Ahad Ha'am, c.1913

Would Ahad Ha’am be denied entry to Israel today?


While reading an interview in the Forward with the 87-year-old literary critic and polymath George Steiner, I couldn’t help but think about the string of troubling bills that have been passed by the Knesset over the past few years.

The most recent bill, from March 6, denies entry to any non-Israeli who “has knowingly issued a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel.” It should be added that the bill includes those who call for a boycott of products produced in the settlements, which is a very different matter than calling for an academic, cultural or economic boycott of the State of Israel. A good number of prominent Israeli and Diaspora Jews support a settlement boycott, while a much more marginal group supports a boycott against Israel.

To the best of my knowledge, George Steiner has not called for a boycott of Israel. That said, he defines himself as “fundamentally anti-Zionist” in that he believes that Jews are called upon to be “the guest(s) of other men and women.” Given how things are going, I couldn’t help but wonder if the day might arrive soon when Jews deemed ideologically unacceptable — for example, self-declared anti-Zionists such as George Steiner — might be denied entry to Israel.

Steiner belongs to a long tradition of modern thinkers who have defined Jewishness as the quest for intellectual, cultural or ethical excellence, rather than as the aim to attain political sovereignty. Some of these thinkers have even been Zionists. Figures such as Martin Buber, Akiva Ernst Simon and Judah L. Magnes, founding chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, made aliyah based on the belief that Judaism would reach its greatest fulfillment in the Land of Israel. They also held to the view that Zionism should not aspire to the formation of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, but rather should share power with the Arab population in a binational state.

One wonders how welcome such figures would be in the Israel of today. The Knesset has been chiseling away at the edifice of Israeli democracy through a raft of laws. In July 2016, it scaled back the principle of parliamentary immunity by making it easier to expel Arab parliamentarians. In the same month, it passed a law that called for new scrutiny of organizations that support a range of progressive causes in the country. Just last month, the “Entry Bill” turned the focus on individuals who, because of their political views, would be denied entry to the country.

Of course, many countries have used ideological beliefs as a criterion to deny entry to prospective visitors. The United States has done so itself, particularly in periods of heightened xenophobic and anti-immigrant fervor, such as the 1920s and 1950s. It is not something to be proud of. More recently, the U.S. Congress limited the practice of ideologically based exclusion through the Immigration Law of 1990 that prohibits entry only to those whose “proposed activities within the United States would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences.”

The Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

That is a pretty high bar. It is hard to see how a single person expressing her views, even in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, would cause “serious adverse foreign policy consequences” for Israel. It is especially hard to see how Israel gains by denying entry to someone who expresses opposition to the occupation via a ban on settlement products, which he may believe to be essential in order to preserve Israeli democracy! Indeed, as a general matter, the Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

What also is unsettling about the law is that it cuts against the tradition of sharp dissent that has been a constant feature of both Jewish and Zionist thought. The Zionist movement was born in contentious and productive disagreement, from the very first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. It was at Basel that Theodor Herzl gave definitive public expression to the idea of a state for the Jews. It also was at Basel that another prominent Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, declared that he felt like “a mourner at a wedding feast.” Ahad Ha’am believed that Herzl’s emphasis on achieving sovereignty did not address the key problem of the day, which was the atrophying of Jewish and especially Hebrew culture. His solution was to promote a spiritual and cultural center in the land of Israel that would radiate out rays of vitality to the Diaspora. Ahad Ha’am was a central Zionist figure whose focus was on Jewish culture rather than power.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the divergence of views in various Zionist camps — Socialist, Religious, Revisionist, among others — was a source of strength, not weakness. This diversity allowed for different groups of supporters to enter the Zionist fold through various portals, as well as for a robust competition that fortified each ideological strain.

What has changed since that formative period? Simply put, Zionism has succeeded in placing a Jewish state on the map — and not merely a state, but a powerful, technologically advanced state without peer in the Middle East. It is strange to consider the prospect that this powerful state might no longer be open to the likes of Ahad Ha’am.


David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

Gerald Steinberg, the founder of NGO Monitor, at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2015. Photo by Ron Kampeas

Leader of anti-BDS group: Israel’s bill gives ammunition to its enemies


Despite the partisan sniping at this year’s AIPAC conference, one issue that garnered consensus among the lawmakers and lobbyists was the backing of bills targeting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

So it might have been jarring for some of the activists to be approached by an avuncular, kippah-clad fellow who lobbied against an anti-BDS bill — and even more jarring when they learned that their interlocutor was Gerald Steinberg, the founder of NGO Monitor, which targets the very groups advancing BDS.

Steinberg’s target was not the AIPAC-backed congressional bills that punish businesses that boycott Israel and its settlements — the measure uses penalties in place since the 1970s on businesses that comply with the Arab League boycott. Nor was it the many state laws divesting pension funds from businesses that comply with BDS.

It was an Israeli bill, adopted last month by the Knesset, that bans entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements. The measure has already scored a hit, keeping out a prominent British pro-BDS activist.

Steinberg argued that the bill accomplishes little — Israel, like every country, already has broad discretion about whom to let into its borders.

Instead, he said, critics of Israel are using the bill as evidence of the Jewish state’s anti-democratic tendencies. Steinberg added that liberal allies of Israel in studies associations, who are seeking to block anti-Israel resolutions, are being undermined.

“The visa law doesn’t do anything, but it alienates the allies we have for these fights,” he said.

It may seem odd to hear Steinberg extol liberal allies — he and NGO Monitor have had a contentious if not adversarial relationship at times with the liberal end of the Zionist spectrum, particularly the New Israel Fund. (NIF will not fund “global” BDS activities against Israel, but will support groups that targets goods and services from settlements.)

But he suggested those fights are among family. Steinberg looked horrified when he recalled how Jennifer Gorovitz, an NIF vice president, was detained and questioned by Israeli authorities for 90 minutes upon arriving in the country in February.

Steinberg said it’s time for liberal pro-Israel Americans and right-wing Israelis to come together in fighting BDS.

“It would be useful for American Diaspora groups, including Reform and progressive groups, not just to whack back at Israelis, but to take time to educate” about the best ways of combating BDS, he said.

(In an earlier interview, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said his movement was doing just that, and made clear to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their most recent meeting how critical it was to combat BDS to maintain support for the two-state solution. “Without a strong commitment on two states, it’s pretty hard to work on BDS,” said Jacobs.)

Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, tried to reach out to the Israeli sponsors of the bill, but his appeals have fallen mostly on deaf ears. He said the sponsors were thinking domestically and trying to show their backers they were tough with Israel’s enemies.

So last week, he worked the AIPAC halls. He wouldn’t say with whom he met, but Steinberg made it clear that he believed some of the biggest movers and shakers in the American Jewish community could persuade Israeli right-wing politicians to stand down from provocations.

“I don’t think anyone involved in this legislation had any idea it was going in this direction,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Five alternatives to designating separate states


This opinion tackling the two-state solution is the “con” argument published in conjunction with Alan Elsner’s “pro” argument, “The Two-State Solution Won’t Die.

Israel never seems to have a good answer to accusations of occupation and illegitimacy of the settlement enterprise. Whenever the claim that Israel stole Palestinian lands is heard, Israel inevitably answers, “We invented the cellphone” and “We have gay rights.” Obvious obfuscation. And when pushed to explain why the much-promised two-state solution is perennially stuck, always the answer is to blame Arab obstructionism.

This inability to give a straight answer is a result of 30 years of bad policy that has pressed Israel to create a Palestinian state on the historic Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria, which the world calls the West Bank. This policy has managed to legitimize the proposition that the West Bank is Arab land and that Israel is an intractable occupier there.

But for us settlers, the truth is different: The two-state solution was misconceived and will never come to pass, because Judea and Samaria belong to Israel. We have a 3,700-year presence in this land, our foundational history is here, and we have reacquired control here in defensive wars. The world recognized our indigeneity in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the San Remo accords of 1920.

Additionally, as a result of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, when Hamas seized control and turned the strip into a forward base for jihad, starting three wars in seven years, most Israelis, however pragmatic, no longer believe in a policy of forfeiting land in the hopes of getting peace in return. No Israeli wants an Islamic State of Palestine looking down at them from the hilltops.

But as Israel is beginning to walk back the two-state solution, it is not easy to admit we were wrong, and many people’s careers are on the line. This is why Israel still mouths the two-state party line yet takes no steps toward making a Palestinian state a reality.

Now, the time has come for a discussion of new options in which Israel would hold on to the West Bank and eventually assert sovereignty there. Yes, Israel will have to grapple with questions of the Arab population’s rights, and the issues of the country’s security and Jewish character, but we believe those questions can be worked out through the democratic process.

At least five credible plans are on the table.

The first option, proposed by former Knesset members Aryeh Eldad and Benny Alon, is called “Jordan is Palestine,” a fair name given that Jordan’s population is estimated to be about 80 percent Palestinian. Under their plan, Israel would assert Israeli law in Judea and Samaria while Arabs living there would have Israeli residency and Jordanian citizenship.

A second alternative, suggested by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, proposes annexation of only Area C — the territory in the West Bank as defined by the Oslo Accords where a majority of 400,000 settlers live — while offering Israeli citizenship to the relatively few Arabs there. But Arabs living in Areas A and B, the main Palestinian population centers, would have self-rule.

A third option, which dovetails with Bennett’s, is promoted by Israeli scholar Mordechai Kedar. His premise is that the most stable Arab entity in the Middle East is the Gulf emirates, which are based on a consolidated traditional group or tribe. The Palestinian Arabs are not a cohesive nation, he argues, but are composed of separate city-based clans. So, he proposes Palestinian autonomy for seven noncontiguous emirates in major Arab cities, as well as Gaza (which he considers an emirate already). Israel would annex the rest of the West Bank and offer Israeli citizenship to Arab villagers outside of those cities.

The fourth proposal is by journalist Caroline Glick, author of the 2014 book “The Israeli Solution.” She claims that contrary to prevalent opinion, Jews are not in danger of losing a demographic majority in an Israel with Judea and Samaria. Alternative demographic research shows that due to falling Palestinian birth rates and emigration, combined with the opposite trend among Jews, a stable Jewish majority of above 60 percent exists between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (excluding Gaza), and is projected to grow to 70 percent by 2059. On this basis, Glick concludes that the Jewish state is secure and that Israel should assert Israeli law in the West Bank and offer Israeli citizenship to its entire Arab population without fear of being outvoted.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely similarly would annex and give the Palestinians residency rights — with a pathway to citizenship for those who pledge allegiance to the Jewish state. Others prefer an arrangement more like that of Puerto Rico, a United States territory whose 3.5 million residents cannot vote in federal elections. Some Palestinians, like the Jabari clan in Hebron, want Israeli residency and are actively vying to undermine the Palestinian Authority, which they view as illegitimate and corrupt.

None of these options is a panacea and every formula has some potentially repugnant element or tricky trade-off. But given that the two-state solution is an empirical failure and Israelis are voting away from it … there is a historic opportunity to have an open discussion of real alternatives.

Finally, there is a fifth alternative by former Knesset member and head of the new Zehut party, Moshe Feiglin, and Martin Sherman of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. They do not see a resolution of conflicting national aspirations in one land and instead propose an exchange of populations with Arab countries, which expelled about 800,000 Jews around the time of Israeli independence. In contrast, Palestinians in Judea and Samaria would be offered generous compensation to emigrate voluntarily.

None of these options is a panacea and every formula has some potentially repugnant element or tricky trade-off. But given that the two-state solution is an empirical failure and Israelis are voting away from it, and given that the new Donald Trump administration in the U.S. is not locked into the land-for-peace paradigm, there is a historic opportunity to have an open discussion of real alternatives, unhampered by the bankrupt notions of the past.

YISHAI FLEISHER is the international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, home of Machpelah, the biblical tombs of Judaism’s founding fathers and mothers.

An aerial view of Israel’s largest settlement, Maale Adumim, March 12, 2008. Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images.

Knesset committee delays vote on bill to annex large West Bank settlement


A Knesset committee vote on a bill that would annex the large West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim was postponed to avoid a conflict with a visiting Trump administration official.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation was scheduled to take up the bill, which would subject the settlement to Israeli law, on Tuesday, but delayed the discussion due to the visit by Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s adviser on international relations, who is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to gauge attitudes on peacemaking.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, agreed on Monday to postpone the discussion of the bill shortly after a five-hour meeting in Jerusalem between Greenblatt and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The Times of Israel reported. Greenblatt was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday.

The bill’s sponsors had initially rejected a request to postpone a vote on the legislation by three months, according to the news website.

Discussion of the bill had also been postponed in late January, following Trump’s inauguration, until after last month’s meeting between the president and Netanyahu.

The international community and the Palestinians argue that making Maale Adumim an official part of Israel will prevent the formation of a Palestinian state, since it would prevent territorial contiguity.

Some 40,000 Jewish settlers live in Maale Adumim, which Israel considers a settlement bloc that would become part of the nation under a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Demonstrators protesting outside the Spanish Government Delegation in Barcelona, Oct. 20, 2015. Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Knesset bans entry to foreigners calling for boycotts of Israel


Israel enacted a law banning entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements.

The Knesset passed the law by a vote of 46-28 on Monday, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

The ban applies to any foreigner “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.” It includes those who urge boycotting areas under Israeli control, such as the West Bank settlements.

The measure was meant to target groups, rather than individuals, according to Roy Folkman, a lawmaker from the Kulanu party.

“It doesn’t cover any individual who ever said something. It’s aimed mainly at organizations that work against Israel,” Folkman said, according to Haaretz.

The Interior Ministry will be able to make exceptions to the law, and foreigners with residency permits will not be affected, according to The Times of Israel.

Last week, Israel denied a tourist visa to an American employee of Human Rights Watch days after denying his application for a work visa, citing the organization’s alleged anti-Israel bias. In explaining the visa denial, the Israeli government said the group’s “public actions and reports have focused on politics in service of Palestinian propaganda while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights.’”

Iain Levine, the program director for Human Rights Watch, said it was “deeply troubling that Israeli officials, despite promises to the contrary, have denied Human Rights Watch’s country director a visa to enter Israel.”

“Blocking access for human rights workers impedes our ability to document abuses by all sides and to engage the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and partners to improve the human rights situation for all,” he said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on March 6. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Annexing West Bank will lead to ‘crisis’ with Trump administration, Liberman warns


Annexing the West Bank will lead to a “crisis” with the Trump administration, Israel’s Defense Minister warned.

“I am saying it as clearly as possible: We received a direct message from the United States saying that Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank would mean an immediate crisis with the new administration,” Avigdor Liberman said Monday during an appearance  before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Liberman called on the ruling government coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “clarify very clearly, there is no intention to impose Israeli sovereignty.” Liberman is due to meet with top U.S. administration officials this week in Washington.

The warning came in response to an interview over the weekend with Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar, who told the Israeli news channel i24 News that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer possible.

“The two-state solution is dead,” Zohar said. “What is left is a one-state solution with the Arabs here as, not as full citizenship, because full citizenship can let them to vote to the Knesset. They will get all of the rights like every citizen except voting for the Knesset.”

Liberman said the interview raised red flags around the world. “I’m getting calls from all of the world wanting to know if this is the position of the coalition,” he told the Knesset committee. “As far as my opinion is concerned, we need to separate from the Palestinians and not to integrate them. The decision to annex Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) would mean the integration of 2.7 million Palestinians in Israel.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has not called specifically for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When asked about the topic last month during a news conference in Washington with Netanyahu, Trump said: “I like the one the two parties like … I can live with either one.”

Trump’s position diverges with that of previous U.S. presidents, who said two states was the only viable solution for resolving the conflict.

The assembly hall of the Knesset on Oct. 31, 2016. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Knesset passes historic bill to legalize settlements on Palestinian land


The Israeli parliament passed a bill that would retroactively legalize some West Bank settlements built on private Palestinian land.

Knesset lawmakers voted 60-52 in favor of the measure late Monday to legalize some 4,000 settler homes.

The law, which prevents the government from demolishing the homes, comes less than a week after police forcibly evacuated the Amona outpost. It represents the first time the government has tried to implement Israeli law in Area C, part of the West Bank that is under Israeli civilian and military rule, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Knesset member Shuli Muallem-Refaeli of the pro-settler Jewish Home party said Monday that the bill was “dedicated to the brave people of Amona who were forced to go through what no Jewish family will have to again,” The Times of Israel reported.

The bill has drawn sharp condemnation. Leaders of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid, the second and fourth largest parties in the Knesset, respectively, both warned against its passage.

Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has said the bill violates local and international law and would likely be overturned by the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present for the vote, as his scheduled return from a trip to the United Kingdom was delayed.

Following a Monday meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu denied he had sought to delay the vote after Feb. 15, when he is set to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., Haaretz reported.

“I never said that I want to delay the vote on this law,” Netanyahu said. “I said that I will act according to our national interest. That requires that we do not surprise our friends and keep them updated – and the American administration has been updated. This process was important for me because we are trying to act this way, especially with very close friends.”

On Thursday, Trump in his first statement on Israeli settlements since taking office said construction of new settlements “may not be helpful” in reaching a peace agreement, though he denied that existing settlements are impediments to a deal.

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which have traditionally been hesitant to weigh in on Israeli domestic issues, both criticized the measure on Monday.

ADL leaders said it would harm Israel’s image abroad and lead to legal repercussions.

“[I]t is imperative that the Knesset recognizes that passing this law will be harmful to Israel’s image internationally and could undermine future efforts to achieving a two-state solution,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director.

The director of ADL’s Israel office, Carole Nuriel, added that the measure “may also trigger severe international legal repercussions.”

AJC said it was “deeply disappointed” about the bill’s passage and called on the Supreme Court to “reverse this misguided legislation.”

“The controversial Knesset action, ahead of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Trump in Washington, is misguided and likely to prove counter-productive to Israel’s core national interests,” said AJC CEO David Harris.

B’Tselem, a watchdog monitoring human rights abuses in the settlements, slammed the bill.

“The law passed by the Knesset today proves yet again that Israel has no intention of ending its control over the Palestinians or its theft of their land,” the group said in a statement. “Lending a semblance of legality to this ongoing act of plunder is a disgrace for the state and its legislature.”

Peace Now, a left-leaning group promoting the two-state solution, also criticized passage.

“By passing this law, Netanyahu makes theft an official Israeli policy and stains the Israeli law books,” the group said in a statement. “By giving a green light to settlers to build illegally on private Palestinian land, the legalization law is another step towards annexation and away from a two state solution.”

Herzog accuses Netanyahu of interfering in U.S. election


Israel’s opposition leader, Knesset Member Isaac Herzog, on Monday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disavow his wealthy allies who are supporting Donald Trump for president if he claims impartiality.

“Recently there have again been reports of Israeli leaders interfering in the elections through overseas proxies,” Herzog said at the start of the Zionist Union’s faction meeting in Jerusalem. “I call on Netanyahu to instruct those close to him to make sure no damage is done.”

Las Vegas casino mogul  Sheldon Adelson, who has donated tens of millions to the Trump campaign, is a close ally of the prime minister.

On Monday, it was

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, ex-defense minister and longtime Knesset member, dies at 80


Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Labor Party leader and defense minister who served in the Knesset for 30 years, has died.

Ben Eliezer, who withdrew from the country’s presidential election in 2014 over corruption charges, died Sunday in a Tel Aviv hospital. He was 80.

Known by the nickname “Fouad,” Ben-Eliezer served in the Knesset from 1984 through 2014. He led the Labor Party in 2001 and 2002.

In the early 2000s he was the defense minister for four years under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the second Palestinian intifada. The West Bank security fence was built during his tenure.

In December 2014, Ben Eliezer resigned from the Knesset for health reasons. A year later he was indicted for receiving more than $500,000 from businessmen in return for political favors. He paid a nearly $3 million fine in a plea bargain in May, which kept him out of prison.

Along with being defense minister, he served in the Cabinet as housing, infrastructure, communications, and industry and trade minister.

Ben-Eliezer was born in Basra, Iraq, in 1936 and immigrated to Israel as a teen immediately after the birth of the state. He had a distinguished military career in Israel, beginning his service in the Israel Defense Forces in the Golani Brigade, which he served as an officer. He served as deputy battalion commander during the Yom Kippur War, and was appointed battalion commander of the IDF brigade responsible for protecting the Lebanese border. He was the first commander of South Lebanon, and served as commander of the Judea and Samaria region for four years until 1982, when he retired from the IDF, returning in 1984 for one year to serve as coordinator of government activities in the West Bank and Gaza.

On a visit to Tunisia in 1994 with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Ben Eliezer became the first Israeli minister to meet PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

In December 2014, Ben-Eliezer received a kidney transplant and several months later was placed in a medically induced coma with a serious case of the flu until his health improved.

“Fouad served the State of Israel for decades as a fighter, commander, public servant and senior government minister,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “I knew him and I esteemed his contribution and his special personality. In my many conversations with him, Fouad expressed his concern for – and commitment to – the future of the State of Israel that he loved so much. May his memory be blessed.”

The missing children: Yemenites who found their way to L.A. carry family wounds from Israel’s past


On a recent Sunday morning, Meir Cohen switched off the Israeli news playing on the television in his Encino home. He poured himself a glass of tea with hawaij, a cardamom-scented mix popular among Yemenite Jews such as himself. Then he reclined into a leather armchair.

