Time to Make My Feelings Known

To my Facebook friends, I apologize.

If you knew me before the latest war between Israel and Hamas you would know I was a good Facebook friend, sitting politely and quietly in a corner of your social media cerebral cortex, generally speaking only when spoken to or when something more interesting or important than what I had for breakfast crossed my mind.

These last few weeks, however, I have inundated you with posts about Israel’s latest war with Hamas. Day after day, as the conflict went on. And I apologize to you who run the gamut from “Wow, I didn’t know that,” to “Typical Shia,” to “I really don’t care” to “Let them kill each other, now get me a beer.”

I must admit that I was worried about what some of you might think. But I should not have hesitated even for a moment. It is not just because I worry day and night for those I hold dear who race to bomb shelters or are wearing the Israel Defense Forces uniform and hunting down terrorists. It is because when it comes to an existential threat to Israel, the war of public opinion is important.

With so much anti-Israel and anti-Jewish media, with so many Jew-haters taking to the streets, at times violently and with so many timid Jews staying silent, I had to speak up. People are being murdered, hundreds of thousands of them all around the world, all the time, many of them Muslim, by Muslim dictators and terrorist states and groups. And a tiny Jewish nation dares to fight back, and the world goes nuts.

“It’s genocide!”  Really?  If Israel wanted to, it could have flattened Gaza in less than an hour and killed everyone there. “Gaza is occupied and needs to be free!” True. Gaza is occupied, by Hamas terrorists who enslave their own people.

Even today, as nutty as it sounds, Hamas, as well as other Jew-haters, unabashedly pronounce that Israelis kill Arab children to get their blood to bake into Passover matzohs. Again, dealing with crazies such as that who are trying to murder your child, what would you do? The choices are bad, but you would be forced to choose, and you would choose the one that saved your family. And, as Israel does, you would call it self-defense.

My Facebook friends, I am so grateful to live in the United States, a country I deeply love, a place where I can use my voice and my computer for mutual comfort and support and for counterbalancing and educating when I can. Some of you shared what I shared, added your voice to mine as I have my voice to yours, some of you have asked questions about posts and shares, others have learned and sympathized.

I apologize if it has been a lot, and I hope those of you who have not appreciated my prolific “Facebooking” can forgive me, that is if you haven’t already un-followed me. I promise you, as things settle down, so will I.

Finding balance in both life and death

runyan_josh_otNobody likes dealing with the dead. So many of us view it as a necessary evil: Attending to the burial of a loved one is seen as a crucial part of the mourning process, but it is never embraced as something to be anticipated. It is what it is, much like death itself.

But one Jewish family in Baltimore, the Levinsons, have made catering to those dealing with life’s final moments — and those moments immediately after — their calling. Their business isn’t an easy one, whether in terms of the regulatory and religious frameworks governing their trade or in terms of the emotional toll that tragedy inflicts upon their clients.

But as you’ll read in this week’s JT, they’ve been successful in ensuring that the physical necessities of the dearly departed and their journey into the world to come are taken care of with the utmost sensitivity. It’s part of the reason why they’re the only game in town.

For sure, traditional Jewish practices surrounding funerals and burials are way more simplistic than the non-Jewish wakes and similar services in other faith communities. The traditional Jewish casket — in those locales where a casket is used — is no more than a pine box, for instance, emphasizing both the necessity of not hindering the natural process of decay and the idea that when it comes time to appear before the True Judge, we are all human and therefore equal.

But the Jewish funerary business has been evolving, and many families seek to adapt traditional practices or insert their own innovations. That makes the role occupied by Sol Levinson and Bros., Inc. not an enviable one.

It’s a role not unlike that of a pulpit rabbi, who on the one hand is the keeper of tradition, the teacher of the congregation, and on the other is the representative of the congregants. The rabbi represents not only Judaism, but Jews and so must conduct the holy work of congregational leadership with an eye on the individual. It takes both integrity and sensitivity.

Come to think of it, integrity and sensitivity are traits that more of us should nurture and develop in our own lives. More often than not, people err on one side or the other, embracing steadfastness but sacrificing empathy or sacrificing principle in the pursuit of harmony. Finding that balance has never been easy, but were more people to cultivate it, the world would be a much happier place.

Centuries ago, Maimonides ascribed a host of ailments to the lack of balance in a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual lives. And kabbalistic wisdom has long stressed the idea that spiritual flaws can manifest themselves as physical maladies, and vice versa. So the search for balance becomes not an added component to a life well lived, but a prerequisite to a healthy life.

As we approach the final month of the Jewish year and the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, may we all find balance, especially those of us who are dealing with tragedy.


Weapons of War


Police special units equipped with military gear stand guard during the riots protesting the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Xinhua/Sipa USA/Newscom)

The citizens of Ferguson, Mo., in suburban St. Louis, are not Taliban fighters or al-Qaeda hijackers. Nor are they narco-criminals. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at photos of the police force that faced them after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9. In those chilling pictures, law enforcement officers faced demonstrators — that is, citizens — in full military regalia, in mine-resistant armored vehicles with rifles pointed at people’s chests. In the words of one observer: “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.”

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, when Americans of goodwill were knocking down the walls of segregation and racism, the message from Ferguson is that not all that much has changed — at least not everywhere, and not always. Minorities and African-Americans are still disproportionately victims of police excess. Whatever Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson was thinking, the  force he sent out to face the mostly African-American crowd looked less like public-safety officers and more like an occupying army. That show of overwhelming force added to the tension rather than calming it.

Much has been made in recent days of the militarization of local police forces and the adaption by civilian forces of the equipment and mind-set of the military. Born during the War on Drugs and expanded during the War on Terror, the program makes billions of dollars in leftover military equipment available to local police. And they use it. The national reaction to the images of excess power in Ferguson could lead to efforts to close the spigot of weapons of war to local police, where they aren’t really needed.

President Obama said on Monday that a review of the program would be “useful,” because, among other reasons, maintaining a “distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement … helps preserve our civil liberties.” We agree.

We are hopeful that a demilitarization of local police will help change a mind-set that contributes to what the president called “a gulf of mistrust” between local residents and law enforcement. And as part of that change, we hope that law enforcement will embrace the idea that most of the angry, frustrated, initially nonviolent people they face in most demonstrations are not enemies, but neighbors.

Another Witch Hunt?

The choice of Canadian law professor William Schabas, 63, as chairman of a U.N. human rights panel to investigate violations in the Gaza war does not inspire confidence that the group’s processes or findings will be fair. Quite simply, Schabas’ anti-Israel politics and his intemperate remarks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — which asserted that Netanyahu should be “in the dock of an international court” — raise questions about Schabas’ impartiality and his ability to act as an honest judge in the investigation.

But you don’t have to be a fan of Netanyahu, or even a supporter of Israel’s right to self -defense, to be concerned about the process that is unfolding. Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has a long history of hostility toward Israel, approved the creation of the Gaza commission of inquiry to investigate the recent hostilities. And it did so in a lopsided vote: 29 states in favor, 17 abstaining and one — the United States — voting against.

Given the panel’s history of antagonism toward Israel, critics have good reason to be concerned.  Indeed, shortly after the Council vote, 34 U.S. senators wrote to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, criticizing the Council for focusing its investigation on Israel’s actions in the conflict while turning “a blind eye to Hamas’ brazen and depraved use of civilians as human shields.” U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to remove Schabas from his chairmanship, and the Canadian foreign minister greeted Schabas’ appointment by calling the Council a “sham.”

It is tempting to dismiss any cooperation by Israel with the Schabas-led investigation since it is intended to be an anti-Israel witch hunt. But is it really a good idea to ignore the inquiry and to make no effort to influence its findings? We think not. Israel made that mistake in connection with the U.N. investigation of the 2008-09 offensive in Gaza, and the Council’s resulting Goldstone Report  became the gold standard of anti-Israel bias. This is so, even though the report accused Hamas as well as Israel of potential war crimes and even though Richard Goldstone himself later retracted a section of his findings once Israel provided him with information.

For these reasons we believe that Israel is better off telling its side of the story and by providing details about Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire; about its use of women and children as shields for its rockets; about its storing of weapons caches in U.N. buildings, schools and among the civilian population; and about the complex of terror tunnels Hamas built for the sole purpose of  kidnapping and killing Israelis.

Given its bias and the predisposition of its membership on anything relating to Israel, it is unlikely that the Human Rights Council would pick anyone more dispassionate than Schabas to lead this politically motivated investigation. But given his record and his offensive public comments regarding Israel and its leadership, Schabas should step aside and let the Council try to find a more appropriate leader.

Like Father, Like Son

A line from Joshua Runyan’s Aug. 15 Opening Thoughts (“Looking to the Past for Our Future”) brought to mind a line from a radio program starring ventriloquist/comedian Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy that aired from 1937 to 1956.

“The son is the acorn,” Runyan wrote, quoting Alan Arkin’s Dr. Sheldon Kornbett in the 1979 movie, “The In-Laws”. “The father is the oak.”

Similarly, Charlie McCarthy “told” Bergen that his grandfather was named Pine Tree McCarthy. His eldest son, of course, was named Cone.

Gerald Schoenfeld

The Moral Psychosis of Demonstrating in Support of Hamas

As an example of what the insight-ful commentator Melanie Phillips referred to as a “dialogue of the demented” in her book, “The World Turned Upside Down,” since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge some four weeks ago, the streets of American and European cities have been crammed with activists intent on expressing their collective indignation for Israel’s perceived crime of defending its citizens from slaughter from the genocidal thugocracy of Hamas.

