Thursday, November 26, 2020

'A Promised Land' Explains a Lot

The former President in the Oval Office (JNS)
A very insightful review of former President Barack Obama's new book as it pertains to Israel - by Dov Lipman:

(November 26, 2020 / JNS) I have never criticized former U.S. President Barack Obama publicly—neither during my time in the Knesset nor anywhere else—despite my having disagreed with many of his policies. I am of the strong opinion that Israelis should not engage in or interfere with American politics, and I regularly offer a blanket thank you to all American presidents, including Obama, for their economic and military support for Israel.

However, his memoir, A Promised Land, is filled with historical inaccuracies that I feel the need to address. His telling of Israel’s story (at the beginning of Chapter 25) not only exhibits a flawed understanding of the region—which clearly impacted his policies as president—but misleads readers in a way that will forever shape their negative perspective of the Jewish state.

Obama relates, for example, how the British were “occupying Palestine” when they issued the Balfour Declaration calling for a Jewish state. But labeling Great Britain as an “occupier” clearly casts doubt on its legitimacy to determine anything about the future of the Holy Land—and that wasn’t the situation.

While it is true that England had no legal rights in Palestine when the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, that changed just five years later. The League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations, gave the British legal rights over Palestine in its 1922 “Mandate for Palestine,” which specifically mentions “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The League also said that “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

The former president’s noted omission of the internationally agreed-upon mandate for the British to establish a home for the Jews in Palestine misinforms the reader, who will conclude that the movement for a Jewish state in Palestine had no legitimacy or international consent.

“Over the next 20 years, Zionist leaders mobilized a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine,” Obama writes, creating the image that once the British illegally began the process of forming a Jewish state in Palestine, Jews suddenly started flocking there.

The truth is that Jews, who maintained a continual presence throughout the 2,000 years that most were exiled from the land, had already been moving to Palestine in large numbers way before then; considerably more than 100,000 immigrants arrived in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Then, in the 1920s, high numbers fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe could only find safe haven in Palestine, due to the United States having instituted quotas in 1924 on the number of Jews who could enter America.

The number of immigrants rose even more in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler rose to power and began his conquest of Europe while the world remained silent.

Historical context is important, and once Obama chose to write about the history, he should have provided the full context and portrayed the Jews as they were: a persecuted and desperate people searching for safety, and not, as he implies, strong conquerors flooding into Palestine.

His claim that the new immigrants “organized highly trained armed forces to defend their settlements” is also misleading. A more accurate way to describe it would have been: “Because the Arabs in the region mercilessly attacked the Jewish areas, the Jewish refugees had no choice but to take up arms to defend themselves.”

Acknowledging that the Arabs were attacking Jews before there was even a state of Israel is important historical context for understanding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

A Promised Land recounts, as well, how the U.N. passed a partition plan for Palestine in November 1947, by dividing the country into a Jewish and Arab state, which the “Zionist leaders,” as he calls them, accepted, but to which the “Arab Palestinians, as well as surrounding Arab nations that were just emerging from colonial rule, strenuously objected.”

Obama’s use of “Zionist leaders” instead of “Jewish leaders” plays right into the current international climate, in which it is politically correct to be “anti-Zionist,” while unacceptable to be anti-Jewish. (In reality, Zionism is the movement for Jews to live in their biblical and historic homeland, so being against that actually is anti-Semitism, but that’s for another discussion.)

The description of “Arab nations that were just emerging from colonial rule” is a clear attempt to justify the Arab refusal of the U.N. Partition Plan. Those poor “Arab nations” that have been suffering due to outsiders colonizing their “nations” simply could not accept another “colonial” entity, the Jews, entering the region.

But the truth is that with the exception of Egypt, which was not colonized, none of the neighboring countries that rejected the partition plan had been established states before World War I. Yes, the post-war mandates of the League of Nations gave control in the region to the British and the French for a few decades, but this was in place of the Ottoman Empire that had controlled the region for centuries. Thus, the image of countries emerging from long-standing colonial rule as a subtle attempt to justify their objection to the Partition Plan is simply false.

Obama tells the story of the establishment of the State of Israel in two sentences, which are nothing short of outright revisionist history: “As Britain withdrew, the two sides quickly fell into war. And with Jewish militias claiming victory in 1948, the state of Israel was officially born.”

