On the cover this week ...
Dec. 6, 2013
Nelson Jews: no Berlin
Free Gaza co-founder invited as speaker.
For most Canadian Jews, the last week has provided a chance to celebrate Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, with the community and the general public. And, it’s also been a chance to acknowledge that most North American Jews have no reason to be afraid of lighting their chanukiyot in public, or publicly identifying as Jewish.
For members of the small Kootenay Jewish community in Nelson, B.C., however, that sense of security was disturbed in early November when they learned that the local public library would be sponsoring a talk on the 2010 Gaza flotilla with the group’s co-founder, Greta Berlin. She was to be joined by two associates.
At press time, Berlin, Eva Bartlett and Bill Dienst were scheduled to speak Dec. 3 at the Nelson United Church as part of a string of presentations in Canada and the United States. Bartlett, who has lived in Gaza for the last six years, describes the conditions there on her blog as “one of the greatest manufactured (and preventable) crises and ongoing creeping genocides in the world.” Dienst is a co-editor of Berlin’s book Freedom Sailors and has worked as a physician in Gaza. All three maintain that Israel is illegally limiting the flotillas’ access to Gaza.
According to several members of the Kootenay Jewish community, however, it is specifically Berlin’s presence that has many residents upset.
Credited with co-founding the Free Gaza movement, Berlin has been accused on several occasions of fomenting antisemitism, either through direct actions or in association with forums she has administered. She made news in 2012 after she “accidentally” tweeted a link to a video featuring antisemitic writer Eustace Mullins titled “Zionists Ran the Holocaust and the Concentration Camps.” In her now-famous apology, Berlin said that she had meant to share the video only with her private Free Gaza group, not with the general public. She also insisted the statement about Jewish control of the Holocaust was a reiteration of Mullins’ statements about Jews, but not an endorsement of them. Nonetheless, she didn’t produce any evidence or refutation of the claims from any discussion about the video that might have taken place on the private Free Gaza Facebook page.
Some of Berlin’s harshest critics include other Palestinian activists. Ali Abunimah, well known for his criticism of Israel, denounced Berlin after he found what he felt was evidence of “a well-established pattern of exchanging, tolerating and indulging truly racist material” on the Facebook page that she administered.
Nelson resident and Jewish community member Jeff Shecter said that after members of the Kootenay Jewish community learned that Berlin, Dienst and Bartlett would be speaking, residents began writing to the library to express their concerns.
“There are longstanding members of the community that have been very upset,” Shecter said. “What is surprising is how many new individuals have been part of this discussion and, remarkably, the majority of them are women, Jewish women in the community.” Shecter noted that it has often been hard to inspire involvement in the Kootenay Jewish community, particularly because many live in remote areas outside of Nelson, or because they have not identified publicly as Jews. This talk, however, seems to have touched a nerve. Many Jewish residents say they are afraid that anti-Israel presentations will give fuel to antisemitism.
After a number of complaints about Berlin’s scheduled visit, the library canceled the event with an apology to the Jewish community. “Immediately, the event moved to the United church, which is the default, go-to place in these kinds of situations,” said Shecter.
According to a representative of the Christian ecumenical organization KAIROS, which is co-sponsoring the event with the local organization Nelson End the Occupation Now (NEON), the presentation is not intended to be divisive, but rather to inform listeners about the situation in Gaza.
Sandra Hartline, who serves as the representative for KAIROS Kootenay sub-region, said that people have the intent of the presentation all wrong. “It’s not about hating Israel or antisemitism or anything like that. That is totally incorrect,” she said in a telephone interview on Nov. 29. She said there would be no antisemitism expressed in the presentation.
But several members of the Kootenay Jewish community said that it wasn’t a question of whether there might be direct antisemitism in the presentation, but that the talk would leave a negative impression about the Jewish community and Israel, as similar events have in the past.
In September, Nelson United Church hosted two former members of an October 2012 Gaza flotilla, United Church minister and former member of Parliament Jim Manly and his wife Eva. The event was also co-sponsored by KAIROS.
According to one attendee (who did not want to be identified), the presentation started off as a recount of the crew’s attempts to sail to Gaza and their concern for the Palestinian residents in Gaza. About halfway through, the discussion “devolved into the boycotting of Israeli goods.”
“Numerous businesses and organizations were named, written on large sheets of paper pinned to the wall, and added to as people volunteered new names,” she said. Among them was Mountain Baby, a store owned by a member of the Jewish community, Starbucks, which has franchises in Israel, and another business that sends a donation to an undisclosed address in Israel each year. “Any product produced in Israel, including fruits and vegetables, canned or packaged and manufactured goods were named,” the source shared.
Carolyn Moore, who lives in the Nelson area, said she later wrote to Nelson United Church and asked them about the boycott. The church confirmed the boycott’s existence, but said it “has to do with the goods produced by Israeli firms operating on illegal lands in Palestine.”
Judy Banfield, the owner of Mountain Baby, questioned why her store would be boycotted. She said her products do not fit that profile.
“I have a few baby instruments made in Israel and, this time of year, a few Chanukah items made in Israel. Most of the Chanukah stuff is made in China,” she said in an e-mail. “I don’t accept that it was because I sell Israeli products. It is because I am a clearly identified Jew.”
She added, “It has been an extremely emotional experience for me,” and that she has had a hard time sleeping since finding out her store was on a boycott list. “They don’t have a clue what I carry in my store. Nobody has come around and gone through every single box and lifted it up to see where things come from,” she said. “When I first heard it, I was just incredulous. And then, the next day, I woke up trembling. It was so terrifying to me that this would happen, and that it would even be suggested in this community and that nobody at that meeting, as far as I know, stood up and said ‘This is not OK.’”
Since the announcement by the church that it would hold the event on its premises, members of the Kootenay Jewish community have made several requests for the church to cancel it. They have also reached out to other members of the Nelson community, including Nelson United Church parishioners, many of whom were concerned about the potential danger of the event to foment rifts in the community.
On Nov. 25, Nelson United Church sent a form letter to each of the individuals who had written to its board, stating that the event would go on as planned. In response to community members’ concerns, church board members Morgan Gould and Peter Busby said that the church didn’t have “at its disposal a research team to determine the veracity” of concerns that “Greta Berlin is ‘antisemitic,’ engages in hate speech and seeks to harm Israel.”
They added, “We have had, however, direct contact with people who have worked with Greta Berlin; they spoke at an event at our church this past September; one of them was a member of the flotilla led by Greta Berlin. In sum, we can say that we lend greater credence to someone’s character if gained through personal knowledge, than if promulgated through social media.” The board members admitted that it was difficult to discern the truth, and provided four links that they felt showed “there are counter arguments and differing points of view on Greta Berlin.”
“One of them [was by] a Holocaust denier,” said Banfield in response, “and another one is this inflammatory, anti-Israel link. [It] is so discouraging that they have so not plumbed the depth of this issue.” No links were provided to organizations that had identified Berlin’s actions as antisemitic.
The United Church of Canada has been widely criticized in recent years for its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but, as far as the Nelson Jewish community is concerned, said Banfield, a core concern is the church’s alignment with organizations like Sabeel, which has been accused of antisemitism and whose motives have been questioned because of its use of rhetoric that likens the treatment of “Palestinian men, women and children” by Israel to the crucifixion of Jesus by Jews.
In a brief turn around, on Nov. 28, Nelson United Church announced that it had canceled the event. According to Hartline, however, the church reinstated it that evening after staff had spoken to board members. Information received by the Jewish community suggests that the event was actually reinstated at the behest of its minister, David Boyd, who has been on sabbatical in Israel. According to his blog, Sabbatical Blessings, Boyd is a supporter of Sabeel and an opponent to “Zionists” and the “Judaization of Jerusalem.”
According to Anath Grebler, who is accepted by many in the Kootenay Jewish community as its spiritual leader, “antisemitic sentiments and anti-Israeli sentiments and ‘anti-’ activities matching [those sentiments] have been on [the] increase” for the last five years, with little public response from Jewish community members. She said the problem that now exists in the Nelson area “is like a garden that we allow lots of weeds to grow in. A lot of stuff is unsavory. Some of the stuff can be classified as ‘freedom of speech,’ but there is a lot beyond it. And it has been allowed to proliferate. So one issue that she [Berlin] capitalized [on] and brought to the surface is when a public institution like the library is willing to host an event like that, all the alarm bells ring.”
The Kootenay Jewish community also consulted the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. According to Shecter, Darren Mackoff, director for the CIJA’s Pacific Region, advised the group in an e-mail “not to give any more attention [to the event] than it deserves.” Mackoff also said that trying to stop a presenter from speaking was not advised. “Any public attempts to do so may ultimately not have the effect you are hoping for, and may even produce negative results.” He advised “monitoring the situation” and noted that in at least one event recently Berlin has failed to show up at prearranged talks.
Both Shecter and Grebler stressed that the real danger of framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a presentation in which only one side of the conflict is heard, is what is left behind when the presenters go home. “And what is unhealthy [in this area] is that, beyond all kinds of rhetoric, antisemitism is there as well,” said Grebler.
Jan Lee’s articles have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, thedailyrabbi.com and Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism. She also writes on sustainable business practices for TriplePundit.com. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Beloved musician laid to rest
Arik Einstein is eulogized as creator of Israel’s soundtrack.
STAFF TIMES OF ISRAEL
Arik Einstein, the iconic Israeli musician whose songs were acclaimed as the soundtrack of a nation, was laid to rest at the Trumpeldor cemetery in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 27, after his sudden death Tuesday night at the age of 74.
The funeral began at 4 p.m. with the reading of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, as fans gathered on surrounding rooftops to watch the proceedings.
Pain and sorrow were evident on the faces of the mourners, who remained at the cemetery long after the service, praying, singing and lighting candles even as the holiday of Chanukah began with sundown.
“You only lived the good, you could not understand the bad,” eulogized his close friend Rabbi Uri Zohar as he choked back his tears. “Through your songs we saw your soul. You made so many people happy,” he added. “Not only in front of crowds, but also in front of one solitary person. Even if it was a man in an old age home.”
Before Zohar became a rabbi, he and Einstein collaborated on a number of movie projects.
Earlier in the afternoon, thousands of people, including the prime minister, gathered in Tel Aviv to pay their last respects. Einstein’s body lay in state in Rabin Square on a platform decked out in mourning black at the centre of which his coffin, draped in black, stood surrounded by red flowers. A scarf from the Hapoal Tel Aviv soccer team, of which Einstein was a well-known and dedicated fan, was placed on the coffin.
Led by his friend Shalom Hanoch, musicians staged a concert in his memory for the thousands who had crowded into the square.
At about 4 p.m., his body was moved to the city’s Trumpeldor cemetery.
Among those who arrived was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who filed past Einstein’s coffin and consoled family members and friends of the singer. “You were a wonderful artist,” Netanyahu said at the funeral. “You were a wonderful man.”
As the crowd of mourners swelled, those present joined in singing some of Einstein’s songs. For hours afterwards in Rabin Square, dozens of mainly young Israelis sat amid candles and sang Einstein’s songs.
Einstein was rushed to Ichilov Hospital at around 10 p.m. Tuesday and died soon after of an aortic aneurysm, doctors said.
“We tried to operate on him but our attempts failed; he got here in too serious a condition,” hospital director Gabriel Barabash said. “There is nobody to sing for us anymore.”
The death of Einstein, whose career spanned six decades and included 44 albums and hundreds of collaborations, was met with an outpouring of grief.
Fellow veteran Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, who was playing a concert in Tel Aviv when news broke of Einstein’s death, halted the show after playing “Ha’ish Hahu” (“That Man”) as a tribute. He said later that he’d played the whole show knowing Einstein was in the hospital, and started crying on stage when the news came. “He was one hell of a person,” said Artzi. “We lost a piece of ourselves.”
Vigils formed outside Ichilov Hospital, on the street below Einstein’s Tel Aviv apartment and at Rabin Square. At his home on Hovevei Zion Street in the city centre, some neighbors argued that the spontaneous gathering – including mourning candles and flowers, with passing cars blaring Einstein’s music – was the last thing the very private singer would have wanted. Others spoke of needing to come to the house to show their respect and affection for him.
Television channels halted their regular programming to broadcast clips and remembrances of the singer. Radio stations switched to all-Einstein soundtracks.
“We all grew up on his songs. The words of Arik Einstein were the words of the land of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a statement posted to Facebook. “Arik was a wonderful musician and a wonderful man.... I loved him very much. Israel bids farewell with great sadness to a giant of culture who will be missed. My wife and I are greatly pained by his passing.”
Einstein’s wife, Sima Eliyahu, and close friends, including a number of fellow musicians, were with him at the hospital.
“It’s the death of a father,” said Yehudit Ravitz, who sang backing vocals on some of Einstein’s songs early in her career. “He’s been part of my life since I was five years old.”
“This is terribly sad,” actor Haim Topol, a friend, told Ynet. “He was a happy kid, joking, funny.... There is no replacement. He was one of the greatest musicians in Israel. For decades, he sang songs, sang from his heart, wrote some of them. I mean with every word that he was a singer. There are no singers like that today.”
Einstein, born in Tel Aviv in 1939, is considered the godfather of Israeli rock. He wrote classics like “Ani Ve’ata” (“Me and You”), “Uf Gozal” (“Fly Little Bird”) and “Sa Le’at” (“Drive Slow”).
Einstein had not performed in front of an audience since the early 1980s, following a road accident in which he was seriously injured, and he rarely left his home. But he continued to record, had just begun writing a column for the Maariv daily, and was at work on a new album when he died.
His first album, Shar Bishvilech, or Singing for You, was released in 1966. He was then part of the rock band the High Windows with Shmulik Kraus and Israeli-American Josie Katz. He later formed the Lool, or Chicken Coop, comedy troupe, and excelled as a light comic actor alongside his lifelong friend Zohar. Einstein’s two eldest daughters became Orthodox and married two sons of Zohar, who had also become newly observant. In an indication of Einstein’s across-the-board appeal, several ultra-Orthodox radio stations were also playing his music the day he passed away.
A number of commentators noted that Einstein was like a number of international superstars, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Elvis, rolled into one.
“Einstein was the embodiment of the new, liberal, secular Israel that we once thought we would be,” Chemi Shalev wrote in an article in Haaretz. “He was the quintessential, apolitical, fun-loving king of Tel Aviv decades before the city became so hot and trendy. A superstar by anyone’s standard, he remained shy, modest and unassuming until his very last day.”
“He was our Frank Sinatra,” singer Israel Gurion told Ynet. “He was just a tremendous man. I still can’t process it. We went a long way together.”
In a statement, President Shimon Peres said Einstein’s music was “a soundtrack to the whole nation. He moved both the earliest generations and the newer ones. Nobody questioned the depth of his feeling. The nation drank thirstily his beloved voice, which flowed from the depths. Also in his death, his songs will continue to play to life and hope.”
– The article was originally published in Times of Israel and is reprinted with permission.
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