September 25, 2018

Netanyahu Warns Hezbollah Will Receive a ‘Crushing Blow’ If They Confront Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks out a train window as he participates in a test-run of the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, near Lod, Israel September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that Israel will crush the terror group if they dare use their missiles against the Jewish state.

Nasrallah said in a Wednesday speech that Israel’s airstrikes in Syria to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining missiles had failed, as the terror group “possesses precision missiles and non-precision and weapons capabilities.”

“If Israel imposes a war on Lebanon, Israel will face a destiny and reality it didn’t expect any day,” Nasrallah said.

Netanyahu responded to Nasrallah on Thursday that those words are “coming from the same man who, after 2006, said that if he knew what the Israeli response would have been to the kidnapping of three of our soldiers, he would have thought twice whether to do it.”

“Today I recommend he think not twice, but 20 times,” Netanyahu said. “Because if he confronts us, he will receive a crushing blow he can’t even imagine.”

Hezbollah’s current missile arsenal is at approximately 130,000, a marked increase from the 15,000 they had during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

The Iranian terror proxy has also been increasing its cooperation with Lebanon’s military, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which receives funds from the United States.

New Photos Show Iran Building Missile Factory in Syria

Screenshot from Twitter.

A batch of new satellite photos show that Iran is in the process of building a new missile factory in Syria, at a time when European countries and Iran are attempting to save the Iran nuclear deal.

Here are the photos:

According to the Times of Israel (TOI), the factory is producing surface-to-surface missiles and appears similarly built to Iran’s nuclear and missiles facility in Parchin.

The TOI report goes onto note that Israel has been targeting such Iranian facilities in Syria of late in airstrikes, but this one hasn’t been struck because there is a Russian air defense missile system nearby.

Iran has rebuffed Israel and the United States’ calls to leave Syria; Russia has stated that they are unable to force Iran out of the region.

These photos come as, according to the Washington Free Beacon, European Union (EU) countries recently gave Iran $21 million to counteract the United States’ re-imposed sanctions on Iran after President Trump exited from the Iran nuclear deal.

State Department official Brian Hook told the Free Beacon, “The Iranian people face very real economic pressures caused by their government’s corruption, mismanagement, and deep investment in terrorism and foreign conflicts. The United States and the European Union should be working together instead to find lasting solutions that truly support Iran’s people and end the regime’s threats to regional and global stability.”

Israel Shoots Down Syrian Plane

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israel shot down a Syrian jet fighter on July 24 after the plane entered Israel’s airspace.

According to the Times of Israel, the jet fighter was speeding toward the Golan Heights, prompting Israel to launch two Patriot missiles at the plane, causing it to crash in southern Syrian Golan Heights. One of the plane’s pilots, Col. Amran Mara’e, was killed by the strike. The condition of the other man in the plane is unknown.

“Our air defense systems identified a Syrian air force plane taking off from the Syrian T-4 airbase and penetrating into Israeli airspace,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “This was a blatant violation of the 1974 separation agreement between us and the Syrians. We will not accept any such penetration of, or spillover into, our territory, neither on the ground nor in the air.”

Israel Defense Force (IDF) spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Concricus told reporters, “We issued numerous warnings through numerous channels and in various languages to make sure that no one on the other side violates Israeli airspace or threatens Israeli civilians or sovereignty.”

According to Hadashot television news, the Syrian jet fighter flew into Israeli airspace by mistake. The Syrian government is claiming that they were weeding out ISIS terrorists from the area.

Israel Launches Airstrike Against Iranian Missiles in Syria

Screenshot from YouTube.

As fears of an imminent Iranian attack against Israel are mounting, Israel launched an airstrike close Damascus on May 8.

The strike was reportedly targeting Iranian missiles in al-Kiswah. Even though the Syrian army intercepted two Israeli missiles, nine pro-government fighters were killed in the strike.

The reported strike comes as the northern part of Israel in the Golan Heights area is currently on high alert as a result of “irregular activity” from Iran in Syria.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) fears that Iran is planning to launch a retaliatory attack against Israel for striking their T4 base in Syria. On May 6, there were reports that Iran was planning to launch missiles into Israel; now reports indicate that there are also fears that Iran is plotting to infiltrate “military bases and communities in the north” through its terror proxies per the Times of Israel.

The Pentagon is also reportedly becoming increasingly concerned about an Iranian attack against Israel.

The Israeli government has already told communities in the area to dust off the bomb shelters, but for now they are urging residents to remain calm.

“There are challenges and many threats, but we know how to deal with all the threats and to cope with all the challenges,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the Knesset. “There is no room for euphoria or pride, but we are ready for any scenario.”

U.S. Exit Strategy for Syria Involves Establishing an Arab Force

People ride a horse along a damaged street at the city of Douma in Damascus, Syria April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Despite launching airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, the Trump administration is looking for a clean exit out of the country. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that their plan involves establishing an Arab force to fill the vacuum left by the United States’ exit.

The Trump administration has asked the Arab Gulf nations to provide troops and financial support to help Syria recover after the U.S. finishes off the remnants of ISIS. The Arab force would serve as a buffer against the Iran and Russia from controlling the region and help prevent ISIS from mounting a comeback.

However, skeptics of the plan note that it may be difficult to get key Arab nations to participate in the U.S.’s plan, as Egypt is currently preoccupied with exterminating ISIS nearby the Sinai Peninsula while Saudi Arabia and the UAE are tangled in Yemen’s civil war.

“There is just no precedent or established basis for this shaping into a successful strategy,” Middle East Institute Senior Fellow Charles Lister told the Journal.

Those who support the plan, such as Conservative Review’s Jordan Schachtel, acknowledge that while establishing such a force is “a stern challenge,” it is “a shot worth taking.”

“During president Trump’s short tenure thus far, the White House already demonstrated that it has been able to move the Arab world toward dramatic reform and prioritizing counter-terrorism,” Schachtel wrote. “Will President Trump succeed in rallying the Arab world around the cause of countering the Iranian regime’s malignant expansion in Syria?”

The U.S. currently has 2,000 troops in Syria; it is believed that around 5,000-12,000 ISIS terrorists remain in the country.

Prior to the airstrikes, President Trump had announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing troops from Syria. The April 13 airstrikes hit three chemical weapons facilities in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly using weapons against his own people.

Haley Announces New Sanctions on Russia, Warns That More Airstrikes Against Syria Could Come

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the rounds on the Sunday morning show circuit and announced two pieces of news: the U.S. will be imposing new sanctions on Russia and more airstrikes could be coming Syria’s way.

On Fox News Sunday, Haley stated that the Russian sanctions would occur on Monday.

“If you look at what Russia is doing, they continue to be involved with all the wrong actors, whether their involvement in Ukraine, whether you look at how they are supporting Venezuela, whether you look in Syria and their way of propping up Assad and working with Iran, that continues to be a problem,” Haley said.

Haley was also asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace on what the Trump administration would do if Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad continued to use chemical weapons, noting that President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis gave seemingly contradictory statements on the matter.

“What I can tell you is the president has made it very clear that when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, we have no tolerance for it,” Haley said. “We are going to watch out for the best interests of the American people. He made a point and hopefully Assad gets it. If Assad doesn’t get it, it’s going to hurt.”

Haley declined to say if military action in Syria is a possibility.

On Friday, a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes against Syria in response to Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. Three chemical weapons facilities in Syria were struck, although other chemical weapon facilities were left untouched. Trump has hailed the strikes as a blow against Assad, but the Syrian dictator is reportedly in “positive spirits” after the strikes because he doesn’t think his grip on power is being threatened.

Military Strikes on Syria: U.S. Faces Critical Considerations

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

In response to the latest reported use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, which killed dozens of civilians in the town of Douma on April 7, President Donald Trump tweeted that there would be a “Big price to pay.”

Trump subsequently told a cabinet meeting on April 9, “We cannot allow atrocities like that. Cannot allow it. … Nothing’s off the table.” He then warned that regardless of whether Russia, the Assad regime or Iran was responsible, the United States’ response would be “very tough,” repeating that everybody involved would “pay a price.”

If the U.S. opts to act militarily, its policy should be guided by several considerations.

First, Washington should seek to divide Assad’s coalition with Iran and Russia. This means eschewing actions that could drive them together at a time when their interests may diverge (e.g., Moscow might be annoyed that Assad overreached by using chemical weapons, since such acts could drag the United States back into the war at a time when it seemed to be disengaging). Washington should also eschew actions that increase the potential for escalation. Its goal should be to de-escalate the situation by restoring deterrence vis-a-vis the Assad regime.

Specifically, any U.S. strikes should focus on regime assets while avoiding targets with higher risk of Russian casualties. Washington should also support Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria (establishing an informal division of labor there), to impose costs on Tehran for its policies. And the administration should continue to reserve the right to take action of its own against Iranian assets in Syria when they threaten U.S. personnel or interests.

Second, this problem will not end with a single set of strikes. Deterrence has a limited shelf life, and Assad likely will continue defying the international community and challenging the chemical-weapon red line. Additional strikes may be necessary to deter him from doing so.

Third, while U.S. strikes should target chemical weapons infrastructure when collateral damage can be minimized, they should be focused primarily on the regime’s conventional military capabilities. This would hinder the regime’s war effort much more than strikes focusing solely on chemical weapon capabilities.

Washington should also support Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, to impose costs on Tehran for its policies.

The main “weapons of mass destruction” in Syria have been barrel bombs, artillery and small arms. Chemical weapons may have killed several thousand, but conventional arms have killed more than 100,000 civilians. Thus, focusing solely on chemical weapons capabilities would limit the damage to dispensable assets. The U.S. should also target forces that have been essential to Assad’s victories, namely, ground units such as the 4th Armored Division, the Republican Guard and the Tiger Force, along with air units that deliver barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

This targeting strategy would have the added benefit of affecting the regime’s patrons. Russia and Iran have ensured the sustainability of their expeditionary activities in Syria by offloading risk and burdens on others, particularly Hezbollah and other foreign Shia militias. If U.S. strikes diminish Assad’s key ground and air units, the load would increase on Russia, Iran and Iran’s “Shia foreign legion,” raising the costs of their intervention.

To achieve that goal, U.S. forces would need to target major headquarters and destroy key capabilities and the people who enable them. Although Russia and Iran can replace the Assad regime’s equipment, they cannot replace its manpower, and manpower is what it lacks most. Moreover, by hitting the headquarters of the above-named ground units — which are manned by Alawites connected to the regime via family ties — the United States would strike a heavy blow and magnify the deterrent effect compared with hitting less important units or chemical weapon infrastructure alone.

The administration also should consider striking symbolic targets such as the presidential palace on Qasioun Mountain overlooking Damascus, whose destruction could have a significant psychological effect on the regime and the Syrian people.

Fourth, U.S. military actions should be guided by lessons learned in past efforts at deterrence and coercive diplomacy in the Middle East.

The United States should not set additional red lines unless it is willing to enforce them, and it should be prepared to answer any further attempts to test U.S. limits, since failure to respond would only invite more challenges.

Because disproportionate responses are prohibited by the Law of Armed Conflict, Washington should respond to Syrian challenges asymmetrically. It should hit not only the source of the provocation, but also assets that the regime truly values. Striking only disposable assets would enable Assad to sustain his defiance, calibrate risk and more safely test U.S. limits. Responding asymmetrically would introduce uncertainty into his cost-benefit calculus about future U.S. responses, thereby strengthening the deterrent effect of U.S. strikes.

The administration should make clear that its strikes will not be a one-off operation by employing constructive ambiguity about the possibility of future strikes. Otherwise, Assad may believe that he can outlast the United States.

Finally, Washington should use the threat of a strike to test the potential for multilateral diplomacy. This threat might help drive a wedge between Damascus and Moscow, and perhaps create new opportunities for pressing Syria to eliminate its undeclared chemical weapon stockpiles and observe its ceasefires with various rebel forces around the country — though experience does not provide reasons for optimism.


Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.

Why Israel?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. The government of Israel responded to that atrocity, as well as Iran’s use of Syria as a thoroughfare for weapons transfers to terrorist groups like Hamas, by bombing Syria’s T4 airbase. The media responded by castigating Israel: for example, the Associated Press headlined, “Tensions ratchet up as Israel blamed for Syria missile strike,” and accompanied that story with a photo of suffering Syrian children targeted by Assad, making it seem that Israel had targeted the children.

That media treatment was no surprise — the week before, the terrorist group Hamas used large-scale protests against Israel on the Gaza border as a cover for terrorist attacks on Israeli troops. When Israeli troops responded with force, the media falsely suggested that Israel had indiscriminately fired into the crowd. Meanwhile, reporters touted the story of a supposed photographer killed by Israeli forces; it turns out that the photographer was a known Hamas officer.

A few weeks earlier and some 2,000 miles away in France, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed 11 times and her body set on fire by a Muslim neighbor who knew her well, and had convictions for rape and sexual assault. In 2017, there were 92 violent anti-Semitic incidents in France, a 28 percent year-on-year increase.

Moving across the English Channel, Israel’s Labor Party finally was forced to cut ties completely with the leader of the U.K.’s Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime anti-Semite who has routinely made nice with terrorists and defended open Jew-hatred in public. And, of course, in the United States, the alt-right’s anti-Semitism continues to make public discourse more crude and the Women’s March continues to make nice with anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan.

