Tough Act to Follow

The scramble to fill the shoes of Sen. Barbara Mikulski is on (“Raise Hell Instead of Money: Mikulski announces her last term in Senate,” March 6). I hope that whoever succeeds her will continue to embody the principles that have been the hallmark of her career.

While remaining firmly committed to liberal ideals in the finest sense of the word, Mikulski has a unique ability to bridge ideological differences and to serve as a unifying force. Her appeal comes from a genuine concern for all her constituents, for the rich and the poor. She never forgot her working-class roots and has been a tireless advocate on behalf of the little guy.

I especially recall one time a number of years ago when I met with her in her Senate office along with other Jewish leaders. She chastised us for not being more outspoken in our advocacy for Israel. She urged us to meet with our other elected representatives and to do more and work harder to galvanize our community on behalf of Israel.

As a member of an ethnic minority from Baltimore and always appreciative of the support she received from the Jewish community, especially early in her career, she felt very much at home with Jewish groups. Whenever she would speak at a synagogue, because of her height, she would always make sure there was, as she called it, “ the box the bar mitzvah boy stands on” so she could be seen. No doubt about it, when it came to issues important to the Jewish community, she was seen and she was heard.

She will be missed. Let us hope that whoever follows her will be an equally tireless advocate on behalf of the issues that are important to the Jewish community and will be as devoted to Israel as she has been throughout her career.

Times Gets It Wrong on JNF and Bedouin Arabs

In a March 1 op-ed for The New York Times, “The Two Israels,” Nicholas Kristof made a rather broad accusation stating that Jewish National Fund plants forests on land owned by Bedouin Arabs. Unfortunately, Kristof chose to subscribe to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement’s diatribe against Israel and used JNF as a straw man to do so. We take exception to such reporting.

Red flags should be raised when considering the fact that no Israeli governmental official was interviewed by Kristof to either discuss the Jewish state’s laws, to identify any specific property disputes or to cite legal history on the subject.

JNF is not a political actor in Israel, but rather a 501(c)3 charity and a United Nations-approved nongov-ernmental organization. Our mission betters the Land of Israel for all of the country’s people, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

What Kristof did not report on was JNF’s multiyear work with the Bedouin community in the Negev, which has improved Bedouin lives. Witness our efforts at a project called Wadi Atir, near the village of Hura, where the Bedouin community combines its traditional medicinal herbal practices and animal herding with modern farming techniques — the effects of which provide Bedouin men, and most importantly, women, with the tools to empower, educate and bring long-term financial and professional success.

In my meetings and visits with JNF’s wonderful volunteers, board members and staffers in Israel, I am often overwhelmed by the caring and love they share for that country’s people, in both good times and bad. Last summer, when thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, JNF helped protect all of Israel’s residents on that border — including the Bedouin. Our partner organization, Green Horizons, responded to Bedouin villages to calm children with a variety of programs and bomb shelters meant to ensure their safety.

JNF contributors understand that inclusiveness is the key to Israel’s future. The small 8 percent of Israel’s population that lives in the Negev resides on some 60 percent of the country’s land. Since they are so far removed from the central part of the country, they are often shortchanged for services, even when it comes to emergency treatment. To meet the demand for urgent care, last year we opened a medical center deep in the Negev Desert, alleviating the two-hour drive residents used to make.

For more than a century, JNF donors worldwide have taken part in a time-honored tradition and planted more than 250 million trees in Israel to commemorate important milestones, memorials, or living testaments to loved ones. This act of taking care of the land has also served to create a green lung throughout the region.

JNF’s history is one of love, nation building and industry that has reduced poverty, encouraged women’s rights and created economic opportunities for all. That’s the story that is Israel and JNF. That’s the story that the world needs to know.

Jeffrey E. Levine is president of the Jewish National Fund.

Twisted Logic

In political arenas, both domestic and international, logic does not always prevail. In fact, emotion, wishful thinking and just plain spinning the facts to meet one’s needs seems to have become more and more prevalent.

A case in point is the Armenian diaspora’s insistence that Jews throughout the world publicly support Armenian claims related to the traumatic events of 100 years ago . . . during WWI. Yet, seemingly, Armenians dodge the questions regarding their own conduct over the last 100 years.

Before backing up others, however, as Jews we need to be reminded of Armenian collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Clamoring for recognition of the traumatic events of 1915, Armenians seem to exhibit amnesia about their brethren’s participation in Nazi regime propaganda efforts and in the Waffen SS extermination squads during that horrifying era.

Well documented, in early 1930s, Hitler began cultivating Armenians to use their long-standing and strong anti-Semitic feelings in his plans and policies. Armenians, through their publications, radio broadcasts and meetings, supported the Nazis’ attacks on Jews.

The short-lived Armenian Republic, established in 1918, in the southern Caucasus by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (the Dashnaks) was conquered by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1920. During World War II, the Dashnaks saw a golden opportunity to regain these territories via collaboration with the Nazis.

To that end, on Dec. 30, 1941, Armenians formed a battalion of 8,000 soldiers known as the 812th Armenian Battalion of Wehrmacht under the command of Dro (Drastamat Kanayan), a seasoned guerilla leader who had fought against the Turks in the first two decades of the 20th century. Later, under Nazi leadership, Dro became the supreme commandant of the Armenian Army in the short-lived Armenian Republic.

This infamous 812th Battalion later developed into an “Armenian Legion,” 20,000 soldiers strong. The troops of this legion were trained and led by the SS and its Security Division and then became a part of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen “extermination squad” during the invasion of the Crimea and the North Caucasus.

In Aug. 19, 1936, Hairenik published the following in an Armenian language daily:

“Sometimes it is difficult to eradicate these poisonous elements [the Jews] when they have struck deep root like a chronic disease, and when it becomes necessary for a people [the Nazis] to eradicate them in an uncommon method these attempts are regarded as revolutionary. During a surgical operation the flow of blood is a natural thing. Under such conditions dictatorship seems to have the role of a savior.”

In the summer of 1942, the Armenian National Socialist (Nazi) movement called Hossank (Lightning) was organized. This organization spewed forth anti-Semitic and racist vitriol through the broadcasts of Radio Berlin.

Sadly, the present-day Armenian regime continues to feed its domestic public with anti-Israel propaganda and stirs anti-Jewish hysteria, suggesting that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Armenia and in the Armenian Diaspora.

Is it not twisted logic, then, that enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime are asking the victims of the Nazis to support claims of Armenian victimhood?

Alexander Murinson, Ph.D. of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, also serves on the International Advisory Board of Outre-Terre. He is the author of many articles and books, including the “European Journal of Geopolitics,” “Turkey’s Entente with Israel” and “Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus.”

Unnecessary Fighting Words

So clear was the line between good and evil during World War II that it virtually obliterated the idea that Jews could ever be on two sides of the same international conflict. The fact that in World War I there were Jews who fought for Germany while other Jews fought for the Allies seems hard for us to understand now. And it might be why it’s hard to understand why the remnants of Eastern European Jewry are lining up on either side in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

A hint of how divisive and dangerous this conflict could be came last week when a prominent Russian Jew said that if he had a chance he would hang two prominent Ukrainian Jews in the public square. On the surface, the threat made by Yevgeny Satanovsky, a former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, against Joseph Zissels, leader of the Vaad Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, and Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire who is the governor of the district of Dnepropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine, is about the interpretation of history. Satanovsky accused the Ukrainian Jews of downplaying the role of a Ukrainian nationalist leader in the massacre of Jews during World War II.

But the contemporary context is how the conflict between Ukraine and Russia — and the latter’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine — are turning the region’s Jews against each other. Satanovsky’s threat of vigilante justice is a reminder of how words matter and how they have the potential to incite violence. It came days after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s undiplomatic foreign minister, announced at a campaign rally that Israel’s Arab citizens “who are against us” should be beheaded.

And, of course, the United States is not immune to rhetorical battles. In keeping with the highly partisan approach to everything in Washington, the arguments over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress became almost fighting words. And within the Jewish community, J Street, which is holding its annual conference in Washington beginning this weekend, is under constant bombardment from those who are violently (rhetorically at least) opposed to how the liberal group shows its support of Israel.

Even those who are not on one side of an international divide can poison the atmosphere with vicious, self-serving, blanket attacks. It’s time to cool down the rhetoric.

Troubling Anti-Semitism at UCLA

Questions put to a Jewish student in her bid for a judicial board spot were highly offensive, to say the least. (Mark & Audrey Gibson Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom)

Questions put to a Jewish student in her bid for a judicial board spot were highly offensive, to say the least.
(Mark & Audrey Gibson Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom)

Rachel Beyda is a UCLA sophomore who recently sought a seat on the judicial board of the school’s Undergraduate Students Association Council. During questioning by the Council on her application, four members voiced concern that Beyda might have a conflict of interest in adjudicating issues brought to the judicial board because she is Jewish. Thus, she was asked: “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community … how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” And yes, the questioners were serious.

We’ve watched the growth of resolutions that favor the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel come up for votes at universities around the country. Israel Apartheid Day is a regular event on many campuses, and many pro-Palestinian groups refuse to engage with pro-Israel groups because to do so, in their view, would legitimize or normalize the Israeli occupation. Increasingly, many Jewish students on college campuses, regardless of their opinions on Israel, feel like they are under siege.

But at Beyda’s hearing, the offensiveness reached a new height. There, the virus of noxious speech moved from murky anti-Israelism to flat out anti-Semitism. Israel was never mentioned. At issue was whether Beyda was innately biased, simply because she is a Jew.

During 40 minutes of discussion about Beyda’s application — which included an initial vote to reject her candidacy — a faculty adviser pointed out that being Jewish does not disqualify an applicant for the post. Indeed, council members agreed that Beyda was otherwise clearly qualified. In the end, they approved her appointment unanimously. The four council members wrote a letter of apology, saying they did not mean to “attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people.”

So, was this a “learning opportunity” for the students, as the director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, Todd Presner, told The Atlantic, or part of a slide into the kind of anti-Semitism common in the pre-Holocaust European academy, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis suggested in The Jerusalem Post?

Both can be true. And both are troubling. On university campuses — particularly public ones where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a fever pitch — concerted efforts need to be pursued to institute the kind of anti-hate, anti-discrimination programs about Jews that are already being developed for other minorities. And communities in and around campuses, including ours, need to monitor the situation and offer support to affected Jewish students.

We need to draw very clear lines, and our communities need to speak up. Political differences over Israel or other issues could be legitimate, even if not welcome. But bigotry and efforts to impugn an entire people, as the UCLA students attempted to do? That is beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated.

The Importance of Unity



The people have spoken, but by the time you read this, we probably don’t know fully what they said.

All that we really know for sure is that history was made Tuesday in Israel’s much-anticipated parliamentary elections. With a vigorous turnout that hasn’t been seen in years, Israelis went to the polls to choose from amid a plethora of parties. As you’ll read in this week’s JT, they came with primarily economic concerns on their minds, despite the almost total devotion ofthe Western press on such security issues as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full-throated critique of multilateral nuclear negotiations with Iran and the prospect of a renewal of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The voters did not deal a defeat to Netanyahu’s Likud Party — it surged ahead in the last minute to claim six more seats in the 120-member Knesset than the Zionist Union slate led by Isaac Herzog. But because of Israel’s electoral system, the process of forming a government and the question of who will actually lead it will not be settled for weeks. That voters signaled in polls days before the March 17 elections that they preferred an unprecedented fourth term for Netanyahu strengthens his hand.

Pretty much the only lesson that can be learned from this is that the Israeli public, not unlike the American electorate, is essentially centrist. They want decent, affordable housing and a growing economy as well as a solution to the seemingly intractable Palestinian problem. But on this last issue, they neither want war — who does? — nor are they willing to sacrifice their own security for an ideal they perceive as foisted upon them by outside powers.

When it comes to Iran, practically no one wants the Islamic republic to get a nuclear bomb; Herzog and Netanyahu are actually in agreement in viewing the negotiations in Geneva with suspicion.

So where does that leave us? Many have criticized the Israeli system for elections’ ability to be destabilizing, but the fact that every prime minister has been forced to build a coalition in order to rule can serve as inspiration for those of us who don’t live in the Jewish state. Despite the virulent rhetoric leading up to this week’s contest, there’s no reason not to hope that the coalition building now underway will moderate viewpoints and policy positions. And if President Reuven Rivlin forces Netanyahu and Herzog into a unity government, there’s no reason not to hope that Israel emerges from the morass stronger politically and on the international stage.

On these shores, we in the Jewish community must now turn our attention to our pressing concerns: poverty, education, social engagement, communal identification and religious commitment among all of our denominations and groups. As it always does, politics will threaten our deliberative processes with rancor and impatience — the 2016 U.S. presidential race will soon kick into high gear — but we can look to Israel to remind us of one truth going forward: We will only survive by working together.

Sanctifying Time and Space, Shabbat and the Building of the Mishkan Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude

At the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, Moses convokes the entire community and reiterates the commandment on Shabbat observance: “These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the
seventh day you have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”

Then Moses instructs them regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle or portable sanctuary, which would accompany them through the wilderness and which presaged the building of the Temple. The creation of the world and the building of the Mishkan are parallel activities. Through them we see how time and space are both the locus of potential sanctification.

In “The Sabbath,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. … Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn;
a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.”

The sanctification of time makes Judaism portable and turns us away from an overemphasis on the building of edifices that honor the builders more than the Creator of
the Universe. However, our parshah describes the building of the Mishkan as a divinely ordained project that requires craftspeople of great skill and a project supervisor, Bezalel, who is endowed with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” The work follows an architectural blueprint provided by God. So inspiring is the project that the community volunteers to provide more resources than are required and Moses has to instruct them to stop making donations. The people are inspired by the building of sacred space, which is meant to draw them to the Presence of the Divine.

In Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer we read, “In 10 sayings the world was created … and in three it was finalized. And these are they: skill, ability and knowledge, as it is stated, ‘The Eternal with skill founded the earth, by ability established the heavens, by His knowledge the depths were split asunder’ (Proverbs 3:19-20). With the same three, the Mishkan was made, as it states [about Bezalel], ‘I have filled him with the spirit of God, in skill, ability and knowledge’ (Exodus 31:3). With the same three qualities the Temple was built; ‘His mother was from Naftali, his father from Tyre, and he was filled with skill, ability and knowledge’ (I Kings 7:14).”

Creating the world and building the Mishkan require the same skills. Time and space are both available as venues for the human-divine encounter. Shabbat is the culmination of the creation of the world. It is the time to step back from work and appreciate the beauty of creation and our small but important place within the overall scheme. The Mishkan is an invitation for God to dwell among us. Shabbat focuses our attention on God’s creation and our role as its stewards and as instruments for human dignity. These roles are
reflected in the two reasons given for the observance of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments: Shabbat is both a memorial to creation and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.

The world is constructed by God as a gift to humankind. The Mishkan is a gift to God built through generous contributions and skilled labor to welcome the Divine Presence. Both Shabbat and the Mishkan are manifestations of institutional religion.

In “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,” Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests: “We began with the counter-realities of Shabbat and [the] Mishkan, of a condition in which fire, medium of the Mishkan achievement, may not be kindled on Shabbat. Perhaps we may now say that these two modalities represent two ways of living time. Fire represents the urgency of productive time, lived for its objective creations, for the forms of self-knowledge that devolve from the inner heat. The work of the Mishkan, then, stands as testimony to the creative power of the people, to the many ways, the 39 ways, of relating to the world and transforming it, in which fire is essential. This work is, at base, a manifestation not of the kinds of objects in space that are created, but of a way of using time: purposeful, productive, often ruthless.”

As against this modality, there is Shabbat: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” Shabbat is virtually defined as non-fire: that is, as time not used, unproductive, the shadow opposite of the making of the Mishkan.

