Saturday, October 12, 2019

The attempted massacre at the synagogue in Halle, Germany

I feel deeply affected by the attempted murder of Jews at prayer in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur, and by the murder of two people on the streets of Halle simply because the killer came upon them when he failed to get into the synagogue.

It's really too hard for me to articulate my feelings - they are a mixture of fear, and anger, and a feeling that the world is irrevocably broken. I don't know why this event has finally given me that feeling. So much awful has happened in the last few years - including the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year (the anniversary is coming up on October 27). But that this attempted massacre occurred in Germany, of all places, which is a flawed country but has very much engaged in remembering the Holocaust and facing up to the horrific deeds of the Nazis against Jews and other victims, is simply too much.

(For me this is coupled with Trump's decision to stab the Kurds in the back and allow the Turks to invade the Kurdish area of Syria. To betray people our soldiers fought with to defeat ISIS, the genocidaires of the Yazidis. People who fought and died for the security of the US and for their own people. I never used to think that concepts of "national honor" meant anything - but now that we've lost ours, I feel it keenly).

Friday, October 11, 2019

Jews: overlapping target of Neo-Nazi and Islamist Terrorists

For those who fool themselves into thinking that Jews in Europe are only targeted by Neo-Nazis, see Anshel Pfeffer's latest column for Haaretz:

For the Jews barricaded in a synagogue in Halle, it made no difference if the shooter was a neo-Nazi or a soldier of the Caliphate. But for the left and right in Europe, the U.S. and Israel, Jewish bodies are political capital

Oct 10, 2019 7:39 PM 
Sometimes it makes sense to go back and read Mein Kampf.... 
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler makes it clear that his particular obsession with Jews was not based on their being one of the inferior races. There were plenty of those, and the Germanic and Aryan races would fight them for domination of scarce natural resources and living-space. 
For Hitler, the Jews were a threat to the human race because they had brought to earth the notion that there was a way for humans to share the earth instead of killing each other for it. The Jews, according to Hitler, had imposed their values on the natural order and were a force working against humanity. "All world-historical events are nothing more than the expression of the self-preservation drive of the races," he wrote. "It is Jewry that always destroys this order," and "murders the future.".... 
Mein Kampf is clearly referenced in the video manifesto of the 27 year-old German man who tried to enter the Humboldt Street synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur (Wednesday) and murder the Jews praying inside. Having failed to shoot open the armored door, he fled, killing two passersby. 
"Feminism is the cause of declining birth rates in the West, which acts as a scapegoat for mass immigration, and the root of all these problems is the Jew," he declared, livestreaming himself before arriving at the synagogue. 
The chain-reaction leading from feminism, to dropping birth-rates and mass immigration to Germany, all originates from the Jew. And since mass immigration in today’s Europe is a by-word for Muslims, then we are all in the firing-line together. The ideological manifesto of the Halle shooter is virtually identical to that of the mass-murderer of Christchurch who massacred 51 Muslims at prayer in New Zealand and of the shooter who murdered eleven Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh a year ago.

The updated version of Mein Kampf’s natural order of races fighting each other, to the death, is today’s "replacement theory," the conspiracy theory popular on the far-right with echoes on the less radical but more populist right-wing, which sees the hordes of Muslim immigrants invading western countries, depopulated by plummeting birth-rates, and replacing their white Christian majority. The liberal elites responsible for welcoming these immigrants have been contaminated by the Jews and their ideas. 
Unsurprisingly, not one of the mainstream Israeli politicians releasing statements at the end of Yom Kippur about the Halle shooting could bring themselves to call the hatred by its name. How could they? 
Their ideological allies, from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Viktor Orban in Hungary, regularly spout watered-down versions of the "replacement" theory. As do those very same Israeli politicians, when they talk of Israel’s own Muslim communities and the African asylum seekers who have found shelter here.... 

In the last eight years, all the Jews murdered in Europe for being Jews, were killed by Muslims. Because they represented something to them too. 

It’s not that the left is much better. Statements from left-wing politicians and commentators about how Jews and Muslims are now both targets of the far-right are just a bit too convenient. They obscure the fact that in the last eight years, all the Jews murdered in Europe for being Jews, were killed by Muslims. Because they represented something to them as well. 
If the attacker on Yom Kippur had successfully broken down the door, then we would have more dead Jews in Halle to add to the twelve murdered over the past year by white supremacists in Pittsburgh and Poway. But the interesting thing with left-wing condemnations is that they tend to be much more eloquent when the perpetrator is white and comes from the far-right. 
Because a dead Jew is never just a dead Jew, it depends who killed the Jew. 

The left has long categorized Jews as being white and therefore privileged oppressors. We lose our privileged status only when the shooter is from the right. 

Anti-Semitism is binary, just not in the way that word is usually used in these situations. The left has long categorized Jews as being white and therefore privileged oppressors. We lose our privileged status only when the shooter is from the right, and proposes, as the Halle shooter did, to "kill as many anti-whites as possible, Jews preferred." 
In the 20th century our parents and grandparents were killed for being both rapacious capitalists and godless communists. In this century we are killed for both encouraging Muslims to emigrate to the Christian West and for being the vanguard of the imperialist Christian West dispossessing Muslims in the Middle East. Either way we are the targets. 
Facing the far-right, both Muslims and Jews are targets. And in the wave of Islamist attacks in recent years, Jews weren’t the only targets either. There were plenty of non-Jewish targets, including satirical cartoonists and pop concert-goers and people eating at restaurants and many bystanders. 

In the Venn diagram of Islamist and Neo-Nazi terror, Jews are the only overlapping target. 

But in the Venn diagram of these two waves of terror, Islamist and neo-Nazi, Jews are the only targets who overlap in the crosshairs of both sets of attackers. 
The man and woman murdered on Wednesday have yet to be identified as of time of writing and when their names are released, will remain significant only to their families and friends. Not being Jewish, their deaths are not politicized. 
For the 80 Jews in Halle, praying on Yom Kippur that the shooter would not break in, they had no idea if he was a neo-Nazi or a soldier of the Caliphate. 
And if those had been their last moments alive, they would not have known how their deaths would be exploited by the politicians, framed by the media, and claimed by Israel - or by multi-cultural Europe.

Miko Peled, who appeared in Ithaca in 2016, now speaking to neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers in Britain

I wonder if it's occurred to the people who organized Miko Peled's talk in Ithaca in 2016 to feel a bit of shame in retrospect, considering that he's now appearing at venues in Britain organized by open neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers? 

Peled is the son of an Israeli general who has decided that Israel is entirely responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He spoke here on November 2, 2016, after giving a talk in Syracuse on September 16 to the Syracuse Peace Council. The Ithaca sponsors were a parade of the local leftist great and good:  Ithaca Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Citizens for Justice in Palestine, Episcopal Peace Fellowship's Palestine/Israel Network, Veterans for Peace, Ithaca Catholic Workers, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Multicultural Resource Center. He spoke at GIAC - the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.

See William Jacobson's report on his visit to Ithaca -

What's he been up to since then?

He just spoke at a church in Soho, as reported by David Collier - and It turns out his talk was sponsored by a group called "Keep Talking," which was founded by a 9-11 Truther named Ian Fantom and a Holocaust denier named Nick Kellerstrom. Other antisemites also attended the meeting, among them Alison Chabloz, who has been convicted and jailed for Holocaust denial (illegal in Britain), and Stephen Sizer, the Anglican vicar who also blames Israel for everything and has cosied up with the Iranian regime.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for his local fans to apologize for bringing him here. Much of his antisemitic reputation was already known at the time he came to Ithaca, and it didn't stop any of them from bringing him. A pity.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Progressive Israel Network Opposes Netanyahu’s Annexation Pledge

Statement by network of (mostly) American Jewish Zionist organizations against the annexation of the West Bank.

September 10th, 2019

Progressive Israel Network Opposes Netanyahu’s Annexation Pledge

Responding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of his intent to extend Israeli sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank, the Progressive Israel Network released the following statement:

A democratic and peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians requires national self-determination for both peoples. Any step to unilaterally impose Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian people and territory in the West Bank is a step away from the two-state vision and toward the formalization of two separate and unequal legal systems. Both Israelis and Palestinians want and deserve to live in peace, with justice and dignity. Israelis deserve to live in a healthy and vibrant democracy. Palestinians deserve to live free from occupation.

Netanyahu’s suggested move would entrench Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank. It harms millions of Palestinians living under occupation and poses an existential threat to Israeli democracy. Israeli democracy cannot endure without putting an end to the 52-year occupation.

Our vision for Israel and its relationship with the U.S. includes:

* A strong and democratic Israel that ends its 52-year occupation and that provides for all its citizens justice, dignity and equal rights. An Israel that seeks peace, rather than entrenching occupation and inequality.

* Strong US leadership towards a two-state solution, which opposes unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

* A US-Israel relationship that reinforces our countries’ shared democratic values and institutions.


The Progressive Israel Network is a coalition of the ten leading organizations representing Americans committed to pursuing democracy, equality in Israel and to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The coalition speaks with a unified voice in support of democracy and equal rights, religious freedom and pluralism, and a two-state solution. The network’s founding members areAmeinu, Americans for Peace Now, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair, The Jewish Labor Committee, J Street, The New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel, Reconstructing Judaism, and T’ruah. This statement is further joined by the National Council of Jewish Women.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Valerie Plame and antisemitism

Valerie Plame is running for Congress for the third district of New Mexico. Yair Rosenberg writes about her: "Many know Plame as a former CIA officer who rose to anti-war fame in 2003. (Her cover was blown after her then-husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, publicly questioned the U.S. rationale for going to war in Iraq.)" 

She's recently posted a video pushing her candidacy, and some of my friends have been wowed by her.

A couple of years ago, however, Plame was discovered to have published tweets with blatantly antisemitic content. The Forward reported on this earlier this year:
One early obstacle for Plame Wilson, should she choose to run, is an anti-Semitism controversy: She was criticized in September 2017 for tweeting links to anti-Semitic articles, including a column titled “American Jews Are Driving America’s Wars” and another called “The Dancing Israelis” that insinuated the Mossad was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Plame at first defended her sharing of the “Jews drive wars” article, arguing, “many neocon hawks ARE Jewish.” [Links to both articles are below].
Here are the two tweets that were discovered, one from 2015 and one from 2017:

After her tweets were discovered, she apologized:
(JTA) — Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson resigned from the board of the Ploughshares Fund days after she retweeted an article accusing American Jews of pushing the U.S. into a war with Iran. 
Wilson, who[se] paternal grandfather was Jewish, made the announcement on Sunday in a series of tweets. “Actions have consequences, and while I have been honored to serve on the board of the Ploughshares Fund…to avoid detracting from their mission, I have resigned,” Wilson said in consecutive tweets. “I take full responsibility for my thoughtless and hurtful actions, and there are no excuses for what I did.” 
She also tweeted that she was “horrified and ashamed” for retweeting articles from the Unz Review website “without closely examining content and authors.” 
The article, titled “America's Jews Are Driving America’s Wars,” included several anti-Semitic tropes including that American Jews are guilty of dual loyalty to Israel, and that Jews control the media, the entertainment industry and politics. 
Ploughshares Fund, where Wilson has served as a board member, issued a statement condemning Wilson’s original tweet of the article. Ploughshares works to reduce nuclear threats and to prevent a new arms race.
Yair Rosenberg's comments are apposite here:
At the time, Plame defended her tweet, calling the article “provocative, but thoughtful.” She later apologized, claiming that she hadn’t read the piece whose contents she’d just been defending. Of course, given that the headline—which she tweeted—was “America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars,” this was not a very convincing excuse. Moreover, as the indefatigable journalist Yashar Ali quickly uncovered, this was not the first time Plame had shared anti-Semitic material. In another instance, she had promoted the notorious conspiracy theory that a group of Israelis celebrated while 9/11 transpired (a canard that candidate Donald Trump later revived and applied to Muslims). [I added the link to the "America's Jews are Driving America's Wars" article].
She linked to the first article named in Rosenberg's article on September 21, 2017 - that's the one that forced her to resign from the board of Ploughshares and delete her Twitter account. The second one, about 9/11, was from 2015.

Both of these articles were published in the Unz Review, which is published by Ron Unz. It's clear that she didn't suddenly discovered this "news" source in September, 2017, since she also tweeted the article about the conspiracy that five Israelis in New York celebrated the 9/11 attacks (link to this article -

Both articles were written by Philip Geraldi, a prolific contributor to the Unz Review, and an obvious antisemite and Holocaust denier. Here's a sample of his Holocaust denial:
The imposed holocaust narrative is full of holes and contradictions in terms of who was killed and how, but it is impossible for genuine academics to critique it if they want to stay employed. Books like Wiesel’s “Night” are largely works of fiction. The narrative exists to perpetuate the belief in Jewish suffering, which brings with it a number of practical advantages....
Third, holocaust guilt is used in the United States to counter any criticism of what Israel and Jewish groups are up to, as they use their wealth and access to power to corrupt America’s institutions and drive the country to needless wars. One might well ask, when confronted by the taxpayer funded holocaust museums that appear to spring up like mushrooms, why so much interest in a possible crime that has nothing to do with the United States? 
Why was Valerie Plame reading and posting articles by Philip Geraldi? His antisemitism is hardly hidden in these articles. I don't believe her apology that she hadn't "closely examined content and authors" - something obviously drew her to Geraldi's articles, and to the Unz Review itself. Why was someone who claims to be a progressive even reading the Unz Review? It's not a progressive publication. Plame may have a Jewish grandfather, but that doesn't seem to have sensitized her to the existence of antisemitism. If I lived in New Mexico, I wouldn't vote for her - and I'm certainly not giving her any money.

Monday, September 09, 2019

In memory of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto - the fighters and martyrs

Ghetto Wall in 1943
The Ghetto was cut off from the rest of Warsaw on November 16, 1940.
Approximately 360,000 Warsaw Jews and 90,000 Jews from other towns
lived in an area of 759 acres. Nearly 100,000 died of starvation.
Beginning in May 1942 and extending through the summer, about
300,000 Jews were deported to the Treblinka death camp, where they
were murdered. On April 19, 1943, the uprising against the Nazis
began, and lasted through May.
Model of the Ghetto, showing the large and small ghettos in 1943

Memorial for the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto
"The people of Israel - for its fighters and martyrs"
(In Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish)

The martyrs of the Ghetto, on their way to death
(on the other side of the memorial)
April 19, 1946 (third anniversary of the beginning of the Ghetto uprising)
To the heroes who fell victim in their tremendous war for the honor and freedom of the Hebrew people, for the liberation of Poland, and for the redemption of humanity.
Remnants of the Jews of Poland.
(in Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Cats at the Hebrew University

"Nippur, the lead goat of the land": home to many Aramaic incantation bowls

I'm reading an article about metaphors in the Sumerian language in The Ancient Near East Today, published by ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), using the metaphor theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. 

One of the metaphors that is frequently used in Sumerian is the word "goat"(maš[2]) for leadership. From this concept is derived the "conceptual metaphor" that "CITES ARE ANIMALS," which is found in an inscription about the city of Nippur: "Nippur: the lead goat of the Land.” Why was it the "lead goat of the land"? I will answer this question, but first must make an excursus into the Aramaic incantation bowls found in Nippur.

This summer I wrote a paper on Babylonian incantation bowls, many of which were found in the ancient city of Nippur when archaeological excavations began there in the late 19th century.

This bowl was published by James Montgomery in his Aramaic Incantation Texts (1913), which includes 41 bowls written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Syriac, and Mandaic (three different dialects of Aramaic). This bowl #2, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, is for Pabak the son of Kufithai, Abuna the son of Geribta, and Ibba the son of Zawithai, to protect them and their families from "evil fiends and bitter adversaries," and "demons, devils, tormentors, gods and female goddesses." (If you want to read the book yourself, it's available in full text on Google Books). 

This map shows where Nippur was located in southern Mesopotamia.

This map below shows important locations in Nippur and areas that were excavated.

Both of these maps are from an article on the website of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Nippur - Sacred City Of Enlil, by McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute.

According to Gibson, "Nippur was one of the longest-lived sites, beginning in the prehistoric Ubaid period (c. 5000 B. C. ) and lasting until about A. D. 800, in the Islamic era (Gibson 1992)." It was a sacred city, devoted to Enlil. He writes:
The strength of Mesopotamian religious tradition, which gave Nippur its longevity, can be illustrated best by evidence from the excavation of the temple of Inanna, goddess of love and war. Beginning at least as early as the Jemdet Nasr Period (c. 3200 B.C.), the temple continued to flourish as late as the Parthian Period (c. A.D. 100), long after Babylonia had ceased to exist as an independent state and had been incorporated into larger cultures with different religious systems (Persian, Seleucid, and Parthian empires). The choice of Nippur as the seat of one of the few early Christian bishops, lasting until the city's final abandonment around A.D. 800, was probably an echo of its place at the center of Mesopotamian religion. In the Sasanian Period, 4th to 7th Centuries, A.D., most of the major features of Mesopotamian cultural tradition ceased, but certain aspects of Mesopotamian architectural techniques, craft manufacture, iconography, astrology, traditional medicine, and even some oral tradition survived, and can be traced even today not just in modern Iraq but in a much wider area.
 Gibson writes about the excavations of Nippur:
Nippur has been the focus of major excavation since 1889 when the University of Pennsylvania opened the first American expedition in the Middle East. Finding the site a rich source for cuneiform tablets, that expedition continued to excavate at Nippur until 1900 [Hilprecht 1903; Peters 1897]. The main achievements of the expedition were to locate the ziggurat and temple of Enlil and to recover more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets of extraordinary literary, historical, grammatical, and economic importance. More than 80% of all known Sumerian literary compositions have been found at Nippur. Included were the earliest recognized versions of the Flood Story, parts of the Gilgamesh Epic, and dozens of other compositions. It was these Sumerian works, plus an invaluable group of lexical texts and bilingual (Sumerian/Akkadian) documents that allowed scholars to make real progress in deciphering and understanding Sumerian. As important in historical terms are royal inscriptions from all periods, especially those of the Kassite Dynasty which ruled Mesopotamia from about 1600 to 1225 B. C. More than 80% of our knowledge of this dynasty has come from Nippur texts. In a special category of Nippur texts are the business archives of the Murashu family, merchant bankers who controlled vast commercial and agricultural interests under the Achaemenid Persian kings (c. 500 B.C.) [Stolper 1985].
Gibson's article doesn't mention the incantation bowls, except obliquely, because he focuses on the earlier periods. The bowls are dated to the late Sasanian/early Islamic period (roughly the 5th-8th centuries CE), the last periods of habitation of Nippur.

Erica C. D. Hunter has published a number of articles on the incantation bowls, in particular on those discovered in the most recent Oriental Institute excavations (the last of which was in 1990; they stopped with the Gulf War of 1991). In one article she writes:
Recent archaeological evidence has shed further light onto the Aramaic-speaking communities of Sasanid Mesopotamia. Recent excavations at Nippur of Area WG - adjoining the Jewish settlement dug a century earlier and from which Montgomery published his forty specimens - revealed in the seventh-century Level III five downturned incantation bowls. These were randomly buried in a courtyard which also featured an oven. Three of the specimens were written in Aramaic and two in Mandaic, the latter pair being for brothers.... The placement of the Aramaic and Mandaic incantation bowls strongly suggests that two families, one possibly Jewish and the other Mandaean, shared adjacent domestic quarters.
The article is "Aramaic-Speaking Communities of Sasanid Mesopotamia," Aram 7 (1995): 319-335, and the quotation is from pp. 332-32, published on p. 129 of Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests: The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran, by Jason Sion Mokhtarian (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

Back to the more ancient Nippur. The quotation that I began with is from an ancient inscription of king Ur-Ninurta, who reigned circa 1859 – 1832 BCE.  The inscription refers to the king making a copper image (with the king's face), which is holding a votive goat-kid, and it also employs the word "goat" to refer metaphorically to a leader.

The inscription is number Ur-Ninurta E4.1.6.2, and it's found in Douglas Frayne, The Old Babylonian Period (2003-1595 BC) (The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia / Early Periods / Volume 4; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), pp. 66-68.

A copy of an inscription of Ur-Ninurta on a tablet excavated at Nippur deals with the setting up, in the courtyard of Ninlil's Gagiššua temple, of an image of the king holding an offering of a votive goat (máš-kadra).
This is part of the inscription:
ii 6'-150 for the great mother of the Anuna gods,  the lady of the Kiur [...], in order to choose the mes of the Ekur, the supreme shrine, [in order] to purify the cleansing rites of shrine Nippur, the bon[d of heaven and earth, in order] to make the neg[lected] rites appear magnificently, [in order] to restore Nippur, the lea[d] goat [of the nation],

ii 16-210 it was Ur-Ninurta, who devoted himself to the Ekur, upon whom the god Enlil, king of the foreign lands, look[ed] am[ong] the broad, numerous people and truly [chose].
vi r-30 (I, Ur-Ninurta)..., (for) the gods An, Enlil, (and) Ninlil removed evil from ...

vi 4-50 and set up for them a ... (in) the shining [E]kur, (in) the ... city

vi 6'-120 I fashioned (for Ninlil) a [copper] image, whose form was endowed with my face, clasping a votive kid, standing to make supplications for me, an ornament of the main courtyard of the Gagiššua (temple).

vi 13'-140 1 dedicated it to her for my own life.

vi 15-180 (As for) the man who gives orders to  do evil against it, who [destroys m]y [handi]work
edge 1-6) ... the supreme ... of the god Enlil, may the ... which proclaims his name be revoked from  the [Ek]ur. M [ay the god N]inurta, the mighty champion of the god Enlil, forever b[e] its (the  curse's) evil spirit who cannot be countermanded.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Cat in my lap at "La Vie En Rose" Gallery in Jerusalem

Today I visited a lovely little art gallery in Arnona, Jerusalem, with a friend - La Vie en Rose. It's owned by Steve Selig, who is transitioning from running a picture-framing business to organizing art exhibitions and hosting artistic events at the gallery. This little kitty showed up to greet us.

