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‘Times’ Weighs In on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’

A brief history of polemics

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The New York Times revisits the debate over whether the Jews have a “shared racial or biological past” today in an article tied to the publication in English of The Invention of the Jewish People, by Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand. Sand is frank, writes reporter Particia Cohen, in his effort “to discredit Jews’ historical claims to the territory.” Though various “facts” of Jewish history (for example, that all Jews were expelled by the Romans from Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) have long been understood by scholars to be untrue, Cohen says, their occasional rehashing for popular audiences reignites polemics for and against the right of Israel to exist.

In the course of her piece, Cohen puts forth Sand’s assertion that Jews and Palestinians share DNA and notes that “early Zionists and Arab nationalists touted the blood relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their respective struggles for independence.” That kinship claim was later dropped, she observes, when it failed to help achieve political goals. Similarly, Sand retreads the idea (never proven and more or less accepted as myth) that the Jews descended from the Khazars, a group in the Caucasus which allegedly converted to Judaism in the 8th century, in order to suggest that the Jews can’t claim Israel as an ancestral home.

Ultimately Sand’s book, and others like it, forces us to grapple with the question of why some misconceptions gain traction and others do not. “A mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration,” writes Cohen, “envelopes Jewish history, which is, to begin with, based on scarce and confusing archaeological and archival records…. He is doing precisely what he accuses the Zionists of—shaping the material to fit a narrative.”

Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’ [NYT]
Related: Inventing Israel [Tablet]

Painter Kirshenblatt Dies at 93

Recaptured prewar Poland with vivid memories and brilliant canvasses

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Mayer Kirshenblatt, a painter and chronicler of prewar Jewish life in Poland, died at his home in Toronto on Friday. He was 93. Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt, and in 1934, at the age of 17, he, his mother, and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who’d made the trip six years earlier. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store.

In 1990, retired and at loose ends, Kirshenblatt picked up a paintbrush and began painting images from his youth. The images served as a complement to an extended series of interviews Kirshenblatt began with his daughter, New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in the late 1960s. These conversations culminated with the 2007 publication of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, a panoramic, profusely illustrated portrait of Kirshenblatt’s hometown, compiled by father and daughter. The volume served as a companion to an exhibition first shown at the Judah L. Magnes museum in Berkeley, California, and, later, at The Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition is still to travel to Amsterdam and Warsaw.

As I wrote in a review in 2007, the book managed to offer a new visual language for describing prewar Eastern European life. In stark contrast with the black-and-white record that had made up our vision, Kirshenblatt’s paintings were untainted by the horrors to come. They offered a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. The book was a unique achievement: the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead, and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style.

At a time when the scholarly establishment is often at odds with the survivor community, Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s collaboration offered a rare synthesis of memoir and scholarship—and we are the richer for it.

Related: Portrait of a Lost Town [Tablet]

Ricky Gervais Sheds Light on the Bible

In a colorful, hilarious take on Genesis

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Gervais at the L.A. premiere of his The Invention of Lying, September.(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The blog Effect Measure, focused on public-health issues, over the weekend turned up a YouTube video of modern-day biblical scholar Ricky Gervais holding forth on the book of Genesis. The British comedian casts God as a brilliant magician who screws up and “goes mental,” and the snake in the Garden of Eden as the lucky bastard who got away. He also revives a little-known passage that got scrapped in the first edit: “And lo, Gervais was not only a handsome man but also a funny fucker.” It’s a little bit old, sure, but it’s awfully funny:

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: Ricky Gervais on The Book of Genesis [Effect Measure]

On Tablet Today

Behind the tiles, beyond the myth

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Hadara Graubart penetrates the National Mah Jongg League, a group both feared and respected by players of the increasingly popular game. Tablet Magazine columnist Adam Kirsch looks at a new book that wants to eliminate leftist affection for Leon Trotsky once and for all. And all throughout the day, The Scroll will offer insightful updates.

Daybreak: No News on Shalit

Plus a potential settlement freeze, messiah problems, and more

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• Amid the latest talk of a prisoner exchange with Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that there is still “no conclusion, no decision, and no deal” for the return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. [JPost]
• According to an unnamed Israeli TV program quoting unnamed officials, Netanyahu has proposed a 10-month settlement freeze in the West Bank. [AP]
• The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America bans those with messianic views from membership, which will primarily affect those in Chabad who believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe may come back from the dead. [COLlive]
• Bernard Avishai speaks up for J Street: “[I]f Jews can be said to have stood for anything traditionally, was it not this allergy to dogma—this breaking of idols? Did we not see the democratic rights as, well, commanded? And, tragically, have not the land of Israel and Jewish military power themselves become idols for American Jews since 1967?” [WPost]

