• Columnist Bradley Burston has an enraged must-read:
What the far-left from Britain to Berkeley has been been unable to bring off—a sense among Israel’s allies that Israel has become a heartless, morally heedless aggressor state worthy of sanction and shunning—the far-right in Israel’s own government, and in particular, its Foreign Ministry, seems determined to inculcate to the full. [Haaretz]
• After Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon refused to meet with J Street’s congressional delegation, the Israeli government seems increasingly out-of-touch with American Jews, James Besser argues. [JW Political Insider]
• Boxing promoter Bob Arum reached an agreement with the bar mitzvah boy who rented out the Yankee Stadium Jumbotron on the night of June 5th. Meaning: Orthodox fighter Yuri Foreman will very likely take on Miguel Cotto that night in that place. [AP/ESPN]
• Benjamin Netanyahu, Tony Blair, and Tzipi Livni have all pledged to attend the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., in late March. [Ben Smith]
• The sustainable food movement collides with old-line Jewish delis. Shall the twain ever meet? [Forward]
• Palestinian rights groups are attempting to organize a boycott of an Israeli ballet company’s performance this Sunday at Brooklyn College. [ArtsBeat]
Maybe the biggest piece of hard news to break today is the Daily Mail’s report that Britain knew that Mossad planned to kill chief Hamas weapons man Mahmoud Mabhouh beforehand, and specifically knew the Israeli spy agency planned to use fake British passports to do it. The U.K. government quickly denied the allegation. Perhaps apropos of that, or perhaps out of a general abundance of caution, Hamas threatened Western nations who allow Mossad agents to operate on their territories or with their support.
Meanwhile, at least in the British press, most outlets are less pissed than they are impressed: “The public mood in Britain is remarkably pro-Israeli on this issue,” a columnist argues, citing one article that said, “What the secret agents did—and, critically, what we saw them do—was compelling and breathtaking in its cleverness. Box office, in other words.” Even so, legendary Mossad chief Meir Dagan—whom some in Israel have called to step down in the wake of this mess—is staying out of the spotlight, as he tends to do.
Finally, in case you were wondering whether Mossad’s assassination—sorry, Mossad’s alleged assassination—was legal and moral, Alan Dershowitz has your answer: yes, and yes.
The cast of ‘How To Make It In America’, last week.(Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
Heeb’s mini-review of How To Make It In America notes the latent and explicit Judaism in the new HBO series. It starts with the main character, a striving, 20-something hipster named Ben Epstein (and played by Bryan Greenberg)—an alter ego, perhaps, of creator Ian Edelman?—and it goes all the way through his (even more explicitly Jewish) high school friend, an i-banker named David Kaplan, as well as the hasidic kids around Ben’s Wiliamsburg apartment.
(The show itself, which is about Ben and his friend Cam’s dreams of success in the fashion world, is alright. The story of aspirational young people trying to make it in the Big City never gets old. At the same time, lines referencing Blue Ribbon and a Condé Nast expense account make the whole thing a bit annoyingly name-drop-y.)
The most Jewish characters on the show, whom Heeb doesn’t mention, don’t appear until the fourth episode. (The second episode airs on HBO this Sunday night; I’ve seen the first four episodes, because I’m special that way.) Ben reluctantly heeds Cam’s request and goes to ask his parents for some money. Sure enough, his mother, a teacher, is hosting a few other members of the union in their homey Upper West Side apartment, and insists that her son stay a bit, you know, just to have a little nosh.
Ben then goes to Bookculture, the Morningside Heights bookstore which will forever be known as Labyrinth to past denizens of that neighborhood, to see his father. He is played by Richard Portnow, whom HBO fans may remember as Uncle Junior’s attorney. The scene between father and son—filmed on Labyrinth’s second floor—is pretty much as Jewy as it gets. If that’s your sort of thing.
Here we go again: yesterday afternoon, federal agents arrested a prominent ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn rabbi, Milton Balkany, after he allegedly tried to extort an unnamed Connecticut hedge fund out of $4 million. Reportedly, Balkany promised the silence of a prison inmate whom federal authorities are questioning as part of an insider-trading investigation. According to a criminal complaint (PDF) filed yesterday, Balkany claimed the inmate had turned to him for advice, and Balkany, in turn, tried to play the hedge fund’s executives (his “co-religionists,” the government notes) off the Justice Department’s investigators.
Balkany, who was released last night on $250,000 bond, told Tablet Magazine in a phone call this morning that he’s sure he’ll be exonerated:
I’m pretty high-profile, and the government has always been after me in one way or another. They threw a bucket of mud at me seven or eight years ago and in the end there wasn’t even a trial. It’s just lots of hoo-ha and sensationalism. There was absolutely nothing there and there is nothing here.
Balkany claimed that he approached the hedge fund—whose name he refused to disclose (though the chatter up in Connecticut is that it’s Steve Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors)—after being contacted by the inmate, who was concerned about selling out fellow Jews in exchange for a reduced sentence. “He doesn’t want to hurt another Jew,” Balkany explained.
How did the subject of charitable contributions come up? Well, Balkany said, after the hedge fund’s lawyers started talking about how generous the firm had been, he mentioned his school and a related yeshiva that were in need of a loan. “I said, ‘This is not a holdup, this is not an armed robbery, this is a request for charity and it had nothing to do with our other issue,’” he said. “Then they went and knifed me by going to the government.”
The government’s criminal investigator alleged that Balkany approached him at the same time, offering the insider information in exchange not just for reducing the sentence of the informant, but also for leniency in the case of an unnamed relative. Balkany confirmed that the additional person for whom he sought leniency is his brother-in-law, Sholom Rubashkin, who is currently in an Iowa jail pending his sentencing on 86 counts of fraud at Agriprocessors, the kosher meat empire. “The whole purpose was to get this first man out of jail,” Balkany said. “Rubashkin was thrown in later.”
Balkany, a white-bearded 63-year-old who heads the Bais Yaakov girls’ school in Midwood, is known in political circles as “the Brooklyn Bundler”—a name bestowed on him over 20 years ago because of his prowess as a fundraiser for political candidates, particularly those who proved willing to contribute to his pet causes. His wife, Sarah, is the daughter of Aaron Rubashkin, the founder of Agriprocessors; though Balkany never worked for the company, at the height of the Agriprocessors scandal, which involved allegations of both financial fraud and immigrant labor violations, he interceded on his in-laws’ behalf against a planned boycott.
It’s been a rough few years for the rabbi. In 2003, not long after he was invited onto the floor of the House of Representatives as guest chaplain, Balkany was charged with misappropriating $700,000 in federal grants to his school. (The government ultimately withdrew the charges.) He now faces charges of extortion, blackmail, fraud, and making false statements, carrying a potential sentence of up to 20 years.
Bright celebrating her win last night.(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The first thing some of us wanted to know when Australian snowboarder Torah Bright, 23, won the women’s halfpipe last night in Vancouver was, “Is she or isn’t she?” Well, she’s not—she’s an observant Mormon, actually, who makes her winter home (Northern Hemisphere winter, that is) in Salt Lake City, Utah. But she is still proud of her name’s provenance, we learn from a profile on the official Australian site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Her mother, it reports, “settled on the name Torah, the Jewish name for the first five books of the Bible, when [her other daughter] Rowena’s Jewish piano teacher told her the word also means ‘bearer of a great spiritual message.’” And now, bearer of a gold medal, too.
Today in Tablet Magazine, Etgar Keret reveals his strategy for extricating himself from telemarketing calls. Samantha M. Shapiro interviews Elie Kaunfer, who is at the forefront of the independent (that is, nondenominational) minyan movement. Joshua Cohen reviews the recently republished novella Union Jack, by masterful Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész. In his weekly haftorah column, Liel Leibovitz notes the good and not-so-good consequences of “the special spiritual connection between Jews and their buildings.” He might have added: and to their blogs, such as The Scroll.
You would think that the Anti-Defamation League would be, at the least, agnostic on a proposed boycott of the University of California, Irvine, if not outright supportive of one. Last week, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was shouted down during a lecture there by members of the university Muslim Student Union, who taunted, among other things, “How many Palestinians did you kill today?” A boycott would probably be unfair—Irvine’s chancellor, after all, who was present, unequivocally condemned the outburst, saying he was embarassed by it. At the same time, the impulse surely exists at the group.
But in fact, the ADL has gone out of its way to oppose a boycott. Partly, one suspects, out of a sense of fair play, as well as of prudence: the group has far more weight when lobbying the university to cultivate a “safe, respectful atmosphere,” if it is on-record opposing a boycott.
There’s another reason the ADL is against a boycott of UC-Irvine, though. Said—who else?—ADL head Abraham Foxman:
We are surprised that those who call for a boycott fail to recognize that it is a double-edged sword that legitimizes a tactic so often used against Jews and Israel, particularly in academic settings. We believe academic boycotts are inappropriate, harmful and counterproductive, and will not work to resolve the situation on campus.
Meanwhile, the ADL’s release praised the chancellor for his “swift, clear, and appropriate” response while insisting that more needed to be done. It acknowledged that the heckling led to 11 arrests, while taking no position on them; the Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into them, while the Council on American Islamic Relations has asserted that they violated the First Amendment. (Whether they did or didn’t is a question of line-drawing: suffice to say that not all speech is protected like all other speech, and heckling a lecturer falls pretty wide on the less-protected side of the spectrum.)
• With the Dubai police all but saying Mossad killed Hamas’s main weapons procurer, the case is at this point “more Coen brothers than John le Carre.” [LAT]
• Yesterday’s U.N. report—which concluded that Iran is likely trying to build nuclear weapons—is by far the strongest statement about Iran’s non-peaceful intentions to come out of the international body. [NYT]
• Some U.S.-originated credit card accounts are under investigation in connection with the Dubai killing. [WSJ]
• Since passports from Britain, Ireland, France, and Germany were used by the Dubai assassins, suspicions that it was a Mossad plot have ratcheted up diplomatic tensions between those countries and Israel. [WSJ]
• Australian Torah Bright won the gold medal in the women’s halfpipe at Vancouver. She is Mormon, not Jewish. [NYT]
• The International Atomic Energy Agency released a new report on Iran, disclosing that, due to a lack of Iranian cooperation, the agency could not “confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.” [JTA]
• The report also concluded, in stronger language than past agency statements, that the mystery Syrian compound that Israel famously bombed in 2007 was possibly a reactor. [Haaretz]
• Publishing and real-estate tycoon Mort Zuckerman, a very active member of the institutional Jewish-American community, has met with New York Republican Party chair about a Senate run this year. [Ben Smith]
•January 19th: Mahmoud Mabhouh, a Hamas military commander living in Syria who played a crucial role in smuggling weapons to the group (including from Iran), arrives in Dubai. Unusually, he has no bodyguards and is not traveling under an alias; reportedly, his bodyguards couldn’t get plane tickets. No, really, that’s what some reports say.
• January 20th: Mabhouh is found dead in his hotel room (we will subsequently learn that he was killed the night before). I’ve seen reports that he was shot and that he was asphyxiated and electrocuted.
• January 20th: Hamas announces that Mabhouh is dead … from cancer.
• By February 1st, some Hamas officials have suggested that Mossad was behind it. The main focus at this point, however, is whether Mabhouh’s death is likely to slow the flow of arms into Gaza. The consensus: probably, but not definitely.
• February 2nd: After an investigation, Hamas believes that Mabhouh died at the hands of an Arab government (he was wanted by Jordanian and Egyptian authorities).
• Even so, on February 3rd Hamas suspends (already severely stalled) negotiations over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in protest of the alleged assassination.
• February 4th: Dubai’s police chief pledges to get a warrant for the arrest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if it turns out that Mossad was indeed behind the killing.
• February 12th: Reneging on past proclamations from his group, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal insists that Mossad was behind Mabhouh’s death.
Okay, so to recap: Mabhouh, a Hamas weapons guy, is killed in Dubai, but Hamas wants the world to think he died naturally; when that becomes untenable, Hamas wants the world to believe that Mossad or some Arab government killed him. In fact, Mossad, any number of Arab governments, Fatah, and God knows who else would have had reason to want him dead.
Buckle up: now’s when things really start to get crazy.
• February 15th: Dubai releases some information, including photos, on 11 suspects: all of them carried European passports.
• February 16th: it becomes clear that at least some of the passports identified with the suspects are fake. Less clear is what that could possibly mean.
• February 17th: we learn that Mabhouh was at the top of Mossad’s target list. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman issues a classic non-denial denial when asked if Mossad was involved. Of course, since it isn’t really his purview and since he probably shouldn’t be trusted anyway, there is no reason to think anyone would have told Lieberman anything, no matter what.
• February 17th: the passports of the six “British” suspects areall fake, and bear the names of Israelis who are known not to have been involved in the killing. More than ever, signs point to Mossad. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledges an investigation and calls in the Israeli ambassador; Germany and France, whose passports were also used, are also pissed.
• Oh, my. Is that footage of the assassins checking into Mabhouh’s hotel the same day Mabhouh did? They trailed him from the airport and stayed in the room directly across from him? And they were wearingfake beards? This is nuts!
• Today, February 18th, this story is the talk of Israel, with most assuming that Mossad killed Mabhouh. Folks are calling for the Mossad chief to step down (“Mossad is Supposed to Gather Intelligence, Not Sow Death”). They are also angry at the thought that Mossad may have implicated innocent people in the incident with those faked passports. Naturally, and as always, Mossad will neither confirm nor deny involvement.
So that’s where we are.
And now, the real question: did Mossad do it?
It certainly looks that way. Hamas still maintains yes. So does the Dubai police, at least publicly. However, one Hamas official believes Fatah is involved. Hell, there’s even a Hamas agent reportedly under arrest in Syria for aiding Mossad in the assassination. Neal Ungerleider has a great discussion of whether or not it was Mossad:
The Israeli intelligence agency certainly has the motives and the means. The modus operandi also fits prior Mossad operations. However, certain facts don’t add up. … what security agency would implicate their own citizens [with the fake passports]? Additionally, there is always the possibility of a false flag operation—where a foreign intelligence agency killed al-Mabhouh for their own purposes, while making it look like a Mossad killing.
Put it this way: you would find it difficult to get me to put money on it being anyone other than Mossad. Although one theory has, so far, gone un-suggested, so allow me to be the first:
If you hadn’t heard, a man crashed a small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, earlier today, killing himself and injuring two people who were in the building. Police are investigating the incident as a crime … in part, no doubt, because of the note that the crasher, who was named Joseph A. Stack III, apparently left behind. (The original note, which he published online, has been taken down, “due to the sensitive nature of the events that transpired in Texas this morning and in compliance with a request from the FBI.”) It is basically a hodgepodge of paranoid, though coherent (at least at the sentence level) ramblings about taxes and America and justice and what-not; a software engineer, Stack reportedly had a history of tax issues. You could find evidence of his being on the extreme right and the extreme left, or just plain crazy.
However, note the final paragraph:
I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.
It’s impossible to say whether Stack knew the provenance of the phrase “pound of flesh”— it is the payment Shylock demands in The Merchant of Venice when a debtor cannot pay him back; and since then it has been associated with the stereotype of the greedy, money-grubbing Jew. It’s impossible, in other words, to know at this point whether Stack’s action or at least beliefs (which certainly had to do with money and the grubbing thereof) were at all motivated by anti-Semitism. Stack certainly wouldn’t be the first violent lunatic to harbor such beliefs, though.
Great medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi is golden this month, and not just because he lived during the Golden Age of Spain. First, Nextbook Press—Tablet Magazine’s close relation—published an acclaimed biography of Halevi by Hillel Halkin, who argues that his subject was, in addition to the poet laureate of the Jewish people, in many ways the first Zionist. After the release, there followed a string of dance parties from Amsterdam to Brooklyn based on The Kuzari, Halevi’s famous work of religious philosophy. Okay, that didn’t actually happen. But! There really is a Halevi poem set to music featured in an otherwise unremarkable play, Conviction, which is currently in previews off-Broadway. So there’s that! (Plus there’s Hillel Halkin’s book, which really is excellent and engaging.)
About halfway through Conviction, a melodrama about the Spanish Inquisition, a beautiful young crypto-Jewess sings a Halevi poem, “Shabbat, my love!”, to her lover, a priest:
Now ’tis dusk. With sudden light distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The turmoil of my heart is stilled—
For you have arrived, Shabbat, my love!
Check out the full text of the poem, and enjoy the rest of Andalusian History Month.
As I noted in yesterday’s Sundown, Israel’s innovative new P.R. campaign is designed to be not top-down but bottom-up: it consists of a new Website, advertising, pamphlets, and the rest, all designed to educate Israelis how to talk about their country in an honest but flattering light. People are more likely to be swayed by word of mouth than institutional propaganda, and in the Internet Age, the idea must be, it is feasible for a government to orchestrate positive buzz. “To counter the big money invested by Arab states in propaganda against Israel, we have to mobilize our human capital, meaning the residents of Israel,” explained the information minister. This is is smart, up-to-date thinking.
There is some controversy behind it: prominent commentator Shlomo Avineri, argued, “It is puerile. Some of the information is ridiculous, and behind it I find a Bolshevik mentality—to make every citizen an unpaid civil servant for the policy of the government. There is never any intimation that some of our problems have to do with actual policies.” The Times notes that Israeli policies and realities are frequently given a conservative gloss on the Website.
A separate question, though. The pamphlets, the advertising, and even the Website are all Hebrew-language, and Hebrew-language alone. Meanwhile, have you ever met more enthusiastic supporters of Israel than (English-speaking) American Jews? (Granted, the enthusiasm might derive in part from a less complicated and knowledgeable relationship with the Jewish state, but wouldn’t that be an asset to the Israeli government?) Why doesn’t Israel wish to enlist its English-speaking supporters around the world in its new promotional blitz? Or is the campaign, ostensibly meant to change the world’s mind, in fact intended to shore up domestic support for Israel’s current direction? I don’t know, but I would like to.
Blackwell and his wife in 2006, after he lost the Ohio gubernatorial race.(Mark Lyons/Getty Images)
Every week, it seems, someone compares something pretty minor, or not black-and-white, to the Holocaust, and we groan and roll our eyes and take umbrage and get sleepy and take a nap so that we’re ready to do it all over again the following week. This week, however, Ken Blackwell, a prominent Ohio Republican and fellow at the conservative Family Research Council, found a wholly new way to be offensive in this vein: compare something that is, at best, a slight injustice (and that’s quite debatable) to a pogrom. For him, that’s what the nomination of liberal Dawn Johnsen to a prominent Department of Justice post portends:
What we are witnessing right now is an anti-Christian programmatic pogrom. What is a “pogrom” it’s the word [sic] that describes anti-Jewish raids by Cossacks and others in czarist Russia, but a programmatic pogrom best describes what is happening right now.
So, actually, I misrepresented Blackwell earlier. Technically, what the Obama administration is committing is not a pogrom; it’s worse than a pogrom, because it’s a “programmatic pogrom” (a pogrommatic perhaps?).
The other nominee whom Blackwell protests is Obama’s choice to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai Feldblum. Feldblum is Jewish (in case you couldn’t tell), and his father was a Holocaust survivor; but Feldblum looks kindly on gay rights, and so is also part of the pogrom-y programme.
To any Cossacks who might be reading this: the shoe’s on the other foot now, eh?
Today in Tablet Magazine, David P. Goldman talks to George Friedman, whose defense consulting company Stratfor—a “private CIA”—predicts the rise of Poland as well as a Japanese-Turkish axis against America. Digging through old Yiddish newspapers, Eddy Portnoy finds that the pre-World War II Warsaw Beit Din frequently resembled less a staid rabbinical court and more Judge Judy (plus you can read some actual contemporaneous news reports of bitter divorce battles in front of it). In honor of this weekend’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, New York Times editor Ethan Friedman designed a puzzle especially for Tablet Magazine. Here’s an extra clue: “The blog you should read today” (nine letters).