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Bella Abzug documentary aims to restore the Jewish congresswoman’s trailblazing legacy

(JTA) — Bella Abzug, the feminist who burst into Congress battling for equal rights in 1970, was often caricatured in the media of her time. She was labeled “belligerent” and “bellicose Bella” in newspapers, parodied on television and shamed for everything from her body to her Jewishness to her signature wide-brimmed hats.

In just six years as a New York Representative, Abzug demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, wrote legislation to protect the environment and fought discrimination against women, LGBTQ people and Black Americans. But five decades later, her name is far less known than those of some of her peers in the second wave feminist movement — such as journalist Gloria Steinem and “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan.

Jeff L. Lieberman hopes to finally pay her due with his documentary “Bella!,” opening in New York City and Los Angeles theaters on Friday. Lieberman interviewed several women in politics and the arts who credit Abzug with blazing a path for them to follow, even though their names are more famous than hers: Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters are a few of the heavy hitters.

Lieberman started learning about Jewish feminists as a child in Vancouver, Canada — and not only from his mother, who became the family’s earner while his father assumed household duties in the 1980s. Their shelves were lined with books by Jewish feminists such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Anita Diamant. They sang songs by Debbie Friedman and proudly watched Steinem on the news. Yet Abzug’s name was hardly mentioned, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Looking back on it, she should have been this huge Jewish hero for all of us — a Jewish woman in Congress who was really sticking it to the institution,” said Lieberman, whose previous documentaries include “The Amazing Nina Simone” and “Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria.” “Had the press been more fair and less misogynistic, we probably would have known Bella throughout a lot of Jewish households in the ‘80s. But because she was cast as a slightly odd figure, yelling with a hat, we didn’t really know her. ”

Abzug’s Jewish upbringing was central to the development of her progressive politics, according to Leandra Zarnow, who is interviewed in the documentary and wrote “Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug.”

Abzug was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx in July 1920, one month before women won the right to vote. As a child, she was looked after by her grandfather Wolf Taklefsky, an Orthodox Jew who took her to synagogue and loved showing off her aptitude for learning Hebrew.

Hillary Clinton is a featured speaker in “Bella! This Woman’s Place is in The House.” (Courtesy of Re-Emerging Films)

“At the core, Bella Abzug was fueled by a sense of commitment to ‘tikkun olam,’ the idea of repairing the world,” Zarnow told JTA. “All of her elders really instilled in her that she needed to do unto others better than done unto her, so her social justice and her ethical core really were fired by that idea.”

When Abzug was in junior high in the early 1930s, she became involved in Hashomer Hatzair, a Labor Zionist youth movement with the Marxist ideal of a binational Jewish-Arab worker state. At 12 years old, she was already so enraptured by political organizing that she disobeyed her father’s curfew to make her first speeches at New York City subway stops.

“In the 1960s and ‘70s, Bella Abzug is very much an ally to the Black Power movement and other types of ethnic nationalist movements, because of the fact that she came into her politics and her own sense of self-determination through Hashomer Hatzair,” said Zarnow.

Abzug’s father died unexpectedly when she was 13. She decided to say Kaddish for him, a mourning prayer traditionally recited by male children for 11 months after a loved one’s death. Abzug had no male siblings and did not hesitate to take over the prayer every day at the front of her Orthodox synagogue.

“They looked askance at me for doing that,” Abzug said in a recording played in the documentary. “Nobody embraced me, no one said ‘how wonderful’ or helped me. I sort of stood there by myself, isolated… And it was in those early days behind the curtain [separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues] that I probably got my first ideas of feminism.”

Before running for office, Abzug was for 25 years a lawyer focused on defending the rights of labor union workers, Black Americans and individuals targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. Facing sexism as a young attorney, Abzug started wearing her trademark floppy hats to distinguish that she was not anyone’s secretary.

In one of her best-known cases, she defended Willie McGee, a Black man who was accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi and sentenced to death in 1945. The all-white, all-male jury presented a guilty verdict in two-and-a-half minutes.

