Deeply unpopular at home, French president embraced on Israel trip

For Francois Hollande, the most unpopular head of state in France in more than half a century, his first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority promised a respite from the daily pummeling over his country’s stunted economy and his perceived flimsiness as a leader.

In Israel, everything was set for a hero’s welcome for someone who supported Europe’s blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military unit, waged a relentless war on anti-Semitism and scuttled a nascent deal over Iran’s nuclear program that was stridently opposed by Jerusalem.

“I will always remain a friend of Israel,” Hollande said in Hebrew upon arriving Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned the sentiment, calling Hollande “a leader with principles and deep humanity” — praises that reflect the gratitude many Israelis and French Jews feel toward a man who has transformed France from one of Israel’s fiercest European critics into an important ally.

Controversy threatened to derail Hollande’s visit even before he arrived.

A planned speech to the Israeli Knesset was canceled briefly after Hollande decided he would prefer to follow President Obama’s lead and address university students. Outraged, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein nixed a reception for Hollande and froze cooperation with the French Embassy on the visit.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, ended the row on Nov. 9 with his announcement that Hollande would address the Knesset after all.

“I know you rely on your own strength for defense, but know that France is your friend and will not allow Iran access to nuclear arms, for it would a be threat for Israel and the world,” Hollande said in his address to the parliament Monday evening.

“Everything must be done to solve this crisis through diplomacy,” Hollande said, adding: “We shall maintain sanctions until Iran has renounced its nuclear program.”

In the French media, the Knesset incident received considerable play because it touched on Hollande’s Achilles’ heel: His perceived indecisiveness, even among members of his own Socialist Party.

“Hollande is more of a grayish leader. He’s not a star like some of his predecessors, including Francois Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Daniel Shek, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Paris during Sarkozy’s term from 2007 to 2012.

Along with this perception of weakness, Hollande is contending with a worrisome financial crisis and a large rise in the unemployment rate, which has reached 26 percent among the young — more than triple the rate in Germany. Earlier this month, the Standard & Poor credit agency cut France’s rating for the second time this year, exposing Hollande to the charge that he is not delivering the growth and welfare he promised.

Indeed, popular support for Hollande is at a record low. A poll released Sunday by the market research firm IFOP found that Hollande’s approval rating had plunged to 20 percent, a dramatic falloff from the 54 percent he enjoyed following his election in May 2012 and two points below the previous all-time low set by Mitterrand in 1991.

But on issues of particular importance to French Jews, Hollande has a stellar record. Since his election, hundreds have been arrested and dozens convicted for anti-Jewish violence and incitement. And last year, the president cleared his schedule unexpectedly to accompany Netanyahu to Toulouse for a memorial for the four victims of a French Islamist attack on a Jewish school there in 2012.

Such overtures may make French Jews more forgiving of Hollande’s shortcomings on other fronts — but probably not much.

“It would be incorrect to call Hollande popular among French Jews, who also worry about the economy as all French citizens do,” said Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of Jewish communities in France.

On Israel, Hollande reversed France’s objection to the European Union blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing. Then, earlier this month, France blocked a deal between world powers and Iran, taking a harder line than the United States over the terms of an accord.

“These moves were not born of any desire to curry favor with Israel,” Shek said, “[but] the French position was nonetheless appreciated in Jerusalem.”

This was not expected of Hollande when he first sought to replace Sarkozy, a right-leaning leader seen as more responsive to Jewish concerns than his predecessors. Some French Jewish leaders — including Cukierman’s CRIF predecessor, Richard Prasquier — warned that a Socialist in the Elysee Palace may hurt Franco-Israeli relations because of a perceived anti-Israel bias among the French left.

“So far, the opposite has been the case,” said Yaron Gamburg, a media adviser at the Israeli Embassy in France. “If anything, there has been a deepening of the sturdy partnership that existed during the term of Sarkozy.”

