Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Why is Trump strict with Assad but not with Erdogan?


As we watch a new American administration crafting its foreign policy, we are reminded that the world is a complicated place and that defining one’s policy towards it can be a complicated exercise. Look at what the Trump administration has done in three arenas in the last two weeks:

It bombed Syria, signaling that the US is going to intervene in certain places, even if there is no obvious immediate American interest at stake.

It pushed the envelope in North Korea, showing that the US is willing to be bolder in dealing with one of its most persistent and dangerous enemies (but how bolder, and in what way, is not yet clear).

It congratulated Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his narrow and controversial victory in a referendum that gives him unparalleled powers to rule his country.

What do we learn about Trump from these three events?

First of all, we learn – or should be reminded – that everything in this world is interconnected. Turkey is needed if Syria is to be tamed. North Korea is a Syrian ally and provided it with the material to attempt to build a nuclear bomb. The Trump administration is making its first steps on the world stage and seems growingly aware of this fact. There are ideological inconsistencies that emerge as moves are made in such a world, but they are both inevitable and necessary.

Take, for example, the issue of intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. In Syria, Trump intervened. In Turkey, where the results of a referendum threaten to further erode the democratic character of the country, he chooses to be silent. The Europeans responded to the vote in Turkey with disappointment and even outrage – but the US President made a congratulatory phone call to Erdogan.

The Russians are more consistent than Trump in such cases. As a rule, they oppose intervention in the internal affairs of other countries (of course, they intervene when it suits them). The Europeans are also more consistent: they want to educate everyone (but are unwilling to do much about it except talking). The question is for Trump: why be strict with Syria’s Assad and not with Turkey’s Erdogan?

One possible answer is that Trump acts impulsively and without strategic reasons. He was moved by what he “saw on TV,” as Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker. But Coll himself counts more possible reasons. “One limited rationale might be that Syria’s conflict has eroded global treaties banning the use of chemical arms.” Put another way: Erdogan’s affair is truly “internal” – it concerns Turkey alone. And Trump does not feel any need to lecture Erdogan on the value of democracy.

The US wants Turkey’s cooperation on certain matters and is not interested in the country’s domestic situation as long as it has this cooperation. Assad’s behavior is different. True, what Assad does is part of an internal battle for superiority within Syria. But the use of chemical weapons has impact on foreign affairs. It breaks a taboo that is necessary for other countries and actors to think twice before they use such weapons (hence, the miserable comment by Sean Spicer on Hitler). Of course, the outrageous behavior of North Korea is even less “domestic” in nature. Thus, the Trump administration is not inconsistent in its decision to tackle it.

But there are also other ways of looking at these three actions. For example, we might consider the feasibility of action – and Trump’s pragmatic calculation – for each of them. Why bomb Syria? Because the US can do it without having to pay a serious price for it. This was precise, limited, well-targeted.

Why accept Erdogan’s victory without much hesitation? Because there’s nothing of value the US can do about it. The Europeans will protest and cry, but this seems to have little effect on Erdogan and Turkey’s voters. The US, in this case, is keeping its eye on the ball: Turkey is needed to fight ISIS and tame Syria. There is no value in picking a fight with it. Not until it does things that shake the international order.

And what about North Korea? Well, Trump’s policy in North Korea is still a mystery. He talks tough, because he can and, more importantly, because he hopes that this will help him convince the Chinese that it is time for them to be more active in calming their problematic neighbor. Calming, but not much more than that. Getting rid of the regime in North Korea or disarming its nuclear capabilities are not realistic goals at the moment.

As Ian Buruma explains in the Atlantic, “China is the only power with any influence in North Korea, but the last thing Beijing wants is for its communist neighbor to collapse. The Kim regime may be annoying, but a united Korea filled with U.S. military bases would be worse, not to mention the potential refugee crisis on China’s borders.”

What do we learn from all this?

First, Trump’s foreign policy is less confusing than some newspapers want you to think. There are confusing statements here and there, and lack of coordination, but the overall policy is not inconsistent and can be easily explained.

Second, Trump does not feel committed to always following the script that he carved during his campaign – but also that his policy is going to resemble many of the things that he talked about as a candidate.

Third, Trump as a foreign policy leader currently has two instinctive postures, the brutal warrior and the deal maker. He is not an educator, he is not a policy wonk, he is not an ideologue, he does not belong to a school of thought. He is the president who’s willing to use the Tomahawk when you stand in his way and who’s willing to cut a deal when you’re ready to negotiate.

A Mideast bonfire of the hypocrites


The day after more than 80 of his Arab brethren perished in a horrific gas attack in Syria, King Abdullah II of Jordan stood at a White House press conference and repeated the biggest lie of the past half-century: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict … is essentially the core conflict in our region.”

For decades, this great lie has been a lifeblood for Arab leaders looking to change the subject from the vicious conflicts of the region and the oppression of their own people. Their countries may be in total meltdown, but if they pivot to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they know the international community and the media will lap it up.

Arab dictators are simply getting a good return on their investment in Jew-hatred. Thanks to their brilliant job of promulgating this hatred for so long throughout their societies, whenever things start to heat up, they can just serve up the perfect scapegoat: “It’s all about the conflict with the Jewish state!”

That is how we ended up with the sorry spectacle of an Arab king telling the world with a straight face that the conflict with the Jews is the key problem in the region.

Never mind that when Foreign Policy (FP) magazine announced its “Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2017,” the top three came from King Abdullah’s very own region, and, needless to say, none of the 10 mentioned Israel or the Palestinians.

The first was Syria and Iraq, where after nearly six years of fighting, an estimated 500,000 people have been killed and some 12 million uprooted.

The second was Turkey, which, as FP reports, “is facing worsening spillover from the wars in Syria and Iraq and a spiraling conflict with the PKK. Politically polarized, under economic strain, and with weak alliances, Turkey is poised for greater upheaval.”

The third was Yemen, where the war has created “another humanitarian catastrophe, wrecking a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world. With millions of people now on the brink of famine, the need for a comprehensive cease-fire and political settlement is ever more urgent.”

You can go down the list and find conflicts throughout the region that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like a therapy session. From rampant Islamic extremism and political turnover to economic stagnation and age-old sectarian hatreds, the region is bursting with volcanoes that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians.

I’m sure you remember the famous Arab Spring protests of 2011, when tens of millions of Arabs exploded onto Mideast streets because they couldn’t take it anymore. The funny thing is, none of the protestors was screaming about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, they were screaming for basic stuff like human rights, civil rights, freedom, economic opportunities and so on.

In other words, they wanted what their Arab brothers and sisters already have in Israel, where Arab judges have made it all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. How’s that for dark irony?

That might explain why Arab leaders are so intent on making Israel the biggest problem of the region. They know the truth is the exact opposite — that Israel is not the problem but the solution to the Middle East.

As much as it pains them to admit it, they know their countries would be a lot better off if they were more like Israel. They see how constant innovation in Israel keeps improving the quality of life; how Israel’s open society has created a vibrant and progressive culture; how Israeli Arabs have more freedoms and economic opportunities in the Jewish state than in any country of the region.

If you’re an Arab leader raised on Jew-hatred, how humiliating must that be?

But there’s something else these hypocrites know well — they know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t be solved anytime soon, certainly not with the region in violent turmoil and the prospect that the West Bank would turn into another terror state if Israel left. This is great news for leaders petrified of losing their power. It means their trusted Jewish scapegoat is alive and kicking.

These insecure dictators, who couldn’t care less about the welfare of the Palestinians or of their own people, know that as long as a solution to their favorite conflict remains far, far away, they can keep milking the Big Lie and live to see another day.


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

A view of the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey, which houses some 35,000 Syrian refugees. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Recalling lessons of Passover, Israelis pray for their Syrian ‘enemies’


At a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv on Friday evening, congregants recited the mourner’s prayer for those killed in Syria’s civil war.

Standing before a mural of the Tree of Life, the rabbi of Beit Daniel, the largest Reform synagogue in Israel, delivered a sermon on the Jewish obligation to condemn the savagery of the war. And a bar mitzvah boy led a prayer for peace in honor of the Syrian people, whom Israelis have long considered enemies.

“When you include something in your prayers, you push it to a higher level of consciousness,” said Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel and a member of Beit Daniel. “We declared that the Syrian people are rooted in the deepest part of our soul as individuals and as a community.”

After an apparent chemical attack in Syria on April 4 killed dozens of people, including children, liberal and Orthodox Israeli Jews alike adapted their Passover prayers to address the tragedy unfolding just across their northern border. They found inspiration to pray for Syrians in the story of the holiday, which some Jews have long interpreted as urging sympathy for the oppressed — and even the oppressor.

Israel’s Reform movement this year asked its members to dedicate the Sabbath before Passover, called Shabbat Hagadol, to the Syrians and refer to them at least twice during the seder, which recounts the Israelites’ biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt. The first mention is to come before a prayer for peace by the 18th-century Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Braslav, which some may add to the Haggadah. The second should come when seder participants spill a drop of wine for each of the 10 plagues God visited upon the Egyptians to win the Israelites’ freedom.

Kariv cited the view that the wine ritual symbolizes that the Jewish “cup of joy” is diminished because the Israelites’ emancipation came through the suffering of the Egyptians. If inheritors of that Jewish tradition can find room to forgive the biblical Egyptians, he said, Israelis can certainly sympathize with Syrians, with whom they have battled and never made peace.

“Despite the fact that Israelis can identify the Syrian people as our enemies, the vast majority of us feel deeply saddened about what is happening next door,” he said. “We are using this tradition to remind us to have sorrow for the suffering of all people.”

Zeev Keinan, a longtime leader in Israel’s Conservative, or Masorti, movement, delivered a Torah commentary on Friday at his Maayanot synagogue in Jerusalem about whether Israelis should pray for the Syrians. His conclusion – yes – was not a surprise to anyone who read the prayer he wrote several months ago for the Syrian people on behalf of the movement. He said the prayer, which has been widely distributed, is being read at his synagogue and others throughout Passover.

Appropriately, Keinan noted, a line from the prayer is taken from a passage of Exodus that refers to the aftermath of the final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians: the death of every non-Jewish firstborn son.

Keinan, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, said repurposing the phrase “there is not a house without one dead” (Exodus 12:30) is in keeping with the Passover tradition. In addition to the spilling of the wine, Keinan referred to the Talmudic story that God stopped the angels from rejoicing when  the Egyptian soldiers who were pursuing the fleeing Israelites drowned in the Red Sea, saying, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying.”

In the Orthodox world, a prayer for Syrians has been making the rounds online ahead of Passover. Written in 2013 by a leading religious Zionist ethicist, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the prayer reads in part: “We beseech You in prayer to arouse in the killers their basic humanity and evoke mercy in their hearts, that they may recognize that we are all created in the image of God, and that there are limits even to human cruelty.”

Cherlow said he wrote the prayer, despite a reluctance among Orthodox Jews to add to Jewish liturgy, out of concern for the “civilians and children” in Syria. He said Jews are commanded “as part of our going out of Egypt” to observe that they are allied with any oppressed or displaced people. But Cherlow acknowledged being uncertain about what exactly to ask of God, given that most of the warring parties in Syria could be considered enemies of Israel.

“In this case, I can’t say we know what we wish for,” he said. “While I can’t use the term ‘happy,’ I prefer the bad people shoot each other and not kill me.”

Echoing the overwhelming sentiment in this country, Cherlow said Israel has little choice but to maintain its policy of nonintervention in Syria. Most Israelis feel getting involved would accomplish little and risk incurring the wrath both of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, as well as the radical Islamic rebel groups, including the Islamic State, that seek to topple him.

Still, Cherlow emphasized that prayer is not enough in the face of evil, and said the events in Syria also inspired him to demand action. He recently recommended to the army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, that the Israel Defense Forces expel reserve soldiers who assist as mercenaries in conflicts in African and South American countries, among others, and formally add ethical considerations to its decisions about weapons sales.

