Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Though they may not seem like much at first glance, the copse of trees that stands at the top of a hill in Pan Pacific Park is actually a legacy of the summer Olympic games held in Los Angeles in 1984.
More specifically, the scruffy trees were one of the ways the city of Los Angeles and its Jewish community remembered the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympic games in 1972, even as officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prevented that memory from being invoked during the games in Los Angeles.
The trees are a variety known in California as the purple-leafed plum, but two of them have no leaves at all. Five appear to have been planted very recently; of those, four are flanked by tall wooden posts that ensure no lawnmower or young child accidentally bumps up against a tree, which could damage their underdeveloped roots.
But the plaque embedded in the ground among the trees is as clear as the day it was affixed there:
THESE TREES STAND AS A MEMORIAL TO
THE ELEVEN ATHLETES WHO WERE
MURDERED DURING THE XXTH OLYMPIAD
Ignored by visitors and all but forgotten by the city’s Jewish community, the trees were dedicated on June 24, 1984. The IOC did not publicly remember the murdered Israeli athletes during the Los Angeles games, and today, 28 years later, the IOC is still resisting efforts to have an official memorial at the games for the athletes who have come to be known as “The Munich 11.”
An online petition requesting the IOC dedicate a minute of silence to the murdered Israeli athletes at the opening ceremony of the upcoming London Olympic games this year has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The IOC president refused the request earlier this month, according to the New York Times.
Since then, President Barack Obama said on July 19 that he supports the request for a minute of silence to acknowledge the tragedy, which took place 40 years ago. Sportscaster Bob Costas told The Hollywood Reporter that if the IOC did not observe a minute of silence, he would dedicate a minute of silence himself, on the air.
The petition was launched by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, two widows of Israeli athletes killed in 1972, together with the JCC Rockland in New York State. It is only the latest effort by the families of the slain athletes to have a public moment of silence in their relatives’ memories at the Olympic games.
Spitzer began her efforts in advance of the 1976 games in Montreal, according to JTA, and assumed that the IOC would commemorate the murders in some way. Spitzer and Romano traveled to Montreal, where the Jewish community staged a memorial in a synagogue, which was attended by more than 5,000 people. No mention was made of the slain athletes at the Olympics, however.
“Ilana and I kept waiting for the moment when they would still do something,” Spitzer told JTA. “And we were very, very disappointed.”
Eight years later, when Los Angeles hosted the summer games, the IOC’s stance had not changed. According to an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on Aug 2, 1984, Mayor Tom Bradley and the local organizers of the Olympic games held a ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall where a large bronze plaque remembering the Israeli athletes was unveiled.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a Los Angeles City Councilman in 1984, attended the ceremony. According to The Times, 25 Israeli athletes and officials were also present, as were members of the L.A. Jewish community.
“It was a big ceremony, and I kept asking myself why is it here?” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Why isn’t it at the Coliseum?”
The IOC, Yaroslavsky said, had rejected the idea of placing the plaque in the Los Angeles Coliseum’s Court of Honor during the games. It has since be placed there, alongside other commemorative plaques.
No IOC members attended the City Hall ceremony, according to the article in The Times.
Yaroslavsky said that the IOC’s refusal to allow for a minute of silence to be observed at this summer’s games in London is part of a pattern for the organization, going back 40 years. In Munich, after a day of mourning the Israeli athletes, the Olympic games resumed at the insistence of then-IOC President Avery Brundage.
“There’s something about the IOC that has never sat well with me, going back to the 1972 terrorist action in Munich,” Yaroslavsky said.
The petition for a minute of silence in London, posted on the Web site Change.org, is not the only effort being undertaken by the JCC Rockland to remember the 11 athletes. In September 2011, the JCC unveiled what it describes as “the first memorial sculpture in the United States in honor of the Munich 11.”
As for the trees in Pan Pacific Park, according to the plaque, the L.A. chapter of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was responsible for their planting. JNF staff members interviewed for this article couldn’t find any information about the trees in their records, but an article that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on June 21, 1984, days before the trees were planted, included a quote from Sanford Deutsch, the president of the JNF’s local chapter at the time.
“Planting of trees is the symbol of continuity of life through the ages and the rebirth of the land,” Deutsch told The Times. “We shall always remember these heroes for their sacrifice.”
Attempts to contact Deutsch on Thursday were not successful.
