Chag Kasher Ve’sameach – Happy Pesach!

Chag Same’ach! The Seder plate, Matza, wine and the Hagaddah

Before starting this post I looked back, as I always do, to what I wrote last year. And I was shocked at how quickly I’ve forgotten Pesach in the shadow of corona. What a difference a year makes – in both directions. Last year we were mourning the loss of our family celebrations and Seder nights, huddled together in very small groups or in isolation. This year, certainly in Israel, we have almost forgotten what it was like as our hugely successful vaccination program has brought the numbers of corona cases right down.

This year, while we are still officially limited to “only” 20 people at a Seder, and shuls can only be filled up to 50% capacity, thank G-d we are not under curfew, and no one needs to hold a Seder on their own, we can host or be hosted by our parents and grandparents. I give daily thanks to Hashem that I live in this wonderful country, and that our Prime Minister (election results notwithstanding) succeeded in bringing us to this point through his vaccination program. I pray that all of our Jewish brethren across the globe will similarly be able to hold a family Seder and celebrate with at least some of their community.

Unlike previous years, this year we will be staying at home for the first 2 days, with our younger daughter and children in tow. It will be noisy and messy and fun and I am so looking forward!

Unusually, this year Pesach will start on Motzei Shabbat, Saturday night. This means that tomorrow, Shabbat, is erev Pesach so some of the rules and traditions have to be fulfilled ahead of time, and some tomorrow. Yes, it gets complicated but no one ever said it’s easy to be Jewish!  And Seder night will begin on Saturday night. To understand more, have a look at the OU website which explains it all clearly.

For a good backgrounder on what is Pesach see the Chabad website.

Although not directly related to Pesach, an incredible new archeological find seems timed to fit the oncoming festival, as the Israel 21C reports: Bible scroll fragments among dazzling artifacts found in Dead Sea Cave of Horror:

In an operation that would put Indiana Jones to shame, a huge anti-looting dig carried out in the Judean Desert has unearthed historical finds of great significance, including fragments of ancient biblical scrolls, a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a young child, coins used by Jewish rebels and the oldest woven basket known to mankind.

The operation began in 2017, when the Israel Antiquities Authority, government agencies and volunteers set to survey 50 miles of caves in the Dead Sea area using drones, rappelling and mountain climbing techniques to access the almost unreachable caves.

Watch this video describing the dramatic archeological rescue:

The climatic conditions in these caves enabled the preservation of ancient documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls that include the earliest known copies of the Biblical Books and as such have drawn the attention of looters out to make a fortune. The dig’s participants wanted to reach these sites before the looters did and were rewarded with a plethora of important finds from various periods.

Fragments of a Greek scroll of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets, for example, were discovered in a cave where Jewish rebels hid almost 1,900 years ago. They are the first biblical scrolls to be discovered in the area in the past 60 years and were located in the Cave of Horror – a 260-foot drop from the cliff’s top – and reached only by rope.

Sections of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll prior to their conservation. (Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Also dating back to the times of the Bar Kochba Revolt, archaeologists found in the digs a cache of rare coins bearing Jewish symbols such as a harp and a date palm, as well as arrowheads, woven fabric, sandals and even lice combs.

A rare cache of coins from the Bar Kokhba period. (Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Cave of Horror was also found to contain a partially mummified skeleton of a child wrapped in cloth that dates back some 6,000 years. Researchers believe that the child was probably a girl and was six to 12 years old at the time of her death.

Another find, this time revealed by volunteering youth, was a huge, intact woven basket with a lid that dates back some 10,500 years ago, providing information on storage in the times before the invention of pottery. The researchers believe it to be the oldest such basket to be found in the world and note that it was preserved so well due to arid conditions.

What an incredible operation! Kol hakavod to the Israel Antiquities Authority and their dedicated volunteers for pursuing the grave robbers and for their determination to reach the caves and rescue the findings in order to preserve our national and historical heritage.

And now for something completely different, to end this post on a lighter note, here is a great, clever and very funny Pesach video by the band Six13 – The Red Sea Shanty 🙂  (via Shelley):


And if you want something slightly more traditional, here are the Maccabeats with the wonderful Seder songs, rearranged

I would like to wish all my readers, along with all of Klal Yisrael, a chag kasher vesame’ach – a happy and Kosher Passover. May we all merit to celebrate in rebuilt Jerusalem “speedily in our days” as we say in the Seder.

Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’Samea’ach!

!שבת שלום וחג כשר ושמח


Posted in Israel news, Judaism, Slice of Israeli life | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Israeli Elections – round 4

The candidates in Israel’s 4th round of elections: Left to right: Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid); Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Binyamin Netanyahu, (Likud); Gidon Saar (New Hope); Benny Gantz (Blue and White)

Here we go again – the fourth round of elections in two years. I feel a bit despairing and bit apathetic, and not particularly full of hope that anything major is going to change. But I shall not cede my right to vote and try to influence the leadership of this crazy country.

Like the last round of elections, last March, this year’s election is being held as a “socially distanced democracy“, however surreal that may sound:

Preparing for a national election in a pandemic, Israel is making unusual changes to its normal routine for Tuesday’s vote, including placing ballot boxes in virus wards.

“It’s the first time we have needed to make arrangements for voting in quarantined wards and for an election in a pandemic, but we are meeting the challenge,” David Ratner, spokesman at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, told The Times of Israel.

There are 38 polling stations in COVID-19 wards. In some institutions, the station will circulate among virus wards. Hadar Elboim of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center said, “We have three coronavirus wards at the moment, and a mobile polling station will move between them, to give all patients a chance to vote.”

A worker of the Central Election Committee wearing protective gear during a demonstration of special polling station ahead of the upcoming elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Modi’in, on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

She said that today the logistics are manageable, but earlier in the pandemic, when there was less experience with PPE, it would have been challenging. “At the start of the pandemic, working with this protective equipment was very hard and time-consuming, and running polling in virus wards would have been hard,” she said. “But today, dealing with protective gear is quick and easy.”

As well as catering to hospitalized patients, election authorities needed to make provision for citizens who are sick with COVID-19 at home or quarantined because of contact with a carrier.

They have thus set up 409 polling stations for sick people and 342 for the quarantined. They stipulated that people should vote at stations for the quarantined if they are feeling unwell — even if they aren’t officially in isolation.

Some of the special stations are drive-through venues, where people won’t need to leave their cars. The special stations are expected to operate smoothly, as there are only about 40,000 people in quarantine; when election planning was taking place, the number was expected to be around double.

As for the elections and politics themselves, many Israelis are fed up with the endless rounds of voting over the past couple of years:

Facing an electorate worn down by a series of campaigns and the coronavirus pandemic, candidates made their final push in recent days with a series of TV interviews and public appearances at shopping malls and outdoor marketplaces. The campaigns increasingly reached into people’s personal space with a constant barrage of get-out-and-vote texts that made cell phones ding and buzz at all hours.

Voting slips and envelopes for the Israeli elections

Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many security and diplomatic challenges. He has made Israel’s successful coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centerpiece of his reelection bid, and pointed to last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.

Opponents accuse Netanyahu of bungling the management of the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past year. They say he failed to enforce lockdown restrictions on his ultra-Orthodox political allies, allowing the virus to spread, and point to the still-dire state of the economy and its double-digit unemployment rate. They also say Netanyahu is unfit to rule at a time when he is on trial for multiple corruption charges, a case he dismisses as a witch hunt.

Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. No single party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority in Israel’s 72-year history.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and those led by his rivals will be looking to smaller, allied parties as potential coalition partners. The party that can cobble together a majority coalition gets to form the next government — a process that is expected to take weeks.

Here is a good summary of the personalities and parties involved:

Tuesday’s election was triggered by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were triggered by the government’s failure in December to agree on a budget.

Netanyahu is hoping to form a government with his traditional religious and hard-line nationalist allies. These include a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes openly racist and homophobic candidates.

Netanyahu’s rivals have accused him of causing the past two years of paralysis in hopes of forming a more favorable government that would grant him immunity or protect him from prosecution.

