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.

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FURTHER READING

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 

http://elliotjager.blogspot.com/2006/06/c-h-i-n-i-s-r-e-l.html?m=1

&

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:

https://exhibitionscjh.wixsite.com/bocian

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.

Palestine

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.

————This blog is still under construction. Please visit http://elliotjager.blogspot.com/

Un-Parallel Lives

Playing Till We Have to go – A Jewish Childhood in Inner-city LA

By Larry Derfner

Why read the account of someone else’s life and experiences if not to capture a sense of time and place and, maybe, to compare it – in conceit or envy – with your own life.

Larry Derfner’s Playing Till We Have to go – A Jewish Childhood in Inner-city LA pulled me in from the first page and made me reflect on how our experiences as first-generation Americans differed.

Derfner and I worked together at the Jerusalem Post years ago. My hope was this book would help me understand what made him tick – why he became leftwing, and I didn’t, why he looked for trouble where I went the other way, and why a basically huggable guy was often infuriating.

I think of Larry Derfner as the Jimmy Breslin of Israeli English-language advocacy journalism. His newspaper features were exhaustively reported while his opinion columns were exhaustingly strident. I always loved reading his stuff. He also drove me crazy.

I was his sometimes editor, not that he needed one. I needed his dexterous writing style and clean prose to fill and balance my pages even if I found his politics hard to swallow. Even when I disagreed with Larry, I could appreciate his plain-speaking conversational writing style, which I envied. It seemed effortless, and I wished I could write that way.

As an editor, I’d handle copy I might disagree with. In Derfner’s case, his positions were rooted in heartfelt principle. Unlike some contributors I edited, Larry made no off the wall claims, engaged in no emotional manipulation. And – best of all – he didn’t just write to his amen corner.

In Playing Till We Have to go, I learned that his European-born parents moved from the City of New York to Los Angeles in 1960 to pursue their American dream. He grew up in a mostly agreeable Los Angeles, California district where neighbors knew each other, and kids played companionably outside their rental apartment buildings. Larry ruefully enjoyed the fruits of his parents’ upward mobility and was molded into adulthood by a very present father and full-time stay-at-home mother. Considering his parents arrived in the country in 1940, only a year before the US entered World War II and a year after Hitler invaded Poland, the author grew up a pretty normal American — one who had fond memories of Trick-or-treating on Holloween.

At the same time, I was growing up on the other side of the continent on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a household on a downward social-economic spiral. There was nothing convivial about my mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood, one of the most dangerous in NYC. In 1910 there were half a million Jewish people on the Lower East Side. By the time I was born in the 1950s, there was only a remnant community of mostly poor and working-class Jews left behind. In 1963, there were 548 murders in the Big Apple, and the mayhem just got worse (by 1980, the annual murder rate reached 1,814).

In 1972, NYPD cops Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie were gunned down by the Black Liberation Army on Avenue B. My mother and I had only recently escaped from the Avenue D Jacob Riis project to other public housing on Madison Street in a comparatively less turbulent area of the Lower East Side.

Unlike Larry, I dreaded Holloween, which was an occasion for resident louts to harass Jewish children coming home from yeshiva, vandalize apartment doors by banging socks full of flour and urinating in elevators.

His father, Manny, was a larger-than-life garrulous figure. A red who was entrepreneurial, owning a couple of liquor stores and dabbling in real estate. Mr. Derfner was a communist in Poland, then in British Mandate Palestine, and eventually in America. While capitalism was good to him, it didn’t transform him into a capitalist roader – not at the character level. My father, in contrast, having spent WWII in Europe doing forced labor, was an emotional basket case when he reached America. Never a provider, he would find solace in insular ultra-Orthodox Judaism and disappear from my life for 30 years.

Different coasts, different sensibilities: I grew up kosher, yarmulke-wearing, and frum. Until I went to college, I never sat in the same classroom with a girl, much less a non-Jew. Larry’s Jewishness was cultural and ethnic. Like mine, his people spoke Yiddish, but ritual and shul played a minor role in his life. His parents’ friends were mostly Polish Jewish refugees, including the greenhorns who came after the Holocaust (he reminds us that no one spoke much about the Shoah in those days). Most of Larry’s Jewish friends were the children of Polish immigrants or refugees. He noticed that kids whose parents came after the war seemed less self-assured and assertive.

In school, Larry rubbed elbows with Chinese and Japanese, and African Americans. He was perfectly comfortable hanging out with goyim. In fact, he developed an appreciation for the black aesthetic – music, dialect, and style. He reveled in being the only white boy on a black baseball team.

I loved his descriptions of handling puberty. During his bar mitzvah, though his mind was on a neighborhood girl, he somehow managed to focus. “I chanted the haftorah perfectly. Just finishing it was a tremendous relief…” a universal feeling among every boy who has been through the experience.

In Playing till we have to go, Larry reveals how well he reads people. He paints delicate sketches of his father’s African American liquor store customers, coworkers, and Polish Jewish neighbors. He can spot the type of schoolboy who will be agreeable to be liked or the underprivileged youth whose threatening exterior cloaks essential decency. Here is what happens when he tries to help James, a black boy with fractions: ” ‘Larry, I never did know how to divide.’ We were in the eighth grade. Here was this magical kid with a noble soul, a boy I felt real affection for, but suddenly there was a gulf between us. He didn’t even know how to divide. I felt sorry for him, and the feeling made me sick.”

Larry prides himself on being a non-conformist and contrarian. I figure that to go against the crowd, you need to be self-confident and feel secure. Maybe Larry got his rootedness from his father.

From Manny, he learned to try to do the right thing. To see his surroundings with eyes open. He savored the edginess of the neighborhood where his father’s liquor store was located – he calls it a black ghetto.

He develops into a chevraman – a people person, an athlete, a tough guy, a reader, an observer of different human types, capable of learning from his miscalculations about who to trust.

There are hints about Larry’s motivation for making his future life in Israel – he is excited by the action. Larry gets his political fierceness from Manny, who is portrayed as protesting some Israeli policy vociferously.

So many Jewish coming of age memoirs are written by feckless nebbish types like me. It is refreshing to get a different, heartening perspective – a kid who grows up to appreciate his advantages whatever emotional baggage his parents gave him. Larry doesn’t turn his back on his parents’ religious traditions because you can’t reject what they didn’t much cherish. Instead, he embraces their commitment to making the world a better place – and, anyway, in left-leaning circles, tikun olam is the central tenant of Judaism.

Well-paced and compelling, readers interested in what it was like to grow up a relatively typical first-generation Jewish American in the 1960s will find this book hard to put down. His is also a story of purposeful acculturation – choosing to connect to people who are different and relishing the experience.

I sense a sequel coming.

Down the Rabbit Hole with Jared Kushner and take your ‘Required Reading’

It’s really dreadful,” she muttered to herself, “the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!

If 2016 is any yardstick, up to 30 percent of American Jews will vote for Donald Trump in 2020.

Some percentage of these will be ultra-Orthodox non-Zionists (the Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, and Borough Bark crowd). Their politics is patronage-based. They vote as a bloc following the guidelines of shtadlanim, the medieval-like brokers who handle relations with the non-Jewish outside.

Support will also come from the modern (i.e., less insular) Orthodox (YU and OU worlds) who tend to be socially and politically conservative and take their cues from Israeli rightist influencers.

I am writing here with a third and smallest group in mind. These include family and my former Zionist-leaning comrades who are convinced that by backing Trump they are putting the Jewish state’s wellbeing foremost.

Many profess to approve of his policies across the board; several support him grudgingly and concede he is an odious fellow. All reasonably fret that any Biden-Harris administration would be oriented toward J-Street or worse.

That Trump is pro-Israel is undeniable. Elsewhere I have argued that Trump’s pro-Israelism does not override the mortal threat he poses to the US political system’s stability. That his impulsive, neo-isolationist, and huckster approach to foreign policy puts Israel in peril over the long-term. I will say more about his latest pro-Israel accomplishment below.

For the moment, I appeal to my pro-Israel friends who remain enamored with Donald Trump or feel they’re obliged to support him, to read Bob Woodward’s Rage

The book is surprisingly fair-minded. 

Woodward, for instance, does not gloss over China’s initial stonewalling over Wuhan. Trump’s right decisions are credited and contextualized. The veteran journalist and president watcher received remarkable White House access for his latest book. 

What makes Rage required reading are a couple of priceless chapters devoted to the inscrutable not-yet-forty-year-old Jared Kushner, senior advisor and son-in-law to the United States president.

If you can read these chapters and stick with Trump you have fallen down your own rabbit hole.

Kushner, according to Woodward, says that if you want to understand how things in Trump World work there is a required reading list. He considers his wife’s father to be brilliant and reveals how he enthralls his core supporters.

The roster begins with Peggy Noonan’s March 10, 2018, Wall Street Journal column, “Over Trump, We’re Divided as Ever;” Alice in Wonderland, the 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll; The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, and concludes with Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter by Scott Adams.

I always found Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, insightful and levelheaded, and went back to the column Kushner cited.

Writing three years into the Trump presidency, Noonan wondered why some centrists and moderates refused to get on the Trump bandwagon. She was also curious about whether the president’s working-class supporters were satisfied with his performance thus far.

To gauge the latter, she spoke with her Trump-supporting working-class white Catholic sister and uncle. They reported being contented. She thinks she knows why. For too long, the wealthiest and most powerful Americans had not taken their fiduciary responsibilities seriously toward people like them. They had not even faked “a prudent interest” in the travails of working people.

Noonan concedes that in office, Trump established a “deregulatory spirit that is fair and helpful.” He placed sober conservatives on the federal courts. At the time of her writing, the economy was humming, so no complaints there.

Yet moderates and centrists who mostly agreed with his policies had not warmed to Trump. They felt disquiet about “the worrying nature of Mr. Trump himself. You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability,” Noonan wrote in 2018.

At first, the moderates and centrists thought maybe they were blind to his genius. Yet the chaos he was creating was not strategic in pursuit of any policy ends, “its purposeless disorder for the fun of it.”

She concluded that Trump is “unhinged” and characterizes his administration as a “screwball tragedy.”

So why would Kushner direct us to Noonan? It is an odd way to laud your father-in-law, Woodward comments.

Probably because Kushner would have wanted us to focus on the following lines from the column: “On some level this is working. And on some level this is crazy. He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”

However, Noonan does not leave it there.

“Then you realize… Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that, when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes.”

She wraps up on a prescient note. “Sooner or later something bad will happen…if the president is the way he is on a good day, what will he be like on a bad day. It all feels so dangerous. Centrist and moderate supporters are seeing what Trump supporters cannot, will not see.”

So, I guess what comforts Kushner – and this is lesson number 1 – is that Trump supporters are in a state of almost metaphysical blindness to his character.

Next on Kushner’s list is Alice in Wonderland purportedly a Disney-style madcap children’s adventure story about a girl who sees a white rabbit dressed in a suit and bowtie sporting a pocket watch and, out of curiosity, chases him down a rabbit hole into an alternative reality where she encounters all sorts of anthropomorphic animals.

Never having read the fable as a child, I find the fantasy dark and nasty. The animals Alice encounters are mean and bickering. What happens in Wonderland – or in Kushner’s alternate reality, the White House – is nonsensical. 

Rules are arbitrary. Everyone speaks in non-sequiturs. 

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

Intimidation pervades the environment. The Queen’s constant refrain is, “I’ll have you executed.” 

The Cheshire Cat warns Alice that everyone she will meet will be mad. Indeed, the animals Alice encounters urge her to “come on” but there is no destination:


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” 
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where —” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

Alice knows a lot about history but not what happened or when. Like Donald Trump on his visit to Pearl Harbor.

Lesson number 2: Kushner seems to be saying that Trump has calculatedly created his own topsy turvy, Wonderland.

Next on the Kushner list is Gatekeepers for which Whipple interviewed 17 former White House chiefs of staff to pinpoint what it takes to ensure a West Wing that operates effectively and efficiently.

By recommending this book, Kushner’s counterintuitive lesson number 3 – precisely the opposite of Whipple’s – is that disarray and conflict are excellent; smarty-pants chiefs of staff like Reince Priebus and John Kelly who try to manage the president are tossers.

That brings us to the last item on Kushner’s syllabus, Win Bigly, by Adams. Kushner here seems to endorse Adams’ analysis (and approval) of Donald Trump’s persuasion techniques. Adams is in Kushner’s good graces because the Dilbert cartoon creator predicted Trump would be elected. 

To muddy the waters, Adams unconvincingly asserts that he disapproves of Trump’s policies even if he holds Trump to be the “most persuasive human I have ever observed.”

For Adams, Trump is persuasive because of his performances. People are fundamentally irrational. They stay mentally afloat thanks to cognitive dissonance, which resolves inconsistencies in their thinking. And Trump reaches voters on an irrational level. He tells them “many people are saying” to introduce some new weird idea. He speaks with childlike simplicity “big, beautiful wall”, which, according to Adams, people can easily relate to and easily remember. 

Trump’s muddled syntax is in fact, strategic ambiguity. Trump dazzles his voters with simple solutions to complex problems. Kushner’s lesson number 4, I intuit, from Adams is: Facts are only crucial to the extent that they can be used to manipulate an audience emotionally.

Put the four readings together, and this is what you get: (1) Kushner is gratified with Trump’s Svengali-like hold on his followers. (2) He thinks the administration needs no overarching mission. That being organized gets in the way of (3) a journey that has no destination. Furthermore, (4) facts are useful only insofar as they serve manipulative ends.

My friends in the states who share Kushner’s boundless confidence in Trump, his embrace of the president’s fluidity, his thrill at watching the master bait his enemies, pushing them into irrational gutter behavior will stick with Kushner’s cynical vacuous father-in-law no matter what on November 3.

But I would like to hope that others will come to their senses and reconsider backing Trump notwithstanding the good that Trump has done for Israel

Recognizing the good Hakarat HaTov people have done and showing gratitude is a Jewish tradition.

By crucially facilitating peaceful relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states, Donald Trump and his team have done the Jewish state an immeasurable good.

Yet keep the context in mind.

After processing nearly four years of Trump administration performance, the Gulf Arabs and Egypt came to understand that they cannot rely on the US to side with them militarily against Persian Iran.

The Arabs saw how under George W. Bush, the US overextended itself fighting Islamist forces and did not choose or conduct its battles wisely. They observed Barack Obama’s inclination to disengage militarily from the Middle East with his 2012 decision not to act militarily against the Assad regime after its use of sarin gas.

Trump stumbled and bumbled further along this path in his unscripted call with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Islamist leader of Turkey during which he betrayed America’s fighting Kurdish allies. And there was his neo-isolationist declaration that America would no longer “police the world” and was “getting out” of the “blood-stained sand” of the Middle East.

The message the president was sending was that he might act militarily only if he perceives American lives in direct danger. 

None of this detracts from our gratitude.

Israelis are thankful for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For moving the US Embassy to our capital. And to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for announcing that the US does not consider Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank or Judea and Samaria inconsistent with international law.

We are grateful that the US has never voted against Israel (or abstained in favor of our enemies) at the UN in the past four years. That Trump is willing to take on Amnesty International and other groups, that wrap themselves in the halo of human rights, for their bias against Israel.

Thanks, too, to the Trump administration for not publicly criticizing IDF operations.

Unfortunately, because Trump is widely disrespected all these appreciated policies are tarnished, tainted, devalued.

Sometimes the president’s motives and timing are painfully transparent. As when on January 29, 2020, while the US Senate was deciding whether he was guilty of the House impeachment articles, Trump announced his long-touted Israeli-Palestinian Deal of the Century

It guaranteed the establishment of a Palestinian state, yet the PLO (in Ramallah) and Hamas (in Gaza) rejected the imposed deal. Maybe they figured Trump, Jared Kushner and the team of Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, and Avi Berkowitz did not have Palestinian interests at heart. 

In August 2020, Kushner also brokered an agreement between the UAE and Israel and between Bahrain and Israel.

And on October 23, the president announced that Sudan and Israel agreed to diplomatic ties.

And if Trump is re-elected, expect Saudi Arabia to follow (since it has backed all these moves privately).

We thank Trump for backing Binyamin Netanyahu’s Palestinian workaround — ties with the Arab world first. 

All these moves provide a huge psychic, political, and diplomatic boost for Israel. 

Each is tainted — sad to say — because Trump delivered them. And within Israel by Netanyahu’s sagging credibility. 

Still, it would be beyond churlish not to say thank you to both leaders.

Like me, most Israelis do not care if Trump’s heart is in the wrong place. Or if the president is prejudiced (like many of his predecessors). So long as he does the right thing. At any rate, he is undoubtedly no anti-Semite and American Jews should stop saying he is.

Precisely because Trump is transactional — thinking first about what’s in it for the Trump’s, the Kushner’s, and for America’s military-industrial complex — that he, and not his arguably better-intentioned more strategic-minded predecessors, spearheaded these game-changing diplomatic gains for Israel.

Since the president is mercurial he could yet turn against Israel in a final term to close a deal with a new Palestinian leadership. Who knows? “We’ll see,” as the president likes to say.

Back to now. The reason the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Sudan, and Saudi Arabis have reached out to Israel – openly or discreetly – is to hedge their bets against Iran as the United States makes it clear it wants no more foreign military entanglements. Some of the countries will be rewarded with access to the most advanced US weapons. Others will be taken off the State Department’s list of countries supporting terrorism. 

Regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden wins, the US posture will likely continue to diminish globally. Russia and China will be the main outside powers with influence in our region.

With Trump, the US departure will happen as a series of unpredictable and mystifying lurches. With Biden, the withdrawal may be more systematic and coordinated.

Either way, the United States’ diminishing global role – it’s pulling inward – represents an immense strategic challenge for Israel in the years ahead.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.