Echoes of a Yom Kippur Shofar

By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller /

Under Turkish and then British rule, Jewish activity at the Western Wall (the Kotel) — the last remaining remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the holiest site of the Jewish people — was severely constrained. British law restricted Jews who wanted to pray at the Wall: Jews were not allowed to recite prayers loudly, they could not bring a Torah to the Wall, and they were forbidden from sounding the Shofar.

On Yom Kippur 1930, at the conclusion of the Neila (the closing prayer recited just before sundown), a sound rang out that had not been heard at the Kotel in generations: the ringing blast of a Shofar. A young rabbi, Moshe Segal, had smuggled a Shofar to the Kotel, and blew it at its traditional place at the end of the Yom Kippur service.

Rabbi Segal was soon arrested, but in the intervening years, other Jewish boys — all in their teens — took his place. Each year from 1930 to 1947, Jewish teenagers smuggled Shofars to the Kotel, concealing them under their clothing, and blew them at the end of Yom Kippur. The boys worked in teams of three, aiming to blow the Shofar at each end of the Wall and in the middle. Abraham Caspi, who was 16 when he blew the Shofar at the Western Wall in 1947, remembers being told “You’ll be the first, and if you don’t succeed or are caught, someone else will do it.”


Jerusalem celebrates 50 years of reunification – video

The Jerusalem Municipality released an incredible video clip documenting the city, highlighting its many features such as its rich culture and historical meaning. Even Jerusalem’s mayor made an appearance in the video clip, which was produced in order to mark the 50th year of the city’s reunification.

By Becca Noy

The Jerusalem Municipality recently released a new and stunning video of the city. The video highlights the many features of Israel’s capital city: its rich culture, fine cuisine, historical meaning, impressive architecture and more.

One man who was featured in the Voices of Jerusalem video called the city “a place without time.” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat even appears in the state-of-the-art video clip. The Jerusalem Municipality launched the video in honor of the 50th year of the reunification of Jerusalem.

The video clip was created by the Kaveret creative and film production company. According to the company, the video clip took three pre-production days, 540 hours of shooting throughout Israel’s capital city and 30 days of editing to complete.




A Fourth of July Story

Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky and wife Avital (David Rubinger / Getty)
Freed Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Sharansky and wife Avital (David Rubinger / Getty)

By David Samuels /

On July 4, 1974, a 26-year-old mathematician named Anatoly Borisovitch Shcharansky was joined in marriage to Natalia Stieglitz, aged 24, in a friend’s apartment in Moscow. The day on which Americans celebrate their freedom with hot dogs and fireworks was probably the last opportunity that the two young Soviet citizens had to get married, as the bride had only a day and a half remaining on her exit visa. The day after the marriage, the bride left Moscow for Israel, as Avital Shcharansky. While her husband hoped to follow her within a few months, it would be nearly twelve years before she would see him again.

Anatoly Shcharansky first applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union in 1973. As a former child chess prodigy and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the young mathematician was the kind of person that Soviet authorities liked to hold up as an example of the success of their progressive, scientifically ordered society. His application to leave the country was denied, on the grounds that he had enjoyed access to information that was vital to Soviet national security. The bureaucrat who denied Shcharansky’s visa application may have been right, according to the Orwellian criteria that were then prevalent–but he or she did far more damage to the Soviet Union by forcing the young mathematician to stay.

Soviet bureaucrats and security personnel had no shortage of reasons to distrust Shcharansky. He was the translator and go-between for the physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of the fathers of the Soviet nuclear bomb and the inventor of the Tokomak nuclear fusion reactor, who became the target of a sustained campaign of pressure and threats by his fellow scientists and the KGB in 1972 for his insistent warnings against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In 1976, Shcharansky himself became one of the founders and a leading spokesman for the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, which devoted itself to the Sisyphean task of ensuring that Moscow lived up to its commitments to ensuring the human rights of its citizens under international treaties. With Sakharov’s blessing, Shcharansky also became the most visible spokesman for the growing mass movement of Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union for Israel.

On March 15, 1977, Shcharansky was arrested on charges of high treason and spying for the United States. He would spend the nine years following his trial imprisoned in Siberia while his wife Avital, whom he knew as a quiet, shy woman, galvanized a mass movement of Jews in America and elsewhere to fight for her husband’s freedom. Transforming her imprisoned husband into an international symbol of Soviet oppression and of the resilience of the human spirit, Avital personally pled Anatoly’s case with Ronald Reagan and other world leaders, who were moved by the purity and modesty of her self-presentation, and the fierce, unshakable nature of her convictions, a combination that reminded more than one observer of a female Gandhi.

On February 11, 1986, Anatoly Shcharansky was freed on the direct order of Mikhail Gorbachev, under personal pressure from Ronald Reagan, and rejoined his wife Avital in Israel, as Natan Sharansky. Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. In the long view of history, it seems likely that the campaigns that the Sharanskys helped to lead, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, will be seen as having played a significant role in the dismantling of a tyranny that controlled the lives of over one billion people, and which plausibly aimed, at one point in time, in bringing the entire planet under its rule, thereby destroying the ideals of freedom which Americans celebrate every year, on July 4, as the Shcharanskys celebrate their anniversary.

What follows is a very lightly edited transcript of the second of two interviews I conducted last year with Natan Sharansky, who is now the head of the Jewish Agency and a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I have decided not to publish our first conversation, which dealt with information related to the Iranian nuclear deal and America’s relationship with the Iranian regime, which Sharansky regarded as an astounding betrayal of the promise of freedom that America embodied to him in his Soviet jail cell, and of the brave dissidents who sit in Iranian jail cells today.


Growing up as a child in Donetsk, what did you know about other Jewish communities in the world?
I didn’t know anything about Jewish communities. I knew nothing about Judaism, I knew nothing about Jewish history, nothing about Jewish religion. I knew very well that I am a Jew because that’s what was written in the ID of your parents, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism and discrimination, that’s all.

When did you first start to discover that Jews were a people with a history, and were living in other places besides Donetsk?
I first realized that I have a history, people, and a country in 1967, after Six-Day War. For the Soviet Union, the victory of Israel in that war was a big humiliation, and suddenly Jews discovered that all the people around you, friends and enemies, Jews and non-Jews, connect this country Israel with you. And so you want to understand what this connection means. That’s when, in the underground, from the books that were brought to us by American Jews, we started reading about ourselves and about our history. And we find out that we have such an exciting history, beginning from Exodus from Egypt until these days.

There were Jews coming from all over the world. They would say, “Oh, your father is from Odessa. My grandfather is from Odessa; we are family, we want to help you.” And you discover there is the State of Israel, which also wants to help you. So that’s how you discover your identity, and that’s what gives you the strength to start fighting for your dignity and your freedom.

Before you discovered this identity, and all you knew was that “Jew” was a curse word in the mouths of people who hated you and your parents, how good did it feel to read that the Israeli Air Force had humiliated the Soviet Union and its allies?
You know, you read very little in the Soviet newspaper. And frankly speaking, at that moment we knew so little about Israel and about Israel’s connection with our life. The real excitement came like a month after this, when you see that all the world connects what happened in the Middle East with Jews, and that you’re one of these persecuted Jews, so you start to learn more. Who are we? And then you become really excited. Then you understand that this war, this victory for Israel, is also a victory in your struggle.

When did you first become aware that there were Jews in the Soviet Union who wanted to emigrate to Israel?
Here and there we heard something, from the Voice of America and so on. But the real realization of how deep and powerful this phenomenon is came after the Leningrad Trial [referring to the state prosecution of a group of 16 refuseniks led by Edward Kuznetsov and a Jewish former military pilot Mark Dymshits who on June 15, 1970 tried to steal an airplane and fly it to the West, an event that helped spark the Soviet Jewry movement]. It was publicized all over the Soviet Union that they are criminals, they are being put on trial, there is a threat of a death sentence. And all of this because they wanted to leave for Israel. The Soviet Union started a big campaign with public press conferences where famous Jews, writers, and actors, and scientists all had to declare their loyalty to the Soviet Union and say, “We as Soviet Jews don’t want to go to Israel, only a bunch of criminals want to.” From this, we understood that something very big was happening, and you wanted to be part of it.