His challengers include Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader whose Yesh Atid party has emerged as the main centrist alternative to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu also faces challenges from a number of onetime allies who have formed their own parties after bitter break-ups with the prime minister.

They include former protege Gideon Saar, who broke away from Likud to form “New Hope.” He says the party is a nationalist alternative unburdened by corruption charges and what he says is a cult of personality that keeps Likud in power.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, another former Netanyahu aide, could emerge as the kingmaker. A hard-line nationalist politician who was formerly Netanyahu’s education and defense minister, Bennett has not ruled out joining a coalition with the embattled prime minister, allowing him to court both sides in future coalition talks.

The personality politics have so overtaken the race that there’s been almost no mention of the Palestinians, after years of frozen peace talks.

If you want to understand how Israel’s convoluted electoral system works, read this article from the Times of Israel: The painfully complicated act of voting in an Israeli election.

For an overview of the candidates, watch this video

A shorter version of the issues at the center of the elections, via the Times of Israel, can be listened at this link.

May the best man or woman win! And may Hashem guide the hand of all the voters and our leaders. Maybe it is symbolic that today is 10th Nissan, the day that the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan into Israel. Maybe today’s vote will represent a modern day version of “crossing the Jordan”, and bring us to stability and peace for at least 4 years if not 40 years!

Posted in Israel news, Slice of Israeli life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The ICC wants to investigate Israel – again

The ICCThe International Criminal Court (the ICC) reminds me of a movie monster that, despite being killed, simply won’t stay dead. After repeated efforts to investigate Israel’s purported “war crimes” and “human rights abuses”, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declared that she will not be rushed into investigating Israel.

Yet here we are again. The monster has raised its head and we are entering yet another absurd round, or maybe it’s simply a continuation of an investigation into something that the ICC seems to have decided the outcome already. Last week Israel received a formal letter from the ICC informing it of the war crimes probe against it.

The report said the one-and-a-half page letter briefly laid out the three main areas the probe intends to cover: the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas; Israeli settlement policy; and the 2018 Great March of Return protests, a series of violent demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel that left dozens of Palestinians dead.

Israel has 30 days to respond, the report said, adding that Jerusalem is leaning toward doing so after largely refusing to cooperate with The Hague-based international court until now. However, Israel is expected to use its response as an opportunity to once again voice the argument that the ICC has no jurisdiction to hear the case.

Israeli officials hope the argument over jurisdiction will succeed in delaying the case until outgoing ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is replaced in June by British lawmaker Karim Khan, whom Jerusalem hopes may be less hostile or may even cancel the probe.

Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath. I have no faith at all in these institutions.

Outrageously, the probe will only examine events AFTER the kidnapping of the three teenagers, which was the trigger for the 2014 war. This on its own reveals the bias and hypocrisy of the ICC, not to mention the Palestinians. the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens is not counted as a war crime, yet Israel’s desperate search for these boys is considered a war crime.

Israeli observers noted the significance of the timing of the investigation’s span: On June 12, 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. Bensouda’s investigation — based on the request submitted by the so-called State of Palestine — is set to begin from the following day.

The brutal terror attack, which horrified Israelis and drew international condemnation, was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the fighting in Gaza later that summer. With the investigation set to consider events beginning on June 13, 2014, the crime could be excluded from the court’s investigation.

It’s enough to make you sick.

For Israel’s point of view, watch this excellent video by StandWithUs which takes a look at the ICC’s decision to probe Israel:

Hillel Neuer of UN Watch brought Arab-Israeli activist Yoseph Hadad to counter the charges insinuated in the ICC’s probe and also to counter the annual onslaught in the UN against Israel with their accusations of war crimes, apartheid, and the added charge this year of discrimination by Israel of Palestinians by denying them Covid vaccinations. Listen to Yoseph as he demolishes these abominable arguments:

As Pesach is approaching (starting Saturday night) it would serve us well for us to note the paragraph we read in the Haggadah at the Seder:

“For in every generation they rise up to destroy us, but the Lord blessed be He saves us from their hand”.


