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I’m an Israeli artist of Moroccan descent. Is the Holocaust my story to tell?

(JTA) — Every artist embarks on a path of self-discovery. Any time I find inspiration to create and to paint, I find myself on a journey of trying to comprehend what aspects of life define and characterize my identity.  When I paint, I grapple with the question of “Who Am I?”

Roughly a year ago, I was approached with the opportunity to participate in a new cultural program at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The residency program enabled me to, for the first time in many years, spend time at Yad Vashem, connect with the stories of Holocaust survivors and victims, gain inspiration from the massive collections housed on the Mount of Remembrance and meet dedicated scholars and experts in Holocaust remembrance and education. 

At first, my journey of introspection led me to question how I connect to the Holocaust. Is it bigger than me? Is it my story? As a sabra and child born in Israel to Moroccan parents of Sephardic descent, I felt disconnected from the Holocaust and apprehensive about taking on this daunting task. 

I also began to wonder how my aesthetic and artistic expression could adequately portray the Holocaust and our collective responsibility to never forget it. The deeper I waded into the stories and exhibits at Yad Vashem, I began to realize that the Holocaust affected me not only as a Jew and a human being, but as an Israeli. 

The Holocaust is a significant part of our collective Jewish history, regardless of our ethnicity. While Hitler’s tyranny did not reach Morocco, the suffering and pain of the Jewish nation both past and present affected all areas of the world. Many Israelis grow up hearing firsthand accounts of the atrocities of the Holocaust from their parents and grandparents. In my childhood home, Holocaust culture wasn’t in our food, in our clothes, or in our conversations, but it was palpable on a national level. It was a visceral feeling that the Holocaust is a tragedy forever etched inside every Jew and every Israeli for the simple reason that we are a united people committed to unwavering faith and fortitude in times of terror and destruction. 

Simply put, I’m the Jew that suffered in Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh, I’m the Jew that persevered during the destruction of both Temples, I am the Jew who survived the ghetto and the nightmare of Auschwitz. I am a part of a powerful collective glued together in overcoming adversity and never giving up. 

That notion is especially on my mind during these four terrible months since Hamas killed 1,200 people in their attack on southern Israel. The trauma that we are living through has hit all parts of Israeli society, and to an extent has connected us all to the memory of the Holocaust. In the days following the harrowing events of Oct. 7, I felt numb and incapable of creating any form of art. That numbness and incapacitation is still creeping inside of me. 

And yet, after my greatly meaningful visit at Yad Vashem, only days after the massacre, and in the dark shadow of these difficult months, a myriad of emotions came together for me, expressed in my current exhibition displayed in the Museum of Holocaust Art at Yad Vashem. 

In this exhibit my works portray this debilitating feeling, this abyss, a wrestling match with faith, but also a sense of purpose and meaning in portraying this struggle and our desire to soldier on. That to me is also the lesson of the Holocaust. 

A detail from Shai Azoulay’s painting “Third Generation.” (Courtesy Yad Vashem)

My residency gave me a jolt of newfound purpose to paint and brought me back to life. And within a short period of time I found that the artworks in this exhibition poured out of me, and the works were finished rather quickly. I’ve titled my exhibit “Bigger Than Me” in that I still find the task of portraying the concept of Holocaust memory greatly unnerving and intimidating. I chose to express this feeling metaphorically in two paintings in the exhibit, “Bigger Than Me” and “Simchat Torah,” both of which depict shoes that are enormously big. 

Most importantly, I portrayed myself in several of the artworks to emphasize the personal and emotional journey I took in understanding how I fit into the story of Holocaust remembrance.

I was immensely inspired by some of the most iconic spaces in Yad Vashem, in particular the Hall of Names. In the painting “Above the Shtetl” I chose to depict the intimate encounter I had with the faces displayed in the cone-shaped installation featuring some 600 portraits of Holocaust victims. I found myself in search of something or more accurately someone: someone I might connect to, through their faces, their eyes. I looked to see myself, or maybe someone who looked familiar even though I knew I had no familial connection to the victims. 

While inside the hall, I envisioned this gravitational force pushing me up, as though I was drawn into a vortex that pulled me into the air, in order to see the faces of those who were murdered. Like Yad Vashem itself, it enabled me to connect with the history of the past by way of bearing witness to the stories, identities and belongings of those who were lost during the Holocaust. My flight, hand in hand with my wife, is similar to that felt by many visitors to the museum.

My encounter with Yad Vashem uncovered a deeper level within myself. The beauty in that is that I am unsure where it will lead me. I am grateful to Yad Vashem for giving me this gift: a new layer of my Jewish, Israeli and artistic identity. As an artist always continuing his journey of self-discovery, and looking for newfound sparks of inspiration, to me, this is the greatest gift I could ever receive.

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Could social media really have stopped the Holocaust? Scholars say Elon Musk’s ‘fantasy scenario’ is far-fetched.

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — Gavriel Rosenfeld, president of the Center for Jewish History in New York City, specializes in Nazi Germany and counterfactual history — or the study of what might have happened, but didn’t.

