Meron – Where Lifestyle Demands Risk Taking – and Soul-Searching is not an Option

Just as the oblivious are oblivious to being oblivious, fanatics are oblivious to their fanaticism. People who live within subcultures where extreme zeal is the norm view mainstream society as abnormal. Excessive and unreasonable religiosity appears ordinary if you swim in a subculture unmoored from enlightenment and reason.  

Where is the boundary between the religious pilgrim and religious fanatic?  Between the religiously observant (which I consider myself) and the fanatic? I’m not sure.

Some Hindus voluntarily let themselves be trampled by specially decorated cows as a sign of piety. Most Hindus don’t.  Most Muslims come and go on haj. Some Muslim pilgrims have been stampeded in Mecca. Even Buddhists by the hundreds have been killed on pilgrimages.

All opiates the masses turn to have some inherent danger. Sports fanatics have also been stampeded to death. So have disco, rock concert, and nightclub revelers.

These thoughts race through my mind as  I try to process the events overnight (Thursday-Friday, April 30) at Mt. Meron, where at least 44 believers were crushed to death and dozens more hospitalized as they pushed their way toward a shrine.

Traditionally – or superstitiously – take your pick, many of the ultra-faithful spend the Lag B’Omer festival at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage for his hillula (yahrzeit).

Rebbes and clerics with clout control who lights the massive bonfires, who gets close.

It all has something to do with the mystical Book of Zohar, a devastating ancient plague that ended on Lab B’Omer, and the conclusion of the counting of days between the Passover and Shavuot festivals.

Yet, the reasons for the mega-pilgrimage need not detain us since embellishments and evolving legends are organic to things religious as sects and seers infuse further meaning into an existing ritual.

Besides anthropologists, who goes to the Meron pilgrimage?  

Individuals on the ultra-religious and politically fanatic spectrum. Not just the nutters of (militantly anti-Zionist) Toldot Aharon and their ilk, and not just (Hardal) MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and his ilk, but also your garden variety adolescent boys and young men (and women) channeling passion via religious zeal. Seekers. Believers. Chabad messianics. Ex-cons. Good people, most. The lost and the bored. People suffering ennui looking to be part of something significant and meaningful.

If this had been a tragedy that befell non-Haredim their clerics would be implying that the loss of life was avoidable if only – and this is a partial list in progress – the dead had not had sex with their menstruating wives, the boys had not masturbated, the females had dressed modestly, everyone had checked their mezuzahs, and scrupulously observed the sabbath in an ultra-Orthodox manner… for as we know such flaws led to the Holocaust and IDF helicopter accidents. 

In the instance of Meron, we can rule out Reform Judaism as a reason (which some rabbis say led to the Shoah).

Why would people want to crowd together at a time when the COVID epidemic is still a real threat? Why would they shlep their young children to such a place? Especially since getting back in time for Shabbat would be a problem. 

For the same reason, they continually behaved immaturely during the height of the COVID-19 plague: because the survival of their subculture demands risk-taking. Insularity from the mainstream necessitates the ongoing, daily, collective life of the sect. 

Collateral deaths are the price to pay for the lifestyle they have chosen.

In the days ahead, the long beards and their apologists will blame the police (whose instructions the fanatics routinely disregard and cops they effortlessly slur as Nazis). They will blame the government (though Prime Minister Netanyahu is deep in their pocket). Or the Egged bus service. 

However, very few will do any meaningful soul-searching. Almost none will question their lifestyle. 

It never ends. On May 9-10, a different subdivision of Jewish zealots will seek to clash with Muslim religious fanatics on the Temple Mount. Fanaticism fuels itself.

What makes last night’s calamity so painfully throbbing is that it encapsulates so much of what is broken in the State of Israel in 2021 – disregard of law and order, indifference toward Derech Eretz, selfishness, religious smugness, political drift, and a spiritual vacuum at the national level.

בָּרוּךְ דַּיַּן הָאֱמֶת

About Elliot Jager

Why are Arabs rioting in Jerusalem? And why now?

There are at least 10 reasons that I can think of (in random order) to explain the recent uptick in Jerusalem violence:

  1. Palestinian-Arab Jerusalem youths have few facilities for sports or supervised recreation, as one Arab community organizer explained on Reshet Bet Sunday. The youngsters are bored.
  2. Social media lionizes terrible behavior. Part of what set off the latest rioting was that Arab youths have been exploiting TikTok. They’ve filmed each other slapping or roughing up ultra-Orthodox Jewish passerby on the light rail or near Jerusalem’s Old City walls and posted the outrageous clips.

The ultra-Orthodox and Arabs share the “seam” area that, until 1967, divided the city. Jordan had occupied eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The TikTok attacks were unprovoked and (so far as I can glean) have drawn no condemnation from the Palestinian political or clerical echelon.

  1. In March, during Purim, drunk and disorderly anti-Zionist Haredim attacked an Arab van driver who got stuck in the neighborhood while the ultra-Orthodox were demonstrating against the Netanyahu government. The PM happened to be holding a news conference at the nearby Education Ministry. Fearing for his life, the van driver accelerated and accidentally ran over and killed a Jewish bystander.

Connected to the above, there are Haredim (and Lehava-affiliated Hardelnikim) who see themselves as biologically and spiritually superior to everyone not like them.

  1. During the month of Ramadan – which began Monday, 12 April and ends on the evening of Wednesday, May 12 – Muslims fast all daylight while working more or less as usual. The faithful don’t get much sleep because they’re eating, celebrating, watching TV, and praying while it is still dark. So, when daylight comes again, nerves are frayed. In many places around the world, Ramadan is marked by intramural violence or violence against non-Muslims.
  2. Testosterone – Arab youths (and their Hardel + ultra-Orthodox counterparts) have no sanctioned outlet for sexual energy.
  3. Damascus Gate Steps – Rather than create an inviting Ramadan outdoor festival space on the promenade outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate (the one Muslims tend to use to reach the Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock esplanade), the police forcibly forbade people from congregating.

