How Christopher Browning realized the importance of eyewitness testimony

Source: Tablet (7-22-10)

Though it has long played a central role in the popular history of the Holocaust, survivor testimony has for decades been seen as marginal by Holocaust historians. The issue has preoccupied scholars since Raul Hilberg’s landmark 1961 book, The Destruction of the European Jews, in which he largely discounted the “usefulness” of survivor accounts.

Hilberg’s pioneering work established a methodological orthodoxy with regard to survivor testimony that was long adhered to by historians looking to establish a credible and unassailable historical record of Nazi crimes.

Christopher Browning was still operating within the boundaries Hilberg had set when he chose to focus on the slow brutalization of a single battalion of German soldiers in his pathbreaking 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

But, more recently, while studying a 1972 German court case that acquitted a Nazi police chief on all charges related to his role in the liquidation of a small Jewish ghetto in central Poland, Browning was outraged.

He was struck by the presiding judge’s chilling dismissal of some 100 eyewitness testimonies by the ghetto’s survivors who attested to the defendant’s memorable savagery. The judge dryly noted, “As a matter of principle … eyewitness testimony was ‘the most unreliable form of evidence’ with which the judicial process had to deal.” Compounding the insult was the fact that virtually no other documentary or evidentiary material existed in this case.

In his latest book, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, Browning offers a corrective—one that represents a shift away from the field’s long-held eschewal of survivor testimony. “The history of the Holocaust,” Browning has concluded, “cannot be written solely as either perpetrator history or history from above.”…

First Annual Sephardic Jewish Book Fair – July 25, 2010 in NYC

Source: PRWeb, 7-16-10

The first annual New York Sephardic Jewish Book Fair will take place on Sunday July 25, 2010 with book readings, author signings, book sales and tours at the Center for Jewish History. Hosted by the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), the book fair will bring together authors and book lovers that write about and enjoy books relating to the culture, history, philosophy, religion, languages and experiences of the Sephardic Jews, past and present….READ MORE

Avraham Balaban: All you need is love

What happened to the ideal mother of Israel’s early days? Prof. Avraham Balaban tells how she turned into a manipulative crank in his new book on motherhood in modern Hebrew fiction

Source:  Haaretz, 7-15-10

Nine Mothers and a Mother: Representations of Motherhood in Modern Hebrew Fiction

You only have one mother – so runs the cliche. But Prof. Avraham Balaban might add, “and a good thing, too.” That, at any rate, is the impression one gets from his new study, “Nine Mothers and a Mother: Representations of Motherhood in Modern Hebrew Fiction” (published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad ). Here, the Jewish mother is cranky, manipulative, monstrous, alienating, neglectful, castrating and abandoning – and alas, not always loving.

Balaban, a poet, writer, researcher and critic, is a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida, where the two courses he offers have a feminist orientation: “Women in Hebrew Literature” and “Motherhood in Modern Hebrew literature.” His study of the works of Amos Oz, David Grossman, Ronit Matalon, Lea Aini, Avirama Golan, Zeruya Shalev, Savyon Liebrecht and Hanna Bat Shahar turned up a broad common denominator among all their ostensibly fictional mothers. Each in her way, in the imagined territory in which she functions, is very far from the positive, politically correct image we have of our own mothers. “I hardly found one mother who is good enough,” Balaban says….READ MORE

Israeli Bill Reflects Frustration With Academics Who Support Boycotts

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, 7-14-10

Israeli Bill Reflects Frustration With Academics Who Support Boycotts 1Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s education minister (left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), says he welcomes sanctions against professors at public universities who support boycotts. (David Silverman, AP Images)

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An effort to discourage Israeli public-university professors and others from supporting boycotts of the Jewish state is roiling the country’s academics.

While an academic boycott and other efforts to isolate the country have long been debated, recent public condemnation of Israel’s botched military raid on a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza has heated up the political situation.

Israeli legislators, feeling embattled by hostile world opinion, are considering a series of measures responding to what they regard as inappropriate sanctions against their country and its leaders, some of whom have been threatened with arrest for alleged war crimes.

A bill introduced in June in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, proposes that Israelis could be sued by anyone affected by a boycott and forced to pay up to $8,000 in damages. Foreigners could find themselves banned from entering Israel for 10 years and denied the ability to hold a bank account or purchase land.

The primary target of the new legislation, which is sponsored by 24 of 120 Knesset members, is the Palestinian Authority boycott of goods from Israeli settlements, which has also won support from some European countries.

But according to a draft of the bill, supporters of academic boycotts would be included in its provisions. Such boycotts urge professors and students not to attend academic conferences in Israel, not to invite Israeli scholars to conferences, not to accept them as students or faculty members in their own institutions, and not to publish scholarly articles by Israelis….READ MORE

Rabbi Abraham Cooper: Confronting ‘history’s longest hatred’

Source: WaPo, 7-14-10

It’s been called history’s longest hatred. The last aging survivors of Auschwitz see everywhere evidence that virulent Jew-hatred did not die in the Berlin bunker with Hitler. Indeed, in 2010, victims of the Shoah see their suffering denied, their legacy perverted and inverted.

The president of the European Jewish Congress recently put it bluntly to European Parliamentarians: “Jews are afraid to walk the streets in Europe with Jewish signs. Synagogues, Jewish schools and kindergartens require barbed-wire fences and security and Jewish men, women and children are beaten up in broad daylight . . . Jews are being forced out of many European cities, like Malmo, [Sweden] . . . because of the atmosphere of hostility and violence.”

This week along with other Jewish leaders, we with Secretary Hillary Clinton and Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism at the State Department to discuss the crisis. Enroute to the nation’s capitol I listed some of the key sources of the moral pollution….READ MORE

Did Harper Lee Whitewash The Jewish Past

Source: The NY Jewish Week, 7-13-10

To kill a Mockingbird
As ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ turns 50, caught up in the backlash against Atticus Finch is the novel’s Jewish question.

The 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is being marked this summer, was supposed to be a celebratory event. But at least in the press, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that still sells about a million copies a year has become the subject of ruthless criticism.

Detractors say that its hero, the small-town Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, is far from a paragon of justice and may in fact be complicit in the very system he seems to oppose.

Critics argue that while Finch defends a black man against accusations of rape, he is still unwilling to demand more systematic reform. And because he is a well-liked and prominent public official, his quiet campaign on a black man’s behalf amounts to a casual acceptance of institutionalized racism. Moreover, his critics argue, Finch accepts the case to appease his own conscience, knowing full well that he will probably lose. That may take courage, but it is hardly the bolder type of courageous activism that seemed necessary for a more enduring change.

“Here is where the criticism of Finch begins,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in an essay for The New Yorker last year, which has stoked the recent debate. “The hearts-and-minds approach [which Finch represents] is about accommodation, not reform.”

The re-evaluation of Atticus Finch is essentially about racism, and whether a gradual or more active approach, like the civil rights movement, was best for America. But a Jewish subtext has arisen in its wake, too, with some now wondering whether Harper Lee whitewashes the Jewish past. She includes two short passages where Jews are held up as accepted members of Southern society, implicitly highlighting the irony of white racism: Southerners can accept Jews, Lee suggests, so why not blacks?

But some argue that her presentation of Jews only drives home her racial naiveté.  Not only were Jews less embraced by whites than Lee suggests, but Jews may have also been more complicit in Southern racism as well. “The Jewish situation was not like that of the blacks,” said Eric Goldstein, author of “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity,” and a professor of Jewish history at Emory University, in Atlanta. “I think that that’s the mistake Harper Lee made.”

Goldstein added that Jews in small Southern towns, particularly in the 1930s, when the novel is set, would not have been likely targets of the Ku Klux Klan, who appear in Lee’s first reference to Jews. Lee depicts Sam Levy, a Jewish dry goods salesman, being confronted by KKK bandits. But Levy easily scares them away. Recounting the story to his daughter, Scout, Finch says: the Klan “paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs.”

Lee’s defenders argue that the book is a novel, not history, and therefore makes no claims to historical accuracy. But that seems at odds with what in part makes the novel so affecting: how real it feels. Since its initial publication in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been praised for capturing, in pitch-perfect prose, the very essence of the Depression-era South. It puts on full view all the gradations of Southern racism, both white-on-black and the reverse. And while the Jewish presence in the novel is minimal, as it was in the historical South, Lee’s depiction of Jews only adds to that feeling of truth.

