Why is an Israeli judge Elena Kagan’s ‘judicial hero’?

Not much is known about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s views, so her praise four years ago for Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak have Republicans worried she will emulate his judicial activism.

Source: CSMonitor, 6-30-10

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan takes her seat on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Not much is known about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s views, so her praise four years ago for Israel’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak has taken on unusual significance in the high-stakes nomination process.

Ms. Kagan reportedly called Mr. Barak a “judicial hero” who has “best advanced the values of democracy.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama last week called the remarks “very troubling” and warned it might provide “real insight into her view of the law.”

Senator Sessions questioned whether Kagan would emulate Mr. Barak’s judicial activism.

Indeed, Barak, 73, is internationally renowned for pushing human rights in an insecure democracy, insisting on the primacy of secular jurisprudence despite the veneration of Jewish religious law, and for strengthening the court’s check on the other branches of government. At home, he is regarded as the most influential justice in Israel’s 62-year history and a figure who has revolutionized the high court’s standing.

But he is also a controversial figure in Israel. Though he is lionized in legal circles, critics say he spearheaded a homogeneous court of secular elites that overstepped its bounds by promoting a universalist legal agenda out of touch with the rest of society….READ MORE

Joseph Michelson: July 4th, history and the Jews

Source: JWeekly, 6-29-10

July 4th is almost upon us. Israel is celebrating its 62nd year of existence.

All American Jews and Americans, should recognize this shining moment of historical success of our mutually beneficial survival. The world is convulsing with terrorist warfare, lives are shattered, blood and tears fill so many streets … and yet in the quiet corners of our minds, we should be so thankful that our brave fathers and mothers struggled to land on these blessed shores for as long as this nation has existed.

Jewish history and world history (our Western civilization) have enjoyed such an interesting dancing partnership together! There were times we refused to accept the dance with our partner, and there were more times when we were rejected for the dance. But this is the strange path of Jewish growing-up in the Western world.

When our culture was in its infancy – as ancient Israel – we had a profound identity crisis. We escaped Egypt and were given the overwhelming responsibility to accept the 10 commandments, protect them and give them to the world. Who were we then? An ethnic group who had lived separately in Egypt (Goshen), suddenly freed with such an immense responsibility thrust upon us? Were we just a bunch of tribes? Moses had to keep the “union” together. And accept the law for them, and lead them to the border of the land of milk and honey.

Just like Abraham Lincoln, who had to hold the Union together, and more than that, teach the warring Union to be peaceful again, understanding with each other, and moreover, to perceive the truth that all men should be seen with dignity and equality by each other, and that the blasphemous concept of slavery should be proclaimed unjust. Shades of Passover? Interestingly, Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy, two years prior to Lincoln, tried to propose an Emancipation Proclamation for the South, in exchange for conscription of “freed” slaves into an overwhelmingly outnumbered army! Sadly, his Southern compatriots felt him foolish. Echoes of Passover ringing into the music of the dance?

Perhaps the pinnacle of combined Jewish and American cooperation comes with the “Manhattan Project,” when America gathered the most learned, wise collection of scientists into one congregation in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb, ahead of the competing Germans. We collected this assembly of refugees – all escaping Hitler, from Germany, Hungary, Italy, Denmark, almost all Jewish – to establish the “de-facto” end to World War II. Many of these scientists – all famous – would have been annihilated by Hitler in concentration camps: Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, etc. Many later won Nobel prizes.

They all found home in America.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, which led to the Manhattan project, was based upon Albert Abraham Michelson’s calculations of the speed of light (the first American to win a Nobel Prize, in physics, in 1907). Einstein was not allowed to participate in the Manhattan Project because J. Edgar Hoover did not trust him as a “Pacifist Jew.”

But his letter to the president, composed with Leo Szilard, who first envisioned a “chain reaction” trigger to such a bomb, with Eugene Wigner (both Jewish, émigré Hungarian physicists who worked in Los Alamos on the bomb) signaled Franklin Delano Roosevelt into action to establish this project.

Coincidentally, Roosevelt read their letter in the presence of his economic advisor, Alexander Sachs – who reminded FDR that this sounded like the offer Napoleon had by an American scientist to build sail-less steam boats, to cross the English channel and invade England! “Rubbish,” Napoleon had responded. Sachs emphasized the profound fear expressed by these scientists in their letter to him. If FDR didn’t listen to these scientists, he would be like Napoleon not listening to his advisors. FDR nodded and assented. The Manhattan Project was on its way. But J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American, was selected as the head scientist of this strange international but now American group of researchers.

In our history, we seem to have reached young adulthood, and we have matured with our marriage to America. Judaism’s adolescence may be seen in the Middle Ages – where viewed as “nerds,” the Jews were isolated, ignored, persecuted, but used where they could be of service to a largely illiterate, ignorant mass of people.

The education of the Jews could be used by the nobility to maintain their money, and, hence power, over the masses, and communicate between societies of different languages.