Sundown: The Hitler-Mobile

Plus Jews on film, unconventional art, and more

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• Despite feeling “really torn” about trading in property that once belonged to a “horrible mass murderer,” a German car dealer has reportedly arranged the sale of Hitler’s Mercedes to a Russian billionaire. [AP]
• A group of Los Angeles Catholic schoolteachers celebrated a midweek Shabbat as part of the ADL’s “Bearing Witness” program, which reinforced the connection between the religions—guilt—when one woman was moved by a Holocaust story to ask herself “[W]hat am I doing with Darfur and the genocide in Africa?” [LAT]
• To mark the anniversary of the Chabad center bombing in Mumbai, a blogger reflects on how a video tribute to victims Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg led him to a transcendent viewing of the Denzel Washington thriller Déjà Vu. Yes, you read that right. [Blogcritics]
• Kiki Smith, a German-born American artist known for using ideas of feminism and Catholicism in her work, has been chosen to create a window for New York City’s landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue along with architect Deborah Gans. [NYT]

Florida Kids Suspended for “Kick a Jew Day”

After Facebook group suggested hugs

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Last week, a group of kids at a Florida middle school tried to declare Thursday “Kick a Jew Day.” According to the Naples News, ten students at North Naples Middle School sent around an e-mail on Wednesday night telling classmates that if they saw someone Jewish, they should deliver a kick. The kids have all been suspended, and now, instead of reading for 20 minutes during homeroom, all the students in the school will have to watch videos about bullying and take lessons in respect and kindness. Maybe they were just jealous after “Hug a Jew Day” earlier this month.

10 North Naples Middle Students Suspended for ‘Kick a Jew Day’ E-Mail [Naples News]

Reclaiming Bob Dylan for the Jews, Again

In three easy steps

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Seth Rogovoy, author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, joins a long tradition of people reading whatever the heck they want into the life and works of the elusive musician. (Some people are tired of hearing about him altogether.) Jews have a leg up on this practice—after all, the artist was formerly known as Robert Zimmerman—and in an interview, Rogovoy offers a peek into his process that serves to illustrate some Dylanology basics:

1. If you look hard enough, you will find something: “It involved a lot of dedicated listening over and over again to all of Dylan’s recordings; re-reading fundamental Jewish texts and key guidebooks, including Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Prophets—you read him on the likes of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and just substitute Bob Dylan for the ancients and it totally resonates.”

2. Evidence against your point can always be turned around to support it: “I go to great pains to show how, in fact, the gospel albums are a lot less about the narrator’s belief in Jesus than they are about the narrator’s identification of Jesus with the Jewish prophets.”

3. Don’t speak for the man, he doesn’t like that: “I don’t really pretend to have any insight into what, if anything, Bob Dylan believes in.”

Interview with Seth Rogovoy, author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Part One) [Examiner]

Dispatches from Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region

Courtesy of Masha Gessen

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Seventy-five years ago, 600 Jews from Ukraine and Belarus traveled across Siberia to be the first settlers of Birobidzhan, a Jewish autonomous region 50 miles short of the Chinese border. To research a book she’s writing on the would-be homeland for Nextbook Press, journalist Masha Gessen retraced their path across Russia. She arrived at a train station marked by “two signs, one in Hebrew letters and one in Russian,” she writes on Slate. “The Hebrew faces the tracks, and though it is a fair bet that virtually no one on the Trans-Siberian can read it, it communicates all the necessary information. (I assume it says Birobidzhan, but I can’t read it, either.)” The mountainous region is by turns rocky, wet, and crowded with insects, all factors which made the establishment of Birobidzhan no less than “the worst good idea ever.”

Jewish Mother Russia [Slate]

U.S. Universities Sold Out for Iranian Money

By hiring pro-Ahmadinejad professors, says ‘NY Post’

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The New York Post reports that a shady Iranian charity organization has been donating big bucks to Columbia University and Rutgers University to support the hiring of pro-Iran, anti-Israel faculty. The Alavi Foundation seems to have been under the thumb of Iran’s government and has also been found to have supplied money to Iranian spies in Europe; Federal authorities are now attempting to seize the organization’s funds, which total as much as $650 million.

Among the results of what Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, describes as “the ivory tower…prostituting itself for money” were Columbia’s hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007 and its hiring of Professor Gary Sick, who has expressed the following:

He [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] made it very clear that, whether he is talking about ‘wiping Israel off the map,’ or ‘erased from the pages of time,’ or whatever the quote is, what he means is that there should be a free referendum among the peoples of the Palestine that existed to the partition in 1948 to vote about the kind of a government they should have. He is confident that, in a free vote, Israel and Israelis would lose that vote and it would turn out to be something else: a unitary state, probably run by the Palestinians.