In other words, there is a reason for Israel to exist.

Israel’s self-interest is good for the Jews, good for the West and good for the world.

That reason is biblical, of course: Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and the wellspring of Jewish practice. God’s promise to the Jews is inextricably intertwined with the existence and future of the State of Israel.

But over the past few decades, too many Jews have forgotten about the practical need for the Jewish state. In the same way too many Jews ignored the Zionist movement, believing that assimilation into tolerant non-Jewish societies provided the best pathway to a decent life, too many Jews today see Israel as a remnant of a hackneyed and counterproductive ethnocentric worldview. That dislike for Israel’s very existence has led many Jews to demonstrate their “world citizen” bona fides by using every opportunity to criticize Israel.

But Israel’s existence is not about ethnocentrism. Israel is multiethnic and multicultural, of course: Judaism is a religion far more than an ethnicity, as Russian and Ethiopian Jews can attest. Israel’s existence, on a secular level, is about enshrining a state that is safe for Jews the world over — and that can defend Jews and Western values in the face of regional and international threats. When Israel stands up to Syrian atrocities, it is acting out of a Judaic commitment to prevent the degradation of human beings made in God’s image; when Israel offers a road for European Jews on the verge of extinction, it is acting not merely out of solidarity but out of decency. Israel is a decent country, because it was founded on a decent purpose — and because it was founded on the basis of a tradition of decency.

That doesn’t mean Israel’s government is mistake-free. Far from it. But Israel’s extraordinary treatment at the hands of the world community is a demonstration that Israel is an outlier — and that’s a good thing. The United Nations that condemns Israel is filled with repressive dictatorships and corrupt plutocracies; the supposed “family of nations” is more like a squabbling band of self-interested moral idiots.

When Syrian children, mostly Muslim, gasp from chlorine poisoning, it is Israeli jets that provide a possible respite. Israel doesn’t act out of the pure goodness of its heart; it acts from self-interest. But Israel’s self-interest is good for the Jews, good for the West and good for the world. Forgetting that means trusting that the better angels of others’ natures will persevere over their internal devils. Historically, that’s been a rotten bet.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

State Department Spokesperson Condemns U.N. for Letting Syria Chair Disarmament Forum

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert condemned the United Nations’ (U.N.) decision to allow Syria to chair the organization’s disarmament forum in May.

In response to U.N. Watch’s question on the matter, Nauert called the U.N. decision an “outrage.”

“That would be an outrage if Syria were to take control of that,” Nauert said. “We have seen these types of things happen at the United Nations before, where suspicious countries, countries that run against everything that an individual committee should stand for, will then head up that committee.”

Nauert added that she didn’t know what United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is going to do in response to this U.N. decision.

Hillel Neuer, the president of U.N. Watch, called out European countries for not speaking out against the U.N. on this matter.

“If UK, France, Germany & others stay silent as Syria assumes presidency of UN’s Conference on Disarmament—the body which produced the treaty against chemical weapons—this will make a mockery of everything they said this week,” Neuer tweeted.

U.N. Watch first reported that Syria would chair the disarmament forum on April 9, a move that Neuer called the equivalent of “putting a serial rapist in charge of a women’s shelter.”

“The Assad regime’s documented use of chemical weapons remains the most serious violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in the treaty’s twenty-year history,” Neuer said. “We urge the UN to understand that at a time when Syria is gassing its own men, women, and children to death, to see Syria heading the world body that is supposed to protect these victims will simply shock the conscience of humanity.”

The U.N. Watch article noted that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres will likely claim that Syria chairing the forum is due to “an automatic rotation, and that the matter can only be addressed by member states.” But Neuer noted that the U.N. has spoken out against such committee decisions and that’s what they should do here; however he speculated that the U.N. will likely just allow itself to be “exploited” by Syria into allowing them to keep their position as chair of the forum.

“Syria’s use of deadly chemical weapons and its illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons, in breach of its disarmament obligations, run counter to the objectives and fundamental principles of the Conference on Disarmament itself,” Neuer said. “Syria’s chairmanship will only undermine the integrity of both the disarmament framework and of the United Nations, and no country should support that.”

The news about Syria chairing the disarmament just after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad reportedly used chemical weapons against his own people in the town of Douma, resulting in at least 40 people dead and hundreds of others wounded. Assad’s chemical weapons attack is the latest of a long line of butchery committed by Assad against his own people.

Israel Allegedly Launched Airstrikes Against Syria After Assad Launches Chemical Attack Against His Own People

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. To match Special Report RUSSIA-FLIGHTS/ Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/ via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

UPDATE: Iran is claiming that seven Iranian military personnel died in the airstrikes. Israel is now reportedly bracing itself for a counterattack by Iran’s proxy terror group Hezbollah.

ORIGINAL:

Israel allegedly launched airstrikes in Syria after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people over the weekend.

Russia and Syria claimed the strikes came from two Israeli F-15 planes, which resulted in 14 dead, including four Iranian military advisers in addition to multiple officers in the Syrian Army. Israel has not directly confirmed that they were the ones who launched the strikes, but their foreign ministry issued a statement condemning Assad for his chemical weapons attack.

“The attack shows clearly that Syria continues to possess lethal chemical weapons capabilities and even to manufacture new ones,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. “In so doing Syria is grossly violating its obligations and the decisions of the international community in this matter.”

Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Douma, a town that is close to Damascus and was held by the Syrian rebels, resulted in at least 40 people dead. According to The Times of Israel, “victims showed signs of gas poisoning including pupil dilation and foaming at the mouth” and there was also the scent of chlorine in the air.

Additionally, the Syrian American Medical Society has claimed that over “500 cases — the majority of whom are women and children — were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.”

A local activist told NBC News, “Whole families, mothers and little children and babies, they were all dead. They tried to escape death, but here in Douma, there is death is everywhere.”

Assad and the Russian government have denied the attack, but President Trump isn’t buying their denial.

“To me there’s not much of a doubt,” Trump told reporters on April 9. “If they’re innocent why aren’t they allowing people to go in and prove [it].”

Trump is expected to announce if the U.S. is going to take any retaliatory measures against Syria for the chemical attack. Defense Secretary James Mattis wouldn’t rule out airstrikes against Syria.

According to Syrian media, Syrian and Iranian forces are already on the move out of fear of possible U.S. airstrikes.

Israel has launched numerous airstrikes against Syria over the years, mainly against Hezbollah. There is evidence to suggest that Israel’s alleged airstrikes were in part aimed at curbing Iran’s grip in Syria in addition to being a retaliation against Assad’s chemical attack.

Haley Issues Warning to Russia, Iran and Syria: ‘The United States Remains Prepared to Act If We Must’

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the U.N. Security Council on Syria during a meeting of the Council at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a stark warning to Russia, Iran and Syria on Mar. 12 over the recent bombings in Syria: the United States is ready to take action if need be.

At the United Nations Security Council, Haley explained that Russia had been constantly blocking efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria stopping Bashar al-Assad’s forces from striking the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus. Russia eventually relented and agreed to a ceasefire, but only because they had a heavy say in each syllable of the agreement.

Haley proceeded to accuse the Russians of violating the agreement by taking advantage of a provision that allows for military strikes to take out terrorists.

“In the eyes of Russia, Iran and Assad, the neighborhoods of Eastern Ghouta are full of terrorists,” Haley said. “The hospitals are full of terrorists. The schools are full of terrorists. The Syrian and Russian regimes insist that they are targeting terrorists, but their bombs and artillery continue to fall on hospitals and schools and on innocent civilians.”

Haley then stated that the U.S. is producing a new ironclad ceasefire agreement that doesn’t feature any loopholes for the Assad regime to use against their own people. If the Security Council is unable to adopt the resolution, then the U.S. is ready to take matters into their own hands.

“Any nation that is determined to impose its will through chemical attacks and inhuman suffering – most especially the outlaw Syrian regime – the United States remains prepared to act if we must,” Haley said. “It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take it again.”

Russia is standing by its defense that they’re simply weeding out terrorism in the area and is claiming that they are attempting to implement the current ceasefire agreement.

Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking Research Fellow Elizabeth Tsurkov explained in a Twitter thread how “horrific” the situation is in Eastern Ghouta:

The Assad regime is essentially a client-state of Russia and Iran. Russia has been controlling the Syrian civil war since 2015 in the absence of a serious U.S. presence in the region, although there are issues surfacing for the Kremlin as their forces seemed to be bogged down in Syria for the foreseeable future. Syria is a key ally for Tehran, as the country serves as a route for Iran to arm their terror proxy Hezbollah.

In April 2017, the Trump administration launched airstrikes against the Assad regime for its barbaric use of chemical weapons against its own people.

H/T: Daily Caller

DOWN PAYMENT: An Israeli F-16 was downed, but the price was worth it

The remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane can be seen near the Israeli village of Harduf February 10, 2018. REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun

Israel demonstrated how serious it is about preventing the establishment of an Iranian stronghold in Syria

1982 was the last year an Israeli fighter jet was downed by Syrian forces. 1982 was the last year Israel launched a large-scale attack in an area under Syrian control. 1982 was a year of war — the first Lebanon war — in a Middle East that was much different than it is now. Syria was still a real country with a real government. Israel’s main enemy in the north was still the PLO — the forces of Yasser Arafat. Iran was engaged in a long and bloody war — with Iraq. The Soviet Union was engaged in a Cold War with the much stronger United States.

There is very little we can learn today about the state of affairs to Israel’s north from what happened in 1982. Still, people have short memories but militaries have long ones, and thus the ghosts of 1982 live in the minds of some of those engaged in the current battle for power. Syria, by taking down an Israeli F-16 on Feb. 10, celebrated a small victory over the air force that downed 88 of Syria’s fighter jets in 1982. The Russians had their own reason for a small celebration: The 19 ground-to-air systems destroyed in June 1982 during one of Israel’s most brilliant military operations were Russian (or Soviet, as it was called then). The missile downing the Israeli jet last weekend was Russian.

A phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to Feb. 10’s large-scale Israeli attack in Syria.

Before diving into an analysis, let’s recap the events. On Feb. 10, Iran sent a drone into Israel. Israel was well prepared, and an air force helicopter downed the drone. Then Israel attacked and destroyed the control vehicle for the drone, placed in a Syrian base in southern Syria, far away from the Syria-Israeli border. Iranian soldiers were killed.

Syria responded with a barrage of anti-aircraft missiles and hit one Israeli fighter jet. Its crew ejected over Israel’s Galilee, and one of the pilots was seriously wounded and is still in the hospital. Israel expanded its counterattack, targeting about a dozen Syrian and Iranian military installations in Syria. An Israeli air force general called this “the most substantial attack since 1982.” Then came the phone call from Putin. Israel pulled back. The sirens were silenced. The north quieted yet remained tense. The next round — as the cliché goes — is “only a matter of time.”

It is a matter of time because the issue at hand is not yet settled. Syria, after many years of civil war, is barely an independent country. And as that war winds down, a new war has begun — the one over future arrangements in this area. Iran — the country without which Syrian President Bashar Assad could not survive — wants its reward. It wants to establish a stronghold in Syria, right on Israel’s border. Russia — the country that enabled Assad’s survival — keeps a watchful eye over Syria to serve its own interests. Hezbollah, whose takeover of Lebanon is a prototype and a warning of what might happen in Syria, is freer today than it was during the busy days of the civil war.

Miscalculation that leads to a war with Syria or Iran is one thing. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Russia, when the U.S. stays on the sidelines, is quite another.

Israel vowed to prevent such developments. It vowed to prevent Iran from establishing another stronghold to its north. It vowed to prevent Iran from building in Syria an infrastructure that could serve to threaten Israel. Obviously, vowing alone is not enough. In the Middle East, one has to back words with action, one has to use power to make a point. And when Iran provided a pretext for attack, by invading Israeli territory with its drone, Israel jumped at the opportunity.

This was not a minor incident. Israel and Iran had been having a proxy war for many years, but this time there were no proxies. It was an Iranian drone, these were Iranian soldiers, it was Iranian equipment that Israel attacked. True — the Israeli jet was downed by Syria (acting, according to some reports, under heavy pressure from Tehran). Still, the shadow war is no longer shadowy. It is out in the open, with both countries — Iran and Israel — having to ponder the impact of their clashes on the many other components of an unstable situation.

The impact is never quite known in advance; there are only probabilities and educated assessments. Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, in his newly released best-seller, “Rise and Kill First” — a detailed book about Israel’s expert trade of targeted killings — recounts a few instances of miscalculations, some concerning Israel’s war with Iran. When Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, returned from a trip to Washington,. D.C.,  in 2012, he “warned Netanyahu that continued pressure on the United States would lead to a dramatic measure, and likely not the one that Netanyahu hoped for,” Bergman writes. Pardo believed that Netanyahu’s implied threat to attack Iran pushed then-American President Barack Obama to sign a deal with Iran. “Obama, fearing Israeli action, agreed to an Iranian proposal to hold secret negotiations,” Bergman writes. He speculates that “if the talks had begun two years later, Iran would have come to them in a considerably weaker state.” That is to say: Bergman assumes that Israel miscalculated in applying too much pressure on the U.S. to tame the Iranian threat.

Bergman’s argument concerning this incident can be a matter for debate, mainly because it doesn’t fully take into account Obama’s great interest in having a “historic” breakthrough with Iran before leaving office. But Bergman’s overall theme still stands: Israel makes decisions and takes action without always being able to rightly asses the ultimate outcome of its decisions. The alternatives — never to take action or to make decisions only when the outcome is predetermined — is nonexistent. In the rough business of war, a measure of risk is a given. Israel’s willingness to take risks is one of the tools in its arsenal of deterrence. In such context, its attack last weekend should be seen as a down payment of seriousness. If anyone was hoping that Israel would not have the stomach to get into a fight and risk a full-scale war in the north, one has to recalculate.

Fragments of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile found in Alonei Abba, about 2 miles (3.2 km) from where the remains of a crashed F-16 Israeli war plane were found, at the village of Alonei Abba, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun

The shadow war is no longer shadowy. It is out in the open, with both countries — Iran and Israel — having to ponder the impact of their clashes on the many other components of an unstable situation.

Israel miscalculated many times, but so did its enemies. Quite famously — and here’s just one example — when Hezbollah inadvertently prompted the second Lebanon war by abducting Israeli soldiers. Had it known in advance that war would be the result, Hezbollah’s leader admitted later, the soldiers would still be alive and well. That was more than a decade ago, and its impact on Israel’s rivals might have faded. An aggressive approach is thus essential not to ignite war but rather to prevent one — make Iran understand that this is where the current path leads, make it realize that it cannot count on Israeli laxity.

Russia is the other addressee of this message of seriousness. For the past couple of years, since the Russians decided to jump into the Syrian mess — a bet that thus far proved solid and worthy (Obama’s grave predictions of “Russia’s Vietnam” notwithstanding) — Israel and Moscow proved meticulous in coordinating their actions in the region and prevented misunderstanding or an unintended clash. This was complicated and sometimes restrictive but mostly tactical: Israel lost flexibility in prompting combat; Russia left enough maneuver room for Israel to take effective action.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (R), and Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot meet in Tel Aviv, Israel February 10, 2018 in this handout photo released by the Israel Defence Ministry. Israel Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

This worked, awkwardly, when the Syrian civil war was still going on, the players in Syria were busy fighting one another. It is less clear how Russia and Israel can manage this situation when the civil war is (almost) over, and when the battle turns to become one of Israel against any attempt at Iranian expansion.

This calls for strategic understanding, not just the tactical prevention of unintended clashes. But can Israel and Russia reach an agreement on the future of Israel’s border with Syria? For Israel, the goal is clear: to have no Iranian forces, and no forces under Iran’s control, near its border; and to be able to tame any attempt by Iran to turn Syria into an active front against Israel, Lebanon-style. For Russia, the goals are always somewhat murky: It wants Assad to survive, it wants its military bases in Syria safe, it wants to keep the Iranians happy (but not too happy) and quiet. Russia probably doesn’t want to have to take responsibility for a war between Israel and Iran.

Russia also has to take the U.S. into account. But how worried is it, considering the realities of the past couple of years? Not that long ago, Israel rarely questioned the basic commitment of the U.S. to contain Russia in the Middle East. The arrangement was clear to everybody: When the need arises, Israel deals with neighborhood sharks — small sharks and sometimes even with midsize sharks such as Iran — as long as the U.S. makes sure that no big shark, no great white shark such as Russia, interferes to tip the balance against Israel. In 1973, Israel fought against Egypt and Syria, and the U.S. was ready to clash with the Soviet Union in case of intervention. Regional power against regional power — superpower against superpower.

Putin on the one side and American presidents Obama and Donald Trump on the other side proved this assumption to be risky, maybe invalid. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. In 2014, it invaded Crimea. In the summer of 2015, it sent its forces to Syria. Obama was ineffective in his response. Maybe he just didn’t care. In 2016, Trump was elected, communicating a mixed message of standoffishness and aggressiveness. Unlike Obama, Trump made good on his word and launched a Tomahawk missile attack in Syria when reports of the use of chemical weapons tested his resolve. Like Obama, Trump steered clear of getting involved in the managing of postwar Syria and seemed to accept the Russian-dominated status quo.

This leaves Israel confused and unsure. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Syria or Iran is one thing. Miscalculation that leads to a war with Russia, when the U.S. stays on the sidelines, is quite another. Bergman, on a tour of the United States to promote his book, told me on Feb. 13 that Israel “has pleaded the United States to exert its influence over Russia, which is the only country that can pressure Iran, to prevent the stationing of permanent Iranian forces in Syria and the establishment of an Iranian military seaport. All in vain.” It also failed to convince Russia directly to tame Iran. Putin, Bergman told me, “is not interested in entering into a dispute with the Iranians and he has not interfered with their deployment in Syria.”

So, Israel is left with no choice but to up the ante and signal to all parties involved that war is an option. It has no choice but to signal to all parties involved that dithering and allowing inertia is not an option. “After it failed to recruit the Trump administration to convince Putin, Israel feels that it has remained alone, and in this situation it will respond very aggressively,” Bergman told me from New York. It already has, and is ready to act again. Worst-case scenario: This leads to real, long and bloody war, involving Iran and Israel, Syria and possibly Russia — a war that Israel’s military already has a name for: the first northern war.

No doubt, this will be a costly enterprise for all sides involved, the result of which is unknown. No doubt, it is a war Israel would like to avoid. And indeed, this is the best-case scenario: Signaling seriousness and readiness to go to war, Israel hopes to prompt Russian and possibly American involvement in halting Iran’s advancement. Such a move is the only one that will make a first war of the north obsolete.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Report: Conditions in Syrian Palestinian Refugee Camp Are ‘Horrific’

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting with Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool

A new report describes the Yarmoulk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria as “horrific,” yet it is never talked about because it can’t be used as a bludgeon against Israel.

According to the Gatestone Institute, the Syrian Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) has been blocking food and medicine from entering the country since 2013, while ISIS has been terrorizing refugees in the camp since 2015. The Sunni terror group frequently conducts public executions over fabricated crimes, pillages homes in the camp and keeps the refugees trapped in the camp.

Additionally, it has been over 1,237 days since the camp last had running water.

There has been a total of 204 Palestinians who have died in the camp as a result of the lack of food and water since the Syrian Army imposed their siege on the camp. Even more telling is the fact that the number of refugees in the Yarmouk camp has dramatically declined from over 100,000 in 2011 to 13,000 in 2014.

Overall, 3,645 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since 2011 and tens of thousands have fled the country as well.

Palestinian refugee camps in various countries are generally in putrid condition; according to a 2012 Washington Post report the camps in Lebanon feature “unspeakable” living conditions and the Lebanese government deprives the Palestinian refugees in the country of rights. Palestinian refugees in Iraq have been slaughtered by Shiite militias since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

As the Gatestone Institute report points out, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is nowhere to be found when it comes to the Palestinian refugees suffering in these Arab countries. The report criticizes Abbas for being more interested in going after President Trump’s Jerusalem move and splurging $50 million on a presidential plane instead of helping the Palestinian refugees.

“In his view, the needs of his people are the responsibility of the world,” journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote. “He wants everyone but himself to continue funneling financial aid to the Palestinians. For him, delivering a speech before the EU Parliament or the UN General Assembly easily takes precedence over the Palestinians who are dying due to lack of medicine and food. With such leaders, the Palestinians do not need enemies.”

The Palestinian refugee issue stems from 1947, when Arabs leaders spurned a United Nations resolution that would have created a neighboring Arab state beside Israel. At the behest of Arab leaders, thousands of Palestinians left their homes; in 1948 Israel encouraged the Palestinians to stay in the country and those that did enjoy freedoms that they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the Middle East.

The Palestinians that fled have been mired in refugee camps as Arab countries have shown little interest in welcoming them into their population, as instead they rail against Israel and call for the Palestinian “right to return” into Israel. Times of Israel blogger John C. Landa argued that the camps radicalize Palestinian inhabitants and teach them “that the Jews are to blame for their plight.”

The refugees are pawns in a campaign to demonize Israel,” Landa wrote. “Like Palestinians who are set up as ‘human shields’ when Hamas jihadists launch rockets from Gaza into Israel, they are exploited and victimized to promote a simple but distorted narrative:  there is misery here, and the Jews must be blamed.”

Is War Brewing Between Israel and Iran? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel struck several Iranian targets in Syria over the weekend, leading to speculation that Israel and Iran are on the verge of war.

The weekend’s events began with Iran launching an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone, from Syria and into Israel on the morning of Feb. 10. The drone was subsequently shot down by an Israeli helicopter; Israel proceeded to launch raids in Syria targeting the command center that Iran operated the drone from.

During the raids, Syria was able to down an Israeli F-16 through anti-aircraft missiles; Israel responded by unleashing a flurry of attacks against 122 Iranian and Syrian targets primarily close to Damascus. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimate that they extinguished close to 50 percent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air defenses in the attacks.

The pilot and navigator in the downed F-16 were able to survive due to ejecting from the jet before the anti-aircraft missile struck the jet. It’s not yet known what exactly the Iranians had planned with the drone; Iran is claiming that it was related to self-defense.

“The government and army of Syria as an independent country have a legitimate right to defend [the country’s] territorial integrity and counter any type of foreign aggression,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeman Bahram Qassemi told state television.

The drone was reportedly derived from the U.S. drone that Iran captured in 2011.

“We dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit. We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us.”

Tensions between Israel and Iran have been rising since Iran has ramped up their presence in Syria following the decline of ISIS, even going as far as building a military base in Syria. This is also coinciding with Assad tightening his grip on power, raising the very real possibility that the Syrian dictator could look to reclaim the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 2011. Additionally, a bloody conflict between Israel and the Iranian proxy Hezbollah appears to be inevitable.

All of this points to further conflicts between Israel and Iran’s Shia crescent, with the U.S. being notably missing in the conflict as they focus on exterminating the remnants of ISIS. Consequently, Israel may have to turn to Russia, an ally of Iran and Syria, to be the mediator of the conflict, as Russia has been pulling all the strings in Syria in the absence of the U.S.

“We need to prepare ourselves operationally and intelligence-wise for the mounting threat,” IDF chief Amit Fisher told Israeli forces. “The big test will be the test of war.”

CNN Anchor Hammers U.N. for Anti-Israel Bias

Photo from Flickr/nrkbeta.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper criticized the United Nations for being biased against Israel in a segment on Thursday, as he blasted various countries for criticizing Israel despite having “questionable records.”

Tapper began his segment by summarizing the U.N.’s vote to condemn the Trump administration’s Jerusalem move by a margin of 128 votes in favor of the condemnation, nine against and 35 abstentions. The anchor proceeded to review the records of some of the countries who voted to condemn the move, starting with Venezuela.

“The U.S. imperils global peace, says the representative of Venezuela, a country in a humanitarian disaster,” said Tapper, “with violence in the streets, an economy in complete collapse, citizens malnourished, dying children being turned away from hospitals, starving families joining street gangs to scrounge for food.”

“On what moral platform does the government of Venezuela stand today?” asked Tapper.

Tapper also noted the irony of Syria and Yemen condemning the U.S. despite the fact that their citizens have been ravished by the civil wars plaguing each country, as well as other countries like Myanmar, North Korea and China condemning the move despite their heinous human rights abuses.

The anchor proceeded to highlight some statistics from U.N. Watch reflecting the U.N.’s bias against Israel.

“The United Nations General Assembly from 2012-2015 has adopted 97 resolutions specifically criticizing an individual country, and of those 97, 83 of them have focused on Israel,” said Tapper. “That is 86%.”

Tapper added, “Certainly Israel is not above criticism, but considering the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the lack of basic human rights in North Korea, the children starving in the streets of Venezuela, the citizens of Syria targeted for murder by their own leader using the most grotesque and painful weapons, you have to ask, is Israel is deserving of 86% of the world’s condemnation?”

“Or possibly is something else afoot at the United Nations? Something that allows the representative of the Assad government lecture the United States for moving its embassy.”

The full segment can be seen below:

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Youssef Boudlal

Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

Photographer Youssef Boudlal

A girl from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, rests at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, on Aug. 13, 2014.

Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The Other Russia Mystery

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Syria is a front in need of attention. It is a front where Israel might risk war.

Two weeks ago, Israel reportedly — it did not officially comment — attacked south of Damascus. A week and a half ago, Israel (reportedly) attacked again. In both cases, there was an aura of vagueness surrounding the targets. An “Iranian base,” it was said. A “Syrian military facility.” Why were these specific targets attacked? What is it that bothers Israel about them — assuming it really was Israel that attacked?

Then, on Dec. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly landed in Syria and declared victory over ISIS and announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. “Friends, the Motherland is waiting for you,” Putin told his troops. “You are coming back home with victory!”

Why now and not two weeks ago or two weeks from now? Only Putin knows. In recent weeks, Russia backed the Syrian narrative, according to which the regime is close to winning the war, while the U.S. argued that these declarations of an impending victory are premature. So maybe Putin was just making the point by putting his money — or military forces —  where his mouth is.

Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. Putin is rightly satisfied.

In many ways, this debate is about semantics. Define “victory”; define “Syrian victory.”

The Donald Trump administration believes that a vast majority of the forces fighting in support of the Syrian government — the regime still under the control of the ever-doomed-to-departure President Bashar Assad — is made up of foreign forces. A victory? Maybe. But this will not be a victory of Syrian forces under Assad. It will be a victory of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, of Iraqi militias and, most of all, of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. When its leader decided to jump into the Syria swamp, his goal was to fill a vacuum created by American inaction, save his ally Assad and keep Russian interests in the country unharmed. Looking at these three objectives, Putin is rightly satisfied. He was able to demonstrate to Middle Eastern and other world regimes that Russia is an ally no less — or maybe more — reliable than the United States. He was able to guard Russia’s interests in the country (among them, military bases). He was able to save Assad, for now. In the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama first called for the Syrian president to step down. The Russians said no. The Russians had their way.

Israel was disturbed by many of these developments. Having Russia, rather than the U.S., as the main power broker in the region does not seem appealing. Having Assad becoming an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing. Having Assad win the war as an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing.

Israel warily watches as payback looms. Iran won the war for Assad, and is now expecting a reward: military presence in Syria, not too far from the Israeli border.

Israel declared such development a red line. Speaking in a video message to the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clear: “We will not allow a regime hellbent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”

So, after the attacks (allegedly by Israel) in Syria, one has to assume that the goal is in line with this message. Sabotage all the Iranians’ attempts to entrench themselves in Syria. Destroy their facilities and disrupt their plans, sending them a message of warning.

This message is aimed at Iran and its allies, but no less at Russia and the U.S. The superpowers can let the situation deteriorate by letting Israel and Iran conduct a war in Syria’s territory. They also can choose to prevent it by taking a side. The potential problem for Israel is obvious: What happens in case Russia takes Iran’s side — that is, insist that Israel cease from attacking in Syria — while the U.S. remains on the sidelines?

Israel can do what’s necessary to stop Iran from entrenching in Syria. But opposing the Russians is a lot riskier. Thus, the reduction of Russian presence on Syrian soil puts Israel in a position more convenient for free action.

On the other hand, the Russians are leaving and an even larger vacuum must be filled. Iran seems ready to try to fill it. Israel seems ready to not allow it. So, a proxy war becomes even more likely today than it did a few weeks ago.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Uses Pipe Bomb to Attack NYC

Members of the media gather by the New York Port Authority bus terminal following an attempted detonation during the morning rush hour in New York City, New York, U.S., December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

A terrorist who was inspired by ISIS blew up a pipe bomb in New York City on Monday but ended up only seriously injuring himself in the blast.

The suspected terrorist, 27-year-old Akayed Ullah, entered the subway with the bomb strapped to himself with Velcro and zip ties. He headed toward the passenger walkway that’s between the Port Authority and Times Square stations and detonated the bomb at around 7:20 a.m. EST. However, the bomb didn’t detonate properly and Ullah ended up injuring his hands and abdomen. He is being treated at Bellevue Hospital.

Five additional people suffered injuries from the explosion, although they are not believed to be serious. The bombing did cause chaos in the subway as people screamed and feld from the station in panic.

Ullah admitted to investigators that he detonated the bomb in response to the United States’ airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and the Israeli airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza. Ullah said he chose the subway to launch the attack because of all the Christmas posters adorning the station. He claimed to have acted on his own.

Ullah is an immigrant from Bangladesh; he entered the country in 2011 on an F43 visa that allows children of American citizens to become permanent residents. He had a license to operate as a taxi driver for three years but it’s unclear how much he operated as a driver, if at all.

The night before Ullah’s failed attack, there was “a big blow-up” between him and his family, which involved “a lot of screaming and yelling,” according to the neighbors of the Ullahs.

People who have encountered Ullah described him as being rather unfriendly. Kat Mara, who had observed Ullah getting coffee from her work office, told the New York Post “he looked weird and “always angry.”

“He always seemed like he had something on his mind,” said Mara.

Alan Butrico, who owns a neighboring building next to the Ullah home, told CNN, “He wasn’t friendly at all. The family was very quiet themselves. They don’t talk to nobody. They just stay there.”

Neighbor Hasan Alam told the Post that he was “shocked because you know he was a religious person and not very outgoing.”

“I’m kind of scared for my family because we’re Muslims as well,” said Alam. “It gives a bad impression of our religion. We’re all very friendly people.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Western Wall, Iran and more

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin discussed the controversial decision of the Israeli government to freeze the implementation of the Western Wall agreement; President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel was opposed to when it was authorized during the Obama administration; Israel’s improved relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors and more during the final day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2017 General Assembly.

JFNA Chair Richard Sandler conducted the interview with Netanyahu, who appeared from Israel via satellite, on Nov. 14. The GA was held at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

More than 3,000 people attended.

Here is a transcript of the interview, or you can watch the interview here. The section with Netanyahu begins at the 1:17:47 mark.

Richard Sandler (RS):  Mr. Prime Minister, in January of 2016 much of our audience here today celebrated the resolution the government passed regarding the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. And then as we know last June the government froze the implementation. Yesterday at the GA we passed a resolution requesting the Kotel resolution be implemented. So can you please share with us the present status of the resolution and what do we tell those in our community who feel that as Reform or Conservative Jews they may not be fully welcome in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu (BN): First of all, you are fully welcome. Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so. I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel.

Now, Richard, you know very well I didn’t have to deal with this; I could have left it to the courts, to the Knesset, but it is vitally important to me, personally. What the government froze in June are only the most ideologically-charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements hostage.

So as many of you know there has been a pluralistic prayer space in the Western Wall, in the Kotel, for almost 20 years. The 2016 decision wasn’t to create prayer space; it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope, and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA [in Tel-Aviv in 2018]. I am working to move forward on solutions for other issues as well.

Here is the thing that guides me—this is true from the time of Ben-Gurion, who as Israel’s first prime minster was faced with this dilemma, how to deal with the conflicting views of religion and the state, and what he articulated then is something that basically all prime ministers have done and I have done as well—you remember also with the issue of conversion, this is this principal: religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution, and not revolution.

So, despite the disagreements, despite I have to say a lot of distortions and despite the at-times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.

RS: Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] what is in Israel’s best interest and what would we like to see happen next?

BN: Well, for me the bottom line hasn’t changed, Richard. We must ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, doesn’t achieve that. On the contrary after about a decade it will leave Iran able to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time because the deal rescinds all limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity. They can have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, and they plan to.

I want to thank President Trump and his administration for the current American Iran policy. I also want to thank Ambassador Haley for the strong support given for Israel at the U.N.

What President Trump has done is create an opportunity to address the deal’s flaws and in my view I don’t particularly care about the deal. I don’t care if you keep it or you remove it. But you have to correct it either by fixing it or nixing it.

I’ve been speaking to world leaders around the world actually, and I’ve encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity. Now the question is why is Iran so dangerous? It’s dangerous because of its fanatical ideology of global conquest, its growing power, its unflagging commitment to destroy Israel, its unvarnished aggression.

Iran has already spread bloody conflict across the Middle East – in Yemen; Iraq; in Syria; in Lebanon – and we are far from alone in recognizing the Iranian threat to the Middle East. I believe that the leading Arab countries—Saudi Arabia; the Emirates; many of our Arab neighbors—see things exactly as we do, and I think they’re right.

Now Iran is scheming to entrench itself military in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence with a declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We’re not going to agree to that. I’ve said very clearly: Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression, its worldwide campaign of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I think if we stand together we are going to achieve it, but I’ve always said if we have to we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons. It will not turn Syria into a military base against us.

RS: I read recently in U.S. News and World Report where Israel was ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world. And thinking about the 70 years of all the pressures and all the distractions Israel has been put under, how do you do it?

BN: It begins with a simple reality that we understand. In our area, and it’s a very, very tough neighborhood, the weak don’t survive. The strong survive. We look around us and see entire nations being wiped out. People massacred tragically. So you have to be strong, and there are basically three powers that we are all the time nurturing. The first power, you would be surprised, you’d think it is military power and it is, but it is very expensive. We nurture the Israeli army, we’re very grateful for the support, the continued support of the United States, and I am very happy I signed with President Obama the MOU for 10-year support for Israel, $38 billion, it helps, but believe me 85-percent of our budget, our military budget, has to come from Israel. And where do you get that? Well you get it from a strong economy, that’s the other power we’re developing.

And, you know, there is a great genius in our people but for too long it was shackled, it was really not allowed to burst out because we had a very controlled economy. So I’ve been working very hard over the past 20 years to liberate, liberalize our economy and it has produce a tremendous economic success.

Now you take our military and intelligence prowess, which all nations need. Our intelligence, because Israel has stopped dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks, in dozens and dozens of countries. We share that intelligence with our friends and with many countries that are not our friends but we want to stop attacks like Barcelona or Paris or the other horrors that you see, and we have. So nations want to partner with us, for intelligence or for technology. They want more milk for the cows; guess which country has the most milk per cow? It’s an Israeli cow, you know that.

Or they want solar energy. Or they want clean water.  Or they want cherry tomatoes — it’s ours too. Anything you can imagine. Autonomous vehicles. Israel has this dual prowess of technology and security and we combine that to get an unprecedented diplomatic flourish. We now have diplomatic power because many countries, many, many countries around the world, are coming to Israel, in fact some of them are standing in line – I was in Africa, twice in a year, I was in Latin America. It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine? I am the first Israeli Prime Minister to have visited a country south of the United States in the western hemisphere in 70 years. It is a tremendous change. And by the way, Mexico should be congratulated. Mexico has just decided to vote against 10 anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N., and I think they deserve your applause.

So these three powers – our economic power, our military power, our diplomatic power – give Israel great presence and great capacity to defend ourselves but they all rest on one other power – our spiritual power. Our strength as a fighter of democracy, as a society anchored in our heritage but always seeking the future, our strength is what creates greatest chances for peace, because you don’t make peace with the weak; you make peace with the strong and the threat of Iran has done one good thing: It’s brought us closer than ever to our neighbors, creating new opportunities for peace and I think you will be hearing more about that in the future.

RS: That’s a perfect segue to my last question. As you think about Israel today, what makes you the most proud?

BN: I’m most proud of the rebirth of the Jewish people through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Remember that for thousands of years Jews wandered around the globe. We were homeless, we were voiceless, we were defenseless, and today the Jewish people have returned to our ancestral homeland, and today Israel is capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat. Today we have a voice and we need to raise that voice,

I’m also proud Israel is an open society, a free society, an island of liberal democracy in a sea of terror. We have free speech, a free press, minority LGBT rights, everything, we have an Arab Supreme Court Justice, a Druze minister who I appointed in my government; female generals; gay members of Knesset. This is what a vibrant and diverse society looks like. I’m proud we have created an open economy that as I told you before has unleashed the ingenuity of our people, our capacity for innovation; I’m proud that Israel has helped thousands of Syrian civilians injured in the war.

Now I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq following this week’s earthquake. I saw these heartbreaking images of men, women and children buried under the rubble. I’m proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster. Now you heard me right. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations. This is what I am proud of, and all of you can be proud of, of Israel’s morals and Israel’s might.

This Rutgers Professor Is Under Fire For Being An Ex-Syrian Diplomat Who Accused Israel of Child Organ Trafficking

Screenshot from Twitter

A Rutgers professor is being criticized for his role as a Syrian diplomat who once accused Israel of trafficking child organs.

Mazen Adi, who has taught international criminal law and political science at Rutgers since 2015, served as Syria’s foreign ministry from August 1998 to July 2014 and as the country’s diplomat in the last seven years of that tenure. Adi frequently defended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the United Nations while criticizing Israel in the United Nations.

One of accusations Adi leveled at Israel was that “international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs,” an accusation that Israel has denounced as “blood libel.” Adi also alleged “that Israel systematically targeted civilians, destroyed the environment and buried alive enemy soldiers,” according to the Algemeiner.

UN Watch has issued a petition calling for Adi to be fired.

“UN Watch calls on Rutgers University to fire Mazen Adi, a professor on war crimes law, on grounds that as a Syrian diplomat and legal advisor he justified the war crimes of the genocidal Assad regime,” the petition stated. “While serving as a Syrian delegate and legal advisor at the UN, Mr. Adi systematically acted as an apologist for the mass murder committed by the Assad regime against his own people, helping Syria win impunity at the UN to conduct continued war crimes.”

As of this writing, the petition has received over 4,000 signatures.

Rutgers defended their employment of Adi on the grounds of academic freedom.

“Faculty members enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any other individual in this country,” the university said in a statement to Algemeiner. “Rutgers will not defend the content of every opinion expressed by every member of our academic community, but the University will defend their rights to academic freedom and to speak freely.”

Algemeiner asked Rutgers if the fact that they received donations from an Iranian-linked charity played any role in their decision, which Rutgers denied.

Kurdish Independence Movement Deserves the Support of Western Nations

Mourners carry the bodies of their relatives Kurdish Peshmerga fighters killed during an advance by Iraqi forces on Kirkuk, during a funeral in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

On Oct. 16, Iraqi armed forces and Iran-supported Shia militias moved into the disputed town of Kirkuk, bringing the country close to civil war. 

The move was Baghdad’s decisive response to the referendum on independence that the Kurds of Iraq held on Sept. 25. The referendum produced a resounding majority for independence and a high turnout — more than 92 percent voted in favor of independence, with a 72.6 percent turnout, reflecting the stubborn determination of the Kurds to maintain and build a sovereign state.

The lines now are clearly drawn, as are the rights and wrongs of the case. 

The Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq is the most peaceful and well-ordered section of that blighted country. The Kurds have given refuge to nearly 2 million of their fellow Iraqi citizens who were fleeing the onslaught of ISIS. In turn, the armed forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Peshmerga, played the crucial role in stemming the advance of that murderous project and then turning it back, in close cooperation with U.S. air power. Many Kurdish fighters died in achieving this. 

For Americans and other Westerners, the KRG has long constituted a unique space. Outside of Israel, it is the only part of the Middle East where public sentiment is solidly and, indeed, passionately pro-American and pro-Western. It also is safe. In Baghdad, Westerners cannot walk the streets in safety. The Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil is as safe as any Western city, and safer than many. 

Over the past 25 years, the Kurds have built the KRG into a pro-Western de facto sovereign space, complete with its own armed forces, visa system, economy and parliament. Their ambitions do not end with autonomy, however. Language, outlook and history set them apart from the warring Shia and Sunni Arabs further south.

So the Kurds want independence. They want out of Iraq. The Sept. 25 vote was about kick-starting this process. The success of the referendum led to hopes for a swift negotiating process with Baghdad. 

Instead, the countries surrounding the KRG have united in a vow to prevent Kurdish sovereignty by all available means.

How did we get here?

Iraq is not a historic entity. It was carved by the British out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire in the post-World War I period, when London and Paris were divvying up the former Ottoman territories of the Middle East. At that time, the Kurdish population lacked an organized national movement, and the Kurdish-majority territories were distributed among the new states of Iraq, Turkey and Syria (with an additional Kurdish population in Iran, outside of the former Ottoman territories). 

This decision has led to much suffering. From the 1950s on, Iraq was governed by a virulent form of Arab nationalism. The rise of the brutal Baath Party in 1963, and then the ascendancy, from within the ranks of the party, of the executioner Saddam Hussein to Iraq’s helm, meant disaster for Iraq’s Kurds. They were deprived of the right to use their language and subjected to arbitrary expulsion from their homes as Hussein and the Baathists sought to leaven the Kurdish areas with Arab newcomers to end any hope of Kurdish sovereignty.

The West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations.

The apogee came in 1988 when, in an effort to end Kurdish resistance once and for all, the Iraqi dictator lunched a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and slaughter led by his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, henceforth to be known as “Chemical Ali.” In this campaign, between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds died. The accurate number probably will never be known. What is known for certain is that in the town of Halabja, on March 16, 1988, 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed in a poison gas attack. Acording to a report by Human Rights Watch, “It is apparent that a principal purpose of [the attack] was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan.”

This is the bitter legacy that the Iraqi Kurds carry. 

If international affairs were dictated by moral decency, the case for Kurdish statehood would be open and shut. A people who were never consulted as to whether they wished to be joined to the Iraqi state, and who were treated with the most appalling brutality and cruelty by the regimes of that state to which they never wanted to join, and who have proven themselves the most democratic and civic-minded element of the population of that state, now wish to be afforded the liberty to create, finally, their own secure and sovereign country. 

Yet despite the clear facts of the case, the West has chosen to back the Islamist administrations in Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara in their determination to oppose the emergence of Kurdish sovereignty. After the referendum, the government in Baghdad demanded that the Kurds hand over control of all oil revenue and border crossings, as well as control of the international airport at Erbil. Baghdad took unilateral control of Kurdish airspace. (I left Kurdistan on one of the last scheduled flights out of Erbil airport that Baghdad permitted to fly).

With the assault on Kirkuk, the Iraqis have demonstrated their willingness to back up their words with iron and steel. 

Why is the West acquiescing to this?

Ostensibly, the reason has to do with the urgency to complete the war against ISIS. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk said the Kurdish referendum was “ill-timed and ill-advised.” This, he added, was the position of the “entire international coalition.” 

But the notion that the referendum damages the war against ISIS by diverting attention from it is unsustainable. The war against ISIS in Iraq is largely won, with the final battle to drive them from their last urban holdings being waged right now. Kurdish independence will not get in the way.

So, what is the real reason for Western opposition? 

First, the U.S. and its allies spent a great deal of blood and treasure in destroying the Saddam Hussein regime and installing a system of elections and formal democracy in Iraq. They are loath to see this project fail. At the moment, Iran-supported forces are in the ascendant in Iraq. The West hopes to assist those forces opposed to the Iranians in Iraqi politics. The Kurds need to remain part of Iraq, it is believed, to act as a counterweight to Iranian influence. 

But Iranian domination of Iraq is quite complete with or without the Kurds. More important than Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the political structures in Baghdad are the Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units — 100,000 to 120,000 strong — raised when ISIS was heading for Baghdad but with no intention of disbanding, and controlled by pro-Iranian elements. This independent armed force, combined with other pro-Iranian social and political forces, will remain the principal instruments of Iranian influence in Iraq. 

There’s a deeper cause for the resistance, however: an Arab-centric view of the Middle East that dominates Western universities and the scholars and policy advisers who emerge from them, resulting in a certain lack of interest, even a condescending indifference, to the Kurds, their aspirations and their memories. 

If allowed to triumph, this view will combine failure with disgrace. Failure because Iraq is already dominated by Iran. Disgrace because the justice of the Kurdish case is self-evident.

Instead of denying the Kurds their due, the West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations, and then make a strong friend and ally of the new Kurdish state. Instead of acquiescing to Iranian gains in the region, we should be enlisting the Kurds in the effort to roll them back.

But for that to happen, their legitimate demands for self-determination need to be acknowledged and supported.

The hour is late, as the gobbling up of Kirkuk by the militias and the army shows. But it’s not yet too late. The time to support Kurdish statehood has arrived. 


Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya.

5777: Coping with a year of rage

White supremacists, foreground, face off against counterprotesters, top, at the entrance to Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

We hear the word “high” a lot during the High Holy Days — and it’s not just because we live in pot-friendly California.

This time of year is supposed to elevate us, lift us up. It’s so integral to the mission of the holidays, and it’s embedded into the choreography of the service: The ark is opened and we rise; the shofar calls us to stand and wake up; the fast on Yom Kippur alters the chemistry of our brains. Prayer itself promises to bring us “higher and higher,” inching us closer to the profound mystery at the heart of the universe we call God.

Everything about this 10-day annual ritual titillates us with the promise of spiritual intoxication: If we take the holidays seriously enough — if we repent, return, forgive — Jewish tradition tells us we can change our lives; that everything we thought lost is still possible. Begin again, we’re told. It’s a new year. 

But for so many of us, the task of getting high this year seems especially hard because this last year was so full of personal and global anguish. How do we reclaim a space for the spirit when life can be so profoundly dispiriting?

Most of the major events of 5777 have given us reason to worry, rage and fear. We lived through the most polarizing election in our lifetimes, followed by the installation of an equally polarizing administration. We learned about Russian subversion of our democratic process. We endured nuclear threats from North Korea and the rising threat of economic imperialism in China. We watched the Syrian civil war and genocide spread into its sixth tragic year. We divided ourselves over Israel, agonizing about the challenges it faces within and without. We witnessed terror in Europe.

And, most recently, we watched with utter helplessness as the wrath of nature devastated American cities and communities, and as DACA was rescinded, putting the futures of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in limbo. All of this courtesy of the constant churn of the 24-hour news cycle that knows no Shabbat. 

For these reasons and others, we feel drained. Can prayer and community have any impact on healing these wounds? And what if the very polarizing politics we wish to escape appear in our rabbi’s sermon?

For those of us who already are politically engaged, philanthropic and working with great devotion to fight injustice in this world, we hope the High Holy Days will pour some light onto the canvas of our aching souls.

Just before Rosh Hashanah, I asked Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the spiritual leader at Ohr Hatorah in Venice who teaches and counsels through the prism of psychology and philosophy, how we can move from a year of rage, grief or simply exhaustion to a period of spiritual elevation.

His answer was surprising — and kind of Buddhist.

“Every philosophical system that takes morality seriously detaches wisdom from emotions,” he said over warm apple pie at Sophos Café, the Italian-coffee hangout that serves as the lobby at his shul. (I had to put aside my extreme satisfaction with the pie to understand his point.)

But aren’t you angry about what you see happening in our country, or in the world, I asked?

“I don’t get that emotional [about it],” he said. “Anybody who is that upset [over politics], I’m wondering how efficacious their spiritual practice is to begin with. When people say to me, ‘It’s been the worst year ever,’ I say, ‘1862 was a bad year for our country [it was the Civil War and the Union was losing]. 1942 was a bad year for the world.’

“There are those who love divisiveness and get all emotional. It’s a choice you make. I’m among those who find [President Donald Trump] repugnant, but if I talk to somebody on the other side, I don’t bring that into the conversation. I say, let’s have rational conversation based on moral values. For people who say politics is personal, I think they like to be angry.”

Finley admitted that different people seek different things on the High Holy Days. Some people want and need to vent about politics.

“It can feel extremely satisfying when your leadership vents what you’re feeling,” Finley said. “But when people are venting, they don’t want to process. My congregation is populated by people who want an oasis during the High Holidays. I’ve asked, ‘Would you like me every week to rehash the new litany of Trump’s latest outrages?’ They say, ‘No, we get that from The New York Times.’ They’re after personal depth and transformation. They want leadership there.” 

Finley believes that for most of us, the way to a better world is through higher consciousness, by cultivating what he calls “the higher self,” or the soul. And the best way to test and exert the functioning of our higher self is through interpersonal relationships.

“There’s a moral framework in which we live that for most people, the first place they experience it is interpersonally,” he said. “You’ve been hurt by others; they’ve been hurt by you. That’s the first thing we have to deal with.”

It’s a lot harder to take on the problems of the world if we’re suffering at home. So for those of us who are grieving, heartbroken, angry or stuck, the holidays are a time to examine and refine our most sacred relationships.

Simple acts of being kinder, more generous and more compassionate can make our broken world a little brighter and bring us higher — indeed, closer — to God.


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

Reports: Israel bombs chemical weapons factory in Syria

Air Force F-16 D fighter jet taking off at the Ramat David Air Force Base. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions between Israel and Syria increased after reports that Israel hit a research center responsible for developing chemical weapons near the city of Hama. Two Syrian soldiers were reported killed.

[This story originally appeared on themedialine.org]

Adhering to its past policy, Israel did not officially take responsibility for the attack.

“The IDF policy is that we don’t respond to foreign allegations or reports,” an Israeli army spokesman told The Media Line.

But both in Israel and abroad there seemed to be little question that Israel was behind the attack, which was being seen in Israel as a message to Syria, and its main allies, Iran and Russia.

The Syrian army warned of “serious consequences” after confirming reports that Israel was behind the attack. In a bizarre twist, it accused Israel of supporting Islamic State, which has been fighting the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad.

“The Syrian army warns of the serious consequences of these kinds of aggressive activities against the security and stability in the region,” the statement said. “The army is determined to destroy terrorism and obliterate it in all Syrian territory, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aid is given to these terror gangs,” it said, apparently referring to Islamic State.

The attack took place on the Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) near the city of Hama, which is responsible for research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and missile technology and weapons in Syria. The attack came as Israel is in the midst of the largest drill in almost 20 years that simulates a war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah.

“Israel said clearly that if we will see a strategic threat against Israel we will act,” Col. Kobi Marom, a research associate with the International Institute of Counter-terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya told The Media Line. “This is part of a message to Iran that if they try to build a missile industry to supply Hizbullah with missiles that can reach Tel Aviv that is a red line for Israel.”

He said the timing was also a way of showing Hizbullah and its patron Iran that Israel is far more prepared today than it was when Israel and Hizbullah last fought a war in 2006. Marom says the large-scale exercise is meant to show that Israel can fight simultaneously against both Syria and Lebanon if needed.

The Israeli attack came as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Hizbullah and Russia, has scored impressive gains against both Islamic State and Syrian rebel groups. After six years of fighting it now seems as if Assad will remain in power, and that Islamic State will be defeated.

Marom says Israel is growing increasingly concerned that Iran will try to maintain a presence in southern Lebanon after any fighting ends.

“The Iranian strategy is to occupy more territory and try to build an advanced industry and develop missiles that can reach Tel Aviv,” Marom said. “That is a red line for Israel. I cannot imagine that Israel will allow the Iranians to deploy 25 miles from the Israeli border. That is a threat not only to Israel but to Jordan and others who care about the Iranian influence in the Middle East.”

The attack on the Syrian facility came a day after UN war crimes investigators said that Syrian forces used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during the country’s civil war. In one recent case, in Khan Sheikhoun in April, at least 80 civilians were killed.

The UN report were the most extensive findings to date from international investigations into the use of chemical weapons during the six years of fighting in Syria. The UN commission aslo found that a US air strike on a mosque in rural Aleppo that killed 38 people including children could be a violation of international law for failing to take precautions to avoid killing civilians.

A modest proposal: Short-term camps for Syrian refugees in America

A Syrian refugee child holds a bread at a camp for Syrian refugees near the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Aug. 8. Photo by Jamal Saidi/REUTERS.

What to do about Syrian refugees?

Their ongoing flight from civil war and poverty continues to challenge America socially, economically, and morally. While the United States did not create the conditions for the migration, human beings in distress surely deserve our compassion. But absorbing people who are completely alien to the American lifestyle endangers both our cultural values and our economic well-being.

There is a third way: admit Syrian refugees, but house them in camps rather than set them loose on our streets – where they are already attempting to join American society. Segregated villages for Syrian refugees would solve their short-term problem – finding a place to survive (however uncomfortably) – without creating long-term problems for the United States and our cultural unity. Most importantly, once things return to normal in Syria, these temporary foreign guests (and their descendants) can simply go home.

Wait, that’s offensive to you? You think it would shock the conscience of good people everywhere? Funny, because that’s precisely how the world has treated Palestinian refugees living in Arab countries neighboring Israel over the last 70 years.

During Israel’s 1948 War for Independence, at least 700,000 Arabs were expelled or fled from what became Israel. Most went to refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, which expected them to return to their homes when the fighting ended. But Israel, busy building a Jewish homeland for refugees of their own group, blocked their re-entry. The 1967 Six-Day War produced another 300,000 migrants, and today the total number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants is nearing 5 million.

Life for Palestinian refugees has been hard, in large part because the countries where they’ve lived (except the Kingdom of Jordan) have made no effort to integrate them, and in fact created obstacles to their absorption. Egypt had no interest in absorbing the Arabs living in Gaza in the 1950s, for example, and in fact when poised to regain the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Camp David Accords, Egypt rejected annexing the adjacent Gaza Strip, despite a shared ethnic and religious background with Palestinians. The story has been similar for refugees mired in camps in Lebanon and Syria.

Displaced persons present moral and practical challenges to civilized nations, but that’s nothing new. Since World War II alone the world has unfortunately had to succor refugees hundreds of times – Chinese flooding British Hong Kong in the early 1950s, say, or Hungarians moving to Austria in 1956.

In fact, the United Nations constantly deals with such emergencies through its Refugee Agency, whose mission statement defines its job as “finding solutions that enable refugees to live their lives in dignity and peace.” They specify three strategies: voluntary repatriation, resettlement and integration.

So for decades, the world’s nations have had a simple goal for all the world’s refugees: that they stop being refugees.

Well, that’s been the goal for all the world’s refugees except Palestinians.

You see, Palestinians are the only category of refugees “helped” by a separate agency – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Armed with an annual $1.2 billion budget, UNRWA’s structure prevents Palestinians from thriving in the places where they live. Unlike with other ethnic and national groups, the United Nations treats even the descendants of original displaced persons as permanent refugees, and eschews most steps to integrate them.

The reason is clear: a deliberate Arab-led campaign to embarrass and delegitimize Israel.

Arab leaders have been remarkably blunt about their motivations. In 2004, Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef, told the Los Angeles Times that Palestinians live “in very bad conditions,” but said the official policy is meant “to preserve their Palestinian identity.” After all, he continued, “if every Palestinian who sought refuge in a certain country was integrated and accommodated into that country, there won’t be any reason for them to return to Palestine,” he said.

Under the status quo, all the Arab elites win. Arab nations escape the upheaval of integrating a poor and alienated subgroup, and Palestinian leaders keep their ideology that the refugees already have a home – the future nation of Palestine to be built on land currently occupied by the Jews.

But the refugees themselves don’t win. Their physical, political, and legal suffering continues. Outside Jordan, they and their children are not citizens of the countries where they live, and they face legal and practical obstacles to progress in areas like employment, education, and health care. Many can’t even own property.

Now, here’s the truly obscene part: some of the Palestinian refugees living in Syria have joined the exodus to Europe, where they are being resettled like everyone else. Think about that: When their suffering was agitprop theater to hurt Israel, they were stateless. But with a non-Zionist antagonist, suddenly they’re on track to becoming French and Dutch.

Migrations and displacements are a regular feature of world history – and Jews have been no exception. From our days weeping by the waters of Babylon to the mass transfer of nearly a million Jews from Arab and Muslim nations soon after Israel’s founding, our people have known dislocation and exile. Absorption of foreigners has placed many countries on trial, as the Syrian crisis is doing today. But nobody’s suffering should be part of an international puppet show designed to jerry-rig an impractical solution to a longstanding morass.

Here’s another modest proposal: Israel’s neighbors can welcome – as equal citizens – the Palestinians who for generations have lived within their borders. Would that be so hard?

David Benkof is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Inside Uganda: Home of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world

A South Sudanese refugee, displaced by fighting, holds her child upon arriving in April at the Imvepi settlement in the Arua District in northern Uganda. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

They live in huts and mud houses, partaking of bare essentials only when they are available. There are few markets and fewer police. Daily life is a constant struggle to survive.

This is the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, deep in the bush of northern Uganda in central east Africa. More than 272,000 people are living in conditions that would make reaching poverty seem like an aspirational goal.

The people in Bidi Bidi are among more than 1 million South Sudanese living as refugees from civil war and ethnic cleansing. Bidi Bidi has become the largest resettlement camp in the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The sprawling 89-square-mile camp covers an area larger than the city of Seattle.

Foremost among those helping in Bidi Bidi are several leading Jewish and Israeli organizations, doing what they can to support desperate needs and raise awareness about the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.

“Refugees are not just fleeing because of the violence but to escape an economic collapse and crazy inflation,” Mike Brand, advocacy and programs director at the Encino-based Jewish World Watch (JWW), said in an interview as he surveyed the crisis in Uganda’s Adjumani border district, adjacent to the Bidi Bidi camp. “People can’t afford to work and buy food in South Sudan, and severe food insecurity has been plaguing the country.”

[Bidi Bidi: Struggling to cope with life at the world’s largest refugee settlement]

South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, gaining independence from Sudan to the north in 2011. Even so, tribal clashes in South Sudan that predated independence have continued, lighting a fuse that led to the current crisis.

After a failed attempt at a peace agreement, violence erupted again in July 2016 with massive clashes in the South Sudan capital, Juba, near President Salva Kiir’s palace and a United Nations compound, resulting in more displacement of civilians.

Although the U.N. Security Council called for up to 4,000 peacekeepers to quell the fighting in August 2016, it took until last month for just 150 Rwandan soldiers to take up the mission.

“The government thinks they can win the war militarily and isn’t interested in sharing power,” Brand said of the conflict. “The various rebel movements aren’t strong enough to force a negotiated settlement, so they must keep fighting. A lot of the conflict boils down to money, land and power. All sides have committed gross human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and maybe even genocide.”

refugee

Bidi Bidi is the single largest refugee settlement in the world. Photo by Trocaire

 

Jewish aid groups are part of a worldwide response to deal with a humanitarian crisis that rivals others that have gained more attention through political conflict and media coverage. The groups include the Los Angeles-based Real Medicine Foundation and the American Refugee Committee of Minneapolis, as well as the Uganda-based World Action Fund and global operators like Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.

Uganda currently has 140 nongovernment organizations operating in the country, according to the nation’s official directory.

Jewish World Watch has been working in Sudan and the surrounding region since JWW’s founding 13 years ago in response to the Darfur genocide. Brand, 31, worked for the conflict-prevention group Saferworld in South Sudan before joining JWW in 2015.

A June “global solidarity summit” held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, ended with the international community pledging less than 20 percent of the funds required to meet the extraordinary needs generated by a crisis that also includes growing famine.

“The World Food Programme cut rations over the last two years,” said Brand, pointing out that monthly nutritional supplements — like flour, sorghum and cooking oil — were cut in half to 6 kilograms, about 13 pounds, for a family. “And it seems to have been reduced again, down to 3 kilograms a month.

“One of the things I am trying to do is understand what is working here,” he added. “The refugee settlements created here are happening because Ugandan families donated their land. It’s the people that live here, not the government, who are allowing refugees to build homes and farm.

“Uganda has been quite welcoming, especially when you compare their refugee response to the United States and Europe.”

Map

Image courtesy of Refugees International

 

Brand cited the Trump administration’s decision to reduce and cut various foreign support programs as contributing to the crisis.

“President [Donald] Trump’s stance on cutting foreign aid, funding to the U.N. and limiting the State Department’s effectiveness will have disastrous results for crises like South Sudan,” he said, explaining why JWW is launching initiatives for refugee self-sufficiency and advocating for U.S. funding of their basic needs.

The administration, however, said cutbacks in foreign aid have not affected U.S. support for South Sudan.

“We are the single largest donor in the affected areas of Uganda, and as conditions have worsened, we have increased our contributions significantly,” said Deborah Malac, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda. “Since October 2016, we have provided nearly $154 million for humanitarian assistance, including $57.4 million announced by President Trump on May 24.”

But despite the U.N. and 57 other aid organizations working in northern Uganda, the need to provide food and shelter this year was $1.4 billion, and only 18 percent of it has been received.

To help, Israel recently provided 6 tons of food aid to areas of drought-stricken South Sudan, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.

Meanwhile, the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID is running psychological support programs and safe drinking water projects in the Ugandan districts where refugees are concentrated.

Despite the U.N. and 57 other aid organizations working in northern Uganda, the need to provide food and shelter this year was $1.4 billion, and only 18 percent of it has been received.

“Last year, it was Greece in the spotlight with the Syrian refugee crisis. But somehow this catastrophe is seen as an African problem instead of a global concern,” said Dahlia Olinsky, Uganda country director for IsraAID. “It is pretty easy for TV networks to get on a plane to Greece and get shots of refugees crossing in boats from Turkey. But the border crossings with South Sudan are a 13-hour drive through the bush from the Kampala airport.”

She said during some months, as many as 3,000 refugees a day cross into Uganda.

Proliferation of informal border crossings are a window into the massive scale of the refugee crisis. The three official passages are on the three roads linking South Sudan with Uganda, but in recent months, authorities opened 10 additional frontier posts on migrant footpaths running through the bush.

“The image that keeps me up at night is of these pregnant teenage girls who have walked for days in the bush with another child or two in tow,” said Olinsky, 35, who coordinates a team of about 12 South Sudanese trained to support the group’s psychological wellness and technical assistance programs.

Eighty-six percent of the South Sudanese refugees are women and children. The men are largely either trying to hold on to ancestral lands or engaged in the fighting.

IsraAID specialists rotate into Uganda and South Sudan, where humanitarian groups estimate that as many as 1.5 million internally displaced people are in flight from fighting in their home villages.

“We work in areas like water, sanitation and hygiene,” Olinsky said. “But our core mission is to build the refugees’ knowledge and skills to handle the psychological impact of their displacement and rebuild their lives.”

More than 20,000 people now have access to clean water because of a training program IsraAID set up at Gulu University, 65 miles south of the Uganda-South Sudan border.

IsraAID employs locals as well as refugees as a way to limit conflict over resources between the two groups, especially in districts where South Sudanese are starting to outnumber native-born Ugandans.

“I gained practical experience in digging wells and installing and maintaining the electric pumps that tap into the underground aquifers which help us get drinking water to the refugees settling here,” said Anena Kevin, 25, a Ugandan and graduate of IsraAID’s training program.

IsraAID, which has raised funds in North America for its efforts in Greece and in Germany for Syrian refugees, has struggled to find donors for the projects in South Sudan and Uganda. Less than 10 percent of its $2 million program expenses has been covered by U.S. donors.

“The lack of attention to this crisis has affected the amounts available for this, but we are doing what we can,” Olinsky said.

bidi-bidi

A temporary school structure at Bidi Bidi that was destroyed by rain. Photo by Mike Brand/Jewish World Watch

 

HIAS, the American-Jewish group founded in 1881 to bring Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms to the U.S., now is engaged in refugee assistance and resettlement with active programs in Venezuela for Colombians fleeing civil war and in Greece, for those escaping the crisis in Syria.

HIAS also is active in Africa. It has sustained a Uganda program for 15 years with a field office in Kampala to support refugees from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo — another sparsely reported African conflict known for the widespread use of rape as a weapon as common as gunfire.

In recent weeks, international resettlement agencies like HIAS have reported an increase of refugees arriving from Congo, with up to 600 crossing the border each day.

“We are thinking strategically about how to step in with the South Sudanese refugees in the north and are eager to work with partners and donors to respond to this massive crisis,” said Rachel Levitan, associate vice president for program planning and management at HIAS.

“I don’t know when the Jewish community is going to respond the way they need to the fact that there are a million South Sudanese in Uganda,” she said. “But I hope we can raise our own awareness and then bring the world’s attention to it, especially for the survivors of gender-based violence.”

Back in Encino, Susan Freudenheim, executive director of JWW, said the promise of no more genocides, of “never again” has to mean something.

“We sent Mike to Uganda to visit Bidi Bidi and other refugee settlement camps to bear witness, because we know from experience the best way to find out what kind of support people really need is to get our own firsthand account.”

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., JWW is organizing a lobbying effort to persuade Congress to increase aid. 

“We are not the United Nations,” Freudenheim said. “We can’t spend millions to feed people, but we can be effective in helping meet specific needs in ways that can be replicated and, hopefully, are helpful.”

When Raqqa falls: the Syrian war after the Islamic State

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces advance toward Islamic State positions in Seif Al Dawla, district of Raqqa, Syria August 9, 2017. Photo by Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS.

As U.S.-backed forces make advances against I.S., concern mounts over the possibility of another humanitarian catastrophe in Syria

A military offensive targeting the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” is paying dividends, with Brett McGurk—U.S. special envoy for the coalition against I.S.—revealing that about 45% of Raqqa has been recaptured. “Today, [the Islamic State] is fighting for every last block…and fighting for its own survival,” he affirmed. “They most likely will die there.”

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—mainly compromised of Kurdish militias known as YPG—launched an operation on June 6 to liberate Raqqa, which was seized by I.S. in 2014. The loss of its “headquarters” would be a second consecutive major setback for the jihadist group, which was driven from its Iraqi bastion of Mosul last month.

In total, McGurk stated that the I.S. has lost 78% of the territory it previously held in Iraq and 58% in Syria. The envoy attributed “dramatically accelerated” progress in the campaign to positive changes implemented by U.S. President Donald Trump. The key factors cited were the White House’s willingness to delegate decision-making to battlefield commanders; the application of a so-called “annihilation” tactic, in which coalition ground forces surround I.S. strongholds so that enemy fighters cannot escape; and a push to increase the burden-sharing among the 73 members of the anti-I.S. coalition.

Speaking to The Media Line, Dr. Ely Karmon, a Senior Research Scholar at Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, predicted that Raqqa will inevitably fall; after which, there will be an effort by I.S. to relocate and reorganize. “Afghanistan will be a very important place for I.S., which has upped its activities there already, including the [May 31] bombing in Kabul that killed [over 150 people and wounded over 400 others]. They are also already in Libya, where leaders have been dispatched. There is Yemen, where so far I.S. has not been as successful because al Qaeda controls territory.” Moreover, Dr. Karmon noted Iraqi intelligence reports suggesting I.S. is already trying to regroup in the country after its defeat in Mosul—by organizing underground, clandestine operations to attract the support of local Sunni fighters who remain engaged in conflict with Shia militias.

While Dr. Karmon acknowledges that the Islamic State “will be more scattered” once Raqqa falls, he nevertheless contended that “the terror group was always largely decentralized, as most of its associates and factions were quite independent.” Accordingly, “there is no doubt that I.S. will try to encourage [so-called ‘lone wolf’] attacks on the U.S. and EU, as this is one of their best weapons.”

Nature abhors a vacuum and what comes after the I.S. in Raqqa may yet spell trouble, with analysts predicting that competing entities will wage subsequent battles to fill the void. The likely scenario will pit American-backed Kurdish and Arab rebels against those supported by Turkey, which is committed to preventing the Kurds from carving out an autonomous enclave along the shared Turkish-Syrian border. There is also the Assad regime’s army, which coupled with Iranian-backed militias will likewise press to secure their own interests.

Fears over the prospect of another humanitarian disaster are thus rising. The immediate focus is the battle for Raqqa City itself, where the United Nations estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 civilians remain. Speaking to The Media Line, David Swanson, an Information Officer at the UN’s Regional Office for the Syria Crisis, confirmed that “as military operations continue, our concern is further civilian casualties; all the more so as ISIL [another acronym for the Islamic State] has allegedly used civilians as human shields.”

With respect to the “day-after-liberation” plan U.S. envoy McGurk recently alluded to, Swanson revealed that “in the period after ISIL is pushed out [of Raqqa City], and as soon as conditions permit access, UN activities are foreseen to focus on urgent life-saving assistance for 90 days.… It is expected that the majority of civilian infrastructure, such as health facilities and schools, will be found looted, damaged and/or destroyed. [Improvised Explosive Device] contamination is also expected to be high, making the early response particularly challenging.”

As per the larger numbers of people already displaced throughout the province, Swanson continued, “humanitarian partners have developed and are regularly updating a plan for Ar-Raqqa Governorate which outlines preparedness and response to meet the needs of an estimated 440,000 people who may be affected by the offensive.” These and many more may indeed find themselves in the cross hairs of the current battle, or ensuing ones.

The Syria conflict, now in its seventh year, is one of the most complicated crises—both geopolitically and in terms of human suffering—since World War II. On one side of the equation, the primary players are U.S.-backed Sunni Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey; on the other is the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah Shiite axis, supported by Russia. On the ground are dozens of fighting groups, fluid in nature, with ever-changing loyalties, and some more extreme than others. The obvious complexities that have evolved have created a veritable Gordian Knot, a quagmire with no apparent “out-of-the-box” solution, even when taking into consideration the prospective victory over I.S.

More than 400,000 civilians have lost their lives in this maze of human misery, with another 11 million displaced and nearly 15 million in urgent need of life-saving assistance. For many observers, the unending carnage is a blight on humanity itself—a tragedy which, in this so-called modern day and age, could never have happened until it did.

Rex Tillerson: US wants Iran out of Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Kiev, Ukraine, on July 9. Photo by Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

A condition of U.S. cooperation with Russia in the Syria arena is the removal of Iranian forces from the country, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

“The direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle,” Tillerson said Wednesday in a wide-ranging news conference.

The other condition, Tillerson said, was that the end result should be a unified Syria with “new leadership” — the removal of the Assad regime.

Israel expressed concerns last month at the terms of a proposed cease-fire in the civil war in southern Syria in part because it left Iranian forces in place. Israel’s deadliest enemies in the region are Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah militia, and it wants them removed from Syria as part of any endgame.

It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump was on board with Tillerson’s conditions. Particularly on Iran policy, Tillerson has advanced one position — for instance, preserving the nuclear deal with Iran — only to be contradicted by Trump within hours.

Perhaps wary because of these experiences, Tillerson declined to say whether the Trump administration would continue to back the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Trump has said that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the agreement by engaging in activities, including testing missiles and military adventurism in the region, not covered by the agreement.

“What does that mean if we say the spirit of the agreement’s been violated?” Tillerson asked.

“Do we want to tear it up and walk away? Do we want to make the point to Iran that we expect you to get back in line with the spirit of the agreement and we’re going to stay here and hold you accountable to it?” he said. “There are a lot of – I think there are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran. And that’s what the conversation generally is around with the president as well, is what are all those options.”

The Temple Mount, California edition: Anti-Semitic sermons test Muslim-Jewish bonds

Sermons infused with anti-Semitic language delivered by imams in two California mosques on the same day have reignited tensions in Jewish-Muslim relations after leaders of the two religious groups around the state have worked aggressively to ease lingering conflicts.

The July 21 remarks by Imam Mahmoud Harmoush of the Islamic Center of Riverside and Imam Ammar Shahin of the Islamic Center of Davis drew strong condemnation from Muslim and Jewish leaders, fearful that such incendiary language could erode relations.

The effect was like picking at a scab on a slow-healing wound. Since the terror attacks of 9/11, American Jewish and Muslim groups have made a concerted effort to forge bonds of understanding and cooperation. Those have been nursed along despite the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention the enduring friction between Israelis and Palestinians. More recently, efforts to stigmatize Muslims generally have encouraged Jews and Muslims to push for closer relations.

The angry sermons from the pulpits in Davis and Riverside tested the strength of those developing bonds.

“It is critical to understand the mosque, a sanctuary for worship and spiritual growth, has no place for divisiveness or hate. Paranoia as a result of political unrest does not justify making these allegations against an entire religious group,” the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing understanding of Muslims, said in condemning the two sermons.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) and the American Jewish Committee, among others, expressed outrage over the sermons, with the ADL calling them “anti-Semitic and dangerous.” The Zionist Organization of America called for Shahin’s firing, and the Wiesenthal Center has urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the Davis Muslim leader.

In an Aug. 1 statement, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) said Harmoush’s sermon was “dangerous, offensive, and entirely inconsistent with the tolerant and respectful views routinely expressed by local Muslim leaders.” That same day, Rep. Brad Sherman, a Jewish Democrat who serves the San Fernando Valley, said Harmoush’s words were “nothing short of hate speech.”

Both sermons referred to last month’s conflict at the Temple Mount, where a shooting of two Druze Israeli police officers led the Israeli government to install metal detectors for entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is part of the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. After two weeks of internal and international outrage from Muslims, the metal detectors were removed.

In his sermon, Shahin said, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews.”

Quoting a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that is distinct from the text of the Quran, he said, “Oh Allah, count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last.”

Harmoush used similar language when he said in his sermon, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and occupiers. Oh Allah, destroy them, they are no match for you.” 

Further, he condemned “the occupying forces of the Israeli army [that] have intervened and indeed took over the holy place and shut it down.”

“These statements are anti-Semitic and dangerous,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, said referring to the two sermons. “We reject attempts to cast the conflict in Jerusalem as a religious war between Jews and Muslims. At this time of heightened tension, it is more important than ever for the Jewish and Muslim communities to come together to condemn the use of stereotypes and conspiracy theories, and to rebuild trust so that people of all faiths can coexist with mutual respect in the Holy Land and around the world.”

Imam Ammar Shahin

 

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC, called on Muslim leaders to denounce the two sermons as a more effective way to blunt anti-Semitic speech than criticism from the outside.

“Whatever changes need to take place, they cannot be forced from Christian leaders or Jewish leaders,” he said. “That change has to come from within and it has to be brought about by leaders within the Muslim community.”

If the language of the Riverside and Davis imams stood out as particularly inflammatory, the sentiments were not unique.

While his July 28 sermon at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City in English and Arabic did not explicitly promote violence, Sheikh Ahson Syed retained a distinct negative bias toward non-Muslims and repeatedly referred to Israeli soldiers, in English, as “Zionist terrorist soldiers.”

The sermon was recorded and posted to YouTube by the mosque, and the Journal commissioned a translation of the Arabic portion.

In Arabic, he said, “O God help our brothers in Palestine to get victory and get rid of the enemies who occupy their land. O God reinforce Islam and the Muslims, take down the shirk and the mushriks and kill enemies; enemies of Islam.”

In Islamic religious thought, a shirk is an idolator and mushrik refers to Christians and Jews, those who worship someone other than Allah.

Unlike leaders of some other religions, imams are appointed to lead prayers and are not required to have had formal seminary or theological training. Nor does Islam have any central authority that specifies what imams can say or not say in their sermons.

As a consequence, it is difficult to quantify how often fiery rhetoric is part of sermons delivered in mosques in California or elsewhere. Mahomed Akbar Khan, director of interfaith and outreach for King Fahad Mosque, said mosques entrust their imams and speakers to deliver sermons however they want.

“It’s generally free rein,” he said. “The questions we ask [when choosing speakers] is, ‘Is this person qualified and is this person respected in the community?’ If there are any inappropriate comments, we make it clear that it is not the stance of the mosque. But every mosque is different.”

Despite the language of the Riverside and Davis sermons and in mosques elsewhere, hate speeches in American mosques are “few and far between” and for the most part, haven’t been proven to lead to violence, said Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, who wrote a 2005 paper on hate speech and incitements in mosques.

“It’s rare a congregation would go out to commit violence after hearing a sermon,” he said, adding that while he would prefer civility in places of worship, hate speech is protected as free speech if no violence happens as a result of it.

“That connection must be proven,” Lasson said. “In the cases in California, there appears that there have been no consequences other than hard feelings.”

Nonetheless, Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, an organization that works to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, said the sermons reveal deep-seated differences between the communities.

“I think it blows the lid off that this is real,” Hasan told the Journal. “There are feelings between these two communities and this is how it has manifested.”

One member of NewGround, Jewish activist Tuli Skaist, reached out to Shahin to challenge his use of “such hateful rhetoric,” as he said in an op-ed posted at jewishjournal.com.

“In these turbulent times, with so much hate in the world, it seems to me that faith leaders ought to be in the firefighting business,” Skaist wrote. “We must fight the inflammatory flames of hate with the sweet waters of love. We must fight intolerance in the world by urging our people to be more kind and more tolerant.”

In his response to Skaist, Shahin accused the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that translates speeches in Arabic into English, bringing them to a wider audience, of taking his remarks out of context.

But he apologized for his sermon, writing, “Thank you for your comments and concerns, I will keep them in mind. As you know, when we speak with emotion, words might not be put in the right places or understood correctly.

“My apology to all your community for any harm that my misinterpreted words might have caused.”

In a subsequent press conference, Shahin appeared with Davis Mayor Robb Davis and Rabbi Seth Castleman, chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Rabbis, and apologized, acknowledging that he allowed his emotions to get the better of him.

“I understand that speech like this can encourage others to do hateful and violent acts, for this I truly apologize,” Shahin said. “Words matter and have consequences.”

In his online op-ed for the Journal, Skaist wrote, “Let me be clear: The imam was wrong; his words were dangerous and inexcusable. Such words should not be tolerated by his community or any other. At the same time, here is a man that is not full of hate, but who simply got carried away with passion, used words that he shouldn’t have, and had them distributed to the world in a two-minute ‘got you’ sound bite.”

MEMRI denied that Shahin’s remarks were edited or mistranslated and called him “one of a group of extremist preachers who have been exposed by MEMRI to be delivering incitement to hatred and violence.” The organization said accusations of misrepresenting Shahin reflects an effort by the Islamic Center of Davis “to deflect responsibility from themselves by issuing all kinds of mendacious and libelous statements against the entity that exposed them.”

In addition to his position at the Davis mosque, Shahin is an instructor at the Zidni Islamic Institute in Brentwood. Egyptian-born, he graduated from the Institute for Preparation of Preachers with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies and earned an associate degree from Al-Forqan Institute, according to the Zidni Institute.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Center of Riverside (ICR) said it conducted an internal inquiry, reviewing Harmoush’s remarks and finding that his critics had misinterpreted his words.

Imam Harmoush was careful to focus his remarks on the actions of the Israeli government in and around Jerusalem,” the center said in a statement. “In fact, those parts of the sermon which have been cited as objectionable were routinely mistranslated and/or taken out of context. Nonetheless, Imam Harmoush unequivocally stated in the sermon that Islam does not call for aggression against any peaceful people.

“ICR believes that the Imam’s remarks were neither anti-Semitic nor discriminatory, but rather intended to address the unfortunate closure of the Mosque in Jerusalem to Muslim worshippers,” the statement said.

In a brief interview with the Journal, Harmoush did not disavow any part of his sermon but conceded that his words might have an unsettling effect on others.

“Oh, I learned that sometimes you have to not only have a sixth sense, but maybe a seventh sense,” he said. “Some people are very sensitive but maybe they cannot handle the truth or information, and unfortunately, we are living in a very sensitive society. Sensitive in a way we have to be careful, so we don’t need to hurt anybody’s feelings. Sometimes I talk to adults, children, male or female, and we have to be careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Imam Mahmoud Harmoush

 

According to MEMRI, Harmoush was born in Syria and has been living in the United States since the 1980s.

According to the ICR statement, Harmoush regards himself as an interfaith leader, and on July 31, 10 days after delivering his sermon, he met with Rabbi Suzanne Singer of the Riverside congregation Temple Beth El to discuss the controversy over his sermon.

Having organized an interfaith event at her synagogue this spring in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States, Singer said she was eager to talk to Harmoush, despite her discomfort over his sermon. Ibrahim Massoud, chairman of the mosque, also participated in the meeting.

In an interview, Singer said the meeting confirmed what she had suspected after watching Harmoush’s sermon online, that she and Harmoush have strongly different ideas about the founding of the State of Israel and Jewish intentions in the Middle East. Although they did not agree on many things, she said, they agreed to meet again to try to bridge this divide.

“I said it may be a good idea for us to talk about our different narratives around Israel,” Singer said.

As to what the future holds, Singer said she would not allow the two sermons to stop her from building interfaith relationships with willing Muslim partners.

“Obviously, I’m quite distressed about this,” Singer said. “I don’t think it represents the Muslim community [in Riverside].”

Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the views expressed by Harmoush, Shahin and others are popular in the Muslim world, no matter how they are interpreted by others.

“These kinds of views have been encouraged by governments for decades in attempts to deflect criticism away from them,” Firestone said. “And there are plenty of harsh statements about Jews in Muslim religious sources that can be harvested when there is an interest in finding scapegoats.”

The challenge now for those who have worked hard to repair and improve relationships, said NewGround’s Hasan, is for religious leaders to hold one another accountable for hateful comments made by their communities but not to let them derail interfaith work.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to have those hard conversations and not sweep things under the rug,” she said.

How Tisha b’Av can help us understand the refugee experience

A young girl waiting in line to pass through a border gate as a small number of Syrian refugees are allowed to return to Syria at the closed Turkish border gate in Killis, Feb. 8, 2016. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

For many Jews, Tisha b’Av is centered around mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. But that interpretation misses out on an important lesson that is made more relevant by recent events, Rabbi David Seidenberg argues.

With the release of a new translation of the Book of Lamentations, the main text read on the annual fast day, the Massachusetts-based rabbi argues that Tisha b’Av, which begins this year on the evening of July 31, provides a powerful way to connect to the refugee experience.

Here’s his translation of chapter 1, verse 3, which depicts a personified Jerusalem in exile:

“She, Judah, was exiled,
by poverty, and by (so) much hard labor
She sat among the nations,
not finding any rest;
All her pursuers caught up with her
between the confined places.”

Seidenberg, who runs the website NeoHasid and is the author of the book “Kabbalah and Ecology,” released a partial translation of the Book of Lamentations in 2007, but the 2017 version is his first complete translation of the text. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the late founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

JTA spoke with Seidenberg about his translation, available for download here, and his thoughts on Tisha b’Av.

JTA: You write that “Tisha b’Av is not primarily about mourning, but about becoming refugees.”

Seidenberg: Jerusalem was a war zone [in 70 C.E.]. People were being killed in the streets. There was a siege, there was famine. Pretty much everyone was turned into a refugee, even the people that were left in Jerusalem, who weren’t exactly refugees, were still in the middle of a war zone and in the middle of violence.

The observances we have on Tisha b’Av, people think of as mourning customs. Of course we are mourning part of what it means to witness death and destruction, but the customs encompass a deeper, broader experience than just simple mourning, and that’s reflected in not washing, not sitting in a chair, which is both a symbol and the experience of not having a place of rest.

There are two ways to approach the whole experience of Tisha b’Av: One is to be empathizing with the nation, in a particularistic way, what happened to the Jews, and that’s an important part of our experience. And of course the other side is to empathize with the experience of what was happening, which is this experience of being refugees, being in a war zone. That would call on us to empathize with a lot of people who are not Jewish and a lot of people who are suffering in the world right now.

How can we reconcile these two perspectives — focusing both on the Jewish and the universal experiences?

The way we can empathize with an experience that is universal to human history of suffering — the consequences of war and exile and being refugees — is by going into our historical experience as Jews. In fact, you can’t really do one without the other.

You can be a liberal middle-class Jew who thinks that they care about refugees and has ideas and values that motivate you to act, but without going into the particularism of what the Jewish people have experienced, you also have a limitation. People have other ways of going into that experience — people go and work at refugee camps, that’s obviously a more direct experience. But for most Jews that aren’t experiencing that directly, one of the most powerful ways to get into that universal experience deeper on a gut level is to go through the particular experiences of the Jewish people in history.

Was the focus on refugees inspired by recent events?

I’ve thought about Tisha b’Av in this way for a good 20 years, but the past few years have really brought it into very stark reality because we see so many images of refugees. The refugee crisis isn’t just affecting us because we hear news, but it has also poisoned our political process, the rhetoric against refugees, not just in the United States but in many European countries. We’re living in this reality where if we don’t empathize with this experience, which is a human experience, people tend to go to opposite sides and dehumanize people who are in this crisis, and to reject them.

Rabbi David Seidenberg (Courtesy of Seidenberg)

Now that Jews have the State of Israel and can visit Jerusalem freely, what is the relevance of Tisha b’Av?

If we accept the rabbinic understanding of what Tisha b’Av is, it’s not that a foreign power conquered Jerusalem, it’s that Jerusalem undermined itself, hollowed itself out, by violating basic moral principles of what it means to have a good, fair society, so that it was already destroyed from within before it was destroyed from without. According to tradition, the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry and murder, and the Second Temple was destroyed because of people hating each other in their hearts, ‘sinat hinam,’ which is a much subtler way of thinking of how a society gets undermined.

If we want to nominate any society in which sinat hinam is an endemic, deep problem, particularly with the polarization of right and left, Israel would be at the top of a list of nominees. I don’t wish to be partisan, but I think sometimes you can’t help it. The right-wing parties that are in control of Israel’s government have put a lot of energy into anathematizing, into demonizing, people on the left. And I think there’s hatred in many directions in Israel, but also the hatred against Jews from some quarters of Palestinian society and the hatred against Arabs and Palestinians from some quarters in Israeli Jewish society is lethal.

What’s different in this translation?

There’s a general idea of how to translate called idiomatic translation, which says that when you translate something from one language to another, when it goes from Hebrew to English, it should sound like idiomatic English, it shouldn’t sound weird or funny, it shouldn’t be in the word order or syntax of Hebrew, and that’s what the [Jewish Publication Society’s], which is the most common translation, is based on.

What that misses is the texture of the Hebrew, and so much of the feeling and emotional depth is in the texture, not just in the words, and so much of it is in the relationship between different words, because every biblical text is commentary on other biblical texts, and when a word uses the same root there’s a connection between those sources. Rabbinic Judaism is based on this midrashic idea that all of the Bible is commentary on the other parts of it.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How the Dems can lose 2018

Activist Linda Sarsour in New York City on June 29. Photo by Joe Penney/Reuters

Last week, the Democrats released a new bumper sticker for their 2018 Congressional campaign: “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”

It’s not a bad political notion so far as it goes — opposition in politics is an effective tool, as Democrats learned from Republicans, who campaigned against Obamacare and Democratic spending policies to the tune of 1,000 state legislature seats, 12 governorships (including in states such as Michigan and Massachusetts), 10 Senate seats and 63 House seats. Now Democrats hope to reverse the math.

But there’s something else going on here, too. Democrats hope that campaigning as #TheResistance will suffice to prevent voters from looking too hard at their own moral and political shortcomings. That’s because for all the talk by Democrats about Republican extremism, Republicans actually have moved closer to the center on policy, while Democrats have embraced an ugly combination of Bernie Sanders-style socialism and college campus-style intersectionality.

Leave aside the boorish antics of President Donald Trump and the incompetence of Congressional Republicans. Here is the fact: Trump is the most moderate Republican president since Richard Nixon. He has successfully passed almost no major policy in seven months. His foreign policy on North Korea and Syria is barely distinguishable from former President Barack Obama’s. His approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been praised by Palestinians and former Obama officials. He’s the most pro-LGBT Republican in presidential history; his stance on abortion has been vague; his White House chief strategist has openly embraced higher taxes on upper-income earners, as well as a massive infrastructure spending program; he has embraced the central premises of Obamacare. Trump may act in ridiculous ways that defy rationality — his Twitter feed is littered with stupidity and aggression, of course — but on policy, Trump is closer to Bill Clinton of 1997 than President Obama was.

Democrats, meanwhile, are moving hard to the left. When former Clinton adviser Mark Penn wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling for Democrats to move back to the center, he was roundly excoriated by the leading thinkers in the Democratic Party. He was an emissary of the past; he had to embrace the new vision of the leftist future. That leftist future involved radical tax increases, fully nationalized health care, and — most of all — the divisive politics of intersectionality. Sens. Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) may own the policy side of the Democratic coalition, but the heart of the Democratic coalition lies in polarization by race, sex and sexual orientation. Forget a cohesive national message that appeals to Americans regardless of tribal identity: The new Democratic Party cares only about uniting disparate identity factions under the banner of opposing Republicanism.

The clearest evidence for that alliance of convenience came earlier this month, when Democratic darling and Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour was caught on tape promoting “jihad” against Trump. Sarsour said that the sort of “jihad” she liked was “a word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader.” But she deliberately used the word “jihad” because of its ambiguity, not in spite of it: Sarsour has stated that pro-Israel women cannot be feminists; she supports the imposition of “Shariah law” in Muslim countries; she has stated of dissident and female genital mutilation victim Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she wishes she could take her “vagina away”; she has long associated with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood; she opened her “jihad” speech by thanking Siraj Wajjah, an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who has repeatedly advocated for a violent form of “jihad.”

Democrats hope that campaigning as #TheResistance will suffice to prevent voters from looking too hard at their own moral and political shortcomings.

Democrats rushed to her defense nonetheless, hoping to preserve the intersectional concerns that animate their base. Never mind that Sarsour is no ally to LGBT rights, or that she blames “Zionists” for her problems. She represents an important constituency for Democrats, and so she must be protected. More than that, she speaks anti-Trumpese fluently, and thus is an important figure for Democrats.

This isn’t rare on the left anymore. Much of the Democratic establishment supported Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a longtime Nation of Islam acolyte who spent years defending that group’s most extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric — a man so radical that he openly associated with the Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which recently labeled Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) an “Israel Firster.”

Even as the Democratic Party embraced Sarsour and defended her ambiguous use of the word “jihad” — after all, she was opposing Trump the Impaler — leftist spokespeople rushed to microphones to denounce President Trump’s speech in Poland, in which he called for a defense of “the West” and “our civilization.” Leftist columnist Peter Beinart labeled the speech racist. As Jonah Goldberg of National Review points out, we now have a Democratic Party that spends its time defending the use of the word “jihad” against the president but labeling the phrase “the West” a problem.

Bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see how it works out.

And so Democrats must focus on President Trump. They must hope that he smacks himself in the face with a frying pan. They must bank on some sort of Trump-Russia collusion revelation. They must pray that the focus stays on Republicans rather than turning back to Democrats. After all, Sanders-Sarsour doesn’t sound like a winning combination.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”