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Supreme Court lifts California restrictions on at-home religious gatherings

1 hour 22 min ago

(JTA) — The Supreme Court extended a string of decisions overturning pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings, ruling Friday night that California’s restrictions on at-home gatherings unfairly limited religious freedom.

The 5-4 ruling, in which Chief Justice John Roberts again joined the liberal justices in the minority, lifted rules limiting at-home gatherings in much of the state to three households. Those rules, imposed during a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in California, were set to expire April 15.

A Christian pastor and a group of others had asked the court to lift California’s restriction on at-home gatherings so they could host Bible study classes and prayer groups. They argued that the state was restricting their religious liberties by forbidding such gatherings in houses of worship and limiting the size of at-home gatherings.

The conservative majority argued that the restrictions privileged secular activities like restaurants, salons and sporting events over religious gatherings. In the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan disagreed, noting that all at-home gatherings were restricted, including those for secular purposes.

The decision follows a trend in which the 5-4 conservative majority, solidified by Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment in October, has overturned COVID restrictions on religious gatherings. In November, the court blocked New York’s restrictions on houses of worship after the Orthodox Jewish advocacy group Agudath Israel, along with the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese, sued the state. In December, the court issued a similar ruling in response to an appeal by a New Jersey rabbi and priest.

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Israeli police beat up and kneel on the face of left-wing Jewish lawmaker

Fri, 2021-04-09 23:40

(JTA) — Israeli police beat up a left-wing member of parliament and one officer knelt on his face, drawing outcry from across the political spectrum.

Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Arab-Israeli Joint List party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was at a protest against evictions in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah Friday when he became involved in an altercation with police. The police shoved him to the ground and video from the protest shared on social media shows an officer placing his knee on Cassif’s face.

“The police are going crazy here, they’re not letting people demonstrate,” said Cassif, according to the Times of Israel. “They were told I was a Knesset member, it did not interest them.”

Police are investigating the incident.

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Members of Knesset, including those on the right, condemned the officers’ treatment of Cassif.

“Brutal behavior like this toward any citizen is improper, let alone a Knesset member who is entitled by law to freedom of movement so he can fulfill his role,” said Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, according to the Times of Israel. Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker, called it “grave and unacceptable.”

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Biden’s new slate of aid to Palestinians comes under intense scrutiny

Fri, 2021-04-09 23:31

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A number of pro-Israel groups, Israeli officials and Republicans in Congress are stepping up their scrutiny of the Biden administration’s plans to resume funding for the Palestinian Authority and other groups aiding Palestinians.

In the past two weeks, the Biden administration has rolled out pledges to deliver $75 million in assistance to Palestinian areas; $40 million for security assistance to the Palestinian Authority; $150 million to the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA; and $15 million for COVID assistance. Also pledged is $10 million that goes to Palestinian-Israeli people-to-people programs.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said the spending will comply with congressional restrictions, and comply with laws banning (with a few exceptions) direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority as long as it pays subsidies to the families of Palestinians who have killed Israelis or Palestinians — a longstanding PA policy.

That’s not enough to assuage skeptics, who cite a government watchdog report released last week that said that, from 2015 to 2019, U.S. aid officials did not sufficiently verify whether money meant to reach only nongovernmental organizations in fact ended up with terrorists.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spearheaded a letter to Biden on Thursday from 18 Republican senators urging the Biden administration to pause the disbursement of assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip subject to further congressional scrutiny.

Cruz and the other senators want the Biden administration to assure Congress that “necessary aid being provided to the Palestinians, including as envisioned b Congress and described in the Taylor Force Act, is tightly targeted to ensure that it benefits the Palestinian people and not the PA or Hamas.” The Taylor Force Act, named for an American victim of a terrorist attack, is a law that conditions aid to Palestinians over whether the Palestinian Authority suspends funding for killers of Israelis and Americans.

Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, his counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives, on Wednesday pledged “to scrutinize every proposed program to ensure the administration’s actions are in lockstep with the Taylor Force Act.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that Risch and McCaul have used their positions on their respective committees to delay the disbursement of the funds.

President Donald Trump suspended most aid to the Palestinians in 2018, in part because the Palestinians snubbed his moves to initiate Middle East peace and in part because of the payments that go to killers of Israelis and Americans. Biden campaigned on resuming funding to the Palestinians, saying it was critical for humanitarian reasons and to restore American credibility in the region.

“UNRWA remains in desperate need of fundamental reform,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tweeted Wednesday. “Its waste, fraud, resistance to reform & internal turmoil make it among the most inefficient UN agencies. Moreover UNRWA’s misguided definition of refugees directly contributes to prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

In a statement unusual for a diplomat, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan denounced the resumption of funding to UNRWA — or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees — absent reforms in the agency. The Orthodox Union also sent a letter to Blinken questioning the resumption of assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. The Zionist Organization of America has additionally objected to the new funding.

Liberal pro-Israel groups, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now, have praised the resumption of assistance, as have Democrats who are known for their closeness to the pro-Israel community, including Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

Deutch, who is Jewish, chairs the Middle East subcommittee in the House.

“Despite my serious concerns about transparency and accountability at UNRWA, withholding assistance that provides healthcare & education to children during a global pandemic risks further deteriorating an already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza made worse by Hamas,” Deutch said on Twitter.

The women’s Zionist organization Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League and an array of other Jewish groups are rallying senators to sign a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, urging him to reform UNRWA’s schools, which they say peddle anti-Semitic slanders in textbooks.

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Before Helen Mirren plays Golda Meir, here are 7 other stars who have played Israeli prime ministers

Fri, 2021-04-09 20:39

(JTA) — A mere 43 years after her death, Golda Meir is ready for her close-up.

Just a month after it was announced that the Israeli star Shira Haas would portray Meir in a TV series, The Hollywood Reporter revealed this week that Oscar winner Helen Mirren would portray Israel’s only female prime minister in an upcoming biopic.

While Haas, who is best known for her star turn in the miniseries “Unorthodox,” is Jewish, Mirren is not. But she did win international acclaim (and the Academy Award) for her performance as another historic leading lady: England’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen.”

It won’t be the first time that Meir has been portrayed in a big production. But Israeli prime ministers beyond Meir haven’t exactly hogged screen time in Hollywood productions over the years, even with the rash of Israeli-themed content that has flourished on Netflix and other streaming platforms over the past decade. 

Here are seven other stars — Jewish and non — who have played Israeli prime ministers.

Anthony Hopkins

Yitzhak Rabin in “Victory at Entebbe” (1976)

Anthony Hopkins at the Society of Film and Television Arts awards, later renamed the BAFTA awards, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, 1973. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“Victory at Entebbe,” a TV film that aired on ABC, was the first of three 1970s movies based on the Israeli army’s rescue mission of over 100 hostages from a Ugandan airport in 1976. (Another was made in 2018 — see below.) Palestinian terrorists hijacked a plane that was heading from Tel Aviv to Paris and held nearly 250 hostages for a week before Israeli commandos flew in on a July night, killing the Palestinians and dozens of Ugandan soldiers who supported the hijacking.

The cast was loaded with big names. Hopkins, then 39 and better known in his native United Kingdom, portrayed Rabin, who was in his first term as prime minister. Richard Dreyfuss played now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, who died in the raid; Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor were a Jewish couple and the parents of a daughter played by Linda Blair; and Burt Lancaster was featured as Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defense minister. The director was Marvin Chomsky, a Jewish Emmy winner and cousin of the famed linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky.

