Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities on high alert over threat of retaliation from Iran
Iranian protestors burn pictures of President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden in front of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, November 28, 2020
Head of Iran’s nuclear program assassinated: Iranian officials reported Friday that their top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in an attack outside of Tehran. Iranian news media reported that Fakhrizadeh was attacked by remote-controlled machine gun fire from a pickup truck. The New York Times reported that, according to a U.S. official, Israel was behind the attack. Iranian officials also blamed Israel and have promised retribution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “definitive punishment,” and one newspaper op-ed called for an attack on Israel causing “heavy human casualties.” The U.S. and Israel have been largely silent on the incident though one Israeli official anonymously called the world “a safer place without [Fakhrizadeh].” Israeli intelligence minister Eli Cohen told an Israeli radio station that he did not know who was responsible for the assassination. Fakhrizadeh was mentioned specifically by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a 2018 press conference on Iran’s nuclear program and was reportedly wanted for many years by Mossad. On Friday, President Donald Trump retweeted Israeli journalist Yossi Melman’s statement that Fakhrizadeh’s death “is a major psychological and professional blow for Iran.” Many are wondering how this will change Biden’s approach as he weighs potentially re-entering the Iran nuclear deal.
Jewish communities on high alert after assassination: Israeli diplomats and Jewish communities in the diaspora alike have been encouraged to up their guard in response to the assassination. The director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Alon Ushpiz, sent a letter calling on all emissaries abroad to maintain “the highest possible level of preparedness and vigilance,” specifically calling for increased security protocols in Israeli embassies, which have repeatedly been targets of Iranian terrorist attacks. Jewish community leaders around the world have also reported a heightened sense of alertness, as they work together with security officials to ensure the safety of Jewish civilians globally. Officials have also expressed concern that Israeli tourists may be targeted while visiting the Gulf states with which Israel has recently normalized relations. Both the European Union and the Gulf states have condemned the assassination, with the EU calling for calm and for all parties to “exercise maximum restraint.”
Israel strikes 19 Iranian fighters in Syria, calls for Syria to cut ties with Iran: On Thursday, airstrikes thought to be carried out by Israel killed at least 19 pro-Iran militia fighters, in Southern Syria. Although Syrian state media did not report the attack and Israel rarely acknowledges individual strikes, there have reportedly been two other attacks on pro-Iran militia in Syria this past week, killing eight fighters last Tuesday and fourteen last Saturday. Iran responded to these airstrikes, claiming that it will bring an end to what it refers to as Israel’s “hit-and-run” strikes in Syria. These attacks follow the request from Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan’s to the Security Council demanding “a total rollback of Iran and its proxies from Syria and the removal of Iranian military infrastructure from Syrian territory.” On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dropped leaflets in the Syrian Golan Heights warning against Syrian cooperation with Iranian forces, threatening that Israel “will not allow anyone to upset the stability here,” and will “take action against Hezbollah and Iranian operatives at any time, as needed.” The IDF has dropped similar leaflets in Southern Syria several times over recent years, as tensions at the border have increased.
On Sunday, during a routine inspection of Israel’s northern borders, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said he came to “evaluate the current state of security with an emphasis on the Iranian entrenchment in Syria” and went on: “Our message is clear: We will continue to act as vigorously as necessary against the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and we will remain fully prepared against any manifestation of aggression against us,” he said. On Sunday, a targeted drone strike along the Syrian-Iraqi border reportedly killed a senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), according to widely circulated reports in Arabic-language media Monday. The reports did not speculate who was behind the strike.
Kushner visits Saudi Arabia and Qatar seeking deal to end crisis and talk normalization
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets senior White House adviser Jared Kushner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in September 2020 (via: Saudi Press Agency)
Kushner in Saudi Arabiato ease tensions and discuss normalization: Senior advisor to President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, is leading a White House delegation to Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week, along with White House envoy Avi Berkowitz, International Development Finance Corporation CEO Adam Boehler, and former Iran envoy Brian Hook, who is now an unpaid special adviser. This delegation’s main objective will be to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States and Qatar, which threaten to undermine the region’s stability. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and other Sunni states severed ties with Qatar and closed their airspace and sea routes to Qatari planes and vessels. They claimed their decision was based on Qatar’s support for terror groups and relations with Iran. The U.S. maintains close ties with both Qatar and its rivals, but the Trump administration’s several attempts to reconcile the parties were unsuccessful. The delegation also hopes to discuss Saudi normalization with Israel, but, according to an unnamed “senior Israeli source,” normalized ties with Saudi Arabia cannot be developed while King Salman remains in power. The elderly king “takes a diametrically opposite stance” on normalization to his son, so “progress will only be possible after King Salman has gone.” Additionally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly been hesitant to agree to normalization before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, as he may prefer to use a normalization deal to establish concrete ties with the incoming administration.
Saudi Arabia approves Israeli flight over its airspace: Saudi Arabia granted Israel overflight permission to traverse its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates, just hours before the first commercial Israeli flight to the United Arab Emirates was set to take off. Israeli Transportation Minister Miri Regev blessed the passengers of the flight, wishing them and thousands of passengers who have booked flights for December “a safe trip and a safe return.” The overflight permission granted by Saudi Arabia to Israeli airlines will only be in effect for four days and only apply to flights to Dubai, according to a Channel 12 news report. According to the network, Israeli airlines are seeking long-term permission to use Saudi airspace and also hope to obtain the green light for flights to the Far East. Saudi Arabia’s decision to grant permission came shortly before an Israir flight to Dubai on Tuesday and, reportedly, only after U.S. intervention. On Thursday, the first commercial flight from the UAE to Israel was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced: “… we’re flying, with breakneck speed, into a new era that is now clearly changing the Middle East. For me, it’s the realization of a dream.”
Bahrainis tour al-Aqsa Mosque andTemple Mount, hiding their identities: On Sunday, Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, said that his delegation had prayed at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem last Friday without revealing his identity for fear of being attacked by Palestinians. Al Khalifa told The Jerusalem Post: “It is unacceptable to prevent anyone from any religion from praying. This is a new form of terror.” Al Khalifa’s visit came after Israel normalized relations with Bahrain in September and said the Palestinians would have prevented them from praying if they knew who they were. Palestinians have expressed outrage over the recent normalization deals and, last month, Palestinians claimed that they “expelled” a delegation from the United Arab Emirates, whose members came to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned the Emirati visit, saying that “one ought to enter the gates of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque by way of its owners, rather than through the gates of the occupation.” Al Khalifa responded that Al-Aqsa “doesn’t belong just to the Palestinians, it belongs to the whole Muslim world. It can’t be that you tell people who normalized [relations] with Israel that they can’t pray in Jerusalem.” Al Khalifa also expressed joy about Israel’s mixed culture, saying that “In the past, we thought that Israel is for Jews only. We came here and found it to be the opposite. There definitely is coexistence, there is acceptance of the other.”
Gantz is likely to vote on Wednesday for a bill to dissolve the Israeli parliament and go to new elections
Bill to dissolve government to come to a vote on Wednesday: Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party indicated on Monday that it would support the opposition’s bid to dissolve the government and send Israel to new elections. The no-confidence bill will be brought on Wednesday by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who hopes that increased divide within the ruling coalition will cause Blue and White to break from its alliance with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party and vote to dissolve the government. Netanyahu said Likud would oppose the bill, stressing the need for “unity” during the pandemic; Gantz replied by saying that “the public is done buying Netanyahu’s lies.” Gantz also introduced three controversial bills ahead of the no-confidence vote: one enshrining Israel’s Declaration of Independence in law, another codifying the right to equality and freedom from discrimination in Basic Law, and a third expanding surrogacy laws, advancing the rights of gay men to adopt. Bringing these proposals to the Knesset without Likud approval, prohibited under their unity agreement, is an attempt to undermine Netanyahu and force him to show his hand.
Israel approves PA tax funds transfer to Palestinians: On Sunday, following the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) decision to recommence security cooperation with Israel, the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet approved the transfer of tax funds that Israel collects for the Palestinians, totaling about NIS 2.5 billion, or $700 million. In accordance with the “Pay-for-Slay” law, the cabinet deducted around NIS 600 million ($200 million) from the total amount, as the 2018 law requires that Israel freeze the amount the PA pays to terrorists and their families. This follows a six-month period during which the PA halted security coordination with Israel and refused to accept these funds. Minister of Civil Affairs in the Palestinian Authority Hussein Al-Sheikh announced that the two governments agreed to transfer about three billion shekels from the Palestinian tax money that has accumulated in Israel in the last six months to the account of the Palestinian Ministry of Finance. This follows last month’s decision by the European Union to not provide the Palestinian Authority with additional financial assistance as long as it continued to refuse the tax funds from Israel. Israel gives tax funds to the PA under the 1994 Paris Protocol, which established a customs union between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, under which Israel must collect value-added tax, import duties and other taxes for the PA and hand them over monthly.
Rabbi attacked at knifepoint by woman assailant in Vienna, who yelled to ‘slaughter’ Jews
Rabbi threatened on the streets of Vienna by a woman with knife: On Thursday, in Vienna’s 3rd district, an unidentified woman threatened a Rabbi with a knife and stole his Kippah. The assault followed multiple minutes of the woman shouting antisemitic slurs at the Rabbi while passersby turned their eyes. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz condemned the incident in a statement. “I condemn today’s anti-Semitic attack on a rabbi in Vienna very strongly. We must fight anti-Semitism with all determination and do everything we can to make Jewish life safe here in Austria. Because Europe without Jews is no longer Europe.” Over the first half of 2020, Austria’s population of around 8,000 Jews faced no fewer than 131 incidents of verbal abuse or harassment, 26 cases of antisemitic destruction of property and three physical assaults. Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn also condemned the attack on Friday, tweeting “I am dismayed by yesterday’s attack on a rabbi in the middle of Vienna. I assure our fellow Jewish citizens of my complete solidarity. [Antisemitism] must have no place among us. It endangers the peaceful coexistence of us all.”
Hungarian official’s Soros-Hitler comparison condemned and revoked: On Saturday, Szilard Demeter, ministerial commissioner and head of the Petofi Literary Museum in Budapest wrote in an op-ed that “Europe is George Soros’ gas chamber. Poison gas flows from the capsule of a multicultural open society, which is deadly to the European way of life.” Jewish activists in Hungary, including the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, condemned the article, calling it “a textbook case of the relativization of the Holocaust, [that] is therefore incompatible with the government’s claim of zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.” The Israeli Embassy in Hungary also issued a statement against the article, saying “We utterly reject the use and abuse of the memory of the Holocaust for any purpose, as unfortunately appeared in an op-ed today. There is no place for connecting the worst crime in human history, or its perpetrators, to any contemporary debate, no matter how essential.” On Sunday, Demeter begrudgingly announced that he would revoke the article “independently of what I think,” stating that “I will grant that those criticizing me are correct in saying that to call someone a Nazi is to relativize, and that making parallels with Nazis can inadvertently cause harm to the memory of the victims.”
Slovenia recognizes Hezbollah as terror organization: On Monday, Slovenia officially recognized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and condemned both its political and militant branches. An official statement released by Ljubljana stated that Hezbollah is “a criminal and terrorist organization posing a threat to peace and security,” and will from now on be treated as such. Slovenia is the tenth country in the last six months to recognize all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, negating a former practice by which many countries condemned only its armed wing while defending its political branch. Lithuania, Estonia, and Guatemala, among others, have also recently joined the list of countries that fully recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi praised the move and called on further European countries to follow suit.
INSIDE THE U.S.
Supreme Court backs religious challenge to New York COVID-19 restrictions
Supreme Court supports religious objection to Cuomo’s virus shutdown orders: Late Wednesday night, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to bar New York State’s restriction on religious services implemented by Governor Andrew Cuomo as part of his plan to combat the coronavirus. The court’s ruling was at odds with similar decisions in May and July that allowed for state governors to restrict attendance at religious services, marking the first time that newly appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett played a pivotal role in a Supreme Court decision after the passing of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The court’s order addressed two applications: one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals, and found that New York’s restrictions on the size of religious gatherings violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote, “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.” A dissenting opinion by Justice Sonya Sotomayor read, “the Constitution does not forbid states from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives. Because New York’s Covid-19 restrictions do just that, I respectfully dissent.”
Dead pig found on doorstep of New Jersey rabbi’s home: In what is being investigated as an apparent bias crime, a dead pig was found on the doorstep of the home of a Lakewood, New Jersey rabbi on Saturday morning. Lakewood’s police chief, Greg Meyer, told a local outlet, “We will not tolerate such acts in our town,” and other officials noted that no injuries were reported at the scene. The Anti-Defamation League denounced the crime, calling it “beyond horrifying”, and emphasizing that “no individual or group deserves to be targeted in this way.” Lakewood is a heavily Orthodox area, and the ADL has noted a rise in antisemitism in the surrounding county, as well as the United States in general. No arrests have yet been made in connection with the crime.
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Bette Midler, 1980
Today we celebrate Israeli athletes earning international recognition. At the European Championships in Kyiv this past week, Israeli athletes won medals in multiple sports. Israeli rhythmic gymnast, Linoy Ashram won a gold medal on Sunday, two days after Israel’s rhythmic gymnastics team took the gold in the group all-around category. Ashram is Israel’s star rhythmic gymnast, as she has won over a dozen medals in world championships over the past few years, while all other Israeli rhythmic gymnasts in history have won a total of three medals. The senior rhythmic gymnastics group was favored to win at the European Championships, as many of Europe’s most prominent teams, including Russia, Belarus, Italy, and Spain were absent at the competition due to Coronavirus concerns. On Saturday in Portugal, the European Championships of Windsurfing saw great Israeli achievement, as three of the country’s windsurfers won medals, including the top two spots in the men’s race. Yoav Cohen took home the gold medal while Shahar Tzuberi bagged the silver medal in the men’s race, and Katy Spychakov won the silver medal in the women’s race. Men’s coach Gur Steinberg called the achievements “a perfect storm” and said, “the vision of being one of the top teams in the world is being realized.” To top off a great weekend of athleticism for Israel, Israel’s national basketball team beat Spain 95-87 after coming back from an 18 point deficit at half-time. This brings the Israeli team’s EuroBasket qualifying record to 3-0.
Today in 1945, Bette Midler was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. The daughter of a Jewish seamstress and a Jewish navy painter, Midler relocated to New York City, where she spent the second half of the 1960’s in Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Salvation. In 1970, she began singing for patrons at The Continental Baths, a popular gay bath house and soon established a strong and devoted fanbase. The unlikely breakthrough not only led to her first appearance on The Tonight Show, but it also deepened the friendship with her arranger, piano player, and future producer Barry Manilow. Midler’s early days in New York were filled with vivid memories of endearing herself to both gay and Jewish audiences. She was a mentor for famous Jewish performers such as singer Melissa Manchester and actress Katey Sagal, both whom were Midler’s backup singers, as well as Manilow. Her debut album was a million-selling top ten and earned her a Grammy for best new artist. Since then, Midler has won four Golden Globe Awards, three Grammy Awards, three Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award. She has been married to artist Martin Van Haselberg since 1984 and their daughter Sophie is 34.