Tuesday, April 25, 2006

There is none like You among the dumb - אין כמוך באלמים

A medieval piyyut, composed by Isaac bar Shalom, in response to the persecutions of Jews in Ashkenaz during the Second Crusade in 1147, begins with this stanza:
There is none like You among the dumb,
Keeping silence and being still in the face of those who aggrieve us.
Our foes are many; they rise up against us,
As they take counsel together to revile us.
"Where is your King?," they taunt us.
But we have not forgotten You nor deceived You.
Do not keep silence! (אל דמי לך )
Source: Jakob J. Petuchowski, Theology and Poetry: Studies in the Medieval Piyyut (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 71-83.

Yom Ha-Shoah - Mordekhai Falkon

Since today is Yom Ha-Shoah - the day of remembrance of the Holocaust - I thought I would mention briefly my grandfather's uncle, Mordekhai Falkon, who was murdered by the Nazis in Liepaja, Latvia (known also as Libau, Latvia), in the summer of 1941. Mordekhai corresponded with my grandfather, Mark Falcon Lesses, from the mid-1930s through March 18, 1940 (just before the Russian conquest of Latvia). My grandfather was a doctor, living in Boston, Massachusetts, with my grandmother and their two children. He was contacted by Mordekhai Falkon and by another relative living in Jelgava, Latvia, Sima Shlosberg - both sought affidavits so that they could immigrate to the United States.

This is the text of Mordekhai's last letter (that is, the last one that I know of, which was saved by my grandmother for many years after my grandfather died).
Liepaja, 18th March 1940
My dear Nephew,

Not being sure, that my letter written about two weeks before, will reach you, I write you today again. My wife has been sick for a long time, but now she is again well up. Also I am well, but since January the 1st I left all my business and since then I am nothing doing.

I am thanking you very much for your kind will to help me get into U.S., but as long as it is possible to live here, I should not leave our old home. Should unforeseen circumstances induce me to leave, I shall not fail to inform you in right time. All papers received from you I delivered to the U.S. Consulate, which will inform me, when my turn will come.

I hope you and your family are all well and I shall be glad to hear from you as often as possible.

With kindest regards from me and my wife

Your uncle
M. Falkon

[on the back of the envelope is stamped: Stockholm 20.3.40]
For the text of Mordekhai's other letters, see Letters from the Past. You can also find there letters from Sima Shlosberg and from Mordekhai's sister, Gittel Falkon Kagan, who lived in Moscow.

As I found out from subsequent correspondence with a relative, Sima survived the war. She married and lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, for many years, before dying in the mid-1980s. We do not know what happened to Gittel and her family in Russia, because there has been no contact since the late 1930s with them.

According to the extensive database of Libau Jews developed by Edward Anders and his co-workers, Mordekhai was likely killed in July, 1941. As soon as the Nazis entered Libau on June 29, 1941, they began killing Jews. Mordekhai's wife, Dobra, was killed on December 15, 1941, along with almost 3,000 other Libau Jews during three days of murder at the Skede dunes along the coast, about 15 km north of Libau. (For photographs of the killings, see Skede executions. Warning: graphic and disturbing photographs). Mordekhai's son, Abram, and his two children, Betje and Genia, were also killed in 1941.

May they rest in peace.

Only In America: Never Again

My local NPR station just broadcast Only In America: Never Again, a one-hour special remembering the Holocaust. Most of the show is devoted to an affecting interview with Elie Wiesel. It's worth listening to on Yom Ha-Shoah.

The controversial Stanley Fish

Watch the amazing spectacle of Stanley Fish arguing that Salman Rushdie should not be a speaker at a college commencement because he's too controversial! His NY Times blog is, of course, behind the Times' firewall, but here's the substance of his remarks. (One wonders when the Times will finally understand what a blog really is!)

Rushdie was invited to be the graduation speaker at Nova Southereastern University in Davie, Florida.
Some student members of the International Muslim Association are protesting the invitation, presumably because they agree with those who regard Mr. Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” as a blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. (It’s the Danish cartoons all over again, only this time with an additional twist provided by the literary quality of the offending document.)

Graduating senior Farheen Parvez is planning not to attend. “I was looking forward to my graduation,” she told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, but “when I found out that Salman Rushdie would be the speaker, I was appalled.”
His closing argument:
But a graduation ceremony is not a class; it is, quite precisely, a ceremony, a formal rite of passage where etiquette and ritual are more important, and more appropriate, than profundity. Inviting controversial speakers to campus is certainly a good idea, but inviting controversial speakers to give a commencement address may not be. Mr. Rushdie’s visit is trumpeted (in the college’s announcement) as the “capstone” to a series of public lectures and classroom discussions on “tolerance, acceptance and social justice.” One assumes that in the classrooms and at the public lectures, vigorous participation was encouraged, and those who disagreed with the teacher or speaker could make their disagreement known. But graduation speeches are not usually followed by question-and-answer periods or by a panel of people representing opposing views. A graduation speech is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and those who prefer to leave it must either walk out or resolve to stay home.

Ms. Parvez [one of the protesting Muslim students] had it exactly right when she said, “If he was here for any other event, that would have been fine, because that’s optional. But having him at graduation, it’s not appropriate because that’s for the families and the students.” When you’re the proud parent of a graduating son or daughter, the last thing you want to hear is something that will make you think. You want to hear something that will make you feel good. Professor Smith asserted, “The choice of Rushdie as speaker inspires questions, invites challenges and embodies larger issues… .” That’s precisely the problem.
In my experience of commencement speakers, they vary between the hopelessly banal and the irritatingly offensive. Despite that, it is certainly worthwhile to invite a speaker who will actually say something interesting and maybe even profound, even if one doesn't agree with everything he says. Are colleges and universities required to give in to the sentiments of students who are insulted on religious or political grounds? My institution of higher learning is hosting the editor of the National Review tonight. I'm sure he'll say a lot of things I don't agree with - but so what? Are we guaranteed the right not ever to be insulted by the views of others? I don't think so.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jews are the "only enemy"

According to Jamal Abu Samhadana, the new P.A. police chief, "We have only one enemy. They are Jews. We have no other enemy. I will continue to carry the rifle and pull the trigger whenever required to defend my people."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Google Earth

I was very happy to discover that Google Earth finally has a Macintosh version, and I've been happily playing with it. I first went to my favorite place - Jerusalem - and discovered that the resolution isn't very good (it's much better for Manhattan, for example). However, enterprising individuals have put a much more detailed overlay of the Old City, which makes it easier to identify individual sites in the city, for example the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Temple Mount. As I imagine many people have, I spent some time looking at lower Manhattan, at the site where the World Trade Center once stood - many people have provided overlays for the site, including a fairly detailed timeline of the September 11, 2001 attacks. I also looked at Baghdad, where some energetic soul has pinpointed the locations of many of the deaths in the Iraq War. It's really an amazing resource, as well as being quite a time-sink....

Police officer and terrorist

As Haaretz says, when a police officer is also a terrorist, it means that the new Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has now declared war on Israel. The Palestinian Interior Minister appointed a top terrorist, Abu Samhadana, as the inspector general of the Interior Ministry and commander of a new security force. I've looked on in wonder as the Hamas government has had the chutzpah to complain at not receiving aid from the U.S. or the EU, or at Israel's refusal to transfer taxes to the P.A. Actions like this by the Hamas government demonstrate how justified all three were in not continuing to fund the P.A.

A few weeks ago, a student organization on my campus organized a week of lectures and other activities around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tendency was notably critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. One day the group put up a mock section of the Israel "separation wall."

Once upon a time I opposed the separation wall, thinking that it would be unjust to the Palestinians. I still think it is unjust to the Palestinians, since it separates farmers from their fields and prevents students from attending school. The route of the fence has divided communities, when with a little consideration, it could have be rerouted to make life easier for Palestinians.

But now, with the Hamas victory, I find it increasingly hard to oppose the fence/wall. I think that Israel is justified in defending itself. The wall seems to have made it more difficult (although not impossible) for suicide bombers to reach Israel. If various groups that are so critical of Israel had a better solution to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, I would probably continue my opposition to the wall, but I haven't heard anything. (Such groups don't usually seem so concerned with the security of ordinary Israelis - for an example of this thinking, see Tony Judt's recent op-ed piece in the New York Times). At this point, I'm more interested in protecting Israelis, among them friends and relatives, than I am in supporting justice absolutely. Such are the consequences of war.