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When Ideology Trumps Fairness and Decency — Part 1

Blind ideology is the refuge of unthinking individuals. This would be farcical as far it goes were not for its consequences. When Stalinists, following their ideology, opposed the fascism of Nazism and then like twisted pretzels, over the course of days, supported the Soviet Nazi Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, attacking the “bourgeois” democracies instead, this was mindless fidelity to ideology.

 

As a result of this pact, Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east, ending Poland’s short history as a republic between the wars. 

 

And then, of course, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Stalinists followed lock step with their leader, trumpeting victory for the “motherland,” which was supposed to have been evaporated under Communism. 

 

We now find an unyielding ideological current pervading the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. I have written previous blogs as to why Israel has been targeted by the BDS movement. Much of the ideology driving this movement views Israel as an outpost of western imperialism, an interloper amidst people of color, who were displaced by an imperialism backed by the Western powers.

 

This nonsense is propagated on many of the college campuses by New-leftists of the 1960s who now have many faculty positions in academia, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. That is why the American Studies Association backed resolutions supporting BDS. 

 

Then there is sympathy for the “underdog,” that is the Palestinians and other Arabs who were vanquished by the Israeli “Goliath” despite the aggressive wars directed against her. This myth provides additional mortar for the BDS edifice. When we add the skillful propaganda fomented by propagandists and gullible Hollywood stars, we have a toxic brew hurting Israel.

           

If the purpose of the BDS movement is to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli “occupation,” thereby bettering their lives, the actions of Oxfam did the exact opposite. In its ideological purity to boycott any Israeli businesses in the West Bank, it ignored the fact that Soda Stream employed 550 Palestinians in an area where unemployment hovers around 30 percent. Palestinians workers were paid the same salaries as their Israelis colleagues and enjoyed a far better standard of living than their neighbors.

 

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson

So in its ideological box, Oxfam would separate hundreds of Palestinians from their livelihood and discourage other Israeli businesses from venturing into the West Bank to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, which would also employ Palestinians.

 

So free the Palestinians so that they can have more free time to join the ranks of the unemployed. However, the BDS movement is even more obnoxious and dangerous than this isolated incident, which ended with Scarlett Johansson and Soda Stream trumping Oxfam’s ideological purity.

Posted by: admin (February 11, 2014 at 2:18 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

New Jersey’s Poet Laureate, RIP

This blog is about the harm a poem and poet can do. But before I begin this theme, I want to start in a very positive vein by congratulating Peter Waldor for winning the Jewish Book Award for poetry.

 

A scion of one of our most distinguished families, Peter is a communal leader in his own right, particularly with Israel Bonds. An insurance executive, he is an artist in the poetry he composes and reminds me of another insurance executive who was an artist, the famous composer Charles Ives.

Peter, you do your family and community proud.

 

Now to my other theme.

 

Amira Baraka
Amira Baraka
The passing of Amira Baraka, formerly Leroy Jones, evokes different responses from different quarters. Lauded as a great poet by many, he was appointed Poet Laureate for the State of New Jersey, with a salary paid by the state.

 

Although perturbed by his anti-Western and Israeli views, I really did not pay much attention to him, until Barbara Wind, our Holocaust Council director and noted poet, brought to my attention a poem he wrote and read at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival about a year after the 9/11 attacks.

 

In “Sombody Blew Up America,” he conveyed that Israelis had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, a vicious and anti-Semitic slur. I guess those hundreds of Jewish victims, including Israelis, didn’t get the warning in time. Can you imagine the hurt this venom caused the victims’ families?

 

Through our Community Relations Committee, then chaired by Roger Jacobs and directed by Lori Price Abrams, and the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, we asked then Governor Jim McGreevey to fire Baraka.

 

Rev. Al Steele
Rev. Al Steele
This was not a freedom of expression issue. Baraka could write whatever he wanted as a private citizen. But as a state employee, he went beyond the pale of legitimate expression. Unfortunately, he could not be fired for legal reasons. Instead the preferred tactic was to eliminate the position entirely.

Al Steele, an African American Baptist minister who Steve Klinghoffer and Roger Jacobs took to Israel at the height of the Intifada, sponsored the bill in the Assembly that would eliminate the position. This was not popular in the African American community. With support in the Senate, led by Senator Dick Codey, the legislation was passed and signed by the Governor.

 

Although Reverend Steele was later involved in his own controversy, I’m thankful to him and other supporters for their leadership on this explosive issue.

 

So may the state-sponsored position of Poet Laureate rest in peace.

Posted by: admin (January 21, 2014 at 12:25 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Cock-eyed Optimist

When we talk about the “greatest generation,” we usually focus on the soldiers who served in World War II. We often don’t think of the rest of the population who suffered during the worst depression in our history, with over 25 percent unemployment. They lived through the most devastating war of the 20th century and helped rebuild our country to the global super power that it remains today.

Anne Rotberg
Anne Rotberg
My mother-in-law, Anne Rotberg (z’l), was part of this greatest generation. Growing up in poverty in the Bronx, from an immigrant family, she and her brother, Ralph, had to work during their high school years to help sustain the family. Throughout her career, she helped others through her efforts at the New York Department of Public Welfare, as well as Jewish Family Service of New York. She was the ultimate giving person to those in need.

She was the caretaker for her husband Bert for many years as he suffered from many physical ailments. Grannie Annie, as she was affectionately known by her progeny, was “Lady Bountiful” for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

She was also very charitable, giving to many causes, and after her husband died, spent many hours volunteering to help recently arrived Russian immigrants, some of whom consider her like a mother.  During her last days her wish was not to create any undue difficulty or distress for her family.

Throughout her life she was a giver and not a taker.  She was emblematic of the best we can be. I will miss her dearly. What follows is the eulogy given by her daughter, Gail.

By the age of three my mother began to wear glasses. She was called “cock-eyed.” Her feelings were hurt but she began to demonstrate her amazing vision. She saw only the positive or better possibilities for every person and any situation. For this Annie, it was not just a believing that the sun would come out tomorrow, it was about seeing the sun as already here, though others might not.

 

My Mom grew up in a poor Jewish immigrant family in the slums of the Bronx. She was thrilled when she got to eat potato latkes rather than eggs. Rather than resentment, my mother’s focus became being strong and helping others. To this end, she graduated high school at 16 and went to work to support herself and take pressure off her family.

 

For most of her working years she was employed by the New York City Department of Welfare and Jewish Family Services in various roles of administrative support. She derived great satisfaction from seeing how a person’s life filled with pain and problems could be helped by others and the feeling that she was part of that assistance.

 

When she retired she volunteered by helping the blind, recent widows and widowers, and Russian immigrants. Throughout her life she gave away money that she didn’t have to various charities. She felt good about it. Although my mother was a clearly secular Jew, she felt that she was expressing her Jewish values. When I listen to the Haftarah portion from Isaiah on Yom Kippur, saying “share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin,” I think of my mother.

 

To be with my Mom was to feel the presence of unconditional love and acceptance, especially if you were family. You had no flaws and if you noticed them in yourself or others she would rationalize them or apologize for them and be annoyed with you for seeing them. Mom was an easy parent. No academic pressure, no pressure to look a certain way, or hang out with certain people existed. Just be a mensch and be kind were her demands.

 

I would often refer to her as “my mother the jock” because of her love of baseball, boxing and the Olympics, which she followed regularly and watched with her husband and mine as much as she could. In fact, she met my Dad, Bert, whom she fell passionately in love with at a Yankee benefit game for the Air Force during World War II. He was Air Force navigator on furlough. Guess my favorite teams.

 

As a post-war housewife she catered to and cared for Dad unstintingly during his long period of physical and mental disability through the last 20 years of her life. My Mom could be fun She loved to play games and puzzles and read to me when I was a child and later helped get me hooked on books, Broadway musicals, and Scrabble. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than feeding us and our friends. The original fusion cook she would serve us her version of matzo ball soup, Chinese Pepper Steak and meatballs and spaghetti all at the same time.

 

As my mother aged, she began to channel Betty White. We were never quite sure what kind of comment she would come up with but they were often short of X-rated.

 

“This is what 91 looks like,” she would tell everyone she met last year. “Age is just a number,” she liked to say. She stayed sharp. Read her newspapers and did her crossword puzzle daily, walked allover Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My friends loved being with her. She treasured her three daughters, Karen, Ari and me, thought our spouses Shelly, Joe, and Max Joe respectively, were great. My children Beth and Howard were not only awesome, they chose awesome spouses in Brian and Alicia too. And those great-grandchildren Marlee and Xander — how she loved those adorable little red heads and enjoyed the well-earned privilege of being loved back.

 

Of course she felt the same about her other grandchildren, Danielle Jen, and Arielle, too.I wish I had her “cock-eyed vision.” I am working on it.

 

Thank you, Mom, for being a loving role model and teaching me to enjoy life and be grateful for my blessings. Thank you God, for allowing us to have her for so long.

Posted by: admin (January 07, 2014 at 9:48 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Happy Birthday JDC — Part II

Forgezt Mir Nish — don’t forget me! Those are the Yiddish words that still resound with me as we left Bella’s hovel. She lived with her invalid husband as we delivered meals from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to sustain them. As we left her, we promised not to forget. 

Paula Saginaw, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
Paula Saginaw, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
We were part of a group of Greater MetroWest UJA leadership who visited Ukraine in 1997 to witness the work of the JDC, one of our four major overseas beneficiary agencies. Our first stop was Korastan, a small city about 20 kilometers from Chernobyl. Every young child we visited had the effects of the radiation in their bodies. There was a small Jewish community, which welcomed us in one of their community gathering places. We then delivered food packages to their isolated elderly in the outlying area.

When the JDC was allowed to go back into the Former Soviet Union, it discovered 220,000 elderly who were subsisting on $20 per month and faced severe malnutrition. Our Federation was one of the first to respond to JDC’s call for assistance, and we remember Bella’s exhortation even to this day. We allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from our UJA Campaign to feed this population.   

