President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In Israel, Trump reinforces the Wall


Let the record show: On May 23, 2017, the president of the United States updated his Twitter header to display a photograph of himself standing at the Western Wall. Not saluting an American flag, not kissing a Latino baby or speaking at a Midwest rally or shaking a veteran’s hand, but communing with Judaism’s holiest site.

I have nothing cynical to say about it. For a man whose self-worth is in direct proportion to the size of his Twitter following (30.2 million), and who likely checks his feed more often than his briefing papers (OK, that was a little cynical), this means something.

The most powerful person in the world is demonstrating the power of that place. President Donald Trump is linking the sovereignty of the Western Wall to the State of Israel, despite the demurrals and hedging of his advisers and representatives. Tel Aviv may be one of the most dynamic, creative and delicious cities on earth, but only a fool, or the former head of a large oil company, would say, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, that it is the “home of Judaism.”

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be solved sooner rather than later in a just way for both sides, is not going to be solved by ignoring or minimizing the narratives each side claims as its own.

In their justified desire for a homeland, Palestinians have sought to deny the primacy of Jerusalem in the Jewish narrative. This week, one prominent Palestinian activist wrote that the holiness of the Western Wall is a post-1967 development, not an age-old tradition. When I read that I laughed and looked up at my study wall, at a photo taken in the late 1800s of Jewish men and women packed up against the ancient stones, in prayer.

In defense of their rights to Jerusalem, many Jews have negated the Muslim claim on the city. There seems to be an online cottage industry in this, in fact. Don’t fall for it. Do your own research. Jerusalem is a holy place in Islam — that big gold-domed mosque atop the Temple Mount might be your first clue.

Jerusalem has been wracked by a long history of dumping on other people’s history. And I mean this literally. To assert their own primacy over the holy city, the Byzantine rulers turned the Jew’s Temple Mount into the city dump. In the “Encyclopedia of Religion,” professor Reuven Firestone relates the legend that it was the Muslim caliph Umar who, after vanquishing the Christians, ascended to the desecrated area, rolled up the sleeves of his robe and began cleaning up the soiled Muslim and Jewish holy place himself.

The caliph then built the Dome of the Rock, not as a mosque, Firestone writes, “but rather as a monument celebrating the presence and success of a new faith.”

We are just about a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when the Israelis ascended to the Dome, captured East Jerusalem and united the city.

That moment when Israeli soldiers gathered where Trump stood this week, and wept and prayed that the Wall was back in Jewish hands, remains the iconic image of the war, the Jewish Iwo Jima. The emotion, the sacrifice, the sense of historical and religious destiny has affixed in Jewish minds the idea that from that moment on, all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Har HaBayit b’yadenu,” Lt. Gen. Motta Gur proclaimed as his troops captured the Old City, the most famous single sentence of that war. “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

But the irony of Trump’s visit is that if the president gets his way, the grip will have to be loosened. For years, Jews and the groups that pander to them have proclaimed intractable sovereignty over every square inch of the city. “Jerusalem will never be divided,” has been the go-to applause line for every Jewish or Israeli speaker — despite the reality that the city even now is pretty much divided.

The truth is every serious final status solution ever put forth by an Israeli prime minister, and any agreement that would ever be agreed to by the Palestinians, would include some shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. What’s the alternative — constant fighting? You can’t pray for the peace of Jerusalem and want to see it, like Aleppo or Damascus, reduced to pieces.

I don’t know how serious Trump is about making what he calls “the ultimate deal.” He has a short attention span, a disdain for details and a lot of ’splaining to do back in Washington. But this week, he leveraged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to crack open negotiations, demonstrated the kind of support for the Israelis they need to feel secure, and showed the proper respect to the Palestinians.

A dear friend and die hard Israeli leftist  I know e-mailed me as Trump departed for the Vatican.

“The bastard gave a fantastic speech that was even given compliments by Barak Ravid from Ha’aretz,” he wrote, citing the left-leaning columnist. “He’s going about this whole Middle East thing in a completely opposite manner than Obama, and it may be that he is hitting the spot. Oy vey….”

If Trump continues on this path, and doesn’t shy away from confronting each side with the truths the other holds dear, the president might just have a prayer.


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 touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Hopeful rhetoric, vague vision for peace after Trump’s Middle East visit


President Donald Trump has come and gone from his trip to the Middle East, his first foreign excursion since taking office earlier this year. He arrived — first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, then Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Israel — with strong words about Iran as the neighborhood bully and, like so many American presidents before him, buoyant words for the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Optimistic words. Hopeful words. They all conveyed a vision and new possibility for peace in the region, a prospect “I’ve heard,” he said, that is “one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling we will get there eventually, I hope.”

Good for Trump. A new American president. A new chance for a solution. A new team to get it done.

But where were the new ideas Israeli leaders are so certain he has? What is the new approach? How does he propose to untangle the thorny issues on the ground — boundaries, settlers, Jerusalem, etc. — that have left so many presidents before him bloody with failure?

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians was a topic of much discussion when Trump visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was front and center, but not necessarily the first item on the agenda. In his speech to the Arab world in Riyadh days before, in his unscripted photo-op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his later remarks in the prime minister’s house, Trump was more focused on Iran as the source of menace in the region. He and Netanyahu suggested that there are new opportunities in the region. Countries must unite against a common threat — Iran. That’s an opening that can be explored.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chat as White House senior advisor Jared Kushner is seen in between them. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Courtesy of Government Press Office

Michael Oren, historian, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and currently Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, said he believes that this new reality is a conduit of a “tremendous” shift. If once it was assumed that a peace with the Palestinians could lead to reconciliation of Israel with the rest of the Arab world — the situations is now reversed: A peace with the Arab world could lead to a deal with the Palestinians. If the Saudis come on board, if other Gulf states come on board, if the Arab world realizes that fighting against Israel makes no sense in this era of radicalism, the Palestinians might realize that the train of peace is leaving the station and that they’d better hurry so they don’t miss it.

Maybe this is what Israeli leaders mean when they constantly talk about “new ideas.” Trump is a devotee of “new” ideas, “bold” ideas, “different” ideas. For Israel, to resist his push for a deal would be a mistake. But it might be able to convince him that his predecessors failed because of their conventional thinking — and that he, a man bold enough, ought to reformulate the meaning of the ultimate deal. The “two-state solution” is old, tired — and it is so Clinton and Obama. Trump could make his mark by thinking outside of the box, that is, by dropping old ideas and replacing them with new ideas.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sang the praises of new ideas after his meeting with Trump: “Our destiny — Palestinians and Jews — is to live together in this land,” he said. “In order to achieve this, we need new ideas, new energy that will help us move forward, together.”

But move where? Rivlin has his new ideas; he supports one state, or a confederation of Israelis and Palestinians. Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party and the leader most forthright in attempting to directly tell Trump what needs to be done (“We expect you to be the first president to recognize a united Jerusalem,” he said, to which Trump responded, “That’s an idea!”), has different new ideas. He supports an autonomy for Palestinians and annexation of the rest. Other leaders also have new ideas, including the oldest “new” idea of sticking to an improved status quo.

Does Trump have new ideas? If he does, we were still waiting to hear what they are as he departed for Europe. It was worth noting that Trump refrained from using the term “two-state solution” during his visit. It is possible that he is more open than his predecessors to considering alternative ideas, assuming he has them. In Saudi Arabia, in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, he kept hinting that his deal is partially built on the goodwill of the conservative Arab regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Former President Bill Clinton failed to get them on board at Camp David. He was disappointed by their refusal to help him push the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, toward accepting the deal that was offered to him. Trump and some of his top advisers believe circumstances have changed in a way that could make such a push more realistic today.

His brief trip was barely a beginning of a long process of exploration of these assumptions and ideas. Although it sent a symbolic message of involvement and new energy, it did little to advance a detailed vision of a peace process. And of course, involvement is crucial, as both Arab and Israeli leaders made clear in their remarks, taking a swipe at the Barack Obama administration.

“We are happy to see that America is back,” said Rivlin, usually not the type to bash the former president. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, was more direct: “I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”

President Donald Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The new American president ought to know that there is no correlation between the number of visits to the Middle East and the level of success in handling Middle East affairs. Yes, Trump made “history” — a word used much too often to describe routine events — in going to Israel and Saudi Arabia earlier in his term than any other president. He made “history” again by being the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall. So what? Nixon made history by being the first president to travel to Israel. Shortly afterward, he was forced out of office. Clinton made history by coming to Israel more than all other presidents, four times. It did not guarantee his success.

The only presidential visit that really made a change was Jimmy Carter’s in 1979. That was a dramatic visit, with ups, downs and crises. It was a make-or-break visit: Carter traveled to Egypt, then to Israel, and forced the hand of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to accept the peace deal that was proposed to him. A few years ago, Israel’s state archives released documents from that visit, including a cable that was sent from Zvi Rafiah, Israel’s then-liaison to the U.S. Congress. Carter briefed congressional leaders when he was back in Washington, D.C., and Rafiah reported to his superiors in Jerusalem that during this meeting, Carter described his meeting with the Israeli cabinet as “terrible.”

“Terrible” and “horrible” are two of Trump’s favorite words. So maybe he will also describe parts of his visit as terrible. Maybe he did not appreciate the food, or the heat, or the forced selfie with Knesset Member Oren Hazan. But as far as we know, by the end of his visit on May 23, nothing truly “terrible” happened. Everybody was nice to him. Everybody agreed with him. Everybody encouraged him to keep doing what he is doing, whatever that is.

A time for confrontation might still come, when a more detailed plan emerges, and a real price is demanded of the parties. Already, Israel and the Palestinians got a taste of the future. Israel watched reluctantly, yet silently, as the Saudis bought weapons in quantities that might put Israel’s military edge at risk. The Palestinians witnessed an American president visiting the Kotel. They heard an American president, not for the first time, raise the issue of terrorism as an obstacle they need to overcome to achieve their objectives. They heard him say “peace” but not “a Palestinian state.”

And so. There was a visit and it went smoothly. For Trump, that is certainly an achievement. Everybody was trying to convince everybody that the visit was successful and that Trump is exactly what they expected him to be.

But there was reason for caution. On the evening of May 22, about an hour before Trump and Netanyahu made their joint statement in Jerusalem, I was sitting in a radio studio in the city of Modi’in. The interviewee on the line was Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi, an Arab legislator, an articulate critic of Israel’s policies, and a frequent visitor at the offices of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

He was cautious. Very cautious. Wisely cautious. Tibi has hopes, but he isn’t letting them get too high. He knows Trump changes his mind, he said. He knows it is not yet clear what Trump wants, beyond the generalities of having a “deal” and brokering “peace.” He knows Trump won’t always have the patience necessary to see a bumpy peace process through. And so Tibi’s message was simple: I’ll believe him about his Israeli-Palestinian peace effort when I see it.

When I asked Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s communications minister, about Trump reportedly walking back on his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hanegbi didn’t even blink before explaining that a visit to the Western Wall is much more important than moving the embassy. And when Tibi was asked if he was annoyed by Trump’s visit to the Kotel, Tibi didn’t even blink before explaining that it was an insignificant event that reinforced the fact that the U.S. does not recognize the site as Israeli.

Despite what did and didn’t happen, give Trump credit for this: He was polite, almost gaffe free and vague enough to keep the valuable posture of a Rorschach test: for now, all interpretation of his actions and intentions are still in the eye of the beholder.

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Democrats and Republicans flip on Western Wall


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to answer whether Jerusalem’s Western Wall or Kotel is part of Israel when asked by Pool reporters on Monday morning before arriving in Tel Aviv for his first ever visit. The top US diplomat followed the same approach to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who also declined to clarify if he believes that the holy Jewish site is under legal Israeli sovereignty when pressed by White House reporters. On Capitol Hill, Members of Congress switched their traditional roles on this sensitive issue when responding to the Trump administration’s policies as the city of Jerusalem continued to play a key role during President Donald Trump visit to Israel.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“I think they’re being sensitive. Much like, what I would be sensitive. They are in the midst of some very interesting times and are being wise with what they want to weigh in and how they want to handle things,” Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. “I wouldn’t begin to second guess what they are doing because I don’t know the pressures that they are under.”

However,  Democrats critiqued the administration for this policy decision. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) emphasized that she “very much” believed that the Kotel is part of Israel. “It’s a lack of understanding of the holiness of the site i.e. understanding the faith and the history that’s attached to it.” On a similar note, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) said, “I recognize that the Western Wall is part of Israel. I think most members of the House do.”

While Republicans were frequently quick to condemn the Obama administration for criticism of the Netanyahu government, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) refused to criticize senior Trump administration officials: Tillerson and McMaster regarding the Western Wall.  “I don’t know their reasons for not being able to answer, so I can’t comment on that,” Carter noted.

Assessing Trump’s first overseas visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Carter lavished praise upon the President. “I think he’s done a great job. It’s certainly a better situation for America. Instead of our chief elected official, going over and apologizing for everything we’ve done, we finally have someone who is going over there and asserting themselves and American interests. I’m proud of that.”

But, Crowley offered a more restrained assessment. “So far, the world hasn’t fallen apart so I give him credit for that. I would have liked him to say something about the inequities and the human rights violations that take place in Saudi Arabia.”

At the same time, Rep. Mark Pocan focused on the President’s potential impact on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen when visiting Riyadh on Sunday. “I’m more concerned about what he’s (Trump) doing in Saudi Arabia with whatever deals he made regarding the arms sales in Yemen because if the major port in Yemen is bombed, we are told a half a million people will go in famine. We are trying to keep laser focused on the Yemen issue. It’s a big armed sales with no preconditions whatsoever,” he explained.

