Most U.S. states continue to slowly make progress in declining numbers of infections and deaths from coronavirus, though some states such as Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina continue to get worse. Communities all across the U.S. and Europe, including Jewish groups, are grappling with when and how to temper social distancing restrictions. Many have come to the same conclusion: that it is better to be cautious and keep restrictions in place for the near- to long-term, rather than risk adverse health consequences.
The C.D.C. is projecting a staggering total death toll from the pandemic of 100,000 American citizens by June 1. The number of deaths in America due to coronavirus in March and April were only surpassed by heart disease and cancer, preliminary counts state. Though the U.S. accounts for a high percentage of the total worldwide COVID-19 deaths, Belgium actually has the highest per capita death rate, which they attribute to their accounting methods and commitment to accuracy. Belgium includes “possible cases” in their total count, which have not been confirmed by tests. According to a new study conducted by Tel Aviv University, 70% of Israel’s coronavirus cases originated from the U.S. and 30% are imported from Europe and elsewhere.
There is encouraging news that the vaccine made by U.S. biotech company Moderna appears to be safe and able to stimulate immune response against the virus. The Moderna vaccine was the first to be tested in humans, and it was conducted on 8 healthy volunteers. Only a larger and longer study can determine effectiveness and safety, but the findings show promise.
New U.S. stimulus bill: dead on arrival: The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill, which is not expected to pass the Senate, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assessment that the bill would be “dead on arrival.” Republican senators said they won’t take up any new stimulus measures until June.
New York City: The New York Times reported that hundreds of thousands of Manhattanites left the city as the pandemic hit, with the richest residents leaving in much higher numbers. Roughly 420,000 people, or 5% of the city’s total population, departed between March 1 and May 1; in the city’s wealthiest blocks, the population decreased by 40% or more. The N.Y.P.D. announced it will no longer arrest people for not wearing masks after a disturbing arrest video leaked online. New York’s blood supply is dangerously low, with enough to only last a few days. Mayor de Blasio and city officials are urging eligible members of the public to donate.
Synagogues weigh reopening: Like countries and states, Jewish communities across the world are also divided over when and how to return to something like normal. Communal prayer in the synagogue is the most obvious problem; the Orthodox community has left a lot of the decision-making up to individual synagogue leadership. The Chief Rabbi in the U.K. said that all houses of worship associated with the largest network of U.K. Orthodox communities will not reopen for “a long time.” One rabbi in Florida issued a strong condemnation of members of his shul engaging in a “rogue” communal prayer session.he rabbi spoke of his “disgust and revulsion” at the incident. As most schools and businesses in Israel have been allowed to reopen, there are increasing calls to allow houses of worship to do the same. Government officials met to discuss a possible reopening framework with certain strict protocols in place. At the start of the crisis, synagogues became early centers of the virus’ spread. There is also fear that some synagogues will not be able to pay their overhead and will ultimately not survive the financial burdens of the pandemic.
Israel progress and medication promise: The I.D.F. will soon start to test soldiers for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies with a new test developed by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Medical Corps. The hope is that this widespread antibody testing will give the military more clarity on exposure to the virus and will help to prevent future outbreaks of the disease. A Haifa based regenerative medicine company, Pluristem Therapeutics, has been treating the virus with biological therapeutic products that induce the immune system’s response. It reported that 75% of those treated were off mechanical ventilation within 28 days.
ISRAEL’S GOVERNMENT SWORN IN
Israel’s 35th Government: After more than a year of political deadlock with three back-to-back elections, Israel’s 35th government was sworn in on Sunday. This followed a vote of confidence by the Knesset, with 73 members in favor and 46 against. The unity government between the Likud and Blue & White parties is Israel’s largest government with 2 Prime Ministers, 35 ministers and 16 deputy ministers. Critics argue that the size of the government is “wasteful, inflated and greedy.”
Backup a little…Israel’s government is led by the Prime Minister who appoints a cabinet of ministers. Most ministers are typically also Members of the Knesset (Israel’s legislative branch), but only the Prime Minister is required to also be a Member of the Knesset (“MK”). The Prime Minister makes foreign and domestic policy decisions which are voted on by the cabinet. The cabinet’s composition must be approved by a vote of confidence in the Knesset.
Back to Ministerial Positions: Because so many ministerial positions were handed over to Blue & White, pursuant to the coalition agreement, there were fewer available for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. This caused anger within the party, with some Likud members threatening to protest the swearing-in. Netanyahu succeeded in appointing Likud Party ministers by creating new ministries entirely and cobbling together new portfolios from existing ministries. Blue & White also created some new posts. Netanyahu justified the large government by noting that the cost of this government is less than another election would be.
The swearing-in made history with the appointments of the first ever Ethiopian minister, Pnina Tamano Shata, and the first Haredi female minister, Omer Yankelevich. Additionally, this is the first government with two openly gay ministers, Itzik Shmuli and Amir Ohana, serving simultaneously.
Some high-ranking Likud members, such as Nir Barkat, former Mayor of Jerusalem, were left out of ministerial positions. Barkat was previously promised the position of finance minister, which was ultimately given to Israel Katz, Likud’s governing secretariat.
Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid leader and former Gantz-ally, is set to formally become the opposition leader. Lapid vowed to bring the opposition together to fight the new government. Lapid gave an impassioned speech in opposition of the new government at the swearing-in ceremony, stating: “After all the empty talk about an ’emergency government,’ they set up the biggest, most wasteful government in Israel’s history – 36 ministers, 16 deputy ministers. In Israel, there are currently fewer than 50 corona patients on ventilators. There are more ministers and deputy ministers than patients being ventilated. We could put a minister next to the bed of every corona patient.”
During the first cabinet meeting, Netanyahu announced that fighting the International Criminal Court (“I.C.C.”) investigation is a top priority of the new government, calling it a “strategic threat” to Israel. The I.C.C. is an intergovernmental organization that sits in the Hague, the Netherlands which prosecutes entities for international crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The I.C.C. is investigating Israel for alleged war crimes committed in Gaza and the West Bank.
There is global outrage surrounding the case due to what many believe are false, misleading, and politically motivated charges and the court’s inherent bias against Israel. A strong bipartisan group of lawmakers from both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo urging him to defend Israel against the charges. Pompeo released a statement that the case against Israel is an illegitimate prosecution, for which the U.S. will “exact consequences.” He also called the I.C.C. “a political body, not a judicial institution.”
Netanyahu announced his intention to bring annexation to a vote as soon as possible during his first cabinet meeting, claiming that Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which make up about 30% of the territory) and their residents would remain part of Israel in any peace deal. Proponents of the move argue that: (1) as indigenous people of the land, Israeli application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria is legal pursuant to international law; (2) Israel legally acquired territory in Judea and Samaria in a defensive war in 1967 after being attacked by Jordan, which itself had been illegally occupying the land for 20 years; and (3) the plan will extend sovereignty only to present Jewish settlements, rather than Arab cities or the vast majority of Arab residents.
Opponents argue that annexation will have serious security consequences for Israel, and could encourage radicalization on all sides and quash the hopes of a legitimate peace deal anytime soon. Even if the soon-to-be annexed portion of the West Bank were to ultimately be a part of Israel’s borders under a peace deal, the argument is that it should be part of a negotiated two-state solution, rather than a unilateral decision made by Israel.
The Israeli government’s ongoing discussion into whether to annex parts of the West Bank is causing friction with some of Israel’s closest geographic allies. Jordan in particular has much to lose from Israeli annexation of the West Bank, as the Jordanian relationship with its Palestinian citizens and refugees is oftentimes very fraught and fragile. An explosive, unilateral geopolitical move by Israel could inflame those stresses already stretched thin by coronavirus and the economic crisis.
Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, gave an interview in which he said that Israeli annexation could put the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994 in jeopardy, the oldest and perhaps most meaningful allyship between Israel and one of its neighbors. Israel is taking the warning very seriously and senior officials believe the statement to be a reflection of reality rather than a bluff. After the E.U.’s failed attempt at adopting an policy that would warn and possibly punish Israel if Israel goes ahead with annexation, a senior official within the European Union said E.U. states could resort to their own individual sanctions.
ISRAEL’S NEIGHBORS, NEAR AND NOT SO FAR
Iran & Proxies
In Iran, the holy Jewish site of Esther and Mordechai’s tomb was subject to an arson attack. The site, which is located in the city of Hamadan in the western part of the country, is the holiest location for Iranian Jews and a pilgrimage site for that community. Worldwide Jewish organizations denounced the antisemitic desecration, including the entire Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations which issued a statement of “outrage” at the attack. The U.S. Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism also released a statement of condemnation, pointing blame at the Iranian regime.
Iran also announced that its annual “Quds Day” lamenting the existence of Israel will transition to an online conference and a vehicular rally. Typically, the day is filled with chants of “Death to Israel” and the burning of the Israeli flag. The government announced that the chants and flag activities will continue, albeit in a socially distanced manner.
Iranian forces in Syria attacked
Iranian proxy forces stationed in eastern Syria were subject to a covert airstrike believed to have been conducted by Israel, in furtherance of Israel’s goal to push Iran out of Syria. The strike killed seven militants. This is possibly the second time this month that Israel has engaged in an airstrike in Syria, with the other one occurring on May 4. Israeli officials refuse to comment on the specifics of any attacks.
The Palestinian Authority’s police force arrested three Palestinians suspected of planning to conduct a terrorist attack against Israeli soldiers. The suspects were found in possession of illegal submachine guns and were apprehended near the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank.
The I.D.F. thwarted a terrorist attack by Palestinians in East Jerusalem on Friday evening. Three Palestinians were gearing up to throw a firebomb at the I.D.F. soldiers, who responded by opening fire. The three Palestinians were injured and are receiving medical treatment.
Memorial for pro-Nazis: The Simon Wiesenthal Center called on Bosnia’s authorities to ban a memorial for Croation pro-Nazis who were killed at the end of World War II, but to no avail; the memorial proceeded as planned. It has been held annually in southern Austria, but had to be moved to Sarajevo because of the social distancing restrictions due to coronavirus.
Antisemitic Holocaust comparisons: An Alaskan lawmaker is under fire for comparing the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust to the coronavirus social distancing restrictions. State Representative Ben Carpenter said, “Are the [health screening] stickers available as a yellow Star of David?” In a follow-up interview, Carpenter went on to say that “People want to say Hitler was a white supremacist. No. He was fearful of the Jewish nation.” One Jewish Alaskan lawmaker responded by saying that Carpenter’s comments were “disgusting.” Eventually, two days following his remarks, Carpenter apologized by saying that the “comparison was not intended to marginalize” the experience of Jews during the Holocaust.
A major Atlanta newspaper published a cartoon depicting a commercial airplane as a cattle car, which prompted the American Jewish Committee to call for an apology. The A.J.C. asserted “This cartoon is offensive and a slap in the face of survivors and all who lost family in the Holocaust…The Atlanta Journal Constitution owes its readers an immediate apology and explanation.”
Arrest in NYC: Two men were arrested in New York City for buying firearms with scratched-out serial numbers from an undercover agent, including a fully automatic machine gun. It was not clear if the men were planning an attack, but prosecutors pointed to disturbing social media posts in which one of the defendants praised Hitler and the machete attack last year on a Hanukkah celebration outside of New York City.
CELEBRATE & REMEMBER
Today we’re celebrating the effort to reinvigorate the ties between American Jewry and Israel. The Ruderman Family Foundation was already exploring ways to strengthen the relationship, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Now, Israel and American Jews are struggling, and their mutually beneficial relationship is more important than ever. In Israel, the project is being spearheaded by President Reuven Rivlin.
Today in 1943, the city of Berlin was declared “Judenrein” or free of Jews, after the Nazi regime systematically imprisoned, killed and tortured its Jewish population for 10 years. The imprisonment, torture and murder of the Jewish population continued for two more years until Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945.