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A French Intellectual’s French Views of Islam

BHL in NYC

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Bernard-Henri Lévy (and friend) last June in Venice.(Marco Sabadin/AFP/Getty Images)

Bernard-Henri Lévy, self-styled bearer of the torch of Enlightenment and engagée intellectualism, was making the rounds in New York City this week. Last night, he got center stage at a panel discussion at Columbia cosponsored by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), which is essentially the French Anti-Defamation League. Topic: “Freedom of Expression: The Controversy.” According to the panel’s moderator, New Yorker editor David Remnick, Lévy was the distinguished guest because of his tireless work as a champion of free speech. In his remarks, though, Lévy—wearing dark shades and his trademark way-open-at-the-neck white dress shirt—demonstrated that his commitment to free speech might more accurately be described as “selective.”

On the one hand, he maintained his staunch defense of the Danish newspaper that published Islam-satirizing cartoons in 2005 (he even criticized Remnick for failing to republish the cartoons). On the other, he advocated for laws banning Holocaust denial, and spoke out against French women wearing burqas, which, he said, constitute “a political message” rather than a religious choice.

The other French panelist, Philippe Schmidt—a lawyer who, like Lévy, is affiliated with LICRA—took these arguments even further, proposing that Internet speech be regulated by some kind of supranational body. When a Columbia law professor on the panel pointed out that U.S. participation in such a body would breach the First Amendment, Schmidt replied (in earnest, it seemed), “You can change the First Amendment.” This strange moment only underscored what had already become clear: of the five panelists, including Remnick, the Americans argued for limited restrictions on speech, while the Frenchmen argued for limited restrictions on speech unless the speaker was a Holocaust denier or a religious Muslim.

Lévy, who personifies grandiosity, is easy to make fun of (“my friend Salman Rushdie” came up repeatedly). But the chauvinism of his ideas is no joke. No one asked directly whether he and Schmidt advocated different free speech standards for Muslims than for others, though Remnick cleverly wondered whether Schmidt thought Israel should have prosecuted Jewish extremists who had directed hate speech toward Yitzhak Rabin before the Israeli prime minister’s assassination (cornered, Schmidt said yes). But in his closing remarks, Lévy asserted that, at least at this point in history, Islam is unique among the monotheistic religions in its susceptibility to extremism. “Mainstream” Judaism, he argued, is fundamentally anti-fundamentalist. Lévy’s refusal to acknowledge the significance of Jewish (and Christian) fundamentalism is shared by many on both sides of the Atlantic. But his insistence on couching his biases in a grandiloquent commitment to Enlightenment values is—to engage in a bit of chauvinism—very French.

Introducing the iPad

Please resume thinking of us when you think ‘Tablet’

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Moses has a new tablet: the iPad.(Innocent Bystanders/Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We dodged a close one! In the run-up to Apple’s introduction of its new mobile computing device, the product was frequently referred to as the “Tablet,” or, sometimes, the “iTablet.” While we at Tablet Magazine were flattered to have our name-coining abilities so prominently complimented, at the same time another part of us did not want to be drowned out by iTabletmania.

We need fear no more: earlier today, Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. Yes, it’s being referred to as a “tablet,” but that is an improper noun, if you will. Call this thing by its name, and call us by ours. And remember that ol’ Moses did not bring two iPads down from the mountain.

Apple Reveals the iPad Tablet [NYT]

Hamas Committed No War Crimes, Says Hamas

For a minute, we were worried!

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Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

After what was no doubt an exhaustive and scrupulous investigation, Hamas has found that it committed no war crimes during last January’s Gaza conflict, despite allegations to the contrary in the U.N.-sponsored Goldstone Report. Those missiles that the group lobbed into the Negev and the town of Sderot? They were aimed exclusively at military targets, the group insisted. The head of the investigating committee, who is also Hamas’s justice minister, concluded, “The committee worked around the clock to uncover the facts, despite the certainty that there were no violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law that amount to war crimes.” Sorry you had to waste your time, guys.

Hamas Clears Itself of U.N. Gaza War Crimes Charges [AFP/Yahoo!]

Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Plead for Fraudster’s Release

Slaughterhouse owner Rubashkin ‘not a flight risk’

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Sholom Rubashkin was convicted a few months back of 86 counts of federal financial fraud related to his kosher slaughterhouse. As he awaits sentencing, he has been kept locked up, on the grounds that he is allegedly a flight risk (among other things, he faces another trial for allegedly employing illegal immigrants). Now, Agudath Israel, the American governing body of ultra-Orthodoxy, and several other ultra-Orthodox groups have taken up his cause: they have penned a letter (which we got via email) to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting Rubashkin’s release pending sentencing, and calling his current place behind bars “unjustifiable, even inhumane.”

Because Rubashkin is observant, he may only eat cold food while in prison, according to the letter. He has also not been able to pray in a minyan. Furthermore, the letter says, he is the father of ten; one son is autistic and heavily dependent upon his father.

The letter perhaps begins to test the sympathy of neutral observers toward the end, when it argues,

We recognize that Mr. Rubashkin has been convicted of serious federal offenses, but they were not offenses that endangered society. Employing illegal aliens and committing bank fraud by compromising the security for a bank loan do not warrant the extreme draconian sanction of pre-sentencing imprisonment.

If breaking laws does not endanger society, then the broken laws probably should not be laws in the first place.

Earlier: Rubashkin Found Guilty of Fraud Charges

Prestigious Jewish Book Award Announced

Congrats to the winners, Tablet subjects both

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The 2010 nonfiction award of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature will go to not one but two books—both of which Tablet Magazine has featured. The victors are Sarah Abrevaya Stein for Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce and Kenneth B. Moss for Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution.

In a podcast, Sara Ivry got Stein to explain how Jews were crucial to the (surprisingly important!) ostrich trade.

And book critic Adam Kirsch reviewed Moss’s tome, which is about Jews in Russia right after the two 1917 revolutions. Wrote Kirsch: “Drawing on little-known sources in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, Moss brilliantly anatomizes the institutions and ideas that flourished in that tumultuous time, before the window of history slammed shut and the European Jewish future took a much different turn.”

2010 Sami Rohr Prize Winners Announced [Jewish Book Council Blog]

Related: Birds of a Feather [Tablet Magazine]
Awakenings [Tablet Magazine]

Today on Tablet

A Haiti-themed chain email

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Today in Tablet Magazine, we bring word of Israel’s real disproportionate response: not in Lebanon or in Gaza, but in Haiti. Yes, it’s time for another Emails of Zion! The Scroll, meanwhile, strives for a more neutral tone.

Radical Rabbi Arrested in Mosque Arson

ADL strongly condemns settler-leader Yitzhak Shapira

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Palestinians expect the burned mosque last month.(Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

When a West Bank mosque was burned and vandalized last month, likely by Jewish settlers, we worried that it could precipitate a conflagration that would dwarf the initial, terrible act. But cooler heads fortunately prevailed, complete with a cavalcade of Israeli political and religious leaders condemning the arson. And today Shin Bet arrested Yitzhak Shapira, a rabbi from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar whose yeshiva is (in)famous for pledging to launch attacks against West Bank Palestinians in response to Israel’s ten-month construction freeze.

While those you’d most immediately expect to praise the arrest and condemn the rabbi’s radical creed did so, it is pleasing (‘surprising’ is the wrong word, but it is notable) to see the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman step forward and demand, of Shapira’s book: “We call on the chief rabbis of Israel and rabbinic leaders in the Orthodox community—in the United States and throughout the world—to speak out against this text as a perversion of Judaism.” (Among other things, the book says that Jews violate the commandment against murder only when they kill a fellow Jew.)

Shapira’s teachings, Foxman added, “are anathema not only to the tenets of Judaism but to the humanitarian and democratic principles upon which the state of Israel was founded.”

Settler Rabbi Arrested Over West Bank Mosque Arson [Haaretz]

Earlier: West Bank Mosque Desecration Prompts Violence

Daybreak: Israeli Chief Justice Shoe’d

Plus the Turkish debate, Holocaust remembrance, and more in the news

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• Since this is apparently the new thing, a man threw a shoe at the Israeli Supreme Court’s chief justice, hitting her in the face. He shouted “traitor,” “you destroyed my life,” and “corrupt.” [JTA]
• Israel’s diplomats are divided over whether to take a soft or hard line toward Turkey. The proxy debate is over whether the deliberate humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador succeeded or failed. [Haaretz]
• Pope Benedict XVI condemned the 65-year-old the Holocaust (it was International Remembrance Day) and said we must never let such a thing happen again. [AP/USA Today]
• The director of Centropa, a Vienna-based Jewish historical project, movingly highlights the importance of quirky artifacts and oral history in documenting the Holocaust. [LAT]
• German company Siemens—Europe’s largest engineering conglomerate—will cease all future business ties with Iran. [Haaretz]
• Lawrence Garfinkel, an autodidactic epidemiologist who helped conclusively tie smoking to lung cancer, died at 88. [NYT]

Sundown: U.S. Reps. Urge Less Hardship on Gaza

Plus Merkel’s pledge, Labor’s pains, Boteach’s bid, and more

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• Led by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim congressman, 54 U.S. representatives signed a letter urging Israel to ease its Gaza blockade. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and other liberal groups also signed. [Haaretz]
• Standing beside Israeli President Shimon Peres, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced it was time to stop being polite and start getting real about further Iranian sanctions. (France agrees.) [Ynet]
• Tablet Magazine contributor Gershom Gorenberg pens a lovely tribute—and, maybe, elegy—to Israel’s Labor Party. [The American Prospect]
• A comprehensive look at the stunning structures that Haifa-born architect Moshe Safdie has designed in Jerusalem. [The Design Observer Group]
• Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is now trying to purchase the mansion next-door to him in Englewood, New Jersey, that (over Boteach’s staunch opposition) is currently owned by Libya. Boteach says he would turn the four-acre plot into a Jewish education center. [AP/Vos Iz Neias?]
• Now 84, a one-time member of the Auschwitz Girls’ Chorus—which was exactly what it sounds like—raps (below), backed by a group called Microphone Mafia. [Der Spiegel]

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Bike Battle Takes a Turn for the Civil

Brooklyn Hasids, cyclists debate controversial lane

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Last we reported, the feud between Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim and the borough’s bicycle enthusiasts had rounded the bend into full-scale performance art: cycling activists, protesting the Department of Transportation’s removal of a bike lane that ran through the Satmar ’hood, scheduled a nude ride along the route where the lane had been, on Shabbos no less. There was a blizzard that day: score one for the Satmars.

Last night, though, the warring clans tried to work things out more peaceably, with a debate held at Pete’s Candy Store, a hip Williamsburg music venue. According to a reporter for the blog Free Williamsburg, lead counsel for the Hasids was Isaac Abraham, who ran for city council last fall (he lost, but it was notable that a member of Brooklyn’s large ultra-Orthodox community ran for public office at all). Abraham reportedly lay low on the much-mocked argument that the bikers terrorize the Satmars by showing too much skin; the real problem, he wisely maintained, was that cyclists pose a safety hazard to pedestrians. Cycling advocates retorted that having a dedicated bike lane makes everyone safer. And more or less everyone, Free Williamsburg claimed, blamed the Department of Transportation for failing to listen to their constituents. (The bike advocacy group Transportation Alternatives later disputed that its representative at the debate had derided the DOT.)

So where does this leave the good people of Williamsburg? Perhaps not far from where they started: the attending blogger “left feeling that, though civil, the debate didn’t really get anyone anywhere, other than a few shared laughs and a feeling that neither side is budging more than mere inches.”

On the other hand, a Village Voice writer today declared the entire conflict ridiculous, on the grounds that at least a visible skeleton of the supposedly-removed bike lane is still there on the street. “The last couple of weekends,” he writes, “I pedaled happily on this bike lane with just as much safety as ever, with the Hasids walking along on the sidewalk to my left and some weekend traffic passing by me on my right.”

So at least someone’s happy.

Bicyclists & Hasidic representatives debate the Williamsburg Bike Lane [Free Williamsburg]
Cycling Hipsters are Full of Shit: Bedford Bike Lane Is Still There [Village Voice]

Housekeeper Sues Prime Minister’s Wife

Like Biblical namesake, Sara Netanyahu has problems with the help

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Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu in July 2007.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Can’t stay away from this one any longer (especially since it is the big story in Israel). Sara Netanyahu—Mrs. Bibi—has been sued by a former housekeeper. Lillian Peretz alleges that Netanyahu:

• Verbally abused her;
• Forced her to shower and change clothes multiple times per day;
• Paid her less than the minimum wage
• Forced her (an observant Jew) to work Saturdays;
• Compelled constant compliments from her;
• Forbid the family’s bottled water to her. (Consumption of tap water was permitted.)

The lawsuit explicitly compares Peretz to Cinderella—which, of course, would make Sara Netanyahu the evil stepmother.

Apparently, the First Lady has a history with this sort of thing: during her husband’s first term as prime minister, in the late-‘90s, she came under repeated attack for allegedly berating her staff and flaunting her children.

In other news, Brangelina is breaking up? What is up with that?

Ex-Housekeeper Alleges Abuse By Israeli PM’s Wife [AP/Miami Herald]
Cleaning Lady vs. First Lady Sparks Israeli Media Frenzy [AFP/Yahoo]

Fresh Off Brouhaha, Ayalon Meets with Prominent Turk

How awkward!

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Ayalon last July in Jerusalem.(Daniel Bar-On/AFP/Getty Images)

In case you were wondering, yes, their chairs were the same height. Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, met today with a prominent Turkish official, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (say that five times fast), to congratulate him for his election to the Council of Europe’s presidency. Last time Ayalon met with a prominent Turkish official, it was the ambassador, and Ayalon deliberately humiliated him by, among other things, placing him in a significantly smaller chair. After this meeting, Ayalon reiterated his apology for that incident, before calling for direct Israeli-Syrian negotiations; Turkey has volunteered to mediate between the two foes.

In other news, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whose moderate Islamist party generally is not Israel’s favorite thing in the world—proclaimed today (which in most of the world is Holocaust Remembrance Day) that the Holocaust was “the most grave and unprecedented crime against humanity throughout history.” Which is of course the right sentiment, although we would feel a little better if we didn’t read between the lines and wonder how much Turkey’s position on the Nazi genocide and its totally “unprecedented” nature has to do with Turkey’s position on certain other alleged genocides that it itself may have had a hand in.

Ayalon Meets Turkish Official for First Time Since Chair Incident [Ynet]
Turkey: Holocaust Is Most Grave Crime Against Humanity in History [Haaretz]

Earlier: The Turkish To-do: Turkey Wins, Israel Loses

Nextbook Author Talks Gershwin, Dylan

Lehman traces Jewish influence in American music

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David Lehman, author of Nextbook Press’s A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, went on the popular WNYC radio show Soundcheck to discuss the Jewish roots of American popular music. You can listen to his conversation, which touches on the Brothers Gershwin, Bob Dylan, and more, below:

“I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues?”—a concert inspired by Lehman’s book, produced by Hal Willner, and starring Rufus Wainwright and others—takes place tomorrow night at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

American Classics With a Yiddish Accent [Soundcheck]
A Fine Romance [Nextbook Press]

Livni, Defiant, Pledges to Stick Around

Sees centrist party as counterweight to right-wing Israeli leadership

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Livni and U.S. envoy George Mitchell last week.(AFP/Getty Images)

You will continue to have Tzipi Livni to kick around, if that’s your thing. The leader of the centrist Kadima Party, who served as foreign minister during last year’s Gaza conflict, insists that she will survive her current political turmoil, which has seen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu try to lure away top officials in her party even while her number two talks coup and schism. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she insisted on her and her party’s continued relevance. She also pledged to continue refusing to join the governing coalition led by Netanyahu’s Likud Party; Kadima will not be “a fig leaf” for a turn away from some semblance of a two-state road map, she said.

Part of the problem facing Livni is that Kadima was founded in unique circumstances: it was essentially created by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to embody the coalition that he led, which was appreciably to the right of the left-wing Labor Party even as it broke with Likud by supporting unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But now, Sharon is done (his stroke-induced coma recently passed the four-year mark), while Hamas rule in Gaza has, to many, repudiated the wisdom of Kadima’s signature policy. Perhaps most importantly, the one-time success of Kadima compelled Labor to move right and Likud to inch left, creating less of a logical niche for a truly centrist coalition. In winning the ideological battle, Kadima may have lost the political one.

Then again, Kadima also has (by one member) the most representatives in the parliament. It is hard to argue that the party is dead, even though it is easier to argue that it is getting there.

Israel’s Livni Says Reports of Her Political Demise Are Premature [LAT]

Today on Tablet

A Mideast power shift and the death of Anatevka

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Mideast columnist Lee Smith reports from Beirut on the vertigo the traditional regional Sunni Arab powers—primarily Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are feeling now that momentum has shifted toward non-Arab states Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Book critic Adam Kirsch considers a new history of the shtetl, and specifically its demise during (when else?) the 1940s. Meanwhile, The Scroll considers Tuesday the most difficult day of the week, and hopes that we can get through it together.

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