Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

A crash course in extremism


Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list. 

But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad. 

In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”

Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it. 

“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”

Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.

For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.

“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”

Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.

Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”

Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.

The question is: To what end?

No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?

“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”

Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.

For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.

“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”

She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”

President Donald Trump is flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10. Photo by Russia Foreign Minister Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Israel cracked details of ISIS laptop bomb plans leaked by Trump


Israeli cyberintelligence reportedly uncovered detailed Islamic State plans for bomb attacks aboard aircraft that led to the U.S. ban on laptops on flights from eight Muslim-majority nations.

The revelation appeared Monday in a New York Times article about the difficulties facing the United States in using cyber warfare to contain the influence of the terrorist group, which quickly regroups once Western intelligence agencies are able to disable its networks.

One of the few recent successes, the Times said, was Israel’s cyber infiltration of a small cell of terrorists in Syria working on disguising explosive devices as batteries for laptops. That was part of the information President Donald Trump leaked last month to top Russian officials, much to Israel’s consternation, the report said.

The Trump administration is considering extending the laptop ban to flights from European airports.

"Churchill" Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

8 interesting films to see this summer


Some of this summer’s more notable films explore Middle East terrorism, World War II battles and global warming, while others tell the life stories of seminal figures in music and photography. And there’s a bittersweet movie that is mainly in Yiddish to top it off.

“CITY OF GHOSTS”

The campaign to expose the ISIS takeover of Raqqa, a Syrian city on the Euphrates River, is the subject of “City of Ghosts.” Using their cellphone cameras, a small collection of amateur journalists, who call their group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Slowly (RBSS),” photographed the atrocities by ISIS troops bent on establishing a caliphate in the city. These citizen reporters then uploaded the footage to the internet for the world to see what was happening in their homeland.

In the production notes, filmmaker Matthew Heineman is quoted as saying he learned of the group in 2015, made contact with it, gained its members’ trust and began filming interviews with them and using their videos and stills. “I knew almost immediately that I wanted the spine of the story to be deeply personal verité footage, captured as the activists escaped Syria after the assassination of several members by ISIS.

“Since ISIS took over the city in March 2014, journalists have been unable to enter the region, enabling the caliphate to control the narrative of what is happening inside the city with its slick propaganda videos. So, RBSS’ footage — including some that has never been released — provides a unique, up-close and visceral window into daily life in Raqqa,” he said.

The film traces the RBSS movement back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when Raqqa was a center of protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some 15 friends began reporting on the protests, using their phone cameras and their computers.

Then, in 2014, ISIS troops rolled into the city and quickly instituted a reign of terror, with public executions (shootings and beheadings) and dead bodies strewn on the streets. But, wanting to project an image of a peaceful, beautiful life in the city, ISIS produced increasingly sophisticated videos, disseminating them largely for recruitment purposes.

In reaction, the small band of lay reporters formed RBSS, a website and social media presence, and went undercover to record the brutality. When it became dangerous, some fled to Turkey, then to the relative safety of Germany, where the documentary shows them continuing to receive footage from secret operatives in Raqqa and to post the images on the internet.

“The contrast of ISIS’ videos, which proclaim a fully functioning and prosperous state, with those of RBSS, which captured the dysfunction and violence of everyday life, is shocking. In a sense, it’s a war of ideas, a war of propaganda, a war being waged with cameras and computers, not just guns,” according to Heineman’s statement in the press notes. The filmmaker adds that the film’s themes broadened beyond the war into “the immigrant experience, the strength of brotherhood, and one’s haunting relationship with trauma.”

In one particularly horrific section, the group member named Hamoud watches a video of his father, who is tied to a post, being shot to death by ISIS. Although Hamoud remains stoic, blood begins spurting from his mouth.

Todd McCarthy, in his Hollywood Reporter review, writes, “Heineman offers up a double portrait of devastation, of a truly destroyed city and of partially decimated survivors, leaving the viewer with an empathetic sense of deep sorrow.”

“City of Ghosts” opens July 14.

“CHURCHILL”

A largely unknown view of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is presented in Jonathan Teplitzky’s World War II drama, “Churchill.” The action takes place just days before D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, on June 6, 1944.

As the film opens, Churchill (Brian Cox) is strolling near the seashore and suddenly has a vision of the water running red with blood. The movie portrays Churchill’s unwillingness to accept the Allies’ invasion plans, fearing catastrophic losses, together with his own emotional issues and depression.

During an interview with the Journal while on another shoot in Australia, Teplitzky said he was invited onboard the “Churchill” project late in the movie’s development and was very drawn to the story.

“In many ways, in my view, his personal struggles only made his public and political achievements all the more remarkable and substantial, because he stops being a myth and we can see him more as a human being with human flaws,” the director said.

Cox re-creates Churchill’s physicality and his speech patterns, but Teplitzky said he and the actor wanted much more. “Brian and I both wanted a complex and deeply layered character, one whose humanity, vulnerabilities and flaws reveal themselves to us and the audience. We wanted to use the iconic stuff, the physical look and mannerisms, his speech rhythms, etc., as a doorway into this intimate human portrait. His big obsession, I think, comes from guilt in his role in a number of operations, and in particular Gallipoli, which resulted in massive loss of life.”

Churchill was a commander at the Battle of Gallipoli, a World War I disaster that cost hundreds of thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand casualties.

“But by now in 1944, with the U.S. in many ways running the Allied war effort, Churchill was somewhat sidelined, so it diluted his influence and ability to enforce change,” Teplitzky said. “This coupled with his depression, the two working off each other and fueling each other, was a big factor in his psychological state. I also think there is an element in the film which is about a man getting old and questioning his relevance.”

Churchill’s reservations about D-Day led him to clash openly with the supreme Allied commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery), as well as British Gen. Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) and other officers. The prime minister succumbs to one of his periodic attacks of depression and self-medicates by drinking excessively.

It is his strong, assertive wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson), feeling overlooked and marginalized by her husband, who reminds Churchill that Eisenhower, Montgomery and the others have a great deal of war experience — just as he has.“Don’t complain when someone tells you the truth,” she says.

Ultimately, Churchill is reconciled to D-Day, and when the Allies start winning, he broadcasts a speech over the BBC, telling the nation they have pushed back the Nazis. He states this is not a war for glory, but a war for freedom in which England will never surrender.

Teplitzky believes the film still has much to say about contemporary issues. It explores a man “at the center of momentous events, who presents a flawed but brilliant personality and the way such a personality impacts on people’s lives. We can only understand and learn from history if we look at it from many points of views, not just from a prescriptive and often conservative angle.”

“Churchill” opens June 2.

“LONG STRANGE TRIP”

The documentary “Long Strange Trip“ examines another form of personal demons as it chronicles the 30-year run of the iconic rock group the Grateful Dead and the troubled life of one of the band’s co-founders, Jerry Garcia.

Some audiences may find the four-hour length, broken by an intermission, somewhat intimidating, but the group’s die-hard fans, known as Deadheads, undoubtedly will hang on every word. In addition to many interviews, the film is replete with archival footage, photos, macabre cartoons centered on images of death and, of course, the music.

However, director Amir Bar-Lev, a fan of the band since he was 13, is quoted in the promotional materials as saying he wanted the film to appeal to an audience beyond Deadheads.

“For decades, when Deadheads were pressed as to what was so special about the band,” he states, “they could simply answer something along the lines of, ‘I can’t explain it. You have to go to a show to understand.’ I wanted to challenge myself to do better than that, so I reached out to the most articulate people I know around the Dead scene.”

Just as the band’s music was largely improvisational, the film has the feel of being loosely structured. Band members, a music producer, Garcia’s daughter and others offer unique perspectives on the band and its fans.

The band itself was eclectic, with the original members coming from various musical traditions, so the Dead’s music encompassed jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock ’n’ roll and other genres.

Garcia, the group’s de facto leader, eschewed the idea of being in charge and envisioned the band as a collective with no preset rules. The disparate bunch he assembled in 1965 was called the Warlocks at first, but when they learned another band had the same name, they became the Grateful Dead, a phrase they found in the dictionary. Early on, they began using the mind-altering drug LSD and soon moved to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, home to the burgeoning Beat-influenced counterculture of the period.

From there, the film follows the band’s unsuccessful first steps under contract to Warner Bros. Records, its eventual recording triumphs and its decision to focus on being a touring band. There is footage of the now legendary performance at London’s Lyceum Theatre on May 23, 1972, during which Garcia performed a guitar solo of “Morning Dew” with tears running down his face.

But things ultimately got out of hand due to the group’s lack of structure, as well as the unwieldy party atmosphere that evolved among the fans.

There also was heavy drug use. Garcia became increasingly isolated and dependent on heroin until, in 1995, at age 53, he died in his sleep of a heart attack at a rehab center in Marin County.

In the press notes, Bar-Lev responds to a question about whether he was aware that the history of the Dead in many ways mirrors the history of America in the second half of the 20th century. The filmmaker answers by referring to what he calls Garcia’s “radical pluralism” and pointing to the “traveling counter-cultural city” that the band inspired.

He concludes, “It all strikes me as quintessentially American. The Grateful Dead are the musical Statue of Liberty.”

“Long Strange Trip” opens May 26.

“THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY”

On a softer level, we have filmmaker Errol Morris’ homage to 80-year-old portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. With this documentary, Morris departs from his usual weightier fare. His past projects examined such figures as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who admits his mistakes regarding the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and Fred A. Leuchter (“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”), an adviser to prisons on executions who wrote a report denying that gas chambers were used for mass murder at Auschwitz.

With “The B-Side,” Morris has crafted a gentle, sweet work that becomes something of a memoir for Dorfman, one of the last photographers working in an analog format when most photography has gone digital. As the movie progresses, she brings out photograph after photograph and reminisces about her life and work.

After college, Dorfman got a job in New York as a secretary at Grove Press, and there she met famous Beat Generation writers and poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who became a lifelong friend and frequent photographic subject.

As a self-described “nice Jewish girl” from Massachusetts, Dorfman says in the film that the New York world of artists was too much for her, so she returned to Cambridge and went into teaching. It wasn’t until she was 28, in 1965, that she started taking pictures — and in the early1980s, she began using Polaroid’s giant 20×24 camera, shooting large color portraits.

Although Dorfman never garnered the fame of such photographers as Richard Avedon, Milton Greene or Annie Leibovitz, she nevertheless photographed many luminaries in addition to Ginsberg, including poet, painter and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, essayist Anaïs Nin, musician Bob Dylan, poet W.H. Auden, and radical feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin.

She also took a series of self-portraits and added captions at the bottom of the photographs. On her cyberjournal, Dorfman writes: “I make self-portraits on my birthday and every now and then when I have only one shot left in the case of film. (I think it is good for me to experience what my subjects are going through — and it is wild to see how I have changed.)”

Whenever she photographed paying clients, she shot two exposures. The customers would choose the one they liked and she would keep the other one, which she dubbed “the B-Side,” hence the film’s title.

Unfortunately, Polaroid went bankrupt and stopped making film for the 20×24 camera. So, as the movie was being shot, Dorfman was facing retirement.

She sums up her approach by saying on her cyberjournal that she doesn’t try to uncover people’s souls. “As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people’s lives. I don’t try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don’t try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it’s mine.)

“For me the key word is ‘apparently.’ All I hope my photographs say is this person lives and this person was here.”

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” opens June 30.

ALSO OF INTEREST

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” — This film is a follow-up to the 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” in which former Vice President Al Gore made his case for the need to reverse global warming. The sequel tracks the progress made in addressing climate change. The documentary follows Gore as he continues to inspire people to get involved in the movement for alternative, safer forms of energy. Opens July 28.

“Dunkirk” — Here is another World War II film. This one focuses on the evacuation of 300,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, as the Nazis invaded. The Allied soldiers were saved with the help of every available British military and civilian ship. Director Christopher Nolan is quoted in Variety as saying, “Dunkirk and the legend of it is something that British people grow up with — it’s in our DNA.” Opens July 21.

“13 Minutes” — Returning again to the second world war era, this movie from Germany is based on the true story of a free-spirited German carpenter, Georg Elser, who planted a bomb set to go off during a speech given by Adolf Hitler on Nov. 8, 1939. But Hitler unexpectedly left 13 minutes before the explosion, and eight unintended victims were killed. Although Elser acted alone, the heads of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police believed he was part of a larger plot and had him tortured, hoping to get the names of co-conspirators. When no names were forthcoming, Elser was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and then to Dachau, where he ultimately was executed. Opens June 30.

“Menashe” — Loosely based on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig (a YouTube comedian), the movie takes place in Brooklyn’s Chasidic community and is filmed almost completely in Yiddish. The title character, who works in a kosher supermarket, has become a widower and, according to tradition, cannot raise his son without a woman in the house. Pressured either to find a wife or let his married brother-in-law raise the boy, Menashe struggles to prove himself worthy of being a parent. Opens July 28.

Police officers standing in front of the Manchester Arena in England, where a suspected suicide bomber killed at least 22 people on May 23. Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Rooting out extremism is an evolving battle


Less than a week before the May 22 attack at a concert in Manchester, England, I returned from a 10-day fact-finding trip to Europe on countering violent extremism.  

It is tragic that the trip, organized by the U.S. State Department, proved to be so timely. But I gained insights that helped me process and confront the all-too-frequent tragedies like Manchester. Despite countries’ differences in approaches, the core takeaways were consistent:  

1. “You can’t investigate your way out of this.” — A representative of New Scotland Yard SO15 (the London Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command)

Using only a criminal lens — surveillance, investigation, disruption, prosecution, etc. — limits the success of law enforcement in identifying threats. Our delegation heard from law enforcement and government officials across the spectrum that the most important tool in their kit is the trust of those communities most vulnerable to extremism.

Community-based organizations are essential to this strategy. The more robust the civic fabric, the greater the sense of social cohesion; the more people see themselves as having a stake and a voice in society, the less rationale there is for attacking the system. Communities most vulnerable are not blind to the problem in their midst. When engaged and supported as partners (not potential threats), they often will identify ways to address the problems with a greater cultural literacy and legitimacy than any government or law enforcement official could ever bring.

2. “Safeguarding against extremism is no different than safeguarding against drugs, gangs and sex trafficking. It’s out there and we want you to be able to protect yourselves from it.”— Prevent instructor to British students

Messaging matters. Great Britain’s Prevent program — a centralized governmental effort to safeguard against violent extremism — still suffers from a faulty launch that undermined its effectiveness. Many people perceived its focus to be solely on the Muslim community and treating the community as criminals in waiting.

