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I was afraid to reveal I was Jewish in Bahrain. When I arrived, I realized my privilege.

Tue, 2020-10-20 20:32

(JTA) — On my trips to Bahrain, almost nobody knew I was Jewish.

I was a strange enough creature as it was: young, female and civilian, traveling with a mostly male, mostly military delegation; low ranking, but representing the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the top-ranked organization in the delegation. Its ranking was so far above the people in the field that one of my friends at the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain said that getting a call from me was like getting a call from Mt. Olympus.

I was a policy analyst in the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1990s. As part of an effort to build cooperation between U.S. and Middle Eastern allies to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction, I traveled several times to Bahrain and once each to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. 

We didn’t talk much about religion, though it came up in random ways — when my Mormon colleague turned down the ritual coffee offered by our Bahraini hosts; when the Bahrain Defense Forces members halted conferences several times a day in order to go pray, leaving their U.S. military counterparts pacing the hallways with barely contained impatience; when a senior defense official whom I was accompanying folded his hands and closed his eyes for a moment of private prayer before dinner.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I talked about being Jewish. Although it’s a major part of my identity and obvious to anyone who gets to know me, I already kept a low profile about my Judaism at the Pentagon. I was certainly not the only Jew in the building, but the culture of the place was overwhelmingly Christian, from earnest invocations of God and country to office doors that were lovingly decorated with wreaths and Santas at Christmastime. When I was working on Middle East policy, I feared it would paint me as biased, or at least as caring too much about the region. 

In Bahrain, the fear was different. In my wildest nightmares I imagined being called out loudly as a Jew and all heads turning in my direction. My fear of being seen as an outsider was magnified by the nature of the country itself, which is marked by social inequality, sectarian discrimination and police repression. Among the Kingdom’s half million citizens, the in-group is composed of Sunni Muslims, with the ruling family at the center. Next come Shia Muslims and a few dozen Jews. 

They are all outnumbered by foreigners, who form 80% of the country’s work force. Here too, there is a strict hierarchy: Arabs from Gulf countries can be executives and consultants. Other Arabs and educated South Asians can be clerks. Maids are Filipina. Sex workers are Eastern European and Asian. Construction workers are Bangladeshi. It almost goes without saying that women have fewer rights than men. 

As an American and a member of a high-level delegation, I moved easily across lines. I could speak up and be heard in meetings with men twice my age. I ate lunch with the three female Bahrain Defense Force medical officers who attended our meetings, which would have been inappropriate behavior for my male colleagues.  I went shopping in the pearl and gold markets in the evening with the guys from the delegation, while black-veiled Bahraini women shopped in quiet malls during the day. 

Foreign workers have no such flexibility. They are allowed into the country to perform a specific job and can be transferred or sent home without their consent. Despite recent reforms, many are still employed under a sponsorship system that allows employers to withhold their passports and wages and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds. 

I became aware of this oppressive system in brief glimpses of Bangladeshi workers on scaffolds in the intense, humid heat and Pakistani restaurants crowded with men seeking a taste of home. 

That’s when I realized that I was safe. I was a privileged, protected “other.” In spite of my fears, if I had revealed my Jewishness, I would probably have suffered nothing more than a moment of uncomfortable silence. 

I left government service long ago and now I live in Israel. I assumed I would never go back to the Gulf, but with Bahrain and the UAE opening diplomatic relations with Israel, it just might be possible. This time, I would be coming not from Mt. Olympus, but from Mt. Moriah, the holy plateau in the heart of Jerusalem, which sits just across the valley from my home. 

I would be going as a tourist  — a different kind of protected “other.” When tourists come to Israel, I hope that they can see the country in all its complexity: the Tel Aviv beaches and Jerusalem alleys; the high-tech towers and neglected development towns; the euphoria of the Zionist dream and the disaster it wrought on Palestinians. 

Israeli tourists to Bahrain should also go with open eyes. In the excitement of meeting Bahrainis, they should not overlook the “others” who are all around them, who cannot conceal their identities and who may be unsafe as a result. 

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I blew the whistle on the planned 10,000 person Satmar wedding. Here’s why.

Tue, 2020-10-20 20:13

(JTA) — On Saturday night, shortly after observant Jews went back online after Shabbat, Orthodox media outlets, Twitter accounts, and WhatsApp groups were ablaze about news that had broken several hours earlier.

At his afternoon press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that his office would shut down a planned wedding for the grandson of Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, the Williamsburg Satmar Rabbi, which organizers said would attract as many as 10,000 followers. In the days leading up to the governor’s statement, I was the sole voice warning, both on social media and via private channels, about this upcoming potential “super spreader” event.

But here’s how the popular Orthodox news site Yeshiva World News reported on it:

“YWN notes that the rabid self-hating Jew Naftali [sic] Moster of the YAFFED Organization who has been working for years b’mesiras nefesh [with relentless zeal] to destroy our Mosdos Hatorah [Torah institutions and schools], has the past few days been alerting the media and the authorities about this wedding.”

YWN is keenly aware of the dangers of whipping up the crowd against individuals with such language. Just in the last two weeks they reported on the brutal attacks against Berish Getz and Jacob Kornbluh, a former YWN journalist now with Jewish Insider, who were both accused of being “mosers” (snitches). Following the incidents, YWN was widely praised for publishing an op-ed by Yehuda Rechnitz, an influential Orthodox millionaire, in which he denounced the main inciter of those attacks, Heshy Tischler.

As expected, a torrent of hateful messages toward me followed the YWN article. I was called a “Nazi,” a member of the “Judenrat,” and a moser. One commenter on Vos iz Neias, another Orthodox news site, wrote that I “must be taken out.”

