(JTA) – Days after a synagogue in St. Petersburg, Florida, was forced to evacuate services following a bomb threat, the local city council met to discuss a resolution about antisemitism.
The resolution was about whether to endorse a definition of antisemitism that its authors and local advocates both say can be a useful first step in fighting hatred of Jews.
Notably refusing to cast a vote: A controversial council member and member of the Nation of Islam who voiced multiple objections to the definition, questioned Jewish community leaders about who constitutes a Jew and left the chambers so that he would be marked absent during the vote.
“I do have concerns. And my concerns are rooted in my personal experience of being falsely accused of being an antisemite,” Brother John Muhammad said at the council meeting, explaining his objections to the proposal. He continued, “It was stated that I was not qualified to do the job that I’ve been doing for the last 11 months because somebody who I’m affiliated with is called an antisemite.”
Muhammad did not specify to whom he was referring, but local Jewish groups have opposed his seat on the city council since he was appointed last year. Their objections were rooted in his refusal to disavow the Nation of Islam’s current leader, the Black nationalist Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of making antisemitic statements.
Still, Jewish leaders had hope that they could work with Muhammad and educate him on the topic of antisemitism. “When I see a situation like this, it screams ‘opportunity’ to me,” Michael Igel, chair of the Florida Holocaust Museum, located in St. Petersburg, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this year. The local federation said it would push the council to make a statement about the dangers of antisemitism.
Thursday’s resolution, one day before Rosh Hashanah, seems to have been the result of that effort. It called on the council to adapt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, which dozens of countries, states and municipalities have done to date.
The council was set to vote on it days after the city’s Congregation B’nai Israel was the target of a bomb threat. The synagogue’s rabbi, Philip Weintraub, delivered the meeting’s opening convocation and spoke about the threat, and other city council members praised law enforcement’s response to it.
Igel and Stuart Berger, head of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, were among the local Jews who advocated for the resolution and rose during the public comment period to endorse it. The IHRA definition, as it’s known, itself has been a subject of controversy for its classification of certain kinds of criticism of Israel as antisemitic, which another public commenter addressed, saying: “I think you can have a bold working definition of antisemitism while not coddling a Middle Eastern government that has policies of separation and absolute brutality on the Palestinian people.”
Muhammad did not mention Israel in his objections to the antisemitism resolution. Instead, he suggested that its wording was too “loose” and that “its subjective nature determining what constitutes hatred towards Jews” could lead to “the suppression of legitimate free speech.”
While saying “I don’t support any acts of antisemitism,” Muhammad listed all the ways he considered himself an ally of the local Jewish community. He participated in a reading of the names of victims of the Holocaust during Yom HaShoah; he voted on a resolution to remember the victims; and he is a member of a Black-Jewish study group. Yet during the more than 15 combined minutes when he held the floor, Muhammad found a host of reasons not to support the proposed resolution.
He cited the Black liberation activist Malcolm X, a onetime member of the Nation of Islam who espoused antisemitic views throughout his life, as an example of someone “who was considered a leading antisemite of his day.” Muhammad also asserted that “a celebrity” had recently prompted “a debate within the Jewish community themselves” about whether they had said something antisemitic — a possible reference to Jamie Foxx.
During his comment Muhammad also brought Igel and Berger up to the podium and questioned them about some of the finer points of the resolution’s wording. He asked them who is considered Jewish: “Is it a religion? Is it a culture? Is it a race?”
Muhammad asked if Hebrew Israelites and Messianic Jews would be considered Jews who could be affected by antisemitism, to which Igel responded, “These questions are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.” Both groups are themselves often accused of antisemitism for misappropriating Jewish symbols and rituals; in addition, members of the former sometimes promote antisemitic conspiracy theories, while members of the latter often proselytize Jews.
He also prompted back-and-forth by questioning one passage of the resolution, which states that “the Jewish community has enriched our leadership through their contributions to the arts, business, academia and government.” What’s the difference, Muhammad wanted to know, between that passage and conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media and government that the IHRA defines as antisemitic?
Muhammad concluded his objections by noting that the definition “could also have a chilling effect on our community members who might fear repercussions of expressing opinions that are not intended to be hateful but may be misconstrued as such. We have to protect the rights of those who may have unpopular or controversial views within the bounds of civility as long as they are not explicitly advocating for discrimination, persecution, hurt, harm or danger to members of the Jewish community.”
Soon after, another council member cut him off by “calling the question” to end debate on the subject. Muhammad thanked the room and immediately left before the vote could be called.
“During the proceedings I had several questions that were not able to be sufficiently answered by those who were present,” Muhammad told JTA in an emailed statement on Friday. “Unfortunately, my comments went over the time allowed and the question was called before I could conclude. Without having the answers to my questions, or sufficient responses to my inquiries, I chose to leave the proceedings and abstain.”
He continued, “While I recognize the intent behind the proposed resolution and the urgent need to combat antisemitism, especially in the face of increasing incidents involving white supremacists, I would like to ensure we do so without compromising our commitment to free expression and the peaceful exchange of diverse ideas within our community.”
The present members of the city council passed the resolution unanimously, with some citing both St. Petersburg’s historical record of antisemitic discrimination and the recent rise of antisemitic and white nationalist activity in Florida.
While no council members responded to Muhammad directly, one, Brandi Gabbard, gave a speech after he left that alluded to “inciting hate against any person in our community or any community.”
“We see people in positions of power specifically inciting this hate both publicly and behind the scenes,” Gabbard said. “It is dangerous. It is irresponsible. And quite frankly, it disgusts me.” Her remarks were met with applause.
Igel, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, told JTA that watching Muhammad’s objections to the resolution was “painful” and “emotional.” But he added that the experience “reminds us of the need for Holocaust education and for the IHRA definition and why it’s important, so we all can know and see antisemitism whenever it is.”
50 years after the Yom Kippur War, veterans see echoes in Israel’s current crisis
(JTA) — Israelis were not sure their country would survive. American Jews were not sure how to respond.
Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War — which broke out on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar in 1973 and lasted for about three weeks — some of those who lived through that time are seeing another crisis play out again in the present day, as Israelis have been locked in civil strife over their government’s effort to weaken the Supreme Court.
But those who remember the 1973 war say there are two major differences between now and then: The threat to Israel today is not existential, they say, nor is it external. This year, Israelis are fighting amongst themselves.
In interviews, four veterans of the war and a Jewish American official who was at the center of his community’s response to it recalled vivid memories of the events, and spoke about the war’s echoes in the present day, as masses of Israelis see a threat to Israel’s democracy in the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. The Israelis who support the overhaul say that it will curb an activist judiciary and allow the elected government to better represent its right-wing base.
A government failed
Israelis were caught off-guard by the war, in part because their leaders did not heed the warnings from some intelligence officials who saw the Egyptian and Syrian armies build up forces that were poised to attack. The armies were positioned on the borders of the Sinai Desert and Golan Heights, next to territories Israel had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“Israel was not prepared, in many ways we did not have military answers,” said Itzhak Brook, an Israeli physician who was serving in the military, attached to a supply battalion in the Sinai. “I think a lot of it was arrogance, a society that felt we were invincible, the euphoria that happened after the Six-Day War.”
Hillel Schenker, who was deployed to the Golan Heights to lay mines, said the anger at the country’s leadership was soon expressed in the streets — presaging the Israel of 2023.
“Soon there were thousands of people joining the protests against [Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan,” he said. “And soon there were thousands of people joining the protest against Dayan and to a degree also against Golda” Meir, then the Israeli prime minister. The protests eventually helped bring down Meir’s government and led to her replacement by Yitzhak Rabin.
The resonance in the United States
The three Americans who were among the veterans interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency said communicating within Israel during the war was a challenge — and staying in touch with relatives in the United States was much harder. They did not know until after the war how traumatized the American Jewish community was.
Allan Feldman, who was a sapper, tracking and destroying explosive ordnance, recalled that his mother in Baltimore managed to get through to him at a time when making a call often meant walking a considerable distance to pick up the phone.
“I’m an only child, and I had a hysterical mother,” he recalled. “So we were in touch.”
Abe Foxman, then a senior official in the Anti-Defamation League, which he would later lead for nearly three decades, said the American Jewish community was beside itself at the time.
“After ‘67, there was this euphoria, and after ‘73, there was this sadness, this pallor,” he said. “There was just this traumatic moment that God forbid, we could have lost Israel.”
Brook, who was born in Israel and who left eight months after the war to pursue a medical fellowship in the United States, said he was taken aback when he arrived stateside: American Jews had been traumatized, but with the passage of time it was no longer as immediate as it had been for Israelis.
“Many American Jews did not understand what Israel went through or what I went through,” he said. He wrote a book about his experiences, called “In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War.” He has delivered more than 200 lectures in person and via video chat to sustain the memory of the war.
A war that forever changed lives and a country
“Three weeks before the war, I did an idyllic tour of reserve duty in Dahab in the Sinai for a month,” Schenker recalled, referring to the Red Sea coastal resort that was, while it was under Israeli rule, a hub for alternative lifestyles. “We had no sense, no inkling that a war was coming.”
Schenker, who was from New York, had connections to the city’s folk scene and ambitions of launching a singing career in Israel, or perhaps pursuing a career in academia.
“The Yom Kippur War totally transformed, eliminated those paths and what happened to me is that I said, now the major challenge that I have and that my generation has is to try to achieve peace to prevent another outbreak like this one,” he said. He became a peace activist, helping to establish the activist group Peace Now, which grew to become one of Israel’s leading left-wing nonprofits.
Feldman said he was pleased that he avoided serving in the U.S. military’s war in Vietnam, and was ready to serve in Israel’s army. But he did not anticipate how much the country would change as a result of the war — becoming in his view more militaristic, more religious and more committed to West Bank settlement. He sees those trends in the present day.
“This is not the Zionist dream that I had,” he said. “What is going on with the extreme right wing government. I’m too worried about where Israel is going to worry about where it has been.”
Dave Holtzer, who served on guard duty during the war, also sees worrying resonances today.
“Then, it was a threat because the Syrians were going to kill us all,” Holtzer said. “Here, they’re not going to kill us, they’re just going to take away our democracy.
Brook, in his presentations to Jewish communities, describes the moment that he knew Israel would change forever.
“We evacuated a group of soldiers to a field hospital and as I walked out, I saw the sight of a hospital tent and a row of stretchers,” he said in a presentation he prepared in 2020 and shared with JTA. “Each of them was covered with a blanket. All you could see was shoes. Some were brown — paratroopers; some were black — armored corps or artillery.”
He recalled thinking, “The families of those men don’t know, and in a few hours someone will knock on their door and change their lives forever.”
As much as memorializing the Yom Kippur war has preoccupied him, Brook says he perceives a different and in some ways graver threat now.
“The threat to Israel is not so much from the militaries of the major Arab countries, the threat is the nuclear threat from Iran, the terror from Gaza and Lebanon, and also the internal strife in Israel because of the controversy over the judicial system,” he said. “That threat is even greater than the war — in war everyone is united, right now Israelis are divided.”
American Jews are more invested now
Instantaneous communication means that American Jews are more likely to be invested in the current crisis, Holtzer said.
“People ask what’s going on, they’re in touch everyday,” said Holtzer.
Feldman marvels at how he is in daily contact with his Israeli-raised son, who lives in the United States. “We talk almost every day on the laptop or you know, we see him and the kids on the screens,” he said.
Schenker said his American friends and family have an immediate sense of the crisis. “We didn’t have WhatsApp or Zoom or anything else,” he said. “My daughter in New York sends me photos of herself, demonstrating against Netanyahu.”
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Who is Siggy Flicker, the ‘Real Housewife’ behind Trump’s Rosh Hashanah message condemning ‘liberal Jews’?
(JTA) — Siggy Flicker, a former Real Housewife of New Jersey, says she often finds herself apologizing when she hangs out with her friend Donald Trump, a fellow reality TV star turned Republican activist.
“We’ll talk about the country and how much we love the country,” Flicker told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week. “And I’m always expressing to him, ‘It’s just so upsetting to me, I’m so sorry, Mr. President, for the liberal American Jews.’”
Most of the time, she said, that thought gets shared in private conversations: Flicker, who now lives in Florida and is a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, said she’s dined with the former president and flown on his private plane. But this week, the sentiment exploded into public view after Trump shared a graphic that Flicker made for Rosh Hashanah on his social media platform.
“Just a quick reminder for liberal Jews who voted to destroy America & Israel because you believed false narratives!” said the graphic, which Trump posted on Sunday, near the end of the holiday. “Let’s hope you learned from your mistakes and make better choices moving forward! Happy New Year!”
The post immediately ignited criticism of Trump, who has accused left-leaning American Jews of “great disloyalty” in the past. A range of Jewish organizations condemned the post, which highlighted his record on Israel as president, and some called it “offensive” and “dangerous.”