God is invited into our lives through Shabbat and God is invited into the world through the creative work of humankind. All of the skill, ability, and knowledge that were required for building the Mishkan are what we must bring to our workaday world. As the Mishkan and the world each had a divine plan, we should strive to create lives that reflect our desire to participate in a divine plan. This requires the sanctification of both time and space. The path to sanctification, is derived from Torah study, which connects the human and the divine, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary as we re-create the world for six days and celebrate it on Shabbat.

A Matter of Survival

runyan_josh_otNot since the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 has the threat of homegrown terrorism been so real to so many Americans. In the years since, Islamist radicals, albeit foreign-born, have proven their ability to wreak havoc on American soil, while just last month a White House conference on violent extremism identified Minneapolis as the prime target of terrorist recruiters — such as from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab — looking for disaffected youth among the city’s large Somali immigrant population.

What the conference also concluded, in the form of testimony from U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, is that closing the pathways to radicalization and increasing surveillance are not enough. What’s needed as well are efforts to keep disenfranchised Muslim immigrants and their children from seeing radicalization as an attractive option.

Statements, such as those recently from the Obama administration, insinuating that those fighting under the banner of the so-called Islamic State just want good jobs are admittedly foolish. But a dangerous world will only be made more dangerous if entire swaths of people, such as in Minneapolis, see themselves as marginalized outsiders instead of full-fledged citizens with skin in the game known as the American Dream.

Luger, who, as you’ll read in this week’s JT is a leader in his local Jewish community, has voiced a strategy and a responsibility that all of us, whether immigrants or not, should take to heart. Welcoming refugees into the fold of national life isn’t just the domain of the federal, state and local governments across the United States; it must also be the purview of community organizations such as those found in the Jewish community.

And the concern shouldn’t just be on the newest arrivals to the United States. Fundamentally, getting along with others is as much a national security issue as it is a human one. Jewish community agencies must always be focused on serving local Jews, of course, but the role they play in the larger non-Jewish world can have profound effects on keeping Jews safe, secure and productive.

The absolutely worst response is to circle the wagons or to ratchet up provocative statements, as what appears to be happening in some segments of Israeli society in the run-up to the March 17 parliamentary elections. Firebrand Avigdor Lieberman, always one to be counted on to say something inflammatory, reportedly told a rally that the solution to a rising fifth column of Arab-Israelis identifying more with the Palestinians than the Jewish state was the type of violence typified ironically by the Islamic State.

“Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done — we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head,” Lieberman said, according to Israel’s Channel 2. “Otherwise, we won’t survive here.”

Lieberman is correct only to the extent that anyone already radicalized is pretty much a lost cause. But why exacerbate the problem by throwing gasoline on the fire?

At the end of the day, if we are to survive, whether as Jews, Americans or Israelis, it will be through winning “the other” over to our side, not demonizing and marginalizing fellow human beings.

Wiesel No Icon, Part I

Like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, memoirist and Holocaust performance artist Elie Wiesel is a one-trick pony. In the case of the former, the forte is municipal crisis management; the latter, the legacy of the Shoah. But Giuliani no more owns 9/11 than Wiesel does the Shoah. And when they venture outside their comfort zone, they commit stupid stuff. (“Icon Makes Political Statement,” Feb. 27).

The truth is, Wiesel is no icon, no exemplary role model, no Jewish Mother Teresa.

The JT editorial characterizes Wiesel as the “face and voice of Holocaust memory … a moral conscience.” Yet, he lives in America, not Israel. Living here while raising his son made sense, since America offers so much more culturally and educationally than does Israel. But that son is now grown up. So why hasn’t Wiesel made aliyah? What kind of message does it send to the world?

Icon, indeed!

Wiesel No Icon, Part II

It has to be said, and if no one else seems willing to do so, let it be me: “Icon” Elie Wiesel is one of the few individuals of whom it can be stated without the slightest fear of contradiction that he personally, professionally and financially profited from the Holocaust (“Icon Makes Political Statement,” Feb. 27).

Therefore, it was only fitting that his ill-gotten lucre was taken away from him by Bernie Madoff. Those who are theologically oriented might be inclined to comment that G-d works in mysterious ways.