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Mahmoud Abbas ready to ‘remove obstacles’ to relations with US

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(JTA) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was ready to “remove obstacles” to renewing ties with the United States, apparently signalling a willingness to stop the payments to the families of Palestinians who have killed Israelis and have proven to be a stumbling block.

Speaking on Sunday, 18 April, to J Street’s annual conference, Abbas also urged the participants of the liberal Middle East policy group’s forum to lobby congress “to repeal all laws that block the road toward enhancing Palestinian-US relations”. The current law designates the Palestine Liberation Organisation a terrorist group, and bans direct aid to the Palestinians as long as payments are made to the families of Palestinians jailed in Israel for any terrorism-related offense.

“On our part, we will remove all obstacles to achieve this goal,” Abbas said. “The continuity of these laws is frustrating and unconstructive.”

Abbas didn’t outline which “obstacles” he planned to remove, but his pledge, however vague, was a sign of Palestinian eagerness to re-engage with the US after years of virtually no relations under former President Donald Trump. Trump mostly ceased ties with and assistance to the Palestinians, in part because of the payments, but also because the Palestinians rejected his peace proposal, which recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and allowed Israel to eventually annex parts of the West Bank.

At a news conference on Monday, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami encouraged Abbas to reform the payment programme and make other changes, including ending anti-Israel incitement in official Palestinian media and textbooks, and holding long-delayed elections.

“I think the principle that the Palestinian Authority understands is that even many of those who have goodwill towards the cause of the Palestinian people are deeply disturbed by the shape of the current programme, and we’d like to see reform,” Ben-Ami said.

The Palestinians have long argued that Israel’s terrorism laws are too broad and are applied promiscuously. But they have privately acknowledged that payments to those who have killed civilians – as opposed to those convicted of lesser crimes, including membership of banned organisations – complicates their case.

President Joe Biden campaigned on restoring assistance and reopening diplomatic ties with the Palestinians. He has already restored nearly $300 million (R4.3 billion) in aid through United Nations relief agency UNRWA and other platforms.

In asking J Street to seek the rollback of US laws, Abbas named the 1987 law designating the PLO, an adjunct of the Palestinian Authority, as a terrorist group. The law has complicated US-Palestinian relations for years – setting up a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington DC, for example, required a special waiver. Abbas suggested that the basis for the law was moot, noting that the PLO had recognised Israel and entered into agreements with it.

The J Street conference, held virtually this year, was a celebration of the group’s renewed influence now that Democrats hold the White House and lead both chambers of congress. There were greetings from an array of Democrats, including moderates like Representatives Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, and party leaders Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American ambassador to the UN, spoke on Monday evening.

Also speaking were Israeli leaders who oppose the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Netanyahu following Netanyahu’s original tenure in the 1990s.

J Street, once an organisation that sought bipartisan reach and managed to attract a handful of Republicans to its conferences, now makes no pretence of being anything other than in the Democratic camp. Speaker after speaker at the conference extolled the ouster of Trump and Democratic wins in congress. The Jewish Democratic Council of America, a partisan group, hosted a session on political strategy.

One of the many topics tackled at the conference was an exploration of a Palestinian-Israeli confederation as a means of preserving the two-state solution. Also on the agenda was advocacy for restrictions on how Israel spends US assistance. Last week, J Street endorsed a bill that would ban Israel from using US funds on jailing Palestinian minors, destroying Palestinian buildings, and annexing Palestinian land. For a group that calls itself pro-Israel, it was a notable break from the pro-Israel orthodoxy that American financial assistance to Israel is sacrosanct.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, who spoke on Monday afternoon, said “it would be irresponsible not to consider all of the tools we have at our disposal” to influence Israel, including military assistance. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who spoke that night, delivered a similar message. During their unsuccessful presidential bids last year, both Sanders and Warren said aid to Israel should no longer be untouchable.

Unusually, Warren also weighed in on coalition negotiations in Israel, advising parties not to endorse Netanyahu for another term. Warren likened the situation facing the party leaders to Americans who in November united to remove Trump from office. Israel’s elected leaders should do the same, she said, and give the Israeli people a new prime minister.

“Will they continue to fight among themselves and, in the process, prop up a corrupt leader who puts his own interests ahead of those of his country?” she asked, referring to Netanyahu’s current trial on corruption charges. “Or will they join together to begin the difficult task of rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law?”

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Shabbos Project

Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities

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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.

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Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online

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(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.”

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Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders

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(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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