According to Kariv, Israel’s Reform movement plans to issue a letter on Wednesday demanding that Israel, which has not taken in any Syrian refugees, welcome 100 orphan children from the country — a plan proposed earlier this year by haredi Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

Salah Skaff, 25, showing a picture of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 years old, who died after an airstrike in Douma, Syria, on April 7. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

Trump and the cry of Syria’s children


“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote.

Tell that to the children of Syria, the kingdom where everybody dies.

The once beautiful country, full of history and antiquity, culture and cuisine, is now a cemetery. Six years into a bloody civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the world is once again faced with the images of dead and suffering children. 

This week, we saw horrifying scenes of children screaming for their dead parents and parents screaming for their dying children. We saw dozens of children lying dead on the floor. Babies, infants poisoned. We saw their bloodied faces, their foaming mouths, their desperate, disconsolate eyes and learned that they died choking on gas, and we couldn’t look away.

There’s something about helpless, powerless children that inspires even the most puerile grownups to act like adults. 

“That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” President Donald Trump said after the chemical attack on the Syrian village Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens. “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”

For the children of Syria, “red line” has become synonymous with empty promise. President Barack Obama had his “red line” but he may as well have drawn it in pencil; our spineless Congress eventually erased it. Who would have thought, then, that RealDonaldTrump, king of inconsistencies and erraticism, would draw his own red line? 

Trump isn’t exactly known for his political fidelities or his values — but if there’s anything that matters to him besides himself and his business empire, it’s his family. The images of devastated children struck a chord with the father-in-chief and inspired him to act like the commander-in-chief.

We were warned Trump would be unpredictable — and is he ever. 

After prodding Obama not to act in Syria, then blaming him for not acting enough, Trump defied his critics and even some of his friends on April 6 by launching a targeted airstrike on the Syrian airfield from where the chemical attack was launched.

He did not hesitate to name and blame Syria’s Mad King, President Bashar al-Assad, for the attack, much to the dismay of his reputed bestie Vladimir Putin. While Assad’s Russian enabler tried to obfuscate the facts, deflecting his own bloodguilt and calling for an “investigation,” President Trump, for once, told the truth.

“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said during a White House announcement. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” 

Across the world, another playground bully was horrified by the attack and joined Trump in unequivocal condemnation.

“There’s no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially, with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu said. His statement earned a swift rebuke from Putin, who called his accusations “groundless.”

In risking the wrath of the Russian leader, Trump was so grateful for Netanyahu’s support of the first military action of his presidency that his vice president, Mike Pence, called Netanyahu to thank him. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin declared the United States “an example for the entire free world.”

At a time when Trump’s approval ratings are dismal and he doesn’t have the success of “The Apprentice” to tuck him in at night, the praise must feel delicious. In launching a strike, Trump also risked alienating his base — and chief adviser Steve Bannon — whose anti-globalist motto “America First” means that even dying children must come a distant second. War is expensive, they argue, but so is protecting the first lady in absentia from the White House and the president’s $3 million trips to Mar-a-Lago to play golf.

Perhaps the president feels just a little bit guilty that the children choking on sarin gas are the same children he tried to block from seeking refuge in the U.S. with his incendiary travel ban. 

Now that his paternal instincts are kicking in and Trump must balance the needs of the world’s children with the needs of his own children, he might look to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers — he can easily borrow it from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who famously kept a copy in his real estate office).

Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

U’kh’she’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

The children of Syria don’t care about Trump’s promise of “America First.” They don’t care about the world’s tightrope walk around Russia. Or about Iran’s malevolent intentions toward Sunnis and the State of Israel. They don’t care who are their allies and who are their enemies, or even whose plane it was that dropped the poisonous gas that burned up their lives. 

The children of Syria care only about one thing: that this conflict ends.

V’im lo ’akhshav, eimatai? And, if not now, when?


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

How complicated is Syria? Trump just helped ISIS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The USS Porter firing a Tomahawk missile at a Syrian military airfield in the Mediterranean Sea on April 7. Photo by Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Why Israelis are happy about Trump’s missile strike — and why they should be wary


Israel’s government and pundits are unabashedly pleased by the missile strike ordered by President Donald Trump early Friday on the Syrian airfield from where Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack is believed to have been launched.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out a statement out at 6 a.m. local time – unusually early – just to make clear he “fully supports” the strike.

“In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” he said.

Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airfield in northern Syria believed to be where a sarin attack that killed at least 72 civilians, including many children. The missile attack, Syria said in reports that could not be confirmed, killed nine civilians – including four children – and six troops, and caused extensive damage.

Here are some reasons why Israelis are backing the strike – and some reasons why it might not be so simple.

The moral imperative

Images of children gassed a few hundred miles north of Israel hits close to home for a country where the helplessness that Jews faced against the Nazi genocide remains a defining national characteristic.

“There was a genuinely strongly felt moral issue, and that was something that Israelis felt across the political spectrum when the pictures emerged of people killed in the chemical attack, given the Jewish people’s history of being gassed in the Holocaust,” said Daniel Shapiro, who until January was the U.S. ambassador to Israel and still lives there.

Israelis in just days have raised hundreds of thousands of shekels for the victims; fundraisers have explicitly invoked Holocaust imagery.

“No Jew can stay silent as children are being gassed in the streets of Syria,” IsraelGives says on its web page.

The sheriff is back in town.

Israelis were frustrated by the Obama administration’s hesitancy in confronting Assad.

In 2013, President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons would trigger an attack. But when Syria crossed the line, instead of launching an attack, Obama coordinated a deal with Russia under which Syria would divest itself of its chemical weaponry. It now appears clear to the United States and its allies that Syria’s divestment was more fraud than fact.

Trump while campaigning for the presidency appeared to want an even further retreat. His sole conceptualization of Syrian President Bashar Assad until last week was as an ally in combating Islamic State terrorists, an embrace that Obama, however feckless his chemical weapons retreat was, forcefully rejected. Trump officials said last week that they were ready to reverse stated Obama administration policy that any resolution to the Syria conflict must include the removal of Assad.

That worried Israelis – most prominently Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman – who were concerned that a resurgent Assad would allow Israel’s deadliest enemies, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, a foothold on Israel’s border with Syria.

Trump over the last three days did a 180 on Assad – “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” the president said the day after the chemical attack — and so, commensurately, have Israelis warmed to Trump.

“American leadership is once again credible,” Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, until last year the director of policy at the Israeli Defense Ministry, told Israel Radio. “When you use nerve gas against a civilian population, the message is clear.”

Netanyahu in his praise for Trump said the message should resonate as far as Iran and North Korea. The prime minister and his government continue to see the 2015 nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran, trading sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, as a license for Iran and its proxies to continue its regional interventionism.

Israel “hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere,” Netanyahu said.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years in Syria, said in a media call that the chief concern for Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies was what was “baked into” the nuclear deal: “That Iran could use rump governments in Iraq and Syria to shoot people into the region into submission” while the principal U.S. concern was sustaining the Iran deal.

What’s not predictable

1. Do Israeli jets still get to take out potential threats without triggering a Russian response?

An ally of the Assad regime, Russia was furious at the missile attack and suspended its “deconfliction” agreement with the United States – one under which the two nations give each other prior notice of any military action, particularly from the air, so there’s no risk of an inadvertent clash.

Russia has a similar arrangement with Israel; does that go by the wayside? Israel as recently as last month sent jets into Syria to stop the smuggling of Syrian arms to Hezbollah.

Gilad, speaking on Israel Radio, said he was confident that Russia would continue to allow Israel to act.

“I don’t think there’s any threat on Israeli action as long as it in the defense of Israel’s interests,” he said.

2. Is Israel more of a target than before?

Israel’s most potent threat is Hezbollah, which has positioned tens of thousands of missiles throughout Lebanon since the last Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. Israeli brass believes Hezbollah could be positioning itself for another Israel war, if only as a pretext to draw attention away from Syria, where its alliance with Iran and the Assad regime has taken hits.

Hezbollah called the missile strike an “idiotic” action that was “in service” to Israel and predicted that it would increase tension.

3. Russia’s mad? But wait, we like Russia.

Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to cultivate Russia, in part because Israel sees Russia as the likeliest agent to broker a final status deal that would keep Iran and Hezbollah as far as possible from Syria’s southwest, where Israel’s border is.

He endured a tongue lashing on Thursday from Russian President Vladimir Putin just for intimating that Syria is responsible for the chemical attack. (Russia insists there is no proof yet.)

The closeness of Trump and his team to Russia – in Washington, increasingly seen as a burden, as it engenders a string of scandals – is seen as a plus in Israel, where it was hoped Trump would leverage his friendship with Putin as a means of containing Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.

“Israel still sees Trump as a dealmaker with Russia, and they want to know if Trump drives a wedge between Russia and Iran-Hezbollah-Syria,” David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said in an interview.

4. That Sunni alliance thing … it’s complicated

The conventional wisdom in Washington after the attack is that Trump has revivified the U.S. profile in Israel among the United States’ Sunni Arab allies.

Except as much as Assad is despised among Sunni Arabs, both for his belonging to the secretive Alawite sect and his alliance with Shiite actors like Iran and Hezbollah, direct U.S. intervention is not necessarily popular.

Critically, Egypt – whose leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, just this week lavished praise on Trump – was less than enthusiastic about the strike.

“Egypt affirms the importance of sparing Syria and the Middle East the dangers of crisis escalation in order to preserve the safety of the nations that comprise it,” its Foreign Ministry said Friday, according to Al-Ahram. “We see the necessity for swift action to end the armed conflict in Syria to preserve the lives of the Syrian people through a commitment by all Syrian parties for an immediate cease-fire and a return to negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations.”

Egyptian unhappiness could hamper Netanyahu’s bid to use Egypt as a conduit to new peace deals with other moderate Arab states.

“Sisi sees Assad rightly or wrongly as part of the battle against Islamic extremism,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.

“There’s also the more traditional Egyptian value of not wanting to see any foreign intervention in an Arab state lest it be directed at Egypt,” he said. “And Egypt has in recent months gone a bit closer to the Russians, and Russians have participated in counter ISIS operations in western Egypt. That creates some potential tensions between Egypt and its strategic partner Israel and Sisi and his new friend Donald Trump.”

5. It’s open-ended – which means, duh, we don’t know how it will end.

Tabler cautioned against seeing long-term consequences because of a single strike; no one knows yet where Trump will take U.S. involvement.

“This strike is not the same as the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he said.

Israel initially was supportive of the U.S. action in Iraq, but soon grew apprehensive as the Bush administration neglected increasing threats from Iran and its war radicalized Sunni Arabs in the region.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the strike was a one-off.

“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said in a media availability.

That did not assuage concerns among Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress, who called for consultations with Congress ahead of any further action.

“Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on Twitter: “I’m deeply concerned the strike in Syria could lead the U.S. back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement in the Middle East.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, alongside Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

Israeli minister: Syria strike repositioned America as regional leader


Adding to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s praise for the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian army base, a senior Israeli Cabinet minister said it “restored America’s regional leadership in a big way.”

Yisrael Katz, the intelligence minister and a member of the Cabinet’s defense forum, spoke Friday with Army Radio about the U.S. strike the previous night in which dozens of guided missiles were launched at an army base of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Earlier this week, his military was accused of using chemical weapons in attacking rebel-held areas.

“There are things that only the No. 1 superpower in the world can do,” Katz said. “In contrast to the failed policy of leading from behind, which led to Iran’s entrenchment, the United States has restored America’s regional leadership in a big way in the Middle East.”

Also Friday, Netanyahu praised President Donald Trump in a statement that said Trump, “in both word and action,” had “sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision.”

Israel, Netanyahu added, “hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”

U.S. defense officials “updated Israel in real time” about the strike, Katz also said.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Netanyahu to protest the Israeli leader’s condemnation of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin said the allegation was unproven and that Netanyahu should have waited for an international investigation before commenting.

Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, told Army Radio on Friday that the disagreement did not signify a deterioration of relations with Russia.

“There are understandings in place” despite rhetoric intended for the media, he said.