Sam Levy’s role “is entirely, entirely credible,” said Leonard Rogoff, a historian and president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. Rogoff said that the anecdote of Jews selling white bedsheets to Klan members is something you still hear Southern Jews talk about today. He added that such sales were rarely, if ever, done in knowing complicity. Yet still, he acknowledged that Southern Jews were by and large not vocal about black rights during the Depression, when the novel is set, nor in the civil rights era, when it was written. “That was not the Southern way of doing things,” he said.

Many historians argue that Jewish Southerners played a less prominent role in black civil rights because of the tenuous situation they were in — not because they approved of racism. Even for Jewish Southerners like Sam Levy, whose family roots went back five generations, “they always had a sense of difference,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a historian of Southern Jewry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jews may have been more accepted than blacks and even Catholics, but latent anti-Semitism still existed. White Southerners might embrace a Jew they knew personally, yet they were still suspicious of the ones they had not met, observers say. “The Jew we don’t know? Fearful,” Cohen Ferris said. Moreover, the randomness of violent, anti-Semitic outbursts — most infamously in Leo Frank’s lynching in 1915 — meant that Jews could never feel entirely safe.

Even when Jews did take a stand for civil rights, like Atlanta’s Reform Temple Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, they had reason to fear their own security. The bombing of Rothschild’s synagogue in 1958 is well known, but in 1957 and 1958, a high point of civil rights activism, white supremacists attempted to bomb eight synagogues.

The instances of violence against Jews who openly supported black rights have led many historians to argue that the general silence of Southern Jews was the product of fear. As the historian Clive Webb has argued in his influential book, “Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights” (2001), “In 1957, those who dared to protest against racial prejudice risked personal injury. As a result, many Southern Jews had explicitly rejected the notion that they had any particular responsibility to support the civil right movement.”

But that, Goldstein says, might be “letting them off the hook too easily.” In small towns, like Lee’s fictional Maycomb, Ala., Jews were rarely victims of anti-Semitic violence and were more likely to accommodate themselves to the dominant racist attitudes. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Goldstein argued, Jews were least accepted in large cities like Atlanta, where Leo Frank was lynched; there, Goldstein and his colleagues agree, anti-Semitism was considerably more pronounced…. READ MORE

David Newman: Academics and the public discourse

Many argue that academics should remain solely as the creators of knowledge and not take part in political debates.

The International Geographical Union is holding its biannual regional conference in Tel Aviv this week. A bit like the World Cup, the international venues for these major academic and scientific events are chosen years in advance, and it takes the local associations years of hard work and organization to put the meetings in place. Different countries and regions lobby to have the event take place in their own backyards, drawing on the expertise and international recognition of scholars in the field to put forward their claim.

In the case of Israel, the proponents also had to deal with those who did not want to come here, for a mixture of security and political reasons. There were groups who attempted to boycott the event and the pre-conference workshops and tried to persuade their colleagues not to attend. But with few exceptions, they were unsuccessful and, as a result, hundreds of geographers, planners and environmentalists are gathering in Tel Aviv this week for their conference, workshops and field trips.

Ask a child at school which are his/her most boring subjects and, invariably, they will choose geography, history and archeology. And yet, in countries such as Israel, where the national conflict and the competing claims to territory, land ownership and sovereignty are central to the daily discourse, there is nothing more relevant to political life than these three disciplines.

Geography is about who controls land, how settlements are planned and constructed and where and how are the state borders demarcated and delimited.

History is about the study of the competing and alternative narratives and claims to sovereignty, each using its own – often exclusive – histories and texts to strengthen its political claims. Archeology is often about the respective desires to prove that “my” group was here first, that “we” have priority in our claims to the land and that the discovered artifacts or bones at dig sites are part of ancient Jewish or Palestinian tradition (when in most cases they are neither).

Tiny shard bears oldest script found in Jerusalem

Source: AP, 7-12-10

Archaeologists say a newly discovered clay fragment from the 14th century B.C. is the oldest example of writing ever found in antiquity-rich Jerusalem.

Dig director Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University says the 2-centimeter (0.8-inch) long fragment bears an ancient form of writing known as Akkadian wedge script.

The fragment includes a partial text including the words “you,” “them,” and “later.”

It predates the next-oldest example of writing found in Jerusalem by 600 years, and dates roughly four centuries before the Bible says King David ruled a Jewish kingdom from the city.

Mazar said Monday that the fragment likely came from a royal court and suggested more could be found in the most ancient part of Jerusalem, located in the city’s predominantly Palestinian eastern sector.

Frederick Lawrence: Civil rights scholar named new Brandeis president

GW Law School Dean Frederick Lawrence.
With endowment falling and various controversies afoot, GW Law School dean will look to bolster financial aid.

Growing up in Port Washington, L.I., Frederick Lawrence thought he’d have a career in politics or teaching.

But in high school, animated by the civil rights and anti-war movements and inspired by the role attorneys were playing as agents “of social change,” he decided to become a lawyer.

Some four decades later, after working as a civil rights lawyer and law school dean, Lawrence is taking a position at the highest rung of academia.

Lawrence, 55, was last week named the next president of Brandeis University, the non-sectarian school under Jewish auspices in Waltham, Mass. On Jan. 1, 2011 he will succeed Jehuda Reinharz, who will become head of the Mandel Foundation, an international philanthropy.

Since 2005 Lawrence has served as dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.

He comes to Brandeis at a time when the school is under fire from several directions. In recent years Brandeis has drawn criticism for the controversy over last spring’s invitation to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to serve as commencement speaker; for its announced plans to sell its extensive modern art collection and close its Rose Art Museum because of a growing deficit; for its “team-taught” Middle East studies class that features Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian instructors…READ MORE

Civil rights scholar named new Brandeis president

Source: Boston Globe, 7-8-10

Brandeis University today named Frederick M. Lawrence, dean of George Washington Law School and a former Boston University law professor, as its eighth president.


Lawrence, a prominent civil rights scholar who once headed the national legal affairs committee of the Anti-Defamation League, will succeed long-time president Jehuda Reinharz in January when he steps down after 16 years to lead a Jewish foundation focused on leadership education.Lawrence will come to the Waltham school amid financial upheaval as the small research college with Jewish roots and a strong liberal arts focus works to position itself for the future and raise its profile as a world-class institution.

“This is a compelling opportunity for me to be a part of furthering and building a research college, a liberal arts college that is an anchor for a great university,” Lawrence said in a phone interview. “As a non-sectarian school with deep roots in the Jewish community, Brandeis pulls together various strands of my life in a way that is unique in higher education.”…READ MORE

The Hinda Amchanitzky: Curious Mystery of the Sidewalk Tombstone

Source: NYT, 7-8-10

….And who was Hinda Amchanitzky?

She was 87 when she died, according to the stone. The date was May 15, 1910, when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated spot on the planet, and 41 percent of the city’s residents were foreign-born.

Besides the name of the deceased, most of the writing on the tombstone was in Hebrew. Mr. Lankenau, who was brought up as a Lutheran, canvassed local synagogues and called Jewish genealogical societies, but to no avail.

“People said this is a mitzvah,” he recalled, using the Hebrew expression for a good deed to describe his quest.

Mr. Lankenau and a neighbor bought a copy of a death certificate from the city for someone with a similar name. But it turned out not to match the details on the tombstone. He searched online and found a reference to an author, H. Amchanitzki, in the Library of Congress catalog, but could not verify whether there was any connection to the Hinda Amchanitzky on the tombstone. A few weeks ago, Mr. Lankenau, who is a part-time caterer, recruited a New York Times reporter who is an occasional customer, in his search.

Brian G. Andersson, the city’s commissioner of records, was enlisted, and his staff found a death certificate dated May 15, 1910, under the name Amachanitzky. She was described as a widowed housewife who was born in Russia, emigrated around 1895 and died in Beth Israel Hospital. The certificate gave her age as 60.

Her last address was listed as 156 East Broadway, a four-story brick tenement on the Lower East Side near Rutgers Street that now houses a Chinese supermarket.

The death certificate said she was buried in “Sec. U.H., Ocean View Cemetery” on Staten Island, which opened in 1908. The initials apparently stood for the United Hebrew Cemetery there, but its staff had no record of anyone by that name.

By then, Mr. Lankenau was confronted not only with a mysterious tombstone, but also a missing body.

When a genealogist, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, was contacted, she constructed an Amchanitzky family tree that included Amshers, Shanits, Paleys, Lamports, Coopers and Massouds.

Jeanine Massoud, who is 49 and lives in California, said Hinda was her great-great-grandmother. Ms. Massoud grew up in Massachusetts and was only vaguely aware of a family connection in New York, but her mother suggested that she search her grandfather’s family journal.

Sure enough, Ms. Massoud said, he wrote that his “father’s mother was an excellent cook and she published an excellent cookbook that was sold in New York and Philadelphia.”

Not just any cookbook. In 1901, Mrs. Amchanitzky wrote what is described as the first Yiddish cookbook published in America. A copy is in the Library of Congress.

The introduction to her “Manual of How to Cook and Bake” (“Lehr-bukh yi azoy tsu kokhen un baken,” translated for The Times by Samuel Norich, the publisher of The Jewish Daily Forward) said that the 148 recipes she presented (including French cutlets and “chicken zup mit macaroni”) were “consumed in the finest Jewish homes in Russia, Galicia, France, England and America.”

She wrote that her “45 years’ experience in cooking, baking, frying and roasting have taught me to prepare all meals very economically,” and that it “protects children from dyspepsia and other adult diseases.”

“Here was the voice of a working woman,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an affiliated professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, “a professional cook and restaurateur, who offered the best of Jewish food in a language her immigrant sisters could understand — a Yiddish that was exact and clear.”

Now that Hinda Amchanitzky’s identity was established, what about her body?

After Ms. Smolenyak asked the cemetery to check its records by date instead of by name, it turned out that an H. Anachowsky (an apparent misspelling) was buried in May 1910 in a section operated by the United Hebrew Community of New York, which is at 201 East Broadway, less than two blocks from Hinda Amchanitzky’s last address.

Her gravesite was found, but it was unmarked. Though the cemetery was vandalized in 1979 and hundreds of tombstones were toppled, the cemetery president, Arthur S. Friedman, said there appeared to be no evidence that Mrs. Amchanitzky’s grave had ever been marked with a monument. No one ever complained that a marker was missing.

Mr. Lankenau found the marker in front of 326 East Fourth Street, which for decades has housed the Uranian Phalanstery and First Gnostic Lyceum, an artists’ collective and burial society founded by Richard Oviet Tyler and his wife, Dorothea. The three-story double-width brick town house, which was just sold for more than $3 million, contained a small synagogue for a congregation of immigrants from Knyahynychi, now in Ukraine.

As it turns out, Mrs. Amchanitzky’s tombstone was left outside the East Fourth Street town house deliberately. It was a gift to Dorothea Bear Tyler from a fellow artist, Andrew Castrucci, who lives on East Third Street. He had seen workmen carting broken granite slabs from the basement of a building near Avenue C that had once housed a monument maker’s workshop and was being remodeled for a bank branch. He salvaged some of the rubble and also two intact tombstones, including the one that Mr. Lankenau happened upon.

“It was late at night, and I put it in front of Dorothea’s building as a surprise,” Mr. Castrucci said. “It fit in with her other religious articles and the old shul.” When it was gone by the next morning, he assumed that it had been stolen.

But it is anybody’s guess why the fully carved tombstone had remained in the basement workshop. It might have been a sample (the workshop was steps from a tiny courtyard where sample monuments were once displayed for sale). It might have been rejected because of a misspelling. It might have been ordered and never paid for.

A century later, Bruce Slovin, chairman of the Center for Jewish History, which is in the process of digitizing historic cookbooks, has agreed to pay to unite Hinda Amchanitzky’s plot on Staten Island and her tombstone.

As for Mr. Lankenau, he has become a believer in fate. “It’s so cool that I would find the stone of a woman who wrote a cookbook,” he said the other day, while preparing chicken with Calvados.