history, Holocaust, israel, people, politics
Printed in the Jewish Standard 10/16/09
Until a few years ago, when people asked me about my Holocaust survivor parents, I would say that my mother, Peska Friedman, survived as a footnote in history. She was a Polish escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto who managed to get on a Hungarian train known as the Kasztner Transport. Named for Reszó/Rudolph/Israel Kasztner, the Hungarian Zionist leader and liaison to the Jewish Agency (the Sachnut), the train left Nazi territory — Budapest — in June 1944 for freedom in Palestine, via Switzerland. It was hardly an uneventful trip. Most of the passengers were held hostage in Bergen-Belsen for six months before they were released near St. Gallen, Switzerland. In the end, 1,684 people were saved, and most historians agree that the negotiations landed approximately 18,000 others in labor camps in Austria — where they were held as potential bargaining chips with the Allies instead of being deported to Auschwitz.
The arrangement was part of much broader Nazi negotiations that began in Slovakia with haredi Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl and his cousin, Slovakian Zionist leader Gisi Fleischmann. The pair worked with the Zionists and the Vaad Hatzolah, an association of Orthodox Jews in New York, Nazi-occupied territory, and Switzerland, seeking to rescue Jews in Hitler’s Europe.
But millions had to be raised from individuals and Jewish organizations for ransom. Not everyone could climb aboard that train, and there was a backlash of rage and resentment.
In 1953, Kasztner, then living in Israel, was publicly accused by Malchiel Gruenwald, a Holocaust survivor, of a host of charges — collaborating with the Nazis, stealing ransom money, and essentially causing the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. The Israeli government, on behalf of Kasztner, a spokesman for the ministry of trade and industry, sued Gruenwald for libel. During a trial replete with political overtones, the judge, Benjamin Halevi, accused Kasztner of having sold his soul to the devil for making a deal with the Nazis. Gruenwald was acquitted of libel on several counts and fined the equivalent of one Israeli pound (a symbolic figure). After Kasztner was assassinated in front of his Tel Aviv house on the night of March 3-4, 1957, the High Court overturned the Gruenwald decision. But it was too late. Kasztner’s name was besmirched. People even spat on his young daughter, ZsuZsi, and threw rocks at her.
With the U.S. opening next week of the new documentary “Killing Kasztner” by Gaylen Ross, the controversy surrounding the negotiations for Jewish lives with Hitler’s deputies (Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Dieter Wisliceny, and Kurt Becher) is back on the front burner. For some, this is a very personal story involving Kasztner’s family and the families of the Kasztner survivors. For others, it is the story of political terrorism, described in full in the film by Kasztner’s murderer himself, Ze’ev Eckstein, a member of a radical-fringe right-wing group, who was recruited by Shin Bet to spy on the group and then joined them. He became part of a cabal to destroy Kasztner and perhaps, as a result, bring down the Israeli government.
Above, Kasztner survivors in Switzerland. Irene Grossman
Eckstein, the film’s major focus, was sentenced to life and served approximately seven years. His accomplices, Joseph Menkes and Dan Shemer, received the same sentence and also served seven years. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked the Kasztner family to give their approval to their release. His wife, Bogyo Kasztner, said no. His daughter, ZsuZsi, said yes, to spare the families of all involved more pain and anguish; she sensed he was going to let them go anyway, according to Ross.
According to the film, Shmuel Tamir, the defense attorney for Gruenwald, had been a member of the Irgun, while Kasztner, covering for the Sachnut, did not want to admit that he wrote affidavits on its behalf for Kurt Becher and his cronies — the Nazi officials who looted Hungarian Jewry. The Sachnut and later the Israeli government under Ben-Gurion sought to recover Jewish goods and funds looted by the Nazis and didn’t want people to know they were in direct negotiations with war criminals. When asked about the Becher affidavit, Kasztner lied on the stand to protect the Sachnut, and thus became politically expendable. The Zionists didn’t want anyone to know that everything Kasztner did was done at their behest, and Ross shows documents in the film, discovered since the assassination, that bear this out. They had not been released during the libel trial.
The Israelis also didn’t want to label “Jewish negotiators” as heroes. The Israeli idea of a hero, especially when training soldiers, was someone who would die, without talking, for the cause. Kasztner, who saved almost 20,000 Jews, more than anyone else during the Holocaust, was labeled a Nazi collaborator because he talked to Nazis. Even worse, said his enemies, he became one of them.
As the film unfolds, as you listen and watch the face of Kasztner’s murderer, you cannot help concluding that in the Israeli mind at the time, Holocaust survivors were viewed as having been merely passive victims, told to keep quiet about their experiences, and expected to pick up arms and fight for the State.
Until the early 1980s, when I joined the Arthur Goldberg Commission to examine the role of American Jews during the Holocaust (empowered by survivors and the City University of New York), I didn’t understand why some people hated Kasztner so much. Since not everyone could get on the train, the rumors that Gruenwald repeated as facts were spread everywhere: Kasztner kept the money; he should have stopped the deportations; he is responsible for the deaths of every Hungarian Jew not on the train. It was as if Hungarian Jewry never heard about Einzatsgruppen, Treblinka, Auschwitz, or the deportations from Slovakia next door.
I asked my mother if that was true — that Hungarian Jewry didn’t know. And she told me that when she tried telling people what was happening just across their borders, they accused her of lying and trying to start a panic. Last summer, I interviewed Estie Blier, who was on the Kasztner Transport. She remembered an Auschwitz escapee who two years earlier described the Sonderkommando units in Auschwitz to Blier’s father, head of the bet din in Budapest. The man was dismissed as a lunatic. Others who tried to tell the truth were beaten in the synagogues. Hungarian Jewry didn’t want to know. My mother’s recollections are confirmed by a Hungarian survivor in “Killing Kasztner.”
Peska Friedman, the author’s mother, who was on the Kasztner train.
My own father, a Jew from Munkacs — which was in Hungary at the time — was involved in rescue efforts for the Vaad Hatzolah throughout the war, and didn’t believe it himself. He even turned down the chance to move his first wife and son to a safe house in Budapest. Instead they were all deported to Auschwitz. He suffered the penalty for not believing the unbelievable. His wife and son did not survive. After the war, he married my mother, one of the people smuggled into Hungary from Poland in 1941.
In mid-1944, my mother was sent to Budapest by her brother, the Munkascer rebbe, Baruch Rabinowicz, who was working on rescue with Jewish, Zionist, and Hungarian leaders. She was put in the care of Philip Freudiger, head of the Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest, who added 80 people — rabbis and their families — to the passengers on the train. That included my mother’s first cousin, the Satmar rebbe, Yoeli Teitelbaum, a rabid anti-Zionist. Reb Yoeli would later betray Kasztner when approached to be a character witness. He said that God had saved him, not Kasztner.
My father, a vice president of the World Agudath Israel (the Agudah), told me before he died in 1982 that the Agudah had been deeply involved in the Vaad Hatzolah and helped arrange the ransom. So when I was on the Goldberg Commission, I approached Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, the Agudah archivist, who sent me to Prof. David Kranzler, a contributor to the commission’s report and an expert on the negotiations surrounding the train and other Orthodox rescue efforts.
I learned that the Kasztner Transport was not something Kasztner did alone. The Sachnut, the Agudah, the international Vaads, Hungarian Jews, the U.S. government, American Jewish community leaders (who concentrated on creating a “homeland,” not rescuing European Jews), the Allies — dozens of high-powered people were involved in or knew about the “Blood for Trucks” deal, as Eichmann phrased it, that culminated in the Kasztner Transport.
Kranzler’s commission document, “Orthodox Ends, Unorthodox Means: The Role of Agudath Israel and Vaad Hatzalah during the Holocaust,” shows how Slovakians Weissmandl and Fleischmann tried to save as many Jews as they could. The rabbi paid $50,000 to the Nazis in 1942 for 20,000 lives. Then he negotiated “The Europa Plan” with Himmler: $2 million for most of European Jewry. He enlisted Kasztner and the Hungarian Zionists to help.
The Sachnut and most American-Jewish organizations turned down the deal. Then, in mid-1944, Weissmandl’s ad-hoc group spent six weeks pursuing Eichmann’s offer of a million Jews for 10,000 trucks, a deal “done in by circumstances,” according to Kranzler. Joel Brand, Kasztner’s negotiating partner and a Sachnut representative, left Hungary to find money for 10,000 trucks. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, represented by Saly Mayer, refused to provide the needed funds because the trucks would be useful to the enemy. As ordered by the Sachnut, Brand went to Istanbul and ran into trouble when his Sachnut bosses did not provide backup. Then they ordered him to Aleppo, Syria, where the British arrested him because they did not want him to make deals with the Germans.
That same spring, according to Kranzler, two escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, warned everyone that Auschwitz was being expanded in anticipation of Hungarian Jewry’s arrival and murder. They wrote a 36-page report, the “Auschwitz Protocols,” condensed by Weissmandl and sent to Jewish groups in Hungary and Switzerland. Kasztner received a copy while negotiating the truck deal with the Nazis.
The day after deportations began on May 16, Weissmandl sent out a plea to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz, since record numbers of Hungarian Jews were being taken to their deaths. On June 14, Kasztner wrote to his contacts in Switzerland confirming Weissmandl’s message: 400,000 Jews had already been deported. He wrote about “hopeless hopes”: how 12,000 Jews a day were being deported and it couldn’t be stopped; from that point on, only small numbers of Jewish lives could be negotiated, and that there were no Jews left in the provinces. Protests from the Red Cross and others “found no willing ears” and those were the “bitter and stark facts.” His colleagues, who wrote to U.S. government representatives in Switzerland, confirmed his observations.
Another “Protocols” recipient was George Mantello, the Salvadoran consul-general in Switzerland who worked with British intelligence to condense the “Protocols” and get them to the media. Five days later, everyone knew what was happening to Hungarian Jewry. Even Pope Pius XII protested. Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg was sent to Budapest to open safe houses, as was Carl Lutz of Switzerland, and, at last, the International Red Cross got involved. Months later, despite the Nazis, the regent, Miklòs Horthy, finally stopped the deportations on July 7, 1944.
In the meantime, because of the publicity, the Nazis wanted to break off negotiations to release a half million Jews, but Kasztner convinced them to let a train leave carrying 750 people holding Palestine certificates (provided by the Sachnut). Among them were some members of Kasztner’s family, but not all — more than 100 were deported to Auschwitz. Kasztner also put other friends and relatives from his hometown of Kluj on the train. But money was needed and 150 very rich passengers (out of 1,684) paid huge sums to defray the cost of the cattle train, and the money went directly to the Gestapo. The rest paid nothing. In addition to Kasztner’s people and Freudiger’s people, as many as 450 inmates from a nearby labor camp climbed on board, and my mother remembers people getting off and on whenever the train stopped.
But once the train was organized, according to Kranzler, Kasztner heard nothing from Switzerland. The Nazis refused to let the train leave Budapest until Weissmandl wrote them a note under a fictitious name informing them that 250 equally fictitious trucks were available in Switzerland.
The Gestapo believed it. Only then was the Kasztner Transport allowed to leave Budapest on June 30, 1944, eventually arriving in Bergen-Belsen.
Once the Jews arrived, according to Kranzler, the Gestapo demanded 40 tractors in exchange for 40,000 Jews. Freudiger approached Isaac and Recha Sternbuch, the Agudah representatives of the Vaad Hatzolah in Switzerland, and asked them to come up with 750,000 Swiss francs as a down payment. They had only SF 150,000 and went to Saly Mayer at the JDC, asking him to make up the difference. Mayer refused, and complained to the Americans that Jews were negotiating with Nazis. He mistakenly assumed, as did others, that there were 1,200 rabbis on the train. Roswell McClelland, the American envoy to Switzerland, later said that Mayer told him, “Rabbis, like ship captains, have no right to save themselves.”
The Americans warned the Sternbuchs they would be charged under the Trading With the Enemy Act, but they continued to plead and negotiate. As a result of their efforts, the first 315 hostages from the Kasztner Transport were released from Bergen-Belsen on August 21, 1944. Then McClelland insisted that Mayer replace Isaac Sternbuch in the negotiations. Small payments were then made to the Gestapo as Mayer stalled and Kasztner tried to ransom the rest of European Jewry. Kasztner convinced Mayer to fake a cable to the Gestapo that said SF 5,000,000 was available. As a result, in December 1944, the remaining 1,366 passengers, including my mother, were released, and according to Leland Harrison, an American diplomat in Switzerland, more than 17,000 others were held “on ice,” as Kranzler put it, in Austrian labor camps.
When I saw “Killing Kasztner,” I knew about the negotiations. As a child, I don’t remember discussions of the devastating Kasztner trial in Israel or his assassination. I do remember hearing that he was murdered, supposedly by a crazed Hungarian survivor, and that when I told people my mother had been a passenger on the train, they made nasty cracks and derided Kasztner, as if he had been a one-man show.
Last week, I met Kasztner’s granddaughter, Merav Michaeli, and it was like meeting a long-lost family member — there was a deep connection. After all, if not for her grandfather, I would not exist.
Merav, a journalist, says it wasn’t the family’s idea to pursue the story. Gaylen Ross, the filmmaker, was fascinated by the story and shot her first footage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, during a Kasztner symposium. It shows the museum’s director, David Marwell, trying to control an unruly crowd. The result was “Killing Kasztner,” a film that tells the story of a murderer who comes face-to-face with the daughter and granddaughters of his victim.
It is a heart-stopping, infuriating film, but Merav doesn’t seem to carry any of the rage that lies at the heart of the story. To her, the whole thing is a mystery. “The most amazing thing I realized from the movie,” she says, “was how Tamir [Gruenwald’s defense attorney] got hold of [the] Becher affidavit. It was in a box of papers given to him by the attorney general who brought the case in the first place. Why would the attorney general include such a damning piece of paper? I am sure that many things are waiting to be revealed.”
Merav adds, “Humanity has a lot of different faces. It is a human thing to blame. Frustration and envy bring guilt. You feel survivor guilt, or you feel guilty for not doing what you wanted to do. Some people think Kasztner took advantage of their pain and hurt, and that’s why they condemn him. Others took cynical advantage of those emotions to promote their own agenda, like the Jews for ‘greater’ Israel who wanted to cut off Ben-Gurion’s head for giving back the Sinai. It’s what politicians do. It was easier for them to blame Kasztner instead of blaming the Nazis, while the Sachnut was negotiating for restitution from the Germans.”
I wonder out loud how it must have felt to meet Eckstein, as arranged for the film by Ross. How impossible it must have been for Merav, her sisters, and her mother to confront him. Merav says, “My mother wanted to meet with him at least 15 years ago, and he always refused. I felt as if my obligation was to be detached and angry at him. But I was in a coma as I sat there on the couch in my journalist mode, trying to be objective. He seems very intelligent and self-protective, and what happened and how he tells it seems to have been deeply thought through and processed. My ultimate impression is that he is not a bad person, but he ended up doing a terrible thing, and now seems trapped by it.
“But I think my mother, who has a clean soul, connected with him. She really had good intentions, and wanted to meet him when he did not [want to meet her]. And when you ask about anger, I realize I was born into a situation where my mother carried the guilt forced on her by society. That guilt was passed on to me, and I had to prove what they said about Kasztner was a lie — for now he is guilty until proven innocent. They are angry because he did what they said could not be done. Our family’s victimization came from Israelis and perhaps, as women, our anger is inner-directed. I guess you can say in that way my mother is not a typical 2G [Second Generation].”
“Killing Kasztner” took seven years to make, and when it started the family did not know Ross was going to focus on Eckstein. Then, when the movie came out, it was as if history had been rewritten. Most Israeli viewers were amazed and sympathetic to the family. During the course of the film, even Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, “transformed himself,” as Merav describes it. At first a rejectionist, he later accepted the Kasztner archives and reintroduced his story to the public. Says Merav: “The family was truly grateful when Yad Vashem had an official showing this past Yom HaShoah. It means things are finally starting to change.”
domestic violence, HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS, judaism, local stories/community, people, politics, survivors
Lenore Skenazy asked recently about the “Jewishness” of NYC and why that’s so. She asked in a NY Magaziney kind of way, but I bit and wrote that it’s hard to say in a few words why NYC is the center of the Jewish universe. It’s not a NY Magazine poll. It’s a hefty question on lots of levels. I did some editing since I sent it, but here’s my response, for better or worse.
I was born in NYC, one of twins born to survivors in Bed Stuy. I grew up in the ultra-O Jewish world, my father was politically and religiously active, I went to Jewish schools and Brooklyn College, and some powerful people grew up with me. I learned early on how things worked in town–in the Jewish world and the “real world.” I am a writer and editor who covers the Jewish world and more. I used to work for Tiger Beat and RightOn! and write nightlife guides to the city–now one of the things I do is edit a newspaper for Holocaust survivors.
New York City is the international center of the Jews–regardless of what others want to believe. Religiously, culturally, politically, intellectually–from the insane Netura Karta, to JewBus and Ethical Culture, to the world of the Jewish mind, theatre, music, business, entertainment, and even in terms of Zionism. NYC is the central hub, where Jewish power resides. Not Israeli power. Jewish power, and there is a profound difference.
Israel cannot be a world Jewish center because it officially denies vibrant Jewish denominations, old and new, that deviate from their standards of Halachic Judaism, which grows more Talibanistic with each new edict they issue (ie. arresting women who pray in prayer shawls at the wall, refusing to grant a divorce to a woman whose husband has been sexually abusing their daughter because he hasn’t harmed HER). Israel is problematical Jewishly because the American Jews who go there haven’t been able to make it a more egalitarian and tolerant country…yet.
And some of them don’t even want to do that. Many settlers went to the West Bank from Brooklyn, Queens and Riverdale, Manhattan, and the West Bank of the Hudson (Manhattan’s best kept secret). They became activists, like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the pioneer rabbi in Efrat on the West Bank (came from the West Side) –and even he comes back to NYC to recharge his batteries.
As for America outside the greater NYC metro area, yes, there are Jews in the center of the country and on the other coast doing interesting things, but this town is where the Jewish heart beats, where the money is raised, where the media is met, and the UN confronted, and where most of the American Friends of offices are located. We feed the beast, so to speak, with our money and our kids and our ideas. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But our ideas inspire and spread everywhere. And when ideas come from the outside, we absorb them and make them our own.
We’ve got the Conference of Presidents, the WZO, the Jewish Agency, the headquarters of Hadassah, National UJA in its latest incarnation, UJAFedNY (arguably the largest charity in the city) Jewish Outreach, if I’d look it up, EVERYTHING Jewish is either headquartered here or has a branch office here.
Can NY be more Jewish than that? Yes–because here the assimilated generation walks around town with some of the wildest T-shirts proudly proclaiming their jewishness with a small j. The social media center of the Jewish world is located in this city, so the techies that built jewishnetworld are hanging all over town. Even Matisyahu is here. Along with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and a gospel singing Orthodox Jewish Black congregation in Harlem.
Most New York Jews have a New York City State of Mind–that translates into a brash ballsiness, an unwillingness to put up with crap and refusal to beat around the bush–and when there are conferences out of town, the NY Jews often have to contain their impatience with their slower paced sisters and brothers.
NYC is where every denomination of Judaism feeds its spirit, using the differences and similarities among them to spark up some amazing stuff, like Dayenu (Enough) the domestic violence initiative taken up by The New York Board of Rabbis, consisting of rabbis of every denomination and beyond, or the Auditory Oral School of New York, founded by a Hareidi couple in their home ten years ago, who teach profoundly deaf and language delayed kids from every walk of life–including Arabs, Chinese, Asians, Chassidim, African Americans, etc, etc, etc,–to hear and speak and get ready for regular schools.
It’s where the largest contingent of Holocaust survivors and their children live, and where Ben Meed, who founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and his wife Vladka, set the tone for Holocaust commemorations around the globe that led to the empowerment of survivors all over the world, and where New Yorker Ernie Michel was able start realizing a dream he had in Auschwitz–to bring Holocaust survivors together in Israel. New York is where the first meeting for the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors took place. And Elie Wiesel is a New Yorker, too. He earned his stripes!
There’s something else the Holocaust survivors did in New York–they rebuilt neighborhoods in the images of their lives in Europe in Boro Park and Williamsburg, Flatbush, Crown Heights, Staten Island, Rego Park, Forest Hills–revitalizing synagogue life and Judaism of all sorts in this town. And if I try to name all the Jewish brainiacs (and not such smarties) in every conceivable field who have shaped this town and the world, I would never finish the list, and would be giving us an eyin hora (evil eye), (poo-poo-poo).
As for Jew food–it’s not about pastrami and killer kolesterol anymore! I’m waiting for someone to come up with Fro-Jew fusion any minute now!
Last bit–At Brooklyn College, in 1981, I took a course in Jewish ethics (hold the jokes). This question was asked on the final exam (you can check with the prof. He’s still at BC, his name is Sid Leiman):
According to the Talmud, do you have the right to deflect a massive nuclear bomb headed for NYC to Paducah, KY?
I said no, but I would deflect it anyway, and take my chances with God at the Pearly Gates because in addition to the numbers of people who lived here (compared to the numbers in Paducah) by allowing NYC and the surrounding area to be destroyed I would be destroying the center of the Jewish universe, and I am selfish enough not to want to do that.
And that is still true, and while I believe it’s one of the reasons NYC was targeted by the terrorists, our NYC attitude is ‘f’em!, we’re gonna do what we gotta do, and ain’t no one gonna stop us.
With apologies to the song
I’m that Jew York City girl
grew up ridin’ the subways, running with people
Up in Harlem, down on Broadway
I’m no tramp, but I’m no lady, talkin’ that street talk
the heart and soul of New York City
who should know the score by now
a native Jewish New Yorker, that’s me!
Dennis Ross, The Philosopher Prophet
By Jeanette Friedman
(This series combines two interviews: one done on “Bloody Thursday” September 25 1996 and one in January, 2008)
It appears in the April Issue of the Akron Jewish News.
On Thursday, September 25, 1996, a door to a tunnel in Jerusalem was opened, and all hell broke loose. In New York City, 5,000 miles away, Dennis Ross’ life became more complicated than it already had been. Ross, now the Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was special advisor to the Secretary of State and special U.S. envoy to the Middle East. He was also one of President Bill Clinton’s “unsung heroes,” and a key negotiator in the Middle East peace process. He had to drop what he was doing—speaking at an event atop the World Trade Center—and get to the airport to catch the last plane to DC. He almost missed it.
What was his previous life like? On one typical day, at a vitally important Middle East summit at the White House, he shuttled from the Oval Office, where President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were conferring, to the Roosevelt Room, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan were chatting. After the White House closed down at 4 p.m., for the next 12 hours, Ross shuttled between Blair House, where Netanyahu was staying, to Arafat’s hotel in Northern Virginia. Then he had to prepare for his morning meetings at the State Department. And that was nothing compared to shuttling around to three or four or five or six countries within a day or two. Ross was always sleep-deprived yet functioned at top form.
Life is a great deal quieter these days, and Ross is still on top of his game. When interviewed recently in his Washington Institute office, he confided that not working for the government right now was liberating. “Being the envoy was very demanding work and required sacrifices but it was incredibly purposeful—and I am as committed to the mission now as I was then. I just made two trips out there [the Middle East] in the last two weeks, and still try to affect things. They still hear my voice, and what I write and say is in an effort to influence things, but it’s all indirect. I have no authority or responsibility. When I see leaders, they choose to see me, whereas then, they had to see me. Now they choose to listen instead of having to listen.”
And if asked by the next administration to serve, would he? “I would go back in under the right circumstances. If they ask, yes. Do I plan to? No. But I feel the responsibility, and if I felt I could make a difference I would go back in.”
Ross, who retains his boyish good looks despite locks of gray, is getting much more sleep than he used to. He spent some luxurious time writing, and recently published Statecraft, a book of historical and diplomatic analysis of major events that affect America’s standing in the world. It is at once philosophical and practical. And everyone who has anything to do with conducting foreign policy—from presidential candidates and members of Congress, to every employee at the State Department, up to the Secretary of State, should be reading it. It is a primer for digging the United States out of the quagmire created by the war in Iraq, and how to cope with the unintended consequences.
An eminently readable book, Statecraft is also a personal memoir of sorts, showing how Ross’ diplomatic experiences shaped his thinking. He wrote it, he says, as an important conversation starter in a presidential election year. He bases his observations on his work at the State Department under every administration since Ronald Reagan’s. Unlike some in the State Department, he was much more than a fly on the wall. He was a back channel to diplomats from every country, particularly when the Iron Curtain fell, when the United States needed to build a coalition in order to go to war in the Gulf in 1991 and in dealing with the Balkan wars.
Today we face new challenges. In our conversation in Washington, Ross offers a formula for diplomatic success. “You have to think through your own positions, and that puts you in a better place. Given the trauma of 9/11, normal checks and balances didn’t operate. The administration didn’t think things through. Whoever the next administration is, they have to face these lessons. Be clear and explain, so that it’s clarified in your own head. There has to be accountability. And if your objectives aren’t clear, then neither are your means.”
What accountability can there be when the system of checks and balances, so essentially to American governance, fell apart after 9/11? “Checks and balances didn’t work for a short period of time,” said Ross. “Checks and balances require accountability and Bush never asked for accountability. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are the means that others have or we have to achieve our global objectives?’ We need to be clear. And we have to remember that you can’t negotiate without trust, and you cannot produce agreements without a culture of accountability.”
The roots of his philosophy as expressed in Statecraft were visible in an interview he granted me on September 25, 1996, a day now known as “Bloody Thursday.” When “Bloody Thursday,” was over, 77 were dead and hundreds were injured in the worst confrontation since the Six Day War. There were tanks in the territories for the first time since 1967. And Dennis Ross was in it up to his eyeballs. And that was the night I first met him, and interviewed him in a NYC taxi, on his way to the airport.
In many ways, not much has changed since then. In 1996, with withdrawal from Hebron six months behind schedule, Arafat was in trouble with his own people because they didn’t like his corruption and the way the Palestinian Authority (PA) treated them. Economically, the Palestinians were desperate because of border closings and curfews. Internally, the democratic process was hardly visible. Hence frustration on two fronts—pressure from within and without. Arafat and Muslim religious leaders used the opportunity to exhort frustrated Palestinians to hold protest marches and strikes against the tunnel opening, The Israelis were frustrated after the bus bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Today, Sharon and Arafat are gone. The Palestinians are still tearing each other apart and using terror in their own neighborhoods and against the Israelis. They Israelis are frustrated by rocket barrages in addition to suicide bombings. And the attempt to bring democracy to the West Bank failed when President George W. Bush pushed for elections. As Ross notes, the push for those elections made for some very strange bedfellows. Sharon and Abu Mazen were against the elections, knowing full well that chaos would result. George Bush? He sided with Hamas, and the Middle East cauldron was set to boil over.
After such a debacle, which he ignored for years, why is Bush suddenly so active in the “peace process?”
Said Ross, “Because Olmert is quite serious about doing the deal. It could have been the other way around. When Hamas took over Gaza, this was kind of epiphany, it meant that Islamists control Gaza, and will likely be the alternative to Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad if they fail. Israel has a stake in Palestinians who believe in coexistence, and so do we. The bad news is the delivery capacity, the publics (Arabs and Israelis) are disbelieving, the street is skeptical and the bad news is that Bush has no strategy. Salaam Fayyad, [the Palestinian Prime Minister] is trying to create a culture of accountability, and that’s why we all have a stake in his success. That will make peace more possible than it has been.
“But what the Bush administration has carried out to date is more stagecraft than statecraft. They haven’t developed the means to carry out a policy that meets the objective of peace and leads to the two-state solution. Bush is confident there will be a peace treaty because both Abu Mazen and Olmert are serious. For her part, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, is convinced that Iran creates a common denominator;Arab leaders and Israelis both see the threat from Iran. And because of that, Rice sees a strategic opening: if the US could do something about the Palestinians, it could create a coalition against Iran. That is why she launched an effort.”
Just how much of that Iran threat is real when Ahmadinejad’s allies were defeated in the municipal elections and his economy is tanking because of sanctions?
“The Iranian threat is real because Ahmadinejad is tied to the Revolutionary Guards, and they control the nuclear power plants and research into weapons. They support terrorism throughout the region—Hamas, Hezbollah—and foment violence and terror in Iraq. Every time we would make headway in the Middle East, Iran would push Hamas and Islamic Jihad to terrorist acts, setting us back. Iranian leaders like Khatami (who are relatively pragmatic), from their standpoint, and the mullahs who seek to preserve their power and privilege see the public is alienated and understand that they need to buy them off…so sanctions are a real problem for them.”
**Despite the failures in the Peace Process, way back then, Ross was already applying the diplomatic dynamics that would later be clearly defined in Statecraft.
“We knew,” he told me in 1996, “that [Netanyahu and Arafat] have to have some period where they would be able to have some release, to describe areas where they had their own grievances. And then only in the aftermath of having been able to have that kind of opportunity, do you then begin to look for ways to solve problems. I think they convinced each other that there was a genuine desire to try and work together.
“[Warring parties] have to find a way not to direct a climate of violence against each other. They have to find ways to move forward and create trust. Our [The American] job is to be the facilitator, to get [peace processes] launched and shape an agenda that gets relatively quick results—to help them clarify the issues and, where possible, find ways to produce real results on the ground.”
In that old interview Ross told me, “There is a legacy with this conflict. a legacy of hate, of suspicion, of doubt, of grievance, of fear, and of pain and when you put all those elements of that legacy together, it should not surprise us that we are going to have ups and downs. Those kinds of emotions don’t just disappear overnight.”
Clarifying issues, setting clear objectives, knowing the facts on the ground and dealing with realpolitik, instead of wishful thinking are what he writes about in Statecraft.
Back in the day, Ross often tried to convince Arafat to come to Washington, and sometimes it wasn’t about politics, it was about his health. Now that Arafat is gone, we can ask questions no one dared to ask out loud: Could Arafat ever have transitioned into the role of a statesman, prime minister or mayor—to build his state instead of focusing on the destruction of Israel?
In 2008, in his D.C. office, Ross leans in closer to the listener and recounts two telling anecdotes: “The conflict defined Arafat. If it ended, he would have been finished. I was with him continuously. One day, I was sitting with him, just the two of us, and I told him I was going home for a vacation. He said it must be nice to take a vacation; he hadn’t had one since 1963. When I asked him why he didn’t take one, it became a defining moment. He said, ‘How could I take a vacation from my people?’ And I realized that he believed his own myth and that a peace treaty with him would not be possible.”
When asked about Arafat’s last conversation with President Clinton, on his last day in office, Ross described how Arafat was praising Clinton, who told him, “You made me a failure.”
And then there’s the truly burning question: “Did AIDS kill him?”
“His health was an issue, too. He never wanted to come to the States, to Bethesda, for a medical exam. We would have arranged it so that no one would know, but he didn’t want to do it. We were very concerned. He was sometimes vacant, and had tremors.
“One time I went to see him in Nablus at 8:30 am. Normally we met late in the day or very early in the morning, so this was very unusual. We were eating breakfast and he starts popping pills—by the handful. So I asked him how many pills he takes and he said 45, every morning. And then he even offered me some! I politely declined.
“There were herbals, vitamins, yeast, everything—45 pills. So I asked our doctors if it was possible that his condition was linked to all these medications. Could it be you can have all sorts of reactions to these pills? So who knows what did him in?” (Not everyone who has asked Ross that question knew that the hospital in France, where Arafat died, was the same hospital well-known for being an AIDS treatment center in the 1980s—they famously treated movie star Rock Hudson until his death.)
**Presidents come and go. Secretaries of State come and go. But Dennis Ross prevailed. A baby boomer from San Francisco who did his undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA, his encounters with the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam shaped his perspective. He is committed to peace in the Middle East because it is in his bones. He cannot be other than he is. And he is a realistic optimist.
Ross was born in 1948 to parents of Russian extraction, sandwiched between an older sister and younger brother. “My mother was born in Chicago and grew up in L.A. My father, who died in 1979, was born in Sacramento and grew up in Seattle.
“I had a Jewish identity, but it was in no way religious. But I was certainly aware of anti-Semitism. I grew up in Marin County and there were almost no Jews—my high school had maybe four or five of us in a class of 500. I didn’t experience it directly, but I would hear people say things.
“There’s nothing like having that feeling of being made different by others to create a sense of who you are. I developed a strong Jewish identity, even though I grew up in a household where there wasn’t a lot whole lot of religious identification. I became religious later on. My wife grew up in a religious household and I began to develop more of a religious sense after we met.” (They met during a political campaign in 1970.)
“I describe my characteristics as patience, persistence and having a sense of humor. My wife clearly has patience and she clearly has a sense of humor—but part of it also is that she believes that what I am doing is important. It’s important to her as well.”
Why is he always so passionate about peace in the Middle East?
“I think my passion comes from a sense that this conflict has become highly personalized for me. I know so many people on each side of it, and I see them as individuals. I met their families, I know what they experience. I feel the conflict, in a sense, has been humanized for me.
“And it’s not an abstraction. I have a background of working on the Soviet Union and Russia, and I was always highly analytical about that. I’m analytical about this as well, but the difference is that in Russia I didn’t have the same sense of human association.
“Someone I went to school with, who is still one of my best friends, is an Israeli. I met him and his wife right after the ‘73 war at UCLA. That was when I began getting a sense of the people and their yearnings and aspirations.
“I think that when a conflict becomes humanized for you, you are more aware of the price individuals pay, and you can relate to it. Then you can develop the responsibility to deal with it and you can see it in the larger foreign policy context as well. That’s what creates the marriage between the analytical view and what I would call the passionate view. And the more I spend time on actually trying to help resolve it, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you develop trust with the people with whom you work—on all sides.”
Ross visited Israel for the first time in 1970, as a student tourist. “The Six Day War was one factor that clearly created an interest, but going to Israel cemented that interest. My first trip was for two weeks. I can’t put my finger on one thing—the most impressive thing was the spirit of the coun¬try. When I first started studying Israel I’d say that for every three Israelis there are four political parties. Now I say for every three Israelis there are four cell phones. It’s a measure of how things have changed. But in 1970, going for the first time, the spirit of the country, the sense of com¬munity, grabbed me and had a striking impact on me.”
Ross worked for both the Departments of Defense and State at the same time. In 1982, he was the Deputy Director of Net Assessment in the Pentagon, working on Soviet, Middle Eastern and “broad military balance issues,” and a member of the Policy Planning Staff on Middle Eastern issues at State. From 1984-1986, he served as Executive Director of the Berkeley-Stanford Program on Soviet International Behavior, an academic think tank.
From 1986-88, he was the National Security Council’s Director of Near East and South Asian Affairs. From 1989-1992, he was the Directory of the Policy Planning Staff for the Department of State (rank: Ambassador). Ross spent two months at the Bush White House as the President’s Assistant for Policy Planning. Then he went back to his directorship of the Policy Planning Staff, where he “played a leading role” in formulating and implement¬ing U.S. policy in the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. He worked with both Lawrence Eagleburger and James Baker on START talks, the Middle East peace process and anything else that needed doing. Baker always had Ross at his side.
Ross became interested in politics when he was still in high school. His mother introduced him to the books of Richard Wright, one of America’s greatest Black writers. By the time he was 15, Ross was involved in his first campaign, a civil rights initiative on the California ballot.
He was a freshman in college when the Six-Day War broke out. It was at the same time Vietnam was on the front burner in the U.S., and that war shaped his foreign policy philoso¬phy. He felt the Vietnam War prevented the Americans from giving the Middle East the attention it needed.
“I looked at Vietnam as a conflict that did not make sense. You couldn’t identify what our interests were, at least in my mind, in a way that was clear. It certainly didn’t justify the cost, and without an unmistakable political objective, you’re not going to have political support within the country.
“I was very much affected by the fact that it didn’t seem to make sense. The nature of our objectives constantly shifted. The enemy was constantly changing—the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong.
“And then, interestingly enough, when I saw the Six-Day War, I thought our interests were directly affected, it was something of vital American concern and we were tied down in Vietnam. From the stand¬point of the logic of our own interests, this didn’t make sense to me, and I wasn’t a pacifist. I wasn’t opposed to the war because I had a sense that war is wrong. I didn’t feel that at all. I felt that if you’re going to commit American power and you’re going to commit American lives, it has to be in the service of something that really matters—and I didn’t see it in Vietnam.
“I also felt that you have to be able to sustain political support, public support, for what you are doing. It shaped my attitudes from that stand¬point. Vietnam was something that was sort of sprung on the American people indirectly, without a context—whereas in the Middle East there is a context.
“The one thing that stayed with me is that if you’re going to commit American power—and I believe that you use American power—the rea¬sons have to be clear. In a world where American power isn’t used, you’re in a world that’s much more dangerous, much less predictable—and eventually you’ll be confronted with a need to use that power in circumstances that are much more costly.”
The words he uttered back in 1996 were prophetic. Here was his view of the Middle East then, and it hasn’t changed much. “The Middle East has been something that has been presented by American presidents going back to Truman as being something in America’s vital interest. So it’s been identified for a long time.
“One set of key interests relates to the commitments we made to Israel. They are solemn and have been repeated so often that they go to the heart of American credibility.
“One set of interests relates to having access to resources, natural resources like oil, at a price that doesn’t create major stress in our economy. One set of interests has to do with the fact that this is a region that is a strategic crossroads. If there is great instability there, it could spread elsewhere.
“The situation between the Shia and the Sunni hasn’t helped. The Saudis see the competition with Iran through a Sunni-Shia prism. You have a kind of competition in the region, and our focus shouldn’t be how to support the authoritarian regimes. We should help build credible alternatives that are not corrupt and that embody social justice, because many of the present regimes benefit the few at the expense of the many, and people are angry.
“We are living in a world that is different than it used to be. The nature of the threats is different then they used to be before. One of the things you develop is a set of rationales and explanations that take account of the different circumstances.”
***Today that interest in “natural resources like oil” is affecting the global economy, creating new superpowers and hiking up the price of a barrel of oil to astronomical heights. That interest in oil is also producing the genocide in Darfur, a consequence of China’s driving need for energy resources. One has to ask if Saudi Arabia, funders of global Islamic religious extremism, is driving global policy.
“I don’t think Saudis are driving Middle East policy but they do have an influence. Before 9/11 King Abdullah wrote to Bush expressing great displeasure for walking away from the peace process. So Bush responded by saying that he favored a two-state solution. But after 9/11 the focus changed, and the administration did not get seriously engaged until very recently.
“What matters more is the need for energy resources, and oil is currently pushing the markets. With climate change as the most serious issue on the global agenda, we need to concentrate on what our objectives are so we can figure out a way to deal with it responsibly.
“Oil is driven by Chinese and Indian demand. But the Saudis do not have the infrastructure to meet that demand… The Saudis aren’t expanding the way they used to, because if people are looking at alternative energy sources, they don’t feel they need to invest. The inability to produce as much oil as is demanded is what is driving up prices, and if the Saudis think people are going to go green they are not going to make that effort. OPEC will expand production only when they see a downturn in demand. And those who invest in alternatives have to know the price of oil isn’t going to drop precipitously.”
These are very complicated issues. Do the vast majority of Americans, who seemed obsessed by weapons of mass distraction like Brittany Spears, come close to understanding it? Is there any hope of changing things?
Ross, of course, is optimistic. “Look at the polls—75% of the American people feel we are headed in the wrong direction and that this administration produced a policy that has wrecked our credibility and standing in the world. The recession we are facing is caused by the combination of the subprime mortgage situation and the gas shortage, and it is a recession that is rocking global markets. Decisions will have to be made.
“When it will boil down to two people in the presidential election, the public will have to make decisions that will radically affect the future. They need to understand that climate change is the number one priority, not just for the planet, but for the security of the country. Climate change will create more failing states that will, in turn, become training grounds for terror, so it’s a national security priority.
“China, which has surpassed the U.S. in the production of greenhouse gases, will not pay attention to us on climate change if we aren’t leading by example. It is hard to change them when we don’t change ourselves. We have to become leaders in order to create moral suasion.
“The other major issue confronting the American people is Iraq, because we have 150 thousand troops stationed there. The challenge will be how to withdraw; it will be how we do it. The irony is that we needed a political surge along with the military surge.
“I argue that we have to do it with leverage, carrot and stick. One of the things we should do, at the local level, is look at who we empower, and say those who cooperate with each other will find that we withdraw where they want us to, when they want us to, and how they want us to; those who don’t cooperate will find we won’t withdraw how they want us to do so and they will lose on military and economic means If we don’t do that, we won’t get the outcome we seek. We will end up with a temporal response. The Iraqis have to hammer things out and we should be there and use our leverage.
“The potential to change exists, but transitions will take a long time, and we face a set of challenges. We will have to make decisions on how we are going to get things done. The key is to have clear priorities and be clear on the objective. In this administration, these objectives were never explained and always assumed. There was more use of the stick than the carrot.”