Peter Finch

Rabin in “Raid on Entebbe” (1977)

Peter Finch in 1976. (Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

NBC’s TV movie version of the story aired a month later, in January 1977, with far fewer stars in the cast.

Still, the movie has gone down as the final film in the acclaimed career of Peter Finch, who was the only actor at the time to posthumously win an Academy Award, for his lead role in 1976’s “Network.” Heath Ledger would be similarly recognized three decades later as a supporting actor in “The Dark Knight.” 

Five days after “Raid on Entebbe” premiered, Finch died of a heart attack at age 60.

Ingrid Bergman

Meir in “A Woman Called Golda” (1982)

Ingrid Bergman as Golda Meir in “A Woman Called Golda,” 1982. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Sadly, Finch’s role was not the only performance on this list to be posthumously praised.

The legendary Bergman’s last acting role was as Meir in the syndicated TV movie “A Woman Called Golda,” a biopic about her improbable rise to power. The film was released in April; Bergman died of breast cancer in August. 

The following year she was awarded the Emmy for best actress in a miniseries or TV special and a Golden Globe in a similar category. Her daughter Pat Lindstrom accepted the trophies.

The Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy also was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Morris Meyerson, Meir’s husband who died in 1951.

Barry Morse

Menachem Begin in “Sadat” (1983)

Barry Morse in 1976. (Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Morse was an often overlooked English actor who had thousands of credits to his name, many of them TV appearances. The most well-known was a starring role on the 1960s crime drama “The Fugitive.”

Here he played Begin, Israel’s sixth PM, in a two-part, four-hour made-for-TV movie about the life and changing political philosophy of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated in 1981, just two years after striking a historic peace deal with Israel. The movie follows Sadat from the Yom Kippur War he helped wage to his peace negotiations with Begin, which led to a treaty in 1979.

Egypt banned the film, not appreciating the casting of a Black non-Arab actor, Louis Gossett Jr., as Sadat, in addition to its overall portrayal of the nation’s late leader. 

Lynn Cohen

Meir in “Munich” (2005)

Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir in a scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” 2005. (Screenshot from YouTube)

One of Steven Spielberg’s most lauded films, “Munich” dramatized (and somewhat exaggerated) the story behind the Mossad’s mission to exact revenge for the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, in which Palestinian terrorists tortured and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.

Among the star-studded cast (Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds) was Cohen, a lesser-known Jewish actress, as Meir. Cohen also played the recurring character Magda on “Sex and the City” and starred in the recent horror flick “The Vigil,” which features Yiddish and centers on an Orthodox ritual gone wrong.

Lior Ashkenazi 

Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe” (2018)

Lior Ashkenazi as Yitzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe,” 2018. (Screen shot from YouTube)Lior Ashkenazi as Yitzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe,” 2018. (Screen shot from YouTube)

This widely criticized version of the Entebbe story focuses on the conflicted experiences of the two Germans who allied with Palestinian terrorists to hijack the Paris-bound plane, played by Rosamund Pike and Daniel Bruhl.

Rabin is portrayed here by Ashkenazi, a veteran Israeli actor who in recent years has broken out internationally after being a star for decades in his native country. He played a prominent role in the epic Israeli series “Valley of Tears” about the 1973 Yom Kippur War and streaming on HBO Max.

Simon Russell Beale

David Ben-Gurion in “Operation Finale” (2018)

Simon Russell Beale accepts a best supporting actor award for his performance in “The Death Of Stalin” at the London Evening Standard British Film Awards in London, Feb. 8, 2018. (David M. Benett/Getty Images)

Since the 1980s, Beale has been known as one of the U.K.’s finest theater actors, but he has seamlessly transitioned into Hollywood roles over the past two decades. He’s been in dramas such as “The Deep Blue Sea,” “My Week With Marilyn” and “The Death of Stalin.”

In 2018 (a year strangely packed with Israeli commando thrillers), Beale played Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in “Operation Finale.” The film follows the Mossad’s efforts to track down the infamous Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, who by 1960, the year the film is set, had escaped Europe to hide in Argentina. 

Ben Kingsley played Eichmann, but the Oscar winner and Beale couldn’t stave off the critics, who panned the film.

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Brandeis president signs 5-year contract renewal after dispute with university’s board

Fri, 2021-04-09 19:46

(JTA) — Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz has signed a 5-year contract extension weeks after accusing the university’s board of trying to force him out of the post by offering him a short-term pact.

In March, the board of trustees had offered Liebowitz a one-year renewal that he argued would make it impossible to follow through on commitments to major donors and secure large gifts.

Brandeis, which was founded as a nonsectarian Jewish university, saw a drop in donations under the previous president, Frederick Lawrence, even as applications to the school increased. Liebowitz assumed the role in December 2015 after overseeing a major fundraising increase as president of Middlebury College.

In March, Meyer Koplow, the board chair, told the Boston Globe that Liebowitz had asked for a raise that the board “could not agree to.” Liebowitz was paid $956,000 in 2018.

“As time went on, it became more clear that he was not meeting fund-raising expectations and the board decided to offer a one-year extension to see if he could succeed in his efforts,” Koplow wrote in an email to the Globe at the time. “We all wished for his success.”

In an announcement of the contract renewal this week, Koplow praised Liebowitz.

“From day one, Ron has been a leader who is committed to driving Brandeis forward in a way that both reinforces our historic values and prepares our graduates for successful futures in a dynamic, global environment,” Koplow said. “The board has always recognized that Ron has fostered a strong academic culture and created a detailed plan for an agile and dynamic university of the future.”e

The announcement did not disclose the financial terms of the new agreement.

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ADL chief calls for Tucker Carlson’s ouster after Fox News host endorses white supremacist conspiracy theory

Fri, 2021-04-09 18:01

(JTA) — Tucker Carlson, a popular Fox News host, defended a white supremacist conspiracy theory on the cable network, spurring the head of the Anti-Defamation League to tweet “Tucker Must Go.”

Appearing Thursday on “Fox News Primetime,” Carlson said Democrats are coordinating a “replacement” of current U.S. voters with immigrants from the “Third World.”

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” Carlson said. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”

Anti-extremism watchdogs said Carlson’s comments echo an idea popular among white supremacists that has inspired multiple anti-Semitic and extremist attacks. White supremacists falsely claim that Jews are orchestrating a so-called “Great Replacement” of the largely white populations in Western countries with nonwhite immigrants.

Marchers in the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia chanted “You will not replace us” and then “Jews will not replace us.” The idea that Jews were conspiring to destroy white people through nonwhite immigration also inspired the shooter in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which killed 11 people.

Similar theories also fueled the far-right shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. The gunman in the 2019 Poway synagogue attack, which killed one person, was likewise inspired by the Pittsburgh and New Zealand shootings.

Tweeting the Fox News clip, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote, “Tucker must go.” An ADL spokesperson confirmed that Greenblatt is calling on Carlson to either resign or be fired. Carlson’s nightly show is one of the most-watched across cable news, with an average of more than 3 million viewers, according to Deadline.

@TuckerCarlson: “replacement theory” is a white supremacist tenet that the white race is in danger by a rising tide of non-whites,” Greenblatt wrote. “It is antisemitic, racist and toxic. It has informed the ideology of mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch and Pittsburgh.”

.@TuckerCarlson: “replacement theory” is a white supremacist tenet that the white race is in danger by a rising tide of non-whites.
 
It is antisemitic, racist and toxic. It has informed the ideology of mass shooters in El Paso, Christchurch and Pittsburgh.
 