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 touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Rex Tillerson says Western Wall is ‘part of Jerusalem,’ avoids mention of Israeli sovereignty


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would not say that the Western Wall is part of Israel when asked about by a reporter during the presidential flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

Tillerson met with reporters in the back of Air Force One on Monday morning during the flight to the second stop on President Donald Trump’s first international trip since taking office.

Asked if he agrees with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who last week asserted during an interview that “We’ve always thought the Western Wall was part of Israel,” Tillerson responded: “The wall is part of Jerusalem.” He did not expand on the statement.

The Western Wall is located in Jerusalem’s Old City and was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. This week, Israel is marking 50 years since the reunification of the city.

Tillerson said the second leg of the journey was to “Tel Aviv, home of Judaism,” though Trump is not scheduled to visit Tel Aviv, confining his 28-hour visit to Jerusalem. Ben Gurion International Airport, where Trump landed, is sometimes called Tel Aviv, though it is about 15 miles away from the city.

The secretary of state told reporters that the time is right to resurrect the Middle East peace process because of the common threat of the rise of the Islamic State, other terror groups and extremism.

“There’s a unifying element in and of itself, and I think it does allow countries that have had deep differences to look at the situation and realize that in many respects our threats are common to all of us,” Tillerson said. “Providing a certain perspective that’s not been there in the past, a perspective that is between us. That there’s something larger going on that’s affecting all of us. We need to try and come together to address that. I think that creates a different dynamic.”

Asked if he would pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements, Tillerson responded that “settlements are part of the overall peace discussion. It’s just there are a number of elements that have presented challenges to the peace process in the past; settlements is clearly one of those.”

Tillerson said that arranging a three-way visit among Trump, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who Trump will meet on Tuesday morning, would be too ambitious for such a short trip.

“I think there will certainly be opportunities for that in the future,” he said.

Asked if Trump would apologize to Israeli officials for sharing Israeli intelligence with Russian officials earlier this month, Tillerson responded, “I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for.”

President Donald Trump in New London, Conn., on May 17. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The pro-Israel right is starting to feel unease with Trump


The Zionist Organization of America launched two broadsides against a Trump administration it has ardently defended, signaling a growing unease on the pro-Israel right with the president’s Israel policies.

The ZOA, the flagship for the conservative pro-Israel community, slammed President Donald Trump for retreating from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It also attacked the appointment of Kris Bauman, a veteran Obama administration negotiator, as the Israel adviser on the National Security Council.

Criticism of Trump from the Jewish right, while growing, is almost always accompanied by a caveat that his Israel policies are better than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and praise for some of his appointments.

The ZOA statements came Wednesday, the same day an array of Jewish groups held a celebration in the Capitol of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

During the celebration Republican lawmakers – without naming the Trump administration – decried the failure to move the embassy to Jerusalem. One of those present, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Republican Jews in Congress, later released a statement explicitly criticizing Trump and urging the move.

Trump the candidate had vowed to move the embassy as one of his first acts upon assuming the presidency, but since elected has retreated from the pledge. This week, an unnamed top U.S. official told Bloomberg News that the relocation from Tel Aviv was off the table for now.

The story prompted expressions of concern of varying intensity from the Jewish right.

Morton Klein, the ZOA president, said in a statement that the slowness to move the embassy “sends a message of weakness” and called it “painful.”

Zeldin, one Trump’s most prominent Jewish supporters during the presidential campaign, said in his statement that the Bloomberg report was “an ill-timed mistake on the part of the administration to make this decision and announcement.”

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella group with a constituency that according to polls was lopsided in its support for Trump last year, said in an interview that those voters were likely “disappointed” with the delay.

Klein in an interview Thursday offered up the caveat that he was still grateful that Trump had won the election.

“This guy in his heart and soul is very pro-Israel in a serious way,” he said, naming among other appointments Nikki Haley, the outspoken U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “So many of us had high expectations it would be 100 percent on Israel; that might have been too high an expectation. He’s so much better than Obama or than Clinton would have been,” referring to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, said Trump’s Jewish critics should keep the bigger picture in mind: His first tour overseas, next week, will include Israel and a visit to the Western Wall.

“It should be comforting, and those who are critical should note the symbolism of the president doing it at this time,” he said, noting the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. “It sends a symbolic message and one that should resonate throughout the Jewish community and the international community.”

Much of the pro-Israel right remains a strong area of Trump support on foreign policy. Breitbart News, with several alumni occupying key posts in the administration, has not advanced tough criticisms of the president’s Israel policy, although it has been critical of Trump on some domestic issues.

Conservative groups that reviled the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, chief among them the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are pleased with Trump’s policies. While Trump has not scrapped the deal, he has ramped up his rhetoric targeting the regime and added sanctions targeting Iran’s missile testing.

Conservative pro-Israel voices — among them Klein — have been outspoken as well in defending top Trump advisers who hail from the “alt-right,” a loose assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives that includes anti-Semites but also strident defenders of Israel.

Still, there are signs that unease with Trump’s Israel-related choices is deepening on the right. The tendency in Trump’s first months in office was to blame any decision that the pro-Israel right found unappealing on officials Trump did not appoint – civil service professionals whose tenure dated back to the Obama or George W. Bush administrations, or even further back.

But now, some of the fire is being directed at Trump appointees. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has earned opprobrium from the pro-Israel right wing for his bid to sideline Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a young NSC staffer who is known for his hard-line Iran views. Trump nixed McMaster’s decision to move Cohen-Watnick to another agency.

Now fire is being directed at Bauman, whom McMaster named recently as his chief adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Klein in a separate statement called Bauman, who served on the U.S. team during the 2013-14 failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, “pro-Hamas.”

Klein based his assessment on a screed against Bauman published last week in FrontPageMag, which unearthed a 2009 academic work by Bauman citing views that recommend accommodating Hamas as a necessary evil in any negotiations toward a final status outcome. Bauman also is unstinting in describing Hamas’ brutality and terrorism in the paper.

Daniel Shapiro, until January the U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Wednesday called Klein’s attacks the “lowest of low blows,” noting that Bauman’s brief was to improve security for Israel in the West Bank ahead of a final status agreement.

Also troubling for the pro-Israel right has been Trump’s warmth toward the Palestinian Authority leadership, particularly P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Trump welcomed at the White House earlier this month and with whom he will meet in Bethlehem next week.

“I’m disappointed he brought a guy who rewards terrorists who murder Jews to the White House,” Klein said, referring to P.A. subsidies for families of jailed and killed terrorists.

The White House said in its readout of the Trump-Abbas meeting that Trump raised the issue of the payments and urged Abbas to stop them.

President Donald Trump at the White House on May 17. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Trump won’t move U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem for now, senior official says


The Trump administration reportedly will not be moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for now.

An unnamed senior administration official on Wednesday told Bloomberg News that it would be “unwise to do it at this time” as President Donald Trump is getting ready to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks to move the embassy.

“We’ve been very clear what our position is and what we would like to see done,” the official said, “but we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”

Congress recognized Jerusalem as Israeli in 1995, but successive presidents have waived a provision in that law that requires the United States to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Trump campaigned on a pledge to move the embassy, but has retreated from it since assuming office. Next week he will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall in the Old City, but his team rejected a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accompany him.

Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, demurred this week when asked to say whether the administration regarded the Western Wall as part of Israel. However, the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the same day that she sees it as Israeli.

The Orthodox Union, which had complained earlier in the week about McMaster’s comments, was “disappointed” in the news that Trump would not be moving the embassy now, said Nathan Diament, its Washington director.

However, Diament said in an interview, his group was still watching to see whether Trump would exercise the six-month waiver of the 1995 law, which every president has done since the law was passed, and which he must do by June 1.

“If he were to announce next week or the week after that he’s not signing the national security waiver and if the process of evaluating how the move would take place were to begin, that would be a step in the right direction,” he said.

Meanwhile, a celebration at the Capitol marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification drew top Congress members from both parties. Among those on hand were Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip.

A number of Republican congressmen at the event alluded to McMaster’s refusal to name the Western Wall as Israeli territory and called for moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

Event sponsors included the Religious Zionists of America and another 24 pro-Israel and Jewish groups. The celebration coincided with the annual congressional lobbying day for one of the groups, NORPAC, among the preeminent pro-Israel political action committees.

Reps. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla., marked the celebration by introducing a nonbinding resolution celebrating Israel’s capture of the eastern portions of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Joe Lieberman. Screenshot from NBC News

Interview: Joe Lieberman on Iran deal, Jerusalem embassy


Former Senator Joe Lieberman discussed the Iranian elections and the implications of the outcome in a phone interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“Unfortunately I would say that there is no preferable outcome for the United States,” Lieberman said about the May 19 Iranian presidential election. “In other words, Rouhani was described as the moderate has been the leader of the government during the time when they have done so much damage in their own countries with a number of executions of political opponents is up. They’ve also presented thousands of IRGC soldiers into Syria. They’ve greatly strengthened Hezbollah which strengthened Syria, but also threatening Israel. And they’re involved in aggression in Yemen. So he may call himself a moderate, but he’s not. Ebrahim Raisi, the main opponent to Rouhani, seems to be more theologically conservative and enjoys, it appears, the backing of the Supreme Leader. But in the end, the Supreme Leader is the power and he’s not changing. In fact, very little has changed about the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979 when it seized power. And, therefore, they remain, as they say themselves, our determined and intransigent enemies.”

Lieberman on its impact over the nuclear deal: “I would guess that whoever wins the election in Iran will stick to the nuclear agreement to the same extent, because it benefits Iran so much. But they need constant monitoring and inspection to guarantee that they’re keeping their part of the bargain. The problem obviously is that they’ve already received as a result of sending the agreement, billions of dollars that they’re using to strengthen themselves militarily and politically. And again, not by my estimate, but by the words of the Supreme Leader, the nuclear agreement was separate. It has nothing to do with their hatred of the United States or Israel and in fact of their Sunni Arab neighbors. So I don’t expect much to change.”

“I think the change that’s occurred, if I may, on the nuclear agreement, the more significant change is the election of President Trump in the US. And I speak as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, but I think the change, let’s put it this way, from President Obama to President Trump, with regard to the nuclear agreement, is very significant. Unlike President Obama, President Trump is not committed to sort of protecting this agreement and in some sense bending over backward or closing our eyes to what the Iranians are doing in order to sustain the agreement. President Trump as you know has been a critic of the agreement from the beginning. And I think we can count on his administration to demand full compliance, not only with the agreement, but as he’s recently said when he said the Iranians were not keeping the spirit of the agreement and Secretary Tillerson has said, across a wide array of activities: support of terrorism, aggression in the region, particularly in Syria and in Yemen, and a repression of the human rights of people in Iran.”

On how to address the Iran deal going forward: “I think the first and most important thing that could be done by Congress and the President is to impose new sanctions on Iran for their bad behavior in so many other areas: the firing of ballistic missiles, the aggression in Syria and Yemen, and the human rights violation in their own country. And for the administration to both accept and sign those new sanctions, but also to enforce them. And I think that then the pressure is on Iran to either accept that new series of economic sanctions or itself to break out of the agreement. And they may just break out of the agreement since they’ve gotten so much up front from us. But I think in other words the important point is essentially to react to what respond directly or what the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has said, which is, ‘This is an agreement that is separate from everything else we do.’ Obviously if we see them really beginning to break out and build a nuclear weapon, then we have the tough decision to make, which is whether to take military action to stop them, but we’re not there yet.”

Lieberman on whether he thinks his friend Ambassador David Friedman will work from Jerusalem when he formally assumes his position in Israel: “I don’t know. I’m going to leave that one to President Trump. I mean, clearly I hope that the President when the next waiver date comes up, which is June 1st, he announces that one, the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which it self-evidently is, and two, that we’re beginning the process of moving our embassy there. I was a lead co-sponsor on the Democratic side in the 1990s of the legislation that mandated that the embassy move to Jerusalem. And so it’s very important to me from an American point of view because this is still, I believe, the only country in the world where we don’t have our embassy in a city that the host country designates as its capital. And when you think that this is Israel, one of America’s closest allies in the world, it is a sign of American weakness that we don’t go ahead and put our actions where our principles are and our policies are and that means moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

“So I hope before long David Friedman will be Ambassador Friedman he will be working out of Jerusalem and before long moving there as well. And it’s important to say something you know, the embassy’s going to be located on land which has been Israeli since ’48. So this move will not at all affect negotiations regarding land with the Palestinians. And it’s just a falsehood to argue that it will unless one believes that Israel has no right to any of Jerusalem, which obviously is something that is a position America would never accept.”

A 3-D model of Jerusalem was made possible by Larry and Sunny Russ. Photos courtesy of Jewish National Fund

A victory in fight to preserve Ammunition Hill


One of the most sacred military sites in Israel’s history, left crumbling for years, is a now a gleaming attraction that helps tell the dramatic story of what happened there during Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, thanks in part to the family of Larry Russ, a Los Angeles philanthropist with deep ties to Israel and its past.

Ammunition Hill’s significance goes back to June 6, 1967, when, in the dead of night, roughly 350 Israeli soldiers accomplished something many thought was impossible — they captured the heavily fortified military base in Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem.

The Jordanians, who had seized control of the British-built bunkers and trenches on the hill during the 1948 war — cutting off Mount Scopus and the Hadassah Medical Center — were fierce fighters, but the Israelis, who were literally fighting for their country’s survival, prevailed within several hours. 

