Natan Sharansky and Soviet Jewry: A Look Back

Tuesday was the fourth time I heard Natan Sharansky speak. The second time I heard the former Prisoner of Zion speak was at Adat Shalom Synagogue not long after my bar mitzvah. I was still wearing the silver bracelet with the name of my bar mitzvah twin from the Soviet Union. The last two times I heard Sharansky speak were at an AIPAC lunch for rabbis in D.C. in 2008 and at this week’s Foundation for Jewish Camp conference in New Jersey. None of those three speeches even remotely compared to the first time I heard him speak.

Natan Sharansky speaks at the 2012 Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly

It was Sunday, December 6, 1987. I was a 6th grade Jewish day school student and traveled with my mother aboard a chartered flight from Detroit to Washington. The late David Hermelin led the plane in singing for the entirety of the flight. Our Detroit delegation filled two planes and we were among the throngs of people who congregated on the National Mall to call for immediate mass emigration for Jewish refuseniks out of the Soviet Union.

Wearing a cheap white painter’s hat that read “Let My People Go” and eating my bagel and lox breakfast donated by Detroit philanthropist and supermarket owner Paul Borman, I marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building singing “Hinei Mah Tov.” I remember hearing Vice President George Bush and Elie Wiesel speak. But the moment I will never forget is when Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky came to the dais to address his 250,000 supporters. It was impossible to decipher exactly what he was saying in his broken English, but I knew that he had spent years in prison and was now a free man on a mission. I remembered singing the words to the Safam song at my 5th grade Zimriyah, “They call me Anatoly. In prison I did lie. My little window looked out on the Russian sky.”

With Natan Sharansky in 2008

On Tuesday, as I listened to him speak about the immense growth of Jewish camping in the Former Soviet Union, I was taken aback by how far Sharansky has come since that cold December Sunday in 1987. Within 25 years, he has not only transitioned from the life of a prisoner to a free man, but he has seen and done so much. He made aliyah to Israel on the day he left his Soviet prison cell and then became the de facto leader of the Russian immigrant community in Israel, winning election to the Knesset after forming the Yisrael BaAliyah party. He published his memoirs, defeated Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, and is now the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It is truly remarkable how Sharansky has ascended to leadership in a quarter century, but it is part of the larger story about Russian Jewry. It is a success story. There are large, successful Russian Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the United States (and in the FSU and Germany). There are campus Hillels throughout the FSU, Jewish summer camps are at full capacity in Russia and Ukraine with Jewish campers who learn they are Jewish only days before camp begins. Jewish synagogues of all denominations and community centers have sprung up everywhere in the FSU. There are Russian Jews who are leading the world in the sciences, in business and in medicine. Without a Russian Jew, we would have no Google (Sergei Brin) or PayPal.com (Max Levchin). Five Russian Jews have won a Nobel Prize since 1990. Yuri Foreman is a boxing world champion. There have been Russian Jews in the National Hockey League (Max Birbraer) and in the National Football League (Igor Olshansky). Their story is nothing short of miraculous.

With Natan Sharansky in 2012

Jewish students who graduated college last spring were born after the fall of Communism. They have no memory of the fight for Soviet Jewry. They don’t know about bar mitzvah twinning with Russian teens or the stories of smuggling Jewish books and matzah into the Soviet Union. They don’t know about adding a fifth question on Passover asking when will all Jews be free or leaving an empty seat at the Seder for the Soviet Jews who couldn’t celebrate the holiday.

As I sat listening to Natan Sharansky on Tuesday, a friend and I reminisced about writing letters to President Reagan on behalf of our Soviet Refusenik brothers and to our Russian pen pals who weren’t allowed to learn Hebrew or sing Jewish songs. Twenty five years after that memorable march for Soviet Jewry in Washington, it is imperative we keep telling that story and I am grateful to Natan Sharansky for keeping his story alive after these many years.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Chuck Schumer Had Leon Panetta Say Shema

All of the speeches at the AIPAC Policy Conference during the past few days went according to script. Every U.S. politician who addressed the 13,000 in attendance weighed in on the threat of a nuclear Iran, enumerated their party’s accomplishments in defending Israel, and reiterated their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there was one surprise.

On the final morning of the AIPAC conference, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discussed his close personal friendship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the family dinners they have shared (“We talk, we argue, we eat… we are family”). He also recalled accompanying President Bill Clinton to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Panetta also disclosed that the first congratulations he received after the successful capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan were from his buddies in the Israeli Mossad.