Flicker, the Israeli-born daughter of Holocaust survivors, dismisses the concerns and says she was proud to see the former president share her work.
“Who cares if they found it offensive,” Flicker told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The bottom line is Donald Trump is leading in the polls. Donald Trump is not an antisemite. Donald Trump is a lover of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. And at the end of the day, if the liberal Jews are gonna get triggered and they find it offensive, who cares?”
Trump’s post offered new prominence for the role that Flicker is playing in the effort to return him to the White House. With some of his past Jewish advisors, including his own daughter and son-in-law, seemingly keeping their distance from his campaign as he faces four separate indictments, Flicker has emerged as something of an unofficial Jewish ambassador for Trump — espousing views that are far outside the norm for American Jews.
On her Instagram account, she lambasts President Joe Biden, who received a large majority of Jewish votes; warns of the arrival of migrants, an issue with Jewish historical freight; and quotes Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host who echoed the antisemitic “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.
There was a time, not long ago, when Flicker said, “I don’t like negative,” and added that she wanted to “bring light” to the cutthroat world of reality TV. Born in Israel in 1967 — her full first name is Sigalit — Flicker is the daughter of Mordecai Paldiel, a Holocaust survivor who served as director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department for more than 20 years. She has lived in the United States since childhood and, as an adult, crafted a career as a matchmaker and relationship coach.
She was the host of a dating show, “Why Am I Still Single?!” which ran on VH1 for one season starting in 2011. Beginning five years later, she appeared on two seasons of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Formerly a resident of Tenafly, a New Jersey suburb with a large Israeli population, Flicker now lives in Boca Raton, Florida full-time.
She has also written a book on dating and has co-hosted a podcast. Flicker’s second marriage, in 2012, made news because her first husband and the father of her two children served as best man.
It was around the time of her stint on “RHONJ,” starting in early 2016, as she tells it, that she first saw Trump’s appeal. (She was on the show for two seasons before quitting in a move that an anonymous source told Page Six was a response to antisemitic bullying.) She told JTA that she was a Democrat before then but saw Trump, a fellow reality TV star, as a fresh alternative.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, finally a non-politician who’s a great businessman,” Flicker recalled. “I’m going to give him a try.’”
Seven years later, Flicker is a sworn Trump devotee. She said she and her husband have become personal friends with the former president in recent years, getting to know him through a mutual acquaintance, Alina Habba, who is one of Trump’s attorneys.
Since 2020, Flicker has been the spokeswoman for Jexit, an activist group formed in 2018 to persuade Jews to abandon their historical affinity with the Democratic Party — whose candidates regularly receive a solid majority of Jewish votes. She first got involved in Jexit after meeting its founder, Michelle Terris, and realizing that their sons were friends at Pennsylvania State University.
“She’s really a force and she is a true figurehead for our movement because she’s a legal immigrant,” Terris told JTA.
Jexit — which was loosely inspired by a similar group for Black Americans called Blexit, founded by the Black conservative activist Candace Owens — hosts prayer breakfasts, rallies and is planning an upcoming trip to Israel for a cohort of interfaith leaders. One of its goals is explicitly to promote “Judeo-Christian values,” a concept some critics say subsumes Jewish tradition within a promotion of Christian messages.
“Together we’re gonna make Judeo-Christian values great again,” Flicker said. “We’re not relying on the liberal Jews.”
Jexit’s programming director, Sofia Manolesco, told JTA that about 5,000 people are on Jexit’s mailing list. In a follow-up email, Terris said that after a “rough calculation,” their membership totals “50+ thousand.” The group has fewer than 10,000 Instagram followers; Flicker has more than 600,000.
The fact that Trump’s Rosh Hashanah post was written by a Jewish woman who works for a Jewish organization does not excuse it, said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
“This is in his name, so it doesn’t matter who wrote it, this is attributed to him,” Soifer said. “It doesn’t matter that Jexit claims to be a Jewish organization.”
Soifer called the post’s claims “inherently antisemitic” and said, “A Jewish person can say offensive and even antisemitic things as well, if they so choose.”
In addition to her stances on Jews and Israel, Flicker holds a variety of conspiracy-driven views that have become increasingly commonplace on the far right. She told JTA that the 2020 election was stolen; that the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was primarily made up of “people dressed as Trump supporters” and was less severe than the destruction resulting from nationwide racial justice protests in 2020; and that Jews and Black people largely supported Trump ahead of the 2016 election until the “deep state” and “radical left” realized they “could not control him.” (She has previously said she was not in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.) She also referred to Biden repeatedly as the “resident” — a term meant to imply that he is not a legitimate president.
Her organization also repeats falsehoods about the 2020 election. The Jexit website still includes a flier for a 2020 local “Stop the Steal” event in Miami, and Flicker said, “One hundred percent, Jexit believes the 2020 election was stolen.” She also texted JTA a meme that read, “January 6th will be remembered as the day the government set up a staged riot to cover up the fact they certified a fraudulent election.”
Flicker is confident Trump will win next year — “regardless of what the deep state and the radical left do,” she said. She only wishes that most American Jews could see the light.
“It’s the number-one question that I get: ‘How do you feel about your own people funding their own demise?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘It’s heartbreaking to me.’ But you know what, at this point, you got to wake them up and tell the truth.”
If you’re trying to connect to God on Yom Kippur, here’s a prayer for you
This story was originally published on My Jewish Learning.
(JTA) — For those of us who don’t regularly think in theological terms, the High Holiday liturgy can be jarring to read. Some of the messages are relatively easy to relate to, like the reminder of human frailty in Unetaneh Tokef (“Who will live and who will die?”) or the expression of remorse over our shortcomings in the confession litany (“We have sinned; we have been disloyal…”). But the traditional High Holiday prayer book also includes some far more abstruse ideas.
An obvious challenge is the centrality of animal sacrifice to the way the Day of Atonement was observed in the ancient Temple, a ritual we recount in detail during Yom Kippur. But the prayers also repeatedly invoke ideas about God that are far removed from our regular discourse.
Consider the repeated refrain of “And so, place your fear, O Lord our God, on all your creations.” Or this sequence describing God: “Who knows the inclination of all creations/ All believe that He creates them in the womb/ Who can do anything and unifies them together.” Reflecting on God’s exaltedness, pleading for mercy from a deity who knows our thoughts and holds the power of life and death over us — these are notions that are hard to grasp and difficult to come to terms with. How do we conceptualize and relate to God without recourse to a seminar in theology?
Even as it creates this challenge, the liturgy provides a solution by offering a range of different modes of relating to God. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ki Anu Amekha, a short poem (piyyut) recited multiple times on Yom Kippur to introduce the Viddui, the confessional prayer. It reads:
For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your congregation, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Destiny.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your dear ones, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our God.
We are your people, and you are our King.
We are your chosen ones, and you are our Chosen One.
This piyyut presents a list of relational pairs that characterize the relationship between Israel and God in various ways, all of which draw on comparisons to non-Divine relationships. It appears to be an expansion of a midrash on Song of Songs 2:16 that proposed several of these relational pairs, justifying each with a biblical verse. It is followed in the High Holiday prayer book by an additional stanza that relates more directly to themes of sin and forgiveness that are the leitmotif of the Day of Atonement, contrasting the human penchant for sin with God’s compassion and mercy. Less clear is the function of the section cited above. In what way does delineating this litany of relationships serve as a fitting introduction to a confession ritual?
I would argue that the purpose of listing these various relationships is to invite each of us to find ourselves in the poem as we stand before God and request atonement. People are complex and multi-faceted, and the way we relate to an infinite God is bound to be even more varied and intricate. Some people may relate best to God as a father who loves his children even as he disciplines them. Others may connect better to a political metaphor, seeing God as the king exercising dominion over his nation. Some of us experience God more intimately, as a shepherd tending the flock or a vintner caring for grape vines. Others see the relationship between Israel and God as one of passionate love as described in the Song of Songs. And some may see God primarily through the history of the Jewish people, as having chosen Israel for a particular divine destiny.
Each line of this piyyut depicts a particular quality of relationship between God and Israel, but none of them exhausts it. God simultaneously inhabits all of these modes of relation depending on the person, the point in time and the broader context in which the relationship manifests itself.
The poem, and the High Holy Days liturgy overall, represents God in these various ways not because everyone in synagogue is expected to develop a complex theology that can encompass them all, but because we can all likely connect to at least one mode of relating to God in our prayers. As each of us focuses on and resonates with a particular aspect of the God-Israel relationship, our collective recitation of Ki Anu Amekha serves to express the rich and varied tapestry of God. And hopefully our Father, our King, our Shepherd, our Lover, our Destiny will see fit to grant Israel forgiveness and make 5784 a year filled with blessings.
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