Historical ignorance has been in the news recently, with polls indicating widespread lack of awareness of the Holocaust, especially among young people in North America and Europe. (See jewishindependent.ca/much-work-left-to-do.) Some media reports got the story wrong, however, claiming that many people “don’t believe” six million Jews died in the Holocaust. The reality is that many people “don’t know” this fact, and there is a big difference between not knowing and not believing. Then there is a different phenomenon altogether: denial.
Plenty of well-informed but ill-intentioned people know the truth of the Holocaust but, for various reasons, take a position that the facts are falsified. The notorious Holocaust denier David Irving is reportedly again making the rounds in Britain, promoting his ahistorical ideology. In a nice contrast, Irving’s nemesis, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, is back in the news promoting her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now.
Lipstadt went from respected Emory University professor to a sort of global superstar when Irving sued her for libel in a British court in 1996 for correctly characterizing him as a Holocaust denier. Although Lipstadt is an American, she and the book’s U.K. publisher were targeted because Irving apparently thought that country’s libel laws might serve his cause. In the United Kingdom, libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant instead of the plaintiff. As a result, the trial played out as a public history lesson, with Lipstadt’s legal team forced to prove the historical truths of the Holocaust. They did, of course, and won the case. Nonetheless, Irving’s career as a provocateur and historical revisionist continues.
More serious than a nasty British gadfly is the Holocaust denial taking place in Poland right now, a phenomenon that has led to a collapse in Israeli-Polish relations.
Until recently, Poland was one of Israel’s closest allies on the world stage. While Polish society has never undergone the self-reflection that Germany did after the Holocaust, Polish governments developed excellent relations with the Jewish state. After the fall of the communist regime, relations between the two countries grew quite warm. Trade and diplomatic relations at the highest levels flourished.
With the election of the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party, in 2015, things began to change. Last year, the Polish government passed a law criminalizing speech that references Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Canadian Prof. Jan Grabowski, who spoke in Vancouver last fall, heads a team of researchers, most of them in Poland, who are scouring archives throughout that country amassing what is probably the most comprehensive assessment ever compiled on the subject of Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust. Without Polish collaboration – frequently offered willingly and without compulsion, the research indicates – the Nazis could not have succeeded nearly so completely at their murderous destruction of Polish Jewry, Grabowski insists.
Politicizing this history – that is, criminalizing the truth – has put the Polish government on a trajectory of institutionalized denial. Unlike masses of young North Americans and Europeans, the Polish leaders know very well what transpired in their country during the war. As Grabowski notes, it is not the collaborators and their descendants who are today ostracized in small communities across Poland but rather those families whose members helped their Jewish neighbours.
It was inevitable that Poland’s approach would have repercussions in the Polish-Israeli relationship. It happened dramatically in recent days. The Visegrád Group, which is a cultural and political alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, was slated to meet with Israeli leaders at an extraordinary summit in Israel this week.
A week ago Friday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was visiting the Museum of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, when he stated, in a meeting with Israeli reporters where recording devices were not permitted, that Poles had aided the Nazis. A flurry of confusion followed as the prime minister’s office clarified that he had said “Poles,” and not, as some media had reported, “the Poles” or “the Polish nation.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki decided to snub Netanyahu by withdrawing from the summit and sending his foreign minister instead.
Yisrael Katz, on his second day on the job as Israel’s foreign minister, dumped fuel on the simmering conflict in a TV interview. Ostensibly sent to smooth over the matter, Katz used the opportunity to quote the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to the effect that “the Poles imbibe antisemitism from their mothers’ milk.”
Suffice to say the summit is off. The leaders of the three other countries are still slated to travel to Israel for bilateral meetings but Polish-Israeli relations are on the rocks.
The conflict illuminates a strange dichotomy. The government of one of the countries most affected by the Holocaust tries to blot out what they certainly know to be the truth. Meanwhile, a generation of young people look on, unaware of even the barest details of what is at the root of the uproar.
Jewish Voice for Peace, an American organization that has been highly critical of Israel, announced recently that it is “anti-Zionist.” It is certainly a matter of semantics, as the group’s own executive director acknowledged.
“This doesn’t change anything about our focus or our political analysis,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson. “It just names something that hasn’t been named before.”
On the one hand, at least the group is being honest and not hiding behind the ambiguity they had adhered to until now. On the other hand, it represents a progression in the evolution of the anti-Israel movement.
Until just a few years ago, it was rare for people like those in JVP to say they opposed Israel’s existence. They would claim they were merely opposed to a specific policy or direction of the Israeli government. Now, they admit, they don’t think there should be an Israeli government.
In the same interview in which Vilkomerson made the announcement, she also repeated that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.” Again, a few years ago, people said “criticism of Israel is not antisemitism.” This appears to be an evolution.
In what intellectual framework is it acceptable to make a statement like “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”? The undercurrent of the sentence is that, under no circumstances, by any measure, in no way, is anti-Zionism connected with or affected by antisemitism. Progressive people – which is how JVP and many of Israel’s other critics define themselves – would never dream of dismissing the potential of bigotry toward any other ethnic or cultural group.
More egregiously, Vilkomerson overtly contradicts her very words, acknowledging that there are, indeed, antisemites in the movement.
“Obviously, there are people who are antisemitic or anti-Zionist and there are people who mask their antisemitism with anti-Zionist language. That’s a given,” she says, “but that doesn’t paint anti-Zionism as concept.”
Here is what does paint anti-Zionism as concept: it is a movement utterly unconcerned that there is antisemitism and that there are antisemites within it. The leader of JVP admits that her movement attracts antisemites but expresses not a whiff of displeasure or concern. It is what it is.
“Ever since [the advent of] Zionism there has been anti-Zionism within Jewish communities,” she goes on. This is true. Zionism did not reach a consensus point among European and North American Jews until sometime around the Holocaust. When the implications of Jewish statelessness became the gravest in 2,000 years, a massive majority of Jews worldwide abandoned whatever ambivalent positions they had held and (almost entirely) united to create and support Israel.
There is no false corollary here: the state of Israel was not a “consolation prize” for the Holocaust, as has been suggested on more than one occasion. No one gave the state of Israel to the Jewish people; our ancient homeland was won back through a bloody defensive war and has survived and thrived despite massive external opposition.
We will see if other organizations, including similar Jewish groups in Canada, follow JVP’s suit. We will also continue to see primarily non-Jewish groups argue against Israel’s existence based on an anti-nationalist idealism or more nefarious interests. As we watch these developments, it is worth wondering why, as the first target of a battle against the concept of nationalism, “progressive” activists target Israel. Why not France? Why do Hungarians deserve their own country? What makes Norwegians so special that their nationhood is not called into question?
Closer to the point, Why do the Palestinian people deserve a homeland, which is the stated motivating purpose of JVP and so many other groups, while Israelis do not? Can people who declare “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” see how these inconsistencies, including the indifference to Jewish statelessness, might make their protests seem hollow?
Teen activists talk with Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart at a climate-strike action on Dec. 7. (photo from Rebecca Hamilton)
“It’s going to be our future, so it’s up to us to take it into our own hands and show that, even if we can’t vote, we can still make a difference in our communities and the world,” Malka Martz-Oberlander told the Jewish Independent when she and fellow activist and friend Rebecca Hamilton met with the paper to discuss recent – and future – efforts to draw awareness to the climate crisis.
The two high school students are part of the group Sustainabiliteens, which was inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Last year, Thunberg started monthly school strikes, stating that preparing for a future that won’t have a livable climate was pointless. The strikes, called “Fridays for Future,” have spread to at least 270 countries, including Canada.
Inspired by Thunberg, strike action took place at Vancouver City Hall on Jan. 16, the day that Vancouver city council unanimously passed a motion put forward by Councilor Christine Boyle (OneCity) to declare a climate emergency. Similar motions have been adopted in other cities, including London, Los Angeles and Oakland, but Vancouver is the first in Canada to do so.
“Climate change is already impacting the people of Vancouver and will continue to. We need to respond to this crisis urgently and compassionately with a path towards a more equitable society,” said Boyle in a release. “Adequately addressing the climate emergency won’t be easy, but we are a smart city, capable of doing difficult things.”
Hamilton was an organizer of the strike at City Hall, and the groups Force of Nature and Extinction Rebellion Vancouver also supported the action. There was a previous school walkout and strike for the climate on Dec. 7, said Martz-Oberlander. She and Hamilton are among a growing number of Metro Vancouver teens coming together in what Martz-Oberlander describes as a “shared passion for climate justice.”
“With some of my friends, it’s just doom and gloom,” said Martz-Oberlander. “There’s this sense of this is all going to happen and no one can do anything, so why do anything? It’s out of our hands, we’re just kids…. But there’s also a lot of people that I know who are hopeful and see the bigger picture.”
“When I ask kids about the climate crisis,” said Hamilton, “they say that they think it’s a real problem and they’re scared. But the world around us doesn’t recognize what’s happening with the same sense of urgency that we feel. We are living in a confusing and weird time. On the one hand, we understand the science, we’re being told the scientific facts that we’re in a crisis. We’re being told these very conflicting messages, and there’s this dissonance. So what am I supposed to believe? The world is just going as normal, but why are you telling me then that we’re in this crisis and everything needs to change? I think that’s really frustrating. Me, personally, every day I’m frustrated by that.”
Both Martz-Oberlander and Hamilton grew up in the Vancouver Jewish community and say their Jewish values inform their activism. Martz-Oberlander’s family has been involved with Congregation Or Shalom since before she was born, and Hamilton grew up going to Temple Sholom.
“In the Torah, it talks about needing to pass down this world better than we got it,” said Martz-Oberlander. “That’s the concept of l’dor v’dor, ‘from generation to generation.’ The Jewish teaching that really influenced me is the sense of responsibility towards future generations.”
“Camp Miriam was most important to me in cultivating my Jewish identity,” said Hamilton. “I think it played a huge role in what I’m doing and why I care about it. The focus on youth agency, being told we could create change. It’s tikkun olam – environmentalism and climate justice is the most important way to try and help other people and create a more just world.”
Both teens avoid the word “climate change,” preferring instead to talk of the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” and the need for “climate justice.”
“Climate change doesn’t sound urgent enough,” said Martz-Oberlander. “It’s an emergency.”
“I prefer climate emergency or climate crisis,” said Hamilton, who cites Jewish writer and activist Naomi Klein as an important influence on her thinking. “It’s not about preventing this catastrophe but about healing the foundation of our world. The climate crisis is a manifestation of these unjust worldly systems which exploit nature, animals and people, so fixing that manifestation will also mean fixing those systems.”
Hamilton and Martz-Oberlander were inspired to join the climate-strike movement after it came to Canada with a strike in Sudbury, Ont., led by 11-year-old Sofia Mather.
“I feel like I have been concerned about climate change my whole life,” said Hamilton, “but I began to want to do something when I realized that nothing else really matters if we live on a dead planet.”
Hamilton and Martz-Oberlander are currently preparing for a Canada-wide school strike on May 3, and have a local action planned for Feb. 15.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The United States Senate was expected to vote this week on a bill that would make it easier for state and local governments, as well as government agencies and perhaps other bodies, to refuse to do business with groups that endorse a boycott against Israel.
