Holocaust remembrance becoming a political football
Israel hosted on Thursday its third-largest ever gathering of international leaders after the funerals of former leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. More than 45 world leaders and senior diplomats, including 26 presidents, four kings (from Spain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) and four prime ministers were in town to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
But the day wasn’t only about remembering the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. Politics and power played their part.
Until this week, not many people – Israelis included – had heard of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation. It is headed by Russian billionaire, Dr Moshe Kantor, also president of the European Jewish Congress, who bankrolled the event.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the gathering as a diplomatic triumph for Israel. President Reuven Rivlin, as the official host alongside the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, held a reception and dinner for delegation heads.
The timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Hateful and violent expressions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, continue to climb, and the event’s message that anti-Semitism has no place in our global society is more relevant than ever.
Israel hopes world leaders will adopt the official definition of anti-Semitism as formulated by the American-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It states that criticism of Zionism or the existence of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic. In recent years, Israeli leaders have worked to promote this definition as well as laws against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
On Monday, a ceremony will take place in Poland, as it does every year, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. I reported from the ceremony five years ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t invited to attend. Moscow saw it as a slap in the face as it was, after all, the Red Army that liberated the camp.
This week, it was Polish President Andrzej Duda’s turn to be outraged. He refused to attend the gathering held at Yad Vashem after his request to speak was turned down. In its defence, Yad Vashem said that time was short, and few world leaders addressed the gathering.
Netanyahu very much wanted Duda to attend. Israeli-Polish ties are currently fraught after the Polish parliament two years ago passed a law making it a crime to criticise Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Poland is trying to downplay – and even negate – its role in the Holocaust and the collaboration between some Poles and Nazis. The country has since revised the law, but Holocaust experts say it’s still problematic.
Duda said he was astonished that Putin was invited to talk while he was not. You might call it sweet justice, although surely a Holocaust-remembrance event isn’t the place for this. Critics say the truth is much more sinister.
Kantor, who paid for the event, is known to represent the interests of Putin in large Jewish global forums. He has brought leaders of Jewish communities throughout Europe to meet the Russian president at the Kremlin. For someone so close to Putin to be bankrolling such a forum, argues its detractors, raises suspicions as to its agenda.
They have a point. Perhaps less important for the leaders who visited Israel this week was diplomacy and relations with the Jewish state; more important was commemoration of the Holocaust and their relations with Kantor.
Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such a forum allowed Putin to present Russia as some kind of haven for Jews while portraying her rivals – the Ukraine and Poland in particular – as anti-Semitic hotspots.
But in truth for many decades, the Soviet Union didn’t mention that Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Instead, its narrative was that everyone who died was a victim of fascism and the West was fascist, not just the Germans. It was a very selective, politically convenient narrative.
In the past few years, remembrance of the Holocaust has left the realm of history and become politicised. The act of remembering is in itself political – what does one emphasise? What does one forget? How do we remember what happened?
It was former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said, “History is written by victors.” An increasing number of particularly former Soviet states are attempting to do precisely that – rewrite history.
In reality, every victorious nation has a narrative that it wishes to push. This week, Israel basically adopted Putin’s by hosting him and allowing him to be one of the main stars of this event.
For very necessary reasons, Israel needs to be on Putin’s side right now because the United States is slowly but surely withdrawing from the region, and Moscow controls the skies over Syria. Israel frequently attacks Hezbollah and Iranian Shia targets in her northern neighbour, and needs Russia to continue to turn a blind eye.
There’s also other politics at bay. Naama Issachar is an Israeli-American woman who has been held by Russia since April last year on drug charges. About 10g of cannabis was found in her luggage during a stopover in Moscow as she flew from India to Israel. She was sentenced to seven and a half years for drug smuggling, a charge she denies.
According to Israeli media, Moscow has put forward several concessions for Issachar’s freedom, including a resolution to a building dispute in Jerusalem that houses Russian pilgrims. Additionally, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Russia is seeking some sort of backing for its own narrative regarding World War II. Should Israel announce such gestures (at the time of writing it hadn’t), it won’t be long before we find out whether this was indeed the deal.
The Lithuanian president has also announced that he won’t be attending. Although he didn’t give a reason for the last-minute cancellation, it’s believed to be a gesture in support of Poland and against Russia.
World news in brief
(JTA) Silicon Valley tech stands against antisemitism
Heads of some of Silicon Valley’s most recognised technology companies including Google, Twitter, and YouTube are among about 200 technology and business leaders who have signed a letter calling out antisemitism.
The signatories include former Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo, media mogul Ariana Huffington, current Google executives, and chief executives at Bay Area start-ups.
“To be too Jewish in America, or to be a Jew, is still a dangerous mark,” the statement says. “As business leaders, we have a collective responsibility to stand up for the society we want. Today, we stand against antisemitism and violence against Jews. This is true regardless of your views on Israel; this is about protecting people from the injustice of antisemitism and hatred.”
“Too few Americans acknowledge that antisemitism exists [and] events of recent weeks cannot hide the truth,” the letter says, describing the incident in Los Angeles in which Jewish diners were attacked with bottles at a sushi restaurant. The incident is being investigated as an antisemitic hate crime.
According to Jewish Insider, the statement’s primary author is Jordana Stein, the chief executive of Enrich, a private network for industry professionals. Signatories also include cultural and business figures, such as makeup artist Bobbi Brown, former NBA player Baron Davis, and Neil Blumenthal, co-chief executive of the glasses company Warby Parker.
The letter comes as the tech industry grapples with antisemitism in its own ranks. Antisemitic comments made by Google’s diversity head, Kamau Bobb, were found this month in a 2007 blog post in which he said that Jews have “an insatiable appetite for war and killing”. The company later moved Bobb off the diversity position.
Swastika discovered on ark at Frankfurt Airport shul
A swastika was found scrawled on the ark at a synagogue at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany on 11 June, according to the German publication Bild. It’s unclear when the swastika was drawn as the synagogue has been closed for several months due to the pandemic.
A German organisation of Orthodox rabbis condemned the vandalism at the airport.
“It’s simply sad. This hatred of Jews must finally stop,” the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference said, according to Associated Press. “The ugly grimace of antisemitism doesn’t stop even in a highly secured area, at a place of encounter, silence, and stopping, where people from all over the world meet briefly while travelling and are in transit.”
The swastika was discovered less than a week after a fire was set outside a synagogue in Ulm, about 70 miles (112km) northwest of Munich, in what police suspect was an attempted arson attack.
Zionist group ousts rabbi over harassment allegation
The World Confederation of United Zionists (CUZ), one of several groupings within the World Zionist Organization, has let go its secretary-general, American-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, citing his dispute with two women who say he sexually harassed them.
Haaretz, which first broke the story of the harassment allegations, reported on 14 June that the confederation’s chairperson, David Yaari, notified the World Zionist Organization of Lipman’s departure last month after the allegations were made public.
“Given the grave allegations against former MK Dov Lipman, it was decided to part ways in order to focus on CUZ’s vital work within the global Zionist forum,” Yaari told Haaretz.
Lipman, who is from the Washington DC area, is a former Knesset member from the Yesh Atid party.
He denied that he had been fired, saying he had left of his own accord to devote more time to helping new immigrants to Israel settle and assimilate.
Lipman has denied the harassment allegations, which first arose on a private Facebook page. He has sued the two women making the accusations, and they have countersued.
The two women, like Lipman, are members of the modern Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, a city near Jerusalem. They said the harassment occurred when they and Lipman were part of a movement to push back against Haredi Orthodox harassment of modern Orthodox women and girls in the city over modesty and other perceived religious infractions.
American Jews more concerned about antisemitism
Three-quarters of American Jews said they were more concerned about antisemitism in the country following the fighting last month in Israel and Gaza, according to a survey published on 14 June by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
More than 40% of respondents said they were now more concerned about their personal safety as well than they were before the 11 days of warring. Also, more than half said calling for companies and organisations to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel was “definitely or probably antisemitic”.
According to the recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews, 10% of respondents supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
The ADL poll of 576 Jewish-American adults was taken from 25 May to 1 June by the polling firm YouGov.
Antisemitic incidents more than doubled during and after the fighting when compared to the same time last year, the ADL found. Its tally includes physical assaults, as well as antisemitic and some anti-Zionist harassment and vandalism.
The survey also found that 60% of respondents “witnessed behaviour or comments they deem antisemitic either online or in-person as a result of the recent violence”. More than three-quarters of respondents said they wanted President Joe Biden, congress, civil-rights groups, and faith leaders to do more to address antisemitism.
In addition, more than half of respondents said calling Israel an “apartheid state” was definitely or probably antisemitic, as well as the following statements or actions: calling Zionism racist; comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis; saying Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state; and protesting Israeli actions outside an American synagogue.
