4 Palestinians detained by own police after visiting West Bank mayor’s sukkah

10/21/16: Four Palestinians who attended a Sukkot celebration alongside Israelis in the home of a West Bank mayor were arrested by Palestinian security forces.

[UPDATE 10/25/16: The Palestinians have been released]

The celebration took place without incident Wednesday at the home of Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement. Revivi had invited several dozen Palestinians living near Efrat to join 30 Israelis in celebrating the Jewish harvest holiday.

But four of the Palestinians who attended were arrested late the next day. The reason for their arrest was not clear, but their relatives suggested it was because they were photographed with prominent Israeli army and police officers, The Washington Post reported.

One relative of the detained men accused Revivi of “tricking” the Palestinians.

“Instead of helping us, he destroyed us,” Asad Abu Hamad told The Washington Post.

Revivi denied the accusations and said he had urged for the four men to be released.

“I understand they are upset. I understand what the relatives are saying,” he said. “But was this a trap? This was no trap.”

Israel approves hundreds of new West Bank housing units

An Israeli planning committee approved the construction of hundreds of housing units in four West Bank settlements.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Committee on Wednesday approved construction of 234 living units in Elkana in the northern West Bank, designated to be a nursing home; 30 homes in Beit Arye in the northern West Bank and 20 homes in the Jerusalem ring neighborhood of Givat Zeev.

The committee also retroactively legalized 179 housing units built in the 1980s in Ofarim, part of the Beit Arye municipality.

Plans for housing units in Efrat, Nofim and Har Gilo has been on the agenda but were not discussed at the meeting.

The approval comes less than a week after Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, criticized Israel for continuing to build in West Bank settlements and neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, going against the recommendations of the Mideast Quartet.

In suburban settlement bloc, kidnapping shakes sense of security

At a shopping center in the middle of Efrat, families eat pizza, a deliveryman unloads a cart and a barista serves coffee. On a passing bus, a banner reads “Gush Etzion — an Israeli home.”

In many respects it’s a normal, quiet Monday in this settlement that has grown into a large commuter suburb for Jerusalem.

At a nearby intersection, though, the calm feels absent. Israeli soldiers patrol the crossroads, and a curb usually crowded with hitchhikers looking for a ride is empty.

The June 12 kidnapping of Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel while they were hitchhiking from the area has upset life in the Etzion settlement bloc, or Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem.

During the past week, Israeli residents say, life has felt more tense and their communities less secure. For a week following the kidnapping, Palestinians living in the area who work in Israel were unable to get to their jobs.

“I feel scared that there’s no security,” said Tali Ardani, 32, a supermarket employee in Efrat. “I didn’t feel like that before. I used to hitchhike at that very intersection.”

As West Bank settlements go, Gush Etzion — with Efrat at its center — is about as mainstream Israeli as it gets. The Gush Etzion area southwest of Jerusalem and Bethlehem includes 20 Israeli settlements and about 70,000 Israeli residents living among about 18,000 Palestinians.

Shortly after Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, settlements were established in the area. Some of the first residents were the children of Jews massacred after the Kfar Etzion settlement was seized by Arab forces during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

The settlement bloc has since become a collection of Jerusalem suburbs. It is widely expected to remain part of Israel under any peace deal.

Opponents of a Palestinian state also recognize the Israeli national consensus on the area’s future as part of Israel. In his proposal to annex vast swaths of the West Bank, Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has lobbied to start with Gush Etzion.

But the kidnapping of the teens has served as a harsh reminder to Efrat residents that they live in a conflict zone. Locals say that since the kidnapping, the number of residents trying to hitchhike here has dropped dramatically.

Yitzchak Glick, a U.S. native who moved here in 1974, said the atmosphere reminds him of the mood during the Second Intifada a decade ago, when attacks here were common and “we were afraid to drive on the road at night.”

“There’s a lot of tension in the air,” he said. “There are ups and downs. The atmosphere in Efrat was horrific.”

The director of Efrat’s local government council, Yehuda Schweiger, said that while residents are more cautious and on edge now, they’re trying to regain a sense of normalcy.

“We don’t want to go back to Defensive Shield,” he said, referring to the Israeli army’s extensive West Bank 2002 operation to combat terrorism during the Second Intifada. “We trust the army.”

Palestinian residents also said they want to return to a calm life. But the ongoing Israeli military operation to find the teens and punish their kidnappers has left five Palestinians dead, entailed widespread searches in Palestinian homes and for a week closed the border to Palestinians with Israeli work permits, leaving them without a paycheck.

“It’s a lot of changes,” said Fatima, a Palestinian doctor who declined to give her last name. “The army has been around here. People don’t have money because they haven’t been working.”

Some local Palestinian towns are governed by the Palestinian Authority. They are poorer and more rundown than their Israeli counterparts. While Glick visited a Palestinian-owned hardware store, a standard-issue red sign across the street warned Israelis not to enter an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

But Israelis and Palestinians still do business together here, sometimes shopping at the same stores and working together in a large budget supermarket. Glick, a physician, takes pride in his frequent visits to patients in Palestinian towns, and several Palestinian families welcomed him enthusiastically as he made house calls Monday.

In general, he said, Israelis have become more guarded in their relations with Palestinians since the kidnapping.

“There’s no question that when we encounter terror, it’s a tremendous setback for the feeling of coexistence,” he said. “When there are terror attacks, these voices are muffled by voices saying that we shouldn’t have Palestinians in our towns.”

Israelis have come together in prayer and concern for the boys’ safe return. Still, the kidnapping has spurred debates about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the nature of Israel’s military operation and the potential for peace with Palestinians.

But local resident Tehila Elitzur said the problem on which she has focused since the kidnappings is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather it is Israel’s duty to provide transit services to its citizens so they will not need to hitchhike.

“What’s happening here is in every far-off place” in Israel, said Elitzur, who lives in the Gush Etzion settlement of Elazar. “You don’t have good public transit. We need more.”

In Israel’s abortion debate, pro-choice seems to be the only choice

A billboard in central Tel Aviv features a black-and-white photo of a distressed woman above a caption in bold red letters that reads, “The pain and remorse from my abortion accompany me every day.”

The billboard is an advertisement for Efrat, an anti-abortion outfit that dubs itself “The Committee to Rescue Israel’s Babies” and offers financial support to pregnant women in an effort to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies.

Efrat has never protested outside a gynecological clinic, nor has it sought to restrict Israel’s fairly liberal abortion laws. Last month, the organization supported a proposal to allow women to undergo abortions without first appearing before a state committee, as the law currently requires.

Efrat’s president, Eli Schussheim, describes himself as pro-choice, a position he adopts more from pragmatism rather than principle.

“If I tell a woman she has no right to abort, she’ll tell me to get out of here,” Schussheim told JTA. “I said I’ll be pro-choice. It’s important to give counseling to women. I think laws don’t educate.”

From the Western Wall to the West Bank, religious issues dominate Israel’s political discourse. Orthodox parties make up a quarter of the Knesset and have sat in nearly every governing coalition since the state’s founding, using their political might to push for widely despised privileges that benefit Israel’s religious minority.

But while religion looms large in Israel, its abortion laws are, in practice, among the world’s most liberal. Though any woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy must demonstrate to a three-person committee that having the baby will cause her emotional or physical harm, or that the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, more than 99 percent of requests are approved.

Since Israel legalized abortions in 1977 — just four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision galvanized conservative Christian opposition to abortion in the United States — there has been no significant movement to outlaw abortion. In January, the Knesset passed a law allowing government funding for nearly all abortions, some 40,000 of which are performed each year in the Jewish state.

Experts say Israel’s secular foundations, along with Jewish law’s relative ambiguity on abortion, have kept religious political parties mostly silent on the issue and led groups like Efrat to focus on preventing abortions rather than outlawing them. Aliza Lavie, a lawmaker who proposed abolishing abortion committees at a recent Knesset conference, said Israelis are pro-choice because they understand women don’t approach abortion flippantly.

“I think there’s an understanding here that we love children in Israel,” Lavie told JTA. “When a woman already gets to that point [of wanting an abortion], she has just reasons. Israeli culture is very pro-kids.”

Traditional Jewish law doesn’t regard life as beginning at conception, and even mandates abortion if a mother’s life is in danger, so opposing abortion isn’t as high a priority for Israeli religious activists as it is for some of their American counterparts. Haredi Orthodox parties in the past have tried to outlaw late-term abortions, but the bills failed early and no religious party has made abortion a signature issue.

“In the world of the Catholic Church, an abortion is thought of as murder even in the early stages of pregnancy, but in Judaism it’s not so clear,” said Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau, who attended the Knesset conference.

Absent a powerful anti-abortion movement, Israel’s abortion debate centers on technical policy questions such as who should say what to women seeking abortion or which abortions should be funded by the state.

Skeptical that it could ever get abortion outlawed, Efrat has focused instead on removing incentives for women to abort. According to Schussheim, 60 percent of Israeli abortions stem from financial concerns. So Efrat has mobilized a national network of 3,000 women volunteers who provide counseling during the pregnancy and, for those who need it, material support for the baby’s first two years — anything from a crib and stroller to monthly packages of diapers and wipes.

