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Is there such a thing as a kosher bank?

Warren BorosonLocal
Published: 04 September 2009

What’s so different about Cross River Bank in Teaneck?

About half the staff is Jewish, and many of the men wear kippot at work — including the chairman, Gilles Gade. Gade, who is 43, even wore his kippah — proudly — while being interviewed on CNBC and Fox Business News.

The bank is closed on Friday afternoons (at 4), Saturdays, and Jewish holidays. Doesn’t this hurt business? Gade replies, “It’s a blessing.” The bank gets a good deal of business from Jewish institutions.

The bank is doing well, too, although it opened only in November. Deposits are closing in on $50 million. And anyone can open a checking or savings account there — if they aren’t scared away by all the PRIVATE PARKING signs.

Gade was born in Paris and went to school there, then came to this country in 1991, when 25.

He pronounces his name the English and not the French way — “Gil Gade.” He’s quiet, modest, and careful in what he says. His office is small and windowless; on a wall, there’s a photograph of Albert Einstein, with this quote: “Imagination is more valuable than knowledge.”

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Gilles Gade, a banker who is an authority on anti-Semitism

He’s unusually knowledgeable about anti-Semitism: that’s what he wrote his thesis about while in a Paris business school.

What are some of the causes of anti-Semitism? Gade mentions dislike of the unlike; a belief that Jews have too much power; the Jew as scapegoat: “Jews have been in the wrong place at the wrong time for 3,000 years”; and allegations of deicide. But he concludes by saying that “the real reason is, the Jews began bringing morality and conscience to the world.”

Why are some Jews themselves stridently anti-Israel?

Gade talks about a post-Holocaust trauma, where Jews have been so intimidated they want to erase all vestiges of their own Judaism. And he points out that it’s a few liberal Jews who may be anti-Israel; political conservatives are overwhelmingly pro-Israel.

Gade is deeply involved in Jewish affairs. For 15 years, he’s been visiting college campuses all over the country, from Boston to California, giving lectures to Jewish students (usually at Hillels) about Judaism and Israel, under the auspices of Aish HaTorah, an international network of Jewish learning. He used to make as many as 50 trips a year, but now it’s down to 15 to 20. He’ll talk for an hour or an hour and a half, focusing on Jewish values and the Jewish heritage. “I want to make them feel proud to be Jewish,” he says.

Jewish students are more timid these days, he reports. “They’re not as willing to defend their positions” as earlier waves of students had been. The pro-Palestinian groups on campus are well organized and well financed.

“As Palestinian propaganda has ratcheted up, the Jewish students have gotten more defensive,” he says. Sometimes the Palestinians even have the support of faculty.

What has helped enormously, Gade goes on, is Birthright Israel — the program that sends Jewish young people, free of charge, to the Jewish state. Some 220,000 have gone on Birthright so far, and these youngsters tend to be more energetic in defending Israel. Besides, “If you’re attached to Israel,” he observes, “you tend to become attached to Judaism as a whole.”

Not long ago, very few Jews in the United States were bankers. Why was that?

In Europe, Gade replies, Jews were restricted to money-lending; when they came to the United States, they deliberately avoided banking and eagerly became doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

But he does not rule out anti-Semitism on Wall Street: Back in the early 20th century, J.P. Morgan, for example, the famous banker, would never hire Jews. Eventually Jews launched their own financial institutions, like Goldman Sachs and Bear Sterns.

“Today, it’s totally changed,” Gade says. Anti-Semitism in banking seems to have vanished.

This reporter asks, “How come you’re starting a new bank? A few years ago, banks were consolidating like mad.”

New banks, Gade explains, have a blank slate — no toxic loans fouling up their books. So they can be more liberal in granting loans.

But even now, underwriting standards are tougher: Today there’s a 65 percent loan- to-value ratio whereas once it was 80 percent. (Your investment must be 35 percent of the loan.)

How will Cross River compete?

Says Gade, “We’re offering friendly, courteous, personal service — unlike the impersonal service at Chase or Citibank. We tend to say ‘yes’ a lot.”

He explains that the name Cross River comes from the bank’s eagerness to do business with both New Jersey and New York customers — as well as customers from other states. “It suggests that we have no boundaries.” Also, it refers to Abraham’s crossing a spiritual river — introducing “a new type of banking, one where the customer is not just an account number.”

He says that Cross River chose to locate in Teaneck because of the large Jewish population there and in nearby Englewood, Tenafly, and Bergenfield.

Gade lives in a house in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and his commute is usually 40 minutes each way. Before starting Cross River, he worked for Bear Sterns and Barclay’s Capital and was CFO of First Meridian, a mortgage company in New York City. He’s been married for 14 years, and he and his wife, Sarah, have four very young children, all girls.

His favorite local restaurants? Dougie’s, Chickies, Sushi Metguyan, all on Teaneck’s West Englewood Avenue.

How does he like Teaneck in general? He answers: “I really like the sense of community, the Jewish life, the friendliness,and the fact that it’s centrally located.

“My wife especially loves the Paramus mall.”

 
 

A new look at an old story

A tale of two popes

There’s a lingering controversy over the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII (1876-1958). Some Jews believe that he did not do enough to protect Jews from the Holocaust. Perhaps unfairly, he has even been called “Hitler’s Pope.”

Many Jews also opposed the canonization of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), in part because of his role in the abduction of Edgardo Mortara and his refusal to deliver him back to his parents.

Pius IX had a mixed record when it came to Jews. He started out as a liberal, opening the ghetto in Rome; later he closed the ghetto. And in a speech in 1871 he called the Jews of Rome “dogs” and said “of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

Edgardo Mortara himself always praised the pope, and strongly favored his canonization — which occurred in 2000.

Elena Mortara, a great-great-granddaughter of one of Edgardo’s sisters and a professor of literature in Rome, campaigned for an apology from the for Edgardo’s abduction and against the canonization of Pius IX.

She has said she is “appalled at the idea that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a pope who perpetuated such an act of unacceptable intolerance and abuse of power.”

 
 

A new look at an old story

Edgardo’s story

This account is based on the book “Emancipation,” by Michael Goldfarb (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Edgardo Mortara, age 6, was the son of a Jewish merchant in Bologna, the fourth of six children.

As a baby he became seriously ill, and the family’s 14-year-old housemaid, Anna Morisi, “baptized” him. She took a small glass of water, sprinkled it on the baby’s head, and said the holy words. To her, it was an act of kindness — in case the child died.

Edgardo recovered.

Some years later, Morisi told a friend what she had done.

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Edgardo Mortara, right, became a priest in the Augustine order. Here he is with his mother and an unidentified man.

On the evening of June 23, 1858, police came to the Mortara apartment and seized Edgardo. They took him to the Convent of San Domenico, where the local representative of the Holy Inquisition had his office. To the church authorities, Edgardo had become a Catholic and therefore could not be raised by Jews.

This wasn’t the first case of its kind; during the previous decade, a number of Jewish children in Italy had been secretly baptized and taken away from their parents.

Edgardo’s mother, Marianna, upon learning the news, had a mental breakdown. The boy’s father, Momolo, spent a day searching for his son, then was found unconscious in a street.

Eventually the father learned that his son had been taken to Rome and was lodged in the House of the Catechumens.

Momolo went to the ghetto in Rome for help, trying to get access to his boy. For a few months, the parents were allowed supervised visits with their son; then all contact was closed.

The plight of the Mortara family became a political issue. France wanted the boy released. The case became an international cause celebre. Forty rabbis from Germany petitioned the pope for the boy’s release, without success. Jewish leaders tried to persuade Protestant clergymen to have Protestant countries pressure the Vatican.

“The situation quickly turned into a public relations disaster for the pope,” writes Goldfarb.