The case took an enormous personal toll. In Jackson, where McGee was tried, a local newspaper wrote that “they should burn Willie McGee’s white woman lawyer along with him in the electric chair.” Abzug traveled to Jackson at eight months pregnant and found that no hotel would let her stay. Fear struck her when a taxi driver said he knew a place “far from town” where he was prepared to take her. She spent that night in a bus station bathroom, where she miscarried, before appearing in court the next morning.

She won a stay of execution, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear McGee’s final appeal. He was killed in an electric chair in 1951.

In 1961, Abzug co-founded Women Strike for Peace, which drew about 50,000 women to the streets to protest the testing of nuclear weapons. The group helped push a nuclear test ban treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, and it later shifted its focus to ending the Vietnam War.

Abzug then won a seat in Congress at age 50 in 1970, becoming one of only 12 women in the 435-member House of Representatives. In Washington, she co-authored the Water Pollution Act of 1972 (now known as the Clean Water Act), then the country’s most comprehensive environmental legislation. She introduced the Equal Credit Act of 1974 — which gave women the economic independence to apply for credit cards and loans in their own names — and the first bill to protect gay people from discrimination in U.S. history, which won only a handful of votes.

Bella Abzug was sworn into Congress on Jan. 21, 1971. (Courtesy of Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress)

As chair of a subcommittee on government information and individual rights, she co-authored the Freedom of Information Act, the Right to Privacy Act and the Government in the Sunshine Act that required government hearings to be held in public. While calling CIA Director William Colby to testify, she discovered that the CIA had been spying on her for about 30 years. She was also the first member of Congress to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and helped pass a bill to defund the Vietnam War.

In 1976, Abzug took the risk of giving up her House seat to run for Senate, where a woman had never sat before. She lost in the primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan by less than 1%. More losses followed in her races for mayor of New York City and Congress again, as cultural tides shifted to the right and Reaganism halted progressive strides in the 1980s.

Still, she never stopped fighting for her agenda on different stages. In the last two decades of her life, she presided over the first National Women’s Conference in Houston, founded the grassroots political action group Women USA and turned to international politics, transforming the United Nations’ efforts to empower women across the globe as president of the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO).

The politically and culturally powerful women interviewed in “Bella!” saw themselves as Abzug’s children, according to Lieberman. Her biological children Eve and Liz Abzug, who are also interviewed, said she tirelessly pushed for her causes at the cost of her personal life.

All of the women interviewees described paying a long overdue tribute to a woman whose shoulders they stood on, who sometimes shattered herself along with the glass ceiling.

“They just knew that she really opened the door and blazed in and had to make a lot of sacrifices for being one of the first,” said Lieberman. “She sacrificed her own career, her own likability, her own personal joy because she had to be a tough person and go headfirst into institutions.”

The post Bella Abzug documentary aims to restore the Jewish congresswoman’s trailblazing legacy appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Argentina Court Blames Iran for Deadly 1994 Bombing of Jewish Center

People hold up pictures of the victims of the AMIA Jewish center bombing during a ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 18, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

A new ruling by Argentina‘s highest criminal court has blamed Iran for the fatal 1994 attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, declaring it a “crime against humanity” in a decision that paves the way for victims to seek justice, according to court documents released late on Thursday.

The judges ruled that the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) — the deadliest of its kind in the country’s history that killed 85 people and left hundreds injured — was carried out by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and responded “to a political and strategic design” by Iran. The Iranian regime is the main backer of Hezbollah, supplying it with weapons, funding, and political support.

Representatives from Argentina‘s Jewish community said the court ruling was “historic” and “unique” because it opened the door for the victims’ relatives to bring lawsuits against the Islamic Republic.

President Javier Milei celebrated the ruling, saying this was a “significant step” that put an end to decades of “delays and cover ups,” in an official statement.

Argentina‘s judiciary has long maintained Iran was behind the attack, but joint investigations and Interpol arrest warrants have led nowhere. Iran has refused to turn over citizens convicted in Argentina. Tehran has denied involvement.

Prosecutors in the report charged top Iranian officials and Hezbollah members with ordering the bombing as well as an attack in 1992 against the Israeli embassy in Argentina, which killed 22 people.

“The significance of these grave human rights violations for the international community as a whole invokes a state’s duty to provide judicial protection,” wrote Judge Mahiques who argued for legal reform.

In 2013, Argentina and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding that sought to create a truth commission to investigate the attack, but the agreement never came into force and gave rise to a case against then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for an alleged cover-up operation.

Judge Mahiques highlighted the figure of former prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the attack and was found dead at his home in January 2015 after fiercely criticizing Fernández de Kirchner for concealing Iran’s alleged responsibility in the attack.

“[Nisman] was very clear that all these circumstances were at the origin of the attack on the AMIA, which, taken to its ultimate consequences, could have had palpable results before this ruling,” Mahiques told local radio on Friday.

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European Parliament Denounces UNRWA Role in Inciting Violence and Antisemitism

A boy holds a placard as Palestinian Hamas supporters attend a rally against visits by Israelis to the Al-Aqsa mosque, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, May 26, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Antisemitic incitement and glorification of terrorism in Palestinian textbooks issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was a cause of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, the European Parliament (EP) declared in a series of resolutions passed last week.

The resolutions mark the latest denouncement of the Palestinian education by the EP and some of the first to address strong evidence that over a dozen UNRWA staff aided Hamas’ raping and slaughtering of Israeli civilians. Together, they rued the possibility that European tax dollars were funneled into Hamas and called for a complete restructuring, as well as increased oversight, of the Palestinian education system to ensure that antisemitic themes are purged from curricula in the Palestinian territories so long as the institutions administering them receive European aid.

“Today the European Parliament condemned the problematic and hateful contents encouraging violence, spreading antisemitism and inciting hatred in Palestinian school textbooks,” German Member of European Parliament (MEP) Niclas Herbst  said in a statement praising the action. “The European Parliament reaffirmed in the context of despicable terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas on 7th October 2023 that education to hatred has direct and dramatic consequences on the security of Israelis, as well as the perspectives of a better future for young Palestinians. Therefore, the EP requests the Commission to closely scrutinize that no UNWRA funds are allocated to the use of such hateful materials.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, UNRWA textbooks are among the most antisemitic and inciting in the world. No discipline is untouched by the problem. From math to theology, to literature and science, their content promotes blistering hatred for Jews and Israel, indoctrinating students as young as six to commit their lives to “martyrdom” and inter-generational war. Compromise with Israelis is described as betraying Palestinian identity, suicide-bombings as intrinsic to it and a prerequisite for entry into heaven.

“In this bipartisan resolution, the European Parliament has rightly made the inevitable and tragic connection between the horrors of October 7 and the systematic indoctrination which has flourished for too long in Palestinian schools, the majority of which in Gaza are operated by UNRWA,” Marcus Sheff, chief executive officer of Israeli education watchdog Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (Impact-se), said in a press release on Thursday.

He added, “For years, we have warned that the textbooks taught to Palestinian children create the conditions for the barbarism we all witnessed. The EU Parliament is now saying, ‘Enough.’ We need a new Palestinian curriculum.”

Impact-se has been a leading critic of the role Palestinian curricula plays in stoking the embers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fostering religious extremism. In March, the organization unveiled transcriptions of recordings confirming the roles of Yusef Zidan Sliman Al-Hawajri and Mamdouh Hussein Ahmad Al-Qek — both of whom were hired as educators by the organization — in Oct. 7, citing them as evidence that UNRWA has violated its mandate.

Its last report, published in March, revealed that textbooks issued by the Palestinian Authority teach girls that women are inferior to men and demands that they sacrifice their bodies and families for “jihad.”

