Building bridges through genealogy research
“The size of the Holocaust is so big, it is incomprehensible. I wanted to individualise it by understanding how the atrocity touched particular families.”
In pockets in Europe, interest is growing in researching family trees of Holocaust victims. “Bridges are being built,” said Claus-Dieter Richter-Kraneis through a translator, last week, at the Johannesburg Genealogical Society.
Richter-Kraneis lives in Wesel, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He worked for a chemical company until his retirement. He’s also been instrumental in bridging gaps in the family history of three Johannesburg residents, Sonya Abelson (born Gunther), whose family he started researching in 2006 and her cousin Frank Haymann and his wife Carol (née Rapoport) whose families he started researching in 2010, and who he has managed to track all the way back to 1750.
Giving an account of family members whose birth and death records he discovered, Richter-Kraneis opened up an area of previously hidden secrets. “I’m interested in the fight to outlaw racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism,” he wrote in his CV. He came upon the family in question “by fluke” according to Abelson.
“The size of the Holocaust – six million Jewish victims – is so big, it is incomprehensible. I wanted to individualise it by understanding how the atrocity touched particular families.”
Each year, since 1999, he has been visiting cites of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust, as an advocate for Holocaust history and to research. The artist Gunter Demnig has, since 1996, been involved in installing 10x10x10cm cast concrete stones, with inset brass plaques in several European cities, called stolpesteine (“stumbling blocks”) to commemorate the former homes of Jews who became victims of the Nazi era. To date, some 27 000 stolpesteine have been installed all over Europe.
Wesel’s senior high school learners under the guidance of Richter-Kraneis, are assigned to research the records of the people whose names are on the “stolpesteine”.
The stones, paid for by civilians, are embedded in the sidewalks in front of the former residences; each stone’s inscription begins with the words “lived here”, followed by the name, date of birth, possibly the date of escape from Europe or the date and place of death.
“It is a patchwork of research,” added Tali Nates, director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, “but interest in it is picking up all over Europe.”
Ben & Jerry’s chair denies antisemitism amidst froth over boycott
One week after Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”, the company’s board chairperson for the first time publicly rejected the suggestion that the move was antisemitic.
And the brand’s parent company, Unilever, disavowed the movement to boycott Israel. The disavowal comes as Unilever faces the prospect of being penalised financially in states that have anti-boycott laws.
Those are two of the developments to emerge in the continuing fallout from the Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Israeli settlements. Here’s a rundown of what has happened over the past day or two:
On Tuesday, 27 July, Anuradha Mittal, the chairperson of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, tweeted her first comments on the boycott since it was announced last week. She stood by the decision, and denied being antisemitic following Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s statement that the boycott was a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”.
“I’m proud of @benandjerrys for taking a stance to end sale of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she tweeted, using the same term for the West Bank that the announcement used. “This action isn’t antisemitic. I’m not antisemitic. The vile hate that has been thrown at me does [not] intimidate me. Pls work for peace – not hatred!” (Mittal didn’t detail the “vile hate” she has received, though critics of the decision have attacked her on social media.)
Mittal’s post came days after a report by NBC News that her board was unhappy with the text of the statement put out by Unilever announcing the boycott. Ben & Jerry’s would “stay in Israel through a different arrangement”, it said. That clause didn’t appear in the announcement drafted by the board.
Mittal hasn’t said that Ben & Jerry’s should withdraw from Israel entirely, and the board hasn’t voiced that position publicly. But on Twitter, Mittal has previously endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel known as BDS.
“The catastrophe continues #Nakba70 years later #palestine bleeds Boycott Divest Sanctions #israel,” she wrote in 2018.
On Tuesday, she also tweeted a statement of support from liberal Jewish groups and quoted a passage from the Unilever statement emphasising “a clear distinction between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories it militarily occupies”.
Unilever is also stressing that the settlement boycott isn’t the same as BDS. The company’s statement, made in nearly identical letters sent to Jewish organisations on Tuesday, comes as a handful of states are considering divesting funds from Unilever under laws that ban the states from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.
The letters say Unilever is committed to doing business with Israel, where it employs 2 000 people and has invested nearly $296 million (R4.3 billion) in the country’s market.
“We look forward to investing in our business in Israel long into the future,” say the letters, which were sent to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, both of which had criticised Ben & Jerry’s West Bank pull out. “We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement, and have no intention of changing that position.”
Both the ADL and Presidents Conference said they appreciated the letter, but reiterated their previous criticism. The latter said Unilever’s “response does not go nearly far enough” and encouraged the company to try to override the Ben & Jerry’s board decision, though an internal agreement between Unilever and the Ben & Jerry’s board appears to make that impossible. The umbrella group also praised the states that are looking into whether the boycott violates anti-BDS laws.
The Presidents Conference said it opposed the Ben & Jerry’s decision, “as boycotts of Israel are discriminatory”. While the announcement and letter make clear that the boycott applies only to the West Bank, which Israel controls but hasn’t annexed, Presidents Conference Chief Executive William Daroff told JTA that the boycott would force the closure of Ben & Jerry’s plant in Israel, and that the group feels an “obligation to speak out when Jewish-owned businesses are singled out”. Daroff said that Ben & Jerry’s had made a political decision that singled out Israelis and one “disputed” territory.”
The ADL also thanked Unilever for its statement against BDS, but said, “While ADL is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, we believe that it’s wrong for any company to single out Israel by refusing to sell its products to Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.”
Ben & Jerry’s store in New York City opposed the boycott and plans to donate 10% of its profit to Israel.
A Jewish owner of a Ben & Jerry’s franchise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has joined a group of local store owners protesting the West Bank boycott. On Monday, Joel Gasman posted on Facebook that, “We feel the recent actions by [Ben & Jerry’s] corporate office don’t reflect our personal views.”
Gasman, whose store is in a heavily Jewish neighbourhood, promised to donate 10% of its profit to “state of Israel educational causes”. He did not specify which ones.
“We’re saddened by the impact that this has had on our business and the Jewish community,” he wrote. “We are proud Jews, Americans, and active supporters of the New York Jewish community and state of Israel.”
Gasman told JTA in an email, “We have lost catering jobs for corporate offices, schools, and synagogues over the past week due to Ben & Jerry’s statement.”
Multiple supermarket owners in New York City have pledged to limit or stop the sale of Ben & Jerry’s in the wake of the announcement. The organisation that certifies Ben & Jerry’s as kosher, Kof-K, also said it was in communication with Israel and an umbrella group for the settlements “to determine the most effective way to respond”, but won’t be removing its certification from the ice cream – a move that some Israel advocates have sought – according to Yeshiva World News, an Orthodox publication.
Israel’s leaders, as well as the leaders of legacy American Jewish organisations, have come out fiercely against the boycott. On Tuesday, Axios reported that Israel has set up a task force to counter the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, and encouraged its diplomats to start a pressure campaign against the decision by fomenting protests in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices.
At the same time, a growing chorus of progressive Jews in Israel and America is praising the boycott.
On Tuesday, a coalition of Israeli progressives took out a full-page ad in Ha’aretz, a left-leaning newspaper, to thank Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the Jewish founders of the eponymous ice cream company. The pair haven’t been involved in the company’s operations since 2000, and haven’t commented on the West Bank decision.
A range of Jewish and Arab public figures signed the advert. Some of the Jewish signatories are Zehava Galon, the former head of the left-wing Meretz party; Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz legislator and deputy Knesset speaker; Dana Olmert, the daughter of former centrist Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney; and Ohad Naharin, the famed Israeli choreographer.
“We are writing to let you know that in Israel there are also other opinions,” the advert says. “Thank you for your commitment to Palestinian human rights.”
The advert comes on the heels of a letter signed by seven left-wing American Jewish groups, including J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the liberal rabbinic organisation T’ruah urging governors not to penalise Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever for the settlement boycott.
“Using the full force and power of government to penalise those who exercise their rights in opposition to Israeli policy does nothing but generate further attention and sympathy for boycotts, and frames backing Israel as being in opposition to fundamental freedoms in the minds of many Americans,” the letter says. “That is a strategic disaster for those, like us, who are trying to maintain and grow a healthy US-Israel relationship.”
Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’
All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.
The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.
However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.
“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”
But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”
He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.
He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.
He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”
Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.
Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.
Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”
Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.
“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.
“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”
“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.
“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”
He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.
A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.
“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”
The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”
Icy response to Ben & Jerry’s decision to exit settlements
Kosher supermarkets are rethinking their inventory. Politicians are emptying their freezers. And the foreign minister of Israel is vowing to get involved in local American politics.
The reactions were all part of the firestorm that quirky ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s set off on Monday morning, 19 July, with its announcement that it would no longer sell ice cream in “occupied Palestinian territory”.
The Vermont-based company, founded by two Jews and long known for its left-leaning politics, had gone dark on social media for two months since the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The announcement broke that silence, simultaneously infuriating Israel advocates who said the decision was an unfair attack on Israel, and disappointing pro-Palestinian advocates who said the company should have gone further.
Israeli politicians, supermarkets in the United States, various pundits, and even Ben & Jerry’s current Israeli licensee went after the ice cream maker and its corporate parent, British multinational Unilever, for its statement. (The company’s Jewish founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, no longer manage the brand, but have often used their frozen treats to push social-justice causes.)
Reactions from Israel’s leaders were harsh. In spite of the distinctions Ben & Jerry’s made in its statement between Israel and the “occupied Palestinian territory”, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a long-time supporter of the settlements, called the decision a “boycott of Israel” and said Ben & Jerry’s “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream”. His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the architect of the current ruling coalition, who is generally to Bennett’s left regarding the Palestinians, went even further, calling the decision a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse”. He called on US states to take domestic action against Ben & Jerry’s based on state laws that prohibit the government from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.
Israeli cabinet minister Orna Barbivay posted a TikTok video of her throwing a pint in the trash; the flavour she tossed couldn’t be determined at press time.
Other Israeli public figures appeared to compare the ice cream company’s settlement boycott to terrorism. Eran Cicurel, an editor at Israel’s public broadcaster, tweeted that the colour scheme on Ben & Jerry’s statement was similar to that of the flag of the terror group Hamas.
Amichai Chikli, a right-wing legislator in Israel’s Knesset, tweeted, “Ben & Jerry’s you picked the wrong side”, and posted an infamous photo from 2000 of a Palestinian who had just killed two Israeli soldiers displaying his hands through a window, covered in the soldiers’ blood.
American Jewish groups offered varied responses to the company’s scoop that mapped to their political orientation.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, said that Ben & Jerry’s was drawing “a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies”, and said the term “antisemitism” didn’t apply to the company’s actions.
Daniel Sokatch, chief executive of the left-wing New Israel Fund, said that Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t being antisemitic in exiting “occupied Palestinian territory” because “these lands aren’t sovereign Israel”.
“Attacking people who try and distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel by calling them antisemitic is to evade a matter of fact, abuse the meaning of ‘antisemitism’, and ultimately gaslight those who would try and work towards a future of equality and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Sokatch said in a statement.
The Anti-Defamation League, a centrist group, said it was “disappointed” by the move. “You can disagree with policies without feeding into dangerous campaigns that seek to undermine Israel,” it said, but refrained from calling for specific action.
And the right-wing Zionist Organization of America called for a boycott of the ice cream, proclaiming that Ben & Jerry’s is “bad for your moral and physical health”. The call was echoed by others such as Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who said he would stop eating the brand.
Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, an activist group based in Ben & Jerry’s home state that has been leading a years-long campaign against the ice cream maker for doing business in Israel at all, said the move didn’t go far enough.
“By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment, and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law,” the group’s president, Kathy Shapiro, said in a statement. A related group, Occupy Burlington, had been a driving force behind the most recent social-media push against Ben & Jerry’s.
Meanwhile, CodePink, an international left-wing women’s group, praised the decision for showing that pressure works. But the group also said the company should do more.
“Ben & Jerry’s included in the statement that they will be remaining in Israel,” said Danaka Katovich, a Middle East campaign coordinator for CodePink. “I hope Ben & Jerry’s continues to listen to Palestinians and their demands moving forward, and will recognise that Israel’s system of apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories but from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea.”
The Israeli licensee of Ben & Jerry’s, which operates a factory in the town of Be’er Tuvia, took to social media hours after the announcement to denounce the American corporation and its parent company. It called on Israeli consumers to continue purchasing the ice cream brand because hundreds of local workers needed their support.
In a recorded video, Chief Executive Avi Zinger said he had been notified earlier on Monday morning that the company wouldn’t renew his license when it expires at the end of 2022.
“They did this because we wouldn’t agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” Zinger said. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure. We aren’t surrendering, and it’s important that you support us.”
In happier times for Ben & Jerry’s Israel relations, the company made a concentrated outreach to its customer base with original, Israel-exclusive flavours, including charoset and matzah crunch – both certified kosher for Passover.
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