Sir Moses Montefiore, 74, a respected member of the Jewish community, went to Rome; neither the pope nor his secretary of state would meet with him. Eventually the secretary of state did meet with him — and told him that Edgardo was now a Catholic and the pope was his father. “End of discussion,” Goldfarb wrote.

It was because of cases like this that young Jewish professionals banded together to form Alliance Israelite Universelle, to stand up for Jews around the world. The Alliance began working on behalf of Edgardo’s family and sent a message to Momolo Mortara: “Getting your child back is the cause of all Israel.”

In 1870, when the Vatican’s authority became weakened, Mortara went to Rome to look for his son — whom he had not seen in 12 years. Edgardo was now 19 — and studying for the priesthood. He fled Rome to avoid meeting his father.

Mortara was living on the charity of the Rothschild family and other Jews. Falsely imprisoned for murder, he spent six months in prison, and died one month after gaining his freedom.

Edgardo, now Father Pio Edgardo, was eventually reconciled with his mother and attended her on her deathbed.

“He lived to see Kristallnacht and the opening of the first concentration camps,” wrote Goldarb. “He died in 1940 in a Belgian monastery.”

He died, in fact, mere months before the Nazis invaded Belgium. In the opera, he dies just before the Nazis come to his monastery to arrest him and to deport him.

 
 

A new look at an old story

The abduction of a Jewish child

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Iulia Merca as Marianna Mortara and Peter Furlong as Salomone Mortara flank Christopher DeVage as their son, Edgardo. Sarah Shatz

The plot has everything a grand opera should have: an abduction, a distraught mother and father, a famous historical figure (Pope Pius IX), a furious conflict (between Jews and Roman Catholics), suspense about the resolution, and a stunning, shocking ending.

“Il Caso Mortara” (“The Mortara Case”), which premieres at the Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York on Thursday, Feb. 25, is based on a true story: the abduction in 1858 of a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara. When he was ill, he was secretly baptized by a servant in his home in Bologna, Italy. When papal authorities learned that he had been baptized, Edgardo was kidnapped and raised as a Christian. Later, he declined to return to his family and became a prominent member of the Augustine order. His case provoked outrage throughout the world, and even President Ulysses S. Grant, Emperor Franz Josef, and Napoleon III appealed for his release. (See Edgardo's story.)

The kidnapping was one of the most infamous in history, along with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, but the opera is not a heavy-handed indictment of the abductors. Still, the composer, Francesco Cilluffo, 31, an Italian Jew, does refer to the event as “terrible.”

Fanatics are not necessarily insane. They believe in something so strongly — something even, perhaps, preposterous — that they become unreasonable. To the kidnappers, Edgardo had become a Christian and, clearly, had to be spared eternal damnation by living as a Christian, not as a Jew.

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Francesco Cilluffo Marino Ravan

Cilluffo has been working with the opera company — the only one in the city besides the Met and the New York City Opera to mount an entire season of musical productions — during rehearsals. “That made rehearsals exciting and different,” said Michael Capasso, Dicapo’s general director.

The opera, which has seven principal singers and a chorus of 35, will be performed — for the first time anywhere — in Italian, but with English supertitles. This is the first time an Italian opera has been commissioned in the United States since Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 20th century.

“The opera is accurate,” said Capasso during a telephone interview. “It shows exactly what happened, when, and why.” Still, he grants that there’s some dramatic license taken. (For example, the opera features a ghost. And the ending is more dramatic than the real-life resolution.)

The subject was suggested to Cilluffo by Tobias Picker, Dicapo’s artistic adviser.

Even though it’s a modern opera, with modern rhythms and harmonics, Capasso reports that “it’s extremely melodic. There are arias, duets, and choruses — like any Italian opera by Puccini or Verdi.” He grants that there’s no “Nessun dorma” or “La donne e mobile,” but there are beautiful arias, like one in the first act sung by the boy’s father.

In another phone interview, Cilluffo, whose English is heavily accented, said, “I’m very excited. The story is dear to me, even though most people don’t know anything about it.”

Cilluffo said that he himself has never experienced anti-Semitism, and hopes to keep it that way.

Seeing what he’s written on the page “come to life on the stage” has been thrilling, he volunteered. “The cast is young but talented, and they give 100 percent.”

What composers have influenced him? Puccini and Verdi, and especially Puccini.

A play about the case was written in the mid-19th century, Cilluffo went on. “But it has been totally forgotten.” Still, it was helpful for him to read it. (In writing his own libretto he had help from a dramatist, Luca Valentino.) He also read the major histories of the case. In 2002, a film, “Edgardo Mortara,” was about to be produced, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as the pope, but apparently it went nowhere. Also in 2002, a play was actually produced about the case, “Edgardo Mine” by Alfred Uhry, the author of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

The opera, Cilluffo continued, shows how tragedy can result when one party to a dispute is determined to act for the good of a third party.

Cilluffo was born in Turin in January 1979 and lives in Milan. He earned a music degree from the University of Turin, with a thesis on Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Billy Budd.” Then he studied composition and conducting at a conservatory in Turin. In 2003 he moved to London, where he completed a doctorate in composition at King’s College in London, after having been awarded a master in composition degree by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Another recent work of his, “Emily Dickinson: A Song Cycle,” was awarded The Tracey Chadwell Memorial Prize in London; he also won the East-West Competition for “The Other Boat,” commissioned by the Elektra Ensemble in Amsterdam.

His works have been performed in Italy, England, Austria, Russia, and Hong Kong. This will be the first performance of a work of his in this country.

The conductor is Pacien Mazzagatti, Dicapo’s principal conductor; Opera News has referred to him as “clearly a name to watch.” He is a regular conductor of the New England touring company National Lyric Opera, and he has also conducted the Sarasota Opera, the Polish National Opera, the Russian Philharmonic, the Opera Orchestra of New York, and the Fresno Grand Opera.

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Michael Capasso James Martindale

The staging is by Capasso, sets by John Farrell, costumes by Ildiko Debreczini, and lighting by Susan Roth.

Capasso co-founded Dicapo Opera in 1981, emphasizing the works of Puccini, and he has since produced more than 100 operas by more than two dozen composers.

He grew up in a nonmusical family of contractors in Great Neck, Long Island. At the age of 7, when he saw Mario Lanza in “The Great Caruso,” he became an opera lover. By the age of 9, he was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.

At the same time that he produced his first operas, he was forging a career in the family business, first as a heavy equipment operator and, later, as a field supervisor responsible for constructing highway improvements.

Capasso’s two careers converged when he obtained a 40,000-square-foot space in the lower level of St. Jean Baptiste Church. Using his background, he built a permanent theater in 100 days. The 204-seat Dicapo Opera Theatre there is considered among the best-equipped off-Broadway theaters in New York, with state-of-the-art computerized lighting and super-titling systems.

Capasso has received numerous awards, including The Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a proclamation from the City of New York in conjunction with Italian Heritage and Culture Month, and the Leonardo Da Vinci Award for Cultural Achievement. In May, he will receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Does he think that “Il Caso Mortara” will endure? Will it be recorded? Performed elsewhere? “I like to think so,” he answered. “It can endure. It’s not unreasonable in scale, and — most important — it has good music and a good drama.”

The cast

Singing the key role of the boy’s father, Salomone Mortara, is Peter Furlong, a tenor. Opera News has called him “a strong performer with promising range and tone.” The New York Times wrote that “the highlight of [a performance] was his strong singing and acting ability.

Mezzo soprano Iulia Merca, who was born in Romania, sings the mother. She performs with the Cluj National Opera. Among her awards: Grand Prize at the Hariclea Darclee International Singing Competition.

Edgardo is sung by Christopher DeVage.

An inquisitor is sung by Ricardo Lugo, a Puerto Rican bass who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2006, in “La Gioconda,” and has since appeared in four other Met operas.

Edgardo as a child does appear on stage, but his is not a singing role.

The four performances of the two-act opera are scheduled for Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 27 at 8p.m.; March 5 at 8 p.m.; and March 7 at 4 p.m. Tickets cost $50 and are available through Smarttix at (212) 868-4444.

 
 

An ill wind

‘We were lucky’

Warren BorosonCover Story
Published: 19 March 2010
(tags): warren boroson

It was miraculous, said Ruth Gafni, head of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. The town was “hit hard” over the weekend, she said, trees fell near the school, and the electricity went out. But the school was unscathed.

Schechter had scheduled parent-teacher conferences fot Sunday, and they were postponed to Monday.

On Tuesday, students came to school and enjoyed hot lunches, and the staff made sure everyone had a safe place to stay. “And the kids helped each other,” she said.

“It was miraculous,” she repeated.

Other Jewish day schools in the area also reported being spared.

Considering how hard Teaneck was hit, said Stanley Fischman, director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, his school was fortunate in not having any damage. (The Torah Academy of Bergen County, in Teaneck, was closed on Monday.)

Ben Porat Yosef is close to Route 4, and the exit to the street was temporarily closed because of a downed power line.

Some students lived in homes without electricity or heat, so the school gave them hot lunches.

At the Sinai Schools, headquartered in Teaneck, the administrative offices were closed Monday through Wednesday, and classes were not held on Monday and Tuesday. “It was a challenge, but a lot of people worked hard and now we’re up and running,” said Laurette Rothwachs, the dean.

“We were lucky,” said Elaine Weitzman, executive director of The Frisch School, an orthodox co-ed school in Paramus. Some traffic signs on campus came down, the IT system and the electricity went out, and water had to be boiled to be drinkable, she said. But otherwise things were OK.

Still, the school had a special problem: Scholastic Aptitude Tests had been scheduled for Sunday, along with an annual arts evening.

“We had to cancel both,” said Weitzman, “and that affected a lot of students.” Now the school must do some rescheduling.

The Paramus police asked that the school be closed on Monday.

Many students come from Bergen County, she went on, where several communities were especially “hard hit.” With no power at home, “some students were disoriented,” she said. Some stayed in the homes of friends or relatives who did have power.

“We’re now back in business,” she said.

Enid Anziska, executive director of Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, said, “We were relatively unscathed. We had no real damage, no real flooding. It’s not a very exciting story. We’re thankful everyone was safe.”

A tree did fall, but it “fell well,” she said, not landing on the school or in the parking lot but on unoccupied land.

The school was closed on Monday, when some power went out, but the power came back quickly.

“We were more affected by what was happening in Paramus,” she said, where there was no drinking water or electricity, and traffic lights weren’t working. Students were asked to bring in their own water bottles.

Two men lost their lives in the storm, Anziska noted, and the school’s rabbi, Chaim Hagler, phoned the principal of the school attended by their children, to offer counseling or other help.

Yeshivat Noam, like other day schools, does have an emergency plan in place, she said, and conducts regular fire drills.

What happened at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, in Teaneck? “Not much,” said Rachel Feldman, the administrator. Because Teaneck had declared a state of emergency, the school did close on Monday, but did not lose power.

 
 

The frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism

An interview with a foremost authority on an ancient scourge that won’t go away

The disease known as anti-Semitism has been dormant in Western culture for thousands of years; sometimes it becomes an epidemic. This seems to be such a time. Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing throughout the world.

Meanwhile, at universities throughout the world scholars are intensively investigating the causes of anti-Semitism and seeking possible antidotes.

In this series of articles, we report on the latest thinking about anti-Semitism — and what good people can do to at least reduce it to being just endemic again and not epidemic.

People, including the Jewish people, are really in massive denial,” warns Robert S. Wistrich, a foremost authority on anti-Semitism.

First in a series

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Wistrich points out, has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Israel. It follows that “it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb.”

Wistrich is the author of a magisterial new book, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House, 2010, $40). His book, which has 941 pages of text (and which he wrote in longhand), has won unstinting praise from reviewers. Jonathan Israel of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton has called it a “masterpiece.” It certainly is.

In person Wistrich is self-possessed and courteous, a marvelous conversationalist with a remarkable knowledge of history and a keen mind.

Since 1982 he has been Neuberger professor of modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lives.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview, held in New York City.

Combatting anti-Semitism

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Robert Wistrich, author of “A Lethal Obsession,” argues that Holocaust education is not a magical antidote for anti-Semitism. Douglas Guthrie

Jewish Standard: What can be done to reduce anti-Semitism? After World War II, when I was growing up in New Jersey, there were school programs to foster tolerance — including student essay contests. A notable book of the time was “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” by Will Herberg, about our country as a healthy “triple melting pot.” Are educational programs one answer?

Wistrich: Before answering that, I think I have to issue a warning, a “health” warning. People always ask this and it’s natural: “OK, there’s a problem. How are we going to fix it?”

Americans in particular love this — it’s part of the national psyche. But this is not the kind of problem that lends itself to that approach — as has been proven in over 2,000 years of history. It hasn’t been fixed up to now, so surely it’s an act of almost hubristic naïveté to think that suddenly somebody is going to shout “Eureka! This is how we’ll fix it.” That’s not gonna happen. Plenty of people have had their minds focused on this, even if they haven’t had much success in seeking to find short- or medium-term solutions.

I’ve attended many conferences, spoken to government officials, been involved in the practical side of this, but I’ve never come out with a feeling that any of the measures taken are more than very short-term palliatives.

For instance, I’ve attended meetings of organizations in Europe, been a guest of and adviser to the State Department and the British Parliament, Canadian Parliament, French government officials, Polish government officials, and so on and so forth. They express good will, and have in some cases — such as Britain and Canada — instituted parliamentary inquiries of their own. They do seek to monitor the extent of the phenomenon more seriously than most other countries, which don’t monitor anti-Semitism properly or at all, and are not even prepared to put any resources into this.

These governments show good will, but what do we see, just looking at the statistics? The curve of anti-Semitism during the same period when they began to focus more on intensive countermeasures has risen. It’s not their fault, but it’s been unaffected.

Another example: Many people throw out a rather superficial and, as it turns out, quite unsound remedy. They say the answer is more Holocaust education.

In my chapter on France, I bring this out. For the last 20 years there’s been a tremendous advance in the scale and extent of Holocaust education in French schools. They came to it late, but once they began it became an integral part of the curriculum — and during this very period anti-Semitism intensified. And I can tell you that it is becoming extremely difficult to even teach the Holocaust there — mainly due to large Muslim influx. Those children do not want to hear about it, and they can become extremely abusive — and even take the Holocaust as an example of what they would like to implement.

A report to the French ministry of education recorded a North African Muslim teenager shouting to the teacher of one of these lessons, in French, “Hitler would have been a good Muslim!” Why? “He sought to wipe out all the Jews.”

So, let’s not be naïve. In some countries, handled sensitively, intelligently, Holocaust education may be useful. But it’s not an antidote. It can actually serve to inflame, as this example showed. So it’s not black and white.

Lethal & non–lethal anti-Semitism

J.S.: Isn’t it depressing — the history of anti-Semitism? One realizes that, 50 or 100 years from now, a much lengthier history of anti-Semitism probably can be written.

Wistrich: One message of my book is that in just 15 years the size of the book might have to be doubled. Anti-Semitism is certainly not going to go away.

The question is, how do you ensure that anti-Semitism doesn’t become truly lethal? Through different phases of history, sometimes anti-Semitism has been dormant and sometimes it explodes. The scale of the catastrophe varies enormously.

And to some extent what will happen is in our hands. I don’t see this as decreed by some inscrutable fate. It may indeed have a purpose and a design beyond our comprehension. If you are a religious person, you may well believe that it is the hand of divine providence. I don’t exclude anything.