“The characterization of women as inferior in Palestinian Authority textbooks reflects a broader and worrying narrative of bigotry in the curriculum, which is continuing to shape the outlook millions of Palestinian children,” Sheff said after the report was published. “Furthermore, it contradicts international treaties on gender equality that the PA itself has ratified. In particular, the emphasis on women’s participation in resistance activities as a warped form of gender equality sets a disturbing precedent.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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‘Does She Really Want to See America Die?’: Rashida Tlaib’s Refusal To Condemn ‘Death to America’ Chants Sparks Bipartisan Backlash

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) addresses attendees as she takes part in a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, US, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis

On Wednesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) refused to condemn anti-Israel protesters who chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel” during a rally in her district, sparking bipartisan backlash.

At an “Al-Quds Day” rally in Dearborn, Michigan protesters chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel.” A speaker at the event also quoted Malcom X saying “We live in one of the rottenest countries that has ever existed on this earth.”

The speaker continued, explaining that “The chant ‘death to Israel’ has become the most logical chant shouted across the world today.”

Another speaker proclaimed “Israel is ISIS, they are Nazis, they are fascists, they are racists.”

Michigan’s 12th congressional district, which Rep. Tlaib represents, includes Dearborn.

At International Al-Quds Day Rally in Dearborn, Michigan Protesters Chant “Death to America!”; Speakers at the Rally: America Is One of the “Rottenest Countries” on Earth; Israel Is ISIS, Nazis, a Cancer

— MEMRI (@MEMRIReports) April 7, 2024

The initial incident sparked condemnation from both sides of the political aisle. The mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah H. Hammoud, wrote on Twitter/X that, at the rally, people chanted “statements that were unacceptable and contrary to the heart of this city.” 

“We reject all inflammatory and violent statements made at the gathering. Dearborn is a city of proud Americans; the hateful rhetoric heard on Friday does not reflect the opinion of the members of this community,” he continued.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates told The Daily Caller that “The White House condemns these abhorrent and Antisemitic remarks in the strongest terms. As [US] President [Joe] Biden has said, America is the greatest nation on Earth and a beacon to the world.”

Rep. Tlaib was approached by a Fox News reporter on Wednesday, who asked if she condemned the chants. She replied, saying she did not speak to Fox News and that the reporter was engaging in Islamophobic tropes in asking her the question — likely because she perceived the reporter as questioning the patriotism and loyalty of Muslim Americans to the US.

WATCH – Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Gaza) refuses to condemn ‘Death to America!’ chants at a rally in her home

— The First (@TheFirstonTV) April 11, 2024

The Algemeiner reached out to Tlaib’s office for clarification of her statement, but it did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to The Algemeiner, Democratic Majority for Israel — a group that supports Israel from within the Democratic Party — said “Chanting ‘Death to America’ incites violence and is patently anti-American. All political leaders should be able to join the White House & Dearborn’s Mayor in denouncing this slogan.”

“Congresswoman Tlaib’s refusal to condemn those words is sadly telling,” DMFI added, asking “Does she really want to see America die?”

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s national political director, Sam Markstein, had harsh words for Tlaib, telling The Algemeiner, “It’s no surprise that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib would refuse to condemn anti-America and anti-Israel chants.”

He described Rep. Tlaib as “a disgrace” who “should not be representing the people of Michigan’s 12th district in Congress.”

He argued, “House Democratic leadership has coddled and enabled her vicious antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric for years – it’s long past time for them to hold her accountable.”

The CEO of The Jewish Democratic Council of America, Halie Soifer, pushed back on The Algemeiner’s request for comment, saying: “with all due respect, do you ever cover what Donald Trump says about Jews or Israel? It’s antisemitic and incessant — nearly daily at this point.”

Earlier this week, former US President Donald Trump told reporters that Biden “doesn’t know if he is supporting the Palestinians but he knows one thing: he is not supporting Israel. He has abandoned Israel and any Jewish person that votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined.”

Trump: “Any Jewish person that votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined.”

— Republican Voters Against Trump (@AccountableGOP) April 10, 2024

Trump’s comments come just a week after she would not give a direct answer when asked if he stands with Israel “100%,” raising questions about what his Middle East policy may look like in a potential second term. He also said a few days ago that American Jews who vote for Biden do “not love Israel” and “should be spoken to.”

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