***Ross anticipated all of this back in 1996 when I asked him if Uncle Sam was the global policeman. Back, he already knew how realpolitik worked and that ideology can take you only so far. Wishing things were different didn’t change them. His words were prophetic.
He said, “You have to be willing to use American power, but you have to use it selectively. You can’t use it in any and all circumstances. And you also have to be prepared to explain. I feel, basically, that if you make an effort to discuss it with the public, they typically will get it. And if you can’t explain it to the public, you have a problem.
“There is an essential need for the U.S. to play a role [in this instance we were discussing Israel and the Palestinians] because we are trusted by both sides. When the par¬ties reach an agreement, they are the ones who have to own the agreement, they are the ones who have to invest in the agreement; they are the ones that have to depend on the agreement. The only way that happens is if the negotiations are direct, not with us as a substitute.
“Having said that, there is no question that we play an indispensable role. It can be by creating an environment to make it easy to proceed, or providing sup¬port or being a go between—where we reinforce, where we clarify what otherwise might be a misunderstanding, where we can focus on issues that need to be addressed. Maybe we can help shape the priorities. All these things come together in terms of having us help sustain this process, and having the parties achieve what they want. As I said, if they didn’t want it, you couldn’t sustain negotiations through the pressures and shocks. Our role in the end is to help them sustain hope.
“There is no question that some¬how, through all sorts of shocks, through all sorts of traumas, the process endured. There is a narrow body of leaders who somehow are committed to it and they ignore the political realities in which they operate. It has endured because the majority of Israelis and the majority in the Arab world do not see war as an acceptable alternative to peace, and they are prepared to pursue it.
“It doesn’t always mean that they are prepared to pursue it no matter what. It doesn’t mean that their concept of how you get to peace are the same, but that’s what you negotiate. What’s important is that they don’t see an acceptable alternative. As long as they maintain a sense of possibility, as long as they have a sense of hope, they will continue to negotiate. This is not a process that can stand still. Because if that happens, you lose the sense of possibility and hope which are really the routes to peace.”
How does one get disparate leaders to negotiate successully?
“There is one principal that guides successful negotiation,” says the expert. “If you don’t develop a relationship with those you are trying to resolve problems with, you’ll never be able to resolve the problems. The problems are not abstract problems that you can deal with in a laboratory. They’re problems that reflect political needs, psychological needs, and you must develop, first and foremost, a sense of trust. Without it, you can’t endure through crises.
“One of the most important things that I witnessed as an observer and a participant was the development of the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians who negoti¬ated in the Oslo process. They didn’t have an instant relationship, but they developed a relationship through the crucibles of crisis.
“You don’t create these things overnight. And the same was true for me. I didn’t create these relationships overnight, but they developed. Now the more they develop, the more you also feel an obligation to people. You don’t just walk away. For them, this is their whole existence. This is not my whole existence, but by the same token, I understand what they go through and they develop a relationship with me where they count on me for certain things. I can’t say, under those circumstances, ‘Well, you know, it’s your problem and I’m not going to deal with it.’ “
How much of the input is personal and how much is “professional” in such negotiations?
“It’s not an easy thing to separate, because if you want negotiations to work, you’ve got to carve out informal periods. You have to have a formal period, where people act on their instructions and present their positions. They cannot be preempted. But you also have to carve out time away from that because if each side is stuck and all they can do is present a formal position, you’re not going to go anyplace. You have to be able to find where the possible openings are, and you can only explore that informally. You can’t hold anyone accountable in an informal session. You think aloud. You brainstorm. Without it, you cannot produce.”
Is the human factor crucial?
“Maybe it’s just me,” said Ross, “maybe some would say I’m mis¬taken, but I think most of the failings in the literature on bargaining and negotiations are too tied to highly structured negotiations that don’t take account the element of personal trust in those that are negotiating. You’ve got to reach a point in every negotiation where one person can say to the other ‘look, this is what I really can do and this is what I really can’t do.’ And if they don’t have any trust, they’ll never come to the conclusion that that’s for real. That’s part of the bargaining process. You never get anything done until you have the ability to have key people responsible for negotiations able to look into each other’s eyes and know, ‘all right, I’ve taken this as far as I’m going to take it.’
“There is what I often call a ‘hope-fear continuum.’ As long as that continuum tilts towards hope, we will succeed. Because under those circumstances, political leaders can make hard choices and in other circumstances it’s possible to come to an agreement. Our task right now is to work with the parties, find ways to keep hope alive, and to continue to press ahead because there isn’t an acceptable alternative.
“At the end of the day, when I’m asked, ‘what is it that keeps you doing this, what personal characteristics do you have that make it possible?’ I say, I have a lot of patience, (although my kids say I don’t, I do) and I have a sense of humor. I realize those two characteristics, while important, are not nearly as important as the last one. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you might as well go home.
“Sure, I’ve certainly had periods of great frustration. One thing is to let each side know when you are really frustrated. When you’re in tense moments, one of the ways to get through them is by being able to joke. That’s again, the humanization of the negotiating process. You go through a day at the negotiating table, and you can’t spend all your time being serious or arguing. It’s not human. You need to break the ice, to ease the tension. It’s in everyone’s best interests to kid around and joke once in a while. It’s part of the demystifying process.
“You can’t measure it on the basis of one set of conversations. You can’t measure it on what they say or what the words are. We’ll have to see the results, we’ll have to see the deed-words are not a substitute for deeds.”
That was then. Today, Ross says, “Good statecraft requires reality-based, not faith-based assessment. It cannot be based on ideology or what you think you want, you have to deal with facts on the ground. The Bush administration uses a world view informed by ideology detached from reality. If we want to dig ourselves out of the quagmire, whoever is elected as president will have to go back to reality-based assessments. You don’t have to lose your ambition. You can change the reality—but only if you understand it.”
By JF NJS
It’s not the usual Sunday night program at a suburban temple, but then Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes — the direct descendant of the old Barnert Temple in Paterson — has always understood Holocaust survivors. Congregants were holding doing Holocaust commemorations long before they became common — more than 30 years ago.
From left in Barnert Temple’s sanctuary are Jacqueline Murekatete, Lillian Gewirtzman, and David Gewirtzman.
On Sunday night they took the commemoration of Kristallnacht — an anti-Jewish riot in German on Nov. 9-10, 1938 — to the next level. Lynn Kaston, of the Advisory Board, read an article in The Jewish Standard in March 2005 about an extraordinary duo. These complete opposites were making the rounds of schools to teach kids not to hate each other and that genocide is unconscionable. They had both survived genocide. Everything else was as different as can be. So Kaston brought them to speak to the students at her local public school in Kinnelon. They made such a deep impression on the school community, she then brought pair to the attention of Sara Losch, the temple’s director of Jewish life and educational director. Kaston and Losch felt that these two people would make this year’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration an unforgettable one.
They were right. David Gewirtzman, a 78-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor, lives in Riverdale, N.Y. He does what many Holocaust survivors have done. He talks about his experiences during the Holocaust to kids in schools around New York City and its suburbs. This was not easy for him to do. It took him a very long time to learn how to do it without breaking down, but he felt compelled to keep the promise he made to those left behind. He suffered from severe survivor guilt, but continued his work, doing it alone, for 10 long, painful years.
One day in 2001, soon after Sept. 11, he spoke in a high school classroom in Queens, and as usual, received a batch of letters from the students a few days later. But in this pile was a letter from Jacqueline Murekatete, a 16-year-old girl, that knocked him for a loop. She wrote, in part: “A few times I have asked myself if there are two races in the world, human beings and human-like beings…. I can’t seem to understand why [some] human beings [can] commit such evil and others would never imagine such a thing…. I have myself … gone through such experiences as you had. In 1994, there was genocide in my country Rwanda…. My ethnic group was the victim of genocide…. I myself ended up losing my family, my parents, all my brothers and sisters … numerous relatives…. At one time, I … like you had the feeling of guilt for being alive…. Why was I left?… I never really got an answer to that, but now I am grateful that I was left. Maybe I can make a difference in this world if I try, and maybe I can do my part in making sure that no other human being goes through the same experiences I did….”
The two decided to meet for a short lunch that ended up taking eight hours, and since then, they have been inseparable on the speaking circuit, sharing their compelling stories with anyone who would listen. They are on a mutual mission to change the world.
He is, as Gewirtzman says, an old, white Jewish man from Poland, a man who came to America, earned a college degree, and became a successful pharmacist, rebuilding his family and his way of life. He’s short, and sort of round, with a sense of humor and an engaging manner. She is young and black, tall and beautiful, thin and graceful, a senior at NYU who is thinking of studying law. They tell their harrowing, painful, personal testimonies, and though there are kids scattered in the audience of about 60 people, for two hours, everyone remains rapt, almost unmoving, until the close, a plea for people to speak out about the genocide in Darfur. They were given a standing ovation. They deserved it. The question is, what happens next?
As the young girl wrote to the old man: “The most important lesson I learned from you was that as human beings we face an ugly disease — hate; and the only weapon we have against it is education. I will try my best to use this weapon in fighting this terrible disease.” This mission, they tell us, is not theirs alone to carry out. We must join them in their quest for what they are doing to make a difference.
By JF NJS
Women saved Moses from certain death. Without Moses, there would have been no Exodus (no Exodus, no Sinai; no Sinai, no Judaism). Yet in the traditional Haggadah, these women are ignored.-
To rectify that omission, modern Jewish women will honor these heroines, and other outstanding Jewish women, at the annual JCC on the Palisades Women’s Seder on March 20.
Dr. Vivian Kanig, founder of the Jewish Women’s Agenda and one of the “Four Cups” honorees at this year’s Seder, founded the service eight years ago with Leah Richter, chair of the JCC’s Jewish Women’s Connection, following the success of Ma’ayan’s Women’s Seders in Manhattan.
Since the 1970s, the Jewish feminist movement has been struggling with the Passover story and the Seder. Many women have created rituals — notably, the Cup of Miriam ceremony and text additions — to bring important women-to the fore.-
Women’s Seders, initially greeted with skepticism, have evolved over the years. They are traditionally celebrated two weeks before the actual holiday, so as not to interfere with preparations at home.
In a traditional Seder, the only line in the service that refers to women appears in the story of the Four Sons, where it says, “Aht psach lo.” “You (feminine) must teach him,” meaning that a mother must teach her children about both Judaism and the Passover story.
According to Women’s Seder organizers, a woman’s place at the Seder table today is what she makes it, and it can be enhanced by adopting rituals that incorporate the role of women in Jewish history into her own family’s traditions.
The intent of the Jewish Women’s Connection is to bring women — excluded from the text — back to life at the Women’s Seder.
Says Richter, “[Women] are not adjuncts to Jewish history: They are key players who have been ignored, and they deserve their place in the spotlight.”
Richter asks, “How many women have heard of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Batya? All of them had important parts to play, so we decided to provide a venue in northern New Jersey where women could take part in their own seder to learn about these women and special rituals. It gives them a chance to incorporate what they like into their own family traditions.”
Each participant in the Women’s Seder will receive the newly revised Women’s Haggadah, edited by Phyllis Gordon-Brecker, Judy Chessler, Harriet Cohen, June Kane, and Toby Lubin Shifre — along with Richter and Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Cong. Sha’ar in Tenafly, who will lead the Seder. Other women have been chosen to read specific sections of the service, and each of the traditional four cups of wine has been assigned to an honoree.
Says Lewittes, “When our women gather, we are there to learn about our own experiences and history and to seek ways to use that to bring healing and redemption to ourselves, our families, and the world around us. This is an opportunity for the women to go beyond themselves and the borders that normally confine them spiritually, and it inspires [them] to see themselves as agents of change and hope.”
This year’s honorees are Dr. Vivian Kanig, a founder of the JCC’s Women’s Seder; Barbara Berman Dobkin and Eve Landau of Ma’ayan, who will share one of the four cups; the late Betty Friedan, and Ruth Warshauer, a founder of-Jewish Women’s Agenda.
The first Women’s Seder at the JCC in Tenafly attracted 150 women and was co-sponsored by the local branch of the National Council of Jewish Women.- By the third year, there were 300 participants. Now the numbers have dropped, because, as Richter explains, “Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery.”-
The organizers are thrilled that women in different communities across the area have created other venues where they, too, can learn about women’s seminal roles in the Passover story. NCJW continues to co-sponsor the Seder in Tenafly and now also co-sponsors a seder at the JCC in Washington Township.
The myth of the Seder orange
One thing you will not see on the Seder plate at the Women’s Seder at the JCC is an orange.- The by-now-apocryphal story goes something like this: A woman (ostensibly Susannah Herschel, the Jewish feminist and scholar) was speaking from the bima (pulpit) in a synagogue, when a man shouted, “A woman belongs on a bima like an orange belongs on a Seder plate.”
Wanting to add feminist rituals to the family tradition, years ago,-I called Dr. Herschel and asked about the story behind the orange. What she told me was a very different tale.
She had once been invited to a lesbian Seder at Oberlin College. There, the women placed a bread crust on the Seder plate to describe their exclusion from-the mainstream,-an act-Herschel-found unacceptable. But it got her thinking about the different, marginalized people and the “varying-groups”- who comprise the Jewish nation. In particular, she thought about widows and divorcees who are rarely invited to-lifecycle events and major Jewish holiday get-togethers, like the Seder service. She realized that the Jewish nation is like an orange, with many sections creating the whole. That’s when she began putting an orange on her Seder plate.
The explanation of “many creating the whole” is offered, and the orange is broken up, blessed (using “borey pri ha etz” — Creator of the fruit of the tree), and distributed just before the main meal, after the “koreych,” the sandwich of bitter herbs, is served.