My motivation for reporting such irresponsible behavior outweighs the unpleasantness of the online harassment, although I am unfortunately well aware that it could escalate to physical violence.

A week ago on Monday, I received the first tip about the planned wedding from a Hasidic friend whom I had gotten to know through my work at Yaffed, the organization I founded, that aims to increase secular education standards in Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox schools. In recent months, the tipster’s greatest frustration has been the haredi Orthodox leadership’s failure to serve as role models to the community members who take their cues from them, as well as the media and government’s failure to see through the blatant deceit and doublespeak of community leaders. 

He sent me a picture of the wedding announcement featured in a Hasidic newspaper.

The announcement read, in part, “Friends near and far, dear students, please participate in my celebration.” It provided the address of the big Satmar Shul of Williamsburg, and it was signed by Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of Satmar of Williamsburg.

Despite having every reason to be jaded, my first reaction upon seeing the invitation was disbelief. By then, the city and the state had already implemented new restrictions to control local clusters. Although Hasidic Williamsburg was not a red zone, it was near one, and health officials were concerned about the potential for infection spread. Besides, there is no area of New York State right now in which such a large in-person wedding would be permissible.

It is clear that Hasidic communities of New York are seeing a major uptick in positive cases due to a widespread failure to comply with public health regulations. I have seen pictures and videos of the Sukkot celebrations in which scores of people were gathering in dozens of Hasidic synagogues around the state with no sign of masks or social distancing.

This pandemic has not been easy on anyone. My 3-year-old son has not set foot in day care or school, nor has he socialized comfortably with any children his age since March. And since one of his parents works full time and the other is a full-time student, there’s only so much personalized attention we can give him. In addition to that, our almost 4-month-old daughter, born during the pandemic, has never been held by anyone besides me and my wife. Her grandparents have never even been within six feet of her. No one has set foot inside our house since the shutdown.

Yet I know we’ve had it easy compared to millions of others who have lost their jobs and who live in tighter quarters than we do, not to mention those who have lost loved ones to the terrible virus.

Which is why, after learning of this unnecessary mass event, in a community that has suffered tremendous loss due to COVID-19, I felt that I had to act. In a gathering of this size, it is almost inevitable that the virus would strike the vulnerable. Stopping it from happening almost certainly meant saving lives.

However, I won’t deny I had other motivations. For years I have witnessed government officials cozying up to grand rabbis like Zalman Leib and their gatekeepers. When the mayor was asked about the progress of the yeshiva investigation which was dragging on for many years, he often responded that he was “working with community leaders” who supposedly pledged improvements in the schools.

It had always been clear to me that the city is either intentionally or unwittingly being taken for a ride by leaders who in Yiddish often said they had no intention of changing a thing. This was very much in line with what I had seen growing up in the Hasidic community.

The lies around compliance with COVID regulations have been pronounced and explicit: Grand rabbis holding irresponsible mass events, even as their spokespeople are acting surprised that the city did not “engage” with them or that the governor is taking a tougher approach to them.

To me, despite the risks, it was worth trying to protect the health and well-being of tens of thousands of Hasidim and their children. And it meant the world to the Hasidic father whose tip led to fewer people attending the wedding, preventing more unnecessary deaths in his community.

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NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: I regret how I handled that Orthodox funeral in April

Tue, 2020-10-20 19:27

(JTA) — With tensions high between Orthodox Jews and New York officials, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed regret Tuesday for how he handled a large Hasidic funeral in the pandemic’s early days.

Back in April, after a large funeral for a local rabbi in Brooklyn drew thousands of Orthodox Jews into the streets of Williamsburg, de Blasio visited the scene himself and called out “the Jewish community.” His tweet was widely criticized and damaged what had been a relatively close relationship between the mayor and the city’s Orthodox community.

Now, with Orthodox neighborhoods again among the city’s virus hotspots and residents chafing at restrictions imposed to curb the disease’s spread, de Blasio says he regrets what he said — and how he said it.

“I look back now and understand there was just more dialogue that was needed,” de Blasio said during a press conference Tuesday. “I certainly got very frustrated at times when I saw large groups of people still out without masks but I think more dialogue would have been better so I certainly want to express my regret that I didn’t figure out how to do that better.”

The comments came in response to a question about a call he held with Orthodox leaders from Brooklyn and Queens Monday night, which he said was meant as a “reset” in the relationship between city government and Orthodox communities.

De Blasio noted that he had previously expressed remorse over his reaction to the gathering, but he said he would seek to improve communication going forward.

“That one night in Williamsburg I let my frustration and concern get away with me and I should have been more careful in my language and I’ve expressed my apology for that before,” de Blasio said Tuesday. He added, “The No. 1 takeaway from the meeting is more dialogue. More communication is the way forward.”

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As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen mocks coronavirus anti-Semitism conspiracy theories on Jimmy Kimmel

Tue, 2020-10-20 17:13

(JTA) — Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest appearance in character as Borat was heavy on the bathroom humor — and on satirizing conspiracy theories that target Jews.

On “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Monday night, Cohen showed up as Borat — the anti-Semitic, misogynist journalist from Kazakhstan who starred in a blockbuster 2006 film and is set to star in a sequel out this week. Right away, Borat said the coronavirus comes from “a place called Wuhan, which is in Israel.”

“It is no surprise, they are spreading everything,” he said.

When Jimmy Kimmel asked if he really thought that the virus originated in Israel, Borat said “Yes, it spread from the you-know-who’s,’” making a gesture that mimicked having a long nose.

Cohen’s upcoming film, which premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, tackles anti-Semitism and a range of other hot-button topics, in the same way that the original Borat movie did — by tricking real people into making incriminating comments. Cohen reportedly interviewed a real Holocaust survivor for the new film in order to mock Holocaust deniers. (After filming, the now late survivor’s family claimed that she was “horrified” with the end result.)

Anti-Semitism was a central theme of the original Borat film as well; some scenes, including the fake “Running of the Jew” event, have become some of the zeitgeist’s most memorable parodies of Jew hatred. The Anti-Defamation League criticized Cohen in 2006 for perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes in pop culture, regardless of his intentions. 

But Cohen repaired that relationship and last year received an award from the ADL for his efforts to fight disinformation. In his acceptance speech, Cohen called social media the “greatest propaganda machine in history,” and he has since grown only more outspoken in his criticism of Facebook and other social media companies for their role in facilitating the spread of false and dangerous information. He has focused much of his satirical energy to mocking conspiracy theories about topics ranging from the coronavirus to George Soros, the right-wing bogeyman who features in many false and anti-Semitic narratives.

He pilloried those ideas on Kimmel’s show, when, as Borat, he subjected the host to a fake medical questionnaire and asked if he had been in the presence of any Jews “for more than 15 minutes” in the past week. Kimmel said “Yes, all of our writers and none of our camera guys are Jews.”

The theory that Jews were the source of the coronavirus pandemic has gained some momentum in far-right circles, most notably in parts of Europe, such as France and Germany. Some German protesters have also used Holocaust language and imagery to rail against their government’s strict coronavirus lockdown protocols.

But Borat didn’t stop at coronavirus anti-Semitism. In the questionnaire, he also asked Kimmel: “As a member of Hollywood elite, have you recently drunk any unpasteurized children’s blood?”

When Kimmel said no, Borat added “Really? Not in any pizza parlors recently?”

Cohen hit on three different conspiracy theories: the term “Hollywood elite,” which has been tossed around in everything from decades-old anti-Semitism about Jews in the media to the more recent QAnon theory; the concept of drinking the blood of children, part of the centuries-old blood libel that accuses Jews of killing Christian children for their blood; and the 2016 “Pizzagate” theory, which had some believing that Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking Democratic officials were involved in a sex trafficking ring at a pizza parlor.

The Kimmel appearance has made headlines today for some of Cohen’s on-stage antics — which included prodding Kimmel’s crotch with a long rod and getting Kimmel to trade pants with him. As he clipped one of his devices onto Kimmel’s pants, he got a last anti-Semitic trope in: “Normally it is the Jew who controls the media, now it is the Kazakh who controls the late-night host!”

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British trade union leader sorry for telling Jewish ex-banker to go ‘count his gold’

Tue, 2020-10-20 15:27

(JTA) — A prominent trade union leader and ally of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn apologized to for telling a Jewish  former Labour parliamentarian to go “count his gold.”

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union, made the remark about Peter Mandelson in an interview aired Monday on the BBC.

“I stopped listening to anything Peter Mandelson says years ago,” said McCluskey, whose union has over a million members. “I would suggest Peter goes into a room and counts his gold and not worry about the Labour Party. Leave that to those of us who are interested in ordinary working people.”

McCluskey was responding to criticism Mandelson had leveled at Keir Starmer, a centrist who replaced Corbyn as Labour leader and reversed several of his policies. Corbyn had been accused of espousing and tolerating anti-Semitism within Labour prior to his resignation as party leader in April.

Mandelson is a a former Cabinet secretary who later worked as a senior investor for an investment banking firm. Following protests on social media and by British-Jewish groups, McCluskey said he was referencing Mandelson’s stint in banking rather than his ethnicity.

“Before this gets out of hand, let me say language is important and I apologize to Peter Mandelson and anyone else if mine has caused hurt,” McCluskey said.

Both the Labour Against Antisemitism group and the Board of Deputies of British Jews accused McCluskey of using an “antisemitic trope.”

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A large Hasidic wedding was canceled but a tweet made it look like it happened

Tue, 2020-10-20 15:14

(JTA) — Reports of a large wedding planned for Monday in the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were met with fury over the weekend. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even issued a special order blocking the event at which 10,000 guests were expected, which was later curtailed to include family only.

So when a Twitter account with the handle @SatmarStrong posted a video of a large wedding with thousands of people not wearing masks, it quickly racked up thousands of views and dozens of retweets. Except it wasn’t real.

The video was taken at the wedding of Satmar Grand Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum’s grandson in 2006, according to Abby Stein, a transgender activist, and Meyer Labin, a writer and translator. Both were at the wedding, they said, and called out the tweet for spreading disinformation.

Btw, @SatmarStrong – do you have more videos from that 2006 wedding? Would love to see the part of my grandfather singing before he danced Mitzvah Tantz at that wedding… I was standing right behind him

— Abby Stein (@AbbyChavaStein) October 20, 2020

The @SatmarStrong Twitter account was created this month and had only 19 followers as of Tuesday. The tweet with the wedding video was later deleted and the account has no other tweets.

The tweet, and the suggestion that Orthodox Jews were continuing to flout public health recommendations during the pandemic, also struck a nerve with Orthodox Jews who feel targeted because of upticks in COVID-19 cases in several Orthodox neighborhoods in New York City.

Incidents of assaults and verbal attacks on Orthodox Jews have increased in recent weeks as some blamed Orthodox Jews for the city’s increasing case numbers. A video that went viral on social media showing a man yelling at an Orthodox man, who was walking and talking on a cellphone without wearing a mask but far from other people, to put his mask on.

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2 Greek Jewish cemeteries, Holocaust monument vandalized in apparent hate crimes

Tue, 2020-10-20 13:49

(JTA) — Two Jewish cemeteries and a Holocaust memorial were vandalized in Greece.

