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Has Everyone Weighed in on the Mosque Mess? Have You?

August 20, 2010 Leave a comment

By Jeanette Friedman

Jeanette Friedman

NEW YORK — It seems that there isn’t a spin doctor, media pundit, columnist, politician or Jew who hasn’t offered an opinion about the Park51 Cordoba Community Center  under development two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan.

In 2009, when the proposal was put forth, there was little or no objection to what is now called “The Mosque at Ground Zero.” There are already many mosques in the city, and a few of them are even in that same neighborhood, with no objections.  The location was chosen almost as a matter of chance, after another site on 23rd Street fell through.

So why is this “mosque” different than all other New York mosques? The heat began in May, 2010, and to explain how an interfaith community center morphed into a terrorist center, Howard Kurtz did an admirable job in The Washington Post, as he traced the evolution of a local zoning issue into a national political and constitutional tinderbox. 

The match that lit the fires was struck by right winger Pamela Geller on her blog, Atlas Shrugged, which was then picked up by Andrea Peyser in The New York Post, and off went the right wing, into that special land where constitutional rights have no meaning.

Geller says Steve Emerson, Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, claims he has tapes of Imam Feisal Rauf, interim program manager of Park51 and the leader behind Cordoba House—the center for multifaith dialogue and engagement within Park51’s broader range of programs and activities—that will reveal Rauf defending Wahhabism, calling for a one-nation state, meaning no more Jewish State, and defending Bin Laden’s violence.

The Hudson Institute, a right wing think tank, posted The Mosque at Ground Zero: Who Is Behind It? by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury  on July 30, in which he implies that there is trouble ahead, and essentially pours gasoline on an open flame.

The issue, a local zoning issue, was then picked up by conservative Republican Party members and Tea Party types in Congress, who ratcheted the fear factor up another few notches. These were the same congressmen who voted against providing health care to first responders who have been suffering since 9/11. 

Then cable news shows picked it up, and milked it for all it was worth, never identifying the fact that those opposed to the mosque also opposed helping 9/11 families. The fear factor was so great by then, Fox News pundit Dick Morris said they were building a terrorist training center on the site. President Obama himself stepped in to remind everyone that this is still America, and that we embrace freedom of religion as part of our Bill of Rights. The following day he questioned the wisdom of choosing that particular site for Park51, but still upheld the US Constitution, as he had sworn to do on the day he took office.

After watching all the news clips and finding some unexpected useful footage from days of yore, Jon Stewart then summed up the situation in his own wacky way, last Thursday night, by making a very serious point.

On Friday, Governor David Paterson offered to step in to see if there could be a resolution to the problem and ask if he could help with finding an alternative site. The developers of Park51 said that they had no plans to meet with him.

And what did the Jews have to say about all of this? There were some who said we should stay out of it and let others fight this battle because we ourselves have been in places where it took major battles to get Jewish places of worship approved by zoning boards with agendas of their own.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the interdenominational New York Board of Rabbis, a key interfaith leader in New York City who works with the Police and Fire Departments, lost many friends on 9/11. In a telephone interview he said that he had spoken with leaders at the Archdiocese of New York and the Council of Churches.

“We suggest that the faith communities of New York use this crisis as an opportunity to elevate the conversation among the parties, without staking out positions. We should all gather together in one room and have a serious and substantive discussion that will result in one of two things: either there will be a compromise [accepting Governor Paterson’s suggestions] or the mosque will go forward as planned. Whatever decision will be made, we will know that we will have tried as diligently as possible to have people talk to each other instead of against each other.

“The religious community,” he continued, “has a responsibility to use the best of religion to promote discourse and a workable decision. That also means that probing questions must be asked and answered—and not avoided—by either side.”

Rabbi Ben Rosenberg of Congregation Beth El in Edison, NJ, spent most of last week talking to media about the rash of swastika graffiti that has plagued his community. As a son of Holocaust survivors and a naturalized American citizen, he says, “The Muslims legally have every right to build a community center at that location, but the wisdom of doing so, in light of being considered insensitive, is questionable. It would make sense to accept Governor Paterson’s offer.”

The Jewish Standard, the weekly that serves Bergen and Rockland counties, major bedroom communities that many in Jewish leadership call home (Abraham Foxman of the ADL, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, co-founder of EDAH and Shvil Hazahav; Rabbi Shmuley Boteach; Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, are only a few of the leaders who live there.) Many of them had much to say and laid it out for the editors in this past weekend’s edition.