Today, we have emerged, perhaps into the young adulthood of Judaism, and married (to America), where as in most marriages, the spouses are more full and more powerful together, than each separately. America has been so kind to us, allowing us, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the achievement of our goals. And as George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue, our new nation would” give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (letter to “The Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” 1790)

As stated, history dances in the circles of themes. As God promised Abraham, an elderly man, whose wife was ninety years old, and they both still fervently hoped for children… God blessed them with only one son: Isaac. But God ironically said to Abraham: “Your progeny shall number like the stars in the heavens (Genesis 22:17); and they shall be as a light among the nations…”(Isaiah 42:6).

We are living, as we have always, as a light among the nations. We gave society the 10 commandments and numerous artistic and scientific contributions.

So, what is so unusual about our sojourn with America? It is, in terms of historical significance, perhaps the most beneficent, generous, and happy marriage we, as a people, have ever had! How do we know? Look at what America says about us:

• John Adams, second president of the United States, in an 1808 letter criticizing the depiction of Jews by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “How is it possible [that he] should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation, ancient or modern.”

• Better still … Mark Twain: “The Jews are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.” (Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1879)

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (Mark Twain; “Concerning the Jews” Harper’s Magazine, March, 1898)

We must not take our “Light-hood” lightheartedly, but seriously. Why have we survived? What is the secret of our immortality …so far?

Jews have proven that we can withstand almost any amount of persecution. Throughout our history, Judaism has survived countless incidents of unspeakable prejudice and harassment.

Frederich Neitzche (not Jewish) said: “A human being can survive any how , as long as he has the proper why.”

A person can tolerate any circumstance life sends his way, if only he understands that there is some meaning to that experience. For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have gone through enormous amounts of persecution, hatred – ultimately leading to genocide. And through it all most Jewish people remained steadfastly Jewish. And the reason must be that they understood that it was worth it. They understood the meaning of Jewish culture, and they were willing to pay the price. America has allowed its Jews to be openly Jewish and American.

American culture and Jewish culture share so many common threads…

The founding of “Hollywood,” replete with all of its Jewish founders, entrepreneurs, writers, directors, actors, producers, lyricists, etc. has allowed America to trumpet its successes to the world, And the rest of the world copies our Hollywood.

What of numerical examples? Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Nobel Foundation of Sweden to men and women who have rendered the greatest services to humankind. Between 1901 and 2005, more than 750 Nobel prizes were awarded. Of these, at least 158 are Jews (21 percent). Yet, we only account for just less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, and 0.5 percent of the world population.

Where did this amazing story of success and achievement begin?

For American Jews, with the first shipload of Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, which swept up to us from Brazil to clean the carpet of heretics.

Where does our Jewish American history take us?

Hopefully it should give us encouragement to further our goals of improving our fragile world as both Americans and Jews, stimulated by the courage, compassion and intelligence of those who have come before us – who made our moment in time freer, healthier, happier and more fulfilled than we could have been otherwise. It is the obligation we must accept for our children, and for their children.

God to Abraham: your descendants will be a light unto the nations… (Isaiah 6)

Albert Abraham Michelson measured the speed of light (Nobel 1907)

Albert Einstein: “I always wanted to ride on a light beam…” (Nobel 1921)

Let’s all jump on an American light beam now and see where it takes us.

Israel to introduce revamped Jewish studies curriculum in state schools

Source: Ha’aretz, 6-24-10

The educational curriculum in state-run institutions for this coming school year will include a new subject: Jewish culture and tradition. Initially, the subject will be taught in grades 6-8 for a period of two hours per week, and then expanded to additional grades.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar
Photo by: Emil Salman

The new subject will include lessons on Jewish culture, the Hebrew calendar and “the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel.” In addition, students in the sixth grade will be required to learn the weekly Torah portion; students in seventh grade will be taught the order of prayers in the Jewish liturgy; eighth graders will undergo instruction in Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers ); and ninth graders will delve into Theodor Herzl’s novel “Altneuland.”

“Six books from the Jewish-Zionist bookshelf will be taught throughout these years and students will have direct encounters with complete classical works,” said Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, who heads the educational steering committee in charge of administering the new coursework.

Critics, however, are warning that the syllabus is problematic. According to one professor, the choice of holy texts to be taught creates “an opening for dangerous indoctrination.”

“Pirkei Avot and the weekly Torah portion are part of the canons of religious society, so why should a secular youth study these?” said Bar-Ilan University Professor Avi Sagi. “This will only further alienate [students] from these subjects.”…READ MORE

Noam Pianko: Clash Of Zionisms In Academia

Noam Pianko’s new book  focuses on forgotten cultural Zionists.
Noam Pianko’s new book focuses on forgotten cultural Zionists.
Group of scholars pressing idea of cultural Zionism, amid pushback.

From the United Nations to the capitals of Europe to the pages of the New York Review of Books, Zionism — and the Israeli policies that undergird it — have lately come under withering attack. Israel is reeling from the international condemnation following the failed flotilla attack. And Peter Beinart’s essay in the NYRB — which attacked Jewish leaders for failing to inspire a new generation of Jews committed to Israel — urged a more liberal Zionism as a way to get young Jews back in the fold. But beneath the headlines, a skirmish within academia over the very definition of Zionism has been intensifying. The debate broke into full view here last week at the biannual conference of the American Jewish Historical Society, as a group of scholars, pressing a controversial line of thinking, sought to reformulate Zionism for the 21st century. At root, their re-examination of the ideology amounts to a struggle over the very meaning of Zionism — or, in simplest terms, why Israel should matter to Jews in the diaspora.

While these scholars are galvanized by the sullying of the term in the international arena, they are perhaps more concerned that Jews themselves understand Zionism to be chiefly a political position — “support for the Jewish state,” period. But Zionism, they say, should mean much more than that.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about what Zionism means today,” said Gideon Shimoni, an emeritus professor at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry and author of “The Zionist Ideology.”…. READ MORE

Israel: Flotillas aim to get weapons to Gaza

Source: AP, 6-23-10

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged Wednesday that the real motivation behind plans to send blockade-busting ships toward Gaza is to allow free flow of weapons into the Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu spoke as preparations were under way to send several ships carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists toward Gaza, setting up potential confrontations at sea. He said Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, enemies of Israel, are behind the new efforts to send boats…. READ MORE

Michael Brenner: Redrawing Boundaries A new history reassesses the contours of what makes up Jewish history

Michael Brenner A Short History of the Jews (Princeton)

Map printed a Haggadah in Amsterdam in 1698A Hebrew map (with the Mediterranean in the foreground) from a 1698 Haggadah published in Amsterdam.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. 

In the writing of history, there are no innocent decisions—especially if you are trying to write a compact book about a huge, complex, and polarizing subject, like Michael Brenner’s A Short History of the Jews (Princeton). Brenner, a professor at the University of Munich whose book was published in Germany two years ago, is writing for an audience—Jews and non-Jews alike—who want “just the facts.” Yet every decision about what constitutes a fact, and which facts are important, is laden with assumptions and helps to shape the story in particular ways. Take, for instance, the most basic decision of all: Where does the history of the Jews begin?

The first datable reference to the people of Israel comes in the 13th century BCE, on an Egyptian stele erected by Pharaoh Merenptah to celebrate his military victories. By a too-perfect irony, the inscription reads, “Israel is wasted, its seed exists no more.” Start the story here, and the history of the Jews becomes one of resistance and unlikely survival—over and over again, this people would falsify predictions of its destruction.

If you follow traditional Jewish sources, on the other hand, the story would have to begin with God’s promise to Abraham, from Genesis 17: “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” This origin makes the Jewish story one of chosenness and covenant (it is here that God commands Abraham to circumcise his sons, establishing the b’rit milah), with a special emphasis on the Land of Israel. Or else you could see the beginning of Jewish history in God’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, when the people first took on themselves the responsibility of the Law: “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24). Then the story of the Jews would be the story of Torah—Jewishness would be defined as Judaism….READ MORE

David Newman: Reassessing the Israel-Diaspora link

Reassessing the Israel-Diaspora link

The conference on Wednesday organized by the Humphrey Institute for Social Research at Ben- Gurion University will deal with a very contentious topic – the political, social and cultural role of diasporas and their links with their countries of origin or, in the case of second and third generation diaspora children, the home countries of their parents and grandparents.


Why do diaspora communities, following their migration from one country to another to create a better life for themselves or to escape persecution, expend much of their energies in forging and constructing links with the country they chose to leave? And why does the migrant generation, those that chose to make the move, get annoyed when their children and grandchildren show little interest in the “home” country and prefer instead to see themselves as fully integrated and assimilated citizens of the countries in which they were born and grew up? What is most perplexing is the fact that many diaspora communities have a tendency to take on more extreme stances concerning conflicts back in their “homelands” than do the home communities themselves. The Irish Catholic émigré community in North America was a strong backer of the IRA during the periods of heightened conflict in Northern Ireland, while many Jewish groups in Brooklyn, Toronto and London often adopt the most right-wing and intransigent positions concerning Israel and the occupied territories…. READ MORE

David F. Nesenoff: I asked Helen Thomas about Israel. Her answer revealed more than you think.

I asked Helen Thomas about Israel. Her answer revealed more than you think.

Source: Washington Post, 6-20-10

On the night of May 26, I drove down to Washington from New York with my son, Adam, and his friend Daniel. We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and crashed in a hotel. A few hours later, we woke up and coaxed each other to prepare for a day at the White House. The president was hosting a Jewish heritage celebration, and we’d been able to get media credentials to cover the event. We were exhausted, but thrilled.

The day began with security checks. Then to the press room. A glimpse of former president Bill Clinton scurrying by with Vice President Biden. A press conference in the East Room with President Obama. An impromptu interview with the White House’s mashgiach, the supervisor of the kosher kitchen preparation. Adam and Daniel were documenting the events for their Jewish teen Web site, ShmoozePOINT.com. I was interviewing people about Israel for a feature on my Web site, RabbiLIVE.com.

I thought that if I could create videos of short anecdotes about Israel — the food, archeology, history and personal experiences — they might go viral on the Internet and be a nice promo campaign for the country. I had started the project just a few weeks before.

Even as a rabbi, I did not count on divine intervention.

We were on the White House front lawn when I told the teenagers that approaching us was the most famous reporter in the world — Helen Thomas, a veteran who had covered presidents from Kennedy to Obama. We stopped her. I told Thomas that the young men were starting out in the press corps and hoped to be reporters. She kindly shared notes about journalism with us. “You’ll always keep learning,” she said. It was an honor.

Then I asked: “Any comments on Israel? We’re asking everybody today.” Like saying a password to enter a new, secret place. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” she replied, and “go home” to Poland and Germany. We were in.

The gentle give and take has now been broadcast, transcribed and thoroughly dissected. However, a strict transcription misses the accuracy of the audiovisual. Only in the director’s cut, the video, are the nonwords, the sound, the noise, the true reaction. And that was my “oooh.”

“What were you thinking when you said ‘oooh,’ rabbi?” asked Fox News, as did many of the other national and international media outlets that probed and jabbed for my innermost thoughts. Well, I was thinking “oooh.” Oooh. Most heard it the first time. Certainly during the multitude of reruns, “oooh” became part of the song. It was a response by a rabbi to Thomas’s comments, and it was from my soul.

I merely asked a question with a video camera to a columnist. She answered me with an opinion that was unacceptable not just to me but to former and current press secretaries, politicians, the president, her agent and a great many other people. Her freedom of speech was not stifled; on the contrary, it was respected.

She didn’t say that the blockade was unjust, or that aid was not getting to Gaza, or that there was a massacre on the high seas, or that East Jerusalem is occupied, or that the settlements are immoral . . . and get out and go back to West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. No. This was not the two-state solution. This was get the hell out and go back to the places of the final solution, Poland and Germany. The Jew has no connection with the land of Israel.

And why? Because, as Thomas went on to explain to me, “I’m from Arab descent.” That’s it? That’s all you got? Do we all travel with only our parents’ stereotypes to guide us, never going beyond them to get to a peaceful destination?

In the past weeks I have relived this moment over and over, on television and radio, in newspapers and blogs. I’ve listened to a constant stream of commentary. And my sharpest impression is this: Where before I saw a foggy anti-Israel, anti-Jewish link, it’s now clear. This feeling is not about statehood. It’s about an ingrown, organic hate. It’s a sentiment that bears no connection to history, dates, passages or verses. Erase the facts, the dates and the lore. Erase the Jew. Incredibly, even the Nazis said to the Jews, “Go home to Palestine.” But Thomas and a babbling stream in our world and country dictate to Jewish people to “go home to Poland and Germany.” Yeah, I said “oooh.”

My “oooh” was the sound of the shofar ram’s horn calling a loud primal tikeya, the extended ancient whole note from my very core. My existence was being erased. Every room in every Holiday Inn in America has, next to the bed, in the drawer, a Bible, beside the yellow pages and the breakfast menu. Christianity believes in the Jewish ancestry. Islam believes in the prophets Moses and Jesus. Can we just rip away the history of Jews in Israel like a Band-Aid, one quick motion across the centuries? Oooh.

One may disagree on fences and rights of return. There have been handshakes, summits, accords, cease-fires, negotiations and boycotts. It’s all been on the table, under the table or sometimes tabled. But the connection between the Jew and Israel is valid, historical, ancient, modern, spiritual and eternal. The relationship is beyond the state of Israel. It is a unique relationship of a religion to a land. The Jews are “bnai yisroel,” the children of Israel. Even when they are away, they are connected. Even during exiles and diasporas, they are connected. Even during inquisitions, pogroms and a Holocaust, they are connected.

My grandmother used to kibitz, “Friends you choose; family you’re stuck with.” The Jew is stuck with Israel. There is no ungluing the connection. It is beyond the ambiguous term “chosen people”; they are “the people who have no choice.” It is more than a religious belief; it is a value and a moral barometer of the Earth. History, truth, integrity and the foundation of our world are not negotiable.

“Tell them to get the hell out . . .”

We went back to the East Room for the Jewish event and then onto the South Lawn as Marine One carried away the first family for the Memorial Day weekend. We stopped in Maryland on the way home for some kosher shwarma. The New Jersey Turnpike looked the same, but we were already traveling on a road in a post-oooh world.


David F. Nesenoff is a rabbi in New York. His Web site is RabbiLIVE.com. He will discuss this article online Monday, June 21 at 11 a.m. Please submit questions before or during the discussion. From the archives: Jon Ward on Helen Thomas’s role in the White House press corps and a look at other career-changing gaffes. (June 13).

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Protest Schools Ruling

Source: NYT, 6-17-10


Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

The ultra-Orthodox united in protest of a court ruling, as many took to the rooftops, and one to a pole, to watch in the central city of Bnei Brak on Thursday.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of this city on Thursday to accompany dozens of Hasidic parents who were on their way to prison for two weeks after refusing to comply with a Supreme Court ruling against ethnic segregation in their children’s school.

This latest battle in Israel’s simmering culture war, pitting ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim of European origin against their slightly less stringent ultra-Orthodox Sephardic peers from Arab and North African backgrounds, has raised accusations of racism on one side and infringement of religious freedom on the other.

But on Thursday, most ultra-Orthodox were united in protest against what they see as the state’s meddling in their religious affairs and in their conviction that the religious law of the Torah — or at least their interpretation of it — transcends that of any Israeli court.

Men in black coats and hats filled an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, blocking main roads and hailing those going to prison as if they were holy martyrs. Banners waved with slogans like “Don’t touch the Messiah,” while people looked down from rooftops.

Israeli television broadcast tearful scenes outside the central Jerusalem police station as fathers heading for prison parted with their young children. By midnight, a bus carrying the mothers had still not shown up.

In recent years, Israel has grappled with a series of issues testing the boundaries of secular and religious law, and many legal experts here see this as one of the most profound, with implications for the future of Israeli democracy.

“It is a very important moment,” said Yedidia Z. Stern, a professor at Bar-Ilan University Law School near Tel Aviv and an expert in issues of religion and state. “It is about a competition for control.”… READ MORE

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson: Rabbi’s Biography Disturbs Followers

Rabbi’s Biography Disturbs Followers

Source: NYT, 6-15-10

Dressed in a white straw hat, tan chinos and a blue shirt, Samuel Heilman, the co-author of a new book about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, stood at the rebbe’s grave site among scores of pilgrims — a vanguard of the thousands expected to visit on Tuesday, in the Jewish calendar the 16th anniversary of his death — who arrived at a Queens cemetery a few days early to commune with their beloved leader.

Michael Falco for The New York Times

“It is very holy,” Mr. Heilman said outside the open-air mausoleum, or ohel, that contains the graves of the rebbe and his father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. Hasidim believe that the spirit of a great sage remains after death, and many Lubavitchers think the rebbe is not only a sage, but also the messiah.

The biography’s look at Schneerson’s personal life is already causing a stir in the continuing discussion about his legacy… READ MORE

Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity

Source: NYT, 6-9-10

Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East share many genes inherited from the ancestral Jewish population that lived in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago, even though each community also carries genes from other sources — usually the country in which it lives.

That is the conclusion of two new genetic surveys, the first to use genome-wide scanning devices to compare many Jewish communities around the world.

A major surprise from both surveys is the genetic closeness of the two Jewish communities of Europe, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim thrived in Northern and Eastern Europe until their devastation by the Hitler regime, and now live mostly in the United States and Israel. The Sephardim were exiled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 and moved to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and the Netherlands.

The two genome surveys extend earlier studies based just on the Y chromosome, the genetic element carried by all men. They refute the suggestion made last year by the historian Shlomo Sand in his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” that Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people in Europe and Central Asia who converted to Judaism at various times.

Jewish communities from Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus all have substantial genetic ancestry that traces back to the Levant; Ethiopian Jews and two Judaic communities in India are genetically much closer to their host populations….READ MORE

Joseph Brandes: A conversation on everything under the sun

Source: New Jersey Jewish Standard, 6-11-10

So encyclopedic is Joseph Brandes’ knowledge that a conversation with him may skip around from why Jews generally vote Democratic to the secret of being a good teacher to why certain couples have a happy, long-lasting marriage. (In his case, a partial answer is that he and his wife, Margot, who have been married for 57 years, are immersed in Zionist activities.)

Brandes, 82, a retired history professor at William Paterson University, is the author of a fascinating book that has just been re-published: “Immigrants to Freedom: Jews as Yankee Farmers! (1880’s to 1960’s).”

The book tells of 400 Jews from Eastern Europe who came to the United States in the 1880s and started agricultural communities in south Jersey — to escape pogroms and to prove that Jews could be farmers, despite the stereotype of them as tradespeople. They were followed by thousands of others, and in 1902, one of their thriving communities, Woodbine, was even recognized by the state as a borough. A magazine of the time referred to Woodbine as “The first self-governed Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem.”

These communities eventually vanished — the farmers could make better livings in cities — but their innovations, Brandes points out, influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Born in Poland, Brandes (and his family) left in 1939 and eventually arrived in the Bronx. Brandes graduated Phi Beta Kappa from CCNY’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, then earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in 1950 and a doctorate at New York University in 1958. He taught at William Paterson from 1958 through 1992, and part-time after that. He and his wife have four children: Cheryl, Lynn, Susan, and Aviva.

Here is condensed version of a recent conversation with Brandes.

Jewish Standard: What advice would you give new teachers?

Brandes: The major thing to keep in mind is: Make an effort to develop a personal relationship with your students. You’re not teaching a class: You’re teaching individuals. I found this was most satisfying part of my experience — personal interaction.

J.S.: What drew you to history?

Brandes: I started out as a child loving stories, and to me history was in part stories — real stories about real people. As I matured, it was analysis and learning what the world used to be like. And how the world we’ve inherited developed. History is story of conflict, dilemmas, and complex choices for leaders to make.

In my religious education, there were plenty of stories for me to read in the Bible, about good guys, bad guys, conflicts, how Israel was created in ancient times, the destruction of the two temples, holidays pegged to stories like Passover. I knew these were stories of real people, not fairy tales. The Bible does a very good job of describing the character of its heroes. My mother also read stories to us — by Dickens and others — even when we were young children. We were a family that loved to read.

J.S.: Why American history?

Brandes: I wanted to go into European history. As a kid I liked knights in shining armor and nobility, and I was sorry I couldn’t live through Napoleonic times and the French revolution. They were such exciting times! So much reform! The downfall of monarchies! But I was realistic enough to know I couldn’t afford to spend a year in London or Paris or Munich. I asked for a meeting with Salo Wittkmeyer Baron, professor of Jewish history at Columbia, and told him I wanted to write my master’s thesis on the economic deprivations of Jewish people by the Polish government. He was a thorough scholar. “Can you read German documents?” I said no. And I had forgotten my Polish as well. He gave me good advice: “Don’t do it.”

I don’t regret that decision. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that American history has enough color — with the frontier, the treatment (and mistreatment) of Indians, economic cycles from Colonial times to today, and so forth. I have no regrets.

J.S.: Why do most Jews vote Democratic?

Brandes: Most Jews were once Republicians — because they admired the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, and they admired Lincoln, who was a Republican and a great president. They became Democrats because of Franklin Roosevelt. He gave them the WPA, Social Security, minimum wage laws.

J.S.: To ask an old question: What are some of the roots of anti-Semitism?

Brandes: One of them is religion. In the early years of Christianity, the first Christians were Jews. Consequently there was a kind of kinship between Jews and Christians, where people who called themselves Jews could also believe in Jesus as a god. And that kind of relationship continued for several centuries — until Christians became worried about the success of the Muslim world. Christianity was also being challenged by people [the Christians] called heretics — that what stakes were for, to burn the heretics. So, more and more, the Christian church focused on cleansing itself of its own heretics, including the French Huguenots.

Also there was the fact that the Jews persisted in existing — they failed to accept the divinity of Jesus, and the existence of Jews was considered to be a threat. Jews were a small minority in a great sea of Christians, but the fear was that the Jews might unite with the heretics in the Christian world and challenge the primacy of the papacy.

Going beyond the religious point, Jews have been a convenient scapegoat — as they are to this day.

J.S.: You’ve been married a long time — 57 years. What is the secret to having a happy marriage?

Brandes: You need a tolerance of each other’s characteristics, not necessarily faults. In many if not most couples, wife and husband have different views on, for example, what they should do with their spare time, athletic activities, books to read. My wife loves to travel; my idea of a good time is staying home. But I’m willing to bend. Isn’t that right, Margot?

Margot Brandes: Not enough.

Brandes (laughs): The fact that we’re both active in Zionism also helps keep us together. We’ve always very strongly pro-Israel and involved in the Jewish community in general. That’s one of things that has made ours a successful marriage. In addition to the fact that my wife is an excellent cook!

Vilnius Jewish library collection presented

Source: Baltic Reports, 6-10-10

Katz speaks at the unveiling ceremony with Brent seated to his right. Photo by Richard Schofield/Baltic Reports

The beginnings of the country’s first Jewish literature library was unveiled on Thursday, marking the culmination of six years work by American Wyman Brent.

Brent, a native of San Diego and a Christian, came to Vilnius in 1994 and said he fell in love with the country and with the Jewish history of Vilnius, which stretches back around 700 years.

The library currently has no permanent home, but it already has around 5,000 items, which will eventually increase to around 200,000. It is expected to open to the public by late July and will likely be based at Gedimino 24, the building that houses the Vilnius Small Theater.

“Jewish culture was and is a part of Lithuania’s past, present and future. I came here and I fell in love, but I did not know for what reason — then when I had the idea for the library, Vilnius was again the Jerusalem of the north. It is the greatest center of Jewish culture in Europe,” Brent said at the opening in the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute in Vilnius.

Culturologist and moderator of the panel of speeches at the opening Žilvinas Beliauskas said that to be a real citizen of Vilnius, called Vilna in Hebrew, was a challenge because the current generations of people entered the city after its large Jewish population was massacred during the Second World War.

He said that learning about the history, including the Jewish history would make Lithuanians true citizens of Vilnius.

Brent said the library will be open to all…. READ MORE

Jacob Milgrom: Rabbi, biblical scholar dies at 87

Source: JWeekly, 6-10-10

Historian Fred Rosenbaum will remember Jacob Milgrom — a rabbi, biblical scholar and professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley — not poring over biblical tomes, but opening the home he shared with his wife, Jo, and their children to students for Shabbat.

“Just to be invited to Shabbat dinner at the Milgrom home was a wonderful invitation,” said Rosenbaum, who was a graduate student in Jewish history at U.C. Berkeley when he first met Milgrom in the early 1970s. “People really treasured it, including me. I was personally touched by Jack, both by his intellect and his human sensitivity and caring about others.”

Milgrom died June 6 at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem of a brain hemorrhage related to a fall. He was 87.

Best known for his comprehensive commentaries on Torah and his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Conservative rabbi wrote a three-volume series on Leviticus, interpreting Jewish dietary and purification rituals as well as the Bible’s position on homosexuality. He concluded the ban on homosexuality applies only to Jewish men…. READ MORE

Shaul Magid: Does Helen Thomas Work for Israel? # The veteran columnist’s remarks couldn’t have come at a better time for Israeli apologists

Source: Religious Dispatches, 6-9-10

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. His next book, Jews and Judaism in Post-Ethnic America: Becoming an American Religion, will be published by the Indiana U. Press.

….So why is it that I ask whether she is working for Israel? Because Israel has decided to portray the flotilla episode as another example of international anti-Semitism—in this case promulgated by Turkey. Israel has portrayed it as another example of defending itself against an “existential threat” (notice Netanyahu’s immediate description of Gaza as an extension of Iran) deflecting questions about the legitimacy of the blockade and any humanitarian crisis that may, or may not, have been created by it.

Critics cry foul! This is not about an “existential threat,” this is about an illegitimate blockade of 1.5 million people! Then, here comes Helen Thomas basically affirming the Israeli government’s argument by making a remark that, in fact, speaks to the very existential threat Israel is deploying to deflect its behavior! And if such a remark comes from a highly educated and well-respected White House correspondent how much more so by the so-called activists who confronted Israel’s naval commandos. Thankfully, her employers and sponsors acted appropriately and terminated their relationship with her. Maybe Israel can use her as a covert agent to bolster their case that every act against them constitutes an existential threat? Better yet, maybe Israel can help terminate this rhetoric by acting differently when that threat is not imminent.

Helen Thomas Quits White House Correspondent Position After Outrage for Anti-Semitism Remarks

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University. She blogs at History Musings

President Obama shared birthday cake with Helen Thomas on August 9, 2009. The day is the birthday for both — Obama turned 48, Thomas turned 89.


  • Helen Thomas quits: Helen Thomas quit her job with Hearst in the wake of mounting outrage over her assertion that Israeli Jews should “return” to Poland, Germany and the United States.
    “Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately,” said a statement issued Monday by the Hearst Corp. “Her decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.” – JTA, 6-7-10
  • Helen Thomas retires in flap over Israel remarks: Longtime Washington journalist Helen Thomas abruptly retired Monday as a columnist for Hearst News Service following remarks she made about Israel that were denounced by the White House and her press corps colleagues. AP, 6-7-10
  • Helen Thomas ends 5-decade career in controversy: After more than 50 years covering the White House, journalist Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring immediately from Hearst Newspapers, amid controversy over remarks she recently made about Israel.
    Hearst News Service broke the news Monday, noting that Thomas’ “decision came after her controversial comments about Israel and the Palestinians were captured on videotape and widely disseminated on the Internet.”… – AP, 6-7-10
  • Rabbi sat on Thomas scoop as webmaster-son took exams: When veteran journalist Helen Thomas made inflammatory remarks about Israel, the comments weren’t captured by a major news organization. Instead, a rabbi and his 17-year-old son broke the story.
    Right now, Rabbi David Nesenoff is drawing lots of new visitors to RabbiLive.com and its video of the dean of the White House press corps (now abruptly retired) telling Israel to “get the hell out of Palestine.” Although Nesenoff’s site is getting buzz and media pickup, the rabbi actually sat on the big scoop for a week.
    On May 27, Nesenoff attended the Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House with son Adam and a friend of Adam’s. While walking across the front lawn Nesenhoff and the boys saw Thomas, and decided to ask her about her thoughts on Israel…. – AP, 6-7-10
  • Helen Thomas retires: Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas announced Monday that she is retiring, effective immediately, in the wake of a controversy over her comments on Israel, according to a report from her employer, Hearst News Service.
    Thomas told a rabbi at a White House event last week that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Germany and Poland.
    “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Thomas said in a statement on her Web site. “They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.” WaPo, 6-7-10
  • White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assailed Thomas for her words: “Those remarks were offensive and reprehensible,” Gibbs said, noting that Thomas has apologized. Her sentiments “do not reflect certainly most of the people here and certainly not those of the administration.” –
  • The Board of the White House Correspondents Association statement follows:
    Helen Thomas’ comments were indefensible and the White House Correspondents Association board firmly dissociates itself from them. Many in our profession who have known Helen for years were saddened by the comments, which were especially unfortunate in light of her role as a trail blazer on the White House beat.
    While Helen has not been a member of the WHCA for many years, her special status in the briefing room has helped solidify her as the dean of the White House press corps so we feel the need to speak out strongly on this matter.
    We want to emphasize that the role of the WHCA is to represent the White House press corps in its dealings with the White House on coverage-related issues. We do not police the speech of our members or colleagues. We are not involved at all in issuing White House credentials, that is the purview of the White House itself.
    But the incident does revive the issue of whether it is appropriate for an opinion columnist to have a front row seat in the WH briefing room. That is an issue under the jurisdiction of this board. We are actively seeking input from our association members on this important matter, and we have scheduled a special meeting of the WHCA board on Thursday to decide on the seating issue.
    Ed Chen, Bloomberg
    David Jackson, USA Today
    Caren Bohan, Reuters
    Ed Henry, CNN
    Julie Mason, DC Examiner
    Don Gonyea, National Public Radio
    Steve Scully, C-SPAN
    Doug Mills, The New York Times
  • White House correspondent apologizes for Israel remarks: Thomas, 89, the longest-serving reporter in the White House press corps, was asked by the website RabbiLive.com during a May 27 “Jewish Heritage Celebration” at the White House whether she had any “comments on Israel.”
    “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” said Thomas, who served for decades as the White House correspondent for United Press International (UPI) and now writes a column for Hearst newspapers.
    “Remember these people are occupied and it’s their land, not German and not Poland,” Thomas said. “They can go home, Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” AFP, 6-7-10

Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too

Source: Washington Post, 6-4-10

…According to the General Social Survey, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 reported that 27 percent of Jews, 23 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Buddhists, 18 percent of Baptists, 21 percent of Muslims and 12 percent of Mormons were then married to a spouse with a different religious identification. If you want to see what the future holds, note this: Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it’s important to marry someone of the same faith.

In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant. As recent research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam has shown, the more Americans get to know people of other faiths, the more they seem to like them.

But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic — it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.

More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband…. READ MORE

Gil Troy: Armed Pacifists Vs. Paintball Commandos

By Gil Troy, The Mark News, 6-1-10

As the raid on the Turkish flotilla demonstrates, both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wish to appear virtuous but trust only strength.

The strange and sobering world of the Middle East conflict has now introduced a new phenomenon, the armed “peace activist,” seething with hate, professing pacifism, masquerading as an humanitarian, pounding away at another human being with a metal pole. The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Amid all the indignant denunciations of Israel, with the Jewish state’s flag being burned the world over, it is nevertheless possible to hold two, seemingly opposing, groups of ideas at once. First: Israel’s commando raid was ill-conceived and poorly executed. The tragic human casualties and Israel’s diplomatic catastrophe should have been avoided. And the party with the greater firepower holds the greater responsibility, especially when it is a democracy. But at the same time, these alleged “peace activists” pulling weapons rather than pulling a Gandhi should give us pause. This was not a humanitarian operation but a power play. And the violence that began – on one boat – was clearly planned and intentional.

The expected street theatre, actually sea theatre, turned violent because of the Turkish activists’ ambush. In five of the six boats the Israeli navy boarded, everyone followed the anticipated script. These passive protesters trusted that images of armed commandos deployed against unarmed civilians would achieve their PR goals to embarrass Israel and weaken international support for the Israeli-Egyptian blockade against Hamas’s control of Gaza. Yet, as the videos show, the boaters on the Turkish ferry the Marmara swarmed the Israeli soldiers, who initially held their fire. Israel clearly sought to avoid the kind of bloodbath which occurred. Apparently, the soldiers initially were armed with paint ball guns for crowd control. As one soldier later complained, “We went into war, and all we had were toys.”

Some of the injured Israelis were stabbed, two were shot, one had his skull crushed. Some rioters had been recorded earlier shouting “Jews, remember Khyabar, the army of Mohammed is returning,” referring to the Muslims’ seventh-century defeat of Jews. Israelis described the mob scene as an attempted “lynch” – Israelified English for “lynching,” evoking the brutal mob murder on October 12, 2000 when two Israeli reservists were killed after making a wrong turn into Palestinian territory. One report suggested that the Israeli soldiers only began shooting thirty minutes into the confrontation – when their lives clearly were endangered.

The pro-Palestinian side’s failure once again to “go Gandhi” on the Israelis reflects the great crime of Palestinian nationalism, namely its unrelenting hatred for the Jewish State. This hatred is reflected in the vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric often deployed against Israel, the continuing calls for Israel’s destruction, and the violence on the Marmara and elsewhere. This hatred has blocked repeated attempts at compromise. Many Israelis – and well-intentioned outsiders – treat the conflict as a matter of borders to be drawn while too many – but not all – Palestinians treat the conflict as a state that needs to be destroyed.

That hatred looms large in the struggle over Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza does not make sense unless you read Hamas’s charter, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and calls for Israel’s destruction, or remember Hamas’s suicide bombs and Kassam rockets. Israel – along with Egypt – is blockading Gaza because Gaza is run by theocratic terrorists. The fact that Hamas and its supporters use humanitarian rhetoric, that they have hijacked the language of human rights, that they have won over much liberal support, does not make them worthy of those ideals. In fact, this masquerade, legitimized by its international enablers, makes Israel only feel more embattled, just as the harsh rhetoric delegitimizing Israel makes it all the more difficult to nurture the kind of trust and mutual respect necessary for compromise and peace.

Here, then, is the true Middle Eastern farce, which this week turned tragic. With pacifists wielding clubs pitted against naval commandos armed with paintballs both sides dance on the head of pin, seeking to appear virtuous while ultimately trusting power. True peace will not be attained, until both sides trust the power of virtue. The challenge for the international community is to nurture that trust on both sides, rather than siding with the armed peace activists over the paintball commandos.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University.