Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jewish history

The Incoherence of Netanyahu’s Most Strident Critics

Near the end of his new autobiography, David Axelrod sheds some light on President Obama’s distaste for democracy. “Obama has limited patience or understanding for officeholders whose concerns are more parochial–which would include most of Congress and many world leaders,” Axelrod writes, in noting Obama’s preference for supercilious vanity projects. Yet while Axelrod paints with a broad brush, he gives two examples, and they are telling. He writes: “Whether it’s John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu, few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies.” This passage is an important preamble to the current dustup between the two administrations.

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Near the end of his new autobiography, David Axelrod sheds some light on President Obama’s distaste for democracy. “Obama has limited patience or understanding for officeholders whose concerns are more parochial–which would include most of Congress and many world leaders,” Axelrod writes, in noting Obama’s preference for supercilious vanity projects. Yet while Axelrod paints with a broad brush, he gives two examples, and they are telling. He writes: “Whether it’s John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu, few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies.” This passage is an important preamble to the current dustup between the two administrations.

One of the regular critiques from the administration and its spokesmen in the media of tomorrow’s speech by Netanyahu is that Bibi just wants to use the speech as a prop in his own reelection campaign. As Axelrod’s book demonstrates, catering to voters and representing their interests in the government is borderline incomprehensible to Obama. His disdain for other world leaders who follow the wishes of their employers–the taxpayers–instead of doing what Obama wants is especially strange, considering its undisguised imperialist overtones.

And Netanyahu, of late, has found himself the world leader who values democratic elections far too much for Obama’s taste. When Netanyahu pressed ahead with giving the speech to a joint session of Congress, the Obama administration said they’d hit back, and suggested one way of doing so would be for them to bash Bibi through the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, as they often do when they want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. They did so; here is how Goldberg delivers the talking point:

It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington.

You can set aside the obviously false characterization of Netanyahu’s culpability. According to Goldberg–and the administration–Netanyahu’s “main” concern is not Israel’s perceived existential threats or a bad Iran deal or President Obama’s repeated insistence on selling out Israel (sometimes during wartime).

Now, obviously Netanyahu cares about reelection. He’s a politician in a democracy, and is acting as one, not as a tyrant or a religious cult figure. His decision to accept the speech without the president’s support was also clearly a mistake. He compounded that mistake by not backing out or rescheduling when he had ample opportunity to do so. And his mistake has already had tangible effects: the speech has almost certainly destroyed the possibility of the very veto-proof sanctions he hoped to inspire, at least for now.

But sufferers of Bibi Derangement Syndrome don’t see “mistakes”; they see arson. They violate the cardinal rule of democratic politics in a free society: Don’t attribute to malice what can be more easily explained by incompetence.

And the Obama-Axelrod-Goldberg line is strange for another reason: the belief that Bibi doesn’t take the long view but instead focuses on near-term electoral fortunes is pretty much the opposite of what the administration’s critique of him had previously been. In May 2011, the consensus was that Netanyahu was practically obsessed with incorporating the grand sweep of history into his dialogue with Obama. “Like many of you, I watched the Prime Minister of Israel publicly lecture the President of the United States on Jewish history with a mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment,” Goldberg wrote in a post titled “Netanyahu Continues to Needlessly Alienate.”

(It was a common framing. ABC News: “In Oval Office, Bibi Offers History Lessons to Obama.” Chicago Sun-Times: “Obama gets Netanyahu Israeli history lecture.”)

Netanyahu has also come in for criticism for saying “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs… preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state.” And the press has taken a couple swings at him for referencing Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the establishment of Israel against the wishes of the State Department and other governmental agencies in his speeches, as he did this morning at AIPAC.

Also in his speech this morning, the prime minister returned to the long view of Jewish history:

For 2,000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak in our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves. Well, no more. No more. The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us–those days are over.

It’s no surprise the recitation of history makes Obama uncomfortable. As we’ve seen, the president’s ignorance of history is comprehensive, but he is especially unknowledgeable on Israeli and Jewish history. It doesn’t seem to interest him, and it shows.

So it’s always been a bit rich for the president who thinks history started with his own presidential election to accuse others of not thinking about the big picture. What Obama means by this is actually that these other politicians and world leaders aren’t thinking enough about Obama’s legacy, which he’d like them to prioritize over the needs and wants of their citizens, Israel being no exception.

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On the Death (and Life) of Martin Gilbert

Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.

