Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History – Book Review

Image: Political Cartoon: “USA to Russian Tsar: Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews, 1904.” Chromolithograph. Public Domain in the U.S. 

In April, 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in the small city of Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in the Pale of Settlement section of the Russian Empire. 600 Jews were raped or wounded, and over 1000 homes and businesses were ransacked.

Unlike previous such incidents (which have precedents going all the way back to the First Crusade and before) this time the Western press mobilized public opinion against the Russian Empire for allowing the carnage. Hearst Newspapers carried one lurid photo after another. Reporters and Jewish relief workers mobilized to document what had happened and to help the survivors. The political cartoon above is a rather mild example of the coverage.

Stephen J. Zipperstein has written a gripping and fascinating account of the events leading up to the pogrom and its aftermath. It had a cacophony of effects that would echo through the 20th century and beyond.

What do the founding of the NAACP, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rise of Zionism, the “New Jew,” and the Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter” have in common?  It’s Kishinev.

If you think you already know all about Kishinev, you probably don’t. If you think you know who write the Protocols, you might be surprised. If you are dreading an account of violence and gore, know that Zipperstien is more interested in causes and effects than in a salacious or bloody-minded account of the matter.

This book gave me a great deal to think about, especially about the power of publicity and its unintended outcomes. I heartily recommend it.


A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.


The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

10 Ways to Identify Fake News

Image: David Mikkelson and Ari Ratner address a breakout group at the ADL conference in San Francisco, 11/13/17. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is the last of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Finally I attended a presentation titled “Misinformation and the Battle for Truth.”

David Mikkelson is the founder of Snopes.com, the oldest internet fact checker.
Ari Ratner moderated.

Mikkelson was very interesting, partly because he has such a long tenure with the issue of misinformation online. He has been operating Snopes.com since 1994.

In the beginning, he said, most of the questions they got were had to do with hoaxes and urban legends. Since 2008 misinformation online has become highly politicised. There are also issues of people putting out misinformation for profit, since fake news is cheap and viral.

According to Mikkelson, the economics are fairly simple. Posting on social media is free. Revenues are generated by advertising on the sites themselves. The purveyors of this stuff look for “grabby” pictures and clickable headlines. Bots are cheap. One profitable strategy is to pit groups of people against one another: they all click and click and click, the angrier they get.

After the election, he said, we began to realize the “fake news” phenomenon. The president leaped onto the usage of the term and unfortunately has rendered it almost meaningless.

Someone asked about personal attacks Mittleman has received. He said most of those have been “mostly misinformed.”  One memorable case was that of Hal Turner, a white nationalist radio host. He claimed that a secret North American Union (a “one world” entity) was secretly issuing currency. He spent a lot of time on the radio talking about how the “owners of Snopes are helping their rich Jew pals deceiving.” He said that everyone in fact-checking gets some of this; what he didn’t say was how many of those other firms are thought of as Jewish.

Currently, he said, there’s less overt anti-Semitism online, but that the hate is more towards immigrants, Mexicans, Syrian refugees, etc.

He talked about the need to educate ourselves in fact-checking, and especially for young people to be helped to understand how they can do this for themselves. Some suggestions:

  1. Use fact checking websites like Snopes.com.
  2. Look at the site where the material appears. What are their sources? Search on the writers’ names and see what else they’ve done.
  3. Keep an eye out for websites that mimic the respectable news sites, such as BBC, ABC, etc. Some fake news sites use design to boost believability.
  4. Watch for indications that someone is paying to publish. Always look for possible bias. Sponsored content must be evaluated as such.
  5. The more outrageous information is, the less likely that it is true. Keep checking.
  6. Does this source (the website, etc.) have a particular political bent? Are all their articles from the same point of view?
  7. Do the facts in the article match the headline? Headlines sometimes are clickbait and the article says no such thing.
  8. If studies are cited, who paid for those? How reputable are they?
  9. Watch for confirmation bias. We are inclined to believe things that match with the opinions we already have. Anyone can fall into the trap of believing something because it appeals to them. WHY do I want to believe a particular item?
  10. Finally, beware the lure of “secret knowledge.” It’s very exciting to have secret information. But if it is all lies, that’s a problem.

He said that at the platform level, some companies are taking steps. Still on a basic level.  (This matched my impression of the presentations from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube earlier in the day.) He said that the platforms don’t want to limit what users see.

Someone asked about what other countries are doing.

Mikkelson said that in Europe they take legislative approach that wouldn’t work in the U.S. because of Constitutional issues. For instance,  Facebook can be fined for not getting hate stuff down fast enough. He pointed out that the global aspect of this is part of what complicates solutions.

Someone asked about “sponsored news” and his comment was that “at least they are telling you it was paid for.” Funding media is a huge challenge.

He pointed out that there is a difference between fact checkers and journalists. One of the strategies used by the oil companies in the Standing Rock conflict last year was that they sponsored “fact checking sites” that were strongly biased in favor of the oil companies. So always look at the sources: who is paying?


“Anti-Semitism on Campus in the Bay Area”

Image: A panel of experts discuss issues of anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, 11/13/17)

This is a continuation of a series of my notes from the “Never is Now” conference hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.

Next there was a panel talking about anti-Semitism on campus, specifically at San Francisco State University.   The situation there has been particularly difficult lately (see this article from the J Weekly for more about the specifics.) The panel was composed of Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies at SFSU, Ollie Bern, Director of the San Francisco Hillel, and Abigail Michaelson Porth, Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council. Each of them came to the issue with a different point of view, although all were in basic agreement on the problems.  Seth Brysk, the Central Pacific Regional Director of the ADL was the moderator.

The panel talked about the differences between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-normalization. The latter is a tricky concept; here’s a Jewish point of view on it and a pro-Palestinian point of view on it. I don’t feel qualified to explain it myself at this point.

Marc Dollinger spoke at length about his belief that the University should be a place where we engage with ideas. He was clear that while he sympathizes with students who feel upset, it is also important for them to learn to listen to new ideas and to develop and articulate their own thinking.

Ollie Been was eloquent about the challenges, that no student should be required to have a particular point of view in order to participate in university discussions. He also told us that at least one professor of ethics at SFSU has argued for the exclusion of Hillel from campus life, since it is a Jewish organization.

Abigail Michaelson Perth talked about the response of the Jewish community in our area, specifically the decision to invest in SFSU. Jewish foundations have funded programs of many kinds on the campus, not just the Jewish Studies Department. She expressed her frustration at the way that support of the university was received, as evidence of undue influence:  “We feel dismissed and our students disrespected.”  Marc Dollinger pointed out that the community support has been critical for Jewish faculty, staff, and students.

Panelists noted that other Bay Area campuses have handled similar conflicts quite differently. Ms Michaelson Perth pointed out that there are examples of best practices at many of the University of California campuses – not at all hard to find. The situation at SFSU is therefore particularly frustrating.

Ollie Been expressed concern for both populations of the students, the marginalized Jewish students, and the Palestinian students as well. Both are very small minorities on campus. He spoke about the need to build relationships with other communities. Allyship has to be genuine.  Building relationships is hard work and must be sincere and ongoing. We have to teach students how to do this and mirror in larger J community. WE have to show up for others.

Seth Brysk mentioned a resource on the ADL.org site: Think. Plan. Act. It’s a set of tools for dealing with anti-Semitism on campus.

There was a question from the floor about potential students. Dr. Dollinger was candid that SFSU can be a shock to sheltered Jewish students. However, he pointed out that it is an opportunity to engage with people who have had different experiences. For the right student, it can still be a worthwhile experience.

Ms Michaelson Perth said that while it is important for the Jewish community to continue to be involved at SFSU, we should also recognize that it isn’t for everyone. And for the Jewish community at large, we have to make choices about continuing to invest in a campus that is so hostile.

Ollie Been said that anti-Semitism is everywhere. SF Hillel is there for the students. It’s important not to over-dramatize the situation. It is possible to fight BDS without invoking Hitler. He also advocated for a student-centered approach to activism on campus.

Marc Dollinger recounted an incident that inspired him. He said that the current Hillel students are smart, brave, and intelligent. At one meeting, the University President said that Zionists are not welcome on the campus. An undergraduate challenged him immediately and asked him to define Zionism, and then engaged with him about his definition.

