Israel’s Neighbors: U.S. strikes Iranian presence in Syria; Netanyahu says Israel cannot rely on Iran agreement; and Syria to be elected to human rights post
Inside Europe: Construction near Lithuanian mass grave; Dutch ‘Jew cookies’ to be renamed; Dutch politician calls Nuremberg trials ‘illegitimate’; and Germany conducts raids on extremist group
Inside Israel: Israel manages colossal oil spill; Netanyahu calls Bahraini leader and Nancy Pelosi; opposition figures quarrel ahead of election; and Netanyahu’s lawyers play tricks
Coronavirus: Netanyahu’s plan to send vaccines abroad halted; and Abbas rejects vaccination site at Temple Mount
The Americas: NBC pulls antisemitic episode of Canadian television drama; U.S. set to reenter Human Rights Council; Kentucky to become first state to adopt IHRA; Holocaust survivor speaks on Clubhouse for 14 hours; and retailer removes antisemitic content
Celebrate & Remember: Recently discovered ancient Esther scroll; and remembering Levi Eshkol
U.S. strikes Iranian presence in Syria: In what is the first public military action undertaken by the Biden administration, the U.S. carried out an airstrike on a structure connected to an Iranian-backed militia in Syria, following three separate rocket attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. According to a defense official, the strike was intended to damage the Iranian militia group’s ability to conduct future attacks. The decision to strike in Syria (and not in Iraq) was reportedly to give Iraq’s government breathing room as they carry out their own investigation of the February 15th attack. On February 15th, rockets hit the U.S. military base housed at Erbil International Airport, which killed one non-American contractor and injured a number of American contractors and a U.S. service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later, hurting at least one contractor.
Netanyahu says Israel cannot rely on Iran agreement: In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told President Joe Biden that Israel cannot depend on any agreement made with Iran. Netanyahu said, “with or without an [Iranian nuclear] agreement, my obligation as the prime minister of Israel…is to prevent a recurrence of the terrible things that have been done to our people,” “There is a regime whose flagship goal is to destroy us. I will do everything I can, everything in my power, to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons.” He also rejected the premise that the existing deal, which Iran violated following the Trump withdrawal, would be better than no agreement at all. Netanyahu is making his case as Biden seeks to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran spearheaded by former President Barack Obama, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. In response to reports that the Biden administration now wants to push for a broader and longer-lasting deal, Israel’s national security adviser reportedly told his U.S. counterpart that Iran’s nuclear program should be dealt with separately and prioritized over any lesser threats, including Iran’s regional behavior.
Syria to be elected to human rights post: Syria is set to be elected to a senior post on a UN human rights forum: the “decolonization” committee charged with upholding human rights. Syria’s regime is believed to have committed widespread war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against civilians. The same day it was announced that Syria will be elected to the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, the UN released a report that said actions by the regime during the war likely constituted “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide.” Russia, an ally to Damascus, has blocked many international efforts to target the Syrian regime.
Digging reported in area of Lithuanian Holocaust mass grave
Construction in the area of a mass grave in Veliucionys, Lithuania, February 2021 (Source: Ruta Vanagaite)
Construction near Lithuanian mass grave: Ruta Vanagaite, a Holocaust scholar and author, filmed heavy machinery digging into the area of a mass grave of 1,159 Holocaust victims buried in Lithuania, where digging in mass graves is illegal. The mass grave is on privately owned land in the city of Veliucionys. Vanagaite notified the Lithuanian government in 2017 when the land was for sale. The government reassured her that the sale would be blocked and the government would take over the land, but they did not make good on the promise and the land has since been resold twice. The digging is not directly where the monument is erected, but Vanagaite told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “What’s certain is that 1,159 bodies could not have fit where they built the small monument. So there are likely human remains spread out over that land.” The Lithuanian government has not yet replied to inquiries on the construction.
Dutch ‘Jew cookies’ to be renamed: A Dutch teatime staple called “Jew cookies” is no more, at least from its oldest manufacturer, Davelaar. The company which makes the cookie called “jodenkoeken” in Dutch said it will change the name to “help create a more inclusive society.” It is unclear why the cookies first got their name, but they have been around since at least the 19th century. A leading Jewish advocate said: “I know it sounds strange to Americans, but there’s never been an issue around jodenkoeken.” The company is changing the Jew cookie name to “ode cookies,” but other companies continue to manufacture Jew cookies. It seems the Jewish community might even be a little sad to be losing the name. An expert on Jewish-Dutch cuisine said: “Everybody likes jodenkoek, in the Netherlands and beyond. So why would we Jews want to distance ourselves from such a tasty treat?”
Dutch politician calls Nuremberg trials ‘illegitimate’: On Monday, a right-wing politician in the Netherlands provoked outrage by claiming that the Nuremberg trials were “illegitimate” because, in his opinion, “you shouldn’t retroactively judge people.” Thierry Baudet, leader of the right-wing Forum for Democracy party, was replying to a question on whether he supports prosecuting the mayor of Amsterdam for perceived police brutality. Dutch Jewry’s watchdog on antisemitism said Baudet’s remark was “shocking.” The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held after World War II by the Allied forces under international law in which the political, military, judicial, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes, were prosecuted.
Germany conducts raids on extremist group: Some 850 German police conducted raids in Berlin yesterday on homes of people linked to an Islamic extremist organization known as Jama’atu Berlin, which follows the Islamic State terror group’s ideology. Jama’atu Berlin was banned by Interior Minister Andreas Geisel who said, “We will fight the roots of terror. We will tolerate no place where terror is preached, and the so-called Islamic State is glorified.” The organization also espouses an antisemitic ideology and, according to authorities, advocates for “armed jihad and terrorist attacks on civilians.”
Fallout continues from worst oil spill in Israel’s history
Israel manages colossal oil spill: Fallout continues from the worst oil spill in Israel’s history which has left its Mediterranean beaches strewn with thousands of tons of oil and tar. After a court partially lifted the gag order it had imposed on issues of the investigation surrounding the spill, media reports say that Israel suspects a Greek tanker to be responsible for the spill. The rupture was so large that it reached the southern shores of Lebanon. Without evidence, Lebanon’s Prime Minister blamed a “ship of the Israeli enemy” for the disaster. As Israel begins to dispose of the thousands of tons of waste, the country indefinitely banned the sale of all seafood from the Mediterranean Sea out of health concerns.
Netanyahu calls Bahraini leader and Pelosi: Prime Minister Netanyahu had two highly significant calls this week that follow last week’s conversation with President Biden. The first was a call shared between Netanyahu and the Bahraini crown prince to discuss Iran and the U.S.’s interest in returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, said the deal should “include broader issues” than what was decided in 2015. (The nuclear deal did not center Gulf or Israeli concerns.) It was only last fall that Bahrain and Israel officially established bilateral relations, quite the rapid friendship! On Wednesday, Netanyahu also spoke with perhaps the second most powerful person in Washington, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi wrote on Twitter that she “reaffirm[ed] the unbreakable bond between our nations and Congress’s unwavering support for a safe and secure Israel.” The call comes amid Israel’s world-leading vaccination effort and Congress’s upcoming passage of the $1.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
Opposition figures quarrel: A month out from Israel’s election, two leading candidates say they will not back Opposition Leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party for Prime Minister. Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, leaders of A New Hope and Yamina respectively, both said this week that although they would be willing to sit in a government with Lapid, they would not join a government led by him. Without their parties’ support, Lapid would not have enough seats to become prime minister. Nevertheless, both remain adamantly against a Lapid-led government. This means that the opposition would have to come up with a candidate for prime minister suitable to Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lapid, which will be hard to come by given that Lapid is on the ideological Left and the other two are on the Right. (Not to mention all three believe that they themselves should be prime minister.) The ultra-Orthodox parties, however, once again declared their loyalty to Netanyahu, backing him as the next prime minister. As Israel continues to bar more than a handful of citizens from reentering Israel each day out of fears of the coronavirus’ spread, Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt says that decision may be illegal given the resulting prevention of voters currently outside the country from casting their choice.
Netanyahu lawyers play tricks: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal lawyers intend to summon Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt to testify in Netanyahu’s corruption case. The lawyers allege that Mandelbilt illegally opened the investigations into Netanyahu, despite there being little to no evidence. On Monday, a three-judge panel dismissed a motion by the lawyers to throw out the cases against Netanyahu because of what they say was impropriety in how Mandelbilt launched the three investigations. The judges said that although Mandelbilt gave verbal approval to start the investigations instead of written approval as is required by law, that was only a procedural flaw, not a fundamental one.
Vaccine diplomacy canceled: Although Prime Minister Netanyahu said he intended to transfer 100,000 coronavirus doses abroad, there has been so much consternation in Israel over it that the program seems to have been suspended, if not canceled. Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz demanded that Netanyahu halt the transfers of vaccines to other countries, and even U.S. senators, like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, called on Israel to prioritize sending the vaccines to the Palestinian Authority rather than to faraway places. As part of the ‘vaccine diplomacy,’ some have already arrived in other countries, like Honduras (and maybe Mauritania, with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations). Israel may have sent some to Syria as well in a Russian deal made over this week’s release of the Israeli woman who accidentally crossed into Syria, but it is less clear.
Abbas rejects vaccination site at Temple Mount: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Jerusalem Islamic authority (Waqf) rejected requests by Israeli officials to open a coronavirus vaccination station in the Temple Mount area in order to vaccinate visiting Palestinian worshipers. The request came after publication of photos showing over 10,000 Muslims praying on the Temple Mount each Friday. PA President Abbas reportedly opposed Israel’s request because he claimed it would give Israelis a presence in the Al-Aqsa mosque area. After Israel’s initial request was refused, Israel offered that the vaccines be administered by Arab-Israeli paramedics only (and not by Jewish ones) and that they be dressed in clothes bearing no markings of Israeli medical establishments. That offer was also refused. The requests from Israel came as the West Bank enters its third wave of the coronavirus and the Palestinian health minister recommended another two-week lockdown for the territory. In Israel, the Knesset passed a law giving cities greater information about its unvaccinated residents, over the concern of members of Knesset who view the legislation as an invasion of privacy. And mayors all across Israel are urging the country to fully reopen schools, while the health minister remains opposed.
NBC pulls antisemitic episode of Canadian television drama
NBC’s “Nurses” causes outrage over antisemitism: NBC has pulled an episode of the Canadian television drama “Nurses” from its digital platforms after several Jewish organizations expressed outrage at an antisemitic scene. The scene shows an ultra-Orthodox hospital patient named “Israel” being offered a bone graft to heal his wounded leg. The patient’s father refuses, exclaiming: “A dead goyim leg?! From anyone? An Arab, a woman?” The patient insists God will save him rather than doctors, a misrepresentation and ignorant characterization of Jewish belief. Responding to the “Nurses” scene, the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted: “Orthodox Jews are targeted for violent hate crimes in the city of New York. Jews are [the] number one target of hate crimes in the U.S. This is no slip of the tongue. It was a vile, cheap attack masquerading as TV drama.” The network has reportedly spoken with several national Jewish groups in the past week. “Nurses” is a Canadian TV drama which was picked up by NBC last year. The episode aired in Canada a year ago and in the U.S. earlier this month.
U.S. set to reenter Human Rights Council: At a UN Human Rights Council meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced that the U.S. is seeking to rejoin the Council. Blinken said: “As the United State reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel.” Three years ago, former President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the HRC over its focus on Israel. At the time, the organization failed to meet an extensive list of reforms demanded by then-U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Israel has been the subject of the greatest number of critical council resolutions against any country by far. A permanent element of the council’s agenda is Item 7 (“The human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”) which since its adoption in 2007 has singled out Israel for perpetual censure, a measure that no other country faces at the UN body. Blinked told the HRC’s main annual session, which is being held virtually, that “the United States is placing democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate confirmed Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the country’s newest ambassador to the United Nations on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote.
Kentucky to become first state to adopt IHRA: Kentucky is set to become the first state to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. The measure, which was included in a state resolution to condemn antisemitism, passed the Kentucky State House on Wednesday and Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is expected to sign the measure on Friday. The measure is in response to a wave of antisemitic hate crimes across the state in the past year, including hate-filled flyers being left in various neighborhoods, vandalism at a Jewish center, a car attack, and threatening phone calls made to Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, who spearheaded the resolution. Litvin told Jewish News Syndicate that, “The fact that this is happening right around Purim is especially meaningful, as Purim tells the story of standing up to the genocide that Haman had planned for the Jews.”
Holocaust survivor speaks on Clubhouse for 14 hours: On Tuesday, San Francisco based philanthropist Adam Swig and musician Rami Matan Even-Esh (professionally known as “Kosha Dilz”) hosted a Clubhouse conversation with Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann that lasted nearly 14 hours. Over 10,000 people joined the conversation throughout the day, with a peak of more than 3,700 people at one time. Clubhouse, which launched in April 2020, is a new audio-only social networking application that has seen a meteoric rise during the pandemic. Steigmann shared his story and took questions throughout the day. He also helped to raise money for Swig’s organization Value Culture, whose mission is to produce and support artistic, educational, charitable, and spiritual events to inspire the next generation to give back to their communities. This was Steigmann’s second time on Clubhouse. His first appearance on the app, also hosted by Value Culture on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, lasted 16 hours. Jews have carved out their own spaces on the app, with several Jewish conversations occurring every night of the week.
Retailer removes antisemitic content: The largest online retailer in Latin America said it would remove antisemitic items from its site. The store, Mercado Libre, currently sells the books “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” as well as Nazi memorabilia and coins. On February 11, Mercado Libre signed an agreement with the World Jewish Congress to fight antisemitism on its platform. A representative said: “From our social role in the 18 countries of the region where we operate, we trust that we have taken another step towards the eradication of racial hatred and antisemitism.”
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Scroll of the Book of Esther, believed to have been penned in mid-15th century in the Iberian Peninsula (Source: National Library of Israel)
Today, on Purim, we celebrate a recently discovered ancient Esther scroll from the Iberian Peninsula. It is rare in that it is entirely intact and complete. The scroll [megillah], which contains the telling of the story of Purim, was dated to the 15th century, making it one of the oldest scrolls of its kind ever discovered. (The Book of Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.) It will be donated, alongside other objects, to the National Library of Israel. Yoel Finkelstein, a curator for the National Library of Israel, said the scroll is “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.” The scroll will also become available online leading up to this year’s Purim celebration, which begins Thursday evening in most Diaspora communities.
Today in 1969, Israel’s third Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, passed away. Eshkol was born in October 1895 in the Ukrainian village of Oratovo (near Kiev), where he had a traditional Jewish upbringing and education. At the age of 19, he moved to Israel (then- Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire), where he worked as an agricultural laborer and political activist. Eshkol was a founder of the Israeli Labor Party, and served in numerous senior roles, including Minister of Defense (1963–1967), Minister of Finance (1952–1963), and Prime Minister (1963 until his death from a heart attack in 1969). Shortly after taking office, he made several significant changes, among them the annulment of military rule over Israeli Arabs and a successful journey to the United States, being the first Israeli leader to be formally invited to the White House. He led the Israeli government during and after the Six-Day War, which was considered the high point of his premiership. He was the first Israeli Prime Minister to die in office.