Iranian-made Emad missile is displayed during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran on Feb. 11, 2016. Photo by Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

Senate panel passes new sanctions on Iran’s missiles


A key Senate committee approved new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missiles program after amending clauses that critics said could scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill 18-3. It was backed by the committee’s two leaders, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., its top Democrat. Another sponsor was Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a leader in efforts to sanction Iran.

Backers insisted that the bill would not affect the 2015 deal struck by the Obama administration trading sanctions relief for rollbacks in Iran’s nuclear program. That deal did not include missile sanctions.

However, parts of the text were amended after Adam Szubin, the top Obama administration official handling sanctions, warned that they could be interpreted as violating the deal.

Szubin in a May 12 letter first obtained by the Huffington Post warned the committee that the legislation as then written would “provoke a terrible reaction in Iran and with our allies, as it would be seen as contrary to at least the spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the formal name for the deal.

The United States forged the deal by exerting pressure on Iran through a sanctions regime built in collaboration with allies and major powers.

Szubin, who is respected by both parties, maintained tough non-nuclear sanctions on Iran after the deal was in place.

Subsequently, language was removed that would have sanctioned individuals and entities who “pose a risk” of materially contributing to the missile program, an ambit that critics said was too broad. The language now sanctions those who have already “materially contributed” to the program.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised the bill’s advancement.

“This bill is directed only at actions outside the nuclear sphere — in no way does it violate the letter or spirit of the 2015 nuclear deal,” the prominent Israel lobby said in a statement. “AIPAC urges the full Senate to adopt this critical, bipartisan legislation.”

The bill’s consideration comes as Iran reportedly has built a third underground factory to manufacture ballistic missiles.

J Street in a statement praised the committee for amending the language but said the bill could still do more harm than good, noting the victory in Iranian elections this weekend of the relatively moderate incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani.

“While the elections were highly constrained, their outcome was significant,” the liberal pro-Israel group said. “They provided a new mandate of support for the president who secured the JCPOA, has criticized anti-American rhetoric and has expressed openness to further diplomatic engagement. In this context, Senators should weigh the merits of passing largely symbolic legislation to achieve objectives that might be better met through future negotiations.”

The Trump administration has ratcheted up rhetoric against the Iranian regime and said it is reviewing the terms of the nuclear deal. President Donald Trump while campaigning sharply criticized the deal, but unlike other Republican candidates stopped short of saying he would scuttle it.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told Congress this week that he was reviewing contracts arising out of the deal that allowed U.S. aircraft manufacturers to sell their products to Iran.

“We will use everything within our power to put additional sanctions on Iran, Syria and North Korea to protect American lives,” Mnuchin said Wednesday in testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, Reuters reported. “I can assure you that’s a big focus of mine and I discuss it with the president.”

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder on April 23. Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Daily Kickoff: Inside Lauder’s meetings with Abbas | Trump’s itinerary signals anti-Iran alliance | Katzenberg backing Bob Iger to be 1st Jewish POTUS


Have our people email your people. Share this sign up link with your friends

SCENE LAST NIGHT — LA Edition: Cheryl and Haim Saban opened up their Beverly Park estate for an evening event to introduce their friends to the Israel Policy Forum and its partnership with Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS). The two organizations advocate for a two-state solution that is ‘consistent with Israel’s security needs.’ In introducing the evening’s program, Haim Saban joked that typically he hosts events at his home that cost between $5-25k to attend in support of a variety of causes but that ‘this one is free so everyone should make sure to really enjoy the food.’ On a more serious note, Saban explained “all of us here tonight — whether left, right, center, meshugeners, non-meshugeners — care about Israel. While there are some who say there’s no such thing as ‘Palestinians’ — call them whatever you would like but the facts are it’s pretty much equal (populations) between the Jordan river and the sea. We have to find a way to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic.”

In describing CIS, Nimrod Novik noted how rare it is for even one Israeli general to follow another one but “when 270 retired generals, who make up approximately 80%, unite around one organization, led by one general, that’s focused on one issue — the two state solution — it’s worth paying attention.”

Rabbi David Wolpe summed up the evening’s overall discussion for us by quoting the author Flann O’Brien “It is a great thing to do what is necessary before it becomes unavoidable”

ALSO SPOTTED: Israeli-American entrepreneur Avi Arad, Executive Producer of Homeland Alex Gansa, Former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Barbara Yaroslavsky, Tribe Media’s David Suissa, Tikkun Olam Journeys’ Tova Suissa, IPF’s Executive Director David Halperin, Gen. (ret.) Amnon Reshef, IAC’s Shawn Evenhaim, RAND Corporation’s Shira Efron, Saban Family Foundation’s Amitai Raziel, film producer Mike Medavoy, Head of TV at WME Rick Rosen, Charles Perez, Ada Horwich, Don Feder, Shifra Efron.

DRIVING THE CONVERSATION — Trump’s Israel trip — White House aides, speaking on background yesterday, did not offer any specific details about Trump’s upcoming trip to Israel, after he first visits Saudi Arabia. Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, according to a senior administration official, will focus on trying to reach an understanding with Arab leaders on joint “long-term” goals to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East. In Israel, Trump will “reinforce the strong alliance that we have with the Israeli people, and then we are going to talk a little bit about the peace process with the Palestinians and how we plan to go forward… We will approach it with a lot of humility. The President is very involved in [discussing] a lot of ideas.” [JewishInsider]

Initial itinerary… “A senior Israeli official said Trump was due to land in Israel on May 22 at 11 A.M. He will be received at an official ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport by President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… Trump will then proceed to Jerusalem for a series of meetings with Rivlin and Netanyahu… The Foreign Ministry and the Shin Bet security service are preparing for the possibility that the U.S. president will visit the Western Wall and Masada. It is still not clear whether Trump will give a speech during his visit. On May 23, Trump will visit Bethlehem, meet Abbas and apparently will also visit the Church of the Nativity. From there, he will head back to Ben-Gurion airport, taking off at about 1 P.M.” [Haaretz

We’re Hearing… Sheldon Adelson will likely be in Israel during Trump’s visit. For the folks who can, might be time to book your Air Adelson tickets…

“Why Does Trump Want to Address Israel at Masada?” by Sigal Samuel: “Six years ago, he inquired about whether he could hold the Miss Universe Pageant at Masada, according to Eran Sidis, the spokesman for the Knesset Speaker… Trump also loves an underdog… Now he’s about to embark on a high-profile mission to solve what may be the world’s most notoriously unsolvable conflict… In this scenario, too, he is an underdog… But he’s a confident underdog, one who believes he can and will make a historic deal. So why not throw some spectacle into the mix? Masada has been a centerpiece of the Zionist national myth for decades.” [TheAtlantic]

“Trump’s selective world tour” by Frida Ghitis: “The stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia will… please his base at home and will strengthen his hand as he seeks to score a historic victory he says we wants, helping to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. The very fact that Trump will visit Israel on his first trip carries symbolic value. Israelis and many of the Jewish State’s supporters in the US had trouble forgiving Obama for failing to visit the country during his first term. Obama came within short distances of Israel, visiting nearby Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the first months of his administration, but pointedly did not go to Israel.” [CNN]

“Trump Joins Saudi Arabia, Arab Leaders for Potential Anti-Iran Alliance” by Kimberly Dozier: “The trip indicates that Trump is re-aligning the White House with Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s anti-Iran position, while the Obama administration had sought to stay more neutral in order to deliver the Iranian nuclear deal. It’s also a signal that Trump is returning to the Bush-era reliance on Sunni Arab strongmen to quell a roiling Middle East, and it’s an in-your-face rejection of critics who called him anti-Islamic.” [DailyBeast] • Angry at Criticism by Saudi Prince, Iran Accuses Him of ‘Unveiled Threat’ [NYTimes]

“Trump goes soft on Saudi” by Michael Crowley: “Trump’s Israel visit promises to be more reflective of establishment thinking than of his past rhetoric. He is not expected, for instance, to press his campaign vow to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem… “He’s approached this like a stunningly conventional president,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Obama’s State Department. “That’s been a pleasant surprise.” Some Netanyahu supporters in Washington and Israel, skeptical that an acceptable peace deal with the Palestinians is feasible, find Trump overly eager to break the historic impasse… Hard-liners close to Netanyahu are especially anxious about reports that Trump is taking advice on Israel from an old friend, New York businessman Ronald Lauder, who has played a behind-the-scenes role in past peace talks, has ties to Palestinian officials, and who believes Trump can broker a deal.” [Politico; NYTimes]

KAFE KNESSET — Lauder lore — by Tal Shalev and JPost’s Lahav Harkov: In the past two weeks, since Jewish Insider first revealed Ronald Lauder as a top White House whisperer, Israeli officials and politicians have been whispering about him as well. In addition to a public meeting with Egyptian President Sisi, Kafe Knesset has learned that Lauder met with Abbas twice in the past month, a few weeks ago in a European capital and earlier this week in DC, a day before Abbas’ White House meeting this week.  “Lauder has emerged as a significant unofficial envoy to the President, and is increasing his involvement with the Israeli Palestinian issue, and he is convinced he can help the President secure a deal,” one well informed source told Kafe Knesset. “He thinks peace is possible and is embracing the Palestinians who feel they have found their man and he believes he can bring them to the table,” he added. Another well informed source said that during the Trump-Abbas meeting this Wednesday, the President praised Lauder, adding that “Lauder is determined to move forward, and is convinced that the Palestinians want a deal.” Read today’s entire Kafe Knesset here [JewishInsider]

HAPPENING ON SUNDAY — The Jerusalem Post will be holding its 6th annual conference at the Marriott Marquis in NY. Speakers include top Israeli ministers, Israel’s Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, White House aide Sebastian Gorka, Senators Tom Cotton and Deb Fischer; Congresswoman Grace Meng, Ambassador Danny Danon, Ron Lauder, and Alan Dershowitz, among others. Larry King will receive the Jerusalem Post Lifetime Achievement Award and talk about his career and Jewish identity.

ON THE HILL — Reaction to Trump’s upcoming trip to Israel — by Aaron Magid: “I guess when he can’t get any of his domestic programs done, it’s good to go overseas. Certainly, we have heard nothing about infrastructure,” Rep. Donald Norcross(D-NJ) told Jewish Insider. “For somebody who during the campaign who was almost solely focused on Making America Great Again and bringing jobs home, he seems to be spending a lot of time focused abroad and not dealing with infrastructure which is jobs.”

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) added, “I’m glad that he would pick those countries and any positive outreach that he does. I’m very skeptical. He doesn’t have a good comprehension on foreign affairs and doesn’t do his homework.” [JewishInsider]

SCENE LAST NIGHT IN NYC — Jake Sullivan discussed American foreign policy under Trump, as well as his experience in establishing back channel talks with Iran that led to the nuclear deal, in a conversation with Jordan Hirsch, Visiting Fellow at The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University, at the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life.

“I am very skeptical that the traditional approach is going to lead to success,”Sullivan said about Trump’s efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “I am deeply skeptical. It did not work when George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton tried it. It did not work when John Kerry tried it. It did not work when Condoleezza Rice tried it. I do not believe that it is right for success in this administration either. And I think Donald Trump saying that maybe it isn’t as hard as everyone made it out to, I can say from personal experience, I have my grave doubts that he is correct in that statement. I have my doubts about whether Abu Mazen (Abbas), given his current political position, given his history on this, he is not strong enough, in my view, to deliver a yes to a deal. Even a yes to a deal that gave him most of all what he needed.”

Sullivan on the Iran deal going forward: “I believe that job number one today – and I think the Israeli intelligence and military establishment would agree with this – is not to try to enter a renegotiation on the nuclear deal, which I think is on sound footing right now. Iran is in compliance, We can continue to shape their behavior around the nuclear issue. It’s to deal with the broader issue of their activities. And I think that the administration deciding that it is going to increase pressure on that – economic pressure, intelligence pressure, military cooperation with our allies – that is where their focus should be. The notion that they say we are going to open core trade-offs in this deal right now is a way to alienate our partners. As time progresses, If Iran continues to remain a state that is looking to get a nuclear weapon ultimately, we have options down the road to do something about that, not just a military option.”

Thoughts on 2020 and whether he would join another campaign: “I think it’s going to be a big field (in the Democratic primary), and there are a lot of intriguing candidates. In terms of me getting involved, I do not plan on working full time on a campaign again, unless it’s the campaign of a close friend or family member. But, of course, I will be in the fight. I will participate in some way in 2018 and in 2020 and beyond because I think it’s important not to retreat from the field.”

Sullivan’s reading list: “Core international relations texts like Man, the State, and War, Robert Gilpin’s The Political Economy of International Relations, and John Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History. I am in the middle of a book right now about the ratification of the U.S. constitution and contingent it was… and then in terms of the daily stuff, I pretty much follow the same newspapers, foreign policy outlets that everybody does.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I’m a full service celebrator” — Dan Senor on CBS This Morning when asked if he’s celebrating Cinco de Mayo today [Video]

TRUMP TEAM — “The Voice in His Ear – Jared Kushner’s access to power” by Michael Warren: “It’s a mistake to believe Kushner controls Trump, like a globalist Svengali… “I think you don’t get Kushner trying to influence Trump, you get Trump directing Kushner,” says Gingrich. “I don’t think anybody drives the Trump system except Trump.” As one senior White House official put it, “Trump is the face of Trumpism.” That’s true. But when Trump turns to the side, more often than not it’s Jared’s face he sees.” [TWS]

“In House Health Vote, Reince Priebus Sees a Much-Needed Reprieve” by Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman: “Mr. Priebus has half-joked that Mr. Kushner has “all the fun” but few of the responsibilities that burden him, according to one longtime Priebus confidant… At the height of the Kushner-Bannon spat last month, Mr. Trump instructed both men to “stop it” or face the boot, and delegated to Mr. Priebus the role of evenhanded mediator. Instead, Mr. Priebus interpreted that as a license to forge an alliance with Mr. Kushner.” [NYTimes

“Omarosa Manigault: I’ve never shied away from having a good relationship with Louis Farrakhan” by Louis Nelson: “Manigault, the former reality TV star turned White House adviser to President Donald Trump, said Thursday that she has a “good relationship” with the controversial Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, and would “look forward” to a meeting with him… “I would look forward to receiving that invitation and sitting down with him.” Farrakhan has been the leader of the Nation of Islam since 1977… Farrakhan himself is “an anti-Semite who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the U.S. government and controlling the levers of world power,” according to the SPLC.” [Politico]

INBOX: “The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was deeply disturbed by comments earlier today by former reality star and White House staffer Omarosa Manigault… “Louis Farrakhan should not be made to feel welcome by anyone in the White House,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “Such an overture would only serve to legitimize his long record of conspiratorial and hateful views toward Jews. We hope that the administration will make it clear that Farrakhan and his anti-Semitic organization will find no supporters in the White House.””

“Gorka: Reports about leaving White House ‘very fake news'” by Nikita Vladimirov: “President Trump’s deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka went after “very fake news” on Thursday… “I will be in the White House as long as the president wants me there and if he needs me to do something somewhere else, I will do whatever he needs me to do,” Gorka said on Fox News Radio’s “Kilmeade and Friends.”” [TheHill]

“Bernie Sanders just defended Israel on Al Jazeera. Here’s why that’s a big deal” by Ron Kampeas: “Asked by Takruri whether he “respected” BDS as a legitimate nonviolent protest movement, Sanders said, “No, I don’t.” The senator suggested in his reply that the tactic was counterproductive as a means of bringing the sides to peace talks.” [JTA; Video]

** Good Friday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Cordish seeks to woo Madrid with revised plan for casino project[FT] • Developer Martin Selig says it won’t take long to fill F5 Networks’ void on the waterfront [BizJournals] • Kushner Companies sells swanky Brooklyn townhouse for record sum [FoxNews] • Billionaire Trump Adviser Says He Feels Misunderstood: Stephen Schwarzman wants to know “who’s doing the P.R.” for private equity [VanityFair] Lasry’s Milwaukee Bucks will field team in new NBA e-sports league[BizJournals] • YL Ventures closes $75 million fund to bring Israeli startups to the US[TechCrunch]

“Here’s Why Israeli Fintech Startups Are Conquering The Market” by Leigh Cuen: “The fintech industry at large revolves around financial regulation in the target market. So the Israeli mentality, known for a no-nonsense approach and a penchant for redefining boundaries, makes Middle Eastern startups especially attractive to international fintech investors who want to break the mold. “Israeli entrepreneurs are fearless, that is a big factor when it comes to regulation,” Yuval Ariav, Tel Aviv investment partner at Lion Bird Venture Capital, told IBT.” [IBTimes]

“Congo Hires Israeli Firm to Lobby Trump Administration” by Thomas Wilson: “Congo agreed to pay MER Security and Communication Systems Ltd. $5.58 million between Dec. 8, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2017 for policy advice and support in lobbying senior government officials and members of Congress… MER will hire U.S.-based lobbyists, while advising the Congolese government on U.S. concerns relating to African security issues and on the appointment, travel and engagements of a Congolese special envoy to the U.S., according to the filings signed by Omer Laviv, the company’s chief executive officer.” [Bloomberg]

FIRST JEWISH POTUS? “Hollywood v. Trump: Disney CEO intrigued by 2020 bid” by Mike Allen: “Disney CEO Bob Iger is being pelted with entreaties to run for president in 2020, and is clearly intrigued by the idea, according to industry sources… A ringleader? Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney Studios chairman, is said to be among those encouraging a run. The Hollywood Reporter said in March that “Iger has told friends he is considering their nudges.” The rumor in Hollywood is that Katzenberg was a key leak of the story.” [Axios]

HAPPENING THIS WEEKEND — Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Conference: “The annual meeting takes place on Saturday at the CenturyLink Center in Nebraska’s largest city. Shareholders have been streaming in from across the globe to take part in what has become several days of activities around the featured event… Meanwhile, in a borrowed storefront at 1011 Capitol Ave. just across the street from the shareholders meeting, another annual assembly will be taking place. Chabad of Nebraska, co-directed by Rabbi Mendel and Shani Katzman, will host a weekend of Shabbat activities, as they’ve done since the conference moved downtown nearly two decades ago.” [Chabad]

DESSERT: “A Culinary Renaissance in the Israeli Countryside” by Saki Knafo: “As we staggered out of the restaurant, an Israeli tour bus pulled up. Israelis—Jewish Israelis—love Arab cooking. Maybe it has something to do with a hunger for a certain kind of authenticity, a visceral connection to the land that the Jewish people only dreamed of during all those years in exile eating matzo ball soup. Whatever the reason, Ein Hawd has benefited from Habait’s popularity in at least one unexpected way. The village got connected to the electrical grid only 10 years ago, after an executive from the national power company came to the restaurant for lunch and learned that her amazing meal had been cooked on a stove powered by a generator.” [Smithsonian]

WEEKEND BIRTHDAYS — FRIDAY: Venture Capitalist at New Enterprise Associates and a member of the inaugural class of the Schwarzman Scholars program, Andrew Adams Schoen turns 27… Conservative radio talk show host, author, commentator and language-learning enthusiast, a 2014 inductee into the National Radio Hall of Fame, Barry Farber turns 87… Journalist, columnist, author, writer of the “Letter from America” column for The International Herald Tribune, previously a foreign correspondent and a book critic at The New York Times, Richard Bernstein turns 73… Best-selling author of 18 novels featuring fictional Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, written by the former head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office (1976-2002), Linda Fairstein turns 70… Judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals since 2000 (Chief Judge since 2007), previously chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and president of the Jewish Community Council of Washington, Peter B. Krauser turns 70… Member of the Knesset, almost continuously since 1988, for the Haredi parties of Degel HaTorah and United Torah Judaism, Moshe Gafni turns 65… Member of the Knesset since 1996 for the Shas party, Minister of Religious Services since 2015, David Azulai turns 63… Television writer and producer, known for The Simpsons, Josh Weinstein turns 51… Television news correspondent, print journalist, stage and film actress, entrepreneur and pro-Israel activist, Lara Berman turns 37… Former Israeli national soccer team captain, Yossi Benayoun turns 37… Executive Director for North America of the Avi Chai Foundation since 1994, a graduate of Yeshiva College and Yale Law School, Yossi Prager… South African-born President of American Jewish World Service, Robert Bank

SATURDAY: Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford U, previously a Columbia U law professor (1969-1979), a US District Cout judge (1979-1985) and the State Department legal adviser (1985-1990), Abraham David Sofaer turns 79… Media executive and philanthropist, he was a long-time executive of Time Inc. (later Time Warner) who negotiated the merger between AOL and Time Warner in 2000, Gerald M. “Jerry” Levin turns 78… Born in Buenos Aires, later emigrated to Chile and then the US, novelist, playwright, essayist, academic and human rights activist, professor of Latin American studies at Duke University, Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman turns 75… Professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum turns 70… Former Deputy Attorney General of the US (1994-1997), who despite life-long ties to the Democratic Party has recently become the ethics adviser for Ivanka Trump, Jamie S. Gorelick turns 67… French-born president of the Jerusalem College of Technology (2009-2013), holder of two Ph.D degrees (Nice University in France and Bar Ilan), mathematician, professor and Talmudic scholar, Noah Dana-Picard turns 63… Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University, Lori Hope Lefkovitz turns 61… President and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (since 2013), previously Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents (2007-2011) and a US Congressman (1993-1995), Eric David Fingerhut turns 58… Attorney and partner in LA-based real estate development firm, Regent Properties, Daniel Gryczman turns 42…

SUNDAY: Billionaire who converted Chris-Craft Industries from the small boat business into a large media holding company, then sold Chris Craft to Rupert Murdoch in 2001 for $5.3 billion, Herbert J. Siegel turns 89… Ontario-based politician, psychiatrist, academic and public servant, served in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as a member and leader of the Liberal Party (1975-1982), Stuart Lyon Smith turns 79… Winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and chemistry at Yale University, Sidney Altman turns 78… Member of the New York State Assembly since 1993, representing parts of Westchester and Putnam counties, Sandra R. “Sandy” Galef turns 77… Deputy US Secretary of State (2009-2011), Deputy National Security Advisor (1996-2000), currently a professor at Syracuse University, James Steinberg turns 64… Professional poker player and hedge fund manager, Daniel Shak turns 58… Emmy Award-winning film and television director, Adam Bernsteinturns 57… Member of the Virginia House of Delegates from the City of Alexandria since 2016 and host of a nationally syndicated progressive public policy radio program, Mark H. Levine turns 51… Democratic member of the US House of Representatives since 2010, representing parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties, Theodore Eliot “Ted” Deutchturns 51… Member of the Knesset for the Jewish Home party since 2013, Israeli Minister of Justice since 2015, Ayelet Shaked turns 41… Snapchat’s Rob Saliterman… Jane Press

Gratuity not included. We love receiving news tips but we also gladly accept tax deductible tips. 100% of your donation will go directly towards improving Jewish Insider. Thanks! [PayPal]

From left: Netanel Kahana, Anat Morag, Ofir Michaeli, Alex Kleiner, Mimi Kaplan, Chris Tucker, Noam Sonnenberg, Yael Nor, Omri Sagir and Shira Glasner come together at the Milken Institute Global conference. Tucker, known for the "Rush Hour" film franchise, appeared with the young adults, who are participants of a Milken Innovation Center delegation that traveled to the conference from Israel. Photo by Ryan Torok, with help from Mimi Kaplan

Celebrity converges with Israel fellows at Milken Institute Global Conference


 

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Former President George W. Bush participated in a conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, at approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

At the beginning of the discussion, the two discussed one of the more positive element’s of the 43rd president’s legacy, increasing foreign aid to the African continent.

“I believe all life is precious, and I believe we’re all God’s children,” Bush said, explaining his commitment to Africa.

Bush hopes to prevent the current administration from cutting foreign aid to Africa.

“My mission today is to … urge Congress not to stop the funding on a program that’s effective,” Bush said, appearing in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton.

Actor Chris Tucker, in attendance at the Milken Institute Global Conference, expressed interest in visiting Israel.

“I haven’t been to Israel, but I want to go…So, I’m a Christian, I want to go visit the Holy Land…I was raised in church, my mama raised me in church. [I value] my spiritual side. It’s so important to stay balanced,” he said in an interview with the Journal.

Tucker goes to church “every Sunday,” unless he is on the road for work, he said. He attends a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) congregation. In the photograph above, he appears with fellows from Israel from the Milken Innovation Center.

Israel Prime Minister's Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

“I have no doubt California can stand up to its [water shortage] challenges,” Eli Groner,Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General, said, appearing on a May 3 Milken Institute Global Conference panel titled “Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” “It has been done, can be done, but it takes real focus.”

Joining Groner on the panel were Jeremy Bentley, Citi Israel head of financial institutions and public sector; Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board; Richard Blum, chairman of Blum Capital, a member of the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former chair of the UC Board of Regents; Angela Homsi, director of the Angaza-Africa Impact Innovation Fund; and Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Glenn Yago, senior fellow at the Milken Institute and senior director at its Israel Center, moderated the discussion.

Seated in the audience, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said he wished supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had been there, so they could hear representatives of Africa discuss the work they are doing partnering with Israeli businesses.

“This is reality, and BDS is ideology,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said. “It’s a shame.”

"Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies." Photo by Ryan Torok

“Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” Photo by Ryan Torok

On Wednesday, Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, conducted a conversation with former President George W. Bush. The two discussed immigration, the Middle East, W. Bush’s passion for painting and more.

“That’s what this whole conference is about in some way – markets,” Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, said in a May 2 panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.”

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mix and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). Photo by Ryan Torok

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mixed and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). They were on their way to a panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.” Photo by Ryan Torok

 

On May 1, during the Milken Institute Global Conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke of the effectiveness of policy implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations or countries sponsoring terrorism, including Iran.

“These sanctions really do work [on countries such as Syria],” he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network, appearing the first day of the three-day conference. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact and I think you saw this in the case of Iran.

“The only reason Iran came to the table to negotiate was because of economic sanctions on them,” he said, “and that’s what created the incentive.”

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

 

In an interview with David Rubinstein, a billionaire financier and philanthropist who has been a supporter of Jewish life at Duke University, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., U.S. secretary of commerce, said he is hopeful President Donald Trump will have a positive impact on the American business community.

“Every business executive I see, even ones who have specific complaints…every one of them is very encouraged by the new president,” Ross said on Monday afternoon during a Global Conference lunchtime session.

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

This year’s conference, held April 30-May 3, drew more than 4,000 attendees from 48 states and more than 50 countries. 75-percent of the speakers were new speakers, according to the Global Conference, which was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has advised the president on business matters, such as the China currency manipulation issue. On Monday, Dimon appeared in an interview with Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

“I was not a Trump supporter, but he asked me to serve in this [the president’s business strategic advisory council]. I was criticized by a lot of people, including one of my daughters…[But] I’m a patriot. I am going to try the best I can to help my country,” Dimon said.

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

A dinner session on Monday featured Jon Favreau, J.J. Abrams and Apple executive Eddy Cue.

Favreau, director of “Jungle Book,” a live action reimagining of the classic animated film, said he heeds to the philosophy of making the old new again.

“[Telling] the old stories and giving it a new look, using new technologies and new settings,” is rewarding, Favreau said, appearing in a conversation titled “Multi-Hyphenates.”

“I think ‘multi-hyphenate,’ is a term for a lucky person with ADD,” Abrams, director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” said.

Abrams spoke of moviegoing as a “communal experience,” while addressing the phenomenon of people opting to watch new releases at home.

“We are desperately working to give people something worthy of their time,” Abrams said.

Favreau, on making the film, “Chef,” said he appreciated the opportunity of becoming acquainted with real chefs.

“As a filmmaker, you have access. When you say you are directing a movie, something about the magic of the movie business, it opens up doors and you can sit and talk to the top people in each of these fields – futurists, chefs, soldiers, police officers, generals. They will talk to you and give you their perspective. It’s incredibly fulfilling. For me to get into that [when working on ‘Chef’], just chopping shallots and that mindfulness brought to the work, it was very meditating,” he said. “It was very fulfilling.”

Both Abrams and Favreau are Jewish.

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

 

Check back for updates.

 

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving for a military parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. The picture was released the following day by the state’s Korean Central News Agency. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

What the North Korea crisis tells us about the Iran nuclear deal


The Trump administration last week endorsed a narrative long promoted by critics of the Iran nuclear deal: It’s North Korea all over again.

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday at a press availability. He was explaining why President Donald Trump had ordered a review of the Iran nuclear deal reached by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach,” Tillerson said.

“Strategic patience” is a rubbery term that critics have applied loosely to presidents – Republican and Democratic – who do not strike back swiftly at evidence of nascent rogue weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, instead preferring diplomatic and economic pressure.

It has been applied to North Korea and the policy first instituted by the Clinton administration in 1994, when it signed the Agreed Framework with that country, but also to how President George W. Bush attempted to renegotiate a North Korea deal in the mid-2000s, and to the chemical weapons removal pact Obama negotiated with Russia and Syria in 2013.

The North Korea framework collapsed in the early 2000s, during the Bush administration, and in 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear device. Syria’s apparent use of sarin gas in an attack earlier this month that killed 89 civilians in rebel-held territory suggested that the 2013 removal of chemical weapons was not fully implemented.

Tillerson’s implication: Without a thorough review of the nuclear deal, Iran could also one day surprise the world with a nuclear test.

Is he right? It’s obviously too soon to say. But here are some ways the Iran deal is similar to its failed North Korea predecessor – and ways it is different.

Sanctions relief

In both the North Korea and Iran cases, some sanctions relief was up front – critics say that was a recipe for failure. With North Korea, the United States agreed to deliver 500,000 tons of oil to the cash-starved nation. (There were other goodies, but these were attached to progress in the dismantling of its nuclear capacity.)

In the Iran deal, the U.S. agreed to unfreeze American-based Iranian assets held since the 1978 revolution, amounting to $400 million, and to lift secondary sanctions targeting businesses in other countries that deal with Iran. (Bans on U.S. business with Iran mostly remain in place.)

It’s not clear yet what benefit Iran accrues from the lifting of the secondary sanctions – estimates vary wildly between $40 billion and $150 billion.

In addition, non-nuclear sanctions – relating to Iran’s backing for terrorism and its human rights abuses – remain in place.

“Tillerson is reflecting concerns that the Iran deal has many of the same inherent flaws as the Agreed Framework and may end up in the same scenario,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the preeminent think tank opposing the Iran deal.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which backed the Iran deal, said that unlike in the North Korea deal, the Iran agreement has “snap-back” provisions that allow the United States to reimpose the sanctions should Iran ever be in violation.

Critics of the Iran deal counter that while the United States may snap back the sanctions, many other nations that were part of the alliance that imposed international sanctions on Iran in 2011 would not. Deal defenders say the prospect of the United States reimposing sanctions on Iran, even if it does so alone, is enough to keep Iran from breaking the agreement.

Inspections

The North Korea deal required the dismantling of three nuclear reactors, one completed and two under construction.

The Iran pact requires 24/7 access to known enrichment facilities and allows inspectors to demand access – albeit with a waiting period of 24 days – at any other facility they suspect of nuclear weapons activity. Tillerson on the day he announced the review of the deal also affirmed that Iran was in compliance.

The North Korea agreement referred only in vague terms to inspections beyond the three facilities and did not explicitly count out weapons-enriched uranium, although its ban was certainly implied in the endgame — a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (The reactors that were shut down enriched plutonium.) The North Koreans fiercely resisted inspections beyond the three facilities.

The difficulty is not in detecting whether a nation is violating the agreement – intelligence agencies and satellite surveillance have been proficient at tracking down violations. It was North Korea’s attempt to secretly enrich uranium in the early 2000s that precipitated the collapse of the deal, and the Obama administration exposed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment plant in Fordow, Iran, in 2009 based on intelligence reports.

Instead, problems could occur in attempts to inspect sites where inspectors do not have easy access.

Dubowitz said the provision allowing inspectors to demand access to suspected sites may be unenforceable: Hard-liners in the Iranian leadership have said repeatedly that access to military sites would be a no-go.

“It’s the covert sites that are the big problem,” he said. “If you’re not getting into the military sites, the deal is deeply flawed.”

Heather Hurlburt, the director of New Models of Policy Change at New America, a think tank that backed the Iran deal, said the inspections regime is much more intrusive in the Iranian case.

“It’s like comparing the security check at a Manhattan office tower with the security check at Ben Gurion,” she said, referencing the Israeli airport known for its stringent measures.

Neighbors

Iran is a diverse nation with an ancient tradition of multilateral ties with its neighbors. North Korea is a secretive Stalinist regime and has just one significant relationship – with China.

Kimball said the world powers that negotiated the Iran deal granted Iran considerable leverage: Iran does not have the self-contained system that allows Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, to retain power even as his people starve. In order to survive, he suggested, the regime must allow Iranians to trade and thrive.

“The Iranians highly, highly value the removal of nuclear sanctions and access to oil markets,” Kimball said. “There was no similar incentive for North Koreans.”

Iranians “deeply fear” losing access to the outside world, he said.

“As time goes on they will be more accustomed to this liberal environment of trade and investment,” Kimball said, “and that will make it more appealing to them to continue to comply.”

Dubowitz said it was Iran’s ambitions in the region that made it more dangerous, adding that Kim was unlikely to strike unless he felt his regime was threatened. The Iranians, Dubowitz argued, could one day use nuclear leverage to support their expansionist claims in the Middle East, including in Syria, where they are backing the Assad regime in quelling the rebellion, in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf – and against Israel.

“North Korea is an isolationist pariah nation with a Stalinist ideology that appeals to no one,” he said. “Iran sees itself as guardian of the Islamic world.”

Deadlines

The goal of the Framework Agreement was a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” – no nukes, period. North Korea was to be allowed to get light-water reactors, which are proliferation resistant.

Iran, beginning eight years after the 2015 agreement, will be allowed in increments to reactivate centrifuges that could conceivably enrich uranium to weapons grade.

That has been a key concern of critics of the Iran deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” Tillerson said in his press availability. “It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking about Iran and North Korea at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on April 19. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking about Iran and North Korea at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on April 19. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kimball sounded exasperated at what has become a common misperception.

“The deal obliges Iran to never pursue nuclear weapons in the future,” he said.
While it is true that the agreement allows Iran to enhance its enrichment capabilities over time, and decreases the breadth of the inspections regime, Iran remains a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As part of the deal, it signed on again to the “additional protocol” that allows International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors expanded access to sites in perpetuity. (Iran had previously shucked off the additional protocol.) The protocol has no sunset clauses.

Why can’t we be friends?

It wasn’t just bad actions by North Korea that killed the deal – it was bad faith and distrust on all sides. President Bill Clinton signed the deal in 1994, but by the time of implementation, an adversarial Republican Congress was in place and frustrated the deliveries of promised heating oil.

In both the North Korea and the Iran cases, missile development has been an obstructing factor. Neither deal touched ballistic missiles, but testing the devices, capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, has exacerbated tensions.

The United States in the late 1990s began to sanction North Korea for its ballistic missile tests, but North Korea defiantly kept testing them and said the sanctions were eroding the framework agreement.

A similar scenario is playing out now. The Obama administration last year and the Trump administration this year issued new sanctions following Iranian missile tests; Iran has said it sees the sanctions as undermining the agreement.

Trump made clear he sees the missile tests as the problem, saying this week of Iran that “they are not living up to the spirit of the agreement.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on March 28. Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Daily Kickoff: Trump admin says Iran complying with deal | Israeli Houzz eyeing $5B+ valuation | Netflix says it’s found next ‘Homeland’


Have our people email your people. Share this sign up link with your friends

WHILE WE WERE ON PASSOVER BREAK — Betsy Rothstein of The Daily Caller wrote… “If any outlet is going to know how Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, are spending Passover, it’s a safe bet that Jewish Insider has located the White House afikomen.” [TheDC]

CNN’s Betsy Klein: “As President Donald Trump grappled with the realities of governing, leaks about infighting within his administration, and multiple international conflicts, two of his top aides, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were far from the White House. The couple celebrated Passover at the Four Seasons Whistler in Canada, according to an article and exclusive photo in Jewish Insider.” [CNN]

“White House aides grapple with newfound celebrity” by Annie Karni and Tara Palmeri: “The Daily Mail pays photographers a daily rate to sit outside the Kalorama home of Trump’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, tracking them as they come and go, sometimes in their gym clothes, two industry sources said. The fashionable First Daughter, who now is an official White House staffer, is part of the gray area of formerly famous people who are now aides, as opposed to aides who are newly famous.” [Politico]

DRIVING THE CONVERSATION: “Trump administration says Iran complying with nuclear deal” by Matthew Lee: “The Trump administration has notified Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama, and says the U.S. has extended the sanctions relief… The certification of Iran’s compliance, which must be sent to Congress every 90 days, is the first issued by the Trump administration. The deadline for this certification was midnight.” [AP

But… “Trump orders review of lifting sanctions against Iran: Tillerson” by Lesley Wroughton: “President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States,” Tillerson said in the statement. “It remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods.” [Reuters]

FDD’s Mark Dubowitz tells us: “It underscores the commitment of the Trump administration to ramp up pressure on Iran, including through the use of increased sanctions tied to terrorism and other malign activities.”

Israeli Consul General in NY Dani Dayan: “As PM Netanyahu said in Congress: ‘[the sunset clause] creates an even greater danger that Iran could get to the bomb by KEEPING the deal’” [Twitter

Ben Rhodes‏: “Every day, the situation in North Korea makes clear just how preferable it is to have the Iran Deal in place.” [Twitter

“Mattis in Riyadh to boost US-Saudi alliance” by AFP: “Mattis arrived in Riyadh Tuesday afternoon, wishing to “reinvigorate” ties by listening to Saudi leaders and learning “what are their priorities”, the official said.” [DailyMail]

“US Defense Secretary to Arrive in Israel Thursday” by Tzippe Barrow: “Mattis begins his meetings in Israel with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who traveled to Washington in early March to reaffirm the strong military ties between the two allies. Mattis will also meet with President Reuven Rivlin and visit Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial. On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with Mattis.” [CBNNews]

ON THE HILL — JI INTERVIEW: Congressman Anthony Brown (D-MD) discusses his political career, including the lessons he’s learn from his unsuccessful campaign for Maryland Governor, and from his military service in an interview with JI’s Aaron Magid. “My takeaway is never stop introducing yourself to the voters, but the other lesson was the same lesson my father taught me as a kid growing up is sometimes in life you are going to get knocked down and you won’t be successful in what you sought out to do,” said Brown. “But, if you believe in what you are doing: that is true whether you are running for office to serve, whether you are a doctor, lawyer, teacher or anything else. You have got to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and stay in the game. Teams that lost the Super Bowl don’t drop out of the NFL. They come back: season after season because that is the nature of life.”

Brown on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: “My basic framework is that you can’t impose a solution. I do think that there has to be a bilateral agreement reached by the Israelis and Palestinians. Our role should be to encourage, cajole, prompt and incentivize that commitment. But, this is an agreement that has to be struck between the two parties. It cannot be imposed because then it won’t be lasting.” Read the full interview here [JewishInsider]

DRIVING THE DAY: “Republicans avoid big loss by forcing runoff in Ga. House race” by Robert Costa: “[Jon] Ossoff could find it difficult to sustain the momentum he witnessed this past week in a traditionally Republican district that has been in GOP hands since 1979….[Republican Karen] Handel’s showing was due to more than name recognition from her long tenure in state politics. She also benefited from $1.3 million in support from Ending Spending, a conservative advocacy group aligned with the billionaire Ricketts family.” [WashPost

“Ossoff Just Misses Flipping the 6th” by David R. Cohen, Michael Jacobs, Patrice Worthy and Sarah Moosazadeh: “The outcome keeps alive the possibility of Georgia’s first Jewish congressman since Democrat Elliott Levitas lost a bid for a sixth term in 1984… Although little was made of it, the election took place on a Jewish holiday, the eighth day of Passover, forcing observant Jews to vote early or not at all. Secretary of State Brian Kemp reported that 55,000 ballots were cast early in the congressional election; about 5,000 of those were mailed-in absentee votes.” [ATLJewishTimes]

2ND BAR MITZVAH? Alexis Levinson: “They’ve apparently hired a bar mitzvah DJ to emcee the Jon Ossoff election night party, where they are now playing ‘Celebration’ … Ossoff’s election night party is legit a bar mitzvah with a cash bar. Ppl are dancing, smiling, hugging. #GA06.” [Twitter

Ben Jacobs: “Pretty sure Jon Ossoff is using the playlist from his bar mitzvah for his election night party.” [Twitter]

“Billionaires, companies power Trump’s record inaugural haul“ by Nancy Benac and Julie Bykowicz: “After giving $5 million, Las Vegas gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife had prime seats for Trump’s swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 and gained access to a private lunch with the new president and lawmakers at the Capitol… Steve Wynn, now chief fundraiser for the Republican Party, gave $729,000 through his Wynn Resorts… Billionaire investor Paul Singer, for example, gave $1 million after long expressing skepticism about Trump. He’s since visited the president at the White House.” [AP]

Jake Sherman: “THE KRAFT GROUP — Robert Kraft’s company — gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. he’s at the WH today with his Super Bowl champ patriots.” [Twitter

“Trump’s reliance on billionaire adviser blurs ethics lines” by Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey: “Billionaire investor Steve Schwarzman’s newfound status as a trusted outside adviser for President Donald Trump has created blurred lines in which the Blackstone CEO is offering guidance on policies that could boost the fortunes of his company and his personal wealth. The starkest example was Trump’s reversal last week on labeling China a currency manipulator… While many factors likely played into Trump’s decision, including the president’s desire to encourage China to get tough on North Korea, it also followed extensive advice Schwarzman had given the president on the topic, warning Trump against such a move. Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant. And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy.” [Politico

“Ivanka’s brand prospers as politics mixes with business” by Erika Kinetz and Anne D’Innocenzio: “Ivanka has so many China ties and conflicts, yet she and Jared appear deeply involved in China contacts and policy. I would never have allowed it,” said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama. “For their own sake, and the country’s, Ivanka and Jared should consider stepping away from China matters.” [AP

PROFILE: “Meet The New York City Democrat Flacking For Ivanka Trump” by Steven Perlberg: “New York City political observers say that one of [Risa] Heller’s most striking traits is her fierce loyalty, clearly evidenced by her steadfast aid to Anthony Weiner… “If I had taken her advice at critical junctures even 5% of the time, I would have been infinitely better off. It doesn’t surprise me that people like the Kushners would gravitate toward her,” Weiner told BuzzFeed News… Heller became a rising star in New York political circles in the mid 2000s, when she arrived in Schumer’s office after communications guru Stu Loeser left for Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral reelection campaign. She stood out both for her aggressiveness even by Schumer’s intense standards; as a rare woman in a long line of aggressive young men who came up under the senator; and a fashionable figure in a schlumpy world.” [BuzzFeed

“With the ‘Democratic Invasion of the White House,’ Cuban Starting to Warm Up to Trump Presidency” by Brian Schwartz and Charlie Gasparino: “[Mark] Cuban gives Trump high marks for bringing into his inner circle what he considers moderate Democrats like [Gary] Cohn, Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump. “By my guess, 50 percent or more of non-military leadership in the White House are, or were recently, Democrats,” Cuban told Fox Business. “It’s a good balance.”” [FoxBusiness

NEXT MODERATE MOVE? “Top Trump confidant: Trump should make a deal with Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Allan Smith: “Chris Ruddy, a confidant of President Donald Trump, told Business Insider in a Monday interview that Trump should cut a deal with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. His proposition: Replace her on the bench with Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacated seat in 2016… “They would remove a very liberal Democrat with a moderate, consensus Democrat, who I think Garland is,” Ruddy added. “And I think it would be a huge move and a sign for Trump that he’s willing to break through the political ice.”” [BusinessInsider

OVER THE WEEKEND — “Rex Tillerson and family tour the Holocaust Museum” by Emily Heil: “The nation’s top diplomat, dressed in the weekend business uniform of khakis and a navy blazer, spent a couple of hours touring the permanent exhibit, a spy tells us, accompanied by his wife… Tillerson’s visit came during the holy week of Passover — and just days after White House press secretary Sean Spicer apologized for remarks in which he seemed to forget about the Holocaust.” [WashPost

TRUMP TEAM: “Tillerson’s stock rises in the White House” by Annie Karni: “[Elliott] Abrams argued that while Trump’s veto of his job at State was “taken to be a slap at Tillerson – I think that was a mistake. I don’t think my situation had anything to do with the president’s view of Tillerson. They spend an awful lot of time together.”” [Politico

“Trump learning to love Bush aides” by Tara Palmeri: “Eliot A. Cohen… predicted that more Bush alumni will feel comfortable coming into the administration if it continues to shift to the conservative mainstream… “As the administration is looking a bit more normalish, there will be more people who will be willing to go in,” he said. “What would be transformative would be if Bannon quits or is fired. I think that would be an indication that it will be somewhere closer to a Republican establishment administration. That will change a lot of people’s attitudes,” Cohen added.” [Politico

COMING SOON: “Abbas ready for visit to Washington” by Daoud Kuttab: “Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said April 14 that a Palestinian delegation will visit Washington in the second half of April to plan for the visit, which he said will take place early in May. The London-based al-Hayat said April 14 that the delegation preparing for Abbas’ visit will include senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and intelligence chief Majed Faraj. The lack of a firm date has led some Palestinian media to report that the visit has been postponed, but a US White House source quickly shot down this rumor, insisting that the visit is still on.” [Al-Monitor]

— “Al-Quds said Trump’s team has prepared a draft plan demanding that the Palestinians return to negotiations with Israel without setting any conditions and halt transfer of funds to the besieged Gaza Strip.” [Wafa

KAFE KNESSET — by Tal Shalev and JPost’s Lahav Harkov: The hottest show in town today was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responding to the State Comptroller’s Report on Protective Edge in the Knesset. Several bereaved parents questioned Netanyahu and said they didn’t get the satisfaction of at least knowing that the mistakes leading to their sons’ deaths won’t be repeated. One bereaved father, Ilan Sagie, said Netanyahu “stabbed me in the heart and twisted the knife,” and pleaded “Why won’t you say you will fix the failures of Protective Edge?” Leah Goldin, mother of Hadar Goldin, a soldier presumed to be dead whose body is held by Hamas, broke down in tears while speaking to Netanyahu. The premier came off as patient, but at some times stern, explaining to Goldin, for example, that he is willing to make sacrifices to bring back her son’s body – but there is a limit. Bibi clearly knew there was no way for him to come out of such an emotional situation unscathed, and looked like he was having a difficult time.

Anyone reading haredi magazine Mishpacha over the last day of Passover in Israel, got to read about how much Netanyahu enjoyed seeing Hamilton on his last trip to NYC. Not only that, but Netanyahu said he made a suggestion to Lin-Manuel Miranda on how to improve the play. As Spamalot taught us, you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews, so Netanyahu touted Hamilton’s Jewish connection. Bibi says he read that when Alexander Hamilton was a child in the Caribbean, his tutor was a Jewish woman, who taught him to recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Later in life, Hamilton expressed admiration for the Jewish people, saying they have a “unique destiny” that is “part of God’s greater plan.” That, Netanyahu said, should go into the play. Read today’s entire Kafe Knesset here [JewishInsider]

** Good Wednesday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Billionaire vs. billionaire: Israel’s Steinmetz sues Soros [ToI; Reuters] • Michael Bloomberg to fill event void left by Clinton Global Initiative [Axios] • Jared Kushner in Talks to Sell Stake in Real Estate Technology Company [WSJ] • The PPA Group teams with Israeli investor on Houston apartment complex [Chron• SeatGeek Raises $57M to Buy Israeli Firm TopTix [Billboard] • Bustle acquires Elite Daily from Daily Mail, rebrands as Bustle Digital Group [BI]

SPOTLIGHT: “Houzz Raising Funding at Valuation Above $5 Billion” by Erin Griffith, Leena Rao: “Houzz, an online platform for home remodeling and design services, is in the market raising a large new round of venture funding that could value the company at more than $5 billion, according to several sources familiar with the situation. The talks are early, but sources say the company could raise as much as $500 million. Asked to comment, a Houzz representative wrote, “It’s not true.” Founded in 2009 by Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen, Houzz has raised $213 million in funding to date. The Palo Alto-based company’s latest round, a $165 million Series D in late 2014 led by Sequoia Capital, valued it at $2.3 billion.” [Fortune]

“Sheryl Sandberg: Option B and Life After Grief” by Belinda Luscombe: “The woman who urged the world to lean in is now under­taking a campaign to help people push on, to bounce back from horrible misfortune. Her newest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, is a primer for those who are bereaved, to help them recover and find happiness. But it’s also a guide for the unscathed on how to help people “lean in to the suck,” as Sandberg’s rabbi puts it.” [TimeMag]

“Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s controversial decision to turn down Yahoo’s $1 billion early offer to buy Facebook” by Mike Hoefflinger: “Curious, [Andy] Grove followed up: “Where does that willpower come from?” Zuckerberg considered the question—possibly for the first time—and concluded simply, “Jewish mother.”” [BI

“Selling Mark Zuckerberg” by Nitasha Tiku: “The Facebook CEO’s likability blitz isn’t a presidential campaign, it’s a focus group for his 1.8 billion constituents — and part of a high stakes campaign to win your likes” [BuzzFeed]

“Here’s Why A Nonprofit Named For Anne Frank Keeps Attacking Trump” by Jessica Schulberg: “Keeping a low profile is not [Steve] Goldstein’s style. When he was 6 years old, he skipped school to stuff envelopes at the local Democratic headquarters for then-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, according to a bio he provided. He has worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic lawmakers Frank Lautenberg and Chuck Schumer… Despite his past work on Capitol Hill, Goldstein says “nothing could be farther from the truth” in response to accusations that he’s taken the Anne Frank Center in a partisan direction. The center goes out of its way to point out that it was Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt who denied Anne Frank entry to the U.S., and has defended members of the Trump family when they were unfairly attacked, Goldstein noted.” [HuffPost]

Michael Steinhardt, Birthright Founder and ‘Wall Street’s Greatest Trader’, to Light Torch on Israel’s Independence Day: “Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright and a man once dubbed “Wall Street’s greatest trader”, has been selected to light an official torch on Israel’s Independence Day, Israel announced on Wednesday. He will join Rabbi Marvin Hier, who took part in U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, in lighting the torch for the Jewish diaspora.” [Haaretz

Netflix says it’s found the next ‘Homeland’ — “Netflix thinks its new series, Fauda, could rival the success of Homeland across the globe. Lior Raz — lead actor and series co-creator — speaks with CNN’s Samuel Burke in Israel about his own time in the security forces, a tragic terrorist attack that killed his girlfriend, and how Netflix has garnered a once small Israeli series global praise.” [CNN]

TALK OF THE TOWN: “Lawsuit targets neo-Nazi ‘troll storm’ against Jewish family” by Phil Drake and Seaborn Larson: “The lawsuit claims Andrew Anglin, publisher of the Daily Stormer neo-Nazi website with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month, provoked legions of his followers to send a “tsunami of threats” to Tanya Gersh and her relatives. Gersh is a Montana real-estate agent who fell out of favor with the mother of Richard B. Spencer, considered by many to be the founder of the alt-right movement… A monetary figure has not been attached to the suit although Gersh hopes to win at least $225,000 for three of the four counts asserted in the complaint.” [USAToday

MEDIA WATCH — “Bari Weiss Joins ‘New York Times’ Opinion Section” by Tablet Magazine: “Bari, who edited [Tablet] news and politics section from 2011 to 2013, moves to the Times from the Wall Street Journal, where she worked as associate book review editor and also wrote frequently about topics like political correctness and campus culture.” [Tablet• Hiring Anti-Trump Conservative Is Part Of New York Times’ Effort To Expand Opinion [HuffPost

“An Op-Ed Author Omits His Crimes, and The Times Does Too” by Liz Spayd: “Marwan Barghouti… was given five consecutive life terms after being convicted in an Israeli criminal court of premeditated murder for his role in terrorist attacks that killed five people… On Sunday, he wrote a piece for the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times to draw attention to a mass hunger strike for what he calls Israel’s arbitrary arrests and poor treatment of Palestinian prisoners…  A biographical sentence at the end of the Op-Ed simply says, “Marwan Barghouti is a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” I asked Jim Dao, editor of the Op-Ed pages, about the decision not to include Barghouti’s crimes…  I see no reason to skimp on this, while failing to do so risks the credibility of the author and the Op-Ed pages. In this case, I’m pleased to see the editors responding to the complaints, and moving to correct the issue rather than resist it.” [NYTimes• Netanyahu slams New York Times over Barghouti op-ed byline [i24News]

SPOTLIGHT: “CNN’s Jake Tapper Is the Realest Man in “Fake News”” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: “Tapper is on a diet… His diet consists, as basically all diets do, of pretty much just protein: protein shakes, protein snacks, protein protein. His friend Paul Rudd, who, Tapper says, got “really shredded” for Ant-Man, gave him the diet. Tapper follows it mostly, also doing cardio at the gym five times a week. “The modified Ant-Man” is what he calls it. I wonder what it says about us when Ant-Man is our superhero aspiration, but Tapper is realistic: “Paul’s a fellow 48-year-old Jew. This is achievable.” Fair.” [GQ]

BOOK REVIEW: “The Inside Story of the Clinton Campaign Disaster” by Bess Levin: “As Hillary thumbed through the pages, the [concession] speech struck her as tone-deaf. It’s too charged, she thought, too political… Jake Sullivan, her chief strategist took the lead in defending the tone. ‘Everything you said, we’re going to do in this speech. . . . But you have been saying for many months that he is temperamentally unfit and that he would be dangerous, and, if you meant it, you should say it. And you made a case that all these people’s rights and safety are in danger—if you meant that, you should say it.’ ‘It’s not my job anymore to do this,’ she said, her voice growing more forceful.” [VanityFair; Axios]  

TRANSITIONS — Fred Brown, Communications Director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, was hired by Dezenhall Resources, a crisis management and communications firm, to serve as a senior counselor. h/t Playbook

Sinclair Announces the Addition of Boris Epshteyn: Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide and Trump campaign chief surrogate, has joined Sinclair Broadcast Group as chief political analyst and will provide analysis and insight on major political stories. [SBGI• Flashback: Kushner: We struck deal with Sinclair for straighter coverage [Politico

BIRTHDAYS: US diplomat from 1962 forward, then President of the Council on Foreign Relations (1986-1993) ultimately becoming the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1993-1997), Peter Tarnoff turns 80… Literary theorist, legal scholar, author and public intellectual, has taught at Cardozo School of Law, Florida International University and University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish turns 79… Prominent Israeli criminal defense attorney who also served as the Attorney General of Israel (2010-2016), Yehuda Weinstein turns 73… Comedienne, actress and mental health campaigner in the UK, Ruby Wax (born Ruby Wachs in Chicago)… Overland Park, Kansas resident, Gloria Elyachar turns 57… Angel investment fund manager, who during his 12-year NFL career (1987-1998) won three Super Bowls, Harris Barton turns 53… Jerusalem-born historian, author, screenwriter, political commentator and senior lecturer at the Hebrew University, Gadi Taub turns 52… Israeli entrepreneur best known as the founder and former CEO of Better Place, an electric car company that raised $850 million yet was liquidated in a 2013 bankruptcy, Shai Agassi turns 49… French stand-up comedian and actor, Gad Elmaleh turns 46… Award-winning, film, televison and theatre actor, his official bar mitzvah was in 2015 at age 37, James Franco turns 39… Tel Aviv-born, now living in Toronto, entrepreneur, philanthropist, CEO and co-founder of Klick Health (a digital marketing firm in the medical field), Leerom Segal turns 38… Assistant Director of Campus Affairs at AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy, Seffi Kogen… Arthur Cohn… Jake Gerber

BIRTHWEEK: Editor of Commentary magazine, columnist for the New York Post, John Mordechai Podhoretz turns 56… NYTimes White House reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis… Chabad Rabbi, founder and executive director of the Aspen Chabad Jewish Community Center, Mendel Mintz turns 42… Political director for AIPAC’s Florida region, Evan Philipson turns 28… RNC’s Jonathan R. Brodo… VP and Deputy General Counsel at Scholastic Inc, Mark Seidenfeld

Gratuity not included. We love receiving news tips but we also gladly accept tax deductible tips. 100% of your donation will go directly towards improving Jewish Insider. Thanks! [PayPal]

Ex-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Iran, on April 12. Photo by Tasnim News Agency/Handout via Reuters

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes surprise entry into Iran’s presidential race


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad filed to run in Iran’s upcoming presidential election, defying the wishes of the country’s supreme leader that he not seek to return to the office.

Associated Press journalists watched Wednesday as stunned election officials processed the former hardline president’s paperwork. When he was head of government from 2005 to 2013, Ahmadinejad repeatedly questioned the Holocaust, called for Israel’s destruction and expanded Iran’s nuclear program.

Following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recommendation in December that Ahmadinejad stay out of the race, moderate President Hassan Rouhani was seen to have a wide-open path to reelection. Ahmadinejad unexpected move could challenge that perception.

Ahmadinejad previously said he would not run and would support his former Deputy Hamid Baghaei, who also registered on Wednesday. At a press conference shortly after registering, Ahmadinejad called Khamenei’s comments “just advice,” and described his move as helping Baghaei.

“His advice does not prevent me from running,” he said. “There is extensive pressure on me from dear people of different walks of life as their small servant to come to the election.”

Ahmadinejad, who under Iranian law became eligible to run again after four years out of office, remains a divisive figure. Massive protests spurred by his disputed 2009 election were violently suppressed, with thousands of people detained and dozens killed. Two of his former vice presidents have been jailed for corruption since he left office.

During Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iran faced heavy international sanctions against for its nuclear program, which Western countries said aimed to develop weapons. Iran has claimed the program is for peaceful purposes.

Rouhani, who has yet to formally register to run for reelection, signed an agreement with world powers to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. Registration remains open until Saturday. Iran’s Guardian Council of clerics and jurists vets all applicants and will announce an approved list of candidates by April 27.

President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase on April 6. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

On Trump’s order, U.S. missiles target Syrian airbase


U.S. warships launched 50-60 missiles at an airbase in northern Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in President Donald Trump’s first major intervention in the Middle East.

The Tomahawk missiles hit Shayrat airfield on Thursday, north of Damascus, CNN reported, citing Pentagon sources. The Bashar Assad regime is believed to have launched the chemical attacks on Iblid province in northern Syria earlier this week which killed at least 82 civilians, including many children.

Trump ordered the attack from his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, where he is spending the weekend.

“It is in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said in a short statement to the media at Mar-A-Lago.

As a result of Assad’s repression and use of chemical weapons among other means, Trump said, “the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and allies.” Trump has said he sees the exodus of refugees from Syria as a threat to the West because of terrorists who may be among them. He has twice sought to bar their entry into the United States; both bids were stayed by the courts.

Trump had indicated earlier that he was considering action.

“Yesterday, a chemical attack — a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria, against innocent people, including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies,” Trump said Wednesday during a press opportunity with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a U.S. ally whose nation borders Syria. “Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”

The Assad regime has denied responsibility and its ally, Russia, has resisted U.N. Security Council action, saying that it is premature to blame Assad for the attack. Trump, in his short statement to the press on Thursday, said there was “no dispute” Assad was behind the attack.

The missile launch represents a sharp departure from the policies of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who resisted targeting the Assad regime while maintaining some U.S. involvement in the efforts to push back the Islamic State, the terrorist group that is among Assad’s enemies.

It is also a dramatic departure from how Trump campaigned for president, when he lacerated Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, for deepening U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and called for a pullback of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.

Just last week, Trump officials suggested that the United States was withdrawing from what was for years a U.S. policy of seeking Assad’s removal.

At his Wednesday press conference, Trump said he was flexible in how he approached policy. “I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.

CNN reported that Trump informed other countries prior to the attack, although it did not specify whether Israel was among those countries. Israel is concerned about any escalation north of the Golan Heights, which Israel controls; that area, in southwest Syria, is not near the targeted base.

The attack could for the first time in Trump’s presidency rattle what had been warming ties with Russia.

Jewish families crossing through the Iranian mountains and Pakistani deserts on the way to finding freedom.

My Exodus: A very Persian Passover


Through the camera of my iPhone I see people’s feet. They jump over five wooden crates filled with burning twigs. The crates are spaced a few yards apart, sitting on the concrete patio in the backyard. I lift the phone to get a wider shot.

I see a mom holding one daughter’s hand on her right side and holding her little one in her left arm, eagerly jumping over the first box and running toward the next. As she gets closer to the second box, the next family, swiftly and skillfully, moves into action from the orderly line behind her.

Sinuous Persian music is playing in the background as the rhythm of jumping and passing over fire after fire happens naturally and without supervision. I am excited to text this footage to my son, who is away in college. He has never been to a Shabeh Chahar Shanbeh Suri, an ancient Persian ritual that takes place on the last Tuesday of the year. I have not been to one, either, since that fateful time, three decades ago, when our retelling of the biblical Exodus merged horribly, unbelievably, with our own.

As I look at these flames, I remember the first time I jumped over fire. I was 9 years old. It was just outside of our home in Tehran, the last Tuesday of the year. All the neighborhood kids were out and had lined up dry bushes, and set them aflame on the street. Each fire had its own height, proportionate to how much material was burning. I was standing to one side, mesmerized by how nimbly Azadeh, a neighbor girl my age, navigated through the fire, as her hazel eyes emanated an amber spark and her golden pony tail flew in the air.

Azadeh, came over and asked, “Hi. Why don’t you jump?”

“I’m going to get burned!” I said.

“Don’t be silly! Nobody burns! This is so much fun! Here, why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”

Her grandma was watching us. She said, “Girls, don’t forget to say, ‘My yellow is yours, your red is mine’ as you jump over! This way, the fire will take your sickness and problems and give you warmth and vitality, instead!”

In one evening, I had mastered the art of jumping over medium-height fires. Better yet, I had found my best friend.

Charshanbesuri, as the kids call it, is the ancient Persian ritual of lighting fire to say farewell to the darkness of winter and to welcome the brightness of spring in Iran. The busiest week of the year followed with spring cleaning at home and shopping for new shoes and clothes to welcome Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Nowruz comprises 12 days of open house, where everyone is obligated to visit one another’s homes. On the 13th day, families go outdoors and spend the day in the fields.

Jewish families hold their open houses during the eight days of Passover, instead of Nowruz. On the first day, you visit mourners. On the second day, the oldest of the family, and on the following days, the younger family members, and so forth. They spend the day after the end of Passover outdoors.

That year, the Passover seder fell on the seventh day of Nowruz. This meant that when Azadeh and her parents were hosting their open house, Mom and Grandma were still busy preparing for Passover, cleaning and cooking.

Our entire household was in preparation mode. All the closets would be cleaned out and reorganized. All the dishes and pots would be washed in hot and cold water for Haghalah, or purification. The kids were as involved in this ritual as the adults. There were always tasks for us to do, and the main attraction was Grandma’s stories about the lives of our ancestors and the stories from Torah. She would tell us about how they had to take the pots and pans to coppersmiths to remove the rust and to add a layer of zinc. They had to buy sesame seeds to take to a processing plant and have the oil extracted for Passover cooking. They had to have someone come into their home and open the mattresses and re-fluff and clean the cotton and re-sew the mattresses and quilts, wash the cover, open the pillows and wash the feathers …

Grandma was making hallegh (charoset) in the kitchen. It was made from nuts, grapes, pomegranate seeds, wine and cardamom. Mom was making special almond-and-walnut cookies with eggs and no flour, because we were forbidden to eat anything with leavening during the eight days of Passover.

“Mom, when are we going to visit Azadeh’s family?”

“We have to wait for Dad. He has gone to the Jewish cemetery where they are baking the matzo. And you know how crazy that gets when everyone is there.”

Grandma said, “You don’t need to tell your friend about all this, dear.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s complicated!” she said.

Haft-Seen is an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with S.

Haft-Seen is an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with S.

Before we entered Azadeh’s home, Mom said, “Make sure you do not touch any food before you are offered! You have to sit politely and quietly. You are a big girl now, and you should know that kids are not to speak unless asked. And do not eat too many pistachios as you will get a stomachache.”

The Nowruz Haft-Seen set up at Azadeh’s home was similar to the one at our home, except that, instead of an edition of the Torah on our table, they had a Quran. Two fish were dancing in a bowl of water set next to a pot of tulips. A bowl of hand-painted eggs, and an elaborate mirror were set next to the seven plates holding items that start with the letter S: sabzeh (a green plate of grown wheat), seeb (red apples), samanoo (a wheat-based dish), senjed (a fruit of the lotus tree), seer (garlic), serkeh (vinegar) and sekkeh (coins laid in water). The two burning candles on the Haftseen table reminded me of my grandma’s Shabbat candles.

After returning home, I asked Grandma, “Why is our sabzeh different?”

“We don’t grow wheat when it is close to Passover. Instead we grow lentils.”

“Why?”

“It’s complicated!”

Finally Passover began. Every year, we went to my oldest uncle’s home for the seder. In the dining room, there was an extra-long mahogany table with just about enough chairs pulled from around the house to fit four families. I still remember the smell of the carrots, beans and cinnamon rice that my aunt cooked for dinner. The chicken with the tomato sauce was divine.

The ceremony was even longer than the table. Uncle would sit at the head of the table, monotonously reading in Hebrew the entire story of the Exodus of Jews from Egypt. Men and children sat in the middle trying to follow the story in Farsi. Women sat at the far end of the table gossiping. Every once in a while, Uncle would stop reading and yell, “Quiet!”

There were only three or four haggadot passed on to people who recited a section in Farsi. We were never able to finish reading. Nor did we understand most of what was written. The text was esoteric and disconnected.

Children loved the “Kaddesh Urechatz” mantra. For this, each person got the chance to hold the afikomen (unleavened bread) that was wrapped in a special fabric, and recite the names for the sections of the haggadah. Later, the afikomen would be hidden and kids would be sent to find it. 

Adults even allowed us to drink wine four times. And we asked the Four Questions, which I never completely understood as a child. What I did notice was that similar to Haftseen, we also had a bunch of greens, eggs and vinegar on our table. We dipped celery in the vinegar and ate it to remember the tears of our forefathers in Egypt.

Before the recitation of the Ten Plagues, women covered the long table with a couple of white sheets. This had two functions. First, it protected our food from the terrible words that were about to be uttered. More importantly, it gave kids an opportunity to start to steal scallions from underneath the white sheets and store them for the “Dayenu” ritual.

As soon as the section on Ten Plagues ended, children would jump off their chairs and attack! There was no song. “Dayenu” was a cross-generational free-for-all, and this sweet moment was worth waiting for, the entire year. At any other time of year, it was unimaginable for children to look adults in the eye, let alone hit them. Now, there was no time to spare! We had only 5 or 10 minutes to run around the table and the room and hit everyone with the scallions.

Grandma said that everything at the seder was to remind us of what our ancestors went through. “Dayenu” reminded us of slaves who were whipped and that we were now free. Charoset was the mud our ancestors used to build the Pyramids. The piece of meat on the seder plate was for remembering that Jews made a burnt offering right before they set out to leave Egypt, in order to divert the attention of Egyptians.

That was spring 1978. The following winter, people took to the streets demanding, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!” The smell and sight of the smoke from burning tires and storefronts marked the beginning of the exodus of many families, including Jews, from Iran. Schools were closed, on and off. Grandma declared that our family had to leave for Israel. We had family there and would be staying with them for a while until things normalized. Dad agreed to let us go. He did not wish to leave his job.

People set fire to stores and cars during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

People set fire to stores and cars during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

During the one month we were in Israel, I went to public school. Unlike my school in Tehran, the school in Tel Aviv had many creative activities during the week, such as wood shop. I was starting to write in Hebrew and learn the language, when Mom decided to take my brother and me back to Iran to be with Dad. Grandma did not come back with us. I started to write her long-winded letters on a regular basis.

Dad said Azadeh had come to our home and asked for me. He had told her that we’d gone to France because my mother needed surgery. The first day I was to return to school, Mom said, “Do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that we went to Israel! Tell everyone we were in France for my surgery!”

The first thing I noticed in school was that Azadeh was wearing a scarf that tightly covered her entire hair and forehead as well as any trace of her playful nature and free spirit. I remembered the Charshanbesuri when Azadeh and I had taken a spoon and bowl to go Ghashogh-Zani (Knocking on Neighbors’ Doors). We had disguised ourselves in sheets, laughing our way through the street as we knocked on doors to collect nuts and sweets.

There was a knock on the classroom door. The school custodian came in and asked for a student to go to the office. My teacher asked him, “Did they kill his father?”

After he left, she asked me in front of the whole class, “Were you in Israel?” “No, ma’am!” I declared. Before I knew it, I added, “We had gone to France for my mother to have surgery!”

That summer, Mom found me a painting class that I could ride the bus to. It was a very pleasant way for me to divert my attention from the turmoil and tension in the air. One day, as I was walking on the busy street toward the bus stop, a motorcyclist sped toward me, yelled and zoomed away. I was mortified, because I had heard rumors about motorcyclists who would throw acid onto the faces of girls wearing short sleeves! Summer got unbearably warmer as I started to wear long sleeve clothes.

The following fall, the Iran-Iraq war began and the airports closed. Nobody was to leave the country. One step at a time, personal and community freedoms were curtailed. Women had to cover their heads and wear baggy, long-sleeve dresses called uniforms with long pants and socks — preferably all black. People’s homes were broken into to collect evidence of “un-revolutionary” belongings or activities. A not-so-distant relative was labeled as “Zionist, Imperialist, Enemy of God and the Prophet of God.” He was executed without a trial.

Charshanbesuri — the fire-jumping ceremony of Nowruz — was outlawed. People did it anyway. Revolutionary guards doused the fires with water, which made them look dark and smell wrong.

For the first time, Mom and Dad were experiencing anti-Semitism at work.

They found solace in trying to prevent the government from closing the Jewish school. Therefore, they put me in that school. It didn’t take long for the government to forbid schools belonging to religious minorities to enroll Muslim students.  Here, I met my new Jewish friend Parastoo. The spark in her eyes reminded me of the Azadeh I used to know. She was fun and unafraid, a free-spirit in spite of the tensions around us. Parastoo lived far from our home, but when she would visit, we hung out with Azadeh.

cov-Postcards_0003_Baking

A mother and her daughters prepare kosher baked goods and dried fruits for Passover.

One day when I came home from school, I heard a wailing that I had never heard before. It was so strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. I went into the kitchen and saw Mom sobbing quietly as she was staring at the wall. “What is that noise, Mom?” I asked. “It’s Azadeh’s Mom!” Azadeh’s brother, an Iranian soldier, had been killed in the civil war with the Iranian Kurds.

This was the last straw for Mom. Her goal in life became for the family to leave Iran. And it had to be before my brother turned 13 years old, the age the Islamic government considered boys as soldiers. The punishment for a runaway soldier would be no less than death.

By now the airports were open, but not to Jews. The passport application process included declaring one’s religion and the names of one’s entire extended family. Jews would have to go to the prime minister’s office to obtain their passports instead of the passport office. Mom and Dad managed to purchase an exorbitantly expensive fake passport for my brother from the governor of an obscure state. My brother needed to leave the country before he would be found out. My parents and I had to take the illegal route. As Grandma would say, “It was complicated.”

Mom stressed to me, “Nobody can know about this! I mean nobody! Remember those people who told their friends and then they were found and taken to prison?”

“Parastoo, I have to tell you a secret!” I whispered in her ear.

“What is it?” she said jokingly in her playful manner.

“Never mind.” I turned my head away. She suddenly changed. She looked at me seriously and said, “I’m sorry. Tell me. I am listening.”

“You must not share this with anyone! I mean nobody! OK?”

“Are you leaving?”

I closed my eyes and nodded my head in agreement.

“OK, then. You cannot tell anyone that we are leaving too. Who is taking you?”

As I watch the Charshanbesuri fire through my iPhone, I remember my exodus from Iran through the deserts of Pakistan. My family and other Jewish families were following our Baluchi guides through the desert. There were many dry bushes along the way. I thought of the Jewish people following Moses in the desert, longing for freedom. I wondered what Moses thought when he saw the burning bush.

Hagalah is the process of washing plates, pots and utensils for Passover.

Hagalah is the process of washing plates, pots and utensils for Passover.

Parastoo and her siblings went to Israel. After my family arrived in Los Angeles, I wrote to Azadeh and told her about our journey. We continued correspondence for a few years. Later, we became part of an online group for our elementary school friends. She stayed in Iran and married. When it was time for her son to be drafted, they moved to Irvine.

My thoughts are interrupted as Azadeh comes toward me to greet me. Her long, golden hair is now flowing gloriously in the open air. The spark in her eyes is back.

“Thanks so much for coming all the way to Irvine from L.A.! It’s so good to see you after all these years!” We hug and shed tears.

Then she straightens herself up and smiles. “Put that phone away! Hold my hand and we’ll jump together! Just do it really fast!”

“Wow, Azadeh!” I exclaim. “I never realized that all those years I was celebrating my Persian identity by passing over a burning bush!”

“Tell me!” she demands, “what happened to Parastoo?”

“Oh, yes, she is now living in Israel and covers her head. Last time I saw her, she had six children. She has been a grandmother for a while! When I went to Grandma’s funeral in Israel, Parastoo came and brought some scented herbs to say blessings for her. We lit candles together.”

As I take another glance into the burning bush, I think to myself, “It’s complicated!”


Shirin Raban is an award-winning designer, cine-ethnographer and educator. She created the film “The Fifth Question: Why Is This Passover Different?” and lectures at UCLA Extension and Cal State Northridge.

Not Iranian


You would think I’d be used to it by now.

In the 1980s, at a dinner party at the home of a Muslim Iranian friend, an older woman sitting next to me panics when she realizes I’m Jewish. Quickly, she gathers her coat around her and hugs herself tight to create as much space between us as she can. Later, the host explains that the old woman still believes what she was taught as a child in Iran — that Jews are najis (ritually impure) and will contaminate anything they touch.

In the 1990s, at a book talk in Portland, I’m confronted by an angry group of nearly 100 Muslim Iranian men and women who demand to know why I feel the need to write about the persecution of Jews in Iran under Shia Islam. The evening  ends  when one woman — a dentist — asserts without irony that it is indeed true that Jews are najis. It also is true, she goes on to say, that Jews have little tails hidden by their clothes. Everyone hears her, but not a single person in the room steps in to correct her.

These are not everyday occurrences. For every bigoted Muslim Iranian I know, I’ve also known a dozen civil, enlightened and cultured ones. Many of them, in fact, are more accepting of Jews than Jews are of them.

They’re not everyday occurrences, and yet, when they happen, they all but take my breath away.

In the 2000s, I’m in the studios of a Persian-language radio station in Los Angeles. As I wait for one program to end and my interview to begin, I hear an angry caller yell at the host that he should not refer to Iranian Jews as “Iranian.” “Those people are not and have never been Iranians. They were subversives we let live in our country.” The caller is somewhere in the United States. After he signs off, a second caller, then a third echo his sentiments.

Last week, I happened upon a Facebook conversation among a few Iranian Muslims about Iranian Jews. The subject is “Iranians who attended the AIPAC conference,” and how “these are the same people who voted for Donald Trump.” This, we all know and understand, means something like, “Iranian Jews all support Israel and would like to bomb and obliterate Iran, and that’s why they voted for Trump.”

In response to the post, people have made comments such as, “Those people are not Iranians; they’re Israelis disguised as Iranian” or “Those are Israelis who speak Farsi.”

The most vocal of the anti-Zionists in this conversation has been firing off pictures that depict Jews as little devils sitting on piles of money, and worse, for years.

Iranian Jews have been in Iran, and before it in Persia, since before Persia itself. They were brought in as slaves by Nebuchadnezzar, from Palestine, after he destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. They were there for 12 centuries before the Arabs conquered the country and forcefully converted most of the population to Islam. And they’ve been there since. And still, we were — are — told we’re not “real” Iranians.

I write that this is anti-Semitic talk wrapped in anti-Israel lingo. I say that support for Israel as a nation, or for Zionism as an idea, does not make a person subversive. This, in turn, unleashes a torrent of comments about the evils of Zionism, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and how it is I, and other Zionists, who should apologize to the world, and not the other way around. In short order, I’m told by my fellow Iranian Americans that “most Jews are self-hating”; that Jews “should go back to Germany, yallah”; that “Jews should go to Africa, where their ancestry started”; that “hell hath no fury like that of Iranians who are blinded by the Zionist dream”; and that “Israel should be established in the United States” so that the “Middle East will again be peaceful.”

Anti-Zionism by Iranian Muslims, in short, is not the same as anti-Semitism.

Well, maybe.

Except, you see, Israel as a country is 69 years old; Jews have been persecuted in Iran, called “not Iranian,” accused of sedition, declared untouchable, since Iran became Shia 700 years ago.

And there’s also this: The most vocal of the anti-Zionists in this conversation has been firing off pictures that depict Jews as little devils sitting on piles of money, and worse, for years. From what I can tell, she still has hundreds of Iranian Facebook friends. In fact, when I raise this person’s past online activities, only 1 out of nearly 50 Iranians engaged in the conversation steps up to say, “This is wrong.”

Now, I don’t believe that being opposed to Israel’s settlement policy or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, or being sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, is tantamount to anti-Semitism. By that measure, I imagine half of the Jews in the world — I among them — would be anti-Semitic. But I do wonder, when it comes to Muslims in Iran and abroad, how they distinguish between the suffering of the Palestinian people and that of, say, the half-million Muslim civilians in Syria since 2011, or 1 million in Iraq since 2003, another 1 million in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s — where is their outrage at these and countless other Muslim-on-Muslim, Shia-on-Sunni, Arab-on-Arab or Arab-on-Iranian atrocities? Why do they call for boycotting Israel but oppose sanctions on Iran?

Most of the Muslims I know are too civil, enlightened and cultured to be consciously anti-Semitic. I’m not being coy when I say that I truly do not understand the double standard these tolerant Muslims apply to the Arab-Israeli issue as opposed to all other Muslim-related tragedies. But I will say this, because I think it bears thinking about: None of us, Jews, Muslims or others, is free of prejudice.

Often, the racism is so old and deeply engrained that we truly don’t recognize it for what it is. I wish these enlightened Muslims would consider this possibility. Because, let me tell you, it doesn’t get any easier, doesn’t hurt any less to be told, by your own people, that you’re not one of them.


GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Yahya Sinwar, left, and Ali Khamenei (Getty Images via JTA)

I’m rubber, you’re glue: Iran and Hamas impose sanctions targeting US, Israel


Israel’s archenemies apparently couldn’t wait until April Fool’s Day.

On Sunday, geopolitics got all “hafouch,” or turned upside down, as they say in this country. Iran imposed penalties on U.S. firms for working with Israel, and Hamas closed its border with the Jewish state. Stereotypically, of course, it’s the other way around, with the United States and Israel doing the sanctioning of Iran and Hamas.

According to Iran’s IRNA state news agency, the “reciprocal” sanctions on 15 U.S. companies are for alleged human rights violations and cooperating with Israel. IRNA quoted Iran’s foreign ministry as saying the companies had “flagrantly violated human rights” and cooperated with Israel against the Palestinians.

Iran’s seizure of the companies’ assets and ban on contact is largely symbolic since the companies don’t do business with Iran. Among the targeted firms are Re/Max Real Estate, which Tehran accuses of “buying and settling home in settlements located in the occupied territories.”

Emily Landau, a senior researcher at the Institute for International Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank, said Iran actually has a long history of using the United States’ tools against it.

“This is well-known Iranian tactic of turning the tables on the U.S.,” she wrote in an email to JTA. “Iran has done it many times before over the past years. They take the same messages that the U.S. sends them, about how Iran must do this or the other, and sends them back in reverse.”

Meanwhile, in a rare move, Hamas shut the Erez crossing, which is how people move between Israel and Gaza, due to the assassination of a senior official in its military wing Friday. Hamas officials have blamed the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad for the killing of one of its top military leaders, who was shot dead by unknown gunmen Friday in Gaza.

“The closure is being implemented as part of the steps taken by Hamas security forces as a result of the crime of the assassination of Mazan Fukha,” the spokesman for the Interior Ministry said in a post on his official Facebook page.

Israel has maintained a blockade of Hamas-run Gaza since 2007, but it grants permits for people to cross through Erez for business or humanitarian reasons. Hamas apparently suspects that collaborators with Israel were involved in the shooting. Israel has not commented.

So far, Hamas has refrained from responding with rockets. Israeli analyst Avi Issacharoff wrote in The Times of Israel Sunday that Hamas may be looking to avoid a new war.

“Yet, for all its rhetoric, Hamas has yet to show any firm evidence of Israeli involvement, a fact that may give the organization the political maneuvering room to avoid a dramatic response that could lead to a full-fledged confrontation,” he wrote.

But he noted the group’s new Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, was known to be dangerous and unpredictable when he was head of Hamas’ military wing, and Israel-Hamas tensions can heat up quickly in the summertime.

U.S.-Iran relations have also gotten hotter President Donald Trump took office in January. Twice in as many months the United States has imposed new sanctions on foreign individuals and companies for allegedly supporting Iran’s weapons program. Last month’s sanctions also targeted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

In response to a proposal by U.S. lawmakers to go further and brand Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, a senior Iranian lawmaker threatened that his country could do the same to the CIA.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in international conflict it tends to escalate.

Donald Trump. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Trump fails to ‘shoot Iran’s little boats out of the water’


Speaking at a crowded campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida last September, then Republican nominee Donald Trump issued a stern threat to Tehran. Responding to a recent incident where Iranian ships harassed a US navy patrol, Trump warned, “With Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures — that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”

This post was originally published at JewishInsider.com.

Only months into Trump’s presidency, Iran has continued its provocative actions, south of the Strait of Hormuz. US officials told CBS News earlier this month that Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast boats positioned themselves in front of the USNS Invincible, a move deemed “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”

Nonetheless, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ships were not “shot out of the water.” Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research at the Foundations for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) told Jewish Insider, “What we are looking at is an evolving Iran policy. I think we are still in the early days.” At the same time, Schanzer emphasized that personnel changes have clearly impacted the Trump administration’s actions. “It can’t be ignored that we’ve seen a changing of the guard over the last two months with the exit of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the entrance of H.R. McMaster. We’ve certainly seen tougher rhetoric and an inclination to use sanctions, but I don’t think a policy has fully taken shape yet.”

“We have seen a President who is rather committed in following through on his campaign promises,” Schanzer continued. “This, I think, has been a point of pride for this Administration. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of a US challenge to the Iranians in this regard. The context of Flynn putting Iran on-notice and reportedly having a very robust policy regarding Iran and then his exit shouldn’t be ignored. It’s not to say that there isn’t continuity between Flynn and McMaster but some of this still remains to be seen. All things equal, you are still at the early days of McMaster.”

When asked about Trump’s September declaration and the recent Iranian naval aggression, Michael Makovsky, President of JINSA told Jewish Insider, “That is the difference between campaigning and governing.” Makovsky agreed with Schanzer that Trump’s skeleton National Security team may limit his ability to respond decisively. “We don’t even have an under Secretary of Defense for Policy proposed yet. The issue is to be prepared for what the Iranians could do after that. That takes more planning and I’m just not sure from a personnel standpoint they have enough of the right staff in place yet to do all that planning,” he added.

What could the appropriate response to continued Iranian provocative naval actions? “There could be renewed sanctions against those who are carrying these attacks. We could see a full designation of the IRGC, for example. Not to mention additional sanctions on proxies in the Gulf,” Schanzer explained.Other options include “arming the countries that oppose Iran in the region to empower those who are trying to counter Iran through military means and of course there are kinetic and cyber options as well.”

Makovsky supports a military response. “The key is if they harass our ships, we have to sink them. He’s (Trump) right. We can’t look like we’re afraid of a confrontation. On the contrary, we need to show that we are not afraid and we are fully prepared for one. If the Iranians misbehave, then we’re going to push back. There will be consequences for the Iranians,” he declared.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

On Putin, Trump and Masculinity


Something about Russian President Vladimir Putin vexes the Left.  More than any other world leader, many liberals identify Mr. Putin as irredeemable.  So bad is he, they argue, that President Trump lacks moral standing for expressing a willingness to work with the Russian leader.

The Left senses a commonality between Putin and Trump.  They sense a connection of significance, much more than the diplomatic chit chat of General Kelly and Russian officials.  To the left, something deeper is going on, something sinister.   

As a conservative who tries to understand the liberal thought process, I have sought  an explanation that allows one to see Putin as incorrigible, yet celebrates rapprochement with murderers who have killed myriads of their citizens, namely the Mullahs of Iran.     

Mr. Putin has a bad reputation; my goal is not to defend him.  Journalists who have written against him have been killed; opposition party officials have been harassed; he regularly battles neighbors who don’t adore his Russia-centric vision.  His foreign policy is amoral, as well.  In Syria, Putin’s support of Bashar al Assad, a dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, was seemingly fashioned with the goal of making himself a player on the world stage; the destruction of a country as the means to his ignoble end.     

Yet, at the same time, Russia itself is largely a free country.  Its citizens are free to travel.  They are not brutalized and imprisoned for holding contrary opinions.  Individual freedom is strong.  Both Judaism and Christianity are flourishing.  Putin takes religion seriously and is wildly popular. Putin has won elections by wide margins and continues to win them, overwhelmingly.   

Since 1979, the Iranian regime has killed and imprisoned large swaths of its population it deems a threat to the Islamic power structure.  Since 1985, it has supported Hezbollah, which has killed many thousands more.  Iran is the world’s greatest financier of terror.   Iran’s leaders regularly call for the destruction of Israel and America.  When, in 2009, a “Green” democracy movement started, Iran’s leaders crushed it with brutal force.  Hundreds were killed and jailed.   

Is Putin uniquely bad?  Why was President Obama’s dance with Iran considered brave, yet President Trump’s accommodation with Russia defined as evil?

Jewish tradition says that there are two forms of human experience, the masculine and the feminine.  Everything humanity does flows from one of these two forces.  Perfection is reached when these two forces merge; the coming together of masculine and feminine creates life, and allows mankind to touch eternity.    

Nonetheless, in the world at large, masculine and feminine forces are distinct.  Power and control are masculine expressions.  Sensitivity and understanding are feminine values.  A nation’s borders and rules are its masculinity.  Its welcoming and generosity to the outsider are its feminine character.

The conservative mind seeks a masculine structure first and feminine magnanimity second.  First there must be language, borders and a unique culture, and then we can allow in anyone who wants to become part of the fabric of this nation.  

To the Liberal mind, expressions of masculinity are negative.  Anything that sets borders and limitation, anything that values discipline over desire, is wrong.   Every want is good and should be validated.  When there is no absolute good and evil, there is only what feels good and what feels bad.  Discipline feels bad, desire feels good, and that has become the foundation of Leftist values.   

When I grew up in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, masculine role models were not strongmen.  They were thoughtful scholars who earned the trust of the community via decades of selfless communal service.

But such is not the way of the world.  To most of humanity, masculinity is strength.   If there is a masculine figure in world leadership, it is not the men and women sitting on comfortable chairs in Brussels.  It is in the persona of Vladimir Putin, a man who fights for his national pride. It is in the bare chested strongman who hunts lions, swims rivers, and dives to the bottom of the ocean.  It is a man whose persona exudes strength, whose persona never shows weakness.  

This masculine personality is antithetical to the Left.  In my opinion, it is not the wrongdoing Putin committed that bothers them. It is the masculinity he has revived.  

Iran’s Mullahs are not masculine figures.  While they are ideological murderers for sure, but they aren’t overtly masculine.  Thus, they are given reprieve.  Thus, they should be given accommodation and should be understood.

President Trump is not a conservative.  Had the Left-leaning media embraced him from the start, he could well have nominated Merrik Garland instead of Neil Gorsuch.  He has never done anything like Putin does.  But he won the election by raising America’s masculinity, its national pride.  Mexico doesn’t want to pay for the wall? It just got 20 feet taller.  Slander me, I’ll sue you.  Reject my executive order, I’ll revise it but keep it essentially the same.   He doesn’t back down.  He is strong. And the Left hates strength.

Trump is not Putin.  But his masculinity echoes Putin’s masculinity.  Thus, there must be a connection.  Thus, there must be a secret alliance.   It must be, and so it is.  

The Judeo-Christian ethic is masculine.  God holds people accountable.  God says we must discipline ourselves, limit our desires, to have a full relationship with Him.   The pathway to heaven is through choosing good and rejecting evil.  It is not by crying victim, blaming others and shirking personal responsibility.  There are rules to follow, there are rules to morality.   

To me, this is the reason the Left is weak on Iran yet strong on Putin.  And why it cannot forgive President Trump.

The author of two books, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt serves as Director of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (AAJC)

President Donald Trump, right, reaches to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Trump, Netanyahu discuss ‘dangers’ of Iran deal in phone call


President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the Iran nuclear deal in a phone call.

Trump called Netanyahu on Monday and the two leaders discussed “the dangers posed by the nuclear deal with Iran,” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.

“The two leaders spoke at length about the dangers posed by the nuclear deal with Iran and by Iran’s malevolent behavior in the region and about the need to work together to counter those dangers,” read the statement.

Netanyahu and Trump have both denounced the deal, which exchanges sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. But the U.S. president and other top officials have wavered in their commitment to undoing the agreement.

During the phone call, Netanyahu also thanked Trump for the “warm hospitality” during his visit to Washington last month and for condemning anti-Semitism during a joint address to Congress, according to the statement.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment by JTA.

Last Tuesday, Trump noted recent bomb threats on Jewish institutions and vandalism of cemeteries in his first address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

Nearly 100 Jewish institutions have been targeted with bomb threats since the beginning of the year. The Kansas shooting occurred when a patron who was ejected from a bar after hurling racial epithets at two workers from India allegedly returned with a gun, killing one of the men and wounding the other.

Trump has come under fire for his delayed responses to the threats against Jewish institutions, deflecting questions about it before finally issuing a denunciation. The White House did not address the Kansas shooting until Tuesday, six days after the attack.

President Donald Trump addressing a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives chamber, Feb. 28. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

4 Jewish takeaways from Trump’s big speech to Congress


President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress is getting rave reviews for the subdued, “presidential” style of his delivery, and positive feedback from the Jewish community for opening remarks denouncing anti-Semitic acts as examples of “hate and evil.”

But there ensues the inevitable Trumpian conundrum: What did he actually mean?

Here are four takeaways from the speech and what it says about bias and the Jews:

1. What did he condemn exactly?

From the very first paragraph:

“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

That second sentence – the one that’s been getting the plaudits – gets thorny once it’s held up to the light. According to the logic of the sentence, it is the “recent acts” that “remind us that … we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

But what actually reminds us that we are united are the responses to such acts, like the thousands of dollars raised by Muslim activists to rebuild a vandalized Jewish cemetery, a labor union’s pledge to pitch in to fix damaged gravesites, a strongly worded statement from the White House.

It was the lack of the last item that had riled Jewish groups in the weeks after the first spate of JCC bomb threats and the first cemetery attack. In both instances, combined with Trump’s failure to comment for six days on what appears to be the bias killing last week of an Indian worker in Kansas, it was Trump’s failure to respond at first – indeed, his hostility to reporters who asked him to respond to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents – that raised hackles.

2. What’s not in the passage

A mosque near Tampa, Florida, was set ablaze last week. Another in Texas was burned down in January and one in Florida, where the killer in the Orlando massacre had occasionally worshipped, suffered a similar fate in September.

Why not include a reference to bias crimes against Muslims? It would be especially apropos given Trump’s overarching theme of unity because Muslims have indeed raised funds to refurbish vandalized Jewish cemeteries and Jews are contributing to the rebuilding of the Tampa mosque.

(Speaking of the Orlando massacre, why not a reference to the LGBTQ community? Trump at the time held up the massacre as emblematic of the protections that gay Americans needed and he would bring as president.)

A reference to the mosques may have allayed concerns that his travel ban is aimed at Muslims, although it targets seven (or, as of this week, six) Muslim-majority countries, as well as refugees.

Further along in the speech, Trump mentions Muslims in a positive way, as allies against radical Islamic terrorism. But he was talking about moderate Muslims in the Middle East — an alliance that is far afield from the highways and byways traversed by American Muslims.

3. What’s the plan?

Jewish community statements praising the president for his remarks condemning anti-Semitism were almost uniform in asking for a specific government and law enforcement response to anti-Semitic and other hate incidents.

“I was very pleased, that was an important message,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said at a meeting Wednesday morning of the Helsinki Commission, the body that monitors human rights overseas and in the United States. “But we need to do more.”

“Powerful for @POTUS to note anti-Semitism at top of speech,” tweeted Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “Key now is to investigate and end terror campaign.”

Calls for a plan came as Bloomberg News reported that the Trump State Department was considering doing away with the post of anti-Semitism monitor. Granted, the position studies developments overseas, but Jewish groups worry that its elimination would suggest that the administration is not taking the issue seriously. The American Jewish Committee on Monday asked its activists to write the president and urge him to preserve the office.

Cardin told JTA, walking out of the commission meeting, that if anything the office of the anti-Semitism monitor needed bolstering.

“Strengthen it, elevate it, give it more resources,” he said.

4. The other stuff

* Trump mentioned Iran and Israel: “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.” He did not mention the Iran nuclear deal he once reviled, nor did he speak of the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal he has said he would like to achieve.

* He did go into some detail on his plans to expand school choice: ”I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

That’s a proposal he campaigned on, and it has raised concerns among Jewish precincts that favor church-state separations, but also has garnered praise among Orthodox groups and other supporters of Jewish day school education.

On Wednesday, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America welcomed Trump’s call for federal policy to support school choice.

“We believe there are several ways in which parental empowerment should be pursued to achieve educational opportunity, in the tax code and elsewhere, and we look forward to working with the administration on this priority issue for our community and American society at large,” the O.U.’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, said in a statement.

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

The two Oscar speeches I didn’t like


It only takes one line to kill a good speech. Viola Davis, who won an Oscar last night for her performance in “Fences,” had one of those lines.

Her speech started off beautifully:

“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time: ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”

Then, just as she held my heart with her poignant metaphor of exhuming stories, she laid a goose egg:  

I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”

Really? The only profession? Was that necessary?

As soon as I heard “the only profession,” I started thinking: “Hmm, I’m sitting next to my nephew, who’s a doctor. Does he not celebrate, in his own way, what it means to live a life? And what about my mother, who’s also sitting with us. Has she not celebrated, in her own way, what it means to live a life?”

As Davis continued with her speech, my mind was somewhere else. I was wondering about other professions who might be offended by her exclusive claim. I was too distracted to hear the rest of her speech.

Maybe that one lame line was just a case of a poor choice of words. Maybe Davis was so caught up in the moment that she simply exaggerated. That’s possible. All I know is that she was wrong: Being an artist is not the only profession that “celebrates what it means to live a life.”

The other speech that left me speechless was read on behalf of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director who won the best foreign film Oscar for “The Salesman.” Mr Farhadi boycotted the Oscars to protest the now-frozen travel ban ordered by President Trump.

“My absence is out of respect for the people of my country, and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.,” Mr Farhadi said.

Again, as soon as I heard that, my mind took off. Respect for the people of your country? Inhumane laws? Really?

I couldn’t help wonder if Farhadi had cynically ignored the horrific plight of people in his own country—the gays who are hanged because they’re gays, the women who are persecuted because they’re women, the dissidents who are jailed because they dare express their views.

As a filmmaker who honors the truth, it’s unlikely that Farhadi is not troubled by the dark reality that strikes his Persian brethren. Maybe he was just looking out for his own hide. After all, throwing a verbal dart at the Great Satan never got anyone in trouble. The courageous move would have been to write a speech on behalf of all those poor souls rotting unfairly in Iranian jails. Of course, that would mean taking the risk that he would end up in their company.

“Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities…” Farhadi wrote in his speech. Maybe for his next film, he can turn his camera toward the human horrors going on in his own backyard. For that film, I hope he wins Best Picture.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

An undated handout picture shows the Iranian supersonic ballistic missile launching during a war-game in an unknown location in Iran. Photo by Fars News/Reuters

Iran says missile can reach Tel Aviv in 7 minutes


A senior Iranian official threatened immediate retaliation against Israel if it is attacked, warning that Iranian missiles can reach Tel Aviv in seven minutes.

Mojtaba Zonour, a senior member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and a former Revolutionary Guards official, made the remarks over the weekend to Iran’s Fars news agency. Zonour also threatened to destroy the American military base in nearby Bahrain if Iran is attacked.

“The U.S. Army’s 5th Fleet has occupied a part of Bahrain, and the enemy’s farthest military base is in the Indian Ocean, but these points are all within the range of Iran’s missile systems and they will be razed to the ground if the enemy makes a mistake,” Zonour said Saturday. He added: “And only seven minutes is needed for the Iranian missile to hit Tel Aviv.”

The comments came in the wake of Iran’s testing last week of a ballistic missile, a move that prompted President Donald Trump to impose a new round of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The test also set off a flurry of tweets from Trump, included one on Feb. 2 saying that “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.” The following day, Trump tweeted that Iran is “playing with fire.”

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a new round of sanctions targeting individuals or entities it said had assisted Iran’s missile program.

White House senior advisor Steve Bannon attends as U.S. President Donald Trump signs executive orders in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Sunday Reads: Steve Bannon’s book club, The new red-line with Iran, Netanyahu’s flattery for Amona


US

Marc Tracy crossed paths with Steve Bannon and found it interesting that he was reading David Halberstram:

Mr. Bannon was carrying a book, and when an incoming president’s guru is reading a book, you should find out what it is. I walked by and peeked. It was “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s 1972 history of the strategic errors and human foibles that birthed the disastrous American involvement in the Vietnam War. It begins with John F. Kennedy’s transition to the White House, in December 1960.

Now I really knew it was him.

Adam Chandler writes about Trump’s non-policy on Israeli settlements:

Four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Israeli government announced that it would build 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank. In another era—as in anytime before two weeks ago—this kind of announcement would have immediately drawn censure from the State Department and perhaps even the president. Instead, the White House said nothing. Palestinian officials, international observers, and some Israelis were dismayed. On the Israeli right, there was jubilation: “We’re going back to normal life in Judea and Samaria” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Israel

Yossi Shain writes about the growing ideological disparity between American Jewry and the Israeli government:

There is a big, dangerous gap between the passionate embrace US President Donald Trump is receiving from the Israeli government and the great amount of hatred towards him among liberal elements and many in the American political center. This situation could create an even bigger split among American Jewry, which mostly votes Democrat.

Mazal Mualem criticizes the Israeli right’s “flattery fest” for Amona:

During the late afternoon of Feb. 2, as harsh images of the violent evictions from the Amona outpost and reports of wounded police officers flooded the media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, at a memorial for Ron Nahman, the town’s former mayor. Having avoided the Amona eviction for a few weeks, Netanyahu took advantage of the forum to talk about it. During the eviction, activists threw cleaning liquids, acid, oil and glass bottles at the police, but anyone expecting to hear Netanyahu disavow their shameful actions, never mind condemn them, was soon disappointed.

Middle East

Derek Chollet thinks that the US will come to regret the new red-line with Iran:

As some of my Shadow Government colleagues have correctly observed, there is a good reasons for calling out Iran’s destabilizing behavior, even if the Trump administration could have done so more artfully and with a greater chance of bringing other countries along (including Russia). But the challenge for Trump now will be similar to what Obama faced: By sending such a message, every step over the line on Iran’s part can be portrayed as a test of manhood — with the press, national security hawks, and certain allies goading the president into action.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan believes Trump is playing into the hands of Iranian hardliners:

Iranians have paid a high price for the inflammatory statements of their statesmen, but they have paid a bigger price for the ignorance of the opposite side to domestic politics in Iran, its lack of knowledge about the country’s history. Trump’s behaviour only plays into the hands of hardliners in Iran, particularly those who want to show the president, Hassan Rouhani, was wrong to find peace with the west.

For nearly 38 years, Iranian leaders have failed to convince their people that the US, which they call “the Great Satan”, was their “enemy” too. Trump’s first fortnight in office suggests that he may do that job for them.

Jewish World

Alon Pinkas believes that American Jews are just not that into Israel:

There is a false and misleading premise, adopted conveniently by most Israelis and some in the American Jewish community according to which American Jews wake up in the morning, spend their productive day and go to sleep at night thinking about Israel and what they have done for it today. That was never the case.

Sue Eisenfeld visits some of America’s most endangered Jewish communities:

I have traveled to more than 10 dead and dying Jewish communities, mostly in the Deep South, some of which are too-far gone or too-long dead for JCLP to work with. What is heartbreaking is witnessing the remains of Jewish life where there is still something left to save, if only a savior would appear. These are places where the synagogue has been torn down or sold or is having trouble staying afloat due to a dwindling population, or where the old Jewish cemetery — once on the outskirts of town and now in the middle of a development that doesn’t necessarily value it — has only one person, or no one, left to care for it and pay for maintenance or restoration.

 

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to members of the news media before boarding Marine One and departing the White House Feb. 3 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Is Trump reversing course on settlements and Iran?


Israeli settlements are no big problem. Wait — maybe they are, after all.

The Iran deal is trash. No, the deal is here to stay, despite being “weak.”

On Thursday, the White House pronounced on Israel’s announced settlement expansion that it “may not help” peace, and it put Iran “on notice” for testing ballistic missiles and announced new sanctions while the president fought with the regime on Twitter.

Was the settlements announcement a back-to-Obama moment, auguring renewed U.S.-Israel tensions? Was it a return to Bush — W, that is — setting the stage for a compromise and anticipating resolution of an issue that has dogged U.S.-Israel relations for decades?

Is the Iran nuclear deal, reviled by the Netanyahu government, on its last legs? Or is it getting a new lease on life?

Let’s have a look at what President Donald Trump said and what was actually done.

Settlements

What’s new:

The Trump administration for the first time since his election pronounced on settlements.

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” the White House said in a statement.

Back to Obama?

No, not even close.

The Obama administration repeatedly and pronouncedly said settlements were an impediment to peace, and into its final days, it allowed a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass that condemned the settlements.

“It is not this resolution that is isolating Israel, it is the pernicious policy of settlement construction that is making peace impossible,” former Secretary of State John Kerry said in December in one of his final speeches in the job.

Back to Bush?

Closer, but not quite.

Focusing on “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders” sounds a lot like the policy President George W. Bush is said to have endorsed after he sent then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter in 2004, saying the United States recognized that some settlements constituted “realities on the ground.”

Israeli and U.S. officials at the time said Bush quietly agreed that this formulation would allow for “natural growth” in existing settlements. (What’s at dispute is whether Bush adhered to this formula throughout the rest of his presidency. Some officials have said he believed that Sharon took too many liberties with what constituted “natural growth” and that by the time Bush left office in 2009, the agreement to abide “natural growth” was not active.)

The departure from the policies of George W. Bush – considered, with Bill Clinton, the friendliest president to Israel – and their predecessors is in the use of “impediment.” Bush used the word in 2008, at least to describe settlements built beyond existing settlement boundaries.

Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, appeared to say Friday during a briefing that what’s built — established settlement, recent outpost, the whole shebang — can stay in place. The key word is “current.”

“We don’t believe that the existence of current settlements is an impediment to peace, but we don’t believe the construction or expansion of settlements beyond current borders is helpful,” he said.

Another major departure from the policies of both Clinton and George W. Bush is the absence of any mention of a two-state solution. Trump has said he wants to broker a deal, and has tapped his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his point man. But as of Friday, Spicer would not be pinned down on two states.

“At the end of the day the goal is peace, and that’s going to be a subject that they discuss, and that’s all I’m going to say,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, referring to the White House meeting scheduled for Feb. 15 between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This might not be the final word. There was a jarring sentence at the end of Thursday’s White House statement.

“The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity,” it said, rounding out a statement that of itself was an official position on settlement activity. Translation: Wait until Netanyahu and Trump pow-wow and we may know more.

Iran

What’s new:

On Sunday, Iran tested ballistic missiles. On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn said Iran was “on notice.” The next two days, Trump followed up with tough-talking tweets. The Iranians dished back, also on Twitter.

Back to Obama?

More or less, without the rhetoric.

The last time Iran tested a ballistic missile, in January 2016, Obama slapped sanctions on 11 entities and individuals. On Friday, Trump more than doubled that to 25.

The effect is the same: An acknowledgment that the missile tests do not directly violate the Iran nuclear deal, but a reminder nonetheless that because they do violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, they will trigger penalties.

Spicer acknowledged Friday that the sanctions were an Obama redux, noting that their architect in the last administration, Adam Szubin, who ran the sanctions regime for Obama, is acting Treasury secretary.

The sanctions were “in the pipeline,” Spicer said, and Szubin had lined them up well before Trump was inaugurated in anticipation that Iran would launch a provocation of some kind.

“He served in the last administration,” Spicer said of Szubin, “and these kind of sanctions don’t happen quickly.”

That said, there was a ratcheting up of rhetoric. Szubin, as an Obama official a year ago, was specific in describing the penalties.

“We have consistently made clear that the United States will vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses and ballistic missile program,” he said at the time.

Flynn, by contrast, was more vague – and, as a result, at least seemed more threatening.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” he said Wednesday.

Announcing the sanctions Friday, Flynn again sounded a warning but did not make clear any precise actions.

“The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests,” he said. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”

Trump sounded a similarly belligerent if unspecific tone on Twitter on Thursday and Friday, and like Flynn took swipes at the Obama administration for being too soft on the Iranians.

“Iran is playing with fire,” Trump said in his tweet Friday. “They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

“We will never use our weapons against anyone, except in self-defense,” he said in the same forum. “Let us see if any of those who complain can make the same statement.”

Spicer was asked at his briefing whether the tough talk meant Trump was ready to scrap the Iran nuclear deal.

“The deal that was struck was a bad deal, that we gave Iran too much and we got too little for it,” he said. Spicer did not say, however, whether Trump was ready to take that leap.

That’s consistent with the posture of Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, who has agreed the deal is weak but advised that scrapping it would be unwise.

Dual Tragedy of the Plasco Building Fire


For many Iranian-American Jews, the fire in and collapse of the historic Plasco Building in Tehran on Jan. 19 was a tragedy many times over.

The heartbreak comes not only from the loss of 75 innocent lives who tried to fight the fire or were trapped in the building; the building’s demise also rekindled the painful memories of the unjust execution of Habib Elghanian, the Jewish community leader who originally built the structure. The Plasco Building was one of the remaining symbols of the Jewish community’s height of success in Iran during its modern “golden age.” Not to acknowledge the Elghanian family’s role in this building’s creation and the tragedy that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the Iranian regime is also a travesty.

Media outlets worldwide have not extensively acknowledged the important role of the Elghanian family in the Plasco Building’s creation or only briefly mentioned Habib Elghanian’s name in passing. Elghanian and his brothers were among the most affluent and successful Jewish businessmen in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They not only imported an array of goods from the West into the Iranian market and expanded infrastructure but also brought new technologies to Iran that helped the country manufacture its own goods and, as a result, helped employ thousands of Iranians in their businesses. The Elghanian family was equally generous in giving back to countless needy causes in Iran, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The Plasco Building, completed in 1962 and standing 17 stories, was the first privately built “high rise” of the modern era created in Iran. It was also the first modern “mall” of that early era in Iran, with floors that were home to many new stores for various goods and services. The Plasco Building was elegant and modern in design and structure for its time, and a huge departure from the ancient slum-like “bazaars” of Iran’s past where people typically went to buy their goods. At a time when Iran was beginning to modernize, the building was a powerful symbol of both the country’s positive transformation and the immense achievement of Iranian Jews.

It was likewise a symbol of great pride for Iranian Jews who, just four decades before, had been forced by the Qajar kings of Iran to live in poverty and in run-down ghettos.

“Jews were proud, of course, that a Jewish person had built this iconic building, but many elders in the community were apprehensive about its implications and the much expected backlash by Muslims, envious of Jewish accomplishments,” Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist living in Los Angeles, told me this week.

Jewish community leaders in Iran worried about the Plasco Building’s backlash because, according to Shahrzad Elghanayan, Habib Elghanian’s granddaughter, Iranian Shiite cleric Mahmoud Taleghani “objected to the idea that a Jew had built the tallest building of its time in Iran.” No doubt Taleghani, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Shiite clerics were furious at the Pahlavi kings, who had created an environment of co-existence and tolerance among Muslims and non-Muslims in Iran. The late Shah of Iran and his father had essentially set aside the old Islamic Shariah laws, which were designed to impose or ensure superiority of Muslims over Jews or other “infidels.” The Plasco Building, built and owned by a Jew, was a direct slap in the face to that radical Islamic dogma at the time because the notion of a Jewish building being taller in size than Muslim-owned buildings was a totally unacceptable notion for the fanatic Iranian religious clerics.

When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country.

Those fears turned out to be prescient. On May 9, 1979, Elghanian was executed by a firing squad of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after being accused on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Elghanian first was given a 20-minute sham trial in front of the Iranian Revolution Court and TV cameras, but never was allowed to consult with an attorney, nor any chance to defend himself from the baseless charges. When Elghanian was executed, the news spread like wildfire among Iran’s 80,000-strong Jewish community and sparked the first massive wave of Jews fleeing the country. On that disastrous day, the lives of Iran’s Jews were forever transformed for the worse. It was then that they realized when their beloved community leader could be so easily executed with no real evidence, they too were no longer safe in a country where they had lived for nearly 3,000 years.

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary of his execution, I had the unique opportunity to interview Elghanian family members, Iranian-Jewish leaders and Iranian Muslims who knew Habib Elghanian well and who recalled their memories of his imprisonment and execution. One of the most revealing interviews I had was with Sion Elghanian, Habib Elghanian’s brother, who told me that Habib had left Iran during the initial chaos of the revolution but then returned to Iran because of his patriotism and commitment to Iran’s Jews as their leader.

“We all begged him not to go back to Iran — including Israeli Prime Minister Begin, because we all knew the new regime would execute him if he returned,” Sion Elghanian said. “He said, ‘I have done nothing wrong for them to execute me. I’ve created jobs and businesses to help the country grow and helped many Iranians of all faiths. Why should they kill me?’ ”

Sion revealed his family had made plans to bribe officials to help Habib escape the prison and country, but Habib refused to go along with the plans.

“He told us he would not go along with the plan to escape because if he did, the Iranian regime would take revenge by executing Jews in Iran. In this way, he sacrificed his life for the community.”

Another revealing interview was of an Iranian-Muslim businessman named Nasser Oliae, who was a longtime Elghanian friend and had nothing but praise for him. “One day they must create a giant statue of Habib Elghanian in the middle of Tehran for all of the great things he did for that country! He brought the plastics manufacturing industry to Iran, he hired thousands of people, he gave generously to thousands of Iranians of all religions who were needy. He was a man who truly loved Iran and wanted to see the country’s success,” Oliae said.

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian

Habib Elghanian was an innocent Jew who was executed for no reason by the evil Iranian regime, and that regime still has not apologized to Iranian Jewry for this injustice.

Elghanian family members sold the building in 1975 to Hojabr Yazdani, an affluent Iranian-Baha’i businessman. After the revolution, the Iranian regime’s official “nonprofit” organization, called Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, confiscated the Plasco Building from Yazdani in 1979, and has been operating it since then. Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan, which translates to “organization for the oppressed people,” was a front established by the Iranian regime’s ayatollahs after the 1979 Revolution to expropriate the assets of any person who they believed was an “infidel” in order to allegedly “redistribute” it to the poor or needy in Iran. Unfortunately for Iran’s poor, the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan has in the past 38 years never given a penny to them. Instead, the money and assets this group has confiscated over the years from Jews, Muslims, Christians and Baha’is have all gone into the pockets of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. All of the Elghanian family assets and properties were also confiscated by the Bonyad-e Mostaz-afaan.

What is truly unfortunate about the recent Plasco Building fire was the fact that, since it was owned by the Iranian regime, no one will be brought to justice for the failure to upkeep the building and prevent the fire hazards that brought it down. We will never know what caused the fire or explosion that destroyed this iconic building in Tehran, and sadly, the ayatollahs who profited from the building for the past 38 years will never be held accountable for the fire code violations that resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives.

In the end, the Plasco Building fire disaster not only caused the death of many individuals but the loss of one of the remaining symbols of Jewish contributions to Iran during the 20th century. The building was also a symbol of the bygone era of modernity and new development that an Iranian Jew named Habib Elghanian and his brothers brought to Iran. Today, we cannot forget the calamity that befell Habib Elghanian at the hands of the current Iranian regime, nor can we forget the tremendous contributions thousands of Iranian Jews made to the betterment of the nation of Iran during the 20th century. 

Thank you, Obama


Thank you, President Barack Obama, for serving the country for the past eight years.

Thank you, Obama, for not moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You were wise enough to follow the lead of your Democratic and Republican predecessors and realize the chaos such a move could cause would not be worth the cost. There is no doubt the embassy should be in Jerusalem. There is no question that Jerusalem is the eternal and contemporary capital of Israel. But thank you for knowing that not every right must be claimed at any cost.

Thank you for protecting Israel when and where it mattered most: with off-budget millions for Iron Dome, for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself in the Gaza war, for a record-setting $38 billion in aid. 

Thank you for declaring as eloquently as any president ever has, and in as many international forums as possible, the value and justice of a Jewish state. Thank you for trying to protect that state from pursuing policies that will endanger its own existence.

Thank you for the Iran deal. Before the deal, Iran was weeks from attaining nuclear bomb capability. Now the world has a decade before the mullahs have the capability of developing a bomb. You tackled a problem that only had gotten worse under previous American and Israeli leaders. Despite fierce opposition, you found a solution that even those Israelis who hated it have grown to see as beneficial. 

Thank you for killing Osama bin Laden. And for taking out al-Qaida’s senior leadership. And for stopping and reversing gains by ISIS. You know who’s really happy to see you go? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Thank you for standing up to Vladimir Putin. You saw the expansionist, anti-democratic nature of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and quickly confronted him. Perhaps that opposition slowed what may have been an inevitable march through the Baltics. There is nothing wrong with having positive relations with Russia, but “positive” cannot mean giving the Putin regime a pass. 

Thank you for recognizing our Cuba embargo was a failed policy and that the time for change had come. 

Thank you for steering the country through the recession. Thank you for cutting unemployment in half. And for doing so in the face of Republican obstructionism on the kind of infrastructure bill that your successor now likely will get through. 

Thank you for doubling clean energy production. For recognizing that our dependence on fossil fuels can’t help but degrade our environment and hold us back from being competitive in the green energy future, and embolden corrupt and backward regimes from Venezuela to the Middle East to Russia. 

Thank you for saving the American auto industry. You revived General Motors with $50 billion in loans, saving 1.2 million jobs and creating $35 billion in tax revenue so far. Have you checked out GM’s Chevy Bolt? All electric, 240 miles per charge, drives like a rocket and made in Detroit. They should call it the “Obamacar.”

Thank you for the Paris Agreement to address climate change. Thank you for throwing America’s lot in with the rest of the planet.

Thank you for the Affordable Care Act. It has brought the security of health care to millions. It has saved lives. It has kept the rate of cost increases in premiums lower in the past eight years than they were in the previous eight years. It needs to be fixed — what doesn’t? — but only with better ideas, not worse ones.

Thank you for Merrick Garland. It was a great idea while it lasted.

Thank you for trying to get immigration reform through Congress, and for pursuing the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which let 5 million people already living and working here come out of the shadows. 

Thanks for Michelle. Not just her brains and biceps, but her choice of causes. Your wife saw all the good the food movement had accomplished from the grass roots up and planted it squarely in the front yard of the White House, where it would grow even more from the top down.

Thank you for trying. You grappled with one great chaos after another, and sometimes you fell short. In Syria, you needed a smarter course of action. In Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, you underestimated the need, early on, to deal with Israeli fears and Palestinian obstructionism. As for ending the Sudan embargo, the jury is out. Stateside, your administration should have put some of the bad guys of the recession behind bars and found fixes that better addressed the wealth gap. 

Time will reveal more blemishes — and heal some of the scars. But in the meantime:

Thank you. Thank you for not embarrassing us, your family or yourself. Though your opponents and their friends at “Fox and Friends” tried to pin scandals to you, none could stick. In my lifetime, there has never been an administration so free from personal and professional moral stain. 

Thank you for the seriousness, dignity, grace, humor and cool you brought to the Oval Office. Thank you for being my president.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Meant2Be: From war to wedding day


In late 1987, I sat on the cold steps outside of our home in Tehran and held a transistor radio tightly in my small, 5-year-old hands. My mother begged me to come back inside, but I adamantly refused, as I wanted some notice via radio of the expected time of the next Iraqi air raid against Tehran. 

It was the height of the devastating “War of the Cities” during the Iran-Iraq War, and I had developed such a terrifying aversion to the Iraqi ballistic missiles that pounded my neighborhood that I would sit outside for hours and listen to the latest news of impending attacks. 

There was only one thing that could draw me back inside.

“They’re playing your favorite song,” my mother would solemnly say, and I would rush back into the house and hear the heavenly contralto of the Iranian singer named Hayedeh. Of course, she herself had escaped Iran shortly before the Islamic Revolution and her music, deemed illegal by the regime, was now being recorded in Los Angeles. Like thousands of Iranians, our family was treated to all kinds of illegal music courtesy of the Voice of Israel program on our short-wave radio.

All of life has a soundtrack, even war. For me, the melody of those traumatic Iraqi attacks was trapped in a Hayedeh song called, “Shabe Eshgh,” or “Night of Love,” in which she remembered her beloved and lamented, “This one night of love / We only have this night / Why not leave the tales of despair and pain / Until tomorrow?” 

Besides the haunting vocals and rich instrumentation, the song itself was an emblem of everything the Islamic Revolution and the war against Iraq signaled for Iranians — namely, the loss of love, home, and family bonds. Hayedeh’s sweet voice offered a comforting reminder for us to live with love as she sang, “How good would it be if in the world / One tomorrow belonged to us?”

I listened to “Shabe Eshgh” until I fell asleep in my mother’s arms, and I was almost always awakened by the boom of another Iraqi bomb. 

That same year, in a city 600 miles south of Tehran named Shiraz, a 5-year-old boy spent hours huddled beneath furniture in his home as the Iraqis mercilessly targeted his once-serene neighborhood. His name, Payam, meant a “prophetic message.” I met that boy in 2013 in front of a Starbucks in Beverly Hills.

It was literally a blind date for me; I removed my eyeglasses to appear more sexy as I walked up to him, only to find that he was wearing glasses thicker than mine. As we talked that night, we felt a sense of wonder about each other, almost as if we were thinking: Who are you, and why didn’t I meet you sooner? 

We closed down Starbucks, which was full of Reform Jews. We closed down Urth Caffe, which was full of Persian Jews (and a few Saudis). And when Payam suggested that we grab some kosher schnitzel, I knew I had to play hard to get.

Payam challenged every ridiculous rule I had set up for myself, namely: Never marry a Persian guy. I mostly abided by this rule to protect myself, because Persian men never seemed to like me. Payam also defied my second rule: Never marry someone who understands Persian. I was no fool. I knew the boundaries my mother pushed in her native tongue. 

And yet, my affection for the tall, bespectacled Shirazi grew like the mustache I had tried so desperately to shed since I was 12.

Payam had arrived from Iran to Arizona (of all places) in the late 1990s, and was one of three Iranians in his high school. My alma mater, Beverly Hills High School, closed for Persian New Year. 

He had lived in Seattle for years and, having had no luck finding his soul mate there, had sacrificed evergreen trees and Mount Rainier for Pico-Robertson and a chance to meet a nice Jewish girl in L.A. He was the kindest man who had ever bought me tea. In fact, he was so kind and humble that I was sure that he was not from L.A.

We were married in 2014, exactly nine months after our first date, and exactly 25 years to the day after my family and I had arrived in Los Angeles as protected Iranian-Jewish refugees. Our little (by Persian standards) wedding was held in Yedidia Shofet Hall at Nessah Synagogue, named for the same holy rabbi, z”l, who had married my mother and father in Tehran in the late 1970s. Payam walked down the aisle to “Shah Damad,” a wonderful, classic Persian song about a glorious groom. 

As for me, I entered the hall just as the soft light of the summer day danced into the large synagogue windows and the exquisite melody of “Shabe Eshgh” played in the background, infusing my every step with peace, security and an eternal, wondrous gratitude for our tomorrow.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.


Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.-

Iran looks dominant, for now, in Middle East’s proxy war


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

At a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to wage a proxy war against each other that has bled into, and enflamed, many of the Middle East’s conflicts, Iranian media responded positively to a surprise announcement last week that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would cut production of oil, a move that was interpreted as a diplomatic defeat for Saudi Arabia. 

Were Iranian newspapers merely playing to the home side bias or are they right to have sensed that the initiative in the Middle East’s cold war is swinging behind Tehran, the capital of Iran? OPEC’s 13 members agreed to a combined production cut of 1.2 million barrels of oil per day in an attempt to reduce the oversaturation of the market and increase oil prices. As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, agreed to cut its output by half a million barrels per day. Iran on the other hand was told it could increase production by up to 90,000 barrels per day as it complained of lost market share during years of economic sanctions, out of which it has only recently emerged. 

But spats over the cost of oil are not the start and end of the regional powers’ rivalry. In a number of the region’s most violent conflicts, the hand of both can be seen influencing players on the ground. Like the USSR and the United States before them, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are taking shots at each other through a number of warring factions in several conflict zones. In each of these theaters, the regional powers are backing groups linked by sectarian ties to their own cause, though the extent and nature of their support is often contested.

This raises the question: Who appears to be winning the proxy war? 

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes 18 months ago, targeting the Houthi faction in the country’s internal power struggle. A Shiite paramilitary group, the Houthi are allegedly backed by the Iranian government. Despite showing off a newly purchased fleet of military aircraft, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has caught more headlines for concerns over civilian casualties than for the defeat of the Shiite group. 

By contrast, in Syria, where the Iranian government has invested heavily, recent defeats for Sunni rebels in Aleppo appear to show that Tehran’s desired outcome is making progress. Although the bolstering of the Syrian regime currently has more to do with Russian intervention, it nonetheless supports the objectives of Iran. While Russia supported Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, through airpower, Iran has provided military personnel as advisers — and possibly fighters — and has encouraged a number of Shiite militias to enter the fight, providing much-needed ground troops. 

In neighboring Iraq, Iran has the ear of the government and has close ties to a number of paramilitary groups, which are fighting against ISIS and upon which the government is reliant.

The news from the battlefields, when combined with the diplomatic and economic wrangling over sanctions and oil prices, might give the impression that Iran is in the driver’s seat. But this can depend on whom you ask.  

“Nobody has yet thrown a knockout punch. It’s ongoing with one scoring here and the other scoring there,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor of politics and chairman of the Arab Council for Social Science in the United Arab Emirates, said. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention prevented the worst-case scenario, the creation of “an Iranian satellite state in their own backyard,” the professor said. While in Syria, he pointed out the loss in blood and treasure that Tehran had borne for its support of the Syrian government. 

Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, took a different view, arguing that Saudi Arabia was in decline already and had been for the last decade due to its reliance on Washington. 

“U.S. power has been dwindling since the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq … [and] Saudi Arabia is dependent on that power for its own protection and standing,” Parsi wrote by email. If you were to examine Saudi Arabia’s action in Yemen and its failure to block Iranian objectives in Syria then, as Parsi put it, “Saudi’s resistive decline becomes target evident.” 

The Middle East’s cold war would continue for some time to come, and with the inauguration of Donald Trump on the horizon, the balance of power could shift considerably.

“I’m sure Iran is not very happy. They’ve lost [U.S. President Barack] Obama … a great strategic asset,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla commented, noting that the next administration would be very different. Trump is gathering a team that could be described as “very much an anti-Iran team,” the retired professor said. 

On this point, Parsi agreed. “Many of the cold warriors Trump is bringing to the White House wish to re-establish America’s hegemony in the Middle East,” he argued, noting this gives Saudi Arabia an edge. “If you subscribe to that objective, you will see Iran as an enemy since it challenges America’s leadership, and you’ll see Saudi as a friend since it wants and begs for Pax Americana.”

Letters to the Editor: Election and immigration


The Left, the Right and the Election

Dennis Prager declares Good triumphed over Evil by stating: “Turns out the whole Democratic Party lost hugely on Election Day” (“Please Keep Calling Us Racists and Misogynists,” Nov. 18). He failed to look at the numbers. As of late November, the Democratic candidate had garnered more than 2 million more votes than his president-elect. Therefore, the Democratic Party is the majority party. The Republican candidate was saved by the Electoral College likely to give him 282 votes. 

I wish his president-elect good luck. I hope he will rise above his questionable utterances made during the campaign and be a good president for Americans of both sexes, all races and all religions.

And, who knows, maybe his Jewish grandson will be a Democrat and be the first Jewish president 50 or 60 years from now.

Ken Lautman, Los Angeles


While Republican Party apologist Dennis Prager bloviates about his party’s wins on election night, he misses the point in his urgency to again demonize the left for its “half-century [of] libeling and labeling conservatives” and “the harm the left has done to … Judaism, Jews, America and to Western civilization.”

Over 70 percent of eligible, registered voters either didn’t vote at all or voted against Donald Trump. In the face of this non-mandate, which Hillary Clinton would have inherited, as well, Mr. Prager has curiously chosen to strafe the left and to ignore perhaps a greater task at hand: to use his voice to help heal his own Republican Party, and, rather than chastising caring Jews who sat shivah last week, lead by example in words and deeds why we should do teshuvah and return to the Republican Party. Essentially, Mr. Prager missed a golden opportunity.

Graham Becker, Oak Park, Calif.


Dennis Prager writes, “For eight years, many on the left have described criticism of Barack Obama as racist. … For the left, it is not possible that conservative opposition to [Obama] has been rooted in public policy and moral differences that have nothing to do with race.”

Numerous polls have shown that more than 40 percent of Republicans believe President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. Donald Trump and the conservative media who propagated these calumnies (and Republicans who embraced these lies) did so solely to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama. And they did it for only one reason: because he is Black.

This has nothing to do with “public policy and moral differences” and everything to do with race. 

Michael Asher via email


It is amazing that after all the information came out, no thanks to the mainstream media, about Hillary Clinton, (“The New Political Reality,” Nov. 18) that The New York Times reported that 71 percent of “Jews” still supported her candidacy! 

But, again, not all the Jews of Mitzrayim left with Moses.

This election was a beautiful morality play, and thank God, it turned out right.

Enriqué Gascon, Los Angeles


An Iranian Jew’s View of Immigration

As a fellow American Jew with an Iranian heritage, Gina Nahai’s series of “do you ever think” admonitions posing as “questions” would have been demeaning were they not devoid of intellectual rigor and evident of a pervasive bubble mentality among the left’s elite (“Appeasing the Crocodile,” Nov. 18). Immigration laws of any nation are intended, first and foremost, to protect the safety and well-being of its citizens. A charitable and moral country such as ours (perhaps the most in the history of mankind) also welcomes the benighted and offers a haven to the persecuted, but not at the risk or to the detriment of its citizens. A nation without borders cannot remain a nation. I doubt Ms. Nahai leaves her home door unlocked anytime during the day. If a minority voice among my cultural cohort exhibited anti-American sentiments, I would 1) expect my government’s vigilance in monitoring its immigration, and 2) speak up against its perversion, not cast dispersion from the luxury and safety of my Westside home. Ms. Nahai is disingenuous by claiming she has only “one question” and is “not attempting to make a point here,” but the real question is why isn’t the answer self-evident to the intellectual left?

Ramin Kianfar via email

He reached into his pockets to give back


As members of Iran’s Jewish community fled their home nation over the years and settled in places like Los Angeles and New York, they brought with them both an entrepreneurial spirit and a philanthropic one.

Take the example of David Merage, who did more than build up a multibillion-dollar business; he has spent the last decade donating money and hands-on planning to projects funded by his nonprofit foundation.

“I believe everyone has an obligation to give back to their community and especially to the Jewish community and Israel,” Merage wrote in an email to the Journal while he was traveling overseas. “The satisfaction one receives from giving is by itself motivation to give even more.”

The 67-year-old Merage came to the U.S. in 1968 in pursuit of a college education. Along with his brother, Paul, and late father, Andre, he founded Chef America, a San Fernando Valley-based frozen foods company, in 1977. The business achieved substantial success after manufacturing and selling nationwide the popular Hot Pockets microwavable frozen snacks. 

After selling the company to Nestlé in 2002 for $2.6 billion, Merage set up a Denver-based investment firm focusing on Wall Street and real estate investments but also began his philanthropic work with his wife, Laura, through the David and Laura Merage Foundation. As part of its work, the foundation develops partnerships with governments and other donors to support an array of causes, including early childhood education, arts and culture, community development and various projects in Israel.

“[The Merages] are very focused on solutions and really want to make an impact or change to various causes they find important,” said Sue Renner, the foundation’s executive director. “They are not necessarily seeking accolades for the philanthropic work that they do and many of the causes they support are not glamorous. And they are not just giving money to a cause, but they put their brain trust, their time and strategy into making a real difference.”

Merage is joined in giving back by his brother, Paul, who now lives in Orange County. He founded and oversees the Merage Institute, a nonprofit that sponsors educational programs such as the U.S.-Israel Technology Bridge and High Hopes for Children. 

David Merage and his family, who split their time between Denver and Southern California, have given to various Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Their work with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles includes the development of an initiative to keep young adults involved with Israel issues after they have visited the country through the Birthright program, Renner said. Their foundation also has donated to JConnectLA, the Jewish networking group for young singles, as well as to ETTA, which offers programs and services for people with special needs. 

In Israel, the Merage Foundation has provided interest-free loans to needy but academically advanced Israeli graduate students studying at universities there. This was the result of a partnership with the Magbit Foundation, a nonprofit started in 1990 by members of L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community.

Merage’s roots are part of his passion when it comes to philanthropy. In October 2008, Merage was one of a dozen Iranian-Jewish businessmen in Los Angeles who spearheaded an event that raised raised nearly $1 million for Mikveh Israel, an Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) school in central Israel. Established in 1870 to help new immigrants learn Hebrew and new trades, it was suffering from financial difficulties.

The AIU was first set up in 1860 by affluent French Jews to provide education to Mizrahi Jews living in many Islamic countries, and Merage wrote in his email to the Journal that a primary reason he supported the AIU was because it provided key education to his parents in Iran that, in turn, resulted in his own pursuit of higher education and success. 

According to Habib Levy’s “A Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran,” between 1898 and 1979, the AIU provided critical secular and Jewish education to the impoverished Jewish communities living throughout Iran, an effort that indirectly resulted in Iranian Jews gaining financial security and leaving their ghettos. This first generation of Iranian Jews educated by the AIU later sent their children to the U.S. and Europe to obtain higher education.

Merage said his contribution and those of other Iranian Jews to the AIU school — 350 attended the fundraiser he helped organize — was just an example of Jewish philanthropy coming full circle after the Iranian Jewish community benefited so much from the AIU’s work in Iran.

“This is a small payback to those who had the foresight to create the Alliance schools [in Iran],” Merage wrote. “One day, history will remember the support of the Iranian Jewish community for this school in Israel and the impact of this support for many thousands of students today and in the future.”

Many local Iranian Jewish activists and leaders praised David Merage not only for his generosity to the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California, but for setting an excellent example for the new generation of Iranian American Jews by pursuing tikkum olam (healing the world) through his philanthropic work.

“Iranian Jewry’s acculturation has been refined with the help of noted community philanthropists such as David Merage, where their umbrella of contribution has surpassed their immediate community,” said Morgan Hakimi, past president of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills.

Renner said in addition to supporting U.S.-based nonprofits, the Merage Foundation also has been heavily involved with giving to and developing new programs in Israel, specifically those focused on developing the Negev region.

“David and Laura, at their hearts, are true Zionists,” Renner said. “They have deep commitments to Israel and to the future of the Negev and there are hundreds of projects that they are involved with in the Negev. Their focus has been in the development of small businesses, arts, culture, technology and the future needs of the Negev — an area which is a big part of Israel’s future.”

For his part, Merage said he hopes his example of philanthropic giving will inspire others to take a hands-on approach and give back to worthy causes in whatever capacity they can.

“I hope the young Jews, both in the U.S. and Israel, will become more generous and become involved in support of their communities here and in Israel,” Merage wrote. “We are the fortunate generations. Many in the past have given to us and I hope the chain of tzedakah will not be broken by us and our children.”

Trump vs. Clinton, Round 2: Iran, Syria, dog whistles and deplorables


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not shake hands, and then they did. The Republican nominee called his rival the devil and said he would jail her. Clinton said that three minutes of a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about committing what constitutes sexual assault “represents exactly who he is.” He said it was “locker room talk” and – pressed hard by a moderator – said he did not commit the acts that he claimed in the video.

Those “highlights” from the debate are strewn throughout social media and are making headlines on Monday morning.

But sown throughout Sunday evening’s presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, already dubbed the most intensely negative in modern history, were notes of substance and tone. Jewish and pro-Israel readers may want to heed a number of them.

Donald Trump mentioned Iran, often.

Trump slammed the Iran nuclear deal three times, emphatically, as had his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in his debate last week with the Democratic vice presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The deal reached last year between Iran and six major powers led by the United States, which exchanges sanctions relief for rollbacks in the Iran nuclear program, has become the Trump campaign’s exhibit A in depicting the Obama administration as a foreign policy failure.

On Sunday night, Trump called it “the dumbest deal perhaps I’ve ever seen in the history of deal-making” and again said it converted Iran within three years from a weak nation to a powerful one.

It’s a notable transition: Throughout the Republican primaries, Trump said the agreement was a bad one, but was coy about whether he would rescind it, saying he would first consult experts once he was in office. It wasn’t a foreign policy priority like renegotiating trade deals or walling off Mexico.

Now the deal has become a front-and-center issue, and while Trump still is not specific on whether he would scrap the agreement altogether or attempt to renegotiate it, it is nearing the top of his to-do list.

Hillary Clinton mentioned Iran, in passing.

Clinton’s main foreign policy thrust was to remind viewers of Trump’s coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin and present herself as a tougher alternative. She mentioned the Iran deal as a means of showing that she is capable of cooperating with Russia, while confronting it as well.

“It’s how we got the sanctions on Iran that put a lid on the Iranian nuclear program without firing a single shot,” she said of her role as secretary of state in getting a reluctant Russia on board with the sanctions regime.

The Democrat’s notation was not the seven robust mentions her running mate gave the deal in last week’s debate. Kaine, who is close to J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group that backed the deal, was instrumental last year in shepherding the deal through Congress.

Clinton instead has emphasized her role in setting up the sanctions regime and has also sought to present herself as more of a hawk than President Barack Obama. The latest dump of hacked Clinton-related emails includes one from an adviser, Stuart Eizenstat, counseling just such a distancing on the Iran deal last year.

“Hillary cannot oppose the agreement given her position as the President’s Secretary of State and should urge its approval by Congress,” Eizenstat said in an email to Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan. “But she can and should point out concerns with it … More broadly, she should appear more muscular in her approach than the President’s.”

Did Trump just hand Syria to Iran?

Trump delivered a rambling and at times inchoate response when a moderator asked him what he would do to stop the carnage in Syria.

One clear takeaway: He does not want to confront the regime of Bashar Assad, which is principally responsible for the nearly 500,000 lives lost in the civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011. Instead, he said, the United States should solely be focused on hitting the Islamic State terrorist group. Trump said, as he has in the past, that Russia should be a partner in that enterprise. He also said he outright disagreed with Pence, his running mate, who last week said the United States should hit Assad’s military if Russia continues to slam civilians with airstrikes.

More alarmingly for Israel, Trump appeared to say that Syria is otherwise a lost cause and should be left to Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran.

“I think you have to knock out ISIS,” he said. “Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran.”

Israel sees few good outcomes in the Syrian war. One of the worst, though, is leaving Iran, its deadliest regional enemy, indefinitely in place on its northern border.

The Syria exchange provided a notable moment for Clinton as well. Not only did she robustly differentiate herself from Obama, counseling a no-fly zone and increasing arms and training for some rebels, the sole moment she interrupted Trump (he interrupted her 18 times, according to Vox) was when he charged that she was with Obama when he violated his “line in the sand” pledge to use the military to hit Assad should his regime use chemical weapons. Assad crossed that line and Obama blinked in 2013.

Clinton pointed out that she was no longer secretary of state in 2013.

“I was gone,” she said. “I hate to interrupt you, but at some point we needed to do some fact checking.”

Ears were perked up. Was Donald whistling?

Trump, whose mentor was Roy Cohn, a counsel to the Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, has exhibited a McCarthy-like penchant for guilt by association.

Many of the associations he cited Sunday evening were Jewish. Among them: Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton’s longtime friend, whom Trump (again) falsely blamed for having “started” the so-called birther rumor that Obama was born in Kenya — a rumor that Trump more than anyone else perpetuated (one mention); Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman forced out when hacked emails revealed her antipathy toward Clinton’s primaries rival, Bernie Sanders (two mentions); financier, philanthropist and Democratic Party donor George Soros, cited by Trump as, like him, a rich guy who takes advantage of tax loopholes (two mentions), and Goldman Sachs, the Jewish-founded bank that paid Clinton top dollar for her speeches (one mention).

Was Trump’s substantive following among anti-Semites within the alt-right paying attention? Jewish Twitter sure was and, like the notorious Star of David tweet and the Pepe the Frog meme, Trump may have been passing along names and themes that mean more to the alt-right than he is aware of or is willing to acknowledge.

On the other hand, Trump did not start the false rumor about Blumenthal and the Kenya birth; Wasserman Schultz was indeed DNC chairwoman, and her “victim,” in Trump’s narrative, Sanders, also is Jewish; Trump mentioned the non-Jewish billionaire Warren Buffett, another Clinton backer, when he brought up Soros, and while Goldman Sachs is only one of a number of banks that hosted Clinton, the most salient leaks in the recent batch of hacked emails were from her appearance at an event hosted by Lloyd Blankfein, the bank’s CEO.

The moderators asked Clinton about her comment last month at a fundraiser that half of Trump’s followers were “deplorables” motivated by race hatred, among other factors. At the time the former New York senator almost immediately apologized for saying it was “half,” and now she appeared to say it was down to one, Trump.

“My argument is not with his supporters,” she said. “It’s with him and with the hateful and divisive campaign that he has run, and the inciting of violence at his rallies, and the very brutal kinds of comments about not just women, but all Americans, all kinds of Americans. And what he has said about African-Americans and Latinos, about Muslims, about POWs, about immigrants, about people with disabilities, he’s never apologized for.”

Trump countered that “she has tremendous hate in her heart.”

Did Trump miss the Jewy moment?

As long as we’re circling back to the juicy bits, there was one moment I predicted would take place – but it didn’t go down exactly the way I thought.

It was a town hall forum, where undecided voters were supposed to ask questions (they kind of got lost in the sniping among the candidates and the assertive questioning by the moderators). One who stood out was the final questioner, Karl Becker, who asked: “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

I predicted this question and Clinton’s answer – past debates have featured similar questions, and usually the reply has to do with how one’s rival is a decent family man, if nothing else. Why would it be Jewy, this time? Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is Jewish; his son, Eric, is married to a Jewish woman, and Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, is married to a Jewish man.

“I think that’s a very fair and important question,” Clinton said, going first. “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.”

Trump’s reply was that Clinton was a “fighter” who “doesn’t give up” (a little at odds with his multiple jabs about her “stamina”). But he appeared reluctant to accept Clinton’s reply as the compliment it was.

“I consider her statement about my children to be a very nice compliment,” he said. “I don’t know if it was meant to be a compliment, but it is a great — I’m very proud of my children. And they’ve done a wonderful job, and they’ve been wonderful, wonderful kids. So I consider that a compliment.”

It was an odd reply: Clinton was not saying that his good children were an anomaly, or that they turned out well in spite of him. “That says a lot about Donald,” she said, presumably crediting his parenting. (Chelsea and Ivanka are good buddies, so Clinton presumably knows whereof she speaks.)

Donald, parenting is the hardest job there is. When someone says you’ve made a good go of it, just run with it.

Iran is a contentious issue in first Clinton-Trump debate


The Iran nuclear deal was a key topic of contention in the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In the national security portion of the debate Monday evening at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, Trump raised the deal reached last year between Iran and six major powers, led by the United States, which exchanged sanction relief for limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities.

“You started the Iran deal, that’s another beauty, they were about to fall” because of sanctions, Trump said. “They were choking on the sanctions and now they’re probably going to be a major power.”

The Republican nominee cited the opposition to the deal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to a meeting he and Netanyahu had on Sunday.

“I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day, believe me, he is not a happy camper,” Trump said.

Clinton forcefully defended her role in shaping the sanctions. “We had sanctioned them. I voted for every sanction against Iran when I was in the Senate,” said the Democratic nominee, who was the senator from New York from 2001-2009, “but it was not enough. So I spent a year forming a coalition, including Russia and China … to drive them to the negotiating table.”

She said the deal freed the United States to deal with other Iranian acts, including the Islamic Republic’s backing of terrorism and record of interfering in other countries.

“Personally, I would rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program,” she said.

The debate, moderated by NBC anchorman Lester Holt, covered a range of issues, including international trade, crime and race relations. Trump sought to portray Clinton as a status quo politician, and Clinton made pointed attacks on Trump’s temperament and controversial record on race and women.

Lew on cash payment: ‘Iran wanted to be paid quickly’


U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew on Monday defended the $1.7 billion cash payment to Iran as the quickest method to pay off a settlement reached between the two countries.

“In a world where you’ve cut Iran off of much of the global financial system, they wanted to be paid quickly – which is not unusual when there is a settlement – and cash was the method that was chosen,” Lew said during a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, on Monday. “I think that the issue is the same whether it was a wire transfer or cash. It was a settlement that saved the American people billions of dollars, and it resolved a long-standing legal dispute.”

“Separately, there was a negotiation to have Americans brought home,” he continued. “The fact that these things all happened at the same time is in part because the doorway to the discussions was opened at the same time.”

In a briefing to congressional officials last week, the Obama administration “>blasted the Iran nuclear deal anew after reports emerged that Iran was secretly allowed to evade certain restrictions in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) so that it could begin receiving sanctions relief.

Speaking on Monday, Lew suggested that the Iran deal and the economic sanctions that followed has done more to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon than any other action that the U.S. could have taken.

“Americans should be glad that we have a nuclear agreement with Iran. They should be relieved that a lawsuit that could have meant billions of dollars is settled. And they should be happy that, separately, Americans who wanted to come home were able to come home,” Lew concluded.

Lew also addressed recent North Korean nuclear missile tests. “We’re not taking any option off the table,” he said. “We continue to review constantly what are options are to put more effective pressure on North Korea, but one of the things in sanctions generally that I’ve given a lot of thought to and I think is going to be incumbent on whoever is the steward of our sanctions program is getting the balance right between multilateral and unilateral action. If you go it alone and don’t have the cooperation of the world, it could look tougher, but perhaps have less impact. You need to have the cooperation of the global community to have maximum impact. That doesn’t mean you take any of your unilateral options off the table, but getting the mix right.”

“North Korea is an enormous challenge. We are going to do everything we can to try and keep the pressure on North Korea. It’s unacceptable for North Korea to have a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Jerusalem synagogue vandalized with spray-painted crosses


A Jerusalem synagogue was vandalized with black crosses spray-painted on its outside walls.

The vandalism occurred on Sunday night at an Iranian-run Orthodox synagogue in the Katamon neighborhood in southern Jerusalem.

Police have opened an investigation into the incident after being notified by the synagogue. A police spokesman told the Israeli media that there were no suspects or known motives.

The crosses were also spray-painted on the synagogue windows.

Synagogues elsewhere in Israel also have been vandalized in recent months, including in Petach Tikvah and Safed, where Jews were believed to be the perpetrators, and in Tel Aviv.

 

Several attacks of vandalism have hit church property in the Jerusalem area and northern Israel in recent years, as well as mosques in the West Bank.

Poll: Israeli Jews favor Hillary, but say Trump is better for Israel ‘policy’


Most Israeli Jews would prefer Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump as the next president of the United States — even though more of them think Trump would be better for the “Israeli government’s policy.”

According to a poll released Wednesday, 43 percent of Israeli Jews prefer Clinton as president, compared to 34 percent who want Trump, when asked to choose between the two candidates. But 38 percent say Trump would be better for Israel, compared to 33 percent who say Clinton would be.

On both questions, a large number of people don’t pick a candidate.

The Israel Democracy Institute think tank and Tel Aviv University released its latest Peace Index monthly survey after polling 600 Israelis at the end of August. The margin of error is 4.1 percent.

Some respondents support Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state, even though they don’t think the Democratic candidate “will be better from the standpoint of the Israeli government’s policy,” as the survey puts it. Thirteen percent of the Jews who say Trump, the Republican nominee, would be better for Israel want Clinton to be president. Only 2 percent of Jews who said Clinton would be better for Israel want Trump to be president.

“There seem to be people who support Clinton even though they think she will put more pressure on Israel or be less easy for Israel to deal with in terms of all the support we need from the United States,” Chanan Cohen, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who helped lead the survey, told JTA.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein were not included in the survey .

In April, Jewish opinion on the subject was nearly reversed. The Peace Index that month found 40 percent thought Clinton would be better for Israel’s interest and 31 percent thought Trump would be.

Since the primary season, when Trump pledged to be a “neutral” broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace, he and the Republican Party have tried to boost their pro-Israel bona fides. On Monday, Republican Trump supporters opened their fifth campaign office in Israel, the first in the West Bank. They predict 85 percent of Americans living in Israel, who they say number 300,000, will vote for the developer and reality TV star.

Still, Trump does not have a plurality of Israeli Jewish support. Even on the political right, only 49 percent support him, with 23 percent preferring Clinton, according to the survey. The left (86 percent) and center (57 percent) have an “overwhelming preference” for Clinton, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

“I expected the right-wing voters to support Trump in bigger numbers, but we can see less than half did,” said Cohen. “I know that in the United States, the right has concerns about Trump’s personality, and we can see this also on the Israel right.”

Among Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, 58 percent prefer the Democratic nominee and 11 percent the Republican.

Donald Trump speaking at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The poll also probed other issues. Asked about Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who is standing trial in a military court for shooting dead a downed Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, most Jewish Israelis “justify” what he did (42 percent strongly and 23 percent moderately). Just a quarter of Israelis “do not justify” the shooting (14 percent strongly and 11 percent moderately).

Jewish Israelis are almost evenly divided on executing captured Palestinian terrorists. Forty-seven percent lean toward killing such a terrorist on the spot, “even if he has been captured and clearly does not pose a threat.” Forty-five percent say he should be handed over to legal authorities.

Support for killing terrorists is highest among right-wingers (62 percent), young people (69 percent ages 18-24) and observant Jews (63 percent of haredi Orthodox and 72 percent of religious or traditional Jews). In April, the Peace Index found that 67 percent of Israelis agreed with the Sephardi chief rabbi’s assertion weeks earlier, which he later took back, that it is a religious imperative to kill Palestinian terrorists.

“We phrased the question differently this time, so you can’t say support has gone down,” Cohen said. “It’s more or less the same I think. It is a really high amount actually to be supporting an illegal action that every soldier is taught is against the army’s rules.”

Though many Israelis disagree with the army’s prosecution of Azaria, the Israel Defense Forces remains by far the most trusted official body in the country. Eighty-seven percent of Israeli Jews put “a lot” or “quite a lot” of trust in the army. Forty-seven percent of Israeli Arabs feel the same way. But Arabs put the most trust in the Supreme Court (64 percent “a lot” or “quite a lot”) — even more than Jews (54 percent).

Amid the controversy over dozens of French towns banning Muslim women from wearing the burkini, a full-body swimsuit, 62 percent of Israelis are against regulating what people wear in public, “including in the case of traditional and conservative clothing,” the survey found. Just 26 percent support the French bans.

Support for freedom of attire is consistent across the Jewish political spectrum — left (73 percent), right (59 percent) and center (61 percent) — and among Arabs (71 percent).

In honor of the start of the school year on Sept. 1, the survey asked Israelis to grade the education system, and both Jews and Arabs gave it a failing grade. Jews gave the system a 5.5 and Arabs a 5.9 out of 10.

In another poll released Wednesday, a CNN/ORC survey of likely American voters showed Trump with a 45-43 percent advantage over Clinton.

Trump: Nuclear deal turned Iran into dangerous ‘world power’


The Iranian regime was on the verge of being eliminated as a threat to the U.S. and Israel before the nuclear deal was signed, Donald Trump said on Tuesday.

“The deal is one of the worst negotiated deals of any kind that I have ever seen,” the Republican presidential nominee said at a town hall event in Virginia. “What we have done is created a monster. If you take a look at Iran from four-five years ago, they were dying. They had sanctions. They were being choked to death and they were absolutely dying. They weren’t even going to be much of a threat. They didn’t have anything going and now they are a power. We have made them a power, overnight.”

According to Trump, Iran has become a world power after the nuclear deal and are “highly threatening to the state of Israel.”

“They are going to have nuclear weapons and this path, in my opinion, is going to be a quicker path to nuclear weapons,” Trump suggested. “The deal is grossly incompetent.”

Trump further charged that “Crooked Hillary Clinton wanted this deal,” which, he said, puts Iran on “a shorter road to nuclear weapons.”

Asked by the moderator, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, what he’s going to do about Iran and the nuclear deal, Trump assured the crowd: “We will solve that problem if I get the chance, believe me. If I get the chance, you will be very happy. You will be very happy.”

While Trump spoke in Virginia, Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine spoke in North Carolina where he  ” target=”_blank”>Subscribe here.