Drexel Can Build It, But Will Jews Come?

In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is inspired by voices and surprisingly is able to attract a crowd to a baseball field he built in his Iowa cornfield. Similarly, while Drexel’s Jewish community is dwarfed by that of its neighbor and rival, the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to compete for bright Jewish students by building the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life. “Our goal at Drexel is to make the University a greater school of choice for Jewish students from our region and across the nation,” said Drexel President John Fry.

The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University

The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University

This three-story, 14,000-square-foot facility is well in excess of the needs of Drexel’s current Jewish community.

A Tale of Two Hillels Hillel at Drexel University University of Pennsylvania Hillel
National Rank #25 #7
Jewish Undergraduates 900 / 16,616
2,500 / 9,712
Jewish Studies 5 classes offered.
Minor available
50 classes offered.
Minor and major offered.

However, what is Drexel doing to attract the Jewish students they need to fill it?

Over the last year Israel has been removed from Drexel’s list of recommended countries for international students and internships, and Drexel students and faculty must seek special permission to study or work in Israel.

However, a new, more troubling controversy has recently arisen.

Drexel Hillel Rabbi Isabel de Koninck (Left), with Noam Chomsky (center) and Drexel President John A. Fry (2nd from Right) Photo Credit: Facebook

Drexel Hillel Rabbi Isabel de Koninck (Left), with Noam Chomsky (center) and Drexel President John A. Fry (2nd from Right). Photo Credit: Facebook.

Most of Drexel’s Jewish community members were surprised to learn that Noam Chomsky was among the people to be given an honorary degree at the University’s commencement ceremony earlier this month.

The inclusion of “Noam Chomsky: Professor emeritus at MIT, linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician and political commentator” on the list of laureats on Drexel’s website escaped the attention of many when it was uploaded on April 20.

However late in coming, the Jewish community is beginning to react. Lori Lowenthal Marcus recalled in The Jewish Press that “Chomsky is one of the best known and most outspoken American critics of Israel”:

He has called the Jewish State such a consistent and extreme violator of human rights “that you hardly have to argue about it.” For that reason, he claims, U.S. military aid to Israel is in direct violation of U.S. Law. At least Chomsky rejects (sometimes) the claim that Israel is an Apartheid state. But that’s because he thinks Apartheid is too gentle a term for Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs.

“To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel, at least if by ‘apartheid’ you mean South African-style apartheid. What’s happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse.”

Perhaps a case could be made for the Department of Computer Science to honor Chomsky for his technical contributions to their field, but her mention is specifically made of Chomsky’s “political commentary”. In the Jewish Exponent, Prof. Abraham H. Miller pointed out that this “political commentary” is wedded to bizarre:

Chomsky seemed to be wedded to ideas of moral equivalence, which the steel trap of his syllogisms ensnared America with some of the most brutal regimes to ever desecrate the meaning of human decency.

Chomsky saw a moral equivalence between the genocidal, fanatical regime of Pol Pot and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. To Chomsky, America was to be indicted for selective outrage at Pol Pot but not at Indonesia, which was an ally….

When the tragedy of 9/11 fell upon America, and while the nation was still consumed with shock and grief, Chomsky once again found a lesson for America in moral equivalence. Ever playing the role of the dispassionate intellectual, Chomsky made a frigid comparison of 9/11 to President Bill Clinton’s cynical bombing of a civilian pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in August 1988.

Marcus quoted one former Hillel member who took Drexel Hillel’s Rabbi Isabel de Koninck to task for appearing on stage with Chomsky:

It is a bit disturbing that a figurehead of the Jewish community would allow herself to be next to him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some students felt alienated and more hesitant to be involved in the organization after seeing such a photo.

The Rabbi declined to comment on this controversy. However, Drexel President John Fry defended Chomsky’s actions:

I believe Drexel’s decision to award him a degree was justified. Chomsky was among 15 people honored by Drexel at this year’s commencement ceremonies. The decision to include him among this group is consistent with academia’s tradition of recognizing those from a wide variety of fields — with a broad spectrum of perspectives — who have made significant contributions to education, business, science, and civic and cultural institutions. The awarding of honorary degrees does not in any way indicate endorsement of a recipient’s opinions.

As a scientist, Chomsky’s work is at the forefront of his discipline, and he is often described as the “father of modern linguistics.” As a political philosopher and activist, he is widely read and debated, especially with regard to U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.

Furthermore, Fry vaunted his support of The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University. However, if Drexel is seen as lending its support to those who slander Israel, then will the needed Jewish students come, or will this beautiful new facility sadly become a reminder of the vibrant Jewish community which Drexel could have had?

