Sunday, 15 October 2017

Why They Keep Leaving Jews Out of the Holocaust

From RRW

As published in the Jerusalem Post - October 10, 2017



By Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 17 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.)

The Canadian government has announced it will correct a memorial plaque at its new National Holocaust Monument, which spoke of the “millions of men, women and children during the Holocaust,” but neglected to mention Jews. 

Unfortunately, Canadian Minister of Heritage Melanie Joly has compounded the original error, by announcing that the new plaque will acknowledge “the six million Jews, as well as the five million other victims, that were murdered during the Holocaust.”

There is, in fact, no historical basis for that “five million” figure. Yet it keeps cropping up, cited by people who apparently assume it’s true just because a lot of other people keep saying it is.

After critics blasted the Trump administration for neglecting to mention Jews in its January 2017 statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, White House spokesperson Hope Hicks said the administration was trying to be “inclusive of all those who suffered.” She then provided a link to a Huffington Post UK article titled “The Holocaust’s Forgotten Victims: the 5 Million Non-Jewish People Killed by the Nazis.”

A busy White House spokesperson doesn’t have time to start researching Holocaust statistics. That’s understandable. Evidently she assumed a reputable news outlet would not run such an article without basic fact-checking. Also understandable. But she was mistaken.

The author of the article was Louise Ridley, an assistant news editor at HuffPost UK who specializes in “media, social affairs and gender,” according to her tag line. Ridley described some of the groups that were persecuted, in differing degrees, by the Nazis, such as gays, Roma (Gypsies), and the disabled. Her list also included “communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists, and resistance fighters.” And she pointed out that the Nazis murdered several thousand priests. The Nazis also murdered millions of Polish civilians and Soviet prisoners of war. In fact, the total number of non-Jews killed by the Hitler regime far surpasses five million.

But none of that was part of the Holocaust. The Germans murdered a lot of innocent people, for a variety of reasons. But the only ones who were targeted for complete annihilation, and whom the Nazis hunted down, in country after country, for the sole purpose of murdering them, were the Jews. The term “Holocaust” was coined to refer to that specific historical event.

Don’t blame Louise Ridley or Hope Hicks for the confusion. It was Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter, who was first responsible for spreading the “five million” figure. Confronted many years ago by Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Wiesenthal said he invented the idea of “five million non-Jewish victims” because he thought it would help get non-Jews more interested in the Holocaust. One can understand Wiesenthal’s concern. But he chose the wrong way to address it.

The President’s Commission on the Holocaust, appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and chaired by Elie Wiesel, specifically warned against “any attempt to dilute” the Jewish nature of the Holocaust “in the name of misguided universalism.”

But the Wiesenthal formulation appealed to White House aides who liked the idea of making the Holocaust more ecumenical, even at the price of historical accuracy. As a result, Carter’s October 1979 executive order establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council—which then created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—referred to the Holocaust as “the systematic and State-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and some five million other peoples by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.”

Prof. Walter Reich, former executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, has written: “And so the executive order...officially defined the Holocaust in a way that realized Wiesel’s great fear–that the Holocaust would be defined as an event in which eleven million people, six million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, had been killed, and that the crucial distinction between the planned and systematic extermination of all Jews on racial grounds, and the killing of civilian non-Jews on, say, political grounds–in response to resistance, or because of acts of collective reprisal or brutality–would be lost.”

Simon Wiesenthal picked a number of non-Jewish victims that was high enough to seem substantial, but still a little less than the number of Jewish victims. He thought that formulation would still keep Jews as the primary focus. Evidently he didn’t realize how easy it would be for someone—even an American or Canadian government official—to slide down the slippery slope from “a Holocaust of Jews and non-Jews,” to a Holocaust without Jews at all. It’s just not that far from a Holocaust of everybody to a Holocaust of nobody in particular.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Tribute to my father who passed away last month

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Tribute to my Father, Harry First,
On the Occasion of His Sheloshim

My father passed away on September 2, at the age of 91. I wanted to share his life story.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1925. His mother died when he was 17. Shortly after his mother’s death, he enlisted in the US army. In the summer of 1944, at age 18, he was sent to France and served as a machine gunner. A few months later, his division was overtaken by the Nazis in Alsace-Lorraine and he was captured.
How did he survive in captivity? One of the first things he did was throw away his dog tag, so his captors would not know he was Jewish and give him “special treatment.” Because he knew Yiddish, he understood much of what his captors were saying and could even speak some German. But he had to avoid using certain Hebrew words that made their way into Yiddish that might give away his Jewish identity. He made sure to listen more than he spoke.

He remembers that the German guards were very anti-Semitic. Once a German guard showed him a picture of Hitler and said: “Do you know who this is? He is the man who took everything from the Jews and gave it to us.” And when President Roosevelt died in April 1945, they came into the barracks shouting that “Rosenfeld” was dead. To them, the U.S. President was a Jew named “Rosenfeld!”  (In previous columns, I have addressed how names often get transformed when going from one language to another. Here is another example!)

He often had to think fast. When a Nazi guard wondered where he had learned German, he told him that he was a student. The guard got suspicious. “If you are a student,” he asked, “why are you not an officer?”  My father says that he looked down at the ground as though ashamed and came up with the following response: “Because I drank too much.” The guard was satisfied with this answer. (My father later wondered whether the guard might also have had the same problem!)

While in captivity, he bartered his cigarettes for bread and potatoes. He also bartered his milk rations with captured Indian prisoners who had been serving in the British army. They would not eat the meat rations and wanted the milk.

My father he initially hid his Jewish identity from both his captors and fellow soldiers. But after several months an American soldier approached him and said that the prisoners would probably be dead within three days. What type of burial did he want?  My father recalled that the question really jarred him. The thought of a cross over his grave hit him so hard that for the first time he risked his life and admitted that he was Jewish. But it turned out that this soldier was working for the Germans. My father and the other captive soldiers who admitted to being Jewish were then singled out for harsher treatment.

When the war was over, he went to Brooklyn College and Law School on the "GI bill." The government paid for the education of its former soldiers.

He became a lawyer and encouraged my mother Lee to become a lawyer as well. They practiced law together for 20 years. After lawyers begin practicing, many have the urge to become judges. My father encouraged my mother to achieve this goal. In 1975, New York Governor Hugh Carey appointed her a Judge in the Workers Compensation court. She held this position for 12 years. (Her accomplishment was especially impressive since she had come to this country from Switzerland at age thirteen, not knowing any English.) My father retired from the practice of law in 2005, at the age of 80.

My father was always very optimistic. One of his favorite sayings was “when life gives you a lemon, you should turn it into lemonade.” After having being a teenager in the army with bullets and death all around him, nothing in any courtroom ever scared him. Also, his ability to think well on his feet, nurtured while in captivity, helped him when he was in court.

One time, my father was trying a case in Staten Island. A statement he made offended the judge, and the judge ordered him put in handcuffs. My father responded to the judge that he had fought the Nazis as a teenager in World War II and nothing that the judge did would scare him. The judge was so impressed that my father had fought the Nazis that he ordered the bailiff to undo the handcuffs and forgave whatever my father had done to offend him.

My father and mother were among the founding families of the Riverdale Jewish Center. My parents came to Riverdale in the 1950’s when there was practically nothing there. My parents were also very involved in the founding of  S.A.R. I was born in 1958. In the early sixties, the two dozen of us young Orthodox children in Riverdale needed a school to go to, so my parents helped found the “Riverdale Hebrew Day School.” In 1970, this small but growing school, merged with two other schools:  Akiba and Salanter. These schools were located elsewhere in the Bronx, in areas with declining Jewish populations.

One of the committees my father was on was the naming committee. He suggested naming the school “RASHI,” an acronym for:  Riverdale-Akiba-Salanter Hebrew Institute. But the representatives of the Salanter school insisted that the “S “ had to come first, since R. Salanter was a prominent figure, and that school had a longer history and more students than the Akiba and Riverdale schools. That is the inside story of how S.A.R. got its name. 

How did my parents meet? My mother’s father was an Orthodox rabbi and educator, Rabbi Benzion Blech. He always wanted my mother to marry someone Orthodox and very learned. But my mother had other ideas. While attending Brooklyn College, she saw my father from afar, while he was working as a librarian in Brooklyn College. He was attending Brooklyn Law School at the time. It was love at first sight for my mother. After she won my father over, came the harder challenge: convincing her father. My father was not Orthodox and had never met an Orthodox person before. He did not at all fit her father’s image of a son-in-law.

An old friend of my mother’s, “Chayele,” now advanced in years, recently told one of my sons the following story:  My mother and father had been dating, but Rabbi Blech did not know that they were dating. Chayele came up with an idea. She told my father to sit in the front of the room where Rabbi Blech was giving shiur. Every time Rabbi Blech finished a thought, my father should nod his head approvingly and mutter: "a gut vort."  My father did this and then after the shiur, as Chayele hoped, Rabbi Blech walked over to one of his talmidim and asked "who is this new illui in the front row? Maybe he's a shidduch for my daughter!"

I am sure that this story is not true! Nevertheless, in retelling this story, I see myself in the role of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.E.) In a famous passage (VII, 152), he explains that his role is to transmit the ancient stories that are told, even when he does not believe them. Sometimes entertainment value trumps truth!
The true story, as my mother relates in her book, Justice is Blonde, is that her father eventually realized that my mother was not going to marry the learned Torah scholars that he had hoped for and was set on marrying the handsome law student she had met in the library. Thus, she gradually won her father over to this shidduch with my father, who was willing to become Orthodox. However, the family legend is that Rabbi Blech prohibited everyone in his family from entering a library from that time onward! (I apologize for telling another humorous falsity here!)
One time a friend of my father’s warned him that by marrying my mother, he would not be able to eat in restaurants again. He was thrilled with the thought. Having lost his mother at age 17 and been eating out since then, he was looking forward to a life of eating at home.
My father put his life on the line to fight Hitler. God rewarded him with arichat yamim. May his memory be a blessing.
Like his father, Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney.  He has spent decades in the library and  became a Jewish history scholar as well. He can be reached at

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

"The Conditionality of Liberal Support for Israel,"

From RRW
The conditionality of liberal support for Israel

Matthew M. Hausman, ה' בתשרי תשע"ז, 9/25/2017

The recent flap over egalitarian worship at the Western Wall highlighted a disconnect with traditional standards, and the promotion of nontraditional agendas that are more political than spiritual.  Despite hysterical claims that the Israeli government would ban mixed worship at the Kotel, there in fact is an egalitarian pavilion that was never in jeopardy of being shut down.  The controversy reached a crescendo with a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, decrying both the incident and the broader refusal to recognize non-Orthodox authority in Israel.  The controversy has generated an avalanche of commentary – much of it from the nontraditional movements to inflame passions that may be less about the availability of mixed prayer services at the Wall than about the Israeli public’s ambivalence regarding liberal Judaism.

There have also been liberal threats to cease supporting Israel over the issue, though many liberals have already abandoned the Jewish State for reasons that have more to do with secular politics than religion. 

The Reform and Conservative movements have never flourished in Israel as in America, and the reason is not simply that the Orthodox have had a monopoly over the religious establishment since 1948.  Though Orthodox hegemony is certainly a fact, there has never been a demand for nontraditional alternatives by secular Israelis, for whom religious identity is not defined by movement affiliation or liberal politics.

Israelis seem to have little affinity for non-Orthodox ideologues who conflate Judaism with progressivism, or for the liberal compulsion to downplay radical Islam and validate supposedly moderate organizations that deny Jewish history and sovereignty...


Monday, 25 September 2017

JVO Blog: How Not To Do Teshuva

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

How Not To Do Teshuva

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Some Interesting High Holiday Words

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                             Some Interesting High Holiday Words

        Many interesting words come up in the context of the high holidays. (Many of the paytannim enjoyed using rare words!) I will discuss a few of them.
   D-F-Y (Dibarnu Dofi, from the Ashamnu prayer). This word, dalet-peh-yod, appears only one time in Tanakh, at Psalms 50:20: “You sit and speak about your brother; regarding the son of your mother you give DFY.”  From the context, it seems to be a type of slander. But what is its root and what exactly does it mean? Some relate it to the root G-D-F (blaspheme, defame, scorn). But why would the gimmel drop? Some relate it to the root H-D-F (push). The meaning would be “words that push someone away.” Some relate it to the word D-B-H, which means “slander” (see Num. 14:36). (The origin of this word is itself an interesting issue!)
      Whatever its origin, we do see from its use in Aramaic in the Talmud that D-F-Y means some type of defect. See, e.g., Pesachim 60b and Jastrow, p. 287.
  S-K-R (Sikur Ayin, from the Al Chet prayer). Most siddurim today record the first letter as a “sin,” even though the line is in the position of the samech. But we have evidence that when the “Al Chet” was originally composed, this word was written with a samech. Nevertheless, it is clear that both the lines “netiyat garon” and “sikur ayin” were derived from Isaiah 3:16, where the haughty daughters of Zion are described as “netuyot garon” and “mesakrot einayim,” and “mesakrot” is spelled with a “sin.”
          So what did the root Sin-Kuf-Resh mean in the book of Isaiah? This is the only time this root appears in Tanakh, so no one knows for certain.  Rashi on Isaiah 3:16 offers two interpretations: “looking,” and “putting red make-up on their eyes.”  The basis for these interpretations is that in rabbinic times there was a root in Hebrew Samech-Kuf-Resh which had two different meanings: a “looking” meaning, and a “painting red” meaning. Probably, Rashi’s thinking was that one of these was the original meaning of Sin-Kuf-Resh, even though the spelling changed over the centuries to samech.
          When the “sikur ayin” line was composed for the Al Chet prayer, the word was spelled with a samech. We know what the root Samech-Kuf-Resh meant in Mishnaic-Talmudic times. It meant “looking” or “painting a red stripe.” Since the latter would be an unlikely meaning in the context of the Al Chet prayer, the sin of sikur ayin must have something to do with “looking.” Based on sources such as Bereshit Rabbah 18:2, it seems that the transgression referred to is looking around too much with one’s eyes, i.e., prying into the affairs of others.
         S-L-D  (“viysaledu ve-chilah panecha,” ArtScroll Rosh Ha-Shanah Mahzor, p. 496: “in your presence they will pray with trepidation”). The root Samech-Lamed-Dalet appears only one time in Tanakh, at Job 6:10. The Targum translates it with a word derived from the Aramaic root bet-ayin-yod, which means “request, pray.” Based on this, the word is used by the paytannim throughout the liturgy as if it is a synonym for  “pray.” But we know the root S-L-D from the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is found in the expression “yad soledet bo.” Most likely, it means “spring back,” both in this expression (springs back from the heat) and at Job. 6:10, and it does not mean “request, pray.”

         M-H-L (Mehilah): (I am using H here to represent the letter het.) I have discussed this root at length in an article in akirah vol. 18 (available at their site, and republished in my 2015 book). I will only make a few points here:
            -This root never appears as a verb in Tanakh. (Admittedly, there are several names in Tanakh that seem to derive from the letters M-H-L. One example is Mahlat, wife of Esav. But most likely these M-H-L names were given based on the “joy” meaning of the letters M-H-L, which ultimately derives from a different root: either Het-Lamed-Lamed or Het-Vav-Lamed.)
            -The word for “forgiveness” in Tanakh is S-L-H.  In Tanakh it is always God doing the forgiveness or being asked for forgiveness; S-L-H was not a word used to describe individuals granting forgiveness. In Biblical times, we do not know how an individual would have said: “Forgive me, I am sorry that my camel bumped into yours.”
             -The letters M-H-L with a meaning like “forgiveness” first appear in a Dead Sea text. Later, the word  is found in the Mishnah.
            - When we look at the letters M-H-L in the word mehilah, a main issue is whether that initial M is a root letter. Perhaps the root was really H-L-L, in one of its several meanings.
             -Alternatively, the Tanakh includes a root M-H-E with a meaning like “erase, remove.” Perhaps M-H-L was derived from this root.
             -That the verb MHL is not found in Tanakh explains many instances in our tefillot where a citation to a verse about mehilah might be expected and yet none is provided. A good example is the “zechor lanu” section of our selihot (The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 830).
             -From the Cairo Genizah, we learn that the Palestinian version of the daily Amidah did not include the word M-H-L in the “selihah” blessing (in contrast to the prevalent version today). After the initial phrase beginning with S-L-H, the next phrase began with M-H-E.
             -With regard to the possible differences between selihah and mehilah, see my article in akirah.
                   I will now conclude with my favorite high holiday word:
    P-Sh-P-Sh    The Rama writes (Shulchan Aruch, OH 603) that during the ten days of repentance, everyone is supposed to “le-chapes u-le-fashpesh be-maasav.” We all know that those last two words  mean “examine his deeds.” But where exactly did this root P-Sh-P-Sh come from?
                   It turns out that P-Sh-P-Sh is the word for bedbug! See the entry in Jastrow for “pishpash.” It is found in Mishnah Terumut 8:2, and in both Talmuds.
                      Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, writes that some connect the verb P-Sh-P-Sh with the word “mishmesh” (touch, feel), from the root M-Sh-Sh. But he concludes that it is more probable that the verb P-Sh-P-Sh comes from the noun for “bedbug,” and that the original meaning of the verb was “he searched himself for bedbugs.” From this arose the meaning “he searched in general.” Whoever would have imagined!
                       But I do admit that Jastrow does not seem to connect the “search/examine” and “bedbug” meanings. He lists them in separate entries.
                       I also have to point out that the term “P-Sh-P-Sh be-maasav” did not originate in the high holiday context. The Talmud, Berachot 5a, uses the term as the recommended course for someone who sees that troubles have come upon him. See similarly Tosefta Negaim, chapter 6. Nevertheless, since the Rama and his predecessors the Meiri and the Maharil have all used the term in the context of the high holiday period, this is justification for my including this term in this column!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015). He can be reached at  He is still working on the meaning of the root Kaf-Peh-Resh.  He will hopefully address that one around Yom Kippur time next year.