In addition to his political support, Hollande has been willing to advance bilateral trade with the Jewish state — something his predecessors limited, many believe, to avoid angering Arab states. French exports to Israel currently stand at $1.5 billion — 33 percent lower than Britain and nearly half the volume of Italy.

Joining Hollande in Israel are dozens of French businessmen, and several bilateral trade agreements are expected to be signed during the visit, which ends Tuesday. In his Knesset speech, Hollande said he has decided to jump-start scientific, cultural and commercial exchange with Israel.

Though Hollande has continued France’s condemnations of Israeli construction in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, in his visit Monday to Ramallah he said the Palestinians should give up their call for a return of refugees to Israel in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction.

Hollande in the seat of the Palestinian Authority said it was “urgent” that Israel reach an accord that creates a Palestinian state with “joint control” in Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian issue is the one area where France and Israel differ — and even there, under Hollande the French partners are very open,” Gamburg said. “There are no surprises.”

Some argue that such openness is an improvement to relations under Sarkozy, who despite vowing to improve Franco-Israel relations, cast a surprise vote in favor of UNESCO membership for the Palestinian Authority in 2011.

Still, Sarkozy is generally seen as a major improvement over Chirac, who had declared former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persona non grata in France. Sharon urged French Jews to immigrate to Israel.

“Sarkozy, who raised many hopes, ended up disappointing Jews and Israelis because he was unreliable,” said Joel Rubinfeld of the Brussels-based European Jewish Parliament. “Hollande’s presidency began amid doubts, but ended up instilling trust that Sarkozy never had.”

EU ban on Hezbollah branch a start, but impact is likely limited

The effectiveness of the European Union’s decision to blacklist only Hezbollah’s military wing might be debatable, but one thing about the move seems certain: It did not come easy.

The decision Monday by Europe’s 28 foreign ministers to put Hezbollah’s military wing on the EU list of terrorist organizations followed months of jostling by member states in the wake of last summer’s killing of five Israelis and a Bulgarian in a bus bombing near the Black Sea resort of Burgas.

Israel and Bulgaria have accused Hezbollah of being responsible for the attack, which the Lebanon-based group denies.

At stake in the debates were Europe’s relations with Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds several seats in parliament; possible reprisals by Hezbollah against EU troops; and the credibility of the EU’s anti-terrorist stance.

To negotiate the web of conflicting interests, the EU came up with a compromise that would allow it to show toughness in responding to terrorism on its soil without sacrificing its influence in Lebanon. It would designate only the organization’s military wing as terrorist, ignoring no less an authority than Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Naim Qassem, who has said the organization has a single leadership.

“This is partly a political signal and partly a real signal that we are not prepared to see any terrorist activity as means to achieving what some would consider political ends, while we want to be clear, too, in our support for political parties of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at a news conference Monday. “We’ve made the distinction clear.”

Jewish groups were pleased generally by the development, with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder calling it a “major breakthrough” and the Board of Deputies of British Jews averring it would “seriously damage Hezbollah’s capabilities” around the world.

But many also noted that the distinction between the group’s military and political wings is false, creating a loophole that Hezbollah could exploit to render the whole designation exercise ineffectual.

“Highlighting Hezbollah’s involvement in terrorism is a positive political statement but a flawed counterterrorism strategy,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Since terror-related operational activities are already illegal throughout the EU, the high-value counterterrorism target remains Hezbollah’s financing activities in Europe — and that target was missed.”

According to intelligence analysts, Hezbollah employs a network of thousands of activists who launder its money in European banks and front businesses, raises money for its operations and recruits militants to its ranks through a host of Islamic charities.

Europe is “Hezbollah’s piggy bank and money laundromat,” said Wim Kortenoeven, a pro-Israel former parliamentarian from the Netherlands and the author of a book on Hamas, citing a 2011 report by German intelligence that estimated Hezbollah had about 1,000 members in Germany alone.

Had the EU designation applied to Hezbollah in its entirety, it might have taken a serious bite out of the group’s European operations. A 2001 EU regulation requires the “freezing of funds, other financial assets and economic resources” of designated terrorist groups.

By exempting Hezbollah’s political operations from that requirement, the EU has allowed that activity to continue, according to Claude Moniquet, a 20-year veteran of France’s foreign intelligence agency and the founder of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels-based think tank.

“Hezbollah’s main activity in Europe is money laundering and some gathering intelligence, which isn’t performed by combatants but is used also for military purposes,” Moniquet told JTA. “It means these regulations are declaratory and will likely have very little effect on the ground. Hezbollah will just say not to worry, these men are from the political arm.”

Before Monday, the EU list of designated terrorist entities contained 26 groups, including Hamas and Colombia’s FARC. The proscribed organizations are listed as one entity without separation into wings.

But even with the exception, the EU resolution may still have consequences for Hezbollah, according to Or Daniel, an Israeli analyst for the European Friends of Israel lobby group, a Brussels-based nonprofit.

“There is ample intelligence material that shows that people from the military units of Hezbollah are involved in ‘soft’ activities,” Daniel said. “Israel or the United States may now share the intelligence with EU partners to get them to choke off certain Hezbollah areas of activity.”

But Moniquet says European intelligence services have ample intelligence of their own on Hezbollah.

“The EU’s problem with Hezbollah was never lacking intelligence,” Moniquet said. “It’s lacking determination.”

Yet to Joel Rubinfeld, the co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament, the designation is the beginning of a process rather than its conclusion.

“It’s a first step in the right direction,” Rubinfeld said. “The significance lies not in practical consequences but in the fact that it has opened the door to the next goal — complete proscription. Opening the door was the hardest part.”

Cyprus verdict could inhibit Hezbollah operations in Europe

The conviction in Cyprus of a Hezbollah operative plotting to attack Israelis could undercut efforts by the terrorist group to carry out additional attacks outside the Middle East.

Last week's conviction was the second confirmation in recent months that Hezbollah is active on European soil. The first was when Bulgarian authorities identified the Lebanon-based terrorist group as being behind the July 2012 bombing in Burgas that left six people dead, five of them Israelis. Hezbollah also is believed to be behind recent plots against Israelis and Jews in India, Thailand and Azerbaijan.

The Cyprus conviction makes Europe likelier to list Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and that would bring new restrictions on Hezbollah that would have immediate operational consequences for the group, says Daniel Benjamin, the top counterterrorism official at the State Department in President Obama’s first term.

“If Hezbollah has to increase its operational security in Europe, if it can't use Europe to fundraise or travel through, it will be challenged to innovate to avoid being caught by European authorities,” Benjamin, now the director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, told JTA.

The Cyprus court found Hossam Taleb Yaacoub guilty of a plot to attack Israeli tourists in the Mediterranean island nation. Yaacoub, who holds Lebanese and Swedish passports, was trained in the use of weapons and scouted sites in Europe, including a Cypriot airport.

Yaacoub acknowledged membership in Hezbollah and staking out areas frequented by Israeli tourists, but said he did not know his work was part of a plot to kill Israelis. The court, which has yet to sentence him, rejected the denial.

The evidence that led to Yaacoub’s conviction helps tip the balance toward listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, diplomats from two leading European Union member states told JTA. Hezbollah already is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Israel and several other countries.

“Our position is that we've always said that if we have proof that holds up in court, we can enter the procedure,” said Karl-Matthias Klause, the spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington. “There is a general readiness into looking into forbidding the military wing of Hezbollah.”

The other diplomat, whose country has been among those resisting such a classification, said the Cyprus conviction would make it harder not to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

“Bulgaria and Cyprus changes the equation,” said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity. “The topic becomes one of European solidarity.”

Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism analyst at the FBI and a senior terrorism analyst at the Treasury Department in the George W. Bush administration, said he had just returned from meetings in Europe with security and foreign affairs officials.

“No one is debating anymore whether they are terrorists,” said Levitt, who is now a senior fellow analyzing counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now it’s more, will designating them as terrorist group undermine security in Lebanon? I can have that conversation; it’s a better one than 'are they terrorists?' “

The timing is propitious, said Levitt: Hezbollah is reactivating outside the Middle East for the first time in more than a decade, partly because of pressures on its two main sponsors, Iran and Syria. Its recent plots have been more hits than misses, which Levitt attributes to Hezbollah being out of practice and because Iran is rushing the group into staging attacks.

“Now you see in Cyprus what happens when they go back to tradecraft,” Levitt said, referring to Yaacoub’s careful monitoring of the comings and goings of Israeli tourists.

U.S. and Israeli officials for months have been pressing Europe to list Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Obama repeated the call last week during his Israel visit.

“When I think about Israel’s security, I think about five Israelis who boarded a bus in Bulgaria, who were blown up because of where they came from; robbed of the ability to live, and love, and raise families,” Obama told a convention center in Jerusalem packed with cheering university students. “That’s why every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is: a terrorist organization.”

The diplomat from the country reluctant until recently to list Hezbollah as terrorist said the issue is complicated by the fact that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. Cutting off the group would curtail European influence in Lebanon at an especially sensitive time: Lebanon is absorbing refugees from the Syrian civil war, and there are concerns that the fighting in Syria may spill over into Lebanon.

“We have to keep in mind that Lebanon is very fragile and we have to avoid what could further destabilize it,” the diplomat said.

One possible solution touted in Europe would be to designate Hezbollah’s so-called military wing as terrorist while maintaining ties with its political operation in Lebanon.

The United States recognizes no such distinction, Levitt said, but if Europe wanted to do so, there likely would be no U.S. objection.

“They want to make the distinction for convenience, they want to have leverage, so fine,” he said.

One outcome U.S. officials should oppose, Levitt said, would be to designate only individuals with Hezbollah but not the group as a whole as terrorist.

Benjamin said sparing Hezbollah’s political wing would not be a problem as long as the ban on the military wing made it harder to raise money and run agents.

“A designation worth anything will include a ban on solicitation and fundraising in Europe, and provide the legal predicate for terrorism prosecutions,” he said.

Should Europe take those steps, it could embolden other countries to do so as well, Benjamin said.

“Hezbollah being designated by Europe will embolden other countries to step up cooperation around the world,” he said.

Israel says Iran, Hezbollah waging global terror campaign

Two men with links to the terrorist organization Hezbollah were implicated in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed six, including five Israelis, a Bulgarian official has said.

Hezbollah also financed the bomb attack on a tour bus full of Israelis last July, Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov told reporters on Tuesday following a six-hour Cabinet meeting.

The people directly behind the attack were part of Hezbollah cell that included two operatives using passports from Australia and Canada.

Unveiling the results of the six-month inquiry in Sofia on Feb. 5, Tsvetanov said: “We have established that the two were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” adding: “There is data showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.” The pair had lived in Lebanon since 2006 and 2010 respectively, the AFP news agency quoted Mr Tsvetanov as saying.

Until now Bulgaria has avoided making public any suspicions about who was behind the attack and prior to Tsvetanov's news conference, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev did not confirm nor deny reports that Bulgaria would blame Hezbollah and Iran for the terrorist attack.

Israel has blamed both Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, which also killed the Israeli tourists' Bulgarian bus driver. Iran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of staging the attack.

“There should be no more equivocation, Hezbollah should be added to the E.U.’s officially group of terrorist organizations without delay or reservation,” Moshe Kantor, president of European Jewish Congress, said in a statement after the Bulgarian announcement.

The U.S. Congress in recent weeks has called on European bodies to join the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

British and Dutch officials pressed last year for concerted E.U. action against Hezbollah, a major player in the Lebanese government, but other nations including France have resisted efforts to blacklist the group in an apparent effort to maintain good relations with Beirut. The U.K. has classified only Hezbollah's military wing as a terrorist group, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Feb. 5: “There is only one Hezbollah, a single organization with the same leadership.” He added: “The attack in Burgas was on European soil against a member of the European Union. We hope the Europeans will draw the necessary conclusions as to Hezbollah's true nature.”

