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Kurds Mark Holocaust Remembrance Day for First Time

May 19th, 2016


Ryan Mauro

Ryan Mauro

By Ryan Mauro /

Western media missed a giant step forward in the Middle East: The Kurds held the first Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 5, 2016) in the history of Iraq and Kurdistan. It is a remarkable act when you consider the huge degree of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in the region — and the Kurds did it without getting anything in return.

The Kurdish Ministry of Religion has a Jewish representative who led the event in Erbil, the capitol of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. A garden was used to display photos of the persecution that Jews faced. It included the showing of a short film, the lowering of the Kurdish flag to half-staff, the lighting of six candles to represent each million of Jewish victims, and prayers.

The leader of the Department for Religious Coexistence, Mariwan Naqshbandi, said the Kurds feel they have a “duty to support the Jewish religion. When you look at the towns as well as the villages in Kurdistan, you see many Jewish families have survived.”

The official set the reopening of a temple in Iraqi Kurdistan as an eventual objective. The Jewish representative from the Ministry of Religion said they’d start with a Jewish cultural center to educate the population about the religion and that a temple would come at a time when it is safe to do so.

“The first-ever Holocaust Remembrance Day observance in Kurdistan is a natural sequel to the first-ever remembrance of the Jews expelled from Iraq, which occurred on November 30 (2015) and garnered an overwhelming and unanimous amount of support from community, party, and religious leaders in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG),” said Zach Huff, an advisor to the KRG’s Ministry of Religion’s Jewish Affairs Directorate.

The Kurds are inviting to come to northern Iraq the 300,000 Kurdish Jews in the world, the majority of whom currently live in Israel.

To fully appreciate the significance of this step, it must be understood how Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are breathtakingly high in the world, especially the Muslim world.

A 2014 survey found that 63% of people the Middle East and North Africa either believe the Holocaust is a myth or is greatly exaggerated. Only 8% have heard of the Holocaust and believe in its historicity. And it’s getting worse: It found that young people are less aware of the Holocaust.

It’s depressing to think about: In today’s globalized age, access to the undeniable historical record of the Holocaust is only a click away. The truth is more accessible than ever, but we see the young becoming more ignorant about the dangerous lies pushed by Islamists and other anti-Semites.

By plowing against this negative trend, the Kurds are gardeners of peace. They are planting seeds that will grow truth and tolerance in a region desperately in need of it.

London’s new Muslim mayor

May 8th, 2016

By Shawn Pogatchnik / AP

London's new mayor, Sadiq Khan

London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan

DUBLIN (AP) — Sadiq Khan has a simple, striking message for Londoners: He won’t be merely a Muslim mayor, but a leader for all.

Khan celebrated his landslide election victory Saturday in a multi-denominational ceremony at an Anglican cathedral accompanied by London’s police chief, Christian and Jewish leaders, and stars of stage and screen.

They gave Khan a standing ovation as he pledged to be an approachable Everyman for his city of 8.2 million — including more than a million residents who, like him, happen to be Muslim.

“I’m determined to lead the most transparent, engaged and accessible administration London has ever seen, and to represent every single community and every single part of our city as a mayor for Londoners,” said Khan, the son of Pakistani-born immigrants who became a civil rights lawyer and, in 2005, London’s first Muslim member of Parliament.

“So I wanted to do the signing-in ceremony here, in the very heart of our city, surrounded by Londoners of all backgrounds,” he said in Southwark Cathedral, a few miles (kilometers) north of the state housing project where he grew up in the London district of Tooting.

Khan’s Labour Party candidacy to lead London triumphed in the face of a Conservative campaign seeking to tar him as sympathetic to Islamic extremists. Supporters said Khan’s own message — that a victory for him would show the world how tolerant and open Britain was — carried far more power.

“To have a Muslim mayor seems preferable to me to any alternative regardless of the politics,” said actor Sir Ian McKellen, who greeted Khan at the cathedral gates. “I hope it’s an image that will go round the world as representing a new sort of England that’s at peace with itself regardless of race and so on. That’s the beauty of it.”

Leading Muslim activists in the Conservative Party expressed shame and anger over their own candidate Zac Goldsmith’s attacks on Khan, saying they had recklessly stoked racism and intolerance. The final round of ballot confirming confirmed early Saturday that Khan received 57 percent of votes, Goldsmith 43 percent.

