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New Israel envoy shakes up US Jewish views

Read much more on the US Embassy move – will it or won’t it move? Apart from this piece, there are links to all other related JR Online offers. Readers can also follow a host of optional views – and comment on them too.

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Israel

RON KAMPEAS

Nearly six years ago, when US President Barack Obama was set to elevate one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community to the Israel ambassadorship, Dan Shapiro asked for – and got – the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organisation of America president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement – or, really, anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum – to extend that embrace to David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer who is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community and whom he nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman’s denigration of J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis; his calling Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic”, and his lament that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

The nomination of Friedman has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organised Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 per cent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton: One of marginalisation, not of outreach.

While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the US support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes moderation best builds a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’” – the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine – “what does that say about respect for civil discourse and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are less than a handful of ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland and, occasionally, Greece and Italy.

American Jewish leaders have long expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel.

“It’s more than diplomatic, it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements – the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding US and international policy.
Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups have already denounced Friedman, citing his online history thick with broadsides against liberals, many appearing on the pro-settlement Israeli news site, Israel National News, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat New York, a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organised community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews”.

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund launched a fundraising appeal on Monday based on what they called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA. It said Friedman “has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever”.

In an interview, Klein said he stood by his 2011 endorsement of Shapiro, who strove to reach out to right-wing Jews in the United States and hard-liners in Israel as a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council and then as ambassador.

“I said I found Shapiro to be a person of integrity,” Klein said. “That’s true of Dan and it’s true of David Friedman.”

Friedman was reported to have said earlier this month at an off-the-record segment of the annual Saban Forum colloquy of US and Israeli influencers that were he to become ambassador, he would not take meetings with J Street.

“He’s not there to represent the views of most Jews,” Klein said of Friedman, although he said he believed that Friedman’s support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem and for settlement expansion was representative of the Jewish community.

Klein said he would not use “kapos” to describe J Street, which opposes settlement expansion and advocates for an assertive US posture in bringing about a two-state solution, but he understood how Friedman might have done so out of “anguish and misery”.

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman, but expressed concerns about his statements and his rejection for the two-state solution.

In an interview, URJ President Rick Jacobs said that the Reform movement has relied on US administrations to represent to Israel, through their ambassadors, the broad range of American Jewish opinion.

An ambassador who represented only one segment of the Jewish community would diminish attachment to Israel among Jews already unsettled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, and by exclusion of non-Orthodox groups from civil matters like marriage and divorce, he said.

“Our larger project has been to keep people connected to Israel,” Jacobs said of the URJ. “We may be seeing a series of policy shifts” under Trump “that make it harder for non-Orthodox Jews to see Israel as a place they love.”

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a JTA request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League was also not forthcoming.

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what picking Friedman said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special US-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord – which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict – and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the AJC said.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said in reply to a JTA query that Friedman was representative of the minority of Jews (and a majority in his community) who voted for Trump.

“Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his Administration’s ambassador to Israel is consistent with the policy view Trump expressed during the campaign and consistent with the view of most of those American Jews who actually voted for Trump for president,” he said.

Burton, whose Boston JCRC called on Friedman to apologise for his past remarks, said that it was key for Jews who object to Friedman not to be drawn into the polarising invective that characterised Friedman’s writings in the past.

“We have to acknowledge that some members of our community are optimistic about the next administration,” he said, noting parts of Trump’s Israel message that should please most Jews, including his expressions of friendship to the country and his desire for peace. “We do ourselves a disservice collectively if we are in the black or white zone on everything.” (JTA)

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Israel

Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film

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(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.

While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.

Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.

Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.

“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”

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Bibi or not Bibi – is there even a question?

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“Citizens of Israel – thank you!” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew on Twitter shortly after Israeli polls closed on Tuesday night, 23 March.

A few hours later, a delighted crowd welcomed him at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. “Bibi, Bibi!” they shouted, filling a large hall with balloons, banners, and Likud COVID-19 masks.

But the excitement might be misplaced and premature at best.

As the hours ticked into Wednesday morning, the exit polls started changing their initial predictions. Only on Friday afternoon will the final tally be known.

What won’t alter is the fact that the prime minister’s Likud party won the most parliament seats by a large margin. President Reuven Rivlin will therefore task him first with forming a government. But then it gets tricky.

At the time of writing (at midday on Wednesday) exit polls predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc fell short of the 61 seats it needed to secure a majority coalition. The kingmaker could well be the prime minister’s former ally and defence minister, Naftali Bennett. His Yamina (Rightwards) party won at least seven seats, and although Bennett avoided explicitly declaring who he would support, it’s widely expected he’ll join Netanyahu. In return, he’ll exact a high price in terms of ministerial positions and other powerful appointments.

This would bring Netanyahu closer than ever to a narrow government that would include the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Exit polls showed the Religious Zionist Party, that includes far-right and homophobic elements with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist party, receiving enough votes to enter parliament.

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, warned that such a coalition could back Netanyahu’s attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles. “In this case, it will be imperative that elected leaders from across the political spectrum, civil society organisations, and all those who advocate on behalf of a vibrant Israeli democracy, make it emphatically clear that the results of this election don’t constitute a license to promote radical proposals aimed at eroding the legal system and curtailing the rule of law. The health and vitality of Israel’s democratic system could hang in the balance,” he said.

Meanwhile opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), said he, too, would try to build a coalition to “create a sane government for Israel”.

Speaking early on Wednesday morning, he declared, “At the moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does. We’ll wait for the final results but as it stands, there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes.”

The anti-Netanyahu bloc is far from a homogenous group, consisting of left, right, and centrist factions. They have fewer options in forming a coalition than Netanyahu. Should neither side succeed, it will be back to the polls for Israelis – the fifth election in two years.

Which in part explains why Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest since 2013. Voter fatigue and apathy are starting to sour even the most ardent supporters of Israeli democracy.

The lack of enthusiasm was most noticeable in the Arab community. Many residents confessed they had lost confidence in their representatives and the two main Arab blocs – the Joint List and the breakaway United Arab List (Ra’am), headed by Mansour Abbas – warned of a “disaster” due to the low turnout.

In the 2015 election, the Joint List became the third-largest party in parliament after it won 13 seats. In the 2020 election, it increased to 15, remaining the third-largest party until Yesh Atid split off from Blue and White to lead the opposition.

Earlier this year, Abbas quit the Joint List, indicating his willingness to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. And the prime minister welcomed him. Whereas in the past Netanyahu “incited” against the Arabs, this time around, he changed his strategy and appealed to Arab-Israelis to vote for him.

He paid rare visits earlier this year to Arab cities in the north of the country purportedly to encourage citizens to get coronavirus vaccinations, but many were suspicious that he was taking advantage of the rift within the alliance of Arab parties.

Netanyahu appeals to some Arab voters because they believe he can make things happen. He’s also promised to focus on the growing violence and crime in the Arab community, economic issues, and the recent normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Arab countries.

As in the previous three rounds, this election was largely seen as a referendum on the tenure of Netanyahu. Personality politics has so overtaken the race that there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.

The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Netanyahu used these elections to once again portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges.

But unlike the previous election held last March, he didn’t have the support of former American President Donald Trump smiling alongside him in campaign posters. Instead, Netanyahu made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, repeatedly stressing that he was personally responsible for Israel’s impressively fast rollout.

Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning another election, and his critics still accuse him of bungling the management of the pandemic for most of the past year. But most Israelis appreciate his efforts.

This was the first election held in the throes of the pandemic, and five thousand additional polling stations were set up to deal with the situation. Workers in hazmat suits collected ballots in hospital wards while buses were parked outside some polling stations to serve as remote ballot drops for coronavirus-positive or quarantined voters.

As things stand now, it’s unclear if four rounds of elections have resolved the longest political crisis in Israel’s history. The country remains as divided as it has been over the past two years.

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Israelis assists Eswatini with vaccine rollout

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The success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme may seem like a far-away reality, but it’s actually much closer to home – over the border in fact. An Israel-based non-governmental organisation is working feverishly to assist Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to build its COVID-19 response, including vaccine rollout, logistics, and public education.

The tiny landlocked nation has been hit hard by the pandemic, symbolised for many in the demise of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini four weeks after he contracted the virus. Now IsraAID, the largest humanitarian aid organisation in Israel, is helping it to pick up the pieces and turn its story around.

From earthquakes and hurricanes to epidemics and forced displacement, IsraAID has been at the forefront of responding to major humanitarian crises worldwide since 2001. It has worked in more than 50 countries and at any one time, has about 300 staff members worldwide.

A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in Eswatini on 8 March 2021 for a two-week visit. They were invited by the government, which has vaccines in the pipeline, and wants help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout. The mission is being funded by South Africa-based Nathan “Natie” Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.

The global chief executive of the Kirsh Foundation, Carly Maisel, told the SA Jewish Report that Eswatini’s COVID-19 case load and death count probably exceeded reported numbers. “The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. With just more than one million people, nearly 60% of whom live under the national poverty line, it would be easy for Eswatini to be left behind in the global vaccination race.”

Speaking from Eswatini, Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s development and communications manager, says, “We made it here on one of the first flights following Ben Gurion Airport’s reopening last Sunday. We arrived with experts who can give insight into the main aspects needed to implement a vaccination campaign of this kind: an operations expert; a psychosocial support expert; our medical sector lead and public health nurse; an epidemiologist and physician who specialises in vaccines; our head of global programmes; and a communications and public-outreach lead.

“Since the start of the pandemic, IsraAID has been working non-stop,” she says. “We have responded to COVID-19 in 17 countries worldwide. We aim to use the models we develop in Eswatini to inform further vaccination campaigns around the world, specifically in the global south, through a new Global Vaccine Access initiative. IsraAID has longstanding expertise in public health, emergency medical care, and mental health capacity building. We will utilise the know-how developed during Israel’s successful vaccination rollout to inform its planning in Eswatini, from here moving to other potential locations.

“This visit is an assessment mission to understand the capacity, assets, and needs on the ground, and identify how we can best support these aspects moving forward,” says Bernstein. “We’re working with the government to put together a plan.”

Because the country has been hit so hard, Bernstein says that a crucial component of its work will be to focus on mental health and resilience, particularly in regard to the country’s frontline health workers.

“In order to build an effective public health response, we have to think holistically and prioritise the needs of local communities. We are meeting many inspiring people here on the ground who want to work hard to help Eswatini push forward with vaccinations to decrease the day-to-day impact of the pandemic,” she says.

“The people of Eswatini, including community leaders, government officials, and everyone we’ve met, have been extremely warm and welcoming. They are excited about learning about the vaccination experience in Israel and working together as the rollout launches here in Eswatini.”

Maisel says that the Kirsh Foundation wanted to play a role because it believes that “successfully overcoming the pandemic will be possible only once there is equitable access and widespread adoption of vaccines across all nations”. The Kirsh family has responded to COVID-19 around the globe, particularly in Southern Africa, through food relief, unemployment support, medical equipment, and bridge-loan funding.

In addition, “Mr Kirsh’s roots are firmly in Eswatini, the place he calls home, and his legacy of philanthropy there is extensive,” Maisel says. “Eswatini is the country where he founded his entry into business and where he raised his family. It will forever be an integral part of his identity. Watching the country ravaged by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for him and the Kirsh family.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kirsh Foundation has responded to short-term needs such as PPE [personal protective equipment] and food relief [in Eswatini],” says Maisel. “Additionally, the foundation has been examining how it can support the country over the long term, such as by sponsoring local oxygen capabilities.

“Now, we have partnered with IsraAID to help the nation and frontline health workers prepare for vaccine distribution and a potential third wave of the virus. Mr Kirsh speaks to the IsraAID team via video calls, and he has told them that they will have a universal effect on the country.”

IsraAID Chief Executive Yotam Polizer told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s ground breaking because there are few initiatives to support the global south during COVID-19, specifically with vaccination campaigns. It’s also ground breaking because it’s the first time that an Israeli organisation is using the expertise developed in Israel as part of its vaccination campaign, and is bringing this know-how to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.”

The Kirsh Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of IsraAID’s world-renowned global initiatives. “Bringing together the two countries central to Mr Kirsh’s philanthropic vision was a ‘no brainer’ in this case,” says Maisel.

“IsraAID has become synonymous with rapid response to humanitarian crises around the world. We know that it’s up to the daunting task of preparing for a national vaccine rollout, not just because of its proven ability to deliver on its mission, but because of the unique insights it will bring from the unparalleled success of Israel’s vaccination campaign.

“We hope IsraAID will be able to leverage its experience in Eswatini to roll out its global vaccine initiative throughout the rest of Africa, where many countries are in need of its logistical and medical insight,” she says.

Asked if the organisation would carry out a similar mission in South Africa, Polizer says, “Our goal at IsraAID is to support the most vulnerable, regardless of politics. We’ve worked in countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and we would be happy to support communities affected in South Africa in the future. We believe that through long-term humanitarian work, we can build bridges between people and countries. We would also love to discuss opportunities to partner with individuals and institutions in the South African Jewish community in the future. COVID-19 won’t be over for us, here [in Israel], until it is over for everyone, everywhere.”

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