Cohen had been hesitant to discuss what some see as “just another Israeli story,” he said. He’s told the story before, to little effect. He was worried another retelling would be just a waste of his time. Nonetheless, he agreed to talk.

In the late 1960s, when Cohen was about 15 years old, a letter arrived at his Tel Aviv home on Israel Defense Forces stationery — a draft notice addressed to Aaron Cohen. He’d never heard of such a person.

So he asked his mother, “Who’s Aaron?”

“Aaron is your brother,” he recalled her saying. “They stole him.” Then his mother started cursing the people who took her son from her.

At about that time, this same conversation was playing out in households across Israel.

The missing children’s parents were predominantly immigrants from Yemen, though not exclusively; some children from the Balkans and North Africa also went missing, and new media reports show that even some Ashkenazi families were torn apart.

Children said to have died in the sickness and depravation of transit camps during the state’s chaotic early years were being sent draft notices. For parents who had never really believed their children to be dead in the first place, the notices confirmed their suspicions.

It was the first time the traumatic saga of the yeladim hatufim — the kidnapped children — was resurrected. It has never completely died in the ensuing decades.

Three times in the years since, the Israeli government has formed a state commission of inquiry to investigate. And three times the commissions have failed to confirm or kill a belief, widespread among Yemenite Jews, that Israel’s early Mapai (Workers’ Party) government systematically kidnapped hundreds of children from transit camps and sold them to Ashkenazi couples who couldn’t bear children of their own.

Now, activists, legislators and journalists in Israel once again are elevating public attention on the story of the missing children. 

Cohen said he has little hope that this new round of questioning will be any more conclusive than its predecessors. He’s encouraged, though, by the fact that Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent minister of Yemenite origin in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has become the de facto leader of the new effort. 

The push in the Knesset to relitigate the issue started with Nurit Koren, a Likud member whose parents were born in Yemen. She grew up in a community where the missing children were a frequent topic of lament.

“I heard about it all the time when I was a child,” Koren told the Journal. After she was elected in 2015, “I said to myself, ‘I must do something with this.’ ”

In February, she approached Netanyahu to suggest he take up the issue and delegate to Hanegbi, a trusted ally of the prime minister, the task of declassifying as much evidence as possible.

But for her part, Koren is not waiting for the results of the investigation. Instead, she’s organizing a genetic database so children who suspect they went missing can potentially reconnect with their birth families. (In a phone interview, she encouraged those wishing to participate to reach out to her via email at nkoren@knesset.gov.il to learn how they can be tested free of charge.)

Koren described a massive outpouring of interest from impacted families after Israeli headlines began to crop up about her campaign.

“This is the time,” she said. “People want answers.”

Already, Hanegbi has ordered that previously classified material from earlier investigations be released to the public. But the Holy of Holies — a roster of names and addresses of vanished children — remains elusive, if it exists.

It is beyond doubt that something went awry in the early days of the state. Children were displaced from parents. Accounts of empty graves and grown children reunited with parents seem to confirm as much. In 1997, The New York Times carried the story of a Sacramento woman who had been shown by genetic testing to be the missing daughter of an Israeli Yemenite mother. 

Each successive commission has made note of a growing number of missing children while failing to explain the circumstances behind each instance. The most recent investigation, begun in 1995, dismissed the idea that children were purposefully kidnapped but sealed much of its evidence. 

The report chalked up the disappearances to a long list of bureaucratic and communication failures, said Nadav Molchadsky, a professor of history at the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, who researched the investigations for a forthcoming article, “Negotiating a Contested Jewish Past: Commissions of Inquiry and the Yemenite Children Affair.” 

Painful questions linger in the wake of the last investigation, which went on for six years, the longest state commission of inquiry in Israel’s history, he said.

“Neither the commission nor the families give us a full explanation about what happened or did not happen,” Molchadsky said in an interview. “And it’s very hard to live with this notion, with this awkwardness, especially because it’s a tragedy — it’s a human tragedy and it’s a national tragedy.”

But within the Yemenite community, many are certain the Israeli government preyed on the naiveté of immigrants — predominantly, but not exclusively, Yemenite ones — to steal their babies from their very arms.

As Yemenite Jews have joined in the Israeli emigration to centers of Jewish life around the world, including to Los Angeles, they brought their pain with them.

“All these kids today are like hostages by these Ashkenazi families — period,” said Cohen. “We have to release them.”

A Right to Know

Three years before Meir Cohen was born, his mother gave birth to a beautiful boy. He remembers her saying the baby had “cheeks like apples.” A few days later, a nurse summarily informed her that Aaron was dead. 

Cohen’s mother demanded her son’s body — it’s a Yemenite custom to sit in mourning even for a stillborn baby — but the hospital refused. Shortly after, when his family opened the grave where hospital officials told them Aaron was buried, they found it empty.

Today, Meir Cohen is 63. If Aaron is alive, he is 66.

“Something very crooked happened,” said Yaniv Levi, an Israeli of Yemenite heritage in his early 40s who has lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for 14 years.

The grandchildren of Yemenite immigrants — people roughly Levi’s age and generation — are leading the charge in Israel to declassify documents and hopefully bring to a close a painful chapter for their families. 

“We are not going to be suckers like our parents, our grandparents, who came [to Israel] and just went with the flow,” Levi said in an interview, sitting in the back patio of the office space where he works on Robertson Boulevard.



Yemenite children at Kisalon, a transit camp near Jerusalem, in 1950. Photo by David Eldan/GPO

The first time he remembers his family openly discussing the story of Pinchas, his uncle, was at the shiva, or mourning period, of his grandmother Miriam.

“It was Friday night,” he said. “We ate together during the shiva, and this issue came up — like, the kid doesn’t know that his mom passed away. His biological mom actually passed away. But what could we do, you know?”

Pinchas Levi was last seen by a member of his family on Dec. 10, 1949. He was 3. The toddler was being loaded onto the back of a truck in the Ein Shemer transit camp near Hadera in Israel’s north, supposedly to receive vaccinations, according to an email to the Journal from Yaniv’s father, David, and aunt, also Miriam. Both live in Israel.

“Pinchas was a beautiful boy, with light skin and blue eyes,” they wrote. “He had a birthmark on his neck.”

His mother was hospitalized when they came to take him, and his father had died, leaving Miriam, just 12, in charge of the family.

“Since that day, our mother didn’t see him, and until her last day, on Passover 1991, when she passed away, she never forgot him and was in sorrow of his disappearance,” they wrote.

Yaniv Levi wouldn’t mind seeing somebody in Israel’s government go to jail for stealing children, even though he believes it unlikely the people responsible are still alive. But punishment is not his focus. 

“If we will know who did the crime and they will be ashamed of themselves, that’s also welcome,” he said. “But the main goal is to know: Where is my uncle? We have the right to know where he is, and he has the right to know who’s his family.”

Koren, too, said recrimination is not her goal, and she’s willing to go as far as passing a law that would shield any perpetrators from punishment if it would further the investigation.

“I want to find the children,” she said. “I want to know what happened — only this.”

In the Cold and Mud

Ely Dromy moved to Los Angeles from Israel in 1971 and built a successful real estate business. Today, he is an active benefactor for many Jewish and Yemenite causes, including Tifereth Teman, a Yemenite synagogue on Pico Boulevard.

But in October 1949, his family left a comfortable life in Yemen to become penniless immigrants to Israel.

He was barely 6 months old when he boarded a plane with his family as part of Operation Magic Carpet (in Hebrew, kanfei nesharim — the wings of eagles), which airlifted thousands of Yemenite Jews to Israel.

Most of the immigrants had never so much as seen an airplane before. Dating from the Babylonian exile, the Yemenite Jews were isolated from the rest of the people of Israel. To them, the ingathering must have been an event of, literally, messianic proportions.

The reality that awaited them was an impoverished and untamed expanse of land surrounded by enemies and struggling to call into being a Jewish state. 

Dromy’s family found its way to Ein Shemer around the same time as Levi’s.

The makeshift camps’ former residents refer to them as ma’abarot, a word that seems to come from the Hebrew ma’avar, or transit.

Accounts of the camps are colored by disease and hunger. A lack of adequate shelter left residents boiling in the summer and cold and wet in the winter. It was amid this chaos that babies began to go missing.

Top:  Ely Dromy, left, shortly after his family left the Ein Shemer camp. Bottom: David Dromy (standing) and his father, Ely, at their Beverly Hills office. According to family lore, Ely was kidnapped in the Ein Shemer transit camp as a six-month-old child. 

Dromy believes he was almost one of them. Immediately upon his family’s arrival at the camp, authorities took him from his mother, Shula, to place him in a hospital nursery. After about five days, during which nurses turned away Shula when she came to see her son, Shula ran into her sister-in-law, who literally smacked her into her senses.

“My aunt said to her, ‘Be careful,’ ” Dromy recalled, sitting with impeccable posture in his Beverly Drive office. “‘It’s on your life. They are disappearing babies.’”

Shula went straight to the hospital and forced her way past staff members. She burst into the nursery, locked the door behind her and went looking for her baby. Finding him, she tied the baby around her belly and jumped from the second-story window.

“I trusted in God and didn’t think twice,” she says in a video recorded by her relatives before her death.

The winter of 1949 brought historic rains, Ely Dromy said, and the camps were choked with mud. When camp officials came looking for the baby, his mother had hidden him away in the muck of a friend’s makeshift abode until she could retrieve him.

I’m Sorry I Came

In the opening sequence of the classic Hebrew film “Sallah Shabati” (1964), a satire of the ma’abarot that mocked pompous kibbutzniks and unmannered immigrants with equal cruelty, the title character walks off a plane from Yemen with his large family and finds a local housing official.

“How many children do you have?” the potbellied Ashkenazi asks the slouching, bearded immigrant.

“A lot,” Sallah says. “Six.”

“It says here seven,” the official replies, looking down at his papers.

“Let’s see what?” Sallah says in his Arabic-inflected Hebrew, squinting at the documents. Then, he looks up shiftily and nods his agreement, “Seven.”

The stereotype of Sephardic and Mizrahi (Eastern) immigrants held that they had more children than they knew what to do with. In that context, they could afford to lose a few.

A high mortality rate contributed to the idea that life was expendable in the camps.

“They had dysentery; they had the flu; they had all kinds of diseases, fever, because the water wasn’t good, because it was hot and [they were] hungry,” said Malca Yarimi, an Israeli-born Yemenite Jew whose two older siblings were born in Yemen. “They were mizkenim [pitiful folks]. And, in general, a lot of kids died. So [camp administrators] thought they could say to them in the hospital, ‘He died.’ So he died!”

Yarimi, 63, now lives in Santa Monica. Sitting down in her daughter’s Pico-Robertson apartment over Nescafé and cream cookies, she recalled a childhood in Rehovot’s Yemenite community where neighbors and friends were devastated, believing in their hearts their children were not dead. 

Consigned to squalor and their trust in the new state broken, the enthusiasm of many immigrants quickly faded to disillusionment. The title “Sallah Shabati” is a play on the Hebrew, slicha shebati — I’m sorry I came.

‘A Knife in Your Back’

Yarimi’s daughter, Maya, remembers asking her grandfather if he was happy when emissaries from Israel arrived in Yemen to announce the coming operation.

“I was so amazed to see my grandfather’s reaction,” she said, scowling and swatting the air in front of her with the back of her hand. “Like that. I was like, ‘Why is he reacting like that?’ I was taught that the Israelis came and redeemed the Yemenites.”

After immigrating to Los Angeles at the age of 28, she began to read a darker history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in Israel — a history of marginalization and discrimination.

As a teenager, she had dismissed the stories of kidnapped children as tall tales. Now she began to believe them. 

“I became very upset,” she recalled. “I said, ‘You know what, I love Israel, but I’m not proud of the state of Israel, of what it did.’ ”

In general, Israel’s early European residents regarded the dark-skinned immigrants from Arab countries with distaste, said Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, who directs the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

“When the Ashkenazi Zionists saw the boats coming, and they saw Jews from Yemen and Jews from Morocco, they didn’t really care,” he told the Journal. “It was, to them, ‘not us.’ ”

Nonetheless, Yemenite Jews were — and remain — by and large a deeply traditional community committed to the Zionist ideal. 

“All the community of Yemenites is Mizrahi, is Orthodox and is Zionist, and trusts and believes and serves in the army and everything,” said Rabbi Aharon Shaltiel, the leader of Tifereth Teman. “There’s no doubt.”

In fact, although some Yemenite Jews have become secular, like most Israelis, they remain deeply patriotic. 

Shaltiel is an energetic man with short gray sidecurls and a wide-brimmed black cap who is vocally proud of his own service in the Israeli army. But the idea that “Jewish people — people building a country together with you” could carry out the kidnappings is “very hard to live with.”

“It’s like somebody tells you we’re brothers, then puts a knife in your back,” he said.

An Uncomfortable Accounting

In the ma’abarot, the largely Yemenite population chafed at their conditions and their treatment by their light-skinned neighbors. Hungry residents stole produce from nearby farms. In 1952, rioting ensued when a kibbutz guard roughed up an old woman out gathering weeds for her goat at Emek Hefer, a transit camp close to Ein Shemer, according to an account in Haaretz. 

Even when immigrants relocated to Israel’s urban core or formed Yemenite communities in so-called periphery towns, the air of mutual suspicion lingered.

The affair simmered through two unsatisfying state investigations. In 1994, tensions escalated when Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, a Yemenite activist in a periphery town called Yehud, claimed to have evidence of 4,500 kidnapped children. Following a siege on his compound, Meshulam and his followers’ interactions with police turned violent, resulting in one death. But Knesset members eventually followed through on a promise they made to defuse the standoff and launched the 1995 commission of inquiry, which lasted through 2001.

Still, some Yemenites who grew up in Israel trade in rumors, though apparently with little foundation, of children sold as research subjects to the United States or harvested for organs.

On the other hand, some insist the entire affair of the disappeared children is made up. In an article in the Jewish newspaper Algemeiner, Steven Plaut, a University of Haifa business professor, compared talk of kidnapped children to accounts of extraterrestrial visitation.

Mistrust remains, compounded by lingering socioeconomic gaps.

Today, the periphery towns where many Sephardic and Mizrahi communities live receive a disproportionately small amount of government resources and their narratives get short shrift in textbooks, said Bouskila, the Sephardic Education Center director. 

As part of the tapestry of Sephardic and Mizrahi communities in Israel, Yemenites have long been influential in food and the arts — Middle Eastern crooners like Idan Raichel and Shlomi Shabat top Israel’s charts. But only recently have residents of periphery towns been able to attain the highest reaches of Israel’s government. 

“To become a member of Knesset or minister of government — that was not on the table in the first 40 years of Israel,” he said.

Now, the same lawmakers who have broken those barriers are demanding an account of the state’s early sins, messy as the story may be.

“The narrative is not as neat as you’d like it to be,” Bouskila said. “But I think a society like Israel only becomes better and stronger, and is only able to deal with its social and cultural problems, when it confronts them.” 

Koren, the Israeli legislator leading the charge, said she will consider her efforts a success if even a single family is reunited. 

“It’s enough for me to find one,” she said. “To bring one kidnapped child to their family.”

Knesset passes law blocking mikvah access for non-Orthodox conversions


The Knesset passed a controversial bill that allows local Orthodox rabbinates to bar non-Orthodox Jewish conversion ceremonies in publicly funded mikvahs.

The bill, which was introduced by the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and opposed by many North American Jewish leaders, was passed on Monday night, The Jerusalem Post reported. The new law will be implemented in nine months.

Under the law, the municipal rabbinates can determine who may use the mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths, in their purview. Immersion in the mikvah is part of most conversion ceremonies.

The measure aims to override an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in February that paved the way for non-Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel to use public mikvahs for conversions.

The government has said it will establish four mikvahs expressly for use in non-Orthodox conversions. However, it is not clear whether the funding will come from the government or the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is funded largely by donations from Diaspora Jews.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, condemned the new law in a statement issued after its passage.

“This bill, which offers no solution to the non-Orthodox denominations, circumvents the rulings of the High Court of Justice. It is unfortunate that the bill passed before such a solution was ensured,” Sharansky said.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the law “breaches the clear promise of the prime minister not to legislate against the progressive denominations” and was damaging to Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“This legislation jeopardizes the ability to have fruitful dialogue with the Israeli government, and we see it as a direct move by the government against millions of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel and around the world,” Kariv said.

Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement in Israel, condemned the new law as “un-Jewish and undemocratic.”

Knesset passes controversial ‘transparency’ law on NGO funding


The Knesset passed controversial legislation that requires nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding.

The so-called NGO transparency bill, which was proposed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, passed its second and third readings late Monday night after six hours of debate by a vote of 57-48.

Left-wing human rights organizations, which would be disproportionately affected, had slammed the measure. In a statement, Peace Now said it would challenge the law in Israel’s Supreme Court.

 

Under the law, NGOs that receive more than half their support from “foreign political entities” – including foreign governments or state agencies — must declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report and advocacy literature, or speak with a public official.

An earlier draft would have required representatives of such groups to wear badges identifying themselves as lobbyists of foreign governments, but the provision was scrapped. However, the NGOs are required to inform the chair of a Knesset committee that they are on the list whenever they appear before the committee.

Nearly all the 27 Israeli organizations identified by the Justice Ministry as being affected by the new rules belong to the left wing, including B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Breaking the Silence.

Many right-wing NGOs are funded by private Jewish individuals in the United States and other countries — sources whose disclosure is not required under the new law.

In a statement, Peace Now said the law “is a blatant violation of freedom of expression.”

“Tailored specifically to target only peace and human rights organizations, its true intention is to divert the Israeli public discourse away from the occupation and to silence opposition to the government’s policies,” the group said. “While the law will delegitimize left-wing organizations, pro-settler NGOs who receive millions of dollars in foreign donations without any transparency will remain unaffected.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also issued a statement saying the law “is intended to harm organizations that promote democracy and worldviews that differ from the views of the majority in the current coalition.”

It also said: “The law is but one of a series of bills and initiatives that oppose legitimate social and political action. Instead of facilitating debate, there are individuals who wish to silence criticism.”

Arab-Israeli lawmaker calls Israeli soldiers ‘murderers,’ spurring impeachment inquiry


An Arab-Israeli lawmaker called Israeli soldiers “murderers” on the floor of the Knesset, spurring talk of impeachment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The lawmaker, Hanin Zoabi, also demanded in her remarks Wednesday afternoon that the Knesset apologize for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens in clashes on a boat attempting to break Israel’s Gaza blockade. Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for the incident.

Zoabi, who made the “murderers” remark as visiting soldiers were observing the parliament from the visitors’ gallery, also demanded Knesset lawmakers apologize to her. She has been censured by the Knesset, including when she participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla and recently after she met with Palestinian terrorists’ families and stood for a moment of silence in their memories.

“I demand an apology for all the political activists on the Marmara and an apology to MK Hanin Zoabi for inciting against her for six years and hounding her. You all need to apologize, all of the members of Knesset here,” Zoabi said. “Those who murdered need to apologize, you need to apologize.”

After she was shouted down by fellow Knesset members, some of whom rushed the podium in order to remove her by force, Zoabi asked to return to the microphone to apologize. But instead, she said: “As long as there is a blockade [on Gaza], I will object to the blockade, and there’s a need to organize more flotillas.”

Knesset members responded by calling Zoabi “liar” and “filth,” and saying “You belong in Gaza.”

Zoabi’s statements came a day after Israel and Turkey signed a reconciliation deal restoring ties that had been severed following the Mavi Marmara episode.

Lawmakers Nachman Shai of the Zionist Union party and Amir Ohana of Likud filed complaints against Zoabi with the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, which is expected to meet and discuss the incident.

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu said he contacted Attorney General Avichai Mandelblot to discuss starting the process of impeaching Zoabi from the Knesset.

“She has crossed the line in her deeds and her lies, and has no place in the Knesset,” he said in a statement that was posted on Facebook.

Netanyahu apologized for the deaths in a 2013 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The apology was a Turkish condition for the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Israelis would get 6 Sundays off under bill to create ‘Western’ weekend


A Knesset committee has approved legislation that will mandate six long weekends each year — a step toward a possible Monday-to-Friday work week.

Providing the six Sundays off each year beginning in 2017 will start to transition the Israeli work week to that of most of the Western world, supporters argue. Kulanu lawmaker Eli Cohen, who proposed the legislation, argued that it would also increase work productivity in Israel, which lags other developed countries.

Israel has a Friday-and-Saturday weekend, though children in elementary school also attend school on Fridays. Many Israelis do not work on Friday, and Sunday is considered the start of the work week. The current weekend fits in with the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, and the Muslim day of prayer on Friday.

According to a 2016 report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli productivity is low and getting lower compared to most of the relatively wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even though Israelis also work about 4 hours more per week than residents of other OECD countries.

“The transition to a long weekend will dramatically change the character of work and offers many benefits by reducing the burden on workers, improve the balance between work and family life, improve individuals’ lives and contribute to business sectors like retail and tourism, and better synchronize work and school vacations,” Cohen said, according to Haaretz.

The bill, which was approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, must still be approved by the full Knesset. The legislation is aimed at leading to all Sundays off in the future.

Two of the six proposed long weekends would take place during the summer, and the other four would come during the Passover and Hanukkah vacations.

The first full Knesset vote is scheduled for Wednesday, where it is expected to pass.

Wide-ranging terror law passes Knesset in aftermath of Tel Aviv attack


A week after Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis in an upscale Tel Aviv food court, the Knesset on Wednesday passed wide-ranging new anti-terrorism legislation to replace all previous anti-terror laws and regulations.

The bill, which Haaretz said was supported by all the major parties in the Knesset except Meretz and the Joint Arab List, passed by a vote of 57-16, according to The Times of Israel. It was not clear from the media coverage why only 73 of the Knesset’s 120 members voted.

The legislation, which according to Haaretz applies only to activities inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, combines several bills and supersedes laws that go back to the prestate British Mandate era.

Defining terrorism as a harmful activity or threat committed out of a “political, religious, nationalistic or ideological” motive and designed to sow fear or apply pressure on the government or international organizations, the law does not distinguish between Jews and Palestinians or soldiers and civilians. It also specifies procedures for defining terror groups and seizing their assets, as well as how to deal with terror suspects.

The legislation strengthens the penalties on terrorists and stipulates sentencing guidelines. Perpetrators of attacks with large numbers of casualties, as well as those who use chemical or radioactive weapons or target “sensitive sites,” would receive life sentences.

Under the law, the government can jail those who publicly identify with a terror group, including publicizing praise, waving the group’s flag or singing its anthem.

Several members of the Joint Arab List party condemned the new legislation, saying many of its provisions undermine basic human rights.

The terror law is “draconian, expands the authority of the security forces and occupation authorities, in order to undermine the right to oppose the crimes of the occupation,” Knesset members Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi said in a joint statement. “The law does not define what terror is and represents a stain on the State of Israel’s horrifying law books. Indeed, this is a dark day for the Knesset.”

Thirty-three Israelis and four non-Israelis have been killed in a wave of Palestinian terrorism and violence that began in October. Two hundred Palestinians have also been killed, approximately two-thirds while attacking Israelis and the rest during clashes with troops, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

65 Israeli lawmakers sign letter requesting pardon of Ethiopian who killed his alleged abuser


More than half the members of the Knesset want Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to pardon an Ethiopian man who murdered his alleged rapist and abuser.

In 2010 Yonatan Heilo, now 29, killed Yaron Eilin, a powerful member of the Ethiopian community in Netanya who allegedly had abused him emotionally, physically and sexually for years. Eilin also allegedly raped and blackmailed Heilo on multiple occasions.

Convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison, Heilo has served five years. The Supreme Court last month rejected an appeal claiming he acted in self-defense but, according to Haaretz, downgraded his charge from murder to manslaughter and reduced the sentence to 12 years.

Yoel Hasson, an lawmaker with the Zionist Union party, organized a letter to Rivlin on Heilo’s behalf, collecting 65 signatures, according to Haaretz.

The letter notes that Heilo had no previous criminal record. It acknowledges that Heilo “committed a very serious act” and “should be punished.” However, it continues, “in no way is it possible to compare the killing in his tragic case and other cases of evil criminals.”

Heilo’s story, the letter says, “reflects the reality of the difficult lives of many members of the Ethiopian community, people whom the state and welfare authorities neglect, whom the police sometimes harasses, and in some cases many prefer to suffer in quiet simply because they feel that they have no one to turn to.”

According to Haaretz, the signatories represent all the parties in the Knesset.

Bill limiting non-Orthodox mikvah use in Israel advances to full Knesset


A bill that would bar non-Orthodox conversions at public ritual baths in Israel is headed to the full Knesset.

On Monday, the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee advanced the legislation for a first reading in the parliament.

The bill, which was introduced by the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, aims to override an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in February that paved the way for non-Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel to use public mikvahs for conversions.

The committee approved a revised version of the bill that does not require women using the mikvah for family purity immersion to immerse in a proscribed way.

Also as part of the revised bill, The Jewish Agency agreed to build four mikvahs throughout the country for non-Orthodox movements to use for conversion purposes, according to reports citing unnamed sources at The Jewish Agency.

The proposal to build the non-Orthodox conversion mikvahs reportedly has not been accepted by the haredi Orthodox parties or the Reform movement.

The Reform movement wants the state to fund mikvahs for the non-Orthodox movements. United Torah Judaism’s senior lawmaker, Moshe Gafni, does not believe the non-Orthodox movements are entitled to their own mikvahs.

Arab and Jew – activist friends in Israel


Zouheir Bahloul, an Israeli-Arab (and well-known sports announcer and recently, Knesset member) and Moshe Chertoff (a technical writer, and long-ago immigrant from Los Angeles) are friends and almost neighbors. Zouheir lives in the city of Akko, on the Israeli coast in the northern Galilee, and Moshe, in a small kibbutz a few miles north of there.

Zouheir calls them “bridge builders,” and both work hard in many ways, trying to create better relations between Jews and Arabs. They often meet and support each other, and sometimes even create joint activities.

The last few months have been tough times in Israel, with violence and casualties on both sides – and the tensions between Jews and Arabs have skyrocketed, with Israeli politicians getting more and more shrill and rigid. During these times, Zouheir and Moshe have both been outspoken against the dominant views of the situation, and have drawn on their friendship to face the many challenges they've come up against.


Harvey Stein is an Israeli-American filmmaker and video journalist living in Jerusalem. His feature documentary “A Third Way – Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors” began screenings in Western Europe and the United States, in February, 2016. You can find out more about his work at: www.jerusalemny.com/athirdway

Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick moves to Knesset


A year and a half ago, Yehuda Glick was a fringe Temple Mount activist expected to die, the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt.

This week, he was sworn into the Knesset as the ruling Likud Party’s replacement legislator for outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Glick’s journey — from the United States to Israel, from government bureaucrat to outspoken demonstrator at Jerusalem’s most contested site, and from a hospital bed to elected office — is an unlikely one. And Glick’s arrival in the halls of the Knesset reflects the growing reception of his push for Jews’ right to visit and worship on the Temple Mount. From 2009 and 2014, Jewish visits to the site nearly doubled.

Glick has been barred from the mount — revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — and was even charged with assault there (the charges were dropped). Glick and his fellow religious activists see his accession to the Knesset as a victory for a just cause after his brush with death. Critics, however, say the power he wields could exacerbate tensions at a regional flashpoint.

“I’m sure that I will be involved in the Temple Mount,” Glick said in an interview on May 22. “Just like I use the justice system and the courts, I think the political world has strong institutions to promote issues in a democratic society.”

Glick, 50, is the director of Haliba, an organization that brings Jewish groups to visit the Temple Mount and fights for Jews’ right to pray there. Previously, Glick was the head of the Temple Institute, a group that builds vessels for animal sacrifice and commissions architectural plans for a future Third Temple on the Mount.

The Temple Mount is under Israeli sovereignty but, under a deal following Israel’s 1967 takeover of the site, is run by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian body. Muslims generally have full access to the site and the exclusive right to pray there. Jews can ascend the mount only during limited visiting hours and are forbidden from doing anything resembling worship, such as kneeling, singing, dancing or rending their clothes.

“The discrimination on the Temple Mount is obvious,” Glick said. “The Temple Mount became a center of incitement and hate instead of a center of peace.”

Glick’s critics and supporters alike praise him as a gentle and benign man who seems sincerely interested in enabling members of all religions to coexist on the mount. A 2014 video shows him happily reciting a prayer in Arabic with Muslim worshippers. The men then repeat a verse in Hebrew from Psalms 24.

Analysts say Glick’s activism, however well-intentioned, could empower extremists and heighten an already explosive mood on the Mount. Palestinian leaders have accused Israel’s government of planning to change the site’s fragile status quo, which Israeli leaders fervently deny. The recent wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks in Israel began after riots and clashes on the mount.

“He’s part of a movement that deals in pyromania,” said Daniel Seidmann, an attorney and expert in Jerusalem’s geopolitics. “There are few threats that create a clear and present danger to the most vital interests of Israel more than a radical change on the Temple Mount.”

But David Haivri, a spokesman for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank and a friend of Glick’s, called him “very lovable.” Haivri said that while Glick focuses on a combative issue, he comes at it in a warm and accessible way.

“A lot of people consider him an extremist because he’s so concerned with the right of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount,” Haivri said. “They’ll discover that he’s bringing that to the table with a different type of platform. Extremism is absent in Yehuda Glick’s platform.”

Some of Glick’s fellow travelers are more provocative. When then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, visited the Mount ahead of Rosh Hashanah in 2014, he called for Jews in the future to “ascend the Mount and be seen for festivals, to bring sacrifices.”

Glick has also run into his share of trouble at the Mount. He has repeatedly been barred from the site and was charged with assaulting a female Muslim activist in 2014. The charges were dropped in February.

Michael Melchior, a former government minister who was active with Glick’s father, Shimon, in the liberal-religious Meimad Party, also questioned whether Glick should be celebrated as a voice of tolerance. While Melchior admires Glick’s use of universalist language in his Temple Mount work, he said Glick is inconsistent for not advocating for Palestinian rights.

“The human rights motive is used to say, ‘Well, why shouldn’t Jews have the right to pray everywhere?’ ” Melchior said. “But the human rights motive is a universal motive. If you believe in human rights, will you apply that to everything else that has to do with human rights?”

Glick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Israel at 9 and now lives in the West Bank settlement of Otniel. He attributes his use of the language of civil rights and equality to his American upbringing. Before his Temple Mount activism, he worked for nearly a decade in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, quitting in protest of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

He became a symbol of the Jewish Temple Mount movement after a Palestinian gunman shot him three times at point-blank range outside a Jerusalem convention center in October 2014. He was discharged from the hospital that November and a month later competed in Likud’s primaries. He won the 33rd spot on the slate — reserved for an Israeli settler.

“I felt that in a democratic country, we cannot allow a situation in which someone who is active democratically, someone who is active to promote a legitimate issue, is attacked physically because of the fact that he tried to work legally,” Glick said.

Last week, Glick tweeted critically of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to oust Yaalon — the decision that gave Glick his Knesset seat. He disapproved of replacing Yaalon — who is viewed as a pragmatist — with the hawkish and unpredictable Avigdor Lieberman, whom he criticized on May 18 for his “way of speaking, changing his political opinions depending on the mood, and [his] lack of trust in the prime minister.”

‘Attack a civilian and you’re a terrorist; Attack a soldier and you’re an adversary’


An Israeli member of parliament (MK) triggered a torrent of criticism from fellow politicians in recent days when he refused to label a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli soldier as a terrorist. Palestinians could be expected to violently resist foreign military rule just as armed Zionist organizations did when they rose up against the British Mandate prior to Israeli independence, Zouheir Bahloul, the Zionist Union’s only Arab MK (member of Knesset) said.

“The (Irgun), the Lehi, the Haganah – all of these Jewish organizations went out onto the streets to fight against the British Mandate and its soldiers, to make your state – which has become an incredible state – a reality. Why can't the Palestinians do the same?” Bahloul asked during a cultural event held in the historical city of Acre.

Bahloul’s comments came in the context of a discussion regarding Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, 21, a Palestinian who, along with an accomplice, stabbed a soldier in the contested city of Hebron. Sharif was shot during the attack and then subsequently (several minutes later) shot in the head by another soldier as he lay on the ground bleeding. The second soldier, who remains unidentified due to a gag order, is now facing manslaughter charges. Since al-Sharif's was an attack on a military individual, it did not constitute a terrorist act, the Zionist Union MK argued.

He contrasted that with attacks against civilians, including Jewish civilians living in the West Bank. “Anyone who murders someone, cuts short the life of an innocent person or ambushes a family coming home from work, is a terrorist,” Bahloul later said in an interview with Army Radio.

Criticism of Bahloul's comments has been wide-ranging, including from within Bahloul’s own party.

“The Zionist Union’s position is that a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, and it does not matter if he intended to kill Jews or Arabs,” Isaac Herzog, the party’s chairman and head of the opposition wrote on Facebook.

MK Nava Boker, from the ruling Likud party, asked that the Knesset Ethics committee suspend Bahloul, accusing him of labelling Israeli soldiers as targets and approving the spilling of their blood.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also joined in the condemnation, describing Bahloul’s comments as “shameful.”

“(Israeli) soldiers protect us with their bodies from bloodthirsty murderers, I expect every citizen of Israel, and especially MKs, to give them full support,” Netanyahu said via Facebook.

Yet despite the considerable criticism from Israeli politicians of every hue, no MK has publically disputed Bahloul’s argument that the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi conducted a violent campaign against the British military and that therefore Palestinians could be expected to use similar tactics. Instead, criticism of the Arab MK has focused on his ‘legitimization of terrorism.’

Bahloul’s point that a distinction should be made between attacks on civilians and attacks on military personnel challenges the current status quo whereby any act of violence against the Israeli army or police is automatically condemned as terrorism.

In the past, however, that distinction was made. 

“The terrorists choose to attack weak and defenseless civilians: old people, women, etc – essentially anyone, except soldiers…Guerilla fighters are not terrorists. They are irregular soldiers who fight against regular army forces and not civilians,” Binyamin Netanyahu wrote in his 1986 book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.

This is not to say that Palestinian attackers have not targeted civilians, and at times continue to do so. But during the violence of the past six months, there are signs that some ‘lone-wolf’ attackers have chosen to target Israeli police or army personnel rather than softer targets, most notably in the frequent attacks carried out at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, a well-known hotspot flooded with Israeli security personnel.

But if some Palestinian attackers (and it’s by no means all) discriminate between violence against civilians and military personnel, it is not a distinction being made much of by the Israeli media. Most of the country's leading newspapers and TV presenters describe any Palestinian accused of using violence as a terrorist.

Violence was a tool employed by the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi to reach a political goal. The three organizations shared a similar goal, the creation of a Jewish state, but differed in their approach. More radical than the Haganah, the Irgun, whose members advocated attacking the British Mandate forces, became an independent entity in 1931. The even more radical Lehi (derogatorily referred to as the Stern Gang by the British at the time) in turn separated from the Irgun in 1940. Its members disagreed with the Irgun leadership who wished to pause hostilities against the British while the latter fought Nazi Germany.

“The Haganah was very much a mainstream organization that was not particularly keen on attacking civilian targets, even members of the British civil administration,” Ben Mendales, a researcher with the Moshe Dayan Center, told The Media Line. Evidence for this can be seen in the way the Haganah distanced itself from the other two movements after the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun – an attack which killed 91 people, the majority of whom civilians – Mendales said.

Although the actions of the Irgun and Lehi were more radical, Mendales stopped short of designating them terrorists. “I wouldn’t be comfortable saying they were terrorists because it’s a very politically charged and complex issue… it’s a debate which is still being voiced today,” he explained.

The United Nations (UN), the United States and the British government regarded the Irgun as a terrorist organization. Lehi members even referred to themselves as terrorists, publishing in August 1943, “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes.” The assassination of Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat sent to the region by the UN to mediate between the Arabs and Zionists, and the massacre at Deir Yassin, were seen as two of the more radical actions taken by the Zionists in their struggle for independence. 

Yet despite such actions, these organizations were very much accepted into mainstream society in Israel, their commanders even becoming state leaders. Menachem Begin of the Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir of Lehi both became prime ministers of Israel. And here it could be argued that double standards are being applied.

“The British regarded (Yitzhak Shamir) as a terrorist the same way that we claim every Arab who stabs a soldier is a terrorist,” Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. A desire to conduct military operations without incurring a single casualty is causing Israelis to make “hysterical generalizations,” the historian argued.

“Every Palestinian who tries to attack a civilian or a soldier is an enemy, but there are different kinds of enemies: if he attacks a civilian he is a terrorist; if he attacks soldiers he is an adversary on the battlefield,” Gelber concluded.

Knesset Members stand up in solidarity with Reform Jews


Charedi Member of the Knesset Israel Eichler’s comparison on Feb. 23 of Reform Jews to mentally ill patients diminishes not only Reform Judaism, but all who suffer mental illness and who struggle with disabilities of all kinds. 

The best response is to quote from the Knesset members representing different political parties who, one day after Eichler’s remarks, addressed 330 Reform Rabbis representing 1.7 million Jews worldwide at a special meeting of the Israeli-Diaspora Knesset Committee. 

Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union and leader of the opposition): “I congratulate all of you for the recent decisions on the Kotel to create an egalitarian and pluralistic prayer space and the Supreme Court decision giving rights to Reform and Conservative converts to use state-sponsored mikvaot. The decisions of the Israeli government and the High Court of Justice are not acts of kindness. They are based in Jewish responsibility and democratic principles, which is what the state of Israel is meant to advocate. Religion in the state cannot be monopolized by the ultra-Orthodox. You in the Reform movement are our partners and will always be our partners.”

Tamar Zandberg (Meretz): “Those who are a provocation are those who prevent religious freedom, not those who demand it!”

Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union): “There is an excitement today because you Reform rabbis have come to the Knesset. Judaism is about values, about being inclusive and not being closed by hatred. We are one Jewish world family. Every Jew must be made to feel at home in the state of Israel because Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people.”

Amir Ohana (Likud): “A Jewish state should not be halachic. We cannot do to others what has been done to us. We should not slander each other. We need more respectful discussion. Israel is the home for all the Jewish people.”

Rachel Azaria (Kulanu): “Every day, all the tribes of Israel awake each morning hoping that another will disappear; but no one will disappear. We’re all here. Our task is to create a country where everyone has a place around the table.” 

Dov Khenin (Joint List): “One of the great struggles in the State of Israel today is the struggle for democracy, which is under serious threat. We need to stop the censorship, which is contrary to the foundations of the state.”

Michal Biran (Labor): “We are partners. We share the same Jewish and Zionist values. Our democracy must fight against racism, discrimination and bigotry.”

Nachman Shai (Labor): “The Charedi MKs don’t understand democracy.”

Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union): “Judaism isn’t just for people dressed in black. People who call you names don’t understand Judaism or democracy. You are partners in our struggle.”

Michael Oren (Kulanu): “Zionism is faith in the nation state of the Jewish people. We are committed to implementing the government’s agreement at the Kotel.” 

Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union): “As the only Arab MK in a Zionist party, I want to say that you [Jews] deserve a nation state and the Palestinians, too, deserve a state. How is it possible that Jews can recognize that they suffer and that the Palestinians do not? I cannot deny the pain of a Jewish mother or the pain of a Palestinian mother. Do not overlook the universal values we share.” 

Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid): “Jewish pluralism means that there are various ways to explore our souls and to be on the journey of being a Jew. We are part of you and we bless you.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, made an important point in telling the story of the funeral of Richard Lakin, who was killed in a knife attack by a Palestinian terrorist. Kariv officiated at the funeral in a Charedi cemetery. Though Lakin was a Reform Jew and a member of Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem, he was lowered into the grave by Charedi Jews.

This is an example of what ought to be the relationship between our different streams, not the sort articulated by Eichler, a member of United Torah Judaism.

We concluded the meeting by rising with the Knesset members to sing “Hatikvah,” a moment I will never forget. 

Rabbi John Rosove is the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. 

Israel NGO bill, seen as targeting left-wing groups, crosses first hurdle


A bill that opponents say targets Israeli human rights groups critical of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians won initial approval in parliament on Monday with the support of right-wing parties.

Called a “transparency bill” by its sponsor, far-right Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the legislation would require NGOs to give details of overseas donations in all their official publications if more than half their funding comes from foreign governments or bodies such as the European Union.

The United States and European Union have raised their concerns publicly and privately about the legislation as well as moves against dissenting voices in the NGO community and in the arts and media under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Opponents of the proposed law say it is discriminatory because it is mainly groups that oppose the policies of Israel's administration towards Palestinians which receive money from foreign governments and the EU.

Private funds from overseas, such as money donated to Israeli groups that support Jewish settlements on land Palestinians seek for a state, are not addressed in the bill.

In a statement before the parliamentary vote, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the NGO bill a “discriminatory law that harms democracy … (and) supports censorship and political persecution”.

Netanyahu, defending the legislation as “democratic and necessary”, has seemed to allude to foreign monetary support for Israeli groups backing Palestinian statehood.

Addressing members of his conservative Likud party last week, Netanyahu drew parallels with Spain's Basque country where various separatist groups used peaceful or violent means to further their cause. “Try to imagine Israel funding Basque independence organisations,” he said.

More than 30,000 NGOs are registered in Israel, about half of them active. Around 70 of those groups deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and receive funds either from the EU as a whole, or individual member governments, including Denmark, Sweden and Belgium, as well as non-member Norway.

To become law, the bill needs to pass three votes in parliament, where Netanyahu's coalition governs by a one-seat majority and carefully shores up support for its legislation before putting it on the agenda.

It received preliminary approval in the Knesset late on Monday and now goes to a committee for final drafting before a second and third vote at a separate parliamentary session.

CULTURE WARS

The debate coincides with high tensions between Palestinians and Jews as Israel grapples with near-daily Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car rammings that have hardened right-wing sentiments within Netanyahu's government.

Other rightist initiatives include an attempt by Culture Minister Miri Regev to deny government funding to any arts institution whose programmes “subvert the state”, and a campaign by an ultranationalist advocacy group against “disloyal” left-wing artists. After widespread condemnation, it was withdrawn.