Many criticized Goldsmith’s final published appeal in a right-wing Sunday newspaper warning that London stood “on the brink of a catastrophe” if it elected Khan. The article claimed that Khan and Labour considered terrorists their friends and would handicap police efforts to prevent another attack on London, 11 years after 52 Londoners died in suicide blasts on three subway trains and a bus committed by British-born Muslims. Goldsmith’s appeal was accompanied by a picture of the bomb-ravaged bus.

Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said he had been disgusted by the Goldsmith campaign tactics.

“We were meant to understand that Khan kept bad company with extremist Muslims and could not be trusted with the safety of London. On top of that, leaflets were targeted specifically at London Hindus and Sikhs … seeking to divide Londoners along religious and ethnic lines,” Amin wrote on a Conservative blog. He said the Conservative campaign sought to frighten non-Muslim voters “about Khan, the alleged Muslim extremist.”

Amin said he voted for Goldsmith because he opposes Labour policies, but could not stomach campaigning actively for him — and instead took pride in seeing Londoners vote so strongly for a fellow Muslim of Pakistani background.

Leading Conservatives defended their campaign tactics, even as they expressed surprise at losing a post locked down for the past eight years by the eccentrically popular Conservative, Boris Johnson.

Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who previously accused Khan of sharing a platform with a London imam sympathetic to the Islamic State extremist group, repeated those since-discredited claims Saturday and insisted such charges represented “the rough and tumble of politics.”

He also declined, when pressed several times on the matter, to withdraw his campaign claim that London’s security would be jeopardized by Khan.

“Stuff gets said during elections,” Fallon said.

Israel Wants to Extend Laws to Settlements

May 4th, 2016
sraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with ministers before a Cabinet meeting in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in April. (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with ministers before a Cabinet meeting in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in April. (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)

By Joshua Mitnick /

The Israeli justice minister has said she wants to extend civil laws to Jewish settlements in the West Bank [aka Judea and Samaria], a move that critics say would put the country at odds with the international community.

As Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told a forum of right-wing lawyers, she’s pushing a policy that would ensure that all legislation passed by parliament, the Knesset, would automatically be applied to settlements in the West Bank.

The land has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War. Palestinians want to form an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“My goal is that, within a year, for every law passed by the Knesset, there will be a team that will translate … it in Judea and Samaria,” Shaked said Sunday, May 1.

Shaked’s right-wing Jewish Home party is a junior partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. It’s unclear whether Netanyahu would support such a policy because it would undercut his declarations of support for negotiations to create a Palestinian state and could deepen Israel’s international isolation on such issues.

Opposition politicians and legal critics said Shaked’s proposal would enhance the legal disparity between 370,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements and 2.6 million Palestinians living in cities and villages.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked: “Can two people live at a distance of 30 meters, and one person will have one law and the other will have another law?”

Since re-capturing territories from Arab opponents in 1967, Israeli governments have taken steps to extend Israel’s laws to the Golan Heights and all of Jerusalem and offer permanent residency to Arabs living there, but have avoided a similar move in the West Bank even though it has expanded settlements.

Shaked’s comments are in line with annexation supported by her party, said Gilead Sher, a former legal advisor to Israeli government negotiating teams.

Women in Palestinian Culture–How to Hit Your Wife

May 2nd, 2016

PA Mufti of Gaza explains how to hit your wife: “Not hitting that will bring the police, and break her hand and cause bleeding”

Mufti of Gaza Hassan Al-Laham: “Allah created a solution for this (i.e., marital strife). How? Allah said: Warn them [the wives], and separate from them, and hit them, and bring an arbitrator from his family and an arbitrator from her family. [Only] after this comes divorce. The husband starts with a warning.”

(Female) PA TV host: “Explain to our viewers the steps a husband should take.”

Mufti: “The warning needs to be made politely by the husband to his wife, while he shows good relations, dialogue, respect, and humanity. She who stands before you is a human being. She is an independent person and deserves respect. You did not buy her as a slave, nor did you buy her in the market. She is a respectable woman from a respectable family, just as you are a respectable man from a respectable family. It may be that she is from a more socially respectable family than yours, however she became your wife, and she is under your command, and is under your care, so that you should treat her according to Allah’s command. The warning should be made using a good word, good treatment, and a positive look.”

TV host: “In order to stop the conflict from getting worse and resolve it.”

Mufti: “It is a warning. When she makes a mistake he will explain: ‘You shouldn’t do this and that.'”

TV host: “What is the stage after the warning, honored Sheik?”

Mufti: “‘[Koran:] Warn them [the wives] and separate from them.’ The separation means separation in the bedroom, in the home. Not outside. In other words, he will not show other people that there is a problem. But inside the home, at bedtime, if he separates from her and does not speak to her in the bedroom, she will ask why, and he will explain: ‘You made a mistake and I am angry about it.’ Perhaps this will lead to reconciliation…

“After the warning and separation, comes the hitting – hitting that does not make her ugly. The Prophet [Muhammad] said: ‘Do not hit the face and do not make her ugly.’ (Hadith) In other words, not hitting that will bring the police, and break her hand and cause bleeding, or hitting that makes the face ugly. No. As it is said [in a Hadith] ‘If not for this (i.e., the fear of retaliation), I would give you painful blows with a small brush.’ … The hitting is not meant to disfigure, harm, or degrade. The hitting will be like a joke. He will hit her jokingly. Not a blow that breaks a bone or makes the face ugly, and he will not curse and the like. This hitting is a kind of reminder that the love and friendship that Allah commanded is still found between us (i.e., the couple).”

Official Palestinian Authority TV Feb. 8, 2016 (2:34 min)

Granted a New Life by the Pope

May 1st, 2016

“Muslim governments should be ashamed. Instead of helping refugees, they close borders and stop visas.” –Nour Essa, saying that no Muslim leader has made the gesture the pope made.

By Tom Kington /

Refugees Nour Essa, husband Hasan Zaheda and son Riad are among the 12 Syrians plucked from a Greek camp by Pope Francis and placed with the charity Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

Refugees Nour Essa, husband Hasan Zaheda and son Riad are among the 12 Syrians plucked from a Greek camp by Pope Francis and placed with the charity Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

On a warm evening in Rome, as waiters flapped tablecloths for outdoor diners at a trattoria down the cobbled alley, Ramy Al Shakarji leaned back on a bench and laughed as he described how the head of the Roman Catholic Church, plucked him, a Muslim, from a squalid refugee camp in Greece and flew him to a new life.

“When we were given the chance to come to Rome, my wife and I took about three minutes to decide ‘yes,'” he recalls.

That was about all the time they had. It was 9 p.m. on April 15, a night before Pope Francis visited their refugee camp on the island of Lesbos.

Making the offer to move to Italy was Daniela Pompei, an official with Catholic charity Sant’Egidio, which was asked by the Vatican at the last minute to find families and then host them back in Rome at its refugee shelter in the bustling Trastevere neighborhood.

“I got to Lesbos three days before the pope and it was all done in a rush,” Pompei said.

Al Shakarji, 51, stopped laughing as he described the moment Francis greeted him before the flight. “I felt security and peace — a man like this is a father to the world,” he said.

The trip to Rome was the end of a long journey that started in Dair Alzour, a Syrian town under siege by Islamic State, where Al Shakarji recalls a rebellious neighbor’s decapitated head hanging from a balcony for three days.

“Don’t go to Syria,” he said grimly, drawing a finger slowly across his neck.

In March of last year, Al Shakarji decided to risk fleeing down mined roads and past snipers to reach Turkey, taking his wife and three children with him. Between Islamic State and the government of President Bashar Assad, he saw little hope for his family in Syria.

“My two sons were approaching the age for military service and to stop them becoming assassins, for either Assad or ISIS, we had to go,” he said.

Now, he says his oldest son plans on training as a dentist. But first, Sant’Egidio is organizing Italian lessons for the families in Trastevere.

Another of the Syrians brought to Rome with Francis is Nour Essa. Sitting outside a classroom at Trastevere, Essa clutched an Italian grammar book and tried out a hesitant “Come stai?” — “How are you?” — on an African refugee in her class.

Essa’s family history is a refugee tale that spans the 20th and 21st centuries. Her grandfather was a Palestinian who fled the new state of Israel in 1948 and settled in Syria.

“The difference is there were two sides in 1948, whereas in Syria you can’t understand how many sides there are,” said Essa, 30.

Essa had escaped some of the initial turmoil of Syria’s civil war. She was living in Montpellier, France, while studying for a master’s in microbiology, before returning to her job in 2013 at Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.

She then married and had a child, but the war was creeping into her Damascus suburb. “We lived between checkpoints loyal to Assad and the Free Syrian Army and in 2015 we could smell the sulfur from chemical weapon attacks,” she said.

Then her husband’s draft papers arrived. The couple fled, starting a terrifying, 10-day journey across ISIS-held territory in an ambulance and then in a cattle truck.

Stopping in Aleppo, her husband was ordered to fight by ISIS fighters — “real monsters,” said Essa. But a smuggler guided them through minefields toward Turkey, where after waiting out rough seas and numerous tangles with Turkish police, they made it to Lesbos on March 18, packed into a dinghy at night with 50 other refugees.

“We had heard the borders were closing and had to hurry,” she said.

Their rush paid off. The family made it to Lesbos just two days before a March 20 deadline set by the European Union, beyond which new arrivals in Greece were to be sent back to Turkey unless they claimed asylum in Greece.

Crucially, when selecting families to fly to Rome, Sant’Egidio took only those who arrived before the cutoff.

“I was shocked when we were asked if we wanted to go,” Essa said. “We shook the pope’s hand when we were on the plane and he caressed my 2-year-old son’s head.”

Addressing journalists on the flight back to Rome, Francis discussed the 12 Syrians on board, saying, “It will be the duty of the Vatican, in collaboration with the Sant’Egidio Community, to find them work, if possible, or to maintain them. They are guests of the Vatican.”

He added, “I did not make a choice between Christians and Muslims. These three families had their documents in order.” Then, quoting Mother Teresa, he said, “It’s a drop, it’s a drop of water in the sea, but after that drop, the sea will never be the same.”

Landing at 4:30 p.m. in Rome, the Syrians did not leave the airport until nearly four hours later after completing paperwork, the start of a process that should lead to them receiving asylum status in Italy.

Now, Essa is torn between trying to reach France, settling in Italy or one day returning to Syria, from where her mother is sending her WhatsApp messages daily.

What she is sure about is that no Muslim leader has made the gesture the pope did. “Muslim governments should be ashamed,” she said. “Instead of helping refugees, they close borders and stop visas for Syrians. If you want to work in Saudi Arabia, you cannot get a visa now.”

For Al Shakarji and his family, it appears Italy will be their new home. As the light faded in the courtyard outside the Sant’Egidio building, Al Shakarji’s 7-year-old daughter climbed onto his lap to say “ciao,” her first word in Italian.

“I will stay here in Italy and live like an Italian,” said Al Shakarji, adding with a laugh, “I am loving this lasagna.”

But he stopped laughing to add, “What I will not stop thinking about are the thousands of people still surrounded by ISIS in my hometown.”

U.S. shifts Sinai troops for safety

April 29th, 2016

Bt W.J. Hennigan /

The Pentagon has shifted more than 100 U.S. soldiers from a desert camp near the Egypt-Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula after a barrage of attacks by militants linked to Islamic State.

The U.S. troops, part of a little-known peacekeeping force that helps maintain the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, were transferred about 300 miles south to a more secure area.

The move comes as the Obama administration is considering whether to scale back the 700 U.S. troops in the Sinai and instead use remote sensors, cameras, and other technology to monitor the border.

Sinai Province, a militant group that last year declared allegiance to Islamic State, has carried out multiple attacks on military outposts in the northern Sinai. Its fighters have killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers, including eight this month when militants fired a rocket at their armored vehicle.

The extremist group claimed responsibility after a bomb exploded aboard a Russian-chartered passenger jet over the Sinai on Oct. 31 and killed all 224 passengers and crew. In July, the group hit an Egyptian frigate in the Mediterranean Sea with a shoulder-fired missile.

The Multinational Force of Observers, or MFO, has 1,680 troops from a dozen countries. The Americans, who live behind blast walls and travel in armored vehicles, have increasingly found themselves at risk in the insurgency.

Four were injured when their convoy hit two roadside bombs in September. Several weeks earlier, an American soldier was shot in the arm when gunmen targeted the camp, near the northern Sinai village of Al-Joura.

The Pentagon responded last summer by sending 75 more troops plus counter-mortar radars and new communication equipment.

As peacekeepers, the U.S. troops aren’t authorized to fire at the militants — only the Egyptians are allowed do that.

The recent attacks were among the topics that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed Saturday in a closed-door meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi on Saturday in Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb.

Any major change in the peacekeeping force must be approved by all signatories to the accord, which followed the wars between Egypt and Israel and in 1967 and 1973.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter formally notified Israel and Egypt this month that the U.S. is reviewing its role in the force. U.S. defense officials say the review involves reducing the number of U.S. troops, not a full withdrawal.

Many of the troops, including staff headquarters, already have moved from El Gorah in the northern Sinai to a smaller installation near Sharm el Sheik on the southern tip of the peninsula.

