Tom Gross Mideast Media Analysis

Conversations with friends: Evgeny Kissin on music, the Yiddish language, Israel and the Soviet Union

May 27, 2020



[Note by Tom Gross]

Just for fun, in recent days I have been conducting some informal zoom conversations with friends.

Here is the one with Evgeny Kissin, described by some, such as The Economist magazine, to be “the world’s most acclaimed classical pianist.”

He talks about being a child prodigy; his favorite concert halls and musicians; learning new repertoires and visiting Kafka’s grave during coronavirus lockdown; about Stalin’s murder of Yiddish writers, his own love for Yiddish, his support for Israel, and his political views about Russia and the West.

(Discussion by zoom while under coronavirus lockdown, on May 24, 2020)





Here are four extracts from the above video, in case you don’t want to watch the whole video, to make it easier for different people who have different interests to watch only single segments. (Readers particularly interested in politics and the Middle East may want to watch the penultimate video below.)

Evgeny Kissin on his favorite concert halls and musicians


Kissin recites his Yiddish translation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech


Kissin on Israel, Soviet anti-Zionism and western complicity with communist crimes


Kissin on Stalin’s murder of Yiddish writers, and Kissin’s own attempts to revive Yiddish


And Evgeny Kissin playing a Chopin piano concerto with the Israel Philharmonic:


See also: Conversations with friends about their lives (David Pryce-Jones, Lord Young, Bahra Saleh)


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

Conversations with friends about their lives (David Pryce-Jones, Lord Young, Bahra Saleh)

Just for fun, in recent coronavirus lockdown days I have been conducting some informal zoom conversations with friends of mine. Three of them are below. -- Tom Gross


David Pryce-Jones (London, Wales, Florence)

Writer David Pryce-Jones discusses his childhood escape from the Nazis, his friendships with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Koestler, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, John Gross and others; and Israel, Italy, and the New York Times. Discussion by zoom in Wales, while under coronavirus lockdown, on May 21, 2020.


Rt Hon Lord (David) Young of Graffham

Lord David Young talks about his life, his ten years in Downing Street working closely with Margaret Thatcher, his five years in Downing Street with David Cameron, and about Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and modern multicultural Britain. Discussion by zoom in Graffham, Sussex, in England, while under coronavirus lockdown, on May 20, 2020.


Bahra Saleh (Kirkuk, Iraq)

Tom Gross talks with Bahra Saleh about her life and about Kurdistan. Discussion by zoom in Kirkuk, Iraq, while under coronavirus lockdown, on May 20, 2020.


*See also: Conversations with friends: Evgeny Kissin on music, the Yiddish language, Israel and the Soviet Union


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

America’s longest war: How the Taliban outlasted the US (& ISIS reviving?)

May 26, 2020

A Taliban commander told the New York Times this week: “Our jihad will continue until doomsday”



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two pieces below. The first is a lengthy news report from the New York Times. It says that “the Taliban stand on the brink of realizing their most fervent desire: U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan. They have given up little of their extremist ideology to do it.”

The second piece is about how, a year after U.S.-backed forces seized the last remnant of territory under Islamic State rule in Syria, some 10,000 captured ISIS prisoners being held in Kurdish-guarded prisons pose a significant risk. This follows two uprisings in recent weeks at the largest prison in Hasaka, which western-allied Kurdish forces struggled to contain.

A mass breakout of prisoners, including foreign Islamists from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and other countries, poses a significant threat, says the Pentagon in a new report.

(Incidentally, I watched the Swedish drama “Caliphate” on Netflix earlier this month, and although it is of course dramatized, besides being a fairly gripping eight-part series, it provides some indication of the continuing threat to European countries, in this case Sweden.)




How the Taliban Outlasted a Superpower: Tenacity and Carnage
The Taliban stand on the brink of realizing their most fervent desire: U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan. They have given up little of their extremist ideology to do it.
By Mujib Mashal
New York Times
May 26, 2020

ALINGAR, Afghanistan – Under the shade of a mulberry tree, near grave sites dotted with Taliban flags, a top insurgent military leader in eastern Afghanistan acknowledged that the group had suffered devastating losses from American strikes and government operations over the past decade.

But those losses have changed little on the ground: The Taliban keep replacing their dead and wounded and delivering brutal violence.

“We see this fight as worship,” said Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, the head of the Taliban’s military commission in Laghman Province, as dozens of his fighters waited nearby on a hillside. “So if a brother is killed, the second brother won’t disappoint God’s wish – he’ll step into the brother’s shoes.”

It was March, and the Taliban had just signed a peace deal with the United States that now puts the movement on the brink of realizing its most fervent desire – the complete exit of American troops from Afghanistan.

They have outlasted a superpower through nearly 19 years of grinding war. And dozens of interviews with Taliban officials and fighters in three countries, as well as with Afghan and Western officials, illuminated the melding of old and new approaches and generations that helped them do it.

After 2001, the Taliban reorganized as a decentralized network of fighters and low-level commanders empowered to recruit and find resources locally while the senior leadership remained sheltered in neighboring Pakistan.

The insurgency came to embrace a system of terrorism planning and attacks that kept the Afghan government under withering pressure, and to expand an illicit funding engine built on crime and drugs despite its roots in austere Islamic ideology.

At the same time, the Taliban have officially changed little of their harsh founding ideology as they prepare to start direct talks about power-sharing with the Afghan government.

They have never explicitly renounced their past of harboring international terrorists, nor the oppressive practices toward women and minorities that defined their term in power in the 1990s. And the insurgents remain deeply opposed to the vast majority of the Western-supported changes in the country over the past two decades.

“We prefer the agreement to be fully implemented so we can have an all-encompassing peace,” Amir Khan Mutaqi, the chief of staff to the Taliban’s supreme leader, said in a rare interview in Doha, Qatar’s capital, with The New York Times. “But we also can’t just sit here when the prisons are filled with our people, when the system of government is the same Western system, and the Taliban should just go sit at home.”

“No logic accepts that – that everything stays the same after all this sacrifice,” he said, adding, “The current government stands on foreign money, foreign weapons, on foreign funding.”

A grim history looms. The last time an occupying power left Afghanistan – when the U.S.-backed mujahedeen insurgency helped push the Soviets to withdraw in 1989 – guerrillas toppled the remaining government and then fought each other over its remains, with the Taliban coming out on top.

Now, even as United States forces and the insurgents have stopped attacking each other, the Taliban intensified their assaults against the Afghan forces before a rare three-day truce this week for the Eid holiday. Their tactics appear aimed at striking fear.

Many Afghans fear the insurgents will bully negotiators into giving them a dominant stake in the government – whose institutions they have undermined and whose officials they continue to kill with truck bombs and ambushes.

Taliban field commanders made clear that they were holding fire only on American troops to give them safe passage – “so they dust off their buttocks and depart,” as one senior Taliban commander in the south said. But there was no reserve about continuing to attack the Afghan Security Forces.

“Our fight started before America – against corruption. The corrupt begged America to come because they couldn’t fight,” a young commander of the Taliban elite “Red Unit” in Alingar said. He was a toddler when the United States invasion began, and met up with a Times reporting team in the area where government control gives way to the Taliban.


“Until an Islamic system is established,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “our jihad will continue until doomsday.”

The Taliban now have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 active fighters and tens of thousands of part-time armed men and facilitators, according to Afghan and American estimates.