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Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.

I emailed Gilbert my question. He responded with a warm note and emailed me a digital copy of a page of his manuscript for his book Churchill and the Jews. The book was already published (indeed it was already in paperback), so he could have referred me to the book. Had he wanted to be even more helpful, he could have given me a page number. But he sent me the page from the manuscript that he thought might be of the most help to my column in part because the page had his own notes on it. He was giving me not just the finished copy, but the thought process that led to it.

A few things struck me about the exchange. The first was that Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, had essentially volunteered to do my research for me. The second was that I had never met nor spoken to Gilbert before that, so it wasn’t as though he was taking this effort for a friend. Then I realized just how generous he must be with actual friends and colleagues.

But far more important for Gilbert’s legacy was what it said about his approach to historiography. Martin Gilbert had a rare combination of intellectual ambition and personal humility. On an issue related to Winston Churchill and also to the events leading up the founding of the State of Israel–two monumental subjects of the 20th century–there was absolutely no question that Gilbert was the man to ask. That is an accomplishment in itself.

It was made more impressive by the fact that Gilbert was very good at his job. Anyone seeking to understand the 20th century simply couldn’t avoid relying to varying degrees on the path Gilbert set. For example, among just the books currently sitting on my desk next to me are Gilbert’s one-volume biography of Churchill, his history of Israel, his history of the 20th century (another anthology that was also released as a single-volume edition), and two volumes he edited: one of Churchill’s speeches and writings, and the other a historical atlas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Gilbert wrote a history of the Holocaust, a modern history of Jerusalem, and a history of the Jews living under Islamic rule, and he was the editor of Churchill’s papers. The higher the mountain, in other words, the more eager Gilbert was to climb it.

Gilbert’s books also had defining characteristics. For one, his books eschew the Western trend of self-flagellation while still remaining fully faithful to the historical record. They don’t drown in guilt and don’t whitewash either. For another, Gilbert’s humility found its way into his books.

One example of this is in his introduction to the Churchill biography. The great man lived a well chronicled life, and anyone writing a book on Churchill faces a similar question asked of American historians seeking to write about Abe Lincoln: What could you possibly add to the historical record?

For Gilbert, this was less of a problem because he had begun his work early on, while Churchill was still alive. He had less of a need, at least at the outset, to self-consciously distinguish himself. It was those who followed the path he cleared who had to do so. But he also made it clear that he took his job to be a historian first and foremost and thus he did not pretend to know his subject better than his subject knew himself. Gilbert allowed Sir Winston’s voice to remain more prominent than his own:

The record of Churchill’s life is a particularly full one, for which a vast mass of contemporary material survives. It is therefore possible, for almost every incident in which he was involved, to present his own words and arguments, his thinking, his true intentions, and his precise actions.

It may seem downright radical in this age of revisionism and reinterpretation, but Gilbert’s history was living history, not a lecture.

He was also willing to learn from his fellow historians. In reviewing Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The Holocaust and the Historians for COMMENTARY in 1981, Gilbert opens with self-criticism. He notes that he had recently leafed through a new British biography of Hitler and was aghast at the shabby treatment of the Holocaust within its pages. But he said and did nothing else; he moved on. “Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s new book shows me how wrong it is to remain silent,” he writes, scolding himself for shirking a historian’s duty.

In reviewing Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews for COMMENTARY six years later, Gilbert treats his fellow historian’s work as a necessary corrective to the narrow lens through which many historians, himself included, view Jewish history. He writes that “what we now call the Holocaust has scarred, and will continue to scar, the Jewish consciousness, and will do so to such an extent that many students of universal Jewish themes, myself included, have already neglected, and will go on neglecting, the wider historical and cultural spheres for this one. It is for that reason as much as any that Paul Johnson’s new book is to be welcomed.”

This humility and sense of personal responsibility permeates Gilbert’s staggeringly accomplished career, and is one of the many reasons he will be sorrowfully missed and justly celebrated.

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American Jewry, the Holocaust, and the End of History

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and with it will come the usual raft of stories that fall into two categories. There are the stories marking the day’s solemnity, and the stories in which grouchy academics tell Jews, not in quite so many words, to get over it. Today also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a stark reminder of the aging of the generation of survivors. And this year it’s Shaul Magid who has stepped into the fray to tell American Jews that they are not Europeans and they are not Israelis, and so they should stop frowning so much.

