Inside Israel: Israeli court allows non-Orthodox converts to claim citizenship; UAE presents ambassador to Israel; oil spill deemed ‘case of malice’; and potentially explosive airport scandal
Coronavirus: Passover rules in play as thousands break Purim restrictions; two stillborn fetuses infected with COVID-19; Israel to vaccinate Palestinian workers; and Austrian and Danish leaders to visit Israel
Iran Tensions: Israel blames Iran for cargo ship explosion; Iran rejects nuclear deal offer; and Israel—Gulf alliance against Iran
Antisemitism: BBC asks if Jews are ethnic minority; State Dept. official writes antisemitic posts; Colorado terrorist sentenced; Congressmen attend white supremacist event; Hitler shirts and stage design issues at CPAC; and Frontier Airlines antisemitism allegations
Inside the U.S.: Senators call on Blinken to take action over ICC Israel probe; Jewish wins at the Golden Globes; and American company releases sensitive photos of Israel
Celebrate & Remember: World’s first cardiac accessory implant surgery; and Czar Nicholas I of Russia’s reign of terror
Israeli court allows non-Orthodox converts to claim citizenship
Israel’s Supreme Court, Jerusalem
Israel must recognize Reform, Conservative conversions: Ruling on a petition filed by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in 2005, Israel’s Supreme Court said Monday that Israel must recognize Jewish conversions conducted in Israel under non-Orthodox denominations for individuals seeking to make Aliyah (immigrate) to Israel. The ruling was a lopsided 8 to 1. Previously, Israel was required to recognize non-Orthodox conversions made outside of Israel, but not within Israel itself. According to the Israel Religious Action Center, the rights group that led efforts to obtain the court ruling, the decision is mainly symbolic because typically only 30-40 foreigners convert to Reform or Conservative Judaism in Israel every year. But the ruling does chip away at some of the monopoly the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has over questions of religious identity. The court delayed the decision for years over its stated preference that the Knesset vote on legislation with respect to the issue instead. Praising the decision, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said: “Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Reform or Conservative.” However, the ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister said: “[the ruling is] a mortal blow to the Jewish character of the state.” Earlier this week, the Supreme Court also overturned a Knesset panel’s decision to bar a Labor Party candidate (and Arab woman) from running for Knesset over controversial comments against Israel and IDF soldiers she made on social media and in interviews for which she apologized.
UAE presents ambassador to Israel: The UAE presented its first ambassador to Israel after the countries normalized relations late last year. Ambassador Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khaja presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin before meeting with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. This is the first additional Arab ambassador in Israel since Jordan recognized Israel about 27 years ago. In a break of protocol, Khaja was allowed to circumvent the normal procedure of waiting to present his credentials to the President. Both Khaja and Rivlin made speeches before the press, something typically only reserved for foreign heads of state, not ambassadors. Khaja said: “We have a historic opportunity to present a model of warm, comprehensive peace.”
Oil spill: ‘case of malice’: Following the catastrophic oil spill on Israel’s coast in February, which has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Israeli history, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel briefed the press that the spill was “without doubt a case of malice.” Regardless of whether the spill was intentional or caused by a leak and later concealed, Gamliel says the ship “lacked compassion toward [marine] wildlife and nature and did not inform the authorities.” An investigation into exactly which ship is responsible for the disaster is underway; 35 ships have been investigated so far, with 12 cleared of any suspicions. Out of the 121 miles of Israeli coast, the spill has contaminated 100 miles, and even polluted beaches as far north as Lebanon.
Potentially explosive airport scandal: A possibly colossal scandal is brewing in Israel with a confluence of the two major issues roiling Israel: the coronavirus lockdown and the upcoming Knesset election. Three major figures running against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, and Yisrael Beiteynu leader Avigdor Liberman — say that Netanyahu is selectively reopening Israel’s borders to ultra-Orthodox Israelis to let in voters for him in the upcoming election. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of secular Israeli citizens are stranded abroad due to Netanyahu’s ongoing border shutdown which a watchdog organization called “unparalleled in the democratic world.” Nearly all leaders in the opposition are calling for investigations into Netanyahu and the selective reopenings, arguing that it could be considered election interference of the highest magnitude. The Attorney General, Avichai Mandelbilt, said that the shutdown is probably illegal given the ability to block voters from casting their ballots which must be done inside Israel according to the law. Some Netanyahu foes, like The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, also want an investigation of apparent contacts between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the Palestinian Authority to ask for its public support to sway Arab-Israeli voters. The MQG says the request is an effort to seek foreign interference in the election.