And then Secretary Panetta mentioned the little known fact that he and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York were once roommates when they both served in the House during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That wasn’t the surprise though since Schumer has, on several occasions, reminisced about rooming with Panetta and other congressmen in a shared house. The surprising tidbit came when Panetta shared that he and Schumer bunked together in the living room of the house and before bed each night Schumer would get Panetta to say the Bedtime Shema.

Panetta deadpanned toward the end of his speech, “Each night before we went to bed he made me say the Shema… but I probably just said a Hail Mary!”

I was never aware that there is a custom of Jews getting non-Jews to say the Shema. I wrote about Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun getting him in the habit of reciting the Shema before each concert and now this. I’m curious to know which other non-Jews out there are saying the Shema. This might just become a trend.

Here’s video of Chuck Schumer reminiscing about his former roommate Leon Panetta:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Goldstone Report and Dore Gold

I first met Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and foreign policy adviser to Bibi Netanyahu, a few years ago at a Jewish National Fund event. I was very impressed with what he had to say and how articulately he said it. Therefore, I was excited when I was invited to hear Ambassador Gold speak about the Goldstone Report this past week at a private lunch for local rabbis.

The Goldstone Report is the independent fact-finding mission created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and led by a South African jurist to investigate international human rights and humanitarian law violations related to the Gaza War. I had read several articles about the report and had seen Dore Gold debate Justice Richard Goldstone (video below), but was interested to ask him some questions about how Israel will respond to the report. Sure enough, at the luncheon arranged by AIPAC, Mr. Gold didn’t disappoint. He was able to translate the 575-page report full of legalese into easy-to-understand language. (Even he admitted that getting through the report in preparation for his debate against Justice Goldstein required much coffee and Advil.)

Ambassador Gold characterized the report as a way to de-legitimize Israel (the report says that the Israeli Defense Forces deliberately killed innocent Palestinians). He pointed out that the report doesn’t merely state that the IDF used excessive force or ignored the laws of proportionality, but that the Israeli Army intentionally targeted civilians (as part of its program). The report, he explains, attacks Israel’s very foundations. Some might be surprised that a Jewish judge (Goldstone) who has a daughter living in Israel would come to such conclusions. However, based on the history of the United Nations’ relationship with Israel over the past six decades, the report should not come as a shock.

Goldstone cites eleven cases where there was “no fog of war” and yet Israeli soldiers killed innocent Palestinians. In perhaps his best refutation of the Goldstone Report, Dore Gold points out that early in the report, Goldstone admits that it was difficult to obtain information about these questionable attacks through Palestinian testimonies because the Palestinian civilians were afraid to talk about it because they were scared of retribution. Later in the report, however, Goldstone cites individual testimony from these Palestinians as proof of the eleven cases where there was “no fog of war.”

Further, Gold points out that Hamas was using Palestinians as human shields and storing weaponry in the basements of schools during Operation Cast Lead. Contrary to what Goldstone reports, the IDF went above and beyond to warn the Palestinian civilians of impending attacks on locations where they knew weapons were being kept (leaflets were dropped and even phone call warnings were made to home and cell phones).

There will be debate among Israelis (and the world) as to how Israel should respond to the Goldstone Report. The New York Jewish Week interviewed Moshe Halbertal, co-author of the Israeli military code of ethics, who said that Israel’s refusal to conduct an independent, thorough probe of its military’s handling of last winter’s 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza as demanded by the United Nations is a “missed opportunity.”

The article stated that “Israel has said its Gaza incursion occurred in response to a nearly incessant barrage of rocket fire by Hamas terrorists in Gaza on Israeli civilians. It said the large number of Palestinian civilian casualties was because Hamas terrorists fought Israeli troops from civilian areas. Israeli media reported this week that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi favored a limited review of the war by a committee of senior Israeli jurists. They would be permitted to question political and military leaders, as well as Israeli military officials who investigated UN allegations of war crimes, but would be barred from interviewing officers and soldiers who took part in the war.”

Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz published a lengthy rebuttal of the Goldstone Report in the January 31st Jerusalem Post online issue in which he calls the report a “study in evidentiary bias” and refers to Goldstone as an “evil, evil man” and a traitor to the Jewish people.