In an essay at Tablet, Magid, author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, takes up the cause of Jacob Neusner and what he believes is Neusner’s “central thesis on American Judaism: The reception and in some cases mythicization of the Holocaust in American Jewry prevents American Jews from actualizing the distinct potential that exists for them to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution, or ‘negative Judaism,’ and toward a new identity that trusts the world enough to view itself as an integral part of an open society.”

It’s a long essay, so I hesitate to try to summarize it here. It’s also meandering, unsteady, and not quite able to stand on its own two feet, so I don’t want to attribute to it a clarity it doesn’t possess. But here is a coherent enough excerpt to get the point:

What is perhaps more distinctive to American Jewry is the second condition: the way the disappearance of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism as an imminent threat has obviated the need for a parochial social structure (I do not speak of the diminution of anti-Semitism worldwide, but only in America). When the need for social cohesion is removed, the perpetuation of collective identity must be generated from within. … Neusner argues that contemporary America, a society not plagued by anti-Semitism, is a new landscape that Jews must navigate in order to find resources other than pure ethnicity (ethnos) or negativity (the Holocaust) so as to construct a lasting sense of Jewish identity.

Given these two conditions, Jews in America have not abandoned the need, or desire, for a Jewish identity or “survival”; in fact, ironically, the notion of survival has arguably become an American Jewish obsession, as we can see by the collective Jewish hand-wringing that followed the 2013 Pew Poll. That is to say, survival becomes the primary concern, and even a dogma, of a collective void of any positive raison d’etre.

We’ll come back to the false, though mostly irrelevant, claim that survival is not a “positive raison d’etre.” The key here is that this argument is based on the conclusive idea that America is different. On its face, this is inarguable. But Magid, perhaps unintentionally, reveals what is so dangerous about this. He writes of the “Holocaust-Israel nexus” supposedly holding American Jews back: “it creates a Judaism whose foundations lie elsewhere (prewar Europe or Israel) making American Judaism ‘a spectator sport … spectators at someone else’s drama’.”

Well yes, American Judaism’s foundations lie elsewhere: Judaism is more than a few centuries old. American Judaism isn’t a separate religion—though many left-wing Jews in America do follow a politicized “Torah of Liberalism,” as Norman Podhoretz so accurately termed it. Judaism is not just its own history; Judaism is, in many ways, history itself. “Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision,” wrote Paul Johnson in the introduction to his History of the Jews. “It is world history seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim.” What’s more, Johnson adds that writing a history of the Jews enabled him to reconsider the very question, “what are we on earth for?”

He was able to do this, he writes, because he was examining a history spanning 4,000 years. Pace Magid and Neusner, a Judaism that looks back on its history is not a “negative Judaism.” It is a Judaism of self-knowledge and inspirational, miraculous persistence. And a Judaism that looks ahead (to Israel, for example) is not a Judaism unhappy in its present moment but rather one that embraces the future and its own capacity for turning darkness into light.

In the Mishnaic book Ethics of the Fathers, the Jews are taught: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This is precisely what an American Judaism that self-consciously differentiates itself from the Jews of Europe and the Jews of Israel would do. Magid, Neusner, and others may see in Jewish history a depressing series of calamities. But that’s an incomplete interpretation that stems from giving up the “obsession” with survival. The full Jewish story is one of repeated triumph, courage, and piety against all odds.

That story is not a version of “negative Judaism,” and neither is a focus on survival. Too much intellectual and emotional distance from the Holocaust would not only erode Jews’ ability to see danger coming, if indeed it does. It would also downplay the real theme of Jewish history: our people’s ability to come out the other side.

Non-Jews tend to see this better than we do ourselves—historians like Johnson, but also politicians like Britain’s Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote that “Israel has its problems, but it will still be around when the EU is one with Nineveh and Tyre.” That is the lesson of both Europe and Israel, dismal as the landscape might appear at times. Today we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. Critics of American Jewry’s Holocaust commemoration habits would be well served by remembering not only Auschwitz, but its liberation.

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Ordinary Heroes: The Jewish Peddlers

Professor Hasia R. Diner’s new book, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, published today by Yale University Press, is fascinating from the first sentence: “Roads Taken tells a story about a mass of ordinary people who in their ordinariness made history.”

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Professor Hasia R. Diner’s new book, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, published today by Yale University Press, is fascinating from the first sentence: “Roads Taken tells a story about a mass of ordinary people who in their ordinariness made history.”

