Israeli politics and the continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic dominated Jewish concerns this year.
(RNS) — In a year in which we expected the news to get better, the stories followed most closely by the Jewish community in 2021 were for the most part sequels to the difficult and dire stories of 2020: COVID-19, surging antisemitism and strife between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But a new government in Jerusalem and Israel’s broadening ties to Arab countries brought glimmers of hope for peace. Here are the 10 most important stories on topics of Jewish concern this year:
1. Benjamin Netanyahu is ousted as Israeli prime minister.
In June, after four indecisive elections in two years, Israeli leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid assembled a broad-based coalition that enabled Bennett to replace Netanyahu as prime minister. In power for 15 years, Netanyahu was the longest-serving PM in the nation’s history.
An early major achievement of the new coalition was the Israeli parliament’s adoption of a national budget, something that had not been done for three years.
December 7 marks the 80th anniversary of the surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. The attack led to America's formal entry into World War II. What ensued would have a profound impact on Jews everywhere, including the American Jewish community. Three examples:
1. A SILENCING OF AMERICA'S MOST VOCAL ANTISEMITES
Adolf Hitler's declaration of war on the United States 4 days after the assault on Pearl Harbor led to the dissolution of the 800,000-member isolationist and antisemitic "America First Committee." The AFC's leading public spokesman, the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, delivered a speech in Des Moines 3 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling out the British, American Jews, and the Roosevelt Administration for agitating America toward war. His pro-Nazi sentiments earned him a special "Fuhrer Medal" in Berlin from Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering.
Another virulent public antisemite of the pre-war period was Roman Catholic Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit, whose weekly radio program on 36 stations attracted millions of listeners. In his broadcasts, Coughlin called FDR's New Deal policies, including Social Security, the "Jew Deal." It was not until May 1942 that Catholic Church authorities finally silenced Coughlin's hate filled tirades.
Pittsburgh’s quaintly named Squirrel Hill had been one of the oldest and safest Jewish neighborhoods in the United States. That changed on Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018, when a lone shooter murdered 11 worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue. It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.
Mark Oppenheimer’s Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood (Knopf), focuses not on the killer, but on the reactions of Pittsburghers in general, and especially the responses of Squirrel Hill residents. That is why it is likely to become the definitive study of the horrific massacre that attracted global attention.
Oppenheimer, the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a former religion columnist for The New York Times, is uniquely qualified to describe the shooting and its aftermath. His great-great-great grandfather settled in Pittsburgh in the 1840s, and the author’s father was born in the city.
In the course of his research, Oppenheimer made 32 trips to Pittsburgh from his home in Connecticut. He writes: “The question that I started coming to Pittsburgh with,” he writes, “was how does the fact of Squirrel Hill, with its close-knit neighborhood—close-knit both geographically, but also emotionally and spiritually—affect people’s recovery in the aftermath of a mass tragedy?”
In How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion (Simon & Schuster), Northeastern University Psychology professor David DeSteno asserts that even skeptics, not just believers, can draw strength and comfort from religion in their personal lives. "Science and religion," he writes, "have often been at odds. But if we remove the theology -- views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like -- from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates."
Throughout his well-researched book, DeSteno demonstrates how psychological insights on well-being align with religious practices across faith communities. He believes that in combination, these disciplines can provide believers and non-believers with a toolbox for coping with the vicissitudes of human existence.
Like many before him, DeSteno describes how religious life-cycle events, prayers, rituals, and liturgies anchored to the concepts of virtue, empathy, compassion and gratitude can provide a healthy rootedness in one's life.
So far so good.
Elie Wiesel is generally known as a famous Holocaust survivor and author of the book Night. In his succinct new biography, Elie Wiesel: Humanist Messenger For Peace (Routledge), Professor Alan L. Berger brilliantly portrays his former teacher and Nobel Peace Prize winner as a global champion of universal human rights who had an extraordinary impact on contemporary American political, religious, and cultural life.
Berger, the chair for Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University, recounts Wiesel’s 1928 early life in the small Romanian village of Sighet in the Carpathian Mountains and how his father urged Eliezer to read the world’s classic literature while his mother pressed him to engage in intensive Torah study in the broadest sense of the term. That parental combination shaped Wiesel’s career as a gifted author who wrote in French and English (neither was his native language) while being fully anchored in both Hebrew and Yiddish.
Wiesel survived the Shoah as a teenage prisoner at two infamous Nazi German death camps: Auschwitz in Poland and Buchenwald in Germany. His immediate family was shattered during the Holocaust. Both his parents and one of Wiesel’s three sisters were murdered. When World War II ended, the orphan made his way to Paris, learned French and began a career as a journalist. In 1949 Wiesel became the Paris correspondent for the Israel newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
A major turning point in Wiesel’s life occurred in 1954, when he interviewed Francois Mauriac, the Catholic Nobel Prize winner for literature. Mauriac urged the young survivor to write about his death camp experiences.
(RNS) — The death of Bob Moses on Sunday (July 25) at age 86 should make anyone who dares meddle with Americans’ voting rights in this country pause. The life of the great educator and civil rights leader in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there may be no more noble cause and that it attracts powerful champions.
I met the 29-year-old Moses at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964, when I was a young rabbi serving Congregation B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, I had been deeply moved months before by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial.
In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as its official representative to participate in the interreligious Ministers’ Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors and Episcopal priests from all over the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the town’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to take a detailed and lengthy test that only a constitutional scholar could pass, designed to systematically deprive them of their vote.
In 2010, during Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan’s tense Senate confirmation hearing, Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who supported her nomination, jokingly asked President Barack Obama’s nominee what she did on Christmas Day. It was a strange, even bizarre question because it had nothing to do with her judicial qualifications. But Kagan’s humorous reply completely disarmed her Senatorial opponents: “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” But there is much more to the Jewish-Chinese connection than choosing food from column A or column B on a menu on December 25th.
In his fascinating book, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China (Penguin), Jonathan Kaufman tells the little-known history of how two remarkable Sephardic families became major economic and political forces in China.
Originally from Baghdad, the Sassoons and the Kadoories established rival commercial empires during the 19th and 20th centuries in Shanghai and Hong Kong. For more than 175 years, these families profited greatly in shipping, commodities, textiles, real estate, and selling recreational and medicinal opium to the Chinese.
On April 21, 1991, my wife Marcia and I were among the 150 guests President George H. W. Bush invited to the formal dedication service of the newly constructed Interfaith Chapel at Camp David, the presidential retreat.
Two years earlier, I was the only Jewish member of a 15-person committee charged with raising funds to build the chapel and determine its design.
The debate that ensued over the proposed images on the chapel’s 8 stained-glass windows brought to the surface the tension between those who see America as a Christian nation and those who, like me, believe that the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and conscience for all its citizens.
Despite the chapel’s official interfaith name and announced purpose, some members insisted that our mission was to create a Christian church.
What I call “The Battle of Camp David” began when the highly skilled, deeply religious Christian émigré artist, Rudolph Sandon, and his wife, Helen, laid out the initial sketches of their window designs. Six of the 8 contained the denominational logos of major Protestant bodies, including the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church. The seventh featured a Christian cross representing Roman Catholicism, and the eighth combined symbols of Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
April 11, 2021, marks a significant date in the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel: the 60th anniversary of the opening of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961. It coincided with the young Jewish state’s bat/bar mitzvah year of national independence. These two contrasting events represented a microcosm of modern Jewish history.
An obersturmbannführer, or lieutenant colonel, in the dreaded Nazi SS, Eichmann was the chief logistical officer in charge of the mass murder of more than six million Jews during the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust). He escaped from an Allied prison camp after World War II and fled to Argentina, where he assumed a new name and identity.
As a result, he was not among the top Nazi war criminals that the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France placed on trial during the famous Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1945.
For 15 years, Eichmann’s whereabouts remained elusive, and although he was called the major architect of the ”Final Solution” (the bland Nazi term for the mass murder of the Jewish people), he lived openly with his family near Buenos Aires and worked in a local Mercedes-Benz factory.
Rabbi James Rudin
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