There was a lot more, all of it thought provoking.


“No Platform for Hate” – A Tech Panel

Image: Nellie Bowles of the New York Times interviews a panel including Melissa Tidwell of Reddit, Juniper Downs of YouTube, and Monika Bikert of Facebook. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar, taken in San Francisco on 11/13/17) 

I know if I wait to rewrite this, I’m not going to get around to posting it. Therefore what you are getting are my slightly-edited notes from the ADL Conference “Never is Now” which I attended in San Francisco yesterday. This is the first of three posts.

Jonathan Greenblatt gave the keynote.

Nellie Bowles from the New York Times interviewed a panel of representatives from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube. Fascinating stuff, beginning with the fact that gradually dawned on me: all of them are attorneys, judging from their bios.  All chose their words carefully, and talked about what the companies have done to rein in hate speech on their platforms.

Unfortunately, the answers all came out sounding to me like “not as much as one might hope.” It’s clear to me that the profit motive is alive and well in Silicon Valley and tends to crowd out other concerns. Ms. Bowles kept pressing them with different versions of the question, “Are you going to hire editorial staff to make judgments about the stuff that goes up, and its provenance?” and the answer was always, “Let me tell you about this cool tech thing we are doing.” Unfortunately, that’s where they’d lose me. Either I couldn’t follow enough of what they were talking about, or they really haven’t made all that much headway in dealing with these difficult issues.

On the other hand, it was great to see a panel all made up of powerful, intelligent women, and I did feel they personally take the issues very seriously.

The ADL announced the establishment of a new Center for Technology and Society to combat the growing problem of hate speech and harassment online. Funded by the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. I think this is a very promising development.

(More about the conference in my next post.)




Responding to Hate in 5778

Image: Members of the Temple Sinai Community write messages of love and New Year’s wishes on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

How was your Rosh Hashanah?

Linda and I watched services at our congregation online for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew from experience that the seats would not work well for me, and we had an aliyah to the Torah the next morning. I love the flexibility that the online service gives us for managing such things.

The next morning, I woke to an email from the staff, titled: “Graffiti on our building”:

Shanah Tovah.

We received a call early this morning that someone wrote anti-Semitic slurs on the side of our building. The police have been contacted and we will have security on the premise. The graffiti will be covered when everyone arrives for services this morning.

While this is surely upsetting, this will not define our experience of coming together as a community today. Our strength and resilience will sound through our voices in song and prayer.

The graffiti will be covered with paper. We invite members of the community to write words of love and friendship as guiding lights for the coming year.

May this be the year that peace comes to our world.

Whoa! Not what we wanted for the new year, that’s for sure. Still, I marveled at the creativity of the solution. Instead of allowing the graffiti to stay visible, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin chose to cover it with paper and then encouraged us to cover it with blessings.

This response was possible in a Reform setting. Cutting paper, hanging paper, and writing would all be problematic in a halakhic setting, but it certainly was a satisfying way for us to “talk back” to the person or persons who had done this. It also gave us a chance to model before our city that we choose love over hate.

Our responses included everything from “Shalom!” in a heart to “Go A’s!” (the local baseball team.) During services, painters came to cover the graffiti, and staff moved the paper indoors to the meeting hall. We painted over the bad and kept the good.

In case you are wondering what was written on the wall: it was ugly, it was obscene, and it was baldly anti-Semitic. Those words were written with the intent of terrifying us, of spoiling our joy in the New Year. We are choosing as a community not to focus on them, not to hold them up, because to do so would be a reward to the person who wrote them. Law enforcement knows what the words said, and an investigation is underway.

I’m happy to report that the police came immediately and stayed watching over us all day. the mayor showed up to support us, and local TV stations broadcast interviews with congregants. We felt loved by the city of Oakland. We did our best, with our graffiti, to love her back.

I teared up multiple times during the service, thinking how many times Jews have said those exact prayers after something dreadful happened. We aren’t the first Jews to pray in a vandalized building. We won’t be the last, alas.

Also, I was aware of the fact that not every religious group gets this treatment. In Charlottesville, the police department rebuffed the Jews who asked for help during the demonstrations this summer. I know that many African Americans have reason to be concerned by a police presence. I know that mosques in the United States face graffiti and much worse on a regular basis.

We are a long way from the ideal still, but I hope for the day when, in the words of President George Washington:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, August, 1790

Washington’s words carry some irony, of course. The enslaved persons on his plantation and elsewhere in the new nation could not “sit in safety” and many of them were “of the stock of Abraham.” Still it is my hope and prayer that just as those words are more true now than they were in 1790, the day will come when they are indeed accomplished.

May the day of peace for all those “of the stock of Abraham” (Jew and Muslim, and spiritually, Christians as well) and for all of every faith community come speedily and soon.  Amen.

Messages from the Jews of Oakland (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

“Never Again!”: Do We Mean It?

Image: Rohingya people at a clinic operated by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). Health clinics operated by the Myanmar government are closed to them. Photo: © EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick., Myanmar/Burma, September 2013.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Wiesel




The Nazi Holocaust.

The Rape of Nanking.

Ukrainian Holodomor (Forced Famine).


Native Americans.

Each of the names above should give every decent person the shivers. Each is an example of genocide. If any of them aren’t familiar to you, click the link to learn.

Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948 defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

One other thing that all genocides seem to have in common is that there are always some people who deny that it is happening or justify it with lies. Later on, they insist that it never happened, no matter how much evidence there is that it did indeed happen.

Right now most of the world seems to be in denial about yet another genocide, one taking place this very moment.

The United Nations human rights chief today lashed out at the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar which has led to more than 300,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, as security forces and local militia reportedly burn villages and shoot civilians.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, noting that the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed since Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. – UN News Centre, 11 Sept 2017

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have had a precarious existence for a long time. They were explicitly excluded from citizenship in Myanmar under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Since then they have been officially stateless. The government of Myanmar justifies this distinction with a claim that they are recent arrivals, illegal aliens. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the 1982 laws “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races”.

For more in-depth information about the Rohingya people, see this article in the Lancet.

The international press has focused on the facts that most Rohingya are of the Muslim faith, and that some Rohingya people have fought back against their oppressors. As has happened in the past to other ethnic groups (Jews and African Americans, for instance) any effort to defend themselves is taken as evidence that they are bad people. If they don’t defend themselves, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and inferiority. This is right out of the genocide playbook.

Racism underlies Burmese attitudes about the Rohingya:

Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese envoy in Hong Kong, hoped to dissuade others from feeling sympathy for the Rohingya. His method for doing this was by revealing his shocking racism. The Rohingya, he said, “are as ugly as ogres” and do not share the “fair and soft” skin of other Burmese ethnic groups.

Therefore, the Burmese consul general concluded, “Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” using the other name for Burma while trotting out his government’s long-standing contention that the Rohingya are interlopers in Burma and don’t deserve citizenship rights.

– from Why Does this Buddhist-majority Nation Hate these Muslims so much? – Washington Post, 2/15/2015

So what can we do, as a people who have vowed that this will “never again” happen to a group of people? Nicole Sganga wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times that covers the best options very well. I urge you to read the article and see what possibilities on that menu are open to you.

For those who worry about the fact that they are Muslim, let me suggest that the surest way to radicalize people is to give them no good options. These people have lived peacefully in Myanmar/Burma for centuries, and the surrounding states don’t want them. Nobody wants them. Compare that to the situation of the Jews in the 1930’s; it is no different.

Some may say that there is enough to worry about here in the United States. There is another assault underway on the availability of healthcare (at this writing, on Sept 18, 2017.) Many of us know and care about people who are threatened by the change in U.S. immigration policy. (At least one of my students is a DREAMer, and I am terribly worried for her – you may also know someone in that category and not be aware of it.) For Jews, there are ongoing worries about Israel.

But this is genocide. This is a deliberate effort to eradicate an entire ethnic group, and to drive any remaining remnant from the place that has been their home for centuries. For any of us who have said “Never again!” this is a situation we cannot ignore.

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This article was amended to add the genocide against Native Americans, thanks to a reader who pointed out my oversight.