Israel on a knife edge before elections
The most common question I’ve been asked this week is why the Iron Dome missile defence system didn’t shoot down the rocket fired at central Israel on Monday.
The answer is that there was no Iron Dome system deployed there. Perhaps few people realise this, but there are only ten Iron Dome batteries in the country, meaning that not all of Israel’s airspace is protected. The system is hugely expensive, and each time a missile is fired – and usually two are – at an incoming rocket, it costs more than $50 000 (R723 411) per launch. (By comparison each Hamas rocket costs around $500 (R7,185) to $1 000 (R14,370) to produce). For all its impressiveness, Israel’s security is not totally fool proof.
At the time of writing, there’s an uneasiness in the country. Reserve soldiers have been called up, and tanks are in position along the Gaza border. For the first time since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a snap vote next month, questions are being asked if those elections will indeed take place.
It’s in Netanyahu’s interest that they do. Timing is everything in politics, and a war in Gaza two weeks before Israelis head to the polls won’t win him any votes. However, should the prime minister feel he has no choice but to respond harshly to what are clearly Palestinian provocations from Gaza, the country could find itself embroiled in a war rather than in the midst of parliamentary elections.
In this respect, the timing could not be worse for Netanyahu. Not only was he in the United States when the situation with Gaza flared up, but his meeting with American President Donald Trump was overshadowed by events back home. Instead of congratulating him over Trump’s public recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, most Israelis were preparing their bomb shelters.
Of course they were excited by the recognition, but practically-speaking, most Israelis realise it won’t make any difference on the ground. Already Britain, France, Russia, and China – the remaining five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, all of whom hold veto power – have said they will continue to consider the area “occupied territory” in line with international law.
Jerusalem could also be shooting herself in the foot further down the line.
Palestinians already dismiss Washington as a neutral broker, and it seems hard to imagine how this latest move will endear them further to the White House’s long-awaited peace plan, whenever it is released. As for Syria, there seems no incentive now for Damascus to create peace with Israel, although to be fair, the civil war has made that a distant priority.
Trump’s proclamation also opens up a can of worms. From the standpoint of international law, the capture of the Golan Heights is no different from that of the West Bank. This means that for Netanyahu’s right-wing support base, the logical next step is to demand the annexation of Judea and Samaria, and perhaps Gaza.
It’s worth pointing out that previous Israeli governments, from the left and right, have rejected this because of the large Palestinian populations in those areas. It also sets a precedent for recognising other territories like Russia’s recent takeover of Crimea, which the United States has said it will never recognise.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t think so. He insists that the Golan recognition is unique because in 1967, Israel was defending herself from external threats. It’s a murky argument.
The last time there was such a dramatic statement by Trump regarding Israel was when he recognised Jerusalem as the country’s capital, and subsequently moved his embassy there from Tel Aviv. But unlike the mass violence that accompanied that move ten months ago, this time there were no protests along the Israel-Syria border. Both Trump and Netanyahu knew there wouldn’t be.
About 22 000 Druze – an Arab minority who practice an offshoot of Islam – live on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Many have relatives living across the border on the Syrian side. Publicly these “Israeli Druze” consider themselves Syrian, and have rejected Israeli citizenship, but it’s believed (by most Israelis) that in private they’d rather be part of Israel instead of Syria. Be that as it may, they did not take to the streets in anger and neither did others in the international community aside from the to-be-expected condemnations.
Damascus called Trump’s proclamation a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty. There was direct and implied criticism from European and Middle Eastern countries, but nothing more. Syria is in disarray, and so the timing is most opportune for Trump to make such a statement and for the international community, unlike with the embassy move, to remain inactive over it.
The American president is clearly helping Netanyahu in his election fight, and the Israeli premier is making the most of it. Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that it was on his clock that the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem and, now, that Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights was recognised. Trump has even appeared alongside him in an election-campaign poster that has the two leaders shaking hands above the slogan “Netanyahu, in a different league.”
Earlier this month, Trump went so far as to boast that if he was to run in the Israeli elections, he would poll at 98%. He wasn’t far off. His popularity inside Israel has jumped from 56% two years ago to 69% today, and climbing. His friendship with Netanyahu is a major plus for the prime minister.
Still, Trump’s gestures of unconditional support for Israel are less about Israelis and Zionist Jews and more about American evangelicals who he hopes will help him win him re-election in 2020.
Jews make up only 2% to 3% of the American electorate. Evangelical Christians make up 25% of the US population.
Trump’s Republican Party is purposefully creating the impression that Jews are leaving the Democratic camp that they’ve traditionally supported for the Republicans. The term “Jexodus” has even been coined. But while this might be happening, it’s on a smaller scale than Washington would have us believe.
And yet, everything could change in the blink of an eye. Netanyahu’s fate come 9 April is still undecided. A war with Gaza or a rocket attack that kills Israelis (unlike the two this month that fortunately had no fatalities) could tip the scales.
Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities
The Shabbos Project is once again happening this weekend in more than 1 500 cities and 100 countries around the world.
Following last year’s pivot to home-based Shabbos experiences and Zoom challah bakes – necessitated by the pandemic – this year, the Shabbos Project is close to returning to pre-COVID-19 levels of involvement.
In South Africa, events centre on the Big Shabbos Walk, with shuls arranging a whole host of Shabbos afternoon programmes, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the weather, which also makes it safer from a COVID-19 point of view.
All across the world, things are back in full swing.
Among the new initiatives: a student from Cornell University in New York is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbos. International youth movement EnerJew is co-ordinating the “Gift Shabbos” campaign in which Jewish teenagers in 20 cities in the former Soviet Union will bake challah and deliver it along with greeting cards and candles to elder community members. And Olami France is co-ordinating a full Shabbos experience for students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, and for French-speaking students in Jerusalem, Madrid, and Porto.
The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is organising a challah bake for its community of Jewish pen pals of all ages living around the world. Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities, has launched an accessible Shabbos-themed digital platform to help children around the world learn about Shabbos in an engaging and exciting way.
And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, is hosting a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it’s active.
In Prague, Czech Republic, a community Shabbaton will include Shabbos dinner at a local kosher restaurant, a children’s prayer workshop, and a havdalah concert at the Lauder Jewish day school. Cali, Colombia has an all-week programme, including a flower workshop for women, cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a central Shabbaton for the community. And in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, four very different organisations – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – are joining forces for a special student challah bake.
In Israel, where the Shabbos Project has been a real unifying force in society, a group of women in Kochav Yair have organised a street kiddush for the entire yishuv for people of all levels of observance to get to know each other better. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbos dinners are happening at four central locations across the city. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbos gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion. And, the residents of Raanana will be providing hot, homemade Shabbos meals to Magen David Adom first responders. Finally, a group of Israel-based influencers on Instagram, from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of observance, are publishing a series of posts to bring awareness of the Shabbos Project to a younger audience.
Meanwhile, a woman in Park Potomac in the United States is going door to door in her neighbourhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbos. Organisers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbos meals to Jewish families in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbos experience are hosting Shabbos dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbours and have received a special Shabbos kit to assist them with the preparations.
Other highlights include a glow-in-the-dark challah bake in Toronto, Canada; Guatemala reopening its shul for special Shabbos services after a two-year hiatus; a Shabbos dinner run by and for university students in Nice, France; and a Shabbaton for high school learners in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online
(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.
“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.
The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.
So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.
“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”
The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.
Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.
The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.
Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.
Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.
The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.
The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.
While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.
The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.
It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”
In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.
Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.
Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.
“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.
“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”
Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders
(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.
But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.
“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.
The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.
“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.
They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.
“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”
Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.
Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.
When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.
Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.
“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.
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