Prof. Diner, a distinguished scholar of Jewish history and the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, has written an absorbing study of the experiences of the Jews “who made up the foot soldiers of the great Jewish migration,” as they came to countries in the new world–especially the one that offered them freedom and rights unmatched in any other country or in any other era. She writes that:

[T]he experience of Jewish immigrant peddlers in America provides ringing endorsement of American exceptionalism, a concept much discredited by American historians, but one that reclaims its vitality when we investigate the experiences of the Jews.

Roads Taken describes the vast exodus of European Jews, mostly to the United States, from the end of the eighteenth century until the mid-1920s, in prose that captures the extraordinary courage and sacrifice involved:

In that span of time, the long nineteenth century, more than three million Jews, about one-third of world Jewry, left their countries of origin, crossed some national border, in most cases got themselves across an ocean, or two, and set off on unfamiliar roads in a wide array of unfamiliar places which together constituted their new world. Their journeys altered the map of world Jewry. …

This tale starts with millions of young Jewish men, who [deprived of rights at home] … resolved to go far away and, in those new places, to take to the road as peddlers … leaving home and going off, probably for years, to barely known faraway lands, to be separated from [parents, wives, and sweethearts] by thousands of miles, across bodies of salt water, for some period of time, or maybe even forever.

In America, the Jewish peddlers became what Diner calls an “entrepreneurial proletariat,” who traveled throughout the expanding country to bring goods to people living in new cities and towns. They filled an economic vacuum, developing a system of distribution that facilitated the economic growth not only of the new far-flung communities but also of American manufacturing companies. In his 1938 book, Jewish Contribution to Civilization, the great British historian Cecil Roth praised the travelling peddlers for improving the lives of all Americans; Professor Diner’s scholarship brings to life exactly how that occurred.

The final sentence of her book is as eloquent as the first:

These millions of men who took up the peddlers’ pack [throughout North and South America and in Australia and other countries] and sat down on the seats of their wagons left the world a different place from the one they had found, changing themselves and making those places and Jewish history modern.

Thus the traveling Jewish peddlers–the beneficiaries of American exceptionalism–contributed to making America even more exceptional. This is a book of extraordinary scholarship, rendered in elegant language that reveals to both an academic and a general readership a vital aspect of modern Jewish history–one that, like much of Jewish history, affected more than the Jews alone.

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Cape Verde Works to Preserve Jewish Heritage

Most Americans have never heard of Cape Verde. The archipelago of volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa seldom breaks news in the United States unless one is addicted to the weather channel—hurricanes that strike the East or Gulf Coasts or the Caribbean often start as tropical depressions around the island nation.

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Most Americans have never heard of Cape Verde. The archipelago of volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa seldom breaks news in the United States unless one is addicted to the weather channel—hurricanes that strike the East or Gulf Coasts or the Caribbean often start as tropical depressions around the island nation.

Richard Lobban Jr., who alongside the Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham is the foremost Africanist in the United States, has called my attention to efforts within Cape Verde to restore and preserve its Jewish heritage. Jews may have arrived in Cape Verde as early as the 16th century as they fled religious persecution on the Iberian Peninsula. But these Jews—often masquerading as Christians or actual converts—assimilated into Verdean society. In the 19th century, however, Cape Verde absorbed a wave of Moroccan Jewish emigrants who migrated against the backdrop of Moroccan economic stagnation and opportunities on Cape Verde, which was an important trans-Atlantic trading hub. While many were Moroccan, a number also traveled to the islands on British passports, having acquired them because of their substantial trade with Gibraltar. Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, who became the island nation’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1991, is of Jewish descent.

Wherever I travel, I try to meet the Jewish community. I’ve never been to Cape Verde, although I’ve sailed to within a few dozen miles of its coast. My first published pieces were nearly twenty years ago in the Forward’s former “Letter from” series, exploring the Jewish communities I met in both Iran and Tajikistan. Over the years, I’ve also found myself among Jews in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, and explored the remnants of Jewish quarters in Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaymani. One day, I hope to add Cape Verde to the list.

So, what happened to the Cape Verdean Jews? Many of the nineteenth Jewish migrants were male, and married local women who were Catholic. As a result, the community again assimilated away. Here, of course, there is a lesson about the costs that intermarriage can exert on the viability of Jewish communities. Today, no practicing Jews permanently reside on Cape Verde.

Kudos to Cape Verde—and, specifically, the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (from which I learned much of the history I repeat here)–which has worked to restore the country’s Jewish cemeteries (many with Portuguese and Hebrew tombstone inscriptions), encourage Jewish-interest tourism to Cape Verde, and educate Cape Verdeans about Jewish contributions to the island nation. It is bittersweet, however, that in yet one more country, memories of the community are relegated to museums and heritage sites, and history is no longer being made on a daily basis.

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Don’t Fall For Palestinian Christmas Lies

Just as they did last year and every previous one, opponents of Israel are seeking to exploit the Christmas holiday by claiming Jesus was a Palestinian. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has made this absurd claim a holiday staple in keeping with the effort to portray the Jews as foreign colonists in their historic homeland. But while they should dismiss this canard out of hand, American Christians should still be thinking about the Middle East this season. With unknown numbers of Middle East Christians having been routed out of their homes or subject to murder, rape and dispossession by ISIS terrorists and other Islamist forces, this December 25th people of faith need to remember that the outcome of the struggle over the region cannot be ignored. It should also remind them that Christians should never think they could better the lives of their co-religionists by aiding efforts to destroy the other religious minority in the region: the Jews.

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Just as they did last year and every previous one, opponents of Israel are seeking to exploit the Christmas holiday by claiming Jesus was a Palestinian. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has made this absurd claim a holiday staple in keeping with the effort to portray the Jews as foreign colonists in their historic homeland. But while they should dismiss this canard out of hand, American Christians should still be thinking about the Middle East this season. With unknown numbers of Middle East Christians having been routed out of their homes or subject to murder, rape and dispossession by ISIS terrorists and other Islamist forces, this December 25th people of faith need to remember that the outcome of the struggle over the region cannot be ignored. It should also remind them that Christians should never think they could better the lives of their co-religionists by aiding efforts to destroy the other religious minority in the region: the Jews.

For the last century, Middle East Christians have been largely portrayed as being caught in the middle of a bitter war between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land. But this is a profound misunderstanding of the reality of the conflict. Though many Christians have been prominent Arab nationalists, their effort to identify with the struggle against Zionism has not led to greater acceptance for Christians within Palestinian society or the Arab and Muslim world in general. To the contrary, over the decades, the Palestinian national movement has taken an increasingly Islamist tone as even allegedly secular figures like Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas have adopted the language of Islamist triumphalism. This is due in part to their need to compete with Islamist rivals like Hamas but also because it reflects the cultural and religious roots of the struggle to destroy Israel. Palestinians and their Arab and Muslim supporters have never sought to create a state alongside Israel but to ensure that no part of the region should be under majority Jewish sovereignty.

Looking beyond the Palestinians, the fighting in Iraq and Syria as ISIS has swept to control of vast territories in both those countries has reflected a similarly level of intolerance toward non-Muslim minorities. Simply put, an Islamist tide that has swept through the region has made Christians an endangered minority. Though there is nothing new about this dilemma, the atrocities visited upon ISIS’s Christian victims make the stakes in this struggle all too clear.

Turning back to the Palestinians, the same dynamic has led to a massive exodus of Christians from the territories. Though anti-Israel polemicists falsely attribute this dispersion to Israeli actions, it is the increasingly militant efforts of Hamas as well as their supposedly secular rivals in Fatah that has made life in many traditionally Christian towns like Bethlehem increasingly untenable for non-Muslims. By contrast, Israel remains the one nation in the region that is not only a functional democracy but also where Christian rights and those of all religions are respected. By contrast, the Palestinians make no bones about their future state being a place where no Jew would be welcome. Do American Christians really think their co-religionists will fare any better in such a state, whose main purpose will be to pursue efforts to try and destroy what will be left of the Jewish state?

American Christians should not fall for the Palestinians Christmas lies or their attempts to falsely portray Israel as the obstacle to peace. This Christmas there will be plenty of lip service paid to the cause of peace. But until Palestinians stop trying to deny Jewish history and therefore the rights of Jews to live in peace and security in their ancient homeland, lip service is all the cause of coexistence will get.

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UNESCO Fiasco Explains Why ME Talks Fail

Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

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Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

The UNESCO decision to avoid anything having to do with the history of the region might make sense if the world body refrained from endorsements of the Palestinian view of events. But this is the same United Nations that holds an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (expanded now to a “Year of Solidarity” in 2014), an event that is nothing less than an Israel-bashing festival, replete with pseudo-historical displays aimed at walking back the UN’s 1947 decision to create a Jewish state in the then-British Mandate for Palestine alongside an Arab one.