Wow. I don’t even know where to begin. The two sides didn’t “fall into war” when Britain withdrew; the two sides had been fighting for decades, with the Arabs—who rejected more than half-a-century of efforts to establish a Jewish state in the region—attacking the Jews, and the Jews defending themselves. When the British then left the area in May 1948, the Jews made a very difficult decision to declare their independence based on the U.N. Partition Plan, which gave the right for a Jewish state alongside an Arab state.

There were no “Jewish militias claiming victory.” There was a unified Jewish army that formed the Israel Defense Forces, which knew that the surrounding Arab countries would begin an all-out assault to destroy Israel the moment its Jewish leadership declared an independent fledgling Jewish state. And that is exactly what the Arab armies did. The new State of Israel fought off that assault for months, emerging in 1949 both weakened and fragile.

Obama’s perspective on the formation of the State of Israel no doubt affected his foreign policy regarding the Jewish state. If one sees Israel as a colonial force occupying the land as a result of its armed militias, then it will be treated as an outsider that wronged others to establish itself as a state. The former president misleads others into believing this, as well.

The most disingenuous sentence of Obama’s history of Israel is in his description of what happened during the 30 years following Israel’s establishment: “For the next three decades, Israel would engage in a succession of conflicts with its Arab neighbors…”

What? I had to read that sentence many times, because I could not believe that a president of the United States could write such misleading, deceptive and damaging words about his country’s close ally.

Israel did not “engage” in any conflict with the surrounding Arab countries. The Arab armies and their terrorists attacked Israel again and again, and Israelis fought to defend themselves.

A straightforward history of Middle East wars involving Israel yields this basic truth. Facts are facts, and the former president’s misrepresentation of Israel as a country that sought conflict instead of peace—one that willingly engaged in wars with the Arabs—does an injustice to peace-seeking Israel and riles up anti-Israel sentiment.

Obama’s description of the 1967 Six-Day Way continues this revisionism: “A greatly outnumbered Israeli military routed the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In the process, Israel seized control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.”

Here he fails to address what led up to the war, when all those Arab armies gathered along Israel’s borders and declared their intention to wipe it off the map. He doesn’t describe Israel’s pleading with Jordan not to enter the war, nor that Jordan altogether had no legal rights to the West Bank, which it occupied in 1948 and annexed against international law in 1950.

Most significantly, Obama fails to mention Israel’s willingness, immediately after the war, to withdraw from all the areas that it won in its defensive battle in exchange for peace; and by extension, he also fails to tell of the Arab League’s “Three Nos” in response to that offer: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

This omission serves once again to portray Israel as the aggressive occupier that seeks conflict and not peace.

The former president continues with another outright falsehood, which helps give insight into his policies regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The “rise of the PLO (the Palestinian Liberation Organization)” was a “result” of the Six-Day War he writes. That makes it seem like the Palestinian liberation movement—including its violent and murderous attacks against Israelis—was only a result of Israel’s taking control over the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

It strengthens the message that if only Israel would vacate these areas, there would be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is what spurs leaders around the world to suggest that Israeli settlements in these areas are the obstacle to peace in the region.

But there is one flaw with this story and logic. It’s not true. The PLO was established in 1964—three years before Israel was in control of any of those “occupied” areas, and three years before there were any settlements.

What exactly was this Palestinian organization liberating at that time? Is there any conclusion other than the liberation of the Jewish state in its entirety? What other option could there be?

This is why the “Free Palestine” movement chants, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” They are against the existence of Israel anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They see such a state as a colonial enterprise with armed militias grabbing the land of others, just as Obama leads readers to believe when describing the formation of the state.

The false description of the PLO rising after 1967 serves the narrative that the “occupation” and the settlements are the cause of the conflict, and this, no doubt, had a direct impact on Obama’s “not one brick” policy, including freezing settlement construction, in an effort to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama describes the failed Camp David accords of 2000, in which former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians more than 90 percent of what they were asking for.

“Arafat demanded more concessions, however, and talks collapsed in recrimination,” he writes. But the talks didn’t simply “collapse.” Sixty-six days later, Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada, in which 1,137 Israeli civilians were murdered and 8,341 were maimed by Yasser Arafat-funded terrorists who blew themselves up in Israeli buses and cafes.