However the Israeli government ultimately decides to respond to the Goldstone Report, after listening to Dore Gold discuss the inherent problems and factual errors of the report, I’m glad the Israeli prime minister is consulting with him. He really seems to understand what was underlying such a one-sided UN report. Here is the video of Dore Gold responding to Justice Goldstone at the Brandeis University debate:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Lipstadt: Carter has a "Jewish Problem"

From the Washington Post

Jimmy Carter’s Jewish Problem
By Deborah Lipstadt

It is hard to criticize an icon. Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian work has saved countless lives. Yet his life has also been shaped by the Bible, where the Hebrew prophets taught us to speak truth to power. So I write.

Carter’s book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” while exceptionally sensitive to Palestinian suffering, ignores a legacy of mistreatment, expulsion and murder committed against Jews. It trivializes the murder of Israelis. Now, facing a storm of criticism, he has relied on anti-Semitic stereotypes in defense.

One cannot ignore the Holocaust’s impact on Jewish identity and the history of the Middle East conflict. When an Ahmadinejad or Hamas threatens to destroy Israel, Jews have historical precedent to believe them. Jimmy Carter either does not understand this or considers it irrelevant.

His book, which dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience, makes two fleeting references to the Holocaust. The book contains a detailed chronology of major developments necessary for the reader to understand the current situation in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is nothing listed between 1939 and 1947. Nitpickers might say that the Holocaust did not happen in the region. However, this event sealed in the minds of almost all the world’s people then the need for the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Carter never discusses the Jewish refugees who were prevented from entering Palestine before and after the war. One of Israel’s first acts upon declaring statehood was to send ships to take those people “home.”

A guiding principle of Israel is that never again will persecuted Jews be left with no place to go. Israel’s ideal of Jewish refuge is enshrined in laws that grant immediate citizenship to any Jew who requests it. A Jew, for purposes of this law, is anyone who, had that person lived in Nazi Germany, would have been stripped of citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws.

Compare Carter’s approach with that of Rashid Khalidi, head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and a professor of Arab studies there. His recent book “The Iron Cage” contains more than a dozen references to the seminal place the Holocaust and anti-Semitism hold in the Israeli worldview. This from a Palestinian who does not cast himself as an evenhanded negotiator.

In contrast, by almost ignoring the Holocaust, Carter gives inadvertent comfort to those who deny its importance or even its historical reality, in part because it helps them deny Israel’s right to exist. This from the president who signed the legislation creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Carter’s minimization of the Holocaust is compounded by his recent behavior. On MSNBC in December, he described conditions for Palestinians as “one of the worst examples of human rights deprivation” in the world. When the interviewer asked “Worse than Rwanda?” Carter said that he did not want to discuss the “ancient history” of Rwanda.

To give Carter the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that he meant an ongoing crisis. Is the Palestinians’ situation equivalent to Darfur, which our own government has branded genocide?

Carter has repeatedly fallen back — possibly unconsciously — on traditional anti-Semitic canards. In the Los Angeles Times last month, he declared it”politically suicide” for a politician to advocate a “balanced position” on the crisis. On Al-Jazeera TV, he dismissed the critique of his book by declaring that “most of the condemnations of my book came from Jewish-American organizations.” Jeffrey Goldberg, who lambasted the book in The Post last month, writes for the New Yorker. Ethan Bronner, who in the New York Times called the book “a distortion,” is the Times’ deputy foreign editor. Slate’s Michael Kinsley declared it “moronic.” Dennis Ross, who was chief negotiator on the conflict in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, described the book as a rewriting and misrepresentation of history. Alan Dershowitz teaches at Harvard and Ken Stein at Emory. Both have criticized the book. Because of the book’s inaccuracies and imbalance and Carter’s subsequent behavior, 14 members of the Carter Center’s Board of Councilors have resigned — many in anguish because they so respect Carter’s other work. All are Jews. Does that invalidate their criticism — and mine — or render us representatives of Jewish organizations?

On CNN, Carter bemoaned the “tremendous intimidation in our country that has silenced” the media. Carter has appeared on C-SPAN, “Larry King Live” and “Meet the Press,” among many shows. When a caller to C-SPAN accused Carter of anti-Semitism, the host cut him off. Who’s being silenced?

Perhaps unused to being criticized, Carter reflexively fell back on this kind of innuendo about Jewish control of the media and government. Even if unconscious, such stereotyping from a man of his stature is noteworthy. When David Duke spouts it, I yawn. When Jimmy Carter does, I shudder.

Others can enumerate the many factual errors in this book. A man who has done much good and who wants to bring peace has not only failed to move the process forward but has given refuge to scoundrels.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller