Monday, December 20, 2021


From the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), which is part of the Third Narrative, a project of Ameinu (left-wing Zionist organization that supports a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and works for social justice in the United States and Israel). I'm on the executive committee of the AAF, and this is a joint statement between the AAF and some members of the Middle East Studies Association, opposing an upcoming BDS resolution now being submitted for a vote by all members of MESA. I urge any of my readers who are members of MESA to vote no on the resolution.

We write as members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) alongside the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), a group of more than 200 liberal and progressive scholars committed to upholding academic freedom and free speech in campus debates surrounding Israel and Palestine, supportive of both peoples’ national aspirations, and opposed to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. We deplore the vote by the 2021 annual MESA meeting that calls on its members to endorse a comprehensive academic boycott of Israeli universities. The resolution has been submitted to all MESA members for a vote. MESA represents faculty who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa.

With this action, MESA decisively overturns the very guiding principle of academic freedom it previous sought to uphold. In 2005 it made that commitment explicit in much the same political context. That year MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom condemned the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) call for its members to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation or joint projects” with Haifa University or Bar Ilan University in Israel. It did so, it said, because of its “deep commitment” to “the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas,” principles no less vital today than they were in 2005. That was the year as well that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) drafted its formal policy opposing all academic boycotts.

There has long been agreement by most academics, including many who criticize Israeli government policy, and even some who sees themselves as anti-Zionists, that boycotts of universities anywhere imperil the core principle of academic freedom, which mandates that free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide are essential to the unfettered advancement of knowledge and to the viability of higher education. Ideas do not respect international borders; their merit is not determined by national identity.

MESA repeats the false claim by the BDS movement that it is possible to boycott academic institutions without also boycotting the students, staff, and faculty who constitute those institutions. Yet international research collaborations, international conferences, study abroad programs, and peer review of publications and appointments are just a few among the many activities that inevitably entail international cooperation among individuals and institutions. Some faculty refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to study in Israel. The idea that people can be cleanly separated from their colleges and universities and harm restricted to the institutions alone is a damaging and deceptive fiction. All the activities listed here, moreover, are themselves protected by academic freedom. Either that principle stands and is universally honored or it ceases to be the governing principle of higher education worldwide. We must continue to condemn failures to uphold that most basic value. And thus we condemn the MESA resolution that abridges it. In 2005 MESA regarded the AUT boycott as an effort at once “to boycott these universities and blacklist their faculty.”

The current resolution asserts that Israeli universities are “imbricated” in the country’s military policies and practices and considers that justification for boycotting them. But academic freedom gives both individual faculty members and groups of faculty the right to engage in military research or research with military applications if they choose to do so. People in military service in many countries take college courses during and after their military service That is true for both Israel and the United States.

In 2005 MESA said “we especially oppose penalizing entire segments of an academic community for any reason whatsoever. We find thoroughly objectionable the call of the AUT to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated.” MESA has thus already provided excellent arguments in opposition to its present proposal. Moreover, at that time MESA was honest about the impact of academic boycotts. That honesty is now in danger as well.

Signed by the Executive Committee of the AAF alongside a group of MESA members: Susana Cavallo (AAF), Donna Robinson Divine (MESA), Robert Freedman (MESA), David Greenberg (AAF), Bat-Zion Klorman-Eraqi (MESA), Rebecca Lesses (AAF), Jeffry Mallow (AAF), Sharon Musher (AAF), Cary Nelson (AAF, chair), Itamar Radai (MESA), Arieh Saposnik (MESA), Kenneth Stern (AAF)

About the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF)
The AAF, part of The Third Narrative initiative, consists of liberal and progressive scholars dedicated to combating academic boycotts and blacklists, defending freedom of expression and promoting empathy in the debate over Israelis and Palestinians. For the AAF’s statement of principles, click here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Arrest of student at Texas State University accused of arson at Austin, TX, synagogue

 Texas State student faces federal charges after allegedly setting fire to Austin synagogue

A Texas State student was federally charged with arson after allegedly setting an intentional fire at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Austin, according to U.S. District Court records.

Austin Fire Department Arson investigators deemed the fire was intentionally set around 9 p.m. on Oct. 31. Franklin Barrett Sechriest, the 18-year-old charged with the crime, is a criminal justice freshman at Texas State.

The FBI was authorized to search and seizure Sechriest's San Marcos residence and vehicle on Nov. 10. The report states investigators found a credit card with the same account number as a card used at a sporting goods store in Buda, Texas to purchase a five-gallon VP Racing Fuel utility jug. 

After searching the vehicle, investigators say they recovered three glass bottles, three bottles of lighter fluid, a lighter and an orange stormproof match case with matches. Investigators also found three anti-Semitic stickers in the vehicle.

Sechriest's journal was also found with a statement “I set a synagogue on fire” under an entry dated Oct. 31, 2021.

Investigators identified burn patterns consistent with the use of a liquid accelerant. Surveillance footage overlooking the synagogue's administration office reveals Sechriest wearing a face covering and carrying a container similar to a five-gallon VP Racing Fuel utility jug and a roll of toilet paper, according to court records.

That same Halloween weekend, residents throughout Hays County reported receiving anti-Semitic letters in plastic bags with pebbles. Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra issued a series of tweets condemning the letters and said the behavior was not acceptable.

In a statement to The University Star, Texas State said it will continue to assist the FBI and Austin Fire Department in the ongoing investigation involving Sechriest. 

"Our university decries this hateful act of bigotry and violence and all the anti-Semitic events perpetrated recently in Austin, San Antonio, and San Marcos. The Texas State University community stands in solidarity with our Jewish students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who have been impacted," Texas State said in its statement.

Investigators say the fire caused $25,000 worth of damages to the synagogue. The fire destroyed the synagogue's historic doors and caused damage to the building's exterior along with its stained-glass windows. No one was injured from the fire. 

In a public statement, Congregation Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Steve Folberg said the synagogue is grateful to the Austin Fire Department, Austin Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for investigating the incident. 

“It gives us some sense of relief to learn of this arrest, but we are staying vigilant. Across Central Texas and beyond, we are seeing a spike in attacks against Jews," Folberg said. "We denounce all acts of bigotry and violence, especially those motivated by blind hatred of any of the proud and distinctive communities that enrich our civic life. We will remain strong and vigilant in the ongoing work of justice, safety and peace for ourselves and all our neighbors." 

The Congregation Beth Israel is accepting donations to assist with the damages. For more information visit its website

I wonder if this student also sent the antisemitic letters to Jews in the area. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Jewish residents in Austin, TX sent antisemitic letters blaming them for Covid

A new example of antisemitism connected to Covid, in Austin, Texas:

Jewish residents in an Austin neighborhood were sent antisemitic letters blaming them for Covid

A string of antisemitic attacks has taken place over the last few days across Texas and in Austin. In the latest incident, several people in an Austin neighborhood received hateful letters at their homes. The letters received by Jewish residents in Hays County were sealed in a plastic bag filled with small rocks, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said Sunday, according to the Austin American-Statesman.  

The letters blamed Jewish community members for the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Every single aspect of the COVID agenda is Jewish,” the letters read. They also named Jewish scientists and pointed fingers at leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that are Jewish.

“Negative actions motivated in bias is an attack against an entire community and not just an attack on a single person,” Becerra wrote on Twitter. “This behavior is not acceptable.”

According to the Austin American-Statesman, Chabad of San Marcos, the only Jewish center in the county, offered guidance and support to members who were targeted.  


After receiving multiple calls from people who were upset regarding the incident, Rabbi Ari Weingarten said he is working with community leaders to “heal spirits” and remind them that “unity is key.” Since the eight nights of  Hanukkah begin Nov. 28, community menorah lighting events have been scheduled. “The message of Hanukkah is that light is stronger than dark and good prevails,” Weingarten said.

While the Hays County Sheriff’s Office said the letter distribution does not qualify as a criminal offense, it said it is aware propaganda is being anonymously distributed. The FBI, however, noted that is is prepared to investigate should the need arise.

“We are aware of the incidents and are in regular contact with local authorities,” the FBI said in a statement regarding the letters, according to the Hays Free Press. “If in the course of the local investigation, information comes to light of a federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate. “

According to the Anti-Defamation League in Austin, 17 antisemitic incidents have been reported in the past 10 days in Texas. This includes an incident in which Austin’s Congregation Beth Israel synagogue was set on fire Sunday night, While the damage was contained to the exterior of the building, fire officials said they are looking for a man seen carrying a five-gallon container then fleeing the scene in a car after starting the fire.

Additionally, in October about a dozen people displayed an antisemitic banner from the heavily trafficked North MoPac Boulevard overpass, and displayed similar posters in the East Sixth Street entertainment area, the Houston Chronicle reported. In the same week, an Austin school building was also vandalized with swastikas, homophobic slogans, and racist slurs.

Community leaders and others condemned the actions, including the Austin City Council and mayor.

“When we see acts of hate, they're jarring. They're hurtful, and they are scary. But they are not surprising," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “Because there are people who do hateful and horrible, wrongful things."

 “The danger is that hate spreads,” he cautioned.   

See also: Residents in Hays County were sent antisemitic letters 

See also:

H/T: Eric Ward on Twitter: 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Wildfire's orange sun during a late afternoon thunderstorm in Ithaca

This morning, when I got up and looked out my window to the east, I saw an orange sun against clouds and haze. The smoke from wildfires in Canada and further west has reached New York, and filled our atmosphere with fine particles that can damage the lungs. I was reminded of last September, when I was visiting Massachusetts, and the same orange sun greeted us in the morning and set in the evening. The photos here are taken in the late afternoon, during a thunderstorm.
As I discovered last year my phone's camera "corrected" the image and eliminated the orange sun itself, just leaving orange light around it. This first photo shows the sun peaking through the leaves (while it was raining hard at the same time!). You can't see the sun itself, but the orange light around it. I took this photo outside, standing on the stairs going into the side porch.

This photo was taken from the kitchen window, and you can see the orange penumbra around the sun.



This is a closeup of some pottery on the windowsill above the sink. The little cup on the left was made by a potter I know here - showing a little robin. The bowl in the middle is mine, and shows a strange red bird. My carving skills aren't as good as my fellow potter's.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Anti-Zionism in women's and gender studies departments and programs

"The national effort to organize an entire academic discipline around anti-Zionism represents a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of academe, argues Cary Nelson."

Excellent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed by Cary Nelson on an extreme anti-Israel statement signed by more than a hundred women's and gender studies departments and programs.

On May 21, the day after a ceasefire was announced in the latest war between Gaza and Israel, a coalition of women’s and gender studies departments and programs made it clear that, for their part, the war of words, at least, will not stop. More than 100 such academic programs signed a statement condemning Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, thereby endorsing the accusation that Israel’s conduct constitutes a war crime. Academic freedom protects the right individual faculty have to take aggressive political stands. But departments and programs speak for the institution. A department’s adoption of a controversial political stance has implications for all who work with that department.

The statement in question, “Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity With Palestinian Feminist Collective,” is far from the generic, anodyne calls for decency, sensitivity or basic fairness that university bodies often issue. On the contrary, it uses incendiary rhetoric not just to support the rights of Palestinians but also to condemn Israel by taking sides in the political struggle: “We do not subscribe to a ‘both sides’ rhetoric that erases the military, economic, media, and global power that Israel has over Palestine.” The statement characterizes the current war as part of an ethnic cleansing program that began in 1947, thereby condemning Israel’s whole history. By declaring “we call for the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and for the Palestinian right to return to their homes,” they make clear that their attack on “settler colonialism” applies not just to the West Bank but to Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries as well. “This is not a ‘conflict’ that is too ‘controversial and complex’ to assess,” it concludes.

Read the whole op-ed in Inside Higher Ed.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Each person is an entire world

When will the hideous war between Israel and Hamas end? I read story after story of whole families in Gaza being destroyed by Israeli bombing. I read story after story of Israelis running for their lives to the shelters. "Only" twelve people in Israel have been killed Hamas rockets - but each person is a whole world, in Gaza and in Israel.

In both the Qur'an and the Mishnah it says:

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:
Therefore one single person (adam) was created, to teach you that one who destroys a human life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed a whole world. And anyone who saves a human life is considered to have sustained an entire world.

Qur'an surah 5, ayah 32:
On account of [his deed - of Cain, who killed Abel], We decreed to the Children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Yom Ha-Shoah - Mordekhai Falkon (originally published on April 25, 2006)

(Originally published on Tuesday, April 25, 2006)

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; the story of the photographs can be found on the Yad Vashem site). Mordekhai's son, Abram, and his two children, Betje and Genia, were also killed in 1941.

May they rest in peace.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Each person's death diminishes me

Every day I check the website of the Tompkins County Health Department to read the latest report on Covid in this area. I check the number of new cases, the total number of people who are currently infected, and any deaths. For a long time there were two deaths - two people who had been brought to our local hospital from New York City during the height of the pandemic in the spring and had died here. 

Then there was one death of a 95 year old man. 

And then we started hearing about infections among people at the local nursing homes - first of all, Oak Hill Manor. It became clear, eventually, that all of the residents were infected. Twelve residents have now died - twelve of our elders, of people beloved by their families, by their friends, by the people who worked with them at Oak Hill. We then, recently, heard about people who tested positive for Covid at Beechtree, another local nursing home.

In the last two days there have been reports of two additional deaths, one, yesterday, at an unnamed nursing home, and one, today, of a resident of Tompkins County, who was not living in a nursing home. Now a total of sixteen people in Tompkins County have died of Covid, all but two in a nursing home.

When the Health Department reports on the deaths, they never give the name of the person who has died. I look in the obituaries in the Ithaca Journal, but often there's very little information provided about those who have passed away. I understand the concern for privacy, and that it's up to the family to reveal when a loved one has died of Covid (or any other cause). I still wish I knew the person's name, and something about their life.

Why? As John Donne wrote: "because each man's death diminishes me."

Just before the passage in which that sentence appears, he writes, using a beautiful simile in which every human being is likened to a page in one volume: 

[A]ll mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Each of us is "translated," that is, dies at God's hand, by old age, or illness, or in war, or by the operation of justice.

We all belong to one another. None of us is separated from the other. When one of us passes away from the world, we have all lost something. When one of us enters into the world, we have all gained something, a new person whom we may come to know and love. 

As Donne writes:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

The quotations from Donne are from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624, Meditation 17.