World News in Brief
(JTA) Bombed AP building ‘had Iron Dome jamming tech’
Israel’s United States ambassador told Associated Press (AP) that the Israeli army destroyed the building containing its Gaza bureau because Hamas was developing technology there that would jam Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Gilad Erdan, also United Nations ambassador, met on 7 June with the wire service’s president, Gary Pruitt, and its vice-president of international news, Ian Phillips.
Hamas’s research and development and intelligence arms were in the building, Erdan said.
“The unit was developing an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defence system,” Erdan said, according to a release by the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Israel authorities told residents and workers in the building to evacuate about an hour before it bombed the 12-storey building on 15 May.
Hamas launched about 4 500 rockets at Israel during the 10-21 May conflict. Most hit open areas, but about 1 500 headed for built-up areas, and the Iron Dome intercepted about 90%.
Erdan told Pruitt and Phillips that Israel didn’t believe that AP knew Hamas was headquartered in the building. The ambassador said Israel was willing to assist AP in rebuilding its offices and operations in Gaza.
Holocaust denier gets five years for death threats
A blogger who posted videos of himself calling for the murder of prominent French Jews was sentenced to five years in prison by a court in France.
The sentence, for promoting terrorism and making death threats, is among the harshest in recent years in France over such offenses.
The tribunal of Cusset, a town near Vichy in central France, handed down its guilty verdict and sentence on 3 June to Ahmed Moualek, 53, who had posted death threats against Gilles William Golnadel and Alain Jakubowitz, two well-known Jewish lawyers, as well as journalist Elisabeth Levy, La Montagne reported.
Moualek is a former associate of Dieudonne M’bala M’bala and Alain Soral, Holocaust deniers who 10 years ago founded the now-defunct Anti-Zionist Party. Moualek was among the party’s founders.
Belfast council calls for expulsion of Israeli ambassadors
The City Council of Belfast in Northern Ireland passed a motion calling on the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland to expel Israel’s ambassadors to those countries.
“The expulsion of ambassadors is a first step – a preliminary step – to greater action, but it’s an incredibly important and symbolic step,” Fiona Ferguson, a far-left politician who initiated the voting, said during the session, the Jewish Chronicle of London reported.
The motion passed with votes from left-wing parties including Sinn Fein, the council’s largest party, with 18 seats out of 60.
Opposition parties voiced their disapproval of the motion. “The Jews are the original indigenous inhabitants of Palestine and as such have the right to exist as a nation state,” said John Kyle of the Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. “Israel is confronted by organisations which do not recognise its right to exist … and this is antisemitism.”
Switzerland adopts IHRA definition
The Swiss government has adopted the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), making the Alpine nation the 36th country to do so.
“This definition can serve as an additional guide for identifying antisemitic incidents within the framework of the various measures to combat antisemitism in Switzerland,” the Federal Council, the country’s highest executive authority, said on 4 June.
The IHRA working definition describes various forms of antisemitism, including hatred and discrimination against Jews and Holocaust denial.
It also lists examples of anti-Israel criticism that it says in certain contexts can be defined as antisemitic, including comparing the country’s policies to those of Nazi Germany, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.
The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Parliament are among the national and international bodies that have adopted the definition.
Hebrew Israelite student forced to eat to pork
A high school football coach in Ohio and seven of his staff have been suspended for punishing a Hebrew Israelite student-athlete by forcing him to eat a pepperoni pizza in violation of his religious commitment to keep a kosher diet, according to a report from Cleveland 19 News.
The 17-year-old student at McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio, was being disciplined for missing a weight lifting session on 20 May, said Edward L Gilbert, an attorney for the boy’s family.
Four days after missing practice, Coach Wattley Marcus and other coaching staff presented him with a pizza topped with pepperoni, chosen because it includes pork.
“They ordered him to go into the gym,” Gilbert told Cleveland 19 News. “There is a pizza box on the floor. He picks up the pizza. They tell him that he has to, as punishment, eat that whole pizza.”
The student’s religious identity and his avoidance of pork were known to Marcus and other coaching staff, according to Gilbert.
“I mean it just crosses a line on every level, it’s just wrong,” Gilbert said.
Canton City School District said it was investigating the incident.
Kosher and halaal? This shop is food for thought.
(JTA) Tucked between a dance school and a 1960s retro lounge on a quiet street in Tucson, Arizona, sits a small Middle Eastern and African foods store. But the Al Basha Grocery isn’t just a place to get kosher meats and hard-to-find ingredients.
“It provides an opportunity for people to see each other as real people and have a normal interaction with people who ordinarily might not interact in their day-to-day lives,” said Jesse Davis, a regular Al Basha shopper.
Ghufran Almusawi and her husband, Anas Elazrag, both Muslims, opened Al Basha in July 2019 with the intention of creating a “melting pot”, Almusawi said.
“Serving kosher in our store was one of the ways that we can bring the communities together,” she said. “We just want to offer services to everybody. We want to make everybody feel welcome.”
Almusawi regularly witnesses dialogue between Muslim and Jewish shoppers.
“I see a lot of customers interacting with each other, especially if they have questions,” she said. “Sometimes the customers will jump in and answer as a way of them showing, ‘Hey, we accept you, you’re welcome here.’”
Al Basha caught Davis’ eye before it even opened, with its big sign advertising halaal and kosher foods.
“A halaal, kosher store — somebody who’s actually trying to reach out to both markets and both communities? That’s pretty striking,” he said. “They were definitely reaching out a hand.”
Davis appreciated the gesture, and has been shopping at Al Basha about three times a month since it opened.
“They’re super friendly and helpful,” he said. He’ll often get recommendations on products and spices to use in recipes. His favourite Al Basha item is pomegranate molasses, which he described as “a sort of finisher” for meat, giving it a “sweet, tangy flavour”.
Evelyn Sigafus looks forward to Al Basha’s tea selection when she goes a few times a year for kosher deli meats and holiday food ingredients. Sigafus appreciates the store’s efforts to meet the need for kosher food and foster dialogue and relationships between Jewish and Muslim communities.
“One time I was in there and the woman there didn’t have other customers, so we had a wonderful conversation about kosher products, keeping kosher, halaal, what I personally do, and how I cope and how she copes. We had a wonderful little chitchat time,” Sigafus said.
Sigafus said that kind of person-to-person conversation is beneficial, no matter how much exposure somebody has already had to different cultures.
Elazrag, a doctor, came to Tucson in 2008 from Sudan. He decided to open Al Basha after he had a poor shopping experience, Almusawi said. At the time, her husband wasn’t convinced existing local markets had what people really needed or that they could make all customers feel comfortable.
Almusawi, an Iraqi American, grew up in Michigan and was already familiar with the grocery business.
“My dad was in the grocery world, and he was always so happy to see his customers and was welcoming,” she said. “He didn’t really look at a customer as being somebody other than a human that he’s providing a service for. He didn’t look at race, colour, religion, none of that. And I kind of grew up following that. And fortunately, my husband’s the same way.”
Almusawi said she’s had fewer Jewish customers since the recent violence between Hamas and Israel.
“I just don’t think they feel comfortable coming in,” she said. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘How could you do this? How could you sell this right now?’ And I’m just like, ‘OK, this company [kosher food supplier] in California has nothing to do with it. We’re just one business supporting another.’”
The pushback comes from both worlds – some Muslims don’t want to support the store because it supports the Jewish community, and some Jews don’t want to support the store because it’s owned by Muslims. She tries to focus on the positive responses and those showing support for unity.
“What both religions teach is peace,” Almusawi said. “We’re welcoming of everybody. We don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable and anybody is welcome to shop. And if there are any items that are missing that they are looking for, we’re always willing to bring it in.”
Al Basha is in Yisrael Bernstein’s regular shopping rotation. He usually makes an “east-side loop” on Fridays gathering food for several Chabad rabbis. He stops at Al Basha, Trader Joe’s, and Costco. It can take up to six hours, depending on who joins him.
He discovered Al Basha a couple of years ago “on a lark”, figuring that if they sold halaal food, they might also have kosher items, “and sure enough, they did”.
Bernstein became friendly with Almusawi, and she began making sure the store carried his favourites: corned beef, pastrami, and hot dogs. With his long beard, black hat, and long coat, he always feels welcome.
“I really do. It makes my whole Shabbat weekend,” said Bernstein, who is a medical doctor.
Almusawi and Elazrag opened their second location last month, also in Tucson. Al Basha isn’t “going to save the world”, said Davis, but it’s those little bridge-building exchanges that can.”
“We can’t just reduce each other to what we see on television,” he said. “For all the differences that we might have, maybe we just have more in common. And you get a chance to see that in a really human context – you’re shopping for what you’re going to put on your family’s table.”
- A version of this story originally ran in the “Jewish News of Greater Phoenix”.
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