Chanukah – Why do we light those candles? Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il

This morning I was musing about Chanukah and the great unprecedented events of our time, the recent death of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Kim Yong Il of North Korea with my Mormon trainer, Steven. Yes, my trainer Steven, is a committed and practicing Mormon. We train and we talk twice a week. This morning it was about the unexpected death of Kim Yong Il, the North Korean “Great Leader”, the starvation and virtual imprisonment of the North Korean people who are dominated by a well fed and well armed military. North Korea is the world’s most militarized nation, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. It is a nuclear-weapons state and has an active space program. (wikipedia) and this led us to think about how the few enslave the many via ideology all over the world.

Jonathon Kay writes, Kim Il-sung knew that the only way to legitimize his repressive, impoverished regime was to insulate subjects from the outside world (the dials on North Korean radios are soldered so as to lock them in permanently to the state propaganda network) and to turn himself into an ersatz deity. Over 500 statues of Kim Il-sung dot the North Korean landscape, and a revisionist history of his days as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter have been embellished to the point that they seem like something out of a 1980s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

It seems the pen is mightier than the sword and both sides know it.

So what does this have to do with Chanukah? I share with you this video that lays out the background of the Chanukah story.

Chanukah is the story of the weak and the few against the strong and the many. However there is another important lesson that we learn from this video and the Chanukah story. The lesson of knowing what to fight for. The Macabees were fighting the ideology of the Greeks which conflicted with the human rights articulated by the torah. This is what gave them the courage to fight because they understood that fighting for these principles was more important than life itself.

Vaclav Havel, who fought against the same kind of enslavement as in North Korea by the former Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, and won, understood both of these issues.

And after he succeeded in freeing his people, he is quoted by Irwin Cotler sharing this important truth, “those who would repress the human rights of their own citizens will threaten the rights of the citizens of other countries.” We are seeing this manifesting all over the world, in Syria, Iran, where tyrants are willing to fight to the death to buttress their own power, they endanger all of us with their power and their arsenals.

None of us have crystal balls regarding the future, but the story of Chanukah reminds us to light the candle, and not give up the struggle. Again I quote Vaclav Havel, the only lost cause is the one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Let’s light those candles, remind ourselves why we are lighting them, and take courage from the victories of those who have shown the way.

Passover and the Arab Spring in Middle East Media. 2013

Dear friends,

I thought you would appreciate these two videos which I posted this week.

One is a Passover teaching by Rabbi Chaim Stenimetz:

And the second is about “The Impact of the Arab Spring on Arab anti-semitism“, a lecture by Yigal Carmon with video clips from middle Eastern television programs.

Is there any connection? Passover is the celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom. During the Passover seder, we relive this journey. Rabbi Steinmetz points out in the first video that freedom can only begin when and if one begins to question one’s servitude. Without a challenge to the status quo, no movement is possible.

There is no question that the Arab spring was initiated by people asking questions of their leaders, and seeking freedom from oppressive regimes. Has this resulted in greater freedom of expression and has it led to “freedom”? The answer has to be both “Yes” and “No”. We have all seen how the legitimate aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East seem to have been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood.

We often forget that the toppling of the Shah of Iran was also billed as a movement of the people overcoming the dictatorial Shah. Very few Iranians anticipated that the revolutionaries who championed the Shah would be arrested and murdered by him as soon as he took power. Very few, least of all America, in the person of Jimmy Carter, anticipated the stranglehold of the Iranian clergy that would take over the political realm of Iran.

Nevertheless, peoples of the Middle East continue to seek freedoms: freedom of thought and freedom of speech. The contrast between the fascism of the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the Muslim clergy, and the efforts of the people to speak up were both clearly apparent in the talk by Yigal Carmon, founder of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) who spoke recently in Montreal. MEMRI monitors the treatment of Jews and Israel in Middle East media. He shared actual clips from Arab television. First he explained the ingrained anti-semitic (i.e. anti-Jewish) tropes of Islamic culture promoted by important Imams and political figures, even President Morsi of Egypt. Then at the 59:33 point of his talk above he shares a clip from a young scholar which I link here. Dr. SA’id Okasha of El Ahram University on Al-Faraeen TV (Egypt January 29, 2010. If you click on this link you will see for the first two or three minutes, the presentation of the anchor regarding the “facts of the Holocaust” that she has “researched”, followed by the attempt by Sa’id Okasha to refute these “facts”. The debating match between them on live television is an exciting thing to watch. And as Yigal Carmon reminds us, the next day Dr. Sa’id has to go back to his university and his colleagues at El Ahram University.

