Belgium Bans Ritual Animal Slaughter. Some See a Humane Move, Others Prejudice.

BRUSSELS — A Belgian ban on the Muslim and Jewish ways of ritually slaughtering animals went into effect on New Year’s Day, part of a clash across Europe over the balance between animal welfare and religious freedom.

With both animal rights advocates and right-wing nationalists pushing to ban ritual slaughter, religious minorities in Belgium and other countries fear that they are the targets of bigotry under the guise of animal protection.

“It is impossible to know the true intentions of people,” said Yaakov David Schmahl, a senior rabbi in Antwerp. “Unless people state clearly what they have in mind, but most anti-Semites don’t do that.”

Laws across Europe and European Union regulations require that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter, to make the process more humane. For larger animals, stunning before slaughter usually means using a “captive bolt” device that fires a metal rod into the brain; for poultry it usually means an electric shock. Animals can also be knocked out with gas.

But slaughter by Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rules requires that an animal be in perfect health — which religious authorities say rules out stunning it first — and be killed with a single cut to the neck that severs critical blood vessels. The animal loses consciousness in seconds, and advocates say it may cause less suffering than other methods, not more.

Most countries and the European Union allow religious exceptions to the stunning requirement, though in some places — like the Netherlands, where a new law took effect last year, and Germany — the exceptions are very narrow. Belgium is joining Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia among the nations that do not provide for any exceptions.

Ann De Greef, director of Global Action in the Interest of Animals, a Belgian animal rights group, insisted that stunning does not conflict with kosher and halal doctrine, and “they could still consider it ritual slaughtering,” but the religious authorities refuse to accept that.

“They want to keep living in the Middle Ages and continue to slaughter without stunning — as the technique didn’t yet exist back then — without having to answer to the law,” she said. “Well, I’m sorry, in Belgium the law is above religion and that will stay like that.”

Belgium, with a population of about 11 million, is home to roughly 500,000 Muslims and over 30,000 Jews. Those who adhere to their religious rules will soon be forced to order their meat from abroad, which community members say will mean paying more, and could even lead to food shortages.

Leaders of both groups say they hope that lawsuits they have filed in Belgium’s Constitutional Court might still lift the ban on slaughtering without stunning later this year.

“The government asked for our advice on the ban, we responded negatively, but the advice wasn’t taken,” said Saatci Bayram, a leader of the Muslim community. “This ban is presented as a revelation by animal rights activists, but the debate on animal welfare in Islam has been going on for 1,500 years. Our way of ritual slaughtering is painless.”

Joos Roets, a lawyer representing an umbrella organization of Islamic institutions, said that the ban was motivated more by stigmatizing certain groups than concerns over animal welfare. The government could take other steps to reduce animal suffering, he said, “without violating the Belgian freedom of religion and the European regulation regarding this matter.”

The law that took effect on Tuesday applies in the northern Belgian region of Flanders; a similar one will take effect later this year in the southern region of Wallonia.

The idea for the ban was first proposed by Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist and the minister in the Flanders government who is responsible for animal welfare. Mr. Weyts was heavily criticized in 2014 for attending the 90th birthday of Bob Maes, who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation of Belgium in World War II and later became a far-right politician.

Animal rights groups applauded the legislation. When it was approved by the Flemish Parliament in June 2017, Mr. Weyts hailed the vote on Twitter, writing: “Proud animal minister. Proud to be Flemish.”

Right-wing politicians in several countries, particularly those opposed to the presence of growing Muslim populations, have seized on the issue of religious slaughter as an example of Western societies bending over backward to accommodate minority communities.

“The truth is that this measure was an easy win, which had the backing of large parts of the population concerned with animal rights,” said Mr. Bayram, aligning them, at least momentarily, with the far right.

Rabbi Schmahl cited another Belgian law that was recently enacted, to regulate home schooling — a common practice in his community — as an example of a pattern of laws in Europe making it increasingly difficult for observant Jews to live according to their traditions.