Don’t trust my word on this. Mamduh Nofal, former military commander of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, revealed that following Camp David, “Arafat told us, ‘Now we are going to fight so we must be ready.’”

In addition, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said in September 2010 that in the summer of 2000, as soon as Arafat understood that all of his demands would not be met, he instructed Hamas, Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to begin attacking Israel. And Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, has verified that the Second Intifada was pre-planned by Arafat.

Not only does Obama fail to accurately connect the Second Intifada to Arafat’s not receiving everything the Palestinians asked for at Camp David—demands that would have prevented Israel from being able to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism—but he seems to place the blame for the intifada on Israel.

He describes the September 2000 visit of Israel’s opposition leader and subsequent prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as “provocative” and a “stunt” that “enraged Arabs near and far.”

But Obama neglects to mention that Sharon only visited there after Israel’s Interior Ministry received assurances from the security chief of the Palestinian Authority that no uproar would arise as a result of the visit.

In fact, Jibril Rajoub, head of Preventive Security in the West Bank, confirmed that Sharon could visit the sensitive area as long as he did not enter a mosque or pray publicly, rules to which Sharon adhered.

Even more incredibly, Obama describes the Temple Mount as “one of Islam’s holiest sites,” making no mention that it is the holiest site in Judaism.

An innocent reader who is unfamiliar with the region and its history reads this and concludes that it was simply wrong for a Jewish leader to walk onto a Muslim religious site. On the other hand, if he or she knew that it is the holiest site for Jews, then they would more likely wonder why there was anything wrong with Sharon’s having gone there—except Obama omits that part, leading anyone to conclude that Sharon was in the wrong.

That omission, together with the exclusion of Arafat’s plans for the intifada right after negotiations at Camp David failed, can only lead one to conclude that Israel was responsible for the five years of bloodshed during the Second Intifada.

Obama’s history lesson continues with the tension between Israel and Gaza. Remarkably, he makes zero mention of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, when Israel pulled out all of its troops from the Strip while forcing 9,000 Jewish citizens to leave their homes.

Anyone reading the president’s description of the wars between Israel and Hamas would never know that Israel no longer “occupies” Gaza, and that the Palestinians have been free to build a wondrous “Israeli-free” Palestinian state there for the last 15 years. That omission is glaring.

Finally, Obama’s misleading words describing Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire on its civilian population only serves to inflame and incite anti-Israel sentiment worldwide. That response, he writes, included “Israeli Apache helicopters leveling entire neighborhoods” in Gaza—Apache helicopters that he identifies as coming from the U.S., a subtle or not-too-subtle questioning of whether the United States should be providing Israel with military aid if it is used in this manner.

More importantly, what does he mean by “leveling entire neighborhoods,” other than to imply that Israel indiscriminately bombs Gazan neighborhoods, willfully murdering innocent people? And what human being on Earth wouldn’t be riled up to condemn Israel for such inhumane activity?

The problem is that it’s false. Israel targets terrorist leaders and the rockets that they fire into Israeli cities. Tragically, Hamas leaders use innocent Palestinians as human shields by hiding behind them in civilian neighborhoods, and by launching rockets into Israel from there and from hospitals and mosques.

Israel does its best not to kill innocent people—even airdropping leaflets announcing an imminent airstrike—and calls off missions to destroy rocket launchers or kill terrorist leaders when there are too many civilians in the area. Israel most certainly does not launch retaliatory attacks that aimlessly “level” entire neighborhoods.

I have no problem with criticism of Israel. We can debate the issues in intellectually honest discussions, and in the end, we may have to agree to disagree about Israel’s policies. But no one should accept a book that is filled with historical inaccuracies that invariably lead innocent and unknowing readers to reach false conclusions. Such a devastating book has real-life ramifications and consequences.

It is terribly disappointing. I surely would have expected truth, accuracy and fairness from Barack Obama, America’s 44th president. But the falsehoods and inaccuracies in this memoir only feed the theory that Obama was, in fact, anti-Israel. Now, through A Promised Land, he seeks to convince others to join him.