But Dr. Sa’id is not the only one speaking out. Below I discovered on Youtube an amazing woman in disguise, ridiculing Hassan Nasrallah speaking about the Syrian revolution.

This brings me back to the Passover seder, The annual festival that Jews celebrate as the holiday of freedom from slavery. We forget that modern day slavery, especially the slavery of ignorance, is still very much present in many parts of the world. But the first step towards redemption is the questioning of the status quo.

Happy Passover to all who strive for freedom from tyranny.

All Yiddish – All the Time


Yesterday while researching Yiddish groups on facebook, I discovered a site that is putting out a Yiddish newspaper over the internet, The Yiddish Moment. A Yiddish Newspaper – Yiddish News – All Yiddish – All the Time – The Only Internet Newspaper in Yiddish.Dr. Namaste who curates the site shared many amazing stories. This is a grassroots endeavor having approximately 120,000 Yiddish speaking, reading, and writing subscribers from all over the world. He also told me that they have over 6000 non-jewish subscribers! Most of them know Yiddish from before the war, and are elderly. Nevertheless. They have treasures to share, many that have never been shared. These members are also continuing to write poems and narratives in Yiddish.

Yiddish Moment

We talked about doing a news show to be broadcast in Yiddish over the web. This would be a first. Stay tuned to find out more about AskAbigail’s future collaborations with The Yiddish Moment.

Thoughts about Sholem Aleichem and the Current Pogrom in Syria

Last night I made a special effort to watch the Documentary: Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness a recent documentary biography of the life of Sholem Aleichem, playing at Cinema du Parc. Sholem Aleichem, was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who lived from 1859 to 1916. He was a popular chronicler of the lives of the Jews of that period. The Jewish population had been living for hundreds of years in the Polish/Russian countryside, and was facing the onslaught of modernity. French ideas of emancipation, American ideas of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, socialism, and the struggle against the rule of the czar, all intermingled with the cultural traditions of the Jews.

Most European Jews were speaking Yiddish at that time; a language that developed over the thousand year settlement of Jews in Europe and is a confluence of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem, wrote in Yiddish, although it was already a time when Jews were beginning to favor the languages of the countries in which they lived rather then their “mame loshen” – “mother’s tongue” of the home and hearth. Sholem Aleichem wrote about the Shtetle, characters who inhabited his world. He reflected on his time and place, and gave voice to the average Jew living in the Polish and Russian countryside. He wrote about Tevye, the Milkman, the character on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and about Motl, the Cantor’s son. Die Kleine Menshelech, a play based on these same characters was the one that began the rebirth of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970’s. We all know that during the Holocaust, six million mostly Yiddish speakers, of every walk of life were murdered by the Nazi killing machine.

All of this concerns me deeply since I am working on a documentary about Yiddish culture since the Holocaust. What has happened to the Yiddish language three generations after the Holocaust? Does anyone still speak, or remember Yiddish?

Among all the excitement of hearing Sholem Aleichem’s accents and ideas in English on screen another thing that stuck out was the documentary reporting of the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. This was a new phenomenon at the time. Prior to that Jews and their neighbours had been living side by side in relative harmony. Jew baiting was a medieval phenomenon, the nineteenth century was supposedly a period of “emancipation and liberty” for the common man. And then came the unexpected violence, killing of Jewish men, women and children in their homes by political gangs demonizing Jews as enemies of the state. These were the “pogroms” initiated following the assassination of the Czar in 1881 and repeated in 1905-06.

Sholem Aleichem, himself, lived through the pogrom in Kiev in 1905. The film reports that, he and his family “hid for three days in a hotel” while the massacres were going on. I suppose this is what gives rise to the title of the documentary, “Laughing in the Dark”.

The startling photographs of murdered bodies with grieving family members pictured in the documentary do not leave me. They remind me of the news stories we have been hearing about the deaths of Syrian citizens, men, women and children, in Homs and in other areas of Syria. The death toll reported so far is over 9000 people, with no end in sight.

Homes vandalized during the pogroms in Kishinev in 1903.

Victims, mostly children, of one of the pogroms in Ekaterinoslav in 1905. This photo was distributed by the self-defense organization of Poalei Zion as a postcard and drew worldwide attention to the pogroms of 1905.

In hindsight it is easy to see that the absence of response to the violence perpetrated against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russian led directly to the politics and daring destruction of Jews, practiced by the Nazis as an instrument of State. Sadly, I am reminded of the current practice of a similar statecraft in Syria today – violence practiced towards men, women and children as a tool of repression by the authorities in power, the Dictator Assad. But this has been going on for years in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, and Iran.

Who is Richard Falk?

I learned about Richard Falk from an article in the National Post, A Disgrace to McGill, written by Hillel Neuer of

Richard Anderson Falk is an 80-year-old American professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 books. Professor Falk is also a speaker, activist on world affairs, and an appointee to two United Nations positions on the Palestinian territories.

Prof. Falk was outed in the National Post by Hillel Neuer, as a one-sided supporter of Palestine in the UN and an unconscious anti-semite, (he claimed he did not realize that a certain cartoon he included in his blog was anti-semitic). Based on his writings, he can be characterized as a supporter of Khomeini, and of 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Neuer’s piece in the National Post appeared prior to Prof. Falk’s speaking engagement at McGill University. Curious about the discussion, I decided to attend the meeting. His topic was the legality and legitimacy of drone attacks that have been carried out by the US on foreign territory. Here is an account of my experience and observations at the Prof. Falk event at McGill University.

I suppose, due to the controversial nature of the event, McGill had several guards on duty, and when I arrived, a few minutes after the talk had started, I was barred from entering by the guard on the basis of the room being full. I explained that I was “press”, so he consulted with the organizer and she let me in. I set up my camera and two professors asked me if I had permission to videotape. They seemed nervous. This is curious, if not hypocritical, considering one of the reasons McGill has for allowing him to speak is “freedom of speech”.

What I found most interesting were the questions at the end, and the conversations that I had after the event with participants and with Prof. Falk. I had the last question and was especially pleased with my question and his answer. His talk was about the conventions of law. He also quoted Thucydides, saying “The strong do what they want and the weak do what they can”, implying of course that the US should not be taking advantage of its strengths to use all means necessary to protect its citizens. He also posited that there is no apparent danger to the US from a person like Alawiki. And he was against this because  “drones are used on hearsay evidence and they set a dangerous precedent”. He also acknowledged that Al Qaeda is a  non-territorial adversary but seemed to fault the US for being a supra-territorial force, mentioning US military outposts all over the world as a negative, and faulted the US for interfering in Yemen’s  sovereignty.

Having just read Deborah Lipstatd’s book, The Eichmann Trial, which exposes the behavior of Eichmann, the person who was in charge of carrying out Hitlers’ orders for the “final solution” and personally supervised the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Jews to their death, I posed the following question.

“In 1961, Eichmann, the CEO who carried out the Nazi deportations of Jews to the  Auschwitz death camps, was tried in Jerusalem, and in Deborah Lipstatd’s book we get a full reading of Eichmann’s behavior during the war, during the trial, and the reverberations after the trial. If intelligence sources knew about Eichmann’s behavior during the war, would they have been justified in using a drone attack? And he answered, simply “Yes”. And that closed the meeting.

As I was wrapping up the camera, a young man came up to me and said he appreciated my question. When I tried to get his co-ordinates, he declined, saying he was in the Canadian military, and also a student.

After the meeting a visiting professor asked him about his 9/11 conspiracy book. He denied that he was a “conspiracy theorist” saying that he was legitimately expressing the view “that more explanations are required”. When I asked him, explanations of what, he pointed to the way the towers collapsed. The issue of whether the towers collapsed because of the explosion and fire from the burning planes or were  exploded by the Americans. This theory that the towers were actually exploded by the Americans has become a fertile ground for those who do not accept the official scientific explanations from the builders etc. Jonathon Kay is a good resource for understanding conspiracy theorists.

In conclusion, my assessment is that Richard Falk is an 80 year old American academic, a product of his time and place, his Ivy league, secular, leftist, and quietly anti-semitic, American education. From his ivory tower analyses, it often seems that he has been fortunate to escape the tragedy of war that many other peoples have endured which makes them see the world through a more pragmatic lens.

And here I discovered a wonderful animation video which exposes the realities of targeted killings by Israel and the US.

We Have a Dream: Response to Durban 3 “UN Human Rights Conference” 9/2011 is an NGO that observes and comments on UN issues. I believe, it was born as a response to the Unesco Conference against Racism that took place in Durban South Africa in 2001.(Wikipedia) World Conference against Racism exposes the way the Durban conference was aimed at delegitimizing and maligning Israel as a human right violator, without focusing on the human rights violations of any other country.

The United Nations has made the democratic State of Israel the target of incessant condemnation while neglecting its mandate in challenging the oppressive regimes around the world. This brief video explains it very well using facts and numbers.