“It definitely brings to mind similar situations before the Second World War, when these laws were introduced in Germany,” he said.

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Opinion | American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup

The events of past year brought American and Israeli Jews ever closer to a breaking point. President Trump, beloved in Israel and decidedly unloved by a majority of American Jews, moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, with the fiery evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress consecrating the ceremony.

In October, after the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, President Trump went to that city to pay his respects. Members of the Jewish community there, in near silent mourning, came out to protest Mr. Trump’s arrival, declaring that he was not welcome until he gave a national address to renounce the rise of white nationalism and its attendant bigotry.

The only public official to greet the president at the Tree of Life was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

At a Hanukkah celebration at the White House last month, the president raised eyebrows and age-old insinuations of dual loyalties when he told American Jews at the gathering that his vice president had great affection for “your country,” Israel.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, has framed this moment starkly: Israeli Jews believe deeply that President Trump recognizes their existential threats. In scuttling the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which many Israelis saw as imperiling their security, in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in basically doing whatever the government of Benjamin Netanyahu asks, they see a president of the United States acting to save their lives.

American Jews, in contrast, see President Trump as their existential threat, a leader who they believe has stoked nationalist bigotry, stirred anti-Semitism and, time again, failed to renounce the violent hatred swirling around his political movement. The F.B.I. reports that hate crimes in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017, with a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions.

When neither side sees the other as caring for its basic well-being, “that is a gulf that cannot be bridged,” Michael Siegel, the head rabbi at Chicago’s conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, told me recently. He is an ardent Zionist.

To be sure, a vocal minority of Jews in Israel remain queasy about the American president, just as a vocal minority of Jews in the United States strongly support him. But more than 75 percent of American Jews voted for the Democrats in the midterm elections; 69 percent of Israelis have a positive view of the United States under Mr. Trump, up from 49 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Israel is one of the few developed countries where opinion about the United States has improved since Mr. Trump took office.

Part of the distance between Jews in the United States and Israeli Jews may come from the stance that Israel’s leader is taking on the world stage. Mr. Netanyahu has embraced the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Victor Orban, who ran a blatantly anti-Semitic re-election campaign. He has aligned himself with ultranationalists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and a Polish government that passed a law making it a crime to suggest the Poles had any responsibility for the Holocaust.

The Israeli prime minister was one of the very few world leaders who reportedly ran interference for the Trump administration after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and urged President Trump to maintain his alliance with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Netanyahu’s son Yair was temporarily kicked off Facebook for writing that he would “prefer” that “all the Muslims leave the land of Israel.”

Last month, with multiple corruption investigations closing in on him and his conservative coalition fracturing, Mr. Netanyahu called for a snap election in April, hoping to fortify his political standing.

If past is prologue, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values. As his 2015 campaign came to a close, Mr. Netanyahu darkly warned his supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger — Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” adding with a Trumpian flourish that left-wing organizations “are bringing them in buses.”

Israeli politicians — and citizens — are increasingly dismissive of the views of American Jews anyway. Evangelical Christians, ardently pro-Israel, give Jerusalem a power base in Washington that is larger and stronger than the American Jewish population. And with Orthodox American Jews aligned with evangelicals, that coalition has at least an interfaith veneer — even without Conservative and Reform Jews, the bulk of American Jewry.

The divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews goes beyond politics. A recent law tried to reinstate the Chief Rabbinate as the only authority that can legally convert non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, after the slaughter in Pittsburgh, refused to refer to the Conservative Tree of Life as a synagogue at all, calling it “a place with a profound Jewish flavor.”

Already only Orthodox Jewish weddings are legal in Israel. Reform Jews have been roughed up when praying at the Western Wall. Promises to Jewish women that the Israeli rabbinate would become more inclusive have largely led to disappointment. Last summer, the group Women of the Wall was warned that if it did not remain confined to the small, barricaded area within the “women’s section,” its members would be barred from praying there altogether.

And the stalemate over Palestinian rights and autonomy has become nearly impossible to dismiss as some temporary roadblock, awaiting perhaps a new government in Jerusalem or a new leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

The two-state solution is increasingly feeling like a cruel joke. American Jews’ rabbis and lay leaders counsel them to be vigilant against any other solution, such as granting Palestinians full rights in a greater Israel, because those solutions would dilute or destroy Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Be patient, American Jews are told. Peace talks are coming. The Palestinians will have their state.

In the meantime, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel grows stronger on American campuses, and new voices are emerging in the Democratic Party, such as Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who are willing to speak openly about Palestinian rights and autonomy where other lawmakers have declined to do so.

Of course, American Jews, like Israeli Jews, are not a monolith. Within the American Jewish population, there is a significant generational split on Israel that goes beyond ideology. Older American Jews, more viscerally aware of the Holocaust and connected to the living history of the Jewish state, are generally willing to look past Israeli government actions that challenge their values. Or they embrace those actions. Younger American Jews do not typically remember Israel as the David against regional Goliaths. They see a bully, armed and indifferent, 45 years past the Yom Kippur War, the last conflict that threatened Israel’s existence.

American Jewry has been going its own way for 150 years, a drift that has created something of a new religion, or at least a new branch of one of the world’s most ancient faiths.

In a historical stroke with resonance today, American Jewish leaders gathered in Pittsburgh in 1885 to produce what is known as the Pittsburgh Platform, a new theology for an American Judaism, less focused on a Messianic return to the land of Israel and more on fixing a broken world, the concept of Tikkun Olam. Jews, the rabbi behind the platform urged, must achieve God’s purpose by “living and working in and with the world.”

For a faith that for thousands of years was insular and self-contained, its people often in mandated ghettos, praying for the Messiah to return them to the Promised Land, this was a radical notion. But for most American Jews, it is now accepted as a tenet of their religion: building a better, more equal, more tolerant world now, where they live.

Last summer, when a Conservative rabbi in Haifa was hauled in for questioning by the Israeli police after he officiated at a non-Orthodox wedding, it was too much for Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization of the Conservative movement in North America.

“I do not believe we can talk about a ‘gap’ between Israel and the Diaspora,” Rabbi Wernick wrote in a letter to the Israeli government. “It is now a ‘canyon.’”

My rabbi in Washington, Daniel Zemel, said in despair during Kol Nidre, the Yom Kippur evening service, this fall: “For the first time in my life, I feel a genuine threat to my life in Israel. This is not an external threat. It is an internal threat from nationalists and racists.”

He implored his congregation to act before it is too late, to save Israel from itself.

But Israelis want nothing of the sort. American Jews don’t serve in the Israeli military, don’t pay Israeli taxes and don’t live under the threat of Hamas rocket bombardments. And many American Jews would not heed Rabbi Zemel’s call.

Zionism divided American Jewry for much of the latter 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Those divisions remained in the early decades of the Jewish state, fading only with the triumph of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the peril of the Yom Kippur War.

Now many American Jews, especially young American Jews, would say, Israel is Israel’s problem. We have our own.

There are roughly 6.5 million Jews in Israel. There are roughly 5.7 million Jews in America. Increasingly, they see the world in starkly different ways.

The Great Schism is upon us.

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Jonathan Weisman is a veteran Washington journalist, deputy Washington editor at The Times and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.”

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New Year’s Fete From Russia Irks Some in Israel: ‘It’s Not a Jewish Holiday’

ASHDOD, Israel — As dusk fell in a port city in southern Israel, Roman Kaminker’s neighborhood pop-up shop twinkled with a bountiful display of Santa dolls and synthetic spruce trees adorned with tinsel and baubles.

Mr. Kaminker’s store in Ashdod was catering to those shopping for Novy God, the Russian end-of-year celebration when families traditionally gather before midnight on Dec. 31 to feast on delicacies from the old country like herring, caviar and jellied calf’s foot, and toast in the New Year with vodka and bubbly.

“This has no connection to religion,” declared Mr. Kaminker, 39, who emigrated from Moldova in the mid-1990s, and was eager to avoid any misunderstandings that his shop was somehow linked to Christmas. “You won’t find any Marias or crosses here,” he added. “That wasn’t allowed in the Soviet Union.”

Nearly 30 years after the start of the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which began in 1989 and brought nearly a million Russian speakers to Israel by the end of the 1990s, the Novy God holiday has become something of a barometer to gauge the place of these immigrants in Israeli society.

Back in Soviet days, Novy God was a particularly joyous night for many, being a purely secular holiday with no connection to the Communist Party.

Yet some of those who brought Novy God traditions with them to Israel, like the evergreen yulka tree or Ded Moroz — Grandfather Frost, an often blue-coated Santa Claus — found themselves celebrating with curtains drawn, concerned that disapproving neighbors might think they were marking Christmas.

The holiday and its symbols can still tap into underlying prejudices in the broader Israeli population about “the Russians,” as immigrants from all former Soviet nations are referred to here.

The immigration at the end of the last century included hundreds of thousands of newcomers who qualified for Israeli citizenship through family connections but are not considered legally Jewish under the strictly Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

The pronounced secularity of many of the newcomers has led many immigrants to say they feel they are viewed suspiciously by other Israelis and constantly have to prove their Jewishness.

So while the main point of Mr. Kaminker’s pop-up store is to sell Novy God goods, he also wants to use it to help persuade his non-Russian and Orthodox Jewish neighbors to accept the holiday’s traditions.

“We need more awareness in Israel,” he said. “A lot of people say a million Christians came here and that we tricked the state.”

An annual obstacle to a wider embrace of the holiday are the Santas for hire who bring gifts to children.

And this year has posed an extra hurdle for acceptance: There is a tradition of including the relevant animal from the Chinese zodiac in Novy God decorations, and 2019 happens to be the year of the pig — a reviled animal in Judaism whose meat is forbidden — meaning that this year’s wares have included an abundance of ceramic pigs, cuddly pig toys and piggy banks.

According to the Hebrew calendar, the Jewish New Year arrives in the fall, and the Jan. 1 date carries with it painful historical memories for some in Israel.

The New Year’s Eve that many secular Israelis celebrate at clubs and restaurants on Dec. 31 has long been referred to as “Sylvester,” because it coincides with a traditional European feast day for a saint with that name who served as a pope in the 4th century and was considered anti-Semitic.

For some Jews of Eastern European origin, the date connotes a time when local non-Jews would get drunk and carry out pogroms.

“There were years when our people were slaughtered on such dates,” said Nachman Zilber, 40, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, as he rushed past Mr. Kaminker’s store.

Ashdod, whose population of more than 200,000 is almost a quarter Russian-speaking, became the focus of disgruntlement with Novy God this year after the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Avi Amsalem, objected to a spruce tree displayed beside a Hanukkah lamp at a city mall.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Amsalem said that the tree was “meant to hurt whoever defines themselves as Jewish,” and that the lamp had gone up a day after Hanukkah ended. Similar tensions erupted this year over Novy God decorations in a Tel Aviv suburb.

Mr. Kaminker is not alone in his efforts to ease these tensions over the holiday and some of the fallacies associated with it.

Three years ago, a group of Russian-Israeli activists introduced an “Israeli Novy God” campaign on social media, producing humorous videos showing ordinary Israelis that the holiday was not what they thought it was — a clandestine religious ritual or an excuse to drink heavily — and offering to host them at Novy God gatherings.

“We wanted to create a new Israeli tradition of Novy God where Russians open their homes,” said Pola Barkan, 28, the director of the Cultural Brigade, who came as an infant with her family from Kiev.

The Cultural Brigade, whose mission is to familiarize Israelis with the richness of Russian culture, was set up by young adults who had a common experience: They arrived with their families as children in a foreign country and found themselves living a cultural double life, speaking Russian at home while struggling to be accepted as Israelis.

“First,” Ms. Barkan said, “it was all about our integration into the country and forgetting where we came from.”

But now Ms. Barkin says she wants Russian immigrants and their descendants to feel free to embrace their heritage and invite other Israelis to appreciate it.

“Let everyone decide what they want and have a choice, without feeling embarrassed,” she said.

Year by year, Novy God does appear to have become more widely accepted.

A recent survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group, found that 38 percent of the general Jewish population in Israel did not know what Novy God was — meaning that more than 60 percent did.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broadcast New Year’s greetings in Russian last year. And the Jewish National Fund, known for planting forests, said it was distributing trees this year for Novy God.

Newspapers have devoted food columns to traditional Novy God recipes, and a supermarket advertisement on Israeli public radio opens with a woman exclaiming, “Novy God!” over the steep discounts.

At the Big Fashion Mall in Ashdod, the Novy God tree has turned into an attraction, with Russian speakers and Israelis whose families have been here for generations both snapping selfies by it.

Many passers-by said there was more tolerance than there used to be, although not everyone was wholly comfortable with the festivities.

“It’s a free, democratic country,” said Yehuda Crispin, 33, an observant Jew who was out shopping. “In history, there were pogroms against the Jews on that date, but in our days that’s less relevant.”

At another pop-up stall nearby, Alice Duke, 39, was buying a tiny tree for her daughter, Klil, 7, who was smitten by “The Christmas Chronicles” movie and hoped that Santa would bring her presents.

Ms. Duke noted that Klil was more likely to get presents from the prophet Elijah who, according to tradition, visits Jewish homes at Passover.

Etty Ben-Dayan, 50, who was walking by, said that she was married to a Russian and that her husband and her older daughter went to his parents for the Novy God feast. “My daughter is not always so happy about it,” she said. “She says it’s not a Jewish holiday.”

Follow Isabel Kershner on Twitter: @IKershner

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Opinion | Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism

On Monday, in an interview with The Intercept, Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who in November became the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, went public with her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to use economic pressure on Israel to secure Palestinian rights. That made her the second incoming member of Congress to publicly back B.D.S., after Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar, who revealed her support last month.

No current member of Congress supports B.D.S., a movement that is deeply taboo in American politics for several reasons. Opponents argue that singling out Israel for economic punishment is unfair and discriminatory, since the country is far from the world’s worst violator of human rights. Further, the movement calls for the right of Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants to return to Israel, which could end Israel as a majority-Jewish state. (Many B.D.S. supporters champion a single, binational state for both peoples.) Naturally, conservatives in the United States — though not only conservatives — have denounced Tlaib and Omar’s stance as anti-Semitic.

It is not. The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that depends on treating Israel as the embodiment of the Jewish people everywhere. Certainly, some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but it’s entirely possible to oppose Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot. Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large, given the way the current Israeli government has aligned itself with far-right European movements that have anti-Semitic roots.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

The interests of the State of Israel and of Jews in the diaspora may at times coincide, but they’ve never been identical. Right-wing anti-Semites have sometimes supported Zionism because they don’t want Jews in their own countries — a notable example is the Polish government in the 1930s.

Conversely, there’s a long history of Jewish anti-Zionism or non-Zionism, both secular and religious. In 1950 Jacob Blaustein, the president of the American Jewish Committee, one of the country’s most important Jewish organizations, reached an agreement with Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in which Ben-Gurion essentially promised not to claim to speak for American Jews. “Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have no political attachment to Israel,” said Blaustein at the time.

Decades later, such a statement from the committee — or any major, mainstream Jewish organization — would be unthinkable. A consensus set in “that Jewish identity can be reduced to Israelism,” Eliyahu Stern, an associate professor of modern Jewish history at Yale, told me. “That’s something that takes place over the second half of the 20th century in America.”

The centrality of Israel to American Jewish identity has at times put liberal American Jews in an awkward position, defending multiethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority. (American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.)

Until fairly recently, it was easy enough for many liberals to dismiss consistency on Israel as a hobgoblin of little minds. A binational state might sound nice in theory, but in practice is probably a recipe for civil war. (Even the Belgians have trouble managing it.) The two-state solution appeared to offer a route to both satisfying Palestinian national aspirations and preserving Israel’s Jewish, democratic character.

Now, however, Israel has foreclosed the possibility of two states, relentlessly expanding into the West Bank and signaling to the world that the Palestinians will never have a capital in East Jerusalem. As long as the de facto policy of the Israeli government is that there should be only one state in historic Palestine, it’s unreasonable to regard Palestinian demands for equal rights in that state as anti-Semitic. If the Israeli government is going to treat a Palestinian state as a ridiculous pipe dream, the rest of us can’t act as if such a state is the only legitimate goal of Palestinian activism.

At times, I’ve agreed with those who see something disproportionate in the left’s fixation on Israel. But the oft-heard argument that other peoples are suffering more than the Palestinians can be a form of weaponized whataboutism, meant to elide the unique role America plays as Israel’s protector.

In an op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed Saudi Arabia’s growing ties to Israel as a reason not to downgrade America’s relationship with the kingdom, despite the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. If the Trump administration is going to use our alliance with Israel as an excuse for abandoning fundamental values, surely Americans are justified in subjecting that alliance to special scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Israel is ever more willing to ally itself with foreign leaders who share its illiberal nationalism, even when they’re hostile to Jews. “In the past, Israel has always adhered to a clear policy that it will not engage with political parties ostracized by the local Jewish community,” Anshel Pfeffer wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, wrote Pfeffer, “has abandoned this policy.”

Netanyahu has nurtured a particularly close relationship with the Hungarian right-wing populist Viktor Orban, whose government is waging a demonization campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros. Just this week Soros’s Central European University announced it has been forced out of Hungary. And Netanyahu’s office is trying to negotiate a compromise with Hungary over the contents of a museum that many fear will whitewash Hungary’s role in the Nazi genocide of the Jews, essentially putting Israel’s imprimatur on a modified form of Holocaust revisionism.

Netanyahu, then, seems to understand that being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish are not the same thing. Liberal American Jews, particularly younger ones, are learning that lesson as well. Some staunch Zionists are bad for the Jews — witness Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa who invokes his support for Israel when he’s called out for his blatant white nationalism.

At the same time, people with an uncompromising commitment to pluralistic democracy will necessarily be critics of contemporary Israel. That commitment, however, makes them the natural allies of Jews everywhere else.

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Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @michelleinbklyn

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Opinion | The Complicated DNA of ‘God Bless America’

American Jews on edge from the Pittsburgh temple murders and the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States might — or might not — want to recall an even more anxious time: the dark autumn of 1938. Then, as the Nazis began to overrun Europe and the maniacal voice of Adolf Hitler crackled over the radio, as Kristallnacht shook the world, powerful voices right here at home, of men like Father Coughlin, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, railed against American Jews — immigrants and the children of immigrants — pushing the country toward war, these men claimed, to rescue their co-religionists in Europe.

All America was on edge that fall: Orson Welles’s Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place. Yet another broadcast, 10 nights later, had a very different effect.

On Nov. 10, 1938, one day after Kristallnacht and the eve of Armistice Day, the radio and recording star Kate Smith, the “Songbird of the South,” spoke the following words on her weekly CBS show: “And now it’s going to be my very great privilege to sing for you a song that’s never been sung before by anybody … It’s something more than a song — I feel it’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die. The author, Mr. Irving Berlin. The title, ‘God Bless America.’”

The reaction was swift and powerful: America loved “God Bless America.” The song quickly became omnipresent. Thousands of ordinary citizens sang it every day, in schools and churches and at all manner of public gatherings — even at least one meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “When the song was played at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Memorial Day,” The New York Times reported, “the crowd rose and uncovered as if for the national anthem.”

A serious groundswell of support arose for “God Bless America” to replace the rangy, difficult-to-sing “Star Spangled Banner.” Irving Berlin would have none of it. “A national anthem is something that develops naturally through age, tradition, historic significance and general recognition,” he said. “We’ve got a good national anthem. You can’t have two.”

He had first written the song, in slightly different form, in the summer of 1918, as a United States Army sergeant at Camp Upton on Long Island, while preparing his Army musical “Yip Yip Yaphank.” Berlin had become a naturalized citizen just that February. Born in Siberia in 1888, he had arrived at Ellis Island in September 1893 with his parents and five brothers and sisters, none of them speaking any English, part of a large influx of European Jews from the 1880s through the mid-1920s. America had been very good to him, and his new tune’s lyrics and soaring melody expressed his overwhelming gratitude to his adopted “home sweet home.”

But Berlin changed his mind about putting the tune in the show: It felt “just a little sticky” to him. He relegated it to his song trunk for 20 years — then, in the tense fall of 1938, Kate Smith’s manager approached him, looking for a number for Smith to sing on Armistice Day. Berlin went to his trunk.

Yet almost as soon as “God Bless America” was introduced, some of Berlin’s fellow citizens began reviling him for his presumption, as an immigrant and a Jew, in having written it at all. Isolationist America-Firsters, defending “The Star-Spangled Banner,” shouted down efforts to sing “God Bless America” at public gatherings. Though Berlin donated all royalties from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts, many people accused him, in baldly anti-Semitic terms, of trying to profit from it. Jewish-conspiracy theories sprang up around the tune. The head of the pro-Nazi Protestant War Veterans of the United States wrote a letter to the director of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., accusing Berlin of paying “your organization $15,000 dollars to put over a (Jew) New National Anthem.”

It was a frightening time. A time when — right in Berlin’s hometown — Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund could draw a crowd of 20,000 homegrown Nazi sympathizers to a rally in Madison Square Garden. A rally where, in between “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Kuhn blamed “Jewish financiers” for getting America into World War I; where the Bund’s national public-relations counsel, G.W. Kunze, declaimed, “If Franklin Rosenfeld takes the place of George Washington, so in the cultural life Beethoven is replaced by Irving Berlin and the like.”

This was the fringe, but the fringe was scarily close to the main fabric of American life in those prewar years. It was a time when Jews, even wealthy and famous Jews like Irving Berlin, had to watch their step — and very soon, worry about the times to come.

And now our own frightening time. A time when a right-wing fringe, scarily close to the main fabric of American life and encouraged by our president, blames Jewish financiers for helping to bring immigrant hordes into the country. A time when some of that fringe’s sympathizers are taking matters into their own violent hands. A time when, at a rally held by President Trump in Illinois last month, a little girl in a red T-shirt sat on her father’s shoulders and listened to the president drum up fear about those immigrant hordes. The little girl’s T-shirt was emblazoned with three words: “God Bless America.”

James Kaplan’s biography of Irving Berlin, “New York Genius,” will be published next fall.

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Trudeau Apologizes for Canada’s Turning Away Ship of Jews Fleeing Nazis

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in Parliament on Wednesday and apologized for Canada’s decision to turn away a steamliner full of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust 79 years ago, saying it reflected years of regrettable anti-Semitic foreign policy.

The Canadian government at the time, run by the same Liberal party that Mr. Trudeau leads today, refused to allow the steamliner, the St. Louis, to land in June 1939 after it had been blocked from docking at its original destination, Havana. The boat was filled with more than 900 passengers, most of them Jews who had fled Germany four months before World War II began.

“We apologize to the mothers and fathers whose children we did not save, to the daughters and sons whose parents we did not help,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The United States also refused the captain’s desperate pleas for asylum, as did Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama. In the end, the boat returned to Europe, but not to Germany. Jewish organizations secured them visas to Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. But, as Germany expanded its territory, some 254 were captured and killed in Nazi death camps.

“We refused to help them when we could have. We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. We failed them. And for that, we are sorry,” said Mr. Trudeau, wearing a red poppy on the lapel of his suit as is Canadian tradition in November to mark Remembrance Day.

Since he was elected three years ago, Mr. Trudeau has made apologizing a regular ritual, even by Canadian standards. The apologies, in large part, are a reflection of the country’s continued struggle to atone for its colonial and racist past, particularly when it comes to its treatment of First Nations people.

While some have begun to roll their eyes, other Canadians say they are proud the country is making amends.

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Canadians today tend to think of their country as compassionate and tolerant. But its position on Jewish refugees before, during and after the war was infamously articulated by one government official at the time: None is too many.

Britain accepted 70,000 Jewish refugees between the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933 and the end of the war in 1945. The United States took in 200,000. Vast and underpopulated Canada accepted 5,000.

Mr. Trudeau’s apology came less than two weeks after a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshipers, and at a time when anti-Semitism is rising across North America. It was not lost on many that it was delivered the day after an American election campaign marked by refugee-bashing.

“The rhetoric we are hearing across the border is very similar to the rhetoric we heard in the 1930s — the vilification of the other, the vilification of the press. It’s really scary,” said Danny Gruner, who attended Wednesday’s apology with his mother, Ana Maria Gordon, the sole survivor of the St. Louis living in Canada today.

Ms. Gordon, who met with Mr. Trudeau privately, was surrounded by many of her great-grandchildren and grandchildren.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau apologized to a British Columbia First Nation for the government’s treachery in inviting six Tsilhqot’in chiefs to peace talks 150 years ago. Instead of talking, the government arrested them, put them on trial and hanged them.

He has also apologized to Omar Khadr, the only Canadian who was held at the United States military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He emotionally apologized to gay members of the army, the police and in public service who were persecuted — some even imprisoned — because of their sexual orientation.

And he tearfully said sorry to indigenous people in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where for much of the 20th century indigenous children were torn from their families and compelled to attend boarding schools, where many were abused.

“You will not remove the guilt from the perpetrators of the horror,” Mr. Gruner said. “But at least you can come to terms with what the country was at the time, and try to understand where we are at this particular time and where we want to be.”

Judith Steel, an 80-year-old grandmother from Queens, traveled to Ottawa to witness Mr. Trudeau’s apology. She was 14 months old when she boarded the St. Louis with her parents.

They ended up in France, where she was hidden for the duration of the war. Both her parents were sent to Auschwitz in occupied Poland, and murdered.

“I felt the prime minister’s heart. He was just so open and honest,” said Ms. Steel, who cried throughout Wednesday’s ceremony.

“Apologies are a very big part of my life,” said Ms. Steel, who immigrated to the United States after the war to be raised by her aunt and uncle. “What eats you up is the anger, the fear and all the emotions that go with loss. We have to forgive — not for them, but for ourselves.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau mentioned the growing anti-Semitism that has bubbled up in Canada, as it has in the United States, and vowed to stamp it out.

“Canada and all Canadians must stand up against xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes that still exist in our community, in our schools and in our places of work,” he said.

Canada’s policy toward Jews during and after World War II was exposed by two university professors, first in an academic paper and later in the 1982 book, “None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe. Their findings had a profound effect on the country’s psyche and directly influenced the Canadian government’s decision to open its arms to Vietnamese refugees, accepting some 60,000 people fleeing the Communist government.

That legacy continued as the country accepted around 58,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian war over the past three years.

But after Mr. Trudeau tweeted that refugees were welcome in Canada, "regardless of your faith,” and asylum seekers began to flood across the border from the United States into Canada, the topic of immigration has become politically heated in the country again.

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