It is not, however, a monolithic organization. The insurgency’s leadership built a war machine out of disparate and far-flung parts, and pushed each cell to try to be locally self-sufficient. In areas they control, or at least influence, the Taliban also try to administer some services and resolve disputes, continuously positioning themselves as a shadow government.

“This is a network insurgency – it’s very decentralized, it has the ability for the commanders at the district level to mobilize resources, and be able to logistically prepare,” said Timor Sharan, an Afghan researcher and former senior government official. “But at the top, they gained legitimacy from a single source, a single leader.”

Over the years, the group’s top leadership has mostly remained in Pakistan, where the insurgency’s reconstitution was supported by Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military spy agency. Those havens have offered continuity even as the rank and file suffer heavy casualties in Afghanistan.

At times, the casualty rates went so high – losing up to hundreds of fighters a week as the Americans carried out an airstrike campaign in which they dropped nearly 27,000 bombs since 2013 – that the Taliban developed a system of reserve forces to keep applying pressure where it had taken losses, according to the group’s regional commanders. Last year was particularly devastating, with Afghan officials claiming they were killing Taliban at unprecedented rates: more than a 1,000 a month, perhaps a quarter of their estimated forces by year’s end. In addition to airstrikes by Afghan forces, the U.S. dropped about 7,400 bombs, perhaps the most in a decade.

Even at the peak of the long American military presence and the coordinating effort to help the Afghan government win hearts and minds in the countryside, the Taliban were able to keep recruiting enough young men to keep fighting. Families keep answering the Taliban’s call, and booming profits help hold it all together.

Mawlawi Qais explained how his military commission in Laghman Province, where Alingar is, has an active “Guidance and Invite” committee whose members go to mosques and Quranic lessons to recruit new fighters. But he noted that most recruits come from current fighters working to enlist friends and relatives.

There has been a constant need for new blood, particularly over the past decade. “In our immediate dilgai alone,” he said, referring to a unit of 100 to 150 fighters, “we have lost 80 men.”

Still, fighters keep signing up, he said, in part because of deep loathing for the Western institutions and values the Afghan government has taken up from its allies.

“Our problem isn’t with their flesh and bones,” Mawlawi Qais said. “It is with the system.”

Afghan officials say that in places where the Taliban don’t have stable control for local recruitment, they still draw heavily on the approximately two million Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan, and on the seminaries there, to recruit fighters for front-line fighting.

Taliban recruitment officials and commanders say they don’t pay regular salaries. Instead, they cover the expenses of the fighters. What has helped in recent years was giving their commanders a freer hand in how they used their local resources – and war booty.

Some revenue collection, such as taxing goods, was centralized. But increasingly, the movement became deeply intertwined with local crime and narcotics concerns, adding to the financial incentives to keep up their holy war.

“The friends who are with us in the front lines of jihad, they don't get exact salaries,” said Mullah Baaqi Zarawar, a unit commander in Helmand Province. “But we take care of their pocket money, the gas for their motorcycle, their trip expenses. And if they capture spoils, that is their earning.”

In areas where they are comfortably in control, many Taliban fighters, and even the leaders, keep other jobs.

During his interview, Mawlawi Qais paused to apologize for his dusty clothes – he said he had been milling flour all morning, which is his day job. Many of his fighters also have second jobs when not fighting.

To help ensure that recruitment streams would not dry up, the insurgency prioritized an increasingly sophisticated information operation, shaping the Taliban’s narrative through slick video productions and an aggressive social media brigade.

Instances of U.S. or Afghan forces causing civilian casualties, whether real cases or made up, are splashed across social media in conjunction with Taliban training videos of their fighters jumping through fiery rings and drilling with their weapons. The message has been consistent: To join us is to take up a life of heroism and sacrifice.

They had powerful symbols to draw on: They were fighting for a supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who sent his own son as a suicide bomber for the cause, against a government propped up by an invading military and led by officials who often keep their families abroad.

After their deal with the Americans, the Taliban’s propaganda has only intensified, and has taken on an ominously triumphal note. In his annual message for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, released last Wednesday, the Taliban’s supreme leader issued a promise of amnesty for enemies who renounced their loyalty to the Afghan government.

Alingar is also an example of how the Taliban have figured out local arrangements to act like a shadow government in areas where they have established control. The insurgents collect taxes, sending around 20 percent to the central leadership while keeping the rest for the fighters locally, Taliban leaders in the district said. They have committees overseeing basic services to the public, including health, education and running local bazaars.

Supplies and salaries for health clinics and schools are still paid for by the Afghan government and its international donors. But the Taliban administer it all in their way – a compromise reluctantly agreed to by aid organizations since the alternative would be no services. And the insurgents’ approach to schooling is giving the strongest evidence yet that the movement is clinging to its old ways of repressing women, art and culture.

Out of the 57 schools in Alingar, 17 are girls schools, according to Mawlawi Ahmadi Haqmal, the head of the education committee in Alingar. But the local Taliban insist that girls’ education must end after sixth grade, at odds with international requirements for education aid. In the curriculum, the Taliban have also slashed culture as a subject because it promoted “vulgarities such as music,” Mawlawi Haqmal said.

After the Taliban swept to power in the 1990s, defeating other factions in the vacuum left behind by the Soviet withdrawal, the United States seemed mostly indifferent to the group’s oppressive rule. But that changed in 2001, when Al Qaeda leaders taking shelter in Afghanistan carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on American soil.

Al Qaeda’s Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, had spent a long time in Afghanistan, and once even fought on the American side against the Soviets at the end of the Cold War. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, allowed him to stay in Afghanistan and the two had grown close, with Bin Laden pledging allegiance to him as an Islamic emir.

Wounded and seeking immediate revenge, the Bush administration had no patience for the Taliban’s proposals to find a way to get rid of Bin Laden without directly handing him to the Americans. The United States began a military invasion.

A group that had found success against Afghan factions withered quickly in the face of the U.S. airstrikes. The Taliban’s fighters went home as the Islamic Emirate disintegrated. Their leaders crossed the border into Pakistan or ended up in American prisons.

Many Taliban commanders interviewed for this article said that in the initial months after the invasion, they could scarcely even dream of a day they might be able to fight off the U.S. military. But that changed once their leadership regrouped in safe havens provided by Pakistan’s military – even as the Pakistanis were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid.

From that safety, the Taliban planned a longer war of attrition against U.S. and NATO troops. Starting with more serious territorial assaults in 2007, the insurgents revived and refined an old blueprint the United States had funded against the Soviets in the same mountains and terrain – but now it was deployed against the American military.

“Most of our leaders were part of that anti-Soviet war. This was our land, our territory, and our colleagues had familiarity,” said Mr. Mutaqi, the Taliban chief of staff. “Afghanistan’s history was in front of us – when the British came, their force was bigger than the Afghans, when the Soviets came, their force was bigger, and the same was true with the Americans – their force was much larger than ours. So that gave us hope that, eventually, the Americans, too, would leave.”

From the start, the insurgents seized on the corruption and abuses of the Afghan government put in place by the United States, and cast themselves as arbiters of justice and Afghan tradition – a powerful part of their continued appeal with many rural Afghans in particular. With the United States mostly distracted with the war in Iraq, the insurgency widened its ambitions and territory.