But I think that a deeper understanding can enable us to take measures to prevent anti-Semitism, even though it is part of the human condition, from becoming lethal.

And that would be achievement enough. Believe me, if we can neutralize it to the point where we can live with it, that is more than enough. Any other notion is pie in the sky — the historical record proves this beyond any doubt.

The terrible decade

J.S.: How does your new book differ from other books on anti-Semitism, including your own previous study?

Wistrich: There are a number of striking differences. The other books usually stop in 1945, while most of my book deals with post-Shoah. Books that do deal with post-1945 have tended to be, to a great extent, quickly written books responding to a particular trigger event — often written by journalists — without any sense of the history of the phenomenon — and they are as transient as the event that triggered it. I wrote a book in 1990 on the subject, and I think it was an important work, “The Longest Hatred,” a term I coined. But this new book describes the last 20 years, which witnessed explosions of anti-Semitism across the world. It outweighs the years between 1945 and 1989 in terms of intensity and global scope.

Countries without anti-Semitism

J.S.: Pre-Nazi Germany was a discontented country. Are countries whose people are relatively contented less likely to harbor anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: An interesting hypothesis, worth exploring.

I’m well aware that at least two major civilizations, Indian and Chinese, have not within their own culture produced any of the varieties of anti-Semitism I analyze in my book. To some degree you may find pockets of it, but it’s purely a result of tensions that existed during the Cold War between India and Israel, or China and Israel. During the Maoist period, there was unconditional Chinese support for the popular liberation struggle of Palestinians. But even that was without any notable anti-Semitic lining — unlike Soviet communism, which was quite different. The Russian culture produced anti-Semitism, but the Chinese culture did not.

So yes, India and China are exceptions, and those two exceptions account for 40 percent of humanity — so that’s an encouraging thought. But not a great consolation, because the other side of that coin is they don’t really understand anti-Semitism. They’re not wired to this problem at all.

Why the Chinese admire the Jews

Wistrich: Three years ago, I was invited to the University of Nanking to speak before an international conference. They wanted to compare the Holocaust with the Nanking massacre of 1937, when the Japanese army conquered large chunks of China and entered into Nanking, which was then the capital. And they massacred 300,000 Chinese civilians — very deliberately —the most horrific kind of slaughter.

One of the reasons I was invited to this conference was that the Chinese loathe the Japanese — who, by the way, never really apologized for that atrocity in any meaningful way.

At the lunchtime break I was sitting with a Chinese professor, and someone asked me to compare the Holocaust with that massacre. I said there’s no comparison, and secondly I wasn’t an expert on what happened in China. We had an interesting conversation, and they are really free, as far as I can see, of any suggestion of anti-Semitism and have difficulty understanding it.

But they admire the Jewish people, they think Jews are very smart and that they have a great deal to learn from them. They admire Israel, too — even though politically they are careful about what they say.

And I asked the Chinese professor, what do you think really lies behind this conference? Why have you chosen this theme? He said that “some Chinese experts are tremendously impressed by the fact that you Israelis and Jews only amount to100 million people, and we are 1.5 billion, and yet the whole world knows about the Holocaust and nobody knows about the Nanking massacre! We want to learn from you how to do it.”

I had to correct him. “We’re not 100 million people, we are more like 13.5 million.” And he was totally flabbergasted.

It’s interesting as an exercise in perception because, in Europe, even though publicly the Holocaust is memorialized and political leaders will say it was a most awful event, do their mea culpas, and say a few words of mourning for the dead Jews of Europe, then they will launch their very own one-sided criticism of the State of Israel, sometimes amounting to outright vilification.

Jews in Israel, who actually defend themselves against attack, are another matter entirely, and Europe has not come to terms with that. Unlike the United States, though under the Obama administration this is becoming a little blurred.

The disappearing anti-Semite

J.S.: It has dawned on me that nobody admits being anti-Semitic anymore. But by an amazing coincidence, the number of anti-Semites who have disappeared is just about equal to the number of people existing today who are thoroughly and implacably anti-Israel.

Wistrich: I think that’s probably fairly accurate, even though we don’t have to take it literally, in statistical form. The way we formulate it is this: People always ask, what is the relationship between antagonism to Israel and anti-Semitism? Can’t there just be criticism of Israel?

In the last 40 years, people have discovered a socially acceptable, polite way of expressing sentiments that are no longer politically correct. Anti-Zionism in practice has become a legitimate substitute for anti-Semitism.

Anybody who has any resentment, any grudge, any issue with the Jews will tend to express it in an anti-Israel form. That is almost an iron rule today.

J.S.: But aren’t some people innocent dupes? Taken in by the propaganda?

Wistrich: There always are dupes in every time and place. Lenin, who had an astute nose for this, even though he was at the end of the day a mass murderer though not an anti-Semite — Lenin said he believed that the capitalist world would ultimately go down to defeat for two reasons:

1. The Soviet Union would give the capitalists enough rope to hang themselves. America in particular extended aid to the Soviet Union during its early years, to save the Soviets from starvation! That did not prevent the Cold War later on.

2. Lenin counted on all the fellow travelers of communism around the world — the “useful idiots,” he called them — and there are millions of useful idiots around the world, especially today.

These idiots, on the issue of radical Islam, do not understand the nature of the threat, even when it is coming closer and closer to their doorstep. And that is not just a Jewish matter, even though Jews happen to be on the front line of that struggle. But Jews — or even Israel — are by no means the primary target or victim of Islamists.

Prejudice vs. anti-Semitism

J.S.: I overheard a couple of women talking recently, and one said of someone else, “She doesn’t like Jews.” Isn’t one key cause of anti-Semitism the fact that people are too prone to generalize? This woman has met one or two Jews she didn’t like, and decided that Jews are all the same.

Wistrich: It’s absolutely fundamental to draw a line, but not an absolute dividing line, between prejudice — ethnic, national, social, racial, religious, whatever — and anti-Semitism.

Prejudice is usually a component of anti-Semitism, but at the lowest rung of the ladder. Prejudice is universal. I have never yet met a person, and I include myself, without prejudice. If you think about the world, you will pre-judge. Sometimes you have no choice. We have to pre-judge to presume things that may or may not be true — because we don’t have the time or the resources to investigate everything in all its aspects. So we jump to conclusions, we make snap judgments, we generalize — and we discriminate when we do it. That is unfortunate at times but inevitable.

But discrimination has several meanings, and not all of them are negative. In the negative sense, to discriminate is to unjustly or arbitrarily exercise a judgment that is unfavorable to certain groups. But discrimination also has a positive sense. “He’s very discriminating” means he can distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, good taste and bad taste. There’s nothing wrong with that. People make judgments and that is a necessary part of the mental process.

Prejudice will never be eradicated but it can be contained. We can palliate it through education, greater knowledge — all these things are valuable and important. We don’t want to encourage prejudice in the negative sense. But anti-Semitism — and that’s really at the heart of my book — is several stages beyond that. Anti-Semitism is already a crystallization of all kinds of antipathies, fears, hostilities, resentments — which may indeed be based on prejudicial positions, but could even have some kind of rational kernel to them. They crystallize into a view of the world, into an ideology, into political or social action — which may have very unpleasant consequences. They permeate institutions, may be reflected in laws, or boycotts, all kinds of actions that are damaging to Jews. That is anti-Semitism. Mere prejudice, Jews have lived with throughout history and will continue to live with, and we shouldn’t be too scared of that. In actuality, some other groups suffer even more. In American society, we all know black people suffered greater levels of prejudice — and outright racism. It’s been partially corrected, but it took a long time and it is not yet a thing of the past.