Russia last year joined Iran’s military intervention in Syria in favor of Assad, who has lost control of approximately 75 percent of the internationally recognized territory of Syria since the eruption of a civil war in 2011 that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Former President Barack Obama, who spearheaded an international agreement offering Iran sanctions relief in exchange for a scaling back of elements of its nuclear program, had described the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line following previous attacks. Obama’s critics accused him of failing to enforce that red line.

According to the international media, Israel has carried out a number of military strikes in Syria before and during the civil war, primarily to keep advanced weapons from being moved or reaching Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militia that is based in southern Lebanon and is committed to fighting Israel.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Trump had indicated earlier that he was considering action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women and children wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, on Feb. 26. Photo by Siegfried Modola/Reuters

The Passover paradox


In early March, the United Nations announced that the world is facing — and this is not hyperbole — “the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.”

If you’re thinking Syria or European migrants, you’re wrong. Neither of those issues was mentioned once.

Right now, the great humanitarian crisis of our world is food insecurity — a condition afflicting tens of millions of people who have limited or uncertain access to nutritional and safe food. 

According to the U.N., an estimated 20 million people will face the threat of starvation and famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The New York Times devoted a special section on April 2 to the stories of 130,000 people forced from their homes by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, who have camped next to a highway in the Niger desert in search of food and water.

UNICEF is warning that “1.4 million children could starve to death this year.” And I hesitate to describe the accompanying pictures of children already in peril — their faces sunken, desperate, nearly deformed from malnourishment.

Now comes Pesach, a harvest festival. It arrives every spring when the earth is bursting with blooms, when crops are growing and nature renews itself, offering its bounty.

And yet, it forces us to confront hunger.

The relationship between hunger and the Passover seder is so central to the holiday that reiterating the connection is stating the obvious. Early on, before we do almost anything else, we hold up the matzo, and we sing “Ha Lachma Anya” — behold, the bread of affliction. The central symbol of Pesach literally is the poor man’s bread: It is the bread of the persecuted, degraded and displaced who could not afford to waste a single second letting dough rise when the moment for liberation came.

On Pesach, our task is to relive the experience of slavery and its infinite deprivations so deeply, so viscerally, it should be as if each one of us had personally gone out of Egypt.

And yet, when I think of the modern Jewish seder table, I think of abundance. Most of us probably enjoy multiple courses of food, flowing wine, crystal glasses, fine china, luxurious table linens. Others partake of popular Pesach “vacations” with kosher buffets so ample they could feed a king, a queen and their court. And I wonder if all of this abundance on the holiday when we are meant to recall deprivation is missing the point. Slavery is having to do without; but our seder tables sometimes are paradigms of excess.

The year 2016 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development named Los Angeles as the city with the most chronically homeless people in the country. An estimated 44,000 people sleep on the streets of our city each night. On Pesach, we’ll sing, “All who hunger, you are welcome here,” but how many of us will invite a hungry person to eat at our table? How many of us will welcome the stranger, the orphan, the refugee?

Our tradition is clear about our obligation, as Jews, to make the world better. We all understand this. That’s why we give to charities, and pay taxes, and support food kitchens, and engage in the fight for political equality and justice. The Shulchan Aruch demands that every Jewish community establish a kupa, a welfare fund to be distributed to those in need. It also prescribes a tamchui, a communal kitchen that provides food for the poor. 

But it doesn’t end there.

Our tradition also recognizes that something different happens when you invite a hungry person into your home. That it is spiritually elevating to break “bread” with someone who is not like you — who does not share your background, your skin color, your socioeconomic status. The holiday table can become an extraordinary equalizer in allowing us to realize our shared humanity. What makes us human is not what we have; it is what we have to give.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to invite one of my mother’s former students to spend Shabbat with my family and me. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost nine family members in a horrendous slaughter. He and his brother, a former child soldier, and a young woman who also survived the conflict sat in my grandmother’s living room as we lit yahrzeit candles together and remembered all of the people we had lost. That night, we counted more dead among us than living. It was one of the most profound moments of human connection in my life. A Shabbat meal bound me to refugees as we ate, sang, shared and danced to real African drums.

What would it look like if more families modeled this kind of exchange the way my mother did for me? What is the point of digging into our formative pain as a people if it does not awaken us to the pain of others? It’s not enough just to tell the story.

Our communal destiny is to write a new one.

Chag sameach.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Shivi Froman

We refuse to fall into the abyss


On Jan. 18, 2016, a Palestinian youth entered my hometown and stabbed my beloved wife, Michal, who was five months pregnant at the time. One young terrorist brought us face to face with the pain, danger and hatred that has accompanied our return to Zion. A few days of mortal danger for a beloved woman and an unborn child clarified the moral obligation we have to defend ourselves without compromise.

Last Oct. 16, I published my first post calling on the people of Israel to take action against the horror taking place just beyond our border in Syria. Thousands of Israelis responded, creating the largest crowdfunding campaign in Israel, raising millions of shekels for humanitarian aid — aid that was transferred by the Israeli Flying Aid organization to the real victims of that war: the suffering children in Syria.

These donors were thousands of Israelis who did what people in no other nation have done, not even Muslim countries. Thousands of Israelis who, with donations large and small, chose to be on the right side of history. This was done despite the bloody history between the Syrians and Israelis, despite the current situation between the two countries, which is full of hate, despite the uncertain future between us. Or, in the words of one of our donors: “My husband and my brother were killed in Israel’s wars with Syria, and my donation is the way I choose to honor them.”

This is not my personal story; it is the story of Israeli society, a small example of the strange existence that is our reality. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid. To live the true reality of our lives, we must achieve a delicate balance in crossing this bridge, without falling into either side of the abyss.

On the one side is an abyss of surrender to those who want to destroy us; an abyss they have tried to throw us into in the past; an abyss they hope will swallow us in the present. On the other side is the abyss of focusing only on our own existence, of drowning out everything and everyone else.

But despite our enemies’ hopes that we will either fall into one abyss and disappear or descend willingly into the other, and despite their accusations, we, the Jewish people and Israeli society, are carefully traveling across this bridge. We refuse to fall into the abyss. We refuse to lose ourselves and our identity as Jews in the Land of Israel. We also refuse to lose the image of God within us and our responsibility to others, even when they are our enemies.

There is so much pain in this world, and so many people who are purposely inflicting that pain. And it saddens me that the United Nations has chosen again and again to focus on Israel, a nation that is walking a very narrow bridge. We’ll continue on the path we have chosen because that is who we are. We will continue to exist as we are, because that is what is right and what is true. We will continue to exist as we are, because it is the righteous way to defeat the likes of those in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who are against us.

My father passed away four years ago. Menachem Froman z”l was a rabbi, a resident of Judea and Samaria, and a peace activist. My father taught me that we were born with two hands. One hand with which to defend ourselves, and a second hand to extend in peace, compassion and caring for others. He taught me that our lives should be the clapping that happens when these two hands come together. Our lives should be an ongoing encounter between these conflicting motivations.

So let us raise both hands. Let us honor those two tasks — for the people of Israel, for the State of Israel, for our right to exist in our homeland, for our constant desire for peace, for the Israel Defense Forces and those who stand up for Israel, for Israelis who are engaged in acts of humane compassion, wherever they may be, for all those sharing our prophets’ vision of making the world a better place.

This is our story.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered on March 29 at the United Nations and reprinted at timesofisrael.com.


SHIVI FROMAN is an Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of Just Beyond Our Borders, a crowdfunding initiative that provides humanitarian aid for children in Syria.

Former US President Barack Obama, Photo by Joshua Ernst/Reuters

Syria reinforces a lesson: Israel mustn’t rely on the US


President Donald Trump was quick to blame his predecessor, President Obama, for the horrors taking place in Syria. In Israel, commentators and former officials voiced similar claims. President Obama, they said, enacted a policy that is partially responsible for the actions of President Bashar Assad. He drew a “red line” – his red line was the use of chemical weapons. Then, when tested by Assad, he reneged. Then, lured by the Russians, he decided to trust a diplomatic solution to the crisis. His actions were not without reason (I explained some of them in detail here), but the consequences were clear: the US lost its ability to deter Assad, and with it any shred of influence over events in Syria.

But why blame just Obama? What was it in his actions that is worth singling out? Maybe it is the hypocrisy: The President tended to use big words unbacked by actions. Maybe it is the naiveté: The President believed that he could use words to deal with those who only understand force. But when it comes to Syria, Obama deserves blame no more than many others. France could have intervened and did not do it, and the same goes for Britain, and Germany, and China, and Israel. Each of these countries – not to mention Russia – has enough power to make Assad regret his cold decision to use chemical weapons. Yet these countries decided to stay put. Neither Obama, nor Holland, nor Cameron, nor Merkel, nor Netanyahu intervened. All of them made the same calculated choice: Why do I need this as my responsibility? If you want to blame them for something, it is this: They prioritized the interests of their voters and constituents – of Britain, of China – over the interests, and the lives, of the poor Syrians.

Choosing to point at Obama alone stems from a wide gap between expectations and actions. All over the world, people expect more from America; and when America decides to act much like everyone else (that is, do nothing), there is disappointment. So it is very possible that the problem here is not Obama (or Donald Trump, assuming he also decides to do nothing – and this is still unclear). The problem here is the rest of us. The problem here is the expectations that people around the world have from a faraway nation, busy with itself, which has no special appetite to keep playing the role of world policeman. Obama did not solve Syria’s problems, and he did not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he did not stop Iran’s quest to become a nuclear power. Obama ignored what he could ignore, and postponed what he couldn’t just ignore. Syria was not a priority for him. Deterring Assad was never a priority for him. Up until yesterday, it was not a priority for Trump either.

For us, residents of non-American countries, there are lessons to be learned from this. The first of these lessons: we need to be strong militarily. Those who want to base their security on soft power, or cunning diplomacy, or great friendship with other countries, or empathy, or local agreements, or global regimes, or international law – all these should recalculate their strategy. In tough areas such as the Middle East, those who have military power will survive, and those who don’t will not. Israel must face this reality soberly, if not gladly, every time it ponders its budgetary priorities, every time it considers its other concerns, every time it debates a peace treaty, or a draft of a peace treaty, or whatever.

But this is not the only lesson to be learned from recent events in Syria. Israel ought to also learn something about its relations with America. The Americans will not save Israel. And even if they promise to do so, they will still not save it. And if they give guarantees, Israel will not always be able to trust them. Thus, it is better not to make them the cornerstone of Israel’s strategy. And what this means is that Israel is not just allowed to reject American proposals, to dodge American pressure, and to avoid American initiatives if they are based on the assumption that America can be the guarantor of Israel’s security – Israel must do all these things: reject, dodge, avoid. And, of course, Israel would be more than justified in laughing off American, and other countries’, moral lecturing.

And of course, all this must be done politely and considerately, because the US is still Israel’s strong and reliable ally. The US is still much better on most things than most other countries. And yet, it is crucial to remember that there is politeness and there is essence, and the two aren’t one and the same. Israel does not wish to have disagreements with the Trump administration – but it has an interest to defend its diplomatic and security needs. Israel wishes to have an open, honest, and friendly dialogue with the US, but it must keep its ability to defend itself by itself.

And truly, as Israel engages in talks with the Americans – whether it is about the Palestinians, or Iran, or other issues – the prospect of disagreement that leads to open strife is unsettling. Relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration were unsettling. The idea of having similar disagreements with the Trump administration is unappealing.

But one look to the north-east clarifies matters: Relying on anyone to save us in a time of need is even less appealing.

 

Refugees, most of them Syrians, struggle to leave a half-sunken catamaran carrying around 150 refugees as it arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean sea from Turkey, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

Evoking Holocaust, lawmakers demand ‘never again’ for Syria


WASHINGTON – Republican and Democratic lawmakers joined together on Tuesday urging the US government to act more decisively to stop the Syrian bloodshed while drawing upon the lessons of the Holocaust. When displaying the photos of “Caesar” — the codename of a Syrian military defector who smuggled out of the country over 28,000 images of torture and death in Assad prisons — Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee explained, “When you see the images of the Holocaust in the 1940s and the images of Syria in the 21st century, one can just get chilled to think that what has humanity learned all these years? We used to think things couldn’t happen here or any place else and now we see, we were really wrong.”