One reason given is COVID restrictions, yet obviously, no distancing is or can be enforced on the Temple Mount. So, the Arabs understandably see the Damascus Gate step policy as humiliating. It is undoubtedly inconsistent. Some years hanging out on the steps is allowed, and some not.

  1. Palestinian Elections set for May 22 – various factions from Fatah to Hamas are keen to exploit any possibility of anti-Israelism to assert their anti-Zionist bona fides.

The PLO demands that Arabs in metropolitan Jerusalem (including those who have Israeli blue ID cards) be allowed to vote in the Palestinian elections.

My view is that Arabs who live in former Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem should be allowed to vote in Palestinian Authority elections just as they did in the 2005 PA presidential and 2006 Palestinian Authority legislative elections.

With an eye on the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party of Smotrich-Ben Givir-Maoz he needs to form a government, Netanyahu has let PA president and octogenarian-in-chief Mahmoud Abbas twist in the wind. He is not saying anything publicly about whether Israel will allow Jerusalem Arabs to vote.

Abbas hints that if Israel does not facilitate voting by Jerusalem Arabs , he will put off the election. Rather convenient for him. It is an election his side is likely to lose to Hamas.

While Abbas is based in Ramallah and has jurisdiction over most West Bank Palestinian Arabs, Hamas in Gaza threatens that if the election is put off it will blame Israel (and maybe Abbas too) and launch more rockets from Gaza. For now, it says the rockets it is launching are in solidarity with Jerusalem Arabs. Both the PLO and Hamas have abetted expansion of rioting in the West Bank and along the Gaza-Negev security fence.

  1. Netanyahu needs a crisis.

Even in good times the PM’s usual modus operandi is to let a crisis fester before saying or doing anything.

In this case, he and his minion-ministers let days go by and said nothing about revolting anti-Arab violence. Obliquely, only on Saturday night did Bibi call on all sides to stand down.

Iran-Syria – His people most likely leaked details about recent IDF attacks against Iran. The gloating may have led the mullahs to press Hamas to heat things up.

Dissing Jordan – Jordan does not influence the Jerusalem Arab street. Still, it does have some sway with the clerics who run the mosques on the Temple Mount. On March 10/11 Netanyahu forced Jordan’s Prince Hussein bin Abdullah to cancel a scheduled visit to the Temple Mount. Supposedly the kerfuffle was over a disagreement over how many armed guards the prince could take up with him. Bibi also made Jordan beg for desperately needed water (which we are, I am pretty sure, obliged to provide under the peace treaty).

  1. Things really really got out of hand Thursday night when the police allowed hundreds of Lehava alt-right Jewish louts (and anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox hangers-on) to march provocatively into the Arab neighborhoods.

Some of these Jewish hoodlums also attacked Arab cleaners and restaurant workers in western Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s mayor had asked the police to ban the Jewish thugs from marching. However, he was told that legally the rally could not be preempted. Trust me. Had Bibi messaged the police to find a way to block the Lehava provocateurs, cops would have. But the mayhem fed the crisis.

An aside: The anti-Zionist Edah HaChareidis rabbis have now instructed their randy youths not to participate in any further demonstrations or anti-Arab violence.

  1. 100 Years of Conflict – The events over the past days, even if God forbid they cascade into a Third Intifada must be seen as another episode in a conflict that has spanned 100 year-plus. It all started when we hit them back.

Israel at 73 by the numbers Independence Day

73 years of Independence (Third Commonwealth)

23,928 fallen fighters

9,140,500 total population (end 2020)

21.0% Arab (within Green Line)

73.9% of Israel’s population on both sides of Green Lin is Jewish (***)

27.9% of the total budget expenditure (how much spent on social welfare)

NIS 21,063 (average monthly income before taxes)

NIS 8,115 (Households of one person average gross monthly money income)

NIS 10,782 (Average Monthly Wages per Employee Job Israeli workers)

355 killed (Casualties in road accidents)

6,312 dead from COVID-10

89% of self-defined Haredim say religion should take precedence over democratic values (*)

65% of self-defined Orthodox say religion should take precedence over democratic values (*)

62% of all Israelis say democratic values should trump religious halacha (*)

37.9% believe religious and democratic values are equally important in the state’s ethos (**)

34.5% say Jewish law should take precedence

26.6 percent say democratic values should take precedence (**)

83.6 percent of those on the Orthodox spectrum say religious law should take precedence over democratic values (**)

18% of Israelis self-define as being on the Orthodox spectrum

23% of Israelis self-define as traditional in their religious practice

34% of Israelis say that what binds them to the country is thousands of years of Jewish history (**)

76.7 percent of those on Orthodox spectrum say what binds them is the Bible

65.9 percent of self-defined right-wing Israelis say the country should spend to encourage diaspora to emigrate

64.8 percent of self-defined left-wingers say Israel should invest in bolstering Jewish identity in the diaspora

66.1% of all Israelis feel the Palestinian Arabs have a lesser claim to the land than the Jews

— 82.5 percent of right-wingers believe this in contrast to 40.3 percent of lent wingers

22.8 percent believe the claims of both sides have equal validity (including 10.7 % of right-wingers)

4,410,052 votes were cast in the March 2021 parliamentary elections (****)

1.6 million went to parties on the Orthodox spectrum

1 million went to Likud (+ 209,000 to Likud breakaway Tikvah)

900,000 votes went to centrist parties

There are 6,772,000 Israeli Jews between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.

There are 1,916,000 Palestinian-Israeli Arabs;

There are 2,949,246 (July 2021 est.) West Bank Arabs, and 1,957,062 (July 2021 est.) Gaza Arabs.