Schools’ Iran $$ Pipeline [NYPost]

Today on Tablet

A new official, a political pontificator, books to check out, and schlock to avoid

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In this week’s edition of our podcast, Vox Tablet, Sara Ivry talks to “citizen diplomat” Stephen P. Cohen about the “need to reconceptualize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one in which there are no victors.” Allison Hoffman interviews Hannah Rosenthal, the newly appointed U.S. anti-Semitism envoy. Marjorie Ingall’s suggestions of what not to give your kids for Hanukkah include a “techno draydel” and plush mohel scissors. Josh Lambert reviews books on the spectrum of Zionism, poetry, music, and drama. And much more as always, here on The Scroll.

Daybreak: PLO Staves off Abbas Retirement

Plus a Hungarian bust, a German painting, and more in the news

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• The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council plans to meet in December to authorize current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to continue running the government along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in order to stave off the problem of postponed elections and Abbas’s declaration that he will not seek another term. [WPost]
• Hungarian riot police busted a beer-hall meeting of the nation’s illegal neo-Nazi group Hungarian Guard. [JTA]
• Israel attacked two suspected weapons factories and a smuggling tunnel in Gaza on Sunday, wounding at least seven, to retaliate for rocket attacks; the night before, Hamas had declared that it would cease firing at Israel. [AP]
• A German auction house has halted the sale of a painting by Alexander Adriaenssen after an estate claimed it had belonged to a Jewish family who was forced by the Nazis to sell it. [AP]
• A used-car dealership in Colorado displays a large billboard depicting President Barack Obama in a turban and the words “PRESIDENT or JIHAD?”, “BIRTH CERTIFICATE, PROVE IT!”, and “WAKE UP AMERICA! REMEMBER FT. HOOD.” [AP]

Sundown: Jews Monkey, Horse Around

Plus prayers on a plane, old Amsterdam beats New Amsterdam, and more

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• A renegade monkey was spotted heading toward the Tampa Jewish Community Center, sending police on a search and forcing the Center’s day-care participants to stay indoors today; if it had been this primate, they might not have had a problem. [Tampa Bay Online]
• David Cohen, a 25-year-old jockey with the fourth most wins in the United States, says he’s an expert at “how to hit a horse properly” but dreams of someday owning a Jewish deli. [Forward]
• In other Jewish equestrian news, Bobby Frankel, a horse trainer who had a particularly successful relationship with the stable of Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid Abdullah, died at 68. [BloodHorse]
• Some rabbis advise that while flying, it’s better to pray in one’s seat rather than to arrange a minyan: “The airlines don’t like people congregating in the back of the plane any more,” said one. [JC]
• Job Cohen, the unfortunately-named mayor of Amsterdam, is the fourth Jew who has held the position since World War II, which, a blogger pointed out, is “a better record than New York.” [JTA]

Aviation Blues

Airline pulls magazine after wrongheaded Holocaust fashion shoot

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(NewStateman.com)

EasyJet, a British airline, has withdrawn all copies of its in-flight magazine after being contacted by the New Statesman, a London magazine, about a Holocaust Memorial fashion photo shoot in its latest edition. In a written statement reproduced by the newspaper, easyJet apologized for the spread, which was photographed without permission at the Peter Eisenman-designed “Field of Stelae,” the Holocaust memorial in central Berlin. The airline also quickly distanced itself from the publishing house that produces its magazine, saying that it “prides itself on bringing together a wide range of cultures and beliefs and is appalled by this insensitive and inconsiderate photo-shoot, the aim of which was to highlight some of Berlin’s iconic landmarks.”

Exclusive: easyJet Grounds In-flight Magazine After Holocaust Gaffe [New Statesman via The Awl]

Israel, Syria Ready to Re-start Talks

Except there’s no agreement on preconditions, or on potential mediator

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As prospects for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority look increasingly grim, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is saying he’s open to reopening negotiations with Syria. And Bashar Assad, Syria’s prime minister, is saying he’s willing to resume talks as well. Good news, right? Not so fast. The first problem is, the two leaders are insisting upon different conditions for negotiations, as the Istanbul-based journalist Yigal Schleifer explains in The Faster Times: Assad wants indirect talks mediated by Turkey, which hosted the last round of negotiations between the two countries (they stalled last year). Netanyahu wants direct talks mediated by any country but Turkey, whose government has been increasingly critical of Israel since the Gaza War.

It’s further complicated by the fact that would-be mediators aren’t readily letting go of the chance to play peacemaker. Turkey still wants the job, as does France—Nicolas Sarkozy officially expressed his interest earlier this week. Netanyahu seems amenable, but that, says Foreign Policy Watch, is because Sarkozy won’t insist Israel give Syria the disputed Golan Heights, and, moreover, does not have the muscle to make either side follow through on much of anything. The government that really ought to mediate, the news analysis site argued, is President Barack Obama’s, which is not currently offering to do so. On the plus side, Schleifer noted, mediation offers from Croatia and Brazil are still on the table.

Istanbul Calling: Are Israel and Syria Ready to Negotiate? [The Faster Times]
Choosing the Right Broker [Foreign Policy Watch]

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