By shifting to a message of safeguarding people vulnerable to recruitment by extremists and making it clear the program addresses all forms of extremism, Britain is just now starting to repair the perception and increase trust, though one nonprofit leader articulated concerns that the “horse has already left the barn” and that the program always will be tainted by the bad branding of its faulty launch.

Community leaders and parents need to know that when they have concerns about their kids or friends radicalizing, they will be given the intervention and help they need. The collaboration of mental health professionals, schools, faith communities and other community-based organizations are essential partners in identifying people who are at risk of or already on the path to radicalizing. Understanding this kind of violence as a public health issue can help engage a broader network of partners in the fight.

3. “Targeting Muslims is counterproductive. You have to identify extremist behavior.”  — Horace Frank, Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief of counterterrorism

Focusing exclusively on Muslims undermines the relationships needed in the Muslim community to identify and uproot real ISIS-inspired threats. It also ignores a rising statistical threat from extremist right-wing nationalists.

Nearly 20 percent of referrals for suspicious behavior in England are for right-wing extremism. While one might think that’s because the problem is grossly over-reported, about 10 percent of those serving time in prison for terrorism-related charges are radical right-wing nationalists.

In our American context, Muslim organizations correctly claim they are more likely to be on the receiving end of a violent hate crime than guilty of committing one. When law enforcement is present to protect minorities, it builds trust in those communities.

Like many Jewish institutions in Los Angeles, some local mosques received threats of violence in recent months. Those threats against the mosques were credible. Police arrested an Agoura Hills man with an arsenal of weapons and a plan to attack. The way that law enforcement stood with Muslim community leaders in that moment reflected the deep relationship-building that has happened for years at the local level.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric at the national level has framed violent extremism as an exclusively Muslim problem. It undermines the extraordinary work that has happened locally between Muslim leaders and law enforcement. Many Muslim organizations have built sophisticated programs to safeguard their communities from ISIS-inspired extremism.

But some are now having second thoughts about moving forward with these programs or are considering outright rejection of federal funds to support their work. This is not because they no longer think it is needed. They fear the money will come with problematic strings attached or that it may undermine their internal legitimacy for collaborating with those who amplify anti-Muslim sentiment. Local trust-building can go only so far in the midst of a toxic national conversation.

4. Despite our best efforts, governments now treat acts of violent extremism as a question of when, not whether, they will happen.  

Part of the holistic approach to this work also includes effective disaster response that can help contain the impact and lessen the casualties. In the aftermath of Manchester, there will be new lessons learned in this ever-evolving battle.

I also returned from the delegation with three lessons on how the Jewish community can be on the front lines of safeguarding against extremism.

First, our community must become more nuanced in our relationship with the Muslim community. The more integrated the Muslim community is in America, the less ISIS-inspired extremism can take hold here. We isolate and reject mainstream Muslim leaders at our own peril. Undermining these leaders empowers extremists who think ISIS is fundamentally right about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. If you care about ISIS-inspired terrorism, then you also should care about fending off Islamophobia. We can and should disagree fiercely with our Muslim counterparts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we should not be afraid to call out when we see rhetoric cross the line into anti-Semitism. But isolation and exclusion feed the narrative of extremists. This is not merely a progressive talking point — it is a best practice from among the most experienced law enforcement professionals and government officials in the world.

Second, language matters. We must apply consistent rhetoric when speaking about various forms of extremism. The shooter at the AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the thwarted attacker on the Los Angeles mosques are extremists just as much as the shooters in San Bernardino.

As part of this strategy of thoughtful language, I now will refrain from using the term Islamism when referring to extremism that emerges cloaked in religious garb. While this term seeks to differentiate ISIS and al-Qaida from Islam proper, it still retains the association that violence is inherent to Islam. I take my cue from a former Department of Homeland Security employee who uses the terminology “ISIS-inspired” or “al-Qaida-inspired” to refer to this kind of extremism. It ensures both that we avoid vilifying Islam and that we make it harder for vulnerable Muslim kids to see ISIS as a legitimate expression of Islam.  

Third, the great work of Jewish organizations in mental health, social services, refugee assistance and interfaith collaboration — from Jewish Family Service to NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change to HIAS — are going to be on the front lines of safeguarding against extremism in American society. They do this by serving the vulnerable in our midst, spotting potential issues before they become credible threats, and by modeling for other minority communities with less developed infrastructures.  

The Los Angeles mayor’s office frames this work as “building healthy communities.” The Jewish community has tremendous experience and expertise to contribute on this front. This week has taught us we have no choice but to work even harder toward our goal. 

Emergency responders arriving at the Manchester Arena following a bomb attack at an Ariana Grande concert on May 22. Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

In Manchester, Jews have been preparing for an attack for years


Britain’s bloodiest terrorist attack in over a decade occurred Monday just two miles from Rabbi Yisroel Cohen’s synagogue.

Yet one day after the deadly bombing in Manchester, Cohen told JTA he has no intention of changing security arrangements at his congregation.

In fact Cohen, a Chabad emissary who works in a Jewish enclave in the northern part of the city surrounded by a heavily Muslim area, said there is little room for improving security across his tight-knit community.

After all, the Jewish community in Manchester — one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing spots thanks to an influx of immigrants and young couples seeking alternatives to pricey London — has been on its highest alert since long before the explosion that killed 22 people and wounded 50 at an Ariana Grande concert. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the act.

“Well, the radio equipment is working, the residents have been briefed, police are patrolling, security professionals from the Jewish community have been in place since the attacks in Belgium” last year, Cohen said when asked about security. “There is only so much you can do – except pray.”

On Kings Road, a busy street of the heavily Jewish borough of Prestwich, residents keep an eye out for strangers. Any abnormal behavior – particularly photography or the gathering of information — quickly invites polite but firm inquiries by both passers-by as well as shopkeepers who cater to the local population of haredi and modern Orthodox Jews.

The vigilance in Jewish Manchester owes much of its preparation and training to the local police, the Community Security Trust organization and other groups. But it is also born of circumstance: Manchester’s some 30,000 Jews are concentrated in a relatively small area. This makes them an easy target, but it also means that the community’s institutions are easier to protect and vigilance is easier to instill.

While there are also concentrations of Jews in North London, in Manchester — a city of 2.5 million, where 15.8 percent of the population is Muslim — there is added tension because the Jewish and Muslim communities live in close proximity. Kings Road, for example, is sandwiched between the Judaica World bookstore on its western end and the Masjid Bilal mosque on its eastern one.

This juxtaposition in recent years has generated some friction, including in the harassment of Jews on the street and the occasional violent incident.

At least one more premeditated plan to attack Manchester Jews was uncovered and foiled five years ago. In 2012, a British judge imprisoned a Muslim couple, Mohammed Sajid  and Shasta Khan, for seven years for gathering intelligence on Manchester Jews for an attack.

 

“That incident came at a time of reassessment about the threat to Jews in Manchester, and it was one of the reasons that led to a complete overhaul,” Cohen said.

“So today, we in the Jewish community are perhaps less surprised than others at what happened,” the rabbi added, though he also said that Mancunian Jews are “shocked at the horror” witnessed at the concert.

Paul Harris, editor of the city’s Jewish Telegraph weekly, told JTA he generally agrees that Manchester’s Jewish community is well prepared to deal with any emergency or fallout thereof, but he also flagged one weak point: On evenings and afternoons, observant Jews in the city congregate outside synagogue — a habit that makes them an easy target and which, for that reason, has largely been abandoned in at-risk communities in France and beyond.

“Maybe that will change now,” Harris said.

In a statement Tuesday following a suspect’s arrest, Prime Minister Theresa May said the bombing was a “callous terrorist attack” that targeted “defenseless young people.” Police believe a homemade explosive vest was detonated by a suicide bomber who may or may not have been working alone.

The explosion ripped through the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena at 10:30 p.m. after Grande, a 23-year-old pop singer from the United States, had already left the stage. At least 12 of the 22 killed in the attack were children younger than 16. News of the explosion sent worried parents to the arena, where children, teenagers and young adults streamed out of the main exit in a state of panic.

Cohen said that Chabad was not aware of Jewish fatalities in the attack.

The attack happened a little over two weeks before the June 8 general election in which hardliner Theresa May from the Conservative Party is running against Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. The attack may further increase May’s lead in the polls on Corbyn, a left-leaning promoter of outreach to Muslims who has called Hezbollah and Hamas his friends.

Last year Corbyn — amid intense criticism in the media and from members of his own party for his perceived failures in curbing expressions of anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks — said he regretted expressing affection to the two Islamist terror groups. Following the attack Monday, all parties agreed to suspend campaigning for three days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem with President Donald Trump, who was visiting Israel, referenced the attack in criticizing incitement to terrorism by the Palestinian Authority under its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

“President Abbas condemned the horrific attack in Manchester,” Netanyahu said while standing next to Trump. “Well, I hope this heralds a real change, because if the attacker had been Palestinian and the victims had been Israeli children, the suicide bomber’s family would have received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. That’s Palestinian law. That law must be changed.”

Speaking in Bethlehem, Trump joined other world leaders who condemned the attack.

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. I will call them losers,” he said.

Back in Manchester, Rabbi Shneur Cohen of the Chabad Manchester Center City organized a food and drinks distribution to police officers who were stationed outside the arena where the attack took place.

“We are Manchester, we stand together,” Cohen told reporters at the scene.

But Harris, the Jewish Telegraph editor, said that despite such gestures, “there is definitely a silence, a shocked silence” in the city following the attack.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump tells Netanyahu he ‘never mentioned Israel’ in meeting with Russians


President Donald Trump told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he “never mentioned Israel” in a meeting with Russian government officials in which he was alleged to have revealed highly classified information.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump said Monday at a photo op with Netanyahu at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on the second leg of his first overseas trip as president. “Never mentioned it during the conversation, they’re all saying I did, so you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”

By saying “you,” the president seemed to be addressing the media, collectively.

No one had alleged that Trump mentioned Israel in the meeting two weeks ago with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.

Reports last week said that Trump revealed details of intelligence on Islamic State that could compromise an ally that had shared the intelligence with the United States. The ally was later reported to have been Israel.

There was no reporting that Trump had revealed the source of the intelligence with the Russians. Instead, the concern was that the level of detail in Trump’s account could be used to deduce sources and methods.

It was not clear from what during the photo op prompted Trump’s statement. Just before he brought up the information, Netanyahu said — apparently responding to a reporter — “The intelligence cooperation is terrific.”

There were concerns after last week’s revelations that Israel could limit its intelligence cooperation with the United States because of Trump’s alleged carelessness.

President Donald Trump is flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10. Photo by Russia Foreign Minister Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Trump blew it, big-league


The New York Times has a new feature called “Say Something Nice About Trump.”

Last week, I was all set to do so. As President Donald Trump was preparing to embark on his first official trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, I found myself thinking nice things. It occurred to me that on the Israel-Palestinian issue, Trump had come out of the gate in a far more effective way than his predecessors.

On May 8, for instance, I was on a phone call with Dennis Ross, the former United States ambassador who served four American presidents as a Middle East envoy and negotiator. And this is what Ross said: Donald Trump has a better chance than President Barack Obama did at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Despite Trump’s support from the anti-two-state-solution crowd, despite the fact Trump’s own ambassador to Israel called pro-two-state groups “worse than kapos,” Ross said Trump has handled the Middle East diplomatic dance better than Obama so far. He said Trump has impressed the Palestinian leadership, gained their trust. And he had the Israelis in his pocket.

For someone who has seen Trump as dangerous to Israel’s future and ill-informed on Middle East affairs, it was surreal —but heartening.

“What is going on,” Ross said of the president, “is he continues to emphasize that this is a deal he really wants to do. Only last week, he said he couldn’t think of a single reason why he can’t reach agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. I think what he meant by that, not that there weren’t differences, but that ultimately those differences shouldn’t prevent a deal. In any case, this is one of those challenges that is deeply rooted [for Trump]. What the president has done is make [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] more relevant, which is important at a time when he does not have a lot of popularity.”

Ross’ call, arranged by The Israel Project, came on the eve of Trump’s visit in Washington with Abbas. The remarkable part was that Ross outlined a clear way forward toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, out of the long and dangerous impasse between the sides. And the Moses who could lead them? Donald J. Trump.

Trump has leverage, Ross said. He is seen as someone who can deliver and, beyond that, someone who, unlike Obama, will exact a cost if he’s rejected. So Trump can make tough demands of Abbas, including ending payments to the families of terrorists, and — in private — can ask for difficult sacrifices from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

I was listening, shaking my head, wondering if I had completely misjudged Trump when it comes to Middle East policy. Perhaps I had overestimated the hard-line attitude of his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Perhaps I hadn’t taken into account the moderating forces of Trump’s childhood friend, Ron Lauder.

But more likely, I had forgotten my cardinal rule for understanding Donald J. Trump: The man will say anything in a room to make a sale. Alec Baldwin is not Trump. Trump is Alec Baldwin — in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

“Because only one thing counts in this life!” Baldwin’s real estate huckster character says. “Get them to sign on the line which is dotted!”

To get elected, Trump had to appeal to evangelicals and pro-Israel hard-liners like Sheldon Adelson. But to sell a bigger deal as president, he has new constituencies. The Saudi vote isn’t big in Florida or Wisconsin, but it sure matters in the Middle East.

“The more the administration, the president and his representatives are dealing with the Arab leaders, the more what they’re hearing from them is they’re prepared to work with them,” Ross said. “But on [the Palestinian-Israeli] issue, they’re asking for a two-state outcome.”

So in the spirit of saying something nice about Trump, I was all set to assert that he would continue to confound the very people who trusted him to do exactly what hard-liners in Israel, and their American armchair Golanis, want him to do.

But then, Trump happened. That is, shortly before his trip abroad, the president gave sensitive intelligence information to the Russians, intelligence that was revealed to have come via Israel.

Here’s how bad this is: Israeli intelligence had somehow penetrated ISIS command well enough to get detailed knowledge of its upcoming terror attacks. Now those methods and sources are burned, thanks to the president of the United States. The fact that Russia can now discern the methods and sources for that intelligence and pass it on to their allies the Iranians, who can funnel it to Hezbollah, is a criminal act against Israel.

This disaster will shadow Trump’s trip, shuffle the equation in ways that are now impossible to imagine — even if no other shoes drop between now and when he touches down in Israel.

The evidence was building that Trump was not going to be the hand puppet Sheldon Adelson thought he bought Bibi for Chanukah. Now, flying across the Atlantic with a self-inflicted puncture to his competence and credibility, Trump needs Bibi more than ever to keep his credibility afloat.

A week ago, Trump was positioned perfectly to land in Israel and shake things up. Now he will arrive, shaken, weakened, vulnerable, neutered.

I tried so hard to say something nice. It’s still not the time. And there’s no one to blame but Donald Trump.


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.

President Donald Trump. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

What Trump told the Russians, and why allies like Israel are worried


As of Tuesday morning, thanks to the unfiltered confessional that is Twitter, we now know this: President Donald Trump shared information with Russia about “terrorism and flight safety,” as he put it.

Trump was responding, after about 12 hours, to a Washington Post report that he shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador when he met with them last week. The information, sources told the Post and confirmed to other outlets, could be used to reveal sources of an ally’s intelligence on the Islamic State terrorist group.

Which ally has not been revealed: The New York Times, in following up the Washington Post’s scoop, said it is a Middle Eastern ally known to be wary of sharing its intelligence. Israeli commentators already were speculating the impact if Israel was the country in question, although it is hardly the only ally fitting the bill.

Trump in his tweets confirmed that he shared the information but did not say whether or not it was classified. However, he specified that he had an “absolute right” to share the information, which could refer to laws that exempt the president from restrictions on revealing classified information.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump said. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group.

A lot of questions are not yet fully answered:

What did Trump reveal?

According to the Washington Post, Trump shared information about Islamic State plans to bomb aircraft with laptops. The Trump administration has banned laptops as carry-on luggage on U.S.-bound planes originating in some Middle Eastern countries, and reportedly plans to extend the ban to Europe.

The crux is in the details of what he shared.

“He described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances,” the Washington Post reported, and “revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.” The Times said the information Trump relayed was “granular” — that is, highly specific.

Is the White House denying it?

Not quite. Officials have said the story, “as reported,” is “false” — but things get murkier on the details. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, who were in the room, said Trump did not discuss “sources, methods or military operations.” But the newspapers’ accounts do not allege that sources or methods or military operations are what were revealed. Instead, the concern is that the Russians and their allies could use details in the information to track down the source.

How likely is it that the Russians could trace the information to its source?

According to reports, the White House is taking seriously the threat that the information could be sourced. Thomas Bossert, Trump’s assistant for counterterrorism, alerted the CIA and the National Security Agency, and one of his subordinates said the information should be removed from internal summaries of Trump’s meeting.

What are the stakes?

Huge. It’s been enormously difficult to infiltrate the Islamic State, which cultivates only the truest believers for its operations.

Do we know which Middle Eastern ally provided the information?

No. Any one of the United States’ Middle East allies — Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf states — could fit the bill of a country that would prefer that the U.S. closely hold whatever intelligence it shares.

Trump had a call scheduled with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday morning, but it may have been set up previously, ahead of Trump’s Middle East tour next week.

Israelis were wondering if it was their country that was potentially burned in the exchange. Ronen Bergman, the well-connected Yediot Acharonot reporter, reposted on Twitter a January story revealing that intelligence officials in the outgoing Obama administration warned Israeli counterparts to be careful about what kinds of intelligence they shared with the Trump administration because of alleged ties between Russia and some members of Trump’s entourage.

“The president has full authority to reveal classified information, but what will the ally think,” Keren Betzalel, an editor on Israel’s Channel 2, wrote Tuesday morning on Twitter.

Danny Yatom, a former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, told The Jerusalem Post that he did not know if Israel was the ally, but expressed concerns about Trump’s revelations.

“If the information is sensitive, it can harm the security of the intelligence source or lead to other damage,” he said.

Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israel activist and constitutional law professor who has been counseling patience and restraint to a U.S. Jewish community rattled by Trump’s flirtations with the far right, has now had it with the president.

“This is the most serious charge ever made against a sitting president of the United States,” he told CNN. “Let’s not underestimate it.”

Dershowitz also speculated that either Israel or Jordan was the unnamed country potentially compromised as a result of the incident.

So if the ally is Israel, what’s at stake?

One of the closest U.S. intelligence relationships is with Israel. It was launched in 1956 when Israel secured Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to a Communist congress denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror, signaling an evolution in how the Soviet Union would conduct its domestic and foreign policies. Speech in hand, the first stop for Mossad director Isser Harel was the CIA.

More recent cooperative successes reportedly include Stuxnet, the computer virus that crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment program in 2009-10, helping to bring the country to the negotiating table to talk about curbing its nuclear program, and the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah’s operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, as well as the exposure and frustration of multiple planned Hezbollah strikes in Europe and elsewhere. As parlous as diplomatic relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government could get, officials in both countries agreed — and often emphasized — that intelligence sharing intensified over recent years.

Why would the Russians burn Trump?

The information is about the Islamic State, purportedly an enemy shared by the United States and Russia. Despite Russia’s claimed aim of crushing the Islamic State, its focus has been fending off others seeking the removal of Russia’s longtime ally in Syria, Bashar Assad. Defeating the terrorist groups is not the priority for Russia that it is for the United States, perhaps because keeping the Islamists in place could decrease international pressure to bring down Assad.

How (ticked) off are folks?

(Ticked) off. David Cohen, until recently the deputy director of the CIA and a veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations, published an extraordinary op-ed in The New York Times on Tuesday lambasting the Trump administration for cozying up to autocracies like Russia’s Putin regime and describing the risks it posed. Citing the revelations of Trump’s conversations with the Russians as an example, Cohen said: “No one can say how many potential spies will decide that working for America is not worth the risk. But the administration’s rejection of the American idea will surely mean that some will say no.”

Trump’s support among Republicans and conservatives who had backed him through other controversies in his young presidency also appears to be eroding.

“They’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was quotedby Buzzfeed as saying.

Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, said on Twitter: “This is very bad. Very, very bad.”

What does this mean for Trump’s Middle East tour?

Trump visits Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian areas next week. The pomp and circumstance — including stops at the Western Wall, Masada and Bethlehem — are likely to stay in place.

What we won’t know, for now, is how the conversations typical of such tours between lower-level officials — among them those who deal with intelligence — will play out. Will the Saudi, Israeli and Palestinian intelligence agencies be as ready to dish?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump, Abbas link renewed peace talks to countering Islamic State


President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would help bring about the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group.

“I know President Abbas has spoken out against ISIS” and other terrorist groups, Trump said Wednesday at a White House ceremony welcoming Abbas, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State. “We must continue to build our partnerships with the Palestinians’ security forces to counter and defeat terrorism.”

Abbas said a final status agreement that included a two-state solution would help defeat the terrorist threat scourging Israel’s Arab neighbors.

“For us to bring about a comprehensive and just peace based on the two-state solution, such matter would give a great impetus to the Arab Peace Initiative and the other international initiatives, as well as be able to fight and deter terrorism and to fight the criminal ISIS group … which has nothing to do with our noble religion,” he said.

The Arab Peace Initiative refers to the 2002 proposal by Saudi Arabia to trade an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on the 1967 borders for a comprehensive Israeli peace with most of its Arab neighbors.

Trump, with the encouragement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has embraced the concept of a broader peace that encompasses both the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors, partly as a means to better confront the threats posed by the Islamic State as well as Iran.

The U.S. leader said he was optimistic that he could pull off the deal that has frustrated at least four of his predecessors, with the most recent collapse of talks in 2014 followed by the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We will get it done, we will be working so hard to get it done,” Trump said.

Abbas’ remarks Wednesday underscored key differences, however. Netanyahu has not embraced the Arab Peace Initiative, in part because of the breadth of its compromise, based on the 1967 lines. Abbas said the 1967 lines remained the predicate for a peace deal. Abbas’ explicit citation of the two-state solution also suggests a nuanced difference with Trump, who has retreated from 15 years of U.S. policy favoring the two-state outcome.

Trump praised Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, which the United States helps fund.

“They get along unbelievably well,” he said. “I was very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along.”

Trump did not address — at least in the public portion of the meeting — a demand by Netanyahu that Abbas stop Palestinian Authority payments to families of terrorists killed or jailed by Israel. He did call on Abbas to address incitement.

“There can be no lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to violence and hate, there’s such hatred, but hopefully there won’t be such hatred for very long,” he said.

Abbas said his government was teaching its young people peace.

“We are raising our youth, our children and our grandchildren, on a culture of peace,” he said.

How complicated is Syria? Trump just helped ISIS


We like our problems clean and direct. Good versus evil. Good fights evil. Good wins.

The Syrian regime of President Assad is evil. Its use of chemical weapons to murder children was barbaric. It makes sense to not let him get away with it. So, you can argue that President Trump was right to order missile strikes against the regime.

This satisfying moral action, however, should not make us dumb down a complicated conflict. The dominant reality of the Syrian conflict today is that it represents evil vs evil. You can get rid of one evil only to see something worse replace it.

On one side of the conflict, you have the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. A few years ago, Assad was on life support. Now, with his strong partners, he’s made a comeback.

On the other side of the conflict are anti-regime rebel groups who fight each other as much as they fight the Assad regime.

The largest is ISIS, with 25,000 to 80,000 fighters. ISIS has become the enemy par excellence in the Western world. Trump has talked incessantly about destroying them. Now consider this: By striking Assad, Trump ended up helping ISIS. Complicated enough?

Besides ISIS, there are groups like Al-Nusra Front (15,000 to 20,000 fighters), Jaysh al-Islam (17,000 to 25,000), Ahrar ash-Sham (10,000 to 20,000), Asala wa-al-Tanmiya (13,000), Jaysh al-Fatah (10,000), Sham Legion (4,000) and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (3,000).

In the middle of this jungle is the Free Syrian Army, with 100,000 fighters, which was started by former Syrian officers. Everyone seems to fight them.

Geography further complicates the picture. The country has been heavily splintered. Different groups have different power bases. Of course, the more land you can conquer the more power you have.

In the North is the Kurdish group, which is another story altogether, because Kurds are known to be more moderate. But Turkey hates the Kurds. Just as Iran and Syria are supporting the Assad regime, countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are supporting their own rebel groups.

The point is this: Syria has become a complete, violent mess. When it comes to the most likely winners in this conflict, the choice has become evil versus evil. The good people of Syria who initially rose up against Assad, and the militias they organized, have been slowly crushed.

As much as it may satisfy us to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, it’s important to keep our eye on the whole picture. What can America do? At this point, not much. Six years ago, when the more moderate rebel forces were stronger, we could have given them military assistance and established no-fly zones. Would it have worked? Who knows? There’s no certainty when so many violent forces are at play.

What we do know today is that extremist groups have the upper hand pretty much everywhere and that Russia has established its own military presence. That limits our options. On the humanitarian front, we can certainly help establish safe zones to assist the millions of refugees. We can even order the occasional pinprick attack to show we’re still here and we have our limits, and the use of chemical weapons is one of them.

But let’s be real. There are no good options. The Syrian fire has gotten too big to simply suffocate. Yes, let’s stay vigilant. Let’s make sure things don’t get too out of hand and spill over into other countries (like Israel). But as vexed as I am to say this, when evil fights evil, sometimes the best option is to let them fight it out, and to help ensure no one wins.

As Daniel Pipes writes, “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis; because Kurds, however appealing, are not contenders for control of the whole of Syria; and because Americans have no stomach for another Middle Eastern war.”

Trump can go on about how attacking Assad is a “vital U.S. interest,” but who’s he kidding? Is he ready to invite the head of ISIS to the White House for peace talks?


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

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, left, speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. before departing for Iraq on April 3. Photo by DoD/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Reuters

Jared Kushner in Iraq for update on fight against ISIS


Jared Kushner, the Jewish son-in-law of President Donald Trump and a senior adviser, is in Iraq to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State.

Kushner arrived Monday in the Middle Eastern country with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, according to the Department of Defense.

National Public Radio reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to its reporter early Monday morning that they had arrived.

Dunford invited Kushner and Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert to receive an update on the campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a spokesman for Dunford told reporters. They will be meeting with Iraqi, American and coalition officials.

The spokesman, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, also said that Kushner is “traveling on behalf of the president to express the president’s support and commitment to the government of Iraq and U.S. personnel currently engaged in the campaign” against the Islamic State.

Trump has charged Kushner with making peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and has involved him in other foreign policy issues. Kushner also has been tapped to lead a new White House office that would streamline the government, using ideas borrowed from the business world.

President Donald Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Why Trump shook up the two-state solution


At his press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump uttered words that will live in Mideast infamy— “I’m looking at two-state and one-state. I like the one that both parties like.”

On the surface, those words appear innocuous—let the parties decide their future. But in truth, they represent a diplomatic earthquake. No Western leader has ever had the guts to challenge the conventional wisdom that the two-state solution is the only desirable outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, this two-state idea, which really means the establishment of a Palestinian state, has been the shiny object worshipped by diplomats around the world and repeated like a mindless mantra at one failed peace conference after another.

By disrespecting this shiny object, Trump introduced the idea that the object may, in fact, not be worth all the worship. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, tried to soften Trump’s stance when she expressed U.S. support for the two-state solution, but she pointedly added, “we are thinking out of the box as well.”

Thinking out of the box is what Trump did when he refused to bow down to the two-state idol. What may have looked so beautiful twenty years ago—two states for two peoples living next to each other in perfect harmony—has become, in reality, a potential disaster for all sides. For one thing, the high likelihood that Hamas and ISIS would swoop in and turn the West Bank into another terror state is disastrous not just for Israel, but for the Palestinians and the United States. This is the kind of mud on the idol of a Palestinian state we rarely hear about.

One reason we rarely hear about it is that the notion of a Palestinian state is still as shiny as ever. On the Israeli side, it would mean separating from two million Palestinians and securing its future as a Jewish democracy. And on the Palestinian side, it would mean securing their national aspirations. Those ideals are still in play, but only in the abstract. In reality, even moderate commentators like Aaron David Miller have called the two-state solution “dead.”

It doesn’t matter who you blame for this death. The fact is, the more the world has pursued the two-state solution, the more distant it has become. No conflict in modern history has generated more frequent miles, fancy hotel rooms and media coverage than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former Secretary of State John Kerry made over twenty trips to the region to try to jumpstart talks. He could barely manage to arrange “talks about talks.”