Israeli Nobel Prize Winner Ada Yonath At Drexel University

— by Debbie Shulman Brecher

You are invited to attend a special event honoring Dr. Ada Yonath, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2009. Dr. Yonath is a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She will be honored on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 10:00 AM at Drexel University, Bossone Research Center, 3140 Market Street, Philadelphia.

For details please contact Sandra Donahue of the Office of Protocol & Special Events, or call 215-571-4069.

Local Film Shown in Israel & Across US for Yom Hazikaron

A Green Kippah, a film directed and produced by Philadelphia’s Sally Mitlas, was aired numerous times throughout Yom HaZikron on Israel’s Channel 10.

This moving documentary, originally created for Philadelphia’s 2011 Yom HaZikron ceremony, chronicles the lives and tragic death of three Pennsylvania Jews: David Solomonov (z”l), Rita Levine (z”l) and Michael Levin (z”l).

All three heroes died in the prime of their lives — through an act of terror, a sniper’s bullet and defending Israel’s border — reminding us that when Israel loses a son or daughter, it is felt by every Jew around the world.

Following the Channel 10 screenings, Sally received a flood of emails from Israelis who were moved by the documentary. One said

I have just finished watching the movie Green Kippah on Israeli television. I would like to thank you for sharing these stories with us. It is because of families like you, who have a deep love for Israel, that all of us can have quiet peaceful lives. My heart and love is with you…

A Green Kippah was screened at many memorial ceremonies and educational programs across our region (and in the U.S.) including locally at Drexel University, Kohelet Yeshiva High School, and Politz Hebrew Academy.  

Dialogue With Israeli Director, Dani Menkin

— by Hannah Lee

The growing prominence of Israeli films was evident in the recent Oscar awards when Joseph Cedar’s Footnote was a strong contender for Best Foreign-Language Film award.  At the 16th Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir’s Dolphin Boy was shown to an appreciative audience on Saturday night, March 3.  Director Menkin also spoke at Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program about the making of fiction and documentary films in Israel on March 5.

More after the jump.
Dolphin Boy is about an Israeli Arab teen, Morad, who’d been so savagely beaten by his classmates that he becomes catatonic, suffering from a form of post-traumatic shock.  His father refuses to commit him to an institution, and in desperation, he brings Morad to the Dolphin Reef in Eilat for aquatic therapy.  The documentary follows Morad over four years as he learns to communicate first with the dolphins, then with the human world, but with some kind of amnesia about his trauma.

Menkin, who’s spending the year teaching at Wesleyan University and is Artist- in-Residence at Syracuse University, showed clips of his movies and recalled his early career as a sports reporter for the Israeli sports channel in 1994.  In 2001, he worked on an adventure series for National Geographic.  During those years, Menkin worked as a directing supervisor for the Israeli feature Hochmat HaBeygale (The Wisdom of the Pretzel)  with the director Ilan Heitner.

Once he realized that the short documentaries that he’d been making on sports could be considered “films,” he started working on longer-length features.  Documentaries, said Menkin, offer more surprises than in fiction.  Menkin compares making a documentary to going fishing– you could come up with nothing, a little fish, or a dolphin (a reference to Dolphin Boy).  He normally shoots about an hour of footage for each minute of the final film.

Menkin named his film company, Hey Jude Productions, after the McCartney song lyrics, “Take a sad song and make it better.”  His 2005 feature 39 Pounds of Love is about a man named Ami Ankilewitz, who was diagnosed at childhood with an extremely rare form of spinal muscular dystrophy that severely limited his physical growth and movement.  When Menkin embarked on filming, he knew only that his subject was disabled.   He did not know that there would also be a love story and that Ankilewitz would be so funny.  In fact, the film never once mentioned the disease or used the term, “disabled,” at the request of Ankilewitz.  39 Pounds of Love was nominated for the Oscars and was shown on HBO.  Menkin could also do the converse: take a funny or light story and find the emotional, serious core, as in his recent Je T’aime I Love You Terminal about 24 hours in a young man’s life after his misses his connecting flight home to his fiancée.

Menkin never studied film-making but, ironically, he now teaches it.  Citing Paul McCartney who never studied music but played from the heart, so that “he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to double his notes,” Menkin made many mistakes with his first film, but those mistakes have become his signature style.  For Je T’aime I Love You Terminal, he filmed without any professional actors, relying on real people (including his mother) and he allowed room for improvisation.  He does what “feels right” to him.

Director Joseph Cedar said to The Jerusalem Report [February 27, 2012]: “When you look at those [Israeli] films, the reason they were nominated or received attention outside of Israel didn’t really have to do with their political message or their subject matter.  It had to do with filmmaking.”  Menken also does not make movies about the political situation in the Middle East, but he does want to say that what is unique in Israel is the Film Fund, in which the government subsidizes film-making, including the ones that criticize national policies.   Last year’s Israeli version of Occupy Wall Street, which resulted in a turnout of some 350,000 people, was led by filmmakers in a citizens’ revolt against economic inequalities.  Menkin related that the government also applauded the protestors.  The freedom accorded to Israeli filmmakers is a luxury that he values, in light of the concern he has for his Egyptian friends and colleagues and the national turmoil they’re experiencing at home.

During a discussion, I asked Menkin that in comparison to early cinema in America and the thriving Bollywood cinema in India, why does Israel not make escapist movies?  “The Wisdom of the Pretzel” was an escapist movie, retorted  Menkin.  More seriously, he believes that Israeli films tend to be more realistic, because of minimalist  budgets that precludes elaborate sets, costumes, and fantasy sequences.  Under the constraints, Menkin chooses to tell an “honest, character-driven story” and he tries to be original.  He hopes that in two years, he could make an authentic American movie with a universal theme — “although they might still eat hummus,” quipped Menkin.  This was puzzling as he acknowledges that his best stories — even the ones that succeed in America — are of Israeli characters.  Professor Rakhmiel Peltz, Director of Judaic Studies at Drexel, was vocally aggrieved, pointing out that the real-life characters in Dolphin Boy were uniquely Israeli, and thus more interesting for their uniqueness.   Menkin recalled his wonder that an Arab father could be as nurturing as a Jewish mother.

Israeli films have garnered four Oscar nominations in the past five years, which is proportionally high for a small nation.  Since 1991, the Israeli Ophir Award winner for Best Film is automatically designated the Israeli submission for the Oscar.  In 2008, The Band’s Visit won the Ophir Award for Best Film but was disqualified from the Oscars for containing too much English dialogue.  The runner-up Beaufort was submitted in its place, resulting in Israel’s first Oscar nomination in 23 years.  Dolphin Boy will open in New York cinemas on April 23rd.

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with

Tickets can be purchased online.

UN in the Dock at UPenn

— by Lori Lowenthal Marcus

New York City wasn’t the only place in which the treatment of Israel at the United Nations was under discussion recently.

On Sunday evening, September 25, 2011, Penn Friends of Israel and the International Affairs Association hosted Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, at Houston Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

UN Watch is a non-governmental organization the goal of which is to measure the performance of the UN according to its founding mission. Neuer’s topic was, “From Eleanor Roosevelt to Qaddafi: An Insider’s Account of the Rise and Fall of Human Rights at the U.N.”

More after the jump.
Neuer spoke to a packed crowd for well over an hour, during which time he discussed various venues and events at the UN which are perceived by many as biased against Israel. Neuer discussed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Durban Conference on Racism — from which UN Watch was barred — and the recent effort of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to evade negotiations with Israel and instead obtain Palestinian Statehood through the United Nations itself.

Repeatedly critical of certain aspects of the UN, stating that “one dictator, one vote” is often what passes as democracy at the United Nations, and that far too often the only expertise regarding human rights for member nations that sit on the UNHRC is their violations of it, Neuer seemed to surprise at least some members of the audience when he rejected the suggestion that perhaps it was time to do away with the global institution. “It is an indispensable forum,” because at least portions of it such as “the World Health Organization, international labor organizations, food groups, telecommunications,” are essential. “Even such critics as [President] Bush and [former US Ambassador to the UN John] Bolton, didn’t speak in terms of getting rid of the UN.”

Nevertheless, the bulk of Neuer’s talk was devoted to detailing the highly politicized and virulently anti-Israel theme at play throughout much of the United Nations. Of particular concern is what is now known as the Human Rights Council, formerly the Human Rights Commission, but according to Neuer by either name the body is nearly always run, and invariably dominated by the “greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses.” Neuer noted over the course of the past two years, China, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have all held a seat on the UNHRC. And while the world’s worst human rights abuses have often gone ignored, “a disproportionate amount of time is spent singling out one member state for criticism, and that state is Israel” he said.

Neuer gave many examples of the ways in which, in the distorted world of the UNHRC, Israel is frequently presented as the grossest violator of human rights. For example, over the past five years, the Council has passed approximately sixty resolutions condemning a nation for committing human rights violations, forty of which have been directed at Israel. He pointed out that over the past six months more than 2500 Syrians have been massacred by their own government, yet Syria has not received a single rebuke from the UNHRC [between the time of Neuer’s talk and publication, the UN Security Council was presented with a condemnation of Syria’s brutal crackdown on pro-reform protesters, but it was vetoed by Russia and China]. Furthermore, the UNHRC has a standard agenda of ten general action items, one of which is always reserved for “addressing human rights violations against those in the occupied territories,” i.e., condemning Israel.

Another example of the way in which Israel is singled out unfairly at the UN is in the fact that while all countries in the world are divided into regional groups, Israel is barred from membership in the Asian group of which it should be a member, because the Arab nation members refuse to allow it. Yet one more example, amongst several others he gave, is that over the past five years the UNHRC has met in approximately a dozen emergency sessions, half of which were devoted to excoriating Israel. And the basis for those condemnations often ignored the context as, for instance, when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in June, 2006, Israel responded with military reprisals, yet only Israel’s actions were condemned, not that of Hamas in abducting the soldier. The Iranian clampdown on non-violent protesters of the Green Revolution of 2011 was never condemned, nor was the brutal government repression of Muslim Uighurs, only efforts by Israel, which efforts were motivated by aggression on the part of its enemy, has been addressed by the UNHRC.

Moving on to the UN General Assembly, Neuer explained that the effort of PA President Abbas to attain statehood through a resolution in the UN is likely to be approved, given that the combined Arab and Muslim Nations have an automatic majority in the GA. But Neuer believes there will not be a significant substantive change if the PA is elevated to non-voting member state status. It already has a contingent present at the UN, it has a place at a table, albeit towards the back of the room, and it has the name “Palestine” already displayed on a nameplate where its representatives are seated. The one area in which the change may have some bearing will be in the PA’s ability to engage, and have others engage on its behalf, in lawfare against the Jewish State.

Elias Okwara, a 23-year old Drexel Junior from Kenya, spent part of last summer in Jordan, as part of his school’s Peace Studies Program. Okwara is in Drexel’s International Area Studies program with a concentration in Justice and Human Rights, and his research focuses on contemporary approaches to international peace and security.

Okwara embraces the global model of the UN, and he had been told that the talk was going to be an anti-UN event. During the brief question and answer session, Okwara asked Neuer about the Goldstone Report, which was the outcome of a UN investigation into Israel’s incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. The Report, written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, “excoriated Israel and exonerated Hamas,” according to Neuer. It accused Israeli leadership of intentionally targeting civilians.

One of the other members of the investigation, Christine Chinkin, prior to her being appointed had signed a letter to the London Times accusing Israel of war crimes. Goldstone himself later recanted much of the most damaging portions of the report, but the UN considers the Goldstone Report, as written, to represent its official view of Cast Lead.

Despite hearing clear criticism of the UN by Neuer, Okwara said that it was “founded on very specific and detailed information, and I could not help but seriously reflect on the issues he raised.”

Okwara was glad he came because despite his own work in the field, he found Neuer’s talk to be “enlightening.” Okwara added, “I am a scholar and a keen believer in the UN, and for a person like me intent on playing my part in the international arena, I have no room to be dogmatic.”

Penn Friends of Israel is a new initiative that was created at the end of the last academic year in response to a perceived need for a group that wasn’t at one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather for a “group in the middle that could bring voices together from across the spectrum.” Noah Feit, president of the student group, started it along with sophomore Jeff Rollman. Feit, a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, said he was very pleased with the event, both with the size of the audience and its makeup.

“The audience contained those interested in Israel, those passionate about international affairs, local community members, and students from other Philadelphia campuses. One of PFI’s primary goals is to reach beyond the pro-Israel community and to influence opinion by providing accurate information.”

Feit and his colleagues seem to have achieved their goal.

Drexel University Dedicates James E. Marks Intercultural Center

— story and photos by Bonnie Squires

Confetti rained down on philanthropist and Drexel trustee emeritus James E. Marks at the dedication of the new Intercultural Center named for Marks.  The James E. Marks Intercultural Center is located on the northwest corner of 33rd and Chestnut Streets and welcomes all University students and alumni, regardless of religious traditions, humanistic beliefs, or cultural values. The Center embraces the University’s broad definition of diversity, which includes socioeconomic status, ability, political beliefs, racial and ethnic background, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

More after the jump.  

At the dedication of the new James E. Marks Intercultural Center at Drexel University are (left to right) James E. Marks and his wife Peggy; Drexel trustee Renee Amoore; and Drexel President John Fry.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, head of Philadelphia Hillel, congratulates James E. Marks at the dedication ceremony for the Intercultural Center in Marks’ name, as Drexel University President John Fry joins in the celebration.  Although the center is not sectarian, students, faculty and alumni of all religius backgrounds are welcome, as are all people with diverse backgrounds in gender identification