“I learned about climate marches and I learned about dancing bubbies,” said my niece Fae, 9, when we were discussing Bonnie Sherr Klein’s new children’s book, Beep Beep Bubbie, over FaceTime. Among other things, my niece Charlotte, 7, learned “you can learn to ride a bike at 53 and anything is possible.… And I learned about grandmothers who can shush a crying boy.”
Amid much laughter, including talk about dogs pooping – Bubbie has a dog – and what my nieces recalled of Vancouver from their visit here last year, Beep Beep Bubbie offered more discussion than I had anticipated. But, before I get to that, I have to say, for the record, that my nieces have dancing bubbies in their lives, and bubbies who can shush crying children, so they more related to these aspects of Bubbie’s character than learned from them. With that qualification and butt covering, I continue with the review, starting with the basic story of the book.
It is Shabbat and Kate and her little brother Nate are going to visit their grandmother, who is going to take them to Granville Island to buy apples for Rosh Hashanah. The kids have been told there’ll be a surprise waiting for them at Bubbie’s. That surprise, though – Bubbie’s new scooter – isn’t a happy one initially for Kate, who “already missed the Bubbie she used to have. That Bubbie danced and took them to climate marches.” However, during the afternoon’s adventures, Bubbie’s scooter not only allows her to venture farther from home than she otherwise would have been able to manage, but has other advantages, as well.
After their trip to Granville Island, Kate shares a library book that she’s brought along for the visit. About American educator, activist and suffragist Frances Willard, Kate and Nate find out that Willard “fought for women to have the right to vote. When Frances was 53 years old, she learned to ride a bicycle to show that women could do anything.” A conversation ensues about why Willard wouldn’t have known how to ride a bike. “People were afraid women’s ankles would show under their petticoats,” explains Bubbie. “Can you believe it?”
Well, at my nieces’ house, this part of the book was met with disbelief and more laughter, as Charlotte was keen to show off her ankles, which were hard to see, given the placement of their computer and her being the height of a 7-year-old. But, before things deteriorated into mayhem, Fae said, “I also learned that girls are tough.” And, she “learned another reason why women weren’t treated fairly in the past.”
“And what was that reason?” I asked.
“Because women didn’t ride bikes because their ankles were going to show. And they couldn’t vote, [it was] like they didn’t have an opinion.”
“It’s definitely not fair,” said Charlotte about people thinking that girls showing their ankles was wrong.
All in all, Beep Beep Bubbie elicited much talk and not an insignificant amount of gymnastics. The illustrations by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal are wonderfully colourful and fun; full of energy and movement. Both Fae and Charlotte gave a resounding “yes” when asked if they liked the pictures.
One the drawings is a two-page spread of Bubbie, Kate and Nate and the park, where they join in the fun of flying kites. One young person is in a wheelchair, and Charlotte asked why Bubbie had chosen a scooter instead. Not knowing the answer, I asked the author. Here is her response: “I chose a motorized scooter over a wheelchair, btw, because it felt more sportif,” wrote Klein in an email, “and I am lucky enough to be able to transfer, which keeps me a bit more mobile.”
I like knowing, but the reasons aren’t important, as far as the story goes. Art is to be interpreted and my nieces and I talked about a lot of ideas, from serious to silly, during our FaceTime book review session.
Published by Tradewind Books, Beep Beep Bubbie can be purchased from pretty much any online bookseller. Enjoy!
So much of what we do in life we do almost automatically. For better or worse, we anticipate what’s coming next and, often, we’re right. But a trio of children’s books just published by Tradewind Books will amuse young readers and refresh the perspectives of their adults. Crocs in a Box, written by Robert Heidbreder and illustrated by Jewish community member Rae Maté, contains three expectation-smashing little hardcovers: Crocodiles Say …, Crocodiles Play! and Crocs at Work!
In Crocodiles Say …, it’s the bright, cheerful and iconic crocodiles of Maté that are at odds with Heidbreder’s words. In one scene, for example, we see three restrained crocs, the epitome of manners, “never rude.” The crocs “chew and swallow, their mouths closed tight. Crocodiles say … [page turn] Always be polite!” Well, it has to be said that the crocs are doing anything but eating politely.
In Crocodiles Play!, the crocs get all dressed up for one type of sport, such as baseball, but then play … basketball?! And, in Crocs at Work!, we are treated to a healthy dose of silliness, as the crocs engage in doctoring, cooking, painting and other work, all with a small twist, lots of joy and no little mess.
This collection would make a great Chanukah gift, expected or not!
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday…. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. (image from book)
Change is a constant in our lives and things don’t always go as planned. Learning how to deal with the unexpected and to be able to ask for help and to be appreciative of it are all valuable lessons. And when such concepts can be literally illustrated and told in story form, they tend to stick better.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, written by Erica S. Perl and illustrated by Shahar Kober, is about home and helping, and takes its inspiration from the ninth candle on the chanukiyah, the shamash (Hebrew) or shammes (Yiddish), the helper candle. At the darkest time of the year, family, friends and community are the main lights that get us through and, especially amid the pandemic, a reminder of the love and support we have around us is particularly important.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday. But something is different. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. Their cat looks on. “No menorah? No latkes?” the kids wonder. Mom assures them that, tomorrow, they’ll find the Chanukah supplies amid all their things.
On the second night, Max and Rachel make a menorah with some wood, nuts and bolts, paint and glue. Not only is their real menorah still missing but the candles can’t be found either, so the kids – with Mom’s permission – go off to borrow some candles from a neighbour, and Mrs. Mendez in 2C happily obliges.
Each night, the family makes do with the help of a different neighbour. Each night is nice, “but it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah.”
Spoiler alert … eventually, the box with the family’s holiday stuff arrives – but too late. The delivery comes on Day 9. But Max and Rachel are not so easily deterred. They concoct a plan to celebrate the holiday and their neighbours. “And, best of all, it felt exactly like Hanukkah.”
Perl’s text has a rhythm. The repetition each night of how “it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah” accents how hard it is to accept new situations. Yet the fact that the family makes each night special, shows that, despite what we might be thinking or feeling, we can act in ways that still celebrate life and all for which we are grateful.
The illustrations by Kober are colourful, with a retro feel, and have a lot of energy. Creative use of white space helps direct the action. And the two-page spreads have an expansive feel to them, like the reader is right there in the apartment with Max, Rachel and their family and new friends.
The book ends with a nice note from Perl about Chanukah and her family’s tradition, followed by a list of nine ideas of how to make your own “Shamash Night.”
A PJ Library book, which is also available from most any bookseller, The Ninth Night of Hanukkah lights all the right candles and would make a great holiday gift.
Judy Weissenberg Cohen, at the age of 92, recently published her memoir, Cry in Unison. (photo from Riddle Films)
On erev Yom Kippur, in a Nazi concentration camp, a group of Hungarian Jewish women and girls prevailed upon two comparatively sympathetic kapos to obtain a lone candle and a single siddur.
Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a Toronto woman who, at the age of 92, recently published her memoir, was one of those girls.
“In this place, where we felt that instead of asking for forgiveness from God, God should be asking for forgiveness from us, we all wanted to gather around the woman with the lit candle and siddur,” she said during a virtual book launch Sept. 14. “She began to recite the Kol Nidre very slowly so we could repeat the words if we wanted to, but we didn’t. Instead, all the women burst out in a cry in unison. Our prayer was the sound of this incredible cry of hundreds of women. I have never heard, before or since then, such a heart-rending sound. Something was happening to us. It was as if our hearts were bursting. Even though no one really believed the prayer would change our situation, that God would suddenly intervene – we weren’t that naïve – the opportunity to cry out and remember together reminded us of our former lives, alleviating utter misery even for the shortest while. In some inexplicable way, it seemed to give us comfort. Even today, many decades later, every time I go to Kol Nidre services, I can’t shake the memory of that sound. This is the Kol Nidre I always remember.”
Cohen’s book, Cry in Unison, was published by the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program. Cohen’s is the 113th memoir published by the program. The books are offered to schools and universities across Canada at no cost, providing educators with an accessible entryway to teaching about the Holocaust by approaching history one story at a time.
Cohen was born in 1928, the youngest of seven children in the Weissenberg family.
In 1938, when she was 10 years old, her parents and other Hungarian Jews became increasingly alarmed by news from adjacent countries, including the Anschluss of Austria, followed a few months later by Kristallnacht.
When the mass transport of Jews from Hungary began, in 1944, Cohen spent days in a boxcar with 78 others, with two buckets – one for drinking water, the other for a toilet. On arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, as they disembarked from the cattle cars, a worker approached women with children and “very quietly in an urgent tone” told the young mothers to hand their children over to the grandmothers.
“At the time, we didn’t know what it meant,” Cohen recalled. “The fact was [the worker] asked the young mothers to give children over to the grandmothers because he knew that, within hours of our arrival, the grandmothers who looked 45 years or older and Jewish children 14 and younger immediately will be murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau. He wanted to save the young mothers. If you didn’t carry a child, then you lived. If you carried a child, even if the child wasn’t yours, you went to the gas chamber with the child.”
Cohen and her sisters were showered, shaved and given dirty hand-me-down garments. Sent outside without towels to dry themselves, Cohen could not locate her sisters.
“Only when they started to talk … and all of a sudden we started to laugh in our painful way,” she recalled. “How drastically we changed within a few hours.”
Cohen was subsequently transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then to a forced labour facility that was a sub-camp of Buchenwald.
In the spring of 1945, on a death march through the German countryside, she was finally liberated. The realization came in a German man’s choice of language.
With other girls and women, Cohen was sleeping in a barn during the march. “In the morning, there was a loud knock on the barn door,” she said. “We woke up all of a sudden from our shallow sleep and there stood a guy in the doorway. I still remember, it was a beautiful sunny day, the sun was behind him and he stood there like a dark silhouette. And, in a nice, strong voice in German, he said, ‘Fräuleins!’”
The women were startled as much by the word as by the awakening.
“Did he really say Fräuleins? A German addressed us as Fräuleins?” they asked one another, “The war must be over. A German hasn’t addressed us in a civil tongue for ages.”
He immediately continued: “Fräuleins, you are free.”
The terms liberation and freedom may be equivocal given what Holocaust survivors experienced. In Cohen’s case, she returned to her hometown in Hungary, certain that if she, the youngest, had survived, then surely her elders, who were more capable of caring for themselves, would likewise be coming home.
“I don’t know why I dared to be logical about the Nazi genocide,” she said.
Instead, she was reunited with one brother, one sister and two cousins.
“So it was very traumatic,” she said. The trauma was accentuated by the fact that some of the returning villagers had been on work battalions and had not experienced the death camps, and in fact had no knowledge of them.
“I had to be the messenger to tell them that their wives and their little girls were murdered in the gas chambers in Birkenau,” she said. “They didn’t believe me. They actually [considered] me insane.”
She went to a displaced persons camp – constructed on the grounds of the razed Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – and lived there for two years, learning a trade. But, when the opportunity came to emigrate, it wasn’t as a dental technician that she was chosen.
The Canadian government was seeking 2,500 garment workers. Though she had no experience, Cohen faked it and came to Montreal ostensibly as seamstress. (She moved with her family to Toronto in 1961.)
“But, with all other difficulties that we overcame through the time, I finally learned, with kind helping people, how to put together a dress and made some kind of a living,” she said. “The contract was only for one year, but I stayed for three years.… During those three years, I also prepared myself to change skills, change profession. I learned French, I learned English, I took a course to become a bookkeeper with typing ability and switch to office work.”
There was no psychological support and the term post-traumatic stress disorder did not yet exist.
“I don’t think we realized that we were traumatized,” she said. “You went through difficult times but it didn’t have a name. It so happened that my sister and I, and my brother, we had self-help among ourselves…. The emotional baggage, as far as I’m concerned, and I can only speak for myself, that had to be put on the back burner. It no longer was a priority to talk about it. Furthermore, nobody wanted to listen to us…. We just went on living as new Canadians and establishing new lives basically on the ashes of the old, and even became happy Canadians, got married, had children. We became like all other Canadians, overcoming all emotional difficulties by not giving them eminence in our lives.”
Cohen became a public speaker, sharing her Holocaust experiences with schools and other audiences after she had a run-in with neo-Nazis in downtown Toronto. She also has become a researcher and author on the topic of the unique experiences of women in the Holocaust.
Above all, Cohen said, she wrote her memoir in the 10th decade of her life as a warning.
“Mainly, I would like you to understand that this generation and subsequent generations must learn from us while we are still alive that this kind of depravity, one human to another, was possible and did happen and, unfortunately, it could happen again,” she said. “We are writing it to you all as a warning, as a very serious warning of what can happen even in cultured, educated, civil societies.”
Among Middle East observers, there has long been a view that the demand for a Palestinian “right of return” is a bargaining chip that would be negotiated away in a final status agreement, perhaps in exchange for a symbolic but small number of Palestinian refugees admitted to Israel and a substantial amount of money as compensation.
In a new book, two prominent Israeli progressives argue that this assumption is wrong, that the right of return is an unwavering demand from the Palestinian side and, as a result, represents a poison pill that guarantees no resolution to the conflict or to Palestinian statelessness.
“The Palestinian conception of themselves as ‘refugees from Palestine,’ and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews,” write Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf in the book The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace (All Points Books, 2020).
Wilf, a former Labour member of the Knesset, and Schwartz, an academic and journalist for Ha’aretz, have undeniable left-wing credentials. But, while the Israeli left has long been associated with the idea of compromise and idealism, the authors contend that there is little room for any sort of resolution as long as Palestinians cling to the idea that five million or more of them have the right to citizenship in Israel. Part of the failure of successive peace plans, they write, stems from the inability of negotiators to recognize the Palestinians’ tenacity in holding fast on this core issue – and argue that Israelis need to recognize that truth.
“[D]ecades of shuttling, strong-arming the sides, and endless hours of negotiations came to naught because none of the diplomats or negotiators truly understood and dealt with the root causes of the conflict, choosing instead to turn away and focus on that which appeared easier,” they write.
The status of Palestinian refugees is unique in the world. They have their own international agency devoted to the issue: UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, while all other refugees fall under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In this sole instance, the definition of “refugee” has been amended to become an inheritable status, meaning that the several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs dislocated by wars in 1948-1949 and 1967 have ballooned to more than five million – even though many or most of the original refugees have died and the vast majority of those seeking “return” have in fact never lived or set foot in the state they claim for their own.
While exponentially more people were made refugees in the same era – in Europe, in the Indian subcontinent and at least 800,000 Jews forced from Arab- and Muslim-majority lands across the Middle East and North Africa – Schwartz and Wilf argue that Palestinians view themselves as having experienced a unique injustice.
They quote Aref al-Aref, a Palestinian writer who was mayor of East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule in the 1950s: “We have been afflicted by a catastrophe, we the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, during this period of time in a way in which we have not been subjected to catastrophe in centuries and in other periods of time.…” Another Palestinian scholar, in 1950, wrote: “It is the most terrible disaster befalling the Arabs and the Muslims in modern history.… It is a deep-rooted disaster, far-reaching and full of dangers. It is an evil growing by the day and by the hour.” Another writer compared it with the Muslims losing Spain in the Middle Ages.
This almost apocalyptic language precludes compromise on what Palestinians have been promised through the generations by their leaders, according to the book. And, while plenty of voices, including academics, activists and politicians, have argued that the right of return would not be such a terrible thing for Israel’s well-being, the authors provide plenty of evidence that the proposed migration of millions of Palestinian Arabs into Israel is perhaps less about justice for refugees than it is about doing to the country through demographics what the Arab world has been unable to do militarily.
“It is well known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the homeland and not as its slaves. With greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the state of Israel,” said a senior Egyptian politician in 1949, at the beginning of the refugees’ long history.
As an article in a Lebanese newspaper put it, the Palestinians’ return would “create a large Arab majority that would serve as the most effective means of reviving the Arab character to Palestine while forming a powerful fifth column for the day of revenge and reckoning.” Arab League Secretary-General Azzam Pasha viewed the refugees’ return as making it possible for “an irregular army that would be in a position to cause a great deal of inconvenience to the Jews by acts of sabotage.”
To ensure that the plan was not foiled, no matter how long it took to reach fruition, a now-seven-decade-old scheme was hatched to prevent Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere from putting down roots, argue the authors.
“The rehabilitation of the refugees in Arab countries would have meant the end of the war, but that was not what the Arabs wanted,” they write. While the Palestinians were made pawns of the Arab League’s campaign of “denormalization” against Israel, the book portrays most refugees as at least semi-willing players. Attempts to find resolutions to their statelessness have been met with outrage. When Canada’s foreign minister suggested some Palestinian refugees might find a permanent home in Canada, he was burned in effigy in Nablus.
UNRWA, which was presumably begun with the best of intentions, has been consumed by politics and corruption and usurped into what the authors contend is effectively a globally funded branch of the Palestinian liberation movement. Agency-funded textbooks used in Palestinian schools have been shown for decades to inculcate Jew-hatred, venerate terrorists and incite violence. Nevertheless, Palestinians receive through UNRWA among the most per capita humanitarian aid in the world and live a life of which most refugees – and the poor in most Arab countries – can only dream.
From the start, UNRWA’s first annual report, in 1951, noted that many or most refugees were enjoying a better way of life than they had before 1948, receiving universal free education and quality healthcare. The UNRWA schools, now with more than three generations of alumni, have created a uniquely well-educated population of refugees, but, along with reading, writing and arithmetic, the curriculum has created “an embittered, angry and frustrated generation, raised on myths about ethnic cleansing by the Jews, the perfidy of Arab leaders, a sense of victimhood and a refusal to take responsibility for the results of the Palestinians actions in the years and months before Israel’s birth and thereafter,” Wilf and Schwartz write.
The book does not paint an optimistic picture. Western diplomats, peacemakers and politicians refuse to recognize the Palestinian demand of return seriously and continue to believe it can be negotiated away.
“If return were truly just a bargaining chip,” write the authors, “it could have and would have been bargained long ago for a Palestinian state. Rather, it is a Palestinian state that is repeatedly bargained away in order to keep fighting for return.”
There are plenty of issues to discuss – if there were negotiations occurring – but, they argue, the entire Palestinian case rests on the thing Israel must reject.
“The one article that Israel could absolutely not agree to, as it entailed its very suicide, was the one without which the conflict would never end,” write Schwartz and Wilf.
Bonnie Nish, executive director of Word Vancouver. (photo by Andrew Bagoly)
“We believe that Word Vancouver is a vehicle for community connection. It is important on so many levels right now to provide a space for collaboration, discourse, and a safe and accessible platform for people to share their stories,” festival executive director Bonnie Nish told the Independent.
Normally, the annual event takes place in Downtown Vancouver and people drop in to see author talks and participate in other activities. This year’s festival will be online, running Sept. 19-27.
“Like most organizations, we knew we had to either cancel or pivot by late March,” explained Nish about the impact of COVID-19. “Our festival takes place in September, so we had more time than others to make this decision.
“Word Vancouver’s mission,” she said, “is to bring readers and writers together to celebrate literary arts. The question was could we make the change from an in-person festival to an online festival and still serve this mission. We decided that, yes, we could, and, in doing so, we might even extend our reach with the in-person barrier removed. We could now seamlessly collaborate with national partners like Word On the Street Toronto and authors who were not physically in Vancouver, while keeping our main focus on local authors.”
Several changes had to be made.
“We needed to get prepared for the new online delivery format,” said Nish. “With the live in-person festival, we would not have any pre-registrations, as people would just walk into the events as they happened at the Vancouver Public Library. Now, we have a complex communications plan, along with a registration system, so our audience can secure their place and be given step-by-step instructions on how and when to participate.”
On the down side, she said, “We were working with a great site management team last year and we are sad we aren’t able to have them on our team for this festival.”
There have been other challenges, as well.
“We have had to prepare for the decrease of revenue from the exhibitor booths by reducing our staffing substantially,” said Nish. “Our board is very supportive of our new situation but they are also very risk averse, as they should be. We have found the most amazing volunteers and, for that, we are truly grateful. Programming is reduced somewhat, but we still have managed to book 140 authors and schedule over 50 events. Our community collaborations are stronger than ever. We have reinvented the exhibitor platform and now offer online exposure both on our website and during the events. It is a hard sell to some, but we honestly think the reach and return for exhibitors will be close to on par with the in-person version.”
Of the 140 authors participating this year, many are members of the Jewish community, and the Independent was able to speak with two of them – Alex Leslie and Rhea Tregebov – in advance of the festival.
Leslie writes poetry and short fiction, but is working on her first novel. Her latest collection is Vancouver for Beginners (Book*hug, 2019), and its poems are filled with powerful imagery and strong views about her beloved city, where she was born and raised. Leslie’s unique use of language, infused with obvious passion for her subject matter, is energizing to read. Every one of these poems is political in that they call on readers to think about the way in which they inhabit the world, how they think of ownership, place, community and many other concepts. Most of the entries are short narratives (or microfictions) that, in a page, encapsulate the feeling of being in a certain neighbourhood; what we lose when we normalize poverty alongside great wealth; the opportunities we miss when we forget our past, or the misery in our present.
JI: Could you share a bit about your background, both as it pertains to writing, and to your involvement with the Jewish community?
AL: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a very young child. In my early 20s, I started taking short fiction more seriously as a writer and trying to publish in literary journals. It took awhile to place my first story, through a long period of reading, frustration, rejection and editing. From there, I published stories until I had enough to put together a manuscript, and that book, People Who Disappear, came out in my late 20s. I’ve essentially continued in the same way – working on material for long periods of time, attending readings, drilling away at projects around the time I spend on my paid work in the mental health field. I’ve always been a wanderer between fiction and poetry communities.
I’m a member of Or Shalom synagogue in Vancouver and co-curate a storytelling series there…. The Jewish side of my family is originally Ashkenazi, from shtetls in Ukraine, in the regions around Lvov and Odessa (when they immigrated they wrote down they were “Russian”). We’re what is called diasporic, as the communities we came from were lost to the Shoah (Holocaust).
JI: Jewish characters have appeared in your writings. What are some of the ways in which our Jewishness informs your political, cultural or other views/actions?
AL: Yes, my book of stories that came out in 2018, We All Need to Eat, centred around a young Jewish woman named Soma, and Jewish identity is a backbone of that book, as she processes the current rise of the alt-right and her family history that’s bound up in fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
For me, a core Jewish value is tikkun olam, which translates roughly to “repair of the world/universe.” Tikkun olam influences my work in the mental health field, as there is the prerogative there of contribution and not turning away from difficult areas of the mind and the concept that energy and goodness can be found in dark places. Persistence and dark humour – humour where others may not find humour! – are practices I’ve taken from Jewishness as well.
JI: Do you still co-curate Koreh at Or Shalom? Why is it important for people to have a platform to publicly read their work?
AL: Yes! Our next Koreh is on Saturday, Sept. 12, for Selichot. We have 10 readers! I curate this with Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner. This Koreh is centred on the idea of the pandemic as a crossing or transformation and everyone is welcome to be part of our audience. Here is the link with the Zoom information: orshalom.ca/event/leil-selichot-a-koreh-event-with-high-holiday-melodies.
This is our third year of curating Koreh. I feel it’s a special space for people who may not consider themselves “writers” to share stories, poems and reflections on their experiences and how they relate to the world. We’ve had Korehs focused on the natural world, on repose/restoration, on sanctuary. Rabbi Hannah asked me to co-curate it with her when we started it up. It was really her concept in the beginning and it’s been a pleasure to get to know so many writers and listeners adjacent to Koreh.
JI: What compels you to write and publish?
AL: My love of writing coincided with my love of reading. I’ve honestly wanted to be a writer since kindergarten. I remember writing stories about our neighbours, and my mother copying them out again in her handwriting. As I got older and wrote more and more, publishing emerged as a natural goal.
I read constantly and loved that I could see the world precisely from another person’s emotional perspective. I suppose that I wanted to replicate that experience, and share in it. Also, for me, it was about language, and using and manipulating language as a medium. Selecting, ordering and controlling words is a fascination for me, the way I suppose a mathematician may feel about algebra, or an investor might feel about predicting stocks. It’s a system.
JI: What is the importance to you of words?
AL: I think that words can put you in another person’s mind, so the power here would be empathy, radical transportation. Words also have a power of deep-layered description – so the power would be complex evocation, mixing emotional and physical parts of reality, making something 2-D into something 3-D, like a life-giving power.
Words can also move us to action. During the pandemic, I have been reading a lot. Endless online stuff is tiring and alienating after a long period of time. I’ve read a few extraordinary novels during this time – two are Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. I also read Norman Doidge’s two books about neuroplasticity. I’m grateful for how these books moved me and took me out of this moment and showed me something I couldn’t have imagined on my own.