In other words, about 6.7 million Arabs and 6.7 million Jew sharing the same territory.


(*) Pew 2014 survey

(**) Makor Rishon Yoman supplement in Hebrew April 14, 2021 survey


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Election Results Memo – March 24 Israel – Knesset

Neighbors. On the left a Saar sign and on the right one for Ben Givir ‘as right as possible.”

So, here’s my quick take on yesterday’s Elections for the 120-seat Knesset.

The unvarnished truth is that Israeli voters’ solid plurality stands for Bibi-ism, Kahane-ism, and Haredism.

Why do I say this? With nearly 90 per cent of the vote in (meaning small changes will still have a big impact), the Bibi-ist Likud got 30 seats. 

The Netanyahu camp also includes: (Haredi Sephardic) Shas 9; (Knitted yarmulke) Yamina 7; (Haredi Ashkkanazim) UTJ 7; and (Hardel-ni-kim) Ben Gvir / Smotchrich 6 = 59

I can’t see how anyone with a liberal bone in their body (and I use the word liberal in the original sense) could swallow this with equanimity.

The Hardel Party of Ben Gvir / Smotchrich is the most illiberal of the Jewish parties. It combines religious, social and political fanaticism garbed in an oversized kipa shruga (knitted skull cap). The party is an amalgamation of various radical factions that Netanyahu soldered into one to ensure his broad camp lost no votes.

His camp being non-Zionist Haredim + Hardel-nikim (of Ben Gvir / Smotchrich) + Likud (long shorn of Jabotinsky values). 

All held together by Netanyahu’s cult of personality, self-interest and anticipated patronage.

It comes down to Bennett (small knitted kipa) and how low he will go to become defense minister, and to get the Justice Ministry. In the hands of his number two, Ayelet Shaked, Justice would play to the mob telling them that Israel’s Supreme Court should follow the dictates of popular opinion (which like in most polities is intolerant). 

And suppose by some miracle Bennett – a political Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – does the right thing and refuses Bibi. In that case, it is on to another cycle of elections. Unless he does the really right thing and hooks up with Lapid & Saar & Ganz (below).

Even with Bennett, Bibi would anyway require defectors from among his opponents’ camp or one of the Arab parties’ backing – Ra’am being a possibility.

Pundits say Bibi’s partners would not cooperate with the Arabs even to form a government. We shall see. 

Bottom line: it is disheartening that so large a plurality of Israelis favor parties of intolerance.

What of the center? Lapid (who I voted for) and Ganz (who I voted for several times in the past), and Saar together garnered 31 seats.  I put Saar in the center to stack the deck. He is more right-wing than Lapid or Ganz but he retains some old-school Jabotinsky values.

The left parties of Labor and Meretz pulled 12. Both slates contain anti-Zionists. Labor was invigorated by a new woke leader. Meretz got a decisive piety vote from farbrente leftists. I am glad because it means Yair Golan will be in the next Knesset.

In his own category is Lieberman with 7 seats. His Yisrael Beiteinu Party represents the know-nothing older Russian-speaking street. Reactionary. Nationalist. Secular. His number two is an anti-Vaxer. Lieberman, like Bennett and Saar, is a former Netanyahu staffer who broke with the Master years ago and now works to bring him down.

The (more than you can imagine) fragmented Arabs got 11 seats divided between Ra’am and the Joint List. Like Bennett, they can play a pivotal role in creating or blocking a new government’s formation.

Bottom line: It will take many, many, many, weeks for things to shake out. The prospect of another round in the Fall is not out of the question.

Israel Knesset Elections 2021: Blog 2 | Netanyahu on N12

With 30-odd days to go, do you still think Netanyahu the most competent, gifted, and able of the candidates?

Binyamin Netanyahu has no equal.

Watch his performance as anchor Yonit Levy interviews him on Israel’s Channel 12.

Swave, informed, articulate, sincere, and doggedly on message. There is even a touch of self-depracation and genuine modesty. Netanyahu is like sugar. You crave more even if you know he is not good for you.

Every new promise is heartfelt and sincere, papering over long stretches of lies. But who cares? This time – this time, it will be different.

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu will not form the next government. 

Orthodox people will vote for Bennett or Ben-Givir, or Netanyahu. Haredim for one of the ultra-Orthodox parties or Ben-Givir. Right-wingers for Netanyahu or his nemesis Sa’ar or Bennett.

When the dust settles, the likelihood is Bennett and Netanyahu will join forces pulling in Sa’ar or the remnants of his New Hope Party. 

The Lapid-led anti-Bibi camp does not have the numbers. For now, he is the only theoretical alternative to Netanyahu. A pale shadow of the Machiavellian master.

Labor is running the anti-Zionist Ibtisam Mara’ana. We can’t blame its leader Merav Michaeli for who her grandfather was, but for her views, that unspun are on society’s margins (she’d cancel marriage and is uber woke).  

The Meretz list includes the former head of Peace Now (which, whatever its origins long ago, evolved into a lobby for foreign interests).

In an alternate universe, Lapid, Sa’ar and Bennett would join forces after the election to block Bibi and the Haredim.

Alas, not in this universe.


It is easier to decide which party NOT to vote for

So, 39 parties will be competing in the March 23rd Knesset election. Do you know which one you are voting for?

Too early to tell.

But only a dozen of the 39 stand a chance of crossing the electoral threshold.

Who are you not voting for?

That’s easier.

I won’t vote for a party that rejects the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland.

That sounds like the Arab Joint List sans Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party.

You said it.

Go on…

I wouldn’t cast a ballot for a party or amalgamation of parties that wants more religion in the public square; or, ultimately, theocracy; or that is obsessed with battling homosexuality, or is led by an agitator who identifies with a crusade that advocates the forced deportation of sectors of the civilian population; or would favor treating Jews and Arabs in separate hospital rooms.

Wait, haven’t you just described the Hardel camp?

Have I?

Anyone else you won’t vote for?

Anyone who will join a Netanyahu-led government.


Because power corrupts, bloats the ego, because it is time for a change…

Go on…

Or anyone who would sit with the UTJ or Shas – the Haredi parties.

Because of COVID?

Yes, but not just…

Is there anyone else you’d exclude?

Yes, anyone who would threaten the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review.

And on security issues?

This election is not about foreign policy or Iran, but I’d also prefer not to vote for a party whose security policies are in la-la land. Or has an outed anti-Zionist on its list.

Now, it sounds like you are talking about Labor…

You think?

So, where does that leave you?

In a bit of a bind….

OK. Check back later then….

For sure.

Was it Really Worth it?

It was dinner time in Jerusalem when Donald Trump addressed his supporters waiting for him on the Ellipse just south of the White House.

Over supper, we watched live as he spewed his lies, Big and small. I listened to his unsettling stream of consciousness interspersed with a few sentences that he read verbatim, which had subjects and predicates.  

In an America that has suffered 360,000 COVID-related deaths and 22 million cases, his audience was mostly unmasked. No one in a position of authority had done more to play down the pandemic’s dangers than Trump. No one in charge set a worse public health example for people around the world than Trump.

However, incitement, not COVID, was on Trump’s agenda yesterday.

Trump told the mob-to-be that he had been cheated of victory and stabbed in the back by disloyal Republicans. And that he would march with them to the Capitol (which was one of the smallest fibs of his presidency). Then he got into his limousine and went back to the White House.

Next, what Trump and his enablers had threatened would happen – happened. As his supporters marched on the Capitol, others already there began storming the doors of Congress.

The next thing we knew, Trump’s cretins were disporting themselves on the House and Senate floors and in the Speaker’s offices (images that will forever sully the history books).

What, I wondered, are my Trump-supporting family, friends, and former comrades making of all this.

Some of them drank the cool aide. My Cousin A in Brooklyn thinks Trump is the best president in US history flaws and all. He hates everything and everyone Trump hates: socialists, leftists, Democrats, and anti-Trump Jews. To keep pure, he watches only Fox, listens exclusively to Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, and reads only The New York Post. Cousin A is neither Jewishly observant nor rich, he feels empowered by Trump’s aggrieved message. He believes Trump. That the president is also pro-Israel only solidifies A’s absolute devotion.  

My better off Trumpian friends and former comrades have fewer illusions about the man.

They have shilled for him and contorted themselves to see past what he said or how he behaved because “he was good for Israel” or upheld conservative causes or both. They have embraced his inflammatory populism because, they said, it is the only way political power can be wielded in the age we are in. And they generally like the direction Trump’s policies are taking America.

Some also identify with Trump’s opposition to healthcare and his belligerent stance in America’s culture war.

Every one of my friends, family, and old comrades will have an alibi to explain why they linked up with Trump. For almost all, pro-Israelism will play a role.

However, the claim of Trump’s pro-Israelism does not paper over his peccatum mortale.

I never denied that having Trump in office was — comparatively speaking — good for Israel. I just never thought that should be anyone’s yardstick, given the stakes.

That Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel, and Meyer Lansky were good to their mothers did not mitigate their criminality.

Whatever good Trump did for Israel – and this is not the place to parse his policies or motives – the damage he has done to the US does not mitigate his trampling of the Madisonian model of democracy.

That he was “good for Israel” does mitigate the insurgency he led against the American political system. It does not ease the damage he has caused to the fabric of democracy and the terrible example he set for children.

Trump is the most successful demagogue in American history – and having him as a “friend of Israel” has to be a mixed blessing.  An embarrassment, actually.

The “good for Israel” claim did not justify his manipulation of the federal government and the presidency to harm his perceived political enemies.

The “good for Israel” argument did not explain away Trump’s flirtation with the extreme white/right. No one in government authority has done more to catalyze repulsive conspiracy theories than Trump.

I know CNN has a history of anti-Israel bias (as do many media outlets), but the “good for Israel” claim does not justify intimidation of the media by a sitting president.

Trump’s presence has been corrosive to the stability of the American political system – and nothing can be worse for Israel than an America brought to its knees by a rabble-rousing president who has led it to the brink of civil war.

So, if you spent the past five years making excuses for Donald Trump or defending him or winking at his crimes and misdemeanors because he was ostensibly “good for Israel” – now is the time for soul-searching.

Consider that you may have been wrong for thinking so little of the Zionist enterprise to imagine we could not have handled Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic pressure. Or that we can’t take whatever Biden-Harris will throw at us.

You are not responsible for Donald Trump’s 1/6 attack against the United States of America, but neither should you wash your hands of any responsibility. 

God only knows what this arsonist-in-chief may yet do between now and January 20th

Let’s just pray; it has nothing to do with “helping Israel.”


Visit for earlier writings.

Far From Baghdad: Two Sephardi Families and their Influence on China’s Development

The Last Kings of Shanghai

The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman

The Jewish-Chinese relationship has long beguiled me. My one visit to Shanghai made me want to know more about the city. So naturally, I was drawn to Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai. My reward was a narrative that skillfully weaves business, politics, and sociology. Think of the book as a lavish British television historical drama about two wealthy rival families set in stately homes and luxury hotels against an exotic background.

Kaufman, who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and attended both Yale and Harvard, knows China. He reported for decades about Asia for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News. Kaufman also knows about Jews, having authored A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe, and Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.

The story he tells in Last Kings of Shanghai is about two Middle Eastern Jewish families – Sassoon and the Kadoorie – and their pivotal role in China’s economic development; how they benefited from and furthered British colonialism. And, fatefully, how they joined forces to help feed, clothe, house, and school 18,000 destitute European Jewish refugees who arrived in cosmopolitan Shanghai to escape from Hitler-dominated Europe.

Kaufman knows how to keep a multipart multi-general story flowing. Still, there are many characters (with similar-sounding names), and keeping them straight and how they are interconnected kept me on my toes. Anyway, I prefer to focus on the forest and not the trees. 

What matters, in a nutshell, is – the Sassoon’s were an elite and philanthropic clan renown in Baghdad, some of whom moved to Bombay and others on to Shanghai and Hong Kong. Over time, family members acculturated (some completely assimilated) and became embedded with the British aristocracy. The Kadoorie’s likewise traced their origins and yichus – though as Middle Easterners and Sephardim would not use this Yiddish phrase – toBaghdad. Elly (1867-1944) and his brother Ellis (who died in 1922) settled in Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Today, while the Sassoons have mostly faded from power in Asia, the Kadoorie’s are perhaps the most influential non-Chinese in Hong Kong.

IN 1938, WHEN no country would give Jews sanctuary from the Nazis, a Viennese-based Chinese diplomat Ho Feng-Shan, disregarding instructions from his ambassador in Berlin, steered the persecuted Jews to Shanghai as a unique “open city.” To get an Austrian exit visa, Jewish people had to prove they were going someplace that would not ship them back. Han provided the paperwork that enabled Jews to meet this prerequisite.

Reading Kaufman reminded me of a separate cohort of Jewish refugees that found themselves in Shanghai, students from Lithuania’s Mir Yeshiva. They owed their lives to Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, “an angel of salvation,” who issued the necessary documents that allowed them passage via Japan to Shanghai. Both men are recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

But why was Shanghai open in the first place? Because a swath of the city was run as an autonomous international settlement by British, American, and other European merchant-politicians and home to some 40,000 foreigners — the back story: China was internally fragmented and had lost control of its own fate. The First Opium War (1839–1842) may not have been wholly about narcotics, but its outcome did vest the British with the right to bring the drug into China from India where it was grown. By the way, the British themselves were importing thousands of pounds of Indian-sourced opium into their own country. In London, the addictive drug, with its indisputable medicinal and recreational benefits, required no prescription. Yes, there was both local and transnational opposition to opium. However, those who profited from the trade argued, much like 20th-century tobacco executives, as Kaufman tells it, that the benefits outweighed the pain. Untold numbers of Chinese became debilitated by the habit as European colonialists averted their eyes. Prejudice led them to see the locals as lesser beings.

One exception to this generalization about racism was Laura Kadoorie, Elly’s wife, who in 1919 died trying to rescue her children’s Chinese governess from a fire (the governess it transpired had already escaped). The Kadoorie’s also introduced the philanthropic idea to China – the notion of helping people who were not of your caste or clan or ethnic group, Kaufman writes.

AFTER WWII began in Europe in September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Japan did not go to war with Britain and the US until December 1941. For part of that interval, Shanghai’s Jewish enclave flourished with a diverse Jewish population, culture, Orthodox religious studies, a kosher restaurant, and Yiddish newspaper. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee social worker Laura Margolis sought to administer and rally international Jewish aid for the community. However, already in August 1939, under German pressure, the Japanese basically closed Shanghai to further Jewish immigration.

By the time the European Jews were in Shanghai, the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, alas inept and crooked, had more or less unified the country. Nonetheless, the Shanghai international zone retained its extraterritorial status. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, its troops occupied Shanghai and ended the city’s unusual position. Until the war ended in the Pacific in August 1945, all European ex-pats were herded into a ghetto, and life became much, much grimmer.

Kaufman characterizes the Chinese as free of anti-Semitism as opposed to the Japanese who had been poisoned by the Czarist Russian Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery. While buying into the conspiracy theory, they figured that rather than kill the Jews, it would be prudent to win them over in support of Japanese interests. Hence, before Pearl Harbor, they lobbied Victor Sassoon to invest in Manchuria (where the Japanese had set themselves up back in 1931) and influence the US to stay out of the war. Victor played them as long as he could to buy time but eventually had to escape leaving all his assets behind. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the Japanese came under pressure from the Nazis to load the Jews there onto ships, sail them into the harbor, and sink them, but the Japanese would only consent to intern them in a ghetto seeing them as a bargaining chip.

With Japan’s WWII defeat, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists recommenced their interrupted civil war. Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and Chiang, who retreated to Taiwan’s island, proclaimed it the Republic of China.

Jonathan Kaufman

THE FIRST SASSOON to arrive in China (from Bombay) was David (1832-1867), escaping trouble with Pasha Daud and the Ottoman authorities in Baghdad. The multilingual David corresponded in Judeo-Arabic, never mastering English, let alone Chinese. His son Elias Sassoon expanded the family’s commercial operations in Shanghai, solidly aligning its fortunes with the British colonial enterprise. As Kaufman recalls, the French novelist Balzac famously wrote, “behind every great fortune there is a crime.” The source of the Sassoon’s initial wealth was importing opium to China from India, a business dominated by William Jardine and Company of London.

Around 1906-07, Britain restricted trade in opium, and by the end of WWI (1918), the use of opium in the UK became a criminal offense. At this stage, like their bigger competitors, Jardine Matheson & Co, the Sassoon’s had diversified out of opium into real estate, public transportation, hotels, and other business. Both Jewish families embraced technology to modernize and develop Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The Sassoon’s looked down their noses at the Kadoorie’s. In time the Kadoorie’s would surpass the wealth of the Sassoon’s. Elly Kadoorie arrived in China from Baghdad via Bombay in 1880 and began working for one of the Sassoon companies before striking off. Another Baghdad Jew who started as a Sassoon employee before making his own fortune was Silas Aaron Hardoon (died 1931). Elly died during the Japanese occupation of the city during WWII, but not before ensuring that his sons Lawrence (1899–1993) and Horace (1902–1995) were committed to carrying on in their father’s footsteps.