Over 400,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict erupted in 2011, many of whom are innocent civilians. Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced, over half of the country’s population in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (D-CA) recalled his father who took photos of the Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated in 1945. “When high school students would hear his lecture, they would ask why was the world so asleep to Hitler’s concentration camps? He would explain there was very little visual evidence at that time until those camps were liberated,” the California lawmaker noted. “That’s why he (Caeser) ran that risk so that the visual evidence would be right here in front of us. So, what is our excuse?”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Democratic Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) also spoke at the gathering beside large posters of the gruesome photos taken by Caesar of Syrians brutally tortured and slaughtered. Al Munzer, a Holocaust survivor from Nazi-Occupied Holland evoked his murdered relatives and said, “Like in the Holocaust, inaction is to be complicit. I am here today to give voice to my sisters and to 1.5 million other children killed in the Holocaust who call out to the children burned and maimed and orphaned by bombs in Syria,” Munzer added “Their plight must be front and center of this country’s foreign policy and the world’s attention.”

In a deeply personal plea, Qutaiba Idlbi, a Syrian from Damascus who was tortured in Assad’s prisons urged President Trump, “I know that the new administration has the power to stand in the face of all types of terror.” Idlibi detailed the necessary steps he believes to stop the bloodshed. “I plead with you to establish safe zones in my country that will stop the Assad regime planes and the Iranians from targeting civilians,” he urged. “There are people that remain detained for six years in these prisons awaiting your support. Do not let them down.”

Fighters of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham cheer on a pick up truck near the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. Aug. 1, 2016. Photo by Ammar Abdullah/REUTERS.

Syrian truck driver on road to Damascus reportedly killed by Israeli drone


A Syrian man was killed when the truck he was driving in the Quneitra region of the Golan Heights on the road to Damascus allegedly was fired on by an Israeli drone, Syrian media is reporting.

The Israel Defense Forces is not commenting on the alleged air strike, neither confirming nor denying the Syrian reports.

The alleged victim has been named as Yasser al-Sayed, with some reports calling him a terrorist member of Hezbollah and others identifying him as a civilian.

Hours before the strike, Syrian media reported that Syrian army forces had repelled an Israeli drone in the same area.

The actions come after the IDF confirmed carrying out aerial strikes in Syria and intercepting missiles launched at its aircraft from the ground on Thursday night.

No Israelis were hurt during the strikes Thursday night or from the anti-aircraft fire, the first time that Israel has used the Arrow anti-missile system.

According to the nrg news site, the strikes Thursday were against targets affiliated with Hezbollah, possibly on a weapons shipment to the Shiite terrorist group, which is based in Lebanon but is fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces against rebels and Sunni militants.

The incidents on Thursday are reported to be the most serious between Syria and Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. At that time, Israel Air Force planes struck targets in Syria and Syria’s air defense system fired an anti-aircraft missile at the Israeli planes.

Israel is believed to have carried out several attacks on Syrian soil in recent years, but usually refrains from confirming or denying reports on its alleged actions there.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in an interview with Israel Radio threatened to take out Syrian air defense systems.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said. “Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise.”

President Donald Trump on Feb. 24. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Liberté, égalité, Trumpism


One month into the Trump presidency, I flew to Paris to escape.

I was suffering from an acute case of Trump Fatigue, exhausted by the endless bad news, the moral outrage, the hysteria of the left, the hypocrisy of the right, the mass protests and activist meetings — not to mention the sleepless nights, the fear and uncertainty, the hundreds of articles about the future of American democracy, U.S. foreign policy, an ever-complicated Israel, and how the world as we know it is basically going to hell.

It turns out that although my capacity for outrage is apparently endless, my stamina for expressing it begins to ebb at a certain point, and then it’s time to do something dramatic, like follow through on my threat to leave the country.

So I flew to Paris thinking I’d walk the streets of Le Marais, stare at Monet’s “Water Lilies,” skulk around the gardens of Musée Rodin and eat a lot of cheese. I would revive myself with a renewed commitment to Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom and love — like in the movie “Moulin Rouge!” — and reclaim a sense of optimism for the future. What better way to restore some joie de vivre to my battered American soul than visit the place that invented joie de vivre?

I made it about as far as the cab ride from the airport when I realized that the stark political realities I had hoped to leave behind were in some ways closer than ever.

To enter Paris, my driver had to pass a small tent city of homeless people, who weren’t typical homeless people at all, but scores of women wearing hijabs, crowding the intersection with cardboard signs that read, “Je suis Syrien.”

To see up close what in the United States is discussed mainly in the abstract was shocking in its realism. In an instant, the only thing separating me from the Syrian civil war that destroyed and displaced millions of lives was the door of a cab.

Within an hour, it was easy to see why politicians such as Marine Le Pen have capitalized on France’s immigration “problem,” which is ripe for politicization. The evidence France has not well integrated many of its immigrants is creeping farther and deeper into Paris.

Homelessness and idleness were visible on street corners and in metro stations. And it isn’t only Syrians you see, but Algerians, Malinese and Senegalese, all trying to make their way in a country that, like the U.S., contains factions that are becoming increasingly nationalistic and hostile to outsiders. If you are inclined to seek reasons for why immigration is a threat to France’s fantasy of itself, you can easily find them.

Perhaps that’s why some Parisians are sympathetic to Trump’s anti-immigrant tactics. At a concert at the Maison de la Radio, I sat next to a sophisticated middle-aged woman who told me she didn’t much mind President Donald Trump. “The Clintons would have been much worse,” she whispered between Prokofiev and Shostakovich. “They wanted war. Trump only wants the money” — which she pronounced “Monet,” like the artist.

Some Parisians couldn’t care less about Trump’s atrocious identity politics, his nepotism or his greed —as long as he doesn’t drag Europe into another Iraq War.

But that comment seemed somewhat ironic, only a few days later, during dinner with Italian expatriates who are much more worried about the damage France may do to itself should Le Pen get elected and have her way. Over homemade tortelli with brown butter and crispy sage, an academic from the prestigious Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, warned that if European nationalist trends continue — resulting in more referendums like the one that led to Brexit — the porous borders and economic cooperation that have cemented European peace since World War II could disappear, producing renewed potential for regional conflict. Recently, this professor said, one of the top deans at his school suggested renaming his course track from “Negotiation” to “War Studies.”

“It’s like we’re going backward,” the professor said. “All the progress we made after the war — the focus on human rights, peace and prosperity for all — it’s as if it doesn’t matter.”

Europe, like America, is divided. And they’re watching us very, very closely. Even the French daily Le Monde is obsessed with the reality show that is the Trump White House and is now publishing a regular column called La journée de Trump — a roundup of the president’s day.

So much for my glamorous escape.

Political anxieties are alive and well in Paris, too, and no amount of aperitifs or digestifs can distract from a world in flux. “Travel robs us of refuge,” wrote French philosopher Albert Camus. He believed that we cannot hide ourselves when we travel — that we are “stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks … completely on the surface of ourselves.”

I used to come to Paris and feel only its wonders; now I also see its stains.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

About 700 people attended a New York City rally in support of refugees organized by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on Feb. 12. Photo by Josefin Dolsten

Jews gather at rallies across U.S. urging support for refugees


Over 100 years ago, Barnett Levine was greeted by the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty as he arrived in the United States, having fled anti-Semitism and pogroms in his native Poland.

On Sunday, his grandson saw those very same sights when he joined about 700 others in this city’s Battery Park downtown at a rally protesting President Donald Trump’s executive order banning all refugees from the country for 120 days.

“I am the grandchild of four immigrants who came here when the gates of the United States were wide open and they made a life here,” Harold Levine, a 60-year-old marketing consultant, told JTA. He added: “I think that it is the duty of the Jewish community to pay this forward to other immigrants who are trying to come to the United States.”

The rally was organized by HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, part of an initiative by the immigrant resettlement group called the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees.

The president issued his order last month, which also banned citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. On Thursday, a federal appeals court ruling upheld a stay on the ban, a move praised by Jewish groups, including HIAS.

Harold Levine brought a poster to the New York City rally showing his grandfather, who immigrated to the United States over 100 years ago, fleeing anti-Semitism in his native Poland. (Josefin Dolsten)

Thousands attended rallies on Sunday as part of the HIAS initiative, including in Boston, Washington, D.C, and other major cities, a representative for the group told JTA. The demonstrations had more than 20 co-sponsors, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Mark Hetfield, the CEO of HIAS, said the rallies were a rare moment of joining together in support of refugees.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since I got my start [with HIAS] in 1989, which was at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement,” he said. “This is a galvanizing moment like that, but the difference is that then we were standing up for Jews, and now we are standing up as Jews.”

At the New York rally, participants braved icy wind, hail and rain to join in chants of “When refugees are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back” and “Never again means never again for everyone” between speeches by rabbis and clergy members, politicians and leaders of Jewish groups. Among the speakers were Mayor Bill de Blasio; Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, and Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee.

In Boston, speakers at a rally with several hundred participants included City Councilor Josh Zakim, whose father, the late Lenny Zakim, was the longtime director of the New England Anti-Defamation League; Imam Faisal Khan, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Wayland, and Fred Manasse, a child Holocaust survivor who was brought to the U.S. by HIAS.

Speeches — even those given by non-Jewish speakers — were peppered with references to Jewish history and traditions.

“In this city we believe we can live in harmony,” de Blasio said in New York.” It’s not perfect, but we believe we can do something that the whole world is struggling to do, that we can all be together … people of all religions and backgrounds, that is what we’re fighting for — doesn’t that fit beautifully the profound Jewish concept of tikkun olam, of healing the world?”

Elianna Kan, left, said the fact that her family members came to the U.S. as refugees from the Soviet Union motivated her to attend the New York City rally with her friends Will Hunt and Sarah Rosen. (Josefin Dolsten)

Ellison, who told JTA that the rally was “one of the main reasons” for his visit to New York, talked in his speech about the MS St. Louis, a ship with 900 Jewish refugees from Germany that tried to enter the United States and other countries but was turned away. He called the incident “a shameful time in our country.”

“All of our officials who worked with this stuff knew about it. We can’t say we didn’t know — we knew,” said Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and a front-runner to lead the Democratic National Committee. “We didn’t want to get involved, we wanted to just mind our own business, we just kind of thought, ‘Oh, this is not our issue.’”

Jewish ritual featured prominently. At one point during the New York rally, representatives of 10 of the co-sponsoring groups went on stage and tore pieces of cloth, mimicking a Jewish ritual in which mourners rend their clothing. The tearing was done to remind attendees of refugees who had died before being able to reach safety, as well as those who are now facing dangerous circumstances.

Bill de Blasio HIAS

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking at the HIAS rally in New York, Feb. 12, 2017. (Gili Getz)

In addition to co-sponsoring the New York event, the ADL on Sunday also launched a campaign to rally opposition to Trump’s executive order urging people to share on social media their family stories of coming to the U.S. and tagging posts with #ThisIsARefugee.

“We remember that we were once strangers, too, that Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and oppression during the Holocaust were often denied entry with claims eerily similar to some of the claims that are being made today to deny entrance to refugees, and we think that’s wrong,” Greenblatt told JTA on the phone before the rally.

Participants at the rally said they were compelled to attend for a variety of reasons, both personal and historical.

Lisa Davidson, a 41-year-old professor who attended the New York event, said she saw historic parallels between the Holocaust and the civil war in Syria.

“What’s going on in Syria right now is criminal, and it is sort of reminiscent of what happened in the Holocaust in the ’30s and ’40s, and I think that we don’t want to repeat that again, and we don’t want to sit and say that we did nothing,” Davidson said.

