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Gush evacuees still waiting for permanent homes

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Dror Vanunu, international coordinator of the Friends of Gush Katif, in a field designated to house a community of Gaza Strip evacuees. Construction on new homes has yet to begin. Ben Harris

NITZAN, Israel – More than four years after her family was ejected from their home in the Gaza Strip, Karen Sarfaty lives with her husband and four of their children in a small pre-fab house in this small town located about midway between the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Neither she nor her husband have found adequate employment. The compensation she received from the government is running out. Her daughter is only now beginning to overcome the trauma of their forced removal from Gaza. And while the lots allocated to them to build permanent houses are nearly ready, Sarfati says she lacks the money for construction.

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Moshe and Rachel Saperstein, seen here outside their temporary home in Nitzan, are still waiting to move into their home in the new community of Bnei Dekalim. Ben Harris

“I have a lot of anger inside of me,” Sarfaty told JTA. “If [the evacuation] had to be, then it had to be. But at least if it had to be, it should have been done the right way.”

More than four years since the August 2005 removal of some 9,000 Israelis from Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the national trauma of the forced evacuation is firmly in the past. But for the majority of evacuees, who still do not live in permanent homes, the trauma has not ended.

According to a report last November by Friends of Gush Katif, the American arm of the former Gaza residents’ official representative in Israel, unemployment among the evacuees is 21 percent, and only 12 percent have begun construction on permanent homes. Housing construction has begun at only seven of the 23 sites where the evacuees are to be resettled. At about half the sites, work on permanent infrastructure — the prerequisite for housing construction — has not begun.

The situation is so bad that the Knesset has established a commission of inquiry to look into the matter. In an interim report issued in September, the commission said the government basically had failed in its handling of the evacuees, though it also noted that a lack of cooperation from some in the settler community contributed to the delays.

According to government data cited in the report, only about half the 1,800 or so families had been allocated plots of land to build new homes. Of those, only about 250 families had begun to build as of last August.

Several evacuees noted with disgust that while the government managed to speedily carry out the evacuation — also known as the disengagement — from conception to execution, the rehabilitation has dragged on without any sense of official urgency.

“There was terrible foot-dragging,” says Dror Vanunu, the international coordinator for Friends of Gush Katif.

Evacuees were supposed to be housed in temporary quarters and then moved to permanent dwellings. But in Nitzan, which is home to the largest concentration of former Gaza residents in the country, the community has all the trappings of a permanent neighborhood.

The community has schools and groceries, playgrounds, and hair salons. Many families have upgraded the small, pre-fab housing units known as caravillas with additional rooms and elaborate gardens.

About a mile to the south, where permanent dwellings are to be built, roads have been paved and sewage and electricity lines installed, but construction on housing has not begun. According to Vanunu, the paved roads and absence of pedestrians have made the area a popular destination for high-speed motorcycle racing — so much so that the authorities have broken up parts of the pavement to discourage the practice.

“Look around,” Vanunu says. “Not even one single house was built.”

A spokesperson for the commission of government inquiry said the infrastructure is in place and the onus is now on the evacuees to begin construction of their homes. But Sarfaty says that after more than four years with minimal income, the family lacks money to begin construction and may be forced to sell part of their plot to finance a new home.

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Karen Sarfaty, in the garden of her temporary home in Nitzan, says her family lacks money to build a permanent house. Ben Harris

Rachel and Moshe Saperstein also have not begun construction on a new home. The Sapersteins, who moved to Neve Dekalim, Gaza, in the 1990s in protest of the Oslo accords — or, as Rachel likes to say, to “put our bodies where our mouths were” — live a few blocks from the Sarfaty family in a caravilla with a small garden where Moshe, who lost an arm in the 1973 war and several fingers in a terrorist attack, likes to smoke cigars.

Their future home will be in Bnei Dekalim, a community being built in the eastern part of Israel’s Lachish region. The town eventually is supposed to include a luxury hotel, cottages for rabbis on sabbatical, and a health spa. Infrastructure is being built in the area, but it will be many months before the Sapersteins move into their new home.

“I wish I were 39 so I could build a town, watch it grow, and still have a few years left,” Rachel says. “When you’re 69 going on 70, you should theoretically be living in a place that is built. But I’m excited. I’m going to build a town at 69.”

That sort of optimism isn’t always easy to muster among the evacuees, but Sarfaty says her faith helps her to cope.

“We’re people that believe. We believe that everything is for the best,” she says. “Maybe right now we can’t see it. Maybe in another couple years we will see it.”

JTA

 
 

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.

 
 

Responding to the top 10 anti-Israel lies

 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

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Baltimore Jews rally June 4 in support of Israel. Rebecca Gardner/Baltimore Zionist District

The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds, and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?” syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. “Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting against Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy.

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools, and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation and the way the Israeli navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent at the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel.

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscience in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Israeli grass-roots effort fights flotilla fallout

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A scene from the video satire “We Con the World,” which mocks the outpouring of condemnation of Israel’s flotilla raid. Latma

TEL AVIV – Two days after last week’s flotilla incident, with Israel weathering a hailstorm of international condemnation, a group of young Israelis hunkered down in a Tel Aviv recording studio to produce a satirical music video they hoped would become a weapon in the battle for world opinion.

“We Con the World,” a spoof of the 1985 Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie song “We Are the World,” was promptly e-mailed, Facebooked, and Twittered around the globe, becoming an instant YouTube phenomenon. (See jstandard.com/thebiglipowsky.) As of Tuesday, it had received some 2 million hits.

The lead singer, dressed in the white hat of a ship’s captain and given the name “Captain Stabbing” (a reference to Captain Stubing of the TV show “Love Boat” fame), opens by crooning in a thick mock Turkish accent, “There comes a time when we need to make a show, for the world, the Web, and CNN.”

Singing in a Jackson-style falsetto, another character picks up the tune: “We’ll make the world abandon reason. We’ll make them all believe that the Hamas is Momma Teresa.”

The video is one of several grass-roots Israeli efforts to put out a pro-Israel message to the world in the wake of the confrontation aboard one of the ships on the Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine Turkish activists dead and several Israeli navy commandos injured. The confrontation has stoked worldwide anger at Israel.

In a bid to redirect that anger and lay the blame where they believe it should lie — the Turkish activists who they say provoked the confrontation at sea and the anti-Israel terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, Hamas — some Israelis are mounting their own citizen responses to make the case for Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Gaza and tough line toward Hamas.

These Israelis, many of them young, have established new groups on the online social networking site Facebook and built new websites to promote Israel’s perspective on the flotilla raid as well as on the blockade of Gaza. One student group even plans to launch its own flotilla — a fleet of boats it hopes will humiliate Turkey by calling attention to the plight of the Armenians and Kurds, who are known to be suffering under the Turks.

Israel maintains it was acting in self-defense after passengers on one of the Gaza-bound ships in the flotilla attacked Israeli commandos boarding the ship with clubs, knives, and even two pistols stolen from the soldiers. Critics of Israel’s actions have promoted a different narrative of the May 31 raid, painting Israel as the aggressor against an aid shipment in international waters.

Just two hours after the flotilla incident, Dan Illouz, 24, said he created a Facebook group called “The Truth About Israel’s Defensive Actions Against the Flotilla.” A recent Canadian immigrant to Israel and law school graduate, the group soon took off and now has more than 70,000 members.

“I saw there was no response from the government and I wanted to get something out there,” he said. “I know people from the navy and I knew stories on the news made no sense, and I wanted to get a group of people together to spread the story once it was available.”

Illouz also formed a new Website, Israelflotilla.weebly.com, to accompany the Facebook page. He can track who views and forwards his posts, and through the Website he has formed a group of some 200 volunteers who use his talking points in letters to newspaper editors and their elected officials.

“It’s not the first time Israel has been attacked, and every time we see a lot of media bias,” Illouz said. “There is a need out there to train Israel advocates in social media, a new generation of leaders who understand this sort of communication.”

The Israeli branch of the advocacy group StandWithUs, which works mostly with university and college students, also was quick to form its own online messages, creating a Website called Flotilla Facts.

“The idea of Websites is a multiplier,” said Michael Dickson, the Israel director of StandWithUs. “The messages and images and videos we find most effective we put in bullet-point form that can be understood and re-sent. We also have them in Tweet form to be sent out on Twitter,” the online messaging service.

The site is viewable in 14 languages, including Turkish. Dickson said readers from Turkey represented the fifth largest group visiting the site. One of the videos the site helped circulate was “We Con the World.”

Karni Eldad, 36, a music producer, helped produce the “We Con the World” video.

“It struck a chord because people know that the media coverage was one-sided,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear more about the fighting, but when you talk in a funny way you get a laugh. And you get the truth.”

Eldad, whose father is Knesset member Arieh Eldad of the right-wing National Union Party, said, “So many people have watched it; it’s unbelievable. I am proud it’s made an impression, that it’s had an effect.”

Arieh Eldad praised the work of his daughter, who — together with friends who run a political satire group called Latma led by Jerusalem Post Deputy Managing Editor Caroline Glick — created the video.

“It shows how individuals and civilians feel something wrong has been done to the State of Israel by the international community, and this is a way to stand up and expose that hypocrisy,” Arieh Eldad said. “It’s a very efficient tool for doing that.”

Shlomo Balas, the director of the Latma Website, told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot that he decided to strike back with satire the day of the raid.

“The blood was boiling in my veins,” he said. “I immediately called the site editor, Caroline Glick, and said to her, ‘We have to do something.’”

A report in Yediot congratulated the video’s creators, saying they had “defended Israel better than any of the experts.”

Not everyone was a fan, however. Some in Israel and abroad have criticized the video’s depiction of keffiyah-wearing, knife-wielding Arabs as carrying racist, anti-Muslim overtones.

Israel’s Government Press Office initially sent an e-mail to foreign correspondents with the video. Soon after, an e-mail was sent rescinding the message and stating that the video had been sent by mistake.

(To watch the video, and for more updates on the flotilla fallout, visit www.jta.org/bigstory.)

JTA

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

'Iran has been stirring the pot'

Much of the international spotlight these past two weeks has focused on Israel, which, according to political analysts, is exactly what Iran wants — to deflect attention from its nuclear pursuits.

Even as the U.N. Security Council passed another round of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, worldwide concern grew that the Islamic Republic could spark a military conflict in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey, which launched last week’s flotilla, has increasingly aligned itself with Iran — which also pulls the strings of Hamas and Hezbollah — stoking more fears of a new regional terror-supporting alliance.

“Iran has been stirring the pot,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers, Newark. “It’s no secret that weapons from Iran and individuals from Iran have found their way to Gaza — smuggled in via Iran’s friends from Syria and elsewhere.”

The Iranian Red Crescent — the equivalent of the Red Cross — announced plans this week that it planned to launch its own aid flotilla to Gaza. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that it would escort such a flotilla if ordered.

“To openly engage Israeli forces, which is what would happen if openly identified Iranian contingents tried to break the blockade, would be a huge escalation in Middle East tension to have Israeli and Iranian military forces shooting at each other,” Cole said. “If initiated in Israel’s neighborhood, it could well escalate into Israeli military action much closer to or directly at Iran.”

The Iranians are trying to make a statement, said Iran analyst and Fox News guest commentator Lisa Daftari. And, she added, Israel has not said how it would specifically respond to such a provocation — except that it would not allow Iranian ships through the blockade.

“Iran has flexed its muscles and shown it can politically run circles around our government,” said Daftari, a Paramus native. “While we’re having summits and meetings, thinking how to next negotiate with Iran, Iran is carrying on its own agenda.”

Cole does not believe Iran would carry out its threat to openly send military forces to Gaza because it’s not interested in a conflict in the Mediterranean. Daftari declined to hazard a guess as to what might happen if Iran tries to break the blockade, but said the government is looking to shift blame onto Israel for any regional conflict. If the activists aboard last week’s flotilla actually cared about getting aid to the Palestinians, she said, they would have diverted to Israel’s Ashdod port as requested.

“The Palestinian people are not the main issue,” she said. “There’s an Islamist agenda here that Iran has been carrying on for years.”

Iran would like to get rid of Israel, said Dan Kurzman, the North Bergen resident who penned biographies of former Israeli Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Mutually Assured Destruction kept the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in check during the Cold War, but Kurzman does not think that policy would work with Iran.

“These guys in Iran are not rational,” he said. “If they’re willing to kill themselves because God wants them to, why should they care if they kill a million Jews? This is really dangerous.”

To head off the Iranian threat, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said. After that, it can more easily forge deals with the rest of the Arab world against Iran.

“The Arab world doesn’t fear Israel,” Kurzman said, “but it does fear Iran.”

Because of this, Israel has a chance to pull the Arabs to its side — if it can make peace with the Palestinians, Kurzman said.

“Iran says they want to destroy Israel with an atom bomb and they’re close to getting a bomb. All of this wouldn’t have happened if there was peace,” he said. “They wouldn’t have an excuse for getting a bomb.”

The author cast blame on Israel not just for its handling of the Mavi Marmara, but also what he called the collective punishment of Gaza. He agreed that cargo should be inspected before entering the coastal strip but he railed against the blockade.

“It’s the wrong policy from the beginning,” he said. “You don’t punch everybody for what the terrorists do. It’s really shooting yourself in the foot. Israel is now in a terrible position where the whole world’s against them.”

Despite the provocations aboard the Mavi Marmara, Kurzman said, Israel made a mistake in the way it handled the activists.

“There are ways of stopping a ship and making them come to a halt and eventually getting on board to check on this stuff,” he said. “It’s riot control. There was a riot aboard the ship, and in a riot you don’t just shoot into crowds. This was a terrible mistake that could have been avoided.”

Kurzman recalled that after the Six Day War, Ben-Gurion said there was no chance of making peace if Israel didn’t give up the west bank. Neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin would have agreed to give up Gaza without a peace treaty, though, Kurzman noted. He called the disengagement from Gaza an “absolute disaster.”

“Israel brought this on itself,” Kurzman said. “That’s the great tragedy of history. Israel thinks it’s invincible, but it isn’t.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Out of the mouths of babes…

The college campus has been a battleground for public opinion on Israel for several years now, and the flotilla fiasco is sure to create passionate debate there. Jewish educators are moving quickly to get the facts out to high school and college students so they can be better prepared for what’s ahead.

“It’s important they know how to respond substantively. It’s important they know how to respond for their own Jewish pride so they do not feel like a victim,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of the New Jersey region of National Council of Synagogue Youth, whose office is in Teaneck.

NCSY’s national office, under the auspices of the Orthodox Union in New York, recently sent out a list of talking points to its regions to teach teenagers the facts of the flotilla incident so they can respond constructively when Israel is criticized.

Hillel of Northern New Jersey, run by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Bergen Community College in Paramus, William Paterson University in Wayne, and Ramapo College in Mahwah, is on a summer hiatus but is planning for the fall, said director Rabbi Ely Allen.

Hillel is considering a number of Israel advocacy programs such as The David Project and Stand With Us to partner with in the fall, Allen said.

Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, is beginning work on a program to teach high school upperclassmen and college students the history of the region in order to make them more effective spokespeople for Israel.

“That’s where you really need to give the tools and the information to make it work,” Levy said.

Unlike the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Israel responded to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers and launching of thousands of rockets at the Jewish state, Israel is much more isolated in this public relations battle, and kids feel that, Glasser said. That, he said, combined with the fact that so much of this campaign is being waged on the Internet — specifically on social networking sites such as Facebook — can affect teenagers’ confidence in defending the Jewish state.

“There’s more sense of being cornered,” he said. “The teenagers in this particular instance really are feeling the overwhelming display of criticism from around the world. The sense of [Israel’s] isolation is one the kids are plugged into.”

United Synagogue Youth, part of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has been forwarding e-mail and other resources to its regions, but its members have really taken on the battle on social networking sites, said USY director Jules Gutin, a Teaneck resident.

“There’s a lot that has appeared on various social networking sites that the leadership of USY has forwarded to each other,” he said. Members “have such an active network among themselves, and the leadership has such an active network.”

Gutin highlighted what teens can do because of their vast connections through the Internet.

“They can play a very important role, both among their peers and communities, in trying to do their best to make sure the facts come through and trying to counter much of the distortion that we see in newspapers and the press and various speeches,” he said.

Glasser would like to see more parents draw their children into current-events discussions and encourage them to voice their opinions.

“If you want them to connect to Israel, you have to connect them to the discussion,” Glasser said.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: Political poker

New Jersey’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle appeared steadfast in their support of Israel after last week’s flotilla raid as Jewish leaders continued to lobby on behalf of the Jewish state.

“The most important thing that we as Americans can do,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “is let our elected officials know that we feel strongly that Israel’s insistence on inspecting goods that are being brought into Gaza is entirely justified. If the tendency by some in the United States to curry favor with the Muslim world trumps the absolute requirement for fairness and support for the only democratic regime in that area, then we’re giving up the moral high ground.”

It is not in America’s best interests, Cole continued, to weaken in its support of an ally — in this case Israel — lest other allies begin to feel they cannot count on U.S. support.

The State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents New Jersey’s federations in Trenton, is pressing state legislators to support Israel. Its director, Jacob Toporek, issued an open letter to Gov. Christie and the 120-member state legislature last week outlining the reasons for Israel’s blockade and its actions. Almost immediately, he said, he received a call from Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County, who said she would introduce a resolution supporting Israel based on the letter.

“That’s a terrific response, unexpected, and we’re very pleased by it,” Toporek said.

“It’s all a public relations game. This open letter and resolution would be very, very helpful.”

Christie’s office acknowledged the letter on Wednesday but had no comment at that time.

“Hopefully as time passes and the outside world sees how Israel is really treating groups trying to bring in outside aid,” Toporek said, “they’ll realize what happened is a confrontation set up by those supportive of Hamas and who intend to put Israel in the worst light.”

NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel lobby, has been calling members of Congress to emphasize that Israel’s blockade is more of an arms embargo on Hamas, said the group’s president, Ben Chouake. Response on the Hill has been very positive, he told The Jewish Standard.

“They fully understand that Hamas is a terrorist group, that they’ve been overtly aggressive to the civilian population of Israel; they oppress their own people, and a flotilla of militants provoked violence against Israeli soldiers who gave them adequate warning and were peacefully trying to enforce an arms quarantine,” Chouake said.

At least among New Jersey’s representatives in Washington, NORPAC appears to be getting its message across.

“My colleagues understand that Israel has a legitimate right and important need to protect its citizens from rockets and guided missiles being brought to Gaza,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) told the Standard on Wednesday. “There is some regret over the loss of life, not withstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Asked why President Obama has not firmly come out in support of Israel in this incident, Rothman credited the president for preventing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel and calling for an international inquiry.

“In diplomacy, it is often the case that the most powerful and effective operations occur behind the scenes and that is what’s happened here,” Rothman said. “In my opinion — and in the view of the good guys as well as the bad guys around the world — actions always speak louder than words. Sometimes soothing words are possible along with quiet diplomacy, but sometimes they are not.”

Rothman’s colleagues in Washington issued their own statements supporting Israel’s actions.

“Israel has every right to defend itself and enforce its blockade against the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said in a statement sent to this newspaper. “The organizations operating the flotilla made their intention to violate the blockade clear and refused Israel’s repeated offers to process the aid through appropriate channels. Clearly, there were people aboard the lead ship who were intent on violence and sparked the tragic events.”

In a statement to the Standard earlier this week, Sen. Bob Menendez outlined the necessity for Israel’s blockade.

“If the blockade were to be broken,” he said in the statement, “it would be impossible to tell which vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies and which were carrying deadly rockets. The bottom line is that the attempt to prevent materials that could be used against Israel from reaching Hamas is of vital interest to Israel and to its national security, and I fully support it.”

The senator went on to emphasize that the international reaction to last week’s incident could legitimize Hamas, which would undermine the peace process.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said that it was regrettable that lives were lost in the raid but praised the bipartisan support for Israel in both houses of Congress. He affirmed Israel’s “right to protect its citizens.”
“It is crucial for the United States to stand beside Israel during these tumultuous times and I am heartened by the bipartisan Congressional support for Israel’s recent actions,” he said in a statement to this newspaper. “I believe the strategic relationship between our two democratic governments will continue to withstand the threats and actions of terrorists who seek to create a rift between our two nations.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) pointed to the need to keep weapons out of Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its borders and to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons and missiles that it has proven it will use to attack innocent Israeli civilians with little restraint,” he said in a statement to the Standard on Tuesday.

Pascrell took a more sympathetic tone toward the people of Gaza, pointing out what he called “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” there. The current situation there, he said, is “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“I am pleased the Israeli government has shown signs that it will consider modifications to their blockade,” the statement continued. “I believe that we can allow humanitarian goods to enter the territory while still ensuring that weapons are not imported and Hamas is not resupplied.”

Breaking from his colleagues, Pascrell called for the creation of an independent commission to conduct an impartial investigation of the flotilla incident.

“We are grateful that the leadership of the United States has been supportive in this matter,” Chouake said. “They well recognize the need for Israel to defend itself against the terrorist group Hamas and it is important to prevent arms from reaching these terrorists.”

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: The communal response

The general feeling among North Jersey Israelis following Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza last week is one of disappointment, said Tenafly resident Udy Kashkash — disappointment in the world’s reaction and disappointment in how Israel has been treated in the media.

Despite world condemnation, though, 49 percent of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla were to blame for the resulting deaths, according to a Rasmussen Reports national survey released on Monday. Just 19 percent of those polled thought Israelis were to blame, while 32 percent were not sure.

Within the local Israeli community, though, there is a feeling that Israel is being unfairly castigated, said Kashkash, a member of the Israeli Club at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Israel’s taking all the precautions [during the flotilla raid] and even putting soldiers at risk — and after all that, who do they criticize? Israel,” he said.

Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, agreed that there is a sense of shock in the local Israeli and Jewish communities in reaction to the world’s response. Unlike last year’s Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza and 2006’s Second Lebanon War, no physical threat spurred Israel’s actions but rather a perceived threat. This, Levy said, has become a focus of his outreach.

“It wasn’t like suicide bombers or katyushas coming over to Israel from Gaza. It was going to be something that could threaten Israelis, and Israel does have a legitimate right protected by international law to put a maritime blockade around Gaza.”

The federation has been taking out ads in local media and sending e-blasts with talking points.

“What we hope to do as Israel activists is really get the message out in the community about the real facts on the ground,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

She recommended people write op-eds and letters to their local newspapers, as well as monitor local media for inaccuracies.

The Jewish community is largely playing defense now, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

“What’s troubling and frustrating for many defenders of Israel is that the flotilla incident will be viewed without much-needed context and critical pieces of information,” he said. “The tragedy of the deaths overshadows the facts of the circumstances that led to them. Critics of Israel will omit the part about Hamas and the effort to blame Israel in all of this.”

The ADL has not seen any spikes in anti-Semitic incidents around the state, Neuer said, but the organization does expect some backlash.

“We have noticed a rise in the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere,” he said. “The incident fueled many of Israel’s fiercest critics and provided them with the ammunition they needed to demonize Israel.”

Neuer cautioned every Jewish organization to review its security protocols in light of recent events. The organization has not received any threats as of yet, he said, but security reviews are always a good idea.

“It’s critical for the leadership of Jewish institutions to always be vigilant and especially so when the political temperature rises in the Middle East,” he said.

Many local rabbis addressed the flotilla incident during their sermons this past Shabbat, connecting the perspective of the world to that of the spies in the Torah reading who reported that Israel was full of giants and the Israelites should turn around.

“All 12 of the scouts came back with factual information about the land, but what made the reports pejorative was that everyone’s report was colored by their own perspective and expectation,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “When you have Joshua and Caleb going out with faith in themselves and faith in God, they see the challenges as obstacles to be overcome but within their capability.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, is heartened by the Rasmussen Reports poll, but said the American Jewish community needs to continue its efforts to promote Israel’s side of the affair.

“The rush to condemn Israel seems to have become more contagious from Israel’s usual slate of adversaries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” said the Ridgewood resident. “It’s reached those nations that in recent times had better relations with Israel. That’s worrisome.”

Cole urged support of Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.

“Weaponry has been brought into Gaza through the tunnels and other surreptitious means,” he said. “Weakening the blockade means ever-deadlier missiles and more powerful weapons could be delivered.”

Israel’s allies have been active on Facebook and in organizing rallies around New York City. One rally, sponsored by Amcha and several other pro-Israel groups, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon outside the Israeli consulate in New York. Kashkash appreciates such efforts but still wants to see more from the American political arena.

“We need our largest ally to be fully behind us,” Kashkash said. “What we hear coming from the White House is not something very strong and very stable.”

“As more information becomes common knowledge, the world will see that Israel acted correctly,” said Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood Cliffs-based Israel lobby NORPAC, “and this group that created unnecessary violence on the flotilla and unnecessary deaths instigated the incident and Israel will be fully vindicated.”

 
 
 
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