By the time President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Taliban had spread so far that he raised the number of American troops on the ground to about 100,000. In addition to an Afghan Army and police that eventually grew to about 300,000 fighters, the U.S. military also propped up local Afghan militias as urgent measures. The war had entered a vicious cycle of killing and being killed.

In the second decade of the insurgency, the Taliban have been defined by the ruthlessness of their violence – and by their ability to strike at will even in the most guarded parts of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

They have packed sewage trucks, vans and even an ambulance with explosives, striking at the heart of the city with hundreds of casualties. They have penetrated the ranks of Afghan forces with infiltrators who have opened fire at Afghan commanders, and once even at the top American general in Afghanistan. Mistrust between the Afghan and American forces increased to a point where American generals warned that the mission to train the Afghan forces wasn’t sustainable.

The Taliban revived the old fund-raising networks in Arab states that had helped finance the U.S.-supported mujahedeen movement against the Soviets.

But the insurgency also got much better at developing revenue within Afghanistan, estimated now at hundreds of millions of dollars each year. They extracted from illegal mines, taxed the flow of goods and traffic and, particularly, seized on profits from opium.

A prime example of how the Taliban took old guerrilla experiences to new brutality was the development of the Haqqani network and its integration into the leadership.

The network’s patriarch, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was seen as an effective and cooperative American ally in the fight against the Soviets. But in the war against the Americans, the Haqqanis ended up as the only arm of the Taliban to be designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist group.

The Haqqanis turned their old smuggling routes and networks into a pipeline for suicide bombers and well-trained fighters who struck American targets and assaulted critical Afghan government agencies.

Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin, was promoted to be the Taliban’s deputy leader and a senior operations commander in 2015. The younger Mr. Haqqani – originally from eastern Afghanistan – often sent his elite trainers to embed with Taliban units in the insurgency’s southern heartland, Afghan and Western officials said, cranking up the lethality of their violence.

When the United States began negotiating in 2018 with a delegation of the Taliban in Doha, across the table were architects of the insurgency – and the survivors of it. Nearly half of the Taliban negotiating delegation had spent a decade each in Guantánamo.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the lead Taliban negotiator, had just been released after 10 years in Pakistani prison, detained because he had made contacts for peace talks with the Afghan government without the blessing of the Pakistani military establishment that had nurtured the insurgency.

Each session, Mullah Baradar would arrive at the venue of talks, a posh diplomatic club, in a pair of black Chevrolet Impala sedans. Half a dozen guards in white robes would rush between the American-made vehicles and the gate, one holding open the car door, ushering the frail, turbaned leader up the stairs into the marble hall where the Americans were impatient to end the war.

As the two sides talked, car bombs rammed into military bases back in Afghanistan, and Taliban suicide squads continued attacking government offices, often causing mass civilian casualties. Several times the violence complicated or even derailed the delicate talks.

One main concern among American and Afghan officials was whether the Taliban’s political wing and the likes of Mullah Baradar had true influence among the insurgency’s military commanders.

Another question was whether the Taliban would truly turn against terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda once the Americans left.

During one session last spring, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Austin S. Miller, appealed to the Taliban to find common cause with the American counterterrorism mission.

“Our guys could continue killing each other,” he said, “or we could kill ISIS together.”

American officials say that President Trump’s negative view of the talks improved dramatically when the Taliban began delivering on that front. The insurgents intensified pressure on the Islamic State foothold in the east just as the United States bombed them from the sky and Afghan commandos squeezed from another direction.

Still, when it came to Al Qaeda, the group walked a fine line in the agreement with the United States – refusing the descriptor of “terrorist,” a word that bogged down the negotiations for several emotional days. The Taliban showed no remorse for its past cooperation with Al Qaeda, promising only to not allow Afghan soil be used for launching attacks in the future.

About two weeks after the Taliban signed their deal with the United States, Al Qaeda in a statement hailed it as a “great victory” against America.

The Taliban demonstrated their ability to control their ranks through one more test. When the two sides conditioned the signing of their agreement on a week of partial truce, violence levels dropped by as much as 80 percent, Afghan and American officials said.

That had not been a sure thing. Mullah Baradar steadfastly refused to make the seven days a complete cease-fire – a move that many Afghan and Western observers believe gave the Taliban leadership some space to not lose face in case any rogue cells disobeyed the order to stop fighting.

There were other signs that Mullah Baradar was having to keep up a sophisticated juggling act behind the scenes. Some Afghan officials said they had intelligence that Mullah Baradar had issued an ultimatum to the Taliban’s military wing, saying that if it insisted on trying to win by force, there was no need for him to keep spending his days arguing with the Americans word by word, comma by comma.

When the week of violence reduction began, Taliban commanders were scrambling – on WhatsApp groups and on military radio channels – to bring their fighters and units into line. Victory is close and this is what the leadership wants and we need to deliver, they would tell their fighters, according to intelligence intercepts shared with The New York Times by Afghan officials.

One thing that slowed down the negotiations with the United States was that the Taliban’s political leaders wanted to take every small issue down to their commanders, bringing them on board to avoid rebellions and breakaways.

For weeks, the turbaned negotiators would sit across from the Americans in conference rooms in Doha and then send delegations back to Pakistan, for consultations with the leadership.

In between, there was always WhatsApp. When the insurgent negotiators took punctual breaks from talks for prayer, they would pick up their phones from the locker box on the way. The incoming messages beeped throughout the prayer in the mosque, and the scrolling would begin as soon as hands touched the face in culmination of worship.

Taliban officials say what sets them apart from the factions that fought against the Soviet Union and then broke into anarchy over power is that their allegiance was divided to more than a dozen leaders. The Taliban began their insurgency under the authority of a single emir, Mullah Omar. But the insurgency reached its greatest heights more recently, with a leadership structure that depends on consensus and then strikes with a heavy fist against any who disobey from within.

Even as new commanders emerged in recent years, much of the leadership council is made up of the older crew that established the insurgency in the years after the U.S. invasion. The old political leaders acknowledge the balancing act they face is like no challenge the insurgency has faced before. They have made sure to tightly control the rationale for their violence – it is a holy war for as long as their supreme leader and clerics decree it to be.

Mr. Sharan, the analyst, said that unity has been easier to maintain with a common enemy, the U.S. military, to fight. But if the Taliban eventually win their dream of an Afghanistan without the Americans, he said, they will face many of the challenges that once dragged the country into anarchy.

“The relationship between the political leaders and the military commanders who have monopoly over resources and violence will be tested,” he said. “The 1990s civil war in Kabul happened not because the political leaders couldn’t agree among each other – it happened because the commanders who had monopoly of violence at the bottom wanted to expand on their resources. The political leaders were hopeless in controlling them.”

(Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and Zabihullah Ghazi from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.)



ISIS Prisoners Threaten U.S. Mission in Northeastern Syria
Overcrowded, makeshift prisons and camps and fears of Covid-19 have led to two riots by hardened fighters.
By Eric Schmitt
New York Times
May 26, 2020

WASHINGTON – A year after American-backed forces seized the last remnant of territory under Islamic State rule in Syria, some 10,000 captured ISIS fighters in Kurdish-run wartime prisons pose “a significant risk” to the United States mission in the country’s northeast, military commanders say.

Hardened ISIS fighters protesting the dire conditions in their makeshift confines, including the potential spread of Covid-19, have rioted at the largest prison in Hasaka twice in the last two months. The uprisings were quelled, but they underscore the “high-impact risk of a mass breakout,” American commanders told investigators from the Pentagon inspector general’s office.

These findings, contained in the inspector general’s latest quarterly report on the U.S. military missions in Iraq and Syria, issued earlier this month, represent new and alarming warnings for an American counterterrorism mission that already faces renewed attacks from resurgent ISIS guerrillas, pressure from Russian troops supporting the army of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and concerns that the coronavirus could infect their own ranks.

These concerns have limited operations of the 500 remaining U.S. troops in northeastern Syria.

Only a handful of Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the country’s northeast, and none so far in the prisons. But humanitarian assistance workers express fear that a rapid outbreak is a real possibility given the region’s war-battered health infrastructure and the severe overcrowding at its prisons.

“The humanitarian situation in places of detention and in camps in Syria’s northeast was dire even before the threat of Covid-19 appeared,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the Near and Middle East director for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “We’re extremely worried about all detainees during this pandemic.”

Mr. Carboni added: “Their living conditions make them extremely vulnerable should the virus enter and spread. We know that overcrowded, unhygienic and poorly ventilated cells create the perfect conditions for that to happen.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces, whose fighters are the Pentagon’s partner on the ground in the yearslong campaign against the Islamic State, operate a constellation of about two dozen ad hoc detention sites for captive ISIS fighters, including converted schoolhouses and a former Syrian government prison at Hasaka, the site of the recent riots.

The prisons hold about 10,000 men, of whom about 8,000 are locals – Syrians or Iraqis – and about 2,000 are from 50 other nations whose home governments have balked at repatriating them. Scores of those men are Europeans, from countries like Belgium, Britain, France and Germany, but far more come from across the Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

Many European law enforcement officials fear that if they repatriate their extremist citizens, they would be unable to convict them or keep them locked up for a long time. Some countries have stripped suspected ISIS fighters of their citizenship. The scant repatriations that have taken place over the past several months – including by Kazakhstan, Oman and Tunisia – stopped altogether given Covid-19 restrictions, American officials said.

The Kurdish-led force that holds the ISIS fighters does not have the capacity to investigate or try them, American officials say. Western counterterrorism officials say the longer the foreign fighters are held, the more they become even further radicalized and the greater potential for mass breakouts.

The Kurds also operate more than a dozen camps for families displaced by the conflict that hold tens of thousands of people, many of them non-Syrian wives and children of Islamic State fighters. These include the sprawling Al Hol camp about 25 miles southeast of Hasaka, where some 70,000 people have been living in increasingly dire conditions.

Counterterrorism officials fear that these camps not only enable ISIS communications and financial networks, but are also ideological breeding grounds for the next generation of Islamic extremists.

In the months following the Islamic State’s loss last March of its last remnant in northeast Syria, the village of Baghouz, American and Kurdish officials said the Kurds could not sustain security long-term at the makeshift facilities it was using.

That became clear in October, when the Turkish military moved into northern Syria after getting a green light from President Trump. Turkey targeted the American-backed Kurds, calling into question the Kurds’ ability to secure the ISIS fighters. About 100 fighters escaped in the turmoil, but Kurdish officials said they recaptured the majority of them.

Then came the riots at the prison in Hasaka, which holds between 4,000 and 5,000 captives. Media reports said that on March 29, ISIS militants began breaking down doors and digging holes in walls between cells. The rioting was brought under control the next morning, but violence erupted again with gunfire heard inside and ambulances called in to help the wounded.

Five weeks later, in early May, ISIS fighters briefly took control of the same prison. The riot ended a day later when Kurdish officials and members of the American-led coalition negotiated with the militants.

“ISIS prisoners significantly outnumber the S.D.F. guards, and the generally poor conditions in these jails are driving detainees to take greater risks to break out,” said Nicholas Heras, head of the Institute for the Study of War’s Middle East security program. “ISIS also has a longstanding policy to seek to break out its fighters from prison, which makes these S.D.F. facilities a focus of ISIS efforts to replenish its ranks in Syria and Iraq.”


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

Outrage as Bosnian Catholic church honors Nazi murderers (& justice delayed in France)

May 18, 2020



1. Rwanda genocide suspect Kabuga arrested in France after 26 years on the run
2. Outrage as Bosnian Catholic cardinal honors Nazis in special memorial service
3. Killers of French Jewish Holocaust survivor will finally face trial
4. Under new French law, social media companies obliged to remove hateful content
5. U.S. Senate unanimously passes the “Never Again Education Act”
6. Spanish state hires antisemitic group to teach against hate
7. Ukrainian police official demands names and addresses of all Jews
8. Al Jazeera runs rare interview with Holocaust survivor
9. Firebombing damages Jewish center and synagogue in Ukraine
10. Jewish holy site of Esther and Mordechai burned down in Iran
11. Iran sentences French academic to six years in prison
12. Iran to cut four zeros from plummeting currency


[Notes by Tom Gross]

(I previously posted some of these items on Facebook.)


Rwandan businessman Felicien Kabuga, who is accused of helping finance the 1994 massacres of up to 800,000 people in Rwanda, was arrested on Saturday near Paris after 26 years on the run.

The 84-year-old, who is Rwanda’s most-wanted man and has a multi-million bounty on his head by the United States government, was living under a false identity in a flat in Asnieres-Sur-Seine.

Kabuga was indicted in 1997 on seven criminal counts including genocide, complicity in genocide and incitement to commit genocide. This was in relation to the 1994 Rwanda massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

“Since 1994, Felicien Kabuga, known to have been the financier of the Rwanda genocide, had with impunity stayed in Germany, Belgium, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, or Switzerland,” a French government statement said.

The arrest paves the way for him to be brought to the international court in The Hague.

Two other Rwandan genocide suspects, Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya, are still being pursued.

Kabuga was responsible for making purchases of large quantities of machetes, hoes, and other agricultural implements in the knowledge that they would be used to commit mass murder, according to prosecutors.

He was also part owner of the infamous Radio Television Milles Collines in Rwanda that incited Hutus to kill Tutsis.



Thousands of protestors marched through Sarajevo on Saturday to commemorate victims of the Fascist Ustasha regime. At the same time a Catholic mass was being held in the city to honor the Ustasha murderers.

The Croat and Bosnian Ustasha, who ran a puppet state allied to Hitler during World War Two, were notorious for their cruelty and sadism even by Nazi standards, as they murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Roma.

Bosnian Jews and both the American and Israeli embassies protested at the pro-Fascist “Mass for Bleiburg” held at Sarajevo’s Heart of Jesus Cathedral.

Thousands of ordinary Sarajevans joined Bosnia’s tiny remaining Jewish community as they protested the mass being held by the Croatian and Bosnian Bishops’ Conferences.

Police sealed off the area around Sarajevo’s Catholic Cathedral, where Bosnian Archbishop Cardinal Vinko Puljic said Mass to a congregation of pro-Fascist Croats, including Croat and Bosnian Catholic priests.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Mass was “a glorification of those who supported the Nazi-allied fascist Ustasha regime, complicit in the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings”.

In a statement, the World Jewish Congress condemned “these flagrant attempts to once again rehabilitate and glorify the Ustasha.”

“The fact that the Croatian parliament is sponsoring such a contemptible display under the banner of honoring the memory of those who gave their lives for Croatian freedom is a slap in the face to all the innocent victims of the Ustasha, to all proponents of truth in historical memory, and to the Jewish communities across the region whose patriotism and personal security are called into question each time they oppose commemorations for those who brutally killed their forebearers.”

In recent years, commemorations of Nazi collaborators, including state and church officials, have become increasingly common in Croatia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia.



This is a follow-up to these dispatches of over two years ago:

* A rally in London, a rally in Paris

* “If it quacks like a duck…” (& Holocaust survivor brutally murdered in Paris)

The two men accused of the brutal murder of French Jewish Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her Paris apartment in March 2018 are finally to face trial on charges of “homicide aggravated by anti-Semitism,” Le Parisien newspaper reported on Thursday.

The Paris Prosecutor’s Office has referred the case of the two suspected killers of 85-year-old Knoll to France’s principal criminal court, the court of assizes, after more than two years of deliberations.

The accused pair, both of whom were known antisemites, went to her apartment on March 23, 2018, and stabbed her 11 times in the back, throat and stomach. They then set fire to her corpse, leaving her remains badly charred.

As a nine-year-old girl, Knoll was one of the survivors of the notorious Vel d’hiv round-up of Paris’s Jews by French police acting for the Nazis in 1942 -- events depicted in the 2010 film “Sarah’s Key,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas, which I recommended in this dispatch.

Knoll was the 11th person murdered in an act of anti-Semitism in France in the past 12 years. Many others, including children, have been badly injured.

Knoll’s late husband was an Auschwitz survivor. Knoll’s granddaughter is a subscriber to this email list.

There has been despair among French Jews at the failure by French authorities in recent years to properly pursue the murderers of Jews.



Under a new French law approved on Wednesday, social media companies will be forced to remove hateful content including posts that glorify or threaten violence, or express hate speech, and to remove the post within 24 hours. Companies that fail to remove illegal content will face a fine of up to $1.4 million.

French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the proposed legislation in a speech last year to the Representative Council of Jews of France (CRIF). Macron called for France to draw “new red lines” against intolerance and hatred.

As in other languages, the French-language Internet is rife with posts promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories and casting doubt on the Holocaust.



The U.S. Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed the bipartisan “Never Again Education Act”.

The aim of the act of to make sure the Holocaust is taught in schools across America. It will expand the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s educational resources disseminated to middle and high school teachers nationwide.

It is rare for an act to pass unanimously. The Senate version was introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and had 76 co-sponsors.

The House version was introduced by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and passed in January on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Children are not born with hate in their hearts, it is up to us to make sure they never learn it,” Maloney said in a statement.



Spain’s small Jewish community has strongly criticized a Spanish regional government for hiring an organization that is widely criticized as antisemitic to train teachers on how to combat racism.

I have written in the past on this dispatch list about the group, BDS Pais Valencia.

For example, in 2015, the group campaigned to exclude American Jewish singer Matisyahu from a music festival on the basis that he was Jewish and Israel was a Jewish state.



A Ukrainian Jewish group accused the nation’s police force of “open anti-Semitism” last week after a high-ranking police official demanded a list of all Jews in the western Ukrainian city of Kolomyya.

The territory of western Ukraine, in an area that was taken over by Ukrainians after World War Two and was formerly part of Poland and Romania is notorious for its continuing antisemitism.

The Ukrainian Jewish Committee said: “Interestingly, in 1941, the Nazis and the Ukrainian auxiliary police also demanded a list of all Jews.”

A Ukrainian parliamentarian in Kiev called for an investigation into the Ukrainian police demand, which he called a “dangerously inflammatory violation of the law.”

Settled by Jews in the early part of the sixteenth century, the present size of the community in Kolomyia is less than 100. During the Holocaust, most of the city’s Jews were murdered at the Belzec death camp.

West Ukraine continues to be a flashpoint for ultranationalist activism. Last month, local Jews expressed outrage when a 95-year-old veteran of the “Halychyna” division of the Ukrainian SS was honored in the city of Kalush.

Vasyl Nakonechny, 95, was pictured giving a Nazi salute as he received the title of “Honorary Citizen of Kalush” at the ceremony on April 20, while the audience applauded.



In a positive development Al-Jazeera (which in the past has run antisemitic articles), has published an unbiased interview with a Holocaust survivor, Michael Katz, from the west Ukrainian city of Lviv (previously the Polish city of Lemberg/Lwow/Lvov).

You can read it here:

Katz’s mother Rita was deported to Belzec where she was gassed to death. His father Edward Katz was killed in Treblinka.

12-year-old Michael Katz was selected to work in Janowska, a slave labor camp on the outskirts of Lvov which then became an extermination camp where 200,000 Jews were murdered. But he managed to escape by crawling under the barbed wire fence of Janowska and hiding in a cemetery. He made his way to Warsaw, where he participated in the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944.

In 1946, he reached the United States, where he went to university and eventually became a pediatrician.

* Regarding Lvov, see also these disturbing photos.



On Holocaust Memorial Day three weeks ago, a Holocaust memorial commemorating the murder of 900 Jews in Golovanevsk, Ukraine was vandalized and assailants attempted to burn down a Jewish community center and synagogue in Ukrainian town of Kherson.

Built in 1895, the ornately designed synagogue was heavily damaged during World War II but restored by the small surviving local Jewish community in 1991. No one was injured in the attack since the building was empty because of coronavirus.



There has been widespread criticism after the Jewish holy site of Esther and Mordechai was set ablaze in Iran last week.

Prior to the arson, Twitter users in Iran had threatened to destroy the holy site.

The Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York and Los Angeles said in a statement that they “are shocked and truly saddened by the news of fire in the ancient and official Iranian Heritage Site, the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan.”

“We hereby ask the responsible members of the government of Islamic Republic of Iran to apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice for this barbaric act of insult to this holy site and take steps to protect other sites of religious and historic significance.”



On Saturday, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced 60-year-old French anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah to six years in prison on what are widely believed to be trumped up spying charges.

France’s foreign ministry said Adelkhah’s conviction “is not based on any serious element or fact and is a political decision.”

Iran is holding a number of westerners as effective hostages, each having being convicted on charges which were almost certainly invented.



Earlier this month, Iran’s parliament passed a bill allowing the government to slash four zeros from the rial. This follows a sharp fall in the value of the currency, which was trading at about 156,000 rials to one US dollar.

Iran’s national currency will be changed from the rial to the Toman, which is equal to 10,000 rials.

Iran’s state TV said the Central Bank of Iran will have two years to “pave the ground to change the currency to the Toman”.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

First female Ethiopian-born and ultra-orthodox Israeli cabinet ministers sworn in



1. First Ethiopian-born female Israeli cabinet minister
2. First female ultra-orthodox Israeli cabinet minister
3. Right-wing excluded from new largely centrist Israeli government
4. Sharing power, although much too big
5. Something nicer



[Notes by Tom Gross]

Member of parliament Pnina Tamano-Shata (pictured above) yesterday became Israel’s first Ethiopian-born cabinet minister, when the new Israeli government was sworn in. She will be Minster for Immigration and Integration.

Tamano-Shata was born in the Ethiopian village of Wuzaba in 1981 and came to Israel in 1984 as part of the rescue of thousands or persecuted and trapped Ethiopian Jews, known as Operation Moses.

In order to reach Israel, Tamano-Shata, then aged 3, together with her father and five brothers, walked to Sudan, where they and thousands of others were airlifted to the Jewish state in a secret operation organized by the Mossad.