Responding to anti-Semitism

J.S.: I’ve been the victim of overt anti-Semitism several times in my life, and never knew how to respond. A drunk once sat next to me on a bus when I was a kid, and nonstop disparaged Jews — while I remained embarrassed and silent. Today I would respond. Why aren’t Jews in general more assertive in responding to instances of anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: The social reality that existed through centuries of Jewish exile was that Jews were a particularly vulnerable minority and suffered from discriminatory laws. They were ghettoized. They didn’t have much choice but to be extremely careful in the way that they would respond to avoid provocation and hope that the storm would pass.

Once Jews became citizens of democratic countries, where they were granted equal rights, this behavior pattern slowly began to change. It’s only in the 20th century, I think, that Jews became more assertive, as indeed they had every right to be — to defend their interests, their rights as citizens, just like any other citizens — and not to tolerate insult, damage, and threats. I think that this is one of the more striking characteristics of American Jewry taken as a whole when you compare it to most other Jewish communities in the diaspora. I know of other Jewish communities that are also assertive, and often they’re English-speaking democracies like Canada, Australia, and so on. And in France, too, the behavior pattern has changed. And I think that this is a healthy sign — and that one of the reasons why post-1945 in the United States anti-Semitism gradually diminished, without ever disappearing. American Jewish organizations began to be more active in the steps that they took to counteract manifestations of hostility or discrimination in the wider society, both toward them and others. So that the organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Wiesenthal Center, and so on — made an important contribution. They’ve acted politically — make no mistake about it, politics is important — and in America we see that the results have been beneficial because Jews have created for themselves some modicum of countervailing power — a sort of shield — just as Israel acts as a shield for the Jewish people since the creation of the State of Israel. This undoubtedly contributed to a greater feeling of self-confidence of Jews being able to stand up for themselves — to give back as good as they get — to defend themselves when attacked or when threatened. It’s come with serious problems, which I explain in my book.

Israel itself has become the major target of anti-Semitism around the world, and its legitimacy is contested. A vast enterprise of delegitimization is taking place on so many fronts. But it’s extremely important to the Jewish world and for all people who wish Israel well and understand its vital importance in the international community and what it stands for — it’s vitally important that a strong right hand is preserved to fight off these efforts. Because if, God forbid, these efforts were to succeed, the consequences for Jews in the diaspora as well as for what would happen in Israel itself would be felt very quickly.

It’s one thing we should disabuse ourselves of. We live in a predatory world — every day in our newspapers we see further confirmation of that. So you have to have deterrence — one of the hardest lessons that the Jewish people learned in the 20th century. Believe in God, trust in the Almighty, but keep your powder dry — this is what Oliver Cromwell so rightly said in the 17th century when he led the Puritan revolution to overthrow the English monarchy. Both are equally necessary — belief in providence, and arms for self-defense.

On Jews against Israel

J.S.: Reading your chapter on anti-Israel Jews, I reached one incontestable conclusion: A lot of people are crazy. Absolute nutcases.

Wistrich: Well, many anti-Zionist Jews are intellectuals and academics.

You know, when I think of the more pathological examples of anti-Israel Jews, one could write an entire book just on that theme — and I have enough material to do it. But this may be a golden opportunity for psychoanalysis to finally produce something useful!

I’m reminded of something that was said by an English journalist in the 1930s, George Orwell. He was reacting to that section of the English intelligentsia that was unconditionally pro-Soviet — and although he was a socialist, Orwell could not abide the hypocrisy and the doubletalk of these intellectuals. He then made a remark that I would apply to some of the anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals. He said that there are some things in this world that only intellectuals would be stupid enough to believe!

And this is how I feel about some of the vilifications and lies about Israel and the Palestinians or the “Jewish question” in general. How can one be stupid enough to believe this propaganda?

Thinking the unthinkable

J.S.: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the situation in the Mideast? Do you think Iran might attack Israel with nuclear weapons?

Wistrich: Think about Haman the Wicked, grand vizier of the Persian empire. I know it’s a legend, but it’s remarkably prescient. It is there for a purpose even if we cannot fully decode it. This Purim story is about what? A man rises to power in Persia and embarks upon a project to exterminate all the Jewish people in one day — all the Jewish men, women, and children of the Persian empire. And he plots and conspires and convinces the emperor to do that, to strip the Jews of everything they have and then wipe them out.

That is also Ahmadinejad’s goal. Of course the bomb is the key to that; that is the only way Iran could carry out such a project, and Iran is feverishly working in that direction.

Come what may, irrespective of what the international community may say, what the United States might claim, Obama stretched out his hand and it was symbolically chopped off by the Iranian leader. I don’t know whether Obama even noticed. But he is still holding it out while manufacturing crises with Israel over minor settlement issues that are like tiny pebbles in the mighty ocean.

I believe that Ahmadinejad’s fate will be like that of Haman. In other words, the tree that he has prepared, metaphorically, to hang the Jews of Persia, to wipe out the State of Israel in our time, is the one on which he himself will be hanged. How that will come about I don’t know. I am not a prophet, and neither the Israeli government nor the intelligence service has told me what their plans are. Realistically, Iran is a great danger, as is radical Islam in general. How do you frustrate such an evil design? It’s not a simple matter. We all know that there are dispersed nuclear sites, but we don’t know where all of them are. I certainly hope that Israel knows where they are, because it will be left largely alone to fight this battle.

Anybody who says that Israelis can live with an Iranian bomb under the regime of the ayatollahs doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s the nature of this regime — its fanatical, messianic, apocalyptic ideology, its vicious anti-Semitism, its declared intention, brazenly repeated, to wipe out the Jewish state — that is at issue. In these conditions, it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb. The rest is just commentary.

J.S.: You were born in Russia in 1945 and grew up in England, attending schools there. As a child, did you experience any anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: I was subjected to less abuse than others. If you were athletic, as I was, you became half a gentile. Another reason was, I was the best pupil in the class, and teachers do like to have a few pupils who can actually answer their questions. Anti-Semitism was part of my social experience. It seemed normal; we lived with it, we dealt with it. It was certainly long before such things as the race relations act.

The p.c. of today makes that impossible — which is almost the only good thing about political correctness. It has put an end to that kind of open, blatant racism.

But on the other hand, modern anti-Semitism may be character-building — making you want to prove yourself. I felt the way many of my school friends felt. You know, this is the way they look at us; OK, we’re going to prove them wrong just by being better than anybody else.

And maybe that’s one of the reasons why Jews have been overachievers.

J.S.: That’s a good thought to end this interview. Thank you.

 
 
Anti-semitism: the disease that won’t go away

An enduring mystery: Why is America somewhat immune?

One of the mysteries about anti-Semitism is: Why has the United States of America been relatively immune? Despite occasional anti-Semitic episodes here (think of Henry Ford and Mel Gibson), Jews have thrived in America as in no other country — excepting Israel itself.

An authority on anti-Semitism, Alvin H. Rosenfeld answers that intriguing question, as well as others — such as whether there is a fundamental anti-Semitic personality. He is professor of English and holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he has taught since 1968. He is also the director of the university’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism.

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Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of Indiana University’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism.

The founder of the university’s Borns Jewish Studies Program, he served as its director for 30 years and is the author of numerous articles on American poetry, Jewish writers, and the literature of the Holocaust. His most recent study, “The End of the Holocaust,” is to be published in 2011.

Below are excerpts from a recent telephone interview.

Jewish Standard: Why has the United States of America been relatively immune to the disease of anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: America seems to be an exceptional country, in many respects. What makes it so?

One, we are genuinely diverse. Unlike many European countries, which have had a hard time absorbing mixed populations, America by and large has succeeded. We’re not free of problems, but by and large our record is good in that respect. The Jews have been integrated in America in ways that were not possible over the longest stretch of history in Europe.

