In the 21 March edition of The Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi Alvin Berkun stated, “Frankly, I believe if they had chosen a cardinal from Africa the Jewish community would have problems because they would have no exposure to the Jewish world.”
This statement reveals a profound and disturbing ignorance of Africa and its Jews. Africa is composed of 53 countries each with its own distinct history and culture. Making a generalization about Africa is like making a statement about Nome, Alaska, and Tierra del Fuego in the Americas.
Jews live in many countries in Africa including South Africa and Zimbabwe where the Jewish communities are just as vibrant as any in this country.
When my wife and I moved to Pittsburgh in 1994, we were greeted by a local rabbi who was only too happy to tell us about his synagogue’s program for converts as he was completely unable to fathom the possibility that my Jewish wife, a Lithuanian descendant of the tribe of Levi, could actually come from South Africa. It is very discouraging to realize that a Jewish leader in 2013 still has no clue.
Sfard lecture defended
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District, is quoted in the Chronicle (“Controversial Israeli human rights attorney to speak at Pitt,” March 21) as criticizing Pitt Law School’s March 28 lecture by the prominent Israeli human rights attorney, Michael Sfard as “one sided.”
But does Pavilack criticize universities for the many speakers presenting a pro-Israeli government point of view as one sided? Pitt’s lecture series features advocates of social change, and is not a debate format. We have had “controversial” speakers such as Bryan Stevenson, a prominent anti-death penalty advocate, and Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law professor and critic of America’s civil rights record. Would Pavilack suggest that such lectures were improper because we didn’t invite a death penalty proponent or a racist to debate these speakers?
Would it have been unfair to invite the then “controversial” Thurgood Marshall to speak at the law school in the 1950s without also inviting a segregationist to debate him?
Moreover, Pavilack’s view of “balance” is a fanciful flight from reality. He would like a speaker to present his claim that the term “occupation” does not apply to Israel’s control of the West Bank, but that the West Bank is “unallocated territory.” However, the U.S. government, virtually every other country in the world, the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly, the World Court and even the Israel Supreme Court have termed Israel’s military control of the West Bank an occupation.
People often turn a blind eye to the abuses that their governments commit and ignore the realities, which daily confront the oppressed group. Unfortunately, as Pavilack’s attempt to deny the reality of Israeli occupation demonstrates, this is occurring all too often in the Jewish community, both in America and Israel. For example, very few American Jews taking educational trips to Israel speak to Palestinians about the injustices they suffer, or hear from Israeli human rights advocates. The March 28 Michael Sfard lecture afforded law students, lawyers and the public an opportunity to learn more about an important human rights issue and the dilemmas faced by Israeli lawyers who seek to advocate for Palestinian human rights in Israeli courts.
(The author is the professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who invited Sfard to speak.)