Reed House in Jerusalem

At the end of the street I'm staying on in Israel, there's a house that's almost entirely surrounded by tall reeds. They've turned golden brown in the summer heat.

I'm reminded of a passage from the Gilgamesh flood story. This story appears in the book of Gilgamesh, although it didn't originate there - it's an independent story. Gilgamesh has gone to Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah figure who survived the great flood with his wife, and to whom the gods gave immortality.

The gods had decided to destroy humanity, because we were very noisy and disturbed their sleep. The "great gods" - Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennuge [his name means "inspector of canals"] - had made the decision. Another god, Ninigiku-Ea, was "present with them," and was disturbed by this decision, he decided to warn Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim said to Gilgamesh:
"I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a hidden matter
And a secret of the gods I will tell you:
Shuruppak - a city which you know,
And which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates -
That city was ancient, (as were) the gods within it,
When their hearts led the great gods to produce the flood."
Ea told Utnapishtim:
"Their words he repeats to the reed-hut:
'Reed-hut, reed-hut! Wall, wall!
Reed-hut, hearken! Wall, reflect!
Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubar-Tutu,
Tear down (this) house, build a ship!
Give up possessions, seek life!
Forswear (worldly) goods and keep the soul alive!
Aboard the ship take the seed of all living things.'"
Source: Tablet XI of Gilgamesh, published in Pritchard, ANET, p. 93.

Reconstructed wooden synagogue from Gwoździec, Poland

None of the 16th-17th century wooden synagogues of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth survive today. Those that survived wars and fires were finally destroyed by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland. But part of one of them has been reconstructed - the bimah and the gorgeously multicolored ceiling of the synagogue in Gwoździec, Poland. It forms the centerpiece of the Polin Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw. From the website of the museum:
Wooden synagogues were common in the 16th and 17th century because of the accessibility and low cost of the raw material. 
They were built by local craftsmen, not necessarily Jews, inspired by manors and rich bourgeois mansions. High-pitched synagogue roofs dominated the surroundings. Underneath there was the praying hall, corridor and increasingly large women’s section. The synagogue in Gwoździec, humble on the outside, hid extraordinary riches inside. 
The wooden building, erected most probably in 1640, was 15 meters high. During its existence it underwent numerous modifications. For example, the southwest  brick wing was added later to be used as a children’s study room (kheder) and a heated praying place during winter. The main hall reserved for men was an octagonal copula decorated with fabulous biblical paintings. The women’s section was located in the north and south part of the synagogue and on the gallery above the entrance hall. The synagogue was famous for its polychromes covering the ceiling and the walls, interlaced with biblical verses, proverbs and anagrams. One of the synagogue creators was Mordekhai Lissnitzki of Jaryzow. The paintings were restored by Izhak ben Yehuda of Jaryzow in 1729.
The bimah.

One of the painted sides of the bimah.

Looking through the top of the bimah towards the paintings on the ceiling.

Faun and flora painted on the vault - notice the turkey!

Psalm-prayer medallion on the ceiling, above a fish surrounding a town.

On the other side of the vault.

Excerpt from the Torah that is chanted before the Torah reading, above a painting of an elephant carrying a house!

The ceiling area that would have been above the Ark, with the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The double-headed eagle of the Russian Empire (I think).

Sunday, August 18, 2019

"Blue-White Party"

I'm in Israel for a couple of weeks, and there's another election coming up. There was one earlier this year, but Bibi was unable to form a government, so another election was called. This is a sign for the "Blue-White Party," named after the colors of the Israeli flag.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Visiting Jewish Warsaw - the remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto wall

I've been in Warsaw since last Friday. I came for the annual meeting of the European Association for Biblical Studies, where I gave a paper on the Aramaic incantation bowls. Before the conference started, I hired a guide who took me to visit locations in the area where the Warsaw Ghetto existed during the German occupation. She brought me to several places where small parts of the wall that enclosed the ghetto still remain, and we also went to the site of the only synagogue that survived the Nazi occupation (it's been restored and still functions as an Orthodox synagogue). We also saw the Jewish Historical Institute (although we couldn't go inside, because it was closed for Shabbat), and went to the Polin Museum for the history of Polish Jewry. Outside the museum is the famous memorial to the Ghetto Fighters - the museum was deliberately built across from the memorial, and its shape reflects form of the statue. The museum is amazingly well done. Today is my last full day in Warsaw - I'm flying to Israel tomorrow - and I spent the entire afternoon in the museum, and still didn't see everything I wanted to see.

A small memorial to those who died in the Ghetto - notice the stones that were left, according to Jewish mourning customs, both on the planter and in the places where bricks were taken out.

The map above shows the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto on November 15, 1940, when the Jews were no longer permitted to leave.. There were two sections of the Ghetto, separated by a street that non-Jews (but not Jews) were permitted to walk on. Eventually a bridge was built across this street so that Jews could walk from one section of the Ghetto to the other.

The plague on the top left reads (according to Google Translate): "Ghetto enclave. Place dedicated to the memory of Jews, martyred and murdered in 1940-1943 by the German occupier." The top middle plaque reads "In the period November 15, 1940 to November 20, 1941, this wall was the border of the ghetto." The bottom plaque repeats the information on the top middle plaque, in English and Hebrew, and says, "This plaque was affixed by the President of the State of Israel Chaim Herzog during his State Visit to Poland," on May 26, 1992.

The small plaque is dedicated to a Polish man who preserved this building as a memorial of the Ghetto. The space where a brick was taken out mentions Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

This section of the wall goes between two post-war buildings.

This part of the wall was reconstructed. The top bricks are from the original wall - they're less even, and some of them were scorched by the fire. The top plaque reads: "During the period November 15, 1940 to November 20, 1941, this wall was the border of the ghetto. The smaller hexagonal plaque on the left is from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This is one of of the original bricks - you can see how uneven and pockmarked it is.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Normalizing antisemitism in American life

Today was a pretty good day for me personally, but a rotten day for me as a Jew in America.

Three reasons:

1) The attack on the Chabad synagogue today, in Poway, California, by a murderous white nationalist who spewed the same ideology as the murderer of 50 Muslims in New Zealand a month ago. He also claims to have committed arson at a California mosque, so he is clearly a hater of anyone he thinks threatens white supremacy. If you look at his manifesto (not something I recommend if you'd like to be cheerful the rest of the day), you'll see that he espouses the Nazi ideology that blames Jews for all the ills of the world, including immigration by brown people to the United States (legal or undocumented); he's very much like the man who attacked the Pittsburgh synagogue exactly six months ago, who was motivated by the fantastical belief that Jews are responsible for migrants from central American (and other parts of the world) seeking asylum in the US. His manifesto is also full of hate for African Americans and Arabs (not going to repeat the slurs he uses).

2) Learning about the antisemitic cartoon published on Thursday in the international edition of the New York Times. Of the New York Times! Have they fired all their editors? Or decided to hire only antisemitic ones? How did this cartoon even get printed?

The cartoon shows a blind Donald Trump, wearing thick eyeglasses (with black lenses), wearing a black yarmulke, with Benjamin Netanyahu as his seeing-eye dog, with a blue star of David around his neck - with the obvious message that Bibi the Jew controls Trump. I think the yarmulke on Trump's head is meant to convey the idea that he has surrendered to the Jews and even identifies with them. Or perhaps it's meant to refer to the fact that his daughter Ivanka is Jewish and that he has Jewish grandchildren - in any case, it's antisemitic.

As the following commenter responds on Twitter:

The same commenter also wrote, "The cartoon doesn't even have anything to do with the article below. It's as if the editors went, "interesting article, but we need more anti Semitism."

How did the Times respond?

Not an apology, or even a statement of "regret" - just an "error of judgement." Whose error of judgement? Who drew this cartoon, and which editor approved its placement in the international edition? At least the statement acknowledges that the cartoon "included anti-Semitic tropes." I will be interested to read what Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens have to say about the cartoon, since they are both eager to decry antisemitism when it occurs in other places.

3) There is a Facebook page called "Rise Up Ocean County," set up by someone who is upset that ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in Lakewood, New Jersey, are moving out of Lakewood and buying houses in nearby towns (because the population of Lakewood is growing quickly and people are seeking somewhat less expensive housing). About 11,000 follow the page, and there are posts both by the admin and by followers. Some are about real issues of overdevelopment, but there are frequent antisemitic posts and comments.

The admin of the page posted earlier today about the antisemitic cartoon in the Times.

A number of people in the subsequent comment thread wrote that they did think the cartoon was in bad taste or antisemitic, but there were a number of antisemitic remarks.

One woman wrote, "Antisemitic and in poor taste," to which the page admin replied, "Help me here. How is that anti Semitic?"

Another response was an antisemitic cartoon:

Just browsing quickly, I found a couple of other antisemitic posts by followers of the page (names of the posters not included - my purpose is not to target any individual, but to indicate that this page has no trouble publishing obvious antisemitism while claiming really to be concerned about overdevelopment and corruption).

Another post was a complaint about ultra-Orthodox Jews going to nearby beaches. Complaining about people littering on beaches is not antisemitic. But calling them "gods chosen people" is.

A couple of years ago published a series about Lakewood and issues with housing, overdevelopment, busing of Orthodox students to private Jewish schools, and corruption - without stooping to the antisemitism frequently found in this Facebook group. For the first article, and links to subsequent ones, go to

What are the lessons to learn from this evidence of antisemitism in a variety of American venues: 1) at this moment, the most violent and dangerous form of antisemitism is to be found among white nationalists; but 2) antisemitism is not restricted to people on the extreme right, although that may be the most murderous version of it; 3) even well-respected American institutions like the New York Times can be blind to the very antisemitic tropes that they publish; 4) ordinary Americans who don't belong to the white nationalist right or the anti-Zionist far left are also prey to antisemitic stereotypes, and employ them when encountering visible Jews doing things they don't like.

White nationalist terrorism is obviously the most immediate threat to Jews - we've now had two murderous attacks in six months. How many other killers are now planning to attack synagogues or other Jewish places? These killers are part of the same racist white nationalist movement that attacks LGBT people, Muslims, Sikhs, African American churches, and Latinx people, and it offers distinctive threats to members of each group. The killer in Poway hated many of these groups, and claims to have attacked a mosque as well as the synagogue. 

The kind of antisemitism espoused by the Times cartoon could come from either the right or the left, and belongs to the conspiratorial antisemitism that believes "the Jews" run the world and are responsible for everything evil in the world. It's also dangerous, because it underlies murderous white nationalist antisemitism (as well as far left antisemitism that blames Jews and Israel as "imperialists" in league with the US and other western powers).

The antisemitism displayed in Rise Up Ocean County seems to be composed of various stereotypes of ultra-Orthodox Jews combined with classic denunciations of Jews being clannish and sticking with their own exclusively, as well as bitter remarks about how rich they must also be, and snide antisemitic remarks like the one about the "chosen people." In my opinion, this is the kind of antisemitism that is more likely to result in Jews being discriminated against in housing or employment, not in violent reactions (but I could be wrong - there have been a number of anti-Jewish hate crimes reported in Lakewood). There is a real conflict going on over scarce resources - housing and tax dollars - but some people express this in antisemitic terms.

It's exhausting to have to deal with all of this, and I'm quite apprehensive about the future in America.

Some additional articles on the New York Times cartoon:

Apology from New York Times Opinion:

Criticism from CNN's Brian Stelter:

NYT staffers are alarmed and dismayed by this anti-Semitic cartoon AND by the paper's initial response. 
It started on Thursday when print editions of the international edition of The New York Times ran an anti-Semitic cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a dog on a leash held by a blind POTUS. Most US staffers knew nothing about it until they read about this editor's note on Saturday. The note admitted that the cartoon was an "error in judgment," but didn't go into any detail about what went wrong. Some news outlets inaccurately called the note an "apology," which it wasn't, which led people to wonder why the NYT hadn't actually apologized. 
Jake Tapper commented on Sunday morning that the cartoon "could just have easily appeared in ISIS or neo-Nazi propaganda." 
Per three plugged-in sources at the NYT, staffers were alarmed to see the image in the first place -- and dismayed that the initial response was so feeble. They told me that they wanted a more detailed explanation... 
Awaiting more info... 
After a barrage of criticism,The Times issued a statement on Sunday afternoon saying "we are deeply sorry" for the cartoon, and "we are committed to making sure nothing like this happens again."
The NYT said the decision to run the syndicated cartoon was made by a single editor working without adequate oversight. "The matter remains under review, and we are evaluating our internal processes and training," the statement said. "We anticipate significant changes."
The paper is out with its own news story about the situation... And Bret Stephens, one of the paper's op-ed columnists, has a clear-eyed column titled "A Despicable Cartoon in The Times."
Stephens said he is certain that the Times is not guilty of institutional anti-Semitism, but he said the cartoon was a sign of the Times' ongoing criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government. Here is his column... And our news story...

See also:

New York Times article about the cartoon: