Lublin who works at the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center. According to Facebook’s policy, profiles of people other than oneself are allowed only with permission from the profiled person or, in this case, from that individual’s family. Buzek set up Henio’s page in August 2009, and since then he has been dutifully adding “friends” and posting photos and frequent updates. The center where he works was set up to promote the multicultural heritage of Lublin and has an archive of information and material on Henio’s life. It is from this that Buzek has created his virtual identity.

Buzek doesn’t think it strange that he should be speaking in the voice of a long-deceased Holocaust victim. As he sees it, this is a way of engaging a younger generation with what he calls “our tragic history.” Focusing on Henio and in essence bringing him back to life through Facebook is his way of making the Holocaust real.

“We can’t commemorate 6 million people,” Buzek said when the Forward reached him in Lublin. “I can’t imagine this number. But I can imagine one person. This boy was one of them. I can imagine him. And if you want to feel something deeper, you should concentrate on one person. You can touch it. You can’t touch 6 million people. You can touch one.”

Henio Zytomirski’s Facebook profile got some attention for being one of the first to use the site for that purpose. More than a few people were puzzled that Facebook could become a place for memorializing.

“The thing to remember is that many of these new social-media platforms are fluid, and information posted on them is very ephemeral,” said Evgeny Morozov, a blogger and contributor for Foreign Policy magazine. “What is it about Facebook or Twitter that makes them suitable for commemoration? I can’t find anything because they are built on the opposite principle. All the most recent stuff comes first.”

Those engaged in the more traditional forms of Holocaust remembering — namely, museums and physical memorials — are mostly skeptical of this new, looser, virtual form.

David Klevan is the education manager for technology and distance learning at the Holocaust museum. He was one of the organizers of what was called an “un-conference,” a gathering last December of museum professionals partly to try to figure out how to better use new social-networking platforms in ways that don’t trivialize the content.

Klevan looks a little warily at the Facebook profile phenomenon because he worries that those posting and those reading the posts don’t have access to a full historical context. Young people respond directly and sometimes thoughtlessly to the image or words in front of them — like the photo of Anne Frank in shorts. The pieces of information presented are disconnected from a larger narrative, and in a way that does not allow for any follow-up questions or further study.

“We prefer to maintain as much of the context as possible,” Klevan said. “If people are going to learn the stories of the victims, it’s preferable that they have easy access to supporting information and also being aware of where the content is being encountered.”

But the Holocaust museum has been providing information on the individual stories of victims to a Website called footnote.com, an online service that is trying to digitize historical documents and use them to create virtual memorialization projects. One of the service’s bigger endeavors is a complete online simulacrum of the Vietnam Wall Memorial, where information can be added to fill out the identities of those who died. Footnote.com has used the information provided by the Holocaust museum to create 600 Facebook profiles for Holocaust victims.

Unlike Henio’s profile, the Facebook pages created by footnote.com are different than the pages that individuals make for themselves. But they do still have all the usual features — a profile picture and a “wall” where pictures and comments can be posted, and attempt to do the same thing: create a virtual space for the individual victim to emerge.

“Our running tagline has been, “History is biography,’ “ said Chris Willis, vice president of social media for footnote.com. “If we are changing the form that that biography is being presented, it is only to make it more accessible. It’s going to make it easier for people to add more information about a life, maybe even add the kind of information that will help that life seem more unique and, in the end, much more compelling.”

This story first appeared at Forward.com.

 
 

Could U.S. still fund PA that includes Hamas?

WASHINGTON – The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may portend yet another Congress vs. White House showdown in the battle in Washington over Middle East policy.

The Obama administration has expressed its unhappiness with the compromise reportedly negotiated last week in Cairo, but it is not counting out the prospect of supporting a reconstituted Palestinian Authority in which Hamas plays some role.

Top Congress members from both parties have been more forthright: If Hamas joins the Palestinian government, there will be no more talk of moderates vs. terrorists, they said. If that happens, the Palestinians can kiss goodbye their approximately $500 million in annual U.S. aid.

The Obama administration was first to issue comment in the wake of the April 27 announcement that the sides had come to a power-sharing agreement.