Posted in Antisemitism, Incitement, Lawfare and Delegitimization, support Israel, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Good News Friday – Purim Same’ach edition

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim!

Purim has started (or is starting) around the Jewish world, and we are celebrating a “triple Purim” which is quite a rare event. It started tonight at sundown and lasts till tomorrow night when Shabbat begins. But in walled cities like Jerusalem, Purim falls a day later which means that this year it falls on Shabbat. However the Megillah cannot be read on Shabbat, nor can mishloach manot be given. So the Megillah is read on Friday along with the rest of the country, on Shabbat “al hanisim” is added in the prayers (in Jerusalem), and mishloach manot are distributed and the festive meal is eaten on Sunday! Lucky Jerusalemites, spreading the festivities over 3 days whereas we “ordinary” Jews have to cram it all into one day! (Thanks to Elchanan for the edit).

This Purim marks a special anniversary worldwide. It has been a very strange and extremely difficult year, the year of the pandemic, which began exactly a year ago, with the parties and celebrations of last Purim. Of course in hindsight the government, all governments, should have locked down before then, but the pandemic was too new, too much of an unknown, to be fully understood.

But in the depths of the pandemic who could have dreamed that we would now be emerging “from darkness to light”, and that our mourning would be turned into celebrations, as it says in the Megillah, even if only a much more minor scale than in previous years.

So let us celebrate the good news for once. Israel is leading the world in the percentage of its population being vaccinated against the coronavirus, and the excellent news emerging from the Israeli vaccination campaign is that after two doses the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective against the virus:

Maccabi Healthcare Services, which covers over a quarter of all Israelis, said in a statement that only 608 people had tested positive for COVID-19 more than a week after receiving the second of two required Pfizer doses.

The comparison was against a group of 528,000 Israelis with similar backgrounds who did not receive the vaccine, Maccabi said. Of those, 20,621 tested positive.

“By comparing the proportion of new cases between the vaccinated and yet-to-be vaccinated groups, efficacy of the vaccine in Israel is currently estimated at 95%, seven or more days after receiving the second dose,” Maccabi said.

Most of the 608 infected vaccinees reported only mild symptoms, such as a headache or cough, Maccabi said. Some 21 required hospitalization, seven of whom had severe symptoms, it added.

Nearly 44% of Israel’s 9.1 million citizens have received at least one shot of the Pfizer vaccine, making the country the largest real-world study of its efficacy.

On Wednesday, Clalit, Israel’s largest healthcare provider, reported a 94% drop in symptomatic COVID-19 cases among 600,000 people who had received both Pfizer doses.

This is such good news that it hardly needs repeating. Of course there are still many unknowns, but for now, life is gradually opening up in Israel, still on a restricted scale, but far better than we could have hoped for a year ago. Let us pray that this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

In an effort to encourage more people to get vaccinated, in an only-in-Israel moment, the city of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, offered free cholent and challah  (yes, it did sound like a Purim joke! ☺) to whoever arrived to get vaccinated. Other cities offered other yummy treats including hummus and pizza to entice the population:

The city of Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest Haredi metropolis, last week began offering a slow-cooked stew of meat, potatoes, beans and barley called cholent to any resident who took part in the city’s coronavirus vaccination campaign.

A person receives a pizza after receiving the vaccine, at Clalit Health Services in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak,  on Feb. 15, 2021. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

The jokes came fast and furious. “There’s already an anti-cholent group organizing, the ‘kugelers,’” one observer quipped. “They should be careful. Cholent can have dangerous side effects,” joked another.

But the lampooning didn’t stop the program, which was an unmitigated success from the start. At least 2,000 residents who hadn’t vaccinated — many who hadn’t even looked into setting appointments to do so — showed up to the vaccination center last Thursday for the city’s free bags of cholent, dished out with bread rolls and soda.

In Bnei Brak, which was the first to experiment with freebies, one person joked that it wasn’t a vaccination drive with cholent given out, but a cholent drive with a vaccination giveaway, and the quip holds some truth

A whole social scene has evolved around the Thursday night cholent tradition. By offering cholent on Thursday night at the vaccination center, the city was attempting to tap into that scene and get young people to come for both some beans and a shot.

In Petah Tikva, where skepticism about the vaccine is concentrated among aging immigrant populations, especially Russian speakers, the municipality on Monday began handing out blintzes, the traditional cheese-filled cigar-shaped wraps; and pirozhki, the stuffed, fried pies sold by street vendors throughout Russia and Ukraine that Wikipedia calls “a stereotypical part of Russian culture.” The most familiar and comfortable of comfort food.

The city also hired a musician to play folk tunes to go along with the nosh and bring in passersby. [I must have missed all this since I was one of the first to be vaccinated. I think I shall start a protest. I want my blintzes NOW!. 😛  -anneinpt].

A man receives a slice of Knafe after receiving the Covid vaccine in Tel Aviv, on February 16, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Tel Aviv has offered free hummus and knafe in Jaffa, which has a large Arab population, and free espresso in northern areas of the city, where people flock to cafes like moths to a light.

Many places not necessarily targeting specific groups have offered free pizza, which is easy, cheap and almost universally loved. Who wouldn’t get a shot for a free pizza?

I love the way this country works! 😀

And now to some other good news, almost buried by the news of the vaccinations has been the extraordinary outbreak of peace between Israel and the Gulf states. I admit I was slightly sceptical about this newfound love of our Arab neighbours, and thought it might only be “cupboard love” for the State of Israel, and not for the Jewish people. However I have happily been proven wrong, as we read that the Jewish communities of six Gulf states have combined forces to form a Beth Din of Arabia! (A Beth Din is a Rabbinical court). It sounds almost mashiach-zeit – the days of the Messiah, it is such an unlikely phrase.

As Jewish life has become more public in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Jews from across the Gulf countries are forming the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. The new organization, the first of its kind, will include Jews and Jewish communities from the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it said Sunday in a statement.,fl_lossy/t_JD_ArticleMainImageFaceDetect/471317

Beirut-born Rabbi Elie Abadie (R) and Ambassador Houda Nonoo (photo credit: COURTESY AMBASSADOR HOUDA NONOO)

“During the pandemic, many of us started attending the Jewish Council of the Emirates’ pre-Shabbat Zooms, where we met each other,” said Houda Nonoo, the first female Bahraini ambassador to the United States (2008-2013) and the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country. “That ultimately became the genesis for the creation of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, because as we got to know one another on the call, we realized that there were certain resources we could share.”

“While each community is independent, they share a common goal and vision: for Jewish life in the GCC to flourish for the benefit of both residents and visitors,” it said in the statement. “Under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, based in Dubai, and President Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, based in Bahrain, the group is partnering on different communal programs and services so that their resources will enhance each other. The association’s board consists of members from all six Gulf countries, who together will forge the path forward for growing Jewish life in the Gulf.”

The group will include a Beth Din of Arabia (Jewish Court), which is in the process of being established to assist with issues pertaining to personal status, inheritance and the voluntary resolution of business disputes. There will also be an Arabian kosher certification agency.

If anything represents “venahafoch hu” – and it was turned upside down as it says in the Megillah, it is this news from the Gulf. How refreshing it is to learn how many people want to throw off the prejudices of the past and open up a new era.

My last item is directly connected to Purim: A mid-15th century Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther that we read on Purim, originating in Iberia, has been gifted to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem:,fl_lossy/t_JD_ArticleMainImageFaceDetect/471724

A mid-15th century Sephardic Esther scroll which was gifted to the National Library of Israel

The Iberian Esther scroll is one of the oldest surviving renditions of the biblical tale of Esther taking up her noble destiny to save the Jewish people from the evil Haman.

Experts determined that the mid-15th century scroll was written by a Jewish record-keeper around 1465, prior to the expulsion of Jewish populations from Spain and Portugal at the end of the century.

It was the only complete 15th century megillah currently being held in private hands prior to the donation. There are only a few of these complete megillahs worldwide, and those from the pre-expulsion period in Spain and Portugal are “even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist,” the National Library said.

