Israeli Prisoner Exchange, Biden Engages Iran, and Inspiring Jewish Pride

February 19, 2021

Israeli Prisoner Exchange, Biden Engages Iran, and Inspiring Jewish Pride

February 19, 2021
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Shabbat Shalom!

Today we’re diving into:

  • Inside Israel: Israel and Syria swap prisoners; Netanyahu mourns Rush Limbaugh; snow blankets Middle East; Knesset bans Arab Labor candidate; and Sa’ar fires Lincoln Project advisors
  • Coronavirus: Pfizer reaches 95% efficacy in Israel; and Israel facilitates transfer of vaccines into Gaza
  • Inside the U.S.: Jewish communities join relief effort in Texas; Bibi and Biden speak; Biden says ready for talks on nuke deal; survivor credits jam family; auction house pauses sale of stolen Jewish document; and Zach Banner calls for IHRA definition in NFL
  • Inside Europe & Abroad: British Jews fight for Uighurs; Polish historian pictured giving Nazi salute; Argentine Jews lambaste dead president; and Russian-Israeli tennis player loses to Djokovic
  • Feature: Ben M. Freeman: Jewish lessons from LGBTQ+ Pride
  • Celebrate & Remember: Discovery of sarcophagi near Tel Aviv; and Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”


Israeli woman released, as Israel and Syria complete prisoner exchange

Source: @IDF / Twitter, February 12, 2021     
Israel and Syria swap prisoners: Russia mediated a prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria, enemies which remain in a technical state of war, in which Syria freed an Israeli woman who crossed the border “by mistake.” The Israeli woman, reportedly from the ultra-Orthodox town Modi’in Illit, was arrested after crossing the border weeks ago. Russia took over custody of the Israeli woman before her release. Reports stated that the prisoner swap hit a snag when two residents of the Golan Heights, who are in Israeli prisons, refused to be deported to Damascus. In exchange for the Israeli woman and in lieu of the two prisoners who refused to go to Syria, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) freed two Syrian shepherds who entered Israeli territory several weeks ago and agreed to provide Syria with COVID-19 aid. Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat traveled to Moscow Wednesday evening to pick up the Israeli woman.
Netanyahu mourns Rush Limbaugh: A day after conservative, controversial radio host Rush Limbaugh died of cancer, Prime Minister Netanyahu sent a public message of condolence, calling Limbaugh “a great friend of Israel” and saying, “We shall miss him dearly.” Haaretz called the move “spit in Democrats’ faces” a day after President Biden took the time to call Netanyahu. Although beloved in conservative circles, Limbaugh is reviled in the liberal world for fanning the flames of racism and homophobia and launching the rage-fueled conservatism come to truest form in Donald Trump. He is perhaps one of the most influential conservative figures of the last 30 years.
Snow blankets Middle East: Mounds of snow fell in the most peculiar places this week, and not just in Texas and the southern United States. In a very, very rare occurrence, a large snow storm blanketed the Middle East from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece to the Saudi Arabian desert. (It was the first time in 50 years that Saudi Arabia experienced snow.) Of course, Israel, caught in between, had its own rare snowfall which covered the north of Israel—the Golan saw about a foot of snow—and Jerusalem in white. As schools began to slowly reopen after the lengthy coronavirus lockdown, they once again closed their doors during the snowstorm. 
Knesset bans Arab Labor candidate over remarks: A Knesset panel barred a Labor candidate for running for Knesset, the Israeli parliament, due to past statements she made making light of Memorial Day. Ibtisam Mara’ana, Labor’s only Muslim candidate, said years ago that she deliberately ignored the two minutes of silence for Israel’s fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. She later apologized for that comment. According to law, candidates can be prevented from running for office if they “deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incite racism, or support an armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization.” Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he did not believe Mara’ana ran afoul of qualifications to run for office and the Supreme Court is very likely to overturn the decision as it has done in other cases. 
Sa’ar fires Lincoln Project advisors: Gideon Sa’ar, the leader of A New Hope, has cut ties with advisors from the American political group the Lincoln Project. In January, Sa’ar hired Steve Schmidt, Stuart Stevens, Rick Wilson, and Reed Galen, all of the Lincoln Project, to help him launch attacks against Prime Minister Netanyahu in an equally searing way as they did against President Trump in the run-up to the 2020 election. However, recent scandals at the Lincoln Project forced Sa’ar to reconsider. One such scandal involved the Lincoln Project’s cofounder John Weaver potentially sexually harassing men and it later being covered up or at least knowingly omitted by the group. A New Hope said: “We have never worked with the Lincoln Project. The party engaged four senior consultants who were connected with the project.” Late last year, Sa’ar broke away from the Likud party, what he says is nowa cult of personality around Netanyahu. Having started off strong, his ranking in election polls has fallen somewhat to both Yair Lapid’s left-wing Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina. 