In his statement, Kantor said Hezbollah's designation by the E.U. as a terrorist entity “should not be subject to political considerations, but whether proscribing Hezbollah will hinder its continuing efforts to murder innocent civilians in Europe and around the world.”

EU High Representive Catherine Ashton commended the Bulgarian authorities for their attention to the investigation,

“The implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on E.U. soil, which resulted in the killing and injury of innocent civilians. The High Representative condemns all terrorist acts, wherever they take place, and emphasises that the E.U. and member states are committed to the fight against terrorism, whoever stands behind it,” she said Tuesday through a spokesperson.

Arabs must use oil, political pressure, to help Gaza, Hezbollah says

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah urged Arab states on Thursday to use all political means possible, including raising oil prices, to end Israeli air strikes on Gaza, suggesting this could be as effective as military attacks on the Jewish state.

The leader of Lebanon's powerful Shi'ite militant group, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, called on countries with ties to the United States and the West to pressure them to help stop the air strikes.

“No one is telling Arab countries today, 'Please go open your borders and begin the operation to liberate Palestine.' What we want is to end the attack on Gaza,” Nasrallah said in a televised address to mark the first day of the Shi'ite holiday of Ashoura.

“This is everyone's battle … We're not asking you for a solution, we're asking for effort.”

Violence between Israel's armed forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza has moved towards an all-out war as violence continued for a second day, with 16 Palestinians and three Israelis killed.

Nasrallah said Arab countries close to Washington and other Western countries must urge them to exert pressure on Israel, the main U.S. ally in the Middle East, and said that the weakened American and European economies could give Arab countries more influence.

“Some say the Arabs don't have the courage to stop oil production,” he said. “Decrease your oil exports to it or raise the price a little and you will shake the United States, you will shake Europe. Brothers, if you can't cut off oil, decrease your production or raise the price. Put on some pressure. No one is calling for armies or tanks or planes.”

Hezbollah earlier condemned Israel's air strikes on Gaza, calling the attack a “criminal aggression” and said any country not working to stop the bloodshed was a partner in the violence. But it gave no signal that it was prepared to act against the Jewish state.

Many analysts suspect that Hezbollah, a powerful political and guerrilla movement in Lebanon, is loathe to start a conflict with Israel right now. Israel has threatened to bomb the nuclear sites of the group's main patron Iran and its supply routes through neighboring Syria may be at risk of being cut off by a bloody conflict that could topple its ally President Bashar al-Assad.

In 2006, Hezbollah fought Israel in a 34-day war in which 1,2000 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Olmert goes to China; Hezbollah is back; Euro righties caucus; Jews get blamed again

Olmert Goes to China

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to China for talks on the Iranian nuclear threat. Monday’s trip also marks 15 years of relations between the countries and seeks to expand Israel’s current trade relations. Olmert’s family has historic ties to China: His grandparents fled there from czarist Russia in the early 1900s, and his parents were born and raised there.

“China is the country which hosted my parents. They studied in China. They spoke Chinese. They grew up in China, and the Chinese culture is part of my heritage and part of my earliest memory as a young kid in the State of Israel,” Olmert was quoted as telling the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “So China is not another country for me.”

Hezbollah Rebuilding, UNIFIL Ignoring

Hezbollah is rearming and United Nations forces are doing nothing to prevent it or disarm them, Israel’s military intelligence chief said. Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that the Lebanese terrorist group is rebuilding its rocket-launching capabilities. He also said the Syrian army had lowered its alert level to what it was before last summer’s war with Lebanon.

Yadlin told the committee it seemed clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad wanted to hold peace talks with Israel, but that his intentions were unclear.

Europe Gets Extreme-Right Caucus

Extreme-right parties in the European Parliament are forming a caucus. The Guardian reported Monday that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria this month to the European Union enabled the group’s formation. Under Parliament rules, a minimum of 19 parliamentarians from at least five countries are needed for the creation of a political group.

The group expects the Bulgarian member of the Attack Party and the Romanian members of the Greater Romania Party, both of which are known for their anti-Roma, or gypsy, and racist stances, to join. The faction is to be led by French National Front member Bruno Gollnisch, who is awaiting a court verdict on charges of Holocaust denial. It also would include Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; and Andreas Moelzer, a former adviser to far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider.

Moelzer told the Austrian Press Agency that the group will announce its plans when the Parliament gets under way Jan. 15. By forming a caucus, the group, which is to be called Identity, Sovereignty and Transparency, will be able to avail itself of E.U. funding and easier access to leadership positions in the Parliament.

Jews Blamed for Polish Archbishop’s Demise

Some supporters of a Polish archbishop who resigned amid controversy claimed Jews were responsible. Stanislaw Wielgus, the new archbishop of Warsaw, resigned Sunday at a ceremony at St. John’s Cathedral that was to mark his new post. Documents in Polish newspapers have revealed that Wielgus collaborated with the communist-era secret police, a collaboration he initially denied but finally admitted.

Following the surprise resignation, fights broke out between the bishop’s backers and detractors outside of St. John’s, The New York Times reported Monday. Some of the supporters shouted that Jews were trying to destroy the church. The Vatican will look for a replacement for Wielgus, who was replacing Jozef Glemp. Glemp, who held the post for several decades, stirred controversy when he defended the location of a Carmelite convent and the placement of crosses just outside the former Auschwitz death camp.

Anti-Semitic Attackers Visit Anne Frank House

Ten Belgians convicted of an anti-Semitic attack visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. In the November attack, the 10 youths of Turkish descent threw stones and shouted anti-Semitic slogans at a group of Chasidic teens visiting Beringen, in eastern Belgium. Sentenced to 30 hours of community service, the youths were also invited to the Anne Frank House by Belgian Cabinet Minister Peter Vanvelthoven, who accompanied them on the visit. Vanvelthoven stated that he hoped “to encourage these youths to respect the Jewish people.”

Ahmet Koc, a member of Vanvelthoven’s personal Cabinet and a board member of the Turkish Union of Belgium, accompanied the group as well, saying the incident had been simply “a misunderstanding.” Laura Abrahams, a press officer of Vanvelthoven’s office, stated the Anne Frank House had been chosen over more local sites in Belgium because “it is easier for the perpetrators to identify with a young girl in their age group than with millions of victims.”

Yeshiva Student Attacked in Sydney

One week after a Holocaust survivor was murdered in Sydney, an Israeli yeshiva student may have been attacked less than a mile from the murder scene. Shortly after midnight Jan. 4, ambulance officers responding to an anonymous call found Nitzan Zerach, 23, lying unconscious in the street on which the yeshiva is located. Police initially believed Zerach’s injuries were self-inflicted as a result of intoxication, but hospital reports showed no noticeable alcohol in his system. Doctors discovered he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. Following a review of yeshiva security footage, a police spokesman told the Australian Jewish News that “new facts had come to light and that they were keeping an open mind.”

Jewish Groups Call for Wage Hike

Jewish groups called on the U.S. Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25. Jewish Funds for Justice and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sent a letter to U.S. lawmakers Monday, signed by more than 450 rabbis and rabbinical students and modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal leaders.

“Jewish labor law rests on the assumption that a full-time worker shall earn enough to support his/her family,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Jewish Funds for Justice’s education director. “To begin to realize self-sufficiency for workers as envisioned by Jewish law, we must raise the federal minimum wage.”

Ayalon Joins Nefesh B’Nefesh

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States was named co-chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh. The aliyah advocacy organization praised Daniel Ayalon’s “diplomatic stature, worldly expertise and passionate Zionism” in its announcement Tuesday.”Aliyah is the ultimate means to securing the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Ayalon said. “Having had the distinct honor of serving the State of Israel in Washington and [becoming] intimately familiar with the American Jewish community, I am convinced of the need to further expand Western aliyah over the coming decade.”