Rowdy demonstrations have taken place in Berlin, Paris, Toronto, London and Madrid, where blatantly anti-Semitic chants of “Death to Jews!,” “Hitler was right!” and “Gaza is the real Holocaust” could be heard, with similar events taking place in majot U.S. cities.

Joined with Muslim supporters of those wishing to destroy Israel and murder Jews were the usual suspects of peace activists, Israel-haters, social-justice advocates and labor unionists. These radical, Israel-loathing groups include the corrosive ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.

What was particularly chilling about the hate-filled rallies was the virulence of the chants and messages on the placards, much of it seeming to suggest that more sinister hatreds and feelings were simmering slightly below the surface. Several of the morally self-righteous protestors, for instance, shrieked out, to the accompaniment of drumbeats, “Long live Intifada,” a grotesque and murderous reference to the Second Intifada, during which Arab terrorists murdered some 1,000 Israelis and wounded more than 14,000 others.

That pro-Palestinian student activists could publicly call for the renewed slaughter of Jews in the name of Palestinian self-determination demonstrates quite clearly how ideologically debased the human rights movement has become. Activists on and off U.S. campuses, who never have to face a physical threat more serious than getting jostled while waiting in line for a latte at Starbucks, are quick to denounce Israel’s very real existential threats and the necessity of the Jewish state to take counter measures to thwart terrorism. And these well-meaning but morally blind individuals see no contradiction in their calls for the renewed murder of Jews for their own sanctimonious cause.

When pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel repeat the claim that Palestinians somehow have an internationally recognized legal “right” to resist occupation through violent means, they are both legitimizing that terror and helping to ensure that its lethal use by Israel’s enemies will continue unabated. Those who lend their moral support to terrorism have helped introduce a sick moral relativism into discussions about radical Islam and Palestinianism. And the notion that Israel cannot, or should not, retaliate against these rocket attacks until a sufficient number of Israelis has been murdered is equally grotesque.

That these activists are willing to sacrifice the Jewish state, and Jewish lives, in the name of social justice shows how morally corrupt and deadly the conversation about human rights has become.

Richard L. Cravatts is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

When Will Our Leaders Stand Up for Israel?

Over the past month, two local events were organized in response to the war waged by Hamas against Israel   On July 17, the Baltimore Vaad HaRabbonim convened a Communal Gathering for Unity and Prayer at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, and on July 21, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore organized a gathering of solidarity at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts. The organizers deserve credit for convening these events, which were both well attended.

However, when Israel is under attack from a vicious foe dedicated to its destruction and groups are publicly assembling in Baltimore to defame Israel and support its enemies, more is needed than understated indoor gatherings in the safe and familiar confines of Park Heights and Owings Mills. Such times demand a massive public demonstration that reaches beyond Jewish ZIP codes, challenges the slanderers and defamers, educates the apathetic and uninformed and provides an emotional outlet for a Jewish community bursting with love for Israel and eager for a means to express it.

On July 30, the public rally so overdue here in Baltimore was held at Penn Station, and what an incredible event it was. That same day, anti-Israel groups planned a demonstration at Penn Station and a march to a North Avenue bookstore hosting a diatribe by notorious anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein. Rather than allowing Israel and the IDF to be defamed without challenge, a thousand Baltimoreans thronged the plaza in front of the train station to declare their unwavering commitment to the government, people and armed forces of Israel and their opposition to the lies and distortions spread by the anti-Israel demonstrators.

Besides the unprecedented size of the pro-Israel rally, the rally was noteworthy for its amazing electric atmosphere. Contrary to the popular view that support for Israel has declined among younger Jews, students and young adults were at the vanguard of the rally, injecting it with tremendous energy and passion. Led by the youth, the crowd stood in front of Penn Station waving flags, chanting slogans and singing songs, marched down Charles Street to rally at the corner of North Avenue and then marched back to Penn Station for a final demonstration of singing and flag waving.

The fact that so many Baltimore Jews confidently and enthusiastically assembled in the heart of Baltimore City to loudly express their pride in the State of Israel reflects a Zionist commitment in Baltimore that cuts across demographic and denominational lines. However, the rally also represents a massive failure of communal leadership that has been tolerated for far too long, since The Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Council lacked the vision to organize a public, pro-Israel rally such as the one held at Penn Station.

The pro-Israel rally leaves no question that Baltimoreans young and old have the self-confidence and self-pride to loudly, publicly and unashamedly proclaim their love for Israel and the IDF and to challenge anyone who believes otherwise. When will our leaders exhibit these same qualities?

Jay Bernstein
Host of Shalom USA Radio

Editor’s Note: The writer was an organizer of the July 30 pro-Israel counter-demonstration at Penn Station.

A Call for Help

Friends and supporters of Alan Gross have long gotten used to bad news coming from his cell in a Cuban military hospital, where he is serving a 15-year sentence. Jailed since 2009 and sentenced for crimes against the Cuban state, the Potomac resident and U.S. Agency for International Development worker has been in poor health for several years.

Last week, we reported that Gross has become increasingly hopeless about his plight, perhaps suicidal. During an in-person visit last month between Gross, his wife Judy and daughter Nina, Gross was “saying goodbye,” according to his wife. “It was gut wrenching.”

We can’t confirm any of this. But it would be wrong to dismiss the report of “the gut-wrenching goodbye” as theatrics. Threats of suicide are often a cry for help, and Alan Gross has been calling for help from the U.S. government since the day the Cubans arrested him.

At least according to his family, Gross isn’t getting much help or support from the U.S. government. And they have been particularly critical of the State Department. Thus, according to Judy Gross, “I think he thinks the State Department … is useless in terms of information.” And she went on to say: “He gets nothing. He is very frustrated that no one is telling him anything.”

At the very least, the State Department should increase its communication with Gross to minimize his sense of isolation. Publicly, the government is saying the right things. For example, National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said last week that “we use every appropriate diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross’ release, both publicly and privately.”

But notwithstanding those comments, there is a palpable lack of urgency in the effort to win the release of a U.S. government contractor who was sent to Cuba, according to correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, with “no experience in semi-covert operations, no knowledge of Spanish and no particular training for this mission,” which reportedly was to deliver satellite Internet equipment to Cuban Jews.

In a recent letter to President Obama, 300 rabbis called securing Gross’ release a “moral imperative” for the United States. While so much about this case is unclear — was Gross indeed involved in espionage on behalf of the U.S. government, as Cuba claims? — the rabbis’ point is irrefutable. The United States must secure Alan Gross’ freedom now.

Looking to the Past for Our Future

runyan_josh_otYou need only look at the prime-time television commercials to realize that genealogy is a big business — a $1.6 billion one, in fact, according to a 2012 report on “Good Morning America.” With Ancestry.com’s sepia-toned spots pulling at heartstrings across the country, it seems that more and more people are seeking out their links to the past.

In a first for the JT, we let our own Marc Shapiro — who’s more often covering political campaigns, local development projects and other hot-button issues — explore his family roots on the company dime. What he discovered is amazing, not only in terms of how it deepened his connection to ancestors recently departed and those long gone, but also in terms of what his newfound passion for family history says about the rest of us.

Family pedigree, or what we would call in Yiddish yichus, has through the years meant a considerable deal to many Jewish families. In the late Middle Ages, great houses of sages married off their sons and daughters to each other, preserving an intellectual heritage as much through scholasticism as through genetics.

Traditionally, matchmakers have been just as interested in who a potential suitor’s family was as the young man or woman’s character traits. And, as hilariously parodied in one scene of “The In-Laws,” great has been the concern of parents marrying off their children that their future machatunim: “The son is the acorn,” Alan Arkin’s Dr. Sheldon Kornpett, quoting a patient, worryingly tells wife Barbara. “The father is the oak.”

There is truth in the idea that, as Antonio is William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” reasons, “what’s past is prologue.” All of the traits and experiences of our forebears help mold who we are and how we respond to challenges in the present. Things do not occur in a vacuum, but rather can be traced back generation to generation and can also help determine how our descendants will behave and what they will be.

But as revolutions both political and psychological have shown, at a certain point individuals — and whole societies, really — must take matters into their own hands. They must step up and take control of their own destinies.

This dichotomy plays out every day in the Middle East: Shall Israel and the other political actors be beholden to the mistakes of the past or shall a shared humanity propel the region into a new age of peace? Pessimism would seem logical at the present moment, but optimism should at least occupy some space in the public discourse.

The dichotomy also plays out in the day-to-day wanderings of countless human beings. True, King Solomon writes that “nothing is new under the sun,” but that mustn’t be used to justify a sense of fatalism. As Moses tells the Jewish people in the desert, we have been given the choice between goodness and the opposite of goodness, between life and death. We must choose life.

As you’ll see in this week’s cover story, Marc’s journey through the past isn’t over yet. If there’s one thing his quest through history has given him, it’s a renewed sense of determination.


The Apartness of the Jewish People

Joshua Runyan concludes his Aug. 1 Opening Thoughts column with a comment about Israel and Jewry having to “go it alone.”  Presumably Balaam’s observation (Num. 23:9) about such apartness of the Jewish people underlies this remark. The Afrikaner (South African) word meaning apartness is apartheid. Logically, an apartheid people have every right to live as an apartheid nation in an apartheid State.

Gideon Donnelly