The most serious incident, which involved the smashing of several headstones, occurred at the Jewish cemetery on the island of Rhodes on Oct. 11, the Politismika news site reported on Monday.

In a separate incident in the northern city of Thessaloniki on Oct. 16, “With Jews you lose” was painted on a monument for 50,000 of the city’s Jews killed during the Holocaust, according to a report Monday on the Parallaxi news site.

The third incident occurred at the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki on Oct. 10. The perpetrators of that incident wrote “death to Israel” on the entrance gate to the cemetery.

It is clear that despite the steps that have been taken in recent years, there is still much to be done to combat racism and intolerance,” the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki said in a statement.

Earlier this month, anti-Semitic slogans and a Nazi symbol were scrawled on the stone fence of the Jewish cemetery in Nikaia, a southwestern suburb of Athens. The graffiti included the phrase “Juden raus,” German for “Jews get out,” and the symbol of the elite SS Nazi force.

On Oct. 7, the Athens Court of Appeals convicted dozens of the former members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Party, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, of belonging to a criminal organization. Michaloliakos and other party leaders were given multi-year jail sentences.

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Jewish teenager lightly wounded in attack in Uman, Ukraine

Tue, 2020-10-20 13:38

(JTA) — Three unidentified men assaulted two Jewish teenagers in the Ukrainian city of Uman.

The incident late Saturday night occurred near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, an 18th-century Hasidic leader whose grave is a pilgrimage site that typically attracts about 50,000 visitors annually.

According to a report by the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, one of several bodies representing local Jews, one of the teenagers, aged 17, suffered a facial wound from a knife, while the other fled the scene. The three attackers then left running, footage from a security camera showed.

Friction between locals and pilgrims has escalated in Uman in recent years, and especially during the coronavirus crisis, resulting in several violent scuffles. Robberies targeting Jewish visitors from wealthier countries are now a common occurrence in Uman.



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Jewish prisoner in Russian penal colony goes on hunger strike to get Shabbat off

Tue, 2020-10-20 13:28

(JTA) — A Russian-Jewish man imprisoned near Moscow said he’s going on a hunger strike to protest the violation of his religious rights.

Danil Beglets, who has been serving time in a penal colony 200 miles southwest of Moscow since last year, said authorities are punishing him for declining to work on the Jewish Sabbath and not providing with him with kosher food, the RBC broadcaster on Tuesday reported.

“I refused to work, suggesting that my shift be rescheduled so I may observe the day of rest, to which I am entitled,” Beglets wrote in a statement to his attorney.

In response, authorities cut his food rations and threatened to further limit his freedom, Beglets said. He has appealed for Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf, RBC reported.

Beglets was sentenced to two years in prison for shoving a police after at a demonstration in Moscow. In May, his sentence was commuted to be served at the penal colony, a correctional facility where prisoners are put to work on public projects.

Beglets was one of hundreds arrested at a July, 2019, demonstration in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin.

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What I’ve learned about Emirati culture as the chief rabbi’s wife

Mon, 2020-10-19 22:05

(JTA) — Jews around the world are rightfully celebrating the historic and euphoric peace agreement between Israel and the UAE — and so are the Emiratis. 

In particular, Israelis are looking forward to visiting the United Arab Emirates once travel is again possible. As a Jew with close ties to the UAE, I have insights about what they’ll experience — a place they’ll surely find both familiar and challenging.

Over the past two years, my husband, children and I have visited the UAE four times, most recently spending Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot in Abu Dhabi. I am intrigued by some striking parallels to Israel, such as taking great pride in “making the desert bloom,” building a hub for global tourism, achieving remarkable advancements in technology and maintaining the identity of a small nation with a huge impact.

My husband Yehuda, now the Chief Rabbi of the UAE, has visited more than 20 times during the past decade as the University Chaplain at NYU, working closely with NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, UAE representatives in the US,  and the developing Jewish community of the Emirates. 

I’m optimistic about the historic new partnership between Israel and the UAE, and the unique opportunity to learn and grow with and from our new partners and friends. 

It is perhaps understandable — although not pardonable — that after decades of terrorism, tension and conflict with Islamic countries in the region, many Jews in Israel and Diaspora communities speak in generalizations and express fear and resentment toward our Muslim cousins. But after developing close personal relationships, my children have a hard time understanding that perspective. It has been heartwarming to observe how eager Jewish people worldwide are to embrace their Arab Muslim Emirati friends.

During our recent visits, we sensed the excitement on both sides regarding the historic precedent of a warm peace agreement between an Arab Muslim country in the Middle East and our beloved Jewish homeland. We are all aware of the great potential for building authentic and personal relationships between individuals of our two faiths — a bridge that is desperately needed.

The Islamic faith is interlaced throughout the culture of the UAE: The airports have ablution rooms for prayer preparation, the amusement parks interrupt their stream of music with calls for prayer and hotel rooms provide Qurans and prayer mats. I’m constantly awed by the way secular and religious practices support each other, something that I strive for in my own life but sometimes find is hard in a society that isn’t necessarily oriented that way.

On our trips, we were often observed by local people with guarded curiosity. During our visits, We have felt the looks of others who likely have never seen an Orthodox Jew in person before. During one trip to the Dubai Mall, a security guard began following us, apparently because he was intrigued by our presence. But I’ve never felt like my family couldn’t practice our religion freely. My sons donned kippot and tzitzit and my children openly prayed in public spaces when necessary. They davened Mincha in the airport and carried seven lulavim and etrogim on our recent journey. As an Orthodox woman, I felt as comfortable covering my hair and wearing modest clothing as my Jewish friends in jean shorts and short sleeves did.  The women pictured on billboards and depicted in museum exhibits reflect the full range of garb, from hijab and burqa to more secular and westernized wardrobes. 