Dov Lipman served as a member of the 19th Knesset.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Hidden Zionists

By Rabbi Marvin Hier

Rabbi Marvin Hier (SWC)
Simon Weisenthal Center Founder and Dean (and Academy Award winner), Rabbi Hier makes some very keen observations in his JNS article. Hard to argue with:

It is common knowledge to anyone that studies the phenomenal trajectory of the State of Israel that the miracle of its creation in 1948 would not have occurred without the pivotal role and support of non-Jews—Christians who, unexpectedly and against all odds, suddenly seem to arrive at the scene to take charge at key moments in the young Jewish state’s 72-year history.

Harry S. Truman, a virtually unknown senator from Missouri, replaces Henry Wallace as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pick as vice president and, following the death of FDR, succeeds him. Truman then presides over not only the defeat of Nazism, but the creation of the United Nations, and in 1948 becomes the first to recognize the creation of the Jewish state. In doing so, he defies the recommendation of his own Secretary of State, Gen. George Marshall, a decorated World War II hero, who warns him that such a recognition would endanger the United States by severing America’s relationship with the oil-producing Arab world.

It was non-Jews again who played the decisive role in helping Shimon Peres and Israel build the Dimona nuclear plant in southern Israel, which to this day continues to be Israel’s strongest deterrent against the combined terrorist threat now posed by Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. Peres, with David Ben-Gurion’s blessing, went to Paris, where he befriended three French officials, two of whom—Guy Mollet and Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury—later became the country’s prime ministers and agreed to lease Israel uranium, a move that forever changed the strategic Arab advantage over the tiny Jewish state.

In our time, there was President Donald Trump, fresh from “The Apprentice” fame, who after coming to the White House makes his historic and bold decision to be the first American president to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital—a move that is not only opposed by the entire Arab world as premature and endangering prospects for Middle East peace, but even opposed by some Jewish Democratic members of the U.S. Congress.

his idea of the unexpected appearance of non-Jewish heroes—suddenly from out of nowhere, stepping out of the shadows—is not at all new. On the contrary, it is a well-articulated concept that made its appearance at the very dawn of Jewish history.

As the 20th-century Talmudist and thinker Rabbi Joseph B, Soloveitchik points out, it was not only Abraham the Jew who discovered and yearned for Zion, but Terach his non-Jewish father who first led him there. As the Torah clearly states, “and Terach took Abraham his son … to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen XI, V31). “Terach’s relationship with his son Abraham had been hostile … infused with hatred and insanity he had conspired with the local tyrants to destroy his own son both physically and spiritually … what changed his mind? … stirrings of repentance … the thought that perhaps his sons way was correct … a well-known revered and respected manufacturer of idols suddenly abandoned everything to begin his life anew … father and son formally locked in combat now started together on the march to Canaan … in order to be a great teacher one must be able to reach his own family … that occurred when Terach who once hated Abraham now reverses course and personally escorts him to the promised land.”

What Rabbi Soloveitchik is teaching is what the whole world is now witnessing. Non-Jews, both Christians and now even Muslims, like the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, are stepping forth to recognize the legitimacy of today’s Zionists as the descendants and great-grandchildren of Abraham, just as Terach himself once came forth to recognize the legitimacy of his son Abraham, the founder and great lover of Zion.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Foreign Policy Coup for the Trump Administration

Netanyahu speaks with Trump and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed
What are the odds that the mainstream media will either ignore this story. Or minimize it's significance if they don't ignore it. From the Jewish Press:

Israel and the United Arab Emirates have reached an historic peace agreement, the first such event to take place since Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty in 1994. The two countries are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies, Reuters reported. 

President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi closed the deal — to be known as the “Abraham Accords” — Thursday in a phone conversation. A joint statement issued by the three nations said the three leaders had “agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.”

“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region,” the statement said.

Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the statement said.

However, there’s a catch: “A result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over areas of the West Bank that were envisioned in the U.S. peace plan unveiled by Trump in January.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz have been deeply involved in the negotiations for the agreement, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.

One of the most important benefits to emerge from this agreement will be the expansion and accelerated cooperation between Israel and the UAE on COVID-19 treatment and vaccine development, which is to take place immediately.

“Israel for the foreseeable future will be focused on building this relationship and pursuing all the advantages that can come from having this new relationship with this country, and we also breaks the ice for doing more normalizations and peace agreements with other regional players as well,” a White House official told Reuters.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Let's Step Back from the Apocalyptic Rhetoric

The candidates and the apocalyptic rhetoric of their supporters (NYP)
Words of wisdom from Jonathan Tobin. (JNS)

Although tied to Tisha B'Av, they apply at all times and should be implemented by all.