Thirty-six Israeli soldiers and 71 Jordanians were killed in the battle, one of the fiercest of the Six-Day War. Ammunition Hill became a national memorial site in 1987.

Over the years, the number of visitors to the site did not increase, reaching a point in 2005 where the Israeli government decided to shutter it for a day because of a lack of funds. The Ammunition Hill-National Heritage & Memorial Site organization urgently reached out to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for help.

That’s when Rami Ganor, JNF’s former Ammunition Hill liaison, approached Russ, a lawyer, L.A.-based JNF board member and philanthropist, to support this process.

“JNF knew it had to act,” said Yoel Rosby, the current liaison. “Ammunition Hill is a pearl in Jerusalem’s history. Closing it would be like closing Gettysburg.”

Russ was intrigued.

“Rami knew I was a child of Holocaust survivors and had a big family in Israel,” he said in an interview. “There are more Russes in Israel than the U.S.” 

Further impetus came from Shimon “Katcha” Cahaner, who was the deputy battalion commander in one of the two brigades that captured Ammunition Hill. After his commander was wounded, Cahaner brought his troops into the Old City. Cahaner joined up with the JNF to save the site.

“Katcha came to Los Angeles to raise funds to improve Ammunition Hill,” Russ recalled. “He said he wanted to build a geographic table that showed the dividing line between what was then Israel and Jordan. That sounded doable, and I made a commitment. Then he said, ‘Maybe there should be a cover over it because it gets hot in the summer.’ ”

At the request of Cahaner and JNF, Russ and his wife, Sunny, visited Jerusalem, where they met with historians, an architect and soldiers who had fought at Ammunition Hill and their families.

“We were crying, it was so emotional,” Russ recalled. “We said, ‘How can we not do this?’ ”

Today Ammunition Hill is a sprawling complex with a state-of-the art visitors center, a museum as well as the original bunkers. It is especially popular with school children, who can climb on a tank or explore the trenches.

The Russes supported the creation of a theater and a sophisticated 3-D map “City Line” table that shows how Jerusalem was divided, East from West, and lights up at different points to indicate landmarks and battle sites. They also sponsored the creation of a film that includes rare footage obtained from the Israeli air force of the battle for Ammunition Hill as well as Israeli troops hanging a flag from a section of the Temple Mount after they captured it. Soldiers who fought in the battle retrace their steps along with their children and grandchildren.

Russ noted that the site already offered a film but that it was a half-hour long — too long for most visiting schoolchildren to sit through, and less than ideal when more than one group was visiting the site.

An original armored vehicle and tank used in the 1967 battle for Ammunition Hill are on display.

An original armored vehicle and tank used in the 1967 battle for Ammunition Hill are on display.

More recently, the JNF asked the couple if they would finance renovations of the bunkers and crumbling trenches as well as new lighting.

At Ammunition Hill, Rosby noted that the site’s 40 bunkers and nearly 1,000 feet of trenches, were built a century ago to protect the munitions cache of the British Mandate.

“They were falling apart and had to be strengthened from the bottom up, to be able to remain standing for another 100 years to ensure that millions of visitors can experience and learn from the heroic battle for Ammunition Hill.”

Now that pathway lighting has been installed, visitors can visit the site at night and get a feel for the challenges Israel’s soldiers faced in the near pitch darkness in 1967.

Also thanks to the Russes, the sprawling field has what Rosby calls “field classrooms” — places for group members to sit and listen during a tour.

Rosby, Russ and Phillip Yankofsky, another Jewish community leader from L.A. and a Six-Day War veteran, appeared as panelists in March at JNF’s inaugural San Fernando Valley Breakfast for Israel, which focused on the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

Russ, who is recognized as a member of JNF’s World Chairman’s Council — meaning that he’s made a lifetime contribution of $1 million or more — said the American branch of the family feels a sense of duty to contribute to Ammunition Hill.

“My family in Israel fought in every war. I wanted to create something that would last and be something our children and grandchildren look at and realize we are a part of,” he said. “I also wanted to recognize the people of Israel and the families who have sacrificed so much. And finally, I wanted to honor our family who perished in the Holocaust.”

Mission accomplished: In 2005, the number of visitors to Ammunition Hill had fallen to 74,000. Last year, there were 354,000.

Russ said it has given his family “joy” to learn of the huge uptick in visitors, especially schoolchildren and soldiers, who visit Ammunition Hill on a daily basis, making it now a must-see venue on any trip to Israel.

An undated portrait of Asher Arom, taken in Lizhensk, Poland. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My ancestor vanished in the Holocaust; 80 years later, I went looking for him


“I need to speak with you.”

Meylakh Sheykhet was a vision from the past. I had no idea who he was when he tapped me on the shoulder in the lobby of the Hotel Dnister in Lviv, Ukraine.

Tall and bearded, with sunken eyes, he cut a jarring figure in his ultra-Orthodox garb. Around us, a conference on Jewish life was in full swing. Meylakh had overheard me saying I was an intern with The Jerusalem Post. He wanted to tell me about the deteriorating state of Jewish sites in the city — and his fight to preserve them.

Meylakh’s work is motivated by an enduring respect, a fascination even, with the dead; they are never far from his mind. Meylakh fights long odds to save Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, to uncover and preserve the burial sites of sages and to stave off destruction when developers encroach on houses of prayer or their ruins. He sleeps little and makes plenty of enemies. We sat down together in the hotel lobby, and he began to talk, quickly and frantically.

To this day, I don’t know whether to thank Meylakh or to curse him. His tap on the shoulder launched an investigation into my roots that spanned two years, three continents and five generations.

As it turned out, my trip to Lviv had brought me within 100 miles of where many of my ancestors had lived and died, just across the border in Poland. Soon after, I found myself awake at odd hours, clicking frantically from link to link as I fell deeper and deeper down digital rabbit holes on websites dedicated to Jewish genealogy.

Names and dates began to harbor an outsized significance. I found myself assaulted by a confounding rush of details, illuminating and otherwise. One figure kept emerging out of that chaos, over and over again, capturing my imagination and curiosity. It was my great-grandfather, a holy man from a rabbinical lineage who made Torah his day and night’s labor. Before long, he was the centerpiece of my frenetic journey of discovery.

I knew then I had to take my search offline. I reached out to relatives whose identities I’d learned on the internet. I pestered my dad with questions. I devoured books on life in the shtetl and on the great Chasidic dynasties of Europe.

Months into my search, I came across my first authentic relic: the calligraphic handwriting of my great-grandfather, poetic Hebrew sentences intertwined with Torah verses in letters he’d written to family in Palestine. My eyes widened. The letters were an unbearably human fragment of a vanished and tragic past. He signed with the same Hebrew spelling as my father, Asher Arom, only adding a shin, vuv, bet afterward for shochet u’bodek, ritual slaughterer. Looking at those letters, I knew I had to go back to Eastern Europe.

As Jews, we’re told that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God writes and seals the fate of each living soul. So it stands to reason that in September 1939, He was busy plotting against my forebears in Europe.

At the dawn of the Jewish year 5700, one small town in Poland became the crime scene where the Creator carried out His conspiracy against my great-grandfather’s family, with the Nazis as instruments. I suppose you could say I went there to collect evidence to put Him on trial.

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Asher Arom in Lizhensk, Poland, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

My trip came less then two years after I first visited Eastern Europe. After two weeks of traveling with my father in Israel, I took a flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Lviv. From there, a bus took me through a foggy February morning and across the Polish border. Every once in a while, the bus swerved into an improbable clearing in the dark woods to pick up someone. My fellow passengers looked to be straight from central casting. The fat matron in the checkered frock, the cadaverous woman with suspicious eyes, the tall man reeking of cigarettes, with a pockmarked face and a jagged scar from the corner of his lip to his ear — these people all looked like they belonged here. The 22-year-old Jewish boy from Beverly Hills did not.

The bus dropped me off in Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-meh-sheel), an old Polish city of about 65,000 on the San River, where unimaginative Soviet-era buildings fill spaces left by long-gone synagogues and study halls. The bus pulled up just outside the perimeter of the former ghetto where Asher likely was murdered.

When my guide, Maciej, met me in front of my hotel, he admitted he had been expecting a man twice my age. And indeed, the people I’ve met since who tend to take these forays into pre-Holocaust nostalgia are a generation or two my senior. But to see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

My great-grandfather’s legacy is no exception to the corrosive effect of the years. He was born in Przemysl, across the river from the Jewish quarter in a neighborhood called Zasanie, where his father, Gedalia, had been the head of a yeshiva.

Today, the synagogue in Zasanie stands abandoned and deteriorating behind barbed wire. The inn where Gedalia raised a large flock of children was long ago replaced by a blocky apartment complex, painted in primary colors. The Jewish cemetery, just down the highway from the city, has been covered for eight decades with fallen leaves and broken branches, leaving an overgrown warren of blank monuments, the inscriptions worn away by time. The only trace of my ancestors here is some cursive script in a yellowing Austrian record book in the florescent-lit reading room of the Przemysl National Archive.

Shortly after Maciej and I met, we drove 76 kilometers north through heath and woods to Lizhensk, the shtetl where my great-grandfather lived most of his life, now a drab industrial town of 15,000. A relative of mine had marked Asher’s home in red pen on a hand-drawn map of the pre-war town. We parked nearby, in an open-air lot the map indicated had once been the heart of the Jewish quarter.

A drizzle was falling as we plodded down a muddy slope toward the spot indicated on the map. There, on an unpaved path beneath a slate-gray sky was the low shack Asher had built, abandoned and ill-treated by time, its wood planks bent by years, wintery vines bursting through the eaves.

Lizhensk is best known within Poland for the brewery that took its name. To Chasidic Jews, though, Lizhensk is synonymous with Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, a founding father of Chasidism and the town’s most famous resident, Jewish or otherwise.

Chasidim maintain an active relationship with the dead. At midnight on the death anniversary of a great rabbi — and few are greater than Elimelech — it’s said that the souls of the departed descend to their gravesites and carry the prayers of the living up to heaven. Before World War II, Elimelech’s yarzheit drew crowds from across Europe to worship in the cave-like mausoleum where his remains lie.

The Nazis redrew the geography of Lizhensk’s onetime Jewish quarter, erasing the Street of Synagogues from the map. Now, a large, open-air parking lot stands in its place, ringed by a dreary neighborhood with a proliferation of seedy casinos and 24-hour bars. The cemetery is equally unrecognizable. Bulldozed by the Germans, the monuments dragged away as paving stones, it sat empty and ignored for decades. When Jews began to return in the 1980s — survivors and their families as well as Chasidic pilgrims — they dragged what tombstones they could find back to the graveyard, lining them up in arbitrary rows. Year after year, the crowds worshiping at the sage’s gravesite grew.

These days, in late February or early March, according to the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar, the streets fill with Jews in black hats and headscarves, from Brooklyn, Israel and beyond, in anticipation of the 21st of Adar. By the time I learned about the yarzheit, my picture of Eastern European Jewry was colored by its disappearance: magnificent synagogues reduced to rubble and cemeteries knocked over and built upon. Eastern Europe, to me, meant dead Jews. Somehow, I thought seeing some live ones there would be a comfort.

For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final.

When I arrived, on the last day of February 2016, the city was awash with pilgrims, their tour buses parked up the street from the cemetery. A series of white pavilions had been set up at the cemetery to accommodate thousands, from those hauling cauldrons for kosher stews to opportunistic salesmen hawking Jewish books from folding tables. A public address system had been set up in one of the tents to blast klezmer music. A pair of Chasidim with a microphone manned the PA system through the night, calling passersby to come “have a l’chaim!” with a swallow of schnapps or whiskey. Gaggles of local reporters had come to observe the oddity; one of the more savvy taxi drivers had posted the word monit, Hebrew for taxi, on his driver’s side windows.

On the site where Rabbi Elimelech is presumed to rest in the rebuilt cemetery, a white concrete structure, a mausoleum, of sorts. was built to accommodate prayers. Inside, a monument enclosed in a metal trellis was piled high with scribbled notes of supplication. Even some non-Jews see the site as holy: While I watched the room fill with Chasidim swaying in prayer, a Polish man with graying hair and far-off eyes entered and bared his head — an odd custom under the circumstances — then fell to his knees, clasping his hands together in silent benediction.

Over time, the town has developed an infrastructure to accommodate the annual influx. The building that had housed the mikveh, or ritual bath, somehow withstood World War II; afterward, a group of Chasidim acquired it and added a second story to form the Hachnasat Orachim of Lizhensk, a guesthouse for pilgrims. Worshipers now could find accommodations and a prayer hall — even a functioning mikveh. Soon, the pilgrimage outgrew that long, low barrack of a building, and just up the hill, a planned extension, a massive A-frame structure covered in Hebrew banners, was nearly complete. Between the two buildings was Asher’s home.

As I walked up, rabid barking erupted behind me. I wheeled around to face the largest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, howling at me murderously from behind a chain-link fence. I resisted a momentary urge to run: German shepherds always have conjured images of Nazi attack dogs for me. Instead, I scowled at the beast and turned back to the house, trying to ignore its bloodthirsty snarls.

In pictures I’d seen of the house, it was far from luxurious, but it was the type of place where you’d expect a penurious rabbi in a Polish backwater to live. At least, it looked habitable. On Google Maps street view, in a picture taken in 2012, a sedan is parked expectantly in the driveway. Seeing the place as it now was came as a gut punch.

The blemish on the doorpost where the mezuzah had once been was the only sign of its onetime inhabitants. The windows had been spray-painted white from the inside — for what reason, I can’t fathom, other than to rob descendants of the satisfaction of peering in. The place looked as if a strong gust of wind might take it down.

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

Eitan Arom at the abandoned shack built by his great-grandfather. Photo by Eitan Arom

I wanted to see inside but quickly ruled out the idea of climbing through the loft window, which was missing its frame and panes. Instead, I took to the square below to see if I could learn who had the key. One by one, I sidled up to strangers who were milling about in the drizzle. My reluctant informants didn’t seem to know what to make of me. With a camera around my neck and a yarmulke pinned uneasily to my head as a form of self-identification, I fit in with neither the Chasidim nor the Poles. I managed to win some goodwill by pointing to the tumbledown shack up the hill and saying it once belonged to my great-grandfather. Soon enough, I learned the shack was now owned by the same Chasidim who operated the guesthouse. A less welcome revelation: Before long, they planned to tear it down to build more lodgings for travelers. Pilgrim after pilgrim told me to look for someone named Simha.

Simha Krakovski is a wiry man with a scraggly white beard who directs the guesthouse. I cornered him outside an upstairs prayer hall. As we spoke, sweaty yeshiva students with sparse beards and red faces crowded around to see why Krakovski — clearly a busy man at this time of year — was talking to the only non-Chasidic person in the building. As we spoke, some scholar of great importance swept by with a crowd of hangers-on, pressing us against a wall.

To see the degradation and neglect of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe is to understand that time is of the essence.

Krakovski indulged me briefly with the story of his early days in Lizhensk, some 25 years ago. “I first came to pray, and when I wanted to use the bathroom, there was no bathroom,” he told me in Hebrew. “I had to pay a gentile woman a dollar to use hers, and it stank.”

I told him who I was and about my ancestor. He told me, yes, they’d acquired the house and were planning to knock it down to expand the accommodations — a dining room, lodgings, he couldn’t be sure, exactly. I asked if the new complex had a name, and why not name it after this pious man, this ghost of mine? He made it clear naming rights could be had — for a price. Come find him tomorrow, he said, and we could talk.

After he left, the young men closed ranks around me, questioning me in English and Hebrew. Did I have money? What did my father do? Is he rich? Suddenly, I felt the flush that was reddening their faces. I was too hot in my wool coat. I stepped outside and back into the drizzle.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t. It made me feel more alone, more abandoned, orphaned by history.

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

Chasidim pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, in 2016. Photo by Eitan Arom

I never found Simha Krakovski again. But the next day, I was back inside the guest house, in the office of Krakovski’s colleague, Menashe Lifshitz, a Chasid from B’nai Brak, in Israel. He told me how they’d bought the shack some years back from a Polish woman who lived there, paying her what he assured me was three times the fair price.

When the guesthouse was established, he said, many of the surrounding houses still bore outlines on the doorposts where their onetime inhabitants had fixed mezuzahs. As people got the money to fix up their homes, most were painted over. The blemish where Asher had nailed his mezuzah into the threshold was the last one that remained.

Somehow, I’d thought being among these Chasidim would make me feel better about the state of affairs, the vanishing traces of Jewish Europe, the decay and neglect. It didn’t.

Lifshitz worked out of a small, cluttered office with a twin bed and a small desk on the second story of the former mikveh building. The entirety of the window in the office faces the southeastern wall of my great-grandfather’s home. Before the second story was added, Asher would have had an unobstructed view of the cemetery. He would have been able to watch as the candles burned in Rabbi Elimelech’s tomb through the night.

I asked if I could see the inside of the house. Any other time of year, Lifshitz assured me, it could be arranged. With the pilgrimage in full swing, it would be difficult. He couldn’t be too sure where the key was.

The mikveh building where Menashe Lifshitz kept his office plays a significant part in the story I’ve learned about my great-grandfather.

As it goes, when the Cossacks came during World War I, most of Asher’s family fled. Asher stayed behind so nobody with a chicken or livestock would go hungry for lack of a slaughterer to prepare it. One day, as he was walking outside, a group of Cossacks spotted him and followed. He led them to the mikveh and jumped into the depths, hiding beneath the sacred waters, where he was spared.

But his luck would run out before long. When murderers again came to his town, their fury would be greater and more destructive than the town had ever seen.

The Nazis entered Lizhensk during Rosh Hashanah 1939. On Sukkot, they rounded up the Jews in the market square. A persistent downpour soaked the crowd. The frightened townsfolk were uncertain what fate awaited them — death or deportation, bullets or banishment. Panic ruled.

And Asher was missing.

My understanding of these events is informed entirely by the adolescent memories of his granddaughter, Leah Braude. Leah’s, father, Chaskel Nissenbaum, was a slaughterer and Asher’s student. Later, when Nissenbaum traveled to Germany to ply his trade, returning only for holidays, Asher became something of a father figure to his young granddaughter.

After the war, Leah set down some of her memories from that time in what became the Lizhensk Yizkor Book, a collection of remembrances published in Israel and dedicated to the town’s martyrs. In one of the passages, she described her grandfather, who had “a smile that imparted pleasantness whenever I desired a smile.” This is the last living account of my great-grandfather — but the rest of the Yizkor Book provides a colorful recollection of a vanished world.

The last time Shabbat candles glowed in the windows of Asher’s home, it was earlier in 1939 and the forests surrounding the town were alive with the spirits of the Chasidic imagination.

The cave of Elimelech was just beyond where the town met the woods. The sage’s tomb commanded a view of the Jewish quarter, a slope of wooden homes leading up to Ulica Boznica, the Street of Synagogues.

Lizhensk was a town of a typical European mold: Sledding and ice skating in winter, and sweltering summers. Leading off the market square, where Jewish tradesmen and businessmen mixed with their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts, the synagogue street formed the heart of the Jewish quarter.

Here, Jewish homes abutted schoolrooms and yeshivas, synagogues and study halls. On Shabbat eve, the sexton would knock with his wooden hammer and call, “Jews, Jews, to the synagogue!” as the smell of fried onions and kugels filled the air.

Before the war, Jews and gentiles mixed for good and ill. The Lizhensker Jews were not spared their share of anti-Semitism; Jewish schoolchildren were regularly beaten to cries of “dirty Jew!” Sometimes, one of the nastier teachers would even join in. In spite of all that, here and there friendships grew. Gentiles dropped in on Jewish households for the lighting of Shabbat candles.

What made Lizhensk different from other shtetls, though, was the great rabbi who took its name, and who, more than a century after his death, drew mourners from across the continent to his grave. The custodians of his earthly remains, the Jews of Lizhensk, tended to be an industrious and religious lot, if poor; Asher Arom no doubt fit that mold.

Leah, barely a teenager when war separated her from her beloved Chasid, with his snowy sidecurls and white beard down to his chest, recalled in the Yizkor Book his deep devotion and fervent prayer: “My grandfather made his nights like his days, and studied Torah. His tune in the nights is woven in the depths of my dreams and adds to their sweetness.”

Shortly before death came to the rest of Lizhensk, it visited the home of the ritual slaughterer.

“May the One who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem offer us a double portion of consolation,” Asher wrote to his son Shmuel in Palestine on the Tuesday after the reading of Parashat Bamidbar in May 1938  — he made a practice of marking the date by the Torah reading. His letters are nearly eight decades years old, but the grief they convey seems fresh, even raw.

Leah’s account had led me to her daughter, Sima Braude Marberg, a kindly woman and a distant cousin of mine who teaches tai chi in the courtyard of her apartment building on a tree-lined street in of Haifa. When I visited, she produced a binder full of old letters in plastic protectors, some of them written in Asher’s practiced, looping script.

The tales from the deathbeds of great Chasidic sages often recount a transformation as their souls hover between this world and the next. These were the terms in which Asher described the death of his wife, born Chaia Rachel Brand, my great-grandmother: “On the seventh day of the month of Iyar” — April 26, 1939 — “early in the morning at 2 a.m., her soul began slipping away from her body until she passed away at 9:30 in the morning,” he wrote to his son in Palestine. “The house was full of men and women.”

The death left her husband disconsolate.

“Rachel, the mainstay of the house, how were you taken to be buried in the ground — where finally your bones could find a resting place — but leave us to our moaning and sorrow?” he wrote. “Who will mend our broken hearts that have been torn asunder and broken into pieces?”

He delivered a eulogy. “By dint of her wisdom she was the principal force, the one who always could advise the proper path, for me and for all those who turned to her for direction,” he told those assembled. “I continued, as is my wont, to expound midrashim and Biblical verses in my eulogy, and the entire congregation broke out in tears, sobbing.”

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The author’s great-grandmother Chaia Rachel Arom, with her grandchildren (from left) Simcha, Sarah and Leah Nissenbaum, and her son Mordechai. Photo courtesy of Sima Braude Marberg

The community took Chaia Rachel to be buried, and then Asher led evening prayers. Afterward, he wrote, “I was overcome by a terrible burning sensation. The doctor was called, and I was carried to my bed, where I lay without feeling.”

It must have seemed the world was ending. Two of his sons had earlier abandoned Poland for Mandatory Palestine. Now their mother was gone. Bedridden, Asher was found to have a high fever. Death must have seemed near for him, too. But a week later, after the shiva had ended, he recovered, physically if not emotionally: “I now feel well and have returned to work,” he wrote.

“I ask of you to recite Kaddish throughout the entire year, every day without fail,” he bid his son. “And if there is someone with you in your kibbutz who can study mishnayot [talmudic tractates] with you — even just a few mishnayot — then you can say Kaddish afterward in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of the righteous woman, Chaia Rachel bas Luria Simcha, of blessed memory. And in this merit you and your offspring be successful. May you find material success and enjoy long lives, and raise your son to every good end. Your father, signing with tears.”

The end for the Lizhensk Jews came quickly, before the townsfolk knew it.

In the martyrs’ book and in video interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, survivors recount with bitter embarrassment a period of obliviousness, of false security, as the forces of destruction massed just beyond the town’s border. Few had radios in their homes, so a doctor who lived in the market square would place his receiver by a window and raise the volume so people could listen in the street below. One survivor, then a girl of 10, remembered standing in the square and hearing Edward Rydz-Smigły, the marshal of Poland’s armed forces, declaring, “We won’t give away even a button — nothing!” Soon, he had given away everything.

The invasion of Poland began on Sept. 1, 1939. By Sept. 3, German bombs had destroyed the railroad tracks in Lizhensk, the only link between the town and the outside world. When crews came to repair their tracks, aerial machine gun fire chased them off.

Jews left the city in droves, only to return hours or days later after finding the surrounding country in a similar state of pandemonium. Those who returned on Rosh Hashanah eve found German troops in town. The Nazis turned the holiday into a carnival of mockery, cutting beards off of men and forcing them to march in circles around a tree.

The Germans were in the mood for arson when they came to Asher Arom’s house on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Earlier that night, soldiers had barged into the synagogues, demanding volunteers for work. In a surprising act of mercy, they allowed the congregants to evacuate the synagogues, but their intentions were clear. They brought kerosene and kindling. Then they set the buildings ablaze.

The main concern for many of these Jews, it turned out, was not preserving their property or protecting their families, but finding a place to finish praying. With the ashes of the holy places still choking the air, “it was told to them that grandfather had made his house open for the needs of prayer,” Leah recalled in the Yizkor Book.

Some two dozen Jews gathered at the ritual slaughterer’s home. The Nazis quickly learned what was going on. They chased away the prayer quorum but locked my great-grandfather inside. Soon, they returned with bundles of straw and rags soaked in kerosene. Leah’s sister Sarah, then a girl of 16, begged for her grandfather’s life, weeping. The Germans ignored her, intent on burning the 72-year-old alive. Only when a gentile woman who lived next door joined in Sarah’s protest did the Nazis relent.

“She was afraid her home would catch fire, as well,” Leah wrote. “The Germans returned the key to my sister and removed the flammable material from around the house, and grandfather was again saved from certain death.”

On Yom Kippur, we are taught, the ink is still wet in the Book of Life. Even the hosts of heaven shrink in terror as the Creator ponders fates: “The Angels of heaven are dismayed and seized by fear,” the prayer goes. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Was anyone fool enough, or fervent enough, to blow the shofar in Lizhensk that year? Did anybody hear the still, small voice?

By the Day of Atonement in 1939, the Jews of Lizhensk were afraid to walk in the streets for the harassment it undoubtedly would bring. Those still inclined to pray mostly stayed home and found a quiet corner to do so.

For the Chasidim of Lizhensk, the world to come must have seemed nearer than ever. Yet they were not ill-prepared to meet their end. For these Jews, death was a part of life, the sadness married to their joy. It was something less than final. When sickness or disasters struck, the Lizhenskers would climb the hill of the cemetery to ask the dead to intercede on their behalf. Orphaned brides and grooms would go there to invite their deceased parents to celebrate their wedding. The place abounded with legend.

It was to those old stones that Asher Arom would retire when he could wrest a moment from the demands of work, family and study.

“He would spend hour after hour there cleaning the gravestones and making the inscriptions clearer,” his granddaughter Leah wrote. “When the Messiah comes, each minute will be precious and holy, and it would be a shame if time would be wasted on clarifying the blurred inscriptions.”

Sometimes, he brought Leah to weed the grass around the graves. Once, he explained to her why he did it: “Death is nothing but the natural continuation of life,” he said. “And if we love a life of cleanliness and being cared for, we must give this also to the dead. We must look after the gravestones, just as we look after our home.”

The bitter irony is that his body most likely went up in smoke or was tossed in a mass, unmarked grave.

The circumstances of 1939 gave new meaning to the Yamin Noraim, the Days of Awe — more literally, the days of terror between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “We sat with closed doors and shut windows,” survivor Shaul Spatz recalled in the Yizkor Book. “The silence outside was only interrupted by the occasional thumps of the boots of the German soldiers.”