“We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information,” Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman said that day. “As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians. To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

The lack of clarity about the agreement emerging from Cairo, and conflicting statements on the matter from the two Palestinian sides — Fatah officials said the interim government would be calibrated to continue peace talks, while Hamas officials said peace talks were not on the horizon — gave the Obama administration some wait-and-see wiggle room.

Still, even in Vietor’s initial statement there was a sign that the Obama administration could countenance a Palestinian Authority that included an unrepentant Hamas. The restrictions applied by the administration were on the Palestinian government, not on the terrorist group itself.

So if, as reports said, the new Palestinian government were comprised of independent “experts,” with neither Hamas nor Fatah holding cabinet-level positions, the Obama administration would have an opening to maintain U.S. support.

That kind of nuance was not reflected in the either/or statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” the Israeli leader said. “Choose peace with Israel.”

Notable by its absence was any comment from the mainstream Jewish groups, which otherwise were vocal over regional developments, including the uprising in Syria and the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The only groups to speak up were on the left: J Street said the agreement called for caution and questions for the Palestinians, but not hostility. Americans for Peace Now said the agreement presented an opportunity to talk peace with the entire Palestinian polity.

U.S. lawmakers were not so sanguine.

“The reported agreement between Fatah and Hamas means that a foreign terrorist organization which has called for the destruction of Israel will be part of the Palestinian Authority government,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “U.S. taxpayer funds should not and must not be used to support those who threaten U.S. security, our interests, and our vital ally, Israel.”

Statements similar to Ros-Lehtinen’s were released by Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee; Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Middle East subcommittee; and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The same forthrightness emerged in a statement from a bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Israel.

“The United States should not aid an entity whose members seek the destruction of the State of Israel and continue to fire rockets and mortars at innocent Israeli children,” said the statement from Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.).

As of April 28, however, a top Obama administration official speaking to a pro-Israel group was still maintaining the subtle emphasis on working only with a PA government that upholds agreements — leaving room for including Hamas as a component.

“Any Palestinian government must renounce violence, it must abide by past agreements, and it must recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Bill Daley, the White House chief of staff, told the American Jewish Committee that evening.

A State Department official elucidated to the Washington Post, “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its policies at that time and will determine the implications for our assistance based on U.S. law.”

Kirk, who with Lowey authored the most recent legal language banning dealings with Hamas, subsequently issued a working paper on how funding any government based on a Hamas-Fatah agreement may violate U.S. law. His paper laid down the toughest restrictions, but also implicitly suggested a path through which the Obama administration legally could support such a government.

U.S. money to a Hamas-controlled ministry: banned. U.S. funding for Palestinian Authority personnel in Gaza, as long as the strip remains Hamas-controlled: banned. Moreover, if any arrangement with Hamas is entered into, any “such government, including all of its ministers or such equivalent, [must have] publicly accepted and is complying with agreements with Israel and the renunciation of terrorism.” And in writing.

Those restrictions, however broad, still leave plenty of room for the Palestinian “government of independent experts” to operate, and would leave in the west bank the $470 million in U.S. aid that the Palestinian Authority receives for that territory each year.

That possibility seemed to inform the statement from the lawmaker with the most power when it comes to disbursing such funds: Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

“Recent reports of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah demonstrate how quickly events are changing throughout the region and reinforce the need for continuous oversight and evaluation of U.S. investments,” she said. “If a power-sharing agreement with a terrorist organization becomes a reality in the Palestinian territories, the U.S. will be forced to re-examine our aid to the Palestinian Authority.”

“Re-examine” implies tough, contentious oversight and forewarns another series of major legislative-executive branch battles that characterized the delivery of aid by the Clinton and Bush administrations to the Palestinians.

It does not carry the threat of a ban, which suggests that the Obama administration’s challenges, should it continue funding the Palestinian Authority would be political but not legal, according to an analysis by Matt Duss of the Liberal Center for American Progress.

“U.S. law currently allows aid to a Palestinian unity government whose ministers have individually pledged adherence to the Quartet conditions even if Hamas the party has not,” he wrote. “Congress, however, is likely to resist sending any aid to a government that includes Hamas.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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