Americans are experiencing a summer of discontent in a way that exceeds any in living memory. The nation is divided not just along political lines but seems increasingly immersed in something much dangerous—a culture war in which both sides truly believe that not only will a triumph by their opponents bring ruin, but that the very existence of the republic and American democracy is at stake.

That’s why both Jews and non-Jews need to pause this week and consider the lessons that the observance of Tisha B’Av: the day on the Hebrew calendar that marks the destruction of both ancient holy temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other catastrophes of Jewish history.

The day of fasting and reflection, which begins this year on the evening of July 29, is not observed by most non-Orthodox Jews and generally considered too depressing to have become part of secular American Jewish culture, which prefers holidays that follow a model that runs along the lines of “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

But if there was ever a year when its lessons were needed by Americans of all faiths, it is 2020.

Tradition teaches us that the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. occurred because of sinat hinam—senseless or baseless hatred—that undermined Jewish resistance during the siege of Jerusalem and great revolt against the forces of the Roman Empire.

A war that pitted the forces of a small nation against the world’s only superpower wasn’t going to have a happy ending, no matter how united the defenders of Jerusalem had been. But the rabbis who subsequently reconstituted Jewish faith emphasized the way that the Jewish rebels were divided into competing factions within Jerusalem’s walls. In the civil war that raged inside the doomed city, a Zealot faction destroyed food supplies that could have prolonged resistance. Their self-destructive behavior made the task of Roman conquest that much easier and provided Jewish history with a lesson of what not to do to survive in a hostile world.

It’s an important lesson, but not one that most Jews—or non-Jews for that matter—find easy to follow.

The political lines dividing Americans are starker than at any moment in living memory. It’s not just that Republicans and Democrats disagree about the issues. Most of the supporters of President Donald Trump and most of those who support his opponents seem unprepared to credit each other with good intentions, period.

For good or ill, Trump is a singular figure in American political history. His detractors don’t just see an outlier who deeply distrusts the political establishment and thinks he has a mission to turn it upside down. They view him as uniquely evil, an authoritarian determined to destroy democracy. Epithets like “racist,” “fascist” or “Nazis” hurled at him aren’t just insults. A large number of Americans truly believe that these are accurate descriptions of him, and even worse, his supporters.

Trump supporters largely return the compliment and see Democratic spending programs about a “Green New Deal,” open borders and revisionist views of American history as the thin edge of the wedge of a new kind of American socialism. Many disparage Trump’s opponent—former Vice President Joe Biden—as a stooge of the far-left whose election will mean the triumph of radical forces that will destroy the rule of law and implement measures that will ensure that Democrats never lose another election.

Trump has helped coarsened discourse in a way that none of his predecessors have done. They are consequences that stem from how populist impulses turn up the political temperature in a way that makes the country angrier and less open to the “better angels” of our nature to which Abraham Lincoln once appealed.

Even if you think that his policies are misguided and his conduct is particularly unfit for the presidency, the rhetoric of his opponents is at least as irresponsible as anything Trump does.

The willingness of most Democrats to characterize the administration’s recent attempt to defend federal facilities from violent mobs who operate under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement as a “fascist” coup or the operation of “secret police” comparable to the Gestapo is as deplorable as it is absurd.

The notion that the “mostly peaceful” BLM demonstrations, which again turned into violent riots this past weekend in some cities, are being wrongly suppressed by Trump is not a serious argument. One can agree or disagree with the tactic, though representing his actions as evidence of authoritarianism is pure partisanship intended to inflame public opinion.

In essence, both sides now see this November as a “Flight 93” election—a reference to the heroic effort of passengers on 9/11 to foil their terrorist hijackers’ intentions to crash that plane into the U.S. Capitol—in which there is no choice but to do anything to save the nation.

That has set up a situation where Democrats are putting about incendiary claims that Trump won’t go peacefully if he loses, and Republicans are afraid that if the president does beat Biden, his opponents won’t accept the results either and will encourage rioters to set our cities aflame. The point is, as the lame-duck Obama administration’s investigations of the Trump campaign’s mythical collusion with Russia demonstrated, there may be a bit of truth to the assertion that no matter which side is defeated, the losers won’t fully accept the outcome.

The stakes in this vote are high. But democracy doesn’t work when those competing for votes won’t accept the other side’s legitimacy. Yet increasingly, that is how many Americans feel about their opponents in a political culture that has begun to resemble a tribal religious war.

Now is the time for both sides to step back from the abyss and speak to their opponents as fellow Americans as opposed to would-be totalitarians or barbarian hordes that must be destroyed. On Tisha B’Av, rather than only thinking of the suicidal fratricide that helped destroy the Second Temple, perhaps we should also ponder the way all too many of us are routinely seeking to demonize our opponents.

That may be too much to ask of some citizens so immersed in the hatred of Trump or his opponents that they believe the inflammatory rhetoric being fed to them by competing partisan media outlets. But that is what is necessary if, lip service about preserving democracy notwithstanding, we are to avoid scenarios where each side’s worst fears become a reality.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

Friday, April 17, 2020

I Still Cannot Believe This is Happening

It'a like not being able to wake up from a nightmare!


Sunday, February 2, 2020

Racism Within the Jewish Community

By Elishva Rishon
This important article from Nashim Magazine speaks for itself. There is nothing for me to add. It follows in its entirety.
I will start my story by saying that what you are about to read is not an attempt to demonize an entire community. The Orthodox Jewish community has the amazing potential to practice true Ahavat Yisrael and to grow. The keyword here is “potential”. The Baal Shem Tov understood this, and he spent his life trying to show Jews that they are supposed to be responsible for each other and to show each other love. The concept of Ahavat Yisrael is deeply imbedded in Judaism, yet, in my experience, as a Black Jewish woman, it is a concept not always properly embraced.
I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish communities of Crown Heights and Flatbush. As a child, I only saw myself as Jewish and equal to everyone else. I loved singing Adon Olam at the top of my lungs. I loved going over to the men’s side for the Kohanim’s blessing, and I smiled as I felt the warmth of Hashem’s love underneath my Abba’s tallit. I loved saying “Shabbat shalom” to people, even though they never said it back to me. But in spite of my enthusiasm at being a Jew, I learned at a very young age that some members of the Jewish community did not share this enthusiasm.
I will never forget my earliest memory of being introduced to racism in my community. This earth-shattering moment occurred when I was about 8 or 9 years old, in a shul in Crown Heights. On Shabbat, during the Torah reading, a group of kids would always go out to play in the courtyard, and being shy, I never knew how to ask them if I could play with them. Finally, one day, I gathered up the courage and approached these girls, who were playing with a ball, and asked them if I could play. The girls made faces and said, “No, you can’t play with us—you’re black and dirty!”
I didn’t understand.
I checked my hands and showed them that they were clean. They laughed. I insisted to them that I had just washed my hands in the bathroom. They told me the “dirt” was all over my body, and then made a reference to the word “black” again before running away, laughing.
I was still confused.
That Shabbat, I went home and looked in the mirror at myself for hours until I saw that I was black. Once I saw it, I then understood that being black made me “bad” and “dirty”. Until then, I only thought I was Jewish.
The pain of this discrimination got even worse after I was introduced to the concept of colorism (prejudice based on shades of skin tone).
The shul girls would never play with me or my younger sister once they established that we were “black”, “bad” and “dirty”. However, once a year, this rule was relaxed, when most of the other kids went away to summer camp upstate.
With fewer kids to play with, the ones who were still around felt it was “ok” to play with us—the black kids, the leftovers.
In this instance, I was standing side by side with my younger sister, and the girls were deciding whether or not to play with us. I remember them saying they would play with my sister but not me, because she was the “lighter shvartze”, and “better” because she was “less dirty”.
When my younger sister went off to play with them, I ran to the bathroom—the bad, smelly one that no one went into—to cry. I stayed there until I heard davening conclude with the kids singing my favorite song, Adon Olam.
The girls repeated this selection process over and over again throughout the summer. Now exposed to colorism, I secretly began to resent my sister, who was shades lighter than me.
I also began to resent my dark skin and would try to wish it away or scrub at it unnecessarily, in the hopes that it would make me lighter.
Looking back on it now, it was utterly ridiculous, yet to my young, developing mind, these negative interactions—followed by many, many more similar situations—were creating deep trauma in my psyche.
Coming into adulthood, my experiences of racism within Orthodox circles only became more complex and troubling. To be clear, not every racist situation I have had to endure was always done in such an obvious manner. Some racist interactions are absentminded ones. However, most racist exchanges are less apparent and very subtle—aka microaggressions. They are much more common than loud, screaming racism.
I have experienced these microaggressions in everyday situations, such as:
Walking into a Jewish store with Jewish friends and being the only one watched and followed by the store manager.
Being at a job interview with a Jewish employer who makes comments like, “I was expecting a Jewish girl from Brooklyn,” and when I say, “I am a Jewish girl from Brooklyn,” he looks at me with smug disbelief.
Being on a shidduch date, and having to tell the man to stop touching me since I am shomer negiah, and then he smirks and uses various words to insinuate that I must be immoral because, in his experience, someone who “looks” like me doesn’t act appropriately.
Being at a singles shabbaton in a hotel, dressed in fancy Shabbat clothes, wearing a Magen David necklace, and still, several fellow Jewish attendees throughout the event approach me to ask me when their dinner will be served or why I am there.
When someone refuses to believe that I am Jewish or was born a Jew and says, “You don’t look Jewish.”
These microaggressions don’t go away with time or when “people get to know you”, as some in the community love to claim. No—they are persistent to this very day, because this behavior is generally tolerated in Orthodox Jewish culture. It is inescapable. And it is something that eats away at my neshama, hurting it, every day.

Another awful aspect of going through these experiences is telling my friends in the community what is happening, and then being told 1 of 3 things, or even all 3 things at once:
1. “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
2. “Stop being so sensitive. Everyone has a tikkun—yours is being black. Deal with it.”
3. “Stop being so negative. If you were more positive, people would not be racist toward you. Also, stop making a Chillul Hashem by talking about bad things other Jews do to you.”
It is so frustrating to hear these responses repeatedly throughout your entire life. It makes you feel helpless, as you are being victimized again. It makes you feel like you are being a bad Jew by discussing being treated poorly, differently or both, just because of your skin color. It makes you feel anger and humiliation, as no one wants to make a change and would rather label you as the problem.
It also places a huge burden on you to handle this constant behavior on your own—something which directly goes against the concept of communal responsibility associated with Ahavat Yisrael.
I hope that I have brought some awareness to the community by writing this article. I would like to ask the members of the Orthodox Jewish world to be more mindful of other Jews and what they teach their children, and to listen to Black Jewish people and believe Black Jewish people when we tell you we are dealing with situations of discrimination. We can’t fight these battles on our own—we can only work on this together as a community.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Major Kiddush HaShem

Darchei Torah Honoree, Everett Fortune (Mishpacha)
If there was ever a major Kiddush HaShem, this one is it! From Mishpacha Magazine:

The short clip that went viral on frum social media last week depicted a scene as improbable as the story behind it.

Yeshivos are always looking for the surprise honoree to wow dinner guests, the next level keynote speaker who will keep donors coming back the following year. His last name aside, Yeshiva Darchei Torah did not honor Everett Fortune for the number of ads he could attract for the dinner journal. In fact, Fortune was not even aware he would be honored when he showed up Sunday night in a red-and-white-striped shirt, black jacket, and dashing Homburg, he told Mishpacha in an interview.

Everett Fortune is Darchei’s chief of security, a position he’s held for the past 30 years. He recently recovered from a years-long illness, and the yeshivah wanted to express its appreciation for his decades of work.

“He knows every single child, he knows every single parent,” said Rav Yaakov Bender, the rosh yeshivah, as he introduced Mr. Fortune to the dais.

Fortune was greeted with an extended standing ovation as he made his way up, embracing Rav Shlomo Avigdor Altusky, rosh yeshivah of Darchei’s Beis Medrash Heichal Dovid, and shaking hands along the way.

“I’m about to burst wide open over here,” said Fortune, tapping his heart as he searched for the right words. “You don’t know, ah, well…”

The applause resumed as two generations of students celebrated the man who greeted them as they got off the bus in the morning or who may have woken them up for Shacharis.
Woken them up for Shacharis?

Yes. Fortune lives near the yeshivah in Far Rockaway and is available for whatever the school needs, said Rabbi Moshe Benoliel, Darchei’s director of alumni affairs. Including pulling the hardest duty of all.

