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Did Donald Trump and the Jews have a good week?

50 min 13 sec ago

Ariel Kohane wears a Donald Trump yarmulke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 24, 2017. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Was this, at last, a good week for the Jews and President Donald Trump?

Compared to the Trump administration’s initial few weeks, maybe. The president’s first month saw the White House omit Jews from a statement commemorating the Holocaust, then rebuke Jewish groups that criticized the statement and stay silent as waves of hoax bomb threats hit Jewish community centers. Last week, Trump shut down a Jewish reporter asking a polite question on anti-Semitism. The day before, he began responding to a question on anti-Semitism by boasting about his election victory.

But starting with a specific if belated condemnation of Jew hatred on Tuesday, a number of statements and actions by Trump and his associates served to calm Jews who fear a growing specter of anti-Semitism on the right.

Days after angrily shutting down a Jewish journalist who asked about the administration’s plans to counter a spike in anti-Semitism, the president gave his critics what they had been seeking: a specific  condemnation of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop, and it has to stop,” he said Tuesday, the day after the fourth wave of JCC bomb threats in five weeks.

In prepared remarks he delivered that day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump said “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and our Jewish community centers are horrible, are painful and they are a reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

The next day, Vice President Mike Pence gave succor to Jews looking for more than words from the administration. Visiting a vandalized Jewish graveyard outside St. Louis, Pence rolled up his sleeves and spent a few minutes clearing away branches and raking the cemetery.

“There is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism,” Pence said, literally speaking through a megaphone.

But most concerns from Jews about anti-Semitism have been more about Trump’s supporters than the man himself — from tweeters spewing deluges of white supremacist hate to the (as of now) anonymous criminals phoning in bomb threats and knocking over headstones. Right after Election Day, the Anti-Defamation League blamed “the contentious tone from the 2016 election” and said “extremists and their online supporters” have been  “emboldened by the notion that their anti-Semitic and racists views are becoming mainstream.”

But there were signs this week that Trump’s anti-Semitic supporters haven’t infected the Republican Party mainstream. At CPAC, the premier annual confab for political conservatives, attendees raucously cheered Trump — a man they once distrusted — and also made moves to exclude anti-Semitism from their movement.

A Thursday session was dedicated to bashing the “alt-right,” a loose far-right movement that includes anti-Semites and white supremacists, and affirming that it wasn’t part of conservative ideology.

“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC. “They are anti-Semites. They are racists.”

Richard Spencer, a leading white supremacist who showed up at the conference uninvited, was kicked out of CPAC after holding court with reporters.

Jewish concerns haven’t been completely assuaged. At CPAC, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, a news website favored by the alt-right, denounced the “corporatist, globalist media,” using a phrase that evokes anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as an internationalist fifth column.

Jewish groups mostly praised the Trump condemnation of anti-Semitism, and especially Pence’s words and actions at the St. Louis cemetery. But nearly all urged the president to follow up with concrete plans for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. The ADL is circulating a petition imploring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take “immediate actions that will curb anti-Semitic threats and all hate crimes in our schools and communities.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested how that might be done, announcing on Thursday that the state is committing $25 million for safety and security upgrades at Jewish schools and other institutions at risk of hate crimes or attacks. In thanking Cuomo in a tweet, the ADL’s regional director, Evan Bernstein, called it an “ideal example of what an elected official can do: Speak out, have a plan & commit resources to problem.”

Now that the administration seems to have found its voice, the Jewish mainstream is looking for action.

Jewish prankster fools ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ judges with ‘crappy’ rapping rabbi act

1 hour 51 min ago

Simon Brodkin dressed up as a haredi Orthodox rabbi for an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent.” (Screenshot from YouTube)

(JTA) — As one of the United Kingdom’s best-known pranksters, Simon Brodkin is well versed in the art of infiltration.

Without subterfuge, he would never have gotten close enough to the former soccer boss Sepp Blatter to shower him with fake dollar bills as he did during a 2015 news conference to protest Blatter’s alleged corruption.

Nor would Brodkin, a London Jew who often performs as Lee Nelson, have been able to gain the access necessary to disrupt Kanye West’s concert that year in Glastonbury by jumping on stage with him.

And he certainly wouldn’t have been able to crawl under a Volkswagen car during an auto show presentation last year in Geneva while wearing a company uniform to install what he explained in German-accented English was a “cheat box” — a reference to the scandal around the firm’s use of doctored software to fake emission readings from some of its vehicles.

But Brodkin needed a whole new level of chicanery for his latest and most elaborate prank yet: Secretly filming himself nearly making it as a contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent” by pretending at auditions to be an orphaned, patriotic rabbi who liked to rap but wasn’t very good at it. His goal, as he described it: Prove once and for all that it is a “contrived,” shallow show that is not about talent at all.

Before reconnecting to his Jewish roots for the prank, Brodkin worked out a formula that he hoped would help him sail through the audition process even though he has neither interest in rapping nor any apparent talent for it. All he needed, Brodkin said, was a sob story, an unexpected act and a patriotic message.

If you have those, then “whatever rubbish you perform for the judges, they will tell you it was the most incredible performance they have ever seen,” he said in a documentary about the prank aired on a British television station earlier this month.

“Without that hype, the millions of viewers watching as home just might start to notice just how devoid of talent the acts actually are,” he added.

In January 2016, wearing a fake beard and side locks and presenting himself as Steven Goldblatt, Brodkin used a hollowed-out boom box to film himself advancing from interview to interview, and from audition to audition, with a half-baked routine comprising patriotic clichés.

Brodkin planned to blow his cover – and that of “Britain’s Got Talent” – during a live show, when producers couldn’t edit out his own unmasking upon receiving praise for what he calls his “crappy routine.”

But after reaping praises from the four-judge panel at the final audition in London, a production assistant finally recognized Brodkin, which kept him off the air.

The weeklong deception required Brodkin not only to channel his inner Orthodox Jew, but also to devote much more time and effort than he initially had allotted for the project, he said.

“This was more a long con thing, which I hadn’t attempted before, so rather than just in and out, which is normally the thing I do, I wanted to see whether I can get in, get undercover, and last for as long as possible,” he explained on the documentary shown on Channel 4.

Impersonating a member of the haredi community, which is hardly known for partaking in popular culture in Britain, allowed Brodkin to stand out among the other contestants, he explained.

“Us Jews are not particularly renowned for rapping,” he said.

Brodkin especially wanted to gain praise from Simon Cowell, the highly critical (and at times nasty) panelist best known to American audiences as the take-no-prisoners judge on the talent competition shows “American Idol,” “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent.”

Cowell “sets himself up as the man who cannot be duped,” Brodkin said. “I want him to look at me in the eye and tell me just how wonderful my terrible act is.”

Brodkin got his wish after he delivered his routine draped in the U.K. flag, which he filmed despite a warning that security will “break any camera” used by contestants.

His rap name-dropped William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill and included bland assertions like “British sky is gray, British countryside’s green, as for British skin color, there are thousands I’ve seen.” Continuing to play the diversity card, he also recited: “Tolerance and acceptance for Muslim, Sikh or Jew, I’m so proud, I’m so proud of the red, white and blue.”

The panelists ate up the elementary school-level performance, including Cowell.

“That was great, Steven, makes you feel proud to be British,” he said. “I feel it could be a new national anthem.”

Cowell said he “wouldn’t have imagined” that Brodkin’s alter ego would be able to deliver such a performance, but when the song started, “you turned into 50 Cent.”

Though he didn’t make it on the show, Brodkin still thinks he proved his point.

“I did get four yeses from the judges,” he said, “having put on a not-very-talented act.”

Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, ‘Queen of Carbon,’ dies at 86

3 hours 12 min ago

Mildred Dresselhaus receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 24, 2014. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, the daughter of impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants whose pioneering research into the thermal and electrical properties of carbon earned her the nickname “Queen of Carbon,” has died.

Dresselhaus, who also was an advocate for women in science fields, died Monday at 86.

Her research was foundational to the field called nanoscience, in which matter is manipulated at an atomic and molecular level. Her pioneering work earned her the $1 million Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2012, the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and IEEE Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Dresselhaus had gained wider fame in recent weeks with her starring role in a television commercial promoting General Electric’s efforts to promote women in science. The commercial, titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” imagines a world in which young girls dress up as Dresselhaus, glossy magazines feature her on their covers and gossip columns keep tabs on her comings and goings.

Abbi Jacobson, the Jewish actress who stars in “Broad City,” appears briefly in the ad as a Dresselhaus fan.

Dresselhaus, nee Mildred Spiewak, was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1930 and grew up in the Bronx.

“The Bronx, I remember, was a very poor neighborhood, but that was all that immigrants could afford at that time,” she recalled in a 2013 interview. “Life was tough. I grew up — my father didn’t have a job, but there weren’t too many people who did have jobs.”

The prestigious Bronx High School of Science was not open to girls in her day, so she attended the selective Hunter College High School in Manhattan. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Hunter College, where she took an elementary physics class with another daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rosalyn Yalow, a future Nobel laureate in medicine. Dresselhaus often said it was Yalow who pushed her to go down the path of science and physics at a time when educated women were expected to become secretaries, nurses or teachers.

Dresselhaus went on to earn a master’s degree from Radcliffe College and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Two years after her marriage to fellow physicist Gene Dresselhaus in 1958, both were offered faculty positions at MIT. In 1968 she became a professor at MIT, where her research led to advances in carbon-based materials used in solid-state electronics.

As early as the mid-1970s she became a public advocate for women in engineering and science, and mentored countless young women during her time at MIT. Later in her career, MIT named her institute professor emerita, its highest distinction, and she continued teaching and researching until shortly before she died.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said in 2013. “I’ve been at a place that’s a meritocracy. It doesn’t really matter that much what your gender is if you do the work well. I think women benefit from being in places and having positions where the quality of work is the criteria, not what you look like. Not every place is like that.”

Dresselhaus is survived by her husband, their four children and five grandchildren.

‘Punch a Zionist’ tweeter quits McGill student government

3 hours 12 min ago

The McGill University campus has been roiled for nearly three weeks over a student politician’s Twitter post. (Wikimedia Commons)

MONTREAL (JTA) — Igor Sadikov, the student politician who called on his Twitter followers to “punch a Zionist today,” stepped down as a director of McGill University’s student government one day after the university’s Arts Undergraduate Society voted against impeaching him.

The 22-year-old political science student blamed “interference” by the McGill administration, he said in a statement Thursday.

“My continued membership on the [Board of Directors] is, at this juncture, a legal liability for the Society,” he said in the statement.

Sadikov’s decision buoyed the spirits of pro-Israel students and Jewish organizations. The Twitter controversy continued to roil the campus for nearly three weeks, with the pro-Israel side saying Sadikov incited violence with his tweet while Sadikov characterized the controversy as a “misguided joke.”

Sadikov, who also is active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, has denied he is anti-Semitic, noting that his father is Jewish and his mother is half-Jewish.

“This is an important victory for Jewish and pro-Israel students and for tolerance in general at McGill,” said B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.

Sadikov remains a member of the Student Society legislative council, but faces a March 9 council motion to remove him for “impropriety and for violation of the Constitution.”

Sadikov’s four-word tweet was posted on Feb. 6 and taken down three days later.

Sadikov later posted on Facebook: “I regret the way that I phrased my opposition to Zionism and the fact that some of my constituents and fellow students felt harmed by it.”

How Purim is a call to leadership

4 hours 10 min ago


Queen Esther summoned the courage to appeal to her husband, King Ahaseurus, to foil a massacre of her fellow Jews. (Wikimedia Commons)

(JTA) — Purim is a dark story marked by a crazy party. I’m still unsure why a close brush with extermination became, in the Middle Ages, an opportunity for costumes and farce, but there you have it.

It’s the fifth century BCE, about a hundred years after the First Temple’s destruction. The Jews who were exiled to Babylon are now ruled by the Persian king Ahaseurus, who thinks highly of himself. In the city of Shushan, the king’s adviser, Haman, is a cruel Jew-hater. He hatches a plan to kill all the Jews and draws lots (“purim”) to pick the day it will happen, persuading Ahaseurus to go along.

A proclamation is made throughout the kingdom: On that day, all Jews shall be killed. A Jew named Mordechai entreats his cousin, the gorgeous Queen Esther, to prevent it by pleading for mercy with her husband the king.

Esther was married to Ahaseurus essentially against her will. He chose her out of a bevy of prospective wives at a banquet after banishing his then-wife, Vashti, who refused to display her beauty for his guests. (Some say she refused to dance naked.) Esther’s Jewish roots were kept secret when she married the king, so for her to now entreat her husband would mean exposing her Judaism — not to mention that in those days it was life threatening to approach the king without having been summoned.

Nevertheless, she plucks up the courage, successfully appeals to her husband and foils the massacre. The king kills Haman and his sons, and then, because the proclamation could not officially be canceled according to Persian law, the Jews can only defend themselves with a preemptive strike. Some say they took self-defense too far, slaughtering 75,000.

Purim’s modern observance, at least in Reform synagogues I’ve visited, does not focus on that brutal coda, highlighting instead the reenactment of cruel Haman and courageous Esther. The ritual is to read aloud the story from a scroll of parchment known as the megillah, which has the biblical book of Esther inscribed on it.

The narrative is then often theatricalized with wacky costumes in a play called a spiel — pronounced “shpeel.” Whenever Haman is mentioned during the satire, people “boo” vigorously or spin noisemakers, called groggers, to drown out his name.

Purim is, hands down, the biggest party of the Jewish year. Simchat Torah pales by comparison, with its sips of single malt. This is the Big Megillah (wordplay intended), and we’re supposed to get so trashed that we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai (good guy) and Haman (really bad).

I decide to sample some of the elaborate spiel-prep under way in New York City, so I spend an evening watching rehearsals at the Stephen Wise Synagogue on the Upper West Side of New York City, where congregant Norman Roth, 76, a retired accountant, has been writing and directing the shul’s spiel for the past three decades.

Some of his past triumphs line the stairway in colorful, theatrical show posters with titles like “Michael Jackson’s The Thriller Megiller,” “Les Mis — Les Me-gillah,” and “Oh What a Spiel — The Jersey Boys Megillah.” This year’s theme is Elvis. One of Roth’s lyrics riffs on “Blue Suede Shoes,” when the king tells Haman, “Don’t you step on my Shushan Jews.”

Roth takes great pride in his spiel scripts. And he points out that in his librettos, Haman never dies.

“We have very few men in the show, so we need Haman for the closing number. We never kill him off,” he says.

I ask Roth if it gives him pause to know he’s leaving out the real bloody end of the story — the 75,000 slain.

“I don’t think God really let that happen,” he says. “That’s human beings writing that story, not God.”

But it’s in the megillah, I point out.

“It’s not in my megillah,” Roth counters.

But my amusement is tempered when I remember I have to fast before this holiday.

It must be embroidered on a sampler somewhere: “Before Jews party, they should suffer.” The day before Purim is Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther. This will be my fourth fast of the year, with two more to go.

Taanit Esther is not in the Bible, but was created by the rabbis in the eighth century. The fast springs from the book of Esther — in the Bible’s “Writings” section — when Esther decides to prepare herself to confront her husband by fasting for a day.

One Esther expert is Erica Brown, a Washington, D.C.-based author and educator.

“The thing that I most admire about the Esther story,” she tells me over the phone, “is its notion of the tests that are thrown at an individual and the way in which they transform themselves as a result.”

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” (Lorin Klaris/Fig Tree Books)

Brown continues: “Esther’s cousin, Mordechai, says to her, essentially, ‘How do you know you weren’t put in this position of royalty for exactly this moment?’ I would throw in the Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ way of looking at this, of initially having the insecurity to say, ‘I’m not the right person. I can’t do this for any number of reasons.’ You opt out of your own future. And then you have someone like Mordechai who says, ‘No, this is your time. Take advantage. Leap into that.’”

I think about the challenges I’ve avoided; the moments I’ve chickened out. A few come to mind, both large and quotidian: causes I didn’t fight for (gun control), people I haven’t aided (domestic-abuse victims and Rwandan refugees), articles I didn’t pitch (a long list), physical feats I avoided (parasailing).

But this holiday forces me to reflect on leadership — what it means to be thrust forward when that wasn’t your plan. Seven months earlier, I was asked by the current president of New York’s Central Synagogue if I would be interested in being considered to succeed him.

The very request left me choked up. The job is not only a tremendous honor, it’s also daunting and important. I love Central in a way I never expected to love an institution. I’ve seen how clergy can deepen daily life, how a synagogue community can anchor a family. But if you had asked me back in college, when I was focused on being an actor or writer, if I thought I’d end up as a shul president, I’d have said, “In what universe?”

Now this invitation feels like a blessing and a test: Can you do your part to guide a place that has challenged and changed you? Obviously, being a board president isn’t comparable to Esther’s assignment. But Judaism is always asking us to apply epic stories to everyday decisions.

I say yes to Central’s president and yes to Esther’s fast, even though it’s another holiday that few around me observe.

“The joy of victory in her story is so much more colorful, rich and deep when you participate in the suffering,” Brown says. “The joy that I experience every Purim is heightened by the fact that I’ve fasted and I’ve tried to put myself in that moment of risk — leadership risk — that Esther took all those years ago because so much pivoted on that one individual.”

I love Brown’s term “leadership risk” because as I get older, I’ve come to see how those words are conjoined. Trying to lead is risky, but then so is not trying. Despite my mother’s feminist inculcation, I often worry that people will see audacity in my saying “I’m up to the task.” Esther reminds me to stop apologizing for myself and get on with it.

Then again, she was saving lives, which is a little more pressing.

(Adapted from Abigail Pogrebin’s “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” [Fig Tree Books], in which journalist Pogrebrin documents an immersive, highly personal exploration of the Jewish calendar.)

Israeli passenger removed from Colombia flight over bomb reference

5 hours 35 min ago

(JTA) — An Israeli passenger was removed from a domestic flight in Colombia after he reportedly joked about detonating a bomb due to a long delay, according to local media.

Yossef Bronfen, 49, was aboard a Latam Airlines flight at the El Dorado International Airport in Bogota earlier this week for seven hours awaiting departure when he apparently lost patience and spoke about bombing the Barranquilla-bound plane, according to some passengers sitting near him in the rear of the aircraft. They said he was joking.

But the Chilean-Brazilian airline was not amused.

“While boarding, a disruptive passenger threatened to detonate an explosive artifact after which all security protocols established by the company were activated,” the firm said in a statement.

Some passengers said they had been on and off the plane three times during the delay.

“They told us the airplane was having a technical failure and we had to wait another while when the Israeli, who was in the back of the airplane, shouted he was going to detonate a bomb. I think he was fed up with the delay,” Andres Fonseca, who witnessed the incident, told the local media.

After the removal, some passengers decided to abort the trip and the flight with 137 passengers continued on its way to Barranquilla. Local authorities said Bronfen was facing deportation to Israel.

Trump reiterates neutrality on two-state solution, but says he ‘likes’ it

7 hours 33 sec ago

President Donald Trump reading the first of three Executive Orders he will sign in the Oval Office, Jan. 23, 2017. (Ron Sachs/Pool/Getty Images)

(JTA) — President Donald Trump said he “likes” the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while reiterating his noncommittal approach.

Asked during an interview with Reuters Thursday whether he had backed away from the two-state concept during his Feb. 15 joint White House appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump said, “No, I like the two-state solution.”

But, he added, “I ultimately like what the both parties like.”

His position diverges with that of previous U.S. presidents, who said two states was the only viable solution for resolving the conflict.

According to Reuters, Trump “expressed his preference” for the two-state solution over the one-state one during the interview. But the article published by the news agency based on the interview contained no direct quotes by the president expressing such a preference.

During the meeting with Netanyahu, Trump told reporters, “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. I can live with either one.”

3rd Spanish municipality reverses own BDS vote following legal action

8 hours 39 min ago

(JTA) — The Spanish municipality of Petrer, which is known internationally for hosting mock battles celebrating crusaders, rescinded its support for boycotts against Israel following legal action against the city.

The City Council of Petrer, a city of 95,000 located 200 miles southeast of Madrid, voted Thursday to withdraw its support, which was given in a resolution from 2016, for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, or BDS, according to a statement by the pro-Israel ACOM group Friday.

ACOM has launched dozens of successful lawsuits in recent months against institutions that adhered to BDS principles, arguing their actions are discriminatory and infringing on the principle of equality as well as the jurisdiction of local authorities.

With this move, Petrer, which hosts the annual Christians and Moors recreation of 8th century battles between crusaders and Muslims, joined the nearby municipality of Santa Eulalia, which in December also distanced itself from its previous support for the BDS movement following ACOM’s initiation of legal action against that municipality on this issue.

Whereas Spanish courts, including constitutional tribunals, in recent months have scrapped approximately 10 BDS resolutions and suspended another three following lawsuits, only three municipalities have voluntarily reversed their support for BDS, ostensibly to avoid a negative ruling, ACOM wrote in a statement.

The attitude of the Spanish judiciary toward BDS is a recent development in a country where at least 50 municipalities have joined the boycott movement – the highest number in Europe.

Promoting BDS is illegal in France, where doing so is considered a form of incitement. Britain’s government said it was considering similar legislation. Spain has no laws specifically against boycotting other nations, as France does.

U.N. human rights office decries Israeli sentence of Hebron shooter as ‘excessively lenient’

9 hours 44 min ago

(JTA) — The United Nations’ human rights office said it is “deeply disturbed” by the 18-month prison term given to an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist after he had been subdued.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized the sentence for manslaughter as too lenient on Friday in Geneva, Reuters reported.

She called it “excessively lenient” and “unacceptable,” adding that: “This case risks undermining confidence in the justice system and reinforcing the culture of impunity.” Israel, the United States as well as the previous secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, have accused the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other forums at the United Nations of pursuing an anti-Israeli bias that singles out the Jewish state for criticism.

The soldier, Elor Azaria, was sentenced by a military tribunal Tuesday. He has remained in custody since March 2016.

The family of Abdul Fattah al-Sharif, the 21-year-old Palestinian who was fatally shot as he lay wounded following an attempted stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers in Hebron last March, called Azaria’s trial a “farce.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that he wants to see Azaria pardoned.

“I am still in favor of pardoning Private Azaria,” Netanyahu told reporters accompanying him on an official visit to Australia, Israel’s Channel 10 reported. Netanyahu had already spoken out in favor of such a pardon even before the sentence.

A number of other government ministers have also called for him to be pardoned.

A poll published on Wednesday by the Maariv daily found that 69 percent of Israelis support a pardon, with 56 percent saying the punishment was too severe.

Azaria maintained he shot the terrorist, who had not been frisked, for fear he might detonate an explosive vest. But the judges dismissed this claim as not credible.

Israeli tourist busted for climbing Brooklyn Bridge for a selfie

10 hours 6 min ago

(JTA) – Police in New York arrested an Israeli tourist who climbed the Brooklyn Bridge to take a selfie there.

The tourist was an 18-year-old man whom the New York Post identified as “Shivel Dikstein.”

Unlike Shoval, Shivel is not a common Israeli name.

He was arrested at 7 p.m. after he allegedly jumping a fence on the Brooklyn side, the report said.

“He jumped up to get a selfie with the skyline behind him,” the Post quoted a witness as saying.

The man was charged with criminal trespass.

The Israel’s arrest comes days after a group of youths nearly died while taking a selfie on thin ice on a pond in Central Park.

Deaths related attempts to take self portraits with smartphones are increasing worldwide.

In Iran, a man in his 40s was killed after he tried to take a selfie in front a dam as it burst during freak weather conditions in the southeastern city of Jirof, the Evening Standard of London reported earlier this week.

Kashmir, a  disputed territory between India and Pakistan, registered its first known selfie-related fatal incident this week. Fourteen-year-old Adnan Mehraj Mir of Khanyar died after he was hit by train near Nowgam Railway Station when he was taking a selfie on the railway track, police said.

In Dubai, a Russian model and popular user of the Instagram social network risked her life for a selfie last month illegally, prompting authorities to declare she may be permanently banned from re-entering that state.

Viki Odintcova, 23, dangled down from a top floor of the 1,000-foot tall Cayan Tower while holding on to a male assistant’s arm.

And in Argentina, a group of tourists last month dragged a dolphin calf out of the water in the city of San Bernardo south of Buenos Aires to pose for selfies with it, resulting in the animal’s death, Argentine newspaper La Capital reported.

Belgian anti-racism official defends Palestinian he helped convict for hate speech

10 hours 40 min ago

(JTA) — Jews from Belgium’s Flemish Region said they “lost all confidence” in the country’s  anti-racism authority over its lawyer’s defense of a Palestinian man whom the same lawyer helped convict for hate speech over calls to slaughter Jews.

The unusual rebuke Thursday by the Forum of Jewish Organization of Flanders came after the Jewish weekly Joods Actueel published a leaked email written by Johan Otte, a judicial expert of the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, or UNIA.

In it, Otte condemned the conviction on Tuesday for incitement to violence by a criminal tribunal in Antwerp of a man who in 2014 shouted anti-Semitic slogan during a protest rally in that city. The man was given a six-month suspended sentence. Two defendants who also stood trial alongside him were acquitted.

Otte’s rebuke, in which he called the sentence “distorted justice instead of true justice” is remarkable also because UNIA was one of two complainants who initiated the trial against the man the court convicted. The other party was the Flemish Jewish forum.

“The email clearly illustrates that UNIA’s sympathy lies with the perpetrator over his would-be victims,” the Jewish group wrote in their statement.

According to the Gazet van Antwerpen daily, the defendant, who is appealing his sentence, shouted about Khaybar – a place in modern-day Saudi Arabia where in the seventh century Muslims massacred and expelled Jews. According to Joods Actueel, the defendant also shouted about slaughtering Jews.

Joods Actueel editor-in-chief Michael Freilich said the case was the latest in a list of failures to confront anti-Semitism by the Belgian state authority for fighting racism. He added UNIA’s track record suggests “it is only paying lip service” to the fight against anti-Semitism when in reality it fails to act on this type of racism as vigorously as it confronts other forms of xenophobia.

UNIA’s press service did not reply to requests for comment by JTA and Joods Actueel.

On Friday, Liesbeth Homans, the minister in charge of equal opportuities within the government of te Flemish Region — one of three entities that make up the federal Belgian state — called for a review of UNIA’s activities in light of Joods Actueel’s report.

In 2011, a police superintendent, David Vroome, told Joods Actueel that an employee of UNIA’s predecessor said that Jews “think they can get away with everything because they have money, financial power but also because they keep triggering our guilt over the Holocaust.”

The organization that UNIA replaced defended the employee and accused the officer of a “dishonest account.”

Citing ‘bias,’ Israel denies visa to Human Rights Watch regional director

10 hours 54 min ago

(JTA) — Israel is refusing to issue a visa to an Americanemployee of Human Rights Watch over his group’s  alleged bias against the Jewish state, the Guardian daily reported.

The Israeli decision on one of the world’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations in its field emerged after Israeli authorities turned down a visa for its new Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, who is a U.S. citizen, The Guardian reported Friday. The rejection had been advised by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the report.

In a letter rejecting Shakir’s visa application seen by the Guardian, Israel accused the New York- based group of “public activities and reports [and being] engaged in politics in the service of Palestinian propaganda, while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights’.’’

Human Rights Watch denied this allegation and condemned the move as “ominous turn” adding it “should worry anyone concerned about Israel’s commitment to basic democratic values.” Human Rights Watch has “little relations with governments in North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Venezuela where there is zero appetite for human rights engagement,” Shakir said. “With this decision, Israel is joining the list.”

Israel, its advocates and some of its critics have repeatedly accused Human Rights Watch of pursuing an anti-Israel bias — a criticism which the organization’s founder, Robert L. Bernstein, joined in an unusual op-ed he published in 2009 in The New York Times. Bernstein reiterated his criticism the following year during a lecture at a Nebraska university.

In the letter, he said Human Rights Watch “casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies,” citing “far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law” by the group “than of any other country in the region.”

He wrote that Human Rights Watch “has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah,” ignoring their egregious violations. “Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism,” he added.

In September 2009, the group’s former senior military analyst, Marc Garlasco, was revealed to be a collector of Nazi memorabilia. He was suspended and then dismissed.

In 2011, Kathleen Peratis, co-chair of the Advisory Committee of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, visited Gaza and met with several Hamas officials.

Before joining Human rights Watch in 2016, Shakir was a legal fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization has filed war crimes lawsuits against former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former director of the Shin Bet security service Avi Dichter. He has praised initiatives to boycott Israel and has equated Zionism to Afrikaner nationalism, which begot apartheid.

‘Rebuilding’ efforts overshadow Jewish issues in DNC election

Thu, 2017-02-23 22:49

Keith Ellison, left, and Tom Perez lead the race to become the next head of the Democratic National Committee. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The race to lead the Democratic National Committee is nothing if not granular.

Among the leading candidates Tom Perez, the former labor secretary, says “every ZIP code counts.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, touts his “50 plus” states strategy. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., talks about a “3,143 county strategy.”

After the devastation of November – defeat in the White House and both chambers of Congress, and Republicans dominant in two-thirds of the state legislatures – buzzwords like “grass roots” and “door knocking” are proliferating ahead of Saturday’s election in Atlanta, when the 447 DNC electors meet and vote.

That puts one of the party’s most loyal constituencies, Jewish voters, in an odd position: At a time when two global issues critical to the relationship between the party and the Jewish community, Israel and anti-Semitism, are in crisis mode, the party is focusing on electing folks to school boards and reaching out to rural voters.

Those global issues – protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship, and cultivating the diversity that protects Jews and others from bias – have long driven the relationship between Democrats and the disproportionately engaged Jewish voters, activists and party donors that former DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi calls “super-citizens.”

“It’s very important for both parties to have a good relationship with a community of ‘super-citizens,’” said Mizrahi, who served as spokeswoman in the 1990s. (She now helms a disability advocacy group, RespectAbility.)

Mizrahi, who has called herself “post-partisan” since 2003, when she helped establish The Israel Project advocacy group, named major Jewish donors to both parties as critical to how the parties shape policy – casino magnate Sheldon Adelson for Republicans and entertainment mogul Haim Saban for Democrats.

If anything, the issues Mizrahi named as critical to the relationship – Israel and anti-Semitism — are felt more acutely by many Jewish Democrats than they have been in years.

After years of tensions between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Democrats are gingerly seeking a means to sustain the party’s pro-Israel posture while accommodating criticism of Netanyahu within the party.

And the spike in anti-Semitic threats and attacks, coupled with an uneven response by the Trump administration and President Donald Trump’s broadsides against other minorities, has Jewish Democrats seeking ways to bolster a culture of tolerance.

“The Jewish community, with its input on domestic issues and on American-Israeli relations, is critically important,” Barbara Goldberg Goldman, a longtime fundraiser for the party who backs Perez, said in an interview. “As a proud member of the Jewish community and someone who is committed to not just the survival but the thriving of Israel, I feel strongly that I want a DNC chair to understand all the intricacies of Israel.”

The leading candidates are sensitive to the disproportionate importance of the Jewish community to the party. They have not forgotten Jewish outreach, even while campaigning on the nuts and bolts that are preoccupying the state officials, state-level party officials and special interest representatives who make up the 447 electors.

No one is more acutely aware of the need to reassure the party’s Jewish base than Ellison, whose association decades ago with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement and his more recent departures from pro-Israel orthodoxy have haunted his campaign.

The issue has arisen repeatedly, with Saban saying in December that he believed Ellison to be an “anti-Semite.” (Ellison has said that he has since reached out to Saban, who underwrote the building of DNC headquarters in the early 2000s.)

RELATED: Keith Ellison anti-Semitism controversy, explained

Ellison, who apologized to the Minneapolis Jewish community for the Nation of Islam association prior to his election to Congress in 2006, has sought and received statements testifying to his closeness to the Jewish community.

He was armed with the testimonials on Wednesday night at a CNN debate for the eight DNC candidates and pivoted from the anti-Semitism question by moderator Chris Cuomo to implied criticism of the Trump administration.

“I have 300 rabbis and Jewish community leaders who have signed a letter supporting me,” Ellison said, referring to a letter from mostly liberal rabbis released in January. The Minnesota lawmaker also noted that he joined with HIAS, the lead Jewish immigration advocacy group, in New York City to protest the Trump administration’s ban on entry to refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“When I spoke at that, I invoked the memory of the St. Louis, where Jews fleeing the Third Reich were turned away in Cuba with the knowledge of our government and sent back,” said Ellison, who has taken a lead in educating fellow U.S. Muslims about the Holocaust.

“I just want to say, it is critical that we speak up against this anti-Semitism because right now, you have Jewish cemeteries being defaced and desecrated. Right now, you have Jewish institutions getting bomb threats,” he said, referring to the phoned-in threats leveled at Jewish community centers in recent weeks and Monday’s cemetery desecration near St. Louis. “We have to stand with the Jewish community right here, right now, foursquare, and that’s what the Democratic Party is all about.”

Backing Ellison’s candidacy are a Jewish odd couple: Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is emblematic of the party’s establishment, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a symbol of the anti-establishment insurgency.

Fundraiser Barbara Goldberg Goldman and Susan Turnbull, a longtime Jewish community activist who backs Buttigieg, in interviews said they rejected insinuations that Ellison is anti-Semitic, but worried that his baggage could weigh down the party.

Indeed, Republican consultant Karl Rove effectively endorsed Ellison in December, writing that by selecting “a left-winger’s left-winger,” the DNC would be “handing an early assist to the GOP” for the 2018 midterms. Ellison has also earned the unwanted endorsement of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who also backed Trump.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and an Ellison backer, said in an interview that Democrats should not fear “trolls” who say he is a gift to the GOP.

“As Jews we know the difference between that kind of demagoguery and that kind of swift-boating and that kin of marginalization of people. We should not apply it to others, we know better,” Weingarten said.

Perez, until January the Obama administration’s labor secretary, spoke for 45 minutes on a conference call in December with Jewish community leaders. The call featured as endorsers figures such as Ann Lewis, a communications strategist, and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. — two key Jewish surrogates for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

On the call, Perez spoke about his impressions of Israel during a recent visit.

“It was impossible to walk around during the visit and not appreciate the strategic importance not only of the Golan Heights but of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” he said at the time.

Perez also noted his past close association with the Anti-Defamation League in combating hate crimes when he was a senior Justice Department official.

Buttigieg, 35, an Afghanistan war veteran, has the backing of Turnbull, the vice chairwoman of the DNC in the late 2000s. She has led an array of Jewish groups, most recently chairing the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public policy umbrella.

But if it was notable how quickly Ellison’s past came up in the CNN debate, it was also notable that it did not come up again – nor did any other major foreign policy question. It was back to issues like building up the party and combating Trump’s domestic agenda, and protecting immigrants and LGBTQ students who would be affected by Trump’s rescission of Obama-era protections.

That was true also of interviews with Jewish backers of the lead candidates. After framing their replies in “good for the Jews” terms, their inclination was to veer into the need to rebuild the party.

“Just like the Women’s March was started by someone sitting in her living room in Hawaii on her computer, you want to make sure that someone sitting in her kitchen in Kansas but can’t get to their office, that they have the enthusiasm who can get people elected to local councils,” Turnbull said, explaining why she was galvanized by Buttigieg and his ability to excite younger people.

Predicting the outcome of Saturday’s election is a dangerous game – there’s a strong current of “who really knows” in speaking with longtime Democratic activists — but Ellison and Perez are seen as having the edge. A survey this week by The Hill, a Washington daily, of 240 DNC electors showed Ellison with 105 votes and Perez with 57.

But the way voting works could benefit a dark horse like Buttigieg: No one is chosen until he or she has secured a majority. Last-place candidates are dropped until that happens, and Buttigieg’s strong performance in debates across the country has attracted social media support.

Goldman said she knew Perez going back to his run for Maryland’s Montgomery County Council in the early 2000s and their joint work in creating affordable housing in the Washington, D.C., suburb.

“When I found out he was interested in the DNC, I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified,” she said.

Weingarten said Ellison was the best candidate to galvanize the younger Democrats who were attracted to Sanders’ candidacy, among others.

“The Democratic part is about equal opportunity and justice,” she said. “That is what he would operationalize.”

White supremacist Richard Spencer booted, ‘alt-right’ called anti-Semitic at conservative conference

Thu, 2017-02-23 22:37

(JTA) — Not long after an organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference called the “alt-right” anti-Semitic and racist in a speech, the movement’s leader, Richard Spencer, was kicked out of the event.

“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, said Thursday morning. “They are anti-Semites. They are racists.”

Schneider also argued that the alt-right, a fringe white nationalist group that has been accused of fomenting anti-Semitism, is “left wing” and “fascist.” President Donald Trump’s chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, has called the news organization Breitbart, which he once led, a platform for the movement.

“They hate the Constitution. They hate free markets. They hate pluralism,” Schneider said. “Fascists tend to want big government control.”

Spencer bought a ticket to the annual conference held this year outside Washington, D.C., in the Gaylord National Resort on Thursday morning and drew a large crowd of reporters near the building’s entrance, The Washington Post reported. After the crowd caught the attention of security guards, Spencer was soon after escorted from the building.

“His views are repugnant and have absolutely nothing to do with conservatism or what we do here,” CPAC spokesman Ian Walters told NPR.

Last month, neo-Nazi protesters planned an anti-Semitic demonstration in Spencer’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, after the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer claimed that local Jewish residents were harming the business of Spencer’s mother.

Meet the Jewish couple leading the Trump resistance

Thu, 2017-02-23 22:18

Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg founded the anti-Trump group Indivisible with other former congressional staffers. (Courtesy of Greenberg)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The group at the forefront of “resisting the Trump agenda” started in the middle of December with a single document circulated among friends. One that was “poorly formatted” and “full of typos,” in the words of one of its authors, Leah Greenberg.

As of this week, the Indivisible guide to grassroots advocacy has been downloaded or viewed over 1.7 million times and inspired more than 5,000 local groups (with another 2,000 groups waiting to be verified), which are using it to take action on issues like preserving the Affordable Care Act, supporting public schools or challenging the administration’s immigration policies.

At the center of the efforts is one young Jewish couple, Greenberg and her husband, Ezra Levin, both former congressional staffers who founded  Indivisible with three friends and former colleagues.

“I think right now we are facing an existential threat, quite literally, from this administration and this Congress,” Levin, 31, told JTA on Thursday. “The only thing that I think is going to really work, to convince Congress to do something else, is local groups [that] stand up and make their voices heard.”

The group’s document, now proofread and reworked into a sleeker 26-page version, provides progressives with practical advice, such as the best way to contact a local member of Congress (office visits are preferred over form letters), voice opposition at a town hall (stick to a prepared list of questions and be polite but persistent) and speak with the media (research local reporters and use social media to contact them).

Last week, Levin became the organization’s first paid staffer — it had been run entirely by volunteers — declining a job offer at the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality to work as Indivisible’s executive director.

“This is the most meaningful work I’ve ever done in in my life,” said Levin, who was visiting New York from Washington, D.C., to be interviewed on MSNBC and ABC.

The group is also applying to become a nonprofit organization and looking to fill eight additional job listings in “the near future,” Greenberg, 30, told JTA on Tuesday.

Greenberg said she and Levin, who serve as vice president and president, respectively, of the Indivisible board, were “very surprised” to see how quickly the guide spread. They conceived of the guide over drinks with a friend a few days after Thanksgiving — two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president.

“When we put it online we thought that our friends were going to read it, and they would go home to families at Christmas and somebody would say, ‘What can I do?,’ and our friends would give them that Google doc, and in six months somebody would email us and they’d say, ‘Hey, I used your guide at a town hall,’ and we would be really excited,” she told JTA.

The guide draws on strategies used by the Tea Party — the conservative movement that relied on grassroots advocacy to oppose President Barack Obama’s policies — to advocate against Trump.

Since December, Greenberg and Levin have been working with some 100 volunteers to add more materials to the Indivisible website and provide support to local groups.

“I have no free time. I don’t do anything except work at my regular job and work on Indivisible at this time,” said Greenberg, the policy director for the gubernatorial campaign of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello, for whom she worked as a staff assistant when he served in Congress. Greenberg also worked on efforts to combat human trafficking for the foundation Humanity United and at the State Department.

Greenberg, a native of Chevy Chase, Maryland, met Levin, of Buda, Texas, through the alumni network of their alma mater, Carleton College in Minnesota. Prior to working with Indivisible, Levin worked as deputy policy director for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and for a think tank, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, where he focused on policy related to homelessness and poverty.

Greenberg draws motivation from her Jewish background.

“I see myself as being part of a tradition of Jews organizing for social justice, and recognizing that our own status of a minority group that has been persecuted calls on us to support others who are under attack,” said Greenberg, who identifies as a Reform Jew.

She was reminded of the anti-Semitism experienced by her ancestors last weekend when the St. Louis-area cemetery where four of her great-grandparents are buried was the target of vandalism that left over 100 gravestones damaged.

Levin, who was raised by a Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother, identifies as “culturally Jewish.”

Though Indivisible is gaining steam in progressive circles, the group and the protests it has inspired have also targeted for criticism by Republicans. White House press secretary Sean Spicer described protests against Trump’s executive order restricting entry to the United States from seven mostly Muslim countries as “a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah alleged that protesters who packed a town hall meeting earlier this month were part of “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” him. Utah Indivisible encouraged attendance for the event.

Greenberg and Levin rejected claims that Indivisible pays protesters to show up at town halls and demonstrations. Greenberg said the group received all its funding from individual donations, but did not disclose whether it had received money from any major donors.

“The idea that this is some kind of centrally led financed effort from the top down is just totally wrong,” Levin said, adding “I would just call them lies, pure and simple.”

Noting that both the White House and Congress are now controlled by Republicans, the guide urges progressives to focus on voicing opposition to Trump’s policy proposals rather than urging an alternative agenda.

Greenberg said the organization is currently recommending that local groups focus their objections on efforts to appeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and efforts to limit Muslims and refugees from entering the country.

Indivisible has collaborated with a plethora of progressive groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, International Refugee Assistance Project, the United State of Women and Asian Americans Demanding Justice. Although the group has yet to partner with Jewish groups, Greenberg said Indivisible was open to doing so.

In working with a variety of groups in fighting against what they see as policies threatening the unity of the country, the group stays true to its name, which stems from the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

“We were trying to think of something that had both some significance to America’s historical legacy and also express our belief that we all have to stand together,” Greenberg said.

Reform movement, ADL slam Trump rollback of protections for transgender students

Thu, 2017-02-23 21:27

President Donald Trump at a White House news conference, Feb. 16, 2017. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups denounced the decision by President Donald Trump to rescind regulations allowing transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

Trump on Wednesday rejected the Obama administration’s order that public schools allow transgender students to choose which bathrooms to use.

Leaders of the movement’s congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism, along with its rabbinical group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and policy arm, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, joined in a statement Thursday against the action.

“Far from protecting girls and women from men in women’s bathrooms, decisions such as this imperil transgender youth,” the statement reads. “Transgender men and boys may appear threatening and come under attack if forced to use women’s restrooms. Transgender women and girls risk becoming victims of violence if forced to use men’s restrooms.

“The administration has overturned a rule that was sound public policy and endeavored to uphold ‘pikuach nefesh,’ saving life, the very highest of religious injunctions.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the ADL, called the decision “cruel, tinged with prejudice and unnecessary” in a Thursday statement.

“This action sends a deeply disturbing message that the federal government is abdicating its responsibility for a student’s health and well-being and deferring to states and local school districts in establishing educational policy. It also suggests the administration will not support or defend LGBT-inclusive policies,” Greenblatt said.

The National Council of Jewish Women noted that Trump made the decision just weeks after the White House said the president was “determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community.”

In a statement Thursday, CEO Nancy Kaufrman wrote that her group was “disgusted by this betrayal, which puts transgender students at risk for bullying, harassment, and violence.”

The social justice group Bend the Arc Jewish Action also denounced the decision, calling it an “assault on freedom and human dignity.”

“Jewish and American values demand that we defend and support the marginalized and oppressed and that we treat everyone equally,” CEO Stosh Cotler said in a statement. “By withdrawing these protections for transgender youth, the Trump administration is turning its back on these fundamental principles.”

Trump’s order will not have an immediate effect because a federal judge in August blocked Obama’s order, which said transgender students’ rights were protected under nondiscrimination laws. Individual schools can allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Polish official charged for allowing former Jewish school building to be demolished

Thu, 2017-02-23 21:12

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — A Polish conservator is facing a prison term for allowing the demolition of a former Jewish school building in central Poland.

The Prosecutor’s Office in Konin this week charged the conservator, identified as Janusz T. in Polish news reports, for abuse of power by a public official. Janusz headed up a delegation from a Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments.

He reportedly could face up to three years in prison for permitting the razing of the former Talmudic school in Konin in July 2016. The building had been owned by the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, which in 2010 sold it to a private investor.

Konin residents protested the proposed demolition and asked the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage to intervene.

“The building was a special witness to the presence of Konin Jews, Polish citizens murdered by the German occupiers during the Second World War,” said then-Deputy Minister of Culture Magdalena Gawin. “The consequences will be taken against those whose actions consciously led to the demolition of the building.”

In August, Janusz T. lost his job as conservator in Konin, after which the Prosecutor’s Office  conducted an investigation into the case. Janusz maintains he is not guilty.

Australia reaffirms ties to Israel as Netanyahu wraps up historic visit

Thu, 2017-02-23 20:54

(JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his Australian counterpart reaffirmed the strong relationship between their two countries as the former completed his landmark visit to the island nation.

The statement issued Thursday by Netanyahu and Malcolm Turnbull also said that “Australia re-affirmed its commitment to Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in peace within secure borders, and its steadfast opposition to attempts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. Israel thanked Australia for its consistent support in this regard. Both countries re-stated their support for a directly negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Australia affirmed its support for a two-state solution.”

Bilateral trade between the two countries stands at $1.1 billion. In 2016, Israel exported to Australia goods and services worth $700 million.

Several bilateral agreements and memorandums of understandings were signed between representatives of the two countries during the three-day visit, the first by an Israeli head of state.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu visited the Sydney Central Synagogue, where he attended an event with hundreds of members of the Jewish community. He also visited the Moriah College Jewish day school in Sydney, where he sat in on a Hebrew class and spoke to the students. Netanyahu called on all of the students to visit Israel.

“If there’s one thing that I could tell you here today: Be proud Jews. Stand up. Be proud. Stand with Israel. Stand with our people. Be proud Jews. Do this in Sydney and do it in Jerusalem and come this year to Jerusalem,” he said.

Netanyahu invited Turnbull to visit Israel “at his earliest convenience.”

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem marathons revel in a ‘healthy competition’

Thu, 2017-02-23 20:35

Runners taking part in the Jerusalem Marathon, March 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – Noah Roth likes to recall two moments  from Israeli marathons in which he’s raced: a competitor in Jerusalem breezing by him in 2010 wearing all-black, haredi Orthodox garb but for a white athletic shirt; and a Russian woman on this city’s Allenby Street who last year handed sprinters cups of clear-liquid refreshment – not water, but vodka.

“I’m neither a Tel Avivian nor a Jerusalemite. I like both cities, and I like both marathons,” said Roth, a corporate recruiter who lives in Beit Shemesh, about midway between the two. “Jerusalem has more of a family feeling. Tel Aviv is more like, ‘I’m out here for the event.’”

While hardly on par with the New York, Boston and London marathons that draw world-class runners, the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv races are huge for Israel, attracting growing numbers of competitors and providing welcome jolts to the economy.

This is marathon-event season in Israel, with Tel Aviv preparing to stage its race on Friday and Jerusalem following three weeks later. The Tiberias Marathon, Israel’s oldest, was held on Jan. 8.

They are scheduled so near each other because of the weather, competitors and organizers said. The window for safe and hospitable racing is a narrow one in the winter before the long, hot summers.

The especially tight period between the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem events also reflects some of the rivalry between the cities. Organizing officials say they feel welcome at each other’s events, but don’t jointly market them here or abroad, nor do they approach potential sponsors together.

That’s OK with Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, who told JTA last week that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“The better we do separately, the better we do together,” said Barkat, a longtime runner who is entered in the 10K race in his city’s event.

He added: “It’s a very healthy competition.”

Not so healthy, though, to Yossi Melman, a Tel Aviv-based journalist who has run 35 marathons, including a dozen in Israel.

“There’s no reason Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can’t be held in October or November,” he said. “It’s really ridiculous [having] three marathons in nine or 10 weeks. You can’t run three marathons in 10 weeks.”

Some actually do after modifying their training.

Roth completed the trifecta in 2016 and is trying again this year. He runs Tiberias, the fastest course of the three, aiming for a personal best, and Tel Aviv as a fairly reasonable reprise a mere month and a half later. Roth competes in Jerusalem just because it’s Jerusalem. In the latter two, he obsesses far less over his split times and sometimes doesn’t even wear his running watch.

“Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are like dessert. I can take my feet off the gas and have fun,” he said.

Noah Roth finishing the Tel Aviv Marathon in 2016. (Courtesy of Roth)

Each city’s signature sporting event has unique allures and drawbacks.

Jerusalem Marathon partisans speak of being uplifted by the route’s brief sojourn in the Old City and the magnificent views of it from other neighborhoods – several interviewees used the term “running through history” – and by large crowds of cheering spectators. They also talk of the brutality of the city’s extremely hilly terrain.

Those favoring the Tel Aviv Marathon cite the city’s seaside beauty and the energy drawn from racing through Israel’s commercial capital, but also the sometimes-challenging heat. (The city permanently shifted its marathon from springtime to February in 2013, but even then a man competing in the half-marathon that year died of apparent heat-related causes. In 2015, the event was canceled midway through due to extreme heat.)

And Tiberias? It draws sneers for an uninspired course – dipping counterclockwise around the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, then boomeranging back – and the near absence of spectators, but praise for being consistently flat, enabling runners to post their best times in any of the country’s three marathons.

The best runners stand to profit in the coming weeks. Tel Aviv is offering $15,000 to the first marathoner to break the course record and $40,000 for finishing in 2:08 or faster. Jerusalem’s various prizes include $1,500 to a marathoner setting a course record.

The current record for Tel Aviv is 2:10:30, and for Jerusalem 2:16:09 – both set by Kenyans in the past three years. That compares to the world record of 2:02:57 set in Berlin in 2014 by another Kenyan, Dennis Kimetto.

Some 40,000 runners are expected to compete in the Tel Aviv Marathon and its related half-marathon, 10K, 5K and charity walks; 25,000 have registered for Jerusalem’s various event categories.

Ilanit Melchior, tourism director of the nonprofit Jerusalem Development Authority, a sponsor of the capital’s race, projected that city hotels, restaurants and shops will earn $7.5 million just from the 3,000 foreign runners (600 of them marathoners) from 50 countries who have registered as of Wednesday, not counting money spent by their travel companions. Ofer Shytrit, whose company produces the Tel Aviv Marathon, offered a “minimal estimate” of $5 million that runners will spend in town for his event.

“If you have one startup, it’s a startup. If you have two or three, it’s a market,” said Barkat, who made his fortune in high-tech.

The popularity of the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem marathons, he said, “creates a dramatic improvement in the market.”

Oscars 2017: 7 unexpected Jewish facts

Thu, 2017-02-23 20:27

Composer Justin Hurwitz, left, with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle at the AFI Fest in Hollywood, Calif., Nov. 15, 2016. (Chris Weeks/Getty Images for Audi)

(JTA) — The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is happy to forget 2016, when it was widely eviscerated for nominating only white artists in the major award categories for the second straight year.

But things are looking up for this year’s Academy Awards, which are set to air Sunday night, as they feature a more diverse set of nominated actors and a stronger slate of nominated films.

While the overall Oscars climate is merrier this year — not counting liberal Hollywood’s malaise over the election of Donald Trump — there are fewer than usual overtly Jewish storylines underpinning the ceremony. So we did some digging and picked out some of the unexpected Jewish tidbits from among the nominees.

The “La La Land” director is Catholic, but he went to Hebrew school.

Damien Chazelle is not yet a household name — but he might be closer to becoming one after Sunday, since his film “La La Land” is nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars. Chazelle, 32, who broke out with his 2014 film “Whiplash,” grew up in a Catholic household in Princeton, New Jersey. However, when his parents became dissatisfied with his religious education at a church Sunday school, they enrolled him in a Hebrew school class. He attended for four years.

“I had that period of my life where I was very, very into Hebrew and the Old Testament, and then I went with my class to Israel when we were in the sixth grade,” Chazelle told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles in 2015. “I don’t think they even knew I wasn’t Jewish; I was, like, ‘passing.’”

There are finally some Jewish characters in the “Harry Potter” universe.

J.K. Rowling’s books about the young wizard enchanted readers around the world for years, so it was folly to think the series would ever end completely. The first of five new Potter “universe” films based on Rowling’s 2001 book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” came out last fall. The entertaining flick is nominated for two awards, in the costume design and production design categories — and also features two Jewish characters, a first for a Potter universe story. Dan Fogler stars as Jacob Kowalski, a Lower East Sider trying to open his own bakery, and Katherine Waterston plays Tina Goldstein, an employee at the Magical Congress of the U.S. The story also works as an allegory about anti-Semitism in the 1920s.

A film about a Holocaust survivor’s violin could win for best documentary (short subject).

When Joe Feingold, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland living in New York, stopped playing his violin a few years ago, he donated it to a campaign that gives instruments to needy students. It ended up in the hands of Brianna Perez, a 12-year-old student at the Bronx Learning Global Institute for Girls. But this was no ordinary violin — Feingold bought it at a displaced persons camp just after the war, and it helped him get back to the music he enjoyed before the Holocaust.

Kahane Cooperman’s 24-minute documentary on the violin’s story and a meeting of Feingold and Perez is, as a JTA writer accurately called it, a “five-handkerchief weeper” — and it has a chance of winning the award.

Natalie Portman put on an accent (non-Israeli) to earn a nomination for “Jackie.” 

In the biopic about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, the Israel-born Portman sounds unrecognizable. That’s because she studied extensively how to sound like the former first lady, whose famously eccentric version of an old New York accent has been described as “a peculiar drawl that defies simple linguistic classification.”

But Jackie O’s voice wasn’t the first accent Portman has had to perfect — in fact, she toiled in 2015 to improve her Israeli accent for “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” her directorial debut and an adaptation of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel. Portman plays Oz’s mother in the film, which has dialogue entirely in Hebrew.

A Jewish composer is headed for a big night.

Justin Hurwitz, who was Damien Chazelle’s Jewish roommate at Harvard, is ready to make a name for himself as well. His soundtrack for “La La Land,” written with lyricists Benj Pasek (who is also Jewish) and Justin Paul, is a lock to win the best film score award. The song “City of Stars” is also likely to win in the best individual song category. Hurwitz and Chazelle have had a fruitful relationship: The Jewish composer has worked on music for all of Chazelle’s previous films, including the acclaimed “Whiplash.”

The Irish-sounding director of “Manchester By the Sea” is also Jewish.

Kenneth Lonergan certainly sounds like an Irish Catholic name — and the writer’s father was indeed Irish. But his mother was Jewish, making him a default member of the tribe. Lonergan, who has also written several plays and the film “Gangs of New York,” was raised in a pretty secular environment by his mother and a Jewish stepfather near Central Park in New York City.

“I always assumed everyone was Jewish,” he told the New Yorker last year about his upbringing. “I didn’t know it was unusual in any way. And then I finally met some people who weren’t Jewish and I was, like, ‘Oh, not everyone is Jewish — OK.’ But that took a while to sink in.”

A nominated documentary focuses on a Jewish family with an autistic child.

Noted Jewish journalist Ron Suskind’s son Owen began showing signs of autism at age 3, when he stopped speaking and communicating the way he had before. But Suskind found an unlikely source to help coax Owen out of his frustration and silence: animated Disney movies. Owen immersed himself in the films and began communicating by repeating phrases from them. Roger Ross Williams’ touching film, which follows Owen through a crucial year in his 20s as he looks to become more independent, is nominated for best documentary. Since form often follows content, the movie includes several animated sequences.