Could you follow the trial in the newspaper and the radios?
Oh no. In the newspaper, there were only one or two big articles about the criminals and their sentences. But at the same time there were a lot of press conferences and public statements of loyal Soviet citizens, of those who were considered to be loyal who had to declare their loyalty. What we did discover, was that through the Voice of America and through BBC and Voice of Israel, in spite of jamming, you could hear the reports, information about the trials. I remember the speech of Sylva Zalmanson, who said these ancient words about “I will never forget you, Jerusalem.” And that was very powerful. And you think, “Look, here are people who are so desperate in their desire to become an active part of the history of Jewish people and to go to Israel, they are ready to sacrifice their lives. What are you doing here?”

When did you become aware of the activities of Jacob Birnbaum and others who were organizing rallies and demonstrations in the West?
During those days of the trial, we heard that Jews all over the world are demonstrating, in spite of the jamming of the broadcasts of Voice of Israel and the Voice of America and others. And we realized how powerful those efforts were when the death sentences of some of the Leningrad Trial heroes [Kuznetsov and Dymshits were both sentenced to death] were replaced by 15 years. After all the propaganda, after all the brainwashing that was done by the Soviet Union, the fact that they had to change the sentences showed us that Jews all over the world really have some power.

I only was able to get more details about our struggle when I myself two years later became an active participant in our movement, and later became a kind of spokesman of our movement, so on a daily basis I was meeting with tourists who were telling me about these demonstrations, who themselves were part of these demonstrations, and then you feel yourself to be part of the world struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Tell me how those contacts between Soviet Jews and foreigners would work.
There were two ways. On Saturday, we were meeting in front of the Moscow Synagogue. I say “in front of” because the synagogue itself was part of the official Soviet Union. So this narrow street in front of the synagogue became like our club.

It was a gathering place for Jews who exchanged information, some who for the first time came to find out how to get an invitation from Israel, or those foreign visitors who are coming and are looking for the people whose names they got from their organizations. And that’s how I met with my first contacts, Jews from different organizations, different cities and countries, who were coming with the specific aim of bringing some materials for us, and to get information about our fate.

Describe one of those meetings to me, an early one that you can remember. You’re standing in the street in front of the synagogue and some person that you’ve never seen before wearing different clothes, speaking terrible Russian, or maybe some Yiddish, is looking for you.
Usually it was like this. Some people who obviously are foreigners, they speak all in English, sometimes Hebrew, but usually English. And they ask if somebody can “help me to see Vladimir Slepak or Alexander Luntz or Alexander Lerner?” These were usually the names that they had in advance. And as a rule, the KGB men were standing just nearby listening to us, but we didn’t care. In some cases, these people, foreign tourists were coming straight to the apartment of Vladimir Slepak. And later when I was actively involved in this, I was spending days and nights there in that apartment, which was just near the Red Square, waiting for these contacts to arrive. Because even if they were coming to this synagogue, they were not bringing all their notes with themselves, they knew very well that they could be arrested there. So we were waiting for later opportunities to meet somewhere.

I can tell you that a very significant meeting happened for me in 1974, after I was arrested for 15 days because President Nixon came, and when President Nixon comes, all the troublemakers were arrested, and I was one of them. On the 3rd of July 1974, I was released. On the 4th of July, my wife and I had our chuppah, and on the 5th of July, she left for Israel. So we hoped we would be apart for a few months, but it happened that we only met again twelve years later.

But the next day, on July 6, I come to the street in front of the synagogue, and there is a very tall gentleman with his wife and two children, who is an American Jew named Jerry Stern, and he asked me whether I know some refuseniks. And I said, “not only I know some refuseniks, I am one of them. And by the way,” I said, “my wife yesterday left for Israel.”

That was the beginning of the bridge which the Jews from America and other countries built between me and my wife. Because Jerry Stern became so excited that two days later, when they left the Soviet Union and went to Israel, they met my wife, and they took the first pictures I got of her and got the first note. They sent me her first letter to me through an American Senator who happened to be coming to Moscow. And that’s how this bridge between my wife and me was built, and later hundreds and hundreds of American Jews were helping us to know about one another.

But of course it was not only about the personal. Through these tourists we were getting some very important literature. The book Exodus by Leon Uris was maybe one of the most powerful weapons that we had. I once wrote to one of my contacts, send us 100 Exoduses and we will have here a Zionist revolution. Because the influence of this book was unbelievable. Suddenly, one night, one family was reading this book and in the morning they were giving it to the other family. First of all, so as not to put yourself at risk by keeping this book longer than one night. But secondly, there was a long line of families that wanted to read it. Because this book helped us to realize that being a Jew is not only about ancient history. In fact, people almost our own age continue this history and you can be one of them.

If you had to imagine a small refusenik portable library, what other books would it have contained?
Well first of all, there was Alef Melim, which was a book to study Hebrew. There was Exodus. There was of course later Bible with translation into Russian. Later there was Operation Entebbe, which was one of the most exciting stories encouraging us. And, in fact, when they came to arrest me, the picture of Yoni Netanyahu was on my wall, because that was like a reminder that the State of Israel will save us. There were many other books, of course.

When you think back now to your arrest and to the years you spent in solitary confinement in Siberia, and when you think of the campaign that your wife helped to lead and inspire, which do you think in the end was more important in the struggle of our Russian Jewish people for our freedom: what you did in the Soviet Union or what she did in the West?
Well, my role was very easy. I was sitting and waiting, and playing chess in my head. But Avital had to work very hard and to travel all over the world and to open the doors of every leader of the free world. And not only to open the doors, and not only to meet them, but then to make sure that he or she will not forget, and will not abandon our cause. So she was very tough with the leaders.

I was a child who grew up wearing a little bracelet with your name on it. I thought about you, I would imagine what it would be like to be you in that cell, and it connected me to my family members who were still in the Soviet Union. I saw Avital speak, but the person I thought about was you, not her.

But the older I get, I have more and more admiration for her. What you did, I can understand as stubbornness: “Blast you, I refuse to give in.” I can feel that easily, even if I am not as strong or as brave as you are. What she did had a different source and a different kind of power. She fired the minds of first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people around the world with a cause, of which you were a symbol. How do you understand what she did, and where it came from?

Well, first of all, I don’t try to understand my wife. It’s enough that I love her. Second, there is no doubt that her spirituality and the fact that in Israel she very quickly met people who helped her to become religious, to be not only part of our physical history but part of our spiritual life, helped her a lot.

She felt very strongly that she not only was fighting for her husband but she was doing something very important to make sure that Tachnit Alokit, the divine design will be implemented in the world. And I think that gave a lot of power to her words, and it gave her a lot of self-confidence.

Because in daily life, she is an extremely shy person who is afraid to raise her voice. And she had to lead demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, to threaten to Soviet leaders with the most awful plans, and to demand from Reagan, Mitterrand, from everybody, to release Soviet Jews.

And when you were sitting in Siberia and elsewhere, how aware were you of what she was doing and what others were doing?
I knew very, very little. In 9 years, I had 2 meetings with my family so I could get some information. Sometimes, you meet a person who was arrested after you, so from him you can find out what happened 2 or 3 years earlier, because you met him a few years after he was arrested.

Surprisingly, the third source of important information was Soviet newspapers. If you are not in a punishment cell, you could read the official Soviet newspapers, Pravda, Izvestia. And sometimes, you can find that, for example, they condemn provocations of Western propaganda for a provocative meeting of the adventurist who calls herself the “wife” of a Soviet spy, who met with the American Secretary of State. That was a very nice way of informing me what was happening.