Today, although there are 11 purple-leafed plum trees near the plaque, only nine of them are part of the memorial grove, according to Leon Boroditsky, a tree surgeon with the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks’s forestry division. (The two oldest and largest trees—which stand apart from the others by, separated by an asphalt walking path—predate the memorial.) Though the trees can live as long as 150 years, a few of the original trees have died out, Boroditsky said. With help from volunteers associated with the nonprofit group Tree People, the department is replacing the missing trees: Three new trees were planted a few years ago, Boroditsky said, and volunteers planted another new tree last April. Still, two are missing.
“Being a tree in a park is a difficult life,” Boroditsky said, “Not as difficult as a street tree, but it definitely has its challenges, with kids and dogs and soccer players.”
He said he plans to replace the last two trees in the fall, when the weather is better suited for planting.
“We think groves like this are important,” Boroditsky said, “and we want to maintain them to the best of our ability. But our staffing is really low.”
But for now, all eyes are on London. Steve Gold, a former president of the JCC Rockland who chaired the petition campaign, didn’t rule out the possibility that the IOC might change its mind about holding a minute of silence in London this year.
“I believe in miracles,” he said.
Should the IOC stand firm, though, Gold said the London games would not mark the end of Spitzer and Romano’s quest to have the 11 Israeli athletes remembered at the Olympics.
“If the opening ceremony comes and goes without a minute of silence, we’re not stopping,” he said. “We’re going to continue until there’s a minute of silence. There’s a summer games every four years.”
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July 19, 2012 | 12:01 am
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Hundreds of thousands of mourners reportedly attended the funeral of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in Jerusalem on July 18, and across the world, people remembered the eminent Orthodox rabbi who died on Wednedsay at the age of 102.
Rabbi Gershon Bess, the spiritual leader of Kehilas Yaakov in Los Angeles, said he would visit Elyashiv at least once a year, to consult with him on matters of Jewish jurisprudence.
“This is a person that one could ask any halachic question on any topic and get a well-researched answer based on Talmudic and later Responsa,” Bess said on Wednesday. “I don’t believe that there is anyone else in the world at this point now who is able to replace him.”
“Even the greatest rabbinical authorities in the United States would show extreme deference to anything he [Elyashiv] would say,” Bess said. “Nobody but Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was considered as a final decisor on so many issues.”
No plans for a Los Angeles-based memorial have been discussed, Bess said, but he speculated that some kind of public remembrance might take place in the city at some point in the coming days or weeks.
July 11, 2012 | 2:59 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
With Republican leaders predicting a massive shift of Jewish voters away from President Barack Obama this November, a new study shows just how reliably Democratic Jewish voters are.
The study, conducted by Democratic pollsters Mark Mellman and Aaron Strauss with University of Florida professor Kenneth Wald, analyzed exit poll data from 1972-2008 and found that Jews vote for Democrats in far higher numbers than the rest of the electorate. Furthermore, most Jews (57 percent in 2008) identify as Democrats, and many identify as liberals – 45 percent in 2008, far higher than the overall rate among Americans, 22 percent of whom identified as liberals in a Gallup poll taken that year.
The new study (pdf), which was released by the Solomon Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit, comes after months of speculation about the decline in Jewish support for Obama. It also found that Obama only received 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, not the 78 percent that was found by a survey of only Jewish voters and that has been oft-repeated by both supporters and opponents of the President.
In what is perhaps its most significant conclusion, the study found that American Jewish voting in presidential elections can be divided into two distinct eras:
In the first period, from 1972 through 1988, Republican candidates for president attracted between 31 percent and 37 percent of the Jewish vote. In the second period, from 1992 through 2008, the GOP share of the Jewish vote dropped to between 15 percent and 23 percent.
The trend becomes starker still when votes for third-party candidates are excluded. Considering only the Jewish Americans who voted for one of the two major party’s presidential candidates, Republicans got between 31 and 46 percent of Jewish votes in that first period and between 16 and 24 percent in the second one.
What changed, the pollsters conclude, is that the Republican party, “became more strongly influenced by the religious right during the early 1990s.” As “Republican candidates at all levels increasingly aligned themselves with the evangelical community,” they write, Jews and mainline Protestants headed elsewhere.
Will Jews buck this decades-long trend of supporting the Democratic presidential candidate support this year?
In a word: no.
The most recent Gallup poll shows Obama taking 64 percent of Jewish registered voters to Republican Mitt Romney’s 29 percent, according to Politico. Obama’s number is 10 points lower than the 74 percent of Jews who voted for him in 2008, but it’s still in the range of Jews who have voted Democratic in the earlier era, between 1972 and 1988.
Still, as my colleague Shmuel Rosner wrote in a recent blog post, even if this tiny fraction of the American electorate (there are about 6 million Jews in America) won’t have much of an impact on the presidential election in November, “Jews are news.”
And as this study shows, that news happens to be of the “Dog Bites Man” variety.
July 6, 2012 | 3:00 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
In the wake of a German court’s ruling in June that declared nonconsensual religious circumcision to be inflicting “bodily harm” on boys, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center have called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders in the Bundestag to pass legislation declaring the practice legal in Germany.
Circumcision is a central rite for both Jews and Muslims, and the court’s decision provoked criticism from religious and political leaders both in Germany and beyond.
In their letter dated July 5, Hier and Cooper urged Merkel to condemn the ruling and “take immediate legislative steps to guarantee the right of Jews and Muslims to continue to practice their age-old core tradition of circumcision.”
The current controversy began when the District Court of Cologne ruled in a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy who was taken by his parents to a hospital days after his ritual circumcision. The court acquitted the doctor, but ruled that in the future, doctors who carry out circumcisions should be punished, and declared that circumcision “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent,” The Guardian reported.
The decision was met with immediate criticism from Jews and Muslims in Germany and beyond. German politicians and Christian leaders in the country also criticized the decision as infringing upon religious freedom and parental rights. The court’s decision rejected such claims, however, ruling that, “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents.”
Many of the arguments on both sides of this debate will look familiar to anyone who followed the path of an anti-circumcision measure that initially qualified for inclusion on ballots in San Francisco in 2011.
In much the same way as the proposed San Francisco law would have only applied to men under age 18, a law professor involved in the debate over the legal status of religious circumcision in Germany told Reuters that the court’s decision was not an effort to ban religious circumcision, but to prohibit the surgery from being performed on anyone too young to give consent.
Such declarations are unlikely to mollify the concerns of Jews, who traditionally circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life.
By urging the German government to take action legislatively, Hier and Cooper are advocating for one strategy that was employed in 2011 by American lawmakers who passed a law in Sacramento and introduced another in Washington, D.C., that would have stopped the proposed anti-circumcision ballot measure from spreading beyond San Francisco. (The 2011 ballot measure was ultimately struck from the ballot after a court decided that a preexisting California law prohibited cities from regulating such procedures.)
Pointing to news reports that the Jewish Hospital in Berlin had stopped performing circumcisions, even though the Cologne court’s decision might not apply in the German capital, Cooper said that a law could put an end to the newly murky legal status of circumcision.
“One way to clarify this very important social issue is to pass a piece of legislation that specifically says circumcision is legal,” Cooper told The Journal in an interview. “We turn to Chancellor Merkel, really as the most important politician in Germany, to get her to exercise political leadership.”
But if the abortive attempt to outlaw underage male circumcision in a California city provoked strong reactions last year, the current controversy over the court’s binding ruling is stoking passions to an particularly intense degree specifically because it is taking place in Germany.
Calling the ruling “a frontal attack on religious freedom,” Cooper said that laws prohibiting circumcision, like similar legislation prohibiting ritual Jewish slaughter in certain European countries, were “an invitation for Jews to leave.”
“Hell will freeze over before the Jewish people will look for moral leadership from anyone in Germany about how we should exercise our religion,” Cooper said.
June 18, 2012 | 4:38 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Most people learned Apple was unveiling a new version of its operating system, iOS 6, and abandoning the Google mapping software used in earlier versions when Apple CEO Tim Cook made the official announcement on June 11.
But for the cadre of observers who watch the world’s most valuable company’s every move very, very closely, those and other bits of Apple-related news were first reported as much as one month earlier, courtesy of Mark Gurman, an 18-year-old Jewish Angeleno who graduated from Milken Community High School this spring.
Gurman is senior editor for the Web site 9to5Mac.com and in the month leading up to Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), he correctly reported seven separate pieces of news that ended up being announced at that annual event, held earlier this month in San Francisco.
In addition to being first to tip readers off about the new iOS and the change in mapping software, Gurman also reported – accurately, again—that the “Retina” display screen Apple has been using in iPhones since 2010 and iPads since March 2012 would soon be coming to the company’s laptops. Gurman also reported, on June 4, that Siri, the voice assistant first made available on iPhones in late 2011, would be added to iPads equipped with the new operating system. Cook also confirmed that piece of information in his keynote address at WWDC one week later.
Gurman, who is headed to University of Michigan in the fall, may not have written for the Milken paper while he was a student (he was on the Milken Knights robotics team in 9th and 10th grades), but he sounded like a seasoned journalist when he declined to reveal anything about where he gets his information.
“I like to stay away from discussing anything to do with information sourcing,” Gurman wrote in an email to the Journal.
Gurman did mention having seen a demonstration of a siddur (prayer book) app for iPad at WWDC, created by an Orthodox developer and equipped with “novel features” that would allow it to be used without being touched on the Sabbath.
His recent success in cracking open the hermetic world of Apple notwithstanding, Gurman isn’t looking to make a career in journalism. He’s planning to study informatics and computer science at Michigan, and is hoping to transfer to the business school after his first year. And he said he wouldn’t be averse to making the jump from reporter on the outside to Cupertino insider.
“I’d love to work at Apple,” Gurman said.
June 7, 2012 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Just hours after an in-depth Jewish Journal article about Alan Abrams, a rabbi-for-hire who was working as a chaplain when accused of stealing a 96-year-old’s wheelchair, was posted online on June 6, Abrams announced on his blog that he was “tak[ing] leave from the Rabbinate for an unspecified time.”
Abrams, whose extensive history of criminal and civil actions against him was reported by The Journal, explained on his blog that his decision to suspend his rabbinic practice was inspired by a desire to spend more time with his family.
“[F]ulfilling my lifelong dream of serving G-d and the Community as a Rabbi took me away from [my family], if not physically (which it did), but certainly spiritually and emotionally,” Abrams wrote in a post on June 6. The text was also posted on Abrams’ professional website, RabbiAbrams.org.
Abrams, 50, first began calling himself a rabbi in 2009, while he was living in Phoenix, Ariz. He claims to have been ordained privately in Jerusalem, but did not provide the Journal with evidence of this.
Abrams did offer evidence of a certificate of ordination from The Rabbinical Seminary International, a New York-based distance learning program for nondenominational rabbis. The head of that school said Abrams had stolen the certificate, after paying his tuition with a check for $5,000 that bounced.
In 1993, Abrams’ pled no contest to charges of practicing veterinary medicine without a license in Los Angeles and was sentenced to six months in jail. A 2009 case of passing bad checks in Arizona remains open.
As of this morning, Abrams’ website for Mobile Rabbinical Chaplaincy Services, the nonprofit he started in 2011 to support his work with patients and residents in hospitals, nursing homes and other locations, was still accessible online.
May 16, 2012 | 3:01 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
A rabbi based in Southern California who is running for U.S. Senate has come under fire for anti-Islamic comments that were captured on video.
In the video, Rabbi Nachum Shifren, who is known as the “Surfing Rabbi,” was seen telling a cheering audience in San Mateo, “I am an Islamophobe, and everything we need to know about Islam we learned on 9-11.”
Responding to a call from an interfaith coalition led by the California branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA), Republican leaders have since disavowed Shifren’s candidacy.
“Anyone who espouses hatred, we don’t have room for them in our party,” San Mateo County Republican Party Chairman Chuck McDougald told the Forward.
A spokesman for the California Republican Party also disavowed Shifren’s candidacy, the Forward reported.
In his bid for Senate, Shifren is one of more than 20 candidates, including 14 Republicans, attempting to unseat incumbent U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. The California Republican Party endorsed Elizabeth Emken, but under California’s new “top two” system of elections, the two highest vote-getters in the open primary on June 5 will advance to the general election in November.
Shifren does not appear to be mounting much of a campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission website, Shifren’s campaign has not yet declared any financial activity.
Shifren has run for public office at least twice before. He ran for California State Senate in a special election in 2009 and again in 2010.
In support of one or both of those bids, Shifren claimed to have received endorsements from well-known Republican elected officials, including two sitting congressmen and three members of the California State Senate.
On a still-active page of the website from his 2010 campaign for State Senate, Shifren claimed endorsements from Rep. Tom McClintock, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, State Sen. Bob Huff, State Sen. Tony Strickland, Assemblyman Chuck Devore and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovitch.
Other sections of Shifren’s earlier campaign website include language similar to the remarks seen on the recent video.
In a 2009 post, Shifren urged voters to “declare a war to the death on ‘multiculturalism,’” describing it as “nothing but propaganda and inculcating our youth to hate America, while yielding to the forces of Islam and radical activists whose target is middle class America and it’s [sic] values.”
CAIR-CA, Jewish Voice for Peace, Progressive Christians Uniting and Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace released a joint statement condemning Shifren’s comments.
“There should be no place for hate speech of any kind in our nation’s political discourse,” the statement read. “Whenever one faith or ethnicity is targeted by hate, it is our duty as Americans to challenge that hatred and to instead promote mutual understanding and tolerance.”
Jason Aula, director of communications for Shifren’s campaign, rejected the idea that the candidate’s comments constituted hate speech.
“He’s entitled to say what he wants to say,” Aula said.
May 16, 2012 | 12:29 am
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
For anyone who missed the debate on May 15 at UCLA between Reza Aslan and Hussein Ibish over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved by creating a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one or by creating a single bi-national state, here’s the basic report of what went down.
As expected, Aslan argued that the two-state solution is “dead and buried,” and that everyone (the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans and other international bodies) should instead start investing resources and energy to create a single bi-national state with “soft borders.”
Ibish, meanwhile, rejected the idea that the window to create two states for two peoples has closed, and instead held out hope for the possibility that such a conflict-ending resolution could be reached in the region.
While they disagreed about what final resolution to aim for, a careful listener would have realized that Aslan and Ibish agreed on almost everything else about the conflict.
Both scholars assigned blame for the failure of the peace process to many parties, but set the lion’s share of the blame at Israel’s feet. Both Ibish and Aslan saw the Israeli policy of settlement expansion as the primary reason for the failure of the peace process to progress in the nearly 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed. Both acknowledged that, while most Israelis and most Palestinians (and most Americans, for that matter) want to see a two-state solution achieved, the likelihood of it being achieved anytime soon is very slim.
As one student in the audience put it afterward, “They’re on the same page, but they have different views.”
But confronted with the question of how the parties should proceed in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict, the two Muslim scholars parted ways.
“I’m advocating the one-state solution for one simple reason: there is no other solution,” said Aslan, calling the prospect of two states for two peoples “a sham” and “a charade.”
Pointing to the 600,000 Israelis who are currently living beyond the so-called green line that divides pre-1967 Israel from the territories it conquered during the war that year, Aslan argued, in no uncertain terms, that the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank had simply crowded out any possible space for a second state.
“There will never be a Palestinian state,” he said. “Ever. That is the truth.”
Ibish disagreed. “The majority of Israelis are, rather strongly, in favor of two state solution; the majority of Palestinians are in favor of a two-state solution,” he said. “So it’s a question of political will.”
With that political will, Ibish said he believed that the Israelis would dismantle West Bank settlements in order to achieve peace, and cited the examples of Gaza and the Northern West Bank as evidence of their willingness to do so.
“Walls go up and walls come down,” Ibish said.
Throughout the debate, Ibish sounded both hopeful and pragmatic when compared with Aslan, and never more so than when Aslan described the bloody process by which he believed a single, bi-national state could actually come about.
“If you want me to be honest with you,” Aslan said, “I think that what we are going to see is a process through which the demographic balance [between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea] tips into apartheid, ethnic cleansing, until finally you have international mediation that leads to confederacy.”
“If,” Ibish responded, “I wanted to exercise a radical dystopian imaginative leap of that kind, if I wanted to be Hieronymus Bosch of Israel and the Palestinians, sure, I can arrive at your conclusion after all this horror. Well I’m not willing to go there.”
“Even if it turns out you were right,” he continued, “I would be proud to stand here and tell you that I am not going to acquiesce to making that happen.”
Despite falling during the week of mid-terms, about 80 people, most of them students, came to UCLA’s Humanities Building to hear from Aslan and Ibish.
“I think settlements can be overturned and stopped,” Ajwang Rading, a second year political science major, said after the debate. He is taking a course about the Middle East this term, and found Ibish’s argument the more convincing of the two. “It’s hard, but I’m a believer in that option. There is hope that it is possible.”
Benjamin Wu, a second-year student at UCLA studying economics and political science, also recoiled from the one-state solution. “Even though it’s probably more realistic, I thought it was too cynical,” he said. “Whereas Dr. Ibish, I thought he was much more optimistic. At least he was proposing a solution to the problem.”
Tuesday night’s debate was part of the Olive Tree Initiative’s Month of Ideas, and a second panel of Jewish participants will address the same topic on May 29. For more information, go to http://otiatucla.com/month-of-ideas/.