Inauguration of 46th president, first female VP: After many months of turmoil, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States on Wednesday. Biden is the oldest president to ever start a term in office at age 78, and Kamala Harris is the first woman, the first Black American, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the office. Harris’ husband, entertainment lawyer Doug Emhoff, is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. All three of Biden’s children married Jews, including Beau Biden who passed away in 2015 from cancer. Harris and Emhoff celebrated with Emhoff’s Jewish children, Cole and Ella, and their siblings and nieces and grandnieces. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his congratulations to the Biden administration, saying in a video message: “President Biden, you and I have had a warm personal friendship going back many decades.” Along with other top officials across Israel, President Rivlin offered a message of friendship and compliments to Biden. He also spoke of the Arab-Israel peace agreements: “The recent peace deals between Israel and our neighbors brought new hope with them and I expect to work with you to help build further bridges in the region.”
Jewish memes from the inauguration: The inauguration of Biden and Harris also had some fun, with memes of Senator Bernie Sanders overtaking the internet. Sanders, who showed up to the event in his Vermont-chic jacket and holding his tickets in a manilla envelope, quickly became memed following a picture of him sitting alone in the cold. Jewish commentators noted that the photo encapsulated a Jewish attitude, with some writing that it was as if Sanders had been snapped heading to high holiday services, or waiting for his wife at a department store, or arriving early to synagogue. Other notable Jewish attendees were memed, including Janet Yellen who came dressed like she was heading to the tundra, or described as fashion icons, like Natalie Biden and Ella Emhoff.
In first, Biden appoints Jewish trans woman, also Jewish: Dr. Rachel Levine, who currently serves as the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health and who has spent the last year as the public face of PA’s COVID-19 response, was chosen by President Biden to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Health for the United States. In that role, she will be the highest-ranking transgender person to ever serve in the federal government and the first transgender person to be Senate-confirmed in a role. Levine grew up in the Boston area where she went to Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. A graduate of Harvard University and Tulane Medical School, Levine was the chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she also taught.
Jewish cabinet nominees appear before Senate: Prominent Jewish nominees of President Biden’s cabinet went before their respective Senate confirmation hearings, including incoming Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, incoming Director of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and incoming director of national intelligence Avril Haines (who is the first Jew in this role). Both Mayorkas and Blinken shared their families’ stories of survival during the Holocaust in poignant testimony. Mayorkas said he is “profoundly aware of antisemitism’s domestic threat” because of his mother’s escape from Romania (from which she fled to Cuba). Of his family that perished he said: “My mother lost her paternal grandparents and seven uncles by reason of their Jewish faith in the Holocaust.” Mayorkas also went on to describe his lifelong efforts to combat antisemitism, saying: “I have dedicated a considerable amount of my personal and professional energy to battling antisemitism and discrimination of all forms. Most recently I served on the advisory board of the Secure Community Network, sponsored by the Jewish Federation, to protect day schools, synagogues and places of worship.” Blinken, meanwhile, shared his stepfather’s awe of the American troops who saved him from death to whom he spoke the only three English words he knew: “God Bless America.” Blinken’s stepfather was the only survivor of the Holocaust among his school of 900 in Bialystok, Poland at the start of the Second World war.
Seeking the nation’s top diplomatic post, Blinken spoke at length about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of the United States in the Middle East. On some topics he agreed with the Trump administration. For example, when asked if he would keep the U.S. embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and whether Jerusalem is the capital of Israel (it is), he said: “Yes and yes.” Blinken went on to speak about the Iran nuclear deal, saying that the Biden administration is a “long way” from rejoining the agreement, signaling a much more thorough deliberation than some of its supporters had hoped for.
Ossoff sworn in; Schumer first Jewish Senate Majority Leader: Jon Ossoff was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris to be Georgia’s senior senator. In addition to being Georgia’s first Jewish senator, the 33-year-old will be the nation’s first millennial senator, and its youngest. During the swearing-in, Ossoff placed his hand on a Hebrew Bible on loan from Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s family. Rothschild was the former rabbi at The Temple, of which Ossoff is a member, and championed the cause of civil rights for Black Americans. After Ossoff was sworn in, he tweeted, “Today, as I was sworn in, I held in my jacket pocket copies of the ships’ manifests recorded at Ellis Island when my Great Grandfather Israel arrived in 1911 and my Great Grandmother Annie arrived in 1913. A century later, their great grandson was elected to the U.S. Senate.” With the swearing in of three new senators, Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and Alex Padilla, Senator Chuck Schumer will now be the first Jewish Senate Majority Leader and the highest ranking Jewish official everelected in the United States. Schumer tweeted, “As the son of an exterminator and a homemaker and a descendant of Holocaust victims, I’m thinking about my family and how remarkable it is that a kid from Brooklyn could grow up to lead the U.S. Senate.”
INSIDE THE U.S.
Pompeo slams ‘multiculturalism’ as un-American on last day in office
Pompeo spews racism at end of term: Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a bizarre and blatantly racist Tweet claiming that “multiculturalism” is “not who America is.” The Tweet is being slammed for its explicit white supremacist sentiments. It is also a ridiculous fabrication, as America was founded as a place where colonialists and foreign and indigenous cultures interacted and clashed. Furthermore, enslaved Africans, who fundamentally built much of the foundations of the country, were forced to bring their culture to America. Being generous, critics asked if perhaps Pompeo doesn’t know the definition of “multiculturalism.” NBC’s senior political analyst Jonathan Allen responded: “Definition of multiculturalism: ‘the presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.’”
U.S. cuts ties with Islamic Relief charity: The U.S. State Department said it would no longer maintain any ties with Islamic Relief Worldwide, a charity group criticized for propagating antisemitism. Israel has gone so far as to designate the IRW as a supporting organization of terror. Last year, the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor Antisemitism said: “The consistent pattern of spreading the most vile antisemitic vitriol by IRW’s leadership causes us to question the core values of the organization.” The severing of State’s ties with IRW will potentially cost it millions of dollars. Since the policy was enacted prior to Biden’s inauguration, it is unclear as to whether the Biden administration will reverse it.
Trump pardons Pollard’s handler: Among his last-minute pardons, former President Donald Trump issued a pardon to Aviem Sella, American (now Israeli) spy Jonathan Pollard’s former ‘handler’ in the U.S. Sella was indicted by the U.S. government in 1987. The Israeli ambassador had released a statement saying: “The State of Israel has issued a full and unequivocal apology and has requested the pardon in order to close this unfortunate chapter in U.S.-Israel relations.” Before he could be imprisoned by the U.S., Sella fled to Israel, which refused to extradite him back. Following Sella’s pardon, Pollard said: “This puts an end to the open wound of the episode after 35 years.”
Israel recommends vaccine for pregnant women, as UK variant poses greater risk
UK variant putting pregnant women at greater risk: After hospitalizations of several pregnant women with COVID-19 complications, Israel has decided to include pregnant women among those getting priority access to the vaccines. An Israeli Health Ministry official warned that pregnant women were at greater risk of developing serious symptoms with the British coronavirus variant. The country’s top gynecologists said the vaccine is as safe or safer than other vaccines (whooping cough, flu) that pregnant women receive and that getting vaccinated is much safer than getting the disease itself. At least ten pregnant women have gotten sick with the coronavirus in the past few months and have required ventilation or early delivery via Caesarean section due to life-threatening risks to the mothers and the children. “This is a more serious and violent wave than in the past that’s also affecting young pregnant women,” said a top women’s doctor. Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told ministers Tuesday that the variant accounts for 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks.
COVID continues to consume Israel: Despite its world-leading vaccination effort against the coronavirus that has increased to 200,000 doses a day, the Israeli government voted to extend the current country-wide lockdown until January 31st. The virus is spreading too rapidly to contain, with Israel surpassing 10,000 new cases in a day, the highest the country has ever faced. Six public hospitals have announced they will start to turn away some ambulances and one health official suggested delaying the March elections if the virus remains out-of-control. (Opposition leaders accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of manufacturing the necessity to delay the election for political purposes.) Seeming to agree with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Netanyahu said he supports reopening art and culture venues in about two weeks to the vaccinated and with a lower capacity limit. On a positive note, there are reportedly zero cases of influenza in Israel, according to a hospital director at Sheba Medical Center. Unit Director Dr. Galia Barkai called the phenomenon “really special,” but also “understandable.” A U.S. report this month also noted less than 2% of the flu cases recorded at this time last year.
Ultra-Orthodox mob protesting lockdown injures cop: Clashes have continued in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods with police over the ongoing coronavirus restrictions. Media reports show that many in the community are flouting the orders, as Orthodox schools and synagogues across the country continue to operate illegally. Netanyahu vowed to act with a “heavy hand” against Israelis who violate coronavirus restrictions after a group of ultra-Orthodox men injured a policewoman while protesting the lockdown on Thursday. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana called the incident a “savage and heinous crime” and said he would not allow it to go unpunished. Critics, including the Blue and White party, have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the ultra-Orthodox community in order not to anger his Haredi coalition partners.
ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS, NEAR & NOT SO FAR
Tunisian leader apologizes and then denies making antisemitic remarks caught on video
President of Tunisia apologizes for antisemitic rant (which he denies): The President of Tunisia called the chief rabbi of Djerba, the second largest population of Jews in the country outside the capital of Tunis, to apologize for his antisemitic rant that was caught on video earlier this week. In speaking with Rabbi Haim Bitan, who relayed the apology, President Kaïs Saïed apparently expressed regret for blaming Jews for the turmoil in his country of recent protests marking the ten-year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution. On video, Saïed said that it was “the Jews who are stealing” in Tunisia and causing the political unrest. The President of the European Conference of Rabbi said that “such allegations threaten the integrity of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.” However, despite the rabbi’s conveyance, Saïed’s office denied he made the remarks, saying “this issue is not raised in Tunisia.”
Time ran out before Mauritania and Indonesia could normalize: Two U.S. sources told the Times of Israel that the Trump administration had been close to securing normalization agreements between Israel and Mauritania and Israel and Indonesia before the end of its term. Mauritania did establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, but severed them in 2009 due to the first Gaza War. Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, and the world’s fourth most populous country after the United States would potentially have been a significant economic partner with Israel. It remains to be seen if the deals will proceed under the Biden administration. The first peace deal to go forward last year, signed between Israel and the UAE, was rushed to completion this week by the Trump administration. Before leaving office, the Trump team signed a deal with the Emirates to send 50 F-35 jets and up to 18 armed drones to the country. The sale of the jets to the UAE had caused particular controversy in Washington and Jerusalem and was a key condition for the normalization between the UAE and Israel. President Biden’s team has said he would review the arms sale and that there is still concern for Israel’s qualitative military edge and the Emirati involvement in the war in Yemen.
New direct flights to Israel from Morocco and U.S.: In more peace deal news, Morocco and Israel signed a direct flight agreement for the first time! It is unclear when the flights from Tel Aviv to Rabat will begin. And another direct flight is opening up to Tel Aviv—this time from the United States. American Airlines will launch new direct flights from JFK to Ben-Gurion starting May 6. The flights are part of American Airlines partnership with JetBlue. A Vice President at the airline said: “It is a great privilege for American Airlines to return to Tel Aviv.”
World’s largest Holocaust memorial to be built at site of Ukraine’s Babi Yar Massacre
The Sefirot installation at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, made up of 10 stainless steel columns, which feature over 100,000 holes, shot with bullets of the same caliber as those used by the Nazis to murder 100,000 Jews and non-Jews at Babyn Yar, Ukraine. Photo: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
World’s largest Holocaust memorial to be in Kyiv: The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine will construct the world’s largest Holocaust memorial with 12 buildings across 370 acres. The Babi Yar ravine is Europe’s “largest mass grave,” the site of the murder of approximately 100,000 people. Over 33,000 of the dead were Jews killed by Nazis and Ukrainians on September 29 and 30, 1941. Following the spree, the site became an all-purpose Nazi killing ground for Jews and non-Jews. The artistic director of the memorial said: “Currently, there are far too many people unaware of the nature of the place. If you visit Babi Yar today, you will see families relaxing and playing as if it were a regular park.” One of the 12 buildings will be dedicated to the “Holocaust by Bullets,” by which over 1.5 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust by German Einsatzgruppen, particularly in 1941.
Polish scholars on trial over mayor’s role in Holocaust: Two Polish Holocaust scholars are on trial for their writings about a mayor of a Polish town who may have helped kill 22 Jews during the Holocaust. The mayor also saved a Jewish woman, apparently in exchange for a bribe, and was acquitted during his lifetime of the atrocities of which he was accused. The scholars are on trial for writing: “It was said in the village that a group of 22 Jews was hiding in a nearby forest, had been betrayed by Poles and murdered by the Germans. It was said that the mayor of Malinowski was involved in this.” The scholars defended their writing by saying that they reported on the opinion of witnesses, rather than their own conclusion. The mayor’s niece is asking for $26,000 in compensation for what she says is defamation.
Austria tackles antisemitism: The Austrian government is proposing a national strategy to combat antisemitism. In 2019, Austria recorded 550 antisemitic incidents, double the number of just five years ago. The government pledged to tackle the hatred whether it comes from the left or right, immigrants or anybody else. Austria’s Europe Minister also said that it would work on fighting antisemitism wherever it may be, like online chat groups, corner bars, or at public protests.
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
CorNeat Vision develops ophthalmic implants that mend and replace damaged tissue while mimicking its function. Courtesy: CorNeat
Today we celebrate a blind man’s sight returning via Israeli tech! With the surgical implantation of an artificial cornea, a blind, elderly man in Haifa became the first person to successfully regain vision. The surgery was performed by Professor Irit Bahar, director of the Ophthalmology Department at Rabin Medical Center in Israel. The 78-year-old-man, Jamal Furnai, was stricken with edema and a damaged cornea which caused his legal blindness. The new, artificial cornea did not require any donor tissue. Rather, it consists entirely of synthetic materials. The co-founder of the company which produced the synthetic cornea, CorNeat Vision, said: “Unveiling this first implanted eye and being in that room, in that moment, was surreal.” Ten patients are approved for the clinical trial at the Rabin Center. The implant process takes less than one hour.
On this day in 1957, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula following its capture during the Suez Crisis of 1956. After Egypt had unilaterally nationalized the canal, Israel, at the behest of Britain and France, invaded. Israel swiftly captured the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, something it was to do again in 1967. Following the war, the Straits of Tiran were once again opened to Israeli ships; against international law, Egypt had closed them in 1950. In withdrawing from the Sinai, Israel again offered land for peace, something Egypt refused to accept.