In Israel, she qualified as a lawyer before entering politics. She has been a member of the Knesset since 2012, originally for the Yesh Atid party.



Omer Yankelevich, who is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish resident of the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, has become the first female “haredi” Israeli cabinet minister after she was appointed Diaspora Affairs minister yesterday.

She is a member of Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

She was educated in the ultra-Orthodox school system in both Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, and in the northern English town of Gateshead.

She also obtained a BA in education from Cambridge University, and a Masters in law from Bar Ilan University. She is known for her pluralism.



The new Israeli national unity government that was sworn into office yesterday is a largely centrist government comprising of three parties, the center-right Likud, the centrist Blue and White, and the center-left Labor party (as well as two religious parties whose influence has been diminished).

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has excluded the nationalist rightwing Yemina Party from his new government.

As Israeli political commentator Anshel Pfeffer noted in the left wing Haaretz newspaper:

“Netanyahu has been trying for years to crush Israel’s religious nationalist parties. He’s final done it – and we all benefit.”



With 34 cabinet ministers, the new Israeli government will be the largest in the country’s history, much to the consternation of many Israelis, after Benny Gantz insisted on being granted ministerial portfolios for almost all his Knesset faction. To do this, Netanyahu and Gantz had to create new ministries and portfolios.

The new Israeli government ends a lengthy political stalemate, dating from December 2018, 508 days ago, which three general elections since then had failed to resolve.

It extends Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure as prime minister until November 17, 2021 after which the centrist former army chief Benny Gantz will become prime minister, as part of a rotation deal.



This beautiful rendition of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” was performed by Israelis in English, Hebrew and Arabic, on behalf of a medical charity:


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

More than 1000 people join Saadya’s funeral (& corona street art & the future of dining?)

May 08, 2020


When Saadya Ehrenpreis was an infant, a doctor told his mother that he would “never walk, talk or amount to anything.” He wound up doing all three, reports Sam Sokol of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Ehrenpreis was born with Down syndrome, but he was intensely determined. With the help of his family, he not only learned to walk and talk, but he graduated high school, spent several years studying in yeshiva in Israel, and attended Yeshiva University. Along the way, he charmed everyone around him with his relentlessly upbeat nature.

After he died of COVID-19 on April 28, at the age of 35, his funeral on Zoom was joined by nearly 1,000 people.


[Notes by Tom Gross]

I have written several times before about special needs persons, including the article I wrote last year for the British magazine The Spectator about the disgraceful treatment of a Down Syndrome girl and her family by the New Zealand government of Jacinda Ardern.

I attach a number of links to articles concerning coronavirus below.

Of course, today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, one of the most important days in European and world history. Unfortunately, those veterans still alive could not participate in planned celebrations in London, New York, Paris and elsewhere because of the coronavirus restrictions.



Despite, perhaps because of the pandemic, artists are still producing humorous images such as the two below. The second shows the Israeli currency drawn by a Tel Aviv street artist who calls himself Dede Bandaid.

(See also the dispatch of March 16, 2020: Humor in the time of a pandemic.)




You may also find these videos amusing:

This (in my opinion) very funny video, provides some wry British humor. The first half of the video gives a new perspective to London driving, and the second half takes us on an amusing tour of street parties among ultraorthodox Jews in Stamford Hill in North London, during the Purim holiday in the first half of March.

This video is titled:

Helping mom start a ZOOM meeting


Here are some of the other pieces I have been posting on my public Facebook in recent days:

Holocaust Heroine Lillian Eckstein Dies of Coronavirus

How devoted son, 55, nursed coronavirus-stricken father, 81, back to health using a sleep apnoea machine after he was sent home from hospital to die

Father-of-two, 31, survives coronavirus, 30 days on a ventilator, double pneumonia, sepsis, heart failure and two strokes to walk out of hospital in time for son's second birthday

(The link below contains an interesting video.)

Restaurant enforces social distancing with private ‘greenhouses’ for diners

Man arrested trying to quarantine on private Disney island


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

Jack Holzberg, survivor (& Gene Simmons of Kiss opens up about his mother)

(I posted this on Facebook, but some recipients of my email list may also be interested.)


Many Holocaust survivors have tragically died of coronavirus during recent weeks. But one -- 94-year-old Jack Holzberg -- has now beaten coronavirus (writes Tom Gross).

Exactly 75 years ago today (May 5-6) Jack was liberated from Mauthausen death and slave labor camp in Nazi Austria, by the US 11th Armored Division, 3rd US Army.

Holzberg was diagnosed with COVID-19 last month, and treated at New York’s Weill Cornell Medicine hospital. After that, he was transferred to a New Jersey nursing home and quarantined until doctors said he was well enough to go back to his home in Queens, N.Y., where he lives with his wife of 68 years, Betty.

When he was finally able to reunite with his family after beating coronavirus, the health care workers who took care of him rolled out a red carpet. Footage here from CBS News:

Holzberg was a 13 year old in Poland when Germany and Austria invaded in 1939. He spent much of the Holocaust in different ghettos and concentration camps, reported the New York Post. His parents and most of his family died in the Holocaust.



To mark the 75th anniversary of her liberation from Mauthausen, Gene Simmons of the hit rock band Kiss has spoken about his mother, Hungarian-born Flora Klein, who was 19 when American troops liberated her from Mauthausen on May 5, 1945.

Klein (who died at age 93 in the United States) was a survivor of Ravensbruck, Flossenburg and Mauthausen death camps.

Simmons (who was born Chaim Weitz in Haifa, Israel in 1949) spoke about his mother in an interview published on Sunday with the German newspaper Bild, and about his grandmother Ester Blau who died in the Nazi gas chambers

“It can happen again, “ Simmons said. “That’s why we must not stop talking about it.”


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

“The Inevitable Lies of Unorthodox”

May 03, 2020



[Note by Tom Gross]

There are occasional dispatches on this list about TV series. For example, here is the one on Fauda.

(Incidentally, the new third season of Fauda, which depicts the activities of an Israeli undercover anti-terror squad, last week became the most-watched Netflix program in Lebanon, the third most popular show in the United Arab Emirates, and the sixth most popular in Jordan.)

This dispatch concerns Netflix’s new German-American co-production, ‘Unorthodox’. The four-part mini-series tells the story of a young woman who flees the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and moves to a secular life in Berlin.

‘Unorthodox’ is the first major international TV hit filmed largely in Yiddish.

In some countries, such as Spain, it was the most watched program on Netflix last month.



Suddenly, because of the program, “unfashionable” Satmar dress is being featured in super-fashionable Vogue magazine:

And Vogue’s features section is also among many magazines to have written about the series in the last two weeks:

Both scholarly publications and popular tabloids such as the Daily Mail are writing about ‘Unorthodox’ and its stars, for example, here:

Or here on MTV:



While very popular, some feel ‘Unorthodox’ is unfair towards orthodox Jews and paints the Satmar in a one-dimensional negative way (in contrast with the “good” Germans shown in the program). They urge people to instead watch another Netflix series, ‘Shtisel’, which has both good and bad characters among the orthodox Jews.

There are various articles criticizing ‘Unorthodox’. For example:

* Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ degrades Chassidic Jews into caricatures



(The Satmar were almost wiped out in the Holocaust and the Williamsburg Satmar depicted in ‘Unorthodox’ are for the most part a new sect of Hungarian Jews founded in New York after World War Two as Holocaust survivors who sought to rebuild their almost destroyed community.)



At any rate these new TV shows encourage the wider world to consider Hasidic Jews as individuals, whereas their mysterious lifestyles and rigid rules, along with their uniform dress, has often meant that they are considered by many who will never meet them to be “all the same”. That is why it is interesting to see these shows, especially ‘Shtisel’, which humanizes them in ways which show the good and bad of their sect. ‘Unorthodox’ mostly paints the community as totally bad, whereas Shtisel, which is more subtle, has humor and positive characteristics mixed in with the less good side, which is of course the case with every culture.

Of course, ‘Unorthodox’ is also popular because it is a universal story of a woman finding her voice, which could apply to many other religions and cultures.



But both those who like and dislike ‘Unorthodox’ agree that the show’s star, the young Israeli actress Shira Haas, is outstanding. (She also plays one of the main characters in Shtisel. And last week she won a best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York for her performance in the Israeli film ‘Asia’.



In the real world, some Hasidic Jews are playing important roles outside their communities. For example, last month Mitchell Silk became the first Hasidic Jew to hold a senior position in any US administration when he was confirmed by the Senate as assistant secretary of the Treasury for International Markets. He is from the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

(Often ultra-orthodox Jews prevent both men and women from being educated with secular skills in science and the humanities, that many outsiders, including myself, feel they deserve to be taught.)

I attach one interesting scholarly article on ‘Unorthodox’ below, published on Friday by Professor Shaul Magid.


The Inevitable Lies of Unorthodox
By Shaul Magid
May 1, 2020

A Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva Dean) in Jerusalem once said to me, “One of the biggest problems with the yeshiva world is that it thinks it’s a world.” I thought of this remark as I watched the Netflix series Unorthodox, based on a book by Deborah Feldman about her personal journey out of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. One of the distinguishing features of ultra-Orthodox “worlds” is that they function, or envision themselves, as self-enclosed spaces socially and ideologically, even when they exist in urban areas. Their entire social system, from law and custom, to dress, to language, food etc. is meant to sustain separation, not only from the non-Jewish world but from other Jews as well. Their lives are categorically different, for example, than Modern Orthodox Jews who live fully absorbed in the larger world in which they live.

The ultra-Orthodox community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the home of the protagonist Esty Shapiro, is one such enclavist community, born from, and driven by, fear of the outside. It exists “as if” it is a world unto itself. As if it is a “world.” Unorthodox shows us the extent to which this is both true and false, and the price that world, or any such world, pays in order to sustain that myth.

Unorthodox appears at a strangely opportune time. The world, or some part of it, seems increasingly curious about Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. The celebrated series Shtisl, a masterful study of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, has gone viral. Ultra-Orthodox communities that refrained from social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic continue to make international news. The exotic nature of a community that is uncanny, both familiar and utterly strange, has become a curiosity for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The series, of course, is not about ultra-Orthodoxy per se but a personal tale – whose exhilarating and tragic story-line is now somewhat weathered – of a person who flees ultra-Orthodoxy suddenly and without notice to “find herself” in what her community views simply as “evil culture” (tarbut ra). As opposed to Shtisl, a series that focuses on the tribulations and complexity of living inside that world, Unorthodox is focused on finding an exit.

There has been much written critically about the ways that this ultra-Orthodoxy is portrayed in the series. Having lived for some years in those communities, albeit in adjacent Boro Park and not Williamsburg, I think such a critique is unwarranted. Unorthodox is not a documentary but a fictional story inspired by a true one, the construction of a world through the lens of one brave and tragic young woman. The one dimensionality of Williamsburg, its cookie-cutter characters and almost comical sense of its own importance, or the utopian vision of contemporary Berlin where everyone seems to love everyone without borders, are not meant to be accurate; they are archetypes facing off against one another in the trauma of separation and the promise of freedom. Each is portrayed as the polar opposite of the other, from the color scheme to the cinematography, from the aesthetic of ultra-Orthodox foreboding to the carefree culture in Berlin. These fictive backdrops exist in the mind of our protagonist, each with its own magnetism.

Esty’s one-dimensional Williamsburg shows its strengths and its weaknesses. Even as she prepares to leave with no prospect of return, she holds part of that world close to her heart; she defends it even as she castigates it; she smiles when Yael knows what kugel is, “Jewish food,” she says. This is part of Esty’s dilemma: Williamsburg is a constructed “world” that cares deeply for her as it slowly suffocates her. A world where she is both embraced and effaced. That world can never quite tolerate her difference, inherited from her mother, and also never admit the deep fallacy that constructs such difference. It cannot face its own failure to intervene and save Esty’s mother from her errant and drunken father. That world, under perennial siege, will always choose social cohesion, even at the expense of its members. Secrecy overrides truth. Survival necessarily has its casualties.

And here, I think, we come to the most interesting and precarious part of the series that filters through almost every relationship. It is perhaps Unorthodox’s most salient contribution. Ultra-Orthodox is a “world” that is full of secrets that always threaten to unravel its coherence and yet also drive its ability to sustain itself against all odds. It is a world that knows it is always on the brink of infiltration, or defilement, and thus its own sanctity is inevitably riddled with fragments of false consciousness to keep itself afloat. There is no purity in the darkness of trauma. Esty seems to experience this during the seder when her family sings, “In every generation they arise up to destroy us, and God will save us.” She runs to the bathroom to discover she is pregnant, knowing that she is now not only a member but a participant in such a world. At the moment her good fortune promises to erase her marginal status, in some way she realizes she must leave.

Secrets of deviance are all over the series; the secret of saving her father from shame by banishing her mother; Moishe’s secret of living a double life; her grandmother’s secret of loving classical music and also hiding the fact that she received a call from the runaway Esty, as if it were a dream. Esty’s mother’s secret of having Esty taken away from her instead of the community’s falsehood that she abandoned her. Yanky’s secret of sleeping with a prostitute; and Esty’s secret about her pregnancy. In an enclave, yet living in close proximity to a culture it labels simply as “evil,” secrets are inevitable, because deviance is inevitable, because human beings, unlike Temple sacrifices, are not pure. What matters in such a world is not that people never stray; what matters is that when they return they leave their stories behind. That world needs the lie to survive.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is the way the ultra-Orthodox community depicted here constructs itself as if it were sui generis. When Esty blurts out in the car that she lost half her family in the concentration camps, the Israeli woman Yael turns to her and says, “Most families in Israel lost half their families in the camps, but we must move on.” Esty looks shocked because she recognizes in Yael’s comment that the Nazis did not only kill “real” Jews, but any Jews. The trauma of the Holocaust runs so deep in the ultra-Orthodox world even, or precisely, because it is not spoken about. That all kinds of Jews were murdered is, and must remain, a secret, because if it doesn’t, what essentially separates Esty from Yael? And when one of her Berlin friends notes that he too was raised by his grandparents like Esty, she realizes that others share experiences she thought were all her own, that people are all products of complex situations, prejudices, and challenges.

Esty learns in Berlin that she does not carry trauma alone, and sees how others move beyond their personal traumas without holding onto the false secret of uniqueness. The secret of the ultra-Orthodox “world” is that it hides from its young that they are not really that different from anyone else. It is precisely holding onto the lie of that categorical difference that prevents that world from being swallowed up by that which always threatens it: the outside. Esty longs to be swallowed up, she longs to free herself from the lie that is killing her, the secret that will be the altar upon which her newborn will be sacrificed.

