Today on Tablet

Keret puts the phone down, independent minyanim, and more


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.

The ADL Boycotts Boycotts

Foxman speaks on UC-Irvine Oren incident

Oren last November.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

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.)

ADL: U.S. Jews Mustn’t Boycott University for Heckling of Israeli Envoy [Haaretz]

Earlier: ADL, J Street Condemn UC-Irvine Incident

Daybreak: The Dubai Assassination Turns to Farce

Plus strong words from the U.N., mazel tov to Torah Bright, and more in the news


• 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]

Sundown: New Report Slams Iran

Plus Senator Zuckerman, a very funny Tweet, and more


• 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]

• The “Orthodox Compulsive Disorder” phenomenon, which is just what it sounds like. [New York Jewish Week/Failed Messiah]

• Israel’s United Kingdom embassy has a little fun on Twitter (apropos our previous post). [The Awl]

The Great Dubai Murder Mystery

Did Mossad kill Hamas’s main weapons man?


Let’s do this with a timeline, okay?

•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 are all 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 wearing fake 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:

Maggie erschießt Mr Burns – MyVideo

Austin Plane Crasher Mentions ‘Pound of Flesh’

Suicide note may indicate pilot’s anti-Semitism

(Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

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.

Small Plane Crashes into IRS Building in Texas [NYT]
Joe Stack STATEMENT [HuffPo]

Yehuda Halevi Rocks the Charts

New biography’s subject turns up in NYC play


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.

Conviction [NYT]

Related: Yehuda Halevi [Nextbook Press]
The Pilgrim [Tablet Magazine]
Life of a Poet [Tablet Magazine]

Israel’s Hebrew-Only Promotional Campaign

Converting the world in its own language?


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.

Positive Views of Israel, Brought to You by Israelis [NYT]


Conservative Accuses Obama of ‘Pogrom’

19th-century Russians sue for trademark violation

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?

Does Obama Walk the Walk When It Comes to Christians and Jews? [Fox News via Ben Smith]

Today on Tablet

The upcoming Turkish-Japanese-American War, and more


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).

Prominent Dominican Jew Pleads Innocence

Accused human trafficker doesn’t sound like a con man at all

Puello on February 8th, before he fled.(The AP [AP])

More details have emerged in the case of Jorge Puello, the self-proclaimed leader of the Dominican Republic’s Sephardic community.

Last week, Salvadoran police accused Puello, who served as legal adviser to 10 Americans jailed in Haiti on suspicion of trying to traffic women and girls out of the earthquake-ravaged country (eight of them were released yesterday), of himself leading a Central American human trafficking ring. When the accusation first surfaced, Puello, a 32-year-old who was born in Yonkers, New York, had already fled to an undisclosed location but insisted that the Salvadoran charge was a simple case of mistaken identity.

That was last week. On Monday, he admitted that he, Jorge Puello, and the man whom El Salvador has an Interpol arrest warrant out on, also named Jorge Puello, are, in fact—yup—the same Jorge Puello. On Tuesday, he further acknowledged that, yes, he is also the Jorge Puello who was indicted in Vermont in 2003 on charges related to (yup again) an alleged immigrant smuggling ring (he managed to get out of Dodge, to Canada, in time to beat the heat).

Oh, plus it turns out he’s not the leader of the Dominican Republic’s Sephardic community, at all. Now, he says he fled the Dominican Republic to Panama; his own mother doesn’t believe that.

Here is where I say that he is innocent until proved guilty. And he does say he is innocent: a misunderstood Good Samaritan, in fact, one who, it seems, did live in Santo Domingo as an Orthodox Jew while trying to play a leadership role within the small group of Jews there. Of course, he was doing all of this under a slightly different name. But nobody’s perfect.

Haiti Judge Frees 8 of 10 American Missionaries [AP]

Jorge Puello Charged in U.S. For Immigrant Smuggling [AP/Failed Messiah]

Jorge Puello Was Known to the Dominican Sephardic Community for Four Years [AP/Failed Messiah]

Jorge Puello’s Judaism
[Daily Bastardette/Failed Messiah]

Adviser to Detained Americans in Haiti Is Investigated [NYT]

Daybreak: How to Kill a Hamas Weapons Buyer

The big story, plus Damascus meeting, and more in the news


• Because six of the 11 suspects in the Dubai assassination of Hamas’s top weapons procurer carried forged British passports with real Israelis’ names, Israeli attention turned to the prospect that Mossad was indeed involved. (We’ll have more on this later today.) [WP]

• The assassination has become the top tabloid story in Israel, with many citizens bemoaning and criticizing the mission and work of Mossad, which is usually treated reverently. [NYT]

• And in London, Israel’s ambassador was called in for a discussion about the fake British passports. [NYT]

• A top U.S. diplomat met with Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Damascus as part of the thawing that will soon produce a new U.S. ambassador. [WSJ]

• Several prominent American, German, and Australian Catholic scholars privately asked Pope Benedict XVI to delay the sainthood of Pope Pius XII—the Holocaust Pope—for the sake of Catholic-Jewish relations. [JTA]

Sundown: The Undiplomatic Diplomat

Plus Wisse kvells over Yiddish, Israel sells itself, and more


• The five U.S. congressmen in J Street’s Mideast delegation were “puzzled” by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s refusal to meet with them, and his labeling J Street as not “pro-Israeli”. (But why would they expect a diplomat to have good people skills?) [Haaretz]

• The Israeli government launched a new P.R. campaign designed to empower Israel’s fans around the world to win converts to the country’s cause. The campaign’s (Hebrew-language) Website generally puts a conservative gloss on political issues. [NYT]

• Ruth R. Wisse—author of Nextbook Press’s Jews and Power–celebrates the English language’s debt to Yiddish and worries about Yiddish’s future in the academy. [Minding the Campus]

• Martin Grossman, the convicted murderer whose death sentence was protested by many ultra-Orthodox groups around the world, was put to death yesterday in Florida. [Arutz Sheva]

• A former AIPAC official argues that, contra what some on the right say, President Obama has actually been more of an AIPAC president than a J Street one; and this is so, the official adds, because of domestic politics. [Foreign Policy]

• How they remember the six million in Texas. Or how The Onion imagines they do, anyway. [The Onion]

Ron Perelman’s Rent-a-Minyan

It’s everywhere you want to be

Perelman in 2008.(Brad Barket/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Billionaire financier Ronald Perelman gives new meaning to the word “entourage”: reportedly, whenever he travels—usually to East Hampton or the French Riviera; Ibiza is so 2004, y’know?—he always packs nine Jewish men. Yes, they travel with him so that he is never without a minyan. (For some Jews, apparently including Perelman, Jewish women such as Perelman’s ex-wife, the actress Ellen Barkin, don’t count.)

Not only that: Perelman—who is thought to be a major Chabad funder—has built a tiny synagogue adjacent to his East 62nd Street townhouse. It is one-room and one-member; on Friday nights, he puts nine Hasidic men from Crown Heights up at a nearby hotel so that he can fulfill the Jewish law requiring that prayers be conducted with at least ten Jewish men. Good to see him get into the spirit of the thing.

Mind Your Own Minyan! [NYO]

Run, DSK, Run!

Could France soon see its first Jewish president?


After Israel and the United States, France has the third-most Jews of any country. Now, The Economist reports, French Jew Dominique Strauss-Kahn is his country’s most popular politician, and could become the first Jewish president of France (which of course excludes, say, 1930s Prime Minister Léon Blum). Strauss-Kahn (you can call him DSK) tried but failed to be the Socialist nominee for president in the last election—a vote eventually won by Nicolas Sarkozy, who has some Jewish blood but is a Catholic. Sarkozy attempted to co-opt DSK by appointing him head of the International Monetary Fund, but the strategy may have backfired, as DSK, a former French finance minister, has used the platform to enhance his reputation and is now poised to be a very formidable threat to Sarkozy come 2012. There are complications: DSK’s IMF stint isn’t set to run out till four months after the vote; there have been sexual harassment allegations (of which an independent probe acquitted him); he has a pretty plum job as it is, which he may understandably be unwilling to relinquish. On the other hand, in France, if it was good to be the king, then being the president must be at least alright, oui?

The Sarko-Slayer? [The Economist]

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.