The bill comes after several state governments have taken steps against BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Florida’s legislators, for example, directed officials in 2016 to create a list of companies that engage in boycotts of Israel and instructed all government entities to divest from those companies. Two years later, the state passed a bill preventing companies that engage in boycotts of Israel from bidding on local or state government contracts. In all, about half of the 50 states have some form of statute on the subject, some simply making their opposition to BDS known, without adding punitive economic conditions.
Boycotting Israel is a dumb and self-defeating position, but so is the idea of governments boycotting the boycotters.
Opponents of the federal anti-BDS effort – and even some people with no horse in the race – are asking whether boycotts are covered by free speech legislation. Nobody is saying BDS should be illegal. But, when a company or individual applies to government for, say, a contract to build a road, there are numerous conditions. Non-unionized companies may be excluded, for example, or businesses may have to prove they adhere to government guidelines around equal employment. People are free to boycott Israel, and governments are free to prevent those people from obtaining contracts with them. On free speech grounds, we don’t really have a problem with the idea – and we’re pretty defensive about free speech.
To us, the discussion is less a legal one, or even a moral one, than it is a strategic one.
Despite their thuggish, bullying tactics, members of the anti-Israel movement love to position themselves as victims. While harassing Jewish students on campuses, shouting down speakers, making Jewish women unwelcome at women’s marches and disrupting venues where Israel and Palestine would seem to have little relevance, such as at a major LGBTQ conference in Detroit recently, they nevertheless depict themselves as tiny Davids fighting Goliath. With that in mind, legislation that punishes those who support BDS will give its advocates their first rightful justification for claiming victimhood. But there is a more important and obvious reason why we should not be legislating against BDS.
We shouldn’t need to tie the hands of BDS supporters behind their backs to win this fight. Our strength must be our ability to refute the lies, exaggerations, hypocrisies and prejudices of the BDS movement. There are a million arguments against BDS.
Ireland recently passed a wide-ranging Israel-boycott law and promptly realized that its high-tech sector, which is mostly propped up by American investment, could be imperiled if Ireland forces giants like Apple, Google and Facebook to choose between Dublin and Tel Aviv. While BDS is intended to be economically injurious to Israel, it can harm the very people who are advancing it. And it is more than economic damage BDS can self-inflict. Given the plethora of life-saving and life-enhancing innovations emerging constantly from Israel, boycotting that country could be detrimental to one’s health.
There are countless ways to counter BDS … like pointing out that BDS hurts Arabs. Not just Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, like those who famously lost their jobs when BDS forced the closure of a SodaStream plant in the West Bank, but impoverished residents of countries adjoining Israel, too. Seventy years of its Arab neighbours boycotting and isolating Israel has done nothing to harm the massive economic and social successes enjoyed by citizens of Israel. It has only ensured that the people of Jordan, Lebanon and other countries that snub Israel suffer from being deprived of these economic, technological and scientific achievements. Since the Arab boycott of Israel went global, the discrepancies have only grown. Israel’s GDP has doubled since 2005, when BDS started to take off.
The preoccupation of the BDS movement with academic boycotts is especially easy to confront: it’s the ideological descendent of book-burning.
We should also be conscious that even people who take positions we support may be using us to advance their own agendas. While the Republican party has been steadfastly pro-Israel – as have most Democratic party lawmakers – this anti-BDS measure is a bald attempt to sow division among Democrats by shining a light on some of the new elected officials who diverge from the traditional bipartisan consensus on the American-Israeli special relationship. Confronting those dissenters on the issues is justified – and is being taken up by a new group of Zionist Dems, called the Democratic Majority for Israel. But allowing one party to monopolize Israel for political advantage spells disaster for American Zionists and for Israel (despite the overt collaboration of Israel’s prime minister in the Republicans’ partisanship on this issue).
BDS is a bad idea. But, banning – or, more accurately, boycotting – BDS gives the appearance that Israel is indefensible on merit. That makes legislation to punish BDS supporters another bad idea.
At a time when there are plenty of bad ideas to go around, this is absolutely a case where two wrongs do not make a right. Defeating BDS should be done intellectually, not legislatively.
The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser is a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing. The award is given to a “book that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”
At the core of PEN America is the ideal of freedom of speech, “recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” For his entire career, Beiser has been trying to change the world with his writing and, with The World in a Grain, he educates readers about the phenomenal importance of sand in making thousands of things, from concrete to glass to fibre-optic cables, and how dependent on it we are. So valuable is sand that people steal it and even kill for it, and our unbridled use of it, in concrete in particular, might just kill the planet.
To bring these harsh realities to light, Beiser adeptly and engagingly – sometimes with humour – mixes empirical evidence, scientific explanations, interviews with people directly connected to or affected by sand mining, profiles of relevant historical figures and his own commentary, as well as some factoids, which he calls “Interludes.” He comes to the not-surprising-but-disheartening conclusion that there’s only one solution: “human beings have to start using less sand. For that matter, we have to start using less of everything.”
Beiser dedicates the book to his wife, Kaile, and their children, Adara and Isaiah. While they live in Los Angeles, he grew up here. The Jewish Independent interviewed him about his upbringing, his career and, of course, his book.
JI: Could you tell me where you were born, how you ended up in Vancouver, and how your parents’ involvement in social causes influenced your choice of profession?
VB: I’m from a venerable Vancouver family, though I wasn’t born there. My grandfather’s family – the Landos – came over from England around the turn of the 20th century, first to Prince Rupert and then to Vancouver, where they worked in the fur business, of all things. My mother [Roberta] and her siblings were all born and raised in Vancouver – mostly in the same house where she still lives! My brothers and I were all born in the U.S. (myself in New York City), where my father [Morton] was working. We moved to Vancouver when I was 10, and I grew up there until I took off to college in California. I come back just about every summer.