Efrat’s chief social worker, Ruth Tidhar, says the organization supports eliminating abortion committees for similarly practical reasons. Tidhar believes they don’t adequately inform women of the risks of abortion. Instead, she would like doctors to provide information about the medical risks and a required 72-hour waiting period to enable women to consider the information.

“It’s supposed to be a stopgap [to say] ‘Think about this, it’s a serious decision, it’s going to influence the rest of your life,’ ” Tidhar said. “I don’t believe that any woman goes to have an abortion without some degree of ambivalence and bad feelings.”

In supporting the abolition of the committees, Efrat has made common cause with the Israeli feminist organization Isha L’Isha, which opposes the panels on principle as an impediment to a woman’s right to choose. Isha L’Isha also would like to see women receive more information about the procedure, as well as medical advice.

According to New Family, an Israeli organization that fights religious coercion in marriage, divorce and child care, half of Israel’s 40,000 annual abortions take place illegally, as women prefer to bypass the committees. Abolishing the committees, Lavie said, would remove the incentive to undergo an illegal abortion.

“Only the woman can say what’s best for her,” said Ronit Piso, Isha L’Isha’s women and medical technology coordinator. “Only she can make the judgement if it’s economic or anything else. We do think it’s important that women get advice and counseling on the medical implications and counseling on the process itself.”

Two injured in West Bank firebomb attack

Two people sustained minor injuries when a firebomb hit their car near the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

The car was completely burnt in the attack Thursday night, Army Radio reported. The two victims had burns and were taken by ambulance to a hospital in Jerusalem.

The attack was the third serious incident in the West Bank over the past 24 hours.

On Thursday night, in two separate incidents, Israeli troops shot and killed two Palestinians whom they suspected of carrying out an attack.

The first incident occurred at the Abu Dis checkpoint near Jerusalem. Troops shot a Palestinian man in the abdomen after he tried to stab a Border Police officer, the report said. Medics evacuated the Palestinian man to hospital but he died of his injuries. None of the Israelis was hurt.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, troops killed a Palestinian after he fired a flare gun at Israelis standing at a bus stop near the settlement Tapuach, according to eyewitness accounts.

“There were four people inside the bus stop,” Asher Hoffman told Army Radio. “We heard explosions and saw a terrorist running in our direction. The Border Police intercepted him, fired at his direction and hit.”

Orthodoxy and ethics

One of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of our time, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, related the following story in the July 12-18 issue of the International Jerusalem Post:

“Let me tell you a true incident which for me is a metaphor of our times. A young man attended a yeshiva in Safed.

“The first morning, he arrived a bit late for breakfast and there was no milk left for his coffee. He went to the grocery, purchased a container of milk and placed the container in the yeshiva refrigerator with a sign, ‘Private property.’

“The next morning, the container was gone.

“He bought another container, on which he added to the previous sign, ‘Do not steal.’

“The next morning, that container, too, was missing.

“He purchased a new container, adding to the sign, ‘Questionable gentile milk’ (halav akum). This time no one took his container; he left the yeshiva.”

A year and a half ago in this column, I recounted a similar story that Rabbi Riskin had told me many years ago. It was about 10 candidates — handpicked talmudic scholarshe interviewed for the position of rosh yeshiva (head of yeshiva). Nine of them said that they would not return an extra electric shaver accidentally sent to them by a non-Jewish-owned department store. They contended that the halachah — one does not return a lost item to an idol worshipper — forbade them from doing so.

Unfortunately, pointing to Orthodox Jews who are not ethical in order to dismiss Orthodox Judaism has always been a popular pastime among many non-Orthodox Jews. One would have more respect for such criticisms if non-Orthodox and irreligious Jews were equally critical of themselves. The secular Yiddish press comprised the West’s most supportive group of Stalin and communism, and radical Jews were disproportionately involved in supporting that movement, one of the two monstrous, genocidal evils of the 20th century. Today, the Jews who are among the leading anti-Israel activists in the Western world are virtually all non-Orthodox. And the assimilation rate among non-Orthodox Jews is incomparably higher.

So no group of Jews ought to be casting stones, since all of us live in glass houses.

Moreover, at least the Orthodox have important voices like Rabbi Riskin, who criticize fellow Orthodox Jews on ethical grounds. Where are analogous Reform, Conservative or secular Jewish voices? One regularly hears liberal Jews — Reform, Conservative and secular — denouncing the Orthodox and denouncing political conservatives, but what about criticism of their own? When was the last time a liberal Reform rabbi spoke of the moral dangers of secularism? Or attacked the left for its widespread Israel-hatred? Is there a Reform rabbi who criticized the Reform movement’s former head for telling a Muslim audience that he “respects” the Muslim veil?

Nevertheless, the ethics problem within Orthodoxy is real.

I first confronted this dilemma when I was a student at a prominent yeshiva high school.

My classmate Joseph Telushkin and I conducted a survey and found fewer than five students among the 120 students in our grade whom we could identify as not cheating on tests.

When I later taught at Brooklyn College, I was told by Jewish and non-Jewish faculty that graduates of yeshiva high schools were the students most likely to cheat on tests.

A non-Jewish listener once called my radio show to ask me if Orthodox Jews are permitted to speak on the Sabbath. I asked him why he asked such a question. He told me that he lives in an Orthodox Jewish area of Los Angeles and that on Saturday mornings, when walking his dog, he would say “Good morning” to Jews wearing black hats walking to synagogue. They just don’t respond, he told me, and that’s why he wondered if speaking on the Sabbath is forbidden to Orthodox Jews.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community comprises about 9 percent of Israel’s population and receives about half of the country’s welfare payments — despite the fact that the recipients are nearly all healthy and young.

Charedi men who serve in Israel’s armed forces are increasingly humiliated, ostracized and even beaten when they return to their Charedi communities (see the Jerusalem Post, for example).

It would be very valuable to see data — if such data exist — on how many Israeli Jews in the 65 years of Israel’s existence came to Judaism and how many were alienated from Judaism as a result of observing how Orthodox Israelis lead their lives. 

To many Orthodox Jews’ credit, these examples are troubling. Also, one should not forget the role played by the Charedi first-responders to terror attacks in Israel, as well as the low incidence of drug use and the strong family life that characterize Orthodox Jews. And, among the ultra-Orthodox, there is a group, Chabad, that does stand out for its nonjudgmental love of Jews and for acts of kindness.

But Orthodoxy must address the ethics problem, if for no other reason than to preserve its own credibility. If Orthodox Jews are merely ethically no better — forget worse — than non-Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, religious Christians, what does that say about Orthodox Judaism? If its huge number of laws don’t generally produce better people, what’s the point of Orthodoxy? 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Palestinians demonstrate for independence day

Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank to mark the anniversary of their declaration of independence.

Hundreds of demonstrators, including foreign activists, blocked West Bank junctions and threw rocks at cars with Israeli license plates. Two Israelis were injured near the West Bank settlement of Efrat after their car was hit with stones.

Israeli soldiers reportedly dispersed some of the crowds with tear gas. Six Palestinian demonstrators were injured and several others were held by police, according to reports.

The Palestine National Council on Nov. 15, 1988, at the end of its 19th meeting, declared Palestinian independence.

Report: Israel to subsidize 500 West Bank housing units

The Israeli government reportedly agreed to subsidize the construction of 500 new living units in the West Bank, despite saying it would not provide incentives to the settlements.

Sunday’s Associated Press report of the subsidies came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel to talk to Israeli leaders about regional threats and issues, including the peace process. The Palestinians have said they will not return to the negotiating table until Israel halts all settlement construction.

The housing is in places that have been identified as national priority areas by the government, which makes them entitled to perks to assist in their development. At the beginning of the year, 70 settlements appeared on a government list of 550 communities identified as national priority areas.

Following complaints from the United States, the settlements were removed from the list, but a loophole allows them to receive the benefits if approved by political leaders, according to AP. Homes in Efrat, Beitar Illit and Ariel are slated to receive the subsidy.

“There are no special incentives whatsoever to encourage people to live in the West Bank,” government spokesman Mark Regev told AP. “The same conditions apply to 600 communities throughout the country.”

Letters to the Editor: Shul funds, Rabbi funds, Efrat construction

Better Use for Shul Funds

My husband and I happened to be in Los Angeles this month and saw the article about the revival of the Breed Street Shul (“Breed Street Shul Raising Funds With ‘Fiddler,’” May 14). My grandfather, Gershon Yehuda Wetstein (a.k.a. “Yeedle”), was a regular worshipper there for more than 40 years. He was also a schochet (ritual slaughterer) and as such was well known in the Boyle Heights Jewish community. A distant cousin, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein, was the rav of the congregation for 35 years.

While I can certainly understand a sentimental attachment to a shul that at one time pulsated with Jewish life and prayer, I can’t help thinking that the current campaign to renovate the building into community use is a terrible misuse of Jewish funds.

What Jewish educational institution in the Los Angeles area couldn’t put $10 million to good use? What Jewish child who longs to attend a Jewish day school will attend a public school next year because the scholarship funding ran dry?

Marsha Wetstein Motzen
Englewood, N.J.

Support for Rabbi

As members of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC), we write to support the efforts of our Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater to fight for social and economic justice in the United States, the Middle East and globally. A handful of current and former members recently wrote a letter to The Jewish Journal attacking him for his outspoken views, including his support for President Obama (“Jews Must Stay on Visionary Obama’s Side,” (jewishjournal.com, April 19). We disagree.

We admire Rabbi Grater for his courage in tackling controversial topics in his sermons, his writings and his public actions. His support for Israel is unswerving and is reflected in many aspects of our congregation’s life and activities. At the same time, his criticism of certain policies of the Israeli government reflects Judaism’s prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power.

As a scholar and spiritual leader, he draws on Jewish tradition not only to educate the congregation and the public about the importance of combating social injustice but also to stir debate. He actively encourages a diversity of opinion and dialogue within the synagogue.

Since he arrived at PJTC seven years ago, the rabbi has emerged as a powerful voice of conscience and commitment. We value his leadership, as do the overwhelming majority of members of our congregation, which recently renewed his contract.

We do not agree on all social and political issues, but we share a common admiration for Rabbi Grater’s bold leadership.

Susan Auerbach, Hal Barron, Jared Becker, Cindy Cohen, Douglas Crane, Mike Davidson, Peter Dreier, Mark Esensten, Jennie Factor, Betty Fishman, Jane Fishman, Yudie Fishman, Cecilia Fox, Jon Fuhrman, Rebecca Golbert, Claire Gorfinkel, Allen Gross, Karen Gross, John Guest, Sandy Hartford, Ed Honowitz, Cara Jaffe, Susan Kane, Patricia Kirkish, Kathy Kobayashi, Sandra Lavine, David Lorin. Brian Mark, Madeline Mark, Maureen McGrath, Peter Mendel, Terry Meng, Amy Nettleton, Jenny Owen, Ellen Pais, Meredith Rose, Glenn Rothner, Faith Segal, Mickey Segal, Diana Selig, Ruth Several, Mike Several, Debby Singer, Jack Singer, Jonathan Swerdlow, Ruth Wolman, Steven Youra.

Efrat Construction

I would like to add one point to David Suissa’s tear-wrenching column on Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s plight in not being able to continue building in the settlement of Efrat during the partial construction moratorium now in effect (“Natural-Born Builder,” May 14). While it is our country’s policy that the final eastern border of Israel will “reflect subsequent developments” to the 1949 Armistice line, the changes will be the result of negotiations.

It cannot be assumed that Efrat will be included in the new boundary of Israel. The settlement is deep in the occupied Palestinian Territory and has a detrimental impact on the economic development of nearby Bethlehem and on the Palestinian population in Jerusalem.

Efrat blocks Palestinian access to the road connecting Bethlehem and Jerusalem to Hebron, which restricts Palestinian access to employment, markets and social services. If Rabbi Riskin wants to build, he should return to Israel and do it there.

Michael Several
via e-mail

A May 14 article, “Breed Street Shul Raising Funds With ‘Fiddler,’ ” incorrectly named the source of funds used to hire Tsilah Burman as the first executive director of the Breed Street Shul Project. Her hire was made possible by grants from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Pillar.

A May 14 article, “Israel’s Haitian Tent Hospital Boosts IDF Image,” incorrectly described the tent hospital staffing. The 200-plus personnel who staffed the Israeli field hospital in Haiti were mostly members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Medical Corps, and the rest were from several Israeli hospitals. Dr. Ofer Merin (who, in the reserves, is commander of the IDF field hospitals) was not the head of the Israeli effort in Haiti. He was chief of the surgery and trauma unit — one of the two units that made up the hospital. The head of the field hospital was a member of the IDF Medical Corps.

Judge upholds $116 million lawsuit against PLO

A U.S. judge will not rescind his decision ordering the PLO to pay $116 million to the family of victims of a terrorist attack.

Ronald Lagueux, a federal judge in Providence, R.I., said Wednesday that the Palestine Liberation Organization was liable because of its refusal during the trial early in this decade to mount a defense; PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused to recognize U.S. sovereignty in the matter.

Yaron Ungar, a U.S. citizen, and his wife Efrat were shot dead as they traveled with their infant son near Beit Shemesh, a town near Jerusalem that also adjoins the West Bank.

In recent filings, the PLO blamed Hamas for the attack, saying it sought to sabotage Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The lawsuit targeted Hamas and the PLO, saying that the PLO was responsible as well because it gave the terrorists safe harbor. Hamas has never contested the suit.

It was not clear if the PLO planned an appeal.