White supremacy barely visible in AIPAC debate of anti-Semitism
(JTA) Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, had heard one too many of his Republican colleagues talk about anti-Semitism on the left – and it appeared that he had had enough.
“It will always be wrong to use anti-Semitism as a political weapon, always,” Schumer said, reminding the 18 000 activists at this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference that as the senate minority leader, he is the highest-ranking Jewish legislator in the government. “And let me tell you if you only care about anti-Semitism coming from your political opponents, you are not fully committed to combating anti-Semitism.”
Beneath the increasingly fraught debate that plays out in discussions of what it means to be pro-Israel, another even more sensitive fight is emerging along the partisan divide: what it means to be anti-Semitic.
That fight played out at this year’s AIPAC policy conference, where Democrats and Republicans decried expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but where Republicans barely spoke about white supremacism and other manifestations on the right.
The emphasis on anti-Zionism made sense at a pro-Israel conference, and especially because it was being held in the wake of attacks on the lobby by a freshman Democrat, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The comments she made about AIPAC’s influence and the pro-Israel movement’s purported power seemed to many to recall ancient anti-Jewish slanders.
Omar was called out by name and implication at AIPAC in speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice-President Mike Pence and Representative Steny Hoyer – and Schumer – to name a few.
But it was conspicuous that just five months after the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist, it was Omar who was held up repeatedly as the face of anti-Semitism.
It became even more conspicuous when several Republican speakers drew a line connecting Pittsburgh to the congresswoman.
Pompeo cited the Pittsburgh shooting as an example of the scourge of anti-Semitism, but spoke about the causes of anti-Semitism almost exclusively in terms of Israel and anti-Zionism. He did not mention that the alleged Pittsburgh shooter was a white supremacist who was acting on an anti-Semitic slander that Jews were organising an “invasion” of Latin American migrants into the US.
“This bigotry is taking on an insidious new form in the guise of ‘anti-Zionism’,” Pompeo said in his address on Monday. “It has infested college campuses in the form of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. It’s discussed in our media. It’s supported by certain members of Congress, I suspect none of whom are here tonight.”
He was referring to Omar and another Democratic freshman, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who back BDS.
“Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people. So, friends, let me go on record: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” Pompeo said to applause. “The Trump administration opposes it unequivocally, and we will fight for it relentlessly.”
Pompeo did not mention anti-Semitism on the far right.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, was even more direct in making the connection.
“We look at the horrific action of what took place in Pittsburgh in October,” he said on Monday, segueing directly to say, “I heard language in the own floors of Congress, I want you to know we did not stay silent,” presumably a reference to Omar.
Pence did not mention Pittsburgh, singling out only the manifestations of anti-Semitism on the left: at universities, in the boycott-Israel movement, and in the case of Omar.
“All over the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise – on college campuses, in the marketplace, even in the halls of Congress,” he said on Monday morning.
Schumer, by contrast, drew loud applause from the AIPAC activists not only for calling out Omar, which he did repeatedly, but for noting the ways McCarthy himself and President Donald Trump have been accused of enabling anti-Semitism.
“When someone names only prominent Jews as trying to buy or steal our elections, we must call it out,” Schumer said.
McCarthy last year posted a tweet accusing three billionaires of Jewish heritage of buying the midterm elections. He insisted, however, that the tweet was not anti-Semitic. The post was later deleted.
“When someone looks at a neo-Nazi rally and sees some very fine people among its company, we must call it out,” Schumer said, referring to Trump’s controversial comments after a deadly neo-Nazi 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Schumer also noted that the Pittsburgh killer was a white supremacist.
The activists again roared in approval on Tuesday morning when Senator Robert Menendez spoke about anti-Semitism on the right and left.
“Having spent more than a quarter-century advocating for a strong relationship between the United States and the Jewish state, I cannot stay silent when the entire Democratic Party is castigated as ‘Jew haters’ when what we really need is leadership that unites this nation and the world against the rise of anti-Semitism, hatred, and white supremacy around the globe,” Menendez said.
“So yes, when you imply that money is the only driving factor of a strong US-Israel relationship, you are fanning those flames. And just the same, when you accuse Jews of funding caravans of asylum seekers at our southern border, or fail to call out and condemn the rise of white supremacy at home and abroad, you are fanning those flames.”
Trump had accused liberal philanthropist George Soros of funding the migrant caravan – a baseless and false narrative shared by the alleged Pittsburgh killer.
AIPAC, for its part, opened the conference with a blessing by a rabbi who grew up in the Tree of Life congregation, and a Pittsburgh-area choir singing “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
David Kaufman, a Reform rabbi from Des Moines, Iowa, said he wanted to hear more of both sides calling out their own. “I think we are still very much in the mode of each side condemning the anti-Semitism on the other side, but not necessarily on their own side,” said Kaufman.
For her part, Omar seemed ready to move on.
“It’s been interesting to see such a powerful conference of people be so fearful of a freshman member of Congress,” she told The New York Times, “so I hope that they figure out a way to not allow me to have a permanent residency in their heads.”
Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities
The Shabbos Project is once again happening this weekend in more than 1 500 cities and 100 countries around the world.
Following last year’s pivot to home-based Shabbos experiences and Zoom challah bakes – necessitated by the pandemic – this year, the Shabbos Project is close to returning to pre-COVID-19 levels of involvement.
In South Africa, events centre on the Big Shabbos Walk, with shuls arranging a whole host of Shabbos afternoon programmes, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the weather, which also makes it safer from a COVID-19 point of view.
All across the world, things are back in full swing.
Among the new initiatives: a student from Cornell University in New York is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbos. International youth movement EnerJew is co-ordinating the “Gift Shabbos” campaign in which Jewish teenagers in 20 cities in the former Soviet Union will bake challah and deliver it along with greeting cards and candles to elder community members. And Olami France is co-ordinating a full Shabbos experience for students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, and for French-speaking students in Jerusalem, Madrid, and Porto.
The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is organising a challah bake for its community of Jewish pen pals of all ages living around the world. Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities, has launched an accessible Shabbos-themed digital platform to help children around the world learn about Shabbos in an engaging and exciting way.
And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, is hosting a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it’s active.
In Prague, Czech Republic, a community Shabbaton will include Shabbos dinner at a local kosher restaurant, a children’s prayer workshop, and a havdalah concert at the Lauder Jewish day school. Cali, Colombia has an all-week programme, including a flower workshop for women, cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a central Shabbaton for the community. And in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, four very different organisations – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – are joining forces for a special student challah bake.
In Israel, where the Shabbos Project has been a real unifying force in society, a group of women in Kochav Yair have organised a street kiddush for the entire yishuv for people of all levels of observance to get to know each other better. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbos dinners are happening at four central locations across the city. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbos gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion. And, the residents of Raanana will be providing hot, homemade Shabbos meals to Magen David Adom first responders. Finally, a group of Israel-based influencers on Instagram, from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of observance, are publishing a series of posts to bring awareness of the Shabbos Project to a younger audience.
Meanwhile, a woman in Park Potomac in the United States is going door to door in her neighbourhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbos. Organisers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbos meals to Jewish families in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbos experience are hosting Shabbos dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbours and have received a special Shabbos kit to assist them with the preparations.
Other highlights include a glow-in-the-dark challah bake in Toronto, Canada; Guatemala reopening its shul for special Shabbos services after a two-year hiatus; a Shabbos dinner run by and for university students in Nice, France; and a Shabbaton for high school learners in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online
(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.
“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.
The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.
So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.
“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”
The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.
Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.
The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.
Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.
Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.
The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.
The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.
While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.
The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.
It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”
In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.
Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.
Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.
“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.
“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”
Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders
(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.
But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.
“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.
The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.
“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.
They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.
“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”
Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.
Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.
When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.
Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.
“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.
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