A fresh observer like Donald Trump, with his business background, probably looked at this dead corpse and figured he had little to lose by shaking things up. Since the obsession with the two-state solution seems to have killed the two-state solution itself, maybe he figured: Let’s see what happens if we lose that obsession. A good dealmaker, after all, never shows desperation and keeps his options open.

Ironically, putting an alternative on the table may well improve the odds of a two-state solution, if the parties end up seeing that the alternative is even worse. We’ve never had a serious debate about this, partly because, up until now, that alternative has come from the fringes. Trump has now put it front and center. The New York Times published a remarkable op-ed the other day by Jewish settler leader Yishai Fleisher, who calmly laid out five alternatives to the two-state solution. That sounds to me like a new chapter in a long debate.

A wild card that is sure to influence this debate is Trump’s desire to involve in the peace process Arab states that have grown closer to Israel. Maybe this is Trump’s way of shaking up the Palestinians and telling them they’re no longer the only game in town.

Let’s face it. A huge reason for the death of the two-state solution has been the chronic refusal of the Palestinian leadership to make any concessions or even to make any counter-offers to Israeli proposals– which is consistent with their continuous promotion of Jew-hatred and glorifying of terrorism. They’ve never paid a price for this. If anything, the world has rewarded them. My guess is, they’re now looking at Trump and saying, The party’s over. This guy’s not going to coddle us. He’s going to demand some real concessions, or else.

Will this Trumpian disruption lead to anything good? Will it empower the moderates on all sides and create a perfect storm of circumstances that can bring the two-state corpse back to life?

Who knows. The only thing we know for sure is that when you’re looking at certain death, any alternative is welcome.


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

Amal Clooney (left) and Nadia Murad Basee at the ceremony where Murad was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking. Clooney is Murad’s lawyer. Photo by Janet Mayer / Splash News

A sex slave survivor fights back


Nadia Murad Basee, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman, is sitting in an elegant living room high up on the Wilshire corridor, staring out the window. Her ebony hair hangs to one side of her face, falling over her shoulder like a blanket. As she turns her head, about to speak, her eyes appear glassy, as if on the verge of tears. But her expression is vacant.

More than two years ago, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters invaded Murad’s village of Kocho in northern Iraq and began a siege that devastated her life and decimated the Yazidi population. Murad was barely 20 when she was separated from her family — a mother, eight brothers and three sisters (her father died when she was 10) — and then abducted and sold into sexual slavery.


The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle
for existence, the world does little to help


She remembers the sound of the firing squad that murdered six of her brothers and her mother, and the nightmarish months that followed when she was bought and sold like chattel, beaten and sexually assaulted daily.

“The total number of men that raped me was 12, and I will never forget their faces,” she said during a visit to Los Angeles last November.

And yet, Murad considers herself one of the lucky ones. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred on the spot, and an estimated 3,200 Yazidi women still languish in sexual slavery. Since regaining her freedom, Murad has launched a global campaign to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide and draw attention to the plight of those still in captivity. Over the past year, she has testified before the United Nations alongside her lawyer, Amal Clooney, and was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for human trafficking. Last October, she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, and, for a time, was considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.

But none of those honors has brought her joy; her focus is on rescuing her people and bringing ISIS to justice for its crimes. As she recounts the details of her story through a translator, her trauma is evident.

At times, she stares ahead blankly, avoiding eye contact. And during parts when she is overcome, tears streaming down her face, she barely seems to notice. She is so far away — her heart, her imagination, everything she loved still in Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi population in Iraq.

“My life before Aug. 3 [2014] was only life inside the small village,” she said of Kocho, with a population estimated at 2,000. “I didn’t even know other parts of Iraq.”

Murad grew up in a family of farmers that eked out a modest living tending sheep. They were so poor, her parents couldn’t afford to send her siblings to school, so her brothers wound up serving in the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. By the time Murad came of age, though, their economic situation had improved and she was able to enroll in classes. She recently had completed her 11th year of schooling when ISIS stormed into town.

After Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were protecting the area retreated, Sinjar was left defenseless. According to a report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, most villages in the Sinjar region were completely emptied within 72 hours of the siege, with the exception of Kocho. For nearly two weeks, villagers like Murad and her family huddled together in their homes awaiting rescue, even as they heard rumors of mass executions.

Before ISIS cut off the local cellphone tower, Murad’s family reached out to everyone they knew, begging for help. They could smell the stench of rotting corpses wafting from the countryside. “We told [everyone we could] that they will kill the men and take the women and the children,” Murad recalled. But help never came.

The family considered escaping, but with three pregnant women in the house, it would have been too arduous a journey. The night before the family was captured, they considered taking their own lives. “My brother said, ‘I know they will kill us and they will take the women and children. Perhaps I should kill you and then kill myself because I do not want to see you taken,’ ” Murad said.

The next day, the family was rounded up and sent to the local school, where male and females were separated promptly. Men and boys ages 12 and older were given the choice to convert to Islam or die. Hundreds of Kocho men were subsequently beheaded or shot. Girls ages 9 and older were transferred to holding sites in larger cities, where they were sold as sex slaves. Depending on their youth, virginity and beauty, girls could fetch prices from $200 to $1,500, and were often sold back and forth among ISIS fighter-owners.

When Murad arrived at a holding site in Mosul, the women and girls were instructed to wash. After being abused during transport, many knew there was more to come. “The first place they took us was the shower, the bathroom, and there was blood on the walls,” Murad said. “Women tried to commit suicide.”

Murad testified at the U.N. that the first fighter who tried to buy her was a “huge man, like a monster.” She pleaded with him to let her go. “I cried out — I said, ‘I’m too young, you’re huge!’ But he hit me, kicked me, beat me.”

A smaller man, the first of a dozen captors, bought her, forced her to dress up, wear makeup and then raped her at will. When she tried to escape, he locked her in a room with a number other fighters, who gang raped Murad until she was unconscious.

None of this violence is arbitrary. It is a deliberate, organized system designed to annihilate dignity, hope and prevent future population growth.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will Be happy then.” — Nadia Murad Basee

In describing the way rape is used as a mechanism of genocide, the U.N. report emphasizes the assault on human dignity. “The sexual violence being committed by ISIS against Yazidi women and girls, and the serious physical and mental harm it engenders, is a clear step in the process of destruction of the … group — destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”

The Islamic State’s use of sexual slavery is uniquely insidious because it ensures women are doubly victimized — by their gender and their religion. In the case of the Yazidis, the organized sexual violence occurred on such a massive scale, women and girls as young as 9 years old were subjected to “multiple — sometimes hundreds — of rapes by their various fighter-owners.” The combination of physical and sexual violence with psychological trauma “rises to the level of torture” — a war crime —  according to the U.N. report, and is ultimately designed to prevent future birth of the Yazidi population. When sexual desire is vanquished, so is a group’s future.

The challenge of proving and prosecuting the Yazidi genocide will fall to Clooney, who faces the daunting task of creating precedent for it within the international justice system. At present, the International Criminal Court is the only tribunal that could hold ISIS accountable, but neither Syria nor Iraq are party to the league of nations invested in it. When an attempt to issue a special referral was made by the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed it.

“This is a clear case of genocide, and genocide that’s gone completely unaddressed and ignored,” Clooney told NBC last fall. “I can’t imagine anything worse being done by one human to another.”

During her visit to Los Angeles, Murad met with members of the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID, which currently is providing disaster relief and psychosocial support to Yazidi survivors in Greece, Iraq and Germany, where Murad is based, along with other refugees of the Syrian war.

“The typical response we get from Syrian refugees is that they’re shocked to see Israelis and Jews working with them, and it takes a while to build trust,” Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAID said. “But with the Yazidis, it was the opposite. They came to us and said, ‘We want to work with the Jews.’ ”

According to Polizer, the Yazidi advocacy organization Yazda reached out to the Israelis because they wanted to learn how to document their genocide as efficiently as Jews documented the Holocaust. “They came to us and said, ‘We need mentorship. We want to learn from the Jewish experience how you were able to rebuild your communities after the Holocaust, rebuild your peoplehood, and build strong advocacy around the world.’ ”

Over the past year, IsraAID has worked with Yazda to help train Yazidis to collect survivor testimonies. “We’re helping them build their own Yad Vashem,” Polizer said.

While much of the world remains indifferent to Yazidi suffering, Polizer said the Jews have a responsibility to help. “There’s a very special connection between Yazidis and Jews,” he said. “We’re both religious minorities in the Middle East; we’ve both suffered from a lot of atrocities throughout history, and according to the Yazidis, [when there were still] Jews in Iraq, they had a strong connection to the Jewish community there. They are big fans of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, which is kind of unique in that neighborhood. There’s a feeling of shared destiny.”

And yet, Polizer lamented, “I don’t feel like we’re doing enough. With all that’s happening in the Middle East, the Syrian crisis, and with everything going on in the U.S., the Yazidis have been suffering from the worst persecution you can imagine and they’ve been sort of left behind.”

Murad was fortunate enough to escape her captors, but her people remain trapped by an intractable conflict. To counteract the international community’s silence, Murad is determined to broadcast her story in forums around the globe. The more she speaks out, the more ISIS threatens her life. The stakes are impossibly high. “I don’t know if Yazidis will continue to exist as a people or not,” she said.

Worn down by so much sorrow and loss, Murad is a young woman who seems old already. Her skin is marked by the acceleration of time that comes with too much tragedy too soon.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will be happy then,” she said defiantly.

But the terrible truth of the matter is that for now, “the path to accountability remains blocked,” according to the U.N. report. “The genocide of the Yazidis is on-going.”

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

A young Yazidi girl rests at the Iraq-Syrian border. Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle for existence, the world does little to help


It was well before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014, when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) streamed out of the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, heading east. By daybreak, the Kurdish forces protecting the region’s civilian population had melted away. They fled with few warnings to the villagers, most of them Yazidis, members of an ancient and oft-persecuted religious minority.

The hundreds of settlements dotting the region, known together as Sinjar, are the locus of the global Yazidi population, which counts about 1 million souls worldwide. Across the arid expanse, the ISIS fighters who overran it seemed to follow the same script: Men and women were separated. Prepubescent boys were kidnapped for indoctrination as ISIS fighters. Women and their young children were sequestered into sexual slavery. And the men — those older than  12 — were forced to convert or else murdered, either shot in the head, sprayed from behind with bullets or beheaded as their families watched.

The picture painted in United Nations reports is dim. Within days, 5,000 were dead and about half a million displaced from their homes. One report, in June 2016, called the genocide “on-going,” estimating that 3,200 Yazidi women are still held as sex slaves by ISIS — bought, sold and raped by some of the same men who murdered their husbands and fathers. The bulk of Yazidis in Iraq who remain free stay in squalid refugee camps where basic needs are met barely or not all, while an untold number have embarked on the journey west, over perilous seas to the uncertain promise of refuge in Europe or the United States.

What’s worse is that the genocide of this tiny religious group didn’t take its victims by surprise. “We had a sense that it’s going to happen,” one Yazidi activist in Houston, Haider Elias, told the Journal.

In fact, ISIS has been remarkably forward about its genocidal intentions. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [ransom] payment,” explained an article in Dabiq, a glossy ISIS propaganda magazine. “Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists] say cannot be enslaved.”

A group of Islamic law students reviewed the Yazidi question, Dabiq reported, and ruled that unlike Jews and Christians, who are monotheists, Yazidis are pagans to be exterminated in preparation for Judgment Day. (In fact, Yazidis are monotheists whose Mesopotamian creed predates Islam by thousands of years.)

The Obama administration helped break a siege that stranded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar shortly after the Aug. 3 massacres, but it was a brief show of American airpower. The United States has done little else to ameliorate the situation; the West can claim neither ignorance nor impotence.

A handful of Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and at least one, IsraAID, has even offered on-the-ground assistance (see sidebar). But with the global population of forcibly displaced people topping 65 million, most of civil society is tuned to the larger picture. A network of Yazidis in the U.S. seeks its aid and protection for their coreligionists, but their numbers are few.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

 

Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days, according to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.  The order makes an exemption for religious minorities, but at present, the procedures for exercising that exemption are unclear. At press time, the order had been blocked by the courts and was awaiting appeal, but the constitutionality of a religious exemption appeared murky in the first place. Meanwhile, the president has promised “safe zones” in Syria but the majority of Yazidis in the Middle East are in Iraq.

The persistence of genocide into the second decade of the 21st century makes a cruel joke of “never again,” just as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia did in the second half of the 20th century. More than two years after the Yazidi genocide began, the question remains: Shouldn’t we do something about it?

‘Nobody helped’

Salem Daoud is Mir of the Yazidis in the United States, the community’s chief religious functionary, serving alongside a council of elders. He speaks a halting English that would be difficult to fully comprehend even if he weren’t describing some of the most trying days of his life. So his son, Seif, who goes by Sam in the U.S., and Rabbi Pamela Frydman, an activist in Los Angeles, joined him on a recent conference call from Glendale, Ariz., to make sure he was understood.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

In such a tiny community, no family is unaffected by an event on the scale of the genocide. Salem’s sister and brother-in-law were kidnapped and then rescued six months later; they’ve never been quite the same since, Salem said. It’s hard to know what to ask a person who sat, more or less helplessly half a world away, while his relatives and countrymen were slaughtered and enslaved.

When Salem’s phone began to ring in early August 2014, there was little he could do to help the man on the other end, a local leader in Sinjar by the name of Ahmed Jaso.

“Till the last minute, till before they killed him, he was calling my dad, like, every, I would say, hour,” Sam said on the phone. “And he’s saying, ‘Do something for us, to save us from their hands.’ ”

Jaso was in a village called Kocho, where ISIS troops were lining up the villagers in groups of 60 or 100 and demanding payment to spare the locals’ lives. When the ransom was not forthcoming, they killed residents in a hail of gunfire, Jaso told Salem. Sam explained that his father has many contacts, people who might have been able to help, “whether here in the U.S., in Iraq, Russia, to people in Germany” — even people close to the White House. “Everybody put their hands on their eyes and their ears,” Sam said.

“[Jaso] would call, ‘[ISIS] said they just killed a hundred, so we need support to save the rest. … They killed another hundred, they need money.’ ” he said. “But nobody wanted to pay.”

“We give the information to a lot of people,” Salem added in his imperfect English. “Just nobody helped. No government, and nobody.”

The village of some 1,800 people was cleared out — the men slaughtered, the young boys kidnapped, the women enslaved.

“Very hard time, that was,” the Mir said. The last time he called Jaso back, the local leader was awaiting his turn at the death squad. “The last time, I hoped I’d be one of these people with them,” Salem said.

The activist

Frydman — known more commonly as Rabbi Pam — is a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Northern California, having moved here in May. There, she started the San Francisco congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community 25 years ago and spent a decade as a social justice activist and educator.

One January morning, Frydman sat down in front of her laptop at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Pico Boulevard. In front of her, a manila folder contained a manuscript of a book about the Holocaust she’s writing that she put on hold two years earlier, when she first learned about the genocide of Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. She finally was finding time to get back to work on the book. Asked to describe how she became active in the struggle for Yazidi survival, she scribbled an impromptu timeline on the back of the manila folder.

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

In November 2014, Frydman saw an email from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California about an event at a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area. “It said, ‘Act before it’s too late,’ ” she recalled. At the gathering, she saw footage of Yazidis being marched up to the heights of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped.

“We heard about children who were dehydrated because there just wasn’t enough water,” she said. She heard a story about a woman being driven up the mountain by ISIS forces and struggling to carry both of her children — one of many such stories to emerge from these forced marches. When this particular woman grew too exhausted to hold both children, she put one of them down.

“As soon as she put that child down, the child was slaughtered, was killed, and I said to myself, ‘This is a death march! This is what our people went through in the Holocaust!’ ” Frydman said, her voice wavering. “The fire was in my belly and my heart was shattered, and I felt that I had to do something. And I returned to my home and I started to contact Jewish and interfaith colleagues, and I said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ”

Soon, she organized a program called Save Us From Genocide, a consciousness-raising campaign for the plight of the Yazidis and Assyrians, hosted by four Bay Area interreligious councils in concert with the United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith network. A project of Save Us From Genocide administered by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called Beyond Genocide, hopes to gain attention and relief specifically for atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis.

In addition to helping finance university scholarships for Yazidis studying outside Iraq, Beyond Genocide assists in Yazidi migration and resettlement. On that last score, Frydman could describe her efforts only in vague details, out of abundant caution against putting Yazidis in danger.

Asked how much Beyond Genocide had raised for resettlement, she responded, “A very small amount. But with this very small amount, we have performed miracles.”

‘My brother’

Frydman’s resettlement and advocacy work runs primarily through tight-knit networks of American Yazidis such as the one operated by Saeed Hussein Bakr, whom she calls “my brother.” Bakr arrived in the U.S. about five years ago and found his way to Phoenix, where currently he works as a cook for a local Panda Express. As the disaster in Sinjar unfolded, groups quickly sprang up among American Yazidis to help those fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, managed by people like Bakr.

“Yazidis are not a big community,” he said. “So, almost, we all know each other.”

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Headquartered in places such as Lincoln, Neb., the largest American Yazidi population center, these networks raise money when possible, though the community is in large part newly arrived and not a wealthy one. More often, they deploy contacts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East to help Yazidi migrants who find themselves in trouble.

Bakr’s group, Yazidi Rescue, will alert Coast Guard officials in Greece, for example, when a boatload of Yazidi refugees is abandoned or waterlogged in the Mediterranean or Aegean sea. In other cases, they’ll help Yazidi women escape from slavery or help refugees who are imprisoned abroad. There are no rules or standard operating procedures for this type of operation, only dire phone calls to anybody who might be able to do something, whether civilians or government officials.

“Some nights, I can say we help 1,000 people in one night,” Bakr said.

Bakr first became involved after one of his sons, Layth, on his way to the U.S., got on a boat headed to Greece from Turkey. His boat capsized, and some of the refugees on board with him drowned. “That’s why I work to help those people,” Bakr said.

Remarkably, though, his son’s near-death experience in the Aegean Sea was not the most harrowing episode for Bakr. That would be earlier, in August 2014, when Bakr’s son and other relatives were turned out of their homes and driven up Mount Sinjar.

“For seven days, they were in the mountains, no power, no communications. We don’t know at any time if ISIS, they captured them,” he said. “It was horrible days. Those seven days, they were the worst seven days in my life.”

An ancient people long oppressed

The Yazidis are an ancient people, born in the cradle of civilization. Consecrated to one God, they survived through the ages. In each generation, the yoke of oppression found them, and they cried out for deliverance — except sometimes their savior was a long time in coming.

Sound familiar?

“In each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us,” Jews recite each Passover. It would be equally true on the lips of a Yazidi.

The parallels between Jews and Yazidis become uncanny at a point. Both are ethnically distinct religions dating to the birth of monotheism. Both have been singled out by Muslim rulers for persecution based on their strange and foreign faith, slandered as perversions of Islam.

But somewhere along the ages, the historical arcs of the two people diverge. Whereas the history of Jewish genocide ends after the Holocaust, Yazidis have had no such luck.

Since the 15th century, Yazidis count 74 farmans against them — literally, decrees, calls by rulers for their destruction that inevitably result in mass slaughter. They’ve faced genocide at the hands of Kurds, Turks and Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslims backed by the Ottoman Empire. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of persecutors.


More: A sex slave survivor fights back


Invariably, Yazidi customs and belief are offered as the reason for their oppression. The religion has no central texts that have survived the ages, but its folklore is vivid and distinct from any other faith. Adherents claim to descend not from Abraham but from Adam. Their legend has it that Adam and Eve, as a sort of competition, each placed their seed in a jar. When Eve’s jar was opened, it held an unpleasant stew of filth and insects. Adam’s contained a beautiful baby boy, ibn Jar, literally the son of Jar, who became the ancestor of the Yazidi people.

Ironically, it is their guardian angel that has earned them the fanatical ire of radical Islamists. Yazidis regard as sacred Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, a fallen angel who refused to bow to Adam when God requested he do so, and who consequently gained dominion over the fates and follies of man. This origin story bears a similarity with that of the Islamic legend of Iblis, the archdevil in Muslim theology. The resemblance between the tales has historically motivated the slander of Yazidis as devil worshippers, a kind of Middle Eastern blood libel that continues to claim the lives of its subjects.

“They have made Iblis — who is the biggest taghut [idolator] — the symbolic head of enlightenment and piety!” the article in the ISIS magazine Dabiq exclaims. “What arrogant kufr [infidels] can be greater than this?”

One irony to emerge from this account is that peacocks don’t exist in the region where Yazidi civilization arose. If the community of nations is not watchful, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a Middle East with no more Yazidis, either.

‘Never again requires a lot of energy’

Google searches for “Yazidis” saw a massive spike in early August 2014 and then returned, but for a few small flutters, to a flatline. But things never went back to normal for Haider Elias, a Yazidi activist in Houston who is the president of Yazda, an advocacy, aid and relief organization.

That’s not the role he’d imagined for himself before ISIS began to wreak catastrophe. A former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who immigrated in 2010, Elias was raising three children and studying biology as an undergraduate in the hopes of attending medical school. When his brother was murdered in Iraq and the rest of his family displaced from their homes, he dropped his medical school dreams to dedicate himself to advocacy.

Haider Elias

Haider Elias

Elias and his peers at Yazda run a gamut of programs aimed at helping those displaced by the genocide. They’ve presented on the catastrophe in more than 10 states, including California, and in Europe. In Iraq, the group offers psychological and psychosocial therapy to help reintegrate women who have escaped or been rescued from ISIS. On top of all that, Yazda runs documentation projects to record video testimonies about the genocide and document mass graves.

Elias is still a full-time student at the University of Houston, though he’s switched majors to psychology at the recommendation of some American friends. A social science degree would better suit him for advocacy work, they told him. His days are long and busy, but he’s motivated by the knowledge that his people still face imminent danger.

“Many people want to come back [home] but they’re afraid that the security forces again are going to fail and run away, and this time it’s going to be more fatal, more catastrophic,” Elias said.

And so Yazda now is advocating for international protection for Yazidis, without which resettling Sinjar is unfeasible. “Without some form or guarantee of protection, this community is terrified,” he said.

Elias admits to still being angry. He’s angry with ISIS, naturally, and with the world for standing idly by; but more specifically, he’s angry with the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, for abandoning their posts before the Islamists’ murderous advance.

“It’s not a battle and they lost — they ran away,” he said. “They did not tell the population. When you lose many lives and you think you lost the battle, the first thing you do, you inform the population. The second thing, you run away.” To hear Elias and other Yazidis tell it, the Peshmerga didn’t quite bother with the first.

Though most Yazidis are behind Kurdish lines for the moment, their situation remains precarious and their advocates few. Elias made note of a chilling silence in Congress, broken only on occasion by legislators who represent Yazidi population centers, including two Republicans, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“We need a campaign in 2017 to help the Yazidis, whether to advocate for international protection or accepting Yazidi refugees in the U.S. or sending more humanitarian aid to the areas,” Elias said.

Responding to the genocide, Yazda took up “never again” as a rallying cry. But Elias is not naïve about the prospects of his people.

“Never again requires a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of work,” he said.

‘Save us!’

The Yazidi call for aid is neither subtle nor nuanced. Even before the genocide, theirs was a struggle for existence. There is no conversion into the community, and a child with even one non-Yazidi parent is considered to be outside the faith. The massacres and enslavement of Yazidis compound an already dire population problem.

“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, told the legislature on Aug. 5, 2014, in a tearful plea that briefly went viral on the internet. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!”

Before she could finish the next sentence, she collapsed, weeping.

The Yazidis interviewed for this story made clear they are open to any help they can get — military, political, financial and otherwise. Currently, Frydman and her colleagues are advocating for a real immigration pipeline to allow Yazidis to come to the U.S. notwithstanding the Trump administration’s refugee policy.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. From left: Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein and Hussein Saeed Hussein, and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein (right) and Hussein Saeed Hussein (left), and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

 

The Trump order, before a federal judge blocked the bulk of it on Feb. 3, in theory allowed Yazidi immigration to continue largely unimpeded. In practice, though, the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates refugee admission, has told Yazidi refugees their immigration has been canceled until further notice, Reuters reported. A faith-based exemption raises constitutional questions and its legality is a matter for the courts to decide.

But not all displaced Yazidis want to leave Iraq, anyway. Many simply want to resume their lives in the villages where they were born and escaped death, according to Salem Daoud, the Yazidi Mir. Much of that territory is still held by ISIS.

For now, the totality of a people’s homeland lives in limbo and its diaspora finds only limited means to help them. Often, prayer is the only recourse. Frydman recalled a joint prayer group near Phoenix with Yazidis, Jews and Universal Sufis. After the prayers were over, a Yazidi elder approached her and showed her a tiny book in a plastic pouch. Peering through her bifocals, she discovered it to be the Book of Psalms. A Jewish friend had given it to the elder, he told her, shortly before immigrating to Israel after the declaration of the Jewish state. “He said the prayers in this book will protect me,” the elder told Frydman.

The themes reflected in the Book of Psalms, as it happens, are more topical now for the Yazidi people than they ever have been in recent memory. As it says in Psalm 7:

O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge; deliver me from all my pursuers and save me, lest, like a lion, they tear me apart, rending me in pieces, and no one to save me.

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

Photo by Rob Eshman

Trump’s anti-American immigration ban


The most astonishing moment for me at last Sunday’s protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees came when I was standing by the arrivals area at Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.

Suddenly a cheer cut through the din of chants.  A mob of photographers pushed past me to take pictures of someone walking up the exit ramp. This being LA, I was sure George Clooney had just arrived.

I elbowed my way through the crowd, and saw the source of all the excitement.  It was a stout old Muslim woman. Her head and much of her face was wrapped in a thick black hijab.  She was schlepping up the ramp, alone.

A swarm of cameras flashed in her eyes.  The crowd chanted, “Salaam aleikum!  Saleaam aleikum!”   There was applause and whistling and clapping.

The excitement bewildered her.  The photos I snapped show something close to panic in her eyes. A middle-aged Jewish woman I recognized burst through the mob and practically jumped on the older lady, stroked at her arms and said, “Salaam Aleikum ShukranSalaam Aleikum Shukran!

I couldn’t imagine what she made of the mob, the noise, the strange woman who blurted “Hello thank you! Hello thank you!”

Her family rushed to greet her. The old woman gave a get me the hell out of here look, and they spirited her away.

That’s Donald Trump for you, I thought.   The Executive Order Trump signed was so ill-conceived, slapdash, illegal, pandering, and un-American, only he could turn an innocent Muslim bubbie into an unwitting Rosa Parks.

There is something funny about the unsuspecting grandmother turned hero, or it would be funny if the actual consequences of the Muslim ban weren’t so devastating to people, to our democracy and to the actual fight against Islamic extremism that it was purportedly designed to help.

By now we have all read the stories of citizens and green card holders deprived of their rights, of chaos and confusion, of ISIS’s using the ban for recruitment, of cooperative Muslim countries being insulted, of the hypocrisy of leaving out countries that breed actual radical Muslim terrorists, like, say, America, and of the fact that countries  in which Trump does business are excluded from the ban.

In this week’s Jewish Journal, you can read even more stories of Jewish refugees whose American success stories grew from their ability to enter the United States when their lives depended on it.  They fled Nazi Germany (like the grandparents of Jared Kushner). Or they fled  Eastern Europe (like the ancestors of young Stephen Miller, who helped write the ban), or they escaped Iran.  Because politicians and people spoke up loudly to shout down the voices of xenophobia and ignorance, America opened her doors to them.

But this time, the xenophobes are in charge.

Their apologists point out that the executive orders call for only a  temporary ban at best, though a full ban on people fleeing Syria.  The masses that gathered at LA and airports around the country know better.  They get that the Syrian refugees are the German Jews of 1930, or the Persian Jews of 1979, or the Eastern European Jews fleeing the Czar or the USSR.  The hijab is the streimmel. The beard is the payes. What was foreign and threatening to Americans then is just as scary to them now.

That’s why, in frightening times, our safest bet is to rely on our deepest values.  The crowd at LAX understood that, even if their president does not.

That’s why the most common message people held up on their protest protest posters were the words written in 1883 by a 34 year-old Jewish woman in New York, Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those posters were heartwarming, but they were my second- favorite posters I saw at the rally.