Another reason is that Jews are well-known in this country. Lots of people have Jewish friends, colleagues, and business partners. Some have Jewish family members by now. So we’re not as strange as we used to be.

Also, Jews are in many respects an accomplished people, and while some may envy and resent us, a lot of other people admire and respect Jews.

Then there is the question of Christianity. This can cut both ways, but in contrast to most European countries, and, certainly most west European countries today (which have entered a kind of post-Christian phase), Christianity in America is a part of social reality. Many Christians in America have an appreciation of Judaism. They find the roots of their own faith in Jewish scripture, and they respect Jews, especially Jews who are faithful to their own religion.

Add one more thing: America doesn’t have a medieval past — we’re too new a country for that — so we don’t have the legacy of medieval Christian anti-Semitism that Europe has had.

J.S.: Like the “blood libel” — the medieval myth that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzoh?

Rosenfeld: That’s part of it, yes. American Jews have not had to contend with such myths in any chronic way here.

In addition, America has no history of respectable political anti-Semitism. Sometimes political figures arise, usually on the margin, who are openly anti-Semitic — David Duke [of the Ku Klux Klan], for instance, is such a figure. But some European countries have a history of politics that has included parties with explicitly anti-Semitic planks in their platforms. We’ve never had that in this country. On the evidence to date, we could expect people to speak out immediately and harshly against political anti-Semitism — and that is something that we as Americans can be proud of.

At the same time, it makes sense for Jews to continue to be watchful. At is most extreme, anti-Semitism is a tenacious and obsessive passion. It is less an idea than an ideology fed by an array of strongly negative feelings, such as envy, resentment, hostility, hatred, and fear, which people in this country, as in every other country, are vulnerable to.

America has done a much better job of keeping the lid on outbreaks of anti-Semitic hostility than other countries. But if we think back, say, to the time of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh, we can easily recall that there have been prominent figures in America who have been outspoken anti-Semites.

J.S.: Are there puzzles, mysteries, that scholarly research into anti-Semitism could solve? For example, whether there’s a typical anti-Semitic personality?

Rosenfeld: The biggest puzzle has to do with the persistence of anti-Semitism. Racial hatreds and social prejudices appear in many cultures, but they wax and wane. Anti-Semitism does, too, but its presence is more constant, and it dates back millennia. Why? What accounts for its persistence? There are no certain answers.

Scholars also struggle to clarify the forms that anti-Semitism takes — it doesn’t always look the same.

Over the longest run, in the Western world, for instance, the origins of anti-Semitism are located within the church. Hostility to Jews and Judaism has been deeply rooted in church teachings that have conveyed a whole set of prejudiced messages directed against Jews and Judaism. This inherited complex of anti-Jewish biases, sometimes held in check, at other times activated, persisted within Christendom for a long time. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, some major church reforms have helped to ameliorate the destructive power of Christian biases against Judaism and the Jews, but it is too soon to say that church-based anti-Semitism is altogether a thing of the past. It is not.

At the same time, scholars of anti-Semitism recognize that in the latter decades of the 19th century, Christian anti-Semitism, while not gone, was eclipsed or augmented by a relatively new kind of anti-Semitism, rooted in notions that Jews were both a racially inferior and racially threatening presence. Thus, while some might still accuse the Jews of being Christ-killers and condemn them for rejecting the religious claims in the Christian gospel, others embraced newer forms of anti-Jewish prejudice that were race-based. To these Europeans, it was not the religion of the Jews that was faulty and menacing but Jewish blood. Racial stereotyping took hold. But by and large, race-based anti-Semitism was not as prevalent a factor over the centuries as was religious, specifically Christian, anti-Semitism.

When, as happened in Europe in the 19th century, religious anti-Semitism was joined by racial anti-Semitism, what the Jews faced was profoundly lethal. It culminated in Nazi Germany’s determination to institute a “final solution to the Jewish problem”: genocide.

While there’s still some residual Christian prejudice against Jews and Judaism today, it’s not nearly as potent as it was before. And in post-Holocaust Europe, race-based anti-Semitism is considered to be not just out of fashion but beyond the pale. Most anti-Semites in today’s Europe are not going to accuse the Jews of being a racially inferior people — for Europeans know where such views lead: to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, Europe’s long and shameful history of Jew-hatred is hardly over. Rather, it has changed shape. We are seeing today the emergence of powerful strains of ideological and political anti-Semitism, which target not so much the individual Jew as the Jewish state. That’s a story unto itself, and very troubling.

J.S.: Is anti-Semitism increasing today? And if so, why?

Rosenfeld: Compared with 10 years ago, yes indeed, it is. Explanations vary, but some recent books by first-rate scholars are helpful. I strongly recommend “The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism” by a British scholar, Bernard Harrison.

As for the reasons, some intense and important debates are now under way. And it’s high time that they are, for anti-Semitism has been picking up force over the past 10 or 11 years and requires serious attention if it is to be understood and combated. Before 2000 it was not so robust. What happened? A number of milestone events. They probably began with the breakdown of peace talks at Camp David, and on the heels of that diplomatic failure, the unleashing of the so-called second intifada, which unleashed angry, murderous passions against the Israelis and Jews elsewhere.

Shortly afterwards, 9/11 brought the ferocious attacks on this country by al Qaeda terrorists. Weirdly, and in no time at all, throughout the Muslim world and also in parts of the West, that aggression was blamed on the Mossad. Some also blamed elements within America itself. Both charges are ridiculous; nonetheless, these notions caught on, and large numbers of people evidently believe them to be true.

Because anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism often go hand in hand, the attack on America almost immediately had anti-Semitic ramifications. People who think in these distorted terms believe either that Jews control America, and therefore hitting America is hitting the Jews, or — vice versa — that America uses Israel to suppress freedoms elsewhere. Both notions are preposterous, but they evidently have appeal and persist.

Shortly after these events, America went to war in Iraq. We are also fighting in Afghanistan. The result of all these things — the intifada, coming on the breakdown of the Camp David talks, the 9/11 attacks and terrorist attacks in Spain, London, and elsewhere, America’s entry by force into two major Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan — all of this helped to increase angry and aggressive passions already present within the Muslim world, much of which focused hostility against America, the Jews, and Israel.

J.S.: Have recent economic troubles — the stock market’s bloodbath, persistent joblessness — contributed to anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: It used to be thought — with good reason — that whenever the economy turns down, anti-Semitism turns up. And at the time of the Madoff affair, there was a good deal of concern in the Jewish community, given the prominence of Madoff’s crimes, that there might be a backlash against Jews, numbers of whom work in the financial industry. But in fact no such reaction emerged to any appreciable degree in this country.

J.S.: Is there any correlation between the rise and fall of anti-Semitism and war, economic crises, or widespread unemployment?

Rosenfeld: Whenever society becomes destabilized, in all the ways you’ve mentioned — socially, economically, as a result of wars — people look around to blame somebody. Who’s responsible for all these troubles? Jews traditionally have been a favorite scapegoat. Are such accusations observable today? Yes. There are weird conspiracy theories rising again, so we are seeing some scapegoating. It becomes troubling, for instance, to witness prominent voices in Washington, D.C., implying that the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan may be at risk because of the impasse in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, an impasse largely attributed to Israeli intransigence or bad faith. That’s a serious charge, and also a mistaken one. If it persists, it has the potential to bring forth trouble. But most Americans are fair-minded people, admire and support Israel, and are unlikely to follow the lead of erroneous charges, I believe. Depending on developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, these more benign reactions could change, but to date it has been our good fortune not to be broadly scapegoated.

J.S.: What can we do to lessen anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: A few things. One is legal. Countries need good laws against the public display of hatred, especially hatred that leads to violence, including anti-Semitic violence.

