Mayim Bialik: Saving the Class of Covid-19

Sept. 9, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that individual initiative and original ideas could make the desert bloom. That dream has been realized: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is now the fastest growing research university in Israel.

“(BGU) is now the engine that drives the entire Negev region of Israel,” said Mark Mendelson, CEO of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

From its humble start in Bedouin tents and ramshackle buildings in 1969, the university now boasts over 20,000 students on three campuses in Beersheva, Sde Boker and Eilat. The university is internationally renowned for its cutting-edge research and development.

Most recently, BGU scientists have pioneered a coronavirus testing procedure that is faster and more efficient than any in the world, able to test up to 48 people at once.

In early August, BGU launched “Save the Class of Covid-19,” a global campaign to raise $5.25 million for student financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a drastic decrease in people coming to study at BGU, Mendelson told The CJR. An estimated one in five BGU students is at risk of delaying their studies due to financial stress, and some are now unable to pay for basic needs.

Mayim Bialik

To help alleviate those hardships, the Canadian Associates of BGU are holding a national and virtual “Big Bang” event on Wednesday, Sept. 9 featuring award-winning actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, star of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sen. Linda Frum will moderate the event, which benefits BGU’s “Class of Covid-19” effort.

Special guest will be Prof. Danny Chamovitz, President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A presenting sponsor is the Azrieli Foundation.

The event is sold out and registration is closed.

Bialik earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, and in Hebrew and Jewish studies in 2000, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007. She is a board member of a variety of Jewish philanthropic organizations. She also writes weekly for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com.

The CJR recently caught up with Bialik, who is busy raising her family and celebrating Jewish life.

As a science academic, what are some key messages you will convey at the BGU event?

I love to talk to Jewish communities all over the world and I especially appreciate North American support of universities in Israel right now. I don’t tend to talk about what I think other people should do with their lives or their observance. I like to share my story, with all of its imperfections and all of the doubts and questions I have, and I especially like to talk about (how) being a scientist and being a person of faith do not produce conflict for me. 

How are you and your family doing during the pandemic?

We are, thank God, doing OK. We have essentially remained home. Our kids definitely are used to schooling at home, since they have never been in school and have been homeschooled their whole life. We see my mother at a safe distance and that’s been really hard to not be able to spend more time with her in general. My kids are definitely playing more video games than I would like them to, but I’m basically trying not to nag them, which seems to be something that I find easy to do during the pandemic. Our anxiety is definitely elevated, as it is for a lot of people. 

What can you share with our readers about your Jewish background?

My parents are first generation Americans who were born during World War II in the Bronx. My mom’s parents only spoke Yiddish in the home and she was raised Orthodox. My father had [an] assimilated experience and moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the 1950s, where he was raised in a Reform congregation. My grandparents are from Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. I was raised in Los Angeles in a Reform synagogue, but there were a lot of remnants of my mother’s orthodoxy in my childhood.

I became more observant in college at UCLA and I have always been a very strong Zionist. A lot of my family lives in Israel, throughout the country, from the West Bank to Tel Aviv. I have a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies from UCLA and have been a devoted student of Talmud for about 15 years. I learn two or three times a week. While I don’t wave the flag of modern orthodoxy, I tend to align with most of the leanings of liberal modern orthodoxy.

Can you explain your career trajectory from actress to scientist?

I was on a television series [NBC’s Blossom] from the time I was 14 to 19 and I had a biology tutor when I was 15 who opened my mind and heart to the possibility of being a scientist. I fell in love with genetics and after Blossom ended, I went to college to study science.

You focused on Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder in people with a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, or PWS. Can you explain why you choose this path?

As a vegan in the field of neuroscience, there are not many lines of research available if you don’t want to work with animals. One of the populations studied in the neuroscience department at UCLA is individuals with PWS. I had always wanted to work with a population of individuals with special needs and I also have a strong interest in mental health, so it was a really perfect thesis topic for me.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being a mother to a 12- and almost 15-year-old son. I definitely don’t do it perfectly but I’m the best mom they’ve got.

What new projects are in development?

I am starting a new series for Fox called Call Me Kat, which I am executive producing with Jim Parsons, who played Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I will also be starring in it and it is based on the BBC series Miranda. We should be starting production next month and it is very exciting because we have 13 episodes already ordered. We focus on a very unusual woman who, at 39, does not have it all but still has an amazing life running a cat café. It is a really funny show and I’m so excited to get back to work.

Clamp Down on Hate Speech, Jewish Groups Urge Facebook

Aug. 31, 2020 – Canadian Jewish advocacy organizations are urging Facebook to clamp down on extremist activity and hate speech.

