Even after nearly a decade, the still-surprising success and readers’ continuing adulation of the award-winning 2010 memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes (historian and ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s reflections on a long-past world, and his search for his own Jewish family, the Ephrussis, wealthy aesthetes and art patrons steeped in the literary and visual culture of late 19th c. Paris and Vienna) is at least partly responsible for his high visibility in the art world.
This is a very good thing for those who know at first glance that de Waal’s reputation is well-deserved. Through his groupings of pottery, housed in beautiful vitrines of his own design, as well as site-specific installations intended to interact with the environment or its purpose as a library, chapel, concert hall or gallery, multi-leveled layers of meaning emerge. In these, the pottery whose dimpled imperfections, subdued monochrome color and minimal shapes—referencing his grasp of Oriental decorative arts and philosophy – are transformed, becoming vessels of suggestion, that impress and move.
A great-grandson of the Ephrussi patriarch, the banker and financier Viktor, grandchild of English novelist Elizabeth Ephrussi, and the son of an Anglican clergyman, de Waal has inherited his ancestors’ rarefied taste and passion for Japanese art and crafts—embodied by the exquisite little carved hare in the now famous family collection of 264 netsuke, ivory and wood figures that adorn the kimono sash or obi.
Despite tremendous wealth, assimilation and erudition, the Ephrussis could not escape from the continually escalating cloud of anti-Semitism which enveloped Europe from the turn of the 19th century. In 1938, its Viennese home, the Ephrussi Palace, with its books, furniture and art, was seized by the Nazis, while the family scattered to all continents, losing awareness of its past. It was “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” that brought them together again.
And what of the netsukes? Hidden by a servant, the collection survived intact through the war. As a student in Japan, the young De Wall saw them displayed in the home of his uncle Iggie, who had settled in Tokyo, and who would bequeath them to the young man.
Complimenting the 2019 museum installations of de Waal’s own work in Madrid, Venice, New York, Berlin and Dresden—all touching on the themes of exile and immigration—will be the display of 157 of the netsukes themselves, as part of the exhibition called “The Ephrussis: Travel in Time” at Vienna’s Jewish Museum through March 8, 2020, opened last month by Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, and attended by 41 Ephrussi family members. The show’s contents focus on selections from the donation made to the museum last year by Mr. de Waal and includes archival documents, photos and souvenirs.
Another highly desirable acquisition has just been made in America, by the University of Texas at Austin’s amazing Ransom Center, whose holdings now include the complete archive of 20th century master, playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005), author of such classics as “Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons” and “The Crucible,” works that changed the course of the American theater. Despite their settings, either in the post-World War II era or in a time that calls up the pressing issues of the 1940s and 50s, younger audiences can still identify with their themes of generational conflict, and the moral imperative that must be adhered to—even by the most ordinary of people.
Along with prior gifts from Miller himself, this now-unified 300 box collection of his personal and professional papers is considered the primary record for research and study into his life and work, from his earliest writing as a son of poor immigrants at the University of Michigan to the drafts and scripts for his last theater works, including materials which have not been previously known or examined. Its dovetailing with the subject matter of dozens of other Ransom archival collections enhances the university’s reputation as one of the foremost institutions for the study of theater history in general, and 20th century American drama in particular.
When my grandfather was 91, my parents sat him down and broached the idea of him giving up his car keys. As you can imagine, that idea was not met with a lot of enthusiasm. However, my parents felt that because of his physical limitations, safety required him to stop driving. After a long discussion and a lot of convincing, he handed over the keys. I bring this story up because I recently learned our country arguably has more safeguards in place that govern who can drive a vehicle than those that govern who can own a firearm. Obviously, the purpose of this blog is not to advocate for the confiscation of guns from all people, but to discuss when conditions like dementia make gun ownership amongst our older American population a deadly problem.
So, how much of an issue is firearm ownership amongst seniors around the country? The Pew Research Center reported 45 percent of seniors live in a household with a firearm, and the United States Census Bureau indicated that 4.3 million seniors have dementia. Also, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that in 2016, about 8,200 older Americans (65+) committed suicide. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, amongst men in this age group who committed suicide, three quarters of them used a gun. Dr. Yeates Conwell, a psychiatrist and director of the Office for Aging at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, said, “Suicide risk is elevated in people with dementia.”
In 2018, Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour studied aging Americans, dementia and gun ownership. While there is no formal office which keeps records on this matter, the investigation was able to study over 100 instances in the United States since 2012, where someone with dementia killed themselves or someone else with assistance of a firearm. Often, the shooter suffered from confusion, paranoia, delusion or aggression, frequently associated with dementia. Regrettably, their victims were the people closest to them, including caretakers, spouses and children.
For instance, according to the report, Larry Dillon of West Virginia, upon turning 65, started exhibiting several signs of concerning behavior such as being frightened of intruders entering and burning down his house. In addition, Dillon went to bed at night with a 9 mm semiautomatic Glock pistol in his nightstand. Consequently, Dillon’s daughter made an appointment with a neurologist. However, it was unfortunately too late. One night, Dillon heard what he thought were people breaking into the house, so he took his Glock and fired bullets into the room where his wife and granddaughter were watching television. Sadly, his wife died, and his granddaughter has experienced horrific trauma witnessing the event. After a medical examination, a diagnosis revealed that Dillon had Lewy body dementia, which manifested itself in warning signs like vivid visual hallucinations.
Statistics and stories like these have caused the American Medication Association to declare gun violence a public health crisis! They have called for common sense reforms like banning assault style weapons and removing guns from those people who pose a high risk for violence.
Fortunately, seventeen states have passed red flag laws, which allow the government to be more proactive to ensure that firearms are not in the possession of individuals who are determined by the court to be a risk to themselves or other people. Many times, the court is alerted to concerning behavior because of friends or family of the individual. Recently, red flag laws having been gaining traction throughout the country, with 12 states having passed legislation since the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Obviously, further action is desperately required. Presently, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have advocated for a federal red flag law that would provide financial resources to states that choose to implement the policy. However, predictably, this legislation, along with countless other gun control efforts, has stalled, with the White House and too many members of Congress woefully neglecting their responsibilities by failing to pass common sense gun violence laws. Until the federal government can govern on this matter, I hope the remaining 33 states pass their own red flag statutes to curb the epidemic of gun violence.
What makes the federal government’s inaction on this matter even more disappointing is that there is overwhelming public support. In 2017, the Pew Research Center indicated that 89 percent of the United States supports regulating firearm purchases to people with mental illnesses. Politically, this sounds like a slam dunk. However, to the surprise of nobody, we still don’t have red flag laws on the books that govern the entire country.
So what’s the holdup? For starters, gun advocate groups have been a major roadblock to responsible gun safety legislation. These groups argue that red flag laws allow the government to take away firearms from citizens who have yet to commit a crime. Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour reported that Dr. Arthur Przebinda from the group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership “balks at any formal assessment of firearm use among people with dementia, saying it could lead to “a totalitarian system that decides when you can have rights and when you cannot.”
Dr. Przebinda is taking an absolutist stance on a law which could save lives. Exactly what is his argument? Everyone can own a gun? I hope everyone accepts that young children shouldn’t own guns because they don’t have the appropriate cognitive abilities. So why would we accept adults with limited cognitive abilities be allowed to own a gun? It’s absurd to argue that we should wait for people to die before taking proactive measures regarding an individual’s firearms, if they show clear signs of dangerous behavior. Let me be clear, I am not arguing for the confiscation of everyone’s guns. I am advocating for a process which respects due process and gets firearms out of the hands of someone the government believes doesn’t have the mental capacity to own a gun. Is that such an unreasonable position? Taken one step further, I can’t falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre because it puts people’s safety into danger, so why should someone who exhibits behavior that threatens themselves or other people be allowed to own a gun? I will take my chances we won’t spiral into a totalitarian government.
Florida is one of the states which has enacted red flag laws and Kendra Parris, a local attorney, has represented individuals in court who are at risk of losing their guns. Parris told the Pew Charitable Trust in regard to due process and red flag laws, “Rather than find clear and convincing evidence, [courts are] basically saying, ‘Better safe than sorry.” I find Parris’ observations fantastic news! No gun owner should lose their property without due process. However, let’s neutralize any potential danger, and then the court can rule on the matter. Around 40,000 people die a year from gun violence. I can sleep at night having the court securing everyone’s safety and applying due process second.
Organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) have argued that households that have firearms and people with dementia can safely secure their gun with trigger locks and gun safes. However, the Alzheimer’s Association believes the NRA’s recommendations don’t go far enough, because people with dementia will still believe they are in danger and look for ways to crack safety precautions. The organization suggests the best way to protect your family is to not have the gun in your home.
So in the absence of further laws, what can people do? Well, the good news is that there is momentum in the medical community to help stop gun deaths. In 2017, after the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead, over 1,300 health care providers promised to start talking with their patients about guns when certain risk factors are identified. In addition, the Veterans Health Administration and Alzheimer’s Association both suggest asking about firearms when evaluating a patient for dementia. However, the medical community has been too limited for years because the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was basically unable to do gun violence research. Regarding the past twenty years, Giffords: The Courage to Fight Gun Violence’s (an organization led by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords) website states, “In 1996 Congress took away dedicated federal funding for gun violence research from the CDC. For more than 20 years, federal investment in gun violence research has remained virtually absent at the nation’s primary health protection agency, despite gun deaths increasing for the past three years in a row to levels not seen in decades.” Fortunately, Congress, in the last government spending bill, finally appropriated $25 million to study gun violence.
As we look to the future, the University of Colorado School of Medicine predicts by 2050, 8 to 12 million people will live in the U.S. who suffer from dementia and own a gun. As a country, we can’t be afraid to pass basic common sense gun violence legislation that could save countless lives. Congress and the White House must find the political courage to stand up to outside influences that believe common sense gun reform legislation is by definition against the Second Amendment. Until that day, hopefully, the individual states can lead the charge to ensure a safer America.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
The reaction was both peremptory and predictable: Critics of Israeli and U.S. policies firmly snapped back against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that the U.S. no longer views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal.
“The European Union’s position on Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and remains unchanged,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said. “All settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace, as reaffirmed by U.N. Security Council resolution 2334.”
“Another blatantly ideological attempt by the Trump administration to distract from its failures in the region,” tweeted Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading Presidential candidate. “Not only do these settlements violate international law — they make peace harder to achieve.”
“Egypt is committed to the resolutions of international legitimacy on the status of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, being illegal and inconsistent with the international law,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry declared.
One hundred and seven House Democrats wrote a letter to Pompeo to express their “strong disagreement with the State Department’s decision to reverse decades of bipartisan U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank by repudiating the 1978 State Department legal opinion that civilian settlements in the occupied territories are ‘inconsistent with international law.’”
In many cases, critics of the shift in U.S. policy cited their support for a two-state solution as an alternative to the State Department’s new position. “As President, I will reverse this policy and pursue a two-state solution,” Warren said, while the German Foreign Office intoned, “The construction of settlements is in the federal government’s opinion illegal, undermines the peace process, and complicates talks on a two-state solution.”
What is the basis for presuming that Israeli settlements in some parts of the West Bank are antithetical to the peace process? It would seem that the stigmatization of the word “settlement” has much to do with this position, as “settlements” have come to be associated with dark notions of colonial occupation, perhaps even racism.
But Israeli communities in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem are not illegal, as Secretary Pompeo has affirmed. According to Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, the U.N. cannot transfer any part of the former Mandate for Palestine, which was dedicated at the 1920 San Remo Peace Conference for the creation of a future Jewish state. Furthermore, Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the Oslo agreement’s Declaration of Principles established that a land for peace deal must be based on direct negotiation between the parties – one that would determine territorial boundaries that might not strictly adhere to the 1967 lines.
The Ottoman Empire, which governed Palestine, dissolved after World War I. Since a Palestinian state has never existed and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem ended with the Six Day War, the status of those territories is clearly disputed until negotiations have resolved outstanding questions about sovereignty.
But critics of the Pompeo announcement seemingly would prefer to prejudge the outcome of those negotiations. By declaring Israeli settlements illegal, these voices are stigmatizing any Israeli presence in disputed territories as somehow acquired through evil or at least improper means, as opposed to through a defensive war. This sinister characterization of Israel’s predicament, which would forever deem Israeli settlements illegitimate, underlies the suspect claim that the State Department’s new position is at odds with the two-state solution.
This argument does not hold up, though. Serious negotiations must take place in the realm of fact, not ideological fantasy. Israel has a credible legal and historical claim for inhabiting at least part of the territories.
Furthermore, the primary obstacle to Middle East peace is widespread rejection of Israel’s right to exist. When Israel’s critics accept the obvious reality that some settlements will remain in place in the wake of a final peace agreement and that those communities are not the main roadblock to peace, a two-state solution will become more likely, not less.
The rhetorical war on Israeli settlements has fueled anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel boycotts for years. Tragically, it has also become a major impediment to peace.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
In April 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, was beaten and thrown out the window of her building in Paris in a shocking anti-Semitic murder. The suspect claimed insanity and was hospitalized. For a long time, French authorities refused to recognize the anti-Semitic nature of the attack. They were eventually forced to do so by a court ruling later in 2018.
Looking back, the Halimi case seems to be the first of a long series of abhorrent anti-Semitic attacks that were covered extensively in the media and gave expression to the 74 percent statistical rise in anti-Semitic incidents from one year to the next reported by French police.
In March 2018, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed 11 times in her home in Paris by two neighbors. In February 2019, 96 graves in a Jewish cemetery in the town of Quatzenheim, north-east France, were desecrated and covered in swastikas. Just days later, a monument at the site of the Old Synagogue of Strasbourg, which was burned down by Nazis, was itself destroyed. The yellow-vest protests, initially working-class protests against rising fuel taxes, became a repository of anti-Semitic sentiment from across the political and ideological spectrum, bargaining in globalist conspiracies and financial domination tropes. As recently as a few days ago, on Dec. 3, in Westhoffen, Alsace, more than 100 graves in the Jewish cemetery were defaced and covered with swastikas.
These chilling incidents did not pass without public outcry and strong declarations by leading political figures, public protests and marches of solidarity - comforting signs for a Jewish community seriously contemplating leaving France.
Yet there seemed to be a manifest reluctance toward taking one of the most basic steps in the fight against this blooming hatred: defining the problem. More precisely, there seemed to be no traction in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, the gold standard in the field. So obscure was this idea that even the Jewish community did little by way of demanding the definition be adopted.
I submit that three main unspoken arguments hid behind this reluctance: the freedom of speech argument, a perceived competition of victimhood and the omnipresent concerns about Israel-speak.
The freedom of speech argument. In the country of some of history’s greatest thinkers, in a place that arguably fetishizes debate and deliberation, any sniff of the stifling of freedom of speech is viewed with much skepticism. To answer this criticism, one must emphasize that the working definition is a legally non-binding tool that allows us to have an informed discussion about what constitutes anti-Semitism. It does not ban one from speaking in anti-Semitic terms; it merely helps us identify and flag the speech as such.
The perceived competition of victimhood. “If we adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism, each minority community will demand the same,” goes the argument. On one hand, to this one must say: Yes, we must strive to understand each form of discrimination thoroughly, in all its complexity. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the difficult situation that France’s political leadership finds itself in. The country is home to the EU’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations as well as many other large minority groups - ethnic, religious and otherwise.
The Nov. 10 March Against Islamophobia highlights a worrying competition of victimhood: photos surfaced of Muslim activists wearing yellow stars, suggesting the circumstances of Muslims in France today are equatable to those of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. A bewildering implication, but one that highlights real sentiments among large swaths of France’s population. However, such pervasive realities make the definition - and, generally, action against anti-Semitism - all the more necessary.
The right to criticize Israel argument. Of course, one of the most prevalent arguments used against the IHRA definition is a concern with limitations on criticizing Israel. Now, the definition clearly outlines the following instances related to Israel as being anti-Semitic:
Thus, as much as the definition curtails demonization of Israel, it in fact takes explicit steps to ensure criticism of Israel may be leveled.
Alas, in the midst of escalating anti-Semitic incidents, on the Feb. 20, 2019, at the annual dinner of the CRIF - the federation of French Jewish organizations, President Emmanuel Macron had little choice but to announce that his government would adopt the definition. Months later, MP Sylvain Maillard submitted a piece of legislation that had the definition as a centerpiece (however, without its important examples made explicit) in front of the National Assembly, the French Parliament. The review of his proposal was postponed multiple times and eventually put to a vote on Dec. 3. Ahead of the vote, a broad campaign against the proposal surfaced on the Internet, brochures making the case against the IHRA definition emerged and there was real concern the proposal wouldn’t pass.
Fortunately, it has since been voted for - with a solid majority. Now, France has an important and absolutely necessary tool in its portfolio to tackle anti-Semitism. It shouldn’t have taken so long, it shouldn’t have been so hard, but the effort was certainly worth it.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
There is an official Random Acts of Kindness Day celebrated every February. The concept has also found a home during the “season of giving,” so whether you choose to observe on the official day, (February 17, 2020) or when it works for you, we encourage you to connect these acts with B'nai B'rith. Our organization has a long history of bringing acts of kindness to the world and initiating new ideas. There are hundreds of ideas about what one can do to be part of this initiative, as individuals and as a group. It can be just one thing you do, or it can become a tradition. You can do it alone, with your family and with a B’nai B’rith group.
A new film about Fred Rogers turns a spotlight on his life teaching generations about kindness. He said, "There are many ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind. A similar thought has been attributed to the novelist Henry James, who said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” An eight-year-old girl has written a book called “BE KIND, Silly: A Child’s Quest for a Kinder World” to combat bullying. A young man who lost his life to mental illness is remembered by his family with an organization and award in his name called Matt’s Kindness Ripples On.
Kindness has its roots in the Torah, as many of the deeds of our forefathers and mothers stressed their acts of kindness for others. Kindness is also emphasized in Perke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers. It tells us that the world is upheld by three things - Torah, Service and Gemilut Chassadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).
At B'nai B'rith, we can say that most everything we do is because it is the right and kind thing to do. Our founders based their mission on kindness for widows and orphans, providing for their financial needs. We offer kindness, community and a home to senior citizens via B'nai B'rith housing. We support the people of Israel as they deal with daily attacks against their country. We join with our fellow community members to stand up against hatred and violence against others by providing disaster funds to support projects that help the community heal. Our community service programs are daily, weekly or annual events filled with kindness. Volunteers bring breakfast to children in schools and shelters in the Greater San Fernando Valley in California. Hundreds of families receive Passover food each year to help them celebrate the holiday, recognizing that without this project, they could not provide this for themselves. We bring assistance to people who are dealing with devastation and destruction due to natural or man-made disasters. We are on the scene when it counts, at the time of a disaster and long after it has occurred during the recovery and rebuilding stages.
The kindness meter in B'nai B'rith heats up during Christmas, when volunteers make sure that workers or volunteers who want to be home with their families can do so because a B'nai B'rith volunteer is stepping in for them that day. It has also become a time to thank community workers serving in VA hospitals and the veterans who are receiving care in these facilities. We bring teddy bears to children who need a loveable hug to help them face difficult situations. Volunteers collect and deliver books, clothing and household goods in their communities and support food banks and schools with the donations.
Do we need a day to remind us to be kind? Looking at the wide assortment of service events in the B'nai B'rith community, we can say that we remind ourselves of this every day of the year. But sometimes, it is nice to point out something we take for granted. This year at the B'nai B'rith Leadership Forum, International President Charles Kaufman instituted a President's Award for individuals who went above and beyond in their efforts to provide leadership and service. Of the thirty awards presented, more than half were for volunteers who make community service programming a reality.
Kindness Day can be a time for those who may have been thinking about getting involved to help make something happen in their community. Lodges and units can support these efforts by providing the link individuals are looking for something meaningful to do and funding for the project.
So yes, we need to remind ourselves and others that B'nai B'rith has kindness at its core. It confirms that kindness is the way to ultimate success and doing something important. Come get started and be kind with us.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai B'rith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. Rhonda has served on the B'nai B'rith International staff for 41 years. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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