To be sure, the UAE has struggled with the challenges of developing fair labor practices, counteracting the sex tourism industry and extending thorough religious inclusion to all. Yet it is progressively moving in the right direction. The UAE has also published new textbooks acknowledging the state of Israel and praising the peace agreement, distributing them widely two weeks after the signing of the peace agreement.

This rapid and genuine shift invites us to consider how Jews can fully embrace this historic moment to ensure that non-Jewish visitors in our own spaces, from Israel to our Diaspora communities around the world, are treated with the utmost respect, tolerance and dignity. Israel indeed suffers from significant, existential and real threats and losses because of many Islamic countries in the region. But we must remember that Jewish and Muslim people have coexisted peacefully and productively in that region for centuries before.

On a recent summer trip to Israel, we encountered an Islamic tour group of young professionals from London in Ben Gurion Airport. This group was detained for hours in Israel for unexplained security checks. Our close friend, who works as a chaplain at NYU with my husband and served as the Islamic chaplain of the NYPD, was also detained for hours during his first visit to Israel. How is Israel preparing for its new visitors from the UAE, who may be wearing traditional Islamic garb?

Checkpoints, intelligence and scrupulous security are integral to Israel’s safety and existence. But can we work to simultaneously protect Israel’s borders and people while working to welcome people of all faiths with dignity and respect? 

Approximately 12-20% of all people who live in the UAE are native Emirati citizens. The majority of the country is comprised of immigrants from all over the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, including India, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Iraq. I am told that the majority of teachers of the Arabic language in elementary schools are Palestinian.

I have heard that among the UAE’s non-citizens — even those from Western countries — there is still some anti-Semitism, albeit under the radar. It is for this reason that some in the Jewish community still choose to use a discreet tone when talking about their religious affiliations. I frequently remind my children of the responsibility and privilege we have to represent the Jewish people by engaging with our surrounding spaces and the people we encounter with respect and dignity. 

During the UAE Jewish community’s celebration of a euphoric tashlich during Rosh Hashanah this year, many in the community wore kippot in public for the first time. As the Jewish residents feel increasingly more comfortable “coming out” with their religious identity in the UAE, this may be the first time that people from the region are meeting Jewish people as equals. We have the chance to shift assumptions and expectations through individual friendships, partnerships and initiatives. How many of us — especially those who identify as religiously observant — have close friends of other faiths? 

Our close friend Elli Kriel began the UAE’s first kosher catering company. (I’ve personally benefited from her culinary expertise, in both Dubai and in Manhattan, when she prepared her food for the NYC Kosher Food Festival and left us with the delicious leftovers.) Through her kosher blog, she has met several Emirati friends, who have since spent Shabbat meals with her family, and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot with our community. Two of them have been studying Hebrew for a year — way before any whisper of the peace agreement. 

An Emirati citizen named May, a self described “foodie,” knows more about Jewish and Israeli culture (she’s watched “Shtisel” religiously), music (she’s a big Omer Adam fan) and the food scene (she’s invited the owner of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant, Michael Solomonov, to open a branch in Dubai) than most Jews throughout the world. 

She shared with me that her parents — traditional and religious Emiratis who were born in Abu Dhabi and speak Arabic fluently — raised her to experience and enjoy different cultures, places, people and experiences, including Israel and the Jewish people. 

Shortly after the peace agreement, she read a beautiful welcome letter on Abu Dhabi TV to her new Israeli partners — in complex Hebrew. In fact, she and some of her friends were actually surprised to find out that Israel and the UAE hadn’t been enjoying peaceful relations beforehand. 

This was consistent with our experience in the airport as we were greeted with “shalom,” and with my children’s experience in the Atlantis water park, as they were serenaded with “Jerusalem” by Matisyahu. 

The billionaire owner of the magnificent Habtoor Palace hotel, which hosted the first ever open community Sukkot program, personally visited our community on Simchat Torah to welcome the community and embrace us warmly. 

How can we balance our realistic fear of the Muslims who seek to destroy our people and homeland with openness toward those who are approaching us in peace — especially when it is not always easy to distinguish between the two? How can we in turn encourage our children to display genuine curiosity, generosity of spirit and openness to others, even those whom we’ve been taught to eye with suspicion? How can we feel confident that openness to others will not sacrifice our children’s deep immersion in Jewish life and halachic practice? How can we be honest about the recent historical tension and conflict while embracing the emerging opportunities for peaceful alliances?

The leaders of the UAE are bold and brave for extending genuine and thorough peace to Israel. At an inspiring and emotional inaugural convening of Emirati and Israeli women organized by Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the Emirati and Israeli women repeated the paradigm of being “reunited with family.” We were all eager to learn from each other and to grow together. 

At the end of a long meal, they eagerly offered us rides in their cars and invited us to their homes for meals and to family celebrations. There were really no words to describe the natural kinship, connection and genuine respect we felt towards each other. 

When we introduced ourselves, I discussed my own family’s close relationship with the Imam at NYU (who lives a floor above us) and his family. It was humbling to realize how rare those relationships are. 

Our children compare “fasting” accomplishments and discuss their shared biblical narratives, such as the story of Jonah, with their Muslim ‘cousins,’ who call my husband “Abba.”  

Two of my teenage children are learning Arabic in a Modern Orthodox high School (thank you SAR!), and it has been heartwarming to observe how eager Jewish people worldwide are to embrace their Arab Muslim Emirati friends.

Unfortunately, because I’ve learned about and experienced the tension between our two faiths and peoples, I am much more aware of these biases. But I do know that the only way to reclaim our relationship with our relatives is through destroying discrimination and following the lead of our Emirati partners. Are we prepared to shift this narrative in our hearts, homes, synagogues and schools?

The leadership and the citizens of the UAE and Israel are embracing each other with excitement, optimism and open hearts and minds. While there is much to gain from a peaceful relationship with Israel, Emaratis have also risked their own alliances in the region by staunchly and thoroughly supporting a collaborative peace agreement. 

We must respond not only by respecting their customs, spaces and sensitivities as visitors and residents. It is our opportunity to show — with passion and conviction — that the Jewish people throughout the world are invested in peace, friendship and mutual growth when we are offered the opportunity.

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Top Palestinian official Saeb Erekat in ‘critical’ condition with COVID-19 in Israeli hospital

Mon, 2020-10-19 15:10

(JTA) — Saeb Erekat is in “critical” condition at an Israeli hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Erekat, who has served as the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organization for decades, was admitted to Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on Sunday after a Palestinian Authority request.

A Monday statement from the hospital said the 65-year-old was in “critical” condition and that he was on a ventilator, the BBC reported. On Sunday, the hospital said he had been in “serious but stable” condition.

“Because of the chronic health problems in Erekat’s respiratory system, he is being transferred to a hospital in the 1948 areas [Israel], because his condition requires special medical attention and supervision,” the PLO Negotiation Affairs department said in a Sunday statement, according to the Times of Israel.

Erekat, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month, is considered especially vulnerable because he received a lung transplant in 2017.

The Palestinian Authority cut ties with Israel and the United States in February after rejecting the peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump, with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas calling it a “disgrace.”

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Armenian leader accuses Israel of aiding ‘genocide’ against his people

Mon, 2020-10-19 13:57

(JTA) — The de-facto leader of a disputed region claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan accused Israel of assisting in a genocide against his people.

In a speech last week, Arayik Harutyunyan, the Armenian leader of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, said Israel is “responsible for the genocide in Karabakh.” Harutyunyan was referring somewhat hyperbolically to the deaths of several hundred people in recent weeks in armed clashes between Armenian separatists and Azerbaijani troops. The area has seen deadly clashes for decades.

Azerbaijan is a major buyer of Israeli arms, including some of its most advanced strike drones. Some of those weapons have reportedly been against Armenian troops or groups that it backs.

Israeli officials have said they have no knowledge of or involvement in how Azerbaijan uses the weapons it buys. But Harutyunyan dismissed such claims during a press conference on Oct 11.

“These statements are a mockery. Of course they know and continue to supply weapons anyway. And the authorities of Israel, which itself survived the genocide, are also responsible for this genocide,” Harutyunyan said, according to a report in RIA Novosti.

Israel’s economic ties to Azerbaijan, which supplies about one-third of Israel’s total oil consumption, have long complicated relations with Armenia, which recalled its ambassador from Israel on Oct. 2 on account of the weapons sales, though without making any reference to genocide.

The move came just months after Armenia’s president, Armen Sarkissian, made a landmark visit to Israel in which he spoke about the bonds between the nations born of their shared experience of genocide. Israel and Armenia “share common history through painful and sad times with the extinction of millions in the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide,” Sarkissian said in a Jan. 24 speech in Holon, referring to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turkish soldiers during World War I.

Israel for decades declined to recognize the slayings as genocide for fear it would anger Turkey, a major trading partner. In 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the event, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described it merely as “mass killings.”

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Jewish Republican congressional candidate calls George Soros a ‘Nazi sympathizer’

Mon, 2020-10-19 13:50

(JTA) — The latest political candidate to condemn George Soros, the Jewish billionaire Democratic megadonor, is Jewish himself.

Eric Early, a Republican who is running for Congress in California, tweeted Sunday, “Nazi sympathizer Soros is a danger to our nation.” Soros, who is a frequent target of Republican officials, in fact survived the Holocaust as a teenager.

The false accusation that Soros aided Nazis is not uncommon among criticism of him, which has become unrelenting in this election cycle and frequently veers into anti-Semitism. In reality, Soros was hidden as a child by a Hungarian bureaucrat and once accompanied him to survey the property of a Jewish household.

The Republican Jewish Coalition confirmed in an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Sunday that Early is Jewish. He is running against California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is also Jewish, in a heavily Democratic district.

On Saturday, Schiff had criticized Early for sharing a meme that falsely claimed Schiff was related to Soros. He is not. Schiff called the meme anti-Semitic.

“This week, my opponent shared a “meme” about me. A well-circulated anti-Semitic lie,” he tweeted, adding that “the Republican Party’s willingness to traffic in bigotry and hate has caused lasting damage.”

The meme is gone from Early’s Twitter feed, and Early responded to Schiff’s criticism by writing that “there’s nothing antisemitic at all about the retweet (whoever did it).” Early told the Washington Times that Soros is “flat-out scum” and called Schiff “one of Soros’ many tools.”

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Poll finds American Jews set to vote overwhelmingly for Joe Biden

Mon, 2020-10-19 10:01

(JTA) — Jewish voters are set to vote 75% to 22% for Joe Biden, according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee.

The poll released Monday shows the Democratic nominee expanding his support among Jewish voters from a 67-30 split in a poll last month and it includes other signs that President Donald Trump is faring poorly among Jewish voters.

Trump’s record on bigotry may be the animating factor in his poor performance: Asked which candidate in the Nov. 3 presidential election would better handle anti-Semitism, respondents produced identical results, with Biden scoring 75% and Trump 22%.

The survey was conducted by SSRS from Sept. 9- Oct. 4, reaching 1,334 American Jews by phone; some respondents would have answered questions after Trump once again equivocate when asked to condemn white supremacists in the Sept. 29 debate with Biden. The poll has a margin of error of 4.2 percent.

Biden, the former vice president, has made Trump’s record on bigotry a central focus of his overall campaign and particularly of his Jewish campaign. Biden launched his campaign in April 2019 saying that he was coaxed into running by Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn a deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

The AJC poll shows Biden besting Trump on every other issue including handling the coronavirus pandemic, 78%-19%; combatting terrorism, 71%-26%; and uniting the country, 79%-15%.

Trump fares poorly even on those issues he has sought to draw strong contrasts with Biden: dealing with Iran, 71%-27%; handling crime, 72%-24%, and strengthening U.S.-Israel relations, 54%-42%.

A central plank of the Trump campaign’s campaign in the Jewish community has been his decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear, deal, which Trump has repeatedly emphasized was finalized when Biden was serving President Barack Obama as vice president.

Another plank has been Trump’s closeness to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cut funding to Palestinians, recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, advanced an Israeli-Palestinian peace formula that would allow Israel to keep chunks of the West Bank, and most recently, brokered a normalization deal between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations.

Trump has expressed frustration that his Israel decisions have not garnered greater support in the Jewish community.

Another sign in the poll that Trump has alienated Jews is that just 16% of respondents admitted to voting for him in 2016; exit polls at the time showed 24% voting for him. The gap suggests that some respondents might have convinced themselves that they never voted for Trump.

The poll showed Jewish voters tend to rank foreign policy low on their list of priorities heading into the voting booth: The top two ranked issues are the pandemic and health care, at 26% and 17% respectively, with foreign policy ranked last among six issues, at 5%. The other issues respondents were asked to rank were the economy at third, 13%; race relations at fourth, 12% and crime at fifth, 6%.

David Harris, the American Jewish Committee CEO, identified a number of areas of concern for his group, which seeks to achieve a consensus among American Jews to better represent them to overseas governments and in international forums. One was the gap between Orthodox Jews, of whom the poll showed 74 percent favoring Trump, and others in the community.

“For those of us in the Jewish world who want to focus on unity on outreach on bridge-building within the Jewish community, I think this is a very compelling reminder of how wide some of the differences are,” he said.

Other concerns, Harris said, included the seeming gap between American and Israeli Jews, who overwhelmingly approve of Trump, and the shrinking interest in foreign policy among American Jews.

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Jewish Journal of Los Angeles ceases print edition

Sun, 2020-10-18 18:36

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, the largest American Jewish weekly west of New York, has ceased print production as of its Oct. 16 issue and become an online-only publication.

In an announcement to staff, readers and advertisers, publisher and editor-in-chief David Suissa said he hopes the print version of the paper will return once synagogues open again.

As a free community paper, the Journal has been distributed primarily through the area’s network of far-flung synagogues, where congregants could pick up the paper on Fridays, its day of publication.

“I’m excited about the possibilities of online, but I haven’t forgotten the power of paper. There’s role for both. That means the next time you show up at your favorite synagogue on a Shabbat or holiday, expect to be greeted again by your favorite Jewish paper,” Suissa wrote in his announcement note.

Simultaneously the Journal plans to ramp up its online offerings and provide a Jewish Streaming Guide, curating the most interesting Jewish events that can be watched online during the coronavirus crisis.

In post-World War II Los Angeles, Jewish residents had a reading choice of four Jewish weeklies – B’nai B’rith Messenger, Jewish Voice, Heritage and Jewish Journal. Of these, only the latecomer Jewish Journal, founded in 1985 and initially subsidized by the local Jewish federation, has survived.

According to recent figures, the Jewish Journal had a pre-pandemic circulation of 50,000 printed copies, shared by an estimated 150,000 readers.

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Satmar wedding made ‘family-only’ after NY officials order halt to plans for ‘tens of thousands’ of attendees

Sun, 2020-10-18 14:22

(JTA) — The wedding of the grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum will be for family only after plans for a reception for tens of thousands of well-wishers drew condemnation from New York officials.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that state health officials had issued a formal public health order putting a stop to a wedding scheduled for Monday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Cuomo did not offer details about the wedding. But notices distributed last week advertised, in Hebrew and Yiddish, that a wedding for Teitelbaum’s grandson would be held Monday. One outlined a series of events that included both indoor and outdoor events and a celebratory meal for family members. Another explained how attendees could celebrate alongside “tens of thousands” of community members.

The synagogue where the wedding is set to take place, Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar, issued a statement late Saturday announcing that the wedding would be for family members only — but said that had always been the plan. The statement, issued in English, said the actual marriage and celebratory meal were always intended for family members only and that a brief public reception afterwards had been designed to comply with social distancing regulations.

“It’s sad that nobody verified our plans before attacking us,” the statement says. “The publicity will turn this wedding to a paparazzi [target] and will draw spectators that may make it impossible to control the crowds to comply with social distancing. It will also deter from the celebratory and spiritual atmosphere fit for such an affair. Hence, we decided that the wedding will not be held as planned.”

The crackdown comes as New York officials struggle with relatively high coronavirus infection rates in Williamsburg and other Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, many of which are now subject to heightened restrictions. Cuomo has criticized Orthodox Jews in those areas for continuing to hold large gatherings during the pandemic and said that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is not enforcing regulations for political reasons.

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Following French teacher’s beheading, Jewish groups urge members to rally against Islamic terrorists

Sun, 2020-10-18 10:00

(JTA) — French Jewish groups have called on their supporters to join a rally Sunday in memory of the schoolteacher murdered Friday after facing criticism for showing caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad to his students.

The rally in memory of Samuel Paty, who was decapitated outside the school where he worked by an 18-year-old refugee from Chechnya who appeared to have been motivated by videos on social media, is focused on safeguarding freedom of expression. But the Jewish groups say it should also call attention to the threat of Islamic terrorism in France.

CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewish communities, called on its followers to show up for the rally in Paris’ Republique Square, citing the “escalating nature of Islamist attacks.” So did the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism .

“Islamist horror and Islamist terror have hit France again,” said the anti-Semitism watchdog group’s statement, which called for the expulsion of Islamist terrorism suspects from France. “It is time to take real action to eradicate this danger that comes from within.”

Multiple French Muslim groups have condemned the attack, which came weeks after Paty showed his students cartoons that had appeared in Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine targeted in a 2015 terror attack, as part of a lesson about free speech. The parent of a student in the class became incensed by Paty’s use of the images, which included a depiction of Muhammad, and waged a campaign against him both at his school and online, where videos criticizing the teacher spread widely.

Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch Anzorov, who arrived in France with his family when he was 6 years old, traveled to Paty’s school and asked students exiting on Friday to identify the teacher. After decapitating Paty, the teenager posted a video online and and shouted “Allah is the greatest” while brandishing the knife at police, who then shot him dead, French officials said during a press conference Saturday.

Police in France have arrested several people in connection with the murder, including Abdelhakim Sefrioui, an imam who has long agitated against Israel and against other Muslim leaders who have spoken out against radicalism or tried to foster dialogue with French Jews. Sefrioui had accompanied the father who originally posted the videos criticizing Paty to his school; the father is also in custody.

The attack is only the latest connected to the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which Islamists murdered 12 people in the magazine’s Paris offices. An accomplice killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket two days later. Alleged accomplices of the killers in both attacks are on trial in Paris.

Last month, an attacker stabbed multiple people on the Paris street where Charlie Hebdo had been located, prompting French officials to deploy armed guards to protect Jews in synagogues on Yom Kippur. “Jews in particular are the target of Islamist attacks,” a top French official said at the time.

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Following Facebook, Twitter will now ban Holocaust denial

Fri, 2020-10-16 20:56

(JTA) — Twitter will now ban posts that deny the Holocaust.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that a Twitter spokesperson said posts that “deny or distort” violent events including the Holocaust would be banned.

Twitter is the second major social media network to ban Holocaust denial this week. Facebook announced on Monday that it would ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust, two years after Mark Zuckerberg said Holocaust denial should be allowed in the name of free speech.

“We strongly condemn anti-semitism, and hateful conduct has absolutely no place on our service,” the Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “We also have a robust ‘glorification of violence’ policy in place and take action against content that glorifies or praises historical acts of violence and genocide, including the Holocaust.”

The moves come as social media networks make a series of moves to crack down on hateful content ahead of the presidential election, and as activists have called on social media companies to do more to combat hate and misinformation. Facebook also recently banned content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as a range of hateful posts including those that say Jews control the world. YouTube likewise banned QAnon content, and Twitter removed thousands of QAnon accounts this summer.

Twitter has taken an especially tough stance on disinformation recently, appending warnings to tweets by President Trump sharing false information, violent content or conspiracy theories. The network also recently blocked an unsubstantiated article about Joe Biden from the New York Post, before saying similar content would be allowed with a warning attached.

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Holocaust survivor’s daughter wants her late mother’s interview out of ‘Borat’ sequel

Fri, 2020-10-16 20:35

(JTA) — The daughter of a late Holocaust survivor is suing to have her mother’s appearance in Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming “Borat” sequel removed from the film, stating that the comedy mocks “the Holocaust and Jewish culture.”

Cohen, who is Jewish, interviewed Judith Dim Evans earlier this year “under false pretenses with the intent of appropriating her likeness,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed this week with the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Cohen approached Evans for an interview in what he called a documentary earlier this year, the lawsuit states. Her daughter said that Evans, who passed away this summer, was “horrified and upset” upon learning that the film was a satirical comedy.

The attorney representing Evans’ estate declined to tell the Journal-Constitution if Evans had signed a waiver before participating in the interview.

In the original “Borat” film, which premiered in 2006, Cohen tricked several people into participating in a similar fake documentary to mock them. The film also satirizes the anti-Semitism present in the Borat character’s home country of Kazakhstan.

Sources told Deadline that Evans was included to mock Holocaust deniers, not herself, and she was “clued in on the gag” right after it was shot.

The sequel, full title “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” premieres on Amazon Prime on Oct. 23. Amazon has yet to comment on the Evans lawsuit.

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Mayer Rispler, Satmar leader who called for following health rules, dies of COVID-19 at 70

Fri, 2020-10-16 19:49

(JTA) — The leader of a Satmar Hasidic sect who called for Orthodox Jews to follow New York City’s health regulations during the pandemic’s first wave this spring has died of COVID-19.

Mayer Rispler, 70, died Friday, according to Vos Iz Neias, an Orthodox news site. He had been placed on a ventilator in late September, as infection rates were rising in the city’s Orthodox neighborhoods.

While Rispler was hospitalized, city and state officials imposed restrictions on “red zones” with many infections, causing some Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who burned masks in the street to protest their sense of being singled out by the rules.

Rispler had backed the city’s handling of the pandemic in April, after a large funeral for a rabbi who died of COVID-19 prompted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to lash out at the community in a widely criticized tweet. Rispler defended the mayor and called for compliance with government health regulations.

“We do not condone any behavior that puts people at risk and pledge to keep working alongside the brave men and women of the NYPD in addressing and eliminating any such occurrences,” Rispler wrote at the time.

Rispler was an accountant and a major donor to Satmar institutions in Williamsburg. His funeral was held there today.

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