James Edward Johnson

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The Irony of Today in Jewish History

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Today marks great tragedy and great triumph for the Jewish people.

Seventy years ago today, for two days in 1941, pro-Nazi Arabs rioted against the Jews of Baghdad.  In a wave of violence, the Jews of Iraq were destroyed on a shocking scale – even in the context of the developing Holocaust. In the Farhud, which means “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”, approximately twice as many Jews were killed in Iraq as were killed during Kristallnacht in Germany.   The only reason the Nazis did not succeed in exterminating the Jews of Iraq is that the British regained control shortly after the Farhud.  Even still, Baghdad would be nearly Jew-free within the next ten years.  One of the major centers of Jewish life for approximately 2,500 years was destroyed.

Forty three years ago today (on the Hebrew calendar), another center of Jewish life was restored.  In 1967, Jews had been barred from their holiest sites in Jerusalem for 20 years – during the Jordanian occupation of the city.  Although day-to-day control of the Temple mount, Judaism’s holiest site, remains under the authority of the Islamic Waqf, it and the Kotel, or Western Wall, was opened to the Jewish people under the sovereignty of the Jewish state.  The return of this area to Jewish hands is marked by Yom Yerushalayim.

So, while on this day we remember a terrible tragedy and the destruction of a center of Jewish life, we also remember a great victory and the restoration of a center of Jewish life.

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 6:13 am

Posted in history, israel, judaism

The lynching of Leo Frank.

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Leo and Lucille Frank during his trial, 1915

Leo and Lucille Frank during his trial, 1915

Jews have it pretty good in the United States.  Indeed, it is the only place where large numbers of Jews have lived as a minority with equal rights  and without having faced genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Even so, Jews have had reason to fear persecution in America.  General Ulysses Grant issued his infamous General Order 11 in 1862, expelling all the Jews of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.   It was revoked within one month – after President Lincoln ordered its revocation.

Even today, hate crimes are disproportionately perpetrated on the basis of an anti-Jewish bias.  Only anti-gay bias is more disproportionate as a motivation for hate crimes in the US.

But, perhaps the worst (certainly the most notorious) hate crime perpetrated against a Jew in the US was the lynching of Leo Frank, 95 years ago today.

Frank was a pencil manufacturer in Atlanta and was accused of murdering a young girl who was an employee at his factory.  He was convicted in a show trial and sentenced to death.  Reports of the trial describe antisemitic outbursts in the courtroom.  There is little doubt that the conviction was the result of an antisemitic animus and that exculpatory evidence was ignored in the trial.

The governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison.  In an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Frank’s throat was slit by another inmate.

A group that would later form the (second) Ku Klux Klan began openly planning the lynching of Frank.  Dozens of people were involved.  They went to the jail where he was being held, removed him, and drove him in a motorcade 150 miles to near the home town of the murdered girl.  There he was hanged before a large crowd of onlookers.  No one was charged with his murder.

Frank’s lynching led to many things.  The perpetrators re-established the Ku Klux Klan.  Jews established the Anti-Defamation League.  Half of Georgia’s Jews fled the state.

Thankfully, no Jew has been lynched in America in the interceding 95 years.

Written by JamesEJ

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Give me your children …

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… is NOT determination. I have no idea why Chaim Rumkowski was picked for a quote at the NY Jewish Heritage Museum. He urged his fellow Jews to sacrifice their children for the greater good. How terrible.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, August 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Posted in history

We cannot understand complex systems.

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I work in hospital finance.  One of my duties is to adjust hospital prices.  Hospital pricing is part of an obscenely complex system.

The reason why I am skeptical of anyone who has answers on healthcare is that I don’t know the answers with any certainty.  Even someone in my position cannot completely understand the why and how of hospital finance and healthcare costs.  We make a lot of assumptions and proceed to do our jobs.  We don’t worry about getting things right – we worry about getting things close.  If we aren’t close enough, we nudge our decisions away from the error.

There are many far more complex systems in the world.  The system I deal with is entirely man-made.  Nature is far more complex.

That is why I was not surprised to read this:

An upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere recently collapsed in an unexpectedly large contraction, the sheer size of which has scientists scratching their heads, NASA announced Thursday.
The layer of gas – called the thermosphere – is now rebounding again. This type of collapse is not rare, but its magnitude shocked scientists.

via Earth’s upper atmosphere collapses. Nobody knows why. – Christian Science Monitor

The only thing that is terribly shocking is that we believe we can predict atmospheric change and weather any better than we could if we simply looked in the past and assumed it would be the same as before.  The atmosphere is a huge and complex thing.  There is a reason why long term weather forecasts revert to historical averages … the meteorologists do not know any better about a week from today than does The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Personally, I do think we need to do certain things to prepare for climate change.  However, whenever anyone asserts that they know the future of the climate, they are probably either lying or overconfident.  Carbon dioxide will warm the atmosphere by preventing heat losses to space.  However, there is a huge distance between such observations and the bizarrely specific statements about what will and will not happen as a result of man-made global warming.  We need to be prepared for potential future risks, but we should not pretend that we understand such complex systems well enough to predict the need for anything other than general readiness.

Written by JamesEJ

Friday, July 16, 2010 at 8:01 am

Posted in history

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A Yiddish manuscript …

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I am a fan of the Bielski Brothers – they were Jews who saved about 1,200 Jews while fighting Nazis in the forests of Belarus.  Indeed, my Jewish identity is tied much more to the experiences of the Bielski partisans, the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, and the Jewish partisans in France than to the other experiences of the Holocaust.  When I was young, my mother introduced me to a co-worker of hers who was a Holocaust survivor.  He had fought as a partisan and had silently witnessed the murder of his family.  I was too young to fully understand, but it left an imprint on me.

When the movie about the Bieskis, Defiance, came out in January 2009,  I had already read much about them.  Indeed, I wrote a column for the Iowa City Press-Citizen dealing with the movie, based in part on my earlier reading of the full history.

Now, it seems, my “full history” is not so full.  There is a newly discovered manuscript written by Tuvia Bielski:

The newly discovered manuscript — about 60 hand-written pages longer than the one Duffy used [for his book, The Bielski Brothers], which was 333 pages — had been sitting in YIVO’s archives, untouched, for more than 50 years. It was one of 3,000 Holocaust testimonials held by YIVO, but since the center’s catalogue was not digitized until 2008, it was nearly impossible to find. You would have needed to sort through thousands of documents to stumble upon it.

via Bringing Bielski Memoir To Print – The Jewish Week.

There is only one problem for me … it is written in Yiddish and I don’t know any more Yiddish than what is embedded in American culture.   The article did say the manuscript was digitized, so maybe we can just use Google’s English-Yiddish translator?

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 12, 2010 at 8:01 am

Posted in history

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