Effective education also is a must. Lots of people just don’t know very much about Jew-hatred. They’re not familiar with the history of anti-Semitism. It’s incumbent upon us to help them learn.

In the public sphere, whenever anti-Semitic voices speak in an ugly and threatening fashion against Jews, Judaism, or the Jewish state, they need to be called to task and, if warranted, to be decisively rebuked. One should never be quiet in the face of openly expressed anti-Semitism. Once Jew-hatred is allowed to become an acceptable part of normative speech, no end of troubles are likely to follow.

J.S.: Anti-Semites seem to have disappeared from the earth. But the number of anti-Semites who have vanished seems roughly equal to the number of people in the world who are ferociously, close-mindedly, and unalterably opposed to the State of Israel.

Rosenfeld: I don’t think they’ve vanished so much as that they’ve taken on a certain camouflage — that’s probably what you meant. What passes today as anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with Zionism as such and is just openly expressed hatred of Israel, and you can usually detect that by listening not just to the words of the arguments against Israel but to the tone of the arguments. People get worked up — they get angry, belligerent, intemperate, sometimes enraged. At that point, what you’re encountering is not a reasonable argument that might be critical (and maybe even properly critical) of a particular Israeli policy or action but outright defamation or vilification of Israel as such. The resort to hyperbole is often the tip-off. When people begin making arguments about Israel that liken it to apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, when they accuse Israel of crimes of ethnic cleansing and even genocide, then you know what you’re dealing with are not people who may have good reason to object to a particular Israeli policy or a particular Israeli action. They just don’t like Israel, period; some of them would like to see it gone. Their quarrel is with the existence of the Jewish state as a Jewish state. They believe it has no legitimacy and should cease to be. The passions that fuel such death-wish fantasies are unambiguously anti-Semitic.

J.S.: Why are certain Jews anti-Israel?

Rosenfeld: I wish I could give you an answer to that question. Do you know such people yourself?

J.S.: Yes. My theory is they’re desperate for attention.

Rosenfeld: Some of it is exactly what you said — the need for attention reflects a kind of narcissism. I, I, I — the personal pronoun gets endlessly repeated, indicating a penchant for self-aggrandizement. Politics, in other words, becomes a form of self-indulgence, even self-love. Might we, in some instances, also be looking at Jewish self-hatred? You have to consider each case person-by-person. In some strongly pathological cases, Jewish self-hatred could be on exhibit. In other cases, the extreme behavior may be a function of a particular political stance. The further left or right you go, the more likely you are to find attitudes towards Israel that may begin as legitimate criticism but quickly escalate to angry and unreasonable accusations — and before you know it, end up in these analogies to Nazi Germany and South Africa. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s often the case that Jews are involved, and sometimes even in the forefront, of extreme anti-Israel movements. What drives these people? Probably a number of things. You pointed to one, the narcissistic need for attention. Self-hatred can also sometimes be involved. Political allegiances of an extreme leftist nature are often tied in. How so? Just as someone on the hard left is supposed to be anti-capitalist and anti-American and anti-globalization, he or she is also supposed to be anti-Zionist or anti-Israel. So it’s part of the whole political/cultural package, a perverse form of identity affirmation: one becomes a “good” Jew by stridently opposing the Jewish state.

Some of what I have been describing calls out for analysis by mental health specialists. I am not one. I can recommend an interesting book on this subject by a psychiatrist who is also a historian, Kenneth Levin. It’s called “The Oslo Syndrome.”

These are complicated matters and are being hotly, even bitterly, debated. What we know for sure is this: Israel’s enemies, including hardcore anti-Semites who are not Jewish, often showcase the words of Jews like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and any of a number of Israeli Israel-defamers and say, “See, it’s not just I who think Israel is an abomination, but I can quote lots of Jews who are saying exactly the same thing.” Sadly, they can.

J.S.: Is there a fundamental anti-Semitic personality?

Rosenfeld: We know a good deal about anti-Semitism and those who are drawn to it. But it’s hard to go from what we know to definitive analysis of anything like anti-Semitic personalities, let alone the implementation of programs that will lead to prevention. You can figure out time and again what angers and unnerves some people about the Jews, but it’s difficult to know what you can do to prevent them from being troubled in these ways and becoming anti-Semitic. And once the animus spreads beyond individuals and infects the culture as such, it becomes still harder to deal with. Even if one cannot fully understand what animates Jew-hatred, it’s critical to keep it in check, so it doesn’t become ultimately damaging on a large scale. We know it has the potential to do just that.

J.S.: Most anti-Semites, it seems to me, are closed-minded and simple-minded. They don’t engage in complex thinking; the word “nuance” is not in their vocabulary. And if Jews and if Israel are responsible for all or much of the evil in the world, life is easier for them to understand.

Rosenfeld: What you have just described is accurate and points to stereotyping and scapegoating. People who revert to such thinking have actually stopped thinking; they concoct and then remain within the closed bubble of their simple-minded explanations. Bogus though these arguments may be, such people will usually hold onto them passionately. “Jews are guilty as such and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in” — so says the anti-Semite.

J.S.: Have you ever even a victim of anti-Semitism?

Rosenfeld: Not in any serious way. Every once in a while I receive hate mail, but at least to date I have not run up against serious anti-Semitic hostility directed at me personally. I’ve been occasionally insulted and defamed by some cranky people, but episodically, not chronically. God willing, I’ll continue to be spared.

J.S.: Maybe your being spared is a result of your growing up in America?

Rosenfeld: No doubt, and I regard it as a blessing. My parents were both from Podolia, in the Ukraine, and knew anti-Semitism from their earliest years until they immigrated to this country. It was my mazel that my parents got out in time. I grew up in south Philadelphia — at a time when that part of the city was a bit like the lower east side of New York. There were lots of immigrant Jews, Italians, Irish, and others. It was a relatively poor, working-class end of town, but by no means a bad place, and, at least in my experience, it was not polluted by anti-Semitism.

Things have changed. We’re living now in an overheated time, a sour, divisive time. The economic turndown is far from over, American forces are engaged in two wars, terror threatens, and the hostility to Israel continues to intensify. The year 2009 saw a dramatic spike in anti-Semitic incidents on a global scale. In these circumstances, it is prudent to be vigilant.

Indiana University’s new Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and the institute at Yale can be helpful in alerting people to what’s afoot. Of course I acknowledge the important work being done elsewhere, especially at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and, in this country, by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, even more attention is needed. If, as a result of our academic work, we can help educate people about anti-Semitism, open their eyes to its character, longevity, gravity, and threats, we will be doing something both needful and positive.

It’s also important that we let people know that while anti-Semitism initially targets the Jews, the hostility it unleashes doesn’t stop with the Jews. If this hatred goes unchecked, a large number of other people will end up being hurt, if not directly by anti-Semitism, then because of the damage to society that anti-Semitism inevitably brings with it. It’s always a toxic force and has the potential to spread widely and be hugely harmful. We probably cannot eradicate it, but we need to do what we can to lessen its destructive force.

J.S.: Thank you for an enlightening interview.

 
 

Three Ma’ayanot students win prestigious Toshiba science award

A team of three ninth-graders at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck is a national winner in the prestigious Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards Program. It won second place in the contest for teams in the seventh through ninth grades for a study on regenerating body parts.

The winners include two sisters, Ariella and Eliana Applebaum, whose parents are both physicians, and Elana Forman, whose parents are both lawyers.

Each student will receive a $5,000 U.S. Savings Bond as well as a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are scheduled to meet congressional representatives and present their award-winning paper. In June, their names and pictures will appear on the Toshiba billboard in Times Square.

The girls were not told why they were being summoned from class on Wednesday morning. When they were informed that they were winners, they flushed with happiness, laughed excitedly, and hugged one another. (One murmured that, had she known, “I would have dressed up.”)