Opponents have compared such proposals with U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's campaign in the 1950s to expose Communist sympathisers, including in Hollywood and the arts.

Both Shaked, a 39-year-old computer engineer, and Regev, 50, a former army spokeswoman, are widely seen as jockeying for leadership positions in their respective Jewish Home and Likud parties, in part by rocking liberal foundations.

Once the legislation reaches a parliamentary committee for fine-tuning, lawmakers are likely to focus on the possible removal of a widely-criticised clause that would require representatives of foreign government-funded NGOs to wear special identification badges when they visit the Knesset.

Shaked has said she was determined to crack down on those groups that take foreign money and then criticise Israel, accusing some NGOs of “eroding the legitimacy of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state”.

From the point of view of advocacy groups, the bill is a dangerous step that would put Israel in a category with the likes of Russia, Turkey and neighbouring Egypt, which often struggle to accept internal criticism and have either cracked down on some NGOs, or threatened to do so.

Several weeks ago, the U.S. ambassador to Israel met Shaked to discuss the legislation and took the unusual step of issuing a statement expressing Washington's concern and the need for governments to “protect free expression and peaceful dissent”.

Peace Now, an Israeli NGO that tracks and opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has called the legislation “a hate crime against democracy”.

Netanyahu raps statements by gov’t ministers, lawmakers attacking liberal Jews


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed statements by government ministers and lawmakers disparaging liberal streams of Judaism in the wake of Cabinet approval to expand the egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

“I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect.”

Netanyahu called the agreement approved Sunday to create the new non-Orthodox prayer section of the Western Wall “a historic compromise that ensures that the Western Wall will continue to be a source of unity and inspiration for the entire Jewish people.”

“This is the government’s policy. This is my policy,” Netanyahu said.

Some government officials attacked the liberal streams and associated movements that signed on to the agreement, including the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall and the Jewish Agency.

The most recent attack came Tuesday afternoon, when the deputy education minister, Meir Porush,of the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, was reported as saying Women of the Wall  should be “thrown to the dogs,” and expressed satisfaction that the new egalitarian section will be in an “out-of-the-way corner.” He also said, the Times of Israel reported, “The Reform are responsible for the terrible intermarriage that we’ve been witnessing in the United States.”

One secular lawmaker, Yariv Levin of the Likud party, on Sunday during a discussion of the agreement also attacked the Reform movement, saying: “Reform Jews in the United States are a dying world. Assimilation is taking place on a vast scale. They are not even tracking this properly in their communities. It is evidenced by the fact that a man who calls himself a Reform rabbi stands there with a priest and officiates at the wedding of the daughter of Hillary Clinton and no one condemns it, thereby legitimizing it.”

Following the vote, Moshe Gafni, a haredi Orthodox lawmaker who chairs the Israeli Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee, said he would not recognize the decision and called Reform Jews “a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah.”

Israel’s Knesset passes ‘stop and frisk’ law


Israel’s Knesset passed a “stop and frisk” law allowing police to search individuals if there is a “reasonable suspicion” they will commit a crime or are carrying an illegal weapon.

The law passed by a vote of 39-31 in its second and third readings on Tuesday.

A temporary provision allows police to stop and frisk even without reasonable suspicion based on the fear that an individual is planning to carry out a terror attack. The provision will remain valid for a year.

In a debate before the vote, those opposed to the legislation said it would increase discrimination against minorities such as Arabs, haredi Orthodox, Ethiopians and Russians.

“Searches without a reason and without limits don’t protect the public’s welfare and security,” Dov Khenin of the Joint Arab List said. “This won’t provide security but will augment the harm to individual rights, and the mistrust between the police and many populations in Israel. Overly zealous searches will also lead to more incidents of sexual harassment of women.”

The original legislation was proposed in 2011, and passed a first reading as part of an attempt to halt violence at entertainment and other venues, according to Haaretz. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan recently reintroduced the proposal to use in the fight against the current spate of Palestinian terror attacks.

False equivalence in Israel


Americans are familiar with a particular form of mudslinging employed by the right. It starts when conservatives create a political spectacle with an attack campaign. Then, when progressives respond, the public looks at the standoff and says “a plague on both your houses.” The real instigators – be they extremists playing dirty tricks or politicians pushing gridlock – benefit because the result is false equivalence: the fallacy which describes a situation where there is an apparent equivalence, when, in fact, there is none.

We saw it happen time and again in Washington as the Tea Party squared off against the Obama Administration. The American public never cared which side shut down the government. They blamed everybody in Washington for the mess.

That’s what’s happening in Israel right now. For years there has been a well-organized, well-funded attack on progressive civil society, particularly the human rights organizations who reveal the abuses inherent in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In three successive Knessets, right-wing politicians kept introducing legislation to defund or harass these groups. The most recent example, which singles out these organizations with special reporting requirements, will probably come up for a vote in the Knesset next week.

But the legislative front is only part of it. Beginning in 2010, when a group called Im Tirtzu launched a multi-million shekel attack on the New Israel Fund, the attacks on progressive civil society have grown uglier and uglier. That first campaign featured giant billboards of then-NIF president Naomi Chazan with a horn on her head and shocked all of Israel.

But this was only their first foray. They went on to demonize the political science department of Ben Gurion University for alleged anti-Israel bias, to depict President Obama’s envoy with anti-Semitic imagery, to campaign against what Palestinians call the Nakba, for them the tragedy of 1948, by saying it was “bullsh*t.” With this track record, none of us were surprised when a Jerusalem court ruled that the organization has “fascist attributes.”

Now we have more ugliness from Im Tirtzu. Their campaign last month coincided with the introduction of the current anti-NGO law and labeled four leading human rights activists as terrorist “moles.” This week Im Tirtzu went after Israel’s leading novelists, artists and performers, also calling them “moles” because of their embrace of Israel’s human rights community, and along the way their co-founder defended infamous Senator Joe McCarthy. It is no coincidence that the campaign was launched the day after Minister of Culture Miri Regev announced she would introduce a bill requiring “cultural loyalty” of any artistic institution receiving government funding.

Im Tirtzu’s tactics are so outrageous, their ideology so radical, and their campaigns are so hate-filled that conservative pundits, like Yona Schiffmiller of NGO Monitor, try to distance their own right-wing organizations from them. They tell us that Im Tirtzu doesn’t represent Israel’s mainstream right. They say that efforts by liberal Israelis to connect the dots between the radical right and the current government are somehow equally responsible for the divisions we see in Israeli society.

[READ: RESPONSE FROM YONA SCHIFFMILLER OF NGO MONITOR]

It’s a powerful talking point. But it’s not based on fact.

Even casual observers of Israeli politics quickly notice that the ugly and divisive rhetoric used by Im Tirtzu matches the rhetoric employed by Knesset Members and Cabinet officials now in power. They also spot the pattern whereby legislative initiatives to harass progressive Israelis are nearly always matched by divisive Im Tirtzu campaigns.

This is not a matter of coincidence; the ties between the current government and Israel’s most extreme ultranationalists run deep. One of Im Tirtzu’s cofounders was a senior official in the Likud’s campaign team during last election. Another recently ran for the Knesset on the settler Jewish Home party ticket. Im Tirtzu’s recent “mole” video was produced by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s communications advisor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even starred in a fundraising video for the organization in which he called for individuals to donate to the organization “wholeheartedly and generously.”

And that’s just Im Tirtzu. Im Tirtzu’s compatriots, settler groups like Regavim and Elad and Ad Kan, have lied, hid their funding sources, filed SLAPP suits, incited personal violence and infiltrated left-wing organizations with spies and private investigators. It only takes a bit of research to uncover the deep ties between those now in power and Israel’s most radical extremists.

Why would Schiffmiller sweep these facts under the rug? Why suggest that those of us working to unite Israelis around the values of equality and democracy are equally to blame?

This has a lot to do with NGO Monitor’s own agenda. Founded as a project of the neo-conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose previous president is now high up in the Netanyahu government, NGO Monitor has spent more than a decade with one task: attacking pro-peace, pro-democracy, or human rights organizations that offer criticism of Israeli government policy.

Has this supposedly objective monitor of Israel’s NGOs ever published reports on any of Israel’s ultranationalist NGOs? Did they look into who funds Israeli groups implicated in vigilante violence? Of course not.

It was left to Haaretz’ investigative reporter, Uri Blau, and to Peace Now, to expose that the funding of these organizations is largely hidden. Of course, given the way Israel’s leaders are stacking the deck, the new NGO “transparency” law that is now before the Knesset is written in a manner that targets funding for Israeli human rights groups while giving a pass to the mostly foreign millionaires who fund Israel’s pro-settler and ultranationalist organizations. Perhaps NGO Monitor did not want to call attention to the fact that, according to Peace Now, its own funding is far from transparent.

What’s important for us, as American Jews, is to understand that the political show-down in Israel is, if not one-sided, utterly lopsided. And the ultranationalist forces in Israel want to keep it that way. If your goals are settlement expansion, permanent occupation, and the enlargement of Jewish rights at the expense of Arabs and other minorities, you have everything to gain by attacking the legitimacy of organizations defending democracy, equality, and minority rights.

There is no equivalence between Israel’s pro-democracy and nationalist camps. There is no equivalence in power, in funding, and in the ugly tactics employed. Extremists on one side decided to change the rules of the game, from the Knesset to the airwaves, in order to ensure that the average Israeli heard one ultranationalist narrative and would dismiss others as the tales of moles and traitors.

And we, as American Jews who love Israel, can no longer afford to blindly accept this narrative. If we fail to understand what’s really going on, we will soon discover that something has gone very, very wrong in our promised land.

Noam Shelef is the Director of Digital Strategy for the New Israel Fund.

Obama administration rejects likening Israel’s NGO law to US lobbying registry


The Obama administration has rejected the comparison between an Israeli bill requiring registration of foreign-funded NGOs and U.S. laws registering foreign interest lobbyists.

State Department spokesman John Kirby, asked by JTA on Wednesday about Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s Op-Ed this week likening the two laws, also said the United States had expressed concerns to the Netanyahu government about the measure.

“They’re two different things altogether,” Kirby said, referring to the law approved this week by Israel’s Cabinet and the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. Kirby did not specify the differences.

Shaked’s bill would require NGOs that receive a majority of their support from “foreign political entities” to declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report or speak with a public official. The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires agents who lobby on behalf of foreign governments to register and report their activities.

Kirby also said that since the Israeli Cabinet green-lighted the bill, U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the dangers it could pose to a “free and functioning civil society.”

He noted the bill must undergo multiple readings in the Knesset, a process that could modify the language.

The American Jewish Committee has also expressed concerns about the bill.

“The proposed solution poses as many risks as the problem itself, including the risk to Israel’s reputation as a confident and open society that has long been true democracy’s sole Middle East outpost,” the AJC said Tuesday in a statement.

Proposed Israeli NGO law is hypocritical attack on left


Yet again the Israeli Knesset is considering legislation to single out and punish progressive nongovernmental organizations, particularly the human rights groups that are such a thorn in the side of those who favor the continued occupation of the West Bank.

Carefully constructed to evade the inevitable legal challenges it would face if passed, the legislation approved by a Knesset committee this week would require representatives of organizations receiving foreign government funding to identify themselves as such in every public venue, including the Knesset, the media, and in all printed and online materials. Failure to do so would trigger huge fines.

That every human rights organization in Israel is already required to make its funding sources public is apparently irrelevant. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and her Likud and Jewish Home allies designed this nakedly political maneuver to further delegitimize progressive organizations, especially those opposing the occupation and its inevitable human rights abuses.

The legislation, purportedly for transparency, comes as new reports are surfacing about the millions of foreign dollars flowing to the settlements, the NGOs that defend them and allied institutions on Israel’s ultranationalist right. The new reports make a mockery of the right’s stated objective of transparency, not to mention its self-righteous disdain for foreign funding.

In a series of investigative reports for Haaretz, Uri Blau has shown how American donors gave the settlements more than $220 million over the past five years — donations that went through tax-exempt American nonprofit organizations. Despite the longstanding American government view that settlements are impediments to peace, at least 50 organizations from across the United States are involved in raising funds for settlements and settlement activities, according to Haaretz.

Blau found that American donations fund everything from air conditioning for settlers to payments to the families of convicted Jewish terrorists. Among the recipients of tax-exempt American donations is Honenu, a right-wing legal aid group that has provided stipends to Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. The yeshiva whose rabbis wrote the “The King’s Torah,” a book purporting to demonstrate when it is legitimate to kill non-Jews, also benefits from tax-deductible contributions from the United States.

Yet the proposed legislation would exclude these organizations and their funders. Only money from “foreign political entities” are targeted, a formulation designed to ensnare Israel’s human rights community, which receives significant funding from European governments motivated by shared values and an interest in protecting the millions of Palestinians living under military rule.

Longtime observers of the growing power of the Israeli right and its links to a network of mostly foreign millionaires are not surprised by this. After all, Israel’s leading newspaper is a freebie to its readers, funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and faithfully parroting the Likud line. Israel permits its politicians to receive foreign funding for their party primaries, and nearly all the money donated to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in the last election came from overseas, according to government records. And many of the neoconservative and ultranationalist think tanks and political NGOs in both Israel and the United States share donors, staff and volunteer leadership.

We at the U.S.-based New Israel Fund, ourselves a partnership of Israelis and Jews worldwide with program and grant recipients in Israel, take no issue with overseas dollars funding Israeli organizations and institutions. But the manipulation of Israel’s political process to single out organizations of the left for obloquy is both wrong and dangerous.

Selectively deciding that foreign funding for human rights must be shamed and labeled, while millions of dollars flow unimpeded to neutral and right-wing institutions, is not just a matter of stigma. It tells Israelis that those who criticize the occupation on the grounds of human rights need not, or must not, be heeded.

The current governing coalition, the most hard line in Israel’s history, has made it clear that it will do everything possible to stifle dissent. At a time when Israel’s relationships with its most important partners, the United States and the European Union, are already shaky, the signals sent by the government’s arrogant defiance of supposedly shared democratic values also further damages Israel’s international standing.

Let’s be clear. B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Rabbis for Human Rights and other beleaguered protectors of human and civil rights will do their jobs even if they have to wear neon deely boppers to visit the Knesset. No amount of harassment will shut down these organizations, short of the sorts of measures used by police states like Russia and China.

But the treatment of organizations with unpopular missions and activities is the canary in the coal mine of democracy. We who defend Israel as a liberal democracy must make clear to our counterparts in Jerusalem that we see through the hypocrisy and double-dealing, and take a stand for an honest, free and democratic Israel.

Naomi Paiss is the vice president for public affairs at the New Israel Fund.

Haredi Orthodox Knesset members skip swearing-in of gay lawmaker


Haredi Orthodox lawmakers skipped the Knesset swearing-in of Amir Ohana, the first openly gay lawmaker from the Likud party.

Ohana took the oath on Monday afternoon to replace Silvan Shalom, who resigned earlier this month amid accusations of sexual assault. Ohana is the fourth gay lawmaker to serve in the Knesset.

Sources from the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas told Army Radio that its lawmakers did not deliberately skip the ceremony, pointing out that they had not been in the Knesset chamber for the two hours preceding the swearing-in. But sources from the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said its lawmakers purposely did not attend. Both are members of the ruling government coalition.

“During my swearing-in speech, I didn’t even notice that the Knesset members were absent,” Ohana told Army Radio on Tuesday morning. “Later, when I heard they had not been present, I thought that with regard to the issue of LGBT rights, it would be wonderful if their absence would continue.”

Following the swearing-in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Ohana to the Knesset, saying he was “proud” to have him as a lawmaker in the parliament in a veiled reference to his sexual orientation.

Ohana and his partner have 4-month-old twins — a son and a daughter — born through a surrogate. He was elected to represent the Tel Aviv District and is known for his gay-rights activism.

With the ascension of Ohana to the Knesset, the next in line should any Likud minister quit or be removed from office is Temple Mount activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick, who was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in October 2014. Glick leads a group that advocates for wider Jewish access to the Temple Mount.

Advancing NGO bill, Israel’s Cabinet fires another shot at its critics


Its backers call it a victory for transparency. Opponents say it smacks of dictatorship.

Either way, a new bill requiring certain Israeli nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding is moving toward passage after it was approved by a Cabinet committee on Sunday. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who proposed the bill, said it uncovers foreign meddling in Israeli affairs.

“The transparency law, which passed the ministerial committee for legislation today, doesn’t label people and doesn’t label organizations,” Shaked, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, wrote Sunday on Facebook. “It labels the foreign interest of different states, which seek to enable NGOs here, and in whose name they give hundreds of millions of shekels.”

Shaked’s bill is the latest in a string of measures undertaken by Israel’s right-wing governments to target left-wing NGOs. Sunday’s vote occurred two weeks after government ministers restricted the activities of Breaking the Silence, an organization of military veterans that draws attention to alleged Israeli military abuses in the West Bank.

In 2011, the Knesset enacted a law requiring NGOs to declare any foreign government funding on a quarterly basis. A 2013 bill sought to levy high taxes on foreign government donations, but foundered after the Israeli attorney general advised that it was unconstitutional.

Recent years have also seen legislative efforts to prohibit boycotts of settlement products and allow individual soldiers to sue groups that defame the army.

“This is part of the attempt to hurt groups that criticize the regime,” said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “They’re trying to put NGOs on the stand and say they’re not legitimate.”

Shaked’s bill would require NGOs that receive a majority of their support from “foreign political entities” to declare that funding and detail it every time they put out a report or speak with a public official. An earlier draft of the law would have required representatives of such groups to wear badges identifying themselves as lobbyists of foreign governments.

The NGOs affected by the bill have decried the measure as an attempt to silence opponents in Israel of the government’s policies. They say by singling out foreign government funding, which goes mostly to left-wing groups, the bill ignores foreign funding of right-wing groups by private donors.

“This creates a negative image and has no place in a democratic state,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, executive director of Peace Now, which would fall under the bill’s purview, having received donations in the past from the British, Belgian and Spanish governments. “There’s no reason I should wear a tag that says I get foreign funding while right-wing NGOs will stand next to me as if they got all their funding from home.”

Right-wing politicians have been working to clamp down on left-wing NGOs since 2009, when a United Nations report accusing Israel of war crimes cited research by left-wing groups. Shaked’s bill, which would expand the disclosure requirements of the 2011 law, comes amid a campaign by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu, which has posted ads in major cities accusing prominent left-wing activists of being foreign “moles” in Israel and supporting terror.

Im Tirtzu’s founder, Ronen Shoval, wrote in a column on the news website Walla that the bill provides necessary transparency around foreign entities seeking to meddle in Israeli affairs.

“Imagine what would happen if the state of Israel chose to give money to groups in Spain working toward Catalan or, God forbid, Basque independence,” Shoval wrote. “For years, European states have been undermining Israeli democracy.”

NGO Monitor, an Israeli organization that scrutinizes the work of human rights organizations, says European governments provide some $100 million in direct or indirect funding to NGOs operating in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — funding that constitutes an illegitimate effort to sway Israeli policy.

“When sovereign states disagree, they disagree through diplomacy and other measures,” said NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg, who said his group neither opposes nor supports the bill, though it has long drawn attention to what it calls the “problem” of foreign NGO funding. “They do not do it through the manipulation of civil society. When states provide money to influence policy in another country, that’s a unique infringement on sovereignty.”

Critics counter that Shaked’s bill represents a ploy to suppress dissent by taking aim largely at groups on the left. The New Israel Fund, which funds several groups that would be affected by the law, said Sunday in a statement that the bill “is a very precise imitation of the policies of Putin’s Russia and other authoritarian regimes clamping down on civil society.”

Centrist and left-wing politicians are also criticizing the bill as a vehicle to shame left-wing groups. The notion that the law enhances transparency is a sham, they say, since the 2011 law already requires financial disclosure. 

Critics also called the bill inconsistent for mandating a public declaration of governmental funding, but not of private donations. Peace Now released a study earlier this month reporting that hundreds of millions of shekels in private donations to nine right-wing NGOs could not be traced to a specific individual or organization.

“This is not a law aimed at transparency, rather a law aimed at labeling Israelis,” opposition lawmaker Tzipi Livni wrote Sunday on Facebook. “The goal in this law is to label bodies that oppose the government’s policy.”

Transparency bill for NGOs advances in Israel


An Israeli bill requiring nongovernmental organizations to state publicly that they receive funding from foreign countries has advanced to the full Knesset.

On Sunday, the so-called Transparency Bill unanimously passed the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party sponsored the measure, which would disproportionately affect left-wing human rights organizations.

Under the bill, NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments must declare it publicly, including noting it on official documents. NGO representatives also would be required to wear identification badges when they attend Knesset sessions, as required of lobbyists.

“It is a black day for civil liberties, associations, and Israeli thought,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog tweeted. “The government decision to approve the twisted NGO bill is a bullet between the eyes for Israel’s standing in the world.”

Peace Now in a statement following the vote called the bill a “hate crime against democracy” and called on Shaked to “promote legislation requiring right-wing organizations to expose the millions they receive from private donors abroad and from the state budget.”