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This Israel-born, Jewish chef is demanding a cease-fire

“I’m devastated and exhausted,” Ora Wise told me on a video call from her New York City apartment, her facial features flickering between fatigue and animation.

Just three days earlier, the chef and food activist marched in the nation’s capital to call for a cease-fire in Israel’s siege of Gaza. The offensive has claimed the lives of over 10,000 Palestinians, nearly half of them children, since Oct. 7, when over 1,400 Israelis were killed in Hamas’ terrorist attacks.

The day after our interview, Wise was scheduled to appear in court for charges of obstructing traffic and failure to disperse during another cease-fire demonstration the previous month.

In Washington, D.C., this past weekend, Wise marched alongside three Palestinian American chefs — Reem Assil of Reem’s California in Oakland, Omar Anani of Saffron De Twah in Detroit, and Marcelle Afram of Shababi in Washington — and Kimberly Chou Tsun An, a writer and farmer. The five of them demonstrated under the banner of Hospitality for Humanity, a coalition of food professionals organizing for a cease-fire and against U.S. funding of the Israeli military. Assil, who was a full-time labor organizer before she became a professional chef, initiated the project when she reached out to her four collaborators a few weeks ago. 

For Wise, who helps lead a food justice nonprofit called FIG NYC, the march was the culmination of a journey that started in Jerusalem, where she was born to a rabbi father. She spent her childhood between Israel and the United States, and describes working as an English tutor in a Bedouin community in the West Bank as a turning point in her relationship to the region. 

In 2017, on the same nights that high-profile chefs around the world cooked in Israeli restaurants as part of the government-funded Round Tables festival, Wise joined Assil, Chou Tsun An, and Palestinian American chef Amanny Ahmad in organizing a pop-up series called the Asymmetrical Table, spotlighting Palestinian cuisine. The following year, they were part of a successful effort to get the featured New York chef to pull out of the Israeli festival.

Ora Wise leads a cooking demonstration at the New York Botanical Garden. Courtesy of Ora Wise

On Oct. 29, Hospitality for Humanity released an open letter that now has over 1,000 signatures — from chefs, food writers, farmers and other members of the food industry — of people pledging to advocate for  a cease-fire and an end to unconditional U.S. funding of the Israeli government, boycott pro-Israel products, events and trips, and participate in events that help the Palestinian cause. The coalition also released a downloadable restaurant menu insert that includes a phone number for the U.S. Congress, Instagram accounts to follow, and a QR code that links to info on protests planned around the country.  

I spoke with Wise about her journey towards fighting for Palestinian rights, the destruction of Palestinian culinary practices, and why protecting those practices is a Jewish issue.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How have your views on Israel and Palestine developed over time?

I was raised Zionist. I went to Jewish day school, conservative Jewish summer camp, synagogue, Sunday school and youth groups. I was raised to feel this passionate possessiveness of that land and this deep connection to Israel.

When I was a child, we were living in Minnesota, and we did joint programs with the Lakota tribe and learned in gruesome detail the history of genocide and colonization here in the United States.

Ora Wise, raising her fist in this photograph, said that teaching English in a Bedouin community in the occupied West Bank was a turning point for her understanding of Israel and Palestine. Courtesy of Ora Wise

When I was 18 years old, I was living in Jerusalem and became an English tutor working with the Jahalin Bedouin, a semi-nomadic Semitic people indigenous to that land. They had been kicked out of their homes in the Negev desert when the State of Israel was created, and they had been displaced to the West Bank. The Israeli government was forcibly relocating them yet again, in order to expand the Ma’ale Adumim settlement. They were forced to live on what I came to understand was a reservation.

I remember walking on a dusty path between shacks fashioned out of corrugated metal shipping crates. It was on land that was barely livable, only about 500 meters (a third of a mile) from Jerusalem’s largest city dump, which was, of course, not in Jerusalem, but in Palestinian territory. So it clicked for me: “What is different here than what I’ve been raised to believe was wrong in the creation of the United States?”

What was the genesis of Hospitality for Humanity?

For us, as food workers, we wanted to make sure that our community was extending its values and practices — around sustainability, equity and health — to include Palestinians.

We know that in Palestine, the Israeli military occupation suppresses, destroys and controls Palestinian foodways — whether it is Israeli soldiers themselves, or armed settlers, destroying or stealing wheat harvests or olive harvests. 

Before 1948, Palestinians were predominantly an agricultural people. Now, Israel has constructed an apartheid wall that divides a Palestinian farming village from its farming lands, so farmers either lose their land or have to go through a military checkpoint. Even those that somehow manage, against all odds, to continue to grow their crops, are not able to get much of their produce to market through the Israeli system of separate roads, military closures and checkpoints. 

How does food fit into the movement to boycott products that support the Israeli government?

The strategy of the Palestinian-led global boycott movement is based on complicity, not identity — institutions, not individuals.

Ora Wise stands in front of a mural outside of a cafe in Ireland. Courtesy of Ora Wise

I’ll give an example. Sabra hummus is on the boycott list. It’s owned by Pepsi-Cola and the Strauss company. The Strauss company gives money to the Israel Defense Forces. 

SodaStream’s production facilities are in a so-called free trade zone in the occupied West Bank. So that’s why we boycott SodaStream and Sabra Hummus.

Hospitality for Humanity’s statement also describes the “appropriation” of Palestinian food traditions by Israel. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The branding of a pan-Arab and North African dish as “Israeli” is something that needs to be unpacked in the same way that the food world has examined how white chefs have been co-opting different Asian diaspora foods or Mexican foods or Black Southern foods, rebranding them, redressing them, and profiting from them. 

It’s really disingenuous when people claim, “oh, it’s just hummus,” or that these are just “hummus wars.” We’re not talking about some just trivial squabble over ownership. What we’re talking about is one people dominating another people.

I grew up eating, making and loving these foods, and I continue to do so. But I’m very committed to sourcing from Palestinian producers and making sure that the Palestinian authorship of these foods is central.

How has your Judaism informed your approach to this project?

So many Jewish rituals and traditions are based in food: We tell stories through food, we celebrate and mourn through food. And food has always been really central to my family and traditions. So I’m heartbroken to see another people being denied that in my name.

I was also raised to celebrate and honor the land — to recognize the seven sacred plant species named in the Torah, including olives, pomegranates, dates and barley. These are all ancient crops that Palestinians have been stewarding for generations, that are being destroyed by Israeli settlers. The State of Israel has bulldozed  thousands of olive trees.

I care about and love this land. And that’s exactly why I’m going to fight like hell against the way that the State of Israel is destroying it, and everything that I love and value about it. 

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As Hamas supporters deny rapes, investigation raises questions about whether forensic evidence from Oct. 7 was collected

Editor’s note: This story includes graphic details of sexual atrocities.

An investigation by The Times of Israel raises questions about whether forensic evidence of rape was collected from victims of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Such evidence would bolster eyewitness accounts and recovery workers’ reports of rape to counter denials by Hamas supporters and other propagandists.

Physical evidence required to meet legal standards for charges of rape decomposes within a week, so if rape kits were not administered immediately following the attacks, that evidence is gone. The Times of Israel reported that it is “not clear” if “rape kits were ever collected,” saying that a police spokesperson refused to answer the question. 

Recovery workers interviewed by The Times said they found ample evidence of rape, including numerous victims stripped and bloody from the waist down, with mutilated genitals, broken pelvises and broken legs. Those gruesome observations were consistent with accounts of sexual assault provided by eyewitnesses and by Hamas terrorists who were captured and interrogated by Israeli authorities. The Hamas gunmen’s confessions included “having sex with dead bodies” in order “to dirty them.”

But rape kits were not routinely administered by recovery teams prioritizing the identification of 1,400 corpses, many of which had been mutilated, burned or blown to bits, The Times found. Bodies that could be identified were returned to families and prepared for burial as fast as possible; some 200 remain unidentified.

A campaign of denial

Despite “significant evidence of systematic sexual abuse,” The Times said, “morgue officials have not designated individual cases as rape because of a lack of court-compliant physical proof.” The decision to “not use time-consuming crime scene investigation protocols to document rape cases has, however, fueled international skepticism over Hamas’s sexual abuse of victims.”

In addition to the rape denial, many have also denied the Oct. 7 attacks happened at all. Israelis and others have drawn comparisons between this and Holocaust denial.

The Times said that “skepticism” comes amid attempts by pro-Palestinian activists and others to downplay the “scale of Hamas’ atrocities” and to condemn Israel’s war on Gaza, which Gaza health officials say has killed more than 10,000 people. 

Though Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that Hamas terrorists committed rape along with murder and kidnapping, the government has “not released explicit footage or pressed rape survivors to share their stories,” The Times said. This has led “many media outlets” around the world to frame accounts of rape on Oct. 7 “as a claim rather than a fully substantiated fact. Social media is now awash with memes parodying ‘not believing women’ who are Israeli or Jewish.”

On Wednesday, Israeli police released a horrific account by a survivor who witnessed, from her own hiding place, a young woman being gang-raped, then murdered. That account was immediately met with comments online dismissing the report as “fantasy,” asking why rape kits and other physical evidence have not been made public, and suggesting that the Israelis themselves were the perpetrators. 

The Times interviewed several workers who “had firsthand encounters with bodies they perceived to be abused” — for example, a woman shot in the head, found face-down on a bed, naked from the waist down. The worker who found her did not take photos of the scene, but said that others did photograph victims they believed had been raped and sent those pictures to authorities. The Times said it was unable to obtain such images from government sources who cited victim privacy and the need to protect intelligence sources.

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How Tuesday’s rally in DC is trying to pitch a broad pro-Israel tent

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When it sends a contingent to the mass pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. next week, Americans for Peace Now will be standing alongside a group led by someone it accused of racist tweets

That group, the Zionist Organization of America, has accused Americans for Peace Now of supporting antisemitism. 

Leaders of both groups said they would still protest together on Nov. 14. 

“It is nearly certain that some speakers at the rally will say things that we disagree with, and they will certainly not say everything that we believe needs to be said,” said an alert from APN, a left-wing pro-Israel group. “But we will not cede this ground to those with whom we disagree. We will stand together as a community alongside other Jewish organizations in our Peace Bloc and yes, alongside those who do not share our views.”

Morton Klein, the president of the right-wing ZOA, sounded the same note: “The Hamas Jew-hater types are after all of us, no matter our political views, so I’m proud to stand together with my fellow Jews who understand this is a flight to protect all Jews, no matter their political position or religious beliefs,” he said. 

Securing the presence of those two groups along with others that are firmly on the right and left was one of the goals of the rally, which was called last week and aims to attract tens of thousands to demonstrate for Israel, on behalf of the hostages held by Hamas, and against antisemitism.

The rally’s goal is to shore up support for Israel’s war effort more than a month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel sparked an Israeli invasion of Gaza aimed at deposing the terror group. That invasion has sparked growing criticism of a mounting civilian death toll along with calls for a ceasefire. But the rally also aims to show that even as American Jews have become increasingly polarized, a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations and their supporters can still unite behind an overarching message of backing Israel and opposing antisemitism. 

“It’s just indicative of the clarity that comes from October 7,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is organizing the rally along with the Jewish Federations of North America. “We must stand together as one, and we can put aside our differences, big differences and small differences, and focus on the commonality of our connectivity to Israel and our connectivity to each other as Jews here and around the world.”

To that end, organizers have curated the rally to feature speakers and branding that attract a broad consensus. By the same token, they are eschewing steps that could alienate segments of the Jewish organizational world.

The rally has no official cosponsors, and leaders of organizations will not be delivering any major speeches from the stage. The emphasis from the podium, Daroff said, will be on the tragedy of Oct. 7 and the need to free hostages, as well as the danger of antisemitism on campus and elsewhere. 

“We are talking to families of hostages and survivors and evacuees and others who were affected by Oct. 7 In Israel,” he said, referring to possible speakers. A program for the rally has not been issued 

“We’re also talking to students who have experienced hate on our campuses,” he said. And invitations have already gone out to top congressional leaders and to top Biden administration officials, he said, “as well as the top-flight entertainers and people from the entertainment industry.”

The rally is being promoted by major Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox groups. Along with APN, the pro-Israel left will be represented by the liberal lobby J Street. APN’s president, Hadar Susskind, said the lack of cosponsors made it easier to join. He didn’t have to worry about APN’s logo showing up alongside those of groups it opposes.