Lisa Davidson, seen at the New York rally, says she sees parallels between the Holocaust and the civil war in Syria. (Josefin Dolsten)

For some the motivation came from their family history. Levine, the marketing consultant whose grandfather immigrated to the U.S. over a century ago, brought with him a poster saying”This is personal” and showing a photograph of his grandfather and his immigration paperwork.

“I couldn’t not come here. The minute I heard about it, I thought I had to come,” he said.

Elianna Kan shared similar reasons for coming. The 28-year-old translator and journalist said her family came to the U.S. in the 1970s as refugees from the Soviet Union, receiving financial and logistical help from HIAS.

“I’m here and have the privilege of being born in a free country because people who were concerned with the plight of my family, whether or not they had a personal connection, were out there, and this seems like an even more extreme case,” she said. “It’s a different case, but the parallels are far too obvious to me.”

(JTA correspondent Penny Schwartz contributed reporting from Boston.)

Demonstrators at Chicago’s O’Hare airport protesting Donald Trump’s executive order on Jan. 29. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jewish groups praise court for upholding stay on Trump’s travel ban


Jewish groups welcomed a federal appeals court ruling upholding a stay on President Donald Trump’s ban on the entry of refugees and of travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“We applaud the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and hope that it sends an important message to the nation and the world that the United States is a nation that does not exclude people based on their faith and welcomes those seeking refuge,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement it posted on Twitter just minutes after the court ruled on Thursday.

The tweet noted that the ADL had joined an amicus brief in the legal action originally brought by the State of Washington against the ban.

The unanimous decision of the Ninth Circuit panel of three judges was a narrow one, upholding last week’s decision by a federal court in Seattle to stay the ban pending further consideration of its legality.

Also commending the ruling was the American Jewish Committee. “We welcome the 9th Circuit ruling–an important moment for U.S. democracy and values,” it said on Twitter.

HIAS, the Jewish group advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees, tweeted links to the decision. It also has joined an amicus brief against the ban, in Maryland.

One of the HIAS tweets was a reminder that its battle against the ban is not over; Trump’s ban may yet be upheld by the courts.

“We will continue fighting Pres. Trump’s executive order until we’ve re-secured the American tradition of #WelcomingRefugees to our shores,” it said.

HIAS is spearheading rallies on behalf of refugees to take place in nearly a dozen states this Sunday. A focus will be Trump’s executive order. Also backing the rallies are the ADL, the American Jewish World Service, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the rabbinical associations of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called the court’s ruling “a victory for American freedom over Presidential tyranny.”

“The court has sided with refugees who thirst for hope over a president who yearns to hate,” the center said in a statement.

Trump appeared ready to take his case to reinstate the ban pending further legal review to the Supreme Court. “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” he said on Twitter.

Neither Trump nor his team has explained what imminent danger cannot withstand the temporary stay on his order, issued about a week after he assumed office last month; no terrorist committing a crime on U.S. soil has hailed from any of the seven nations listed in the ban.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader in the Senate, called on Trump to give up on the executive order.

“President Trump ought to see the writing on the wall, abandon proposal, roll up his sleeves and come up with a real, bipartisan plan to keep us safe,” he said on Twitter.

Alan Dershowitz, the noted constitutional lawyer, had similar advice.

“Precedent trumps President Trump,” he said on CNN.

President Donald Trump. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Why it’s so hard to write about Trump


Every profession has its challenges. For writers who try to come up with fresh insights on current events, the Donald Trump era is especially challenging. I mean, how many different ways can you write that our new president is a human train wreck?

What I have found, though, is that most people don’t want to talk about anything else. Right now, many of them are so angry and worked up over Trump that they have this deep need to express that anger. So, when they seek out what to read, they gravitate toward stuff that makes them feel better — in other words, stuff they completely agree with.

It’s tempting for writers to feed into that. I know I can write column after column bashing Trump and make lots of readers happy. Of course, I will essentially be repeating what many of you already know and are already fuming about. These days, anti-Trump columns are not a dime a dozen, they’re a penny a million (and for good reason).

But if all I do is confirm your beliefs, I’ll be doing you a disservice. I’m also here to challenge you, even if you may not be in the mood.

Take the case of Trump’s sloppy and overextended executive order on visas and immigration that resulted in hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, being humiliated or put in limbo or stranded at airports. In response, much of the country has exploded in anger, marching at airports and mobilizing an opposition movement. You can read hundreds of columns tapping into that anger.

But do you know what I think about when I see the pain and chaos inflicted by a rude and reckless Trump? I think of former President George W. Bush, who, unlike Trump, was a polite and decent man.

You see, this polite and decent man was responsible for squandering $3 trillion of our tax money on a ruinous war in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of human lives. And then I ask myself: As much as I can’t stand the vulgarity of Trump, would Trump have sucked our country into that big rip-off of a war? And if the answer is no, what is that worth?

I also think of the polite and decent former President Barack Obama, who allowed a humanitarian disaster to unfold in Syria that resulted in nearly 500,000 dead and millions of refugees, and I ask myself: Where were all the demonstrators then? Where was the public outcry? It’s not fair to blame the complex Syrian disaster only on Obama, but it is fair to ask why he didn’t do more.

One reason is that he didn’t want to jeopardize his nuclear deal with Iran, which has empowered the world’s No. 1 sponsor of terrorism to spread its carnage to Iraq, Syria and throughout the region. The deal is not without its benefits, but I still have to ask myself: Would Trump have driven a harder bargain that would have taken into account Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism? And if the answer is yes, what would that be worth?

It’s uncomfortable to think that decency doesn’t necessarily correlate with success.

None of this should make you feel better about Trump. It’s not meant to. Rather, it’s meant to put things into some larger perspective. America is coming off 16 years under two of the most decent and classy presidents in recent memory, and yet, we still ended up with untold horror for millions of people in a part of the world those presidents were totally focused on.

It’s uncomfortable to think that decency doesn’t necessarily correlate with success. Trump’s offensive style may be infuriating. His ideas may be scary. His initial moves may be reckless and cruel. All that may be true, and it may well lead to much darker days ahead. But it’s also possible that his forceful approach may spook and deter evil regimes like Iran, or shake up the hypocrites at the United Nations or even help create humanitarian safety zones in Syria. If such success happens, will we discount it because it came from a man we abhor?

People who are still in meltdown over Trump can’t conceive of the possibility that he may have any redeeming qualities. I get that and I have my own doubts. That’s partly why it’s so hard to write about him — most people just expect you to bash him. They don’t really want to read anything else.

Once in a while, though, it’s good to take our minds out for a walk and hear things we don’t expect to hear, if only to remind us of what makes America really great — that we live in a society that honors diversity of thought, including thoughts we have no time for.


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

Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for Research at Amnesty International's Beirut Regional office, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 6. Photo by Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Syrian government campaign of extrajudicial executions


Amnesty International says as many as 13,000 hanged at prison

A new report by Amnesty International describes a campaign of mass hangings and extrajudicial executions at Saydnaya prison. Since 2011, at least once a week, groups of up to 50 people were taken from their prison cells and hanged to death. In five years, as many as 13,000 people, most of them civilians believed to be opposed to the government, were hanged in secret at Saydnaya.

The report called “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya prison, also shows that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses torture and deprives detainees of food, water, medicine and medical care. The report shows how these policies have killed large numbers of detainees.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s regional office in Beirut.

“We demand that the Syrian authorities immediately cease extrajudicial executions and torture and inhuman treatment at Saydnaya Prison and in all other government prisons across Syria. Russia and Iran, the government’s closest allies, must press for an end to these murderous detention policies.

“The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda. The UN must immediately carry out an independent investigation into the crimes being committed at Saydnaya and demand access for independent monitors to all places of detention.”

Amnesty carried out investigations over one year, and interviewed 84 witnesses including prison guards, detainees, judges and lawyers. In many cases, the prisoners did not know they were about to be killed. The report said that hangings at Saydnaya are carried out once or twice a week, usually on Monday and Wednesday, in the middle of the night. Those whose names are called out were told they would be transferred to civilian prisons in Syria. Instead, they are moved to a cell in the basement of the prison and beaten severely. They are then transported to another prison building on the grounds of Saydnaya, where they are hanged. Throughout this process, they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks.

The accused are not given any real trial. One former judge from a Syrian military court told Amnesty International the “court” operates outside the rules of the Syrian legal system. “The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime. Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted… This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court,” he said.

The Amnesty Report comes as Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has made gains against Islamic State and retaken large swaths of territory. While it once seemed impossible that Assad would stay on as Syria’s leader, it is now seeming more likely that he will. Assad has an interest in convincing both his citizens and the world that he can peacefully govern Syria.

“The regime has been trying very hard to make things look like everything is okay to the external world,” Laila Kiki, the media spokeswoman at the Syria Campaign, which is a global Syrian advocacy group based in Washington D.C. and Beirut, told The Media Line.

But the Amnesty Report shows that life in Syria is far from normal.

Rape is common, as is torture. Amnesty says at least 17,000 people have died in prisons across Syria in addition to the 13,000 hanged between 2011 and 2015.

“Every day there would be two or three dead people in our wing… I remember the guard would ask how many we had. He would say, ‘Room number one – how many? Room number two – how many?’ and on and on… There was one time that… the guards came to us, room by room, and beat us on the head, chest and neck. Thirteen people from our wing died that day,” said “Nader”, a former Saydnaya detainee.

Thousands gathered to protest at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Eitan Arom

When an executive order prompts civil disorder


Shortly before Shabbat fell on Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively slammed the door on refugees seeking entry to the United States — at least for now.

Shock and dismay had been building in the Jewish community since a draft of the order was leaked days beforehand, and on Jan. 28, those sentiments exploded onto Rabbi Susan Goldberg’s cellphone in the form of concerned messages from her congregants at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“When Shabbat ended last night, my phone was blowing up — emails, photos,” she said Jan. 29 as a crowd milled past her at the arrivals gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “For Jews, there’s a clear line that’s been crossed.”

The airport protest came as a grass-roots reflection of simmering anger in the organized Jewish community. The days before the executive order saw statements from Jewish organizations ranging from the Orthodox Union to the Anti-Defamation League expressing their ire, and in some cases promising to fight the administration.

At LAX, where a number of travelers had been detained because of the order, thousands poured through terminals and onto the curbs the afternoon of Jan. 29. Police cut off traffic through much of the airport and largely gave protesters the run of Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Many protesters were Jews from congregations across the city, and even on signs held aloft by non-Jews, a certain Jewish influence could be detected in references to 1930s Germany and proclamations of “Never again.”

“Our country once made the mistake of shutting its doors to nearly 1,000 refugees on the S.S. St. Louis — people died as a result,” said Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue, reached by phone shortly after the order was signed. “We don’t want to see that happen again.”

To be sure, there are plenty of Jews who support the ban or parts of it and others who dispute analogies to the Holocaust. “Analogy to 1930s Jews is recklessly false,” a statement from Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), declared the day before the order was signed.

But some community members who voiced their support for Trump’s order did so at their own peril, including Simon Etehad, a personal injury lawyer in Beverly Hills, who was born in Iran and fled the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

img_4102“You have no idea how many friends I lost on Facebook because of my opinion … but I believe that he’s doing a wonderful job,” he said.

“Even if I would have been personally affected by this ban, I would still support it,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “Because I am not willing to endanger the life of a single U.S. citizen so that my family members might have an easier travel experience in the next 90 days!”

The people who showed up Jan. 29 at LAX didn’t quite see it that way.

“There are a lot of Jews here — a lot,” Goldberg said from the airport, joined by her three children and her husband, who translated as she spoke in sign language, since she’d lost her voice.

‘Let them in!’

As weary travelers emerged to boisterously chanting crowds, Adam and Noah Reich held a sign reading, “Two Jewish brothers standing with our Muslim brothers.” While they spoke with a reporter, a short woman with olive skin, a total stranger, walked up and hugged both of them. That type of thing had been going on all afternoon.

“Maybe like, a dozen so far,” Noah said. “We’ve been here for a couple hours and people just come up to us.”

“The collective power of everyone here is saying, ‘You’re not alone; we’re all here for you,’ ” Adam said. “And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

Emerging from the crowd, Jesse Gabriel, an attorney and executive board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put his hand on Noah’s shoulder.

Kol ha-kavod,” he told the pair, using a Hebrew expression for “Well done!”

Gabriel was one of dozens of attorneys swarming the terminal, many with signs reading “lawyer” and announcing their foreign language proficiencies, hoping to be of help to stranded travelers or those recently released by Immigration and Customs officers.

“When you have individuals whose rights need to be protected, that’s when lawyers need to step in,” Gabriel said.

In fact, there was little work for the attorneys at the terminal, since those detained were stranded elsewhere, in the bowels of LAX, incommunicado. The crowds were chanting, “Let them in!” but lawyers were struggling even to make contact with those stranded.

“Our understanding is that there are a number of people with legal travel documents who are being detained in customs and border patrol, in custody,” said immigration attorney Michael Hagerty.

Hagerty was serving as ad hoc media liaison to a group of attorneys at the airport (as announced by a cardboard sign reading “media liaison”). Among his charges were representatives from legal aid clinic Public Counsel and the local American Civil Liberties Union. But information about those in limbo -— even a basic head count — proved difficult to come by.

“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know exactly what their legal status is on an individual basis, but in all likelihood, they are legal permanent residents, they are refugees with legal refugee travel documents, people with student visas,” Hagerty said.

As he spoke, wayfarers cut through surging crowds, pushing carts and lugging suitcases. For those just arriving, it must have presented an overwhelming scene: shouts of “USA!” from flamboyantly dressed protesters, their signs decorated with images ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Trump with a Hitler mustache, and outside, drums banging out an incessant beat.

Marchers mobbed the sidewalk on both the upper and lower levels, along with the international terminal itself. The crowd lined the curb, waving signs at passing cars, and some took to the upper levels of parking garages across the street to look down over the scene.

Some travelers decided to join the protest, including Zoe Lister-Jones, a filmmaker who had just stepped off the plane after screening her new comedy, “Band Aid,” at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

“I’ve been witnessing the injustices occurring from Park City and I came straight from the arrivals terminal to protest,” she said. “As a Jew, I think it’s part of our bloodline to stand up to injustice and resist fascism.”

Mollie Goldberg from Los Angeles

Across Airport Way from the mass of protesters stood Michael Chusid, a kind of greeter. The tall, bearded, middle-aged Encino man held a sign that read “Welcome” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

“My grandparents came from Lithuania and Ukraine,” Chusid said. “My grandfather was the only one to survive from his whole family. The only thing that is left in Lithuania is tombstones.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said as he teared up.

Clergy respond

News of the order quickly raised a chorus of rabbis in opposition.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, for instance, a consortium of Reform clergy, has been abuzz with outrage at the new policy, Feinstein said.

“We know full well when people come after minorities, they don’t stop with one,” he told the Journal. “History shows this to be the canary in the mine.”

At the airport, the crowd included enough rabbis to start a seminary.

“This country is an expression of the best of what the world has to offer,” Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple said at LAX. “And to be that, it has to be open to immigrants. It has to reflect the values that we hold dear as Jews.”

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica stood alone on the sidewalk outside the terminal wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl, having been unable to locate his congregants in the chaos.

“I wanted people to know that the Jewish people feel a chill up our spine because this is happening,” he said.

Leading up to the refugee order, HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, recruited more than 1,700 rabbis across the denominational spectrum to sign a statement welcoming refugees to the United States. They included Rabbis Sharon Brous of IKAR, Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am, Stan Levy of B’nai Horin, and Yoshi Zweiback of Stephen Wise Temple, as well as Feinstein and Stern.

Reached by phone Jan. 27, shortly after Trump signed the order, Kligfeld noted that the Exodus story obliges Jews “to advocate for our country to continue to have its arms and heart open to the bedraggled and impoverished and persecuted.” But he sounded a note of sympathy with community members who want to protect the nation’s ports of entry.

“I find myself in a centrist place on this issue,” he continued. “I’m proud of our country’s history regarding Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. I think we also live in a scary world.”

Representing the nation’s Orthodox rabbinate, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America reaffirmed a joint statement issued in December 2015 blasting the idea of a Muslim ban. Taken together with reproving statements from the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, the Orthodox groups’ opposition brings every major strain of American Judaism into alignment against the immigration measures.

Struggling over security, Holocaust memory

The Orthodox rabbi’s statement fell far short of other proclamations by large Jewish organizations, some of which promised an outright battle with the administration.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nonpartisan group that was critical of candidate Trump, found fighting words: “ADL relentlessly will fight this policy in the weeks and months to come,” CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement, responding ahead of time to a leaked draft. “Our history and heritage compel us to take a stand.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris also reached for Jewish heritage to motivate his opposition.

“We are all related to those fortunate enough to have been admitted to this country — in my case, my mother, father, wife, and daughters-in-law,” he said in a statement. “And we believe that other deserving individuals merit the same opportunities to be considered for permanent entry.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center protested the idea of a nationality-based ban in a statement the day of the order while steering clear of Holocaust imagery. But the same day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it criticized Trump for not mentioning Jews in a statement about the Holocaust — a week after the Wiesenthal Center’s founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration.

Among the leaders of large Jewish institutions, ZOA’s Klein offered a rare note of support for Trump’s measures, saying in the statement his group “is appalled that left-wing Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Reform Movement are ‘strongly condemning’ this draft Executive Order.”

He took umbrage with comparisons to Jewish refugees.

“No Jewish immigrants flew airplanes into buildings, or massacred scores of innocent people at a holiday party or nightclub or marathon or drive trucks into innocent citizens,” Klein said in the statement.

Though unusual within the Jewish establishment, Klein’s thesis found support in some pockets of the community, including some who are recent immigrants themselves.

“It is simply disgraceful to compare Trump to Hitler or his actions to those of the Nazi era,” Etehad wrote in the email.

Eugene Levin, president of Panorama Media Group, which operates a radio
station and two Russian-language  weekly newspapers in Los Angeles, said he supports Trump’s ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries because there is no way of doing a thorough background check and knowing if someone is not a disguised terrorist.

“Many individuals with questionable backgrounds from the Soviet Union moved here as refugees. Think about [the] Tsarnaev brothers, who were able to immigrate here as refugees,” he said, referring to the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

“I believe what Trump did was a necessary step,” he added.

Muslims “are against the Jewish people,” said Roman Finarovsky, who grew up in Ukraine at a time when going to a synagogue could result in losing one’s job if caught by the KGB.

img_4085But some saw in the struggle of Soviet Jews cause to oppose the ban. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was an activist in the free Soviet Jewry movement as a student at UCLA. While several members of the Russian Jewish community expressed support for the ban, Yaroslavsky strongly denounced it.

“I find it to be abhorrent and contrary to every fiber of my being as a human rights activist, as an activist for Soviet Jewry in earlier years, as a civil libertarian, which I am,” Yaroslavsky said of the executive order in a phone interview. “This is un-American, literally un-American.”

Galvanizing young Jews

Shay Roman, 27, stood with two friends at LAX, all three wearing T-shirts from the group IfNotNow, a network of Millennial Jews that protests the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza.

“I’m here especially as a Jew,” Roman said. “I feel it’s so important to show support for other communities, especially the refugee community.”

“Our generation is absolutely not apathetic,” one of his companions, Jonah Breslau, 25, added. “We’re a group of young Jews and our core values are about freedom and dignity for all people — Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.”

Danit Osborn, 22, cited her background as both Jewish and Cambodian as part of her reason for being there. She said she wasn’t sure the protest would accomplish any specific policy reform.

“I’m not sure we’re gonna change Donald Trump,” she said. “But I have to be here for my mother and I have to be here for my father.”

Olga Grigoryants, Ryan Torok, Danielle Berrin and Rob Eshman contributed to this report.

Photo by Rob Eshman

Trump’s anti-American immigration ban


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this time, the xenophobes are in charge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_4107

President Donald Trump

When recklessness kills debate


A few minutes before his daughter lit the Shabbat candles last Friday night, President Donald Trump signed a rushed executive order regarding immigration and refugees.

Did Trump deliver on his campaign promise of a Muslim ban to America until we figure out “what the hell is going on”? Actually, he backed down considerably from that promise, signing instead a more narrow order regarding travel restrictions from jihadist conflict zones.

As David French writes in National Review Online, “Trump’s order isn’t a betrayal of American values. Applied correctly and competently, it can represent a promising fresh start and a prelude to new policies that protect our nation while still maintaining American compassion and preserving American friendships.”

But here’s the problem: It wasn’t enacted correctly or competently. There was no serious vetting with legal and security experts, no coordination with foreign governments or the multiple agencies in charge of execution, no cooperation with key allies in Congress. As David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, “To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amateurs.”

As a result of his blundering impulsiveness, Trump nourished the anti-Trump frenzy that already is sweeping much of the country, especially among liberal circles.

So, instead of having a smart debate over how best to protect our country and still live up to our ideals, we have the spectacle of confused immigration officials, visitors stranded in limbo, protestors swarming airports, lawyers rushing to courts and a gleeful media happy to rake in the ratings.

You could never tell through all the hysteria that the Trump orders were hardly a radical departure from past policies. For example, according to the Migration Policy Institute, Trump’s annual cap of 50,000 refugees is higher than the caps allowed by President George W. Bush in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007, and only moderately lower than the caps allowed by President Barack Obama before 2016. In 2011 and 2012, Obama admitted barely more than 50,000 refugees.

As far as the indefinite hold on admission of Syrian refugees until the United States has “determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP [United States Refugee Admissions Program] to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest,” as the executive order states, let’s not go crazy. In the four years after the start of the Syrian civil war, confronted with a refugee crisis that ballooned into the millions, Obama allowed 29 Syrian refugees in 2011, 31 in 2012, 36 in 2013 and 105 in 2014.

You could never tell through all the hysteria that the Trump orders were hardly a radical departure from past policies.

The order imposing a temporary 90-day ban on people entering the U.S. from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen may drive a lot of people nuts, but it’s also not a radical departure from the past. The ban, which allows for special exemptions, is in place while the Department of Homeland Security determines the “information needed from any country to adjudicate any visa, admission, or other benefit under the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] (adjudications) in order to determine that the individual seeking the benefit is who the individual claims to be and is not a security or public-safety threat.”

Obama’s State Department imposed its own six-month ban in 2011, when it stopped processing Iraqi refugees after a Kentucky case involving two al-Qaida terrorists. Unlike Trump’s order, though, the ban did not apply to tourists and immigrants.

Where does the list of seven countries come from? That’s right — from the Obama administration. Beginning in January 2016, travelers from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria were blocked from entering the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows foreign citizens to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Libya, Somalia and Yemen were added soon after due to “the growing threat from terrorist fighters.”

Under Obama’s restrictions, people still were able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process. Nevertheless, it hardly feels like a radical departure to impose a 90-day ban on countries identified as a growing threat by Obama himself while the U.S. reviews and potentially strengthens the vetting process.

My point is this: Trump’s reckless disregard for the slow, deliberate process of shaping policy, and the ensuing chaos he breeds with his “fire, ready, aim” approach, is killing debate and making it virtually impossible to see any hint of sanity in his policies, even when it’s there.

If he wants to avoid becoming a loser president, maybe he ought to put down his pen once a week and light the Shabbat candles with his daughter. If Shabbat can’t slow him down, nothing can.


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

Several Jewish families affected by Trump’s refugee ban, says HIAS


The U.S. ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries has affected several Jewish families, according to the refugee support and advocacy group HIAS.

The ban, which came Friday in an executive order signed by President Donald Trump, has plunged into further uncertainty the lives of a Jewish Iranian man in his late 20s and his middle-aged mother, who for the past year have been waiting in an unnamed country for a reply on their application for asylum in the United States, HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, told JTA Sunday.