“I used to be the vekker,” Fortune said. “I used to go around to the dorms and get them out of bed. I loved it. I used to turn over mattresses so they would get out of bed and get to Shacharis on time. That was one of my most exciting [duties].”

Fortune grew up in Inwood, on Long Island, where he attended Lawrence High School in the late 1960s. It was there that he got his first close exposure to Jews.

“I grew up close to the Jewish neighborhood,” he said. “I learned about Jewish food through my mom, who used to be a cook for a family named Lichtman in Woodmere. My mom and dad always taught me to be friendly to everybody, so I was friendly to everybody.”

Darchei opened in 1972 and purchased its current campus in 1990. “Everett was literally the second security guard hired, the first one was his brother, Elliot,” Rabbi Benoliel said. “Very quickly afterward they hired Everett. Elliott is retired and Everett is still here.”

The mother of the Fortune brothers passed away in 2004. She was a regular attendee at the annual Darchei dinners, her son said. Fortune said she would have had a lot of nachas from the plaque he received from the yeshivah, along with the warm appreciation.
Hundreds of others also had nachas watching.

“Oh, my gosh, I’ve had parents stopping in middle of the street, holding up traffic, just telling me how much they loved it and how much they love me,” Fortune said. “They told me it was a great honor, and you deserved it. Even the students came up to me, and they said, ‘We love you. You looked great.’ And they liked my Homburg hat. One mother told me, ‘I saw the video,’ and she just started crying.”

Over the years, Fortune evolved from being one of two security guards to overseeing a whole team of security, which includes what Rabbi Benoliel calls “measures seen and unseen to protect the students 24/7.”
“I just get my energy from these kids,” Fortune said. “I call them ‘my little kinderlas.’ I love them. The way they greet me when they get off the bus, it’s a great feeling all the way around. Also with the high school, with the bochurim.”

Former students who are parents take pride in pointing Fortune out to their children and saying, “Look, kids, he used to be my security guard when I was a kid.”

But things were not going so well four years ago. Fortune was diagnosed in 2016 with stage four colon cancer. He remembers the date of his diagnosis vividly — it was on his birthday, March 14.
Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, a son of the rosh yeshivah and founder of Achiezer, the largest social services organization in Far Rockaway and the neighboring Five Towns, harnessed his organization on Fortune’s behalf, finding him a specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital. Fortune underwent multiple surgeries as the cancer spread to his liver.

“I had so many parents coming to visit me, students daven for me,” he recalled. “The office staff came and davened for me. It was unbelievable.”
One incident that “really got to me,” he said, was when a preschooler approached him during a rare return to the school during his illness and asked indignantly, “Where. Have. You. Been? I missed you.”

Rav Bender recalled at the dinner how the desk nurse at Mount Sinai, who was also African American, asked him who Fortune was. There were so many visitors, she figured he must be important.

“I explained that he is the person who cares most about the students in our school. He’s the chief of security,” said Rav Bender, his arm wrapped around Fortune’s shoulders. “She said that in all her years of her being in the hospital, she never saw as many visitors as she saw for Mr. Everett Fortune.”
It took a few years, but he got a clean bill of health in 2019. He attributes that to all the tefillos said on his behalf.

“I used to tell the kids, ‘Get upstairs for Shacharis, you have to daven,’ ” he said. “I went to the classroom, and I explained to them, ‘You put that tefillin on. It works. Daven! I’m standing in front of you now because you davened for me. I’m telling you.’ ”
“I have no problem with the kids going to Shacharis now,” he added with a laugh.

He also ascribes his good health to a small bracelet he wears on his hand.

“When I was in the hospital doing very bad, one of the bochurim from the high school put this on my wrist,” Fortune said. “He said, ‘Everett, you don’t have anything to worry about. I’m going to put this bracelet on you — it says Thank You, Hashem.’ I don’t leave home without it.”
If he had the chance to give his acceptance again, would it be any different?

“I had no idea that I was going to be honored,” Fortune said, still awed by the event four days later. “I had no idea whatsoever. I’m still numb. I’m in awe. I’m like, wow,” he said, breaking off into laughter. “My legs are still buckling. I’m overwhelmed. I still can’t believe it.

“There’s nothing like the Darchei family over here,” he added. “There’s just nothing like it.”