Soldiering On Love for Israel and its people draws locals to Israel Defense Forces

Just their first week on the job and Gil Kuttler’s friends were run over by a terrorist.

As newly minted soldiers, the potential for terrorism and violence — in general, if not the specifics of a collision with a car — comes with the territory. Just maybe not quite so early.

Gil and his friends are lone soldiers, those who serve in the Israel Defense Forces without the support of immediate Israeli family. In practice, this includes Israelis who serve either in defiance of their family or who do not have any family, but is predominated by foreign volunteers of Jewish descent, like Gil.

Gil Kuttler, 19, a class of 2015 Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, was acclimating himself to his kibbutz while his four friends were waiting at a bus stop just outside Jerusalem when a car being driven by a Palestinian rammed into them in late November 2015. Two were injured and, after exiting the car to keep the fight going, according to Israeli media reports, the driver was shot and killed by a passing citizen with a pistol. The incident was covered across Israeli media and even made it overseas into U.S. outlets.

Though Gil was not (yet) in harm’s way, it was certainly not the most auspicious beginning in the eyes of his mother home in Pikesville, Robyn Schaffer.

“I make the conscious decision not to go there [with worry] because if I do, I would go crazy,” she said. Gil has about half of his two-and-a-half years of service left.

Instead, Schaffer said she is “bursting with pride” for her two sons, Gil and his elder brother, Joseph (who goes by Yossi) Kuttler, who both made aliyah to serve the Jewish homeland through the IDF.

The IDF is the official military of Israel, established at the same time as the State of Israel in 1948, although it traces its roots back to relatively ad-hoc paramilitary organizations of the early 1900s, according to the IDF website. It encompasses the country’s army, air force and navy. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are conscripted into service, barring certain exemptions made on religious, physical or psychological grounds.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lone soldiers, many of them specifically making aliyah to serve in the IDF. There are currently about 3,000 lone soldiers in the IDF, according to Friends of the IDF, a lone soldier support organization, out of about 176,500 active personnel. Of those from overseas (a total of 80 countries), a quarter were from the United States in 2014. The mid-Atlantic region, which includes Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is generally third or fourth in the country for how many recruits it sends to the IDF (vying with New Jersey, New York and California), said Ari Dallas, executive director of the Midatlantic Region for FIDF.

“I think it’s really the essence of what we are,” he said about helping lone soldiers. “Their job is to protect Israel, and it’s our job to protect them.”

The FIDF provides plane tickets to lone soldiers to visit their families and and friends back home, along with other support, primarily in Israel.

Those plane tickets are provided for free or very cheap by the Israeli airline, El Al, whose spokesperson said it is a service they are happy to provide.

“We are a national company,” said Yoram Elgrabli, managing director for El Al in North and Central America who has a son serving as a lone solder. “We know the importance of the soldiers. … I like to say the real bridge between Israel and the U.S. is El Al.”

Gil (left) and Yossi Kuttler (Photo provided)

Those from outside Israel who serve in the IDF all share a love of Israel, of course, but from there, individual motivations vary. The brothers Kuttler are a good example. Gil and Yossi are close, both in age and relationship, if not necessarily personality. Gil, though he joined up after his brother (they overlapped in service for about a year), is more gung-ho about his military service, a longtime dream of his.

“I don’t know what [Yossi] told you, but it was my idea first,” he said from his base in Hevron, where he was (rather grudgingly) chopping vegetables for dinner while chatting with the JT. “I’ve been thinking of this since I was 5.”

Yossi doesn’t disagree with that characterization at all. He’s more introspective about his service, which he viewed as his duty to Israel and the Jewish people. Now a 21-year-old freshman at University of Maryland, College Park studying English and English education, he’s glad to be done with service but wouldn’t trade his experience.

Before making aliyah in 2014, Yossi, a 2013 Beth Tfiloh grad, was all set to attend business school at the University of Maryland. Then he visited Israel on the senior class trip and felt a pull, not just to the country, but to protect its heritage, his heritage.

“It was something I thought I could look back on and be proud I had served the greater good of the Jewish people,” he said.

He was “bit by the bug” of Israel, his mom said, as she had been at his age after her first trip to Israel. She was a little shocked, she said, by his decision but passed on the advice of her father.

Yossi Kuttler receives his beret upon completion of basic training. (Photo provided)

“When Yossi called me [from Israel] and said, ‘Mom, we have to talk,’ I said, ‘I know you have a whole speech rehearsed, but I’m going to tell you what my dad told me: Come home for the summer, and if you still want to do it, I’m all behind you,’” she said.

And he did. And then Gil followed a short time later. Both joined the Paratroopers Brigade, a unit with a storied history in the IDF.

Gil and Yossi are not the only from the Baltimore area to serve in the IDF. They’re not even the only ones from their neighborhood. There’s something in the water off the corner of Labyrinth Road and Smith Avenue in Pikesville, right by Pikesville High School. The number of young men and women who recently did serve or are serving the IDF is practically enough to form their own squad.

The Kuttler brothers on Labyrinth south of Pikesville High, the Harrison kids — Eyal, Qeshet and Baraq — on Labyrinth just across from Pikesville High and Lily Walder on Smith have all donned the lone soldier uniform. Coincidentally, Yossi, Lily and Eyal even ended up on the same kibbutz that was their home away from home in the early days prior to full service in the IDF.

Lily, like Yossi, had other plans in mind before deciding to make aliyah and join the IDF. She had just been accepted into the five-year master’s program for occupational therapy at Towson University. Also a Beth Tfiloh lifer, she had taken a Young Judea gap year in Israel and fell in love. Israel had always been relevant to her life, she said, but that year shifted her perspective, and she came to view Israel as “my home, my responsibility, my territory.” One year into school and she left. Israel was beckoning.

Her dream IDF job was as a weapons instructor, but first, she had to improve her Hebrew.

Lily Walder with a group of fellow soldiers (Photo provided)

“I didn’t leave everything in the states to be someone’s secretary and get them coffee,” she said. Luckily, her studying paid off, and Lily went on to teach handheld explosives to other soldiers.

“When I say it to Americans, it sounds badass,” she said from Tel Aviv, where she now makes her home since finishing her two years this past April. “But when I say it to Israelis, it’s normal.”

Lily’s parents, Charles and Suzanne Walder, worried about her, as every parent worries for their children, they said, but saw how happy and confident she was in Israel.

“She loved it,” Charles said.

“Yeah, and she was good at it,” Suzanne added. Watching their daughter’s graduation ceremony from boot camp in Israel was “one of the proudest moments of our lives,” Suzanne went on to say.

And, much to Lily’s pleasant surprise, the army turned out to be welcoming and respectful to women, treating everyone as soldiers, she said.