My parents were always very engaged with the world, and the idea of trying to make it a better place – my father as a mental health researcher, and my mother mainly through her work with all kinds of arts and cultural organizations. We did a lot of traveling as well, which really opened my eyes to just how lucky we were and how much less so are so many other people. Meanwhile, I also had an uncle, Vancouver native Barry Lando, who was a highly decorated producer at 60 Minutes, so I grew up watching his shows and hearing about his adventures all over the world. I never consciously thought that I wanted to have a job like that, but it certainly made an impression.
JI: What role does Jewish culture and/or Judaism play in your life and work?
VB: I’m proud to be a Jew, and that heritage has definitely had an impact on my professional life. Knowing our long and brutal history of oppression helped sharpen my desire to work for social justice, to do what I can to help right, or at least bring attention to, wrongs wherever I find them. I started my career in Jerusalem, covering the First Intifada as a freelancer for both Israeli and Palestinian publications. Later, I wound up working for an Israeli magazine, TheJerusalem Report, first in Eastern Europe covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and later as their New York correspondent. I’ve probably written more about Jews and Jewish issues than anything else except sand!
JI: What took you from Vancouver and how did you establish yourself in Los Angeles?
VB: I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley – I really wanted to get to the States, which I thought was a much more exciting place than then-sleepy little Vancouver. From there, I spent years traveling and working all over the world, first as a hitchhiking backpacker, and later as a freelance journalist (there’s often not a lot of difference between the two lifestyles). I spent several years in the Middle East and then Eastern Europe, then came back to the U.S., where I bounced around from New York to San Francisco to Las Vegas (that’s right, I lived in Las Vegas). I was living in San Francisco when I met a delightful young woman living in L.A. I was doing a lot of work in L.A. at the time, writing for the L.A. Times Magazine and other places, so had an excuse to visit her often and, well, 17 years later we’re married, with two kids and a mortgage and the whole package.
JI: In an interview you did with David Simon, you talk about journalism, fiction and film, and Simon comments that no one reads anymore. What are your thoughts on that, on the state of journalism and your decision to write a book?
VB: These are dark days for the business of journalism, of course, with local newspapers dying off en masse and money drying up for those that are left, thanks to the internet. Most of my career has been spent writing for magazines, and a terrifying number of the ones that I’ve written for over the years have disappeared or been reduced to emaciated shadows of their former selves – The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, US News & World Report, and on and depressingly on.
But, contrary to what everyone expected with the advent of the internet and the Twitterization of discourse, people do still read, at length and in numbers. There are plenty of long, deep articles published online that attract hordes of eyeballs – the trick no one has cracked yet is figuring out how to make money off of them. Oddly, the book industry is still doing relatively well; most people still seem to prefer physical, paper books to reading something of that length on a screen. So, moving from magazines into book writing is not only something I’ve always wanted to do – it’s also a tactical move aimed at keeping me solvent. I’m branching into movies and TV for the same reason. If you’re going to survive as a freelance journalist in the 21st century, you’ve got to tell your stories and get paid every which way you can.
JI: Can you describe how the topic of sand first came to you, why it piqued your interest and about the path to the book’s publication?
VB: I’m a full-time freelancer, so I’m always hustling for stories, which involves trawling through a lot of obscure publications. One day in early 2015, I stumbled across a story on a little environmental website from which I learned two things. One, sand is the most-consumed natural resource on earth after air and water; that alone made me sit up and take notice. Two, that there is so much demand for the stuff that we are inflicting tremendous environmental damage all over the world to get it, stripping bare riverbeds and beaches and, in some places, people are even being murdered over sand. Like most people, I had never even thought about sand as a commodity, let alone one so important people might be killed over it.
I thought this all sounded crazy but, with a little research, I found it was true. The violence, I discovered, is by far the worst in India. So, I convinced Wired magazine to send me to India, where I reported a feature on the murderous ‘sand mafias’ that bedevil that country. The piece came out in spring of 2015 and got a great response from readers. I knew by then there was much, much more to the story – a book’s worth, I figured. That summer, I spent a few days alone on a tiny property we own on Gabriola Island pounding out a book proposal. My agent in New York sold it almost right away to the folks at Penguin Random House, and I was off to the races.
JI: How would you describe your level of optimism about the future?
VB: Really depends on the day, or hour. But I’ve got kids growing up in this world, so I don’t have much choice but to hope for the best!
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi
woman, was publicly welcomed to Canada Saturday. She had spent a week in a
hotel in Thailand, asking for asylum in a Western country, saying that she did
not want to return to her allegedly abusive family, whom she says have
threatened to kill her.
Whether her family is indeed abusive has not
been proven. But two factors make that issue somewhat moot. First, guardianship
laws in Saudi Arabia require women to get permission from a father, husband,
brother, son or other male relative in order to work, travel, marry, receive
certain medical treatments and even to leave the house. This is codified
inequality and abuse against about half the population of the country. In
principle, that law alone should make all Saudi women eligible for refugee
claims in democratic countries. Additionally, al-Qunun renounced Islam, which
is an offence punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The teen’s arrival was a bit of a media
festival, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland embracing al-Qunun at
The ostentatious greeting was extra-weighted
because Canada is in an ongoing diplomatic spat with the Saudis. After Freeland
tweeted a criticism of Saudi arrests of civil and women’s rights activists last
year, the Saudis threw Canada’s ambassador out of the country and threatened to
withdraw thousands of Saudi medical students from Canada, among other
responses. The public greeting of a now-prominent Saudi dissident by a senior
Canadian government official will be seen as a provocation, and perhaps it was
intended as such.
Some commentators note that al-Qunun jumped the
queue, not only flown to Canada to make a refugee claim, but accepted
immediately as a refugee. The global visibility of her case resulted in a
country – ours – leaping to accept her, even while one percent of refugees are
resettled in a given year.
Also, some diplomats with Saudi experience are
warning that the young woman should not be used as a political football – both
because that could put her safety at risk and because it could unnecessarily
enflame existing tensions.
David Chatterson, a former Canadian ambassador
to Saudi Arabia, told the CBC that he worried about precedents.
“What happens the next time a teenage girl or
adult woman from Saudi Arabia flees her family and declares herself to no
longer be a Muslim, does that mean automatic sanctuary?” he asked.
Of course, diplomatic idealism is always
tempered by economic and other realities. The CBC obtained, through an Access
to Information request, evidence that the federal government heard concerns
from Canadian businesses about their interests being jeopardized when
Freeland’s tweets to the Saudis raised the ire of the kingdom’s rulers. On the
flip side, Canada does not have as many economic ties to the Saudis as many
European and other democratic countries, and this might give us a little more
freedom to criticize. The U.S. president has already stated explicitly that he
will not endanger American economic interests by contesting Saudi treatment of
dissidents – including the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post
writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Of 149 countries rated by the World Economic
Forum in its annual report on gender equality, Saudi Arabia came 141st. Canada
cannot free every one of the 16 million or so Saudi women, but we can ensure
freedom for this one.
Yes, al-Qunun did effectively “jump the queue.”
But, at the moment when the whole world was watching, that queue-jumping
allowed Canada to take a principled stand for gender equality and for the
freedom of – and from – religion.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons this month and apologized for his predecessors’ decision to turn away more than 900 Jewish refugees on the ship MS St. Louis in 1939, he also made a plea for a better, more tolerant world.
Almost all Jewish Canadians – and probably most Canadians in general – thought this was the right thing to do.
The most recent public opinion polls indicate that most Canadians think that, on balance, what Trudeau has been doing since he became prime minister three years ago is generally OK. With the collapse in public support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québecois, Trudeau seems to have an edge in a two-way race against the Conservative party of Andrew Scheer.
It is hard not to imagine that the leaders of most of our allied countries aren’t a bit jealous of Trudeau’s position right now.
In the United States, the mixed messages of this month’s midterm elections – which strengthened Republican control in the Senate and saw the Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives – leaves President Donald Trump with less power than he had a few weeks ago, although it does give him a scapegoat, in the shape of a Democratic House of Representatives, which will doubtlessly invigorate his 3 a.m. tweetstorms.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down as leader after a remarkable 13 years at the country’s helm. At times, she has seemed the adult at an international kids’ table, holding Europe together while bailing out failing economies and managing influxes of refugees, among other things. But apparently she’s had enough of the excitement.
One-time wunderkind French President Emmanuel Macron is learning that coming out of nowhere to take the top job can leave one ill-equipped for the demands it entails. His popularity, according to polls, is spiraling downward.
In far worse shape are the governments to the west and east of these European powers. In both Israel and the United Kingdom, the leaders are unsure when they go to bed what their status will be when they wake. Between the time of writing and the time of reading this page, either or both of these governments may have fallen and new elections called – or some Band-Aid solution found for propping up or rejigging the existing coalitions.
In Britain, division at the top over the conditions of British withdrawal from the European Union has led to resignations of top cabinet officials (as well as lesser cabinet officials). Dissidents are penning letters that could lead to a leadership review for Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, by her own caucus. Even if she survives that, the inevitable vote on the Brexit plan could see her government defeated just a few weeks hence.
For Jewish Britons, this situation is particularly serious. May’s Conservative government has been struggling in popularity almost since she took the helm. The Tories faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in last year’s general election, in which the Conservatives expected to glide to an easy majority and ended up having to cobble together a coalition with sectarian parties from Northern Ireland. A new Conservative leader might revive the party’s chances, though it seems impossible to see how anyone could paper over the seemingly irreparable divisions in that party between pro- and anti-Brexiteers.
The potential for a Corbyn-led Labour government is anathema to the vast majority of Jewish voters in that country. Corbyn himself has been a leading voice against Israel and in support of those who seek its destruction, including Hamas and Hezbollah, whom he has referred to as “friends.”
While extremists on the continent, like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, do everything in their power to convince Jewish and other voters that they are not antisemitic, Corbyn seems to relish poking Jewish voters figuratively in the eye. And he is the proverbial tip of an iceberg. Websites are devoted to chronicling the extraordinary outpouring of overt antisemitism in the party he leads. One local chapter recently demurred on condemning the mass murder at the Pittsburgh synagogue, with one member complaining that there is too much focus on “antisemitism this, antisemitism that.”
In Israel, division among top cabinet officials over the response to the most recent violence from Gaza has led to the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister, and extremely unfriendly musings from Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is hanging by a thread, though public opinion polls indicate that support for his Likud bloc may actually give him reason to look favourably on early elections.
An ancient Chinese curse speaks of living in “interesting times.” For the leaders of many of our closest allies, these are interesting times indeed. But they probably look enviously to Canada and realize what Jews have known for many generations: when it comes to politics, boring is good.
American political commentator and writer Ben Shapiro addressed more than 900 people at the Faigen Family Lecture, which was held at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Oct. 30. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
More than 900 people came out to hear conservative commentator and writer Ben Shapiro give this year’s Faigen Family Lecture, which took place at Congregation Schara Tzedeck on Oct. 30.
Saul Kahn began the evening by reading the names of the 11 Jews murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few days earlier. After a moment of silence, Vancouver Hebrew Academy head of school, Rabbi Don Pacht, recited a prayer for those who were killed. The security presence at Schara Tzedeck was notable, from every attendee being checked at the entrance to several guards within the sanctuary.
In introducing the lecture, Kahn explained, “Almost a decade ago, Dr. Morris Faigen, of blessed memory, created the Faigen Family Lecture Series in partnership with Rabbi Pacht and the Vancouver Hebrew Academy. This endeavour arose from their mutual love of Israel, a shared concern for the mindset of the modern Jew in North America and a desire to help influence the next generation.”