Bemporad had just returned from bringing eight imams to Auschwitz when it all hit the fan.  In his opinion calling Rauf a terrorist is a great travesty of justice.

Everyone has an opinion, all agree there are constitutional issues that must be considered, and many, besides Rabbi Potasnik, want real answers to hard questions.

And finally, there is this article in The Washington Post by Jason Horowitz that pretty much tells the rest of America what New Yorkers think of this whole mosque mess. Basically, whether they for or against, they are telling outsiders to mind their own business.

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Jeanette Friedman is New York bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World and co-author with David Gold of  Why Should I Care? Lessons from the Holocaust.

Muslims, Christians and Jews together ponder lessons of the Shoah

June 1, 2010 1 comment

By Jeanette Friedman

Jeanette Friedman

PHILADELPHIA–They came in early spring, like migrating birds from every corner of the world—more than 200 professors and clergymen, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and even atheists and agnostics—to discuss and study the Holocaust and to celebrate and honor the work of the late Rev. Franklin Littell at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. They came from as far away as Russia, Bosnia, Israel, France, England, and from across America—California, New York, New Hampshire and Florida. Sponsored by St. Joseph’s, Stockton State College in New Jersey and Temple University, the Conference was founded 40 years ago by Rev. Littell and Dr. Hubert G. Locke, who have been at the leading edge in presenting the latest research in Holocaust and Genocide Studies to the rest of us.

Among the presenters were Dr. Michael Berenbaum, founding director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; theologian Dr. Richard L. Rubenstein, University of Bridgeport; premier Holocaust educator Samuel Totten, the Chambon Foundation’s Pierre Sauvage,  and Holocaust studies pioneers Father John Pawlikowski and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, all of whom paid tribute to Rev. Littell, who died on May 30, 2009.  This was the first conference to take place without him.

The conference was founded in 1970 to create an academic forum for the exchange of information and ideas about the Holocaust between scholars, researchers and educational pioneers; to promote an interfaith, international, interdisciplinary, rigorous intellectual tradition; to encourage continued research on church responses to the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry while encouraging and deepening interfaith discussions; to use the Holocaust to determine early warning signs of genocide and to get the information to others through review, editing and publication.

The opening evening was a memorial to Rev. Littell. A poignant 28-minute documentary about Littell was produced and presented by Dr. Sauvage, and earned unanimous acclaim. It was clear from the film, which consisted of clips from the Reverend’s own presentations and one-on-one interviews, that his philosophy of church responsibility in response to the Holocaust, his views of the need for Holocaust education, his passion and his teachings have had a deep impact on the way the Holocaust is taught today in middle schools and high schools. He has also influenced how research and Holocaust and Genocide studies are pursued on the university level.

The opening plenary session was devoted to the “Unfinished Agenda,” outlining the work that must still be done. Breakout sessions covered the lack of safe haven for Jews who attempted to leave Europe; contemporary theology; issues in teaching the Holocaust in primary schools; ethics after Auschwitz; uses of the law; contemporary antisemitism; the use of memoirs; the arts; Peter Bergson; the healing professions during the Holocaust; resistance; the churches’ response to the Holocaust; other genocides; and most interestingly, a Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue with participants Leonard Grob of Fairleigh Dickinson University, Henry F. Knight of Keene College, Rochelle L. Millen of Wittenberg University and Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University.

As noted by Dr. Marcia Littell, in addition to academicians, participants included survivors, descendants of survivors, community leaders, interfaith clergy and undergraduate and graduate students. In a parallel session, The Teachers’ Institute presented a seminar for high school teachers on Integrating Themes of Rescue and Resistance into the Teaching of the Holocaust and other Genocides.

Those who spoke most movingly during tributes to Rev. Franklin Littell were his devoted widow, Dr. Marcia Sachs Littell; Rabbi Irving Greenberg, one of the first leaders in the Jewish community to begin the movement to remember with his organization, Zachor, and Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell of Remembering for the Future, who is currently working on a searchable survivor testimony database—a central on-line directory of all the testimonies in existing collections.

The Conference’s executive director is Dr. Marcia Sachs Littell of Stockton State College’s Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Dr. Hubert G. Locke is the conference chairman. Honorary Chairman is Prof. Elie Wiesel and the major benefactor is Holocaust survivor Felix Zandman, who, with his wife, Ruta, was presented with the Eternal Flame Award.

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Friedman is bureau chief in the greater New York City area for San Diego Jewish World.

Be careful of cyber-rumors about Israel and the Middle East

May 14, 2010 Leave a comment

By Jeanette Friedman

Jeanette Friedman

NEW YORK–The e-mail came from a news source in Europe, who got it from a guy in New York, who got it from a couple in Los Angeles, who got it from a guy who “just received this from my friend in Israel, who moves in high circles, who heard it from a consultant to the United States who meets once a month with the President in the White House. He is in the know. This is what actually has happened with the relationship with Israel and the U.S.A. and it is not pretty.”
 
What followed was a litany of “crimes” by the U.S. administration against Israel.  Some of them were based on kernels of truth that had been convoluted into “reports” designed to galvanize people into action by injecting them with the fear factor. One accusation was exaggerated truth. Others were patently ridiculous, and some of them were oversimplifications of complicated diplomatic matters that are not controlled by anyone in the U.S. Some were outright lies.
 
How does one find out the truth behind these viral e-mails? One way is to check with Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (COP). As a fellow who spends most of his time getting his news first hand from newsmakers and reporters, he is a human aggregator who has to have his finger on the facts (or his nose in the news), day in and day out.

It’s no surprise, then, that he gets lots of inquiries about e-mails from the left and the right that are politically charged, and it’s not news to him that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way the COP and most Jewish organizations communicate and should communicate.
 
“Jewish organizations,” he told this reporter, “by and large have still not learned to use the new media effectively, but it’s changed how we do our work in many ways, because there is no longer a news cycle. [A news cycle is how long it takes for information to be spread through media.]

Information is now transmitted instantly to huge numbers of people, and disinformation needs to be responded to immediately—because the more sensational the disinformation is, the faster it goes viral. Then, before you can correct it, in a matter of moments, people are on to the next issue.
 
“When I started in organizational life, there was a 24-hour news cycle for newspapers. Then cable TV changed that to a 12-hour and then an 8-hour cycle, and now, because of the Net, we are down to a matter of minutes. It also becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is true and what is not, and there’s no time to adequately check allegations and reports before they have been widely circulated.”
 
How do these viral e-mails affect the American Jewish community’s relationships with other communities, politicians and administrations?
 
“I see lots of energy and time wasted when false allegations are made about Israel, about the U.S. and the relationship between them, as well as myriad other subjects that affect what people think and do. Sometimes these reports are ludicrous. For example, before Passover, someone sent out a fake press release to say President Obama asked PM Netanyahu to ask the Jewish people not to say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the Seder, but to say ‘Next year in Israel or elsewhere.’
 
“It was an attempt at humor, and when I got it, I told our chairman, ‘Wait a few days, and you will see this transformed into a news story that people believe.’ Three days later we started getting emails asking us how we could let this happen.
 
“There are other examples as well. Reports that new policies have been instituted that deny Israeli scientists access to the U.S. or that  Israeli access to U.S. bases has been restricted,  or that 20,000 people are coming from Gaza to the U.S., or that the Obama administration does not oppose Syria rearming Hezbollah, are just not the case.
 
“The problem is compounded when the ‘authors’ ascribe these allegations to a legitimate source that is close to the situation and knows what’s going on. This gives pernicious people the ability to write whatever they want and make charges without any accountability, while they hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.
 
“For example, the accusation about arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah detracts from our serious discussions about American policy toward Syria. The same is true of allegations leveled against Israel and its government for harvesting Palestinian organs or poisoning water provided to the Palestinians. Spending time responding to reactions to this disinformation interferes with our ability to respond to real challenges and concerns that we need to address.
 
“And as far as Iran and terrorism are concerned, Jews should be prepared for anything, whether or not Israel attacks Iran. Jews and Jewish institutions should always take precautions to protect our constituents and our communities.  There have been numerous attacks on Jewish communities, including the shootings in Seattle and in Los Angeles. These and other attempted assaults should raise our awareness and keep us on constant alert. But you don’t need viral e-mails to tell you that.”
 
Will the spam problem get worse as time goes on?
 