Understanding UN Bias Against Israel — Invite to Durban 3 Protest, NYC, Sept 21

In 2009, when the Second Durban Conference was convened in Geneva, UNwatch organized its first alternative and parallel Human Rights Conference, featuring the  victims of human rights abuses as speakers  They did the same thing this year, September 2011 in NYC where Durban III was getting ready to memorialize Durban I and the conference was livestreamed over the internet.

Here is a list of the speakers who were present at the recent September 2011 parallel conference:


North Korean Defector 

And this was the Statement hammered out by the Participants

“On September 21-22, 2011 as world leaders gathered at United Nations Headquarters to open the 66th Session of the General Assembly, and to commemorate the 2001 Durban conference on racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, an international coalition of NGOs will hold a parallel summit to place urgent situations of discrimination and persecution on the international agenda, promote human rights and democracy, and give a voice to the voiceless.

A Statement was issued by the conference:
Declaration of Dissidents for Universal Human Rights
United Nations, New York, September 22, 2011

We, former prisoners of conscience, dissidents, victims of torture, persecution, and repression, fighters for freedom, democracy and the dignity of all human beings, gathered here at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, on 22 September 2011, do hereby declare:

Seventy years ago this week, in the face of Nazi tyranny, nations gathered in London to proclaim the Four Freedoms of the Atlantic Charter that are the birthright of all human beings and the hallmarks of democratic society: Freedom of speech, and of belief, freedom from fear, and from want. These four freedoms form the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Two decades ago, the Soviet Union, the other great tyranny of the twentieth century, collapsed amidst the cry for freedom that first resonated through its satellite states. Today, across the Middle East, we are witnessing that same cry echoing from Cairo to Tripoli to Damascus, as old regimes are swept aside or cling to power through ever more brutal means.

Inspired by the courage and idealism shown by ordinary women and men fighting for basic freedoms across the world; enraged by the continuing evils perpetrated by authoritarian states, including genocide, torture, state-sanctioned violence, rape and starvation as an instrument of political repression, the imprisonment of thousands of men and women of conscience, the silencing of dissenting voices, the xenophobic persecution of minorities, the denial of freedom of thought, belief and worship; we, survivors of repression in our own countries of origin, recognize that human beings can be trampled, but their spirit can never be crushed.

At this decisive moment in the struggle for universal human rights, we celebrate the defeat of Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi and of other brutal regimes in the surrounding region.

To the remaining tyrants and dictators around the globe, who have systematically violated the rights of their peoples, we give notice: Your time has passed. No more will the world suffer your specious arguments to justify policies and practices of abuse and repression in the name of claimed exceptions to the universality of basic human rights.  Belonging to diverse faiths and cultures, and originating from all regions of the world, we, the authors of this Declaration, unequivocally reject such dishonest apologetics, which suit the interests of the despots, and not the interests, or ideas, of their peoples.

We assert that the writ of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly, continues to run through all societies, and for all times.  The talk of tyrants is refuted by the cries of prisoners—who, from the dungeons of Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Tibet, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere—demand justice and freedom on the basis of these universal laws and eternal truths.

Therefore, in renewing the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we call on the United Nations to make the dream of the four freedoms a reality.  We urge the United Nations General Assembly to pursue a new agenda for human rights, and call for the Member States to:

Remove tyrannical governments from special positions of power in the United Nations human rights system. Welcoming the United Nations suspension this year of the Gaddafi regime from the Human Rights Council, and the successful campaigns to prevent the election of Iran and Syria to that body, we call on the United Nations to continue on the path of reform, including by:

o   Suspending China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia from the UN Human Rights Council;

o   Removing Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women; and

o   Expelling Saudi Arabia from the Executive Board of UN Women.

Adopt the annexed resolutions on compelling situations of human rights that have hitherto been neglected or ignored at the United Nations;

Champion the cause of civil society by speaking out against the persecution of human rights defenders and dissidents, and for the freedom of non-governmental organizations to advocate for an end to repressive laws and practices;

Guarantee the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, being the lifeblood of democracy;

Condemn the ongoing censorship, harassment and imprisonment of Internet fighters for freedom and democracy;

Demand equality, tolerance and freedom for minorities everywhere;

Defend women who are victims of state-sanctioned subjugation; and

Protect children from ideologies of hatred and intolerance that promote contempt for fundamental human rights.

Signed on this 22nd day of September, 2011, at the opening of the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, for the We Have A Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution.