This Shabbat: Parshat Re’eh, Mevarchim Chodesh (Blessing the New Month)

On the last Shabbat of each Jewish month, Jews traditionally recite Birkat HaChodesh in synagogue, a special blessing heralding Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. This Shabbat is one of those very special Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat). Jews will be reciting Birkat HaChodesh for the month of Elul, which will begin next Friday, August 21. Elul is a very special month in the Jewish calendar. Since it is the last month of the Jewish year, we begin emotionally preparing for Rosh Hashanah, which will begin on the first day of Tishrei, exactly one month after Rosh Chodesh Elul. To get our spirits ready for Rosh Hashana, it is traditional to blow the shofar and recite Chapter 27 of Psalms each day.

Birkat HaChodesh, the Blessing of the New Month, allows us to reflect upon the month that has passed and think about our hopes and wishes for the month to come. In this time of pandemic, when sometimes the days seem to flow into one another with no end, it can be rejuvenating and meaningful to take stock of where we are and where we hope to be. What are your wishes and prayers for the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year of 5780?


This Week in Jewish History

August 16, 1913 - Menachem Begin is born

Menachem Begin was the sixth Prime Minister of Israel and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat for signing a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Begin's life as a Zionist leader is a storied one, and contains too many twists and turns to properly address in a short paragraph - but here is a taste! Born in Brest-Litovsk in Russia, Begin became a disciple of Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky as a young adult and quickly rose in the ranks of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar. Begin moved to British Mandatory Palestine in 1942, escaping Poland because he was a soldier in the Polish Army. Shortly after arriving in Palestine, he joined the Irgun, an underground Jewish militia founded by Jabotinsky. The Irgun fought the British occupation of Palestine by engaging in terrorist tactics such as bombing the British administrative headquarters in the King David Hotel. The Zionist establishment in Palestine was often at odds with the Irgun, seeing its extremist tactics as undermining Jewish efforts to obtain a homeland. However, after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Begin was elected to the first Knesset at the head of the right wing Herut party, which he founded. After nearly three decades of Labor Party dominance in Israeli government, in 1977, the Likud, a union of Herut and other right leaning parties, won the Israeli elections and Menachem Begin became Prime Minister of Israel. In an incredible turn of events, after Egyptian leader Anwar el-Sadat landed in Israel in a historic visit to seek peace, Menachem Begin became the first Israeli leader to sign a peace treaty with an Arab nation. In the ensuing years, Begin oversaw the divisive evacuation of Israeli troops and settlements from the Sinai Desert which was returned to Egypt as part of the peace treaty. He also authorized the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to fight the PLO which was ensconced there. That invasion led to Israel becoming mired in an unpopular and protracted war in Lebanon. Ultimately, Begin, depressed by political challenges and the death of his wife Aliza, resigned as Prime Minister in October 1983. He spent the rest of his life in seclusion, ultimately dying of a heart attack in 1992. Today, Begin is seen as a flawed but transformational leader in the history of Israel. Interested in learning more about Menachem Begin? We recommend reading The Revolt, Begin’s autobiographical account of his involvement in fighting the British in Mandatory Palestine and also Daniel Gordis’ 2015 biography, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.

August 17, 1915 - Leo Frank is lynched

On April 27, 1913, the dead body of a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan was discovered in the cellar of the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta, Georgia where she had been working. The main suspect in the murder was an American Jew named Leo Frank, who was the director of the factory. Frank, who held positions of Jewish leadership in Atlanta, was arrested and wrongly convicted of Phagan’s murder although there was no clear evidence connecting him to the crime. A great deal of antisemitic rhetoric arose out of the coverage of the case, leading many Jews to think of Leo Frank as an American Alfred Dreyfus of the infamous French Dreyfus Affair, in which Dreyfus was framed for treason simply because he was a Jew. On August 17, 1915, while Frank was serving time in prison for the murder, a mob seeking to avenge the death of Mary Phagan broke into the jail, dragged Frank out and lynched him. His death made headlines around the nation and was seen by Jews as a frightening reminder of the existence of antisemitism even in free and democratic America. Researchers and historians now believe that Mary Phagan’s murderer was likely Jim Conley, a janitor in the building. In 1986, Frank was posthumously pardoned, although his conviction was never overturned. 

August 20, 1893 - Jewish ritual slaughter is banned in Switzerland

Observant Jews will only eat meat that has been slaughtered according to strict Jewish laws. With rising antisemitism in late 19th century Europe came increased scrutiny of Jewish ritual slaughter, known in Hebrew as shechita. In 1892, the Swiss Animal Protection Association lobbied for shechita to be outlawed in Switzerland. Jewish law does not permit the stunning or anesthetizing of animals before slaughter, although it does require that the slaughter be done with a particular type of very sharp knife that kills the animal instantaneously in order to prevent suffering. While anesthetizing of animals can prevent pain in the slaughter process, it is generally done by electric shock, which can be painful to animals and is not always effective. Although the Swiss Animal Protection Association claimed that their campaign was due to what they said was the inhumane nature of Jewish slaughter, historians agree that they were actually motivated by antisemitism. In the antisemitic climate of late 19th century Switzerland, their efforts were successful, and on August 20, 1893, Jewish slaughter became illegal. To this day, Jewish ritual slaughter is illegal in Switzerland, and Swiss Jews must import kosher meat from other places in Europe. Observant Swiss Jews continue to see this law as an infringement on their right to freely observe their religion. 


For Shabbat Table Discussion: What is all the talk about George Soros?

Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros has been in the news again this past week. Soros, who turned 90 this past Wednesday, survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary as a child because his family obtained false papers defining them as Christians. After the war, he moved to London and then to America in 1956 where he became a successful investor and financier. Soros is a prodigious donor to the Democratic party and other liberal and progressive causes. He has been the subject of many alt-right antisemitic conspiracy theories painting him as a Nazi collaborator and a puppet master who is controlling politics and global finance from behind the scenes. Labeling Jews as secretly controlling world politics and finance is an old antisemitic trope, perhaps most famously espoused by the early 20th century Russian forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion

On Tuesday, Republican congressional candidate Margery Taylor Greene, who has trafficked in antisemitism, accusing Soros and “the Rothschilds” of being behind QAnon, a conspiracy theory about a group of people working to bring down President Trump, won the Republican primary in Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Because the district is one of the safest for the GOP in Georgia, it is very likely that Taylor will win the general election in November, thereby becoming a member of Congress. Republican party leaders did not speak out against Greene, although the Republican Jewish Coalition pointedly endorsed her opponent. When she won the primary, President Trump tweeted his congratulations, calling Greene a “real WINNER.” 

In related news, yesterday, Facebook announced that they had amended their hate speech policy to prohibit statements about Jewish control of world governments, economies or the media. AJC, which engages in ongoing discussions with Facebook regarding issues of antisemitism and hate speech, called the change “a step in the right direction.” 

Questions for discussion at your table:

  • Obviously, giving millions of dollars to causes that represent a particular political perspective does have a significant impact on the success of those causes. How can we tell the difference between legitimate criticism of big money influence on American politics and antisemitic conspiracy theories? 
  • The Alt-Right does not hold a monopoly on antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish control of politics and finance. Those on the left such as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have also peddled such tropes. How can we as a Jewish community stand up against these sly and insidious antisemitic terms regardless of which side of the political spectrum they come from? How can we help Americans understand when rhetoric veers into the antisemitic?

For more on antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros listen to the July 30 episode of AJC’s podcast, People of the Pod in which AJC’s Manya Brachear Pashman interviews Emily Tamkin, author of The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for Open Society. For more about antisemitic tropes about Jews and power, see AJC’s Translate Hate, a guide to help unpack terms that are often overtly or covertly antisemitic. In particular, take a look at the definitions for “conspiracy theory” and “control.”

Shabbat shalom!

שבת שלום!