The Adventures of Two-Gun Cohen


How a poor Jewish boy from London’s East End became chief of security for Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese nationalist and revolutionary founder of modern China.

Read more at Asian Jewish Life

More about: Chiang Kai-shek, China, Israel, Morris Cohen, Sun Yat-sen, Zionism


Where Israel and the Diaspora Divide


According to Yossi Klein Halevi, while the majority of Israelis believe that the greatest current threat to Israel is a nuclear Iran, many if not most American Jews believe it is Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The two communities also divide over Israel’s sporadic wars with Hamas and Hizballah:

Israelis believe that, while none of these [mini-wars] are in themselves existential, their cumulative effect surely is. The purpose of the terror groups is to defeat us through exhaustion and self-doubt, confronting us with the choice between defending ourselves in inevitably ugly wars that lead to Israel’s increased isolation, or forfeiting our right to defend ourselves and causing Israelis to despair of our future in the Middle East.

As a result, Israelis have relearned the instinct of uniting under threat. We may go at each other viciously during election campaigns, but as soon as the rockets of Hamas or Hizballah start falling on the home front, Israel becomes an instant family. But that Israeli consensus no longer extends to the Diaspora, where voices opposing Israel—especially during our asymmetrical conflicts—are growing. . . .

At stake is nothing less than our ability to function as a people—one of the great achievements of the Zionist revolution. And so we are left with this challenge: how to remain faithful to our most deeply held truths about Israel’s predicament, while remaining faithful to our mutual covenant as a people.

Read more at Jewish Week

More about: American Jewry, American Zionism, Iran nuclear program, Israel & Zionism, Israel and the Diaspora, Terrorism

Arthur Miller’s Forgotten Play about the Holocaust


Incident at Vichy, first staged in 1965, is a one-act play set in a Nazi detention center in France. Most of the action is in the form of conversations among detainees awaiting interrogation. Maxim Shrayer argues for the play’s enduring worth:

Incident at Vichy is . . . often discussed in the context of Miller’s response to the [1961] Eichmann trial and its coverage by Hannah Arendt [in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil]. One third into the play, [the Austrian prince] von Berg says to [the Jewish doctor] Leduc: “Well, don’t you think Nazism . . . whatever else it may be . . . is an outburst of vulgarity? An ocean of vulgarity?”. . .

Yet Miller didn’t merely cast onto his play the shadows of Arendt’s discourse on the “banality of evil.” The dynamics of Incident at Vichy—especially of von Berg’s transition from a guilt-tormented bystander to an incidental rescuer—dramatically complicate Arendt’s thesis. While the play alleges that Nazi evil has its own banal music and its own cardboard-operatic complexity, it shows that personal sacrifice as a response to evil can never be banal. . . . If every person of conscience were to make one act of personal sacrifice, how many victims of genocide might have been saved? To have said this, loud and clear, in 1965 was no small feat for any American playwright, Jewish or not.

After years of teaching and thinking about Shoah literature, I have come to value this play above all of Arthur Miller’s, including Death of a Salesman. . . . But I wouldn’t be writing this tribute today were it not for the profound impression the play made on me when I first saw it in the spring of 1987 in Moscow, my native city. When I saw it then, I was a nineteen-year-old refusenik finally preparing to leave Russia. While I had experienced firsthand both the banality and the complexity of evil, I hadn’t heard of Arendt and was, in some sense, a perfect tabula rasa to take Miller’s play on its own terms.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Arthur Miller, Arts & Culture, Hannah Arendt, Holocaust, Holocaust fiction, Theater, Vichy France

Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Reformed?


Israel’s recent elections were a reminder for many of the instability of the country’s electoral system. Since 1988, not a single government has lived out its entire four-year term. Under the Basic Law, the seats of the Knesset are divided in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote won by each party. There are no electoral districts; nor is there a system (as in Britain and France) to ensure a clear victor in every election. Binyamin Lashkar argues that a modest change might do much good:

We need to be very careful when changing the rules of the game. There are always unexpected results. Perhaps we could try [to amend the laws so that] elections are held for the first 100 seats in the Knesset, and the party with the most votes will then be awarded the remaining twenty. This is a significant addition for winning; under such a system, the public will no doubt prefer voting for likely winners. . . . Such a change will create an incentive for parties to unite and will encourage the formation of two large parties which can easily run the country. And the land would be at peace—at least for four years.

Read more at Mida

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Israeli politics, Knesset


The History, Culture, and Language of the Jews of Bulgaria


Bulgaria, which has been home to Jewish communities since at least the 3rd century CE, gained a large Jewish population only when, after 1492, Jews expelled from Spain settled there, bringing their language and customs with them. During World War II, despite the fact that Bulgaria allied itself with Germany, the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Jews survived, migrating to Israel en masse after 1948. Marcel Israel discusses both the history of Bulgaria’s Jews and the current state of Jewish life there. (Interview by Linda Jiménez; audio, 18 minutes).

Read more at Radio Sefarad

More about: Bulgaria, East European Jewry, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Ladino, Romaniot Jewry, Sephardim, Spanish Expulsion

Is There Anything Special About Religion?


Recent debates over the meaning of religious freedom, argues Mark Bauerlein, often tend to ignore the idea—once taken for granted—that religion serves a distinct social and moral purpose:

[T]he Founders . . . placed religious liberty as the first guarantee in the Bill of Rights for a reason. They understood that religious conviction is different from other preferences. They were sensitive to its depths, to its definitive character, and most obviously to the fact that people who believe in God and belong to a church accept both as transcendent authorities.

But, of course, if you regard religion as just another human construct, then it has no claim higher than other claims. . . . The conclusion is inevitable once you conceive of religion as simply a group identity. At that point, the error of religious faith is to set its central object, God, above other groups’ central objects (for instance, same-sex desire) after having entered the public sphere.

Read more at First Things

More about: American founding, church and state, Freedom of Religion, Religion & Holidays, U.S. Constitution