Helping Families Communicate in Wartime

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This week, from the J-Vault: To Find Jews in a War Zone (1915)

The Great War (later to be known as World War I) had been raging for a year, with Russia and Western Europe locked in a bloody battle with the Central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Sending letters between the United States and Eastern Europe, naturally, was nearly impossible. Communication across the lines would require the participation of the belligerent governments and their militaries.

At this stage of the war, however, America remained neutral, and therefore American organizations, with the help of the US government, could obtain cooperation from governments of both sides. The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America did just that:

The war has caused numberless instances, separation of parents from children, wives from husbands, and sisters from brothers, and has filled the hearts of hundreds of thousands of foreign born Jews throughout this country with terror, for among the 2,000,000 Jews now living in the United States are found persons coming from every town and hamlet in Russia, Austria, Galicia and Poland in which Jews dwell, and these are extremely anxious to know the fate of those members of their families whom they left behind...

...The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society of America... recently organized a Bureau especially equipped for this purpose. Judge Leon Sanders, the president of the society, made arrangements with similar national organizations in Russia, Austria, Germany, England and France...

...About 800 persons have, since the opening of the Bureau, been placed into direct communication with their loved ones, and their letters and money have been forwarded to them...

..."Help us find our only son" writes a lonely mother from Philadelphia—"We have shed all our tears in vain, and have done all we could to obtain news from him who remained behind to serve in the armies of the Czar."

"We are four children" writes a group from Boston, "who supported our aged parents in Austria, by regular monthly remittances, but since the war broke out we do not hear from them."

From Galveston, Tex., comes the following: "Please help me find the address of my wife and baby because it is over a year since I received word from them. How happy I would be of you could trace my dear ones! You would be giving them and me a new lease of life."..

...Scores of similar letters are received daily by the Society from every part of the United States and Canada. Hundreds' of persons come in person to the office at 229 East Broadway to ask for word from those in whom they are interested, and every effort is made to obtain the information for which they seek.

Read more...

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Our Afternoon with a Persona Non Grata

The Hill reports that PLO Representative to Washington Maen Rashid Areikat often finds it hard to get a meeting with the right people:

In an interview with The Hill, Areikat said he can’t always get an audience with lawmakers to discuss Palestinian issues. Some congressional offices won’t even let him through the door. “This is really unfortunate. … You have to talk to a party that is very, very crucial,” Areikat said. “The Israelis are talking to us. Why wouldn’t these members of Congress talk to us?”

Making no endorsements of Areikat's (the PLO's) positions, or judgments about his situation in Washington, we can't resist using this story as an excuse to remind blog readers that they can see a video of a long lecture and Q&A with Ambassador Areikat here. He spoke in front of an audience of American Jewish leaders at BJPA in March of this year.

UN Votes for Palestinian State(s)

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Today, November 29th, is the 64th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's decision to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, laying the groundwork for the declaration of the State of Israel the following year.

Six and a half decades later, with the American Jewish community still of multiple minds about the ifs, whys, hows, wheres and whens of a Palestinian state, it is worth looking back at the concerns of the same community before and after the historic vote for partition that took place on this day in 1947.

In this special installment of the J-Vault: the Practicalities of Statehood.

Both of the publications below were printed in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly, a predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service.

Partition of Palestine and Its Consequences. In March 1938, nearly a decade before partition became reality, Maurice J. Karpf spoke before a Jewish communal gathering in Minneapolis. Karpf was President of the Faculty at the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work in New York, and a Non-Zionist Member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (as it was then called).

"It is the customary and gracious thing," he began, "to say, when a speaker begins his address, that he is very glad to be here. I trust I shall not be considered ungracious when I tell you... that I am not very glad to be here now." He explained:

 ...the subject of Palestine is in the emotional realm. People are unwilling to reason about it. They feel about it, and you~can't reason with them. They approach every subject relating to Palestine with a bias-either in favor, or against. If the speaker agrees with them, or happens to express what is in their own minds and hearts, he has done well-they agree with him. If he does not, if he happens to speak on the other side of the fence, regardless of what he may say, and how well reasoned and how well substantiated his argument may be, there is neither logic, nor force, nor truth in what he says...

