I hope this letter finds you well, and that you are finding ways to cope with the new reality that COVID-19 has brought on all of us so suddenly. I’ll admit to moments of struggle in maintaining a positive outlook but, mostly, I am determined that, together, we will get through this crisis and return to some variation of normalcy.
For more than 20 years, I have owned and published the Jewish Independent, which started its life as the Jewish Western Bulletin in 1930. For nine decades, the paper has recorded our community’s stories, as well as news and commentary about the wider world. We have reported on the ordinary and the extraordinary, fleeting trends and paradigm shifts. We have covered happy and sad occasions, and promoted the work and activities of countless individuals and organizations. Past issues of the paper comprise a distinctive archive of our community in this place over time.
I am determined to continue this vital calling. Ensuring continuity and the thriving of Jewish life here in Canada and worldwide is no less urgent or relevant than it was in 1930. These are difficult times for many people, organizations and businesses and, among the many closures in recent days, the Canadian Jewish News ceased publication and Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News suspended its print version indefinitely.
I firmly believe that the Jewish Independent is one of our community’s invaluable resources and that we have an important role to play during the pandemic, both in keeping the community up to date on one another’s events, initiatives and well-being, as well as offering some respite from the at-times overwhelming bad news.
For years, this publication has been a labour of love for me and a dedicated staff of a few employees and a cadre of freelance writers. As we face the coming weeks or months of increasingly dismal advertising revenues, I am making an unprecedented appeal for support from you, our readers.
I am proud to produce independent Jewish journalism that has been recognized internationally by scores of awards and accolades. I am proud that, on a very modest budget, we have managed to produce a regular publication that informs, inspires, engages, exasperates, amuses, entertains, provokes and reflects in ways that unite Jewish British Columbians across all religious, cultural, political and social divides.
You subscribe to this paper or pick it up for free at a local depot, I hope, because you see the value in this, which is why I am asking for your help through this deeply challenging time. Please consider supporting the paper through one or more of the following actions:
- Renew your subscription – or start subscribing. When you receive your annual subscription notice, please renew as quickly as you are able, as the fewer reminder notices I have to mail, the less expensive the process. If you pick up the JI at one of our many depots, please seriously think about subscribing or donating to help fund the creation, printing and distribution of the paper you now hold in your hands.
- Consider an esubscription instead of a traditional subscription. You’ll still receive the full contents of the paper, just in digital form. It saves you money and it’s more economical for us, too. (However, if you still like to hold the paper in your hands and pass it around the house, please continue to get the print edition!)
- Give a gift subscription. For generations, B.C. families have stayed connected to one another and our community through the pages of our newspaper. Keep the tradition alive with gift subscriptions to younger family members.
- Advertise with us. We know that your business or organization needs support, too. The most effective, affordable way to reach our community is through these pages, as it has been for 90 years.
- Send a greeting. You can send a message in any issue of the paper. Birthday, bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, anniversary, graduation greetings – any time is a good time to celebrate our loved ones. But now it is especially welcome. Something as affordable as a business card-size insertion is a fun way to mark a special occasion – and it sends a double message: you support thriving, independent Jewish journalism.
- Make a donation. This is the easiest and most immediate way you can help. It’s true, we’re not a charity. I can’t give you a tax receipt. But, as I’ve said, this has been a labour of love for a small group of dedicated individuals. We need you now more than ever.
On behalf of the staff and freelancers of the Jewish Independent, thank you to everyone who has reached out and helped the JI over the years, including recent weeks, and to all of you for taking the time to consider these words. Please stay safe and healthy.
(photo from arkells.com)
In what seems like a random act of kindness, the Canadian rock band the Arkells has put out an offer to their fans. Subscribe to a community newspaper and get a swag T-shirt from the band.
Musicians are facing their own challenges these days, as streaming services are upending the traditional royalty and revenue streams of their industry. But they are perhaps not yet at the level of near-desperation the print media sector has been facing in recent years. The advent of the internet and other factors (but mostly the internet) have made people expect for free things we used to access primarily through purchasing.
Oddly, perhaps, many of us are prepared to pay for multiple subscription services for media – Spotify for music, Netflix, Crave, Disney and an ever-growing number of video services – but most people still react to paywalls on print media by finding a free (to them) alternative. As a result, print outlets from the New York Times and the Globe and Mail to, well, the Jewish Independent have struggled to find alternative sources of revenue and the means to compensate for the reality that readers are demanding (and getting) for free what they once paid for.
