Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Close to Home?

Ever since the ban on minarets in Switzerland was announced, I've been mulling over the similarities and differences between that and the restrictions on synagogue construction that was prevalent in pre-World War II Europe. I seem to remember, for instance, that synagogues in Germany, until the Neue Syangoge in the mid-1800s, were required to be built behind a plain facade and away from the street. Even after the Neue Synagogue was built, it was met with significant criticism (much of it anti-Semitic in tone) that has echoes in the rhetoric used about the minarets today.

So, I was very pleased to see an article in JTA by Ruth Ellen Gruber, author and journalist, that addressed this very issue. While she doesn't see exact parallels, the recent ban certainly recalls those earlier restrictions and considers it to be a true cause for concern.

"I know it's a very long way from a ban on new minarets to the much more drastic measures that led to this state of affairs. But as my brother Sam put it, "Restricting specific types of religious or cultural expression -- especially when such restrictions are deliberate exceptions to existing building, zoning, health and safety codes -- is discriminatory." It is, he said, "an act of denigration of cultural custom and, by extension, of the people who cherish, or the religion that requires, those very customs."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Don't Rain on My Parade

I am using my executive powers as writer of this blog to post this tangentially Jewish-related video clip. It's from the finale of Glee with Rachel (Jewish female lead) singing Don't Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl (about a Jewish protagonist), not to mention one of Barbra Streisand's (also Jewish) signature vehicles. Have I belabored the point enough? Anyway, ignore me and just watch. Amazing!!


While perusing the bookshelves at Barnes and Nobel yesterday, I came across a wonderful graphic novel entitled The Rabbi’s Cat by the French artist/author, Joann Sfar, best known in the US for his children’s series, The Little Vampire. The Rabbi’s Cat tells the story of a Rabbi, his daughter Zlabya, and their talking cat who live in Algiers in the 1930s when Algeria was still part of France. Narrated by the cat, who is studying to become Bar Mitzvah, the intricate illustrations and the gentle, yet poignant story line draws readers into a seemingly simple world that soon reveals itself in all its complexities. Perfectly situated on the line between perfect and im, wise and bumbling, sacred and profane, Sfar characters made me nostalgic for a time and place that exists only within his, and now my, imagination. But the themes that he draws upon, of internal religious struggle, of familial bonds, of humanness are universal and very real.

The only drawback of the book is the unwritten epilogue. Although only we know it of course, Sfar’s creations are heading for an abyss that they do not see. I can hope that with the help of ever wise magical cat, they will manage to survive.

Even if the very thought of a graphic novel finds you running towards the nearest exit, resist. This is most definitely a book worth getting to know.

Dear Mr. Shalev

Well, the mystery is solved…sort of. The infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign stolen from Auschwitz three days ago has been recovered on the other side of the country from where it was taken. At this point, the Polish police are refusing to comment on the circumstances surrounding the theft or on the motives although five men have been detained. But what has been most striking throughout this whole incident is the wild rhetoric that erupted in its wake. The comment that really got my attention, was one made by Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, the day the sign was reported missing. According to reports by JTA and the BBC, he called the theft “a true declaration of war.”

To which I say: Mr. Shalev, please explain yourself. What does “a true declaration of war” mean? Who is Israel now at war with? With all of Poland? With Polish neo-Nazis (the presumed perpetrators)? With the thieves themselves? With anti-Semitism? And is it all of Israel that is now at war with one or all of these groups or is it just Yad Vashem? Or are Jews around the world at war? Will I be expected to grab a weapon and fight? Yes, I am being a little flip and perhaps it’s not appropriate, but with all due respect, your reaction completely over the top. Yes, this was a vandalization of a sacred place for Jews and for all other groups imprisoned and killed in Auschwitz. But the Polish government and police acted appropriately and after only three days, the sign was found. If these civil bodies reacted more coolly or ignored the incident all together, then it would be cause for greater outrage. But they didn’t.

Moreover, while the theft of the sign is serious, it’s still less serious than if a synagogue had been torched, Jewish Poles had been killed, or any other acts of senseless violence had been perpetrated. Again, if that were the case, then it would be cause for serious concern. But it wasn’t. So please Mr. Shalev, save your declarations of war for the truly heinous acts.

Update (1/1/10): It looks like the Swedes might have been behind the theft.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Complex Justice

The current trials involving alleged Nazi concentration camp guards provoke some complex questions about what constitutes justice. The question is not so much should they be punished, but rather what form that punishment should take. I discuss this in greater detail a recent post for Moment Magazine.

But there are some other areas which I didn't explore: the concept, for instance, of collective guilt. If the families of these former Nazis knew about their father's/grandfather's past, and didn't do anything, should they be held accountable as well? If so, in what way? Should they also be jailed? If they didn't know, should they be pressured to take responsibility for their father's/grandfather's actions? What what form would that pressure take?

And what do these trials offer Holocaust survivors and their families today? A spokesperson for Yad Vashem suggests that it offers some modicum of justice. But again, what kind of justice? All of the accused are elderly and many in ill health. If we morally can't hold their families responsible for their actions, then there is no long-term punishment for these men. We won't be cutting them off from life or happiness prematurely. Yes, they will at long last be imprisoned, but it is only temporary. Others may argue that these trials demonstrates that Germany is exorcising its sins. But few people would argue that Germany hasn't done enough to come to terms with its past. Would these trials really mean the difference between forgiving Germany or not? Would it mean opening up the discussion about the Holocaust in the way that the Eichmann trial did in the 60s? Again, I think not.

I certainly don't have all the answers, (although I do make some suggestions) but would like to hear what some of you think.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Quick Links

For more background on Muslim assimilation in Europe, I would highly recommend the Council on Foreign Relations report, Europe: Integrating Islam by Toni Johnson.

Switzerland is apparently the gift that just keeps giving. Yesterday, JTA reported to that a mainstream political leader is calling for a ban on separate cemeteries for Muslims and Jews.

For some levity, Jon Stewart comments on the minaret ban in Switzerland.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver's Travels - Switzerland
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New Gig

If you like what I write about here, come check me out at InTheMoment, the blog of Moment Magazine. My first post about the Swiss ban on minarets is up and awaiting your comments!