...It will be my aim to present to you the situation facing Palestine, and facing the Jews of the world, as a result of the proposed partition, as I know it. I shall not argue either for, or against partition. I shall try, in the time allotted me, to give you the arguments for and against both sides.

Karpf went on to describe in fascinating detail the positions and machinations of Arabs, pro-partition Zionists, anti-partition Zionists, and non-Zionist Jews. Click here for more.

Overseas Relief Needs in Light of United Nations Decision on Palestine. "[W]hat could one expect from the UN?" asked Nathan Reich, an economics professor, in September 1948. "Spelled backwards, it reads NU. Well, NU, NU, what of the decision?"

The decision was perhaps not of the kind anticipated by some of the nations of the world; it was not anticipated by some Jews. It is reported in the unofficial chronicles of the UN Assembly that a wise, pious Jew, after observing the futile debates and procedures of the UN in its dealing with the Palestine problem, remarked rather sadly: The Jews will get Palestine in one of the two ways possible; through a miracle--if Great Britain should hand over Palestine to the Jews, or through the natural way--Meshiach vet kumen. Well, the decision took neither form.

Reich summarized the state of Jewish relief needs, especially in Europe, concluding:

The establishment of Israel will not for some time to come reduce the scope of relief needs. It will, however, introduce clarity, direction and purposiveness in the operation of relief programs. Like a flash of lightning, the act of May 15 illuminated the Jewish scene and opened new vistas and new horizons. This is Israel's significance to the problems of Jewish overseas relief needs.

Click here for more.

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The Obama-Sarkozy "Gaffe" Proves Obama Strong For Israel

Just assume the mic is on.

The global media are all aflutter over two lines of an overheard dialogue between Presidents Obama and Sarkozy.

"I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation. "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you," Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.

The lede in coverage has been, naturally, that Sarkozy called Bibi a liar, and that Obama sympathetically implied that Bibi is an enormous pain. Just as naturally, many Zionists see this gaffe as an embarassment, and many American Israel activists see the affair as a sign that President Obama is less supportive of Israel in private than he is in public. (Leftist Zionists may interpret the matter this way with much wringing of hands, and right-wingers the same way, but with purrs of contentment.)

But the real story isn't these two lines. The real story is how the subject came up in the first place, and how the subject came up demonstrates conclusively that President Obama is working behind the scenes to advance Israel's interests.

During their bilateral meeting on November 3, on the sidelines of the Cannes summit, Obama criticized Sarkozy's surprise decision to vote in favor of a Palestinian request for membership of the U.N. cultural heritage agency UNESCO. "I didn't appreciate your way of presenting things over the Palestinian membership of UNESCO. It weakened us. You should have consulted us, but that is now behind us," Obama was quoted as saying...

...Obama told Sarkozy that he was worried about the impact if Washington had to pull funding from other U.N. bodies such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the IAEA nuclear watchdog if the Palestinians gained membership there. "You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians that they must stop this immediately," Obama said.

The full story, in other words, is this: Obama approaches Sarkozy to say, you shouldn't have supported the PA UN membership bid. Sarkozy responds, But Bibi is a liar. Obama counters: I don't like him either, and still I'm telling you this statehood bid was a bad move.

Whether Obama's sympathetic response to Sarkozy's complaint was genuine or merely a sympathetic nod to build rapport hardly matters. In either case, our President's message was that, irrespective of the Israeli Prime Minister's personality, Israel's preferred course of negotiations rather than unilateral UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is correct.

In this light, Obama's personal disdain for Bibi strengthens, not weakens, his pro-Israel bona fides. First, it shows that Obama's analysis of the situation genuinely favors Israel's position, rather than being a concession to a friend. Second, since the President would never have said such a thing knowing a microphone was hot, it demonstrates that Obama's private views of this matter match his public pronouncements. To hear Republicans talk, you'd think an unguarded moment between these two leaders would sound something like: "I wish I could have stood with you, Nicholas, but I need Jewish and Christian Zionist votes." Or, "I'm glad you took that stand. I couldn't, but just for political reasons." Or, "At last, my fellow mujahid, our plan to assert Shari'a law over all the world is coming to fruition."

Instead, what we heard was: Bibi's a pain, but "You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians that they must stop this immediately." As an American Zionist who cares much more about Israel's geopolitical position than about Bibi Netanyahu's personal dignity, I certainly like what I hear.

It nearly need not be said that everyone (and not just politicians) would be wise to assume that every microphone they ever see is presently on and recording. It should be added that the wisest course of all is simply to assume that at every moment such a microphone is present, whether or not one is visible, but that may be asking too much of most people. In any case, when these gaffes appear, they are indeed revealing. Let us have care, however, to discern what is really being revealed.

[The obligatory caveat: BJPA is apolitical. This post represents my own analysis, not the organization.]

Insisting on Forever

Jonathan S. Tobin is incensed in Commentary that Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh doesn't accept the formula of Israel as "a Jewish State." Nusseibeh feels that the term "Jewish state" implies either a theocracy (if Judaism is a religion) or apartheid (if Jewishness is racial or ethnic). He instead suggests "that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish."

As Tobin correctly points out, "that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state." Nusseibeh's is a classic distinction without a difference.

Still, I can't seem to bring myself to care as much as Tobin what Palestinians think about Israel being a Jewish state. "The reason for Israel’s demand is simple," writes Tobin. "Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over."

Forever Jewish, he wants from them? Forever is a pretty big deal. Will Israelis agree that even one inch of the West Bank will be forever Palestinian? (Giving up entirely the messianic visions of the Hebrew Bible.) Forever is an entirely unreasonable demand to make of either side. Maybe it's just me, but I say let's work on a practical peace deal for the forseeable future and leave the question of forever to a higher Authority. Both parties should be willing to let the other nation live in peace in its own state, and both parties will doubtless continue to dream of the messianic utopian day in which our side gets all the land back. As long as everybody's stays calm and respectful in the here and now, who cares about competing dreams of forever? Let the songs and dreams embrace and contain the conflict, and let the practical reality contain only peace, tolerance, and mutual dignity and security.

Tobin is right when he says that "Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves." (What a Jewish state means is a topic of constant debate among Jews.) That's all the more reason to say it's an unnecessary waste of time and diplomatic capital insisting that Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state.

To Be or Not to Be: Palestine's Bid for Recognition

President Obama at the UN

Unless you've been living under a rock or without cable for the past few months, you're probably aware of Palestinian's upcoming bid to achieve statehood via the U.N. General Assembly. With anti-Israel rhetoric being thrown around left and right, it was refreshing to hear that at least the United States has not abandoned Israel. Earlier this morning, President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly. He spoke of his support for a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine and a secure Israel.

“Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, and persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are.”

While such comments from our president are comforting, Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel comments are still bountiful. In an interview last week, Maen Areikat, ambassador from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, stated that he believed any future Palestinian state should be free of Jews.

"After the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it would be in the best interest of the two people to be separated."

After the comment sparked obvious outrage, Areikat backtracked and then said he was referring to Israelis, not Jews. Ahhh, of course. Because that makes it all better {sarcasm}.  Areikat also has implored American Jews to not just blindly support Israel, and to look beyond tomorrow. You may recall that in March, BJPA hosted ambassador Areikat for a discussion of American Jews and the Palestinian conflict.

Israel needs all the support it can get right now, and I don’t think support from Obama is enough. With Egypt expelling its Israeli consulate and Turkey washing its hands of Israel in an effort to rub elbows with its Arab neighbors, Israel is facing the big, bad Middle East by its lonesome. If the United States remains Israel’s only outspoken ally, what will this mean for its future? Is anyone else willing to step up to the plate? Or will Israel be forced to face the possibility of a Palestinian state alone? I fear a two-state solution only because of the possibility of Israel’s safety being compromised. Palestine is simply not stable enough to govern itself. Hopefully Obama’s stance will help the U.N.’s final decision. But if not, I fear for the consequences. 
 

The Anti-Boycott Bill and the Double Standard

Censorship

Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich argues in the Jerusalem Post that the outcry against Israel's recent law banning the organization of boycotts is mistaken, and guilty of a double-standard:

There is no universal code of free speech. Determining what gets protection involves trade-offs between the very real harm that speech can cause and the benefit of free expression. Among liberal Western democracies, how that balance is struck varies significantly, depending on legal traditions and circumstances. The United States has far more robust constitutional speech protections than almost any Western country. Most European nations – and Israel – have numerous laws criminalizing speech that would not conceivably pass muster under the First Amendment. This does not mean these countries deny freedom of speech; merely that there are competing ideas...

...Great Britain has strong libel laws that prevent people from truthfully condemning public officials. While the law is widely criticized, no one has suggested Britain has thereby lost its democratic status. Critics of Israel’s anti-boycott law denounce it as fascist. In Europe, calling others fascist has gotten prominent politicians prosecuted – prosecutions that have not provoked lectures on free speech from the EU or America’s State Department...

...The anti-boycott law prohibits speech intended to cause economic harm to businesses solely because of their national identity. Nondiscrimination laws commonly ban plans to deny business to specified groups of certain national or ethnic origins. Israel’s new law bans discrimination against businesses because they are Israeli. Most European states – and Israel – have laws prohibiting speech that is perceived as “hateful” or which simply offends the feelings of particular groups. Often such speech expresses important viewpoints. A boycott of Israel promotes hatred of Israel, and certainly offends the vast majority of Israelis...

...[T]he law has a characteristic crucial for free-speech scrutiny – it is “viewpoint neutral.” That is, it applies to boycotts of Israel whether organized by the left wing or the right wing.

Like most European democracies, Israel’s constitutional protection of speech has long been narrower than America’s. One example is that speech restraints have long been used against right-wing groups. Just recently, a prominent right-wing activist has been prosecuted for “insulting a public official,” after denouncing those responsible for expelling Jewish families from Gaza in 2005. In recent weeks, police have arrested several rabbis for authoring or endorsing obscure treatises of religious law that discuss (allegedly too leniently) the permissibility of killing enemy civilians in wartime...

...Israel’s current practice is clearly well within the limits of an open democracy. Singling out Israel for laws that are identical to, or just as restrictive as, laws on the books in America and Europe manifests the very problem that exists with the boycotts themselves – the application of an entirely different set of standards to Israel than to the rest of the free world.

Kontorovich makes an extremely compelling case that Israel's new law is completely in line with the range of speech laws exemplified by many democratic countries. I, for one, am convinced that it is completely unfair to claim that Israel is undemocratic for passing this law.

That being said, the law remains a terrible idea. Kontorovich is right that Israel is being held to a risible double standard, but the answer isn't to lower the standard of freedom for Israel, it is to raise the standard of freedom for everyone else. Other democracies with restrictive speech laws, including Europe, Canada and others, should pass new laws permitting the expression of any opinion, even offensive and harmful opinions, because that's the right thing to do. The goal shouldn't be matching precedent, it should be doing what is right.

The dodge of right and wrong by fleeing to precedent is a common pattern when Israel is unfairly singled out (i.e., depressingly frequently): critics point out something Israel has done wrong, and Israel's defenders immediately shout to the high heavens that every other country does it and nobody ever complains, and that's unfair in a very sinister way.

They're absolutely right: it's monumentally unfair, and often sinister, and the use of the double standard as a stealth weapon in the PR war against Israel must be exposed and combated. That important conversation, however, (the one about fairness and double standards) ought to be separate from conversations about specific criticisms of specific actions. Responding to a specific criticism by pointing to the double standard is a dodge, and a mistake.

When it comes to a specific criticism, the crux of the matter is always this: either the action Israel did was wrong, or it's right. If the action was right, then the double standard is a red herring; respond to criticism by demonstrating that the action was right. If the action was wrong, then the double standard remains a red herring; respond to the criticism by acknowledging that the action was wrong, and figure out how to fix it.

In the case of this anti-boycott law, the idea that the state can stop people from advocating that their fellow citizens use their purchasing power to make a political statement is just wrong, even if that political statement is despicable. If freedom of speech means anything, it means freedom of advocacy.

Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem

Happy Yom Yerushalayim! On this day in 1967, Israel captured and reunited Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

 Here are just a few of many BJPA publications having to do with Jerusalem:

1967 Borders, and How to Lie With Maps

Israel, sans Green Line

As Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere continue to mull over President Obama's Middle East speech last Thursday, and his subsequent explanation at the AIPAC conference, "1967 borders" have become the topic du jour.

In 2008, Hannah Weitzer of Windows-Channels for Communication observed in Sh'ma that Diaspora Jews are accustomed to looking at maps of Israel which do not mark the Palestinian territories, or the "Green Line" that represents the 1967 border. "Drawing in the internationally recognized border between Israel proper and the occupied territories is not a quick fix for all of the issues surrounding Israel education," she writes. "But teaching with maps that lack the green line is indicative of a larger gap between fact and myth that runs rampant in teaching Israel to Diaspora Jews."

But if a map without the Green Line is deceptive, might not a map featuring a hard, solid, 1967-style Green Line be equally deceptive? In the same issue of Sh'ma, history professor Derek J. Penslar cautions against oversimplification in cartography:

"I have a colleague at the University of Toronto who teaches a course called 'How to Lie With Maps.' Supporters of Israel might well suggest as required reading for this course Palestinian maps that show a unitary Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan with no sign of Israel’s existence. Yet Israeli maps, and those produced by and for Diaspora Jews, rarely mark the Green Line that constitutes the country’s internationally recognized borders."

Yet is the answer simply to replace one simplistic map with another simplistic map?

"The best way... would be through maps that faithfully depict the constant presence of Jews and Arabs in the same landscape... Superimposing maps would display the geographic structure and distribution of each community along with the points of intersection between them."

Penslar's chief concern is diachronic -- he wants to help people to understand the development of Arab and Jewish populations in Israel/Palestine over time. But I think his point is even more interesting if taken synchronically -- as a model for looking at the present moment. The reality of Jewish settlement blocs, along with Arab-majority population centers in Israel proper, makes the prospect of a neat and tidy border along the Green Line completely untenable. Besides which, the Green Line was not set in stone or decided upon by any kind of treaty or decree -- it's basically a cease-fire line marking troop positions during a pause (lasting from 1949 until 1967) in a war that started in 1948 and has never actually ended. President Obama, of course, recognizes this, which is why he included the phrase "mutually-agreed swaps" in his speech.

In any case, Penslar's point at its core is that a simple map is a deceptive map, and I think perhaps observers of all but the most extreme positions can agree with that.

Complexity

PLO Representative at BJPA: “Don’t Blindly Support Israel”

(Cross-posted at Jewschool.)

by Aimee Gonzalez

The Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner hosted PLO Representative Maen Areikat at a luncheon on March 2nd to discuss the role of American Jews in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A mix of professors, students, Jewish communal leaders, journalists and others came to listen to Representative Areikat discuss the situation between the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government, and what needs to happen for the peace process to move forward. As the JTA noted, this appearance is part of a larger effort on the part of the PLO “to open dialogue with the Jewish community.”

“Time is not on either side,” said Areikat, but he emphasized that it is of the essence. He stated that Israel has the opportunity to work with a willing Palestinian government who is committed to peace. Palestinians are frustrated, however, with the fact that Israel continues to build settlements while also claiming to want peace, he said. Areikat held firmly to the stance that “peace negotiations and settlements cannot go hand in hand” and contended that it is necessary to find a new approach.

Perhaps a new approach is on its way; in an article about the event, Haaretz noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu “is considering a plan to cooperate with the Palestinians on the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, as part of an interim peace agreement”. As that story had not yet broken widely in America while the event proceeded, no one asked Ambassador Areikat during the Q&A whether this idea would be acceptable to the PLO.

This discussion built up to the main point of the event—what American Jews should do. On this Areikat was clear: “Don’t blindly just support Israel. Do not abandon [it], but…look beyond tomorrow.” Practically speaking, he stated that American Jews should support their government’s efforts to end this conflict. Many Jews are reluctant to criticize Israel or support anyone who does, he argued, but a successful peace process requires recognizing positive steps from both sides, and condemning those who won’t cooperate—including Israelis.

The Jewish leaders in the audience for this event showed no signs of “blindly” supporting Israel. Every Jewish questioner during the Q&A voiced support for a Palestinian State. This may be because those who chose to attend this event were those who were most inclined to this position, but it may also indicate how marginal the position against Palestinian self-determination has become in contemporary American Jewish discourse. A few decades ago, opposition to any form of Palestinian nationalism was well within the American Jewish mainstream (see this piece by Avraham Weiss, and this by Richard Cohen). But at Wednesday’s event, this perspective was not evident.

The content of the discussion was hardly surprising, but the fact of the discussion is still noteworthy. While the event began with the formality of a diplomatic speech, by the end, when the Q&A broke down the wall between speaker and audience, it was a lively conversation over lunch.

Watch the video below:


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