Tucker must go. https://t.co/FSvgNfR1KO

— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) April 9, 2021

Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, which has sued participants in the Charlottesville rally, also called out Carlson’s “replacement” comments. She tweeted that Carlson was “openly and explicitly promoting the very same white supremacist conspiracy theory that fueled the Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Poway, and El Paso attacks (among others).”

Later in the segment, Carlson claimed that the idea he was advocating was not racist.

“I mean, everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it,” he said. “Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they’re importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

In recent years, Greenblatt has repeatedly called out Carlson for promoting white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas, or downplaying the threat they pose.

On Feb. 24, after Carlson said there was “no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on Jan. 6,” when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Greenblatt tweeted that the claim was “blatant disinformation” as well as “dangerous and irresponsible.”

In 2019, Greenblatt wrote an NBC News column criticizing Carlson for his demonization of progressive Jewish billionaire megadonor George Soros, as well as for a segment unabashedly praising Henry Ford, the automaker and a prominent anti-Semite. The segment praising Ford then pivoted to condemning hedge-fund investor Paul Singer, who is Jewish, as a practitioner of “vulture capitalism.”

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Inspired by the pandemic, Jewish musicians are rolling out a year’s worth of spiritual ‘healing songs’

Fri, 2021-04-09 17:50

(JTA) — It was only about a week into lockdown last spring when Elana Brody took out her keyboard piano for a jam session. It was late at night, so it made sense that the new melody that came to her then was “B’shem Hashem” a part of the Shema.

“It was kind of natural to want to sing this prayer because it’s a bedtime prayer,” Brody said, calling it an “incantation” of sorts.

The words call on four angels to surround her — Michael to the right, Gabriel to the left, Uriel in front and Raphael behind — with God above her head. Brody imagined the angels surrounding the people of New York City, which she had left behind a week before when she drove to her parents’ home in Virginia to ride out the beginning of the pandemic, and protecting them as the first wave of the pandemic engulfed the city.

For Brody, a Jewish singer-songwriter who also leads prayer services and runs spiritual retreats, the healing intention behind that song came to characterize her music throughout the pandemic year.

Along with eight other Jewish singers and prayer leaders, Brody will showcase the songs written during the pandemic during a concert Monday night timed to the release of the studio recording of her “B’shem Hashem.”

For singers and musicians, the past year of canceled concerts has made the pandemic especially difficult. But for some it’s also been a year of expanded capacity to write new material. And for artists who focus on Jewish spiritual and devotional music, much of the new material has drawn on the challenging shared emotions of the pandemic and transformed them into prayer.

“We’re kind of hard-wired to digest grief and turn it into art or song,” Brody said of artists like herself. “I wrote an album’s worth of material through this last year, all transmuting loss into song.”

When the pandemic began last spring, Deborah Sacks Mintz had been preparing for a series of concerts and prayer services to promote her new album of Jewish music released in May. When those concerts were canceled, it not only kept her at home. It also forced Mintz — someone who works as a prayer leader and educator teaching her songs and leading communal singing experiences — to rethink her approach to music.

“It became clear to me pretty quickly that there was going to need to be a way for me to be willing to encounter myself and my own voice,” she said. “I couldn’t just be thinking about communal singing and gathering.”

While Mintz has typically drawn from the prayer book and the genre of niggunim, wordless melodies, that can be sung by a group, she found herself drawn to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet who died in 2000 and often infused his work with biblical imagery, and writing melodies for his poems.

“That’s something I probably would not have spent time doing before the pandemic,” Mintz said.

For Shir Yaakov Feit, a Jewish songwriter who leads Kol Hai, a Jewish Renewal community in New Paltz, New York, the beginning of the pandemic was the most prolific songwriting period of his life. Staying inside at his Hudson Valley home in March last year, he challenged himself to write a melody a day for a chapter of the book of Psalms. The book has 150 chapters.

“I’m afraid of committing to writing a psalm a day for the next 150 days, but maybe that’s what’s happening,” Feit said in the video from his first psalm tune on March 21, 2020.

Feit didn’t end up going through all 150 Psalms chapters, stopping at 70. But he’s proud of the melodies he wrote and hopes to return to the project someday to complete the second half.

“I probably hadn’t written 70 songs in the previous seven years,” he said.

Feit released his psalm melodies in YouTube live streams, with some racking up a few hundred views. While the videos were not a perfect substitute for the loss of in-person singing he normally leads at Kol Hai, he said the music was a way of touching people from afar.

“I think the power and purpose of music became much more clear, that sound literally touches us,” Feit said. “So I think the music that we made during the pandemic was a form of medicine.”

Brody is hoping to keep that ability for music to heal and connect at the front of her songwriting going forward.

“I really hope that what has happened this year, with the focus being on healing and prayer and community, that my music kind of stays there,” she said.

And Brody is already planning additional concerts to include more artists who wrote new material during the pandemic. 

“There are so many artists out there who have written a healing song this year, so now I’m excited to try to make a platform for even more artists,” she said. “For more healing songs.”

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Dutch national laureate philosopher calls Diaspora a ‘blessing’ because it prevented Jews from having power

Fri, 2021-04-09 15:28

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — The Netherlands’ foremost philosopher called the dispersal of Jews in the Diaspora a “blessing” because it prevented them from achieving the power they have in Israel today that has resulted in “religiously motivated violence.”

Hans Achterhuis, the first recipient of the prestigious and royally recognized title of “thinker of the Fatherland,” made the remarks in an interview on the role of religion in the modern state for Trouw, which the paper published on Thursday, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial day.

“As terrible as the story of the Jews has been, it was still in a certain sense a blessing that they were dispersed in the Diaspora. They had no power and therefore no possibility of exercising religiously motivated violence. And one sees how it can go wrong if that power does exist, in the State of Israel,” Achterhuis said.

His comment provoked outrage by Jewish community representatives and Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Naor Gilon, who wrote on Twitter: “Shameful article in @Trouw on the day we remember the 6 million #Jews murdered in #Europe. History taught us that having a Jewish state – #Israel is the only way to survive #NeverAgain.”

Trouw told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the interview was not intentionally timed to run on Israel’s memorial day, Yom Hashoah.

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, or CIDI, the Dutch Jewry watchdog on anti-Semitism, accused Achterhuis of racism toward Jews.

“Being satisfied if a group is oppressed and fearing it if it realizes its rights. That’s the definition of racism, which Hans Achterhuis exemplifies in @Trouw,” CIDI wrote on Twitter. “He has not earned his title of Thinker of the Fatherland today.”

In an email to JTA, Achterhuis rejected the allegations, saying his words should not be seen as challenging the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

“I see here no discrimination because I think it’s absolutely normal for Israel to realize its rights,” Achterhuis wrote.

He did not answer JTA’s question on whether or in what way he sees Israel as facilitating the exercising of religiously motivated violence.

“The Jewish People exists and is dear to me,” Achterhuis wrote. “The foremost philosopher whom I study is Hannah Arendt, who, as you know, was a Jewish woman. And of course Jews have a right to self-determination, and naturally Israel is for many Jewish friends a means to achieving that.”

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Marianne Steiner, 101, stylish Holocaust survivor who supported research on German Jewry

Fri, 2021-04-09 15:20

(JTA) — As a young Jewish refugee in the late 1930s, Marianne Steiner brought creative flair to her job as a window dresser at Saks Fifth Avenue, the upscale department store in Manhattan.

While her family was well off before fleeing Nazi Germany, their finances in New York were more limited. At the time, Steiner owned only one black dress that she wore to work each day, embellishing it with different collars and cuffs and even fooling her co-workers. When they asked what she wanted for her birthday, to their surprise she said she hoped for a new dress.

The story is among the many she enjoyed sharing with her family, according to her son, Tom.

“She had a lot of style,” he said. “She knew everyone. My friends who were much younger than she was, they loved her. She was the life of the party.”

Steiner was in good health and awaiting her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine when she contracted the coronavirus. She died in New York City on Feb. 26, 2021. She was 101.

Born in 1919, Steiner had an idyllic childhood growing up in a family of successful livestock traders. As a teenager in the early 1930s, she watched from her window in horror as Nazi soldiers marched in the streets of her hometown.

In 1933, her parents sent her to a Catholic school in Belgium, hoping to protect her from the looming danger. She later transferred to a school in England to study art. Her parents managed to escape and reunited with Steiner in England before traveling on to New York, settling on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

In 1942, she married Paul Steiner, an Austrian refugee who had rented a room from her parents. A writer, Paul Steiner founded Chanticleer Press and became an influential publisher who created the Audubon Society Field Guides. He died in 1996.

The couple was passionate about the arts and became collectors of notable works of early Greek art. They were also longtime supporters of the Leo Baeck Institute, a research library that holds family papers, including archival material going back to prewar Germany. Steiner continued her involvement with the organization after her husband’s death.

“They were involved so no one would forget what happened in the Holocaust,” Tom Steiner said.

Along with her son, Steiner is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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Antony Blinken in Holocaust Day speech recalls past State Department obstruction of bids to save Jews

Fri, 2021-04-09 15:14

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations are by their nature calls for accountability for atrocities past and present.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, used the occasion to take his own department to task for its neglect of Jews during the Nazi era, and to call for action on behalf of the persecuted today.

Blinklen, delivering the keynote address Thursday at the event organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, savaged the World War II-era assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, for blocking the entry into the United States of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, and for lying to Congress about it.

“He had immense power to help those being persecuted,” Blinken said at the event, this year presented virtually because of the coronavirus. “Yet as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States.”

Long notoriously also suppressed information from sources overseas describing the Nazi genocide.

Blinken, who has said he was shaped by the story of his stepfather’s Holocaust survival, said Long’s failures were a lesson for U.S. policymakers today, pointing both to attacks on minorities in the United States and the need to speak out for those oppressed abroad.

Perhaps the most pronounced difference Biden officials have sought to make with the Trump administration is in the treatment of minorities and the championing of human rights. President Donald Trump was seen as peddling bigoted rhetoric and fueling domestic hatred, and diminishing U.S. advocacy for human rights overseas.

Blinken’s spokesman Ned Price, alerting reporters to the speech, made explicit the connection between the Holocaust and the current day.

“We remember not only what happened, but also how it was allowed to happen,” he said. “We remember to look at the institutions and societies we are part of and to understand better what they do and what they did not do.”

Also delivering remarks for Holocaust Remembrance Day was Jill Biden, the first lady, who recorded a video address for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Biden in her remarks focused on assistance for elderly Holocaust survivors, praising Jewish Federations for its programs funded in part by the federal government under an initiative launched by President Joe Biden when he was vice president.

“Today 80,000 survivors live here in the United States and far too many wrestle with trauma and poverty,” she said.

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Jewish and Arab-American groups join in backing bill that would streamline hate crimes reporting

Fri, 2021-04-09 14:03

(JTA) — Jewish and Arab-American  are joining in support of a bipartisan bill in the House and Senate that would streamline the reporting of hate crimes.

The NO HATE bill introduced Thursday would train law enforcement across the country to report hate crimes according to a single standard.

Anti-defamation groups have long complained that assessing hate crimes in the United States is frustrated by wildly varying standards among police departments determining what crimes should be designated as hate crimes, when law enforcement reports the crime at all.

Among the groups backing the new bill in a joint release were the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council and the Arab American Institute.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., Fred Upton, R-Mich., Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., introduced the measure. Blumenthal is Jewish.

Jewish Federations of North America spearheaded a letter last month signed by 30 Jewish organizations covering all Jewish religious streams, and ranging from left to right, from Ameinu to the Zionist Organization of America, urging backing for the bill, which was then in draft mode. That letter was pinned to reports of a rise in crimes targeting Asian Americans spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Others joining in praising the introduction of the bill included Asian American umbrella groups; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group; law enforcement in Miami and Washington, D.C.; and the families of Heather Heyer and Khalid Jabara. The bill is named in part for Heyer, killed in 2017 during a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Jabara, who was murdered in Tulsa in 2016 by a neighbor who for years had targeted Jabarin’s family with anti-Arab epithets and violence.

The bill also backs programs that rehabilitate perpetrators of hate crime through community service and education.

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Accused Monsey stabber again found unfit to stand trial

Fri, 2021-04-09 13:51

(JTA) — The man accused of stabbing five people and killing one at a 2019 Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York, has again been deemed unfit to stand trial.

Grafton Thomas, now 38, has already been declared unfit to stand trial multiple times.

In January 2020, about a month after the stabbing at the home, a psychiatrist determined that Thomas was incompetent to stand trial. That April, as U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Siebel ruled similarly and ordered that Thomas undergo mental health treatment. In December, prosecutors said he was still not fit to stand trial, according to the New York Daily News.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Keenan came to the same determination this week, according to the Daily News.

“There currently is not a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future the defendant will attain the capacity to permit the proceedings to go forward,” she wrote in a court filing.

If Siebel accepts that determination, Thomas will be confined to a state-run institution.

The stabbing, on Dec. 28, 2019, came near the end of Hanukkah and amid a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York City area. The attacker stabbed five people with a machete, including Josef Neumann, who died from his wounds following months in a coma.

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Prince Philip, who opposed Nazis and was first British royal to visit Israel, dies at 99

Fri, 2021-04-09 13:44

(JTA) — Prince Philip, perhaps the closest member of the British royal family to Jews and Jewish causes, has died at 99.

Buckingham Palace announced his death on Friday. Philip, who had been married to Queen Elizabeth II for 74 years, since five years before she ascended to the throne, had been in declining health for some time.

Also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, Philip’s support for Jewish and pro-Israel causes ran deep. His mother, Princess Alice of Greece, sheltered a Jewish family during the Holocaust and is recognized as one of fewer than 30,000 “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Philip’s four sisters each married German nobles, at least three of whom became Nazis. But Philip, educated in Britain, joined the allied war effort. As an adult, he showed little patience for Nazi collaborators; he was instrumental in making a pariah of his wife’s uncle Edward, who after abdicating the throne dallied with Nazi Germany.

Philip over the years spoke multiple times at Jewish and pro-Israel events.

Philip, who had a passion for environmental preservation, spoke multiple times at Jewish National Fund events and lent his royal sponsorship to other Jewish events. He came under attack in the 1960s for speaking to pro-Israel groups, and, famously impervious to criticism, ignored the attacks.

In 1994, Philip was the first British royal to visit Israel, when he accepted Yad Vashem’s recognition of his mother and visited her burial site at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

At Yad Vashem, Philip planted a maple tree in memory of his mother, who was married to Prince Andrew of Greece and helped shelter three members of the family of a late Greek-Jewish politician in her palace in Athens. The Gestapo was suspicious of Alice, even questioning her, but the princess, who was deaf, pretended not to understand their questions. Alice later became a nun.

“The Holocaust was the most horrific event in all Jewish history, and it will remain in the memory of all future generations,” Philip said at the time. “It is, therefore, a very generous gesture that also remembered here are the many millions of non-Jews, like my mother, who shared in your pain and anguish and did what they could in small ways to alleviate the horror.”

The 1994 visit broke with what was then an unofficial but nonetheless binding ban on royals traveling to Israel, which had been enforced following violence by Zionist fighters against British targets in the years that predated the establishment of the State of Israel in what had been before 1948 the British Mandate over Palestine.

For all its trappings, Philip’s 1994 visit was in a personal capacity. The Royal House ended its policy on official visits to Israel in 2018, when Prince William, Prince Philip’s grandson, visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Philip’s retirement from public life in 2017 triggered an outpouring of plaudits for a life well-lived from Jewish groups and leaders.

Those groups expressed grief upon his death Friday. Philip’s life “was spent in public service, from his active duty in the Navy during World War II to the tens of thousands of engagements which he carried out over six and a half decades of royal duties,” the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, wrote in a statement.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin joined dozens of other heads of state who expressed their sympathies with the Royal House. Rivlin used the traditional Jewish phrase when speaking about a deceased person, ending his tweet about Philip with “May his memory be a blessing.”

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Teshuvah for Meyers Leonard: Miami’s Jewish community embraces NBA player after he apologizes for anti-Semitic slur

Thu, 2021-04-08 21:06

MIAMI (JTA) — A recent Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Pinny Andrusier’s home in Hallandale, Florida, was memorable for many reasons.

One was that the featured guest was 7 feet tall, towering over the dozens of kids in attendance — the adults, too. Another was that he was a player for South Florida’s favorite NBA team, the Miami Heat.

The guest was Meyers Leonard, who only a few days prior to the Friday-night meal on March 12 had sparked controversy for using an anti-Semitic slur while livestreaming a video game on Twitch.

Leonard, a center who was traded to the Heat in 2019 following seven seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, was playing the first-person shooter “Call of Duty: Warzone” on March 8 in front of an audience of thousands when he said “F***ing cowards. Don’t f**king snipe at me. You kike bitch.”

The fallout was swift. Leonard was suspended from the Heat indefinitely and fined $50,000 by the NBA. Nine days later the team traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who then waived him after the league’s trade deadline, making his future in the NBA uncertain. FaZe Clan, an esports company Leonard had invested in, also said it would “cut ties” with him over the slur.

It was time to repair the damage. After posting a public apology on Instagram, Leonard and his representatives contacted multiple Jewish organizations to begin his healing process.

Two days after using the slur, Leonard met with Andrusier, the rabbi at the Chabad of Southwest Broward in Hallandale, 18 miles from American Airlines Arena where the Heat play. Andrusier was an obvious first stop on Leonard’s rehabilitation efforts due to his long involvement with the Heat. His connections to the team date back to 1987, when he lit a Hanukkah candle at a game.

“The Heat and the Jewish community have a very strong bond,” Andrusier said.

Each Hanukkah, together with Rabbi Chaim Lipskar, the director of Miami’s downtown Chabad house, he organizes the Miami Heat Jewish Heritage Night. Micky Arison, the owner of the Miami Heat, is Jewish.

Leonard, at one end of the table, meets with Rabbi Andrusier at his home with his wife, Elle, and brother Bailey. (Chabad of Southwest Broward)

After hours of speaking with Leonard on the phone and meeting at his Chabad, Andrusier had an idea — he would invite him to Shabbat.

“My thinking was that it would be a good idea for him to come and eat and meet Holocaust survivors and to meet children who idolize him,” the rabbi said.

That Friday night, Leonard found himself seated with 30 people from the surrounding Jewish community. Leonard listened to people’s stories, spoke about the incident and took pictures with dozens of kids.

Andrusier was excited for Leonard to meet Michael Kaufman, who was born in a German displaced persons camp after both his parents managed to survive Auschwitz.

“As he told his story, the place was so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” Andrusier said. “Everyone, including Leonard, was crying.”

Beyond the Chabad of Southwest Broward, Leonard met on a Zoom call with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, which had made a statement condemning his slur.

Josh Sayles, the federation’s director of Jewish Community and Government Relations, said the goal was to connect Leonard with members of the local Jewish community as an opportunity for education.

“Meyers is really interested in putting in the hard work and learning about the Jewish community,” Sayles said.

Though Sayles and his team received many calls in the days immediately following the incident, he said the calls have started to taper off.

“People aren’t talking about it as much anymore,” Sayles said.

Now the federation is in the process of scheduling a tour for Leonard of the Holocaust memorial on Miami Beach and getting him an audience with Jewish students. Next week, Leonard will participate in a Zoom discussion organized by the University of Miami Hillel titled “From Heat to Healing” with Matthew Hiltzik, a producer of the Holocaust documentary film “Paper Clips.”

“We are encouraged by his efforts to educate himself about the Jewish community, antisemitism, and the impact of his words, and that he has matched his apology with concrete actions,” ADL Florida wrote in a statement. “We do not view this as a one-time effort but an ongoing learning process, and urge Leonard to continue this process after his departure from the Miami Heat.”

ADL Florida also called on the video game industry to “improve their content moderation tools and create robust and inclusive policies to address hate on their platforms.”

Even after Leonard was traded, two pro-Israel groups took the opportunity to express support for his apology and the Heat in Miami. StandWithUs, a pro-Israel campus advocacy group, contracted with its partner organization Artists4Israel to create a local mural with the Heat’s logo on it. The 28- by 20-foot mural reads “We Love The Heat: United Against Antisemitism, Racism & All Hate” underneath the groups’ names.

“Local teens and college students contacted us saying they wanted to do something,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs. “They were asking what they could do to show that they still love the Miami Heat and that they love Meyers Leonard for his apology. They wanted to give him that opportunity to do teshuvah.”

Leonard listens to Holocaust survivor Rose Marmor. (Chabad of Southwest Broward)

Leonard is among a number of public figures to use anti-Semitic language recently and, like the NBA player, they have undertaken rehabilitation efforts with the Jewish community. Ice Cube and Nick Cannon followed their anti-Semitic statements by meeting with members of Jewish organizations; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene visited Orthodox communities in Brooklyn after public fallout stemming from her embrace of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

For Deborah Lipstadt, the author of “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” the solutions vary for the different instances of anti-Semitism. What distinguishes the best approach, she said, is the repetition of offenses and the nature of the incident.

“I think the fact that he reached out to a rabbi, went to Shabbat dinner and didn’t immediately alert the press says a lot,” said Lipstadt, an eminent professor of Jewish history and a Holocaust scholar at Emory University. “If he is really trying to figure out what he did wrong, then that is commendable.”

Like Andrusier and Sayles, Lipstadt views Leonard’s openness and dedication as an opportunity.

“I would rather see instances, such as these, result in someone learning about why what they did is so hurtful and offensive and disturbing than just saying ‘OK, he’s gone,’” she said.

In the weeks following Leonard’s video game slur, he has spent over 30 hours learning with Andrusier and working with organizations in the community.

During Passover, Leonard teamed with Andrusier to deliver over 500 packages of matzah, wine and food to Holocaust survivors, older adults and families quarantined at home.

One woman was thrilled when Leonard delivered the package to her door. She’s a huge Heat fan.

“He realizes that he offended and he really wants to show the Jewish community that he never meant them harm and that he’s in solidarity with us, in support and apologetic,” Andrusier said.

“I told Meyers that one beautiful thing about the Jewish people is that we suffered so much, but if someone is truly sincere, we are very forgiving.”

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GOP lawmaker marks Holocaust remembrance day by likening child mental health bill to Nazi laws

Thu, 2021-04-08 20:51

(JTA) — Daniel Cox, a Maryland Republican in the state legislature, said he would mark Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, by voting against a bill that would allow children to consent to mental health care.