“The closer we get to the mid-term elections this year, the hotter it will get, and the more intense it will become. As we move toward 2012, it will get even worse. The community should not allow itself to be dragged into the excesses of the political silly seasons—which will be exceptionally tense this year, considering the charged atmosphere of fiercely contested races.”
 
A participant who attended a closed meeting of COP leadership last Monday, May 10—where 50 heads of Jewish organizations were present—said that Hoenlein expressed his concerns about these very things.
 
Was there a reaction?
 
“I think leaders are aware and beginning to focus on the problem. I could see that they were well aware of the specific e-mails I mentioned and also the general problem.”
 
Was a solution discussed?
 
“We are working to establish mechanisms to obtain the correct information quickly from reliable sources and get it to our members through the Daily Alert and other means, as fast as we are able to, so they in turn can pass it on to their constituents. This is not to cover up or dismiss legitimate concerns; quite the opposite. I believe these things have to be taken seriously because people will not know what to believe and what not to believe. My concern is that we will see much more of this in the future as the medium becomes more sophisticated and people learn how to manipulate it to greater effect.”
 
So is the Internet a good thing or a bad thing?
 
“I think the Internet can be a tremendous force for good and will allow us to reach a broader audience if we learn how to use it correctly. We are working on that right now. We have tried to work with officials in Israel and the Obama administration to get us responses to these reports as quickly as possible so we can then get the information out in a timely manner.
 
“Where there are real issues, they should be confronted and addressed with siechel (smarts). It’s not always what you do, but also how you do it that determines the effectiveness of your efforts.”
 

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Friedman is the New York bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

Lawfare: the new warfare

March 16, 2010 Leave a comment

  By Jeanette Friedman 

NEW YORK CITY—There’s a new word in town: ”lawfare.” Truth is, it’s been around for a while—used primarily by policy wonks, government lawyers and NGOs. But now this term—an extension of warfare in which international law is used to attack one’s enemies in the courtroom–has become the new WMD (weapon of mass distraction). The goal in many of these cases is not to win—that would be a bonus—but to distract the defendants, limit their actions and deplete their funds. 

The heads-up took place recently at the New York County Lawyer’s Association (NYCLA) headquarters on a street that borders Ground Zero.  More than 300 lawyers, law students and activists came to sit at the feet of the crème de la crème of the legal profession, diplomats, think tank members and academics to learn about the ways courts of law can be used to limit the ability of a sovereign nation to defend itself, and, at the same time, to create negative propaganda to manipulate the news cycle. It was also a call to action. As one observer noted, “This isn’t a matter of right or left. It’s a matter of common sense and survival.” 

Among those on the distinguished roster were The Boss, himself, retiring DA of the Southern District of New York, 

Robert M. Morgenthau

Robert M. Morgenthau; the former Canadian Minister of Justice and now member of Parliament, Irwin Cotler; and Ambassadors Gabriella Shalev, John Bolton, Dore Gold and Pierre Prosper. The list of professors and experts, including some of the policy wonks referred to above, spent an entire day explaining precisely what lawfare is, who uses it, what purpose it serves and teling their colleagues that something needs to be done about it because it’s more dangerous than it seems. 

The day-long seminar was sponsored by The Lawfare Project, The European Center for Law and Justice, and The International and Foreign Law Committee of the NYCLA. 

Here’s what participants learned:  Lawfare techniques include lawsuits against journalists and against persons brave enough to speak and comment publicly about religion—including the issues of radical Islam, terrorism and its sources of financing. They can be workplace harassment suits filed against counter-terrorism agents or war crimes charges against soldiers, government officials, civilians and corporations. Because lawsuits cost lots of money even when they are “frivolous,” and because of negative public relations generated by the filing of the suit in the first place, a culture of fear is created that has a chilling effect on the people who are supposed to protect their citizens from harm.
The key question is how a legal system is used. Is it used to pursue justice or to subvert it?  As more than one speaker noted, citing case histories, lawfare is as American as apple pie. The problem is that when Americans filed lawsuits against other sovereign nations, it did not go unnoticed. Right now, the international legal system, and human rights laws are being manipulated so as to harm, undermine and diminish the very principles they were enacted to protect.
  
  

Irwin Cotler

The use of the law to pursue justice is very much part of the American legal and political tradition. But now the system is being abused by terrorists and their sympathizers to undermine a nation’s ability to defend itself against them.
 
Brooke Goldstein, director of The Lawfare Project, notes that the Organization of the Islamic Conference is lobbying the UN to bring back blasphemy laws and exclude the targeting of American civilians from any international definition of terrorism—and that  Hamas facilitates the human rights prosecution of Israeli officials, while Spanish courts are trying former legal advisors to the Bush administration. She asks, “What kind of implications are these actions going to have on the way we defend ourselves?”
 
Human rights law is being turned on its head to attack the U.S. for its actions in Kosovo, its response to 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to delegitimize Israel. 

Speaker after speaker dissected the process. Basically it amounts to this: The main battlefields are the UN international Criminal Court in The Hague, as well as local national courts of law that exercise universal jurisdiction—allowing suits to be brought by two parties from the other side of a country’s borders—who have nothing to do with the country where the suit is being brought—ie., Hamas filing suit against Israelis in England or Spain.
 
There are those who want to turn the UN Charter into an international constitution and file charges against countries they know they could never defeat on the conventional battlefield. It is asymmetric warfare at its most subtle. If these groups (those who aim lawsuits at Israel and western democracies) have their way, the UN Security Council will be the sole agency to determine which nations have the right to defend themselves and which nations can be delegitimized. The UN, for example, has already used the system to criminalize the security wall Israel built to keep out terrorists, as well as Operation Cast Lead, the war in Gaza.
 
According to Goldstein, those are good examples of bias in the application of the law—where Israel was denied due process and the right to equality before international law. “It was lawfare at its best, executed by the ‘so-called’ judges themselves. If the judges were true advocates of international humanitarian law, they would never have ignored the fact that the security fence—brick and mortar—saved human lives and therefore was justified.”
 
It was time, speakers noted, to fight fire with fire. Nicholas Rostow exhorted the audience: “The consequences of the use of law are profound. Be vigilant, be aggressive, don’t be chicken. We have to play the game and it is our game. It’s not like we don’t have enough lawyers to do this.” 

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriella Shalev explained how “The rule of law and respect for human rights is being perverted for political ends.  Certain democratic states have created laws that go beyond their borders and use them to support terrorism, a political misuse that should be taken into consideration.”
 
Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general, waxed historical, talking about military strategics: “The rule of law is being hijacked to the detriment of human values. It’s a strategy straight out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, [the general] who wrote that ‘all warfare is based on deception’ and that in fighting a stronger foe, success begins by ‘seizing something your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.’ Two thousand years later, Chinese Airforce strategists … suggested the manipulation of rules dear to larger nations as weapons of war.
 
“America and the West hold dear the Rule of Law, and so our enemies have met with some successes of late in hijacking moral and western principles to turn international media and public opinion against us…the term lawfare was coined … in the 70s to explain this military tactic of dueling with ‘words rather than swords.’
 
“So if you let the enemy control the dialogue and manipulate the system, you lose.”
 
Irwin Cotler took the podium again and reminded everyone that, “Genocide begins with words, and there is no such thing as unlimited free speech. We are witnessing leaders of Iran issue nuclear, genocidal, and religious threats.  State incitement to genocide is against international law, yet, as we meet, not one party has undertaken the mandated legal remedy to hold Iran to account. Not the U.S. or Canada or any signatories refer this to the UN Security Council. But to ignore the state sanction of genocide is to sanitize it. A man like Ahmadenijad, people who are in standing violation, such people enjoy legal immunity when they should be in the docket. They can come and go freely, yet they have no liability whatsoever. At this point, it is our responsibility to take back the juridical narrative and bring Iran to justice.”
 
Said Goldstein, “The legal system could be an appropriate if not ideal forum to solve disputes; indeed it is better to litigate then to shed blood. However, the problem of lawfare is, at its essence…the concerted effort to abuse and manipulate legal fora and international humanitarian law to impede the ability of the courts themselves to provide justice—using them as a tool of war and not as a forum for mediation. It dilutes the real meaning of legal terms like apartheid and genocide.”
 
The conference covered Rwanda, the Balkans, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Sudan and the indictment of Al Bashir of Sudan for genocide. It pointed out the pitfalls and possibilities of the uses of lawfare to take back a nation’s sovereign right to defend itself without finding itself subject to the paralyzing fear factors generated by its enemies.
 
Above all, the conference was a call to arms. Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice-Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations put it this way: “This is an historic event in the breadth of experts and top figures who have come to speak out and among those who came to listen. We put the issue of lawfare as warfare on the agenda for the first time and are empowering those who will file lawsuits to counteract the kinds of suits we are seeing filed against the U.S., Israel and other democracies.”
 
The Lawfare Project is gearing up to provide additional seminars internationally, to put advocates on notice and assist them in filing appropriate lawsuits to protect the Rule of Law and national sovreignity.

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Friedman is San Diego Jewish World’s bureau chief for the greater New York area.

Kiddush club on the Hudson

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

By Jeannette Friedman

NEW YORK –Pier 60 juts out into the Hudson River, about three miles north of where a handful of Jews fleeing pirates of the Caribbean and the Portuguese landed about 350 years ago. The golden setting sun and the mighty river that reflects it at the end of the pier haven’t changed in all those years. But the tiny Dutch trading post and fortress called Neuwe Amsterdam sure has, and so have the people who have inhabited the fair isle of Manhattan. Now New York has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world—and people want to write their business.

So on February 1, 2010, Royal Wine Corporation moved their trading post to Pier 60, where they showcased 250 fine wines and liquors, including single malt Scotches and specialty vodkas. Also strutting their stuff were caterers and restaurateurs with international menus who gathered under one roof and put it out there for the crowds. Their tables were spread across the western end of the hall, where the spectacular view almost made you forget the food…but not for long.

The doors were opened to those who paid $100 a head and the hordes descended. It was as if a magic door in a shul had opened into a gi-normous Kiddush Club, and everyone was hungry and thirsty after the rabbi’s sermon.
Masses of men, most of them Orthodox, and many of them Hasidim, descended upon the tables, wine glasses in hand, to taste, sip and slug down whatever they could. Most of the men piled their plates with refried beans, sushi, sesame chicken and good old fashioned goulash, as they went back for refills of their favorite wines. The few women in the crowd tasted bits here and there and sipped real French Champagne with a hechsher. They sampled specialty salads served in Martini glasses from Abigael, one of the fanciest caterers in town and commented on presentation. Their companions preferred Dougie’s. And the buzz among the foodies was that Pomegranate was “best in show.”

A few of those masses packed on the pier understood the art of tasting, asked to have their glasses rinsed between different wines, swirled the pinks, reds and whites around, sniffed the tops of their glasses, made some comments, sipped and spit, took notes and placed their orders.

As for the rest, well, let’s just say a good time was had by all—and there were plenty of cabs at the door.

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Friedman is San Diego Jewish World’s bureau chief for the greater New York area.

Of Killing Fields and Looted Graves: A Catholic Priest Fulfills the Command, Zachor

January 16, 2010 2 comments

Father Patrick Desbois

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By Jeanette Friedman
NY Bureau Chief, San Diego Jewish World

NEW YORK–Father Patrick Desbois is an unusual Catholic priest, who, at the behest of two French clerics (the Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivor, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, and Cardinal Jean Pierre Ricard), officially took it upon himself to obey the commandment, Zachor, to remember. Born in the 1950’s, he is the grandson of a deportee sent to Rawa-Ruska, near Belzec, in the former Soviet Union–a deportee who witnessed mass shooting murder of the Jews by Nazis’ Einzatsgruppen, the mobile killing troops, and their collaborators.

Years later he returned to that site with his grandson, to teach him why he had to help heal the world. At that moment the wick was lit, and Father Desbois became “the memorial candle” for his family and his calling. With the blessings of the Cardinals and the Pope, in 2002, he embarked on a journey he did not then know could become dangerous.

On January 12, 2010, Father Desbois was the guest speaker at a luncheon for members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. More than 40 leaders of the Jewish community were in attendance, among them attorney Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference and chairman of the Jewish Community Center Association; John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJAFedNY; Mindy Stein, president of Emunah of America; Kalman Sultanik, honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress, and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman (who founded the Office of Special Investigations at the Justice Department to prosecute Nazi war criminals).

Father Desbois was there to present his case for community action and to ask the established Jewish community to help him preserve more than 900 mass graves that hold the remains of as many as 1.6 million Jews scattered all across Eastern Europe, before it was “too late,”—and to help him find as many more as he could before the sites were destroyed by grave robbers and urbanization.

Doing research and tracking history and maps, Father Desbois walks across the killing fields where the mobile killing forces that followed Hitler’s army through the towns and cities, shtetls and dorfs of Eastern Europe, carried out lethal ethnic cleansing, one bullet at a time. He seeks eye witnesses who watched what happened when the Nazis arrived to do their dirty work, and tries to find and protect the mass graves.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference, says the Catholic priest appreciates, “The kedusha of the Kedoshim, the holiness of the holy ones.” As a son of Holocaust survivors, Hoenlein uses that term to describe Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.  (The official definition of a Holocaust survivor includes any Jew who was in Europe or fled, between 1933 and 1945.)

In 2004, Father Desbois and his team created the non-profit organization, Yahad in Unum, so he could fund this quest, which often takes him and his team to remote areas, where the natives are not always friendly and might even want to kill them. It’s one reason he learned to develop a poker face, one that would not reveal his feelings even while listening to the vilest forms of anti-Semitic libels.  Said the priest: “If you show on your face what you think, the interview is over. Some of these people are violent and will kill those who try to stop them.  And some of the people who speak of the ‘innocent ones’ are afraid of reprisals.”

In one place, he spent Christmas with a Greek Orthodox family whose entertainment for the evening included skit wherein his host’s son and daughter played a Jew who said he came to swindle everyone in town, and his wife, the Rebbitzen, opened her coat to reveal stolen cell phones for sale.

The witnesses who have given testimony have allowed Father Desbois to recreate precisely the way the Einzatsgruppen carried out their tasks. In meticulous, chilling detail, he described the methodology of death by close range shooting in the days before Auschwitz and the other death camps were built.

Everything went according to a system that began when a German location scout would show up to scope out the area for the best place to locate such a grave. When the troops arrived, the mayor and municipal police were recruited to bring the Jews out of their homes and march them to the sites, where they would dig their own graves and be murdered at close range–one bullet, one Jew.  Within three weeks, beginning with the sales of clothing left at the gravesites and ending with auctions of Jewish-owned furniture in the local synagogue buildings, the entire Jewish community would disappear.  But not without a trace. Artifacts remain at many of the sites, and grave robbers know it and seek them out.

When the Yachad in Unum team comes to a town, they ask the locals if they know anyone who witnessed the mass murder of the Jews. They race against the clock because the witnesses are dying of old age. Sometimes the people come forward, and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes the evidence confirms what the witness saw. In one case a witness described someone playing a harmonica while the shootings took place, and Father Desbois’s team found the remains of a harmonica near the mass grave.

The most horrific reason and need for speed to preserve the sites is because of what is happening to those mass graves today.  In remote areas, there are mass graves that have not yet been confirmed and protected,  and locals use them as gold mines (80% of the graves in Ukraine have been looted)—digging up the remains to search for gold teeth and jewelry.

Artifacts found by the Yachad in Unum team—shell casings, bullets, necklaces, bracelets—are sent off to various Holocaust museums to refute Holocaust deniers and to educate the public. They have developed a traveling artifact exhibit, “The Holocaust of Bullets,” that is sent to schools and study centers across the globe. The team has developed special relationships with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and with the Sorbonne in Paris to make these materials available to all, and to use those resources in their research as well.

Yachad in Unum’s goal now is to get funding to expand the search for mass graves into Russia, Belarus and Poland; to maintain an archive in Paris for other museums, scholars, students, survivor families and researchers to access; and to continue to make the traveling exhibition available.

Most importantly, they want to recruit people who can help them convince area governments to seal the graves with concrete and mark them as sacred grounds so that they cannot be defiled any longer.

But this work doesn’t come cheap. Each investigative trip, which includes all the research done by the 11-member team costs approximately $55,000 and it is expected that the cost to complete the entire project and seal the graves would cost $5 million.

At the conclusion of his talk, Hoenlein presented Father Desbois with an award of thanks on behalf of all of the major Jewish organizations in the United States.

The Amazing Adventures of a New Machiteynista

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Dan & Ris
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By Jeanette Friedman

NEW YORK — With three daughters and as a celebrations journalist who writes about how to make a wedding fantastic (always, I just realized, from the bride’s point of view), it’s a new experience to become the mom of the groom. Especially such a groom!

It began at my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, when Dan, the Mobius man, social media guru of Jewish masses, brought his significant other, Morissa Golden, aka Ris, to meet the matriarchs. My mother is the Brooklyn Babi of distinguished rabbinic descent. Her sister-in-law and the rest of the family were all under one roof, very convenient. (That was a green idea. It saved lots of gas running around the various boroughs of New York and the West Bank of the Hudson.)

The next day, my youngest, my only boy, a grown man in everyone’s eyes but mine, let me know he was going to pop the question in two week’s time, and that I had better keep my mouth shut.  So I immediately called my oldest daughter who said, “Butt Out!”  so I did.

He then calls to tell me  it’s Ris’s birthday. I leave her a birthday message and she calls back. “What do you want for your birthday?” I asked.  “I’ll see if I can arrange it.”

“Your son,” she replied.  And I said, I would wrap that up for her.

I immediately emailed Dan and asked him to put on a huge gift bow with a birthday card from me and to hand himself over to Ris. He ignored me.

Came Thanksgiving…was I brining a turkey for the kids? Nope. I wasn’t. He was heading up to Syracuse to ask Ris’ parents for her hand in marriage. Cool beans! So off they went on a MegaBus and the wi-fi sucked. I couldn’t find out what was going on. Dan posted something about a surprise on facebook, and I waited for the call.

It came on Thanksgiving p.m. Mazel Tov! The wedding was scheduled for the Fourth of July in her parents’ backyard in Syracuse.  No problem. Not much. Do we drive, get a bus, catch a plane, take a train?  And should we charter something for the old ladies? Talked to Ris’s Mom and Dad. They worried about not being observant! Who cares? They must be nice people because Ris is a class-A1 mensch.

Twittered the news immediately, facebooked it at the exact moment Dan did, sent an email to all my colleagues, friends and family and made only four phone calls—to my mom, my mother-in-law and two old aunties who wouldn’t know a computer if they God forbid fell over one. My, how life has changed!

Suddenly, Dan’s cell phone seems to work! He takes my calls and answers emails. Wow! And he emails a photo of the Bling—an antique diamond set in platinum. When he wanted to spend more, Ris said save the money for a roof over their heads. Smart lady.

Monday, Ellen, Ris’ mom, thankfully decides 150 people schlepping to her backyard in Syracuse isn’t green. Do it in Brooklyn where the friends and family are. Botanical Garden, their first choice Dan says, costs thousands. Have I got any ideas…and oh, yeah, this is going to be a Halachically correct wedding, but, “We are going to blow away the minhagim, the customs, and do things our way.”

The matriarchs were going to have to watch the bride and groom circle each other instead of the bride walking around in circles by herself. It is said she thus builds the walls of their future home, but these two believe they are partners for life. No one gets to run rings around anyone else! And his Dad and I would share giving a blessing during the ceremony.  Yes!

With the Botanical Gardens so expensive, Prospect Park, right across the street is an option. The Parks Department  says weddings cost $25 and a $300 bond in case you wreck the grass. The two sites are the Grecian Pavillion and the Oriental Garden. (The Oriental Garden was where the denizens of Crown Heights would go to do Taschlich [the casting of the bread on the waters] on the second day of Rosh Hashanna. Many a match was made there!)

BUT—you can’t have a wedding on the Fourth of July because everyone and his brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and 3rd cousins twice removed will be bar-b-cueing  in the park, and  my oldest daughter, the specialty cake decorator and catering wannabe, says, “Whoa, everyone, Fourth of July is during the Three Weeks.”

Pick another date. Ok. June 27 it is.

She’s the practical daughter who has attended hundreds of weddings. She asks, “What about the heat in the summer when rivulets of sweat trickle down anatomical areas while you dance around? And what if it rains? I’ve been at weddings where I had to stand ankle deep in mud.”

“Hey,” I say, “Aren’t you the one who told me to butt out?!

She emails her brother. “Can’t do it on the Fourth. The Three Weeks. And it’s hot and where’s the dance floor?”

We are now looking at August.  I’ll keep you informed.

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Friedman is San Diego Jewish World’s bureau chief for the greater New York area.  We wish her, her son and daughter in law to be, and all else concerned a hearty mazal tov!