So when Elon Musk claimed this week that the Holocaust could have been mitigated if only X, his social media platform, had existed at the time, Rosenfeld took notice.

He said Musk’s comments stood out as a textbook example of a “fantasy scenario in which history turns out better thanks to an alteration of some key variable — in this case, transporting present-day technology into the past.” Such arguments are called “Connecticut Yankee counterfactuals,” he said, in homage to the 1889 Mark Twain novel in which a contemporary man is transported to England during the reign of King Arthur.

“This fantasy is a self-serving one,” Rosenfeld told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It enables [Musk] to switch the conversation away from his allowing right-wing antisemites to post freely on X — which have increasingly discredited his platform — by claiming it would have served a social good if — and it’s a big if — it had existed 80 years ago.”

Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the European Jewish Association, Elon Musk and right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro stand on stage at an EJA conference in Krakow, Poland, Jan. 22, 2024. (Courtesy EJA)

Rosenfeld was one of several Holocaust scholars to challenge Musk’s comments, which he said on Monday during a conversation with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at a conference in Krakow hosted by the European Jewish Association.

Musk’s trip to Poland came as he has become embroiled in a series of antisemitism-related controversies. In November, Musk came under fire for endorsing an X post that said Jewish communities push “hatred against whites.” (The tech mogul replied, “You have said the actual truth.”) He has also threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, over its objections to hate speech on X. The website has seen antisemitic content spike since Musk took charge.

In his comments, Musk said X could have deterred the Nazis by making their mass murder “impossible to hide” and allowing “freedom of speech” against them.

His remarks were broadly praised during the event, which gathered European politicians and right-leaning Jewish leaders to discuss the global threat of antisemitism after Oct. 7. Among the billionaire’s most vigorous supporters was EJA Chairman Menachem Margolin — an influential European rabbi affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement — who asserted that X “could have saved millions of lives” during the Holocaust.

But Rosenfeld and other scholars say Musk’s imagined version of history demonstrates a misunderstanding of the genocide.

“The problem with Jews was not that they didn’t have the information, the problem was they didn’t have options,” said Doris Bergen, a Holocaust historian at the University of Toronto and scholar-in-residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Where were German Jews supposed to go? Who was providing refuge for elderly people, people with disabilities, and others deemed not valuable as workers?”

Bergen noted that half of Germany’s Jews — those who had the contacts and resources needed to escape the Nazi regime — actually did leave the country between 1933 and 1939. Those included Anne Frank’s family, who went to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them after occupying that country in 1940, as they did with the Jews in Poland, Hungary, France, the Soviet Union and the other nations they invaded.

“What would social media have done for these people, who in many cases were killed at the same time as the Germans invaded?” asked Bergen.

Musk argued on Monday that Nazi Germany represented the dangers of regulating speech, saying, “One of the first things the Nazis did when they came in is they shut down all the press and any means of conveying information.”

That is another inaccuracy, said Bergen, who suggested that Musk “take an intro course on the Holocaust.”

“Germany had a lot of newspapers that kept going all the way through the Nazi period,” she said. “Definitely there was pressure to conform to the ‘party line,’ but it was not so simple as controlling all the media.”

International media, including JTA, also covered what was happening in Germany and elsewhere in Europe under the Nazi regime but did not ignite adequate international concern to stop the genocide.

Christopher Browning, a Holocaust scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Ordinary Men,” about a Nazi death squad, also said information was available — but its availability was simply not enough to prevent the atrocities.

“Much about the Holocaust traces not to lack of information but unwillingness to process into knowledge,” said Browning. “Wishful thinking, denial and inability to imagine the unprecedented all played a role among victims, perpetrators, and bystanders.”

Historians have also pointed out that the Nazis were masters of using existing media to press their case against the Jews, suggesting that in this alternate universe, the Nazis might have weaponized social media as well — as countries today have been accused of doing in their internal and external conflicts.

David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, called Musk’s comments “ludicrous” and “offensive,” questioning why the owner of X overlooked his company’s power to swiftly disseminate hate and violence across the world. In fact, Myers said, social media might have made it easier for Nazis to find their local allies across Europe.

“Every day people gather online with like-minded souls to express their shared hatred for groups including Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Asians, and LGBTQ people, among others,” he said. “Moreover, these hate-mongers can receive detailed guidance online on how to carry out a massacre.”

Musk addressed the EJA conference after privately touring Auschwitz-Birkenau, a trip lauded by attendants of the conference. Margolin told JTA he believes that Musk has a better understanding of antisemitism and Jewish trauma after that visit.

A guide gives a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, Jan. 23, 2024. (Shira Li Bartov)

However, an Auschwitz tour guide and Holocaust educator was skeptical of Musk’s claim that X could have deterred the Nazis. Social media only reflects the complexity of human nature at the heart of a genocide, which is what must be reckoned with, she told JTA.

“Social media works both ways,” said Agnieszka, who declined to share her last name. “It can generate really good generosity among people, make them really empathetic and loving toward others. But on the other hand, the same social media is able to gather people who are full of hatred.”