Kahn thanked VHA’s Teagan Horowitz and office staff, Rochelle Garfinkel and the Schara Tzedeck staff, Dr. Jeffrey Blicker, “for his instrumental role in bringing this event to fruition,” the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver for help with the additional security and “Gina Faigen and the Faigen family for their appreciation of how very vital it is to have a program such as this that supports an open and meaningful exchange of ideas.”
Pacht linked the lecture’s importance to Jewish tradition, noting how the word cherubs (in Hebrew) appears only twice in the Torah. In Exodus, it appears when God is explaining to Moses how the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is to be constructed: the cherubs (“angels with childlike faces”) are set above the holy ark. However, in the beginning of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, God places cherubs to guard the entrance. “Interestingly,” said Pacht, “here the word is translated differently. It’s translated, by Rashi, as ‘angels of destruction.’” One explanation – from Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who was head of the talmudic academy in Slabodka, Lithuania – is that, “as parents, as educators, we have a responsibility to take the next generation, to cultivate within them, the ideas and the ideals that we hold most dear. If we are successful in our endeavour, they are cherubic, they are the angels with childlike faces. Unfortunately, if we’re not successful, there’s an entire different pathway that may lay before them.”
Among the values that need to be imparted, said Pacht, are the centrality of Israel and the moral values as laid out by the Torah. Free speech and open debate, he continued, are “most dear to us.” He put them among the ideals we have “from our parents and our grandparents, and we want to see that passed on from generation to generation.”
This generational aspect was picked up on by Gina Faigen with humour in her welcoming remarks. She said she sometimes wonders, “because I’m a lot more liberal than my late father was, if he didn’t create this event in part so that, on at least one day a year, I would have to listen to somebody who shared his views. It’s definitely something I have come to appreciate more as the years go by. My father was passionate about ideas, about intelligent discourse on Israel, and he created this lecture series to ensure a space in Vancouver for a conservative and pro-Israel perspective. I know he would be really excited by tonight’s speaker, Ben Shapiro.
“For those of you who share these views, we hope to continue to provide a place for you here,” she continued. “And, for those of you who may not share all of the speaker’s views, it’s great that you’re here open-minded and part of this conversation.”
Blicker – who suggested Shapiro as a potential speaker after he and his family heard him at a Passover event in Henderson, Nev., more than three years ago – introduced Shapiro. Among other things, Shapiro is a lawyer, editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com, host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, and author of seven books.
Shapiro addressed his critics right off, admitting that he does “sometimes phrase things in an intemperate fashion or spoken too hastily or out of anger or even, on occasion, over the course of a 17-year career of writing things, I’ve written stuff that I disagree with and that I think is immoral. It’s my job to hear those critiques, it’s my job to respond to those critiques in good will and in the spirit of self-betterment, and I’ve tried to do so repeatedly in different places and I look forward to doing so in the future, as well as tonight, that is my job. It’s also the job of my critics to keep an open-mind and not to mistake a political viewpoint for objective righteousness or to slanderously mislabel people like me bigoted or racist – that is unjustified, unjustifiable and hypocritical.”
Given what had happened in Pittsburgh, Shapiro decided to speak about his planned topic – the future of the state of Israel – in connection to global antisemitism. He described three general types of antisemitism.
• Right-wing antisemitism – “in this view, the presence of an independent Jewish community is a threat to national identity.”
• Left-wing antisemitism is “based on hierarchies of power.” Therefore, “when you see an imbalance in life and inequality in life, that is inherently due to inequity, so, if you see two people in a room and one guy has five bucks and one guy has one buck, that means the guy with five bucks somehow screwed the guy with one dollar. Left-wing antisemites, in terms of group politics, see the Jews as the people with five dollars. The Jews are simply too powerful and, thus, they must have participated in exploitation and egregious human rights violations.”
Shapiro offered his take on how intersectional theory would rank the groups whose “opinions should be taken most seriously because they have been most victimized by American society: LGBT folks are at the top, then it usually goes black folks, then Hispanic folks, then women, then Asians, then Jews, then, at the very bottom, white males.” In this framework, since Jews and Israel are relatively successful, they must have done something terrible, “be responsible for the ills.”
• Radical Islamic antisemitism “is the most traditional form of antisemitism – not Islamic, but religious antisemitism.” This is the belief, said Shapiro, “that the religion of Judaism itself is to blame for the problems in Western society. The history of religious antisemitism obviously, goes back thousands of years and it spans a wide variety of religions.”
Today, he said, “Islamic antisemitism has been combined with a sort of Nazi-esque racial antisemitism, which is why you see textbooks in the Palestinian Authority referring to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys, and it’s also been combined with a sort of intersectional antisemitism … Jews are successful because they are somehow damaging other people and, also, they happen to be a terrible religion.”
For Jews in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Canada, Shapiro said right-wing antisemitism is probably the biggest threat, “as we saw in Pittsburgh. There has been a spate of such violence that has been consistent throughout my lifetime.” He said, “The thing that folks don’t understand if they don’t live in the Jewish community is that every single person in the Jewish community is one degree removed from some sort of tragedy of this kind.”
However, he said, for Jews worldwide, radical Islamic antisemitism is the biggest threat. “Whether it is Jews who are living under the possibility of an Iranian nuclear [regime], whether it is … Jews living under the threat of Hezbollah rockets, whether it’s Jews living under the possibility of kidnapping along the Gaza border or whether it is Jews living under the possibility of being murdered while walking the streets in France, whether it is Jews being threatened with the possibility of murder in Malmö, Sweden, whether it is Jews being threatened with murder in London. Islamic antisemitism and the rise of that antisemitism throughout Europe is deeply dangerous to Jews across the world.”