It is this tension of truth and lies that stands at the center of the series, a face-off between Esty and Moishe. Moishe is enraged by his own weakness, which most painfully includes his inability to free himself from a world he no longer believes in. He embodies the very notion of “evil culture” while loathing it; hidden under Hasidic garb, he makes his final appearance as a stumbling drunk celebrating his luck at the casino. Moishe is trapped in a community that intentionally does not prepare him for the outside. And yet he does not have the wherewithal to succeed inside. Like so many others who want to leave, he ends up using the outside to fulfill desires that remain forbidden on the inside. But he also knows that only the world where he came from will care for him. That is the point of his soliloquy to Esty at the playground: “You think you can survive out here, but you cannot.” He is only talking to himself. Esty knows that. Moishe is stuck between his need for acceptance and his self-loathing.

Moishe’s rage toward Esty and her mother is that they have done what he could not; fully enter into a world that is not “evil” but simply another iteration of human collective existence. Or perhaps more accurately, he could never quite recognize that there is evil in both worlds. He has to prove to himself that the outside is only evil by feeding on the underbelly of society. Moishe’s secret is not only that he hides himself in his black attire under a Yankees cap but that he is tortured by his own weakness and faithlessness. And of course, the rabbi knows that, which is why he chooses Moishe to take the trip.

He knows that Moishe is a defiled being; but the rabbi will now use the profane to benefit the holy. Moishe knows better; he has been out there, the outside is inside him, eating him alive, he knows there is little chance of bringing her back. But Moishe will have some fun along the way and try to make Esty feel as miserable as he does before he leaves her behind. Unlike Moishe, Esty is already free in part because she is already banished; not because of her resolve, but because their world already closed the door behind her. In truth, they only really want her baby. Moishe says as much when he stumbles into the hotel, “We’ll be back for the baby.” Communal survival is everything.

Unorthodox is a very good illustration of the fantasy of that so-called “world” as it buttresses another world entirely. But the more it steps outside, the more the fantasy collapses. The sense of power that drives the male elite dissipates once one ventures outside Williamsburg. Moishe acts like a denuded superhero, as Esty’s mother says to him: “This is not your world, you have no power here,” which, of course, he knows is true. The powerlessness of ultra-Orthodoxy comes into full view the more the two hapless Hasidim stroll the streets of Berlin on a mission they know they cannot win because it is not on their turf. Berlin, of all places. Esty’s mother loses her because she did not move far enough away. But she gives her daughter the necessary papers to emigrate to Germany in their last meeting: “In case you should need this,” she says—the irony being that a Jew’s safe haven is the very place that tried to eradicate the Jews seventy years before.

Berlin is clearly more Esty’s fantasy than a real place. Its colorful landscape, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural façade, its friendliness and beauty are all the opposite of the dank and drab greyness that is, in her mind, Williamsburg. Or the diabolical Berlin of the 1940s. Can this really be the city that killed her family? Is her Arab Yemenite friend related to those who try to kill Jews on Israeli buses? Every moment in Berlin is iconoclastic, erasing her world, and its need for secrets.

She cannot seem to have sex, which makes her dispensable in the Hasidic community where she lives but is irrelevant to her new cadre of friends. In Esty’s Berlin there is no talk of children, only of art. Esty suffers the humiliation of double marginalization, an orphan and sexually frigid. She acknowledges her first marginalization early on when she says to Yanky: “I am different,” to which he replies, “Different is good.” But Yanky knows that is not true, not in their world, and she does too. Difference is not good. Different is dangerous, difference is forbidden. Who are different? The “goyim” are different. What matters most is to keep the communal organism alive, and that requires two things: fidelity above all else to the community and children. She has neither and thus by the time she leaves, she is already gone.

Unorthodox does not have the complexity or character development of Shtisl or other like-minded productions. Its story is well-worn. But Unorthodox does tell us something about enclaves and about communities that think they are worlds. A community, like Williamsburg, that prides itself on truth (“God’s seal is truth,” says scripture) must be laced through with lies, almost by definition, and of necessity. Such demands of conformity require the lie to survive.

While Unorthodox offers a largely negative portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, one can easily come away with a somewhat sympathetic view as well. Williamsburg or, as Esty puts it, “the community where I come from,” is a “world” whose beliefs and values conflict with the world around them. They are thus in a state of perpetual siege and carry the fear of two millennia of persecution with few tools to move beyond it. In many ways, it is the persecution that enables it to continue. And thus such a world becomes inevitably enmeshed in a web of secrets.

And yet Esty is able to show Berlin the beauty of “her community” through her heartfelt rendition of a Hasidic wedding song at her audition. When she sings the Hasidic wedding niggun without preparation, it outshines Schubert’s “An die Musik,” her first song in the audition. It outshines Berlin, and it illumines the darkness of all the secrets and lies of her life. In that moment she discovers and communicates the beauty of her world in all its raw tragedy and desperate hope. But for her to bring forth that beauty, for her to experience it truly, she has to leave it because “it is not proper for a woman to sing in front of men.” The voice of a woman, like so much else, must be kept secret.

Esty Shapiro leapt off the precipice. Or was she pushed? Either way, Unorthodox shines in the dark, and shows the luminal darkness that flashes through the light. As my Rosh Yeshiva says, “It thinks it’s a world.” But without that fantasy, it has little chance of survival.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

Video: Tom Gross on the role of MEMRI in Middle East media coverage



[Note by Tom Gross]

For those interested, I attach a video clip where I debate the role and influence of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) in the coverage of the Middle East.

The clip, from the international Turkish government TV station TRT World, is from last year. I didn’t send it on this list at the time because I sent many dispatches that month and didn’t want to overwhelm readers. (MEMRI, an independent American-based organization that translates Arab, Iranian, Urdu, Turkish and other media, and employs Palestinians, Pakistanis and people from many countries, is widely and wrongly accused of being a Mossad front.)

Extracts here:

Longer version here, with Berkeley University Professor Hatem Bazian:

Also here:


Like the English-language Al-Jazeera, the English-language TRT World is careful not to be overly offensive to Israel and the West. By contrast TRT’s (Turkish government controlled) sister stations broadcasting in Arabic, Persian and Turkish have all put forward blatant antisemitic conspiracy theories.

For example:


* Gaza journalist Tawfiq Abu Shomar: Israel buys slave girls on ISIS slave market, converts them to Judaism

* Former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud blames the Jews for the world financial crisis

* Prince Orhan Aal Othman, Grandson of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II: Theodore Herzl was the cause of the fall of the Ottoman Empire



* Herzl celebrates Purim in Istanbul, gets mugged, and learns a lesson in Jewish scheming from co-conspirator Emanuel Carasso (TRT Turkish TV Series)

* Theodor Herzl kidnaps his father, locks him in dungeon, and details a plot to transfer Jews to Palestine (TRT Turkish TV Series)

* Theodor Herzl calculates Jewish gold as part of his schemes (TRT Turkish TV Series)

* Herzl rises to power, states goal: A Jewish State from the Nile to the Euphrates (TRT Turkish TV Series)

* Herzl sends British spies to kidnap and kill Jews in Jerusalem to drum up support for his Zionist agenda (TRT Turkish TV Series)


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