Located in the Marais District in Paris, le Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme houses a superb collection of periodicals, photos, graphics and other materials connected to the Dreyfus Affair, which is remembered as critical to modern Jewish history, and as having a pivotal impact on Theodor Herzl—formerly an advocate for assimilation—and his intense desire to create a Jewish homeland. The museum has recently acquired a collection of 200 illustrations by journalist and artist Maurice Feuillet depicting the proceedings at the trial of Emile Zola in 1898, and at Dreyfus’ second court-martial in 1899.
An observant Jew and patriotic Army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of selling secrets to Germany after a sham trial in which witnesses lied and forged documents were submitted as evidence. In egalitarian France, his supposed crime opened the floodgates of hatred for the Jews as an ethnic group, revealed in the thousands of caricatures, anti-Semitic editorials and even board games preserved today. Two years later the real traitor was identified, leading to novelist Emile Zola’s open letter to the president of France, published on the front page of the journal L’Aurore in 1898. In it, he accused specific individuals in the French government of subverting the truth. Subjected to death threats and mob violence, Zola was tried and convicted for insulting authority. Dreyfus was pardoned and released from confinement on Devil’s Island after his second trial in 1899, but he was not exonerated until 1906.
A sampling of Feuillet’s sketches reveals his sources in Japanese art. With an economy of line, the young artist assigned to cover the trials conveys the stoicism of the physically deteriorated Captain Dreyfus, now ill and emotionally spent from his five-year imprisonment and the shame he had suffered. Her back to the viewer, Mrs. Dreyfus is rendered in profile, dignified and perfectly attired in a dark shirtwaist and plumed hat. At his 1898 trial, Zola glares at a man who is perhaps the prosecuting attorney. His expression defiant, the writer adopts a posture that may have been disrespectful in a court of law at that time, one leg crossed over the other. It is not difficult to discern that Feuillet was in sympathy with the innocent man and those who were fighting for justice.
It’s satisfying to learn that elsewhere in Europe, plans are going ahead to mount exhibits that were cancelled due to the pandemic. At London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, “Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty,” which was to have been on view in 2020, has been rescheduled and can now be seen from May through November of this year. A survey of the artist’s woodcuts, the show is comprised of art loaned from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
As Elizabeth Smith, the Foundation’s director, has commented: “The extensive survey of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts is an exciting opportunity to introduce the artist’s printmaking to U.K. audiences through works from our collection. It will continue to advance the understanding and appreciation of her ground-breaking contributions to art.”
Celebrated for her lyrical interpretation of Abstract Expressionism and her impact on the New York and Washington Color Field School, Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928, and studied art at Bennington College. After she was discovered by influential critic Clement Greenberg early in her career, she became a star and exhibited her large-scale paintings widely. Referencing the methods of first-generation Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, her process involved pouring and dripping that resulted in an entirely different, lyrical effect, produced by the thinning of the paint absorbed by the raw canvas and her use of a wide range of translucent tonalities.
Later, Frankenthaler would expand her medium, even applying the juicy residue of crushed berries on the surface of the canvas.
Mounted a decade after her death in 2011, the Dulwich installation will shine a light on the artist’s constantly evolving style and experimental methods through its focus on her large-scale, fluid and painterly woodcuts, executed from the 1970s on. Employing innovative processes and unconventional tools, Frankenthaler continued to draw inspiration from the aesthetics of Japan. A number of the woodcuts in the installation—including the room-sized “Madame Butterfly” (2000), produced in collaboration with Tyler Graphics artist Kenneth Tyler and woodblock print specialist Yasuyuki Shibata—represent a fusion of American and Japanese printmaking methods.
A recent New York Times Sunday section asked readers to describe the year 2020 in one word. It is tempting to use some negative ones, but I would like to use that question and describe B’nai B’rith’s community service agenda in 2020. The word is PEOPLE.
There are four groups that are represented in this one-word description. The first group is the people who need assistance. They may be a vulnerable population – children, single parent families or seniors. They may be a living in a place that is experiencing something particularly difficult, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or a natural disaster that occurred in their community. The second group is the people who are dedicated volunteers who carry out the projects that B’nai B’rith brings to the first group. These volunteers involve others to join them in delivering what people need. This group often works with the third group of people. This third group runs agencies and other organizations that work in a community. They become B’nai B’rith’s partner with boots-on-the-ground and experts who can deal with the situation faced by the first group. And finally, the last group is the people who make it all possible. This group is comprised of the individuals who contribute the funds used to purchase tangible items or pay for the services that are provided to the first group. It is also what keeps the physical locations within B’nai B’rith’s structure staffed and running, and what makes all of this possible.
The B’nai B’rith Disaster and Emergency Fund is a perfect example of this process in action. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, needs were addressed by the people who can help them utilizing the funds to make it all possible. A great example is the distribution of COVID kits containing a cloth face mask and hand sanitizer. Three thousand kits are being distributed across the U.S.; made possible by all of the people you see mentioned above.
The same can be said for the B’nai B’rith Center for Community Action. One program held in December has a story to share. Pinch Hitters, a Christmas-Day program carried out by members of the Achim/Gate City Lodge, has been a mainstay of the Atlanta community for nearly 40 years. It was recognized by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 as the 335th Point of Light award.
But what happens when volunteers and visitors cannot go into the locations that have been the usual places of service because of the pandemic? They get creative and seek out a way to fulfill their annual mitzvah. Volunteers worked with the Center for Community Action and the B’nai B’rith Communications Department to assemble talented people who recorded themselves performing songs or dances to share with us. These recordings became a two-hour video to be shared with the residents and patients of the facilities that had been visited in the past by B’nai B’rith volunteers. The video also shares an important message to the workers at these locations at this time. It is a huge thank-you to the staff of these locations who are not just essential workers—they are exceptional and always appreciated, especially now.
We learned that there are so many people who want to help others. This included young people, and a 96-year-old resident in a B’nai B’rith’s Senior Housing location and a staff member of the management office who arranged to record her at her piano keyboard. We heard from a member of the Achim/Gate City group who has been providing piano concerts for friends on Facebook since the pandemic began who offered to share his mini-concerts for this video. The Shalva Band from Israel allowed us to use a song that was shared at a recent award ceremony at the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. A runner-up in the first AEPi Talent Show submitted a clip of his guitar performance.
These are just a few of the 25 presentations that you can enjoy in the video. While many selections are holiday treats for Chanukah and Christmas, there are also love songs, cool jazz, salutes to the U.S.of A and interpretive dance. With the world continuing to face dark times until we see the end of this pandemic, we do not have to just enjoy this during the winter holiday season. It is a treasure to enjoy all year. You can watch the video here.
Please enjoy and share with others to show that PEOPLE are what B’nai B’rith is all about.
2020 has been a trying year. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll – in human life, in economic terms, in the functioning of society and in frayed nerves. The impact has been universal, if unequal. Our hearts go out particularly to those who have suffered, and lost, the most.
While the swift emergence of not only one but multiple vaccines effective at combating the coronavirus represents a substantial source of hope – and a scientific marvel – all signs indicate that months will pass before the treatment is very widely accessible, and during these months thousands more may yet die. Despite that threat, fatigue over restrictions meant to contain the pandemic have too many – from virtually every demographic group – relaxing or outright refusing to abide by precautions that grate on all of us. Some people, perhaps given pause by the very speed of the new vaccinations’ development, will hesitate to accept inoculation once possible.
Highly religious communities – by their nature placing a premium on congregating for prayer and other rites, on tradition uninterrupted and on faith – have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to resisting the perceived dictates of secular authorities. Certain religious groups, including Catholics and fervently observant Jews, have gone to court to fight, of late successfully, against curbs on gatherings for prayer. National media have shown some hassidic Jews continuing to gather in large numbers for weddings, schooling and eminent rabbis’ funerals. These episodes, though not reflecting the entirety of a large and diverse population – and not necessarily implying the absence of any health precautions – do indicate a suspicion of anti-religious (or specifically anti-Jewish) tendencies by some in government. This outlook is the product of long and difficult historical experience, and is also borne of a sense that in some places gyms and bars have been subjected to less scrutiny and regulation than synagogues and other places of worship.
Of course, ultimately nothing can condone reckless behavior that endangers the collective well-being. Scenes of fundamentalists – of whatever stripe – completely flouting public health guidance are deplorable.
But what does Judaism itself have to say about exceptional circumstances like those we have confronted over the past year?
While undoubtedly committing the fate of human beings to God – and charging human beings with reaching out to God and with bettering their treatment of fellow creatures in the divine image – the Torah says “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” (Deut. 4), commanding: “and you shall guard your souls exceedingly.” It further says, of keeping God’s ordinances, “v’chai bahem” (Lev. 18), that “you shall live by them” – not perish by them. Additionally, relates Deuteronomy (chap. 30), “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is “not in the heavens,” but is to be observed within earthly realities.
Accordingly, rabbinic tradition has held that “pikuach nefesh docheh et kol haTorah kula,” that saving a life takes precedence over nearly all other obligations in Judaism; indeed, if a Sabbath must be violated by first responders to prevent death, or if medical experts require a patient not to fast on Yom Kippur for the same reason, doing so is not only allowed but mandatory. After all, the Ten Commandments themselves include “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20) – and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4) says that “anyone who destroys a life, it is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, while anyone who sustains a life, it is considered as if he has sustained an entire world.”
Preserving life, then, is a most elemental of Jewish religious duties – a righteous deed that is prerequisite for all the rest. “I have set before you life and death... And you shall choose life,” states Deuteronomy.
Of relevance, the Talmud also repeatedly makes clear that “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law: when official regulations are established, they demand compliance. And Jews are called upon to be paragons of rectitude – for their public trespasses create “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, while their acting justly represents “kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of God’s name.
And not least, Jews are instructed to choose “darchei shalom,” paths conducive to peace among people. The Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina (Berachot 64a), “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” The sage Hillel famously taught (Avot 1), “Be among the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love humanity and bring them closer to the Torah.”
Life, and observing dueling commitments within its confines, involves complexity. Virtually all action involves some sort of risk, and it is for competent decisors to provide guidance on navigating tension of the kind that will periodically surface between religious commitments and civic commitments, let alone between religious commitments and the call to “choose life.” What is clear, though, is that for all the importance of communal religious practice – and in a community-centered people, places and acts of public worship are indeed vital – saving lives and preserving societal harmony are also critically important religious imperatives.
Believers, who discern God’s hand even in dark times, must work to see God’s hand in solutions to plight as well. And they must strive to be active partners in enabling these solutions to bring their healing.
As a Jewish European, last week’s ruling to by the European Court of Justice to allow member states to impose restrictions on ritual slaughter was personal.
I say that as a secular Jew, one who does not eat kosher meat. I was raised in Eastern Europe, in Romania, where Communism nearly obliterated what was left of Jewish life after the Shoah. I was one of those Jews, who like many in the region had Christmas trees alongside their Chanukkiah. My parents – as their parents – are not well versed in Jewish liturgy. Our home – while deeply embracing our Jewish identity, was empty of regular Jewish practice.
Yet, Jewish religious freedom is personal to me; it’s personal to all Jews. We know the history of suffering and indignities that our ancestors have endured to preserve that freedom. And we know the richness of thought and culture, of philosophy and tradition that has stemmed and continues to stem out of Judaism, binding Jews of all stripes together worldwide, and shaping, without a shadow of doubt, the European ethos – it’s values and principles, as we know them today.
I, like most Jewish Europeans, love Europe. This is not merely anecdotal. Multiple surveys of Jewish Europeans confirm this attachment, which is often greater than that of non-Jewish Europeans. And how could that not be so? Post-WWII Europe is founded on a promise to safeguard Jewish life and to celebrate it as part of European life; a promise to nurture pluralism and diversity; a promise to protect fundamental freedoms. That is a Europe that the dwindling Jewish community after the war decided to embrace – that was our home, and in this new Europe we could bring forth a Jewish renaissance.
That is why today’s ruling bore down so heavily. The ruling grants EU countries the right to require further restrictions on religious slaughter of animals, a core tenant of Judaism – one that has animal welfare at its core. It comes on the back of a prior ruling in Belgium, that granted such restrictions, balancing religious freedom and animal safety and favoring the latter. Today’s ruling though, had to deal with another balancing act: this time, religious freedom was weighed against the member states rights and jurisdiction. This ruling too favored the latter. It went against the recommendations made by the Advocate General (AG) to the ECJ, that such a ruling would be a disproportionate infringement of fundamental rights. In both cases, the fundamental right to freedom of religion had a negligible weight.
At best, the decision shows an utter lack of understanding and empathy for the essential place that the preservation of certain religious laws – such as ritual slaughter – occupies in one’s religious expression, in one’s faith and sense of self, in one’s communal affiliation and feeling of belonging and of course, in the collective identity and manifestation of a community. At worst, it is a not-too-subtle message: “You don’t belong”, to Jewish as well as Muslim communities throughout Europe – ergo, to millions of Europeans.
The feeling I have today is one I’ve had too often – disappointment, otherness, frustration. Yet it is nothing compared to what practicing religious Jews are experiencing today. For them, Jewish life is, as of today, effectively limited. Families may choose to relocate. Their sense of safety in society will undoubtably be diminished.