But in general, of course, I knew practically nothing and they did their best to convince me that I am alone, that everybody abandoned me. After all, who is supporting you, just a bunch of students and housewives, and even they are already scared. That’s what they were saying to me. And I knew very well that they were lying. I was absolutely sure. I already knew the power of Jewish solidarity for the 2 or 3 years of working as a middleman between our movement and American Jewry, journalists, diplomats, different organizations I was in contact with. I was absolutely sure that Jews of the world were fighting for our release. And I was also very absolutely sure that my wife would not let anybody sit quietly.

You also served as the translator and middleman for Helsinki Watch and for Dr. Andrei Sakharov. How did he understand this idea of a Jewish people and the movement of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel?
Andrei Sakharov was a person who deeply sympathized with the desire of other people to be free. He himself made the journey from loyal Soviet scientist to dissident in order to be able to express freely his views. He loved to see people free. That’s first.

Second, Sakharov personally had a lot of sympathy for Jewish people. Many of his colleagues were Jewish, and his wife was partially Jewish. But also I think he felt a lot of sympathy towards the history of the Jewish people. And so he believed, and here he was, he differed from some other dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.

Sakharov believed that the struggle of Jews for freedom of immigration was a very important step toward freedom in Russia in general, while Solzhenitsyn was saying, it is a narrow Jewish interest, this freedom of immigration. Why should we be supporting the efforts of the free world to put everything on this issue? We have our own problems. After all, the Russian people are deprived of freedom; we have to work for a change in the regime.

Sakharov agreed that it was important to change the regime. But he was saying, “The moment there will be freedom of immigration, everything will change. Because one of the main tools of keeping people in fear is that Soviet Union is like a big prison, and people don’t dare even to think about leaving it. The result is that they depend fully on the authorities. The moment Jews will help us to open the gates, all of life will change.” And he was right. So he was extremely sympathetic and extremely supportive.

And I can tell you that practically each time when we Jews wanted some support from Andrei Sakharov, he gave it—that he will write a letter which I will send to American Congress, or if there was a trial, that he will personally come and stand in front of the doors of the court in order to draw the attention of the world press. So he was ready to work as an activist of our movement, although of course his interests were much broader.

Talk about the impact made by Sen. Henry Jackson and other members of the U.S. Congress who were determined to link the moral authority and the practical power of the legislative branch of the American government to tie trade and other benefits with Russia directly to increased freedoms including, especially, the freedom of Jews to emigrate?
Well I’ve asked, “Who are the people responsible for the demise of the Soviet Union?” And of course I believe that our movement played a very important role. But if you are speaking about specific names, I will speak about Andrei Sakharov, about Senator Jackson, and about President Reagan. The contribution of Senator Jackson was in the fact that he was the first who made the direct linkage between freedom of emigration and very important economic interest of the Soviet Union. And he did so against all the political thought in the United States of America and in the free world.

Many of those people were saying, “It is our interest to have more trade with the Soviet Union, and when there is more trade there is less war.” And we, Soviet Jews, knew that our only hope to be released was that the interests of the Soviet Union, economic and otherwise, would be so closely linked to our fate that the Soviet Union would have no choice.

Sen. Jackson was the first to understand the power of this linkage, and he proposed the famous Jackson–Vanik Amendment. American [conventional wisdom] was against it, the Soviet Union, was of course against it, but in the end, this amendment passed, and then this idea of linking the question of human rights with the national relations of the Soviet Union with other countries prevailed. The Helsinki Agreement was the next step. I believe that that in the end was the most important factor that altered our struggle.

It’s true that in my court sentence, the long text of my sentence in which I was accused of high treason, there were many accomplices mentioned: American tourists with whom I met, American journalists to whom I gave interviews, the leaders of Jewish organizations, they were all my accomplices. But the accomplice whose name was mentioned more than the others was Senator Jackson, because they realized what a historical role this Amendment plays. Every press conference, every meeting with senators, with congressmen that I organized, where support was expressed for this amendment, was put forth as evidence of high treason.

The Jackson–Vanik Amendment split the American-Jewish community and President Nixon put great pressure on American Jewish leaders to oppose it. Do you remember ever meeting with American Jews who would ask you how you felt about it?
As one who was very actively involved in this connection, I was meeting practically every day with American Jews who were coming, at the request of different organizations, and sometimes you had to send the same letter twice because these organizations in New York, which are on the same street, will never share information between themselves. It was after all a Jewish movement. Jews were all also fighting with one another, as we were fighting with one another in Moscow. So it was a normal solidarity struggle, where everybody disagrees with everybody, but all together are working for one cause.

And practically, in ’73, ’74, maybe in ’75, the question number 1 was, “Do you feel that we should support the Jackson Amendment?” Doesn’t matter whether these people were for or against, but it was very important to hear our voice. And we were very strongly in support and we were condemning Nixon, condemning Kissinger, condemning Brezhnev, of course, and we were praising Senator Jackson and we were praising Sakharov for supporting this. So that was a struggle.

These people, who were wearing their American clothes, they had their American ideas about the world, and they were probably frightened. What did they feel like to you? How did they feel different from you, and how did they feel similar? You must have developed a good understanding of their psychology.
First of all, I believe that those American Jews and Jews from other countries were coming to us, they were going through the same transformation as we did. They were discovering their Jewish identity. Of course, they were not as assimilated as I was, they did have their bar mitzvahs and brit milah [bris], and they knew what is Pesach. And we just now had discovered all those things. But this unique opportunity—which they got to be involved actively in advancing Jewish history, in fighting to help their brothers—it was to them also a very important connection that they were building between their own pasts, the past of their fathers and grandfathers who left Russia, who left Europe, who were escaping pogroms. And their mutual future and our mutual future was in Israel, whether they were going to Israel or not, but it was clear that’s something that unites us.

And also there was practically everybody was repeating that in the times of Holocaust, American Jewry missed it, and we will never permit it to happen again. So they were really feeling that they had a very important role in Jewish history. And so when we were thanking them for giving us support, some of them were saying, “No, it’s we who have to thank you, because you reminded us of our own Jewishness, and what it means to us. You turned our identity into something really meaningful to us.” So I think it was really a mutual process of discovery that both sides were discovering the other part of our people, and as a result we were discovering that we are one people.

On the other hand, of course, all these American Jews seemed like very, very naive people who understood nothing, even when they invested so much time helping us. I remember one funny case: They are coming to the synagogue, they hear all the stories of refuseniks, and there was one refusenik who was explaining that the authorities won’t let him leave because formally he didn’t have permission from his parents. That was a way not to let people go: Even if you were 70 years old, you have to get permission from your parent who was 90 years old, and without it you cannot leave, which was an attempt to make people feel responsible for one another and to threaten your parents, and so on. So he explains that he cannot leave because his parents are not giving him permission. And this American, who just got instructions and brought information and is ready to take risks and to take information back, he says, “You know, I think you can go without permission. Nobody in the West will condemn you for going without permission, I can assure you. Go without permission of your parents.” So that was a good reminder that with all this desire to help, they really don’t understand the situation in which you live.

You are now the head of The Jewish Agency, which for a while was not very enthusiastic about the idea of supporting any kind of mass immigration of Soviet Jews, because Israel then—as now—was worried about its relationship with Moscow. How did you feel, thinking back to the early 1970s, about the role of the Israeli state?
I think it’s absolutely wrong to say at any stage that the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, were not enthusiastic about massive aliyah. They were always enthusiastic and they always wanted it. On the other hand, yes, Israeli leaders and Israeli establishment were afraid to irritate the Soviet Union, and were afraid of public pressure coming from Israel. Sometimes when I was one of those activists who were going on demonstrations, irritating and infuriating Soviet authorities, the message was coming, “Don’t do it, we want quiet diplomacy.” So it’s not that they didn’t want aliyah, but they somehow naively hoped that maybe we will succeed to do it through quiet diplomacy.

And the other major conflict between some of us and the Israeli government was that when some Jews started using this channel, going to Israel through Vienna, they were changing their way and going to America. Israeli authorities were infuriated. They really believed that it’s very unfair. “We are working so hard to bring these Jews to Israel, and they are deceiving us, they are getting an invitation from Israel and then go to America.”

And then there was attempt to use us to convince American Jews to close this gate, to close HIAS, so that everybody has to go to Israel. I was one of those refuseniks who sent a letter saying that we are Zionists, we really want to be in Israel, but we don’t believe it is a function of Israel as a state to close any doors for Soviet Jews. You should do everything to attract every Jew in the world, but we should not work to close any doors. That was my position then, and that is my position today when I am the head of Jewish Agency. I do our best to help every Jew and to attract every Jew to come to Israel, but I believe it is the personal decision of each and every one. We have to work to strengthen Jewish identity of every Jew, those who are coming to Israel and those who choose not to come.

Talk about how strange religion felt at first, to you and to many Soviet Jews. I know that Yosef Mendelevitch, your wife Avital, and other some refuseniks did in fact become quite religious. However, thinking back to my own Soviet family, I remember that religion was primitive superstition, it was not scientific, it was a product of a different period of human historical development, and most of all it was just an empty category of experience. What did that encounter feel like?
I would say that hostility toward religion is something that I found only in Israel, when I discovered that there is a big split between the secular world and religious world. In the years of our activism, though I was a secular Jew, I was an assimilated Jew, we didn’t have any objection or resistance to religion because religion was the enemy of the Soviet Union, and we believed that all the ideology of the Soviet Union is inhuman. One of the first official lessons that Soviet school children were taught was the phrase of Marx: that religion was the opium of the masses, it’s poison. So we knew that is a good thing, because everything that the Soviet Union is against is a good thing.

It’s true that when we started reading the Bible, it was very difficult for us. For people who were very advanced—as we believed in physics and chemistry and mathematics—we understand that all this is myth, story, it cannot be real. But parallel to this, very quickly, you are reading about the history of your people, you want to be part of this history, and you discover your identity. So religious stories also become part of your identity, and you love it. And of course then when you’re in prison, that’s the best place to understand that there are things that you cannot explain by logic, and the fact that you are saying “no” to the KGB is not for some material reasons. The fact that you feel very strongly that your physical survival is not the highest value in your life means that there are different values, which are spiritual values. Prison is a good place to become close to religion.

Do you remember what you felt thirty years ago, in 1986, when you crossed the famous Glienicke Bridge from East Germany to the West?
I crossed the bridge when the American ambassador to West Germany took me together with a representative of the German foreign ministry, and they said, “Now we will go slowly.” And so we started moving very slowly, and then I see on the Western side, there are some crowds, journalists. I said, “Is my wife there?” He said, “No, she will wait for you in Frankfurt, we will take you to stay there.” And then I said, “And where is the border?” He said, “That big line on the side is the border.” So when we crossed the bridge, I jumped. I said, “That’s the freedom!”

And when I jumped, my pants, I had very big pants, which day before they gave me in Soviet prison. But they didn’t give me a belt, because I was still in prison, they gave me some rope, and the rope was broken. So I had to catch my pants at the last moment. So whenever I’m asked, “What was your first feeling when you entered the freedom? It was how not to lose your pants.”

There’s a story that you told me the last time we met, that I would like to end on today. You spoke well earlier about how the Soviet Jewry movement was a catalyst for Jewish self-discovery, not only inside the Soviet Union but perhaps for just as many people who were living comfortable lives in the West. There’s nostalgia for this moment now.
Well, of course it was a great time. And a few years after I was released, when I was playing with my daughters in my yard, our neighbor, who made aliyah from America some years before, looked to me playing with my daughters and with a very nostalgic sigh she said, “Natan, it was such a great time when you were in prison. We all were going to demonstration, we had our dates, we had our twinned bar mitzvahs, we were all friends. Where did it all go?”

So I almost apologized to her for being out of prison, but I have no intention of going back. The Jewish people will have to find other reasons to love one another.

The Mystery of the Jews (movie)

Video by David Greenberg

Who are the Jews? What impact have they had on the world? Now view a powerful short film that reveals the real story behind “The Mystery of the Jews.” With remarkable insights by renowned historians, world leaders, and perceptive authors, “The Mystery of the Jews” challenges the normative conception of human history.

‘Kristallnacht’: The Legal Status of the Bystander

On this night 77 years ago, Germans stood by as Jewish businesses and synagogues were burned, tens of thousands of Jews were arrested, and nearly a hundred were killed. Shouldn’t doing nothing about it be criminal?
By Amos N. Guiora /

I am child of the Holocaust. Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors. This essay seeks to answer three questions essential to my understanding of the Holocaust, the bystander, and my understanding of duty owed to another individual.

Those questions are: What do we learn from the Holocaust in general, in particular from Kristallnacht, regarding the bystander? What is the responsibility of the individual in the face of unmitigated racism and hatred? What is the most appropriate application of the painful lessons that can be learned from the tragic events of November 9-10, 1938?

On November 7, 1938, a Jewish youth named Herschel Grynszpan shot the German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath in Paris. Grynszpan’s family, Polish Jews living in Germany, were ordered to be expelled by the Nazi regime and transferred to refugee camps whose conditions were dire. Vom Rath died of his wounds on Nov. 9; word reached Hitler shortly thereafter while he attended a dinner commemorating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Upon hearing the news, Hitler left the dinner; speaking on his behalf Goebbels, in essence, called for a pogrom directed against Jews. The expression “spontaneously planned” has been used by historians to describe the unfolding of the events of the next two days.

Within hours of Goebbels’s words, more than 1,000 synagogues were set on fire or destroyed; in 24 hours, 91 Jews were killed, and over 30,000 Jewish men aged 16 to 60 were sent to concentration camps where they were tormented and tortured for a number of months. More than 1,000 of those arrested met their deaths in the camps. Rampant looting and extreme violence in a hateful atmosphere marked Kristallnacht, along with arrests, destruction of physical property, physical abuse, and humiliation in more than 1,000 cities, towns, and villages in Germany and Austria.

According to the London Times, “No Foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings … assaults on defenceless and innocent people which disgraced that country yesterday.” As “hundreds of thousands danced in wild frenzy while millions watched approvingly,” Church leaders remained similarly silent.

According to Professor Frank Bajohr:

    the significance of the November Pogrom as a radicalising factor cannot be doubted. The pogroms that were stage-managed after the murder of Ernst vom Rath … marked both the highpoint and the end of mob anti-Semitism. … They destroyed the basis of the economic livelihood of the Jews within a few months.

Over the past few years, my scholarship has focused on extremism and intolerance, particularly the limits of tolerating intolerance. I have become increasingly focused on the bystander because of a conviction that standing by, passively, facilitates extremism.

Over the past few years my scholarship has focused on extremism and intolerance, particularly the limits of tolerating intolerance. I have become increasingly focused on the bystander because of a conviction that standing by, passively, facilitates extremism.

The bystander is an individual who observes another in clear distress but is not the direct cause of the harm. A culpable bystander is one who has the ability to mitigate the harm but chooses not to. Needless to say, the age and ability of the actor must be taken into consideration.

In the course of my lifetime, I have—like many others—been faced with the dilemma of whether to involve myself when others are in need of assistance. Similar to others, I have made right and wrong decisions; the former are not worthy of discussion, the latter weigh on my conscience.

Once, I chose not to assist a homeless adult who was the subject of ugly bullying by a college student; my inaction was inexcusable for I stood but two feet from the incident and could have either prevented it, or at least mitigated its consequences. On a second occasion, I was present at a restaurant when an individual, at the next table, was engaged in an ugly anti-Semitic diatribe. I chose to ignore it.

Regardless of the causes of the bystander’s failure to act, the consequences of inaction can be tragic. The pages of history are filled with painful examples. Extremism benefits from the decision by many to look the other way. Passivity is a human reaction I find unfathomable and unacceptable. I ask three questions: What duty is owed? To whom is a duty owed? And, is a duty owed to one identified as the “enemy”?


Yet the crux of the dilemma I seek to address, and hopefully resolve, is not a personal or moral question but rather the nature of an individual’s legal obligation when another individual is in distress, vulnerable, and in harm’s way. The Holocaust in general and events in particular — including Kristallnacht, the Death Marches [the forcible movements of prisoners in Nazi Germany], deportations, and thousands of concentration camps, many located in the midst of civilian populations — significantly shape my conviction that creation of a legal standard regarding the bystander is essential.

History shows that relying on both a moral compass and impetus with respect to the “right thing to do” is insufficient. The Righteous Among the Nations movingly honored at Yad Vashem offer proof of the willingness of individuals to act bravely in risking life and limb. However, the thousands who sought to aid their fellow man pale in comparison to the millions who turned their backs in the face of both potential and clear harm to others. It is for that reason that I propose imposind a legal duty to act; relying on moral imperative is simply insufficient.

From the two incidents above, I have learned to be understanding of non-action: After all, if I, who fully understand the consequences of non-involvement, can choose not to act then I must, at least, be sympathetic to others who similarly decide on a “safe course.” However, choosing a “safe course” cannot justify failure to act; history has, unequivocally, repeatedly shown this.

In other words, in accordance with the legal standard I am proposing, the failure to intervene to protect an innocent homeless individual would be deemed a crime, subject to police investigation and prosecutorial discretion. Regarding the anti-Semitism at the restaurant? Ugly, yes, but as it did not morph into incitement, or violence, the speech was protected. In the context of the legal architecture I propose, my silence was not a crime. Should I have said something? As the “should” question suggests the “right thing to do” discussion, each individual can ascertain what is the ethical course of action.

These incidents reflect the spectrum of human interaction and conduct. They pose significant dilemmas for the bystander; proposing culpability predicated on a legal obligation seeks to minimize the gray zone regarding when law mandates action. In other words, duty to care needs to be a legal obligation.

It is imperative to establish legal standards because relying on human nature has proven insufficient. Kristallnacht highlights that human nature is not to save the vulnerable but rather to look the other way or join the mob.

I am convinced that the articulation and implementation of a legal duty to act are essential, particularly in this contemporary age marked by extremism, violence, and hatred. To ignore that reality is to, conceivably, set the stage for, yet again, unimaginable violence against those who are helpless.

In focusing on Kristallnacht, I hope to convince of the need to create legal architecture whereby the duty to care is a legal obligation.


Kristallnacht must be viewed as the bitter prelude to the Holocaust. In the words of Herman Goering, “I would not want to be a Jew in Germany.”

According to the historian Martin Gilbert, “Kristallnacht was the culmination of more than five years and nine months of systematic discrimination and persecution.” Jews who made up less than 1 percent of Germany’s pre-WWII population were singled out by the Nazi regime as the “enemy.”

The exclusion of Jews was largely met by passivity from the population at large whereas former colleagues and neighbors took advantage of the situation to their benefit. Professor Raul Hilberg refers to such individuals as beneficiaries, distinct from bystanders.

It is a matter of debate among historians whether the Jewish population fully appreciated the significance regarding the change in their circumstances; it is clear that the overwhelming majority did not recognize the horrific fate that awaited them. That, however, does not excuse the complicity of the bystander.

Gilbert tells us that during those two days—November 9 and 10, 1938—“hundreds of thousands danced in wild frenzy while millions watched approvingly.” In other words, there were “eyewitnesses in every corner of the Reich” as ordinary German citizens either directly participated in or passively condoned a horrific orgy of violence against Jews, their property, and their synagogues. The condoning, much less participating in unrestrained violence against German Jews by non-Jewish Germans is the essence of tolerating intolerance; it is an absolute violation of the social compact and vividly highlights the extraordinary danger to the vulnerable in the face of bystander passivity.


Kristallnacht did not occur in a vacuum. The Nazi regime’s relentless emphasis on racial policy focusing on the improvement of race and racial hygiene targeting habitual criminals, the handicapped, homosexuals, and gypsies—much less Jews—was implemented through a variety of means including sterilization and eugenics. Hitler’s demonization of the Jews resulted in their delegitimization, if not dehumanization, as they were clearly, consistently, and loudly defined as “enemies of the German state.”

Antisemitic graffiti after Kristallnacht: “Jews are bloodsuckers,” Germany. (Yad Vashem)
Antisemitic graffiti after Kristallnacht: “Jews are bloodsuckers,” Germany. (Yad Vashem)

The Nazification of society required systematic synchronization of all institutions in accordance with Nazi ideology demanding absolute loyalty to the regime and the Fuhrer. The norm, as articulated—primarily by Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, and Heydrich—was that Jews endangered “the very survival of Germany and of the Aryan world.” Erasing the shame of the Treaty of Versailles was of paramount importance if not unadulterated obsession.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism was intoxicating, hysterical, and remarkably effective; his speeches were electric, charismatic, and unsophisticated. The themes were consistent: Jews were to be blamed for Germany’s defeat in WWI, for Germany’s failed experiment with democracy in the aftermath of WWI, and for Germany’s failed economy. The concepts reflected basic principles of fascism, nationalism, and racism; Hitler would return Germany to its glorious roots.

The regime benefited from the passivity of the Church. As Professor Saul Friedlander [quoting German historian Klaus Scholder] writes: “During the decisive days … no bishop, no church dignitary, no synod made any open declaration against the persecution of the Jews in Germany.” In the words of Berlin Protestant Bishop Otto Dibelius in a confidential Easter missive to provincial pastors: “One cannot ignore that Jewry has played a leading role in all the destructive manifestations of modern civilization.”

Jews were, literally and figuratively, systematically squeezed out of the social contract. Their unmitigated vulnerability manifests the consequences of society identifying a particular group as the “other” with no duty owed to mitigate the inevitable disaster that awaited members of the group who were, it must be recalled, German citizens.

The measures directly contributed to the aforementioned effort to exclude Jews from the social fabric and reflected the regime’s brutality and harshness. The population’s general passivity directly contributed to the successful implementation of the measures below. Re-articulated: The majority of Germans “acquiesced”; the Churches “kept their distance”; and the laws suggest that arbitrary terror was replaced by a “permanent framework of discrimination.”

On March 5, 1933, the Nazis obtained a majority in the Reichstag resulting from a coalition formed with the German National People’s Party. Shortly thereafter, the first concentration camp was established when Himmler officially inaugurated Dachau on March 20, 1938.

On April 1, 1933, a boycott of Jewish shops was ordered by the regime; the boycott largely failed because of the population’s passivity that, according to Friedlander, did not “show hostility to the ‘enemies of the people’ party agitators had expected.” The boycott was proceeded by enactment of the Enabling Act, which granted full legislative and executive powers to the chancellor; in its immediate wake the SA [Sturm Abteilung, ‘stormtroopers’] forcibly closed shops and attacked and killed Jews.

On April 7, 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service 2 was passed; according to Paragraph 3:

    Civilian servants of non-Aryan origin are to retire … anyone descended from non-Aryan, particularly Jewish, parents or grandparents. It suffices if one parent or grandparents is non-Aryan.

On April 11, 1933, Jewish attorneys were excluded from the Bar; on April 25, 1933, the Law Against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities was passed, which limited enrollment of new Jewish students to 1.5 percent of new applicants with the overall number of Jewish students not to exceed 5 percent. In September 1933 Jews were forbidden to own farms and to engage in agriculture, and in October 1933 Jews were barred from belonging to journalist associations and from positions of newspaper editor.

In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were announced at the annual party rally in Nuremberg. The “laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of ‘German or related blood.’ Ancillary ordinances to the laws disenfranchised Jews and deprived them of most political rights.” The Nuremberg Laws established fundamental distinctions between citizens of the Third Reich who were entitled to full political and civil rights and subjects who were deprived of those rights.

In the aftermath of Kristallnacht legislation, the “First Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life” was enacted that banned Jews from all remaining occupations and called for dismissing those still employed without any compensation. This measure was intended to complete the process of Aryanization.

By 1939, “remaining Jews in Germany had been completely marginalized, isolated and deprived of their main means of earning a living”. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Hitler began discussing the physical annihilation of Jews; it is for that reason that Kristallnacht is appropriately termed the bitter prelude to the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism, as traditionally understood, was about to be replaced by the ideology of the pogrom as manifested on November 9-10, 1938.


The Holocaust magnifies and painfully illustrates the price of passivity. Bystanders suggest a stepping back from making a constructive contribution to mainstream society and facilitating, to varying degrees, harm to otherwise innocent individuals. In other words, a bystander sees yet chooses to ignore. That is the essence of the bystander.

I propose creating three distinct bystander-victim paradigms: 1) Anonymous Bystander, Faceless Victim; 2) Neighbors; 3) Desensitized Bystander, Disenfranchised Victim. In my book, the first theme will be examined through the lens of Death Marches (November 1944-May 1945); the second theme will be examined through the lens of the deportation of Dutch Jewry, and the third theme will be examined through the lens of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry.

It has been suggested that the primacy of the bystander’s obligation to self and family outweighs duty and responsibility to the other. In addition, the decision—oftentimes quickly made—to scurry on, thereby deliberately ignoring the needs of others, has been repeatedly offered as reflecting the reality of human interaction, or more correctly of human “non” interaction.

What is particularly problematic in the effort to create a legal standard addressing this issue is determining the degree to which the state can impose a “positive” duty on members of society. Nuance is essential to a full discussion regarding the bystander; different circumstances and conditions must be taken into consideration when articulating and implementing a duty-to-act paradigm. Creating, or allowing, a wide range of exceptions to an agreed upon rule facilitates unwarranted “wiggle room” that, ultimately, provides justification for a lack of intervention and involvement.

The perpetrator bears the greatest degree of culpability for the harm that befalls the victim; however, as the Holocaust clearly demonstrated, the complicity of the bystander greatly facilitated the perpetrator’s actions and its consequences. It is that complicity that is at the core of our undertaking; in proposing a legal standard that enables prosecution of the bystander, the assumption is that there is a need to clearly articulate an enforceable duty to care. That is the essence of the social contract. To not protect the vulnerable and at-risk members of society—regardless of their status, position, and class—is a resounding rejection of the social contract. That, for me, is the critical lesson I propose we take away from Kristallnacht.

Amos N. Guiora is a professor of Law at SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah.

Christian Family Defends 2,700-Year-Old Tomb of Jewish Prophet as ISIS Army Advances

Christian Family Defending 2,700-Year-Old Tomb of Jewish Prophet as ISIS Army Advances on Nineveh
By Stoyan Zaimov /

A Christian family in the ancient city of Nineveh is reportedly defending the 2,700 year-old tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum, as the armies of terror group ISIS advance in the region.

“When the last Jewish people in Al Qosh left, they asked my grandfather to watch over the tomb, to keep it safe. I don’t know much more than that,” said Asir Salaam Shajaa, an Assyrian Christian.

“Nahum is not our prophet, but he is a prophet, so we must respect that. He’s a prophet, it is simple.”

Haaretz reported that Al Qosh, the city built over ancient Nineveh, is a treasure trove of history, containing both the early beginnings of Christianity and the Assyrian empire, along with its Hebrew heritage.

Nahum the prophet is known for predicting the fall of Nineveh in the seventh century B.C., and his remains are believed to be kept at the tomb of “Nahum the Elkoshite” in the city.

Shajaa revealed that generations of his family have been taking care of the tomb, located in one of the last synagogues still standing in Iraq. His family had promised the Jewish residents of Al Qosh more than 60 years ago that they would protect and preserve the Hebrew site. The Jewish people were forced to flee in the early 1950s after government policies sought to purge Iraq from Jewish presence.

The ancient tomb was reportedly visited by thousands of worshipers each year before the 1950s’ exodus.

Shajaa noted that the beige hand-laid walls of the old synagogue are crumbling, but he continues to take care of the tomb with his family, and allows visitor to come pay their respects.

“No one can decide what to do with the place. There were people who came a few years ago, some wealthy Jewish people who wanted to rebuild the fallen walls with the same stones,” the Christian man said.

“The government didn’t like that though; they didn’t want them to use the same materials because they think it isn’t safe. But then Islamic State came and we are close to the fighting here, so nothing will happen now.”

Shajaa said he’s confident that ISIS will not conquer the city, despite its recent conquests of other Iraqi cities. Still, he noted that the crisis has affected pilgrimages, with very few Jewish pilgrims daring to venture to the tomb.

“I’m not sure how long my family will continue to stay in Iraq. We want to leave; most of the Christians want to leave,” he added. “My brother says he will stay though. If my family gets to leave Iraq, my brother and his children will look after the tomb. It will stay in the family, God willing.”

ISIS’s conquest of Ramadi back in May was its most significant territorial victory in Iraq since the U.S. and a broad coalition of international forces began launching airstrikes against the terror group last year.

The fall of the city prompted questions about whether the U.S. is losing the war in Iraq and Syria, though President Obama has denied those claims.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently that over 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the military campaign began nine months ago.

“We have seen a lot of losses within Daesh [ISIS] since the start of this campaign, more than 10,000,” Blinken said. “It will end up having an impact.”

An Iraqi Christian fighter, a member of Babylon Christian Battalion, stands guard near the site of May car bomb attack in Baghdad.
An Iraqi Christian fighter, a member of Babylon Christian Battalion, stands guard near the site of May car bomb attack in Baghdad.

In Defense of Zionism

The often reviled ideology that gave rise to Israel has been an astonishing historical success.

By Michael B. Oren — The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 1, 2014

Israelis hoist their new flag at a ceremony in 1948.
A Jewish State: See some key moments in the history of Zionism and Israel / Robert Capa/ICP/Magnum Photos (see pictures below).

They come from every corner of the country—investment bankers, farmers, computer geeks, jazz drummers, botany professors, car mechanics—leaving their jobs and their families. They put on uniforms that are invariably too tight or too baggy, sign out their gear and guns. Then, scrambling onto military vehicles, 70,000 reservists—women and men—join the young conscripts of what is proportionally the world’s largest citizen army. They all know that some of them will return maimed or not at all. And yet, without hesitation or (for the most part) complaint, proudly responding to the call-up, Israelis stand ready to defend their nation. They risk their lives for an idea.

The idea is Zionism. It is the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel. Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.

Yet Zionism, arguably more than any other contemporary ideology, is demonized. “All Zionists are legitimate targets everywhere in the world!” declared a banner recently paraded by anti-Israel protesters in Denmark. “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances,” warned a sign in the window of a Belgian cafe. A Jewish demonstrator in Iceland was accosted and told, “You Zionist pig, I’m going to behead you.”

In certain academic and media circles, Zionism is synonymous with colonialism and imperialism. Critics on the radical right and left have likened it to racism or, worse, Nazism. And that is in the West. In the Middle East, Zionism is the ultimate abomination—the product of a Holocaust that many in the region deny ever happened while maintaining nevertheless that the Zionists deserved it.

What is it about Zionism that elicits such loathing? After all, the longing of a dispersed people for a state of their own cannot possibly be so repugnant, especially after that people endured centuries of massacres and expulsions, culminating in history’s largest mass murder. Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn’t evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.

Clearly anti-Semitism, of both the European and Muslim varieties, plays a role. Cabals, money grubbing, plots to take over the world and murder babies—all the libels historically leveled at Jews are regularly hurled at Zionists. And like the anti-Semitic capitalists who saw all Jews as communists and the communists who painted capitalism as inherently Jewish, the opponents of Zionism portray it as the abominable Other.

But not all of Zionism’s critics are bigoted, and not a few of them are Jewish. For a growing number of progressive Jews, Zionism is too militantly nationalist, while for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, the movement is insufficiently pious—even heretical. How can an idea so universally reviled retain its legitimacy, much less lay claim to success?

The answer is simple: Zionism worked. The chances were infinitesimal that a scattered national group could be assembled from some 70 countries into a sliver-sized territory shorn of resources and rich in adversaries and somehow survive, much less prosper. The odds that those immigrants would forge a national identity capable of producing a vibrant literature, pace-setting arts and six of the world’s leading universities approximated zero.

Elsewhere in the world, indigenous languages are dying out, forests are being decimated, and the populations of industrialized nations are plummeting. Yet Zionism revived the Hebrew language, which is now more widely spoken than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th. And the family values that Zionism fostered have produced the fastest natural growth rate in the modernized world and history’s largest Jewish community. The average secular couple in Israel has at least three children, each a reaffirmation of confidence in Zionism’s future.

Indeed, by just about any international criteria, Israel is not only successful but flourishing. The population is annually rated among the happiest, healthiest and most educated in the world. Life expectancy in Israel, reflecting its superb universal health-care system, significantly exceeds America’s and that of most European countries. Unemployment is low, the economy robust. A global leader in innovation, Israel is home to R&D centers of some 300 high-tech companies, including Apple, Intel and Motorola. The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.

The democratic ideals integral to Zionist thought have withstood pressures that have precipitated coups and revolutions in numerous other nations. Today, Israel is one of the few states—along with Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.—that has never known a second of nondemocratic governance.

These accomplishments would be sufficiently astonishing if attained in North America or Northern Europe. But Zionism has prospered in the supremely inhospitable—indeed, lethal—environment of the Middle East. Two hours’ drive east of the bustling nightclubs of Tel Aviv—less than the distance between New York and Philadelphia—is Jordan, home to more than a half million refugees from Syria’s civil war. Traveling north from Tel Aviv for four hours would bring that driver to war-ravaged Damascus or, heading east, to the carnage in western Iraq. Turning south, in the time it takes to reach San Francisco from Los Angeles, the traveler would find himself in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

In a region reeling with ethnic strife and religious bloodshed, Zionism has engendered a multiethnic, multiracial and religiously diverse society. Arabs serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. While Christian communities of the Middle East are steadily eradicated, Israel’s continues to grow. Israeli Arab Christians are, in fact, on average better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews.

In view of these monumental achievements, one might think that Zionism would be admired rather than deplored. But Zionism stands accused of thwarting the national aspirations of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants, of oppressing and dispossessing them.

Never mind that the Jews were natives of the land—its Arabic place names reveal Hebrew palimpsests—millennia before the Palestinians or the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Never mind that in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, the Palestinians received offers to divide the land and rejected them, usually with violence. And never mind that the majority of Zionism’s adherents today still stand ready to share their patrimony in return for recognition of Jewish statehood and peace.

The response to date has been, at best, a refusal to remain at the negotiating table or, at worst, war. But Israelis refuse to relinquish the hope of resuming negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. To live in peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors remains the Zionist dream.

Still, for all of its triumphs, its resilience and openness to peace, Zionism fell short of some of its original goals. The agrarian, egalitarian society created by Zionist pioneers has been replaced by a dynamic, largely capitalist economy with yawning gaps between rich and poor. Mostly secular at its inception, Zionism has also spawned a rapidly expanding religious sector, some elements of which eschew the Jewish state.

About a fifth of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and though some communities (such as the Druse) are intensely patriotic and often serve in the army, others are much less so, and some even call for Israel’s dissolution. And there is the issue of Judea and Samaria—what most of the world calls the West Bank—an area twice used to launch wars of national destruction against Israel but which, since its capture in 1967, has proved painfully divisive.

Many Zionists insist that these territories represent the cradle of Jewish civilization and must, by right, be settled. But others warn that continued rule over the West Bank’s Palestinian population erodes Israel’s moral foundation and will eventually force it to choose between being Jewish and remaining democratic.

Yet the most searing of Zionism’s unfulfilled visions was that of a state in which Jews could be free from the fear of annihilation. The army imagined by Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founding father, marched in parades and saluted flag-waving crowds. The Israel Defense Forces, by contrast, with no time for marching, much less saluting, has remained in active combat mode since its founding in 1948. With the exception of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological forbear of today’s Likud Party, none of Zionism’s early thinkers anticipated circumstances in which Jews would be permanently at arms. Few envisaged a state that would face multiple existential threats on a daily basis just because it is Jewish.

Confronted with such monumental threats, Israelis might be expected to flee abroad and prospective immigrants discouraged. But Israel has one of the lower emigration rates among developed countries while Jews continue to make aliyah—literally, in Hebrew, “to ascend”—to Israel. Surveys show that Israelis remain stubbornly optimistic about their country’s future. And Jews keep on arriving, especially from Europe, where their security is swiftly eroding. Last week, thousands of Parisians went on an anti-Semitic rant, looting Jewish shops and attempting to ransack synagogues.

American Jews face no comparable threat, and yet numbers of them continue to make aliyah. They come not in search of refuge but to take up the Zionist challenge—to be, as the Israeli national anthem pledges, “a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.” American Jews have held every high office, from prime minister to Supreme Court chief justice to head of Israel’s equivalent of the Fed, and are disproportionately prominent in Israel’s civil society.

Hundreds of young Americans serve as “Lone Soldiers,” without families in the country, and volunteer for front-line combat units. One of them, Max Steinberg from Los Angeles, fell in the first days of the current Gaza fighting. His funeral, on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, was attended by 30,000 people, most of them strangers, who came out of respect for this intrepid and selfless Zionist.

I also paid my respects to Max, whose Zionist journey was much like mine. After working on a kibbutz—a communal farm—I made aliyah and trained as a paratrooper. I participated in several wars, and my children have served as well, sometimes in battle. Our family has taken shelter from Iraqi Scuds and Hamas M-75s, and a suicide bomber killed one of our closest relatives.

Despite these trials, my Zionist life has been immensely fulfilling. And the reason wasn’t Zionism’s successes—not the Nobel Prizes gleaned by Israeli scholars, not the Israeli cures for chronic diseases or the breakthroughs in alternative energy. The reason—paradoxically, perhaps—was Zionism’s failures.

Failure is the price of sovereignty. Statehood means making hard and often agonizing choices—whether to attack Hamas in Palestinian neighborhoods, for example, or to suffer rocket strikes on our own territory. It requires reconciling our desire to be enlightened with our longing to remain alive. Most onerously, sovereignty involves assuming responsibility. Zionism, in my definition, means Jewish responsibility. It means taking responsibility for our infrastructure, our defense, our society and the soul of our state. It is easy to claim responsibility for victories; setbacks are far harder to embrace.

But that is precisely the lure of Zionism. Growing up in America, I felt grateful to be born in a time when Jews could assume sovereign responsibilities. Statehood is messy, but I regarded that mess as a blessing denied to my forefathers for 2,000 years. I still feel privileged today, even as Israel grapples with circumstances that are at once perilous, painful and unjust. Fighting terrorists who shoot at us from behind their own children, our children in uniform continue to be killed and wounded while much of the world brands them as war criminals.

Zionism, nevertheless, will prevail. Deriving its energy from a people that refuses to disappear and its ethos from historically tested ideas, the Zionist project will thrive. We will be vilified, we will find ourselves increasingly alone, but we will defend the homes that Zionism inspired us to build.

The Israeli media have just reported the call-up of an additional 16,000 reservists. Even as I write, they too are mobilizing for active duty—aware of the dangers, grateful for the honor and ready to bear responsibility.


Mr. Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2013. He holds the chair in international diplomacy at IDC Herzliya in Israel and is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. His books include “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.”

The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, looks out over the Rhine River from the balcony of the hotel in Basel, Switzerland, where he stayed during the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Israeli historian and former diplomat Michael B. Oren defines Zionism as 'the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel.'
The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, looks out over the Rhine River from the balcony of the hotel in Basel, Switzerland, where he stayed during the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Israeli historian and former diplomat Michael B. Oren defines Zionism as ‘the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel.’
 Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, mops his forehead just before he stands up to read out Israel's Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948. Ben Gurion, a Polish immigrant, was Israel's founding father, leading the Jewish state through the 1948-49 War of Independence and the 1956 Suez War.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, mops his forehead just before he stands up to read out Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948. Ben Gurion, a Polish immigrant, was Israel’s founding father, leading the Jewish state through the 1948-49 War of Independence and the 1956 Suez War.
Israelis hoist their new flag at a ceremony in 1948.
Israelis hoist their new flag at a ceremony in 1948.
One distinctive Israeli innovation was the kibbutz, a collectivist or socialist agricultural community. Here, kibbutz members celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover in the Beit Shean Valley in 1967.
One distinctive Israeli innovation was the kibbutz, a collectivist or socialist agricultural community. Here, kibbutz members celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover in the Beit Shean Valley in 1967.
After the Six-Day War ended on June 10, 1967, Israel had taken control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Here, Israelis guard the Western Wall—a remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism—in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 16, 1967.
After the Six-Day War ended on June 10, 1967, Israel had taken control of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Here, Israelis guard the Western Wall—a remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism—in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 16, 1967.
In October 1973, future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped turn the tide of the fourth Arab-Israeli war after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, eventually encircling the Egyptian Third Army. Mr. Sharon (right), recovering from a head injury, stands with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan on the western side of the Suez Canal.
In October 1973, future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped turn the tide of the fourth Arab-Israeli war after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, eventually encircling the Egyptian Third Army. Mr. Sharon (right), recovering from a head injury, stands with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan on the western side of the Suez Canal.
As President Jimmy Carter applauds, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat embrace in the East Room of the White House after the signing of a 'Framework for Peace' in the Middle East, on Sept. 17, 1978. Mr. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 led to the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords in 1978, followed by Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab state the following year.
As President Jimmy Carter applauds, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat embrace in the East Room of the White House after the signing of a ‘Framework for Peace’ in the Middle East, on Sept. 17, 1978. Mr. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 led to the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords in 1978, followed by Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab state the following year.
In 1987, a Palestinian uprising erupted in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, jolting many Israelis into revisiting the question of whether the Jewish state could indefinitely control those areas. A Palestinian teenager, armed with a slingshot and using marbles for ammunition, takes aim at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Nablus, Jan. 14, 1988.
In 1987, a Palestinian uprising erupted in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, jolting many Israelis into revisiting the question of whether the Jewish state could indefinitely control those areas. A Palestinian teenager, armed with a slingshot and using marbles for ammunition, takes aim at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Nablus, Jan. 14, 1988.
As President Bill Clinton smiles, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands on the White House lawn, on Sept. 13, 1993. After months of secret negotiations in Norway, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators produced the Oslo accords, a land-for-peace deal that established the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, began an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and called for talks on the conflict's core issues—including Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, and Jerusalem—after a five-year interim period.
As President Bill Clinton smiles, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands on the White House lawn, on Sept. 13, 1993. After months of secret negotiations in Norway, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators produced the Oslo accords, a land-for-peace deal that established the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, began an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and called for talks on the conflict’s core issues—including Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, and Jerusalem—after a five-year interim period.
Israelis enjoy the Mediterranean Sea air in Tel Aviv, on Aug. 29, 2013. Author Michael B. Oren writes that in today's Israel, 'The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.'
Israelis enjoy the Mediterranean Sea air in Tel Aviv, on Aug. 29, 2013. Author Michael B. Oren writes that in today’s Israel, ‘The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.’
An Israeli 155 mm artillery piece is fired into the Gaza Strip from a base in southern Israel, on July 31, 2014. Since 2008, Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas have fought three bitter conflicts.
An Israeli 155 mm artillery piece is fired into the Gaza Strip from a base in southern Israel, on July 31, 2014. Since 2008, Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas have fought three bitter conflicts.

The Sunni-Shiite Divide Explained In 100 Seconds — video

The battle between Islam’s two major branches began over 1,400 years ago when the Islamic prophet Mohammed died and the two sides clashed over who should succeed him. This centuries-old ‘war’ is once again threatening the stability of Iraq, the whole Middle East, and thus the world. The Washington Post‘s senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung explains in 100 seconds just how we got here.

Israel’s fight for its very existence

By Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist

Every Hamas rocket is an act of war

Mohammed Saber / EPA
Mohammed Saber / EPA

Israel fought its first war, in 1948, against five Arab nations — Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan — as well as the Palestinians. In the prediction of the fairly new CIA, the outcome was never in doubt: “Without substantial outside aid in terms of manpower and material, they (the Jews) will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” It has now been 66 years, but I fear that sooner or later, the CIA’s conclusion could turn out to be right.

It does not seem that way at the moment. The five Arab armies of 1948 are now down to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is a struggle whose end cannot be in doubt. The Israelis will degrade Hamas’s military capabilities — its rocket-launching sites and its tunnels — and end for a time its ability to attack Israel. Every rocket, no matter how primitive and wobbly, is an act of war.

Since 1948, nation after nation has retired to the sidelines. Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia, which stayed out of the first war, has little desire for any subsequent one. Lebanon has been battered too often by Israel to still have a taste for war.

Iraq is coming apart at the seams and can fight no one. Syria, too, is a chaotic mess, no longer really a nation and now more of a geographic designation. With the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, no one much wants to fight. Happy days should be here . . . again.

But they are not. In my estimation, Israel now fights not just to clear out the tunnels and rid Gaza of its rockets but for its very existence. This war that Israel will of course win has seen its once-hapless enemy, Hamas, launch hundreds of rockets a day, some of them landing in the Tel Aviv area, a few going as far as Haifa. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has reportedly done wonders, but the law of averages insists that a rocket will get through and Tel Aviv will be hit — and then hit again.

The nations that once went to war vowing to push Israel into the sea are unstable, rickety creations. They are under siege not from Israel but from their own religious zealots. Whatever emerges is going to be either less accepting of Israel or maniacally intent on annihilating it. In time, Israel could be surrounded by states that would make Hamas seem the soul of moderation.

There is a sad metronomic rhythm to Israel’s wars with Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel wins every time, but every war is incrementally existential. Israelis are increasingly looking over their shoulder. About 60% of them either have or wish they had a second passport (often from an ancestral European country), and a large number of them — maybe as many as 500,000 — already live in the United States. The wayward Hamas rocket, so idiotically trivialized by Israel’s critics, doesn’t have to kill anyone to take a toll. People will seek safety as surely as water seeks its own level.

Hamas thinks it is winning the current war — which is why it rejected the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire proposal. Not a single major Hamas leader has been killed. Sooner or later. an intermediary will insist on a peace agreement. That intermediary should be Secretary of State Kerry. He must demand no more tunnels and no more rockets. Hamas can stay in Gaza, and Israel seems willing to ease its blockade. But both goods and funds have to be used to benefit the Palestinian people — not to build (or import) rockets or resume the tunneling.

A deal is there to be made — but the U.S. has to either make it or determine its outcome. The effort cannot be left to countries that are hostile to Israel — Turkey and Qatar come to mind — or the Middle East will once again wind up with a peace that is just a prelude to more war.

Israel is the legal creation of the United Nations. It has an absolute right not merely to exist but to do so safe from rockets or incursions by tunneling terrorists. In 1948, Harry Truman swiftly recognized Israel. America took the lead. It is time for it to do so again.