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Israel’s deputy foreign minister Roll woos US progressives, but his country’s policies get in the way

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Idan Roll’s mission as Israel’s deputy foreign minister is to repair the country’s relationship with progressives, especially in the United States.

His challenge is that he is bound by an Israeli political reality that has shifted to the right.

It’s a dilemma that he understands, and hopes to bridge.

“I want to try and promote this so-important relationship,” Roll said earlier this month of the US-Israel relationship, speaking at a reception on 16 November for national US media, Jewish media and Arab media. “First and foremost is to reach out and extend dialogue and hear different thoughts, and even be open to criticism.”

Israel’s young government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid, has made a priority of restoring relations with the American left. Roll — 37 years old, strikingly handsome, trim and poured into a bespoke wardrobe, fluent in English — is part of that charm offensive.

The problem is policy. Israel maintains many of the policies that stoked tensions with the left in the first place. Among them are advocacy for a tough US stance toward Iran, expanding settlements in the West Bank, maintaining Israel’s hold on all of Jerusalem, and nixing, for now, moves toward Palestinian statehood.

That contradiction was sharply illustrated when, returning from the United States, Roll cancelled scheduled meetings with Belgium’s left-leaning government because of a law it had just passed requiring goods manufactured in settlements to be labelled as such.

“The Belgian government’s decision to label products from Judea & Samaria strengthens extremists, does not help promote peace in the region, and shows Belgium as not contributing to regional stability,” Roll said on Twitter, using the biblical names for the West Bank preferred on the Israeli right.

Those were the kind of policy flash points Roll tried to avoid during his US tour, when he met with Democratic lawmakers and engaged them on LGBTQ+ issues. Still, he faced sharp questions in his meetings on policies on Iran and on the Palestinians.

Roll met with Republicans and centrist Democrats, but progressives were a key target. Democrats on the left have openly called to defund US defence assistance to Israel. The growth of a party wing that does not want to automatically fund Israel’s defence needs has set off alarm bells in Israel. Roll’s visit comes after progressives complained that the Biden administration was trying to push through extra money for Israel’s antimissile system, Iron Dome, without debate. Establishment Democrats gave in to the demand for debate and after a contentious session, most (but significantly not all) of the progressive caucus voted for the funding.

Bringing Jewish progressives into the conversation was a priority for Roll, who used the same term, “family”, that Lapid has embraced in Jewish outreach. Netanyahu essentially cut off Jewish progressives and made it clear that he saw Evangelical Christians as more reliable than Jews in supporting Israel.

“We are all part of one family. Families, they might have disagreements,” Roll said in the interview. “What family doesn’t? The main thing is that we can always sit together and discuss these disagreements and reach a conclusion. Sometimes we can’t but we want people to know that they are heard.”

Israeli government officials and pro-Israel groups often emphasise Israel’s liberal LGBTQ+ policies in their pitch to progressives, noting the repression queer people suffer elsewhere in the Middle East. Roll is no exception. In an interview, he noted that Israel recently become one of the first nations to allow openly gay men to give blood.

“I just went and donated a lot a few days ago and you know, it felt good,” he said.

Roll, a lawyer who emerged as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights before he entered politics, is nonetheless sensitive to the strides he feels Israel has yet to make. He is candid in describing his difficulties marrying in a country where the Orthodox rabbinate controls Jewish marriage and will not countenance same-sex marriage. He and his husband, Israeli pop star Harel Skaat, were married remotely by an officiant in Utah, an option that only emerged during the pandemic.

He also advocates for surrogate parenthood. He has two children through surrogacy, a boy and a girl born in Oklahoma, and speaks warmly about the Reform movement, which helped walk him through the surrogacy. (Israel for years extended surrogacy rights only to heterosexual couples and single women; its Supreme Court in July extended it to gay men.)

“The Reform movement was so, so kind and so welcoming. Doing surrogacy in a foreign country … is a journey,” he said.

But unlike other Israel defenders, Roll does not cast Israel’s gay-friendly environment as a be-all and end-all for progressives; instead, he cites it as an example of how Israel is moving in the right direction.

The government, he said in the interview, “is the most diverse coalition we’ve ever had”, noting the inclusion of an Arab party for the first time in a governing coalition. “Everyone and anyone in Israel can now see someone in this government who they can relate to.”  (Arab parties in the past have supported Israeli governments only from outside the coalition.)

“We just passed and allocated a record number of dollars, about $10 billion (more than R150 billion), for Arab society. It’s not going to mean everything, but it’s definitely going to do good work at catching up on this ongoing gap” between Jewish and Arab Israelis. He said that the budget also increased services for the LGBTQ+ community sixfold, and mentioned the prominent role Israel played at the recent conference on climate change in Glasgow.

Roll made the case that listening has its own rewards. “It’s about taking the time to come here and meet with people and create relationships first hand,” he said at his meeting with Washington media. “It’s a weird concept after COVID, but still there’s no substitute [for] sitting down with a person and learning what he or she are all about.”

 

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App ups the game for KDVP leaders

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Dannica De Aguiar, Amira Karstaedt, and Aerin Cohen leave King David High School Victory Park with a combined tally of 24 distinctions, but they also leave behind an app to help the school’s future matriculants.

Amira Karstaedt

Aerin Cohen

 

The app they created, called EVE, was introduced by the student representative council (SRC) last year.

“It serves as a platform for students to stay up to date with any important information, to express concerns, and share ideas,” says De Aguiar. “Ultimately, this app was developed by students for students, to meet their needs.”

As head girl, De Aguiar’s main role was to lead and support the SRC, while Karstaedt was its chief whip.

Cohen, the school’s deputy head girl, came up with the idea for the app when she noticed that students needed a platform to express their needs and have their voices heard.

“EVE was created to make the normal school day easier and happier, as well as to provide an easy way for students to communicate new ideas and concerns,” says Cohen. “We found a platform that allowed us to develop and distribute our own app.”

The student leaders, in turn, responded to the submissions from students on the app and took necessary action. EVE is also the place where students can access timetables, find out about the school’s upcoming events, and order from the tuck shop.

“EVE was constructed for the well-being of students,” says Cohen. “Therefore, in addition to a holiday countdown that boosts morale and motivation, EVE provides details of how students can reach out to [counselling service] Hatzolah Connect.

“This app has great potential for growth and I hope that one day, EVE will be developed professionally to serve many more schools and their students,” she says.

EVE is being further developed by Victory Park’s deputy head girl and boy and SRC of 2021/22.

During De Aguiar’s time as head girl, she represented the students and the ethos of the school as best as she could, and ensured the smooth running of numerous procedures.

Together with the SRC, she oversaw a variety of portfolios. “We had the opportunity to run initiatives, committees, and introduce [activities],” she says.

Karstaedt was involved in assisting various portfolios to execute their ideas, and ensured that each SRC member was heard and supported. She helped to organise the Fempower virtual event along with the rest of the school’s executive committee, which she describes as “a memorable and inspiring project”.

As mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, a prominent youth-led, non-profit organisation, Cohen was responsible for ensuring that fellow councillors had the support, guidance, and motivation they required to reach their goals.

“It was my role to encourage and organise to make sure that all councillors had the opportunity to learn together while serving the community around us,” she says.

Two Grade 11 students are elected to represent the school on the council each year. “I was honoured to be elected with my best friend, Paris Obel, who served as head of arts and culture,” says Cohen.

Deciding to run as mayor, Cohen went through multiple rounds of impromptu and prepared questions and speeches before the council voted her into the position. “I was up against some of the most brilliant minds and inspirational young people. I suppose I just really believed in myself and in my ability to turn passion into real, tangible change.”

De Aguiar considers receiving the Aileen Lipkin Sculpture for Good Fellowship her biggest success in her final school year.

“This award was voted for by my peers, and is awarded in recognition of commitment to the values of integrity, tolerance, and respect as well as commitment to the school,” she says. “This award is special to me because although good marks are something to be proud of, they don’t define you as a person.”

Karstaedt won the Israel Quiz in 2020, and achieved full colours in creative writing.

“My path to success in the 2020 Israel Quiz was gradual, requiring endurance and dedication,” she says. “But being able to expand and refine my knowledge of Israel’s history, culture, and geography during the three years I participated in the quiz was a rewarding and enjoyable experience.”

Her passion for creative writing has been a constant in her life, and was further consolidated when she became a member of the Writing Club in Grade 8.

“I especially love writing poetry,” she says, “and am thankful for the many opportunities that I received throughout high school to share my poems with others and listen to some of the exceptional pieces written by my peers.”

Karstaedt and De Aguiar put their good results down to hard work in a matric year in which they wrote mid-year exams at school during the third wave, and having early morning lessons and bi-weekly webinars.

“I worked hard to obtain the results that I expected of myself, and that motivation played a significant role in my approach to completing assignments, studying, and writing exams,” says Karstaedt.

“You need to focus in class, practice at home, and put in the hard work to prepare for your exams,” says De Aguiar.

She says 2022’s matrics should expect a tough year, but they should accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.

“In the end, you’ll be rewarded for all the effort. Most importantly, make sure you remember to have fun and enjoy the year.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar

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As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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