Sassoon’s more than the Kadoorie’s left their art deco architectural imprint on buildings still seen today by anyone strolling along Shanghai’s riverfront promenade – called the Bund – which had been part of the international zone. These landmarks include the Palace Hotel and the Cathay Hotel built by Victor Sassoon (1881-1961).

Among the most telegenic of the book’s characters is Victor Sassoon who had been gravely wounded when his plane was shot down in WWI, leaving him crippled. That did not stop him from being a playboy millionaire and amateur photographer who convinced many a visiting starlet to pose nude. A man about down, Victor owned racehorses and hosted costume parties and receptions that attracted the likes of filmmaker Charlie Chaplin and socialite Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor). He presumably saw himself as an acculturated British Jew, not a Zionist. Nevertheless, he appreciated that European Jewish refugees needed a safe haven (and with Palestine closed by British Mandate authorities), he purchased land in South America for resettlement purposes.

When the Second World War broke out, Lawrence Kadoorie was settled in Hong Kong, where the family had built the China Light and Power electrical generating plant. Back in Shanghai, Horace Kadoorie and Victor Sassoon were spearheading aid efforts on behalf of the European Jewish refugees. With the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (after December 1941), Lawrence returned to Shanghai, where he, his brother Horace, their father Elly, and their families were interned by the Japanese. For his part, Victor Sassoon managed to get out of Shanghai in 1941.

Later, after the reds took over mainland China, Horace and Lawrence Kadoorie bet on Hong Kong. Kaufman reminds us how strategically vulnerable (troops massed in Guangdong could easily drive south into Hong Kong) the then British enclave was. Fortunately, Mao decided that having a British colony to connect China to the outside world served his interests. From banks to real estate to electricity, the family made their mark. 

After 1978, when Deng Xiaoping opened the country to Western investment, Lawrence Kadoorie reached a modus vivendi with the communist authorities. Kaufman is not entirely comfortable that, in his view, the Kadoorie’s put business over human rights.  The territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. As 2020 draws to a close, President Xi Jinping has made it plain that Bejing wants to politically integrate Hong Kong more closely into the PRC. Whatever the Chinese authorities are up to in Hong Kong today, and as troubling it is from a human rights and civil liberties perspective, I presume Bejing will maintain its coexistence policy with capitalists.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?  The Sassoon clan is mostly married-out, whereas the Kadoorie’s remain comparatively more Jewishly affiliated. Elly Kadoorie was drawn to Zionism and lobbied Sun Yat-sen, the George Washington of China, to support the Balfour Declaration. “All lovers of democracy cannot help but support… the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserves an honorable place in the family of nations,” he wrote in 1920. Elly was also an early donor to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a cornerstone of the Zionist enterprise. He also established Jewish schools in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul in memory of his wife. Laurence and Horace continued this legacy.

Victor Sassoon was back in Shanghai after WWII hitching his fate to Chiang kai Shek and the nationalists. He disregarded the counsel of his well-connected lover, the remarkable New Yorker China correspondent Emily Hahn, who had warned him that Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai were on the ascendant. When the Reds took over, he was forced to flee for good. Heavily invested in real estate, Victor lost his fortune and ultimately wound-up living in the Bahamas with his American wife, Evelyn Barnes.

Beyond social worker Margolis and Hahn, the stories of other exceptional women dot this book. Consider that British women achieved the right to vote only in 1928. And it had been considered unseemly for a woman to run a business enterprise. Nonetheless, the erudite Flora Sassoon successfully managed the family company in Bombay until she was undermined by London-based Sassoon patriarchs. Rachel Sassoon Beer, who converted to Christianity presumably as a matter of social convenience, championed Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence and became the first female editor of two national newspapers, the Sunday Times andlater The Observer. And not to forget Elly Kadoorie’s philanthropic and courageous wife, Laura Mocatta.

Kaufman is judiciously critical in assessing British imperialism in China. He does not ignore its positive modernizing influence or play down how colonialism distorted economic and political development to the average Chinese’s disadvantage. There is no denying that colonialism cost precious lives and encouraged Europeans to treat locals as inferior. That said, the moral slate is considerably obfuscated when we reflect on the horrendous toll communism took on China – Mao is believed by historian Frank Dikötter to have been responsible for 45 million citizens’ deaths.

Without overwhelming the reader, this book is a record of the Sephardi Diaspora in China, an overview of European imperialism in Shanghai, a sketch of contemporary Chinese politics, an outline of Chinese Communist foreign policy, and even provides insight into the origins of the US-China Lobby.

“The Sassoon’s and the Kadoorie’s exploited Shanghai, but they also ignited an economic boom that attracted millions of others who found in the city a place to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as China wrenched itself from a sclerotic, feudal society into a modern industrial one. It was the Chinese who transformed Shanghai and China. The Sassoons and the Kadoorie’s helped light the fuse,” according to Kaufman.



For a deeply researched look at the Jewish community of Shanghai between 1938-1945, see David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis & Jews

Here is my thumbnail sketch of the China-Israel relationship written in 2006

China & Israel: Getting Past Inscrutable


For a sense of what communism wrought, read the unsurpassed Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

And check out this exhibition:

Emile Bocian in New York’s Chinatown

The London Jewish Chronicle previews ‘Lone Voice: The Wars of Isi Leibler’ By Suzanne Rutland

From today’s (London) Jewish Chronicle: “He might easily be described as the Marmite of the Jewish world: a communal gadfly who has garnered love and hate in almost equal parts…” It is the part of the Jewish world that disdains the corruption that will want to read this book.

The end of WII was not ‘the end’ for Jewish survivors

The Last Million:

Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War

By David Nasaw

“Is this – is this necessary?”

That was the question a harried Vito Corleone asked consigliere Tom Hagen in Godfather I when prevailed upon to grant Luca Brasi an audience and it’s what I ask myself whenever another Holocaust book is put on the market.

So many books, films, museums, and monuments – so much desensitization, trivialization, and enduring ignorance.

It transpires that David Nasaw’s The Last Million is necessary.

Nasaw recently retired as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center. He’s written critically acclaimed biographies of Joseph P. Kennedy and William Randolph Hearst.

The late British Jewish historian David Cesarani showed us in Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 that WWII did not suddenly end for Europe’s Jews on May 7, 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered. Moreover, as Tony Judt showed in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, WWII bled into another conflict, the Cold War, which Nasaw explains, affected the Last Million’s fate.

It never occurred to me to ask my Pater or my Tanta Golda how come they did not reach New York City from their displaced person camp in Germany until 1949 – four torturous years after liberation. From Nasaw’s book, I infer that there was nothing left for them back in Spinka, Romania. Jews did try to go home initially, if for no other reason than to see if anyone else had survived. Too often, they were greeted by hatred and pogroms and forced back to Germany, writes Nasaw. British Mandate authorities refused to let Holocaust survivors into Palestine. The US Congress forbade them from entering America. No place else would have them.

The Last Million

When hostilities ended, there were 8-10 million displaced persons in Germany – prisoners, forced laborers, and POWs. Most went home to USSR and Western Europe, but there remained behind in DP camps overseen by the UN – 1 million Eastern Europeans, mostly non-Jews, who refused to go home or had no home, writes Nasaw.

Among the trapped were 250,000 Jewish refugees. Between 1945-1952, the US was loath to grant most of them asylum.

Nasaw reports that in 1945 at Potsdam, Germany, US President Harry S Truman appealed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to admit 100,000 Jewish DPs to Eretz Israel. Churchill implied he’d think about it, but then lost the July 1945 elections to the Labor Party’s Clement Attlee. He and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin were implacable foes of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the idea of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Not only did the US and UK not lift a finger to help the Jews during the Shoah, but they did not help them when the war ended – for as long as help could be delayed, explaines Nasaw.

How DPs got to Germany

Three different streams of displaced persons found themselves in Germany after the war. (1) Slave laborers kidnapped from Poland, among other places, who replaced Germans sent to the Wehrmacht. These DPs didn’t want to return to their homelands, which had become Soviet satellites. (2) Collaborators, including Waffen SS members, from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania (the Baltic states) and Ukraine, fled to Germany to avoid falling into Red Army hands. And (3) Jewish survivors, many of whom had been marched to Germany to be worked to death in underground armament factories.  

Stuck in Europe

The Soviets defeated the Nazis from the East and the Allies from the West. After WWII, Germany was divided into four zones: American, Soviet, British, and French. Berlin, located deep in the Soviet zone, was nonetheless also divided into Allied and Soviet zones.

The DPs were rounded up and sorted out by nationality into camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) founded in 1943.

Baltic and Ukrainian DPs anticipated that Western pressure would compel Stalin to pullback from the Soviet-occupied Baltic states and Ukraine.

Stalin had other ideas. He wanted the Allies to ship the East European DPs back to their countries of origin firstly to address acute labor shortages, secondly so that war criminals could be punished, and lastly to prevent this population from reinforcing any US-led anti-communist front.

Meanwhile, in the first few months after the war, Jewish survivors were herded together with their non-Jewish compatriots, including those who had collaborated with the Nazis or had been concentration camp guards. The Allies found it convenient not recognize Jewish peoplehood. A Polish Jew was a Pole. A Romanian Jew a Romanian.

Unlike the Balts and Ukrainians, Jews had no illusions about a European haven. Some like Sheah Stark, a disillusioned communist who had found sanctuary in the USSR during Hitler’s drive into Poland, escaped from under the Iron Curtain and reunited with his wife Kreisel, my mother’s cousin in a German DP camp.

The only place on earth that wanted Jews was the Yishuv. However, the Atlee-Bevin government did all it could to close Palestine. To add insult to injury, it tried to force Jewish survivors to return to their previous countries. The British maintained that many people had suffered during the war, and the Jews had no reason to receive special consideration. 

DPs Yes, Jewish DPs, No

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight in 1943 to anticipate a massive postwar resettlement problem and ordered planning for the eventuality. Hence the Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which became part of the UN in 1945. In the event, straightforward repatriation of war refugees was not in the cards. As the Soviets insisted on return/repatriation, Truman initiated a separate UN International Refugee Organization in 1946 to relocate the DPs.

To help with reconstruction and address labor shortages, IRO member states (the Soviets did not join) began shopping for the model DPs. From Australia and South America to New Zealand and Norway, every country wanted the Latvian DPs. They were Protestant, anti-communist, and in good shape, having arrived in Germany at the end of the war on their own steam. The British needed them as miners – if only they wouldn’t take off their shirts to reveal their Waffen SS tattoos!

The best option for Jews who didn’t want to stay in Germany was Aliya Bet to Palestine; indeed, 20-30,000 refugees tried to evade Britain’s blockade. When caught, the British shipped them back to Europe, but that generated lousy publicity. Later on the intercepted migrants were interned in British-controlled Cyprus.

Good, Bad, and Inept

While Truman, a Democrat, was willing to confront the Atlee-Bevin government by leveraging desperately needed postwar US aid to a bankrupt Britain, he could not begin to sway a Congress that had fallen to the Republicans in 1946 (though xenophobic southern Democrats likewise opposed Jewish immigration).

Atlee-Bevin are unvarnished villains. Nasaw seems ambivalent about the Palestinian Arabs who were aligned with Hitler during the Shoah and on whose behalf the British blocked Jewish entry. State Department Arabists supported the British stance on Palestine. He is perhaps too fair to Truman and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, military governor of the US occupied zone, treating them as flawed heroes in the Last Million saga.

Nasaw presents the US Jewish establishment as initially unprepared to help Europe’s Jewish survivors in the face of US Army red tape, callousness, and foot-dragging.

Every hour mattered to the survivors. For three long months after VE Day, the Jews had to share DP space with their Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic persecutors. Jewish US Army chaplains pleaded for American Jewish organizations to intervene. In July 1945, responding to this campaigning, Truman sent Earl Harrison, Commissioner for Immigration and Naturalization under Roosevelt, to study the Jewish survivors’ plight. Harrison, a Quaker, reported that the Allies were treating the Jews just as bad as the Germans except for not killing them.

This led Truman to press Eisenhower to improve the Jewish survivors’ conditions – to give them indeed special consideration and separate them from Poles, Ukrainians, and other East European groups who had worked with the Nazis. Eisenhower grudgingly ordered these reforms over the objections of Gen. George Patton.

Life in the DP camps

By August 1945, the Jewish displaced persons were allowed to live as a distinct community, and relief organizations led by the Joint Distribution Committee were authorized by the US army to provide help. Quality of life improved. The survivors founded Sh’erit ha-Pletah (1945-1951) to laisse with the Allied authorities.

Social, political, and cultural life developed. There were sporting competitions between DP camps. A barter economy developed in which cigarettes were a prime currency.

Had the US Congress been confident that Jews would not benefit, the gates of America would have been opened, Nasaw argues. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act allowed 400,000 refugees into the United States above existing quota restrictions. Of these, only 80,000 visas were issued to Jewish persons.

Jewish lobbyists tried to build a pro-immigration coalition with Protestant and Catholic groups, but Jewish DPs remained excluded. Jewish groups resorted to misleading paperwork to bring DPs into the US.

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, those who did not want to go there because, like my father and his sister, they did not want to walk into another war remained behind in DP camps. In September 1950, the anti-Jewish bias in US immigration law was reformed. By 1951, just about all the Jewish DPs in Germany found refuge in Israel or the US and other countries.

The 1952 McCarran–Walter Act

As WWII transitioned into the Cold War, anti-fascist sensibilities were obliterated. Why did so many Nazis and fascists wind up nestled in the West? Because the Allies willfully refused to ask the Soviets or the Jews for help in identifying them.

Indeed, by 1951 US policy was adapted to allow Waffen SS veterans to enter the US, according to Nasaw. The 1952 McCarran–Walter Act (the overdue response to the post-WWII refugee quandary) was crafted to thwart communists from entering while easing the admittance of Nazi collaborators.

With Operation Paperclip and similar programs American intelligence actively sought the services of German and East European Nazis and their partners (such as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun) as tools against the Soviet communism.

Only in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the extent of this immoral collaboration revealed in exposés by an unnamed whistleblower within the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in leaks to Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and journalists, and through the work of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal. Some fascists like John Demjanjuk and Valerian Trifa crept into America, but many others were ushered in by US intelligence.


Nasaw has a theory about why on May 14, 1948 the US under Truman was the first to recognize Israel. The answer lay in Europe. As a bulwark against communist expansion, he wanted to establish a West Germany but could hardly do so with 250,000 Jews still in German DP camps. (The Bonn Republic came into existence in 1949.)

In an otherwise judicious book, Nasaw feels impelled to assert that the displaced European Jews’ problem was solved by not allowing the displaced (or self-displaced) Palestinian Arabs back when Israel when the Arabs states agreed to a temporary armistice in 1949. Of course, had the Palestinian Arab leadership accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, there would have been a two-state solution, no nakba, and no Arab refugees.

In the decades to follow, these 750,000 Arab refugees and millions of their descendants were encouraged to think that their return to Palestine was imminent. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has been for over 70 years forbidden from finding them permanent homes.

Rather than develop the parts of Palestine they control the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have squandered nearly 30 years of autonomy and billions of dollars in Western and Gulf Arab aid. Hamas, which has demonstrated first-rate engineering capabilities, might have transformed the Gaza Strip into a Singapore-on-the-Mediterranean. Instead, they opted for permanent war.

Both the PLO and the Islamists rejected offers from Israeli leaders Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon, and even Binyamin Netanyahu for demilitarized Palestinian statehood.

The creation of Israel in 1948 was not Europe’s indemnity for the Holocaust, as Nasaw implies. It was a fulfillment of Jewish aspirations that predated the civilizations of Islam and Christianity, let alone the European nation-state.

Humanity and Displacement

The lesson Jews ought to draw from the Shoah is that their first imperative needs to be a secure homeland whose doors will always be open.

Man is a wolf to man. The Holocaust did not end that, as the victims of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Karadzic might attest. Displacement is a sad feature of many lives. After WWII, there were 11 million displaced people. Today, there are 80 million refugees worldwide. Even taking the imperfections of human nature into account, all enlightened nation-states have a compassionate obligation to provide immediate help to the suffering displaced and, in the longer term, to pursue rational, tolerant, and transparent immigration and naturalization policies.

A Necessary Book

With extensive research and nimble synthesis, David Nasaw has taken a complex story and made it not just comprehensible but accessible.

Naming names Nasaw tells the stories of real people. His narrative moves along at a nice clip. Among the displaced he mentions is the family of New York Times reporter Joseph Berger. We learn that former NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia was in 1946 put in charge of winding down the DP operations of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

Historian Abraham Duker, the unassuming chairman of the Judaic Studies department when I was at Brooklyn College in the 1970s, makes a cameo appearance. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services and prepared material for the Nuremberg Trials. As a columnist for Der Tog English edition, he led the charge against US immigration policy, which excluded Jews but protected fascists. He took Jewish establishment groups to task for their tactical support of immigration legislation supported by church groups that failed to protect Jewish interests.

This book belongs in every serious Shoah history collection, and I don’t say that lightly.

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