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9 stories that defined our Jewish year in 2023 before Oct. 7

(JTA) — On Oct. 6, JTA led its morning newsletter with an article that had long been in the works — and that we expected to drive conversation in the days ahead: It was a profile of a Jewish dad in Florida who had pushed to ban hundreds of books — including Anne Frank’s diary — from school libraries. 

The ongoing saga of book bans in school libraries, and how they ensnared works about the Holocaust and other Jewish topics, is a story our reporter Andrew Lapin, and JTA more broadly, had focused on all year. For much of 2023, book bans seemed like one of the topics that would define American Jewish life this year.

Then Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack happened, plunging Israel into war and upending life not only there but for Jews in the United States and across the world. For the past 10 weeks, nearly everything we have covered at JTA — from advocacy for Israeli hostages to antisemitism to discourse on college campuses — has related back in some way to the Oct. 7 attack and the Israel-Hamas war. 

In the wake of that cataclysm, it sometimes feels like everything else American Jews once thought and talked about has taken a backseat. But before the Hamas attack, there were important and complex topics that occupied and characterized Jewish life this year — not least an(other) upheaval in Israel. 

Here are nine stories that defined our year before Oct. 7. 

Protesters at the summit of Moms For Liberty, the “parents’ rights” group behind many book challenges across the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 30, 2023. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images))

A campaign spreads to ban books, including Jewish ones, from school libraries

The book ban movement, driven by conservative “parents’ rights” groups such as Moms for Liberty, wasn’t only a Jewish issue: Activists largely sought to ban books about race and gender, claiming that they were inappropriate for children. But those campaigns, sometimes targeting large numbers of books at once, often swept up Jewish books in their dragnet.

One book that faced challenges in multiple school districts — some of them successful — was a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary. The Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” was also hit with challenges. One of the most prolific participants in the book ban movement was that Florida Jewish dad. 

More generally, some American Jews felt that the book ban movement built on a tradition of censorship that has often boded poorly for the Jews. And even when the bans didn’t target Jewish books, Jews were sometimes implicated: A Florida mom who tried to ban an Amanda Gorman poem had also promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She apologized

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

A seismic fight erupts in Israel over the judicial system

Before October, if you asked what the most important Israeli news story of 2023 was, this was the answer, hands down. At the beginning of the year, Israel’s brand-new, hardline right-wing government unveiled a plan to sap the Supreme Court of its power and independence, a plan proponents said would enable the government to enact the agenda of its conservative voters. 

The plan sparked an unprecedented protest movement — drawing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the street who condemned the overhaul as a danger to Israeli democracy. What followed was civil unrest, mass threats by reservists to abstain from military service, a raft of warnings and criticism from world leaders and Diaspora Jewish groups alike, and fruitless negotiations between Israel’s sparring political parties. 

In July, the government pushed through one piece of the plan, limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions. That led to a fresh wave of protests, and anticipation across the country and beyond regarding what else the government would legislate. Lawmakers were set to reconvene after the Jewish holidays ended with Simchat Torah — which fell on Oct. 7.

The Joseph Weis federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, June 27, 2023. (Ron Kampeas)

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter is tried and sentenced to death

In 2018, a violent attack on Jews shocked the country and the world. In the spring of 2023, the man who killed 11 Jews at prayer in a Pittsburgh synagogue stood trial, was convicted and sentenced to death. 

The shooter’s guilt was never in question; his lawyer admitted as much. But the course of the trial revealed gruesome details about the attack and — for jurors and others — served as a primer of sorts on American Jews and how they see their place in the United States. And in Squirrel Hill, the historically Jewish neighborhood where the shooting occurred, residents contended with fears of retraumatization and leaned on each other to heal. 

The shooter’s lawyers did fight hard to spare him the death penalty. Families of victims and survivors also disagreed over the punishment. But following a months-long trial, the jury handed down a death sentence in August.

Under Elon Musk, the social media platform X has been at the center of several antisemitism-related controversies. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images/Design by Mollie Suss)

Elon Musk’s handling of hate speech on Twitter/X raises alarms

Elon Musk, the billionaire tech mogul, bought Twitter in 2022. And over the course of 2023, his shifting approach to hate speech, including the removal of some of the platform’s guardrails, alternately enraged, concerned and confounded Jewish watchdogs and others. 

As the year progressed, Musk’s personal pronouncements about Jews began to draw criticism. In May, he posted that George Soros, the liberal megadonor and frequent target of antisemitism, “hates humanity.” He later turned his sights on the Anti-Defamation League, threatening to sue it for billions of dollars and blaming it for rising antisemitism. 

This particular story has continued post-Oct. 7. Musk has taken steps to combat anti-Israel rhetoric on the platform, now called X. He visited Israel and toured sites of the massacre. But he also amplified an endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, leading major advertisers to stop their spending on the platform. 

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt during the opening night curtain call for “Parade” at New York City Center, Nov. 1, 2022. (Bruce Glikas/WireImage/GettyImages)

A trio of antisemitism-themed shows run on Broadway

For a few days this year, Broadway fans keen on seeing antisemitism portrayed on stage could go to three shows on the topic.

The musical “Parade,” about the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, opened in March. The play “Leopoldstadt,” a semi-autobiographical work by Tom Stoppard about his Jewish family in Vienna in the years surrounding the Holocaust, opened in October 2022 and ran through July. And “Just for Us,” a one-man show by Jewish comedian Alex Edelman about the time he attended a meeting of white supremacists, opened in June. 

All three received positive reviews, and “Leopoldstadt” and “Parade” won a total of six Tonys in June. And “Parade” wasn’t immune from antisemitism: Neo-Nazis protested at its previews.

Christie’s international head of jewelry Rahul Kadakia presents an item from the collection of Heidi Horten ahead of auction in Geneva, Switzerland, May 8, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Christie’s faces blowback for auctioning jewelry with Nazi ties

Christie’s, the auction house, achieved a record sale when it put a jewelry collection belonging to Austrian art collector Heidi Horten on the block. But the auction house also faced a wave of blowback from critics who said it obscured the source of the wealth that purchased the jewelry: Helmut Horten, Heidi’s husband and a Nazi Party member who made his fortune from businesses seized from their Jewish owners. 

Christie’s pledged to donate a portion of the proceeds to Holocaust research and education, but organizations and institutions devoted to Holocaust memory castigated the auction house, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art called off an event about art restitution that had been organized by Christie’s. In August, Christie’s canceled a planned second auction of the jewelry.

Bradley Cooper is shown as Leonard Bernstein in the trailer for Netflix’s “Maestro.” (Screenshot from YouTube)

‘Maestro,’ the Leonard Bernstein biopic, reignites a debate over ‘Jewface’

Controversy over the prosthetic nose Bradley Cooper wore in his biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein began last year, when promotional shots of the movie circulated. But the debate ramped up this year when the first trailer for “Maestro” hit screens ahead of its December premiere. 

Was it antisemitic for a non-Jew to put on an elongated nose for a Jewish role? Should non-Jews play Jewish characters at all — a practice some call “Jewface?” Those questions sparked numerous takes online and beyond, but petered out after the ADL and Bernstein’s family said they had no objections to the movie, which began streaming on Netflix this week. The makeup artist of “Maestro” apologized anyway

Jewish institutions have faced bomb threats delivered remotely, through email and online contact forms. (Flickr Commons)

Synagogues face a string of fake bomb threats

Before reports of rising antisemitism began to dominate the headlines, synagogues across the United States were hit with dozens of bomb threats. All of them were fake, seemingly designed to provoke a police response. Some of the perpetrators targeted synagogues that live streamed their services, such that the congregation could be seen on screen fleeing their pews. 

This is not the first time waves of fake bomb threats have hit Jewish institutions, and suspects have been arrested for the incidents, but they have continued throughout the year. One weekend in December, hundreds of synagogues across the country got false bomb threats. 

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) poses prior to a working lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Presidential Palace, June 16, 2023. (Chesnot/Getty Images)

Israel and Saudi Arabia move toward a treaty

One major news story from this year that is now in limbo: prospects for a diplomatic accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Before Oct. 7, the Biden administration was pushing for the two countries to normalize relations — a step that would signify significant warming between Israel and the Arab world and that would transform regional relations in the Middle East. It would be a major coup for Israel, which had already established ties with four other Arab nations in recent years. 

There appeared to be progress toward a treaty, and the outlines of a deal had been proposed. But what will happen next on that front is unclear: After Oct. 7, Saudi Arabia put the talks on hold

The post 9 stories that defined our Jewish year in 2023 before Oct. 7 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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