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.
I am not normally someone who is especially active on social media. I am not normally someone who curates current events, even though I consume them like undergrads do coffee – habitually, obsessively, out of necessity.
For a long time, my political associations and the extent to which I follow world news have been largely separate from the image I have cultivated for public view. As far as Facebook is concerned, I am represented through dog videos, feel-good intercommunity displays of solidarity, recipes and the occasional satire poking fun at the absurd and horrifying climate we’re living in – but there has been a shift. A shift toward police brutality, transphobia, racism. A shift toward synagogue shootings.
I do not share news stories on such topics because I enjoy doing so. I don’t enjoy reading about things that make my heart heavy, nor offering vulnerabilities to people who do not see me as a person, but rather the embodiment of an idea they disagree with. I do not take pleasure in sharing pain. It is my very nature to shield myself and others from it. Although part of love is letting others learn, and that involves experiencing pain and hurt.
It is easier to stick one’s head in the sand, but it doesn’t make it right. It is important to denounce insidiousness and nefariousness when you see it, especially if it does not directly affect you. It is important to hold space for those who are impacted by the injustices of the world, to hold them up and offer your strength. In doing so, we hope others do the same for us, and perhaps that is the only way we can get through these dark times with any semblance of sanity, of humanity.
I used to make a point of sharing light-hearted, feel-good posts, cognizant of the “bad news,” which is in no short supply. I believe my intention to provide some degree of respite from the political apocalypse we’re currently observing was a good one, but I would wager also misguided. To curate news is one thing, to disengage from it is another.
It became clear to me that, just because I am kept abreast of political happenings, and that I see them all over social media, does not mean others do; a classic cognitive bias that I should have spotted much earlier. This is true of what is happening in Trump’s America, to people of colour, LGBTQ folks, indigenous peoples, immigrants and refugees, Muslim communities. This is true of issues and current events related to antisemitism – I am now startlingly aware just how little people know about it. Not only the frequency of antisemitic incidents in North America and Europe, but, at a much more basic level, what antisemitism is and how to spot it.
For many of my friends, especially those who I’ve met in London, I am the only Jewish person they know. While it shouldn’t significantly impact the way I conduct myself, the weight my actions carry is not lost on me when I am the entire schematic representation of “Jew” for many of the people I come across. There is a pressure to behave in a way that is contrary to the many persistent stereotypes that precede my traditions and my culture. I must be generous to a fault lest I be stingy. I must laugh off antisemitism and micro-aggressions lest I be perceived as a paranoid, uppity Seinfeld type. I must be soft and kind and open, I must not have strong opinions lest I be the overbearing, naggy Jewish woman. I must downplay my love of bagels (they’re so damn good).
I also must be a political chameleon, dodging demonization from the left and right for equal and opposite accusations: we are the puppet masters, yet the infiltrators. We are the root of capitalism, yet the root of communism. We are somehow the one percent who controls the world’s wealth, yet we also fund the movement that rallies against it. We are insular elitists, yet permeating globalists. Those of us who look like me have assimilated to whiteness and reap the benefits, yet we will never be “white enough” to those who would see us dead.
Over time, the belief sticks: “I must not behave in any way, shape or form, in any manner that would give credence to the ideas that this is how Jews are, as I represent them to so many.” Yet it’s as exhausting for me to keep up as it is to keep this narrative straight.
I thought that, perhaps if I wanted to be a socially engaged citizen of the world, I could avoid these pitfalls by sharing information about the world as neutrally as I could. I could be the “impartial reporter,” make the news palatable, make it sterile. I could be taken more seriously, sanitized of emotional attachment that would otherwise be paint me as “irrational,” which is the ultimate insult in political and academic discourse. (Undoubtedly rooted in sexism and undoubtedly seen as weak, as it is perceived as feminine.)
But to do this serves no one well. It is inherently more harmful to the people who are affected by the issues being reported. To be “unbiased” in the wake of something that should not be polarizing, yet somehow is, ultimately reflects complicity. It is contrary to my values as a person. It is contrary to my values as a Jew.
This confuses many people, who know I am largely secular and open in my agnosticism. How can I profess myself to be as Jewish as I do, while maintaining such a wide berth from religiosity and theism? By that definition, I’m not “that Jewish.”
I may not believe in a God, but I do believe in my people, and in the traditions that shaped me to be who I am. I am Jewish insofar as my birth and upbringing, in my values and my conduct, in my pursuit of tikkun olam, repairing the world. I am “Jewish enough” to lead services despite my relationship with my faith. I am “Jewish enough” to abstain from pork but not “Jewish enough” to abstain from shellfish or cheeseburgers. I may not be “so Jewish” as to observe Shabbat to the letter, but I am Jewish enough to be gunned down in a synagogue.
My tradition is one of orthopraxy, of deed over creed. We are meant to “pray with our feet” as well as with our words. The Talmud teaches us not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief, but rather to do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now; that we are not obligated to complete the work of repairing the fractures and chasms in our world, but neither are we free to abandon it.
There is the story in the Talmud of a man who came to the great rabbis of the day and told them to teach him Torah while he stood on one foot. He did this to mock them. He first went to Rabbi Shammai, who refused to engage when he recognized the man’s intentions. The man went next to Rabbi Hillel and made the same challenge: teach me your Torah while I stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel knew this man’s intention as well, but he was patient. He simply said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary. Go and study this.”
It should be that simple. If only it were that simple. I don’t know if the reason it isn’t is because of psycho-schematic representations in our minds, or nationalism, or capitalism, or groupthink, or whataboutisms, or strawmen, or ego, or that we forget that, when we bleed, we all bleed the same. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve forgotten how to be empathetic, or we’ve stopped doing it because it hurts, or that we feel powerless and that feels worse.
A friend told me recently that they don’t engage with this stuff because they’ve become numb to the horrors of the world. I can understand that, truly. Although I think it is precisely because of the commonplace, routinized nature of these injustices that we must engage because, when we don’t, they become routine, and they become a part of the fabric of our society that we will forget shouldn’t be there in the first place.
We have a saying in Judaism, “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” But our understanding of tzedek is different to that of mishpat or din, other Hebrew words referring to justice or law in a strictly legal sense. Tzedek is tempered by compassion, of doing not necessarily what is lawful, but what is the right thing to do. And there is an emphasis on the action, on the doing. This may very well be rooted in some of the many names Jews use to refer to God, and the concept that people are made in God’s image.
In our tradition, there are many different names for God to reflect different aspects of God’s characteristics. Elohim is common, derived from the ancient word for judge. Certainly, people who are unfamiliar with the Torah often criticize the “Old Testament” for barbarism, for a wrathful, vengeful God that falls uncompromisingly into this depiction of an impartial, removed judge who delivers reward or punishment in accordance with the word that was given. I’m not about to unpack that, that’s a whole other essay in itself.
Unquestionably, the most sacred name we have for God is one we don’t even know how to pronounce, and are not supposed to pronounce, that is often anglicized as YHVH. It is derived from the Hebrew word for “to be,” and it is sometimes understood to translate roughly as “the Essence of Being.” This name is said to reflect an intimacy, a mercy, a love that perhaps we don’t even know how to name.
These different names may suggest a God of multiple beings, or even multiple gods, but Judaism is quite strict in its monotheism, and these names are used in scripture deliberately in ways that are context-dependent: Elohim deals justice, YHVH deals in mercy.
“Genesis tells two creation stories,” writes Rabbi Mark Glickman, “in the first, Elohim is the Creator, in the second, the creator is YHVH Elohim. To reconcile the accounts, ancient rabbis argued that God first tried to create the world using only justice, and it didn’t work.”
I’m very much a Darwinist by trade, but the message of this rings true to me. To exact change, to make something sustainable, we must do so with justice that is tempered by compassion.
Now, compassion does not mean, “try to understand neo-Nazis and justify their actions.” What compassion does mean, at least in part, is to show kindness and solidarity to other groups who are being hurt, even when we ourselves are licking our wounds and trying to find our feet. It means to support one another, even when we ourselves have trouble standing. It means speaking up for those whose voices are hoarse and raw from screaming. It means using our visibility to shed light on stories that are sequestered to shadows. It means form a patchwork quilt of community, which, when stitched together and reinforced, is warm, strong and unbreakable.
These are dark times. I say this not with the intent to be dramatic or prosaic, but simply factual. But that doesn’t mean we can’t kick at it until it bleeds something more hopeful. That being said, if we want any chance of making it out alive, we’ve got to get to work.
Sasha Kaye is currently studying in London, England. An alumnus of King David High School and the University of British Columbia, she enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London in performance science after her studies in classical voice performance and psychology at UBC. She was recently awarded a master’s of science with distinction for her research on the use of simulation technology as part of an intervention strategy to manage performance-anxiety symptoms. Now a doctoral student at RCM, Kaye is working to identify areas where elite musicians may require additional support to thrive in life, rather than simply survive.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, in Tel Aviv Oct. 24. (photo by Pat Johnson)
The theme of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv was “We need to talk.” The conference was explicitly dedicated to confronting the issues that divide Jews and alienate the Diaspora from Israel. But, when the moment came to meet with the most powerful man in Israel, conference organizers folded like a house of cards.
Outgoing chair of the board of trustees of the JFNA, Richard Sandler, sat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on a stage and performed what Haaretz rightly dismissed as a “fawning” conversation. More Oprah than interlocutor, Sandler first offered belated birthday wishes to the prime minister, then proceeded with one softball lob after another, allowing Netanyahu to control the dialogue – which he could have done more effectively if he had delivered a conventional address instead of the folksy sit-down – while Sandler offered no resistance or challenge to anything the prime minister said.