As Wistrich says in an interview with the Times of Israel, given UNESCO’s history of anti-Israel bias, he was skeptical from the start of the process of creating the exhibit. But he is especially angry about the State Department’s refusal to endorse the exhibit and not unreasonably believes it may have set the stage for Bokova’s decision to bail on the project:

The State Department had been repeatedly asked to cosponsor the exhibition, and “after sitting on the fence for a long time they declined, using a very similar argument to that used by the Arab delegates,” Wistrich said.

Earlier this month, Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, wrote to the Wiesenthal Center: “At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to cosponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters. As a rule, the United States does not cosponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.”

“That makes the U.S., passively at least, complicit in the UNESCO decision,” Wistrich charged. “Because in my view UNESCO would not have felt that it could, with impunity, act in this way if the U.S. had been a cosponsor.”

The reason that the exhibit was necessary in the first place was to correct the depiction of the state of Israel purveyed by the Palestinians and their international cheerleaders as a colonial error in which Jews were dumped on Arab territory in order to compensate for the Holocaust. If Jews are seen as having connections and a presence in historic Israel/Palestine millennia before 1948, it undermines the canard—a staple of Palestinian Authority propaganda and incitement—to delegitimize the notion that Jews have any right to sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East, making peace talks pointless.

That is exactly the sort of delusional perspective the State Department should be working hard to oppose. But the American decision to distance itself from the project sent an unmistakable message that the Obama administration views any talk about Jewish ties to the land as too controversial to warrant its involvement. So long as the Palestinians are enabled by both the UN and the U.S. to continue denying Jewish history, the peace process that both Bokova and the State Department claim to take so seriously  has no chance of success. 

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More Christmas Lies from Palestinians

It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

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It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

However one approaches the narrative about Christianity’s origins, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was a Jew, not an Arab. The only point of transforming him into a Palestinian Arab is to hijack the history of biblical-era Judaism in order to burnish the myth that current-day Jews have no place in the land of Israel. That this is a transparent and gross falsehood has not prevented this assertion from being a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

Just as false is the other part of Abbas’s message:

Abbas took the occasion to decry Israel’s security policies, saying, “this Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.”

“We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”

The persecution of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world is widespread and has become the subject of increasing concern on the part of Western Christians, such as Britain’s prince of Wales. But the Palestinians have attempted, with the complicity of local Christian authorities desperate to curry favor with the Muslim majority, to deflect responsibility for the way Islamists have marginalized or forced Christians to emigrate from the territories to Israel. Though Christians remain a small minority in Israel, they have full rights even if the Jewish majority is still uncomfortable with the display of Christian symbols, as the Knesset’s reluctance to display a Christmas tree illustrated.

But here again Abbas is playing the rejectionist card by alluding to the descendants of the 1948 refugees that he claims are being prevented from worshipping in “their homeland.” The point of bringing those refugees to Israel isn’t to worship but to attempt to reverse the verdict of history on the events of 1948, another sign that Abbas is too weak to sign a peace deal that would end the conflict, even if he continues to insist that he wants a state along the 1967 lines. Moreover, no one should be fooled into thinking that the Christian Arab minority among Palestinians are equal partners with the Sunni Muslim majority. To them they are nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region. The video released by the PLO (that Abbas heads) in which a Christian figure, whether the pope or Jesus, travels the land witnessing supposed Israeli atrocities before smashing through Israel’s security fence is more fodder along these lines.

We can hope that one day Abbas or one of his successors will mean what they say about peace on earth during the Christmas season. We’ll know that they are serious when they stop pretending that Jesus was a Palestinian. Until then, it’s clear that for the Palestinians, Christmas is just another day on the calendar whose purpose is to delegitimize Israel and to deny Jewish history and rights.

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What Will Become of Iraqi Jewish Artifacts?

Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

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Operation Iraqi Freedom had many side stories, but one of the most important to historians and religious scholars was the discovery of a vast archive of Iraqi Jewish artifacts that had been seized and in some cases stolen from the Iraqi Jewish community by Saddam Hussein and kept off-limits in the basement of Iraq’s secret police headquarters. When U.S. forces bombed the mukhabarat building, the basement flooded, soaking and in some cases submerging centuries-old manuscripts and other objects. The New York Times adds some detail to the initial discovery.

The Washington Post also has described the treasure trove:

The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna. There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.