“The concept that no one is co-sponsoring this, I think, is very smart,” he said. “Because, frankly, had I been asked to co sponsor it. I’m not sure that I would have. Co-sponsoring, to me, is a different level than just ‘we’re going to it.’” 

A poll released by the Jewish Federations on Thursday showed that large majorities of American Jews fear rising antisemitism and back military aid to Israel. 

The entirety of the Jewish left will not be represented on Tuesday, though they may organize their own demonstration: Jewish organizations that have accused Israel of genocide and advocated in protests for an immediate ceasefire, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would counterprotest.

Rally organizers hope to have the same impact as mass Jewish-led National Mall rallies in 2002, when the Second Intifada was raging in Israel, and in 1987 on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Those rallies topped 100,000 attendees. But judging by this rally’s permit request, its attendance will be lower. Organizers have asked the National Park Service for space to accommodate 60,000 people. 

But Daroff still believes the showing will be significant. 

“We hear of just thousands and thousands of people coming to Washington — schools that are closing and bringing their whole student bodies and universities doing the same,  federations that are chartering planes, people coming from the West Coast. Huge numbers of people coming from South Florida,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if all of Boca Raton’s synagogues convened on the National Mall on Tuesday.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be political tensions. At the time of the announcement on Monday night, the Biden administration and Israel were more or less in lockstep in terms of rejecting pressure from the left for a ceasefire. Biden officials are reportedly now pressing for a three-day pause in fighting to deliver humanitarian relief; if Israel resists, those political statements could play out among the speakers from the podium. On Thursday, Israel agreed to pauses of several hours per day for humanitarian relief. 

Daroff said security would be tight — another overarching concern of American Jews. “The very first call that I made, as we were considering having this event, was to Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas at the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. National security agencies will also be providing security for the event. 

“We will have literally hundreds of security officials who will be around as well, including our own private security,” he said. “There will be metal detectors, magnetometers and I’m confident that on November 14, at one o’clock, among the safest places on the planet will be our little piece of the National Mall.”

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Hebrew pocket watch, frozen in time of Titanic wreck, headed for auction

(JTA) — A pocket watch, frozen in time when the Titanic went underwater, is set to sell at auction Saturday, with an expected sales price of nearly $100,000.

That’s nearly 30 times the value of the ticket that Sinai Kantor, a Russian Jew on his way to New York City, spent for his ticket on the “unsinkable” ship.

Numbers on the Swiss-made, silver-on-brass watch are written in Hebrew numerals and its hands are nearly all deteriorated, due to saltwater exposure — but dried water marks indicate that time stopped at 2:25 a.m., about five minutes after the Titanic sank. Its back features an embossed, solemn, muscular Moses holding the Ten Commandments on a background of date palms.

The silver pocket watch once belonged to Kantor, 34, a second-class passenger traveling with his wife Miriam, 24. The pair were recently married university graduates, on their way to New York where Kantor planned to sell furs while they studied dentistry and medicine, as part of a flood of Jewish immigration underway at the time.

Kantor paid £26 — worth about $3,100 today — for ticket No. 244367 on the Titanic, which they boarded on April 10, 1912, in Southampton, England.

“On the night of the disaster, like so many couples, they were forced to separate because of the ‘women and children only’ rule,” Michael Findlay, former president of the Titanic International Society told the Washington Post. “Mr. Kantor had to remain behind.”

Miriam alone was saved in lifeboat 12, according to information provided by the auction house. According to records collected by Titanic enthusiasts, she later became a U.S. citizen, taking the name Mary, and worked as a pharmacist in Brooklyn before being institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital where she spent the rest of her life before dying at 63 in 1950.

Kantor’s body was recovered eight days after the accident. His pocket watch and some of his other possessions, including his Russian passport, a notebook, money, wallets, a telescope and a corkscrew were returned to his widow in May 1912 by the White Star Line, according to Henry Aldridge and Son, the auction house selling his possessions and other Titanic memorabilia. Kantor was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens.

His watch was previously sold at auction in 2018 for $57,500.

Of the timepieces that survived the shipwreck, most are stopped between 2:20 and 2:30, Findlay said. “It all depends when the individual went into the water,” he said. “It’s haunting.”

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