Some 145 Jewish and Zionist organizations around the world sent an open letter this month to the social media giant, urging it to “fully adopt” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism as the “cornerstone of Facebook’s hate speech policy regarding antisemitism.”

Canadian signatories to the letter include B’nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and Students Supporting Israel.

The letter, sent to the company’s board of directors, noted that Facebook’s Director of Content Policy Stakeholder Engagement, Peter Stern, “recently attested to the usefulness of the IHRA working definition when Facebook first developed its hate speech policy.

“However, Mr. Stern admitted that Facebook does not have a policy aimed at combatting online anti-Semitism,” the letter alleged. “He further admitted that Facebook does not embrace the full adoption of the IHRA working definition because the definition recognizes that modern manifestations of antisemitism relate to Israel.”

Nearly 40 countries have already endorsed or adopted the IHRA working definition in some official capacity, either through their membership in the IHRA or independently, the letter noted.

Canada adopted the IHRA wording last year as part of an anti-racism policy. So have several Canadian cities, while others have either shelved or withdrawn efforts at adoption amid accusations that it would stifle criticism of Israel.

The letter came amid growing concern from Jewish groups worldwide that Facebook is allowing Holocaust deniers room to expresstheir views.

Today’s antisemitism “undoubtedly includes the delegitimization of Israel’s right to exist,” the letter goes on. “This bigotry is expressed in various ways, such as the rejection of Jewish self-determination, Holocaust revisionism and denial, and the application of double standards toward the Jewish state and people.”

Adopting the IHRA definition would provide Facebook “an effective, neutral, and nuanced tool to protect Jewish users from hate speech and imagery that incites hate and oftentimes leads to violence,” the letter argues. “While the impact of online hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation on our society continues to be researched and explored, we cannot afford to lose any more time in fighting this bigotry and preventing violence.”

Questioning the Two-State Solution: A Dilemma for Progressive Jews

By JEFFREY WILKINSON

Recently, liberal Jewish thinker, journalist and teacher Peter Beinart wrote a highly provocative article in the journal Jewish Currents, followed by a shorter piece in the New York Times calling the two-state solution “dead” and advocating for a binational state with equal rights for all.

In his longer piece, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Beinart reflects on moments in Jewish history where seismic shifts happened in religious and cultural practices that may have seemed threatening at the time, but were instead movements that propelled us to be better and stronger. So how will we respond to Beinart’s call for another seismic shift in our thinking and practice?

Predictably, there were rebuttals from many sides, including complete rejection from the more rigid advocates of Israel, calling Beinart irrelevant. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went so far as to call him antisemitic (a rich claim to be aimed at a devout Jew).

The focus here is on the response from the “progressive” Jewish community. While the term “progressive” encapsulates a wide swath of Jewish thought, I refer specifically to the large numbers who refer to themselves as Zionists but also voice concern, to varying degrees, over Israeli government policy, particularly in terms of the occupation, settlements, possible annexation, and Palestinian human rights. Beinart has long been a part of this progressive Zionist movement, though he has been retreating from the two-state camp for some time.

He makes three key points. The first, holding on to the two–state solution, based on today’s political realities, including the lack of viable left-leaning political movement supporting it, is akin to supporting the status quo indefinitely.

Second, a binational state has been successfully achieved in other places in the world, so it is attainable.

Lastly, the focus on Israel as the liberation of the Jewish people and the only “insurance policy” against another Holocaust can no longer be used as the sole justification for defending injustice and inflicting suffering on Palestinians.

The dilemma for progressive Zionists is that if the very idea of “progressiveness” is to be willing to challenge the status quo and resist injustice, how do we respond when we ourselves are being called out for maintaining the status quo? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on why so many are resisting Beinart’s call for a re-examination. Is it not innately “Jewish” to reflect and re-examine?

While there are layers to dealing with this dilemma, we must begin with what I would offer is the root of the challenge: Trauma. Historical trauma, present trauma, and the fear of future trauma.

The challenge that Beinart’s article presents for progressives is really a challenge that is already baked into the idea of progressive Zionism: To be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. I would suggest there is an existing irresolvable tension in supporting Palestinians while also supporting the very institution that oppresses them.

In spite of these seemingly incompatible goals, there are many deeply committed to this trilateral cause to support peace, support Palestinians, while remaining steadfastly Zionist. I have struggled with these contradictions for many years. To deal differently with Beinart’s call, and with the two-state dilemma more broadly, we need to deal with the built-in contradictions in our “pro-pro-pro” stance.

The key to this journey, in my own experience, is in recognizing that that this “pro-pro-pro” commitment is viewed through a 1967-forward lens. If we dig more deeply into this, it means viewing Palestinian oppression only in terms of settlements, the occupation, and the daily injustices that the Israeli government and military inflict on Palestinians.

The two-state solution is entirely a ’67–driven solution: Returning to the pre-’67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation, and resolving the settlement issue. This allows us to maintain Israel without acknowledging or addressing the core trauma for Palestinians: 1948.

It is, in many ways, a “have our cake and eat it too” solution. Yes, it does involve compromise from us, but not in terms of trauma. We get to have our liberation from trauma (Israel), without deeply addressing Palestinian trauma.

There have been many responses to Beinart’s article from Jewish progressives. They centre on the idea that abandoning the two-state solution is tantamount to cultural suicide. In a recent webinar, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of JStreet, a strongly progressive lobby group in the United States, asked Beinart why he would “abandon the Jewish State at a time Jews are under such threat?” That this fear of impending trauma continues to dominate the progressive Jewish narrative means that we have not found a way to deal with the central contradiction of being supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.

To face Beinart’s call head on, we need to be able to see justice for all as a response to the genesis of the trauma for Palestinians. We need to examine whether our call for a two-state solution is in fact “progressive” or is it clinging to the status quo? We need to ask if the binational state is really the existential threat to Jews that we have made it out to be. Granting that this is a genuine fear, does holding on to the status quo create greater safety for Jews in the long-term, and even if it does, is it a just solution for all, including Palestinians?

While I agree with Beinart and have come to similar conclusions myself some time ago, my purpose here is to remind us that re-examination is an essential tenet of our tradition, and that we should never feel that the call to question is inherently dangerous. We are strong enough to have this difficult conversation with ourselves and we must have it if justice for all is indeed our guiding light.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.

Jewish/Palestinian Equality, Yes! A Joint Jewish/Palestinian state, Impossible!

By BOB KATZ

The writer Peter Beinart, a well-known and influential progressive Zionist, who had long advocated a two-state solution, recently reconsidered his principles. In a controversial and much-discussed essay, published in Jewish Currents in early July, he proposes an altogether different paradigm.

In his carefully written, well-researched essay, Beinart concludes that the traditional view of Zionism was no longer viable, a two-state solution was unachievable, and the only alternative to Israel becoming an apartheid state would be for it to forge an alliance with the Palestinians and create a unified state in which all citizens were equal. Most importantly, he emphasizes that if Israel continued to govern close to three million non-citizen, non-voting Palestinians on a fraction of the West Bank, it would be unable to avoid the “apartheid” label. And once the world came to regard Israel as an apartheid state, its days would be numbered.

Beinart recognizes that a one-state solution would require difficult compromises. At the same time, he points to the existence of two states within Belgium, notes South Africa’s successful transition to democracy, and proposes the example of the peace accord that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

Far from persuading me to abandon Zionism and accept a one-state solution, Beinart’s essay left me all the more convinced of the importance of Zionism, and the necessity of a two-state solution. At the same time, I am in full agreement with his bleak view that, if annexation continues, whether creeping or formal, Israel will fit the definition of apartheid, in which case it will not be able to survive the type of international condemnation that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Beinart describes the logic and benefits of a unified Jewish-Palestinian state but does not offer a plan to bring about a union. Instead, he points to the largely successful integration of Palestinian Israelis into the pre-1967 borders and observes that, given Israel’s control of the West Bank, “Israel-Palestine is already binational.” He posits that education and income parity would lead to workable compromises for all Palestinians. Over the past 53 years, Israel and the Palestinians have failed to negotiate a two-state solution. There is no reason to assume that the two sides – three if you consider Gaza a separate entity – will do any better negotiating a one-state solution.

Beinart’s assertion that it would be feasible for Jews and all Palestinians to unite within a peaceful state, such as exists in present day Israel, ignores the fact that the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship have a very different recent history than the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. It would require the integration of dispossessed people who have long seen the PLO and Hamas as their only prospects for freedom from a Zionist tyranny.

Beinart dreams of a unified state with a constitution in which both Jews and Palestinians would have equal rights. Even with constitutional protections, it is not hard to imagine both sides attempting to dominate the other. Whatever constitutional rights Armenians once had in the Ottoman Empire were extinguished by 1923 with virtually no intervention from the outside world. Iran was a multi-cultural state until it felt a need to deal with apostates such as their Baha’i, Zoroastrian and Jewish minorities. In Iraq, Sunnis persecuted Shiites until Saddam Hussein was overthrown, at which time the Shiites persecuted the Sunnis. And everyone persecuted the Kurds.

The author argues that extremists would be mollified in a state in which all peoples were full citizens with equal rights. A quick change of heart would be inconceivable. A unified state would have to persuade crazed Jewish settlers and suicidal Hamas fighters to set aside their murderous practices in the interests of peace with their mortal enemies.

Beinart’s essay does not deal with a division of so-called “holy sites.” The tombs of Hebron are sacred to Jews and to Muslims. A binational state of Israel would have to reconcile the legitimate concerns of Hebron’s Palestinians, whose Jewish extremist persecutors have erected a statue to honour Baruch Goldstein as well as the fears of indigenous Jews who remain haunted by the 1929 Hebron Massacre. Beinart also ignores the interests of fundamentalist Christians, who believe that only if there is a Jewish state in Israel can there be a Second Coming. 

Beinart discusses Gaza, pre-1967 Israel, and the West Bank as if they were in a bubble, free from external forces. Guaranteeing the security of Jews in a binational state would require more than a peace between Palestinians and Jews. Just as many Jews deny the rights of Palestinians in the interests of a truly Jewish state (see: Israel’s Basic Law, enacted in 2018), many Muslims dream of an all-Muslim Middle East. In 1948, five Arab nations attacked Israel with the stated purpose of preventing a Zionist entity from existing in the Middle East. 

The principal reason the Egyptian and Jordanian governments currently recognize Israel is because, at least for now, cooperation is a more viable alternative than war. The principal reason the Sunni states, which are still at war with Israel, no longer emphasize destroying the Zionist entity is because, at least for now, they are more worried about Iran. There is no reason to assume that Iran would be any better disposed to a Jewish power-sharing relationship in a binational Israeli-Palestinian state than they are to sharing power with the indigenous Jews who still live within their borders. 

Beinart’s bubble ignores the fact that members of non-Islamic religions are in decline in most Middle Eastern states. The Christian population in all of the Sunni states has shrunk dramatically in the past century. Lebanon has been shattered by sectarian wars. Christians leave their homelands because they believe that they live in countries that, with the possible exception of Syria, want the Middle East to be entirely Muslim, as the Prophet Muhammad ordained. In Egypt, there have been frequent slaughters of Coptic Christians, whose population has declined by roughly 25 percent in the past 60 years. In a unified state, Jews would be a tiny minority surrounded by a sea of Islamic states that have rarely shown good will to their Jewish populations.

Beinart proposes post-apartheid South Africa as a model of a successful binational state and points out that white Afrikaners’ fear of violence proved unwarranted once the majority Black population gained equal rights. The example of South Africa becomes less compelling when one considers how badly integration fared in Rhodesia, South Sudan, the former Ethiopia, or post-partition Pakistan. Bi-nationalism also failed in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.

Northern Ireland is for Beinart another example of an apparently intractable conflict resolved once a peace accord was in place. However, the issues that divided Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were very different than the issues dividing Jews and Palestinians. In Northern Ireland, historical grievances notwithstanding, the two adversaries were English-speaking, white-skinned Christians. Neither party was divided by differing Biblical commandments or shared holy sites.

Moreover, the example of Northern Ireland’s generally, successful transition to coexistence becomes less compelling when contrasted with the example of the former Yugoslavia, where a functional, post-war coexistence collapsed into mayhem following the 1980 death of Marshal Tito. 

In Northern Ireland, with Ireland to the south and England to the east, Catholics and Protestants each had neighbors with an interest in “their people” and keeping the peace. Israel does not have any neighbours who see the Jews as “their people.” 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu required three elections before he could form a precarious coalition with “Alternate” Prime Minister Benny Gantz. Although Likud’s and Kahol Lavan’s ideologies are similar, they are just barely cooperating. And neither party was willing to cooperate with HaReshima HaMeshutefet (the Joint List). A country that could not welcome Israeli Arabs from HaReshima HaMeshutefet into a coalition would be even less likely to accept Fatah as a partner—or Hamas as the opposition. 

I am in strong agreement with Beinart’s belief that unless a just and democratic solution is found for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will become an apartheid state, subject to constant security threats from within and without its borders. I have a keen recollection of how the collective efforts of the Commonwealth turned South Africa into a pariah state, even as Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, emphasized that they were “our kith and kin.” There is no prospect of a successful binational Jewish-Palestinian state! The future of Israel and Zionism depends on Jews and Palestinians each being able to live in prosperous democratic states of their own. 


Bob Katz is a member of Canadian Friends of Peace Now’s national board and chairperson of the Toronto chapter.