The JFNA is a non-partisan organization, of course. But the very nature of this meeting was to frankly confront the very real divisions between Jewish people in the Diaspora and those in Israel.
Here was the first question: “I’m just wondering, when you were back in high school or college, did you ever imagine someday you would be the prime minister of Israel, and would you share with us a little bit of the path from that time to what got you here?”
Even Netanyahu seemed a bit embarrassed by the question and offered assurances that he was not, in childhood or young adulthood, some Machiavellian born with his sights on the levers of power. What seasoned politician would respond to such a question with, “Yes, I’ve been planning this since I toddled”?
Next question: “I’m wondering, in all the years you’ve been doing this, how do you see the relationship between our two countries, between Israel and the United States, evolving – and what concerns you most, if anything, about that relationship today?”
“If anything”? Thousands of people had traveled from North America to Israel to address the very tangible friction points between the two Jewish communities and the inteviewer effectively invited the prime minister to assert that everything is rainbows and unicorns. And Netanyahu accepted the offering. Everything is pretty great, he contended. The trajectory of American support for Israel is increasing, he said. When he and his wife walk around Central Park or visit the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, they get warmly welcomed. The audience of 1,300 at a performance of Hamilton gave him a standing ovation. (“How did you get tickets?” heckled an audience member. “My cousin’s wife works in the production,” the PM replied.)
Then it was time for the interviewer to get tough.
“One of the things that we spoke about, Mr. Prime Minister, that we’ve been talking about the last couple of days, are all the things that we have in common,” said Sandler, moving in for the kill, “We’re having frank discussions on some of the issues that concern many North American Jews and I’m sure you are aware, as I am, that we have a number of concerns about pluralism, acceptance of Reform and Conservative Jews here in Israel, the Nation State Law and.…”
At this point, Sandler’s words were drowned out by applause from an audience who seemed to think they were finally going to get some red meat. Instead, Sandler asked, “Are we missing something? And where do we have it right?”
“I don’t think you should be concerned, but I think you should be informed,” Netanyahu responded to a room filled with the leadership of every major Jewish community in North America. “So much of this is – let me be charitable – misinformation.”
Netanyahu went on to say that, from the first prime minister on down, Israel’s leaders have managed the status quo by making modest, incremental compromises.
“We have a series of slowly evolving arrangements and that reflects the evolution of the Israeli electorate,” he said. On the issue of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Netanyahu acknowledged a delay in the opening, but insisted his goal remains a place where women and men can pray together.
On a two-state solution, Netanyahu dismissed the terminology. “I believe that a potential solution is one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves but not the power to threaten us,” he said. “What does that mean?”
He explained by recounting a conversation with then-U.S. vice-president Joe Biden.
“Well, Bibi,” Netanyahu said, describing the discussion, “are you for two states or are you not? I said, Joe, I don’t believe in labels.”
Netanyahu committed that Israel would retain security control west of the Jordan River, envisioning a situation where Palestinians would govern themselves but that overall security would remain in the hands of the Israeli military. This is not only good for Israel, the prime minister said, but for Palestinians, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel uncovered and foiled a plan by Hamas to not only overthrow Abbas, but to murder him, Netanyahu said. Without Israel’s military control in the West Bank, Hamas would swoop in, overthrow Abbas’s Fatah and Israel would have another Gaza to the east.
“They’d be overrun in two minutes,” he said.
This is all true enough, perhaps, and the first job of the prime minister of Israel is to ensure the security of his country and people. But, in acknowledging that his position would negate the possibility of an independent Palestinian state, Netanyahu reduced it to a matter of nomenclature.
“Give it any name you want,” he said. “But that’s the truth. And this truth is shared much more widely across the political spectrum than people understand, because we’re not going to imperil the life of the state for a label or for a good op-ed for six hours in the New York Times.” Like a flailing comedian, Netanyahu then turned to the audience and complained, “Nobody’s laughing.”
Sandler’s final question to the prime minister was, “What are you the most proud of about Israel today that you want us to think about when we’re going home?” And Netanyahu offered a response worthy of the question, a meandering reflection on visiting a synagogue in his family’s ancestral home of Lithuania.
As the loudspeaker was trying to advise people to remain in their seats while the prime minister’s entourage departed, Netanyahu, already standing for his farewell, interrupted to take the opportunity to tell the audience that his real concern for the Jewish people was the loss of identity. “It’s not conversion,” he said. “It’s the loss of identity.”
He warned, “Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew and the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”
He talked about additional funding for programs to support study-abroad programs in Israel and other things the Jewish state is doing to advance the strengthening of Jewish peoplehood.
Given the last word at the close of the three-day conference – a meeting explicitly convened to address contentious issues between the parties – Israel’s prime minister took the opportunity to school the leaders of Diaspora Jewry in how their shortcomings could imperil Jewish survival. Then he departed.