My favorite?   It was held up by a quiet young woman inside the terminal.  It read: “INVEST IN SHARPIE STOCK BECAUSE WE’RE NOT STOPPING.”

img_4107

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Why I’m for vetting, but against Trump’s ban


I wanted to take the time to lay out clearly why I dislike Trump’s executive order on immigration. I think there’s been too much of people (including me) getting angry about it without explaining why. You can’t have a debate that revolves around anger, it has to be about ideas and facts.

I want to start by saying that I support vetting people coming to the US. I particularly support vetting people who want to become permanent residents here. That’s both logical, and moral. I have no argument against that.

The reason Trump’s order troubles me is two-fold. The first part that troubles me is that it’s focused on the wrong places. Trump chose to ban entry from seven countries that certainly have major terrorist activity, however they’re not the countries that have posed the most threat to America. Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria certainly have their problems, but the sad truth is that American allies like Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have produced far more terrorists over the years. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in American history, was a mostly Saudi Arabian affair.

Lets look at the attacks since 2010 and see the origin or familial background of the attackers:

2010 Times Square Bombing
– Faisal Shahzad (Pakistan)

2010 Arlington Bomb Plot
– Farooque Ahmed (Pakistan)

2010 Virginia Military Shootings
– Yonathan Melaku (Ethiopia)

2010 Portland Car Bomb Plot
– Mohamed Mohamud (Somalia)

2013 Boston Bombings
– Tzarnaev Brothers (Chechnya)

2014 Seattle/NJ Shootings
– Ali Muhammad Brown (African-American Convert to Islam)

2014 Vaughn Foods Beaheading Incident
– Alton Nolen (American Convert to Islam)

2014 NYPD Killings
– Ismaaiyl Brinsley (African American Muslim)

2015 Islamic Art Contest Shooting in Texas
– Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi (American Convert & Pakistani Descent)

2015 Chattanooga Shootings
– Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez (Kuwait)

2015 UC Merced Stabbings
– Faisal Mohammad (Pakistani Descent)

2015 San Bernardino Shooting
– Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik (Pakistan)

2016 Columbus Melee
– Mohamed Barry (Somalia)

2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting
– Omar Mateen (Afghan Descent)

2016 Roanoke Stabbings
– Wasil Farooqi (American-born Muslim of unknown origin)

2016 Minnesota Mall Stabbings
– Dahir A. Adan (Somalia)

2016 NY/NJ Bombings
– Ahmad Khan Rahami (Afghan)

2016 Ohio State Attack
– Abdul Razak Ali Artan (Somalia)

Looking at that list, it would seem like Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan would be the three countries of origin of most concern, however only Somalia is on Trump’s list.

In fact, Somalia is the only country on Trump’s list that had US terrorists that hailed from it in this decade. The other countries had ZERO. Countries like Kuwait, Chechnya, and Ethiopia have produced terrorists that attacked the US, but they’re also not on the list.

This is the first reason I dislike Trump’s ban. It’s poorly targeted. It’s not even hitting the places that have hit us the hardest. That’s either foolish, or willfully stupid.

I’ve heard some people comment that the seven countries were chosen because their governments are either in shambles, or state sponsors of terror. That doesn’t explain why Afghanistan isn’t on the list — its government is no more well-organized than Iraq’s. It also doesn’t explain the absence of Pakistan, whose government has repeatedly been shown to have been infiltrated by extremist elements, even in their security service, the ISI. It also doesn’t explain why Palestinians using PA-issued passports, or temporary Jordanian passports aren’t banned. Any Israeli would tell you that a ban that doesn’t target those passports is not a good one.

The second reason I dislike Trump’s executive order is because it’s incredibly heavy-handed. In an attempt to not actually make it a “Muslim ban” in word, he made it a clumsy Muslim ban in practice. By banning all visa holders from those seven countries from entering the US, Trump managed to hurt Persian Jews, Yazidi Christians, Kurds, and Sudanese Christians, none of whom are, or have ever been a threat to the US. Rather than exempting them from the ban, Trump made it a blanket ban to avoid a court ruling the ban was illegal because it specifically targeted Muslims. We needed a surgeon, we got a butcher.

When you combine those fundamental weaknesses of the executive order with the fact that it was poorly rolled-out, rushed, and that the details of it were vague and not double-checked with the agencies who were supposed to enforce it, it’s an abject failure.

The central premise of the ban is also questionable. Will it make America safer? That’s not terribly clear. It most certainly will make Americans traveling abroad less safe. They’ll be even bigger targets now. ISIS is already using it as a recruitment tool. But will it even make us safer at home? Most of our Muslim terrorists in the past decade have been American citizens, who wouldn’t have been affected by the ban. The ban also likely increases the chances that one of the 3.3 million Muslims already in America will become radicalized, or that a non-Muslim who converts will become radicalized. Does that make us safer?

Vetting is important. Security is important. No one disagrees with that, but it needs to be done well. It needs to be done intelligently. This ban is neither intelligent, nor well implemented, and in that respect, it’s a clear failure.

Even if you support a blanket ban, you should be asking Trump to add Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Chechnya and Turkey to the list. If he doesn’t, you know he actually doesn’t care.


Jonathan Maseng’s work has appeared in LA Weekly, The Press Enterprise, The Jewish Journal, and the Jerusalem Post Magazine. He also writes regularly about the New York Mets for SB Nation’s Amazin’ Avenue.

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.

The enduring spirit of the Sotloffs


The first time Shirley and Art Sotloff played for me the recording in which their son,

Israeli intelligence agencies see downside in Mosul advance


Israel’s intelligence agencies are closely monitoring the advance on the ISIS bastion in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and they are not optimistic about the outcome either for Iraq or themselves.

A report issued Sunday by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), a security think tank, predicts a long siege and sectarian bloodbath in Mosul and an increased likelihood of ISIS attacks on Israel and its vulnerable neighbor Jordan.

“This fear on Israel’s part is based on an assessment that conditions exist in Jordan that can turn significant portions of the population into Islamic State supporters,” said Shlomo Brom, formerly the director of the Israeli army’s strategic planning division. “The uniqueness of the Islamic State phenomenon lies in the fact that it expanded beyond the borders of one Arab state, both in its ideology and its operations.”

Citing ISIS activity in Kirkuk, al-Rumba and Sinjar, the ITIC report says that “terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare can be expected to continue in other arenas to divert attention and resources from the campaign for Mosul and to raise the morale of ISIS’s supporters in Iraq and Syria and beyond.”

Israel’s connection to the Mosul area traces back to the British Mandate period before the proclamation of the state, when a pipeline ran from the oil fields in Kirkuk through Jordan to the port of Haifa. The assumption is that ITIC reports are based on human, signal and open source intelligence. 

Israel has long maintained a policy of providing covert military assistance to Kurdish groups, and in the past decade extended increased humanitarian aid to the both Kurds and Yazidi Christians in northern Iraq. 

The updated ITIC assessment for Mosul concludes that the conquest will take months with ISIS resisting the advance by using hit-and-run tactics to compensate for the larger forces assembled against them.

Like Hamas in Gaza, ISIS has dug a substantial network of tunnels to stage surprise attacks and abduct invaders while they blend into the civilian population, who they use as human shields.

The report raises doubt about the ability of a heterogeneous coalition carrying out the attack on Mosul to effectively conduct itself “the morning after” conquest of the city.

Sunday, as Shiite militiamen said they were sending some 15,000 fighters to join the battle, the ITIC warned religious factionalism will complicate the “liberation” of Mosul. 

“Overcoming the massive tangle of religious-sectarian rivalries between the city’s Sunni residents and the Shiite Iraqi regime is likely to impede rebuilding of the city, managing daily life for its large population and the establishment of a functioning local services,” the report says.

Israel’s army has tended to downplay the threat of ISIS military activity in Syrian parts of the Golan Heights and in the Egyptian Sinai since they are largely directed at Cairo and Damascus instead of Tel Aviv. 

But the country’s intelligence agencies are more sensitive to the ISIS threat. Over the past two years, ISIS has made its influence felt in Gaza and the West Bank and successfully recruited several dozen Israeli Arabs.

Just as the assault on Mosul began, Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, announced the arrest of an Arab-Israeli couple who had joined ISIS. In the indictment brought before a court in Haifa last week, the agency charged 41-year-old Wissam and 30-year-old Sabarin Zabidat on felony counts of illegal travel to an enemy state and enlisting in ISIS.

Court papers include interrogation transcripts from Wissam Zabidat who said he underwent military training and indoctrination with ISIS in Iraq.

According to the service, Wissam participated in “operational activity in the framework of guarding Daesh [ISIS] installations close to the combat zone and participated in raids on Iraqi Army positions.”

During one such raid, he was wounded in the foot and was evacuated to an ISIS hospital in Mosul. Following the injury, Sabarin took to social media to contact her family in Israel and arrange for ransom funds to escape the caliphate.

“It should be emphasized that the phenomena of Israelis leaving for Syria and Iraq is grave and dangerous,” said a Shin Ben spokesman.

Despite gains against ISIS, Libya faces misfortunes


This story originally appeared at themedialine.org.

Even as Libya is tossed as a political football during United States presidential candidates’ debates, ground-level complications are increasing in Benghazi and beyond despite recent blows to ISIS and a tentative return to oil exports. 

In Ganfouda, a southwestern suburb of Benghazi, the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, asserts it is clearing out the last stronghold of al-Qaida-affiliated militants, while the United Nations cautions against harming innocent civilians in the neighborhood.

“We support the fight against terrorist organizations as identified by relevant Security Council resolutions,” said Martin Kobler, the U.N. Secretary General’s Libya envoy, “but such a fight should be conducted in line with international law.”

An Amnesty International field report said Ganfouda is devastated by the fighting — with food, water and electricity supplies cut off. Residents told Amnesty International researchers their children have become emaciated after months of a blockade by the LNA.

Haftar’s proposed evacuation plan defines women, children and the elderly as the only civilians remaining in Ganfouda and designates all males in the neighborhood as “fighters” who must be surrendered.

“There might be Turkish, Qatari, Berber and African ‘families’ in there,” said Ahmed Al-Masmari, a LNA spokesman. “And they are terrorists.”

In addition to pounding Ganfouda, Haftar’s forces have captured oil facilities along the coast and even made a push for the eastern fringes of Sirte, birthplace of former leader Muammar Gadhafi and, until recently, the main ISIS beachhead in Libya.

After Haftar’s deployment was initially condemned by Western nations in September, his ability to secure the facilities and agreement to transfer proceeds to the country’s central bank has resulted in a 100 percent rise in exports, according to National Oil Co. chairman Mustafa Sanalla.

The “Solid Structure” militia, aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), is now vying with the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army over which force will take credit for the final blow against ISIS in Sirte.

“Solid Structure has split the Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists’ last enclave in Sirte’s Third District this weekend and now surround the 600-block area in the center,” militia spokesman Ali Almabrouk said.

The Haftar-affiliated Libyan Forces’ Press Service says it killed 80 Islamic State jihadists in the city of Sirte this week as its troops closed in from the coastal road to Benghazi.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are militarily backing Haftar while providing political support to the Tobruk-based elected parliament in eastern Libya, which they see as a counterweight to an Islamist orientation inside the U.N.-supported GNA. 

“Haftar’s seizure of the oil ports was a strategic response to the GNA’s gains against Islamic State,” said Ziad Akl, a researcher at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

As the two main factions struggle for dominance on land, more than five European navies have imposed a sea cordon off Libya’s coast with the aim of stopping the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who have benefited from the lack of effective border controls. The International Migrants Organization says the effort has rescued more than 12,000 Africans from dangerous boats on the Mediterranean this year.

European Union member states Austria and Hungary have proposed paying Libya to establish “migrant cities” to prevent their arrival on the continent. 

“The crisis in our country makes these proposals unrealistic,” said Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala, alleging that handling hundreds of thousands of African asylum-seekers is beyond the capacity of his government.

 Siala points to the reality in Libya’s capital city. Lawlessness and a breakdown in public services mark daily life in Tripoli, with residents suffering from nine-hour power outages while witnessing an escalation of politically motivated kidnappings and factional turf wars between militias.

“Clashes in Tripoli are a clear sign that GNA’s interim security arrangements have failed to deliver and militias continue to rule here,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya analyst for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Harri Center. 

Six months after a highly publicized return to the capital, the GNA now holds its deliberations in Tunis with members of its executive body citing logistical issues and security considerations as obstacles to meeting in any Libyan city. At a recent meeting of the nine-man Presidential Council, its leader Fayez al-Sarraj acknowledged that the GNA’s ability to project power is compromised by its failure to operate in Tripoli.

“The current political standing will not accept the GNA’s presence abroad any further,” Sarraj said.

The GNA leader’s assessment is underscored by a report issued by the World Bank, where officials are still looking at how to structure a loan to rebuild Libyan civil society.

“The Libyan economy is near collapse as political stalemate and civil conflict prevent it from fully exploiting its sole natural resource: oil,” warned the global lender. “The country needs humanitarian aid and specific programs to address the destruction and lack of basic services that a large part of the population faces.”

Zahi Mogherbi, a retired Benghazi University political science professor, agrees with the grim description of Libya’s turmoil but says foreign diplomats and international agencies are worsening the problem by trying to impose solutions. 

‘‘There are differences in priorities between what Libyans want and what the international community wants,” Mogherbi said. “They [outside players] prioritize fighting ISIS and illegal migration rather than issues such as general insecurity, kidnapping, high crime and the militia control over Libyan society.”

Belgian government official who called Israel ‘identical twin’ of ISIS resigns


A Belgian official who compared Israel to Nazi Germany and the Islamic State is no longer employed as a minister’s adviser on tolerance.

Youssef Kobo, the adviser on diversity for the minister in charge of equal opportunity in the regional government of Brussels, offered to resign after finding he could no longer fulfill his duties, a ministry spokesperson told the HLN news website on Monday.

Last month, Kobo apologized for his vitriol against Israel, which he said was a modern Nazi Germany and “an identical twin” of the Islamic State terrorist group.

The Muslim official said he was “young and stupid” when he wrote the Facebook posts in 2014, which Kobo said he “regrets,” the La Capitale daily reported. The newspaper had contacted Kobo, 28, following criticism by the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism.

However, in recent days the Belgian media discovered earlier tweets in which Kobo proposed to slaughter activists working to prevent the ritual slaughter of animals.

“What if we compromise on slaughtering Gaia-activists instead of sheep?” he wrote, later dismissing the post as an inappropriate joke. Gaia is the mythological spirit of Earth.

Kobo had referenced the Islamic State in posting a caricature of Israel cutting the throat of the Gaza Strip, where Israel in the summer of 2014 carried out strikes against the Hamas terrorist group. Kobo said of a video of Israeli troops: “21st century Nazis.”

He told La Capitale that he was “very emotional” following the strikes in Gaza, which followed rocket fire by Hamas on Israel.

Kobo works for a minister in the government of one of the three autonomous regions that make up the federal kingdom of Belgium.

Bart de Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, which is the capital of Belgium’s Flemish Region, in July told the Joods Actueel Jewish monthly he finds Kobo’s appointment “troubling” also because Kobo, according to de Wever, recently published a tweet about the shooting of police officers in the United States in which he wrote “a shot for a shot.”

De Wever said it means Kobo justifies the shootings as retribution for perceived police brutality, especially against blacks.

Joel Rubinfeld, the president of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, said Kobo’s statements make him unfit to advise on tolerance and especially on anti-Semitism.

“He can’t be both fireman and fire starter,” Rubinfeld told La Capitale.

Rubinfeld noted that Israel is connected to the phenomenon often called “new anti-Semitism,” in which anti-Israel sentiment becomes a veil for anti-Semitism. In France, Belgium and the Netherlands, most anti-Semitic assaults are by people with a Muslim background, watchdogs in those countries have said.

Echoing the position of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Rubinfeld said “Anti-Zionism is but modern anti-Semitism, where hatred for the Jewish state substitutes hatred of the Jew.”

Trump calls Obama, Clinton Islamic State ‘co-founders’


Republican Donald Trump called President Barack Obama and Democrat Hillary Clinton the “co-founders” of Islamic State, ratcheting up his assertion that they are responsible for the rise of the militant group and sparking renewed criticism of his leadership ability.

Clinton's White House campaign on Thursday called the remarks a “false claim,” in her latest response to a series of attacks by Trump in which he has sought to portray America as less safe, blame Democrats and depict himself as the only one who can restore security.

Democrats, in turn, have used Trump's often hyperbolic statements ahead of the Nov. 8 election to argue he is unfit to be president and lacks the temperament to be trusted with matters of national security.

“This is another example of Donald Trump trash-talking the United States,” senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

“What's remarkable about Trump's comments is that once again, he's echoing the talking points of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and our adversaries to attack American leaders and American interests, while failing to offer any serious plans to confront terrorism or make this country more secure,” Sullivan said.

For Republicans uncertain about whether Trump has the discipline to stick to an attack against Clinton, the latest comments were concerning. Many see the New York real estate mogul as spending too much time fighting within his own party and have called on him to refocus his campaign message on Clinton. 

“ISIS is a solid GOP message to show contrast with Hillary Clinton and the failures of the Obama-Clinton administration,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist who remains undecided about the nominee, using acronyms for Islamic State and the Republican Party. 

But, she added, “Trump should have simply said that the Obama administration's decision to pull all troops out of Iraq, with no stay-behind agreement, created a vacuum and allowed ISIS to metastasize. It's absurd for him to say that Obama and Clinton are founders of ISIS – and he can't blame the media for this.”

A group of about 70 Republicans, including five former members of Congress, called on the Republican National Committee to stop helping Trump in the wake of his recent remarks and instead focus on getting members of Congress re-elected.

“Trump's divisive and dangerous actions are not only a threat to our other candidates, but to our party and the nation,” the letter stated.

Some Republicans see a small silver lining in Trump talking more about Clinton.

“It is helpful – at least to the rest of the ticket – that he is focusing a little more on Clinton than on other Republicans, whether defeated primary opponents or other elected officials who are on the ballot, for a change,” said former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen, who is not supporting Trump. 

“But tomorrow, or later today, he could blame (Republican Senator) Jeff Flake for A-Rod's retirement,” Cullen said, referring to Yankees player Alexander Rodriguez's decision to leave professional baseball. “I have zero confidence in Trump's ability to stay on one message or to drive one message for any length of time longer than about 10 seconds.” 

CRITICISM OF IRAQ WAR

Trump has previously criticized Clinton for supporting the Iraq War in 2003 while she was a U.S. senator. Trump frequently says, in contrasting himself with Clinton, that he opposed the war – but in interviews before the invasion he did voice support.

Now, Trump is arguing that in trying to end the war and withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011, Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, and Obama created Islamic State. 

Republicans frequently trace the birth of Islamic State to the Obama administration's decision to withdraw the last U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. 

But many analysts argue its roots lie in the decision of George W. Bush's Republican administration to invade Iraq in 2003 without a plan to fill the vacuum created by Saddam Hussein's ouster. It was Bush's administration, not Obama's, that negotiated the 2009 agreement that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

Clinton posted on social media website Twitter that Trump's comments are disqualifying.

“Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our commander-in-chief,” she wrote.

The White House declined to comment on Trump's claim.

Appearing in Miami Beach, Florida, on Thursday morning, Trump repeated his attack for the third time, saying the U.S. government “has unleashed ISIS.” 

“In fact, I think we'll give Hillary Clinton … most valuable player,” Trump said. “ISIS will hand her the most valuable player award. Her only competition is President Barack Obama.” 

Trump first made the assertion in a speech on Wednesday night in Florida, saying, “I call them co-founders” of Islamic State. 

In an interview on Thursday morning, Trump defended the remarks.

“Is there something wrong with saying that?” Trump told CNBC. “Why – are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS? All I do is tell the truth, I'm a truth teller.”

Trump was also asked by radio host Hugh Hewitt if he “meant that (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”

“No,” Trump responded. “I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do.” 

The Democratic National Committee lambasted Trump's remarks. “Donald Trump should apologize for his outrageous, unhinged and patently false suggestions on the founding of ISIS,” the DNC said in a statement. “This is yet another out of control statement by a candidate who is unraveling before our very eyes.” 

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani defended Trump on CNN, saying his remarks were “legitimate political commentary.”

Axe attack in Germany demands ‘early warning system,’ say Jewish leaders


German Jewish leaders warned that all German institutions, not just Jewish ones, should take extra precautions against terrorism in the wake of an ISIS-inspired axe attack on a train in Wurzburg.

“(We) are just as concerned about such attacks as are non-Jews here,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told JTA following the Monday night attack, which left five people injured, including four members of one family visiting from Hong Kong. Two of them are in serious condition. The perpetrator, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee, was shot dead by police.

The gruesome attack shows that an “early warning system” and cooperation from Muslim groups in Germany are urgently needed to root out Islamic extremism, Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Jewish Community in Bavaria and Munich, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Such terrorism “points to the urgent need to focus on integration” of refugees from Muslim lands, said Schuster, who lives in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg. More than one million people from war-torn countries — mostly Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq — have sought asylum in Germany in the past year.

ISIS on Tuesday identified the perpetrator as Muhammad Riyad. Riyad, who reportedly had shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) before launching the attack, also had sent out a video claiming his allegiance to ISIS and his anger with Western coalition attacks on the Islamist group’s strongholds.

Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, said there was particular concern about “more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors” among the new refugees “whose lives are uprooted” and who have expectations of life in the West that may not be fulfilled.

“They are highly susceptible to the easy answers of radical Islamist ideology, which empowers them to be a hero instead of an underdog,” Berger said. “As we see in this most recent act of terrorism, it is not just the Jewish community that needs to be vigilant against future acts of terror.”

Though this attack might highlight fears about radical Islamists slipping in with genuine refugees, “It’s not OK to blame or fear all refugees because of the act of one,” said Schuster, who has backed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s safe haven policy while urging vigilance.

ISIS logo featured on threatening note to Jewish sports club vandalized in Argentina


A Jewish sports club in Argentina was the victim of a threat that included the Islamic State logo.

A threatening note with the logo was attached to a plastic bottle filled with cement that was thrown through a window of the Maccabi Jewish Community Center and sports club in Santa Fe City, the capital of the Santa Fe province.

The note read “This is a warning, the next one will explode” and “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.

“This is the first time the ISIS flag has been used in an attack in Argentina,” Ariel Gelblum, a representative of the Wiesenthal Center in Latin America, told JTA. “The influence of ISIS is growing in Latin America and this could be a consequence of the spread of ISIS hate messages.”

The National Institute Against Discrimination expressed “deep concern” about the attack “written in Spanish and in Arabic with a motto used by fundamentalist groups,” according to a statement issue by its Santa Fe office.

The Santa Fe representative of the Argentine Jewish political umbrella DAIA, Horacio Roitman, met with police and security authorities to strengthen surveillance of the institution and to put in place preventive measures. Roitman denounced the attack in interviews with local and national media.

The JCC said on social media that its activities will continue as usual. Maccabi is celebrating this month its 60th year, as well as the 30th year of its headquarters in Santa Fe City.

Argentina was hit by deadly bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish center in 1994. Iran, through the Hezbollah terrorist group, has been accused of plotting the attacks, though no one has been brought to justice.

The late special prosecutor Alberto Nisman charged that the Argentine government was involved in covering up Iran’s role in the AMIA bombing. He was found shot to death in January 2015 in his Buenos Aires apartment; the official cause of death has yet to be determined.

In March, the murder of a Jewish businessman in Uruguay by a gunman who yelled “Allahu Akbar” was seen as marking the arrival of Islamist terrorism from the Middle East to South America.

 

ISIS fighters more vulnerable than its ideology


Turkish officials have confirmed 41 deaths, including 13 foreigners, and 239 wounded, in an attack by three suicide bombers at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport Tuesday night.

Two assailants, one armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, were shot by officers when they approached the entrance security checkpoint in the arrivals section of the international terminal. A third bomber blew himself up in an adjacent parking lot in the airport.

“It’s very clear that there was careful surveillance beforehand and this was carefully planned,” Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Silk Road Studies Program, told The Media Line. “So I think these three [attackers] were part of a larger network.”

Flights were grounded until early Wednesday morning. Turkey is in its tourism high season now, and Atatürk is Europe’s third busiest airport.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said the bombers reached the airport by taxi, and that they’re suspected to be with the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been linked to six other major attacks in Turkish cities over the past year. Last month the group threatened more global attacks during the current Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“This is classic ISIS,” said Jenkins.

Turkish citizens affiliated with the group targeted Kurdish and leftist civilians in two large suicide bombings last year that killed over 130. The aim was probably to hurt ISIS’s primary enemy in Syria, the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has strong links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

This year, Jenkins says, ISIS changed its strategy in order to hurt Turkey. It targeted foreign tourists in Istanbul in January and March, contributing to the country’s worst tourism decline in 17 years, and bombed a police station in Gaziantep in May.

Tuesday’s attack was the group’s first time indiscriminately targeting non-political Turks.

Selim Koru, a researcher at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), says that ISIS aims to hurt Turkey’s economy and cause general unrest.

“If someone wanted to hurt Turkey’s economy and didn’t care about upsetting the international community while doing it, Atatürk airport would be a prime target,” Koru wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line.

The airport has more security than most in the west, with x-ray and metal detector checkpoints at the entrances as well as before the gates.

“I think the security forces acted bravely,” said Aaron Stein, senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I don’t know what else you can do if you’re Turkey,” in terms of security.

“The problem with terrorism is that there’s a million soft targets, and no state has the resources to protect every single one,” Stein told The Media Line.

He says Turkey is particularly vulnerable to attack.

“The barriers to carrying out an attack in Turkey are far lower than they are in Europe, because nobody has to board a plane.”

Stein says the government’s response against this attack will be much of what they’ve already been doing, namely artillery strikes into ISIS’s territory along the Turkish border in Syria, and perhaps joining coalition airstrikes.

“Their position in northern Syria is just so limited,” he says, since the government is very unlikely to move in with ground troops and supports weak and divided rebels.

Koru says security and intelligence services will continue to strike ISIS’s robust presence in Turkey.

“We know that ISIS has been much larger on the radars of Turkish security agencies for some time now, and I’m guessing that this attack will push them to devote more resources against the group.”

On May 19, high-ranking ISIS member Yunus Durmaz blew himself up during a Turkish police raid in Gaziantep, and his brother Haci Ali Durmaz was captured.

But Jenkins says that despite the state’s crackdown against ISIS’s operations that started early last year, it should also fight against the ideology that inspires some Turkish citizens to support the group.

“We’re still not seeing sufficient attention to trying to counter the ideas that ISIS puts forward,” such as de-radicalization programs, he says.

“Whereas we may see some setbacks for ISIS as an organization, I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the threat posed by the ideology of ISIS.”

Koru says the Turkish government and ISIS have a complicated relationship.

“It’s very clear in ISIS media and ideology that Turkey is an enemy, as bad or worse than the ‘crusader’ states of the West. But ISIS shares a border with Turkey and has a clandestine network in the country, so ISIS and Turkey have leverage over each other.”

Koru says ISIS almost never claims its attacks in Turkey, in contrast to other countries, because it may not want to antagonize the government and cause it to clamp down even more on the group.

The hate narrative and Muslims in America


On the sixth night of Ramadan, June 11, I broke my fast at a synagogue during a Havdalah-Shavuot celebration. Around 10:30 p.m., at almost the same time that Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., I called an Uber to get from the Westwood synagogue to my apartment in midtown Los Angeles. The driver took an unusual route. “I’m not going through West Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t want to see all that gay parade stuff.” He was a white, middle-aged, Christian man. A beaded cross dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked me where I was from. I said I was Pakistani. “You don’t look like them,” he laughed and added, “That’s a compliment.”

Let us be frank about what it is. The two most acceptable forms of discrimination in America today are discrimination against gays and Muslims. It is politically, socially, legally acceptable to be a bigot with regard to practicing Muslims and a person’s sexual orientation. In the past six months alone, countless politicians backed by the Christian right have pushed for hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills through state governments. These include bills like North Carolina’s sweeping HB2, which denies even basic legal protections to gay and transgender people. 

At the same time, Muslims in the United States have to tolerate the racist ravings of presidential candidates and television anchors. The word “terrorist” is now reserved exclusively for Muslims, a dubious indignity that the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world must accept as theirs alone. The political causations behind the rise of ISIS are no longer debated, but every time a madman pledges allegiance to it, the rest of the Muslim world is immediately answerable for his motivations. 

There are more than 3 million Muslims in America, and some of them, like some Orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians, do not support gay rights. The route to acceptance has been a morbidly slow evolution across all major world religions, made worse by the lack of political and legal institutions to contradict widely held religious beliefs. 

The four major schools of Islam are in utter disagreement on homosexuality and challenge one another on the legal premise of punishment, if any. Islamic literature has been rife with homoeroticism over the ages, and in modern narratives, progress is being made as global acceptance increases. It is also true that the state of gay rights is most abysmal in seven Muslim majority countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death. In yet others, including Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan, homosexuality is legal and LGBTQ rights are improving. 

But is homophobia in Islam relevant to the case of Omar Mateen, a non-devout, possibly gay Muslim man with unproven links to any fundamentalist organization?

Yes and no. It should not be completely ignored that Mateen’s violent motivations might have found their root in his parents’ religion, or that he declared allegiance to multiple (albeit contradictory) terrorist organizations in a last-minute 911 call. Having said this, that cannot be the primary or even secondary point of focus.

Religious leaders at the Islamic Center of Southern California speak about solidarity in the wake of the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Amal Khan

Once more, much of the conversation in America disowns what is inconvenient to include in its political and cultural narratives this election year. Mateen was a gay-hating, gun-touting Muslim terrorist with Afghan parents, according to the media narrative. But what Mateen was, was a mentally unstable American terrorist with legal access to assault rifles.  

The only thing that separates Omar Mateen from Adam Lanza, from Aaron Alexis, from James Holmes, Timothy McVeigh, Christopher Harper-Mercer or Dylann Roof is his name. That this point needs to be raised in 2016 America is a humiliating measure of the state of racism in this country. On Saturday night, it was Omar Mateen, born to Afghan parents, who killed 49 people. On the morning of June 12, James Howell, born to white parents and from Indiana, was arrested with a cache of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition in Santa Monica on his way to the West Hollywood gay pride parade.

The fact is that homophobia, like hate, is not a Muslim problem. It is a global problem. Legal and immediate access to automatic assault weapons, however, is solely an American problem.

So, no, America should not get to choose who it owns. America should not get to embrace the Muhammad Alis as its own, but reject the Omar Mateens as somebody else’s. It should not get to turn a debate about its own gun laws, its intelligence failures and its homegrown homophobia into a hate-filled, racist narrative about immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, which is exactly what political opportunists like Donald Trump are now doing.

On June 13, one day after the murders in Orlando, the Islamic Center of Southern California was a champion of common sense and solidarity. In the settling chill of dusk, an interfaith vigil welcomed speakers from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Sikh clergies, gay and straight, who denounced violence, oppression and the war of religions in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Arik Greenberg, founder of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, identified himself as a secular Jew. He expressed concern over a systematically instilled anti-Islamism, likening America today to the climate of hostility in Nazi Germany, when ordinary Germans were brainwashed into believing that there was not a single decent Jew who lived among them. “I see this tactic used by many American leaders, making people believe that if they scratch the surface of any Muslim, they’ll find a terrorist underneath,” he said. 

For over an hour, people in headscarves or kippahs, tattooed women and priests, police officers, gays, lesbians, Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and Christians spoke of a common human dignity. “To the wicked opportunists,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “you are on the side of ISIS because you believe in a war of religions and getting cheap political votes through fear and violence.”

With an array of rainbow flags fluttering behind them, the gathering was solemn. Stephen Rohde, chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), ended the vigil by saying, “It is a matter of our survival as a nation, as a widely decent and good people to stand here together.” 

And stand they did, long after the day’s Ramadan fast broke, and the sun set. When people finally dispersed, it was in the silent spirit of hope, holding white candles and reflecting upon the true diversity of America’s greatness.

Israeli leaders, US Jewish groups mourn Orlando shooting


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his condolences to the American people in the wake of the mass shooting attack by an ISIS supporter at a gay club in Orlando.

“We are all shocked at the horrific massacre in Orlando. On behalf of the government and people of Israel, I would like to again express our condolences to the American people and the families at this especially difficult hour. This terror threatens the entire world and it is necessary – first of all – that the enlightened countries urgently unite to fight it. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the American people,” Netanyahu said Monday morning at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama to express his condolences following the attack in Orlando.

“Once again we feel the pain of terrible loss as we see the blood spilled of young and innocent people. There is no comfort for those who have had their loved ones torn away from them,” Rivlin wrote.

“This attack against the LGBT community in Orlando is as cowardly as it is abhorrent. The Israeli people stand shoulder to shoulder with our American brothers and sisters in the moral and just fight against all forms of violence and hatred. On behalf of all of Israel, I send my condolences to the families of the victims, and prayers for a speedy recovery of the injured.”

At least 50 people are dead after Omar Mateen, 29, an American-born citizen living in Fort Pierce, Fla., whose parents are from Afghanistan, entered the Pulse nightclub armed with an assault rifle and a handgun after 2 a.m. on Sunday and opened fire.  Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State shortly after the start of the attack.

Jewish groups condemned the attack.

An attack on a prominent Orlando gay club at the start of Pride Month on a night that celebrated the Latino community has all the markers of both an unconscionable hate crime and an act of terrorism on a scale we have not before witnessed in America,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.

“This heinous attack on a nightclub serving the LGBTQ community is yet another reminder of the serious threat posed by the Islamic State terrorist group, which has inspired attacks against Jews in Belgium, journalists in France, civilians in San Bernardino and now LGBTQ men and women in America.”

Greenblatt cautioned that “Americans should not blame all Muslims for the actions of one individual. Whether citizens like the individual suspected of committing this act or war-torn refugees seeking safety, we must remember that we do not define people by their faith. We are deeply concerned that this attack could lead to a backlash against American Muslims. We urge all Americans to not fight hatred with hatred, but rather to come together around our common values of decency and respect.”

B’nai B’rith International said in a statement that it is “shocked” by the attack, adding that:  “The sheer number of dead (at least 50) and wounded (at least 53) defies comprehension.” The group said it “stands in solidarity with the LGBT community.”

On behalf of the Israeli-American community, we condemn this act of terrorism in the strongest terms. Whether terrorism strikes in Brussels, Paris, Tel Aviv, or Orlando – responsible leaders, policymakers, and moral people everywhere have a duty to speak out forcefully against this global evil, and to stand against the hateful ideology that fuels it. This is a growing danger that threatens innocents everywhere.

The Israeli-American Council said in a statement: “On behalf of the Israeli-American community, we condemn this act of terrorism in the strongest terms. Whether terrorism strikes in Brussels, Paris, Tel Aviv, or Orlando – responsible leaders, policymakers, and moral people everywhere have a duty to speak out forcefully against this global evil, and to stand against the hateful ideology that fuels it. This is a growing danger that threatens innocents everywhere.”

The National Council of Jewish Women condemned the mass shooting in a statement released Sunday evening.  “We are all wounded by the fear engendered by gun attacks on civilians and by the menace of prejudice that too often endangers individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer and threatens members of the Latino community,” the group’s statement said.

“NCJW is guided by Jewish values, including the Talmudic teaching that for ‘one who takes one life it is as though that person has destroyed the universe, and an individual who saves one life is as though that person has saved the universe.’ We must all renew our efforts to stop the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

French Jews outraged by ISIS sympathizer’s killing of cop couple near Paris


French Jews voiced outrage over the killing of two police officers, a husband and wife, at their home near Paris by an avowed fighter for the Islamic State group.

Francis Kalifat, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, on Tuesday tweeted, “This barbarism must stop.” He also expressed solidarity with the family and security forces.

Jean-Baptiste Salvaing and Jessica Schneider were killed Wednesday evening in front of their 3-year-old son. The assailant, Larossi Abballa, live-streamed the horror on Facebook.

Abballa, 25, stabbed Salvaing nine times as the officer was entering his home in Magnanville. Abballa, who shortly before the stabbings said on Facebook he was a fighter for Islamic State, shouted “Allah is the greatest” in Arabic before the fatal attack, the French news agency AFP reported.

The assailant, who lived near the couple, entered the officers’ home and killed Schneider. Abballa then took the couple’s son hostage. Police freed the son and killed Abballa.

During the standoff, Abballa posted on Facebook a 13-minute live feed and photographed the bodies of the couple and their child while pledging allegiance to Islamic State commander Abu Bakr al Bagdadi. The video has since been pulled offline.

“I would like to express all forms of solidarity with the National Police and with the victims,” Kalifat wrote. “This barbarism must stop.”

French security forces have been watching Abballa for several months in connection to his ties to a Syrian branch of the Islamic State group, Radio J reported.

The A’maq news agency, which is affiliated with Islamic State, published on Tuesday details about Salvaing — namely his position as deputy head of a police station — which were not reported in French media at the time. French President Francois Hollande described the stabbing as “unquestionably a terrorist act.”

In a statement, CRIF linked the attack to the bloodbath in Orlando, in which an Islamist killed 49 people earlySunday morning, and the murder of four Israelis in Tel Aviv on June 8 by Palestinian terrorists.

“Days after the attacks in Tel Aviv and Orlando, this attack demonstrates yet again that the fight against Islamic terrorism is a global affair,” CRIF wrote in a statement.

Moche Lewin, the executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis, expressed “solidarity” with French police in a post on his Twitter account.

Many French Jews regard attacks by Islamists and others on police and military as closely related to their own safety.

The Islamist who in 2012 murdered four Jews at a school in Toulouse gunned down three soldiers before he targeted the Jewish institution. The jihadist who murdered four people at a kosher shop in January 2015 also killed a police officer the previous day.

Following those attacks, approximately 12,000 military and police were posted outside Jewish institutions, where they are sometimes attacked. CRIF and other groups often stage gestures expressing their gratitude to security forces at community events, and regularly condemn attacks on them in the harshest terms.

Phone tap led police to Belgian ISIS cell, court hears


A series of bugged, coded communications over two months led Belgian police to storm a suspected Islamic State cell in the town of Verviers last year, thwarting an alleged plot, a Brussels court heard on Monday.

One unidentified conspirator used the cover name “Fatty”; another in the plot which Belgian authorities have said intended to target police officers, went by the handle “Big Lanky”.

Among seven accused present on the first day of a terrorism trial that began in Brussels under heavy security seven weeks after suicide bombers killed 32 people in the capital was Marouan El Bali. He survived the gunfight in January 2015 when police shot dead two armed men who had returned from fighting with IS in Syria.

In summarizing the case against the 16 accused, nine of whom are still at large, the judge offered details of how security services had used telephone taps to help combat a potential threat from more than 300 Belgians who have fought in Syria.

In a tapped call in November 2014 an unidentified man told another who was on a police watchlist: “I've got everything.”

Six months after a first Islamist attack in Belgium, when a Frenchman shot dead four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum, that was enough to set off an intensive monitoring operation. It led to the Verviers raid, a week after Islamist attacks on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery had shocked Europe.

The judge said investigators had heard cryptic messages, some from Turkey and Greece, to various alleged members of the Belgian cell, including those named Fatty and Big Lanky.

Among those involved was Abdelhamid Abaaoud from Brussels, who fought with Islamic State in Syria and is believed to have been an organizer of several attacks in Europe, including those in Paris last Nov. 13. Abaaoud was killed in a gunbattle with French police five days after militants killed 130 people.

Criticized by some for failing to prevent the March 22 IS suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city's metro, Belgian leaders have highlighted the operation at Verviers, a rundown industrial town near German border, as a major success.

As well as the two dead gunmen, both from Brussels' Arab immigrant community, police found assault rifles, bomb-making material and items of Belgian police uniform. Abaaoud later boasted online that he had eluded capture and returned to Syria.

El Bali, who was found in the safehouse, has protested his innocence. His lawyer told reporters outside the court on Monday that he had merely been visiting a childhood friend.

He is accused of being a leader in a terrorist group, attempted murder, making and keeping of bombs and planning an attack on a non-specified building, his lawyer said. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Islamic radicalization fuels ‘dire’ threat to Jews in Europe, congressional panel hears


A congressional human rights commission heard testimony from experts on how Islamic radicalization in Europe has ramped up risk for Jewish communities.

“ISIS especially hates the Jewish people and has instructed its followers to prioritize killing them,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said Tuesday, launching the hearing he called in the wake of recent attacks in Europe, and referring to the Islamic State terrorist group behind some of the recent major attacks in Europe.

John Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney general who now leads a Rutgers University initiative to assess how to protect communities vulnerable to terrorism, said terrorist attacks were threatening the viability of Jewish Europe.

“The situation on the ground has become dire, the challenge to the Jewish communities has become nothing less than existential,” he said. “Many stalwart [Jewish] leaders have become ambivalent about remaining in Europe at all.”

Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Communities Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America, described a continuum of anti-Semitic violence over the last 20 years from attacks originating in right-wing extremism to those carried out by militant Islamists.

“In the span of two decades, we’ve moved from swastikas on buildings, the desecration of graveyards and simple assaults as well as long-standing institutionalized anti-Semitism to brutal violence, commando-style shooting attacks and even suicide bombings on the streets of Europe by battlefield-trained terrorist cells and organizations,” he said.

The experts, answering questions from Democrats and Republicans on the panel, identified the failure of European law enforcement agencies to fully coordinate and engage with Muslim communities as factors hindering bids to prevent attacks.

Farmer said he and Goldenberg would travel to Copenhagen and Brussels soon to meet with authorities and “explore concrete ways in which we might assist the Jewish and other vulnerable communities and law enforcement in working together to enhance public safety.”

Farmer also recommended that European law enforcement agencies emulate the FBI and more robustly engage with Muslim communities to enlist assistance in identifying radicals.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the top official dealing with anti-Semitism at the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the reluctance of European authorities to identify anti-Semitism imported from the Middle East as being as toxic as indigenous ultranationalist anti-Semitism was also frustrating treatment of the violence.

“It has eroded the day-to-day sense of comfort and security for many European Jews,” said Baker, who is also the American Jewish Committee director of international affairs.

Jonathan Biermann, a former adviser to the Belgian government on anti-Semitism and intolerance, among other issues, counseled the adoption of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “see something, say something” initiative, which promotes awareness of terrorism warning signs among civilians.

“The collaboration with law enforcement agencies has to be based on trust and confidence, in respect of international laws and rules protecting individual freedom, civil liberties and privacy,” Biermann said.

Helsinki commissions are parliamentary bodies affiliated with the OSCE that monitor human rights.

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