Citing privacy concerns and a desire not to further complicate the application process, Hetfield declined to name the applicants or reveal their whereabouts. The man and his mother, he said, are trying to reunite with two of the mother’s daughters who are already in the United States.

Last year, HIAS handled 159 applications by Jews for asylum in the United States, among them 89 Iranians and several Jews from Yemen.

Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, HIAS was recognized in 1976 by the Justice Department as an agency authorized to assist immigration. It now has hundreds of staff and is active in over 30 countries, processing more than 4,000 refugee asylum applications annually – most of them for non-Jews.

HIAS applicants from the Middle East — who are vetted and screened in a process which can take as long as two years – often travel to the United States through Ukraine or Austria if they have a visa.

HIAS is among several American Jewish groups that have protested Trump’s executive order.

“The ban affects hundreds of our clients, for whom it may be the difference between life and death,” Hetfield said.

The executive order prohibits refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, with an indefinite ban on those fleeing war-torn Syria. Citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are barred from entry for 90 days.
Hetfield also noted a case involving a non-Jewish family of asylum seekers from Syria, which despite having obtained on Jan. 20 visas to enter the United States as refugees following a Homeland Security Department vetting, were turned back in Ukraine to their camp in Jordan on Jan. 27. Airline officials cited Trump’s executive order in nixing the family’s flight to the United States.

The mother and her daughters, ages 5 and 8, seek to reunite with the father of the family, who is already in the United States. They were allowed back into Jordan, “but in such cases, there is a risk that people who leave to become refugees in the United States will not be let back in, or worse,” Hetfield said.

Twitter account tells tragic tales of Jewish refugees killed after US turned them away


In May 1939, as the Holocaust was beginning, the United States turned away the M.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 mostly Jewish refugees from Europe. Returning to Europe, 288 were taken in by Great Britain; of those trapped in Western Europe when Germany conquered the continent, 254 died.

Now a Twitter feed is recalling their names and their deaths, one by one.

@Stl Manifest, launched Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, goes line by line through the ship’s manifest, or list of passengers, then tells how each passenger was killed. Some of the posts include photos.

The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg carrying 937 Jewish refugees on May 23, 1939. Twenty-nine were able to disembark in Havana, though the Cuban government wouldn’t allow the rest to enter. Subsequent appeals to the United States to let the refugees enter through Miami were rejected. A 1924 law severely restricted immigration from Germany, and anti-immigrant sentiment was prevalent in the United States at the time.

The feed, a project of Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator, comes as the question of whether to admit refugees is again roiling the country. A draft order expected to be signed soon by President Donald Trump would temporarily bar all refugees from being admitted to the United States, and also would ban nationals of several Muslim-majority countries from entering.

Several Jewish groups have opposed the ban, citing the Jewish experience as refugees. In the description of @Stl_Manifest, Neiss wrote #RefugeesWelcome.

Trump bans refugees, singles out Muslims


On Friday, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camps, President Donald J. Trump signed executive orders closing the country’s borders to refugees and blocking men, women and children escaping the carnage in Syria from finding safety in the United States.

His order also temporarily suspended immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Many Jewish organizations reacted swiftly to condemn the orders, which echoed 20th century laws that barred Jews seeking refuge from aazi Germany.  Many of those turned away were murdered in the concentration camps.

In a press release, the non-partisan American Jewish  said it views with, “profound concern the Trump Administration’s plans to pose unjustified new obstacles in the path of refugees and asylum seekers.”

Trump called his actions part of the “extreme vetting” of potential Islamic terrorists that he promised on the campaign.

At the same time, Trump ordered that Christians and other non-Muslims from these same countries be granted priority over Muslims.

“We don’t want them here,” Mr. Trump said of Islamist terrorists during a signing ceremony at the Pentagon. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people.”

The executive order suspends the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days and directs officials to determine additional screening ”to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States.”

The order also stops the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and bars entry into the United States for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries linked to concerns about terrorism. Those countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

Numerous critics of the move took to Twitter to point out that the majority of perpetrators of the most serious terrorist attack on American soil, on 9/11, came from Saudi Arabia, which is not one of the countries listed.

In its rare, strongly worded response to Trump’s ban, the AJC pointed out that, “refugees from Syria, Iraq and other states in violent upheaval are already laboriously and intrusively vetted by U.S. immigration authorities, assisted by U.S. intelligence agencies, in cooperation with other nations’ intelligence services. For those approved, it generally takes 18 to 24 months to gain U.S. admission.”

“The terrorist threat attributed to refugees is a cruel and distracting fiction,” the AJC said,  “especially when viewed against the actual incidence of mass violence committed with chilling frequency – in schools, churches, shopping malls and other venues – against Americans by Americans. In the 14 years ending in October 2015, a period in which 784,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, there were exactly three arrests for planning terrorist activities (none of which occurred).”

The women who could not march


When I saw images of more than 1 million women marching across America on Saturday with signs like “Strong men respect women,” “Strong women scare weak men” and “American horror story White House,” I was proud to live in a country where the freedom to protest and dissent is so vibrant.

But I couldn’t help wondering whether Kajal Khdir was watching the same images.

Kajal, as reported by Amnesty International (AI), was accused of adultery by her husband’s family and held hostage by six family members in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was “tortured and mutilated; family members cut off part of her nose and told her she would be killed after the birth of her child. After fleeing to Syria, two of her abusers were arrested. However, they were both released within twenty-four hours because authorities determined they had acted to safeguard the honor of the family. No charges were ever brought against them.”

I also wondered about Bhanwari Devi, who was raped by five men of a higher caste in India. As AI reports, “The gender-specific sexual abuse that she suffered was compounded by discrimination based on her social status. In the acquittal of her attackers two years later, the court noted that the incident could not possibly have happened because upper caste men would not rape a woman of a lower caste.”

When I saw American women march in unison against the new administration, I also wondered about Hannah Koroma from Sierra Leone, who was genitally mutilated against her will at the age of ten as a rite of passage. As reported by AI, “the ritual was performed with a blunt penknife and Hanna Koroma was denied any anesthetic or antibiotics during or after the procedure. When the operation left her hemorrhaged and anemic, her community attributed her pain to witchcraft.”

These are hardly isolated incidents. In many parts of the world, gratuitous violence against women is an ongoing epidemic. As AI reports, “Because of persistent discrimination against women and women’s virtual invisibility, these human rights violations continue with no clear sign of abatement.”

Let’s put aside the obvious point that it would be absurd to compare human rights in America with human rights in the Third World. Notwithstanding that it’s still far from certain whether the new Trump administration will, in fact, be able to implement new laws that will curtail human rights in our country, let’s grant that the women and others who marched yesterday, which included many friends, had genuine reasons to be outraged at the new administration.

My point is this: If progressives are so into global solidarity, what about other women and minorities around the world who have been suffering long before Donald Trump ever showed up? What about all the Kajal Khdirs, Bhanwari Devis and Hannah Koromas of the world whose voices for so long have been screaming with silence? Where are the signs to defend their rights?

One of the beefs against the new administration is this tribal notion of putting “America First,” which President Trump expressed quite clearly in his inaugural address. This is an insular worldview that violates the great liberal principle of solidarity between all peoples. The best rebuttal to Trump’s tribal view, then, would be to organize demonstrations that say, “Humanity First.”

I have no problem with women and minorities marching in America and fighting for their rights. I love that freedom. I just wish that, one day, they will also march in Washington and at the United Nations and hold up signs for Kajal, Bhanwari and Hannah.

Why? Because we can and they can’t.

The enduring spirit of the Sotloffs


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

Syria and the scandal of our Orthodox synagogues


“Lord of the Universe, I beg You to redeem Israel; but if You do not want to do that, then I beg You to redeem the gentiles.”— Rabbi Yisrael Hopstein, Maggid of Kozhnitz and legendary Chassidic leader in Poland (1733-1814) (1)

When Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), the famous American Chassidic thinker who lived a fully Orthodox life, was once asked by a journalist “why he [as a religious leader] had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam,” he said “’I am here because I cannot pray’.…Confused and a bit annoyed, the journalist asked him, ‘What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to a demonstration against the war?’” Rabbi Heschel replied, “’Whenever I open the prayer book, I see before me images of children burning from napalm’” (Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011] p. 17).

On another occasion, while walking with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, at the famous Civil Rights March against racism, he felt a sense of holiness that reminded him of his younger years when he would walk with the great Chassidic rebbes in Poland. For him the march was a deeply religious undertaking, a mitzvah. “I felt my legs were praying,” he said (Ibid p. 35).

His message was clear: We forfeit our right to pray when we become indifferent to the atrocities done to our fellow men (1).

Indeed, how dare we come before the Lord of the Universe with our personal prayers asking Him for His kindness and gifts, when we ignore the enormous atrocities done to other human beings?

“Prayer” said Rabbi Heschel, “must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight” (Susannah Heschel, idem page 17).

To this very day, we Jews are justifiably outraged beyond description when we remember how the world was silent as six million of our brothers and sisters – including more than one million Jewish children – were slaughtered during the years of the Holocaust. We feel great animosity toward Pius XII, Hitler’s pope, for failing to call on millions of his Catholic followers to protect the Jews and stand up against this ferocious murderer.

This came to my mind when I read about the terrible atrocities that are now being committed against hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians, including tens of thousands of children, who are being killed and mutilated (not to mention the savagery and barbarity in so many other countries). No, this cannot be compared to the Holocaust, but the brutalities in Syria defy all description.

Fortunately, the Government of Israel and members of the larger Jewish community in and outside of the State of Israel have not sat idle in the face of this crisis. They have arranged medical and financial help for the victims, organized solidarity marches and have been taking to the streets, and much more. What Jew would not join these noble acts?

Yet, one place that seems to be totally indifferent to what is happening in Syria and in other parts of the world is the Orthodox synagogue, the most Jewish place of all, and of which I am a proud member.

While I have been informed that synagogues of different denominations have introduced special prayers, it seems, as far as I have been able to investigate (and I hope I’m wrong!), that most Orthodox synagogues (including those in yeshivot) have failed to introduce any prayer, or even the reciting of tehillim for the Syrian victims. These terrible atrocities have, in general, not even been mentioned. All we hear is thundering silence.

Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of Petach Tikva, Israel, whom I consider to be a Gadol Hador (a great religious and halachic leader of our generation), wrote a special prayer related to the Syrian catastrophe, but it seems to have been ignored by most if not all Orthodox synagogues.

Several months ago, a prayer for world peace was sent to thousands of people and hundreds of Orthodox synagogues, which, except for some hesder yeshiva students, was totally ignored by those Orthodox synagogues, including the Modern Orthodox. This prayer is a plea to God to have mercy on all victims of war, terror attacks, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, raging fires, tornadoes, starvation, homelessness, and population displacement. (2)

The only communities that responded were Reform and Conservative synagogues and, to the great surprise of many, several churches, the leaders of which said they would include the prayer in their services. (This prayer takes no more than a minute to recite.)

In the introduction to his magnum opus, Ha’amek Davar on the Torah, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1817-1893), the last Rosh HaYeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, makes the powerful point that the greatness of our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and no doubt the matriarchs, was the fact that they cared about the well-being of the gentiles in their day, even if they were idolaters. One example is the famous story of Avraham arguing with God to save the people of Sedom, who had fallen to the lowest possible level of moral behavior. Nothing stopped him from trying to save these people, even when it meant having to fight with God Himself (Bereishit 18: 23-33). No doubt this is why Avraham is called the “father of a multitude of nations” (Ibid 17:5). But this is not merely a compliment; it is a deeply religious mission for all the People of Israel. To be an example to the world, and to stand up for all those innocents who have fallen victim to the unspeakable evil of others.   

It is for this reason that Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 576:1), legislated the law that in times of catastrophe one should fast and lessen one’s pleasures (including sexual intercourse), based on the Talmudic statement:

“When the community is in trouble, a person should not say: I will go to my house, I will eat and drink and all will be well with me” (Ta’anit 11a).

This is not Reform or Conservative; it is Orthodox law. So why ignore this important ruling?