Curator at the National Library Dr. Yoel Finkelman said that the gifted scroll was “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.

“It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th century megillot in the world,” Finkelman added. “The library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world.”

The Esther scrolls detail the miraculous events that took place in Persia 2,300 years ago when the Jewish people were saved by the actions of Mordechai and Esther from Haman and King Ahasuerus’ decree to exterminate the Jewish population.

What a wonderful treasure to be gifted to the Jewish nation! Kol hakavod to the Jesselson family on their generosity.

I wish you all Happy Purim, Purim Same’ach! May this Purim mark the beginning of our turnaround back to normal life.

Shabbat Shalom to you all as well.

Posted in International relations, Judaism, Slice of Israeli life, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Guest Post: Is it Antisemitic?

This is another guest post by frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb. Brian wrote this article since arguments about what constitutes antisemitism continue to rage on on the internet, social media and in political circles, this despite the publication of the IHRA definition of antisemitism which has been accepted in many academic institutions and political parties worldwide.

Defining antisemitism

“Is it Antisemitic”?:

This is a question I’ve often faced on reading some material on websites (not this one, of course), in the paper or listening to radio or television commentators, especially on the BBC (my home radio station) when the topic of Israel and the Middle East comes up. And frequently when the reporter is Jeremy Bowen. Why can’t they send him somewhere else? Please!! Anywhere out of the region.

The answer, yes or no, is rarely simple, except in the most obvious of cases. Sometimes, writers or speakers are simply unaware that what they are saying is, or can be construed – without violence to the words used – as antisemitic, and when this is pointed out to them, they are only too willing to apologise, reword their statement and move on. The whole issue is further complicated by noting that, here in the West, we prize free speech, as we should. In turn, this means that, in principle, nothing is beyond saying.

To illustrate the complexities this can create, six years ago, there was an attempt to run a conference at Southampton University (UK) with the title “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” (which Anne reported on in this blog). There was a long-running debate on the then very active Engage Online website, running from March 2015 over the following month or so, in which I took an active part (click on the link above to read the discussion and the subsequent comments).

You will notice that I do not mention antisemitism in what follows, and many of the commenters are good friends of Israel, but some of them still made comments that I found “odd”!

My starting point was that anybody could say anything they liked (within UK law) to whoever was willing to listen in any place that the owner was willing to allow them to do this. But it wasn’t an academic conference if there wasn’t at least an implicit question in the title, because the essence of academia is debate, discussion, consideration of evidence and so forth. Further, without the presence, or space for, dissent, it couldn’t be regarded as a proper academic conference, and holding it on University premises didn’t make it so.

I found myself facing opposition (always polite: we are British, after all!) from some surprising people: people I would have expected to agree with my general position. Much of this opposition took the line of the right of academic freedom: academics should be able to say what they liked. My counter was that, in the UK at least, there is no absolute right to free speech: we have libel and slander laws, which put limits on what can be said. We also have laws against racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, and so forth, both  written and spoken and in and out of the workplace [there is no intent here to present myself as a lone voice – the dissident speaking “truth to power” – but who said what is not important here].

It took time, but eventually the idea that academic freedom isn’t an absolute was accepted.

The battle over one case study was the next major issue. All sorts of “proper” academic conferences people had attended with only one issue were raised. This was readily dealt with: China’s part in the rise of global warming would hardly confine itself to just the one case; any conference on the partition of India in 1947 must involve at least 3 groups: Indians, soon-to-be Pakistanis and the British.

The debate then moved on to my and other people’s further major problem: that with only one case, it couldn’t be a proper academic conference. By definition, academic conferences allow and expect debate citing more than one case. There was an attempt to argue that Israel was “unusual”: its Declaration of Independence was unilateral and it was born in blood and involved the expulsion of some former inhabitants of what became Israel. My counter was that the USA was born of a revolution, as was the Soviet Union and China: were these independences to be now brought into question? And, further, in all three cases, legitimate inhabitants of the lands were killed, sometimes not even opposing those seeking a new order.

I have to note that I never received a clear rebuttal of that point.

Eventually, the Southampton authorities cancelled the event, not least because it had become obvious this was a partisan event (of the papers to be presented, well over half were clearly anti-Israel and the keynote address was to be given by that paragon of anti-Israel sentiment Richard Falk).

You will notice that not once was antisemitism mentioned in the above nor was it, for the most part, by the commenters. However, there were a number of potential paper-givers of ex-Israeli origin and notoriously anti-Zionist bent.

To round this section off, I must note that I had attended the Sunday before this controversy arose a one-day event sponsored by Stand By Israel. It was an unashamedly partisan event for the attendees to learn more about how to defend and promote their favourite foreign affairs topic: Israel. It was attended by a fair number of past and present academics, but no-one pretended it was an academic conference or other than I have stated.

All on its own, the paragraphs above illustrate one of the problems of both identifying and confronting antisemitism.

But we can drill further down into this issue and make it clearer in our own minds as to whether or not those who cause us problems are being, even unwittingly, antisemitic.

The acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism by a very broad group of countries and organisations within those countries (such as trade unions, political parties and trade unions) has very much helped in this process. The IHRA definition grew out of the EU Provisional Definition of Antisemitism and is, or can be, a powerful tool in clarifying these issues. For example, it is made abundantly clear in the IHRA definition that criticism of the actions of the Israeli government are not, per se, antisemitic. By definition, all governments are open to criticism (but sometimes not by their own citizens): they purport to be the arbiters of what is best for their citizens and if they are judged to be falling short of that, they are open to criticism. Just look at the newsstands in the UK, the USA, etc and, even more so, if one can read Hebrew, in Israel!

It is when Bibi, et al, (or any other Israeli politician) is criticised because he is the Prime Minister of Israel and not because of any particular policy or action he has (or they have) carried out that the suspicion of antisemitism might, legitimately, creep in.

I can perhaps illustrate what is meant here with the following (true) tale:

A senior academic at a prestigious UK University (and both shall remain anonymous. because this is an illustration, not an attack) made the following response when their institution was berated for the apparent intellectual hardship Jewish students had to face during the course of their studies there. It has been accepted that although this is true for other UK Universities, it appeared to be particular noticeable here.

The response was that:

“Attending X forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers.”

When this was first published, I responded, in part, as follows:

“Many people here will be aware that I am a retired H.E. lecturer, and I would have been (and still am) horrified that that students of any ethnicity and/or religion should be forced to examine their ethnic or religious identity, other than through a conscious choice of a course of study (voluntarily adopted) designed to do just that (perhaps a non-Marxist deliberately opting for a series of lectures & seminars by a noted Marxist scholar on just that topic).”

I chose that particular example of the Marxist scholar, because I was thinking of another institution and a different academic, who ran such a course and was, by repute, gentle with his non-Marxist students.

Later, I added the following comment:

“On second thoughts, I’m more than horrified, I think that [the academic] is excusing X. If we revisit the sentence “Attending X forces Jewish students to examine their Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. They emerge stronger and better informed than their elders and peers”, and substitute “female” or “black” or “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Hindu” for Jewish (and change “Israel” as appropriate), then, I suspect, we would all immediately be condemning X for allowing such a breach of faith between a higher education institution and its student body in this country.

Instead, the academic actually defends what’s happening.”

It’s taken me quite a while to get here, and I hope that you’re still with me. What I am arguing is that if we come across an argument, statement or claim that we believe to be, to be polite, dubious, and especially given where we are, that it might be antisemitic, then my acid test has become: “what happens if we take out “Israel” or “the Jews” and substitute women, Black people, Christians or Moslems, or another country that might be seen as “objectionable”, would we be upset, outraged or even angry at the implied or actual prejudice and discrimination? If the answer is yes, then it’s antisemitic.

Anne adds:

Brian, as ever I thank you for this very necessary and thought-provoking analysis of what constitutes antisemitism. For us Jews it is relatively easy to understand: we “know” it when we hear it or see it, it’s almost a subconscious instinct ingrained into our national psyche from centuries of persecution and discrimination. But when challenged, it is sometimes so hard to find the right words and the exact terms to explain to the speaker or author just what it is that is so objectionable. If they are acting in good faith they will be willing to listen and accept the terms of the IHRA. And if they are not, then they are an antisemite.