Passover rules in play as thousands break Purim restrictions
Source: @ohad_zwigenberg / Instagram, February 27, 2021
As feared, many ignore Purim restrictions: With the stability of Israel’s coronavirus decline teetering on the edge, Israeli health officials are holding their breath to see if last week’s Purim holiday causes another surge of cases. Police gave thousands of fines to partygoers, breaking up hundreds of parties on the first night of Purim. Parties illegally took place during the day as the government imposed a curfew to prevent public revelry in the evening. Transportation into Jerusalem, which celebrates Purim a day later than the rest of the world, was blocked out of fears of gatherings, but thousands of Israelis walked on foot into the city instead. In Tel Aviv, partiers gathered in outdoor settings, whereas ultra-Orthodox residents in Jerusalem gathered en masse indoors and without masks. Despite the very high rates of vaccination as compared to the rest of the world, Israel’s Health Minister is warning that an uptick in cases due to Purim might cause the government to introduce stricter measures around Passover, which begins later this month.
Two stillborn fetuses infected with COVID-19: In the second such case in Israel within a week, a fetus stillborn from a woman infected with the coronavirus was also found to be carrying the virus. In the most recent case, hospital staff said they were not certain that the virus led to the fetus’ death, but in the first such case, the hospital said there was a high probability that the fetus had died from COVID-19 complications. In describing the first case, Dr. Tal Brosh, head of the Infectious Disease Department at the Assuta Hospital in Ashdod, told the Ynet news site: “The fetus was infected through the placenta and with a very high degree of certainty, [we can say] died due to coronavirus.” The Health Ministry has advised pregnant women to get the coronavirus vaccine after a number of expecting women fell seriously ill, with several babies delivered prematurely via Caesarean section due to life-threatening risks to the mothers and the children.
Israel to vaccinate Palestinian workers: Israel agreed to begin vaccinating approximately 120,000 Palestinian workers who are employed in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Although Israel does not have an obligation to do so under the Oslo Accords, the Jewish state has come under fire from the Palestinians and international allies for not doing more to help vaccinate the Palestinians who are now entering another coronavirus lockdown in the West Bank. According to the Jerusalem Post, both Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli officials denied a report last week of a plan to open a vaccination complex on the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, in response to allegations that the PA was distributing vaccines in the West Bank “outside the framework of a clear and published plan,” Palestinian civil society organizations called for an inquiry into the PA’s distribution of the vaccines. Some Palestinians have accused the PA of only distributing the vaccines to those with connections to the PA government.
Austrian and Danish leaders to visit Israel: The Chancellor of Austria and the Prime Minister of Denmark will travel to Israel on Thursday to host a discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the success of Israel’s rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria wrote that the three leaders have been working closely together on issues related to the pandemic since last year and now “want to expand the cooperation.” Kurz, the world’s second youngest state leader, is very much ideologically aligned with Netanyahu as a hardline conservative, whereas the Danish PM, Mette Frederiksen, is a center-left social-democrat.
Israel blames Iran for cargo ship explosion; retaliates with airstrikes
Iran behind Israeli ship attack: After both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi indicated that Iran was behind an explosion on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman late last week, Israel reportedly bombed Iranian targets near Damascus, Syria late Sunday night. Israel declined to comment on the report about the airstrikes, but on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli public broadcaster Kan definitively that the cargo ship explosion “was indeed an act by Iran, that’s clear.” The cargo ship was sailing to Singapore from Saudi Arabia when the explosion occurred. It was then diverted to a port in Dubai to assess the damage. On Friday, Gantz said Israel was taking action “almost weekly” to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Iran rejects EU, U.S. offer: Iran rejected a European Union and American offer to hold direct nuclear talks in coming weeks, risking a new hike in tensions. On Sunday, a White House spokeswoman responded, “While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA [nuclear deal] commitments.” Iran is sticking to its position that it will not come back to the negotiating table without sanctions relief, which the Biden administration has so far ruled out. In addition to escalating its nuclear activities and limiting some monitoring of its activities in recent months, Iran said last week that if U.S. sanctions are not lifted within three months, it would erase surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities. At this week’s upcoming meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog’s board of governors, the European parties to the Iran deal will reportedly put forward a resolution condemning Iran’s suspension of some inspections.
Israel—Gulf alliance against Iran: According to an Israeli official, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have reportedly begun unofficial talks of an anti-Iran alliance in light of Iran’s recent threats to ramp up nuclear capabilities. The reports of cooperation came after the publication of an article by World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder in Arab News calling for a “NATO of the Middle East.” This indicates a deepening relationship between Israel and the Gulf countries, with which Israel signed the Abraham Accords last fall. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory of the Accords, but U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that Saudi peace with Israel is a goal of the new administration. Additionally, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on stage at CPAC last week that ‘many’ in Saudi Arabia want normalization with Israel.
BBC hosts non-Jewish panel asking whether Jews are an ethnic minority
BBC asks if Jews are ethnic minority: The BBC held a panel on Sunday in which a host asked four non-Jewish panelists if they agreed with a Jewish guest that Jews are an ethnic minority. The host, Jo Coburn, suggested that because “Jews have succeeded in reaching high political office” they “therefore don’t need to be seen as a group needing recognition in the same way as others.” A Jewish guest, Benjamin Cohen, replied: “We face antisemitism and racism very clearly […] Frankly, the notion of this debate is ridiculous.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote in response: “Jews, regardless of whether they are at all religious or not, are subjected to antisemitism every day […] Our community should expect solidarity and support, not questions about whether we deserve any.”
State Dept. official writes antisemitic posts: Since 2017, a State Department official has been publicly attacking Jews, calling for the establishment of Christian nation-states and promoting white nationalism. Fritz Berggren, a mid-ranking Foreign Service Officer, openly uses his name and image as he espouses these views online. Some of the things he wrote include: “Jewish ideas poison people;” “[Jews are] the original anti-Christ religion, they who are the seed of the Serpent.” A spokesperson for the State Department declined to say whether Berggren’s remarks had led to internal disciplinary measures of any kind.
Colorado terrorist sentenced: On Friday, a potential terrorist in Colorado was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison in connection with his plan to bomb a historic Colorado synagogue in 2019. The man pleaded guilty months ago to a federal hate crimes case stemming from his attempt to bomb the second-oldest synagogue in the state, Temple Emanuel in Pueblo, Colorado. U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore said the man had sought “to terrorize the Jewish community” of Pueblo, a city of 112,000 residents about 100 miles south of Denver. “It is one of the most vulgar […] evil crimes that can be committed against an entire group of people,” Moore said while imposing the sentence sought by prosecutors.
Congressmen attend white supremacist event: Congressman Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, spoke at a white nationalist event on Friday, a day before he too spoke at CPAC. Gosar defended his attendance at the white nationalist event, saying: “There is a group of young people […] why not listen to what they’ve got to say?” The conference’s organizer, Nick Fuentes, who marched in the 2017 Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, praised the January 6 insurrection. He said on stage: “white people are done being bullied.” Also featured at the event was former Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa who was stripped of his Congressional committee assignments over his support of white supremacy.
Hitler shirts and stage design issues at CPAC: Shirts with the image of President Joe Biden with a Hitler-style mustache above the words “Not My Dictator” were photographed on sale at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Florida. Online commentators also noticed that the stage at the CPAC convention was identical to the shape of Nazi symbol, prompting the hotel host, Hyatt, to condemn it, saying: “We take the concern raised about the prospect of symbols of hate being included in the stage design at CPAC 2021 very seriously as all such symbols are abhorrent and unequivocally counter to our values as a company.” Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union which runs CPAC, denied that the stage was intentionally shaped in the Nazi symbol and said on Twitter, “Stage design conspiracies are outrageous and slanderous.”
Frontier Airlines faces antisemitism allegations: Frontier Airlines is facing allegations of antisemitism after it kicked a Hasidic family off of a flight on Sunday. Frontier released a statement saying they removed the family after refusal to comply with masking procedure. The family claims that, aside from a 15-month-old baby, everyone in the family was wearing masks. A video recorded on the plane shows a family standing in the aisle all wearing masks, though it is unclear whether Frontier staff’s interaction with the family occurred before or after these filmed moments. One person from the plane reported that airline staff high-fived after removing the families and said, “a job well done to those Jews.” The New Jersey branch of the Anti-Defamation League called for “a full and transparent investigation” into what happened on the plane.
INSIDE THE U.S.
Senators call on Blinken to take action over ICC Israel probe
Senators urge Blinken to fight ICC: Two U.S. Senators, Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, and Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, are circulating a letter to their colleagues to demand strong action by Secretary of State Tony Blinken against the International Criminal Court’s probe of potential Israeli war crimes. The pair write that Blinken should “issue a more forceful condemnation of the Court’s actions […and] continue to defend Israel against discriminatory attacks in all international fora.” Like Israel says, the senators argue that “the Court’s recent actions regarding the ‘Situation in Palestine’ have inappropriately infused politics into the judicial process,” writing, “the ICC does not have legitimate territorial jurisdiction in this case.” They also said that the ICC’s decision to declare its jurisdiction over Israel “creates an exception for the Court to investigate Israel, even while it is unable or unwilling to address some of the most urgent human rights cases in the world today, including those in Iran, Syria, and China.” Cardin and Portman sent a similar letter last May to the Trump administration, calling for strong action against the ICC in anticipation of the ruling it ultimately issues. That led the Trump administration to sanction ICC officials, including its lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, a decision which was criticized by left-wing groups like J Street.
Jewish wins at the Golden Globes: Jewish entertainment won big at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, despite other featured Jewish shows and actors — particularly Unorthodox and its star, Shira Haas — getting overlooked. “Borat: Subsequent Movie Film,” helmed by and starring Sacha Baron Cohen, took the prize for best comedy film, while “Schitt’s Creek,” starring Dan and Eugene Levy, won best comedy television program. Other Jewish stars won the night, including Aaron Sorkin winning best screenplay for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Josh O’Connor, who has Jewish heritage, winning best actor for his portrayal of the Prince of Wales in The Crown. After she appeared at the Golden Globes as a presenter, Israeli superstar actress Gal Gadot announced that she and her husband are expecting their third child. Gadot is best known as DC Comics’s Wonder Woman and is reportedly Hollywood’s third highest paid actress.
American company releases sensitive photos of Israel: Last week, American company Planet Labs released several high-resolution photos of the secret nuclear facility in Dimona, Israel. The photos showed that classified construction was taking place at the site, perhaps its largest project in decades though it is unclear for what purpose. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. Planet Labs published more images over the weekend, this time of a military facility in the Beit Shemesh area. The site appears to be an Air Force base which stores several powerful missiles. It is unknown yet what purpose the photos serve or whether they will be part of a larger report on Israel’s military. Publication of these photos was made possible by a presidential order signed by former President Donald Trump that allowed American companies to take high-resolution satellite pictures of Israel. This was a change in policy from a 1997 U.S. regulation prohibiting U.S. authorities from granting a license for collecting or disseminating high resolution satellite imagery of Israel.
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Cardiac accessory implant operation being performed at Bellinson Medical Center (Source: Courtesy)
Today we celebrate another medical breakthrough in Israel! On Monday, Israeli surgeons at the Rabin Medical Center Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikvah performed the world’s first cardiac accessory implant surgery. The procedure usually involves implanting a cardiac device near the heart through open heart surgery, but surgeons innovatively placed the device under the patient’s skin instead. Throughout the procedure the patient remained fully conscious and mobile, and she required very little recovery and rehabilitation before being released from the hospital. This procedure marks a crucial advancement in cardiac healthcare technologies and could possibly serve as a springboard for similar treatments to complicated cardiac cases.
On this day in 1855, Czar Nicholas I of Russia died at age 58. Nicholas’ 30-year reign from 1825 to 1855 was horror for the empire’s approximately 2,400,000 million Jews. To crush the Jewish spirit, Nicholas introduced mandatory conscription to the Russian army for all Jewish men from age 18 for 25 years (until they turned 43). Prior to conscription, Jewish boys were required to attend schools for conscripts starting at age 12, before their bar mitzvahs. Nicholas also conducted mass forced population transfers of Jews in Russia, moving them from one end of the empire to the other by decree. Under his reign, Jewish literature (including the Talmud) was heavily censored and Jewish clothing was regulated. On the same day that he died, his son, Alexander II of Russia, a reformer, was crowned Czar.