“The thing that folks don’t understand if they don’t live in the Jewish community is that every single person in the Jewish community is one degree removed from some sort of tragedy of this kind.”
There are two main perspectives on antisemitism, said Shapiro. One is that antisemitism is not another form of racism, but is unique – that it comes from a “conspiratorial mentality that the Jews are behind everything bad and, therefore, the Jews must be annihilated.” The second view is that “antisemitism is not unique, it’s not an age-old virus, it’s no different really than anti-black racism or anti-Native American racism or sexism or homophobia…. That means we have to treat the death of a Jew in Efrat at the hands of a terrorist differently than we treat the death of a Jew in Pittsburgh at the hand of a white supremacist because these two Jews scan in different areas of this intersectional pyramid,” said Shapiro. “These two Jews are not equivalent. They are not being killed for the same reasons. The Jew being killed in Pittsburgh is being killed because that Jew is a victim. The Jew being killed in Israel may or may not be being killed because of victimology. It’s possible that that Jew was being killed because of Israeli settlements or some such [reason].
“The second view, as you might imagine, I believe to be deeply troubling, counterproductive and helpful to antisemitism.”
In Shapiro’s opinion, this latter, more troubling view is mainstream on the political left in the United States and in Europe. When a Jew is murdered in certain areas of Israel, he said, “we are supposed to take into account the territorial claims of Palestinians as though that justifies the murder of a civilian who happens to be living in Efrat. We’re supposed to pretend that the dispute is merely territorial and not a symptom of a broader underlying antisemitic disease. When a Jew is murdered in Pittsburgh, then we’re allowed to talk about antisemitism.” This is why, he said, Jews can be excluded from women’s marches and antisemitism can be tolerated, if the Jews in question rank lower than the antisemite in the intersectional hierarchy.
While Israel holds a high position in the world, it is under threat from forces that we refuse to call antisemitism, he continued, citing several examples, such as the numerous votes against Israel at the United Nations. Criticism of Israel is legitimate, he said, but holding the country to a higher standard than any other nation is antisemitic, “and that has been the standard to which the world has held Israel.”
He called wanting to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel “antisemitic in the extreme…. The stated goal by many of those pressing BDS is to destroy the state of Israel…. Not a single person pushing BDS has ever condemned the Palestinian Authority for insisting on a fully judenrein state, a state completely free from every single Jew. Israel allows – and should allow – millions of Arabs to live within its borders, millions of Muslims to live within its borders, that is a good thing. Israel is a multicultural, multi-ethnic democracy. The same is not true of any of the nations facing down Israel, and yet Israel is facing down boycott, divestment and sanctions for saying that we can build an extra bathroom in East Jerusalem. No other nation would tolerate this sort of nonsense. This is targeted hatred and nothing less.”
So, what is our mission, given these realities? “Well, number one, to stand up to antisemitism wherever we see it, on left and on right,” said Shapiro, whether it is coming from our allies or our enemies. “This is not a partisan issue nor should it be. And, our other mission is also the same as it ever was, which is to spread light. What we’re watching right now in American politics and, I think, Western politics more broadly, is a fragmentation of certain eternal and true values that used to undergird a civilization. Those basic values of faith and family and those values of tolerance and openness within the bounds of recognition of certain central individual rights, that’s all fragmented. And whenever society fragments, antisemitism starts to seep through the cracks. As the Tree of Life synagogue name attests, the only way to fight back against all of this is to cling to that Tree of Life, is to cling to the Torah.”
The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue was not just an attack on Jews but on civilization, said Shapiro, “because Judaism, Jews, we stand at the heart of Western civilization…. The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back, to fight darkness with light, to fight untruth with truth and fight death with life.”
After a standing ovation for his remarks, Shapiro responded both to questions submitted in advance by event sponsors and then to questions from an open mic. In total, he responded to 22 questions, which ranged from the political to the cultural, from economics to education, tort law to religion. Several of the questioners identified themselves as being Christian, many as fans.
One of the first questions was the language Shapiro uses around transgender issues. “When I’m talking about transgenderism,” he said, “the contention of folks in the political realm is that transgenderism is not, in fact, a mental illness; that, in fact, gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria, whichever DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] you choose to use, 4 or 5, that that particular disorder is no longer a disorder, it’s actually just an expression of gender identity that has no bearing whatsoever on mental health. That’s a lie, and it’s a damaging lie. And, when a society blinds itself to the realities that gender and sex exist, it is less likely to pursue policies that alleviate the pain of a lot of folks and it’s also less likely to pursue policies that have any realities extant on the ground.”
In a few responses, Shapiro differentiated between his use of language in dealing with people one-and-one versus in the political arena or on social media, noting in particular that Twitter is meant to be a more fun space, where you don’t have to be nice. He also talked about his general wariness of government intervention and offered pretty standard conservative views on immigration, economic migration, free speech and abortion.
When asked by the mother of a 14-year-old boy who brought Shapiro’s views into their liberal household about Shapiro’s portrayal at times of the left as monolithic (and unprincipled) and whether it was “part of the game, like [you do] on Twitter?” he responded, “No, it’s political shorthand.”
However, he added, he does try to distinguish between the left and liberals. For example, “when it comes to free speech, I think the left wants to crack down on free speech and I don’t think liberals do. I think liberals are happy to have open and honest debates; they just disagree with me on the level of government necessity in public life. Listen, every individual has different political viewpoints and people self-describe in different ways … but, as a generalized worldview, if I’m hitting the target, when I say the left, 85% of the time, that’s good enough for ditch work. In politics, you’ve got to cover too much ground to break down every single constituent of a particular group. Now, is it an over-generalization? Of course. But politics operates on generalizations, so do our everyday conversations.”
Ben Stein and Ann Coulter at Politicon in Los Angeles on Oct. 20. (photo by Rich Polk-Getty Images for Politicon)
From pundits to Hollywood types, there were many Jewish names on the speaker roster at this year’s Politicon, the fourth annual two-day convention in Los Angeles that ropes in high-wattage names from the left, right and centre. This year’s gathering took place Oct. 20-21.
In the panel called The Deep State, discussion revolved around the allegations of U.S. President Donald Trump’s collusion with Russia. Speakers included Dr. Vince Houghton (curator at the International Spy Museum), Dan Bongino (former U.S. secret service for George W. Bush and Barack Obama), Dr. Jason Johnson (professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore), former Trump aide David Urban and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, a member of the Jewish community.
While Frum outlined some of the evidence on meetings and correspondences between Trump aides and various Russians, he also conceded that “there are things in collusion that are utterly reprehensible, which are not illegal.”
He said, “To what extent there was cooperation back and forth, remains unclear,” but he is convinced that the facts are quite damning.
As a counterpoint, Johnson said: “I don’t think the president has such discipline or organization to pull off this kind of thing. Hillary [Clinton] lost because she ran a bad campaign, not because of a meeting with the Russians.”
Two right-wing pundits – Ann Coulter and Ben Stein – took the stage in a session called Ask Ann Anything.
Stein, the Jewish actor whose politics date back to serving as a Richard Nixon aide, said that, if he could change any numbers about America, it would be to increase the number of better-educated individuals, as well as the number of fathers marrying the women they’ve had children with.
Coulter, often appearing on media to represent the far-right, is the bestselling author of Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and Godless: The Church of Liberalism, among others. Her key complaint was that Trump had yet to build the wall between the United States and Mexico, as he had promised, and she holds the left responsible for the immigration crisis.
Three generations ago, she said, “immigrants would come and 30 or 40% of them wouldn’t make it, and [would] go back home. Now, they all go on welfare. The Democrats pushed the bill that promised to [enshrine this],” she said.
The biggest surprise, she said, was that “despite all the race-baiting, Trump, as I thought he would, got more of the black and Hispanic votes than either [Mitt] Romney or [George W.] Bush … considering all of the racial incitement of the campaign.”
Three different questioners harshly criticized Coulter for avoiding debate with liberals, but Coulter dismissed them outright – “they couldn’t find a New York Times bestselling author to debate me?”
Yarmulke-wearing Ben Shapiro – who was in Vancouver for talks on Oct. 30 and 31 – covered the topics of free speech, constitutional rights and racism in America in his keynote address at Politicon.
“If my speech is violence,” said Shapiro, “and the government can shut down violence, then the government can shut down speech. This is ugly stuff.”
On the #MeToo movement and abortion, he paraphrased his opponents: “Men, sit down, shut up, you don’t know anything.” But, he said, “We can’t have a conversation if you’re simply going to assume I can’t understand you because of dint of birth … identity politics throws up a roadblock in the way of it. It prevents you from having these conversations.”
He said, “If you’re going to make a pro-choice argument, then make a pro-choice argument. An argument cannot be based on a woman knows better what constitutes life than a man.”
A questioner asked why, on YouTube, Shapiro appears to fume at ideological challengers.
“There are many more examples of me talking to the left in a respectful manner than there are tapes of me ‘destroying’ anybody,” noted Shapiro. “Those are the ones we like to watch because they’re more fun, but it’s not happening on a day-to-day basis.”
In a session called The Russian Menace, Jewish actor, director and author Henry Winkler interviewed author, terrorism expert and naval expert in cryptology Malcolm Nance. This year, Nance published The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West.
After Obama was elected, said Nance, Trump and a representative of Russian intelligence exchanged private Twitter messages, with the latter expressing interest in helping the U.S. change governments. “Trump responded with a picture of double thumbs up,” noted Nance.
Winkler retorted, “Not mine!” – a reference to his Happy Days character the Fonz’s signature symbol.
According to Nance, a week after this Twitter exchange, Trump registered the trademark “Make America Great Again.” Subsequently, Trump met with Russian oligarchs in Moscow for two hours, something that should raise suspicions, Nance insisted.
At one time, he said, Russians wanted the “money and luxury” that the West had, but now they employ “an old KGB strategy” of propaganda to tear down the United States.
“You don’t go at the people by invading it,” but rather, through “fake news stories,” said Nance. “You co-opt their mind; you create a new reality for them. In the old days, they used to call that brainwashing. Today, they call it Facebook.”
Evan Sayet, who has written two speeches for Trump and is the author of Kindergarden of Eden: How the Modern Liberal Thinks, told the Jewish Independent that the panel he was on, 13 Reasons Why Not to be a Liberal, could be summed up thusly:
“Everybody in America – every ethnic group in America – blacks, Asians, Hispanics, they should all be conservative. They’re family-centric, church-goers, entrepreneurs. The left has done such a great job via the entertainment industry, schools and media, of villainizing the right. Those who vote for Democrats, don’t vote Democrats. They vote against Republicans. They are so in fear of what’s been portrayed as the right.”
Other Jews to appear as speakers or panelists at Politicon included Joel Pollak (Breitbart), Jennifer Rubin (Washington Post), author Eric Golub, NBC’s Ari Melber, comedian Ben Gleib, Bill Kristol (journalist and former chief-of-staff to vice-president Dan Quayle), TV host David Pakman, TV’s Drew Pinsky, commentator Sally Kohn, mayor of Knox County in Tennessee and former wrestler Glenn Jacobs, comedian Sam Seder, actor Richard Schiff, comedian Elayne Boosler, NBC’s Jacob Saboroff, writer Jamie Kilstein, actor Josh Malina, NBC’s Gadi Schwartz and entrepreneur Fred Guttenberg.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.