Soon it was time to erect their sukkot, but the familiar sounds of hammers hitting nails were absent. “That year, all Jewish homes remained exposed without sukkot attached to their walls,” he wrote. “In the Jewish street, fear walks. Apprehension replaced the joy of the holiday.”

You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

Then, the rumors of a roundup came true: The next morning, the Jews were to report to the market square.

“I don’t remember which one of our neighbors told us that we had to leave the house,” Spatz wrote. “We fearfully gathered a few of our belongings.”

Hundreds of Jews already had assembled when Spatz arrived. “It was raining,” he recalled. “Our bundles were wet and their weight increased by the moment.”

Death was the punishment for absence, and yet there was no trace of Asher.

Leah had arrived at the square with her parents and sister. Her mother, Gittel, must have been frantic: Simcha, Gittel’s only son, was away at yeshiva in Lublin. Later, Leah’s daughter Sima told me, Gittel had risked a summary execution and snuck back across the San River to see if her boy had come home to find his family, but there was no trace of him, either.

Tension mounted. Anxiety and anguish boiled like puddles in a hard rain. And still Asher was missing.

“We were unable to search for him without being shot,” his granddaughter wrote. “At the last moment, as we organized into rows for the gloomy march, he appeared next to us, calm and filled with family warmth. He was wearing his clean Sabbath clothing, and had his tallis and tefillin bag with him.”

His family scolded him, but, “He smiled and mocked us: What is all the confusion? For it is impossible to believe these murderers. However, perhaps they indeed intend to kill us. Therefore, I went to the mikveh to purify myself, and now I am ready and prepared if it is the will of our Creator, the Creator of the world who determines the fate of man.”

The march began, 2 1/2 miles to the banks of the San River. “The Jews traveled with their heads down, their eyes toward the ground, as if they were guilty of some terrible deed,” another survivor wrote in the Yizkor Book.

When they got there, the Germans unrolled a sheet and commanded the Jews to drop any valuables onto it, on penalty of death. To show they were serious, they shot one of the Jews on the spot. But when the Jews then were ordered across a makeshift bridge, suddenly they were alone; the opposite bank was Soviet territory. Two years before the Wannsee Conference and the decision to implement the Final Solution, the Nazis seemed content with banishment. “So ceased to be one Jewish community in the first days of the war,” Spatz wrote.

Leah and her family headed east, surviving deportation to Siberia and eventually making their way to Israel. But Asher seemed to resign himself to his doom.

The conclusion of his granddaughter’s recollection is as terse as the rest of it is reverent: “When we crossed the San, we continued to wander in the direction of Przemysl. Grandfather was a native of Przemysl, and he decided to remain there until the storm would pass. After we took leave of him, we never met again. He succumbed to the murderous Nazis.”

Was he murdered when the Germans rounded up and killed the entire Jewish population of Zasanie in June 1942? Was he sent to Belzec some two months later along with 12,500 Jewish residents of Przemysl? Or would he have lived to the very end and been one of the 1,000 murdered behind the Judenrat building, during the final liquidation of Przemysl’s Jews, when the shooting went on for six hours?

What became of Asher Arom remains an intractable and deeply frustrating mystery to me. The only evidence of his death is a small, yellowing scrap of paper on which his son Shmuel, my grandfather, scribbled a contradictory series of Hebrew and Gregorian dates, recorded, probably, from phone calls from family and former neighbors after the war.

But how he died doesn’t interest me quite so much as how he lived. I’m still waiting to stumble on the single detail that will bring events from Lizhensk back to life for me, even just momentarily, in a brilliant flash of transplanted memory. I didn’t find it in Poland. Most of my time in Lizhensk was spent ambling from spot to spot, possessed by a sense of detachment, the drizzle dampening my mood. Even the beards and shawls and the prayerful wailing through the night failed to conjure anything profound.

There’s a disconnect I can’t get past. The removal is too great, the violence too jarring, the years too many. Sitting in the main square in Lizhensk, brooding over a notebook and trying to figure out how to feel, it didn’t really land that this was the same square where the Jews had gathered on Sukkot, where Leah had fretted over her grandfather. Would that it had, I might have decided to hike from Lizhensk to the river, following in the path of my ancestor, letting March showers stand in for fall rain. I didn’t. I’m not sure what I would have gained from it.

My ghosts have become better defined since I went looking for them, but they remain no less puzzling, no less tiresome and my relationship with them no less one-sided. They remain ghosts, dead things, dust and forgotten secrets. You can’t read the vanished inscription on a rain-beaten tombstone. No number of seasons and no amount of research will bring it back.

To those planning a foray into their family history  by buying a plane ticket to Poland, my advice is: You might want to reconsider. You will find no answers there. Seeing will bring you no more comfort than knowing. Only emptiness and grief remain for the likes of me, and faint traces of a bitter past. Soon, those too will be gone.

President Donald Trump in West Palm Beach, Fla., on April 6. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Has Trump split the Jewish community? Hardly.


Every four years, in an attempt to maximize their share of the “Jewish vote,” the major political parties include language in their national platforms expressing support for Israel as America’s truest ally and only democracy in the Middle East. Often that expression contains a pledge to move the U.S embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The belief that the political and even national allegiance of many Jewish Americans is driven by devotion to Israel extends beyond party politicians to a sizable share of the U.S. public. A 2016 survey conducted by the Marttila Strategies polling firm indicates that although anti-Semitism has declined significantly in the United States over the past half-century,  since at least the mid-1960s, about a third of Americans have believed the anti-Semitic dual loyalty canard  that Jews are “more loyal to Israel than to America.”

To what extent do psychological ties to Israel actually shape the political beliefs and behavior of American Jews? If they do not motivate the Jewish community as much as is often believed, then what does?

Undeniably, a large majority of Jewish Americans have an affinity for Israel. A 2013 Pew Research survey indicated that an overwhelming (87%) said that “caring about Israel” is an important part of being Jewish.  On a more demanding measure of affiliation, about 7 in 10 Jewish Americans (69%) said they are at least somewhat “emotionally attached” to Israel.

But, that’s not the whole story. In spite of their psychological connection to Israel, most Jews ´placed greater importance on other “Jewish” values—remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical and moral life (69%), working for justice and equality (56%), and being intellectually curious (49%)—than they did on caring about Israel (43%). Beyond this, when asked if being “strongly critical of Israel” is compatible with being Jewish, a large majority (89%) said that it is.

Moreover, to borrow from Borscht Belt comics’ assertions that “where there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” Jewish Americans are not of one mind about Israel. While it is true that a sizable majority have at least some emotional connection to Israel, the extent of that link varies by denomination, generation, and political party identification.  The ties are strongest among the Orthodox, those 50 years old and above, and those who identify as Republicans. This split in the opinions of Jewish Americans toward Israel and other matters runs throughout the Pew study.

If allegiance to Israel and support of its current policies is not the primary determinant of the political beliefs and behavior of Jewish Americans, what is? Pew’s research suggests the crucial factors are the very things that shape the opinions and votes of most other Americans—their party identifications, their opinions on current political issues, and their perceptions of major political figures. Pew sums those up by saying that “Jews are among the most liberal and Democratic groups in the population.”

A large majority of Jewish Americans (70%) identified with or leaned to the Democratic DEM REPUBParty; this when 49% of the U.S general public claimed a Democratic attachment. More remarkable, nearly half of Jewish Americans (49%) said they were liberal and just 19% called themselves conservative. This was almost reverse the numbers for  the general public, within which 38% said they were conservative and 19% liberal.

To confirm the trend, millenial Jews (18-29 year olds) were the most Democratic, liberal, and pro-Obama age cohort that Pew sampled. They are also the least emotionally connected to Israel and the most critical of its policies. Interestingly, Jewish millennials are as likely to have been to Israel as any other generation of Jews; suggesting that it isn’t simply indifference or ignorance that account for their disconnect from the Jewish state. Undoubtedly, the vigorous embrace of the unpopular Trump by Netanyahu compounded by Bibi’s public disdain for the ever-popular Obama may, inadvertently, be undoing the hard work that Birthright Israel undertakes when it provides free trips to Israel for the young.

These liberal and Democratic identifications were reflected in the opinions of Jewish Americans of all ages on major issues.   A huge majority (82%) said that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” A majority (54%) also preferred “a bigger government that provides more services” rather than a “smaller government that provides fewer services (38%). A majority of U.S. Jews approved of Barack Obama’s job performance (65%) at a point in his administration when 50% of the general public did.

Despite the assertions of Jewish conservatives and many Jewish organizations today, the positive perceptions of Obama carried over to his policies toward Israel and Iran even when those organizations and the Israeli government were highly critical of those actions. With the exception of the Orthodox, Jewish support for the president’s policies crossed all demographic and denominational lines. It also substantially exceeded that within the U.S. general public.

The liberal and Democratic proclivities of Jewish Americans continued in 2016 when a large majority  (71%) voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; only 23% voted for Donald Trump. The Jewish vote for Clinton was similar to what it had been for other Democrats since 1968 and may have exceeded that for Barack Obama in 2012.

The attitudes of Jews toward Donald Trump have not improved since his election. A March 2017 Gallup survey indicated that Trump’s job approval as president was only 31% among Jewish Americans, 11 percentage points below that of the electorate overall.

The data are clear.   Jews remain disproportionately Democratic and highly negative about Trump. This makes it even more surprising that a number of important Jewish organizations remain reluctant to criticize the president. . Their likely rationale is that Trump will be supportive of Israel and that little good would be served by alienating a potential friend of that country, especially in light of Trump’s campaign promises to revoke the nuclear limitation treaty with Iran and move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But these leaders and organizations run the serious risk of misunderstanding and, indeed, alienating their own Jewish base on the unlikely chance (already disproven in large measure) that Trump will honor his hyperbolic campaign promises in his presidential policies. Given the high stakes, the low probability of success, and the president’s erratic behavior and elusive beliefs, it is a gamble better not taken.

*Mike Hais is an expert in market research having served for more than 22 years at Frank N. Magid Associates. He has a doctorate in political science specializing in American politics and political behavior. He is co-author with Morley Winograd of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, Millennial Majority: How a New Coalition Is Remaking American Politics, and Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America. This op/ed was written in association with Community Advocates, Inc.

 

Police at the scene where a young British woman was killed in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem on April 14. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

British woman in her 20s killed in Jerusalem stabbing attack; Palestinian man held


A British woman in her 20s studying in Israel was stabbed to death in Jerusalem allegedly by a Palestinian.

The woman, named by Israel’s envoy to the United Kingdom as Hannah Bladon, died following the Friday attack. She had been taken to the hospital in critical condition after suffering multiple stab wounds aboard the city’s light rail, Israel Radio reported. Police said she was attacked by a 57-year-old man from eastern Jerusalem’s Ras al Amud neighborhood.

Yoram Halevi, commander of the Jerusalem District of the Israel Police, told the radio station that the suspect is mentally ill and has a criminal record for domestic violence. He was apprehended at the scene.

“We know he recently tried to commit suicide,” Halevi said.

Israel’s envoy to the U.K., Marg Regev, condemned the attack on Twitter.

My thoughts are with the family and friends of UK student Hannah Bladon, who was murdered in a senseless act of terror in Jerusalem today.

Following the attack, police increased security in and around the light rail, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld wrote on Twitter.

jThe victim is a citizen of the United Kingdom studying in Israel, according to The Jerusalem Post.

The number of recorded terrorist attacks by Palestinians on Israelis increased last month by 15 percent from the previous month to 119 incidents, the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, said in its monthly report published earlier this week. No one was killed; six were injured.

The 20 attacks recorded in Jerusalem in March constitute a 30 percent increase over the 14 there in February.

Richard Gere in New York on March 3, 2015. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Richard Gere: ‘The occupation is destroying everyone’


Richard Gere’s recent visit to Israel left him with a less-than-rosy picture of the political situation there.

“As we all knew, the occupation is destroying everyone,” Gere said, following a visit to the Jewish state to promote his latest movie, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”

In the film, which is directed by Israeli Joseph Cedar, Gere plays a Jewish fixer who befriends an up-and-coming Israeli politician.

The 67-year-old actor, who is a practicing Buddhist, lamented the impact of the occupation on both Palestinians and Israelis in an interview with The Associated Press published Thursday.

“The Palestinians are becoming more depressed and desperate and with that desperation, most likely, there’s going to be more violence. Because they have no other way of expressing themselves,” Gere said.

“On the Israeli side, you see what’s happening to these young soldiers, and they’re doing things that they don’t want to do, they’re seeing things that they shouldn’t see. And the violence that’s coming from the Israeli side is something that’s destroying Jewish soul – which is by nature incredibly compassionate and forgiving and nurturing,” he continued. “So I see both sides, both cultures, being destroyed in this process. And I don’t see leaders on either side who are speaking the will and the needs of their people.”

Gere also had some harsh criticism for President Donald Trump, slamming him for talk about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv nd for choosing David Friedman — a supporter of Israeli settlements who has expressed doubts about the two-state-solution — to serve as envoy to the Jewish state.

“He’s winging it in a completely incompetent way from the beginning,” Gere said of Trump’s Israel policy.

This isn’t the first time Gere has slammed Israeli policies. In a recent Haaretz interview, the actor said “[t]here’s no defense of this occupation.”

“Settlements are such an absurd provocation and, certainly in the international sense, completely illegal — and they are certainly not part of the program of someone who wants a genuine peace process,” Gere told Haaretz.

Watch excerpts from Gere’s interview with The Associated Press below:

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, left, shaking hands with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York, March 2017. The WJC’s CEO, Robert Singer, is in the background. Photo courtesy of WJC.

UN secretary-general reaffirms ancient Jewish ties to Jerusalem


U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his recognition of ancient Jewish ties to Jerusalem during a meeting with World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.

A statement Wednesday by the WJC said Lauder and Guterres met earlier in the week in New York, and that Guterres repeated comments he had made to Israeli radio in which he noted the existence of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Palestinians in recent decades have sought to undercut overwhelming archaeological and historical evidence of an ancient Jewish presence in the city.

The WJC statement said that Guterres would do what he could to stem anti-Israel initiatives at the United Nations and its affiliates. Guterres said he could not keep the U.N. Human Rights Council from passing anti-Israel resolutions.

The statement noted Guterres’ role last week in getting the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia to remove from its website a report accusing Israel of apartheid.

“There is a breath of fresh air coming from the United Nations,” Lauder was quoted as saying in the statement. “A long overdue breath of fresh air.”

Guterres’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Israeli security forces on the scene where a Palestinian man stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 13. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

2 Israeli police officers stabbed in Jerusalem, Palestinian assailant shot dead


A Palestinian man who allegedly stabbed two Israeli Border Police officers in Jerusalem reportedly was shot and killed by another officer.

The stabbing took place overnight Sunday at the officers’ post in the Old City near the Lions’ Gate. The officers were taken to a Jerusalem hospital with moderate injuries.

The Palestinian Maan news agency identified the assailant as Ibrahim Mahmoud Matar, 25, of eastern Jerusalem.

According to the Israel police, police took Matar into the post to be searched after he was stopped at the Lions’ Gate before entering the Old City. Police said he then took out the knife and attacked the officers. Palestinian witnesses told Maan that Matar was carrying a stick and was taken out of the post by a police officer and shot at point blank range.

Early Sunday morning, police raided Matar’s home in the Jabal al-Mukabar neighborhood, arresting four members of his family, identified by Maan as his parents, brother and uncle. A flag featuring the logo of the Hamas terrorist group was removed from the home, according to The Times of Israel.

Jerusalem is under increased security Sunday and Monday due to the Purim holiday, which is observed a day later than in the rest of Israel.

Program promises Shabbat of lifetime


The vast majority of tourists who visit Jerusalem go to the Old City and, depending on their interests and beliefs, make a point of seeing archaeological sites, eating in the Mahane Yehuda Market or visiting the Israel Museum.

What few get to experience is an authentic Shabbat meal in the home of a Jewish family.

Six years ago, Michelle Cohen and her husband, Nati, a young Jerusalem couple, decided to offer Shabbat dinners to groups and individuals seeking a genuine Shabbat dinner experience.

Sensing a business opportunity as well as a way to share the best of Israel with tourists, they launched Shabbat of a Lifetime, a company that Cohen said has grown to more than 70 host families that have offered a Shabbat dinner experience to more than 30,000 visitors from 100 countries.

For a fee that Cohen says is roughly equivalent to the cost of a Friday night dinner in a hotel restaurant, hosts offer Shabbat dinner (including ones customized for a variety of dietary needs, like allergies) tailored to overseas guests. Rituals are explained and questions encouraged.

The goal, Cohen said, “is to create positive encounters between them and Israelis. The tourists have a positive experience and return home as [goodwill] ambassadors.”

Cohen said she and her husband got the idea for Shabbat of a Lifetime after spending six months in India.

“During our time in India, we realized that the most meaningful part was meeting the local people and learning about their culture. There are maybe 2 million non-Jewish tourists who come to Israel every year, and we asked whether they are getting the opportunity to meet local Israelis in their homes. The answer was no.”

About 95 percent of guests come as part of a tour group, while the rest book directly via the company’s website (shabbatofalifetime.com). Ninety-nine percent are non-Jewish tourists or Jewish tourists who are not religiously observant.

“Let’s say you’re part of a group of 15 Chinese businessmen [who are] in Israel to understand how to invest in Israel. One part of your trip will be to join a Jewish family at a Shabbat meal to learn about Jewish culture and Shabbat traditions. Or, let’s say you’re an unaffiliated Jewish family who [is] in Israel to celebrate a daughter’s bat mitzvah. Rather than spend Friday night in a hotel, you can join an Israeli family.”

Some of the tourists hosted by Shabbat of a Lifetime are in Israel on dual-narrative tours that offer visitors the opportunity to spend time with Israelis and Palestinians.

“In the morning, they visit Palestinian farmers, and on Friday night, they’re sitting with a Jewish family in Jerusalem and having chicken soup. We’ve hosted a group of African pastors, students on university programs and Jewish women looking to strengthen their Jewish identity” and who had rarely or never experienced Shabbat before visiting Israel, Cohen said.

While the tourists learn about Israeli culture and food, “it’s eye-opening for the host, as well,” Cohen said. “We’ll have encounters between German tourists and a religious family, for example, and we have many, many groups from China.”

From her observations, Cohen said, Chinese tourists “tend to be very interested in the entrepreneurial mind of Jews and Israelis. They want to know what it is about these traditions that create the foundation for Israeli innovation.”

All families that host meals for Shabbat of a Lifetime observe Shabbat, “but there is a whole range of backgrounds and communities they identify with,” Cohen said. Families also must have the capacity to host a group of 14. One family can host 50.

“We prepare the host family about what it will entail to host, say, 30 Southern Baptists,” Cohen said. Although the food is important, so too is an understanding of their guests’ unique backgrounds.

“Our purpose is to facilitate genuine encounters,” not formal, stiff, overly polite dinners, Cohen said.

Yehoshua Looks and his wife, Debbie, have hosted more than 150 Shabbat of a Lifetime meals during the past four years. “We host up to 36 people and it sometimes ends up being a couple more,” he said, laughing. “We turn over our living room-dining space to Shabbat of a Lifetime. They provide the food, the tablecloths, the chairs. We like to serve on actual china, which goes into the dishwasher.”

Looks said his family became religiously observant long ago, “and part of our process was being involved in a very warm community in St. Louis.”

Even back then, Looks, an Orthodox rabbi, said, “we’d set a couple of extra place settings,” in anticipation of guests at the Shabbat dinner table. “We created a family dynamic of having an open home and welcoming people from all types of backgrounds.”

At Friday night dinner, Looks and his wife explain the reason Jews sing “Shalom Aleichem” and “Eshet Chayil,” and bless their children before reciting blessings over the wine and challah. 

“With some groups, the reaction is more cultural, for others, it’s more spiritual,” he said. “We get a lot of Christian evangelicals who are fascinated by the idea of Shabbat.”

Regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds, Looks said, his guests seem to enjoy discussing the Sabbath.

“We live in a world where we’ve lost the experience of rest. I’m 60-something and grew up in a world where, on Sundays, the stores were closed. There was more time and space for family bonding.”

Looks likes to tell his guests that Shabbat is his time to disconnect. “I share with all the groups that my favorite Friday afternoon activity is to unplug my internet, close down the routers. I even challenge some of our guests to try to shut off their cellphones for 24 hours.”

Looks hopes his guests — who include many secular Jews from abroad — come away with the sense that Shabbat “isn’t about what you can’t do but instead [is] a time to open ourselves up and connect on a more spiritual level to our families, our communities and to God.”

Although hosting week after week can be tiring, Looks said the “incredible warmth” his guests bring has enriched him and his family beyond measure.

“After living in Israel for 20 years, it’s easy to become a little complacent about Israel,” Looks admitted. 

“To hear stories from people who see Israel with fresh eyes invigorates us. It makes us excited about living in Israel all over again.”

From left: Orna Banai, Sharon Elimelech, Evelin Hagoel, Einat Sarouf and Yafit Asulin co-star in “The Women’s Balcony.” Photos courtesy of IMDb.com.

Israeli comedy probes religious and gender conflicts


The Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, the locale for the movie “The Women’s Balcony,” was settled by Jews from Central Asia in the 1870s and ’80s.

Their synagogue was the center of their spiritual and communal life, and they and their descendants took their religion seriously, though not rigidly, making allowances for human weaknesses and personal quirks.

During the past 30 or so years, the once tolerant and easy-going neighborhood — like other parts of Jerusalem — has been changed by an influx of ultra-Orthodox Charedim, and in the Israeli film, we sense the beginning of the transition.

The demographic transformation of Israel’s capital is a weighty topic, but the message is conveyed with a great deal of humor, leavened by the always-popular topic of the war between the genders.

As the film opens, neighbors are hurrying along the cobble-stoned streets to join in a bar mitzvah celebration, with the women and their husbands carrying pots of home-cooked food — no catering at a fancy hotel in those rugged times three decades ago.

At the synagogue, the men sit downstairs, stealing occasional glances at the women up in the balcony, who enthusiastically throw candy as the bar mitzvah boy approaches the bimah.

Precisely at this happy moment, the balcony collapses, seriously injuring the rabbi’s wife and putting the rabbi himself and the building out of commission for the time being.

In these dire straits, the young charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush) appears as a savior, offering the congregation temporary quarters and himself as the interim spiritual leader. But soon the congregation learns that the new rabbi’s service comes at a price. He preaches that the crashed balcony was God’s punishment for the immodest garments worn by the women and urges the men to buy scarves to cover the hair of their wives and daughters.

Tension rises when Rabbi David, who also has put himself in charge of repairing the synagogue, decides to dispense with the balcony altogether and exiles the women to a shuttered ante room, out of sight of the men.

When the women protest and go about raising their own money for a new balcony, Rabbi David underhandedly diverts the money for the purchase of new Torah scrolls. The docile men heed the rabbi’s edicts, but the women, led by the formidable Etti (Evelin Hagoel), organize a resistance movement.

They take a leaf from the women in Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” who ended the endless war between Athens and Sparta by denying sex to their husbands and lovers until the men agreed to stop fighting. Though the concept of a sex strike is “not something one can say out loud in a religious community,” Emil Ben-Shimon, the film’s director, observed in a phone interview, the women achieved the same result by moving out of their houses.

Forced to choose between their wives and the unbending rabbi, the men folk finally grow a spine and bid farewell to Rabbi David.

Ben-Shimon, 41, has had a successful 15-year career in Israeli television as writer and director, but always dreamed of making a feature movie. Finally, he asked his ex-wife, Shlomit Nehama, to write the screenplay and set about finding the right neighborhood to re-create the Bukharim enclave of 30 years ago.

Ben-Shimon, who lives in Jaffa, said, “I was shocked to see that about 90 percent of the residents of the old Bukharim neighborhood were now Charedim and there were separate sidewalks for men and women. … People looked at me as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

The director noted that “The Women’s Balcony” was last year’s biggest box-office hit in Israel and that “audiences loved it.” However, there was no feedback from the Charedi community “since its members usually don’t go to movies. … Their rabbis won’t let them,” Ben-Shimon said.

It took the director about three years to complete the film and he has started work on his next project, which probably will be set in Jaffa.

“The Women’s Balcony” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles and the Town Center in Encino. 

Scarlet Michaelson in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Scarlet Michaelson.

Meant2Be: A different kind of love


raised my cup of wine as the rabbi recited Kiddush in a space that was filled with young adults. My plan had been to stay in Jerusalem for five months, but this was my sixth.  

The city had compelled me to stay. The sounds of Hebrew and Arabic, both familiar and mysterious, were a musical mingling of speech and prayer. The scent of Middle Eastern delicacies wafted through the air. I lived close to train tracks, but the train no longer ran. Its tracks were paved over into a walking path, and on that summer’s evening, I saw my name etched into that path, urging me to stay even longer.

A California native, I had moved back home after attending college. My sister was a full-time student immersed in her studies; my father had begun a separate chapter in life with his new wife and daughter; and I was engaged in a frustrating job search.

Then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I shuttled her to appointments, picked up her medications, did grocery shopping and laundry, and sat with her so she wouldn’t be alone.

I knew she had a life-threatening condition, but I didn’t believe she would die. She made improvements, then worsened, then recovered again. I was convinced that the radiation and radioactive iodine treatments would work. That somehow the tumors in her head and spine would shrink and disappear.

Toward the end, a medical professional told me how sick she was. I still couldn’t believe it. My mom had never believed it either. It wasn’t like a Hallmark movie, where we held hands and cried. We fought until the end, which is why the end was so devastating. I couldn’t imagine a future without her. My mom had always loved me warmly and wholeheartedly. Now that she was gone, where would I find love?

After my mother’s death, my father and his new family moved across the country. Staggered, I turned to my sister. Born several years apart, we’d lived separate lives. She was precocious, whereas I was the more obedient daughter, the overly responsible sibling. I assumed that, despite our differences, we would be there for each other now. Instead, she informed me that she wanted her space. I had to move on.

I found a room in an apartment. My new roommate was Israeli and had been living in the States for years. I got to know his friends, most of whom were Israeli ex-pats. They hung out in groups, speaking Hebrew and sharing stories. The language, which I’d learned in elementary school, came back to me.

Finally, I went to visit Israel. It was my first time traveling alone. I stayed in hostels in Jerusalem, and rented a room in Tel Aviv. I had an amazing time navigating around in Hebrew and English, meeting people, and falling in love with a place I’d only heard about.

When I went back to the States, I moved to be near my mother’s mother. I loved being with my grandmother. She was sweet and funny; we cheered each other up and found joy in small things together. But my grandmother’s health was failing, and after a short time, she, too, passed away.

Her death brought back the broken feeling I had after my mother’s death. I moved again, wanting to be near relatives, but couldn’t integrate into their nuclear families. I didn’t feel like I belonged.

And so I returned to Israel — this time it was work-related. I discovered people who took Jewish learning seriously and saw that I could study to enhance my life. The idea appealed to me so much that, after going back to the States and working overtime for six months, I put my belongings in storage and returned to Israel to learn.

During this time, I realized that Judaism is more than a religion — it is a way to live. I met people who were different from my secular Israeli roommate and his friends, people who observed Shabbat, ate strictly kosher and prayed every day. Many of them were progressive and open-minded. I didn’t know religious people could be that way.

I quickly took on the practice of Shabbat. Without television, the internet or shopping, my new community and I were present for each other. Keeping kosher was relatively easy for me, because I had been a vegetarian since college. And I found myself enjoying prayer — connecting with something greater than myself, an eternal something that also connected me with my mother and grandmother. When I prayed, I felt embraced by love.

My year in Jerusalem changed me. There, among the olive trees and pale limestone, I felt whole again. Jerusalem, the holy city, gave me a sense of being part of a type of family that I had never known. This family was not biological. Instead, its members connected by practicing ancient traditions in a modern world. This family had faith and hope in the future.

Finally, so did I.

Scarlet Michaelson is a writer living in Pico-Robertson.

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

Courtesy of Pexels.

Letters to the editor


Thanks … but No Thanks?

Thank you, Rob Eshman, for writing what is in so many of our hearts (“Thank You, Obama,” Jan. 20). Well done, but missing one paragraph:

Thank you, Obama, for selecting Joe and Jill Biden, also fine people, who set the bar as high as you and Michelle did as examples for our nation and our youth.  

Again, Rob, a fine and important column.

Pam Pacht via email

I thank you for your “Thank You, Obama” column, and sadly say thank you to the departed Mr. and Mrs. Obama, who graced us with intelligence, wit, kindness and style. Which makes it even more difficult to face our current president, who lacks exactly those qualities.

Rick Edelstein, Los Angeles

Rob Eshman’s column overlooks many of the highly problematic issues of Obama’s presidency. To say that, “In my lifetime, there has never been an administration so free from personal and professional moral stain,” is to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, to say the least.

Obama can be credited with deporting more immigrants than any of his recent predecessors, expanding military operations in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, and granting more powers to the executive branch, which makes the Trump administration so frightening.

Aaron L. White, Los Angeles

For too many years, the Jewish Journal has been, thanks to Rob Eshman, a Democrat Party publishing organ. Naively, I always thought that the Journal’s mission was to represent all of Los Angeles’ Jewish community’s schools of thought and politics. Marginalizing readers who are not “left of center” will ultimately guarantee the demise of this publication. It is high time for the board to choose a nonpartisan editor with an inclusive world view. Let Eshman embark on his anti-Trump campaign elsewhere.

Ron Rutberg via email  

Rob Eshman should be ashamed of himself and resign as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal.

Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for more than 3,000 years, since King David moved it from Hebron (where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are buried) to Jerusalem.

It has been our capital long before Berlin, London, Moscow or Washington, D.C.

Why are you so fearful about establishing its rightful position among the nations of the world?

What can the Arabs do to us that they haven’t already tried? What can the world do to us that Hitler hasn’t already done?

Eshman: Resign.

Betzalel “Bitzy” N. Eichenbaum, Encino

Eshman’s expressions of gratitude have almost brought tears to my eyes but vomit to my mouth.

Keep up the good work, Rob. Your popularity is soaring in Gaza, Jenin and Ramallah.

Giorgio Berrin, Lake Balboa  

It’s hard to believe that a publisher could write such gratuitous fantasies about the Obama administration’s past achievements. There is no doubt that many readers would find this article offensive and misleading. Eshman’s blind admiration of Obama’s “accomplishments” is biased, one-sided, politically wrong and far from Jewish interests.

Fortunately, in the same edition, the Jewish Journal had a sense of balance by publishing the excellent opinion piece by contributor Larry Greenfield (“A Legacy of O,” Jan. 20) describing the true Obama disasters.

I urge all readers to read his op-ed.

Alex Chazanas via email 

This has been such an ugly campaign that it’s no wonder the ugliness continues. Larry Greenfield’s piece on the Obama years surpasses even the alt-right distortions. I was shocked to read this in the Jewish Journal. 

Theresa McGowan, Santa Monica

Opposing Trump

David Suissa (“When Values Divide Us,” Dec. 23) draws a false comparison between those who hate Obama and those who oppose Trump. While I can’t speak for his Shabbat guests, Trump’s ubiquitous lying, hateful speech and winks to racists must be opposed. Yes, Mr. Suissa, these violate Jewish values. The hatred of Obama is, at best, partisan politics and, at worst, latent racism.

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Washington, D.C.

An Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv on Jan. 24. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

More than symbolism involved with moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem


The location of the United States Embassy in Israel has been an issue of controversy for decades, but it is newly on the front burner. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a persistent Donald Trump campaign promise, one of its strongest advocates is U.S. ambassador to Israel nominee David Friedman, and Israeli officials called on Trump to relocate the embassy in their messages of congratulations on his election.

Like so many other variables in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one boils down to whether you feel more strongly about principles or outcomes. Unlike other areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, this is one where the smart solution is one against which I instinctively recoil.

The historical reason for the embassy being located in Tel Aviv is because the international community views the overall status of Jerusalem as being subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not an issue in which the U.S. is an outlier in any way — while there were a small number of primarily Latin American countries that located their embassies in Jerusalem in the past, there have been no embassies in Jerusalem for more than a decade.

Aside from the American position that the status of Jerusalem should not be prejudged, there is a daily and ongoing practical reason for having the embassy in Tel Aviv. American regional allies are adamant that locating the embassy in Jerusalem would be a literally explosive issue, and indeed Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have on national security grounds waived the requirement in the Jerusalem Embassy Act that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. It is taken as an article of faith that moving the embassy will create protests not only in Israel but against American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and subject American diplomats and soldiers to the threat of violence.

The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel defines its capital as Jerusalem, and yet it is the only country in the world whose capital — determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government — is not accepted by the rest of the international community. Despite the fact that Jerusalem does indeed represent a complex problem whose ultimate settlement must be resolved through negotiations, this is a red herring. Israel’s capital is in West Jerusalem, the newer section of the city that was built by Jewish residents of Palestine and was part of Israel from the very beginning. Its status is not and never has been disputed, was not and is not subject to any past or future negotiations, and is not the part of the city that is viewed by some as being more appropriately internationalized. Many Israelis and American Jews view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as an unfair double standard and believe the Palestinian and larger Arab red line over moving the embassy to be evidence that the issue is acceptance of Israel in any borders rather than a stand against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Many people and organizations on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about it, as evidenced by the flood of statements and commentary on it since Trump’s election. Similar to the debate over the president using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” it is an example of the divide over whether powerful symbolism should take precedence over more easily measurable consequences, and as with that debate, there are legitimate arguments for both. Irrespective of where one falls out, I wish that those on opposite sides of this divide would recognize that it is not a cut-and-dried debate.

To keep the embassy where it is does not constitute a purely neutral move. Israelis rightly feel that it signals an unwillingness to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, the return to which was the object of centuries of Jewish longing. An American embassy in West Jerusalem does not prejudice the status of the Old City or negate the eminently reasonable desire of Palestinians to have their future capital in East Jerusalem. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv grants a hecklers’ veto to those whose real problem is with any Israeli presence in Jerusalem and who aim to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. As with the Temple Mount status quo, having the world’s diplomatic corps to Israel live and work in Tel Aviv is a painful concession, even if it is one that ultimately is wise for security purposes.

To move the embassy is an ideological move completely devoid of any practical considerations. It doesn’t mean that it is ultimately the wrong policy to adopt, but it is highly misleading to pretend that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the clear “pro-Israel” move and that keeping it in Tel Aviv is a sign of less than full support for Israel. Moving the embassy will not necessarily result in chaos and riots in Jerusalem itself, but there is no question it will result in chaos and riots somewhere, whether in other spots in Israel, the West Bank, Muslim-majority countries, or at American and Israeli embassies around the world. Is making a completely symbolic statement of moving the embassy worth even one American, Israeli, or Palestinian life? Is it worth even one dollar of property damage? Is it worth the Palestine Liberation Organization following through on its threat to withdraw its recognition of Israel, or halt the security cooperation that is preventing mass terrorism and rockets from the West Bank? The idea that the American embassy can be moved in a cost-free manner is laughable.

The embassy issue is hard. Do not use it as a litmus test for what is right or wrong, what is supportive of Israel or not, what should be done or should not be done. Above all, do not turn it into such a sacred cow that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv will automatically result in a 50 percent cut to American embassy security worldwide, as the absolutely insane bill introduced in the Senate last week will do. Policies have consequences, and moving the American embassy or keeping it where it is involves a lot more than whether diplomats will have to order new business cards. We are entering an era where every policy is in danger of being reduced to a mere rhetorical argument; do not give in to that temptation with regard to this one.


MICHAEL J. KOPLOW is the Israel Policy Forum’s policy director, based in Washington, D.C. Reach him at mkoplow@ipforum.org.

Trump tells Israeli reporter in Washington he will move embassy to Jerusalem


President-elect Donald Trump told an Israeli reporter that he will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump made the remarks at an event Tuesday evening in Washington, the Israeli daily Israel Hayom reported on Thursday.

Israel Hayom reporter Boaz Bismuth, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Mauritania for four years until 2008, attended the event sponsored by Trump’s close associate, chairman of the 58th Presidential Inauguration Committee Thomas J. Barrack Jr., for current diplomats serving in the United States.

Bismuth reported that during a conversation with Trump, he asked the president elect if he remembered telling him in a previous interview that he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

He reported that Trump replied: “Of course I remember what I told you about Jerusalem. Of course I didn’t forget. And you know I’m not a person who breaks promises.”

Asked about current events in Israel, Trump replied: “I can’t wait to start working with Israel. This weekend, relations between us officially begin.”

Israel Hayom is a free Hebrew-language daily newspaper owned by Republican donor and billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

During the campaign, Trump said he would move the embassy, but his transition team has declined to offer a timeline for the action.

Trump’s choice for secretary of defense said at confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate on Thursday that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital.

“The capital of Israel that I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv, sir, because that’s where all their government people are,” James Mattis, a retired four-star general, told the senators in response to questions about policy on Israel.

David Friedman, Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in the announcement of his nomination that he hoped to work from a Jerusalem embassy.

Congress recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 1995 and mandated the move to Jerusalem, but successive U.S. presidents have exercised a waiver in the law that allows them to delay the move for national security reasons. U.S. security and diplomatic officials say that moving the embassy would stir anti-American violence in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Obama told Trump that embassy move to Jerusalem could be ‘explosive’


President Barack Obama said he told his successor Donald Trump that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem could be “explosive.”

“Obviously it’s a volatile environment when sudden unilateral moves are made that speak to the core issues or sensitivities of either side. That can be explosive,” Obama said Wednesday at his final news conference when asked if he consulted with Trump about moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.

Obama said his administration’s message to the Trump transition team was “pay attention to this, this is volatile stuff, people feel deeply and passionately about this.”

Obama said he understands that it is important to give a new president a wide berth on policy issues.

“I think it is right and appropriate for a new president to test old assumptions and re-examine the old ways of doing things, but if you’re going to make big shifts in policy … you want to be intentional about it, you don’t want to be off the cuff when it comes to an issue this volatile,” the outgoing U.S. leader said.

Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, his longtime lawyer David Friedman, has said he favors moving the embassy. Trump campaigned saying he would move the embassy, but his transition team has declined to offer a timeline for the action.

Congress recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 1995, but successive presidents have exercised a waiver that allows them to delay the move for national security reasons.

At the news conference, Obama again defended his decision last month to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion. It was the first time Obama had allowed a resolution that Israel opposed.

Obama noted that his own attempts to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had ended in failure, and said that settlement expansion was eroding the prospect of a two-state solution.

“It was important for us to send a signal that this moment may be passing,” the president said. “Hopefully that creates a debate inside Israeli and Palestinian communities that won’t immediately result in peace but will at least lead to a more sober assessment.”

2 soldiers killed in Jerusalem truck-ramming attack are US citizens


Two of the four Israeli soldiers killed in the truck-ramming attack in eastern Jerusalem were American citizens.

The soldiers were buried Monday in separate cemeteries a day after the attack on the promenade in the Arnon Hatnatziv neighborhood.

Erez Orbach, 20, of Alon Shvut in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem was an American citizen, Haaretz reported, citing a U.S. Embassy official. He holds U.S. citizenship through his mother, according to the newspaper, citing a family member. Orbach was the oldest of six brothers.

Shira Tzur, 20, of Haifa, had American-born parents, according to Haaretz, which cited a soldier in her unit.

The others killed were Yael Yekutiel of Givatayim and Shir Hajaj, 22, of Maale Adumim.

The soldiers were on an educational trip along with several other groups. They had just gotten off a bus in the promenade when the driver of the truck, a resident of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, drove into them, reversing back over the bodies after he had hit them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited some of the injured soldiers on Monday morning. One reportedly remains in a life-threatening condition, breathing with the help of a respirator and facing more surgery.

UN Security Council condemns deadly truck-ramming attack on Israeli soldiers


The United Nations Security Council condemned the truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem that left four Israeli soldiers dead.

The statement tweeted late Sunday night by Sweden’s mission to the United Nations “condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack” in the eastern part of the city on Sunday and expressed condolences to the families of the victims and the government of Israel. Sweden holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month.

“The members of the Security Council reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security,” the statement said, and that the council finds any acts of terrorism “criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation.”

The statement “reaffirmed the need for all states to combat by all means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.”

The soldiers were killed and at least 15 were injured when the driver of a large truck, a resident of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, drove into a group of soldiers who had just exited a bus on the promenade in the Arnon Hatnatziv neighborhood, which marks the border between the eastern and western halves of Jerusalem.  The driver then reversed back over the bodies after he had hit them before being shot by a civilian tour guide and at least two soldiers.

The Security Council late last month passed a resolution by a vote of 14-0, with the Unites States abstaining, condemning Israeli settlements, calling them illegal and an obstacle to achieving peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Israel again faces world’s rejection of settlements


Ahead of the unknowns a Donald Trump administration will bring to American Middle East policy, President Barack Obama’s administration allowed a bracing reminder on Dec. 23 that the international community does not recognize the validity of Israel’s presence in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The U.S. abstention on the U.N. Security Council vote was hardly unprecedented, but neither was it entirely consistent with recent U.S. policy. The Obama administration did not quite endorse Resolution 2334, but its abstention ensured the resolution, reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements in lands captured by Israel in 1967, would be adopted. As one of the five permanent members of the 15-member council, the U.S. could have exercised its veto power. Instead, the resolution passed, 14-0.

For 24 years, the United States under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama insulated Israel from an international community that, since 1967, has sought to exact consequences for its continued presence in disputed lands. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, those three administrations considered the isolation of the Jewish state at the United Nations to be counterproductive to encouraging Israel to take bold steps for peace.

By 2004, George W. Bush had effectively recognized the large settlement blocs bordering 1967 Israel as “realities on the ground” and suggested that the Palestinians would be compensated for the territory with land swaps. Obama’s apparent message to the world is that incentives did not work in slowing settlement expansion. The carrot having wilted, the president reintroduced the stick.

Obama administration officials have said plainly that the expansion of settlements absent a peace process led to the decision to abstain. Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in her explanation of the abstention, listed the considerations that made the administration hesitate to allow the resolution — chief among them the historic anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and Palestinian intransigence. But she also noted that since the Oslo Accords, the settler population has increased by 355,000.

As much as the language in the resolution has stirred cries of “unprecedented” in Israel and in some pro-Israel precincts in the United States, it is broadly consistent with resolutions that the United States allowed from 1967 at least through the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in January 1981.

The recent U.N. resolution reaffirmed “that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity,” and constituted a “flagrant violation” of international law. Resolution 465, passed in March 1980 under Carter with a U.S. vote in favor, determined that “all measures” that would change the physical or demographic character of the occupied lands, including Jerusalem, “have no legal validity” and are a “flagrant violation” of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It further called on countries to “distinguish” between Israel and the West Bank.

Under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the council did not explicitly reject settlements as illegal, but referred to earlier resolutions that did so while continuing to assail the occupation as untenable. 

The practical consequences of the resolution passed Dec. 23 seem limited. If there was an unprecedented element to the affair, it was in the response by Israel’s leadership and some in the American pro-Israel community. 

“The Obama administration carried out a disgraceful and anti-Israel trap at the United Nations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the lighting of the first Chanukah candle.

Statements by mainstream pro-Israel groups were relatively temperate — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee called the abstention “particularly regrettable.” On the right, the responses were more unleashed.

“Obama’s an anti-Semitic Israel-hater sympathizing with radical Islamic terrorists,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, in his first-ever tweet.

Netanyahu and his ambassador to Washington, D.C., Ron Dermer, said they were counting on the Trump administration to reverse course. Dermer said in multiple interviews he had evidence that the Obama administration did not simply abstain but colluded in framing the resolution, an accusation strongly denied by administration officials.

Israel is now looking ahead to a new American order. At the Chanukah ceremony, Netanyahu spoke of “our friends in the incoming administration” — David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador designate, is an active supporter of the settlement movement.

Will Trump usher in that era? His pronouncements after the resolution were relentlessly critical, promising in one tweet that “things will be different” at the U.N. after he assumes the presidency, and lamenting in another that the council’s action “will make it much harder to negotiate peace.” 

In total, the statements appeared to regret the passage of the resolution — but stopped well short of pledging to reverse its effects.

GOP senators introduce bill forcing president’s hand on moving embassy to Jerusalem


Three Republican senators have introduced a bill that would force the president to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

The bill introduced Tuesday by Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Dean Heller of Nevada and Ted Cruz of Texas would remove the presidential waiver from the 1995 law passed by Congress recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mandating the move from Tel Aviv.

Successive presidents have exercised the waiver every six months, most recently President Barack Obama in December. They cite national security reasons over concerns that a move would lead to Islamist and Arab nationalist attacks on Americans and their allies in the region.

The bill would slash in half the funds that Congress disburses to the State Department for building, securing and maintaining embassies until the embassy opens in Jerusalem.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, but his transition team said declaring a timeline for a move would be inappropriate until Trump becomes president on Jan. 20.

Rubio and Cruz lost to Trump in the Republican presidential primaries.

Trump nominates David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, where he will ‘work from Jerusalem’


President-elect Donald Trump is nominating a top Jewish surrogate, David Friedman, to be ambassador to Israel, with a statement saying Friedman will serve from Jerusalem and describing the city as “Israel’s eternal capital.’

Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has for years worked for Trump and his real estate development business, was with Jason Greenblatt, another Trump lawyer, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, one of his main emissaries to the Jewish community. Friedman this week briefed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on what to expect from a Trump presidency.

The Trump transition team’s statement said Friedman – who like the incumbent ambassador, Dan Shapiro, speaks Hebrew – intends “to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Congress recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 1995 and mandated the move to Jerusalem, but successive presidents have exercised a waiver in the law, citing national security interests. U.S. security officials believe that moving the embassy to Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews and claimed by the Palestinians as their capital, would precipitate anti-American violence in the region and beyond.

In what has become a feature of transition statements, the release included a dig at the outgoing Obama administration.

“The bond between Israel and the United States runs deep, and I will ensure there is no daylight between us when I’m President,” Trump said in the statement. “As the United States’ Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman will maintain the special relationship between our two countries.”

President Barack Obama increased U.S.-Israel defense and intelligence sharing, but challenged the practice of his two immediate predecessors – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – of keeping diplomatic agreements behind closed doors. Early in his administration, Obama told Jewish leaders the policy of “no daylight” had not advanced peace in the region.

Report: Trump transition team checking possible locations for Jerusalem embassy


The transition team for President-elect Donald Trump is already checking into possible locations in Jerusalem for the U.S. Embassy, according to an Israeli news channel.

Channel 2 reported Monday night that officials from Israel’s Foreign Ministry had begun checking into possible sites on behalf of the Trump team. The news came hours after Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt during his show that moving the embassy was a “big priority” for Trump.

“It is something that our friend in Israel, a great friend in the Middle East, would appreciate and something that a lot of Jewish Americans have expressed their preference for,” Conway said. “It is a great move. It is an easy move to do based on how much he talked about that in the debates and in the sound bites.”

Foreign Ministry officials last week reportedly met with officials from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry to discuss the availability of the Diplomat Hotel in the Talpiot neighborhood, a privately owned building that is home to 500 elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, according to Channel 2. The building reportedly will not be available until 2020, however.

Some political and security officials in Israel are expressing concern over Trump’s expected move to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem because of the expected response of the Arab world, Channel 2 reported. The report also said the action is being undertaken without coordination with the current administration of the U.S. State Department, which does not agree with the move.

Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the United States, told The Wall Street Journal that the Palestinians hope the incoming Trump administration will keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. He said moving the embassy would make it more difficult to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We expect the incoming administration and the president-elect to understand the sensitivity of the issue of Jerusalem and to understand that Jerusalem hasn’t been recognized by any administration, Republican or Democrat, as the capital,” he told the Journal.

On Tuesday at a news conference in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a Trump decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would be “great.”

Congress passed a law mandating the move in 1995 that included a presidential waiver that lapses every six months. Each president since then has exercised the waiver, with President Barack Obama doing so as recently as last week, less than two months before he leaves office.

The waiver requires that the president assess that moving the embassy would pose a national security risk to the United States. U.S. administrations for decades have said that such a move would precipitate anti-American violence in Muslim lands.

Jerusalem mayor sees a bright future for city in the Trump era


It’s been nearly 50 years since Israel captured eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. For the past eight years, Nir Barkat has been this city’s mayor.

On Sunday evening, six months ahead of the “united Jerusalem” jubilee, Barkat received an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where he gave the keynote speech. A staunch advocate of Israeli control over all of Jerusalem, he thanked President-elect Donald Trump for his “commitment to strengthen our city by moving the U.S. Embassy home, to Jerusalem, the united and eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Late last month, Barkat sat down with JTA in his Jerusalem office to discuss in more depth his vision for the city. Having made a fortune as a high-tech entrepreneur, he easily slipped into industry jargon, speaking of the need to increase Jerusalem’s “market share” of the hearts of Diaspora Jews. He also said that all its residents were his “children.”

Barkat made clear that he sees Jerusalem as an integral part of Israel and should not be part of negotiations with the Palestinians, and expressed confidence that Trump – with whose Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, he is friendly – shares his vision.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What does it mean for you to receive this honorary degree?

Barkat: For me, it’s recognition of the changes happening in the city of Jerusalem. The honorary degree is being received on behalf of the residents of Jerusalem. I feel very proud that indeed Jerusalem is going in the right direction, but there is lots of work still to do. Toward its jubilee next year, I think it sharpens the fact that we all need to do everything we can to improve the city year after year.

JTA: What are the positive changes you see in Jerusalem?

Barkat: Jerusalem is going through economic growth, fast economic growth, and a cultural renaissance. Practically in almost every parameter we look, this city is making progress relative to years before and relative to its peer group. I think Jerusalem is fulfilling a very important role in the world of how do you make so many different people work in one city, in one inclusive economy, with democratic values.

JTA: Jerusalem also faces problems. Palestinian terrorism surged here earlier this year, and it is still the poorest city in Israel. How do you deal with problems like that on the municipal level?

Barkat: With respect to the round of violence we had, you have to understand that today Jerusalem is 10 times safer than New York. When you look at, for example, the murder rate for crime and terror together, your chances of getting killed in the streets of New York are 10 times higher than the city of Jerusalem. I settle for being one of the safest cities in the world, focusing on economic growth and making the city tick better, work better.

We have a lot of poor people, but this city is moving year after year as a better place to live. And the more we develop our economy and education system and infrastructure, that will naturally reflect on having a better future.

JTA: As the mayor of Jerusalem, why is it important for you to reach out to the Diaspora?

Barkat: For thousands of years, every Pesach [Passover] and every wedding and practically every major occasion, the longing for returning and building and connecting to Jerusalem is in our prayers and it’s in our hearts. Everyone is a shareholder in the city of Jerusalem. It’s the capital of the Jewish people forever, and I think developing that relationship, increasing that market share of people’s hearts, is in the mutual benefit of the city and the Jewish people around the world. And my role as mayor is to expand that relationship and bonding.

JTA: Why must Israel retain control of all of Jerusalem when the Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city as their capital?

Barkat: There’s a very famous phrase in the Bible that Jerusalem makes all peoples friends. Jerusalem had and has and will always have a special role of including people. God forbid, if you divide Jerusalem it will never function. It’s one economy. It’s one vision. It will never ever function as a divided city, as it did not function for 2,000 years.

Since the reunification of the city of Jerusalem, we’re working very hard to catch up with neglect and investments. There’s lots of work to do, but the philosophy is only one, and by the way, there’s no split city in the world that ever functioned. So Jerusalem is off the table, off the negotiation table, and our goal is to make it better for all residents of the city — Muslims, Christians and Jews. They’re all my children. I need and I do take care of all of them in order to improve quality of life for all.

JTA: Do you think President-elect Donald Trump shares your vision of Jerusalem?

Barkat: It seems that the vision and the understanding of the Trump administration is more aligned with the understanding of myself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The statements that have been said support that feeling that indeed it’s going to be different. The prior administration had different thoughts as to the future of the city of Jerusalem and other elements, and hopefully that change will indeed be executed. I have good reasons to believe that’s going to be the case.

JTA: Would you like to see Trump move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem as he promised during his campaign?

Barkat: Not only I, not only Israelis, I also think the majority of Americans would like to see the embassy moved. It’s a statement of understanding the role and the importance of Jerusalem for the Jewish people. It was disappointing that it did not happen so far, but it’s better late than never.

JTA: Do you expect to be freer to build your vision of a united Jerusalem with Trump in the White House?

Barkat: With the prior administration, every once in a while, we heard the sort of statement like: Freeze building in Jerusalem. So I asked the administration: Freeze what exactly? Freeze everything? Or God forbid, do you mean that I have to ask somebody if he’s Jewish or Muslim or Christian before I as mayor of Jerusalem give him a license? It’s against the American Constitution.

When we plan Jerusalem and develop it, our master plan that we share with people shows and demonstrates that we indeed are honest and fair and enable all growth — of Muslims, Christians and Jews in the city of Jerusalem — on an equal basis. I believe and hope that the new administration understands that very, very well and will let us build Jerusalem for the benefit of all residents.

Obama renews waiver delaying Jerusalem Embassy relocation


This article originally appeared on “>position paper on Israel, released six days before the election, Trump’s advisors suggested that even before negotiations take place between the two sides, “the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.”

But in an “>interview with Jewish Insider, former ADL national director Abe Foxman suggested that the Trump administration should “move the process gradually rather than as a dramatic act.”