In 2003, the U.S. government transferred much of the material to the United States in order to restore and conserve it:

The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a “mobile exploitation team” assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons… After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry. They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But “between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy,” Hamburg said. The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help. The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman. In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation. Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.

The National Archives has posted before-and-after photos of some of the documents. After the exhibit closes on January 5, 2014, the material will be returned to Iraq. This has rightly caused some consternation and, indeed, outrage among Iraqi Jews, whom successive Iraqi regimes forced into exile, confiscating property and communal heritage. What for the Iraqi government may a question of sovereignty, Iraqi Jews see as a question of justice. The State Department, not surprisingly, sided with Baghdad. Perhaps had they tried harder, they could have threaded the needle and assuaged both parties. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will honor its commitments to safeguard the trove, there is no guarantee once there is a transition of power. Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr would like nothing better than to build a bonfire to eradicate the last of Iraq’s Jewish heritage.

While a more progressive Iraqi government might require school children to tour the repository to gain a better understanding of Iraq’s true heritage, the chance of that happening in the coming years is miniscule. Iraq might see its possession of the Jewish archive as confirmation of its sovereignty, but it should also see it as an opportunity to rebrand Iraq abroad, perhaps by keeping the Jewish archive as a traveling exhibit into the next decade. It could attract thousands of people across Europe, Asia, and the United States who see Iraq only as a nation of conflict, and educate them about other faces of Iraq. Let us hope that Iraq’s victory will not be Pyrrhic, because if anything happens to this treasure trove, that will cap a legacy already hard to live down.

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The Big Problem in Jerusalem Isn’t the Jews

In time for the Jewish calendar’s fall holiday season (Jews around the world are celebrating Sukkot—the feast of tabernacles—this week), today’s New York Times took up the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, we are told, troublemaking Jews are breaking the rules and making coexistence, if not peace, that much more difficult. Since some Jewish extremists do foolishly dream of replacing the mosques that are atop the Mount (which looks down on the Western Wall) with a rebuilt Third Temple, a scheme that would set off a religious war no sane person would want, Israel has always sought to keep the peace in the city by limiting Jewish visits and prohibiting Jewish prayer there. So with increasing numbers of Jews wanting to look around and perhaps even surreptitiously utter a prayer, the conceit of the Times piece appears to be that this is just one more instance in which Israelis are giving their Arab neighbors a hard time and pushing them out of a city that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths.

But however dangerous any idea of endangering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque might be to world peace, the Jews are not the problem in Jerusalem. That’s because the dispute in the city isn’t really so much about who controls the Temple Mount but the Muslim effort to deny the Jewish history that is literally under their feet. Were it just a question of sharing sacred space, reasonable compromises that would give full Muslim autonomy over their holy sites while allowing Jewish prayer at the spiritual center of Judaism would be possible since Jewish extremists who want to evict Islam from the place are a tiny minority. Yet as long as the official position of both the Muslim Wakf religious authority, which has been allowed by Israel to govern the place since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Palestinian Authority is that the Temples never existed and that Jews have no rights to their ancient capital, that will constitute the real obstacle to peace.

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In time for the Jewish calendar’s fall holiday season (Jews around the world are celebrating Sukkot—the feast of tabernacles—this week), today’s New York Times took up the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount where, we are told, troublemaking Jews are breaking the rules and making coexistence, if not peace, that much more difficult. Since some Jewish extremists do foolishly dream of replacing the mosques that are atop the Mount (which looks down on the Western Wall) with a rebuilt Third Temple, a scheme that would set off a religious war no sane person would want, Israel has always sought to keep the peace in the city by limiting Jewish visits and prohibiting Jewish prayer there. So with increasing numbers of Jews wanting to look around and perhaps even surreptitiously utter a prayer, the conceit of the Times piece appears to be that this is just one more instance in which Israelis are giving their Arab neighbors a hard time and pushing them out of a city that is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths.

But however dangerous any idea of endangering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque might be to world peace, the Jews are not the problem in Jerusalem. That’s because the dispute in the city isn’t really so much about who controls the Temple Mount but the Muslim effort to deny the Jewish history that is literally under their feet. Were it just a question of sharing sacred space, reasonable compromises that would give full Muslim autonomy over their holy sites while allowing Jewish prayer at the spiritual center of Judaism would be possible since Jewish extremists who want to evict Islam from the place are a tiny minority. Yet as long as the official position of both the Muslim Wakf religious authority, which has been allowed by Israel to govern the place since the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Palestinian Authority is that the Temples never existed and that Jews have no rights to their ancient capital, that will constitute the real obstacle to peace.

At the heart of this conundrum is an error in Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren’s story. In an effort to give some historical background to the dispute, she writes the following:

In 2000, a visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, accompanied by 1,000 police officers, prompted a violent outbreak and, many argue, set off the second intifada.

Many may argue that, but it is a flat-out lie. As figures within the Palestinian Authority have long since publicly admitted, the intifada was planned by then leader Yasir Arafat long before Sharon took a stroll on the site of the Temples around the Jewish New Year. The intifada was a deliberate strategy in which Arafat answered Israel’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem that would have included the Temple Mount. The terrorist war of attrition was intended to beat down the Israelis and force them and the United States to offer even more concessions without forcing the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Sharon’s visit was merely a pretext that has long since been debunked.

Rudoren deserves to be roasted for passing along this piece of propaganda without even noting the proof to the contrary. But the problem here is more than just an error that shows the way she tends to swallow Palestinian lies hook, line, and sinker. That’s because the significance of the Sharon story lies in the way, Palestinian leaders have used the Temple Mount for generations to gin up hate against Israelis.

It bears pointing out that almost from the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, those seeking to incite an Arab population that might regard the economic growth that came with the influx of immigrants as a good thing used the mosques on the Mount to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment. The pretext for the 1929 riots in which Jews were attacked across the country and the ancient community of Hebron was wiped out in a pogrom was a false rumor about the mosques being attacked. Arafat used the same theme to gain support for his otherwise inexplicable decision to tank the Palestinian economy in his terrorist war. Similarly, inflammatory sermons given in the mosques have often led to Muslim worshippers there raining down rocks on the Jewish worshippers in the Western Wall plaza below.

Israelis can argue about whether restoring even a minimal Jewish presence on the Temple Mount is wise. Some Orthodox authorities have always said that due to doubt about the presence of the Temple’s most sacred precincts no Jew should step foot on the plateau, although that is a point that seems less salient due to recent archeological discoveries. Others believe that any effort to contest Muslim ownership of the site converts a territorial dispute into a religious or spiritual one and should be avoided at all costs.

But, like so many internal Jewish and Israeli debates, these arguments miss the point about Arab opinion. As with other sacred sites to which Muslims lay claim, their position is not one in which they are prepared to share or guarantee equal access. The Muslim view of the Temple Mount is not one in which competing claims can be recognized, let alone respected. They want it Jew-free, the same way they envision a Palestinian state or those areas of Jerusalem which they say must be their capital.

It is in that same spirit that the Wakf has committed what many respected Israeli archeologists consider a program of vandalism on the Mount with unknown quantities of antiquities being trashed by their building program. Since they recognize no Jewish claim or even the history of the place, they have continued to act in this manner with, I might add, hardly a peep from the international community.

Thus while many friends of Israel will read Rudoren’s article and shake their heads about Israeli foolishness, the real story in Jerusalem remains the Palestinians’ unshakable determination to extinguish Jewish history as part of their effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. In the face of their intransigence and the fact that such intolerance is mainstream Palestinian opinion rather than the view of a few extremists, the desire of many Jews to visit a place that is the historic center of their faith (the Western Wall is, after all, merely the vestige of the Temple’s outer enclosure) doesn’t seem quite so crazy.

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David Gelernter on Judaism and Christian Art

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. This week, on Thursday, January 10, Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed there from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

Our valued contributor and friend David Gelernter, who is also a painter, has a splendid show up at the Yeshiva University Museum on 16th Street in Manhattan, which everyone in the New York area should go and see. This week, on Thursday, January 10, Gelernter will be delivering a characteristically provocative and original talk at 7 p.m. The talk is described thus:

Christian art, encompassing the architectural masterpieces of the Gothic era and much of the greatest painting and sculpture from the Renaissance through modern times, was molded in part by the genius of classical Greece, but ultimately owes its greatest debt, according to David Gelernter, to Judaism and the Jewish artistic sense. Join Gelernter for a discussion of the roots and nature of this debt, as well as of the duty of Jewish art and artists to help create worldwide recognition of the foundational role of Judaism in Western civilization. The program will be moderated by Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum.

David’s show, Sh’ma, can be viewed there from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. before his talk. Tickets are $15. For reservations, go to www.smarttix.com or call 212‐868‐4444. The museum is located at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street.

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