* * *
Born in Saskatoon and raised in Winnipeg, Tregebov moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2004 to teach in the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. Though she retired in 2017, she holds the position of associate professor emerita and continues to teach a bit. She has written several children’s books and is working on her eighth collection of poetry. Rue des Rosiers (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) is her second novel.
Based on events leading to the 1982 terrorist attack in Paris on Goldenberg’s Deli, which killed six people and injured many more, Rue des Rosiers is a poignant and lyrical story about two women with vastly different backgrounds but both trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. Canadian Sarah Levine makes decisions by flipping a penny that she carries with her and, at 25, she is decidedly lost, for a number of reasons. When she has a chance to go to Paris, she does and, while there, her story crosses over with that of Laila, an Arab immigrant living in one of the city’s slum neighbourhoods. In the author’s notes, Tregebov writes that she hopes her novel will “act as a memorial to the six people who died in the attack.” It does that, and more.
JI: Rue des Rosiers has so many layers and motifs, tightly woven, not a phrase seems superfluous. Can you share some of your creative process, from the idea of the novel to its publication last year?
RT: The novel began with two impulses: to explore the relationships among sisters and to understand the impact of terrorism on perpetrators as well as victims. Both are rooted in personal experience. I am one of three sisters, and I was living in Paris in 1982 very near where the attack on Rue des Rosiers occurred. Working through these issues was a long, sometimes joyous, sometimes exhausting process.
JI: Could you speak a bit about how Judaism or Jewish community infuse your work and/or life?
RT: I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the moral issues the Holocaust raises are core. I also grew up in a vital Winnipeg community that modeled ethical commitment and progressive values that I still find of immense value.
JI: Coteau Books, which initially published your novel, has closed. What are some of your thoughts on the future of publishing?
RT: Small presses like Wolsak & Wynn (who, happily, have picked up the novel) are a mainstay of literary publishing. We still have an infrastructure of support that allows these smaller presses. I’m concerned that the consolidation that characterizes the larger presses may contribute to a narrowing of available voices and perspectives.
JI: In an interview, you say, “I’ve said that the book is trying to ascertain the humanity in inhumanity.” Are there any risks in doing this, in finding the humanity in inhumanity?
RT: It can be difficult to attempt to empathically understand behaviour that is anathema to one’s own moral schema. I didn’t want to justify or validate acts or attitudes that dehumanize the Other. But, as one of the characters in the book says, “I’m interested in goodness, the mystery of goodness.” And, to examine goodness, one has to examine evil as its corollary.
JI: In another interview, you mention being “intrigued by the problem-solving involved in writing a novel.” Can you flesh out that idea?
RT: These large projects are so complex and absorbing. In the early stages, you have to hold a world that isn’t yet fully formed in your head. I’ve joked that it felt like wearing a giant hat! I (mostly) love the cut and paste and revision aspects of writing, how solving one small element sometimes acts to realign the entire book in a positive way.
JI: I’m always intrigued by imagery that enriches the storytelling, but is not technically needed for the story to be told. In Rue des Rosiers, you write sentences like, “A scraggly American elm sapling is handcuffed to a post as if it’s committed some crime”; “A gardener in blue coveralls sweeps the sand path, wiping away the traces of pigeon footprints”; “Light is a wave and a particle and so are the bees.” When or how do these types of flourishes enter your writing process?
RT: I think they’re a natural product of my life as a poet. Much of my writing is about looking, and I process looking through words. So having imagery present in the narrative is integral in world-building.
* * *
Word Vancouver is completely free and some events are already full, so visit wordvancouver.ca sooner than later. The festival is welcoming financial support via donations, its Adopt an Author and silent auction programs, information about which also can be found on their website.
A husband competes with his oldest daughter for his wife’s affections, a man ponders whether he is more attracted to a 10-year-old girl or her divorced older sister, a woman has an abortion she didn’t necessarily want, a young man violently rebels against his abusive father. Jonah Rosenfeld tackles difficult subject matter in his short stories, with no compulsion to solve any particular problem or correct behaviours, but to explore the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and thereby offer insight into parts of humanity that we may shy away from contemplating. English readers can now access these stories and ideas, originally conceived in Yiddish, thanks to a newly published translation by Langara College’s Rachel Mines.
The Rivals and Other Stories (Syracuse University Press, 2020) comprises 19 of Rosenfeld’s stories. Born in Chartorysk, Russia (now, Chortorysk, Ukraine), the prolific writer lived from 1881 to 1944, immigrating in 1921 to New York, where he was a major contributor to the Forverts. In total, he wrote 20 volumes of short stories, a dozen plays and three novels. Rosenfeld’s “stories provide a corrective to the typical understanding of Yiddish literature as sentimental or quaint,” writes Mines in the book’s press materials. “Although the stories were written decades ago for a Yiddish-speaking audience, they are surprisingly contemporary in flavour.”
The first Rosenfeld story Mines read, in Yiddish, was The Rivals (Konkurentn), six or seven years ago. “I’d only been studying Yiddish for a few years at that point and was reading to improve my language skills,” she said. “I was so impressed with the story that I decided, just for practice, to translate it into English. Later on, I found out that an English translation had already been published in [Irving] Howe and [Eliezer] Greenberg’s A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, but, by then, I was hooked on both Rosenfeld and Yiddish translation.”
Mines was a Yiddish Book Centre Translation Fellow in 2016 and The Rivals was her translation project during that fellowship year. “I’d already translated several stories before that, but 2016 was when everything started coming together in terms of improving my skills as a translator,” she said.
The project was her own idea, not work assigned by the Yiddish Book Centre, although the centre did support it.
“I should also mention,” she added, “that Vancouver is a veritable hotbed of Yiddish translation (who knew?), with a number of active translators, all of whom have been helpful at various times. Helen Mintz, in particular, was a huge inspiration and support. Her book of translations, Vilna My Vilna, a collection of Abraham Karpinowitz’s short stories, was published (also by Syracuse UP) in 2017. Helen and I spent several years together on Skype, regularly workshopping each other’s translations and helping each other out with advice and information. We’re still doing that, in fact.”
It is his exploration of the psyche that attracts Mines to Rosenfeld’s work.
“I’m interested in psychology – always have been – and particularly in people’s unconscious, and sometimes counterintuitive, reasons for thinking and behaving the way they do. So Rosenfeld’s insight into the darker corners of the human mind was an instant draw. I should say that his stories stand up very well to many current theories of human thought and behaviour. For example, the protagonist of The Rivals is a classic malignant narcissist – he ticks all the boxes. It’s interesting to note that Rosenfeld’s story was first published in 1909, several years before Otto Rank’s and Sigmund Freud’s theories of narcissism came out. Rosenfeld was an intuitive psychologist, and a very perceptive one.
“Another reason Rosenfeld’s stories appeal to me is that they work very well in a 21st-century, multicultural setting,” she said. “I’ve taught a number of the translations to first-year students at Langara, and students are attracted by his stories’ takes on immigration, women’s rights, male-female relationships, generational conflict, culture clash – this list goes on. Clearly, these ideas are as relevant today as they were when the stories were first written.
“Finally, I like Rosenfeld’s attitudes to his characters, even the less admirable ones. He seems interested in and sympathetic to their dilemmas; as an author, he doesn’t judge or blame his characters – he leaves that up to his readers. I like that Rosenfeld is more interested in exploring his character’s situations and psychology than he is in blaming or moralizing.”
Mines, who is retiring this year, taught in the English department at Langara College since 2001. One of the department’s main offerings has been a first-year class on the short story, she said. “Around the time I started translating, I started introducing stories with a Jewish theme to my classes. A bit to my surprise, despite coming from non-Jewish backgrounds, my students found the stories interesting and engaging, so I gradually added more and more stories with Jewish content. The last few years, I’ve been teaching Rosenfeld’s stories exclusively. My students love the stories and readily identify with (or at least understand) the characters and their predicaments. We’ve had many lively discussions!”
In an introductory chapter to The Rivals, Mines poses several questions she hopes keen PhD students or other researchers will take on, including where Rosenfeld’s place might be in the American literary canon. With the disclaimer that she is “just a lowly translator,” Mines said, “But, if pressed for an answer, I’d have to say it’s Rosenfeld’s psychological insights. He’s not entirely unique – other Jewish and/or American authors of his time were psychologically astute and wrote compelling character studies. But Rosenfeld went a bit beyond, in that his stories are almost Greek tragedies – his protagonists fail in their quests (for love, belonging, security, etc.) not because of external forces, but because of some internal, self-defeating habit of thought that they may not be consciously aware of. Rosenfeld isn’t the only author to explore this type of psychological dichotomy, but he does so very consistently.”
Susi and Mænni Ruben, Copenhagen, 1960s. Mænni Ruben’s autograph book, compiled in Theresienstadt, is the focus of a new online exhibit launched by the Victoria Shoah Project. (photo from Victoria Shoah Project)
The Victoria Shoah Project has launched a virtual exhibit of an autograph book compiled by Mænni Ruben, a Danish violinist and graphic artist held prisoner at Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp outside of Prague.
The 1945 Theresienstadt Autograph Book Exhibit features panels and the 40-page book itself, which is replete with signatures, sketches and aphorisms from Ruben’s friends and acquaintances who were also incarcerated at Terezin.
The book records the closing period of the war as survivors were being liberated. It is a story not only of the horrors of Nazism, but of long-lasting friends, and the music and art that united them during dreadful times.
Ruben died in 1976 in Copenhagen. Though he never lived in or visited Canada, the book remained with his widow, Susi, who remarried after his death and settled in Victoria. Upon her passing, in 2018, the book came into the hands of Rabbi Harry Brechner of Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El. He subsequently showed it to member Janna Ginsberg Bleviss, who became the coordinator of the exhibit project.
“When the rabbi showed the book to me last year, I could see right away that it was special and should go to a museum. It is in remarkable condition for being 75 years old and is a tremendous addition to Holocaust studies,” Ginsberg Bleviss said.
“I was fascinated by the book – who were these people and what happened to them? Reading the pages filled with optimistic greetings, illustrations and pieces of music was like finding a hidden treasure, waiting to be opened. I wanted to discover who these people were and hear their stories,” she added.
“This virtual launch [which took place Aug. 20] is meant to honour both Mænni and Susi, and the memory of those whose lives intersected in space and time in the Theresienstadt camp. None of the artists, musicians, composers or rabbis who wrote in the book are alive, but we can sense their lives through their traces here,” said Dr. Richard Kool, a member of the Victoria Shoah Project.
A number of panels show the powerful drawings of artist Hilda Zadikow, whose husband, sculptor Arnold Zadikow, died at Theresienstadt. One depicts the coat of arms of Terezin under a Magen David made of barbed wire. Another features three sad, grey sketches of the camp itself. In a third, there is a happier scene of colourful opera figures.
Her inscription in the autograph book reads, “Your old friend Hilda Zadikow wishes you all the best and delight in beauty.”
A poignant message comes from Rabbi Leo Baeck, an intellectual and leader of the German Jewish community and the international Reform movement, who wrote: “What you forget and what you don’t forget, that is what decides the course of your life will take.”
Pianist Alice Sommer Herz, the subject of the 2007 book A Garden of Eden in Hell and the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary The Lady in Number 6, was another prisoner at the camp. Sommer Herz, who died at age 110 in 2014, wrote in Ruben’s book: “In memory of music at Theresienstadt and in strong hopes of a better future.”
And a touching note comes from Miriam Pardies, someone Ruben seems to have known only in passing: “We know each other only from having greeted each other in a friendly way, but that too is a good memory,” she writes in the book.
“There is a huge educational value to these pieces for students learning about the Holocaust, or for researchers who want to continue exploring the stories of these most interesting people during an important time at the end of the Second World War,” remarked Brechner.
Ruben and his family were sent to Theresienstadt in 1943. A place where the Nazis kept prominent Jews, the camp housed musicians, intellectuals, artists, religious leaders and hundreds of children. In 1944, the inmates performed a concert for German visitors and the visiting International Red Cross – the performers were forced to act as though life at the camp was normal.
Losing his father at the camp, Ruben returned home after the war. A few years later, he met his wife. They married and both played in the Copenhagen Youth Orchestra – she on cello and he on violin. Mænni Ruben also worked as a graphic designer and Susi Ruben as a fashion designer; they were together for 24 years.
After her husband died, Susi Ruben’s company sent her to Israel, where she met Dr. Avi Deston. They married in 1978 and went to South Africa for 13 years, where Deston taught physics at the University of Transkei. On his retirement, they came to Victoria, in 1992.
The autograph book will be donated to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg for their Holocaust gallery. To view the virtual exhibit, go to terezinautographbook1945.ca.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Avrum Nadigel’s latest book, which he co-authored with the late Dr. David Freeman, is aimed at people contemplating a career in family therapy. (photo from Avrum Nadigel)
Therapist Avrum Nadigel’s latest book hit the shelves this month. Co-authored with the late Dr. David Freeman, Where Would You Like to Start: A Master Therapist on Beginning Psychotherapy with Families is structured as a conversation or interview between veteran therapist Freeman and then-newish therapist Nadigel.
Nadigel is a family marriage therapist based in Toronto. Originally from Montreal, where he had worked for the Jewish community for years, he moved to Vancouver for a spell. It was here that he met Freeman (who passed away in 2010).
Freeman had brought in various therapists to speak on marriage, love and respect at different events. Attending these lectures, Nadigel found what the therapists had to say “redundant and I didn’t find it very helpful for me. I had a pretty severe case of fear of commitment, and they all rambled on about the same thing. But, when David spoke, it blew my mind.”
About a year after hearing Freeman speak, Nadigel met, online, the woman who would become his wife, Dr. Aliza Israel. “She is from Vancouver, but was staying in Toronto at the time,” said Nadigel. “Now, we’re married and have three kids. And that all started because of David’s talk in Vancouver. David’s talk introduced me to a type of therapy called family systems theory.’”
Nadigel read many books on the topic, including Freeman’s, which made Nadigel rethink his previously held suppositions about relationships and marriage. “I changed the way I practise with my own clients,” he said.
Nadigel moved to Toronto when he was accepted into a residency there. He started up a private practice and began to look for someone to mentor him. At his wife’s suggestion, he reached out to Freeman in Vancouver, who, although semi-retired, was happy to supervise Nadigel via Skype.
Nadigel recalled some of the game-changing ways in which Freeman changed his way of thinking.
“When I was single, if I felt anxious or not good in a relationship, I was taught that this meant there was something wrong,” said Nadigel by way of example. A relationship “should be lovely, giving and with good communication, but, as soon as I get anxious, I bolt. Then, David comes around and goes … ‘Perhaps your own internal states of anxiety have nothing to do with the people you’re dating, but with your own internal struggle itself.’ It really changed how I saw discomforting feelings in intimate relationships. It helped me sit with them longer.”
Thinking about his eventual marriage to Israel, Nadigel said, “I often think back to that time and think, ‘How did all this work?’ Maybe, it was one part luck, one part theory and one part having a good therapist in my corner.”
In addition to Freeman’s counsel, Nadigel has done much study on family systems, notably he did post-graduate training with the Western Pennsylvania Family Centre, which teaches Bowen family systems theory, as formulated by the late Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and founder of the theory.
Recalling his conversations with Freeman, Nadigel said, “David was very worried about two things. Number one, that people were focusing too much on hacks and behavioural changes, and that the system was much more powerful than that … and that the system would often, not always, but often, thwart any attempts the individual would try to make the change. So, he was very concerned that there were so few therapists offering a larger perspective about human suffering.
“The second thing he was very worried about – I think this is because he was a grandfather at the time of his death, he had two grandkids – was about the disconnect from wise elders in society. I think that’s really coming home to roost right now, the fact that we have the hashtag on Twitter, where it says, ‘BoomerRemover.’
“Some people are thinking that, well, it’s good about this coronavirus – it’s going to kill off all the old people and there’ll be more condos. I don’t know what the hell they are thinking but we really do see the elderly as an inconvenience in a lot of cases, and David thought this creates an impoverished culture – that, when you think of traditional society, it’s the elders who share life lessons that can only be acquired over time, through adversity and history. You can read a book, but it’s very different if an elder tells you what it was like to survive the Blitz in Britain. And David thought that young people in their marriages were impoverished, because of their lack of connection.
“So, with those two things,” said Nadigel, “I thought, maybe, if I can somehow convince David to write another book, I could be the young green therapist and he could be the senior guy. He could speak to me and motivate the next generation of therapists.
“I thought to myself that it should be snappy and quick.… I threw him the idea and I think the same day he got back to me and said he thought the format’s viable – except that, in this case, it would be Skype calls between a young therapist and a senior therapist…. We quickly started working on this once a week.
“Then, David had the manuscript and was going on vacation,” said Nadigel. “We had a few more chapters to write; he really liked where the book was going. Then, I got an email from him, a very brief email, which was odd, because he was much more verbose. It just asked if I could call him.
“I thought, that doesn’t sound good, that maybe he was going to say the book sucks. I called, and it was his now-widow [Judith Anastasia], who answered, and she said, ‘Avrum, I’m sorry to tell you, but David died of a heart attack while we were cycling in Croatia.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was a crazy summer. My dad died, my son was born and David died.”
Several years later, with Anastasia’s blessing and to honour Freeman’s memory and work, Nadigel started to complete their book.
“The book gives you a taste of a master therapist, to experience the wisdom and thinking he brought to thousands of families and couples he’s worked with over 40 years,” explained Nadigel. “And, once you finish the book, you might feel it’s your responsibility now to go and further your training in this area.
“David’s life work was helping people understand that, if you want to do well with your own personal goals and struggles and gridlock, you have to understand what you’re up against,” said Nadigel. “And you don’t do that by just talking about your neurotransmitters and serotonin and dopamine, or meditation…. It’s about certain ways of the here and now, that you either distance or connect through relationships that are happening right now – that are happening with your mother, your father, your sister, your aunt, your cousin. The work is staring you right in the face right now.”
Family system coaching, consultation or therapy, said Nadigel, is based on “the theory and the road map of going back and reworking through some of the gridlock in your family. And those people who are successful at doing something and thinking differently [about] their problems with their relationships – siblings, spouse, kids, whatever – [are] bringing those successes to every relationship. And that does not happen in the clinician’s office.
“Also, this type of therapy understands that human beings don’t get into problems because of their thinking – they get into problems because they are flooded with feelings…. It tries to promote good thinking to balance out strong feelings, toward being a little more strategic in how you conduct yourself in your relationships.”
And Nadigel himself is an example of how the approach can work.
“I’ve often thought that, if I was reading about this book, the interesting angle I always found … is that I was a punk rock alternative musician in Montreal. I was commitment-phobic and really saw marriage and family, marriage considerably, as the death knell of all that’s good in life – [that it’s] boring and sucks the nectar out of a good life. Then, David comes along in Vancouver and he just creates a profound paradigm shift in me, and I have come to a wildly different understanding. I’ve become a marriage therapist myself, a father, all this kind of stuff, so a pretty fundamental transition.
“I was one of these people that, once upon a time, really had a strong distaste for the very thing I’ve embraced,” said Nadigel. “It really is all credit to this one little talk in Vancouver in the JCC. There’s hope there. It doesn’t take years and years. It could be a 50-minute talk.”
Nadigel has created a blog and podcast to support the new book. To access it, visit nadigel.com/start. Electronic and hard copy versions of Where Would You Like to Start are available at amazon.ca.
A new book on an incendiary topic turns out to be not quite as expected. The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, by Kenneth S. Stern, may be the most comprehensive assessment of the (at least) 20-year battle on North American campuses between pro-Israel and anti-Israel forces.
Jewish and pro-Israel readers picking up the work might anticipate a litany of horrors, anti-Zionist if not antisemitic incidents, brawls, screaming matches, vandalism, boycotts and the like. There is that. But Stern argues that the perception that campuses are aflame in anti-Zionist rage is simply not true. More, he offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics, too. There is ill will and there are bad actors on both sides. Most unexpectedly, as much as the book is about the conflict, it is more than anything an exercise in applied ethics on the topic of free expression.
Stern is the director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, an attorney and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism and he was a lead drafter of the Working Definition of Antisemitism. He is also, it appears, something close to a free speech purist. As such, he rails against efforts by Israel advocates who have organized campaigns to censure (and censor) anti-Israel voices. He doesn’t let the other side off easily, either, calling out acts of harassment like drowning out pro-Israel speakers with the “heckler’s veto.”
The book, from New Jewish Press, an imprint of University of Toronto Press, begins with an empirical assessment. In institutions of higher learning in the United States, Israel is an issue in very few, he writes.
When speaking with Jewish audiences, Stern asks for a show of hands to gauge perceptions on anti-Israel attitudes. He asks for guesses on how many American colleges have divested from Israel.
“Many seem surprised when I say ‘zero,’” he writes. “There are relatively few campuses where Israel is a burning issue, and every year the number of pro-Israel programs … is usually at least double the anti-Israel ones. There are over 4,000 campuses in the U.S. – in the 2017-18 academic year, 149 had anti-Israel activity.… So the campuses aren’t burning.”
He does not dismiss the extreme tensions on a few campuses, however.
“[O]n some campuses where anti-Israel activity is prominent, pro-Israel Jewish students may feel marginalized, dismissed or vilified, sometimes with antisemitic tropes.” Identity politics and the conflation of Jewish people with “whiteness” creates racial conflict. “[T]he labeling of Jews as white becomes a problem when shared victimhood becomes a sacred symbol, a badge of honour, a precondition to enter a club of the oppressed. Antisemitic discrimination is rendered invisible.”
Though bigotry may play a role in the discussion, Stern does not see constructive resolutions in neologisms like trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions.
“Faculty should have the right to give trigger warnings if they want, but I never do, and I think the idea is a horrid one,” he writes. “I teach Mein Kampf. It’s disturbing – get over it. College should prepare one to be an adult, and there are no trigger warnings after graduation day. Why are we encouraging students to be ostriches? Shouldn’t they, rather, be learning how to navigate things that will likely unsettle them over the rest of their lives?”
He quotes CNN commentator Van Jones, a strong civil rights proponent, who opposes “safe spaces” on campus: “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take the weights out of the gym. That’s the whole point of the gym.”
Stern contends a fundamental error has been made in defining terms.
“We want campuses that are open to expression – including, perhaps even especially, difficult and disturbing ideas – but which protect students from real harassment and intimidation. Hate speech codes were efforts to say that ideas themselves can harass and intimidate. Ideas can and should make one uncomfortable (a comfortable college education is a wasted college education). But harassment is something different.”
Strategically, he argues, trying to censor hateful ideas is self-defeating and advances hate agents by martyring them.
“By trying to censor, rather than expose and combat, speech the students perceived as hateful, they were actually helping the alt-right and white supremacists,” writes Stern. “It’s no coincidence that the white nationalists in recent years have wrapped their racist and antisemitic messages around the concept of free speech. Why would progressives allow these haters to steal the bedrock democratic principle of free speech, disingenuously saying that this is what their fight is about? By trying to deny alleged racists platforms, progressives are helping white supremacists recast their vile message as noble protection of a right.”
Another strategic failure, he argues, is buying into the Palestinian narrative’s good/evil dichotomy.
“Israel’s case is best understood as inherently complex and difficult; playing into the ‘all bad’ and ‘all good’ binary of the other side renders those complexities invisible,” he writes.
The conflict on campus spills over, of course. Israel has created a list of 20 organizations, those that urge boycotts of the country, for instance, and bars their members from entering the country. Stern sees this as counterproductive: “You don’t make the case that blacklists (especially of academics) are proper if your goal is to oppose blacklists. You are conceding the argument.”
He gives an example of an anti-Israel campus activist who defends his group’s refusal to meet with Zionists “over cookies and cake” because “you Jews, in all due respect, you wouldn’t sit down with Nazis for tea and cake.”
He also reflects on the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International, the Jewish campus organization, which proscribe engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
Writes Stern: “For those who are not yet ideological soldiers, but want to learn more, and want to do it around their campus Hillel, what sense does it make that adults are telling them they can only bring in certain types of speakers? Yes, the adults defined BDS as hateful. But does it make sense to tell students they have to go elsewhere than the Jewish address on campus to hear about it firsthand from those who support it?”
The litany of bad behaviours on all sides of the ideological divide is likely to make readers of Stern’s book uneasy, whether the reader is Zionist or anti-Zionist. But it is a rare and uncompromising testament to free expression that should give genuine free speech advocates an uplift, particularly in an era when ideologically driven regulation of expression and ideas, especially on campuses, has left many advocates of core liberal, academic values feeling beleaguered.