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Dead Sea Could Be a New Wonder

Except that humans are destroying it

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The Dead Sea, photographed from the space shuttle Endeavour last month.(NASA via Getty Images)

Officials at Israel’s Ministry of Tourism are wasting no time now that the Dead Sea has been chosen as a finalist in an online contest to name seven new wonders of the natural world, to be announced in 2011. “We are very happy,” said Gura Berger, the ministry’s coordinator of efforts on behalf of the Dead Sea. “But there are still two years ahead of us and we need to encourage one billion people around the world to vote for us.” That seems doable. According to the Jerusalem Post, the contest asks for “sites of extraordinary beauty and ecological significance, which have not been created or significantly altered by humans.” That last bit is what might prove challenging for Dead Sea champions; the body of water is losing more than three feet of depth a year—not because of nature but because of human diversion of Jordan River waters, which feed the Sea, for irrigation purposes in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, and by the extraction of minerals by companies, like Ahava, along its shores.

Berger concedes the Dead Sea is in peril, but thinks winning the contest would ultimately be a boon for tourism. Though right now replenishment, not people, is what would constitute the best kind of life support.

Dead Sea on Seven Wonders Shortlist [JPost]
Is the Dead Sea Dying? [Science Daily]

Is Jerusalem Online University a Scam?

Blogger charges it’s tricking secular students into Orthodoxy

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Orthodox watchdog blog Failed Messiah dug through registration records for the new website of Jerusalem Online University, a small, semi-accredited institution that appears to be unaffiliated with any particular Jewish religious movement, and found ties to a site run by ultra-Orthodox organization Aish HaTorah. On the university’s homepage, secular-seeming boys and girls huddle together around a laptop, and courses cover nothing more theologically sophisticated than “Jewish history, the Bible, interpersonal relationships, and even Kaballah.” Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs Failed Messiah, also notes that, although the Jerusalem Online University site doesn’t mention it, Rabbi Raphael Shore, the university’s director, formerly ran Aish HaTorah’s Aish Cafe, a now-defunct online educational program. Aish Cafe offered some of the same classes Jerusalem Online University now does, and its web address now forwards browsers to Jerusalem Online University’s. What does Rosenberg conclude from all this? That Jerusalem Online University is a secular front that “hides its relationship to Aish HaTorah and to Orthodoxy in order to lure unsuspecting college students to Orthodoxy.”

Shore, for his part, told Tablet Magazine that he’s not trying to hide anything. When the “About Us” section of Jerusalem Online University’s website is completed, he said, it will explain the former affiliation with Aish Cafe. He also said that he raised funds for both Aish Cafe and Jerusalem Online University independent of Aish HaTorah. “One of the reasons we separated was we were very interested in broadening the spectrum of presenters that are in the course and broadening the potential to reach people, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox,” he said.

Exclusive: Aish HaTorah Masks Involvement Of Online Jewish “University” Meant To Lure Unwitting Students To Orthodoxy [Failed Messiah]

Wieseltier Hates Idea of Self-Hatred

Even if he once made same charge himself

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In his latest New Republic column, Leon Wieseltier goes to great lengths to discredit the idea that Jews who criticize Israel are “self-hating,” an accusation that has recently been hurled at Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. He takes issue with this notion of “race treason,” (a phrase he lifts disdainfully from the Nextbook Press book The Wicked Son by David Mamet), dismissing it summarily as political semantics—“The defenders of Greater Israel have values, but the critics of Greater Israel have motives”—and comparing it mockingly to the preposterous “birther” movement on the American right: “I mean, any man who opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank must have a foreskin.”

But while Wieseltier, who admits to having once denounced Henry Kissinger on the same grounds of betrayal he now finds noxious, describes himself as a “recovering Jewish fascist,” he still maintains his essential prickliness. He says of President Obama’s Israel policies, which, he asserts, have taken the love out of “tough love”: “I am not one of those Jews who are maddened by American ‘pressure’ on Israel, but I do not take kindly to it when it is accompanied by a bow to the Saudi king.”

Suspicions [TNR]

Abbas Willing to Talk to Netanyahu

At U.N. next month, albeit informally

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Abbas addressing a Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah today.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is willing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations next month, according to unnamed Palestinian officials quoted in The Jerusalem Post. Although Abbas refuses to agree to even preliminary negotiating sessions with the current Israeli government until it ends all construction in settlements in the West Bank, the willingness to speak informally is still a big step for the Fatah leader to take, and it makes perfect sense given other statements and gestures emanating from Bethlehem. Yesterday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced plans to establish a “de facto” Palestinian state by 2011, founded on dramatically improved infrastructure, security, and economic development. This would proceed apace with Netanyahu’s so far consistent efforts to scale back the occupational presence in the West Bank by “radically reducing” the number of IDF soldiers stationed there, dismantling outposts, checkpoints and roadblocks, and weakening trade restrictions in the West Bank. Even an informal conference between the two leaders may prove fruitful: sort of a backstage negotiation over material progress, if not peace.