“The Pentagon has valid concerns about troop safety,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the U.S. tinkering with its force numbers, even if slightly, can give the appearance that it is second-guessing the mission, which is worrisome for the Egyptian government and provides a propaganda tool” for Islamic State.

The U.S. government provides $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. It has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the 1979 peace accord with Israel.

The Obama administration briefly suspended military aid in 2013 to push Sisi, who had seized power in a military coup, to improve his government’s human rights record.

Despite continued U.S. criticism over Sisi’s jailing of political opponents and activists, Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited here Wednesday to show support for Egypt’s government.

“We talked about ways in which we can hopefully resolve some of the differences and questions that have arisen about the internal politics and choices for the people of Egypt,” Kerry said after talking with Sisi.

Kerry did not detail the “differences,” but added that Egypt is “critical to the peace and security” of the region.

2 Jewish visitors beaten, ejected from Temple Mount for bowing in prayer during Passover

April 27th, 2016

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Muslim worshippers attacked two Jewish men on the Temple Mount on Tuesday after the Jews bowed in prayer in violation of the visiting rules.

The Jewish men were beaten as they prostrated themselves. The Muslims clashed with police attempting to protect the Jewish visitors, who were ejected from the site.

A video of the incident posted on social media by a Palestinian news website shows dozens of Muslim worshippers punching police trying to protect the men, who are still on the ground. The police then push back.

Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Temple Mount is administered by Jordan’s Muslim Wakf.

At least eight Jewish visitors were removed from the Temple Mount on Tuesday (April 26, 2016) for allegedly attempting to pray. Jewish visitors were removed on Sunday and Monday for the same offense.

Jordan condemned the increase in Jewish visitors to the site, including many tourists who came to Israel for Passover. During the holiday’s intermediate days, there are expanded visiting hours for Jews at the Temple Mount, and Muslim worshippers are prevented from ascending to the Mount during certain visiting hours.

On Monday, Jordan’s media affairs minister, Mohammad al-Momani, released a statement accusing “Israeli settlers and police” of storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He called Israel’s actions at the site “a violation of international laws and conventions” and said it could lead to “serious consequences.”

The Prime Minister’s Office in Israel responded to the threats, saying, “There is absolutely no basis to these claims,” and that “Israel is behaving responsibly, and Jordan knows that.”

Additional security forces have been put on patrol in the Old City of Jerusalem because of increased tensions at the Temple Mount and throughout the city in the aftermath of a bus-bombing in Jerusalem last week.

New documentary Are we ready to laugh at the Holocaust?

April 26th, 2016

By Andrew Silow-Carroll / JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

Mel Brooks doing a Hitler bit in an interview for

Mel Brooks doing a Hitler bit in an interview for The Last Laugh, director Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary about Holocaust humor. (Tangerine Entertainment)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In The Last Laugh, a new documentary about humor and the Holocaust (you read that right), the comedian Judy Gold tells this joke: If the Nazis forced her to stand naked on a line with other women, would she hold her stomach in?

How you, or anybody, feels about a joke like that is the point of the documentary, which includes interviews with a slew of mostly Jewish comedians and a cinema verite portrait of an elderly Los Angeles-area survivor, Renee Firestone, who seems to have lived through the Holocaust with her sense of humor largely intact.

The Last Laugh, which was a feature documentary at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, is a hybrid in other ways as well. Director Ferne Pearlstein wanted to explore not only the limits of humor and free speech today, but how Shoah victims and survivors used humor as a salve, defense mechanism, and weapon despite their powerlessness.

At a Nevada survivors’ convention filmed in the incongruous setting of The Venetian resort in Las Vegas, one survivor recalls how his fellow concentration camp inmates would mock the SS guards’ latest orders. Contemporary footage shot at the Theresienstadt concentration camp shows inmates performing comic skits and a children’s opera with apparent gusto. We now know that the Nazis allowed these theatricals for their own propaganda purposes, and that many of the performers were subsequently murdered at Auschwitz. But survivors tell of the relief, however temporary, provided by the performances.

“You have to remember, these were people who were living their lives,” Pearlstein, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Robert Edwards, said in an interview last week. “They didn’t think, ‘I am going to die.’ They still might have made a joke because they were living their lives.”

In some ways, the uses to which survivors put humor gave permission to the comedians, most of them Jews, who spun Holocaust-related jokes even in its immediate aftermath. Mel Brooks, a frequent talking head in the film, reminisces about his days at the Borscht Belt hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains soon after the war had ended.

“I got a lot of laughs with Hitler,” he says, calling it his revenge on the Nazis. He’d go on to make the 1968 movie The Producers, which stunned audiences with its chorus-line Nazis and prancing Hitler. The shock had largely warn off by the time The Producers had become a hit Broadway musical in 2001, perhaps proving Steve Allen’s famed formula, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Yet The Producers also illustrates a key point in the film: Making fun of the Nazis is OK, making fun of the Holocaust not so much. Actor Robert Clary, the French-born Buchenwald survivor who played Corporal LeBeau in the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, is asked how he could have appeared in a comedy set in the kind of camp where 12 of his immediate family members were murdered. He points out that the show was set in a POW camp, not a concentration camp.

But though Brooks insists “I don’t give a s–t what’s in good taste,” even he has his limits. The film delves into the controversy that brewed after the late Joan Rivers said of the supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League and himself a child survivor, complains in an interview that Rivers’s joke trivializes the Holocaust. Even Brooks says of the joke, “I can’t go there.”

But as tasteless as it may be, the Rivers joke ridiculed Germans, not their Jewish victims – all but saying that 70 years after the Holocaust, the German people can’t escape their guilt or culpability.

In fact, few of the jokes in The Last Laugh are as tasteless or transgressive as some commentators in the film suggest. The commentators include director Rob Reiner, comic Gilbert Gottfreid, comedienne Lisa Lampanelli, and sitcom director Larry Charles. Larry David’s “Survivor” episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm, the “Soup Nazi” gag from Seinfeld, a Louis C.K. bit about auditions for Schindler’s List, or Ricky Gervais’s Anne Frank jokes — none carries the shock of a single utterance of, say, the “N-word.”

Even Gold’s joke, which she tells almost apologetically, is not a joke about Holocaust victims but her own vanity.

Of all the comics heard in The Last Laugh, only Sarah Silverman seems to come close to violating taboos. In a bit from her 2005 concert film Jesus is Magic, Silverman recounts how her “Jewy” niece referred to the “60 million” who died in the Holocaust. When Silverman says the correct number is 6 million, the niece asks what the difference is.

“Because 60 million would be unforgivable, young lady,” Silverman replies.

To appreciate Silverman’s joke, you have to be familiar with her faux naive persona – the bigot too self-involved to realize she is a bigot. Renee Firestone, the survivor, is clearly not on her wavelength. In one scene she is shown watching Silverman on YouTube.

“I don’t think this is funny,” she says.

Pearlstein recalls the moment as one of the most uncomfortable during their weeks of filming.

“Renee is so resilient,” the director says. “She uses her sense of humor to get through things, but she doesn’t think everything is funny. That makes her a perfect guide for that reason.”

Including Firestone’s story, Pearlstein says, “Let us remember what we’re laughing at.”

But The Last Laugh doesn’t bestow or withhold permission as to what an audience should and shouldn’t find funny. If Foxman, the arbiter of anti-Semitism, comes across as a bit of a killjoy in the documentary, that’s because it is at heart a comedian’s movie, and Holocaust humor is understood on their terms. Comedians have one obligation and one obligation only, they insist: to make people laugh.

The last word, spoken early in the film, belongs to Gold, who declares, “It’s all about the funny.”

Passover Week Tension on Temple Mount

April 24th, 2016

By Joshua Mitnick /

Orthodox Jews from the Temple Mount Institute dressed like priests participate in the reenactment of the Passover sacrifice ceremony in Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, on April 18, 2016.  (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency)

Orthodox Jews from the Temple Mount Institute dressed like priests participate in the reenactment of the Passover sacrifice ceremony in Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, on April 18, 2016. (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency)

They are activists on rival sides in the struggle for the plaza that is Jerusalem’s holiest and most contested spot. Madeline Issa calls it Al Aqsa Mosque. Rabbi Yakov Idels calls it the Temple Mount.

Both have been scarred by events at the contested Old City esplanade, but their devotion to the place keeps them coming back. Now, with the onset of the Jewish holiday of Passover, officials worry that religious pilgrims like Issa and Idels could spark a new, religiously inspired conflict in Jerusalem.

Issa is a 23-year-old Islamic activist who had been visiting the Al Aqsa Mosque compound daily before police started banning her last September for harassing Jewish visitors. Now, she brings busloads of Muslim pilgrims to the mosque and risks new arrest by slipping past police incognito just to be at the third holiest site in Islam.

Last week, short of breath and anxious, she donned a colorful head scarf and large sunglasses as she made her way through a narrow Old City alley toward the Israeli police post at the entrance to the plaza that flanks the gold-domed mosque. She described an almost compulsive need to keep visiting.

“I want to enjoy the breeze of Al Aqsa. I want to fill my body with Al Aqsa before they ban me permanently,” she said.

Idels is a 46-year-old rabbi who also feels a spiritual pull to the holy site. For Jews, the plaza is Judaism’s holiest spot: the location of the ancient Jewish Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago. A month after Issa’s ban, Idels watched Israeli police arrest his teenage son for swaying in meditation — a violation of rules that ban non-Muslim visitors from praying at the plaza.

“The Temple Mount is a wound. It’s a place where every time you touch it, it’s sensitive,” says Idels, sitting opposite bookshelves lined with traditional texts in his house in the West Bank [aka Samaria] settlement of Bracha (Hebrew for “Blessing”). “That Temple is supposed to be the place where peace comes from. And today it’s the opposite. It’s the place where fighting erupts.”

As Idels readies to return to the plaza with a tour group for Passover, which began at sundown Friday, authorities are bracing for the possibility that this year will see a repeat of the fall holiday season, when the religious turf war at the Old City plaza boiled over into clashes, arrests, and police restrictions — and ultimately sparked a six-month wave of Palestinian knife attacks that spread from Jerusalem to the West Bank [Judea and Samaria]. Though Jerusalem has somewhat calmed, many people see the relative stability as fragile.

Passover is one of three Jewish holy days that, since the Exodus from Egypt (ca. 1450 B.C.), mandated a pilgrimage to the ancient Jewish Temple for offerings.

When Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war [Six-Day War], it left a Jordanian religious organization in charge of the holy sites on the plaza. It also left in place a centuries-old Jewish religious ban, accepted by the majority of the rabbinic establishment at the time, on renewing ritual at the plaza or rebuilding the Temple.

The ancient Temple’s retaining wall, known as the Western Wall, was tapped as the main site for Jewish ritual.

But in recent years, a growing group of Israelis like Idels have been lobbying the government to assert more sovereignty and allow prayer on the plaza. After disturbances last year, a series of understandings between Israel and Jordan succeeded in reestablishing stability by keeping provocateurs from the plaza and avoiding age and gender restrictions on Muslim worshipers, according to a report on the plaza by the International Crisis Group.

Muslims “still view the very access of many religious Jews on a Jewish holiday as a threat,” said International Crisis Group analyst Ofer Zalzberg. “They fear that it strengthens the Jewish claims” to ownership of the site, and it would crimp Muslims’ access.

Last week, amid rising tension, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of an effort by extremists to foment riots by spreading lies about Israeli plans to allow Jewish ritual at the plaza and crimp Muslim worship. In a public message to the “Palestinians” and Jordan, he insisted that Israeli policy hadn’t changed. Israeli police will deploy reinforcements in Jerusalem and also ban Israeli politicians from visiting the plaza during the holy days.

The Temple Mount, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall have been notorious as a focus of religious and nationalist acrimony for decades. In 1929, rumors that Jews were bent on taking control of the mosque sparked rioting that killed hundreds. A visit to the Jerusalem plaza in 2000 by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, the future prime minister, triggered protests that eventually became the second Muslim intifada, or uprising.

In recent years, amid the rise in visits of Jewish pilgrims to the plaza, Islamic groups have rallied activists to pray, study, and assert their presence. Some of those activists used rocks and fireworks in violent clashes with Israeli police.

Issa, a “Palestinian” citizen of Israel, said she has answered the call by visiting the site daily and organizing buses of pilgrims from her home village of Kafr Qassem, an Israeli Arab community northeast of Tel Aviv. “They say it’s their Temple Mount, but it’s for me and other Muslims.”

An activist with a branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, she is known as a murabitat, one of a group of women who go to the holy plaza to both pray and confront religious Jewish visitors, yelling “Allahu akbar!” — Allah is greater — and sometimes even spitting in their direction.

Before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, last fall, Israel banned murabitat from the plaza. The Islamic Movement in Israel was outlawed. Now, Israeli police easily recognize Issa, in her plain white hijab, and turn her away.

“It was very painful,” she said, her eyes momentarily welled with tears as she recounted the first time the police blocked her from the plaza last September. “It choked me.”

Some blame Jewish activists for the tension and violence at the holy site. Idels, however, contends that the problem lies with activists such as Issa. He says the plaza should be a place of peace and inter-religious “connection,” but that it should also be a place where Jews can come to pray.

“Going up to the Mount isn’t supposed to injure anyone else. It’s not to provoke. It comes from a place of the rights we have to this [place],’’ he says. Other Temple Mount activists openly fantasize about razing the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine on the plaza and rebuilding the ancient Temple, which Idels hypothesized was “impossible.”

Among the shelves of religious texts in his modest salon, Idels keeps a signed copy of a book on the Temple Mount by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a mentor who was one of the first rabbis to argue for a new Temple to be built and for Jewish prayer at the plaza — flouting the ban by the rabbinic establishment on Jewish ritual there. Goren’s teaching on the Temple Mount “was very meaningful in my life,’’ Idels says.

On the eastern side of the plaza, opposite the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine — and reputedly the site of the ancient Jewish Temple — Idels has a spot where he often pauses to meditate, praying for the Jewish people, for peace, and for his family. That is where, in October, his teenage son went too far, closing his eyes and swaying [davening].

“The police immediately jumped on him and took him away for a half-day, like the lowest criminal. I felt humiliated and helpless,’’ he says. “It’s a terrible feeling of disgrace to stand in a place that belongs to you, the holiest place, and there’s a prayer ban. … When the Arabs come and claim that our prayer injures them, it’s their problem.”

Issa said she’s convinced the tensions in Jerusalem are an excuse to ban Muslim faithful like herself, but she says it’s impossible for her stay away. “Al Aqsa is my soul, and I feel that my death will take place there,’’ she said.

Israeli Soldier Charged with Manslaughter in Terrorist’s Death

April 21st, 2016

By Josh Mitnick / Los Angeles Times

Sgt. Elor Azariya is hugged by his mother

Sgt. Elor Azariya is hugged by his mother

Israel’s military prosecutor on Monday, April 18, formally charged a young combat medic with manslaughter in the shooting of a Palestinian knife attacker in the West Bank last month, saying that the soldier violated open-fire rules and acted without justification.

The prosecutor accused Sgt. Elor Azariya, whose identity was revealed Monday for the first time, of firing from close range at the head of Abdel Fattah Sharif, who had been lying prone on the ground with multiple bullet wounds for several minutes after the knife attack on an Israeli soldier in Hebron.

“The terrorist … had not carried out another attack and did not constitute an immediate or substantial threat to the defendant or the other civilians and soldiers,” according to the one-page indictment submitted to a military court in Jaffa. “In his actions, the defendant illegally caused the death of the terrorist al Sharif.”

The defense team for Azariya, who is also accused of behavior not fitting a soldier, says that he opened fire fearing that Sharif was wearing an explosives belt.

The shooting, which was caught on Palestinian video publicized by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, is a rare instance in which the army accused one of its own in the death of a Palestinian. It has kicked up a politically polarizing solidarity campaign on Azariya’s behalf that has aimed unusually harsh criticism at the army top brass and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who have been accused of hastily judging the medic rather than backing him up.

Palestinian officials allege that the shooting of Sharif is part of a policy by Israeli security agencies to respond to assailants with deadly force even after there is no immediate threat. The United Nations Middle East coordinator for the peace process, Nikolay Mladenov, condemned the shooting as an “apparent extra judicial execution.’’

Defense attorney Ilan Katz told Israeli reporters outside the courthouse on Monday, “There won’t be a conviction…. We will seek a complete exoneration. The evidence is weak.”

The soldier’s father, Charlie Azariya, encouraged supporters to attend a rally on Tuesday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

Solidarity protests have hailed the soldier as a hero. Many Israelis sympathize with a conscript perceived to have acted impulsively in the throes of a dangerous situation.

At a demonstration outside the military court, supporters held signs reading, “We are all with the combat soldier.”

The incendiary atmosphere prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to weigh in on Monday, saying that although he understood the concern of the soldier’s family, open-fire regulations were necessary to protect soldiers’ safety as well.

“I want to tell the public: Lower the flames. The Israel Defense Forces backs up its soldiers,’’ he said.

The incident occurred the morning of March 24, when Sharif and another knife assailant attacked an Israeli soldier who was lightly wounded. Sharif’s partner was killed, but he was left alive with multiple bullet wounds, according to an autopsy.

Supporters of Azariya say that he acted in the heat of the moment and can’t be judged by those who were not on the scene.

Data from the Israeli human rights watchdog Yesh Din indicate that the military prosecutor has investigated 262 cases of deaths of Palestinians and foreign nationals by soldiers since 2000. Those investigations led to 22 indictments, but just one manslaughter charge and conviction, for the killing of a British national.

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