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Jokes aside, rockets fired at Tel Aviv are no laughing matter

One of the ways in which people best cope with stress is humour. So, when two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv last week – one landing in an unpopulated area and the other reportedly disintegrated mid-air – the jokes soon started circulating online.

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PAULA SLIER

The city is congested, and Israelis wondered out loud how it was possible that although they could never find a parking spot, Hamas had been able to locate an open area for one of its rockets to land?

Others jokingly appealed to the media to stop reporting that a second missile had exploded in a field, because in no time building contractors would be all over the site.

The municipality of Sderot, an Israeli city less than a mile from Gaza that is constantly under rocket fire, mocked Tel Aviv residents on its official Facebook page. “A little bit of noise and they go crazy,” it wrote, offering Tel Aviv residents the chance to visit shelters in Sderot for “a VIP experience”.

This much is true. The sometimes daily rockets that rain down on Sderot are seldom met with the same kind of heavy-handed retaliation and urgent attention that greeted the ones reaching Tel Aviv last week.

But the biggest joke of all is that as the projectiles were being launched, Hamas’ political leadership was meeting with an Egyptian security delegation to discuss a possible long-term truce with Israel. Sadly, this was not a joke but reality.

Naturally, the Egyptians were furious and soon left the strip, even though Hamas insisted it had not activated the missiles. This, despite the fact that they were fired from a Hamas installation.

Still, it’s unlikely that another militant group in Gaza could have fired them. After Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad is the second largest movement in the coastal enclave, and its leaders vehemently denied responsibility. There are smaller Gaza factions inspired by the Islamic State who also sometimes fire rockets at Israel, but it seems doubtful that they possess projectiles capable of reaching as far as Tel Aviv. Regardless, Israel has always maintained it holds Hamas responsible for what goes on in Gaza.

So, was Hamas’ denial a lie? It does seem ludicrous for the group to suggest that the fired missiles were a mistake. How does one explain that? Could someone just have happened to be leaning against a projectile and triggered it? Or, as some Palestinian sources allege, a new recruit who had not been properly trained accidentally launched them? Could the group’s political wing have no control over its military one? It all seems laughable.

As if that’s not odd enough, on Friday morning the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) supported Hamas’ claim that the rockets were fired in error, raising more than a few eyebrows.

Significantly, the army made this statement after having already attacked more than 100 Hamas targets across Gaza overnight in retaliation. The IDF admitted they had been caught off guard by the initial incident. Although the rockets caused no damage or injuries, it was the first time the city of Tel Aviv had been targeted since the last war between Israel and Hamas in 2014.

The sudden flare-up comes at a sensitive time for both sides. And it is this, more than anything, that might offer insight into the official reactions.

Israeli elections are less than a month away, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is locked in a tight fight for re-election. The last thing he can afford is criticism that he is soft against Hamas, which is why he was quick to convene a security meeting and declare that he viewed the incident with the “utmost gravity”. He ordered the military to respond.

Having said that, it’s the old dilemma for the premier. He doesn’t want to enter Gaza – and certainly not now – but he doesn’t want his political opponents using the incident against him either.

As bizarre as it sounds, the army is sticking to its guns. It insists the attack was a mistake, and this in turn serves Netanyahu well. As it does Hamas. Knowing Israel would retaliate after the Tel Aviv-bound rockets, it ordered all its men to abandon their bases and offices immediately.

Aside from nine more rockets it subsequently fired into Israel – they received little attention because they fell near southern Israeli border communities and no one was injured – Hamas did not initiate a major reaction to the Israeli strikes, and hence staved off an escalation in tensions.

The Hamas Interior Ministry went so far as to say the initial rockets were “against the national consensus” and promised to take action against the perpetrators. Just as significantly, for the first time in almost a year, it cancelled weekly Friday demonstrations near the Israeli border.

All of this happened as the group faced rare public criticism from Gaza residents, who hold it responsible for their worsening economy and harsh living conditions. In a rare public show of dissent, demonstrators took to the streets at several locations across the strip in the hours before the Tel Aviv rockets were launched.

Burning tires and blocking roads, the protests continued for three days and were met with brutal repression, including live fire from the Hamas security forces. If you missed seeing the pictures, it’s because Hamas forbade video from being taken. Seventeen Palestinian reporters were arrested, several of whom were badly beaten.

Hamas clearly understands that the protests are a warning sign that its days could be numbered. Is it not plausible then, as many observers are suggesting, that it used the rockets – even though it denies this – to detract attention away from growing internal dissent?

Hamas knows Gaza residents have little desire for another war with Israel, so initiating one won’t help its popularity. But firing rockets at Israel might. As could the shooting of three Israelis in the West Bank last Sunday, two of whom, at the time of writing, had died. The third is in a critical condition. Hamas praised the murders and handed out sweets in celebration.

Ironically, at any other time, such discontent towards Hamas among Gazans would be good news for Israel and Netanyahu. But not on election eve. The last thing the prime minister needs now is a war on his southern border – something that, for a few hours last Thursday, looked very likely.

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World news in brief

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Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism

The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.

“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”

His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.

Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.

Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians

Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.

A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.

Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.

Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.

Leifer finally extradited to Australia

Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions

A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.

The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

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Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public

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(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

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Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever

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(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.

Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.

Many employed Jewish humour along the way.

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.

The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”

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