Israeli vaccine effectiveness hits 95 percent, equals Pfizer trials 

Source: @IsraeliPM / Twitter, February 16, 2021      
Pfizer reaches 95% efficacy in Israel: In its first large-scale study of real-world effectiveness of its vaccine, Pfizer found that its vaccine in Israel hit the 95% efficacy that was achieved in clinical trials. It was previously uncertain as to whether it was possible to hit such an impressive mark under real-world conditions. 95% efficacy means that vaccinated individuals are 95% less likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than those who are unvaccinated. Ekka Zohar, an analyst at the Maccabi Health Services, said: “We clearly see very low morbidity rates among the group of young people who were vaccinated as early as seven days after the first dose of the vaccine.” America’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, lauded the Israeli study, saying: “Israel is way up there with 78 doses per 100 people, compared to the United States, which is 16.7 doses per 100 people. Israel has a remarkable diminution in cases associated with the efficiency of their vaccine.” With even Israel’s vaccination efforts among the ultra-Orthodox proving effective, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi removed a judge on a rabbinical court who refused to get vaccinated.

  • Meanwhile, Israel’s Health Ministry launched the Green Pass program, a certificate allowing vaccinated or previously infected individuals to engage in regular public activities. Citizens without the pass will not be allowed in hotels, gyms, and other public spaces. Responding to reports that the ‘green pass’ can be easily forged, Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said, “Those who think this a game and print a vaccination certificate without being vaccinated will be caught and their activities may end with them in jail.”

Israel allows vaccines into Gaza: Israel allowed the first transfer of coronavirus vaccines into Gaza on Wednesday after days of delay. Israel said: “1,000 Sputnik vaccines donated by Russia [to the Palestinian Authority] are being transferred from the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, in accordance with the Palestinian Authority’s request and the approval of the political echelon.” The shipments were marred by confusion and controversy after the Palestinian Authority (PA) claimed there were 2,000 doses of vaccine, while Israel said the PA had only requested the transfer of 1,000 doses. And, the PA said the vaccines were intended for Palestinian healthcare workers, while Hamas, the terrorist group that runs Gaza, said the doses would be administered to people with health conditions.

  • Earlier in the week, the PA had sent the truckload of vaccines to a commercial crossing into Israel from the West Bank which was not coordinated with Israel. The Israelis turned it away. One official said: “They sent a truck full of vaccines without any kind of coordination with us, without having received the proper permits. [It was] inane.” The head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that Hamas was using the vaccines to inoculate its own leaders. PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ political rival Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in the UAE, secured 20,000 Russian vaccine doses for Gazans, saying he hopes they will be given to healthcare workers and “groups that most seriously need it.”


Jewish communities join relief effort in Texas

Kosher Palate, a kosher restaurant in Dallas, prepared thousands of free hot meals to serve to Orthodox families affected by power outages, February 17, 2021
Jewish communities help in Texas: Responding to the weather crisis in Texas this week, Jewish communities joined the effort to aid those without water, electricity, and heat. Dallas’s “health crisis management team,” consisting of rabbis and CEOs across denominations, has been able to get aid to seniors and others who have lost power. The Jewish Federation partnered with a local kosher restaurant, Kosher Palate, to provide thousands of meals to those in need. “This is what Federation was built for…to respond to crisis,” said the Dallas Federation’s president and CEO, Mariam Shpeen Feist. Other Jewish organizations, such as the Texas Chaverim, have been patrolling streets responding to road crises, such as dead batteries and flat tires. Texas has a Jewish population of approximately 170,000, mostly residing in and around Dallas and Houston.
Bibi and Biden speak: U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone on Wednesday, nearly a month after Biden entered office. Netanyahu was the first leader in the Middle East to get a call from Biden. Netanyahu’s office said the “warm and friendly” conversation lasted for nearly an hour. The period without communications had raised questions about what was behind the delay, though the White House insisted the two men had a strong relationship and that Biden was simply calling leaders in other regions before the Middle East. Netanyahu and Biden discussed continuing to promote peace agreements between Israel and states in the region, the Iranian threat, regional challenges, and the coronavirus pandemic. “It was a good conversation,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office shortly after the call ended, without elaborating.
Biden says ready for talks on nuke deal: The Biden administration announced Thursday that it is ready to reenter talks with European powers over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Though it is unclear whether Iran will be willing to restart discussions, U.S. officials have said they would accept an invitation to sit down with the original participants of the agreement: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The U.S. also announced that the Trump-era United Nations sanctions levied against Iran will be lifted. The U.S. also lifted travel restrictions placed on Iranian diplomats to the UN that limited the foreign envoys to their missions and the grounds of the UN in New York City. Iran has said it will only return to the table once all sanctions are lifted, but State Department officials have not stated further consolations. The Biden administration is already facing criticism from Republicans like Rep. Michael McCaul, the top GOP member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who accused the administration of “already making concessions in an apparent attempt to reenter the flawed Iran deal.”
Survivor credits jam family: Michael Perino shared a story about meeting an elderly Holocaust survivor in a grocery store, which was shared thousands of times. The survivor reportedly credited the founders of Bonne Maman, the jam company, with hiding her and her family in Paris during the Holocaust. Bonne Maman is not confirming the story from a viral social media post about its founders, nor are they taking any credit for the activity of its founders’ families during World War II. In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the jam company said, “The family prefers to maintain privacy and does not comment on inquiries about personal matters.” Perino told JTA that he didn’t fact check the woman before he shared her story. Bonne Maman was founded in 1971 by members of the Gervoson family, who lived in a town in southern France.
Auction house pauses sale of stolen Jewish document: A Jewish, Brooklyn auction house suspended the sale of a 19th-century document that the Jewish community of Romania says was stolen during the Holocaust. The Jewish Community of Cluj, Romania’s fourth-largest city which is about halfway between Bucharest and Budapest, says the document is a 19th-century ledger from its Jewish burial society. In a statement, the community, which is now comprised of about a couple hundred people out of the country’s total of around 3,500, wrote: “The handwritten register has great value as a historical document, covering over 50 years of the history of the Orthodox Jewish Community, right from the year of the founding of the Society in 1836, but it is also a valuable art object, due to its exceptional aesthetic presentation.” The World Jewish Restitution Organization also beseeched the auction house to cancel the sale. The house said: “in respect to recently acquired information, [the item] has been withdrawn from our Judaica auction scheduled for Thursday February 18th.” During World War II, Cluj, as part of Northern Transylvania, was occupied and annexed by Hungary. The Jewish community, which now constitutes 0.05% of the population, had been approximately 15% of the city before its devastation under the German-Hungarian occupation. 
Zach Banner hosts antisemitism panel: Wednesday evening, Pittsburgh Steelers player Zach Banner hosted a panel on fighting antisemitism with athletes Josh Bell and Alysha Clark, along with the rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and Director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Lauren Bairnsfather. In the days prior, a few Jewish advocates lobbied to remove one of the panelists, Jasiri X, a Pittsburgh-based rapper, because he called Israel an “apartheid” state in a 2014 interview and publicly supported antisemitic Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan. During the program, Jasiri X apologized for past actions without going into detail and thanked those who called him out for holding him accountable, saying he’s learning and wants to continue to learn how to best support the Jewish community. After the panel, Banner urged the NFL and Steelers to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.


British Jews lead the fight against Uighur genocide in China

Protesters demonstrating outside the cultural office of the Chinese Embassy in London
British Jews fight for Uighurs: The British Jewish community is mobilizing against genocide in a far corner of the world. The movement “Jews for Uighurs” has taken hold as liberal and Orthodox Jews, Jewish leadership and grassroots alike, have become the country’s foremost public advocates for the Muslim minority community in China. Even Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has spoken out forcefully, a great rarity in the Jewish world, against the forced concentration and cleansing of Uighurs. Mirvis even pushed the government for political responses to the crisis. Mia Hasenson-Gross, the head of British Jewry’s largest human rights organization, Rene Cassin charity, said: “I found myself thinking back about my own grandfather who left his family in Romania in the 1920s and soon thereafter never really knew what exactly happened to them during the Holocaust.” Some commonalities between the Holocaust and the Uighurs’ plight includes: “forced transport by train, forced trimming of beards, women being sterilized and the grim spectrum of concentration camps.” A prominent Orthodox rabbi said: “People in the rank and file of the community are talking about this issue.” 
Polish historian pictured giving Nazi salute: A historian that was recently appointed head of a local branch of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance was shown in Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza giving what looks like a Nazi salute in 2007. The appointment of the historian, Tomasz Greniuch, was already controversial owing to his history with a far-right group, but now further critics have joined in criticizing Greniuch’s appointment. A former advisor to Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki railed against Greniuch, saying, “Nobody will convince me that a person giving the Nazi salute is a patriot.” Poland, while not having the Nazi-glorifying history of some of its European neighbors, has recently come under fire for denying its complacency and collaboration with Nazis during the Holocaust.
Argentine Jews lambaste dead president: The Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations, Argentina’s umbrella Jewish organization, issued a searing criticism of the former Argentine president hours after his death. The Delegation accused former president Carlos Menem of covering up the investigations into the Israeli embassy bombing of 1992 in which 30 people were killed and the AMIA bombing of 1995 that left 86 people dead at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The Lebanese-based terrorist organization Hezbollah was almost certainly behind both attacks, and the AMIA bombing is the largest terror attack in Argentinian history. The group wrote: Menem “dies in freedom, despite the fact that his government used the institutions of the Argentine State to perpetuate impunity and cover up the responsibility of those who committed and were accomplices in the attacks.” In addition to the potential illegality concerning the terror investigations, Menem was found guilty of smuggling arms to Ecuador and Croatia while he served as president. He was never sent to prison due to parliamentary immunity. Menem died at age 90 and was still a sitting Argentinian senator. 
Russian-Israeli tennis player loses to Djokovic: After becoming the first debutant tennis player to ever make it to the Australian Open’s semifinals, Aslan Karatsev, a Russian-Israeli player, lost to world champion Novak Djokovic. Karatsev, who is ranked 114th, was defeated by the Serbian Djokovic who went on to enter the Grand Slam final for the 28th time. Although Karatsev plays under the Russian flag, he grew up in Israel and speaks Hebrew fluently. He ended up training for the sport back in Russia and Belarus.


Ben M. Freeman: Jewish lessons from LGBTQ+ Pride

Ben M. Freeman and his new book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People
For years, Ben M. Freeman has taught about the Holocaust all throughout the world, most recently in Hong Kong where he lives and teaches history at an international high school. Now, he is sharing his expertise and passion in his new book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People. In the book, Freeman draws on his own experiences in the LGBTQ+ community, imparting on the Jewish world the power in rejecting the shame of antisemitism imposed by the outside world.
 The book would not have been possible without his identity as an LGBTQ+ Jew, Freeman shared. “It was very much born from my own experience. I had to work incredibly hard to become not only comfortable with myself, but proud of myself.”
Shame is an internal weight with which Freeman believes the Jewish community has not come to terms, but that he had to process as a gay man. “I cannot explain to you how much shame I felt. I talk about suicide attempts in the book, I talk about self-harm. I decided when I was like 16 or 17 that I was going to kill myself at the age of 25. Because 25 is the last stage where I can reasonably not have a girlfriend without people asking about it—which is so arbitrary, it makes no sense. But I felt so much shame and, in the gay community, we understand the shame, the trauma. And Jews experience shame too and we have to start talking about it and processing it and giving it space.”

Freeman’s book will serve to fill gaps in Jewish education, which, in his opinion, has largely failed the Jewish diaspora. “There are almost nations of Jews who do not understand their own identity. I want to be respectful to those that came before us because they were doing what they thought was best. With that said, I think Jewish education has failed in certain ways, and I say that as an educator. We don’t teach about our history from a historical perspective. We teach our history from a religious perspective. It has failed to tell us that we are a people, that we are a nation, that we’re an ethnicity, which has always been a vital component of our identity. It only stopped being so because we were trying to drop it to circumvent antisemitism. We have an enormous responsibility and 4,000 – 5,000 years of peoplehood is in our hands, and how we respond and how we proceed will impact whether we have another 4,000 – 5,000 years.”
Read more here.


Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, 1968
Today we celebrate two sarcophagi re-discovered near Tel Aviv! Two 1,800-year-old Roman sarcophagi were re-discovered at a safari park in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The sarcophagi were first found 25 years ago during construction of a parking lot but placed aside and forgotten. They were then covered with sand and plant life only to be rediscovered this year. An expert from the Israel Antiquities Authority said: “They are two matching coffins. They are decorated identically with garlands and disks. We are talking about coffins from 200-300 CE from the Roman Period. They were probably made for a husband and wife.” 
On this day in 1964, Paul Simon, a Jewish musician, wrote the hit song “The Sound of Silence.” According to Art Garfunkel, the other half of Simon & Garfunkel who is also Jewish, the song was first developed in November of 1963, but Simon took three months to perfect the lyrics, which he claims were entirely written on February 19, 1964. Garfunkel once summed up the song’s meaning as “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.” Simon and Garfunkel met in elementary school in Queens, New York, in 1953, where they learned to harmonize together and began writing material. “The Sound of Silence” propelled the duo to stardom. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending January 1, 1966, was a top-ten hit in multiple countries worldwide, and was featured in the 1967 film “The Graduate.”

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