Palestinian Officials: ‘Abbas Willing to Meet With Netanyahu’ [JPost]
Earlier: Palestinian State by 2011, Fayyad Says

Suit Dismissed Against Ortho L.I. School Board

Secular parents said board was running district to benefit yeshiva students

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A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by secular parents in Lawrence, New York, one of Long Island’s Five Towns, which claimed that their Orthodox-dominated school board had decided to close the district’s nicest elementary school in hopes of selling or leasing it to a yeshiva. (Six of the seven elected school board members send their own children to yeshivas, not public school.) U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert ruled it would be unconstitutional to overturn the decision of a duly elected board, however unintuitive the logic of having people who don’t use public schools govern them: “To deny Orthodox Jews these rights simply because, as plaintiffs allege, Orthodox Jews have different opinions from Lawrence’s other residents would be to discriminate against Orthodox Jews because they are Orthodox Jews.” But fear not, the feud’s not over: Plaintiff Andrew Levey told Newsday that he and his fellow litigants are “exploring our options.”

Judge Dismisses Lawrence Parents’ School Lawsuit [Newsday]
Earlier: Secular L.I. Parents Sue Orthodox-Run School Board

Today on Tablet

Looking at Human Rights Watch, an Israeli ‘food activist,’ foreskins

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Allison Hoffman digs into speculation that Human Rights Watch has an anti-Israel bias. Joshua Cohen examines the life and work of writer Benjamin De Casseres. Leah Koenig tells of “food activists” in Israel who bring specialty farmer’s market produce across the border to the Palestinian territories. Marissa Brostoff talks to Melvin Konner about the origins of circumcision. And much more, here on The Scroll.

Bob Dylan, New GPS Voice

One problem: No directions home

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Dylan performing for a Michael Douglas tribute TV special in June.(Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI)

After frolicking in a Victoria’s Secret commercial in 2004, Bob Dylan has announced yet another unexpected commercial collaboration, telling listeners of his weekly radio show that he was in negotiations with several car companies to become the voice of their GPS systems. “Left at the next street,” the raspy-voiced Dylan continued, imagining his new gig. “No, right. You know what? Just go straight. I probably shouldn’t do it because whichever way I go, I always end up at one place—on Lonely Avenue.”

Or on Highway 61. Or on Desolation Row.

Need Direction Home? Ask Bob Dylan [NYT]

Daybreak: Shalom, Chaver

Netanyahu optimistic, the Car Czar’s pedigree, and more from the news

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• Sen. Ted Kennedy died yesterday at 77; Israeli officials mourn the loss of a “friend.” [Haaretz]
• The original blueprints for Auschwitz, discovered last year, will be given to Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Berlin this week and then donated to Yad Vashem. [AFP]
• In advance of today’s meeting with U.S. envoy George Mitchell, Netanyahu says his nation is getting closer to finding a “bridging formula” for the settlement issue, and that he would like to resume peace talks with the Palestinians “shortly.” [AP]
• JTA digs for relevance in the discovery that “Car Czar” Ron Bloom grew up going to Labor Zionist summer camp. [JTA]

Sundown: Maidel-on-Maidel Action

Online Yiddish, comedic justice, and evangelical fervor

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• A new film to be directed by Darren Aronofsky features Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis engaging in “ecstasy-induced hungry aggressive angry sex.” But, of course, the real question is: “Does the story that surrounds the sex”—a psychologically probing tale of a Russian ballerina and her doppelganger—“disappoint or excel?” [ScriptShadow]
The Nation’s blog speaks up for Israeli professor Neve Gordon’s recent—and much maligned—op-ed supporting a boycott against his own country, which he believes is practicing apartheid. [Nation]
Google Translate has added Yiddish to its list of available languages. According to the commenters on Vos iz Neias?—who would know—the service is faulty, so you might want to cross-reference before you try to impress your grandparents. [VIN]
• Sunda Croonquist, a half-black, half-Swedish comedian who converted to Judaism, is being sued by her mother-in-law for jokes like this one about what the older woman said in advance of the birth of her granddaughter: “I want to know what you’re naming that little tchotchke. Now we don’t want a name that’s difficult to pronounce like Shaniqua. We’re thinking a name short but delicious. Like Hadassah or Goldie.” [AP]
• An open letter to Mike Huckabee asserts that the former governor’s “hopes for an eventual violent apocalypse in Israel” have blinded him to the Zionism of “Jewish Americans who would dare to see the grandkids of their Israeli cousins living in peace with their Palestinian neighbors.” [True/Slant]

Is Obama Circumcised?

The latest question from the nutty ‘birther’ movement

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Obama golfing on Martha’s Vineyard today.(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The loons in the “birther” movement have come up with a new demand for Barack Obama to prove he was born in the United States. (They’re convinced he wasn’t, and is thus ineligible to become president.) They want him to reveal whether he’s circumcised. If not, they say, it’s proof that he was born on foreign soil, because so many American men—Jewish or not—are circumcised. Jezebel’s Kay Steiger points us to comments on Free Republic, where one lazy conspiracy theorist yearns for “someone to make a phone call to the hospitols [sic] in HI and ask if they routinely do circumcism [sic] and when that practice started.”


Birthers Want to See Obama’s Penis
[Jezebel]
Related: First Cut [Tablet]

Matisyahu Releases New Album, ‘Light’

Mixes electronica, guitar rock into the reggae, to not-so-great reviews

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Matisyahu play Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore last summer.(Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Matisyahu released his third album, Light, yesterday, and this time he has added new elements—“electonica, funky pop, straight-up guitar rock and even a touch of folk,” according to the AP—to his trademark Hasidic-inspired reggae. He’s taking some knocks for it at home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn: “Just yesterday I was walking down the street and some kid was walking by me,” he told the news service. “He’s like, ‘Matis, stick to the reggae!’ I was like, ‘Ahhgh!’” Songs on the new album are eclectic; one track, the AP says, “combines mystical themes he studied from Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810), the crisis in Darfur he learned about while contributing to a John Lennon tribute album, and the tragedy of Africa’s child soldiers.”

Some critics aren’t sold. “The biggest hurdle for white, Western reggae singers to overcome is phoniness: How to make reggae without faking patois (which sounds silly and condescending), and how to embrace its themes without reducing a racially and politically charged genre to mere schtick?” notes a reviewer in Paste. “Matisyahu spectacularly fails to solve these predicaments, but the biggest problem with his reggae is simpler: He’s unequivocally terrible at it. Not only do we get fake patois, but also raging electric guitars and cluttered hip-hop production.”

Hasidic Star Matisyahu Mixes It Up on New Album [AP]
Lyin’ From Zion [Paste]
Previously: Melody Maker

Palestinian State by 2011, Fayyad Says

That is, a workable state, whether granted statehood or not

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First Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave an interview to Haaretz in which he seemed to acquiesce to his Israeli counterpart’s proposal of “economic peace.” Now comes word that Fayyad has drafted a proposal for a de facto Palestinian state that would emerge in 2011. “We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored,” he told The Times of London. If accurate, this plan represents a repudiation of years of political wrangling for peace with the Israelis—something that many observers on both sides, 16 years after Oslo, don’t anticipate any time soon. One wonders, then, if Fayyad has taken a lesson from Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq: the fastest way to convince the world of your sovereignty is to take control of your own internal security forces and infrastructure so as to obviate a foreign occupation on material, rather than political or moral, grounds. As The Scroll has noted in the past few months, Netanyahu’s government seems keen on working with this approach.

Palestinian PM: We’ll Form de Facto State by 2011 [Haaretz]

How to Be a Better Atheist

By rejecting Maimonides’ God, ‘New Yorker’ writer says

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One of the difficulties of being an atheist is that the task of explaining just what it is one doesn’t believe in requires, to some degree, an idea of what God might be like, if one did believe in a Supreme Being. In this week’s New Yorker, James Wood examines the question of whether the recent crop of public atheists (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among them) have rejected a “cheaply understood” God who is, among other things, “not very Judaic, or very philosophical.” Wood slices through the new book by the Marxist Catholic literary theorist Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which argues that the new atheists ought to stop and consider the ethereal, Judaic God described by none other than Maimonides. It’s a deity indescribable by human attributes, “not neurotically possessive of us,” a provider of the power to be our best selves. Which Wood says might be fine, except that Christianity kind of depends on Jesus—and believers like the idea, as Joan Osbourne put it, of imagining God as one of us. So how to be a good atheist? Woods offers up a religious approach he calls “disappointed belief.” “Such atheism, only a semitone from faith,” he writes, “would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity.” That, of course, is something the vast tribe of two-day-a-year-plus-Seder Jews can swallow—literally.

God in the Quad [New Yorker; subscription only]

Israeli Town Offers Prize for Mermaid Photo

So Brooklyn group sues

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This mermaid is Australian.(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Anxious that a $1 million prize for anyone who proves that there’s a mermaid frolicking near the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam “badly and outrageously damages the legendary mermaid legacy,” officials at the Brooklyn-based Mermaid Medical Association, a health center located on Mermaid Avenue, have threatened legal action. According to Yediot Ahronoth , authorities at the medical association sent a letter to Kiryat Yam officials saying the town has 10 days to rescind the prize or they will take their complaint to the International Court of Justice in hopes that the tribunal will intervene on behalf of maintaining the illusion that make-believe fish-women may or may not exist. (The town offered the prize two weeks ago, after several residents and tourists suggested they’d spotted a fish-woman frolicking off its coast. The town also insisted the prize isn’t a tourism gambit, though it allowed that it might attract tourists hoping to snap the mermaid and win the prize.) Though our e.s.p about the International Court is rusty, it seems unlikely the Court will do a thing—between cases on atrocities in Congo and Serbia, the docket in the Hague is rather full.

Kiryat Yam to Be Sued Over Mermaid [Ynet]
Mermaid Fever Sweeps Israel Beach Town of Krivat Yam as Many Report Sightings of Fabled Creature [NYDN]

On Tablet Today

Shopping, dreaming, and evolving

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Adam Kirsch examines a book about the institutional changes that have shaped contemporary Judaism. Etgar Keret meditates on a recurring dream’s connection to the economy. Daniella Cheslow asks what effect suburban shopping malls are having on Israel’s commercial life. And there is much more to come, here on The Scroll.

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