In keeping with the issue-driven approach to songwriting for which the Hamilton-based band is known, it was a pleasant and heartfelt message that the Arkells – whose lead singer, Max Kerman, is a member of the Jewish community – put out to their fans.
“If you’re an engaged member of your community, you’re probably thankful for the people who report the news. And even if you’re not, you’re probably still reassured to know that someone is keeping tabs,” they write.
“Good reporting not only keeps us in the loop, but also makes sure our big wigs are held accountable – to ensure there is no sneaky biz.
“Somewhere along the way, we took this for granted. We forgot that we have to pay for this vital service, and that reporting the news isn’t free. In our own city, we’ve seen our local newspaper continue to shrink, and we worry about its future and the future of other local newspapers.”
The band invites their fans to join them in investing in “the things that truly matter.”
“Let’s start,” they write, “by supporting your local paper or a daily publication you really admire. It’s been years in the making. No more running from that paywall.”
They are asking listeners to take out a year-long paid subscription to a print or online media platform (or gift one to a friend) and to let them – the Arkells – know. Then the specially designed band T-shirt will be on its way to you.
Obviously, a gesture like this is not going to save the industry. But it is sweet nonetheless, especially to see someone without a vested interest making this case. Then again, maybe their point is that every citizen does have a vested interest in the success, or at least survival, of local media.
For the Jewish community in British Columbia … that’s us! For 90 years now, the Independent and our previous incarnation the Jewish Western Bulletin have been printing the first draft of our community’s history. At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, there are times when we write stories as much for posterity as for this week’s readers. We know that the archives of this paper is often the first destination for people researching aspects of our community’s history. We believe that, decades hence, researchers will see in a visit to Vancouver by a renowned researcher or an act of tikkun olam or a project by local high school students as the germ of a movement, or a way-station in the progress of an idea, that is significant in its own right but also speaks to a larger trend in our community or society. Or maybe someone will just enjoy the read. In other words, we view our work as immediate and, ideally, enduring in some manner even we cannot foresee.
While in many cities across North America, the local paper is operated by the Jewish federation, here it has been run for well more than a half-century now by independent business operators taking a not insignificant risk for the community’s benefit. Operating a Jewish newspaper was never going to be the route to riches. The remarkably small number of people who have led this endeavour over the past nine decades knew this at the outset. But the challenges of the 21st century are particularly acute.
We thank you for your support and humbly ask you to recommit to our shared enterprise in this, our 90th, year. Perhaps a gift subscription to family or friends – especially younger generations, whose engagement is critical not only for the future of our newspaper but for our community. Or simply a gift to help sustain the paper, which would mean a great deal to the small team that puts this package together each week and, we believe, to the strength and future viability of our community. Plus, you could get a cool shirt for you, your kids or grandkids if you let the Arkells know about it!
Ronen Bergman signs a copy of his book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations for an attendee of his talk at Congregation Beth Tikvah Feb. 2. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Ronen Bergman, perhaps the leading historian on Israeli intelligence, spoke in Richmond recently, engaging a packed sanctuary at Congregation Beth Tikvah Feb. 2 with stories that make Ocean’s Eleven pale in comparison.
Bergman, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and senior political and military analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, shared the history of the Mossad as told in his bestselling book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. One had an extremely timely conclusion.
Imad Mughniyeh was the military commander of Hezbollah, who Bergman called “the most wanted and most capable and most diabolical terrorist who ever walked the face of the earth.” Mughniyeh is believed responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and truck bombings in the same city, which killed hundreds of U.S. and French military personnel, and also was involved in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre there, as well as countless other atrocities worldwide.
“He was wanted by 41 different countries and the only thing they had from him is a vague photograph from 1983,” said Bergman. Finally, the Mossad located Mughniyeh in a safe house in Damascus, but, since Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Syria and, therefore, does not have an embassy there, they were at a disadvantage. Embassies are a great boon to spies, he said.
“You can have diplomatic immunity, you have cars, you have diplomatic mail, you can smuggle, it’s wonderful,” he said. “But they couldn’t get to him, they couldn’t kill him in Damascus, because it was so hard to operate, so Mossad turned to the only organization that could: the CIA. Because the CIA had something that Mossad will never have in Damascus: an embassy.”
The CIA required permission from then-U.S. President George W. Bush, so Ehud Olmert, who was then Israel’s prime minister, flew to Washington for a secret meeting with Bush and urged the president to help Mossad take out the terrorist, noting the number of Americans Mughniyeh had killed.
“George Bush was convinced, but he said on one condition – no collateral damage,” Bergman said. No bystanders or associates were to be harmed.
Working with the CIA, the Mossad set up the scenario and then aborted the operation 53 times because the target was not within the defined kill zone or because he was not alone or because, on one occasion, his identity could not be 100% verified because he was wearing a scarf due to inclement weather.
On Feb. 12, 2008, Mughniyeh left the safe house and the Mossad was about to push the button when they realized he was not alone.
“He’s walking with a man,” Bergman recounted. “Someone looks at the monitor and says, oh that’s not just a man, that’s Good Dog. Good Dog was the codename for Qasem Soleimani,” the top Iranian general and commander of the Quds Force, responsible for clandestine operations and global terror.
“So, someone said, how wonderful, let’s take them both,” said Bergman. “They called Meir Dagan [director of Mossad], who was sitting shivah for his mother. He calls Olmert and Olmert says no, abort, I promised President Bush that only Mughniyeh is killed.”
Later that same day, Mughniyeh was found alone outside the safe house and killed by an exploding car as he passed on foot. But Soleimani would live another dozen years – until he was killed Jan. 3 of this year, on orders of U.S. President Donald Trump, sparking a conflict that nearly led to all-out war between the United States and Iran.
Bergman, a lawyer and author of six bestselling books, recently received the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s equivalent of the Pulitzer. In undertaking Rise and Kill First, Bergman discarded all previous work on the subject and interviewed 1,000 intelligence officials and others with inside information on the Mossad and its operations. The book is now being turned into an HBO series.
Bergman recounted how, in 2018, Israel stunned the world when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invited the media to view a massive cache of documents and other materials related to the Iranian nuclear project. The moment was the culmination of two years of planning, involving 500 operatives, including 18 who located and infiltrated a secret archive outside Tehran, then swooped in, with a five-and-a-half-hour window in the middle of the night, to execute the deed and escape, relocating the ayatollah’s nuclear secrets to Israel.
Even with the Mossad’s expertise at safe-cracking, the team knew that they would not have time, once inside the archive, to fiddle with locks.
“So, Mossad establishes a front company in Europe who orders two empty safes from the same Iranian manufacturer. They ship the safes to Paris, then ship them to the Mossad lab in Tel Aviv, where they start drilling into them, trying to find what’s the fastest way to open them.”
They determined that it would require at least 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit to break into the archives’ security.
“Now imagine what sort of energy you need to shlep with you to Tehran in order to create such energy and do that in four different places because you need to open all the vaults,” said Bergman. They also had to bypass other security systems and interfere with video surveillance to make the cameras continue broadcasting as if nothing untoward was happening.
In the morning, when the heist was discovered by archives security officials, Bergman said, “no less than 12,000 troops, Revolutionary Guards, policeman, army” and others descended on the place, but could not discern how anyone could get in, grab all the contents and get out undetected. It would be two months until Netanyahu went public and the Iranians could finally confirm that the perpetrators were Mossad.
“Someone could ask, why should we write a book about the history of the Mossad? This is secret, right?” Bergman said. He acknowledges he left out a great number of secrets, some of which he will take to the grave, but added that it is impossible to tell the story of Israel without telling the story of the Mossad because any major decisions, any turning points in the dramatic story of the country, have the imprint of the intelligence services on it.
He warned, though, that this is not all derring-do and triumph. “If you want to read a book just glorifying Israeli intelligence, I suggest you don’t read Rise and Kill First,” he said. “Sometimes, the Jewish James Bond looks more like Inspector Clouseau.”
Many people ask Bergman how he got the top intelligence officials in the country – former heads of agency, high-level operatives, spies and agents – to talk, usually quite freely and almost always on the record.
“It was easy,” he said. “I smiled. When you smile to people, they feel comfortable to talk. But that’s not the whole answer. These people wanted to talk because they wanted people to know … what they have done in order to keep Israel safe.”
Some interviewees said they told Bergman things they had never told their spouses. But, when subjects were not forthcoming, he had a trick.
“If someone was not that enthusiastic to speak, I did to him or her the one thing that makes Israelis more ballistic and furious than anything else,” Bergman said. “I told him someone else took credit for his operations.”
He mooted a typical response: “What? He said that he was behind enemy lines, that he planned the operation, that he risked his life? Now I’m going to tell you the truth,” Bergman deadpanned. “Always works.”
In a remarkable number of the interviews, a single phrase frequently stood out: a quote from the Babylonian Talmud: “Whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
“Because the way they saw it, they had no other choice,” said Bergman, noting that outsiders cannot understand the DNA, the genome, the motives of Israelis, without understanding the imprint of the Holocaust and the determination to never be powerless again.
Hamas has bragged that they have more volunteers for suicide bombings than they have suicide belts.
“It turns out the only thing that stops these people from coming is the most extensive campaign of targeted killing ever launched in history – and not against the suicide bombers,” said Bergman. “When the Shin Bet [Israel’s internal security service] and Israeli Air Force started to target the layer above them – the bomb-makers, the indoctrinators, the recruiters, the regional commanders – then it turns out that these people who have no problem with sending everybody to their death, once the price tag is attached to themselves and their families, they say, well, we’ll die, but maybe not today.”
The targeting approach, said Bergman, was adopted by the United States, whose military leaders came to realize that taking out the top leadership of the enemy was ultimately less lethal and costly than the alternatives.
“And so, the CIA started following the successful Israeli experience, started to perform targeted killings,” said Bergman. “Do you know the president who organized the largest number of targeted killings in history? Barack Obama, because he realized that this is the weapon that, at the end of the day, takes less human lives than going into an all-out war. And it’s effective.”
Leanne Hazon, Beth Tikvah’s vice-president of programming, welcomed the audience and noted the size of the crowd despite it being Super Bowl Sunday. Rabbi Adam Rubin introduced Bergman. The author signed copies of his book after his talk.
Warren Kimmel won a Jessie Award for his portrayal of the title character in the Snapshots Collective’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (photo from Snapshots Collective)
The 37th annual Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards were held on July 15 at Bard on the Beach’s BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park. Fifty theatrical productions were nominated from last year’s theatre season.
In the small theatre category, the Snapshots Collective’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which included several Jewish community members in its creative team, garnered eight nominations: director Chris Adams and costume designer Emily Fraser were acknowledged, along with the outstanding performances by Jewish community member Warren Kimmel, Colleen Winton, Oliver Castillo and Jonathan Winsby, and the production as a whole for its quality and innovation. In the end, the show won four Jessies, for the performances of Kimmel, Winton and Castillo, as well as nabbing the award for outstanding musical production.
Jewish community member Itai Erdal won the award for outstanding lighting design category for his work in Arts Club Theatre Company’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Erdal was also nominated for his lighting in Théâtre la Seizième’s Le Soulier.
At the July 15 ceremony, community member David Diamond received the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance Career Achievement Award.
For more information, visit jessieawards.com.
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On June 27, 2019, Governor General of Canada Julie Payette announced this year’s appointments to the Order of Canada, including, as officers, two local Jewish community members: Gordon Diamond, for “his steadfast leadership in business and for his philanthropic support for causes related to health care, education and social services,” and Dr. Peter Suedfeld, for “his groundbreaking research on the psychological impacts of extreme environments and stressors on human behaviour.”
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On June 18, 2019, at Government House in Victoria, B.C., the Janusz Korczak Medal was awarded to Ted Hughes, OC, and Helen Hughes, OC, while the Janusz Korczak Statuette was awarded to Irwin Elman, the past advocate for children and youth of Ontario. The awards were bestowed in recognition of caring for children in the spirit of Dr. Janusz Korczak.
The ceremony started with welcoming remarks by the event’s host, Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin, and Holocaust survivor and writer Lillian Boraks-Nemetz spoke about Korczak, with a personal touch. The awards were presented jointly by Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C. representative for children and youth, and Jerry Nussbaum, president of the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada. And the event was emceed by Jerymy Brownridge, private secretary to the lieutenant governor and executive director of Government House.
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The Jewish Independent won two American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism this year (for work published in 2018). The awards were presented at the 38th annual AJPA banquet, held in conjunction with the association’s annual conference in St. Louis, Mo., June 23-26.
Bruce Brown’s “The draft: a dad reflects” – in which he shares his experience of sending his son off to serve in the Israeli Air Force – placed first in the personal essay category for its circulation class.
The JI’s editorial board – Pat Johnson, Basya Laye and Cynthia Ramsay – took second place in the editorial writing category for its circulation group. The submission, which included the editorials “Holocaust education needed,” “Impacts of nation-state” and “What is anti-Zionism?” elicited the following comment from the Rockower judges: “Riveting and well-explained editorials on anti-Zionism, the identity of Israel as a nation-state, and a local controversy involving Holocaust education.”
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At Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual general meeting on June 18 at King David High School, Federation elected two new directors – Karen Levitt and Melanie Samuels – and the board appointed a new executive. While Karen James has completed her term as board chair, she remains on the board as immediate past chair. Alex Cristall takes over as chair, Penny Gurstein is vice-chair, Bruce Cohen is secretary and Jim Crooks is treasurer.
At the AGM, several honours were bestowed: Stephen Gaerber was the recipient of the Arthur Fouks Award, Megan Laskin the Elaine Charkow Award and Sam Heller the Young Leadership Award. Tribute was also paid to James; as well as Jason Murray, outgoing chair of CIJA’s local partnership council; Richard Fruchter, chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services; Rabbi Noam Abramchik and Rabbi Aaron Kamin, rosh yeshivah of Pacific Torah Institute; and Cathy Lowenstein, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah. Ambassador Nimrod Barkan attended the AGM as part of his last visit to Vancouver before he completes his term as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
Federation thanks the directors who came off the board – Eric Bulmash, Bryan Hack, Rozanne Kipnes and Laskin – for their dedication to community and that they chose to share their time and talents with Federation. In Bulmash’s case, he will continue to contribute, but in a different capacity, as he is Federation’s new vice-president, operations.
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At its annual general meeting on June 19, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre announced the two winners of the Kron Sigal Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education. The VHEC also inducted two new recipients of the Life Fellows designation.
The designation of Life Fellow recognizes outstanding dedication and engagement with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre Society through long-term involvement and significant contributions to the organization’s programs and mandate. This year, VHEC is delighted to have two recipients, Wendy and Ron Stuart, in recognition of their longstanding contributions as artistic directors of the VHEC’s community-wide Yom Hashoah commemoration.
Each year, the VHEC presents the Meyer and Gita Kron and Ruth Kron Sigal Award to a B.C. elementary or secondary teacher who has shown a remarkable commitment to teaching students about the Holocaust and its important lessons. This year’s recipients are Nicola Colhoun and Dr. Christine Paget from West Vancouver Secondary School.
In their remarks, Colhoun and Paget shared, “As social studies teachers … we are tasked with the lofty goal of having students care about what has come before them to shape the world they live in now…. Through the testimonies of survivors, the past becomes tangible, it becomes human, and it becomes relevant to students…. So many of our students come away from the Holocaust Symposium saying things like, ‘I get it now.’ ‘I didn’t realize, but now I understand.’ They understand why the history of the Holocaust matters. And they also understand why they need to speak up for inclusion, and stand against racism and persecution of any kind, from the school hallways to the hallways of power.”
The VHEC’s executive is Philip Levinson, president; Corinne Zimmerman, vice-president; Marcus Brandt, second vice-president; Joshua Sorin, treasurer; Al Szajman, secretary; and Ed Lewin, past president.
There is a world of difference, needless to say, between the murder of a congregant in a California synagogue and the publication of an overtly antisemitic cartoon. But, while the incidents are incomparable in magnitude, they both implore us to action.
Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed Saturday morning during Shabbat services on the last day of Passover at Chabad of Poway, north of San Diego. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, as was her uncle, 32-year-old Almog Peretz, who was shot in the leg. Peretz was visiting family for the holiday from his home in Sderot, Israel, a city adjacent to Gaza that is under constant threat of bombardment and attack.
In the instant terror struck, heroism abounded. Kaye reportedly died intervening to protect the rabbi from the shooter. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, although shot in both hands, immediately teamed with Peretz, who was also wounded, to shepherd the children in the synagogue to safety. Army veteran Oscar Stewart chased the assailant out of the synagogue and Jonathan Morales, an off-duty border patrol agent, shot at the getaway car as the perpetrator fled.