Cox said his mask had a picture from the Nuremberg trials printed on it, and compared the bill to the Nazis’ infringement on “the rights of parents.”

“One of the things that was interesting and very sad in the Nuremberg trials, was the fact that medical professionals interfered with parental rights. And what was the result of those trials? Well, the European Union passed the European Commission on Human Rights, guaranteeing that never again will the state and the healthcare community interfere with the rights of parents, and the rights of family,” he said Thursday. “That’s what this bill does.”

The outrage followed immediately. Barely a minute into Cox’s remarks, Shane Pendergrass, a Democratic delegate, asked to be able to speak from a “point of personal privilege” as a Jew.

“I am enormously affronted as a Jew when you in any way compare this bill to the Holocaust, especially today,” she said. “Shame on you.”

Cox protested that he was not comparing the bill to the Holocaust, but to Nazi legal practices.

“This bill interferes with the sacred right of parents and their children,” a right he said was enshrined after the Nuremberg trials. “That is a fact.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington in a statement called the comparison “unconscionable.”

“Delegate Cox’s words are an insult to the thousands of mental health providers throughout the State of Maryland and are part of a disturbing pattern of public officials using Holocaust and Nazi analogies for political ends,” the statement said. “The JCRC calls on the Maryland House of Delegates to condemn this offensive comparison and to hold Delegate Cox responsible for his reprehensible remarks on this sacred day.”

The bill lowers the age of consent to mental health care to 12. It is likely to pass in the Democratic-led legislature.

Cox’s comments can be seen in this video, around the 1:06:13 mark.

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NBA player Meyers Leonard to speak about his anti-Semitism controversy at U of Miami Hillel event

Thu, 2021-04-08 20:14

(JTA) — Meyers Leonard, the NBA player who was caught using an anti-Semitic slur online, will speak about his experiences following the incident with students at the University of Miami’s Hillel.

The Zoom conversation, titled “From Heat to Healing,” will take place on Tuesday.

On March 8, Leonard said the word “kike” while livestreaming a video game for thousands of followers on the Twitch platform.

Leonard was suspended from the Heat indefinitely and fined $50,000 by the NBA. Nine days later the team traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who then waived him after the league’s trade deadline, making his future in the NBA uncertain. FaZe Clan, an esports company Leonard had invested in, also said it would “cut ties” with him over the slur.

Since the incident, Leonard has done volunteer work with the rabbi of Chabad of Southwest Broward, delivering food and talking with Holocaust survivors in the Miami area.

“Meyers is really interested in putting in the hard work and learning about the Jewish community,” the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s director of community relations told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The University of Miami has approximately 2,000 Jewish students, according to Hillel, in an overall undergraduate population of 11,000.

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Calling any Jewish woman a ‘JAP’ is offensive — but not for the reason you think

Thu, 2021-04-08 18:58

This piece originally appeared in Alma, 70 Faces Media’s feminist Jewish culture site. Content warning: anti-Japanese slur.

The term “Jewish American Princess” has been debated within Jewish communities for as long as it has existed. Many bemoan it for perpetuating sexism and negative stereotypes of Jewish women, while others have argued that despite these origins, there’s a power in embracing the moniker.

But as a Jew of Japanese descent, I’m here to say the much larger problem comes from the acronym used in its place: JAP. There needs to be a conversation about the dangerous and violent history of the racist slur “jap,” and why Jewish people should not want to co-opt this word.

For those unaware, “jap” is a racial slur used against Japanese people. World War II-era America best showcases the dangers of this hateful word.

As we all know, the war  brought much suffering to many groups of people. And while America claims to be the hero that saved the world, the assertion often ignores or justifies its treatment of the Japanese. In Japan, America dropped devastating bombs on civilian cities that resulted in 225,000 deaths, which is likely an underestimated count, according to UCLA. Stateside, the U.S. government deported Japanese Americans — fellow citizens — to Japan, as bargaining chips to trade for American prisoners. In 1942, the U.S. government forcibly relocated and incarcerated some 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were natural-born citizens.

These people were ripped from their homes by the government and placed in makeshift internment camps in the desert on the West Coast. They had no trials and nobody to save them. In 1942, Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, said, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.” That same year, Col. Karl Bendetsen of the Wartime Civil Control Administration said, “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.”

The homes and businesses of Japanese Americans were destroyed, looted and vandalized. The word “japs” was everywhere. Spray-painted on homes, on the front page of newspapers, on signs and posters. People protested the presence of Japanese people in America in the streets and from the comfort of their homes. Businesses put up signs banning Japanese from entering the premises, saying “No japs allowed.”

A barber points proudly to his bigoted sign. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

These were innocent citizens, many of whom came here for the “American dream.” Like many Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the century, the Japanese came for opportunity, for the chance at greatness, yet America did what America always does.

This history is America, and it is the history of my heritage in this country. This is not a history that you can ask Japanese people to forget. Jap is not just a word; it’s a searing symbol of hate.

Growing up with a Japanese relative in metro Detroit, I was very familiar with the use of jap. It’s been hurled at me, and I’ve felt the pain that the term evokes.

My grandfather was born in Okinawa, Japan, sometime in January 1953, with the name Susumi Kise. As a baby he was put up for adoption at the Yonabaru orphanage in Naha, Okinawa. There is no documentation of his parents, whether they were alive or dead when he was brought to the orphanage. He was adopted as a young child by an American family stationed on the island and spent three years waiting to immigrate to the United States under the Refugee Relief Act. Upon his arrival in the U.S., he became the youngest-ever naturalized citizen in Detroit and the first person for whom the Michigan city ever waived the oral oath.

The author’s grandfather (Courtesy of Ivy Humbarger)

Despite how incredible of a headliner this situation was — a poor abandoned Okinawan orphan rescued by an American soldier from a war-ridden, desolate island — the novelty of the story quickly wore off. My grandfather was brought overseas to a racist America that hated him and saw him as a traitor while still seeing themselves as his savior. He was brought to an America that less than 10 years before bombed his country and locked up his people in the desert. He faced endless racism throughout his life — was bullied as a child in school, experienced discrimination from employers, endured harsh xenophobia from my white grandmother’s family when they announced their relationship and intention to have children, or as they said, “interbreed.”

When people use the slur jap, they’re using it against my grandpa, against his people and against everything they have ever been through. And that causes me immense pain.

The first time I ever saw the term JAP used to signify Jewish American Princess was from a Jewish person on Twitter. Initially I thought I had stumbled across another Jew of Japanese descent. I mean, who else would use this slur so lightly? Upon reading their profile I realized they weren’t Japanese at all, and I became very concerned and confused. I had to resort to googling “Jewish JAP” to find the meaning. I was  shocked and disappointed to see that Jews online were lightly using a slur as an acronym.

This experience was so isolating and hurtful as I began to feel unsafe in the online Jewish community. I have desperately tried to gain the attention of Jews online to warn them of this slur, and to beg them to stop using it, but it has always been to no avail. While many Jewish people see using this acronym as a lighthearted substitute for a long-winded phrase, those unaware of the Jewish meaning may look at this and see a racial slur, as I and many fellow Japanese people do.

No matter how many times I see it used as Jewish American Princess, I cannot separate it from the hate word that was used to vandalize Japanese-American homes. Even if we as Jewish people have an alternative meaning, or think, “Well, that’s not what I mean,” remember it doesn’t matter whether you mean to use a slur or not. It matters that you’re using it, and it matters to the people who are harmed by it.

Jewish people understand all too well pain and suffering, being othered and singled out, and we should never subject others to that feeling. It is especially important as a diverse people who span the world that we as Jews work hard to be as inclusive as possible. A good start is to analyze our actions as Jews and see how language such as JAP is divisive and especially harmful to Jews who are Japanese or of Japanese descent.

Jewish women want to reclaim Jewish American Princess? I support that. But please, for the love of God, take the extra five seconds and spell out the phrase. As Jews, it’s the least we can do.

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Growing up in Anne Frank’s shadow, my kids have known about the Holocaust since before they could speak

Thu, 2021-04-08 18:21

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — On a country road steeped in spring blossom, the 5-year-old in the backseat asked a question that sent shivers down our spines.

“Did the farmer plant those trees around his house because his family’s Jewish?” he asked us, his parents, pointing at a farmhouse we passed along the way.

I knew immediately what he meant.

“What do you mean?” I asked anyway.

“So people wouldn’t be able to see them from the road,” he replied.

It was startling evidence of how his mother and I — and perhaps life itself as a Dutch-Jewish boy — have allowed Holocaust traumas to mark his young mind and that of his younger sister.

For me, the revelation invoked a pang of guilt. But that feeling subsided into resignation of the reality of raising children in cities haunted by the ghosts of their murdered ancestors. For Europe’s Jews, that’s just our lot in life.

I told my son reassuringly that the farmer’s family probably wasn’t Jewish and that they wouldn’t need to hide even if they were.

But in my mind I was revisiting – one guilty flashback by another — all the times that I had exposed the kids to the Holocaust.

There was that rainy afternoon when I took them to the Holocaust museum in Mechelen, Belgium. We had some time to spare, I wanted to see the place and the two bottom floors were supposed to be age-appropriate. They deal only with the background to the genocide, which is explored in escalating order in the five-story building.  

The author’s son visits the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust museum near Antwerp, Belgium, March 12, 2020. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

But the lobby had a temporary exhibition of drawings by an Auschwitz prisoner showing a Nazi flailing an inmate’s bare buttocks.

Questions followed. Answers flowed, including about how the Germans tried to kill Granny Hella at Auschwitz because she was Jewish. Before I knew it I mentioned gas chambers. Then I changed the subject and we walked in the rain to the nearest ice cream shop.

I’ve been obsessed with the Holocaust since a young age. I must have been 3 when Hella told me, sobbing intermittently, about how she had survived Auschwitz, the death marches and the carpet bombing of Dresden.

My job as JTA Europe correspondent isn’t helping me put distance from the genocide.

Clearly I’m partly responsible for introducing my very young children to horrific facts.

Some parents make the argument for starting early with age-appropriate Holocaust instruction. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, especially considering the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism today in Europe and the Netherlands.

In last month’s general elections here, the right-wing and COVID-sceptic Forum for Democracy party quadrupled its number of seats in parliament — it has eight now — despite a massive scandal over anti-Semitism in its ranks in November.

On the left, Green Left, the only party in the Dutch parliament that supports a boycott of Israel — and no other country — entered as a lawmaker Kauthar Bouchallikht, an activist who in 2014 posed for pictures in front of a sign reading “stop doing what Hitler did to you” at a pro-Palestinian demonstration. She has apologized for her actions.

But even if I’m overreacting, the H-word seems unavoidable for a Jewish-Dutch child who is being raised here to be invested in their identity.

For such Jews, the Holocaust seems everywhere in the Netherlands, where the Nazis and collaborators murdered at least 75% of the local Jewish population – the highest death rate in occupied Western Europe.

My father-in-law lives down the road from Anne Frank’s old apartment, before she went into hiding. On visits, the kids go with their saba, Hebrew for grandfather, to a playground just under that flat featuring a prominent statue of the teenage diarist that always has fresh wreaths at its feet, placed there by tourists.

Frost covers the Merwede Square in Amsterdam, where a statue of Anne Frank stands opposite her last home in which she and her family lived as free people. (Wikimedia Commons/Franklin Heijnen)

Their mother attended Frank’s former elementary school, which is now named for her. It sits about 500 yards from the playground.

The entrance to our children’s Jewish kindergarten has a life-size poster of Anne Frank. And there’s a building-size portrait of her towering over the passenger terminal of the ferry that we take several times a week to reach the city center.

On the streets of many Dutch cities, especially their native Amsterdam, shiny brass memorial cobblestones decorate the doorsteps of pretty much each building from which Jews were deported. They are magnets for inquisitive young children, especially my 4-year-old daughter, who tells me, “Look, Dad, Jews!” whenever she notices one (she seems to think they should make me happy). 

Then there are the German-built massive bunkers that scar the entire length of the coastline; annual World War II memorial days with a two-minute silence where everybody stands still; and the innumerable references to the genocide in our heavily Jewish social circle and on television.

To help me think through it all, I called up a fellow Dutch-Jewish parent: Meir Villegas Henriquez, an Orthodox rabbi from Rotterdam. His two boys, aged 8 and 11, are a little older than my kids, so he has more experience with navigating the challenge of raising children in the shadow of the Shoah — and more insight into the potential trauma that might result. 

Henriquez, 41, told me that he tries to filter the content that his children encounter about the Holocaust at a young age — but has come to terms with being unable to block it out. 

His older son learned about the Holocaust in third grade at his non-Jewish school, Henriquez said. So the boy’s younger brother, who was then 5, also heard about it.

“And there are commemorations. It’s not something you can ignore for more than a few years as a parent,” he said.

Henriquez says he has some guidelines for his family. He tries to shield his sons from graphic images of the Holocaust and avoids taking them to museums with such pictures.

“Images have a tendency to burn into the mind,” he said.

Henriquez also works to show his sons that they are safe as Jews in the Netherlands through his volunteer work running Ohel Abraham, a nonprofit and study center that he founded for both Jews and non-Jews with an interest in Judaism.

“The boys see an openness to the outside world. They see many non-Jews with a warm sentiment toward Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel,” he said. “Such things create a balance. That’s the best you can strive for.” 

Still, Henriquez has not shied away from turning the Holocaust into a sobering warning for his children. 

“I try to instill vigilance, but not fears, phobias or paranoia,” he said.

He told his boys that the Holocaust “shows you need to be vigilant. Not trust the government. Any government. That Anne Frank and her family were betrayed by their countrymen.” (The exact circumstances of the Frank family’s capture remain a subject of debate among historians.)

Henriquez shares another lesson with his children.

“It shows why aliyah is a good idea,” he said, using the Hebrew-language word for immigrating to Israel as a Jew.

As an Israeli Jew living in the Netherlands, I see the appeal. And I confess that after some thought, I realize that a part of me doesn’t mind slightly traumatizing the kids with their exposure to the Holocaust. 

My own trauma, acquired growing up in my native Israel among survivors, is making me prioritize instilling in them powerful survival instincts over giving them a sheltered childhood. I can’t know what I would have done as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s. All I can know is that my grandmother was lucky to survive — and I wouldn’t want my children to have to depend on luck. 

I also know that, as an Israeli in Europe, I’m OK with my children feeling some discomfort. Maybe exposing my children to the Holocaust early on will give them a nuanced understanding of their home here — a home that is perhaps conditional, even as it is beloved every day.

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A year into the pandemic, Conservative Jews consider whether to make Zoom prayer permanent

Thu, 2021-04-08 17:46

(JTA) — On the first weekend of the coronavirus lockdowns in New York City in March 2020, Rabbi Rachel Ain decided that her Conservative synagogue would conduct Shabbat services online over Zoom, the videoconferencing platform then still largely confined to the business world but soon to become a household word. 