Lori Klinghoffer, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
Lori Klinghoffer, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
The year after our visit, we went to Cherkassy, which is about a three hour bus ride from Kiev and its approximate 6,000 Jewish residents. Led by Paula Saginaw, Lori Klinghoffer, and other leaders, we have adopted Cherkassy as our twinned community and sponsored numerous missions over the years. In addition to providing thousands of meals, we have helped develop Jewish life in this small community.

I have had the pleasure of witnessing the first b’rit milah since the onset of Communism and been to numerous b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Many of their young leaders have made aliyah with the assistance of the Jewish Agency. My last visit, we were accompanied by Miss Israel, who originally came from the Ukraine.

On one of these trips, we were able to distribute medical supplies generously funded by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Led by Dr. Howard Tepper and other physicians, we met Jewish physicians and visited hospitals. The conditions were of Third World standards, and the doctors were embarrassed by the horrendous sanitary conditions and outdated medical equipment. But they were pleased with our visit, which demonstrated that a Jewish community 5,000 miles away cared deeply for them. And the medical supplies were put to good use. 

Communal Dining Hall, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
Communal Dining Hall, Cherkassy Mission - 2004
Our most tangible presence is in the Hesed Center, which was built in Cherkassy largely through our funding and JDC’s. We have a beautiful facility which promotes Jewish education and culture and socialization for the isolated elderly. It also serves as a nutrition and medical site and gathering place for numerous volunteers who deliver meals to those same elderly people.

JDC operates in dozens of such communities throughout the FSU. Due to natural causes, the numbers of elderly receiving meals have dwindled to 145,000. But there are also 70,000 children who are facing malnutrition and receive services. 

So from the days of servicing displaced communities during World War I, displaced persons camps after World War II, and helping to feed the isolated elderly and rebuild Jewish communities, JDC is doing the same kind of work today that it did 100 years ago. We are not forgetting the Bellas of the world.

Posted by: admin (December 30, 2013 at 11:19 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Happy Birthday JDC — Part I

At the concluding gala celebrating the centennial of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Wolf Blitzer, the master of ceremonies and CNN journalist extraordinaire, recounted how JDC helped his family.

 

Wolf Blitzer
Wolf Blitzer
His parents were both survivors and met after the war at a displaced person’s camp supported by the JDC. His father saw a long line and figured that it was a line worth waiting for. When his turn came up, he was told that he could receive a visa to arrive in the United States in Buffalo, N.Y. Realizing that New York had many Jews, and confusing New York State with New York City, he readily agreed. He and his family arrived in Buffalo, and the rest is history.

 

Concurrent with these efforts, a dear friend of mine, Larry Schuster and his father and mother, both survivors, also arrived in Buffalo and befriended the Blitzer family. In fact, his father Julius was the Blitzer family’s tailor.

 

These stories also parallel those of my own parents, who met at a displaced person’s camp in Landsberg, Germany, after the war, where my brother was born. What all had in common was the fact that the JDC provided the food and nutrition and programming for these displaced persons and helped with their transportation and initial settlement  in the New World.

 

But this was in the 1940s. JDC was founded a generation before in 1914 when the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, telegramed Jacob Schiff, a wealthy Jewish financier in New York, about the emergency facing Jewish communities  in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire as the result of the outbreak of Great War. Jewish communities were invaded by the competing armies, with Jews killed and in harm’s way. Accordingly, Morgenthau asked Schiff to send $50,000 in relief, which translates into $1 million in today’s currency, which Schiff and his colleagues promptly remitted. 

 

It was the need for this type of relief for displaced communities that prompted the formation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

 

Later in the 1940s, Morgenthau’s son, Henry Morgenthau Jr., Secretary of the Treasury in the Roosevelt Administration, exhorted President Roosevelt to do more to help Jewry during the Holocaust. Roosevelt acted very belatedly. But under Morgenthau’s leadership, the World Refugee Board was founded in 1944, which saved hundreds of thousands of Jews. It’s a small percentage of the Six Million killed, but every life saved is precious. The JDC helped fund many of the programs and services of the War Refugee Board in Europe, including Raul Wallenberg’s Hungary.  

 

At the conclusion of the evening, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew, scion of refugees from Europe in the 1930s, received the Henry Morgenthau Award, which was presented by Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s grandson and JDC’s leadership. 

 

This was indeed an extraordinarily emotional evening for me considering my own family background. But was there was more to follow. Jose L. Cuisia Jr., Ambassador of the Philippines to the United States, was also honored for the role his country played in helping over 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe survive the war. 

 

After accepting the award, he graciously thanked the JDC for its humanitarian assistance in saving lives during the recent typhoon which hit the Philippines, joined by the Israeli Government and our own government’s humanitarian efforts. 

 

And JDC’s work continues in 70 countries throughout the world.

 

More on this in a later blog.

Posted by: admin (December 17, 2013 at 3:40 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink
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