Then they were hugged by Phyllis Serfaty, science research coordinator; Gila Stein, chairman of the school’s science department; Rookie Billet, the school’s principal; and Ruth Wang Birnbaum, associate principal.

“We’re inordinately proud of you,” Billet told the students, “at such a tender age, to have won so important an award.”

Also present was Sergio Kawada, Toshiba vice president of corporate business planning.

The three girls are friends and live in Teaneck, near one another.

Ariella said she wants to be a surgeon — her parents, Eric and Sandy, are both allergists. She hopes to attend Princeton. Any hobbies? Softball.

Elana said she wants to do laboratory research. Her parents, both lawyers, are Etiel and Leanne. Hobbies? She plays the banjo. After Ma’ayanot, she hopes to attend Yale.

Eliana wants to become a plastic surgeon — to “help people with burns and other injuries.” Her choice of college: also Princeton. She has been dancing for 11 years — ballet — and has appeared in many school plays.

The contest was open to students in the United States and Canada in four categories: K-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12. In each category were one first-prize winner and one second-prize winner. This year, there were 266 teams in K-3; 1,355 in 4-6; 1,799 in 7-9; and 1,131 in 10-12 — so the Ma’ayanot team won in the most competitive category.

In their paper, the students speculated on what might be the situation 20 years in the future, when human beings might be able to re-grow missing body parts the way lower forms of life (like salamanders) can. They read 48 different papers on the subject and interviewed an authority on regenerative biology. The paper’s abstract began: “From inflexible and semi-practical inventions to awe-inspiring robotic limbs, people have been attempting to replace limbs for centuries. RegenX injections reach beyond artificial limb replacement and develop a method for limb regeneration using an individual’s own tissues….”

The paper will soon be available on the school’s Website, www.maayanot.org.

This was the first year the school, which has 221 students, participated in the Toshiba contest, which has been held for 18 years.

Unlike the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) competition, the Toshiba contest doesn’t call for actual projects but for creative thinking.

The Toshiba contest is believed to be the world’s largest K-12 student science and technology competition.

Toshiba is a Japanese multinational conglomerate, headquartered in Tokyo. The company’s main business is in infrastructure, consumer products, and electronic devices and components.

 
 

Rabbis explore Jewish views of sexuality at Kaplen JCC forum

Rabbi Yosef Adler, who is Orthodox, said he might rejoice if his own child established a loving same-sex relationship, but that the Jewish community at large would not rejoice.

Adler, religious leader of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, spoke during a forum on sex roles at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week. He was answering a challenge from a young gay Orthodox man as to whether Adler would be as pleased as his own rabbi father would be with this son were he in that kind of relationship.

Three rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — spoke during the forum, and while there was disagreement among them about homosexual unions, their tone was civil. And Adler pointed out all of them agreed that bullying in general was to be condemned.

Still, Adler said, homosexual unions are contrary to Jewish law, and he opposes the publication of announcements of engagements between homosexuals, as The Jewish Standard had done in September. He contended that the publication of the announcement was a celebration of the union and suggested that if such announcements were paid advertisements they might be more acceptable to the Orthodox community.

Disagreeing with Adler about homosexual unions was Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who had officiated at two same-sex Jewish marriage ceremonies — which did not have legal standing — in the late ‘90s, at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. A Reform rabbi, he asked who has the right to decide that male and female are the only valid categories. As for the biblical injunction against homosexuality, Millstein said that the Bible has diverse views and people “cherry-pick” whatever ones they agree with. The ideal with any relationship, he went on, is that it be fully committed and honest, with trust and exclusivity. He added that homosexuals should feel that they have a place in the Jewish community. Temple Sinai and the Reform movement, he said, are dedicated to this notion.

David-Seth Kirshner, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, said that whatever people do in private should remain private. Adler agreed, and went further: “If someone desecrates the Sabbath, that doesn’t mean that he has no right to be active in the Jewish community.”

Kirshner said that he had enjoyed the hour’s talk he had with Adler at an earlier date and was pleased to see in how many areas they agreed. He suggested that North Jersey rabbis from the different streams of Judaism communicate with one another more often and that there should be one board of rabbis from all the streams. At present, Orthodox rabbis belong to the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis belong to the North Jersey Board of Rabbis.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey introduced the session, co-sponsored by UJA-NNJ and the Kaplen JCC. The moderator was Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University. Two more rabbinic forums are scheduled, one at the YM-YWHA in Wayne and the other at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township.

 
 

The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

That other ‘Jews and Money’ book

Warren BorosonCover Story
Published: 23 December 2010

Another book called “Jews and Money,” subtitled “The Myths and the Reality,” published back in 1982, concludes that the financial success of Jews in America has created a new kind of anti-Semitism.

“The new anti-Semitism seems rooted less in religion or contempt, and more in envy, jealousy, and fear,” writes Gerald Krefetz, an investment consultant. “Anti-Semites’ perception of Jewish economic success is far greater than the facts warrant…. [But] Jews are now subject to a new kind of racism, anti-Semitism due to affluence…. It is contemporary Jewish wealth and status that is the new target of the anti-Semites and the cause of Jewish insecurity.”

The book abounds in daring generalizations about Jews, generalizations that today’s scholars might characterize as facile and simplistic. And while Krefetz sometimes presents statistics, his numbers may be badly out of date.

Krefetz believes that Jews have excelled in American society partly because when they immigrated here, they were already members of a middle-class culture, willing to work hard and to defer receiving rewards. “The long attachment to urban dwelling and commerce imbued Jews with characteristics that would bloom in a newly industrialized, free-enterprise-oriented, frontier-motivated society. America was ripe for the exercise of talents that had been honed for a millennium.”

Krefetz believes that Jews were particularly adept at financial affairs: “Historically, Jews have shown remarkable talent for manipulating money,” he writes. “Over the years, this proclivity has led them to the world of banking and finance. And nowhere have they so brilliantly exercised their financial talents as in America. Free enterprise and political emancipation allowed them to exercise and sharpen their skills — skills that have been evolving for a thousand years.” (An exception he noted: banking, because of historic discrimination against Jews.) “The financial world, with its lure of wealth, cerebral involvement, and independent decision-making, was always a magnet for Jews, both in the old world and the new.”

Because of their culture, Krefetz believes, Jews have excelled not only in finance but in law, medicine, science, and academia. “The Jewish reverence for learning,” he writes, “lavished prestige upon the rabbi — the teacher, the wise man. In America, this prestige was transferred to secular learning, where schooling was expected, intellectuality praised, and degrees and advanced degrees sought. In a society that correlates education with job status and degrees with earning power, the Jews had it made.”

What accounts for Jewish ambition? Krefetz believes that age-old hostility and contempt prompted Jews to attempt to excel: “It was and is anti-Semitism that accounts for Jewish success.” They excelled “in order to succeed and survive.” And this has made them “a nation of overachievers.”

“Are Jews smarter?” he asks. “Does the Jewish gene pool contain an abundance of ‘smart’ protein molecules?” He doesn’t actually answer the question, but does offer possible explanations:

The smartest Jews reproduced the most. Historically, “The ideal match … was between children of the rabbis or the learned community and children of the richest merchants” — whereas “the demand of ecclesiastical celibacy prevented some of the cleverest Christians from passing on their genetic traits.”

The Jewish young didn’t suffer from malnutrition because traditional “charity most likely reduced the incidence of starvation and subsequent brain damage.”

Jews were accustomed to stimulating their children. “Children were and are forever taught, instructed, talked with, talked to, and occasionally badgered.” In short, “[s]ocial deprivation … a factor in human intelligence, was rarely a problem in Jewish households.”

The book is well-written and highly intelligent, but the reader may wonder whether the author has succeeded in fulfilling the promise of the subtitle in distinguishing between myths and reality.

 
 
 
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