Doing so technically violated a 2001 decision by the Conservative movement’s Jewish law authority, which had voted by overwhelming majority to bar the convening of an online prayer quorum, or minyan. But Ain didn’t see an alternative.

“I was ahead of them,” said Ain, who leads the Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. “I made the decision for my community based on how I understood what my community needed at that moment.”

Days later, the heads of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards would officially sanction Ain’s choice, allowing rabbis to temporarily ignore the 2001 ruling for the duration of the pandemic. Separately they issued an opinion, or teshuvah, permitting the limited use of Zoom on Shabbat, when use of electronic devices is severely circumscribed.

Those rulings, like many others issued across the Jewish world during the frightening early days of the pandemic, explicitly invoked sha’at had’chak — literally “a time of pressure,” a principle in Jewish law that permits a certain relaxation of customary rules in times of emergency. Now the law committee is preparing to formally consider whether the allowance for a Zoom minyan should outlive the pandemic. 

At the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association conference in February, dozens of rabbis participated in a study group intended to guide the law committee in its consideration of the Zoom question. Looming over the deliberations was the legacy of another decision made by the Conservative movement in response to what once was perceived as an inexorable shift in Jewish communal life that had to be accommodated or risk the movement’s irrelevance: the great Jewish exodus to the suburbs. 

Recognizing that large numbers of Jews who had left the city in the postwar period no longer lived within walking distance of a synagogue, the movement in the 1950s made a landmark decision to permit congregants to drive to synagogue on Shabbat — but nowhere else. The change led to the thriving of large suburban Conservative congregations in the middle decades of the 20th century, but it continues to be rued in some circles for having undermined the commitment to strict Shabbat observance. 

“We are writing a new driving teshuvah,” said Rabbi Avram Reisner, a longtime law committee member widely seen as the body’s foremost traditionalist, referring to the choice to permit Zoom streaming on Shabbat.

Reisner loathes the driving decision for the same reasons he fears where the committee is moving on the Zoom question. In the view of many traditionalists in the movement, what was supposed to be a limited decision to accommodate families unable to walk to synagogue on Shabbat came to be seen as a broader license to drive, effectively eroding broad respect for Shabbat observance.

Reisner thinks the movement is about to make the same mistake again. 

“Sociologically, as soon as you permit television and computers into your Shabbat, Shabbat is gone. It’s out the window. You’ve changed the tenor of observing Shabbat,” said Reisner, who retired from his Baltimore pulpit in 2015.

Like the driving decision, streaming has opened religious participation to those for whom it would otherwise have been impossible. Some synagogues have added daily prayer services during the pandemic, since the streaming technology has enabled greater participation. Many report that more people are logging in for services online than ever showed up in person.

That has been the case at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, New York, where Friday night services via Zoom — streamed prior to the onset of Shabbat — attracts 100 worshippers every week. Before the pandemic, 15 would typically show up in person.

Yet Rabbi David Schuck has refrained from permitting interactive services on Shabbat or counting a prayer quorum for mourners online on other days, though the synagogue has been holding in-person services three times a day since July. In fact, he wrote a dissent in March 2020 to the Conservative movement’s emergency ruling allowing those practices.

Allowing online services on Shabbat “will create a new norm in communal prayer which will, in the long run, weaken communal bonds, lower the commitments that we can expect from people to show up for one another, and diminish the sanctity of Shabbat,” Schuck wrote. 

Schuck acutely understood the consequences of that choice. New Rochelle was at the epicenter of one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, and his synagogue was inside the containment zone established by state authorities in March 2020 in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Many members died in those first weeks. 

“I think we had way over 20 funerals,” Schuck said. “And I was doing funerals of couples, like one person and then a week later their spouse. I mean, it was traumatic.”

The rabbi was under significant pressure to enable his congregants to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of Judaism’s most emotionally resonant prayers, over Zoom. He also had a personal stake in the issue: His own father had died the previous November, and he was reciting the prayer for him daily when the pandemic struck.

But wary of the long-term effects of an emergency ruling, Schuck instead crafted an alternate ritual. He began teaching online each day a short passage from the Mishnah, the second-century code of Jewish law that, because its Hebrew letters are the same as the Hebrew for soul, is traditionally also understood as a way to elevate the spirit of the departed. He also began reciting a prayer composed by an Israeli rabbi as an alternative to the Mourner’s Kaddish. 

Not everyone in his synagogue was pleased with the choice, he recalled.

“I understood their disappointment in my decision,” Schuck said. “But largely there wasn’t a rebellion here. And I would say we were very effective, if not more effective than ever before, in meeting the religious and emotional needs of people who had to say Kaddish.”

Ain, too, adapted in-person practices for the pandemic era — but reached a different conclusion about whether to permit a prayer quorum.

“What we did on daily minyan and Shabbat for months was not a carbon copy of what would have been experienced live in person altogether because I wanted to make that emotional, pastoral, religious distinction between what was and what wasn’t,” she said. “But we did count a minyan, no matter what.”

As the law committee prepares to consider the Zoom question, the potential consequences of a long-term allowance for Zoom services is weighing heavily even on those who have championed the technology. Rabbi Josh Heller, who wrote the paper permitting Zoom use on Shabbat, and even negotiated with the company to implement changes to the software that would mitigate the potential for violating Jewish law, said both the suburban exodus and the long-term impact of the pandemic represent epochal shifts in Jewish life.

How the Conservative movement responds, he said, will echo for decades to come. 

“I lose a lot of sleep over this,” Heller said. “I really feel like in some ways the Conservative movement defines the mainstream of American Jewry and is really the glue that holds together a right and a left that keep on wanting to head off in different directions. And to that extent, where we go does provide a great amount of steering for the American Jewish community as a whole.”

Relieved of the pressure to make a quick choice about how to respond to a rapidly unfolding public health crisis, Ain is moving more deliberately in considering how to structure services in a post-pandemic world and says she will take into account whatever guidance the law committee ultimately provides. But her synagogue expects to continue the use of Zoom in some capacity, including possibly offering participation in the service to those who are physically remote.

“What we’ve learned is that if people are home and watching and trying to engage, they want to have a meaningful experience as well,” Ain said. “And they are not not coming because they don’t like shul, they’re not not coming because something’s holding them back. And so we want to give them a meaningful experience at home. And so we’re exploring what technologies we need for that.”

Ain said three times as many people are attending services now than before the pandemic. Attendance on Friday night has jumped from about 35 to 70 each week, she said, and as many as four times as many people attend weekday services. 

“It has not given them an excuse out, it has given them a way to opt into religious life,” Ain said. “And that has been a profound change, that we have reached people that we didn’t even know we could reach.”

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Lee Zeldin, leading Jewish pro-Trump voice in Congress, announces run for NY governor

Thu, 2021-04-08 16:14

(JTA) — Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress and a staunch defender of Donald Trump, is running for governor of New York.

“The bottom line is this: To save New York, Andrew Cuomo’s gotta go,” Zeldin said in a news release Thursday.

Zeldin, a House member from Long Island, handily won reelection in the fall over a Democratic Jewish challenger, despite being abashedly pro-Trump in a state where the former president is extremely unpopular.

Both Zeldin and David Kustoff of Tennessee, the other Jewish House Republican, voted to object to the Electoral College’s presidential vote tally after condemning the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Cuomo, the incumbent governor, is ensnared in a series of scandals — one involving lies about nursing home deaths in New York from COVID-19, as well as several allegations of sexual harassment by former colleagues.

The last Jewish governor of New York was Eliot Spitzer, who held the office between 2007 and 2008 before resigning amid a prostitution scandal.

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