Special Reader's Guide: Iran

In case you haven't seen it yet, check out our special Reader's Guide on the Iranian nuclear threat.

Iran Guide

Click to download.

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.


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Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

Negotiating with Terrorists: Shalit May Be Coming Home

Gilad Shalit

Jews worldwide are doubtless thrilled to hear that Gilad Shalit may be on his way home soon. The prayers of millions may be on the verge of being granted.

Amidst the elation, however, many are doubtless also wondering how and why it is that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has agreed to swap prisoners with the terrorist group Hamas, apparently breaking, bending or changing Israel's long-standing policy: you don't negotiate with terrorists.

[W]e - Israel, the legitimate Palestinian government, the Arab world, and the entire international community - cannot afford to appease or reward Hamas.  (Tzipi Livni)

 Israel has never, nor will it ever, negotiate with Hamas, as long as it refuses to accept the three principles set forth by the international community. (Ehud Olmert)

No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. (President Obama)

 Yet PM Netanyahu has just run afoul of all three of these pronouncements from leaders who can hardly be accused of being more right-wing than he.

Questions upon questions present themselves. Will the Israeli public be so ecstatic to have Gilad back that they approve of this deal? If so, how will they respond the next time international leaders demand that Israel sit down with a Palestinian Authority leadership team that includes Hamas? How then could anyone simply say, we don't negotiate with terrorists? Is there to be an exception for hostages, and if so, what if this causes Hamas to take more hostages? Or what if they don't? Could it not be said that every Israeli and every Palestinian is already, in a way, a hostage to this war?

These are not easy questions, and they deserve a conversation beyond easy responses. It would be useless simply to declare that this deal proves that nations should always be willing to negotiate with terrorists who murder civilians, and equally useless to dismiss this particular deal in this particular situation out of hand, merely because it cuts against the grain of a general principle. Geopolitics is chess, not checkers, and the search for an answer that works in every situation is a search destined to fail.

Yet this kind of simple-minded attitude, it seems to me, generally characterizes American Jewish discourse about the Middle East. Either you're an Israel-booster, eager to refute any criticism, eager to show that Israel is always right, and that the answer to all provocations must be strength, or you're a peacenik convinced that Israeli military action is always wrong, and that all violence is one simple, easily comprehensible "cycle of violence." The missing voices are the voices of nuance and complexity -- voices held hostage within our minds to the natural desire of all of us to fit into a pre-packaged political camp.

This development -- a hardline Prime Minister negotiating with Hamas and agreeing to a deal that releases a thousand Palestinian prisoners -- may turn out to have been brilliant, or it may turn out to have been disastrous. (Only time, and perhaps an enormous amount of it, will tell.) Either way, I think this news should upend our habits of knee-jerk reaction in dialogue on Middle East questions. It should remind us to examine each question in its particulars, and not just in its abstractions.

And either way, if and when Gilad Shalit returns to Israel alive and free, it should be a cause for enormous celebration.

Independence Day J-Vault: Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas


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Happy Independence Day! Today, a special patriotic installment of the J-Vault:

Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas "The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution" (1905)

In this excerpt from the 1905 American Jewish Yearbook, N. Taylor Phillips profiles Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas, the Hazzan during the American Revolution of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (which happens to be the oldest congregation, though not nearly the oldest synagogue building, in the USA).

...He was an ardent patriot during the preliminaries to the struggle for independence, and it is related that when at length the crisis came, rather than continue the Synagogue under British auspices, he closed the doors of the edifice, which act was fiercely contested, even families being split apart as the result of it. Many of the members of the Congregation were merchants in active business in New York City, and their interests naturally were with the Tories rather than with the feeble little band of patriots endeavoring to secure freedom for the Colonies. When the patriot members of the Congregation were about to flee from the city upon the appearance of the British fleet in New York Bay in August, 1776, preparatory to the occupation of the city by Lord Howe, the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas preached a sermon in English, in which he feelingly stated that the service on that occasion might be the last to be held in the historic old edifice situated in Mill Street (now South William Street), then approaching the half-century mark, and we are told that it was delivered with such force and eloquence that tears were shed by all present, men and women alike...

...[T]aking with him the sacred objects of holy worship, [he] established at Philadelphia the Congregation Mickve Israel, a majority of the members being patriot refugees from New York...

[Note: Mikve Israel's own web page traces the congregation's history back to before Rev. Seixas's arrival. See this page.]

Hazzan Seixas

...On the inauguration of President Washington as the first President of the United States, at New York, 1789, the Rev. Mr. Seixas with thirteen other clergymen of various denominations participated in the ceremonies, which notable fact may serve to remind American citizens for all time that our republic is founded on the very broadest principles, tolerating every race and creed, and American Israelites should ever recall with pride that the lives of Hebrews like the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas and his brothers, who cheerfully offered their lives and fortunes for the establishment of American independence, give to their brethren throughout the world a right of asylum on these shores which no truehearted or grateful American will ever have the temerity to challenge...

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Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day


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:

J-Vault for Memorial Day: American Jews in WWI

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This week, from the J-Vault, in (slightly belated) honor of Memorial Day: American Jews in the World War (1920)

 "From the day that the United States entered the war," writes Julian Leavitt in the American Jewish Year Book, referring to the conflict that would later be called World War I, "the Jews of America perceived the wisdom of keeping an authentic record of Jewish service in the common cause."

The American Jewish Committee therefore assumed this task in November, 1917—at its first annual meeting after the American declaration of war—and has since prosecuted it, with the unstinted co-operation of the Jewish Welfare Board, vigorously and systematically, until to-day it may properly claim a collection of historical and statistical data of the very first importance...

The best available evidence indicates that there were from 200,000 to 250,000 Jews in the service, or from 4 to 5 per cent of the total forces of the United States... The entire Jewish population of the country, according to the latest estimates, is about 3 per cent of the total population. The Jews in the military and naval forces of the United States, however, have constituted from 4 to 5 per cent of the total personnel. On the face of these figures it would seem that the Jews of America contributed at least one-third more than their share to the armed strength of the United States...
[T]he total of Jewish deaths will probably aggregate 3500, or about 5 per cent of the total American deaths recorded to date... [T]he number of Jews who have either given their lives for their country, or shed their blood for the American cause, will probably aggregate from 15,000 to 16,000.

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