The Story of Eastern Europe’s Most Famous Convert to Judaism May Not Be a Myth

July 26 2022

In the Great Synagogue of Vilna before World War II, on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, the congregation would recite a prayer in honor of Count Walentyn Potocki, a nobleman who, according to local legend, had converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake in punishment on that day in 1749. The count’s gravesite—destroyed with the rest of the cemetery by the Soviets—was frequently visited by the pious on the fast of the Ninth of Av. But the lack of corroborating contemporary documents has led scholars to cast doubts on the tale, and the website of Vilnius’s official Jewish community, following Wikipedia, dubs it a “myth.” Yosef Vilner argues that skeptics shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it:

As we read the [Wikipedia] article, we are informed that: . . . “the Polish historian Janusz Tazbir asserted that the story originated at the turn of the 19th century and was published in a Jewish periodical issued in London as The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel (vol. 8, 1822).” [But] The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel was a monthly periodical published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, by no means a “Jewish periodical.”

The abovementioned volume contains “Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Wolff,” who was a Jewish convert to Christianity. . . . In the spring of 1822, he met with Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, one of the leading rabbis in Jerusalem at the time. A neophyte Christian and a fervent missionary, Joseph Wolff initiated theological discussions with Rabbi Menachem Mendl in a disguised attempt to convert him to Christianity. Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Mendl, on the other hand, intended to bring Joseph Wolff back to the faith of his forefathers.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was one of the outstanding disciples of the Vina Gaon, [i.e., the famed talmudist Elijah Kramer], immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1808 and settled in Jerusalem in 1816. . . . There is little doubt that he heard the story [of Potocki] from rabbis of Vilna who were contemporaries to the trial and the execution in 1749.

As to Tazbir’s claim that executions on religious grounds were rare, Vilner notes that

in the span of a five-year period from 1748 to 1753, another two such executions occurred in Poland. Abram Michelevich, a Jew from Mohilev, and his Christian partner, Paraska Danilowna, were executed in Mohilev in 1748, Abraham for proselytizing and Paraska for apostasy. And on June 2, 1753, Rafal Sentimani was burned alive for having converted from Catholicism to Judaism on the outskirts of Vilna.

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Read more at Seforim

More about: Conversion, Jewish folklore, Jewish history, Polish Jewry, Vilna

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy