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August 4, 2015 / 19 Av, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish History’

The German Women Who Stood Up to the Nazis

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of a remarkable public protest by ordinary German women against the Nazi regime.

From February 27 to March 6, 1943, a group of unorganized German women went into the streets of downtown Berlin, within a few city blocks of the most feared centers of Nazi power, to protest for the release of their Jewish husbands, who had just been arrested by the Gestapo. Daily giving voice to their collective demand – “give us our husbands back” – first softly, then with increasing urgency, they succeeded in achieving their goal.

For these German women, the brutal Nazi state had lost all legitimacy. Like very few others, they were willing to express this publicly, on the streets, for all to see. For decades, their story was largely absent from histories of Nazi Germany. Their story challenges the comforting, generally accepted narrative that opposition was honorable but always futile. This year’s anniversary is an opportunity to focus deserved attention on these women’s brave action – and its implications for resistance more broadly.

On February 27, 1943, as part of the Nazi plan to remove the last remaining Jews from German soil, the Gestapo arrested some 2,000 Berlin Jews who had not yet been deported because they were married to non-Jews. In response, hundreds of women – wives of those arrested – pushed their way onto the street in front of Rosenstrasse 2-4, an office of the Jewish community where these arrested Jews were being held, and began to protest.

SS men as well as policemen guarded the single entrance. Over the course of the following week the Gestapo repeatedly threatened to shoot the protesters in the street, causing them to scatter briefly before resuming their collective cry of “give us our husbands back.”

Decades later, I interviewed one of these women, Elsa Holzer, who remembered arriving on the street in search of her husband. “I thought,” she said, “I would be alone there the first time I went to the Rosenstrasse…. I didn’t necessarily think it would do any good, but I had to go see what was going on…. If you had to calculate whether you would do any good by protesting, you wouldn’t have gone. But we wanted to show that we weren’t willing to let them [our husbands] go. I went to Rosenstrasse every day, before work. And there was always a flood of people there. It wasn’t organized, or instigated. Everyone was simply there. Exactly like me. That’s what is so wonderful about it.”

During the same week of this protest, some 7,000 of the last Jews in Berlin were sent to Auschwitz. On Rosenstrasse, however, the regime hesitated; almost all of those held there were released on March 6. Even intermarried Jews who had also been sent to Auschwitz and put in work camps were returned to Germany.

Surprising as it might seem, these events on closer examination fit with the treacherous strategies of the Nazi regime for domestic control. The Rosenstrasse protest occurred as many Germans were tempted to doubt Hitler’s leadership following Germany’s debacle in the Battle of Stalingrad. As he elaborated in Mein Kampf, Hitler believed that popular support comprised the primary pillar of his authority among the German “racial” people, and his dictatorship throughout strove to maintain this basis of his power. To end this protest, the regime released the intermarried Jews, furthering, for that moment, Hitler’s goal of quelling any appearance of dissention.

The murderous Nazi regime also appeased other public protests. On October 11, 1943, on Adolf Hitler Square in the city of Witten, some three hundred women protested against the official decision to withhold their food ration cards until they evacuated their homes as part of Nazi policy to protect civilians from bombing raids. The following day Germans in Lünen, Hamm and Bochum also protested on the streets for the same reason.

In response, Hitler ordered all regional authorities not to withhold ration cards as a method of forcing civilians to evacuate their homes. This was followed by further orders by Nazi officials to refrain from “coercive measures” against evacuees who had returned. In his cold calculations, Hitler chose not to draw further attention to public protest, judging it the best way to protect his authority – and the appearance, promoted by his propaganda machine, that all Germans stood united behind him.

The Book of Esther: A Political Analysis

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways. Yet there is much to be understood by analyzing the story in terms of political ideology and strategy.

Ahasuerus is the powerful king over Persia and much more. He holds a banquet and invites the leaders of all of the provinces to come in order to wield together his diverse empire by showing his wealth, strength, generosity, and bringing together his political elite in terms of fellowship and equality with each other.

While drunk, he orders Queen Vashti to come to the banquet to display herself. She refuses, for unspecified reasons, and his advisors urge him to depose her and select a new queen. A young Jewish woman, Esther, is among the candidates. Urged by her uncle Mordechai, she conceals her religiosity-ethnicity, enters the competition, and eventually wins.

At this point, the story introduces a new theme. The king makes Haman prime minister. Mordechai, for unspecified reasons, refuses to bow to him. On discovering Mordechai is a Jew, Haman resolves to destroy all the Jews in the empire.

The story provides a sophisticated analysis of antisemitism:

First, Haman’s antagonism toward all Jews springs from a personal and psychological conflict. This has often been true in history including today.

Second, that conflict is then dressed up in political language to justify it to the ruling authority and the masses.

Third, Haman provides the classic, statement of non-theological antisemitism that could easily fit into the nineteenth and twentieth century and even today, mirroring the kinds of things hinted for example by nominee for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel. Haman explained:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” In other words, the Jews comprise what would later be called a separate national group. It is impossible to assimilate them; they are disloyal due to dual loyalty; and despite their apparent weakness they plot against you.

I’m sure that Hagel is not antisemitic in any conscious way yet he echoes the same themes that Haman used. Haman might have said that he was not a “Jewish” minister but a “Persian” minister, who would not bow down to the Jewish lobby whose interests subverted those of the nation.

A contemporary problem in understanding antisemitism today is that hegemonic political, intellectual, and informational forces in the West want to measure antisemitism by conscious intent and not by the use of well-worn historical (these are even in the Bible!) themes, though that is precisely the criterion that they do use in examining just about any other sort of bigotry. They also begin by excluding all non-Western populations from possibly being antisemitic. But Haman was residing in a non-Western society.

Fourth, antagonism against the Jews camouflages a desire to loot their wealth, in other words material gain.

The king agrees—after all, his most trusted courtier has just told him it’s a kill or be killed situation—and issues the decree for genocide.

In contradiction to these claims of Haman is Mordechai’s good citizenship. This would later become a major theme of Jewish assimilation—I don’t use the latter word in a pejorative sense here—that Jews must prove they are the best, most loyal citizens. Mordechai saves the king by uncovering a real plot against him. By his example, Mordechai shows Jews are not subversives and disloyal.Yet Mordechai’s good behavior is useless if the king doesn’t know about it. Suppose mass media existed and hadn’t covered Mordechai’s behavior but reported on all of Haman’s speeches?

Especially remarkable is the behavior of Esther. Warned of Haman’s plan, Esther wants to do nothing lest she place herself at risk. After all, she is a fully “assimilated,” even hidden, Jew. But Mordechai reminds her: Do not imagine that you will escape because of your high position.

It’s easy to suggest that this can be compared to the Nazi desire to kill all Jews on a “racial” basis. But there are many types of such situations. What’s especially interesting is that Esther’s situation shows how individual Jews can try to set themselves apart to be immune or even prosper from persecutions: converted Jews against steadfast ones in medieval times; Modernized, semi-assimilated Jews against traditionalist immigrants in America and Western Europe; and anti-Israel Jews against pro-Israel ones and Israel itself today.

Purim of Yesteryear: Celebrations in TLV 1932-34 (Video)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

The “Adloyada” Celebrations in Tel Aviv in 1932-34.

Particularly interesting are the floats mocking the Nazis, complete with giant swastikas, and warning of the impending disaster in Europe.

Happy Shushan Purim!

Visit The Muqata.

Why Don’t We Celebrate Two Days of Purim in Jerusalem?

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

While the rest of Israel celebrates Purim this Sunday (the 14th of Adar), Jerusalem celebrates on Monday (the 15th of Adar).

Why?

Well, the easy answer is “because Jerusalem is a walled city from the time of Joshua.”

Which is partially right.  Jerusalem was a walled city in the time of Joshua, but the walls we see today were built in the 1500s, in the Ottoman Era.  From the early 13th century and until the mid-16th century, Jerusalem was not a walled city at all.  And indeed, it was unclear to the Jews of that time when they should celebrate Purim.

Rabbi Eshtori Ha-Parchi of the 14th century tells us that when he came to Israel, he was told that in Jerusalem they celebrated on both the 14th and 15th of Adar, as they were uncertain which one they were obligated to keep.  Rabbi Eshtori brings an entire Halachic discussion about what should be done, and adds that he wrote his rabbi, Rabbi Matityah in Bet-Shean, to ask him what he should do.

Rabbi Matityah wrote him back: If I would be in Jerusalem on the 14th of Adar, and they would read the Megillah, I would leave the synagogue.  Otherwise they could say about me “The fool walketh in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2, 14).  And the same is true for Tiberias.

Rabbi Eshtori finished by saying that Rabbi Matityah is right.

We don’t know what changed the minds of the Jews of Jerusalem, but today there is no doubt – and we celebrate Purim in Jerusalem on the 15th of Adar.

Visit the Muqata.

Purim and the Right to Bear Arms

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

On February 8, Rabbi Dovid Bendory spoke at the New Jersey statehouse about the right to bear arms. The Rabbinic Director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, Rabbi Bendory stated with reference to chapter 22 of Sefer Shemot:

God has given us the right to self-defense. We have not only a God-given right to defend ourselves and to protect our families; but we have a God -commanded responsibility to do so.

Soon we will celebrate Purim. Last year I interviewed Rabbi Bendory about these themes in relation to the festival. He observed:

Purim is a story in gun control and its impact on a nation. It’s because of the gun control of Achashverosh’s reign that the Jews had no right to defend themselves, that they were so vulnerable to being wiped out by the decree of one lunatic. The government has taken away from the people the God-given right to self-defense. So Achashverosh magnanimously grants them that right back—you  can now defend yourselves against the people who attack you—and the result is of course the celebration of Purim.

Rabbi Bendory further noted regarding Shmuel I 13:19, that

The first historically recorded incident of gun control—and when I use the term gun control, of course in this context it means weapons control—the  first historic use of gun control was against the Jews. Today in Israel, these lessons are more urgent than ever.

Four Jews who will not celebrate Purim this year are Yitzhak Ames, Talia Ames, Kochava Even-Haim, and Avishai Schindler. On August 31, 2010, Hamas murdered them on Route 60 near Kiryat Arba. (May the Almighty avenge their blood).

The government had disarmed Yitzhak before the massacre because of he and his wife’s activism in defense of Gush Katif. A family friend stated, “There are four bodies today because the government, instead of fighting terrorism, is fighting citizens. They put settlers in situations where their hands are tied.”

As the civil rights organization Honenu noted in a report last November on the government’s broader disarmament of citizens, “If Ames’s weapon had been in his possession, perhaps the incident would have ended differently.”

The grandson of the owner of the Lahav gun store in Tel Aviv similarly remarked in December on Israel’s repressive gun policies:

The problem is that the law makes it very difficult for the good people to get guns. The number of legal guns in recent years has gone to around 170,000, but there are a half a million illegal guns floating around the Arab sector, no one knows how many.

On illegal guns in the Arab sector, Dr. Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Studies Center in Herzliya wrote in November concerning the terror attack on a bus in Tel Aviv:

Arab villages in Israel are flooded with illegal aliens—and the weapons they bring along. The Israel Police are well aware of this problem and of its extent, but for some reason are doing almost nothing to stop it. This is understandable.

After all, police apparently have more urgent priorities like raiding a beit midrash and beating people therein.

The Israeli government and it seems much of the citizenry have learned neither from Tanach nor history. The American jurist St. George Tucker had more wisdom and sense of survival than many Jews today when he wrote in 1803: “Wherever…the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”

Torah and the Secular Jew

Monday, February 18th, 2013

I’m not sure what a secular-traditional-religious home is – but that is the way Ruth Calderon describes the home in which she was raised. Although I think that could describe a modern Orthodox observant Jew too, I think it can easily describe a non observant cultural Jew. Which is what I think Ruth Calderon is.

Dr. Calderon is one of Yesh Atid’s newly elected members of the Kenesset. By her own words she is not observant. If I understand correctly her education was that of the typical secular Israeli where Tanach (bible) is taught as literature and history and not as holy writ. And yet she has done something amazing. She has founded a secular Yeshiva. I suppose that means that her school is geared towards non observant Jews who want to learn Torah similar to the way observant Yeshiva students do.

As a youth, Dr. Calderon was not satisfied with the secular treatment of Judaism she got in Israeli schools. She knew instinctively that something was missing. Mainly the entire corpus of oral law as recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. To put it the way she did in her inaugural speech before the Kenesset (as translated from the Hebrew in The Jewish Week):

I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing… for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void. The Talmud is not only the source of Halacha, it is many other things as well. It rich with culture, history, humor, ethics… and much more. She goes on to tell an inspiring story about her discovery of the richness and fullness of the Talmud and described the virtual love affair she has with it to this day. That love affair led her to pursue its study – at least on a secular level and she eventually earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature.

Because of her love of learning, her Talmud study did not end there. She learns Daf Yomi with a Chavrusa (study partner). And as mentioned she founded a secular yeshiva. She is convinced that studying the Talmud is a vital aspect of being Jewish – even if only culturally – that is missing for the secular Israeli student… lamenting the fact that the founding fathers of Zionism abandoned its study. Again, to quote Dr. Calderon:

It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity. This is a truly profound and inspiring statement. She concludes her Knesset speech with a beautiful drasha – an exposition from the Talmud (Kesubos 62a) that demonstrates the kind of ethics authentic Judaism is all about… and finally ends with a prayer that is said upon entering the Knesset:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our fathers and mothers, that I leave this house as is entered it – at peace with myself and with others. May my actions benefit all residents of the State of Israel. May I work to improve the society that sent me to this chamber and cause a just peace to dwell among us and with our neighbors. May I always remember that I am a messenger of the public and that I must take care to keep my integrity and innocence intact. May I, and we, succeed in all our endeavors. How beautiful it is to see a cultural -and yet still non observant Jew – extol the virtues of Judaism as expressed by our sages. There are some people who might object to a woman citing passages from the Gemarah. They might feel that it is inappropriate for a woman to even speak in public – let alone teach Torah to men. Or even learn Torah for that matter. I am not one of those people. I am on the opposite end of that spectrum. I fully support Torah study by every Jew – man or woman – who desires to do so.

The Jewish Cemetery in Saudi Arabia

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

A few years ago, a Saudi friend told me of the existence of a Jewish cemetery, or maqbarat al-yahud in Arabic, in the al-Ihsaa region in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The friend had been surprised to discover it and knew nothing about its history–about how the cemetery came to exist. The mystery was answered with the publication in 2012 of a well-documented work by Yusuf Ali al-Mutairi on al-yahud fi al-khaleej (the Jews in the Gulf). The book provides a balanced and well-documented review of the history of the small Jewish communities in the Gulf region from the start of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th.  The book states the obvious: that, unlike the large Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and North Africa, the number of Jews in the Gulf countries had never exceeded a few hundreds in any one country.

Most of the Jews who settled in the Gulf countries, primarily in Kuwait and Bahrain, were of Iraqi origin, and many of them were seeking either to escape military conscription under the Ottoman Empire or to explore economic opportunities. Of these Jews, only a few have remained and probably only in the Kingdom of Bahrain, which, in fact, is represented in Washington by Ambassador Houda Ezra Noonoo, a Jew who speaks Iraqi Jewish Arabic dialect quite fluently.

Saudi Arabia was a special case. The Ottoman authorities brought a number of Iraqi Jews to fill administrative and financial posts in the al-Ihsaa region, the key source of its oil. Al-Ihsaa had been incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1871 and governed under the Wilayat of Basra (Iraq) and remained so through 1913. A Saudi royal decree issue in 1956 changed the name of al-Ihsaa Region into the Eastern although local population continues to refer to it as al-Hasa.

In his study on the Jews of the Gulf, Al-Mutairi relates that Jews occupied important positions in al-Ihasaa–notably that of the treasurer (during the Ottoman Empire the post was known in Turkish as sanduq amini). Three successive occupants of the post were Jews–Yacoub Effendi (1878-1879), Daoud bin Shintob (the Arabic version of the Hebrew word Shemtov) (1879-1894), and Haroun Effendi (1895-96). During their tenure, many of the entries into the books were made in Hebrew (most likely in Arabic transliterated in Rashi script).  Al-Mutairi has suggested that keeping the financial records in Hebrew may have been intended to prevent an audit of the accounts possibly to protect their Ottoman superiors. My own grandfather was a sanduq amini in the Province of Basra for more than two decades until the occupation of the city by the British in 1917. Like many people in his generation, he studied Torah and learned to write Hebrew in the old Rashi script.

Jews were also employed in al-Ihsaa as treasurers in the Sunni office or in the court of cassassion of the district (liwaa).  One Jew, known as “Elyahu the Jew,” served as the collector of customs in the port of Oqair, one of the most important ports in al-Ihassa at the time. But perhaps the most significant post held by a Jew was that of Director of Customs for the whole province, a post that was sought after by many individuals both inside and outside al-Ihasaa because it offered the potential for illicit income.

Daoud bin Shintob (Shemtov) is thought by Al-Mutairi to have been the best-known Jew in al-Ihsaa because of the strong relationship he maintained with the Ottoman and local officials–in particular, with Mohammad Sa’id Pasha, the governor of the Liwa (province) of al-Ihsaa, during the latter’s third term as governor, 1896-1900.  Complaints against Sa’id Pasha relating to his special relationship with Shemtov ultimately led to his dismissal despite the absence of any viable evidence of misconduct.

ACCORDING TO our Saudi sources the cemetery is located behind Riyadh Bank main branch and across from Beirut restaurant in the city of Hufuf.  In his book, al-Mutairi includes a photograph of a walled area taken by him on September 29, 2009, which he describes as the Jewish cemetery.

Our Saudi friend in al-Ihsaa suggests that the photo was perhaps of an area known as Koot [in Turkish, it means the fenced area.] which used to be the center of government for the province of al-Ihsaa. The Ottomans built high walls and watch towers to protect the governing bodies located in Koot. Given that only few Jews lived and died in the area the cemetery itself could not have been large. The Saudis have largely dismantled the walls around Koot and the area has become commercialized. The land on which the cemetery was located is largely deserted and our correspondent maintains that no one has made a claim to it although locals continue to refer to it as “maqbarat al-yehud.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-jewish-cemetery-in-saudi-arabia/2013/02/12/

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