AJC Honors Muslim Zionist

By Masha Leon

Published September 07, 2007, issue of September 07, 2007.
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“I am proud to be a Muslim Zionist, proclaimed Salah Choudhury at the American Jewish Committee’s August 2 luncheon, held in his honor. Choudhury is publisher and editor of Weekly Blitz, the largest tabloid English-language weekly in Bangladesh. In 2003, after attempting to go to Israel for a conference on co-existence, he was arrested at Dhaka airport and imprisoned. “We are in the presence of someone unafraid, willing to stand up… for decency and human dignity,” said the AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris. “He was raised in a home where he was taught tolerance and universality… [and] paid a heavy price. Arrested, imprisoned, beaten, isolated, [his] newspaper offices destroyed, he was not allowed to leave the country in 2006” to receive the AJCommittee’s Moral Courage Award. It was accepted by Richard Benkin, a member of the Islam-Israel Fellowships and a Jewish community activist from Chicago, who was instrumental in getting him released from prison in 2005. When asked why he chooses not to stay in the West, Choudhury’s reply was: “I don’t like people who want asylum.… I must return; my place is there; my battle is there…. We have to stay and fight.”

Choudhury reported: “In 2003 it was taboo in Bangladesh to say Israel or Jew…. Why don’t we recognize Israel? [It was] one of the first four countries in 1971 [that] gave us recognition. We had to wait four years before our [brothers] in Pakistan [did]… If you go to Muslim countries, [there is] fake information about Jews and Israel. [My newspaper] publishes all good articles about Israel and Judaism… They have beaten me, but [they] see I won’t give up.” He noted: “There is no institution in Muslim countries to promote moderation… [there is] repression of Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh,” and surprisingly, “Muslims in the U.S. [are] not willing to meet with me.” He informed: “Of the 64,000 madrassas (Islamic schools), 70% are fundamentalist. We now have 3,780 kindergarten madrassas [of which] 100 are para-military… all funded by Saudi Arabia. If you want to establish a madrassa, no permit required. If you want to open a [normative] school, there are all kinds of impediments.” He decried Saudi’s $5 billion “investments in banks, business, insurance, hospitals. Their imperative is to… combat secular western media… [they] have captured Bangladeshi politics and media.… Let us be louder. If we are silent, remember consequences of the past… I look forward not to jihad, not to Holocaust denial, not to hatred!”

“Our people are moderate,” Choudhury said. It is “the people who run us, the administration, who are radical.… Two months ago I got the visa but was not sure I would be allowed to leave Bangladesh. Previously I was in jail for 17 months, tortured… but,” he said, smiling, “there was some divine punishment. Those who sent me to jail [are now] on trial for corruption… sedition, treason. Got a visa this time! I had two sets of luggage [with me] just in case — one for the U.S., the other for prison.” Among the speakers was Chadhoury’s attorney, Irwin Cotler, a Forward reader and former justice minister of Canada. In closing, Choudhury declared: “I am the brother of all of you here…. When I go back, they will have a double headache, heart attack… I am the brother of all of you here.… If you are a Zionist, you live in extreme distress, anxiety and suffering.… We have to win the battle of Bangladesh.”


“It’s courageous on the part of Hebrew University to honor a former pork-belly trader,” joshed invocation presenter Rabbi Steven Stark Lowenstein of Am Shalom in Glencoe, Ill. The remark was apropos Leo Melamed, recipient of the American Friends of Hebrew University’s Scopus Award. He was presented the award at AFHU’s recent award dinner, held at Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel. Emcee Terry Savage, a financial commentator and author, noted that Melamed, who is chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and has credentials that are paragraphs long, was in good company. Savage added, “Previous Scopus Award recipients include Saul Bellow, Frank Sinatra, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, George Schultz, Steven Spielberg and Milton Friedman.” Not bad for a boy born in Bialystok, Poland, who is a Holocaust survivor and the son of socialist Yiddish teachers. A 7-year-old Melamed attended my birthday party in Vilna, Lithuania, just ahead of the 1941 Soviet occupation. Like me, he received a Sugihara visa that took his family across Siberia to Vladivostok and then to Kobe, Japan, and finally, in 1941, to Chicago (where I arrived in 1945). In 1994 I ran into him in Tokyo. He was en route to Beijing to be honored for his role in creating Globex, the world’s most prominent global electronic trading platform for futures.

In the program journal, it was noted that “according to the former editor of The Chicago Tribune” Melamed, whose innovative financial achievements include the creation of the International Monetary Market and the first futures market for financial instrument, “was among the ten most important Chicagoans in business of the 20th century.” From the dais, he was lauded by Terrence Duffy, executive chairman of CME; Charles “Corky” Goodman , chairman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s board of governors; Barukh Binah, Israel’s consul general for the Midwest, and HUJ President Menachem Magidor, who made the presentation.

In his address, Melamed focused on his strong connection with academia. Both his parents were devoted teachers who raised him with the awareness of the importance of education to Jews in particular and to mankind in general. The success of Chicago Mercantile Exchange — which Duffy touted as having “traded more in the first two weeks in value than the New York Stock Exchange in its entire year” — was based on two interconnected principles: innovation and education. Scrolling down America’s educational history, beginning with Boston’s Latin School, founded in 1635, Melamed touted America’s institutions of higher learning, noting, “Seventeen of the world’s top 20 universities are in America.” He quoted Nelson Mandela: “‘Education is the most powerful weapon.’” Literally putting his money where his mouth is, Melamed has endowed a chair for the study of future markets at the University of Chicago; in 1998, the Weizmann Institute of Science established the Betty and Leo Melamed Scholarship in Biomedical Research; in 2000 the John Marshall Law School established the Leo Melamed Fellowship in International Business and Trade Law, and this year Melamed was appointed honorary dean of Peking University School of Derivatives. His memoir, “Escape to the Futures” (John Wiley & Sons, 1996), has been translated into Chinese and Japanese. And — oh, yes, — he still writes Yiddish poetry.

Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, Sigmund Freud and other visionaries founded the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1918. It opened its doors in 1925 with 141 students. Today, a world-class institution of higher learning located on four campuses in Israel, it boasts a student body of 213,000 and a faculty of 1,200, and it is renowned for its commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism.

The evening’s entertainment was provided by 85-year-young Carl Reiner, best known as a co-star of the legendary TV program “Your Show of Shows” and a creator and co-star of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Reiner delighted the audience with his recollection of the genesis of the now classic hit record “The 2000 Year Old Man.” On it, he asks historically related questions of “2,000-year-old” Mel Brooks, who responds with gasp-eliciting irreverent answers.

A postscript: Don’t remember who it was who introduced Melamed as having been born in “Bialystok, a tiny village.” Oy! Before its occupation by the Soviets in 1939, Bialystok was the largest city in the Northeast of Poland. A major textile and cutlery center, it boasted a provenance that suggested it be named the “Jerusalem of Poland” (as Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”). It was the city of, among others, Nahum Tzemach, father of the “Habima” theater and Tarbut Hebrew school; of Shmuel Zamenhof, father of Esperanto, and a range of educational institutions that included elementary schools, high schools and yeshivas. It was the residence of Torah scholars, writers, and communal and political organizations that ranged from the secular “Bund” labor movement to the Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair, the Mizrachi and the ultra-Orthodox Agudas Yisroel movement. In the 1930s, Bialystok had the highest percentage of Hebrew speakers of all of Poland’s cities. Bialystok is the regional headquarters for the organization of underground ghetto fighters, and Mordechai Tennenbaum led the uprising August 16, 1943, in which 300 fighters died. Liberated by the Red Army in August 1944, Bialystok (bialy means white in both Russian and Polish) is now in Belarus and boasts a population of nearly 300,000. In the winter of 1940, my mother and I, having fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw, reached Bialystok, where we managed to board a train packed with refugees and Soviet soldiers — a scene right out of the film “Doctor Zhivago.” Oh yes: Bilaystok is also the birthplace of the bialy — not the bagel! — that unique soft roll in the center of which is a dimple filled with poppy seeds and onions. “Tiny village” indeed!

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