Just the other week, the Council of the European Union produced a unanimous declaration reaffirming states’ commitment to safeguarding Jewish life in Europe. It’s worth repeating part of it here:
Judaism and Jewish life have contributed considerably to shaping European identity and enriching Europe’s cultural, intellectual and religious heritage. We are grateful that 75 years after the Holocaust, Jewish life, in all its diversity, is deeply rooted and thriving again in Europe. It is our permanent, shared responsibility to actively protect and support Jewish life.
If the Court of Justice ruling is to stand alongside the above declaration – we need a new framework for religious freedom in the EU.
Read Director of EU Affairs Alina Bricman's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
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.
When I was a youngster, and the subject came around to the Holocaust, my mother told me about receiving letters from her relatives in Lithuania, beseeching the family in America to bring them to the U.S., as the Nazis and their collaborators tightened their grip on Jews in the Baltics.
This troubled my mother to no end, as the family had no connections, political or otherwise, that could have saved an uncle, aunts, and numerous cousins living in places like Vilna, Musnik, and Boguslavisic. That frustration must have preyed on her mind, always wondering if she could have done something to extricate the family from the jaws of extermination.
About 13 years ago, one of my sisters told me that her china closet had tipped over and in the process of the drawers falling out, revealed a packet on which was written, in my grandfather’s handwriting: “Inside My Sister’s Letter,” and under that, my mother had written: “Take Care of This.”
I took the packet thinking that finally, after many decades, these were the letters with the heartbreaking appeal to be saved from the fate they must have known awaited them. I looked at the one envelope in the packet, and saw that it was postmarked April 3, 1935, too early for our relatives to have concluded that the end was near.
Immediately I had the letters—one from my grandfather’s brother, one from his wife and another from my grandfather’s half-sister—translated from the handwritten Yiddish to English. The translator was the late Herman Taube, a survivor from Poland, who became a poet and writer, and a fellow congregant at my synagogue near Washington, D.C.
The content of the letters was similar. Family news from Lithuania, and questions about the family in America, written in that loving way before the ease of long-distance telephone calls. Speaking to my mother, my great-uncle Shlomo Yitzchak Berzak writes:
“Dear Rose, by looking on the pictures, we understand the psychology of all of you, we can see your interest in social life activities, even with strangers…I myself, who is close to you all, love you dearly, no distance, no power in the world can separate us.”
My great-uncle goes to write about his health, and promises that his daughter Chanele “will write to you, she is very busy, she writes that she received from you a gift and pictures and that she will write to you the latest news.”
He closes the letter with: “If you, dear Rose, will send us flowers from your garden, we will enjoy with great pleasure. Their scent will give us the aroma of the Garden of Eden.”
And this, from Shlomo Yitzchak’s wife, Etel, to her sister-in-law, my grandmother Shifra: “May the Almighty bless you and Avraham-Yona (my grandfather) with good health and joy from your children, good hearted and G-d fearing, as we can see from Rose’s writing.”
These few letters are all we have of what must have been a decades-long correspondence. My grandfather arrived in America at the very end of the 19th century, and brought over my grandmother, my eldest uncle and my mother in 1903.
Though touching, there is nothing especially unusual about these letters, with their inquiries about each other’s health and well -being, and expressions of familial love in both directions. We assume there must have been correspondence after this, but we do know that nothing further was heard from Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, or Alta Sarah after 1941, when they, and all of their family members, were rounded up and shot by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
Reading these letters now, the longing to reunite is all the more heartbreaking, knowing it was not to be. Wrote Alta Sarah to my grandfather, his half-sister:
“I hardly remember how you look…but I still remember and miss you all very much, we desire how you look now…only G-d knows if you can (make the effort) to come and visit us. Now, our only consolation are letters, to know you are all in good health and read the good news about you and your family.”
As time passes, now 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, those who deny that it ever happened are seen and heard all over the internet. As the number of survivors who experienced and witnessed Nazi Germany’s singular barbarity decreases by the day, Holocaust denial, minimalization, and trivialization increasingly goes unanswered, a victim of fading memories and “anything goes” comment on social media platforms.
Indeed, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s flip-flop, after agreeing to delete expressions of Holocaust denial, was a classic example of 1984-speak. Said Dorsey, in response to a question from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado): “It’s (Holocaust denial) misleading information. But we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”
The First Amendment is many things, but it should not stop a leading social media platform from denying its space to those who would rob us of our history, and who would actively enable deniers to promote outright lies about history’s most brutal crimes; crimes which occurred in the memory of tens of thousands of survivor witnesses who are still with us today.
When I entered the Jewish communal field in the 1970s, Holocaust denial in the United States was in the hands of people like Arthur Butz, an engineering professor who wrote “the Hoax of the Twentieth Century; the Institute of Historical Review (IHR, on whose Board Butz sat); and from Willis Carto, founder of the far-right Liberty Lobby (and a founder of the IHR). Their message of denial was of deep cause for concern, but—without the internet megaphone we have today—their voices produced a loyal but somewhat limited following.
Holocaust denial today comes in all shapes and forms: from the Left, the Right, Islamists, and social media freelancers. A good deal of it emanates from Iran, which—not content to call only for Israel’s destruction on a daily basis—also seeks to mock the destruction of European Jewry.
The regime in Tehran conducted an annual cartoon contest, whose objective was to lampoon the Holocaust. One of the winners featured an old fashioned cash register, with the number 6,000,000 rung up, a cash draw on which was written “Shoah Business,” and a key to open the register, festooned with a Star of David—on which was written “B’nai B’rith.”
Holocaust denial ironically brings together the extremes of the political spectrum. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported gatherings of former Labor Party members and known far-right figures who traffic in anti-Israel tropes and Holocaust revisionism. “Storybook gas chambers,” is how one convener of these gatherings described the death camps. Another participant professed that there were no deaths in Auschwitz.
In Germany—of all places—one of the leaders of the ultra-nationalist AfD Party, famously referred to the period of rule during the Third Reich as but “a speck of bird poop.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral dissertation, written in the Soviet Union, minimizes the extent of the Holocaust and charged Zionist organizations with encouraging it. Nearly 40 years after writing this, Abbas still dabbles in denialist and revisionist rhetoric, including a speech in 2018 in which he charged Jewish “social behavior,” and not anti-Semitism, as being the cause of the Holocaust.
There is a perfect storm brewing of Holocaust denial and Holocaust ignorance. The Conference on Materials Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) 2020 survey points to some frightening, but not surprising statistics: 48% of U.S. millennials and Gen Z-ers were unable to name a single concentration camp. 63% did not know how many Jews were killed; 36% thought the number was fewer than 2 million. And, perhaps most disconcerting, is that 11% of those polled believe Jews themselves were responsible for the Holocaust.
If these young people come to Holocaust history tabula rasa, then will they learn that history from the internet, where deniers and minimizers lurk around every corner? The Claims Conference survey is the lastest wake-up call to act while we still can, and while there are still survivors with tattoos on their arms to attest to the fact that “I was there.”
Good for those who go on the March of the Living to see the sites of the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, or those Jewish schools which offer similar trips to graduating seniors. But what about our public schools? To date, only 15 states require that Holocaust education be a part of their public school curricula.
And what about Europe, where these very crimes were committed and which is experiencing a dramatic spike in anti-Semitism? The need for public-sponsored Holocaust education is as evident here as anywhere. Even though many European countries are members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which commits its members to teaching about the Holocaust, adherence to this pledge varies from place to place. Kudos to those countries that have appointed special envoys to combat anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. But more countries need to do the same. And a growing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany and Romania have adopted legislation that makes Holocaust denial a crime, and here too, more should do so.
The problem also exists in the Islamic world, where in many countries young people are taught that the Holocaust is a myth perpetrated by Zionists playing on international sympathy in order to wrest land from the Palestinians. Much credit goes to the Secretary General of the Muslim World League Muhammad Abdul-Karim al-Isa, who led a groundbreaking visit of Islamic leaders to Auschwitz-Birkenau this year on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. The value of such initiatives cannot be overestimated.
The passage of time and the fading of memory is our most daunting challenge. That, and the willingness to believe that such a horrendous period ever happened. For their own nefarious reasons, anti-Semites of all stripes have found common cause, and sick satisfaction from turning history on its ear, and tormenting us by perpetuating the charge that this was all a myth.
Eighty-five years ago, Shlomo Yitzchak, Etel, and Alta Sarah Berzak wrote about their lives, about things that were the most important to them; health issues, news about the family, the hope that they would one day meet up with my grandfather and my mother and continue the conversation in person.
We know their lives were brutally ended, along with six million other Jews, in the blink of an eye. No more letters, no more expressions of love and good wishes, no more exchanges of photos.
To perniciously dismiss their demise by declaring it never happened, is simply unacceptable. These Jews were abandoned once, with such tragic consequences. We must not let it happen a second time, while there is still an opportunity to do all we can to honor their memory and defeat those who would rob it from us.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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