“I am so impressed with the Israeli army and how they treat women there,” she continued. “I always felt very much respected, very much appreciated and taken seriously.”

It was Lily’s love for Israel that carried her through aliyah and IDF service, and, at least for now, she’s staying put. Israel is home.

Alex Simone (Photo provided)

Yossi, Gil and Lily all served either right after, or shortly after, graduation from high school. That’s the most frequent choice, but it’s not how Alex Simone, 28, a 2006 Beth Tfiloh grad, did it. He did the college life first and, once graduating, felt a bit adrift in his early 20s.

“Part of it was just looking for adventure after university,” he admitted. “I was only 22 and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ This was something that really connected with me at the time. So, I decided I could do it and eventually found I had to do it.”

For Alex, telling his parents was a little tricky. He knew they would force him to defend his position. So, he researched his way to success.

“They were tough conversations,” he said. “I made sure I did my research and had some plans ahead of time.” His father, Vito Simone, agreed he and his wife, Gail, wanted to ensure their son knew what he was doing.

“When he first brought it up, of course, my wife was scared to death, and we both challenged Alex vigorously to defend his decision,” said Vito, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s. “That’s our parenting style, I guess you could say.”

Alex made his case, and his family got on board “100 percent,” his dad said.

Alex, in what is apparently the Baltimore special, also joined the Paratroopers Brigade. And what started out as adventure, well, was an adventure, but it was also something more.

“To me, [Israel] means we have a place in the world,” he said. “We have no idea if we would even exist without this place.”

All those who join do so with the knowledge they may be putting their life on the line for the love of Israel — for Jordan Low, a classmate of Yossi’s at Beth Tfiloh who served as a sharpshooter in the Golani Brigade, and his family, that became a much more tangible concern in July 2014 when he and fellow soldiers were searching a potential Hamas weapons stash during Operation Protective Edge and the building was struck by two rockets, according to local media reports at the time.

Jordan held the ladder for all his fellow soldiers to get out safely, his father, Jeffrey Low, told the JT at the time, and was hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah — and commitment — to join up with the armed forces, any armed forces. Perhaps more than other military options, the IDF also has a specific ideological purpose, a tie to an identity that is bigger than just Israel.

“I spent part of my life dedicated to an idea greater than myself,” Yossi said, summing up his complicated thoughts on his time with the IDF. “It was extremely difficult — mentally, physically, being away from my family and America — but, yes, I would do it again.”

Too Many Lines Being Drawn

One of us is Orthodox; the other Reform.

One of us is active in J Street and the other is a member of the Zionist Organization of America.

On matters relating to peace and security in Israel, our perspectives are vastly different.

What draws the two of us together is recognition that we are each deeply committed to the State of Israel, if in entirely different ways. We are also bound by a common concern over the shrillness of the Israel debate.

Also of deep concern is the readiness of too many in our community to demonize and assume the worst in those with whom we disagree.

These danger signs hit home for us over the past few weeks in a direct and personal way.

We are both members of Woodmont Country Club who were disappointed and alarmed by the stridency of opinion surrounding President Obama’s supposed interest in becoming a member of the club.

Despite having profound differences on the former president’s record on Israel, the two of us relished the idea of having the Obama family join the ranks of our club, and we encouraged the club leadership to consider the high personal standards Barack Obama exemplified in office, as well as his numerous endeavors on behalf of the Jewish community.

Most of the members with whom we broached the subject strongly agreed and felt it would be a great honor to welcome any former president. To our mutual chagrin, a vocal minority within the club turned this matter into a referendum on Israel.

We are both saddened and concerned, both for what it means for our club and what it says about our community. It’s troublesome and sadly ironic that a club created as a haven for Jews who couldn’t play golf elsewhere may have effectively turned away the nation’s first black president.

We also worry that admission to our social club has become politicized and a forum for members to advocate their individual views toward Israel, an increasingly fraught topic across the Jewish community.

At a time when Americans are splintered into self-reinforcing bubbles, our community is too often guilty of the same thing. And Israel seems to be the epicenter of these dangerous fault lines.

The Jewish community is multifaceted and diverse. Let’s find neutral space and common ground where we can. Let’s not allow politics to infuse our leisure activities and dominate our social interactions.

Adam August is a Potomac resident and Daniel Kohl is a Bethesda resident. Their views do not express the official view of Woodmont Country Club or its leadership.

Appreciating Jewish Connections

Mazel Tov! I am helping my daughter plan her wedding in Israel. She has lived in Israel since she went on a gap year and she is surrounded by many of her closest friends from Baltimore who, like her, made aliyah, served in the IDF, attended university and established their lives in the Jewish state. She is marrying a man who is not from Baltimore, but is an American Israeli who followed the same path. As a mother, I am so filled with joy and anticipation. As an educator, I can’t help but reflect on what brought us to this day.

As I was scrolling through Israeli wedding websites for inspiration, I came across an incredible story. In 1991, Mossad agents arrived in Ethiopia to facilitate the airlift of Ethiopian Jewish children to Israel. As the boy cried for his parents, a Mossad agent hugged and comforted him. That kindness sparked a lifelong friendship, and that little boy became the first Ethiopian rabbi ordained in Israel. And in an “only in Israel” story, Rabbi Shalom performed the wedding ceremony for the Mossad agent’s grown son.

What do you have to know to understand this story? You have to know that the Jewish people have longed for Israel no matter where we wandered — Egypt, Europe or Ethiopia. You have to know that Jews are part of a great nation and that when one of us celebrates, we all celebrate, and when one of us is sad, we are all sad. And when one Jew is suffering, no matter the distance, another Jew is scheming of saving him. You have to feel that G-d has given us a land so precious that we have children who are willing to die protecting it. You have to recognize that a tough Mossad agent, an Ethiopian immigrant, a groom and a Torah scholar are all serving Israel and the Jewish people — and there could in fact be one person who plays all of those roles at once!

Too few of our children know and feel these deep truths connected to Israel. Rather, they see news of riots and demonstrations, fires and rockets. They have not discussed Israel at the dinner table. Their parents are focusing on the challenges, climate and realities of our home in America to the exclusion of our homeland in Israel. And then these children might wait years only to join a Birthright trip and have to make sense of what they are experiencing when critical early learning periods have passed. And then it just may be too late to be an articulate advocate for our epic story.

I am proud that my daughter represents American Jews next to the Mossad agent, the Ethiopian immigrant and all of the other magnificent members of Israeli society. I am proud that she has grabbed on to this piece of her Jewish identity. I can’t wait to dance under the stars in a never-ending circle. As a Jewish people, our story continues. Celebrate with us!

Amian Frost Kelemer is the chief operating officer at the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education.

Hebrews on the High Seas Tales of Jewish mapmakers, pirates, privateers and islanders

Harry Ezratty holds a copy of his book, “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean.” (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Harry Ezratty holds a copy of his book, “500 Years in the Jewish Caribbean.” (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

History and tradition are rife with tales of seafaring Jews, from the story of Jonah and his travails at sea to the tribe of Dan, known for their nautical nature. Members of the tribe have had a significant impact on shaping the modern world as a result of their involvement with maps and shipping.

To understand the impact of Jews on modern maritime history, it is important to address the skills and innovations of Jews during the early modern era. According to local experts, long before Christopher Columbus set out on his quest to reach Asia by traveling west, the best mapmakers in the world were Jews.

Based largely in the Spanish island Mallorca, Jews made maps of Europe that were treasured for their accuracy. The two main mapmaking families, known as the Map Jews, were the Ribas and the Cresques. Even beyond maps, these families made compasses and a device called an astrolabe. The forerunner of the sextant, the astrolabe was an important device for sailors that allowed them to measure latitude (but not longitude) by the sun as a means to navigate the open ocean.

A portrait of Abraham Zacuto (Photo from Wikimedia Commons/{{PD-US}})

A portrait of Abraham Zacuto (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most influential Jew of the time period is virtually unknown today — his name is Zacuto, from the Hebrew word zechut, which means merit.

“He was brilliant,” said Harry Ezratty, a Baltimore resident and expert in maritime and admiralty law. “He was a rabbi, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and cosmographer — one of the very few Jews permitted to teach at the University of Salamanca, one of the great medieval schools.”

Zacuto’s impact on history is immeasurable. When Columbus appeared before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain with his plan to reach Asia, Zacuto was sitting on the advisory board and encouraged the mission. Additionally, Zacuto was responsible for one of the major innovations of the time, the brass astrolabe.

Before his suggestion to make the device out of brass, it was made of wood. The wood would expand with water while at sea and would shrink when it dried out, making the brass device fashioned by Zacuto far more accurate.

Another of Zacuto’s crowning accomplishments is the Tables of Zacuto. Written before Columbus’ first voyage in 1492, it is one of the earliest tables depicting the phases of the sun and moon. The printing press had not yet been invented, so each copy was painstakingly drawn by hand. Every famous explorer of the time used Zacuto’s maps, astrolabe and table, from Bartolomeu Dias, the first man to circumnavigate Africa, to Magellan, to Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus.

In 1503, during his fourth voyage, Columbus was shipwrecked in Jamaica for a year.

“He is trying to convince the natives that they are gods because they are white and come with a ship and have armor and guns,” said Ezratty. “After a few months, the natives are getting wise and stopped bringing them food and water. They had been bringing food and drinking water to the beach because the Europeans were scared what would happen if they went into the jungle. Columbus takes the Tables of Zacuto and sees that there is going to be a lunar eclipse. He tells the natives that his gods are angry and, as a result, are going to take away their night light if they don’t continue to bring food and water. It happens just as he says and the natives continue to bring them supplies.”

The catalyst that caused these old world Jews to scatter throughout the globe was the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Jews were either forced to convert or were thrown out of Spain, resulting in many such as

Zacuto fleeing to Portugal while many more sought shelter in the New World.

The Jews who landed in the Caribbean while it was first being colonized were Sephardim. Columbus claimed land in the name of Spain and the Spanish Armada, the most powerful navy in the world at the time and ensured that nobody else was able to start settling colonies until the British defeated them in 1588.

“Until that time, Jews came over as what they call ‘crypto- Jews,’ or anusim in Hebrew,” said Ezratty. The terms refer to Jews who maintain Jewish traditions, but adhere to another faith in public — Catholicism, in this instance.

Jews would have had to operate as Catholics in order to reach the New World. Ezratty cited Columbus’ journals, explaining that the crews would do a Hail Mary every morning and vespers every evening. It would have been impossible for someone to operate as a Jew for fear of being locked up.

It is important to realize the impetus of the Inquisition on Jews. Many were imprisoned or killed, even more were converted and those that managed to escape were forced to flee land that their family might have occupied for centuries. Revenge against the Spanish was a driving force that resulted in these crypto-Jews becoming pirates or privateers, the difference being that privateers are authorized by a government with a letter of mark, rather than operating outside of any law.

“If you go to Curaçao, there is a very famous cemetery that has about 3,000 Jewish graves from when it was first founded as a Dutch colony up until today,” said Ezratty. “If you were a mohel, on your gravestone they had the implements of circumcision. If you were a rabbi or a Levi, you would have the birchat kohanim. If you were a scribe, you would have a hand with a quill, and if you were a ship owner, you would have a ship.”

Peggy and Russ Israel pose with a book of Israel family genealogy. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Peggy and Russ Israel pose with a book of Israel family genealogy. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Two Baltimoreans, Peggy Israel and her son, Russ, can trace their lineage back to Caribbean Jewry. Their ancestors, Abraham Israel and his son, Isaac, left Spain for Jamaica as crypto-Jews in the 1600s. In an effort to protect the Jewish population of Jamaica, Abraham and another Jew by the name of Moses Cohen convinced England to take over Jamaica on the grounds that they could reveal a local gold mine if they were free from Spain. However, Cohen mislead the British for personal gain and the Israel family was forced to flee to New York for their safety.

The Israel family genealogy originates from Solomon Israel, whom they believe to be the grandson of Isaac. According to family history, Solomon Israel was very wealthy and bought up large amounts of land. He married a Christian woman in New York before moving to Albemarle County, Va., in the early 1700s, where he is believed to be the first Hebrew settler. There are locations such as Israel Mountain in Albemarle that bear his namesake, and if the family is correct, Solomon is the forefather to nearly every non-Jew in the United States with the last name Israel.

Isaac Rodriguez Marques was a Danish citizen, ship owner and, according to his family, a pirate. Presumably spurred by seeing friends hung as pirates, Isaac came to New York in 1695 while it was still a Dutch colony. Bernard Baruch, who served under seven American presidents, starting with Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and ending with Harry Truman in 1947, was one of his descendants.

“If you wanted to make money in the early Caribbean, there were two ways to do it,” said Ezratty. “You did it in the shipping business or you did it with sugar because sugar was like petroleum at the time — Jews made fantastic fortunes in sugar in Jamaica and Barbados and Antigua.”

In Newport, R.I., the largest seaport in New England in terms of trading before the Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, a family of crypto-Jews known as the Rivera family was the largest of the ship owners at the time, having cornered the markets for oil and soap with the whale trade. Up until the Revolutionary War, the Rivera family was the leading maritime family in what would become the United States. Other wealthy families of crypto-Jews existed in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Perhaps the most well-known Jew in early American history is Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy and the highest ranking officer at the inception of the Civil War in 1861.

Levy was notorious for getting into fights over being called a “dirty Jew” while he was in the Navy. He was court-martialed at least eight or nine times and famously killed a man in a duel in Philadelphia after being slandered for his Judaism.

“This was the days before Annapolis,” said Ezratty. “If you wanted to be an officer, you had to go on a ship as an apprentice. The people that did this were often from upper class families, and here is this Jew who had a higher rank than all of them.” It is no wonder that Levy’s subordinates felt the need to attack him.

According to Ezratty, Levy first worked on a ship as the attendant to a Quaker ship owner when he was 11 years old. He told the Quaker that he had to get off of the ship to be a bar mitzvah when he turned 13. However, following his bar mitzvah, he went back to sea, attended a naval academy, got commissioned, was assigned his own ship, and his first act was to put a mezuzah on the door of his cabin. “He was always a Jew,” Ezratty said.

The Pirate Captain Toledano

Arnon Shorr is a Jewish filmmaker who found his passion for Jewish narrative upon moving to Baltimore with his wife. “I was raised modern Orthodox, went to Jewish school, but I wasn’t drawn to Jewish narrative,” he said. “In Baltimore though, telling Jewish stories seemed more urgent and necessary. I started making exclusively Jewish films and content while I was there. The challenge of telling Jewish stories is to tell them in a way that is relevant to a mainstream audience — there is a lot in the Jewish narrative tradition that can be of value to the world.”

A few months ago, Shorr was inspired to explore creating another Jewish film after attending a meeting about Jewcer, a Jewish crowdfunding platform “with a lot of quirks that make it stand out, especially for Jewish-themed projects,” he said. The whole concept is simple, and he wrote a short, five-page script entitled, “The Pirate Captain Toledano.”



“The story really resonated with me, but as soon as I was done writing it, I realized that I had done something foolish,” he said. “I was looking to raise a small amount of money for a short film and ended up with a period piece on a boat. One rule of low budget shooting is to never shoot anything on the water, and another is never shoot anything with period props and costumes.”

The story itself is straightforward — a ship of pirates catch a stowaway who is a Jewish refugee from the Inquisition. He wants to become a pirate to attack the Spanish. The captain must decide whether to toss him off or let him join the crew.

“This motivation goes beyond greed and thirst for adventure,” said Shorr. “There is a sense of almost a noble purpose, not just to survive but to strike back. … My purpose was not to educate about the historical facts, but rather to bring a historical ordeal to light.

“To me, the idea of Jews taking to the high seas to escape the Inquisition is very powerful, especially that some of these people took to piracy to enact revenge. The fact that they could have existed, the idea that some of these characters are an actual part of maritime and Jewish history is enough for me to want to tell their story.”

Stephen DeCordova, who previously collaborated with Shorr on a web series called “Mad Mensch,” has been cast as the lead in this new film and has an interesting personal connection to the story.

The DeCordova family's ancient Kiddush cup belonged to their Caribbean ancestors. (

The DeCordova family’s ancient Kiddush cup belonged to their Caribbean ancestors. (Photo courtesy of Stephen DeCordova)

“My parents are Jewish,” said DeCordova. “My mother was born in Kingston, Jamaica. My grandmother had a very big family, I have many aunts and uncles, all from Jamaica, and at the time, the notion of a Jamaican Jew was unheard of. It was a big conversation piece.”

For DeCordova, the prospect of making this film is appealing because he feels that the Jewish diaspora is far more varied than the cliché views that the general public may have. More importantly, for both DeCordova and Shorr, it is important to tell this story because it is an unheard Jewish narrative, they feel.

“If you Google the history or narrative of Jewish piracy, it is something that anti-Semites have started picking up on,” said Shorr. “Not everything that you find is flattering or nice. If we don’t engage in this history and define it as our own and claim it, we will lose the ability to do so to the anti-Semites who are already beginning to capitalize on this particular piece of history. People are nervous about this idea of connecting Jews and piracy, but what we are afraid of is the anti-Semitic usurpation of this narra- tive, so we need to make it our own.”

The Exodus

Perhaps the most relevant story to Baltimore Jews in modern maritime history is that of the Exodus, a catalyst for the birth of Israel known as “the ship that launched a nation.”

The Exodus, originally a luxury steamer named the President Warfield, would transport people back and forth between Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. During World War II, the ship was requisitioned for military service and was involved in the Invasion of Normandy. However, when it returned to the United States, it was derelict and fell into disuse.

Through a ring of local collaborators, the Exodus was bought by a shell corporation that was controlled by the renegade organization Aliyah Bet, which aimed to help Jews illegally immigrate to British-mandated Palestine before the State of Israel was founded.

In order to be made seaworthy, the Exodus was brought to Baltimore to be refitted, where — according to Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation — it was an open secret due to its illegality, with many saying, “What ship?” while the Exodus was refitted, crewed and funded entirely by Americans.

The ship Exodus (Provided)

The ship Exodus (Provided)

Rooms on the interior of the ship were torn out and every available inch of space made accessible to carry refugees. The ship, originally designed to carry 600 people, managed to fit 4,500 Jewish refugees.

After loading the passengers, the plan was to use it to escape the British blockade in the Mediterranean’s shallow waters. Ships from the Chesapeake Bay are unique in that they have a shallow, rounded bottom, as opposed to the V-shaped bottom that British ships used to slice through the waves. This feature enabled the Exodus to travel in waters that were too shallow for British ships to navigate. By going along the Mediterranean where the water was shallow and the British couldn’t follow, the crew hoped to offload their passengers quickly in Palestine before the British could stop them.

According to Klinger, “17 miles to sea, the ship was attacked by the British in international waters. They put a destroyer on either side and demanded that she surrender, but started to smash her sides and crush her wooden superstructure when she wouldn’t — they were willing to kill these 4,500 Jews unless they surrendered. The British then attacked with boarding parties and killed four Jews, wounded over 100 and gave simple options — surrender or be sunk. The commanders decided to surrender, and the British took the ship into Haifa, where they decided to make an example of the Jews. Prison ships were awaiting them, and these people were forced off of the Exodus and sent back to [refugee] camps. After this incredible journey, German camps under British control.”

This entire debacle would have gone unnoticed if it were not anticipated and witnessed by the press, who knew they had to get the story out, Klinger said. At the time, British officials were meeting to decide what to do about British-mandated Palestine and whether to terminate the mandate and withdraw. Up until this point, the United Nations committee had refused to hear testimony from Jews about why it should designate the territory as a haven for Jews.

“On the Exodus, there was deliberately placed a Christian priest named John Stanley Grauel, a Methodist minister and secret agent of the Haganah. He was let off the ship and put under house arrest because he knew the story,” said Klinger. “When the Exodus put out its distress calls, the voice that came across the airways was his — an American Christian was describing this attack by the British on the Jews. He was very important to the Haganah. They smuggled him to Jerusalem so he could present to the U.N. special committee.”

The Exodus sculpture in progress (Photo by Sam Philipe)

The Exodus sculpture in progress (Photo by Sam Philipe)

Grauel did what no Jew could do — he gave testimony to the U.N. special committee. Committee members believed him specifically because he wasn’t a Jew, but rather a Christian minister. Before his testimony, the vote was leaning away from partitioning Israel, but after hearing from Grauel, the committee changed their view and decided to listen to testimony from Jews, which ultimately led to the U.N. vote for partition creating the State of Israel in 1948.

To this day, the Exodus remains scuttled in Haifa’s port. “What has bothered me the whole time is that there are memorials specifically to the Exodus in Germany and in downtown Baltimore, but in Israel itself, there is nothing specific, she was just a ship,” said Klinger. As a result, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation is working with an Israeli artist to create the Exodus Memorial in Haifa, which will be dedicated on July 18.

“It will be the finest [tribute to Exodus] in the world,” he said. “The replica of the anchor will be attached where Haifa is. The Memorial will be a symbolic, historical interpretation and educational exhibit that Israel will be very proud of.”

A House Divided The one place meant to unite the Jewish community is becoming one of its biggest rifts

cover1This week, the country inaugurates its new president.

Due partially to a lack of government experience to draw from and partially to Donald Trump’s propensity for holding competing positions on the same issue, it is hard to say how exactly the new president will govern.

For the Baltimore Jewish community — and American Jewish population at large — one of the main issues to watch will be that of its homeland: Israel.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Israel to many Jews. It is a key part of Jewish identity, and yet, the one place meant to unite all Jews has become possibly the community’s greatest divide. For some, criticism of Israel undermines the Jewish history of overcoming oppression and anti-Semitism. For others, not to criticize the Israeli government’s controversial policies violates Jewish values and the community’s progressive track record.

For decades, supporting Israel was a bipartisan effort in the United States. That has become less and less true in recent years, with approaches to Israel splitting more and more along party lines. The Baltimore Jewish community of more than 93,000 (at last count, according to a 2010 study by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) is not immune to this trend.

“I think what we’re seeing now is the beginning of a political shift,” said Art Abramson, former longtime executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “And I don’t see it boding particularly well for the Jewish community.”

Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a professor at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, has edited a number of books about Israel and agreed with Abramson.
He pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress (at then-Speaker John Boehner’s invitation) two years ago as one of the first indications of Israel’s move to a more partisan consideration.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

Some point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in March 2015 (pictured) at the invite of then-speaker John Boehner as an indication that Israel was becoming a partisan issue.

“So what you’re seeing is a major split in the American Jewish community — Orthodox voting Republican and Conservative/Reform voting Democrat,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see increasing alienation of Reform and Conservative Jews from Israel, not only because of the settlements, but also because of the Western Wall issue and their being treated as second-class citizens.”

Many JT readers will be familiar, to some extent, with Israeli politics, but the crux of the issue is this: The Orthodox and Haredi Orthodox Jewish voice in Israel is amplified in politics and government
beyond what it represents in population, often to the exclusion of those who identify with the Conservative or Reform or other non-Orthodox movements of Judaism. As of a Pew Research Center study released last year, those identifying as “Haredi Orthodox” and “Religious” were 18 percent
of the Israeli population (for context, 19 percent of Israel is non-Jewish, with 14 of the 19 percent Muslim). The remaining 63 percent of Jews identified as “Traditional” (23 percent) or “Secular” (the largest single segment of the population at 40 percent). By contrast, the Jewish population in the United States, according to a 2013 Pew survey, is about one-third nondenominational (30 percent), one-third Reform (35 percent), and the remaining third Conservative (18 percent) along with Orthodox (10 percent); a small percentage falls into the “other” category.

There is a prevailing attitude among the more religious in Israel that non-Orthodox Jews are “not real Jews,” Freedman said, and that plays out in ways both big and small that only serve to further alienate many non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel, as well as the non-Orthodox in Israel.

For example, non-Orthodox women are frequently made to dress in a way the more religious consider modest, even in certain public areas. Israeli religious authorities (the only ones allowed to perform marriages) are barred from marrying interfaith couples, and non-Orthodox Jewish couples can only be married under Orthodox rules.

But one of the main, ongoing discussions has been who’s allowed to pray (and how) at the Western Wall. The main prayer plaza at the Wall separates visitors by gender, as dictated by traditional Jewish law. And the southern part of the Wall (around Robinson’s Arch) was designated in 2000 to be an unofficial pluralistic prayer site for those wishing to hold mixed-gender ceremonies or prayers. An interdenominational group called Women of the Wall has also been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men — reading from the Torah, wrapped in a prayer shawl, etc.

"Women of the Wall", an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

“Women of the Wall”, an activist group that is challenging the Orthodox over rites at the
Western Wall, has been working to allow women to pray at the Wall in ways traditionally allowed only to men, including reading from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls.

Earlier last year, a government resolution would have formally recognized and expanded the designated space at the southern end of the Wall and Robinson’s Arch as a pluralistic prayer space. The Haredi Orthodox leaders in the coalition later got cold feet and instead introduced a bill to the Knesset that would essentially criminalize progressive prayer services across the whole Wall.

“Acting as if it’s an Orthodox monopoly means Israel and the Wall are not for all Jews, but a special kind of Jews — the ultra-Orthodox Jews — and that’s very unfortunate in terms of Jewish unity,” Freedman said, continuing that all of this adds up to increasingly mixed views on Israel, especially from non-Orthodox Jews. So, within this already-fraught religious (and political) divide steps the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians.

The conflict has been bloody and long. Since just the turn of the century, more than 1,300
Israelis and, exponentially larger, 9,200 Palestinians have died, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, respectively.

The international community has, in recent weeks, made moves that appear to be both criticizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and attempting to renew a stalled peace process aimed at a two-state solution. Just last weekend, representatives from 70 countries in Paris for a Middle East Peace Conference endorsed renewed talks and the existence of a two-state solution, a move largely seen as warning Trump and Netanyahu not to ignore this process.

And then there was the U.N. resolution. The most recent measure to reveal the divide specifically in the American Jewish population, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank and was passed unanimously. The United States abstained from voting, a break from usual policy when it would frequently veto any resolution seen as too critical of Israel.

AIPAC, the staunchly pro-Israel group, was quick to speak out against the resolution, calling it “destructive” and “one-sided.”

Conversely, J Street, the more liberal, relative upstart pro-Israel group to AIPAC, welcomed the resolution, saying it “reaffirm[ed] the need for a two-state solution and call[ed] for a halt to actions by both sides that serve to undermine the prospects for peace.”