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

European anti-Semitism up since Hezbollah war

Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah resulted in a new wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe — almost all in Western Europe, a new report finds.

The European Jewish Congress’ (EJC) 53-page report, presented Sunday at a World Jewish Congress meeting in Paris, reveals that the transference of anti-Israel sentiment onto Jews occurred almost exclusively in Western Europe, with the atmosphere remaining either neutral or pro-Israel in the former Eastern Bloc.

Denmark was another exception, as the EJC notes that media and politicians kept a balanced view of the conflict.

Although the conclusion that anti-Semitism rose worldwide during that war already is well documented, the EJC report points to specific trends that pose challenges in Europe, such as the collaboration of Muslim extremists with left-wing political parties; political and media comparisons of Israeli leaders to Nazis; and the first instances of Turkish Jews complaining of anti-Semitism since an Islamic-based political party took power in Turkey in 2002.

The Paris-based EJC hopes to use the report to convince E.U. officials to attack the problem through public education, and to provide security for Jewish communities.

“We are not trying to be alarmist,” report author Ilan Moss said. “But we do see that European political discourse can be slanted, with European politicians feeling comfortable publicly supporting Hezbollah and treating it as a liberation organization.”

In Austria, 83 anti-Semitic acts were recorded from April 2006 to August 2006, up from 50 during the same period in 2005. Anti-Semitic letters sent to the Jewish community of Vienna “drastically increased” during the war, with a number of writers comparing Austria’s Jewish leaders to Nazis.

This sentiment was popularized by Austria’s two extreme-right parties, both of which presently are in Parliament.

France also saw a rise in anti-Semitic events, with 61 incidents during the war, an increase of 79 percent over the same period last year.

At demonstrations in support of Lebanon across France, placards read “Death to the Jews — Death to Israel,” and Stars of David were emblazoned with swastikas.

Nonetheless, Shimon Samuels, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Paris office, said the “blowback” of anti-Semitism that occurred in France after the Palestinian intifada began in 2000 was not as strong during the conflict with Hezbollah.

“This is probably because the people who rioted a year ago and who would be likely to attack a synagogue were more focused on attacking the French system,” he said, referring to October 2005 riots in Paris suburbs by Muslim youth protesting discrimination, poor housing conditions and unemployment.

In Great Britain, Jewish leaders had announced already in September that anti-Semitic acts doubled during the war, with a parliamentary commission endorsing their findings.

The EJC report cited Greece as a country where anti-Semitic political and media rhetoric were the norm during the war. Greek President Karolos Papoulias said during an official commemoration of the 1974 fall of the Greek military junta, “Greek public opinion is shocked by the undeclared war against Lebanon. After the Second World War, the world believed that the logic of collective punishment would have never returned.”

Such sentiments were repeated by numerous European leaders. In a July interview with Penthouse magazine, Jan Marijnissen, chairman of Holland’s Parliament and leader of the Socialist Party, compared Islamic terrorism in the Middle East to the actions of the Dutch resistance against Nazi occupiers in World War II.

Norway’s Jewish community was the focus of worldwide attention after the Oslo synagogue was repeatedly vandalized and eventually fired on in September by Islamic extremists. The incident was preceded in early August by an editorial questioning Israel’s right to exist penned by author Jostein Gaarder in the newspaper Aftenposten.

In Switzerland and Sweden, mainstream leftist parties supported large rallies for Hezbollah.

“We are seeing an alliance from left-wing politicians with Hezbollah, which is something totally different than the more general sympathies for the Palestinians after the intifada,” said Anders Carlberg, head of the Jewish community in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Leaders of Turkey’s Jewish community told researchers that their members were experiencing anti-Semitism for the first time: Businessmen said that they were being ostracized for their religion, and community leaders said the media demonized Israel and Jews during the war with editorials that incited racial hatred.

Within the European Union, the German Jewish community may have experienced perhaps the most hostility during the war, despite the pro-Israel stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to the report.

The Central Council for Jews in Germany received more than 300 letters, attacking both the organization and German Jews for “blindly supporting Israel and spending state money to support a ‘fascist state’ in the Middle East,” the report states.

The council’s executive director, Stephan Kramer, said the hostility didn’t come from the country’s sizable Muslim population, but from ethnic Germans.
For Kramer, one lesson was the need for Israel to become more actively involved in promoting its agenda to the European public.

“The Israeli government will never understand that this is a media war, that they have to have a way to explain their position. Their attitude towards Europe is, ‘They’re all anti-Semites, so we shouldn’t care what they think,'” he said. “Israel doesn’t provide the necessary information to assure positive media coverage. We in Europe are not a high priority.”

War enhances intensity of Israel trip

The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

A Just War May Be Great Risk to Israel

There are very few people I know who have an unambiguous
perspective on this war. I think we are quite unanimous in our belief that
Saddam Hussein is a bad guy who should go — for the sake of his own
people and all the people in the Middle East.

As a stand-alone goal, the removal of Saddam, even killing
him, is morally justified. From the Jewish point of view, he is a rodef, a

He has, on more than one occasion, brutally killed large
groups of people and is a threat to repeat such offenses. We are commanded to
preemptively kill a rodef before he can kill us.

What complicates the matter of Saddam as rodef is that in
order to accomplish this moral goal, we may have to sacrifice the lives of
many, and we may end up killing as many as the rodef did. That then begs the
question: Would that make us a rodef in the eyes of others? Hence the

There is another facet of this war, however, that gives a
Jew pause. What will be the war’s impact on Israel?

There are those who suggest that if Saddam is removed, a
major source of support for terror against Israel will be eliminated, a major
destabilizing factor in the Middle East will be neutralized and the
Palestinians will be better able to deal with the radicals in their midst and
in a better position to negotiate with Israel. Some also suggest that if Iraq
can be democratized, it will be a giant first step toward the democratization
of the whole region, and this can only work to Israel’s benefit.

This is what has me worried. I have read commentaries on
both sides of this issue, and I come up with the conclusion that the optimists
in this case are being naïve and are assuming too much with regard to how
ready the Middle East is for democracy.

I also think that if the United States remains in Iraq for a
protracted period, whether it is to wage war or to clean up after the war and
make the country ready for democracy, it will stoke the fires of Arab
anticolonialism, energize the radical Islamists, who constitute the principle
terror groups — Al Qaeda, the ayalollahs, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah —
and heighten, rather than reduce, the level of tension and terror in the Middle
East and around the world.

It will push the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia even further toward
extremism, weaken the regimes of Jordan and Egypt, which are struggling with
the extremists in their lands, and, in the end, put Israel at even greater
risk. And the United States, branded by the Arab world as the colonizer in
their midst, would lose its capacity to be a broker for peace in the region and
would be of no help to Israel as sympathetic friend.

Indeed, the United States might feel the need to assume a
more pro-Arab stance in order to restore its status in the Arab world, and,
discredited in the eyes of Europe because of the chaos that emerges from its
presence in Iraq, the United States would also lose its ability to serve as a
moderating force against European pro-Arabism.

The military might of the United States cannot, by itself,
guarantee any results. The days when Arabs run away at the sound of the
Davidka, as they did in the Israel War of Independence, are over. As we have
seen, the opposite is the case: the radicals glory in attacking the giant and
powerful Satan, because they believe Allah is on their side.

The United States is big enough and strong enough to absorb
such a loss of face. After a while, the world will recognize that it needs us,
and things will be OK.

Israel is not big and strong, and if I am right, then the
destabilization in the Middle East that a prolonged American presence in Iraq
could generate will actually endanger Israel. I am afraid of this outcome, and
because of this, I hope America can find a way to get out of Iraq as quickly as
possible and let someone else assume the responsibility for democratizing the
Middle East. It is a noble goal, but I do not believe that we are the ones to
do it.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. This essay is an abridged version of his sermon delivered March 22.