The worst sin toward our fellow human beings is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them. People are not aware of their own insensitivity. Conscious insensitivity is almost a contradiction in terms. But one begins to sincerely wonder whether that’s true when there is a call to our synagogues that is completely ignored.

Sure, the members of Orthodox synagogues are generally sensitive people, but they don’t seem to realize that as a community that believes in prayer, and constantly prays for its own welfare, they cannot stand idly by and fail to pray when great evil is heaped upon their fellow humans. I cannot think of a stronger form of narcissism.  

The point is not whether our prayers for all these victims will be answered. This is left up to God. But the message we send to ourselves and our children is that we’re not even prepared to take the time during our synagogue service to draw our attention to the plight of thousands and thousands of children who are being killed, who have lost their arms and legs, and whose bodies have been burned beyond recognition.  

How can we be outraged by the world’s silence in the face of six million of our brothers and sisters being murdered in the Holocaust when our synagogues can’t even take a moment to say a prayer for other human beings, especially children, who are suffering beyond imagination? Do we, the Orthodox, start praying only when the atrocities are as bad as the Holocaust? Or only when it relates to our fellow Jews?  

Millions of people are occupied with physical pleasures, the need for honor and comfort, their hates and loves, all of which are for the most part not worth our time and energy. Yet synagogues refuse to take time for the real issues, which will determine the well-being of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

As Jews, we realize that since the world has “failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology, Samuel H. Dresner (Ed.) [New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983] p.95).

In all honesty, as an Orthodox Jew, I wonder how anyone can believe that God will listen to our prayers when we can’t spare even one minute to pray for the women and children of Syria and the millions of others living in unimaginably devastating circumstances.

Maybe it would be more honest to stay at home and forfeit our right to pray. When we become indifferent to the atrocities done to our fellow humans, then, as Rabbi Heschel teaches us, we had better be silent and live in shame.

As American actor and author William Redfield (1927-1976) once said, “To try may be to die, but not to care is never to be born” (The Book of Bill: Choice Words, Memorable Men, Tom Crisp (Ed.) [Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2009] p. 72).   

******************

  1. Martin Buber's “Tales of the Hasidim” volume 1, p. 289 (New York: Schocken, 1961)
  2. See also the powerful poem by Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, “Shir Meruba” (The Fourfold Song), in which he pleads to pray for all human beings and all of creation. Orot HaKodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1985) pt. 2, sec. 3, essay 30.
  3. It was suggested to say this prayer Shabbat morning after the prayers for the State of Israel, the Israeli soldiers on the battlefields, and those who are missing in action.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

Israel wants to bring injured Aleppo civilians for treatment, Netanyahu says


Israel’s Foreign Ministry is looking for ways to help assist Syrian civilians injured in the country’s civil war, including bringing them to Israel for medical treatment.

“We see the tragedy of terrible suffering of civilians and I’ve asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian causalities of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo, where we’re prepared to take in wounded women and children, and also men if they’re not combatants,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday evening during a meeting with foreign journalists.

“We’d like to do that: Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals as we’ve done with thousands of Syrian civilians. We’re looking into ways of doing this; it’s being explored as we speak.”

Netanyahu said that Israel cannot resolve the crisis in Syria, but “can help mitigate some of the suffering. That is the best that Israel can do.”

Israel has treated many wounded Syrians in hospitals in northern Israel near the shared border with Syria. They are then returned to Syria.

Netanyahu added that Israel will not accept “spillover” from the Syrian war into Israel. The Israeli military has responded to nearly every incident of cross-border mortar or gunfire attacks.

Rumors of summary executions haunt the fall of Aleppo


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Rebel-held eastern Aleppo is collapsing. The residents and insurgents who fought and held out against the Syrian government for five years are being defeated, meter by meter, house by house. When their defenses finally crumble, mass human rights violations and summary executions will follow as the victors administer retribution, analysts are warning.

In recent days, atrocities have already been reported as rebel territory fell. Worse is likely to come as the last few battered square-miles of eastern Aleppo succumb to what is now inevitable. Why? Because this is what happens in a civil war when one exhausted army finally crushes its cornered opponent.

The ‘last stand,’ lauded in Hollywood and in so many military exploits since well before the Alamo, is often anything but glorious. Historians don’t have to look very far back to point to examples of atrocities carried out by combatants who found themselves suddenly powerful and their defeated opponents utterly powerless. 

Government forces are reported to be in control of 98% of the city with the area still holding out being reduced in recent weeks to less than 1 square mile. The BBC reported that 50,000 civilians could be trapped in this tiny space, along with 1,500 rebel fighters. A short-lived ceasefire, that was supposed to enable the evacuation of the remaining enclaves collapsed on Wednesday with the resumption of heavy shelling, less than 24 hours after it was announced. A second ceasefire began Thursday morning, and a convoy of wounded men left the city.

Concern for those trapped inside the shrinking front have been expressed by a number of international agencies and Western governments.

In the last week, hundreds of men who crossed from rebel territory into government controlled areas have gone missing, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told The Media Line. The scale and suddenness of the disappearances is ominous. “[This] was a significantly large number of people who suddenly lost contact [with their families] trying to escape.” It is possible that the men have merely lost communications temporarily in the recent chaos. But there is great concern that they have either been executed or imprisoned and tortured due to the brutality demonstrated by the Syrian regime throughout the conflict, Colville explained.

There are also reports of summary executions taking place as areas of the city change hands. The UN has been informed, by name, of 82 people shot dead in recent days, including 11 women and 13 children. Some appeared to have been executed. Alarmingly, among these names were a large number of people from the same extended family, killed in two different locations. This could be an indication that pro-government forces are targeting specific people and families, singled out as agitators, Colville said. “The fact that it’s happening in two different districts, that triggers alarm bells that this is not coincidental or haphazard,” he explained.

Colville expressed hope that any ceasefire could avoid prolonged bloodshed but suggested human rights violation could still occur as the rebel enclave was evacuated, adding, “I think it’s something that has to be watched like a hawk.”

Some of the worst human rights violations in recent history occurred in similar circumstances, at the end of long bitter conflicts. The Bosnian War fought during the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995 was known for its brutality. However, the name Srebrenica stands out among the many sins of that war. The only officially recognized act of genocide to have taken place among all the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the war, Srebrenica is rightly remembered for the 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were murdered by Bosnian-Serb forces while they were supposedly under UN protection.

But in the time before Srebrenica became a crime scene it was a hold out under siege, one of several Bosniak territories that became surrounded by the Bosnian-Serb military and its allies. When a military unit collapses and loses its cohesion, it becomes easy for an enemy to round up and kill the combatants, often along with a large number of civilians who match the age and gender to be fighters. The Geneva Conventions are supposed to stop such practices, but at Srebrenica that wasn’t the case.

Neither was it in the north of Sri Lanka when the country’s military finally defeated the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, bringing to an end three decades of civil war over the group’s desire for an ethnic state of its own. In 2009, towards the end of the war the Tigers’ leadership and fighters were pushed onto a tiny peninsula of land, hidden among a crowd of 350,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians. The LTTE was accused by human rights groups of using non-combatants as human shields, something that did little to deter the Sri Lankan army’s artillery bombardments over a number of months.

When the end finally came and the LTTE collapsed the victor’s justice was bloody and quickly meted out. The documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields shows film – shot by Sri Lankan soldiers as trophy-footage – of large numbers of executed LTTE fighters and commanders. Exact casualty figures for civilian and combatant deaths remain disputed.

This, the atrocities carried out in Sri Lanka and in Bosnia – and now reports suggest in Syria’s Aleppo – are all too common occurrences during civil wars, Alexander Korb, a lecturer in modern European history at the University of Leicester, told The Media Line. Traditionally, civil conflicts have always been more vicious, more personal, as people choose which side to kill and die for, or alternatively, split themselves down sectarian lines from their once neighbors.

“It’s a very emotional conflict. Boundaries between combatants and civilians are extremely grey and this is why there is a lot more atrocities in civil wars than in conventional wars,” Korb said. There is a dark logic to the violence of the winning side also, he noted. “From the perpetrators perspective, this is their rationale. You can’t send enemy fighters home because they will continue to agitate against the regime.” Mass executions solve this problem.

Russian and pro-Assad news sources have been quick to deride such concerns. RT, the Russian mouthpiece news channel claimed that allegations of human rights violations taking place in Aleppo boiled down to Western media saying, ‘someone told us,’ as neither they nor the UN have observers on the ground in Aleppo.

Denial and fake news are an “integral part” of ongoing war crimes during and after conflicts, Korb, who is also the director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, explained. Holocaust denial is possibly the most notorious form of this practice, but is unfortunately not unique. Similar aspersions were made by the Sri Lankan government and Bosnian-Serb leaders. Aleppo is unlikely to be any different.

5 things you can do to help Aleppo


The news from Aleppo is unbearable. Cease-fires that do not hold. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and a horrific nightmare that is only getting worse. We have known about this epicenter of human anguish for years, and now the stories of profound suffering come to us on a daily basis on the nightly news. I am sick at heart and my soul aches in disbelief that this is happening now. How do we justify our inaction? How do we rationalize what has happened to millions of human beings? Years from now, when asked, “What did you do during the brutal massacre in Syria?” what will be our response?  

This is not the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda or Darfur. Regrettably, we learned little from them. This is 2016 and the epicenter of inhumanity is in Aleppo. We so often lament our inactions of the past yet fail to act when our time comes. We still can do something for the people of Syria and for ourselves. As Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

For many years, during the genocides in Darfur and South Sudan, there were national movements with strong local organizations and individuals speaking out. Although the killing goes on in these places, we can feel that we did a lot as citizens to try to stop the genocide in Darfur. Why has no large and popular national or active local movement, like the Save Darfur Coalition, taken root with voices of conscience speaking out about Syria?  

Is this even comprehensible? Five years ago, Syria had a population of 22 million people. More than half of them have since been forced to flee their homes, been tortured or killed. A human being can never be a statistic. Who can forget the picture of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh pulled from the rubble and sitting in an ambulance waiting to be treated?

We cannot wallow in our guilt, offer pleas that the situation is too complex to understand, ask what difference our actions or words will make. Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a humanitarian; he is a cruel dictator. When he took over from his father in 2000, there were high hopes as he was Western educated as an ophthalmologist in London. Under his leadership, he has been implicated in a multitude of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Dec. 12, the United Nations confirmed that 82 civilians, including women and children, were murdered in Aleppo. Yes, Aleppo will again be unified but how many more innocent people will be forced from their homes or killed as revenge for the rebellion?

What can we do?  

1. We can write to our congressional leaders that we want them to take immediate action on civilian protection measures. 

2. We can write to the president and our Senate and House leaders to seriously consider sanctions and no-fly zones in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has shared his frustration with the lack of action by the United States.  

3. We can contribute to humanitarian groups that are doing everything they can to help refugees and internally displaced people. Groups such as HIAS, International Medical Corps, the White Helmets — the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group of rescue workers in Syria — the  International Rescue Committee and many others are doing lifesaving work inside and outside of Syria. (Please always review an organization on Charity Navigator before giving).  

4. We can watch the situation carefully and discuss it with our family and friends. We can make sure that we are vigilant in being informed and doing whatever it takes.  

5. We can do more to increase the number of Syrian civilians being allowed into the U.S.

Most of all, we can see the Syrians as human beings, people like you and me, who deserve medical attention, food, security and a place to live. More than anything, they want something that we can give them: the knowledge that the world cares about them  — and hope.   

Shmuel Zygelbaum, the Polish politician in exile in London during World War II, wrote about the Holocaust:  “It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race, if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.” A year later, he took his own life as his final form of protest. 

We who pride ourselves on uplifting human beings are being called to halt the greatest crime of our time. Can we halt it? I don’t know. Can we show that we have a conscience and that we care? I have no doubt. 


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco where he teaches Holocaust and Genocide.  He spent two weeks last summer with Syrian refugees in Berlin and Amsterdam.