Even further left, Jewish Voice for Peace issued a statement from its executive director both celebrating the resolution and saying the U.S. should have voted for the resolution as opposed to abstaining. “As the only country that abstained, the evidence of the U.S.’s isolation from the global consensus during the vote was stark,” the statement, posted on the group’s website, says in part.

Perhaps tellingly, the BJC fell on the AIPAC side, issuing a statement — made by the executive committee on behalf of the full board — that it was “profoundly disappointed” in the U.S. abstention. “The BJC believes that the United States’ strong support for its most steadfast democratic ally in the Middle East is both principled and strategic,” it went on to say. “Unfortunately, the abstention from last week’s U.N. resolution was neither.”

Howard Libit, executive director of the BJC, says the council is always striving to bring the community together and weigh in on issues they think their voice can make a difference.

“I hope we will continue to be an advocate for the community,” he said. He also said the BJC is committed to interfaith cooperation and standing with the local Muslim community against rising Islamophobia, but did not go into detail on where the council might stand in the coming Trump administration’s future.

“It’s just kind of a confusing time politically, so I think everyone is trying to figure it out,” Libit said. But he does want the council to be a voice for everyone. “I think the BJC is really broadly representative of the community.”

Abramson does think the Baltimore Jewish community is divided on Israel but cautions against equating the Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox divide with the political right vs. left one. He points to broad Jewish support for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that didn’t translate across the community into support for Trump.

This tracks for Baltimore Zionist District president Robert Slatkin, who is a member of a Conservative congregation. He said BZD includes people from a spectrum of Jewish denominations, but its membership leans more religious. BZD aims to both advocate for Israel’s continued security and educate about the challenges still facing it.

“We’re very clear: We continue in our unwavering support of a democratic state of Israel,” Slatkin said.
Siding with Slatkin is Dr. Gary Applebaum, who is involved locally with both AIPAC and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Though he is a staunch supporter of Israel — he criticized the Palestinians for not coming to the table and for their lack of leadership — he believes it still has some unifying power.

“Those of us who love Israel and want to do right by Israel often realize Israel is the one issue that can bring Congress together,” he said.

And yet, Al Mendelsohn, GOP chairman for Baltimore County, said he’s seeing more local Jews come over to the Republican Party, partly, he feels, because of the Israel issue.

“You can certainly say something you don’t agree with regarding Israel without being an anti-Semite, but I think that the national Democratic Party has become very accepting of that crowd,” he said, adding that he feels even Sen. Ben Cardin sometimes goes out of his way not to offend those Mendelsohn saw as anti-Israel. “I’m finding an awful lot of people who are Jewish who aren’t afraid to say, ‘I voted Republican last time.’”

Cardin, the senior senator for Maryland, a Democrat and member of Beth Tfiloh, took issue with that characterization.

“No, I don’t accept that there is a difference in passion of support for Israel,” he said. “In reality, we all want to maintain bipartisan, bicameral — executive, legislative — support of Israel.”

Cardin co-introduced the Senate resolution opposing the U.N. resolution. There are always people, on both sides, who will try to make Israel a partisan issue, he said, though he doesn’t see it as one.

“It’s not unusual to see different views in the Jewish community,” he said. “That’s in our DNA. I don’t think there’s any disagreement on support for Israel.”

Josh Greenfeld is a local representative of J Street, which supports working toward the two-state solution, and said there’s a reason the organization is growing and becoming more visible. Since Trump’s surprise election, J Street has seen some of the biggest gains ever, both in membership and finances, according to Greenfeld. And he says he is having more and more people from the Baltimore community reach out to him about being involved.

“When J Street started, it was like a breath of fresh air,” he said. AIPAC has done great work, he added, but more recently it has “failed to represent views of many in the community.”

Many of those in the community who are more critical of Israel tend to fall in younger demographics — look at J Street’s fairly large presence on college campuses (this includes a chapter at Johns Hopkins University). Those who are more hardline pro-Israel often dismiss these groups as simply “less educated” on the facts or saying they don’t remember all the violence Israel has faced in getting where it has (specifically the 1948 Arab-Israeli, 1967 Six-Day and 1973 Yom Kippur wars).

This is true to some extent, but it also does a serious disservice to young Jews, many of whom ground their criticisms of Israel firmly in their Jewish faith. Annie Kaufman, 38, is an active member of the Baltimore Jewish community (although she is currently attending yeshiva in Chicago) and also very progressive on issues of social justice. She has been a longtime member of Jewish Voice for Peace and said she has been frustrated that it can feel like Baltimore Jewish institutions have very pro-Israel assumptions of those attending their events.

“They try to make it look like all Jews in Baltimore stand with Israel and that it’s a big part of what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “But I know from many of my friends that there is a lot of diversity of opinion regarding Israel.”

Kaufman, who recently led a progressive-minded Talmudic study session in Baltimore, thinks some synagogues are now engaging with discussions that vocalize and support criticisms of Israel.

Local Rabbis are as divided and diverse in opinion as the community they serve. Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Congregation supports Israel, but also thinks too many people conflate the Israeli government with the whole State of Israel.

“Israel is not an issue, it’s a state,” he said. He may disagree with some of its policies as a self-described progressive, but he believes absolutely that “being pro-Israel is supporting its right to exist as a Jewish, democratic and free state.”

The key, Burg said, is to welcome the discussions, to allow for the Jewish tenet of “sacred arguing” to take place respectfully among the community.

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation was actually in Israel when the JT reached out to him. He characterized both his and his congregation as a staunchly pro-Israel group. Or, as he put it, “I wasn’t put on this earth to be critical of Israel.”

“This is not a J Street congregation,” he went on to say. “We take great pride in our support for Israel.”

How someone approached Israel also tended to predict how he or she viewed the potential for the new administration. Those hardline Israel supporters are optimistic about Trump, and hopeful for improved U.S.-Israel relations. If personnel are policy, Applebaum said, then he saw it as a positive sign that Trump was surrounding himself with pro-Israel people in his administration.

Among Trump’s personnel is his pick for Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — a controversial choice due to his support for far-right groups in Israel and previous statements likening J Street members to kapos, Jews who supervised their fellow Jews in concentration camps. Friedman also supports moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move at odds with longtime U.S. policy. Those more critical of Israel have numerous concerns, not only for the future of Israel, but also for those minority groups here at home, including the Jewish community.

“I’m very nervous about Trump’s presidency in general and his appointees, including David Friedman,” Burg said.

Cardin, who is the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, which will be overseeing Friedman’s confirmation, said he always reserves judgment until the hearings, but assured that Friedman will be asked to address head-on his “unacceptable statements about Jews who disagree with him.”

Almost everyone the JT talked to about this subject predicted the divide in the Baltimore Jewish community, and larger American Jewish population, would only widen. And they all also said something else: They love Israel. Almost all of them had visited at least once, more often a double-digit number of times.

The community may not agree on Israel, maybe ever, but they all still have something that unites them — their Jewish heritage.

Obama Abstains on Israel

At the recent White House Chanukah parties — the last such affairs under the outgoing Obama administration — there were smiles and warm feelings all around between the president and American Jews. That was in keeping with the administration’s oft-repeated assertion that it is the most supportive of Israel in history. That the White House has been so vocal on this point throughout some rather public disagreements with the Jewish state, particularly over the Iran nuclear deal, was a phenomenon frequently explained and supported by the high level of cooperation between Israel’s defense establishment and the Pentagon.

Given the events of late last week, however, one can’t help but wonder just how deep and how sincere the administration’s professed support of Israel really is. More to the point, what exactly was President Barack Obama thinking when less than a month before leaving office — and with all the death and destruction being wrought in other parts of the world — he refused to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that declares Israeli settlements
in lands acquired in the Six Day War as a “flagrant violation [of] international law”? What drove the U.S. abstention on what was so clearly a one-sided resolution? And what caused the reversal of established and repeatedly confirmed U.S. foreign policy, which maintained (up until last week) that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict lies in negotiation?

Could this dramatic departure really have been driven by so petty an issue as Obama’s personal animosity toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Frankly, we’re not sure. But there doesn’tseem to be any better explanation.

The administration has gone to great lengths to try to justify its actions, amid reports that Washington greenlighted the resolution and encouraged its presentation to the Security Council. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the resolution made sense, since it was designed to preserve the two-state solution. The assertion was almost universally challenged by pro- Israel supporters on the left and the right who all argued (for different reasons) that
the resolution likely destroyed any remaining prospects for peace and will likely drive Israelis and Palestinians further apart.

Opinions abound on what drove Obama to do what he did, what other things he might do before he leaves office and the likely success of efforts on Capitol Hill to undo Obama’s parting shots. And no one knows what actual steps will be taken by President-elect Donald Trump, his new foreign policy team and his new ambassador to Israel, although trends seem to point in a generally more pro-Israel direction.

This much is certain: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon admitted earlier this month that the international body
unfairly targets Israel. Yes it does — and this time with the support of the U.S. president. Although Trump promises to usher in a new era of American and Israeli cooperation, the outgoing administration seems hell-bent on making that a tough climb.

Treating the Wounds of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo is 400 miles from the Israeli border. It is closer to Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon than it is to any hospital in Israel. That’s one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement last week that his government is looking into ways to bring thousands of Syrian civilians who were wounded as Aleppo was pulverized to Israel for medical treatment is such a big development.

Israel has studiously stayed out of the Syrian civil war, although it tacitly leans toward President Bashar al-Assad as the best-known of bad choices among the players there. And the Jewish state has responded to nearly every incident of cross-border mortar or gunfire attacks, while coordinating with Russia, the power behind Assad.

But Israel has also treated thousands of wounded Syrians along the common border in the Golan Heights. at humanitarian practice was a local affair compared towhat the prime minister suggested on Dec. 20: bringing thousands of wounded civilians — “women and children, and also men if they’re not combatants,” Netanyahu said — from the far north of a country at war with Israel to the heartland of the Jewish state. “We’d like to do that,” Netanyahu said. “Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals as we’ve done with thousands of Syrian civilians. We’re looking into ways of doing this; it’s being explored as we speak.”

We applaud this humanitarian initiative. While it will not turn the tide of the civil war or eliminate the suffering of the millions who have been displaced in the last five years, it will be of immeasurable benefit to those who do receive treatment and will bring relief to their families. At the same time, we note that others have called for wider action. In September, opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on the government to let thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, out of the estimated one million refugees on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But we recognize that the well-intentioned humanitarian proposal is fraught with security and political concerns that are dramatically more immediate and potentially more consequential than the similar policy debate playing out in our own country.

We acknowledge the obvious: The civil war in Syria has been a tragedy for the Syrian people and destabilizing for its neighbors and for every country where refugees have fled. It has given immigration opponents in this country another reason for denying the tempest-tossed a haven here. In the face of that international reality and reaction, Netanyahu’s offer is remarkably compassionate and generous. And it may offer some Syrians a way out of their ruined country.

Israel has long been a leader in the humanitarian arena. It’s a shame that the Jewish state doesn’t get the recognition and credit it deserves.

How To Speak for the President Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on identity politics, the Middle East and Jewish-American pride


(Courtesy of The Associated)

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is proud to be a Jew.

While giving the address at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Keynote Event on Thursday, Dec. 8 to a packed room in the lavish Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor ballroom, Fleischer declared that he’s also proud to be an American.

He additionally takes great pride in having been the voice of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003 — an especially tumultuous time in the nation’s history.

This after having spent a year in Austin, Texas as spokesman for Bush’s initial presidential campaign and being asked  by one local if his name is “R-period, E-period.” And the gentle ribbing by Bush, who Fleischer acknowledged “occasionally has some trouble with the English language,” (endearingly) dubbing his press secretary “Ari Bob.”

Fleischer illuminated what it was to be tied to his own heritage — as the son of a Hungarian immigrant mother who was one of the last Jews to  escape Europe during the Holocaust — in Bush’s White House, which was largely “Evangelical Christian.”

The challenge was that it is essential for the press secretary to leave aside his or her own perspective when presenting daily briefings to the world press, Fleischer said. It is his or her job to speak on behalf of the president and express those views only with fervent, heartfelt pragmatism.

And yet, Fleischer is proudest still that a person with a Hebrew name — Jewish-American and child of an  immigrant — spoke for the president in this way during the time he was at the White House, be it for the nation’s media or broadcast via outlets such as (he was sure to note) Al Jazeera.

Fleischer wears no rosy-colored glasses when it comes to the “rapidly deteriorating” state of the Middle East, as he put it, vying as he does for the  protection the Jewish people in Israel.

“These are tough times in the Middle East,” Fleischer said. “When is it not?”

Fleischer was pessimistic about the notion for peace  between Israel and the Palestinians, which he referred to as “a quaint and nostalgic thing.”

He is disheartened by the prospect that whereas “every nation that ever sought to make peace with Israel found a willing, ready and able partner for peace” — citing the ilk  of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat and Jordan’s King  Hussein bin Talal — there is, in Fleischer’s opinion, currently an alarming lack of such a partner for Israel in a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians.

For context, Fleischer pointed out that there are roads, schools summer camps and other memorials in the Palestinian city of Ramallah — where there was joyous dancing on 9/11, he reminded the audience — named after the most destructive suicide bombers or “martyrs” that ever struck at Israel and the U.S.

It was a sobering, latter half of his speech in which Fleischer said, “There’s no higher call for the Jewish people than a call for peace … but Israel can’t negotiate with ‘no one’ … and so far, the Palestinians have been unable to deliver such a person.”

A reality, Fleischer fears, that was laid bare after Israel pulled out of Gaza. With full sovereignty over their land, one of the first acts by the Palestinians in that area was to destroy the area synagogues.

There is some flicker of light at the end of the dark tunnel for Fleischer, who revealed a “movement” happening “behind the scenes” in the Middle East, as various nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are beginning to focus their hostility less on Israel and more on Iran as the potential threat to regional solidarity.

Fleischer’s wish is that “President-elect Trump will recognize that we are on the verge of an unusual strategic realignment and that the United States should actively work for this realignment and support it.

“It’s in Israel’s interest, it’s in America’s interest and it’s in the interest of the Arab moderates for whom we have to place hope for the future in the Middle East.”

When asked by the JT about his thoughts on so-called “identity politics,” the notion that a person’s association with a larger group (race/religion/ gender/sexuality) profoundly informs his or her worldview, the high-profile policy wonk and media consultant was characteristically self-assured in responding.

“I’m tremendously proud of what this country has done in terms of its melting pot,” Fleischer said. “That we can love our heritage, be true to our heritage … I love that part of the United States. It’s who we are.”

Where Fleischer is concerned is when identity politics becomes more important than an individual’s connection to the nation in which she or he lives.

Fleischer envisions a stronger “national unity,” which he  believes can lead to more  national policies that might  alleviate terra firma problems that affect us all, regardless of personal affiliation, such as “doing the most we can to lift people out of poverty, which is really what we need.”

The confusion many are  experiencing in reconciling their individual, diverse heritage with that of a unified community is something Fleischer  understands all too well.

“What I’ve learned through my government service, particularly at the White House, is how the fabric of the nation still so deeply connects all of us,” he said.

Fleischer recounted a harrowing story in which, three days after 9/11, he faced the decision of whether to go to work that day and speak to the nation for the president … or observe Rosh Hashanah.

After consulting with his staff and rabbi, he decided to attend services in the morning and work the rest of the day. But at a briefing with the press later that day, he was asked a question about a meeting in the oval office that had earlier taken place and was able to  respond that he was unable to answer, as he was in synagogue that morning.

“It felt so good to say that on national television,” Fleischer beamed.

Keith Ellison’s Views

When Keith Ellison threw his hat into the ring to seek the chairmanship of the Democratic Party, he challenged long-held thinking about the type of person who could lead a major American political party. Ellison is both African-American and Muslim, two personal attributes that make him unique as a leading figure in American politics today and that challenge, despite eight years of President Barack Obama, conventional thinking about what a leading American politician should look like.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first minefield that Ellison has encountered during his candidacy is about whether or not he’s sufficiently pro-Israel and supportive of Jewish values. After all, a tape was recently leaked that purportedly had Ellison making anti-Israel and anti-Jewish remarks, leading to a spike in concerns about him.

Yet, as often happens in our outrage-based political culture, this is much ado about nothing.

In fact, what Ellison’s remarks on the tape revealed were that his views fit well within the majority view of American Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while demonstrating admiration for American Jewish political organizing. And on the substance, Ellison called for an end to Israeli settlement construction and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem. This position mirrors the position of Obama and the recent Democratic Party platform.

I empathize with Ellison as he grapples with these unfair charges. As a former congressional candidate in Maryland, I too was labeled as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic when I entered my race. And why? Because I strongly advocated in my professional career for peace between Israel and the Palestinians through a two-state solution.

To me it’s clear that the problem that Ellison’s detractors have with him is less about him as a person and more about his message. His views on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only fit well within the majority view of American Jews, but are also shared by a majority of Israelis and much of America’s foreign policy community.

As a committed Democrat, I want my party’s leader to stand for the values of inclusion at home and peace abroad. The last thing we should do is pay attention to the misrepresentations being made by those who oppose these values. Ellison’s record, which falls squarely within the mainstream opinion of Jewish Democrats today, has become a proxy for this battle.

As American Jews, we should not let these misrepresentations take down this honorable man. For if we do, it will say much more about us than it does about him.

Joel Rubin, president of Washington Strategy Group, is a former candidate in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.

Baltimore Native Hosts Dakota Pipeline Solidarity Event in Jerusalem

Veterans march with Standing Rock activists near Backwater Bridge just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/Newscom

Veterans march with Standing Rock activists near Backwater Bridge just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/Newscom

The months-long protest over the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, termed #NoDAPL, has resonated with people all across the country and, as it turns out, even overseas.
On Thursday, Dec. 15, Baltimore native and current Jerusalem resident Leah Raher is holding an event in Jerusalem — the Circle of Solidarity: People’s Empowerment Celebration — designed to show support for the #NoDAPL movement. Despite the big win for protestors last weekend when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would refuse to grant the easement needed for pipeline construction to continue and launch a full environmental impact study, Raher planned for the event to continue.

“I feel like it’s really important for the Native Americans to know their prayers and voices have touched those here in Israel,” she said.

The event will be a one-hour program where she will begin with a short speech, show a video collage of the progress of the movement, invite everyone to sing “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson and close with a water ceremony and moment of reflection.

Raher hopes the event can serve as both an inspiration and call to action.

“It’s a way to say, ‘Look guys, we just saw a nonviolent protest beat the corporate bad guys,’” she said. (The protests have included some altercations with police, with the latter using rubber bullets, tear gas and fire hoses sprayed into the crowd in freezing temperatures, among other methods. Police have alleged that some protesters have been violent, including throwing rocks at officers.)

This isn’t the first time Raher has been a part of a cause started by Native Americans. When she was 16, she joined up for a time with a collection of tribes who were marching on Washington, D.C., in protest of treaty violations. She said the event “left an indelible impression on me.”

She believes the #NoDAPL protests have resonated because it is a stark visual to watch the protestors put their bodies on the line to protect both nature and Native heritage for current and future generations. To her, this idea should be especially moving for Jews.

“This is very much in the fabric of Jewish history and psyche — at least it should be,” she said.

Raher is not the only Baltimore connection to the #NoDAPL. Former Baltimore police officer and Marine Corps veteran Michael A. Wood Jr. helped organize a group of around 2,000 veterans who traveled to Standing Rock to protect protestors. Wood has been an outspoken critic of police brutality and the use of excessive force.

When contacted, the spokesperson handling media requests for the veterans at Standing Rock confirmed that Wood was currently in one of the main protest camps and hunkered down for an incoming blizzard.

Despite being thousands of miles away, Raher hopes the event will speak to the larger themes of the movement, such as nonviolent protest and protecting nature.

“I hope that from the Native Americans to the community in Jerusalem, the take-away message is that love knows no bounds, that people of faith are one community,” she said.