For Rosenfeld, the scholar of alternate histories, Musk’s counterfactual opened the doors to other scenarios that could have increased, not decreased, the dangers faced by European Jews.

“Given how popular opinion of the current war [in Gaza] has been decisively shaped by video footage shot on personal devices, it’s likely that the Allied war against Nazi Germany would have been more difficult to prosecute had there been daily images of German civilians being incinerated in Allied bombing raids,” he said, noting that some conservatives made this point in the 1970s about media coverage of the Vietnam War.

But all of the possibilities of the past, Rosenfeld said, are secondary to the role that Musk’s counterfactual thinking plays in the current day.

“From my perspective,” Rosenfeld said, “the key function of Musk’s counterfactual assertion is to rehabilitate his social media platform by investing it with hypothetical virtues — all the while deflecting attention away from its real world liabilities.”

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NY state voters split on aid to Israel, poll finds, in shift from November

(New York Jewish Week) — Voters in New York state are split on whether the United States should provide aid to Israel, according to a recent poll, a shift from the weeks following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

A Siena College survey published on Monday found that 45% of the state’s voters are opposed to providing further military or economic aid to Israel, while 43% support it, with the remainder either on the fence or declining to answer.

That’s a shift from a November survey of New York state voters by Siena, taken roughly a month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel launched the current war. That survey found that 51% were in favor of aid to Israel while 37% were against.

In this week’s poll, few subgroups supported aid to Israel. Slim majorities of  suburban respondents and those 55 and older backed the aid, along with 75% of Jewish respondents. Among Jews, 18% oppose aid to Israel.

Positions on aid did not diverge sharply along party lines, though Republicans were slightly more supportive. Among Democrats, 47% were against aid to Israel and 43% were in favor, while 43% of independents oppose aid and 38% support it. Among Republicans, 46% supported aid and 44% opposed it.

The poll queried 807 New York state voters between January 14-17, and had a margin of error of 4.5%. Margins of error for the subgroups were slightly higher.

The poll also appeared to show a drop in support for aid to Israel among denizens of New York City in particular. A poll by Quinnipiac University last month found that residents of the five boroughs were split, with 46% opposed to sending military aid to Israel, and 45% in favor.

But in this week’s Siena poll, 53% of the city’s residents opposed aid to Israel and 35% supported it.

Subgroups of younger voters, and those with lower incomes, were also less supportive of aid to Israel. In addition, half of white voters supported aid to Israel, while 40% opposed it. Thirty percent of both Black and Latino voters supported the aid, with 56% and 46% of those groups, respectively, in opposition.

The survey also asked about aid to Ukraine, which proved slightly more popular, with half of voters in favor and 40% against. On that issue, there were wider partisan gaps: 63% of Democrats supported more military and economic aid to Ukraine, compared to 26% of Republicans.

Ukraine aid was more popular than aid to Israel among all racial and age groups except Jews, who were still largely supportive of it at 70%.

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US Office for Civil Rights Investigating Northwestern University Over Alleged Ignored Antisemitism Complaints

Copies of Jewish student’s op-ed that were graffitied with the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” at Northwestern University in 2022. Photo: Twitter.

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Northwestern University to determine whether it ignored allegations of antisemitic discrimination and harassment after Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, because the students who lodged them are Jewish, according to a report from higher education watchdog Campus Reform published on Tuesday.

The investigation, Campus Reform said, followed a complaint filed by its editor-in-chief, Zachary Marschall, who cited, among other things, Northwestern’s alleged nonresponse to the projection of a Palestinian flag onto a school building, an academic program’s defending Hamas as a “political group,” and severe maltreatment of Jewish students, as cause to review the school’s compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination based on race and national origin.

“The university will respond to the Department of Education and cooperate with its investigation,” Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates said in a statement to The Daily Northwestern on Wednesday. “The complaint against Northwestern was not filed by a member of our community but instead by an outside organization.”

In November, dozens of Northwestern University student groups and faculty castigated President Michael Schill for dismissing concerns about rising antisemitism as “mass hysteria and collective psychosis.” A month later, the university strongly denounced accusations that it harbors antisemites and pro-Hamas faculty and students, responding to an advertising campaign launched by Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a campus antisemitism watchdog, that made such charges.

In 2016, the school appeared on The Algemeiner’s 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students list for the presence of pro-boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) groups on the campus and several antisemitic incidents involving expressions of Nazism.

Additionally, an incident occurred at the school when members of Students for Justice in Palestine tacked together copies of an op-ed by a Jewish student — Lily Cohen — graffitied it with the slogan, “From the river to the sea,” and zip-tied it to fences enclosing the Deering Library. SJP then painted the same slogan, which is interpreted as calling for the ethnic cleansing of Jews living in Israel, on a campus monument that serves as an unofficial student messaging board.

Cohen’s op-ed discussed the difficulties of being Jewish in a time of rising antisemitism and defended the right to a Jewish homeland.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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