The alleged perpetrator had posted on social media that he was willing to give up his life for the cause of white supremacy. He blamed “international Jewry” for a litany of perceived “crimes” and said that Jews “deserve nothing but hell. I will send them there.”
This shooting is the latest in a terrible string of attacks on religious institutions and the people within them, including the Easter attack that killed more than 300 in Sri Lanka and the mass murder of Muslims in a mosque in New Zealand, among many other attacks on people and institutions worldwide that do not make the front pages. While such incidents in the United States are partly a result of that society’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, the propensity to murder people in places of worship – like the endless stream of mass killings in schools – represents a particular manifestation of evil.
Six months to the day before the Poway attack, 11 people were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Given that horrific number, it is understandable that human nature would react to the latest news with an unconscious sense of relief that the death toll in California was not higher. But this reaction, however natural, must be resisted. The invasion of a religious sanctuary represents an assault on the most basic human instincts for goodness and stands apart from other crimes in its deliberateness and in the calculated impact it will have on the victimized community’s sense of security and belonging. Such attacks – no matter how frequently they seem to come – must never be responded to routinely. Each attack is cause for a fresh sense of revulsion.
While the situations are clearly not analogous, there was another episode recently that demands vigilance. The New York Times international edition last week ran a cartoon of Donald Trump as a blind man with dark glasses and a black kippah, being led by an elongated dachshund with the head of Binyamin Netanyahu wearing a Star of David around his neck. The cartoon exists as part of a long history of motifs that portray Jews manipulating guileless, gullible non-Jews to serve Jews’ devious ends. The New York Times apologized and blamed a lack of oversight.
If the editors of Der Stürmer were still among us, they could justifiably claim plagiarism, as numerous comparative memes on social media have indicated. Such images are extremely common on the internet, where there is no oversight. When they make their way into print in one of the English-speaking world’s most august media outlets, this is a new challenge.
Commentators have observed that the dachshund is a breed that rarely, if ever, serves as a seeing-eye dog. The choice by the cartoonist to use that breed was clearly deliberate. For at least a century, since the First World War, cartoonists have used a dachshund to represent Germany. In this way, the artist was adding insult to injury by equating Israel with the perpetrator of the gravest attack on Jews in human history.
The point of addressing the violent attack in San Diego together with a grievous but far less tangible affront in the pages of the New York Times is to make the case that vigilance should not be let down by the routinization of either violence or terrible imagery. These incidents seem to fly at us with such regularity that it is understandable that we as individuals and a community would have limited resources to respond to each case with the gravity it deserves. The memes and lies may become routinized, but our responses to them must never fall short.
Jewish tradition says that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. The heroes of the Poway tragedy have done that. While we cannot predict how each of us would respond in such a crisis, we can promote small acts of light within our circles of influence, by advocating for understanding and peace and by supporting organizations that do good work. More immediately, we can take the advice of Rabbi Goldstein and do good in the world whenever and wherever possible. In a world with evil and intolerance, acts of goodness and understanding are their own type of heroism.
A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the national educational tour about the Holodomor began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far. (photo by Pat Johnson)
What constitutes a genocide? How many Ukrainians were murdered by Josef Stalin’s human-created famine in the 1930s? Would you stand up in a situation where lives were at risk – even if it meant you might become targeted?
These were some of the questions confronted by Grade 12 students of King David High School last week. A national educational tour about the Holodomor – the mass murder of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime – pulled into Vancouver, opening the eyes of young people to this chapter of history.
Beginning in 1932, the Soviet government under Stalin began a calculated, systematic famine in Ukraine, seizing all food sources, cutting off escapes for people fleeing starvation and implementing summary execution for the crime of stealing the smallest piece of sustenance. Farming was collectivized, creating catastrophic conditions. Political and intellectual elites were murdered.
Some details, including the number of Ukrainians killed, remain cloaked in uncertainty because, from the start, the Holodomor was deliberately hidden from the outside world through a comprehensive system of censorship and misinformation, as well as the complicity of media and other countries. Estimates of the number of dead range from seven million to 14 million.
Holodomor is a portmanteau made up of holod, starvation, and mor, death, meaning “death by starvation.”
The Holodomor National Awareness Tour consists of a bus-sized repurposed former recreational vehicle. Rather than a static exhibition through which participants walk, the vehicle has been retrofitted with a 30-foot screen down one interior wall and 30 theatre-style seats down the other, with interactive tablets that invite students to study and discuss in small groups before reconvening to share what they’ve learned with the larger group. A project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the tour began in 2015 and has reached about 30,000 Canadian high school students so far.
The Holodomor was not an endeavour to kill an enemy, but an effort to restructure society, a form of social engineering at its most extreme. In September 1932, Stalin wrote to one of his lieutenants that Ukraine was restive. The Soviets perceived Ukrainians as being profoundly religious, individualistic, believers in private property and attached to their plots of land, making them unsuitable for building communism. Addressing these perceived flaws would require, according to Soviet leaders, an action so extreme that a word had not yet been invented to describe the intent.
The entire agricultural sector was upended by collectivization and resisters were murdered or sent to gulags, Soviet concentration camps. At first, remaining supplies of food sustained the Ukrainian people, but those reserves were soon depleted, while the Soviets extracted ever-increasing quotas of grain and Soviet wheat exports to the West grew. As the Holodomor proceeded, NKVD secret police were sent to search for and confiscate any remaining food sources. While those caught stealing or concealing food were executed, for millions more, fate was less sudden.
“Most of the victims died slowly, at home,” according to the narrator of one of the interactive films viewed by students. “Special NKVD units raided people’s homes to collect the dead bodies. They received 200 grams of bread for every dead body they delivered.”
Students examined the forces that allowed the Soviet Union to hide the reality from the world. For the Soviets’ part, there was censorship and the threat of retaliation for those who shared the truth. But their crimes were abetted by Western figures, including New York Times correspondent Walter Durante, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the USSR, even as he misrepresented the Holodomor. In one article, titled “Hungry, not starving,” Durante wrote that there is no actual starvation or death from starvation, though he acknowledged there was widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
Leading journalism figures from the time are brought to life through reenactments. British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, reporting for the Manchester Guardian, reflected on being raised in a socialist household and how he was enthusiastic about traveling to the Soviet Union to report on the utopia being created there. When he saw the reality, he evaded Soviet censors by sending his dispatches home via the British embassy’s consular pouch.
One of the heroic figures of the story is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who risked his life to bring the truth from Ukraine. He convened a press conference in Berlin, on March 29, 1933. But the timing was terrible. The Soviets were about to launch a show trial against six U.K. citizens, accusing them of espionage in what would become known as the Metro-Vickers Affair.
In order to remain in the USSR and report on what promised to be a trial of global importance, journalists had to stay on good terms with the authorities.
“It would have been professional suicide to make an issue of the famine then,” one reenactor remarked. “So, none of us supported Jones.”
Lauren Shore is a student in King David’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12 course. The class, created by teacher Anna-Mae Wiesenthal, is delivered during lunch hour and, while students receive credit, they take the course in addition to their full complement of other classes. A province-wide genocide studies elective course is part of the new B.C. curriculum and will be offered next year at schools that opt-in.
Shore, with a partner, did a project on the Holodomor.
“Since there is a lot of debate on whether it’s a genocide or not, and how it was planned, we decided to focus on that,” she said. “We were focusing on the different steps of genocide [and] people were debating whether it was a genocide or not, since it wasn’t necessarily planned as exactly as other genocides were. As we looked into it, we found that it was planned just as much as the other genocides, just in other, more subtle ways.”
Solly Khalifa, also in Grade 12, was impressed with the interactivity of the Holodomor tour.
“I was astonished at how innovative it is,” he said. “They really get everybody participating and it’s very interesting and an easy way to participate also.”
Classmate Noah McNamara saw parallels between the Holodomor and the Holocaust.
“All genocides are kind of similar, in that it’s a governing body that takes advantage of their power to push a goal,” he said. “In the Holocaust, [it was] the Aryan race that they wanted to push. In this case, it was communism that they wanted to push. I think it’s important for us now to be aware of aggressive governments and governments that are trying to radically push things, because that’s definitely a precursor to genocide.”
Ava Katz, who worked with Shore on their Holodomor project this year, noted that studies of the Holocaust enforce the dictum “never again.”
“But I feel like sometimes that’s overlooked with other genocides,” she said. “Not a lot of people will say that. But when you really study other genocides in-depth and see how severe they are, it’s important that we never let any of them happen again.”
The cross-country tour operates with a shoestring staff. Alexi Marchel leads students though the experience. Kevin Viaene drives the bus and supports the program.
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, The Jerusalem 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!