Posted in Academia, Antisemitism, Incitement, Lawfare and Delegitimization, Media and journalism | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

International Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

It is International Holocaust Memorial Day today, and although it is not marked in Israel since we have our own Yom Hashoah after Pesach, this is a fitting time to both talk about the Shoah and those who would deny it.

The pathology and psychology of Holocaust deniers is a subject which I won’t discuss here today though I have addressed it on this blog in the past. Suffice to say that the Holocaust deniers seek to belittle the Jewish people’s experience on the one hand, and thus to deny us the ability to complain about antisemitism or the right to live in safety in our own country, in fact they deny Israel the right to exist at all, while at the same time they compare us to the very Nazis who they deny committed any crimes. I did say it was a pathology.

But this week, putting the lie to the Holocaust deniers, it was revealed to us that an excavation project being carried out at the site of the Sobibor concentration camp has uncovered ID tags belonging to Jewish children who were murdered there (via DAP):

Four metal identity tags belonging to young children murdered at the Sobibor extermination camp were uncovered in a joint excavation project carried out by Yoram Haimi from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Wojtek Mazurek from Poland and Ivar Schute from Holland, the IAA announced on Tuesday.

The four tags carried the children’s names, date of birth and hometown – Amsterdam.

“With this information, we were able to find more about them by consulting the relevant archives,” Haimi explained to The Jerusalem Post. The researchers contacted the Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork, a former transit camp where Dutch Jews were gathered before being sent east, that today serves as a research center and memorial.

Seeing the pictures of smiling children and thinking of their terrible end has been especially hard, the archaeologist said.

Leah de la Penha on the right

The ID tag of Leah Judith de la Penha Hy’d

Lea Judith De La Penha was only six when she was killed. Her pendant was found near the camp’s railway platform. Deddie Zak was just a little older than her. He was deported to Sobibor on a train that became notorious for the large number of children that carried – some 1,300, ages 4 to 8 – many of them alone.

The ID tag of Deddie Zak Hy’d

“We found his tag in the area of a crematorium, which probably means that his body was burned while wearing it. This is all that remains of him,” the researcher said.

Annie Kapper, age 12, was deported to Sobibor with her family on March 30, 1943. All 1,255 Jews who were on the train were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Her tag was found near one of the mass graves in the camp. On the same train was also 11-year-old David Juda Van der Velde, whose aluminum tag was uncovered in the area of one of the chambers.

About 250,000 Jews were killed at Sobibor, most of them immediately upon arrival. The camp was destroyed by the Nazis after the prisoners attempted a revolt in October 1943.

Haimi explained that when his team started to work, very little of the camp remained. Over the years, they managed to uncover the site of the gas chambers, the crematoria, some of the mass graves and even a tunnel that the prisoners were trying to excavate in order to escape along with some digging tools.

Moreover, the archaeologists unearthed some 75,000 objects.

“We found plates, forks, jewelry, all sorts of items that the prisoners would bring with them,” he said. “In a well, we found some 20 golden wedding rings that the victims chose to throw away to avoid leaving them in the hands of the Nazis.

I would remind you that my mother’s three brothers, who were sent to ostensible safety at age 5, 7 and 9 on a kindertransport from Frankfurt to Holland in 1938, were subsequently transported to Sobibor in March 1943, aged 9, 11 and 13 and murdered on the day they arrived. You can read about my mother’s family story on my family history page.

Above: David, Elchanan and Uri HY”D Below: The 3 brothers with Judith תבדל”א

Not only must we never forget and always remember, we must make sure that others never forget as well, so that history cannot be denied and the victims made victims once more.

As international human rights lawyer and former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler stated yesterday on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

May the memories of the 6 million martyrs be for a blessing.

יהי זכרם ברוך.

As I always do on these days of commemoration, I invite readers to visit my pages on my family history during the Shoah.

Posted in Antisemitism, History, Incitement | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments