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

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


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.

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

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


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.”

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

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


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.”

Photo from Flickr/nrkbeta.

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


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:

Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Youssef Boudlal


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

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

The Other Russia Mystery


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.

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

ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Uses Pipe Bomb to Attack NYC


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 appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

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


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.

Screenshot from Twitter

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


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.

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

Kurdish Independence Movement Deserves the Support of Western Nations


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.

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.

5777: Coping with a year of rage


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.

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

Reports: Israel bombs chemical weapons factory in Syria


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 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.

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


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.

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

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


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.”

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.

When Raqqa falls: the Syrian war after the Islamic State


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.

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

Rex Tillerson: US wants Iran out of Syria


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.

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

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


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.)

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

How the Dems can lose 2018


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.”

Via Souad Mekhennet/Facebook

A crash course in extremism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is: To what end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctors and nurses at a hospital in Idlib hold up a Save the Syrian Children banner after receiving medical supplies from Tamar and Philip Koosed in March. Photos courtesy of Philip Koosed

Couple devises DIY method of getting critical medical supplies into Syria


It was midday in China, early morning in Syria and dusk in Los Angeles — time for Philip and Tamar Koosed to get to work.

Each night in their San Fernando Valley home, they say goodnight to their children, Asher, 3, and Itzhak, 1, then turn to a do-it-yourself operation that is saving lives daily halfway around the world in Syria.

With no staff and virtually no overhead, they have stitched together a network of doctors, suppliers and shippers to send medical aid to the war-torn provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.

Working from a wish list provided by the doctors they work with, the Kooseds source the goods either from Chinese factories or in-kind donations from medical companies. In just more than a year, they have moved more than $20 million in medical supplies, working from their home office in Sherman Oaks.

The need is unrelenting. Now in its sixth year, the Syrian civil war has displaced some 12 million people and trapped hundreds of thousands more in war zones. Idlib and Aleppo have been the sites of intense bombing by the Syrian government, which uses munitions designed to maximize civilian casualties. Throughout the persistent conflict, humanitarian groups have faced a gamut of obstacles, from cities besieged and choked off by militants to a government that allegedly targets medical workers intentionally. 

“Our focus is extremely narrow,” Philip said. “How do we provide doctors with lifesaving medical supplies, medical equipment and save as many children as possible?”

The couple’s own children are a major motivation for their work.

“There’s not a time in which I see an image of a 3-year-old and I don’t see my own 3-year-old,” Philip said, sitting nex to Tamar in their living room, “or see a 1-year-old being pulled from the rubble and think, ‘That could be my own son.’ ”

“It’s so transparent that we’re just lucky,” Tamar added. “Like Asher and Itzhak were born to us — but they could have been born in Aleppo. It’s just pure luck.”

‘Two naïve Jews from the Valley’

Philip described their effort as “two naïve Jews from the Valley, trying to save the world in Syria.” The reality is more complex.

Philip, 34, grew up in the San Fernando Valley before co-founding what would become a multimillion-dollar supply-chain management firm while he was an undergraduate at USC. Tamar, 33, runs a consultancy that assesses the impact of social investments by nonprofits and businesses around the world. They didn’t know it at the start, but their skills and contacts were well-suited to saving lives.

From left: Philip and Tamar Koosed and their sons, Asher, 3, and Itzhak, 1.

By June 2016, the couple, who met at USC, had made donations to aid groups in increments of $50 or $100, sometimes more, but they remained largely aloof. “We actively chose to be numb,” Philip said. “I think you kind of have to do that to a certain extent to live.”

The onslaught of horrific images from Syria began to weigh on them. It became the subject of their bedtime conversations, night after night.

Philip and his business partner recently had sold their supply-chain management business for $30 million — though Philip still is the company’s president — and the couple was looking to make a onetime sizable donation and move on with their lives. But they were underwhelmed by their donation options.

“You see Doctors Without Borders, and you see the number of [medical] kits they’re able to send into those areas, it’s something like 800 kits they’re able to get in,” Tamar said. “You see that they’re having a really difficult time.”

With Philip’s manufacturing contacts and Tamar’s involvement with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), they figured they could do better. They hatched a plan to reach out to doctors in Syria to assess their needs, then build a supply chain to meet them.

“Anybody else that would have come to me and said, ‘So, we’re starting to send medical supplies inside of Syria,’ I would have looked at them like they had three heads,” said Mike Brand, director of programs and advocacy for Jewish World Watch (JWW), an Encino-based anti-genocide organization.

Brand had worked with Tamar over the years and was impressed by Philip’s background. Unlike multinational humanitarian organizations, the couple had no red tape or bureaucratic delay to deal with.

“A lot of bigger NGOs don’t have the ability to find locals and just have them take care of stuff,” Brand said. “It’s just not how they operate.”

The couple got to work. By March, less than a year after they started, trucks rolled from Turkey into Syria bearing banners with the name of their fledgling organization, Save the Syrian Children, depositing medical supplies in hospitals across Idlib and Aleppo.

Call for support is answered

At first, most of the work for Tamar and Philip was vetting doctors and hospitals in Syria thoroughly to make sure they were who they said they were, and not the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the jihadist group known as the Al-Nusra Front. “There are a lot of bad actors in Syria,” Philip said.

Finding doctors on the internet or through Tamar’s contacts, they cross-referenced each of their identities with sources inside and outside Syria.

Once they had vetted the doctors and assessed their needs, the next step was to build a supply chain from China to Syria. That was the easy part — building supply chains literally is Philip’s job. “It’s what I do every day and what I have done for the last 17 years,” he said.

For the first six or seven months, they didn’t think about how they were going to pay for the supplies they were shipping. By December, the goods were being loaded onto a 40-foot shipping container in Shanghai.

“The goods were about to ship, and we were like, ‘OK, we’re $100,000 on the hook, we better start talking to people about this,’ ” Tamar said. 

They put out the word, with Philip’s sisters helping on social media. They didn’t know what kind of response they would get.

“To a person, everyone said, ‘How can we help?’ ” Philip said. “I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was surprising.”

His network at Stephen Wise Temple proved to be of particular help. Philip had attended the day school there — it’s where he first met the co-founder of his supply-chain business — and his parents were longtime members of the temple.

At a synagogue event a few months after the Kooseds’ plan began to take shape, Philip and his father ran into Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback. Philip told Zweiback what he was working on.

“I was just really blown away,” the rabbi said.

The Kooseds were looking for a fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit organization that could accept tax-deductible donations on the couple’s behalf and channel the money into buying more supplies. In rabbinic school, Zweiback had started an organization called Kavod, whose purpose is to funnel money from donors to qualified charities. It was exactly what Tamar and Philip needed, sparing them precious time in obtaining nonprofit status.

“If they had to wait six or 12 months to do this, that would mean four shipments they couldn’t make,” Zweiback said. “And that would mean children that can’t have access to basic medical supplies.”

Zweiback helped the Kooseds put an appeal in the temple newsletter. Soon, word of their activism spread beyond the synagogue.

This month, JWW finalized a grant to allow the couple to ship a container of medical goods to Syria on its behalf.

“Nobody has called Syria a genocide per se yet, but it certainly has moved in the direction of the most horrific violence,” said Susan Freudenheim, JWW’s executive director. “We don’t want to take sides in this; we just want to help save lives.”

Though Freudenheim declined to provide the dollar amount of the grant, she said it was enough to fill a 40-foot container with supplies, slated to be filled and shipped in July. She said JWW was attracted to the project because of its low overhead, the cut-rate cost of goods Philip is able to acquire and the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“We’re talking about the equivalent of a garage band,” Freudenheim said. “These people are very, very devoted to what they’re doing.”

The couple also reached out to their professional networks.

Sue Chen, CEO of Carson-based Nova Medical Products, heard about the couple’s work through an email they sent out to members of the Santa Monica Bay chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a business networking group.

“I wrote them [back] at 2 o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t wait,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, and I was like, ‘I have to be involved.’ ”

Nova specializes in products that help people with physical challenges or disabilities maintain independence and mobility. In April, two containers donated by Nova left the port of Long Beach with canes, wheelchairs and crutches, along with thousands of items of clothing and canned food donated by the company’s employees. The shipment was expected to arrive this month.

“Thousands of people are dragging themselves around to get from point A to B to try to somehow go on with life, and I have products that are sitting here right now that could change their entire world,” Chen said. She told herself, “I’ve got to get this product over there as soon as possible.”

Working with ‘real heroes’

Tamar was born in a small city in Brazil, where much of her family still lives. She communicates with them through WhatsApp and Telegram — the same technology she uses to talk to doctors in Syria.

Each morning, after working well past midnight, the couple gets up with their kids at around 6:30 a.m.

“I wake up to messages from my family in Brazil and from doctors in Syria,” Tamar said.

Their long nights have begun to pay off for people in Syria. Their first shipment, distributed to 28 hospitals in Idlib and Aleppo, included 200,000 surgical masks, 800,000 pieces of gauze and 150,000 surgical blades.

Each step of the shipping and distribution, from crossing the Turkish border to ripping open boxes in hospitals, is documented carefully at the couple’s request. They also ask doctors to shoot video testimonials about the materials they receive.

“We hope that you continue to support us, as it is impossible for us to get medical supplies as we are trapped here in Idlib,” one doctor, who asked to remain unnamed for security reasons, said on video after receiving supplies from the first shipment.

After a gas attack in April that killed dozens of people, the Kooseds launched an emergency appeal and outfitted hospitals in the war zone with hazmat kits to keep doctors safe as they treated patients who might carry the residue of harmful chemicals.

Two Syrian children embrace in a memorial photograph. Photographs such as these sometimes circulate in Idlib and Aleppo after children die in gas or bomb attacks.

The requests have become more specific and complicated as doctors have grown to trust the couple, and vice versa. The Kooseds have shipped X-ray and electrocardiogram machines, costly medications and a cranial drill for neurosurgery.

Dr. Omar, a neurosurgeon in Idlib who asked that his surname not be used for security reasons, said in an email to the Journal, “The hospital I am working in now has received a lot of the lifesaving medical supplies. These supplies also have been delivered to about 30 hospitals in the area of Idlib province. Philip and I have been working on special orders for brain surgery and other special surgeries, as well.”

In total, the Kooseds have delivered five shipments, with another three en route and two more planned. They estimate their aid has amounted to more than $21 million worth of goods. But the couple still feels that their work is merely a footnote to the heroic daily efforts of the surgeons and other medical staff they work with in Syria.

“We’re trying to help real heroes on the ground and real victims,” Philip said. “That’s all we’re really doing and, I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel special. It’s something that anyone can do. The first step is just doing something.”

For more information on Save the Syrian Children, go to SavetheSyrianChildren.org

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, arrive in the Fardos neighbourhood after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters, on Dec. 13, 2016. Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Israel reportedly is secretly aiding Syrian rebels along Golan border


Israel has been secretly providing aid to Syrian rebels on the border in the Golan Heights for several years, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The aid includes cash, as well as food, fuel and medical supplies, the newspaperreported in an article that first appeared on its website Sunday night. The story cited interviews with about half a dozen Syrian fighters.

The Israeli army is in regular communication with rebel groups and its financial assistance helps pay the salaries of fighters and buy ammunition and weapons, according to the report. In addition, Israel has established a military unit that oversees the support in Syria.

Rebels and the military loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have been fighting since 2011 in a civil war that at times has spilled over into Israeli territory with errant fire. The Israeli military has responded to the rocket and artillery fire that landed on Israel’s side of the Golan Heights.

Israel has acknowledged treating thousands of Syrians injured in the war, both on the border and in hospitals in the north of the country, as well as providing some humanitarian aid to civilians living near the border, including food and clothing.

Israel’s military neither confirmed nor denied The Wall Street Journal report, telling the newspaper that the Israel Defense Forces is “committed to securing the borders of Israel and preventing the establishment of terror cells and hostile forces … in addition to providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians living in the area.”

The fighters interviewed for the story told Journal reporters that the Quneitra-based group Fursan al-Joulan, which means Knights of the Golan, is the main rebel group coordinating with Israel, which first made contact with the Israeli military in 2013 when Israel cared for some of its fighters. Its spokesman told the Journal that “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” and “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.”

Israel, which captured and annexed the Golan Heights in 1967, reportedly is concerned about a permanent Iranian and Hezbollah presence at its border under Assad, and that Iran would transport weapons to be used against Israel to Hezbollah military bases in southern Lebanon and the Syrian side of the Golan. Israel in recent years has bombed such arms shipments, leading to accusations that it was involving itself in the civil war.

The Highs and Lows of Paris


I have spent the past 12 days in Europe with my son. He went to Greece and Italy, then joined me in London and Paris. It was a wonderful holiday and watching the joy and wonder on his face as he discovered parts of the world he has always wanted to see, was everything. Thanks to Facetime, he was able to take me along on his adventure and it was spectacular.  I will treasure this time together always.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris and spent 28 hours walking everywhere. We strolled endlessly and saw amazing things. We had lunch atop the Eiffel Tower, ate crepes under the Arc de Triomphe, drank wine on the Champs-Elysses, and said a prayer at Notre Dame. It was magical and that I shared it with my beloved boy was special. I am the mother of a remarkable human being.

I look at the pictures today and I smile because it was a great trip, but also because there is proof of the trip. When my son was young there were no selfies, just me and a camera. I have a ton pf pictures of my son growing up, but very few of us together. I was always taking the pictures, so the shots of us are limited. It is sad, but makes the pictures I’m able to take now even more important.

I look at the pictures from Paris and can remember what we were talking about as we strolled along. It was very special and I am happy that when my son visits Paris again with his wife, or takes his children, he will be able to tell them that he went there with his mother for the first time, and is happy to share it with them now. Perhaps that is silly, but it matters to me that we build a history together.

I cannot think about our time in Paris and not think of the unbearable sadness we also saw. No matter where we went, there were Syrian families on the streets. Mother and fathers with their young children, looking broken, but hopeful. They would smile and one could see the pain and humiliation in their eyes, while also seeing the hope and relief. It was tragic and demands serious attention.

Watching a woman breastfeed her baby on the street, surrounded by wealth, when it is clear she needs a shower and a meal herself, is heartbreaking. In what world does it make sense that living on the street with your children is safer than living in your home? We live in a time when we can see everything that is going on in the world, but when you see it in person, it touches your heart in a different way.

Paris is the most romantic city in the world. From every location, every direction, every time of day, there is no view that is not beautiful. It is a city that inspires love, and she has now inspired me to be more loving. Me and my son left Paris wanting to do more, wanting to help, wanting to not pretend that the problems of the world are not also our problems. We need to make changes, quickly.

I am inspired by my son’s view of the world and the work that needs to be done.  Paris was the highlight of my trip for a lot of reasons. I saw my son as man, not a boy. I looked into the eyes of a woman sitting in the street and heard her ask for help, even though she never spoke. I was inspired to not only appreciate the love I have, but want to spread it. Paris has demanded that I keep the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, arrive in the Fardos neighbourhood after regime troops retook the area from rebel fighters, on Dec. 13, 2016. Photo by Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s alleged crematorium ‘invokes worst nightmares of Nazi atrocities,’ ADL chief says


The head of the Anti-Defamation League drew parallels between Syria’s alleged use of a crematorium to dispose of bodies to actions committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s national director, also called on the international community, including Russia, to take action to stop the violence perpetuated by the Syrian government under the leadership of President Bashar Assad.

“As Jews, we are particularly shocked by the extreme brutality of the Syrian regime, which invokes the worst nightmares of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people,” Greenblatt said Tuesday in a statement. “The world learned from the twentieth century that it did not do enough to stop the crimes of the Nazis which led to the genocide of six million Jews.

“The nations of the world — including first and foremost Russia, which continues to aid and abet Assad’s brutality — must act to put an end to the inhumane actions of the Syrian government.”

On Monday, the United States said it believes the Syrian government built a crematorium to cover up the killing of as many as 50 detainees a day at a prison north of Damascus.

“Although the regime’s many atrocities are well-documented, we believe the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass atrocities taking place in Saydnaya prison,” said Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, according to CNN.

Jones added: “We are appalled by the atrocities taking place in Syria” with the “seemingly unconditional support of Russia.”

The U.S. Holocaust Museum in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon said it welcomed the release of the previously classified imagery pointing to the alleged crematorium.

Photographs of torture and death in by Syrian security forces in secret facilities have been on display at the museum since 2015; the photos were taken by a former regime photographer code-named Caesar. “These photographs constitute the most comprehensive evidence of the regime’s widespread and systematic targeting of Syrian civilians,” the museum said in its statement.

“The State Department’s revelation that the regime is now taking extraordinary efforts to cover up its crimes, through the suspected use of crematoria, demonstrate why it is all the more important to redouble efforts to bring the conflict to an end and investigate, document, and hold accountable those who direct and carry out these widespread atrocities,” according to the statement.

Lynne Silbert (left) and Ada Horwich with a Syrian child at a refugee center in Greece. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

How to help save Syrians


Why did we go?
As images of the Syrian refugee crisis played out on our TV and computer screens, we, like so many people, felt helpless and horrified. 

We wanted to help, and fortunately for us, we knew where to turn.

Both of us had met Yotam Polizer, co-chief executive of IsraAID, Israel’s largest humanitarian nongovernmental organization. Working with Muslims, Christians and Jews, IsraAID has provided lifesaving disaster relief and long-term support in nearly every humanitarian crisis of the 21st century — setting a good example for Israel in the process.

The group currently is working in 17 areas of the world, including South Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Colombia, Peru and Greece, where Syrian refugees are landing to flee a civil war now in its sixth year.

IsraAID has been working in Greece since September of 2015.  By now, fighting between the Syrian government and opposition groups has resulted in the deaths of 470,000, by some estimates, and displacement of over 6 million more, according to the United Nations. Greece has become a primary way station, from where refugees hold out hope that they will reach Germany, a “promised land” of sorts that has absorbed the most Syrian immigrants — more than 600,000 — among all countries in Western Europe.

As mothers, grandmothers and psychotherapists, we fell in love with IsraAID’s mission to respond immediately to people facing natural or man-made disasters, even those from countries like Syria that have declared Israel its enemy.

Polizer invited us to see firsthand the magnitude of the crises and the work IsraAID has been doing in Greece.  And, because of our training, we were asked to be consultants to the staff for the eight days we visited. IsraAID has sent 120 Arab and Jewish-Israeli professionals to provide support for the refugees, focusing on long-term trauma counseling for about 750 refugees.

IsraAID works in seven refugee shelters and camps around Greece, providing psycho-social support through therapeutic groups for women, men, children and adolescents, as well as individual counseling and specialty needs for others, such as art therapy for women and children.

Most organizations either save lives or change lives. IsraAID does both. Polizer invited us to visit IsraAID’s project in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece, which has a long Jewish history. There, at the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, we met members of his team: Sigalit, a Jewish Arabic-speaking psychotherapist; Anat, a Jewish Arabic-speaking art therapist; and Khaled, an Arab-Israeli occupational therapist.

We visited three sites where the refugee families are housed: An abandoned high-rise, a rundown hotel in the countryside and a converted factory with no private kitchen or toilet facilities. Each site is supported by NGOs from Greece, Italy, Great Britain and elsewhere, offering various services, such as facility management, facility construction, education and recreation.

All the refugees in Thessaloniki had arrived by boat after observing drownings and illnesses on their journey from Syria. After first living in tents, suffering a terribly cold winter, they were moved to more “permanent” shelters, like the ones we worked in. Most of the families were not intact, separations caused by deaths and relocation: three or four children with no father, fathers with no children, children with no mother.

What did we do?

On days that we were with children, we observed their need for attention and affection and an eagerness to learn English, play, do art projects, dance and throw around balls. We spent hours facilitating play and communication skills as children described their treacherous sea journey by holding their tummies and pretending to shiver.

We sat in women’s groups led by Anat and Sigalit. As they slowly built up trust, the women became open to new challenges facing them: How to parent in new lands with new cultures, how to encourage education for their children, and how to speak up for their needs and express their feelings. Some of the mothers even forgot how to play with their children. The leaders helped them to remember.

We watched Khaled, age 26, who did not appear old enough to be a father but was old enough to reach the adolescent boys, helping them to express their feelings and cope with undue stress and aggression. Without speaking the language, we recognized in the boys hope, excitement and connections. For instance, Amid, 12, began the session sitting apart from the other boys but with Khaled’s skills and encouragement, moved next to another boy and even left the session speaking with some of the other kids.

Often, we were invited in for a cup of tea with the families in their meager surroundings. Despite their circumstances, their culture of hospitality remained.

We met Fatima from Aleppo, a mother of four. Her youngest child is only a year old and has never met her father. He was able to relocate to Germany and hoped that would hasten the family’s permission to move there. So far, there is no indication that the move will happen. While Fatima attended a women’s group, we sat with her children and played games.

Each refugee family is given an allowance for food and necessities, and Fatima’s small apartment was immaculate despite her limited resources. Due to traumatic experiences walking from Syria to Turkey and crossing the water in a dangerous lifeboat, she insisted her children stay inside. We had hoped to take them outside to meet others, but she was too frightened.

Susi, 7, was living in the rundown hotel with a depressed aunt and her father, whose culture did not teach him parenting skills. Her mother relocated to Germany, hoping to speed the family’s reunification. Susi was in perpetual motion due to her high level of stress, depression and separation anxiety caused by being away from her mother. She hugged us as we entered the grounds, pulling us away from others in a desperate attempt to find comfort and affection. When we had to leave, Susi ran after us and jumped into the car. Our hearts were broken, not knowing what to do. We drove away but the sad memory has stayed with us.

Mohammed, 16, was living in the concrete factory. We first saw him body-building in a parking lot. Although he looked quite healthy as the leader of a group of adolescent boys, led by Khaled, we learned later that he has had two heart surgeries since arriving by lifeboat.

As we observed him in the group, we realized Mohammed’s anger and aggression were transformed into leadership and role-modeling. It was hard to imagine that he recuperated in this rundown facility without private bathrooms and quiet surroundings. We couldn’t help but wonder what his future will be. We pray for his future.

Realizing the need for important supplies, we went shopping and bought personal items for the women, formula and diapers for the babies, and soccer balls and art supplies for the children. We also bought colorful wooden chairs to add to the community’s limited supply. IsraAID distributed the items for us.

As these families wait for relocation, which may take one or two more years, if ever, we felt grateful for the work of IsraAID in making the delay less difficult.

There are many reasons to despair while watching the darkness descending on Syria. But don’t ignore the light.

People watch the Israeli Air Force planes fly in formation over the Mediterranean Sea on May 2. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Daily Kickoff: Experts downplay expectations for Trump’s Abbas meeting | Ivanka’s West Wing agenda | Wilbur Ross calls Syria strikes ‘entertainment’


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HAPPENING TODAY — In public debut, F-35 jets streak over Israel for Independence Day: “Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jets soared above cities throughout Israel on Tuesday for the country’s annual Independence Day flyover, marking the first time the public got a look at the Air Force’s state-of-the-art plane. Israel is the first country outside the United States to receive the state-of-the-art F-35, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. In total, the country is planning to purchase 50 of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft, known in Israel as the “Adir,” or “mighty one,” and has thus far received five of them.” [ToI]

“UNESCO disavows Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem in 22-10 vote” by Tovah Lazaroff, Herb Keinon: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Tuesday’s “absurd” 22-10 UNESCO vote disavowing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem still represents a positive diplomatic change: more states abstained or supported Israel than voted against… According to Israeli officials, Germany was a driving force behind a deal that would see all EU states abstain in exchange for the removal of the most incendiary anti-Israel passages. But on Monday, Italy announced that it would vote against the resolution, apparently ending the effort to forge a European consensus.” [JPost; ToI]

“Why Israel Got Into a Dust-Up With Germany” by Daniel Gordis: “Most Israelis are keenly aware that without the IDF, they would not survive. Of all weeks of the year, this was certainly not the moment for a German to come to Israel to meet with an organization that most Israelis believe wants to make Jews vulnerable once again.” [Bloomberg]

“Every Senator Agrees the U.N. Must Change” by Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio: “As both the U.N.’s principal founding member and its largest financial contributor, the U.S. must insist on real reforms. We in Congress have a responsibility to conduct rigorous oversight of U.S. engagement at the U.N. and its use of our citizens’ tax dollars… Still, the U.N. continues to fund and maintain many standing committees that serve no purpose other than to attack Israel and inspire the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. These committees must be eliminated or reformed.” [WSJ

TAYLOR FORCE ACT — “Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton write to Trump that the PA is no partner for peace with Israel as long as it’s ‘spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year funding and incentivizing terror'” [Haaretz; FreeBeacon]

DRIVING THE WEEK — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered no clarity at yesterday’s press briefing about Trump’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ahead of the Trump-Abbas meeting on Wednesday. “The President’s ultimate goal is to establish peace in the region,” he asserted. “That’s obviously the goal and the discussion that he’s going to have with the head of the Palestinian Authority. But that’s going to be a relationship that he continues to work on and build with the ultimate goal that there’s peace in that region between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Asked about newly announced Israeli settlement building in E. Jerusalem,Spicer said, “I’m sure that we’ll continue to have conversations with the Prime Minister and — I’m not going to — that will be something that President will continue to discuss.” [CSPANA possible announcement about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem “is still being discussed by staff,” added Spicer.

YESTERDAY IN DC — Washington Institute (WINEP) panel calls for lowering expectations from Trump-Abbas meeting — by Aaron Magid: “In spite of the sudden spate of optimism that the Trump administration can do it, I would argue no major breakthrough is available now. No lack of effort or shortage of time prevented the deal so far during the many years since Oslo,” explained Channel 2 Arab Affairs analyst Ehud Ya’ari. “[Abbas] is not the man who is going to sign the deal giving up on the return of many, many refugees. Embarking upon a final status effort is going to once again backfire. It is simply not there now. Therefore, the big question is whether the Trump administration will come to the table with a fallback, which can only be some version of a comprehensive interim (deal).”

Trump’s approach to the meeting with Abbas “needs to be in the first instance to demonstrate the difference from Obama,” argued Ambassador Dennis Ross. “The one thing that can’t be the result of this meeting is that Abbas leaves and feels it’s ok to say no to Trump. He needs to understand that when you say no to Trump, you pay a price.”

At the same time, WINEP Fellow Ghaith Omari advocated that the Trump administration adopt a nuanced approach when setting the goals for the meeting. “If President Trump asks for too much and too quickly, Abbas might shut down and he might retreat to preserve his domestic standing and nothing will come out of the meeting,” Omari said. “On the other hand, if the President asks for too little and is willing to engage on a diplomatic process with no preparation, we might end up with a very familiar story with a peace process where neither or one of the sides is willing or able to reach a deal, and we are just being strung along.” [JewishInsider]

“Can Trump Make Mideast Peace Without Gaza?” by Grant Rumley: “Any feasible peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians will require serious concessions from both sides. And no Palestinian leader sitting in the West Bank can compromise on the most sensitive issues in Palestinian politics – the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc. – while a rival party controls half the territory of a future Palestinian state… Rather than ignoring Hamas, the U.S. can support a political process that not only diminishes the terror group’s standing but also gives the more pragmatic (albeit flawed) Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority a chance at re-establishing a legitimate claim to Gaza in future negotiations.” [Politico] • In Palestinian Power Struggle, Hamas Moderates Talk on Israel [NYTimes]

“What Trump’s meeting with Abbas means for the Middle East” by Aaron David Miller: “The bottom line on the Abbas meeting — like the Netanyahu visit in February — is that for now the emperor (in this case the peace process) has no clothes. It’s not yet ready for prime time. So whatever Trump’s strategy, and it’s not at all clear he has yet developed one, this meeting with Abbas and the Palestinians will be the first of many if the President is serious about involving his administration in a peacemaking effort.” [CNN]

SPOTLIGHT: “Trump’s Israel-Palestine Negotiator Isn’t Qualified — And that might be exactly why he pulls off a peace deal” by Armin Rosen: “[Jason] Greenblatt is only in the world of Middle East diplomacy because his longtime boss was elected president, but in the context of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, the appearance of favoritism might actually help him… It’s harder to stall an envoy, or to go behind the envoy’s back and appeal to other, friendlier administration officials or congressional allies, when the sides believe that the mediator is a direct extension of the president… Greenblatt is about as personally close to the president as someone in his position could be. And Trump has been remarkably and even uncharacteristically consistent on Israeli-Palestinian peace… Closeness with an engaged president is a powerful tool for an envoy — as long as there’s a policy vision and a sustained commitment from the Oval Office underlying his work.” [FP

“Rodrigo Duterte Says He May Be Too Busy for White House Visit” by Felipe Villamor: “President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said on Monday that he might not accept President Trump’s invitation to visit the White House, because he was “tied up” with a busy schedule… “I’m supposed to go to Russia, I’m also supposed to go to Israel.”[NYTimes

“Trump’s warm words for strongmen set off alarms” by Annie Karni: “We’ve always had relationships with governments that are problematic, but we hold them accountable on it and we don’t lavish them with praise this way,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official under John Kerry… “It completely undercuts our soft power our influence and our credibility as the leader of the free world… The fear of complicating relationships with the United States acts as a restraint — when Trump lavishes this praise, he implies there is no restraint.” [Politico]

“Ivanka Trump’s West Wing Agenda” by Jodi Kantor, Rachel Abrams and Maggie Haberman: “Ms. Trump is her father’s all-around West Wing confidante… The two trade thoughts from morning until late at night, according to aides. Even though she has no government or policy experience, she plans to review some executive orders before they are signed, according to White House officials. She calls cabinet officials on issues she is interested in, recently asking the United Nations ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, about getting humanitarian aid into Syria. She set up a weekly meeting with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary… Sometimes she seeks out Mr. Trump, telling other staff members, “I need 10 minutes alone with my father.” “A lot of their real interactions happen when it’s just the two of them,” Jared Kushner, Ms. Trump’s husband and fellow aide, said in a telephone interview.” [NYTimes]

“Trump Adviser Jared Kushner Didn’t Disclose Startup Stake” by Jean Eaglesham, Juliet Chung and Lisa Schwartz: “Mr. Kushner’s stake in Cadre — a tech startup that pairs investors with big real-estate projects – means the senior White House official is currently a business partner of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and billionaires including George Soros and Peter Thiel, according to people close to the company. The Cadre stake is one of many interests — and ties to large financial institutions — that Mr. Kushner didn’t identify on his disclosure form, according to a Wall Street Journal review of securities and other filings.” [WSJ]

ON THE HILL — “Senate panel puts Russia sanctions bill on hold” by Karoun Demirjian: “The committee’s ranking Democrat, Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), had hoped that the Russia sanctions bill would advance to a vote alongside compromise legislation to impose stricter sanctions against Iran over a spate of recent ballistic missile tests and the activities of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps… That Iran sanctions bill — compromise legislation that Corker and Cardin unveiled in March after more than eight months of wrangling — could be voted on by the full Senate later this month, Corker said… The Senate does not go on an extended break again until the week of Memorial Day, and Corker said Monday that the Iran sanctions bill “could move at the end of this work period.”” [WashPost

LongRead — FRENCH ELECTIONS: “The Future of Europe Hinges on a Face-Off in France” by Lauren Collins: “I wandered away and started talking to a woman wearing a quilted leather jacket and lots of mascara. “I adore Marine!” she said, identifying herself as Michèle… She had high hopes for the election, particularly after what had happened in America. “Bravo, bravo for Trump!” she said. She was unimpressed by Macron, whom she called “a little opportunistic asshole.” She asked if I knew that he was “a Rothschild banker” (Macron worked for the firm from 2008 to 2012, earning around a million dollars a year), invoking a slur—I heard it repeated over and over, and not just by F.N. supporters—that seemed laser-targeted toward some primal place in the French imagination, where a fondness for conspiracy theory intersected with a suspicion of high finance. “Rothschild banker” suggested, without having to say it, that Jewish influence was at work, making it all the more irresistible for the Front National.” [NewYorker

** Good Tuesday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email Editor@JewishInsider.com **

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Interview with Mitchell Davidson, Managing Partner of Post Capital Partners [LinkedIn] • David Geffen Sells Malibu Home for Record $85 Million[THR] • Media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC to buy Angie’s list [Reuters] • Chinese tycoon who sought stake in Kushner property faces scrutiny [BostonGlobe]

HEARD AT THE MILKEN GLOBAL CONFERENCE — White House advisor Reed Cordish discussed the administration’s plans for workforce development: “We’re going to retrain America to take on the new jobs we need.” Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was also on the panel, appeared to endorse the idea. [Pic]

Via the Jewish Journal’s Ryan Torok who is covering Milken this week: At the conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke of the effectiveness of policy implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations or countries sponsoring terrorism, including Iran. “These sanctions really do work [on countries such as Syria],” he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact and I think you saw this in the case of Iran. The only reason Iran came to the table to negotiate was because of economic sanctions on them,” he said, “and that’s what created the incentive.””

“Wilbur Ross Says Syria Missile Strike Was ‘After-Dinner Entertainment’ at Mar-a-Lago” by Gene Maddaus: “Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria,” Ross said. “It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.” As the crowd laughed, Ross added: “The thing was, it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment.” [Variety]

“Unusual Honor for U.S. Jews on Israeli Independence Day Fires Up Local Twittersphere” by Allison Kaplan Sommer: “The fact that the speeches of the torch-lighters, billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier, were in English instead of Hebrew particularly grated on some ears. “Truthfully, it would feel much more natural to me to hear Arabic spoken at the torch-lighting than English,” diplomat Shani Cooper, Israel’s deputy head of mission in Ankara, Turkey, tweeted. Channel 2’s political reporter and commentator Amit Segal went a step further, tweeting that: “The torch should only be lit by those who speak Hebrew and live in Israel. Elementary.” … Several on Twitter joked that the gesture to wealthy American Jews was necessary in order for [Minister Miri] Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise sufficient funds for the country’s planned 70th anniversary festivities next year.” [Haaretz] • How a US billionaire’s Jewish spark became an Independence Day torch [ToI]

SPORTS BLINK — Aly Raisman teams up with T-shirt company to remind us Life is Good: “The executives at Life is Good are hoping that Aly Raisman’s gold-medal glory can rub off on the Boston apparel company. The gymnast has signed a two-year partnership with Life is Good, and she played a key role in creating a line of T-shirts being launched this spring. The new Ally Tee Collection is geared to girls and women and features three designs that emphasize kindness, authenticity, and courage.” [BostonGlobe]

DESSERT: “Israeli-born chef strikes gold with top U.S. prize” by Richard Leong: “Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov, praised for his modern Israeli cuisine, struck gold by winning the top U.S. chef prize from the James Beard Foundation on Monday… Solomonov… turned his focus on Israeli and Jewish cooking after his younger brother David who served in the Israeli army was killed on Yom Kippur in 2003.” [Reuters]

BIRTHDAYS: Former Lord Chief Justice and President of the Courts of England and Wales, Baron Harry Kenneth Woolf turns 84… Professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, journalist, international negotiator and private consultant, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir turns 80… Author, publisher, president of four radio stations in the Pacific Northwest, conservative political activist, gun rights advocate, Alan Merril Gottlieb turns 70… Former member of the Texas Senate (1993-2013), she was born in NYC to Holocaust survivor parents, Florence Shapiroturns 69… Former US AID contractor, imprisoned by Cuba from 2009 to 2014, Alan Gross turns 68… Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, previously Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (2014-2016) and Managing Editor of Time Magazine (2006-2013), Richard Allen “Rick” Stengel turns 62… Member of the New York State Assembly, previously a member of the NYC Council and former Deputy Superintendent of the NYS Banking Commission, David Weprin turns 61… Billionaire businesswoman, entrepreneur, civic leader, she served as US Secretary of Commerce (2013-2017), now chairman of the private investment firm she founded PSP Capital Partners, Penny Sue Pritzker turns 58… DC-based CBS News correspondent, once a K-12 student at CESJDS in Rockville, Julianna Goldman turns 36… Campaign director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, previously the executive director of the Young Democrats of America during the 2012 election ctycle, Emily Tisch Sussmanturns 35… Communications Specialist at the NYC office of HIAS, previously a Senior Strategist at West End Strategy Team, Gabe Cahn turns 27… Founder & CEO of the Helena Group, Henry Elkus turns 22… Director of communications at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, previously senior director of media relations at the National Retail Federation, Stephen Schatz… Rosalyn Spiegel… Susanna Fried… Israel’s best tour guide Michael Bauer

Gratuity not included. We love receiving news tips but we also gladly accept tax deductible tips. 100% of your donation will go directly towards improving Jewish Insider. Thanks! [PayPal]

From left: Netanel Kahana, Anat Morag, Ofir Michaeli, Alex Kleiner, Mimi Kaplan, Chris Tucker, Noam Sonnenberg, Yael Nor, Omri Sagir and Shira Glasner come together at the Milken Institute Global conference. Tucker, known for the "Rush Hour" film franchise, appeared with the young adults, who are participants of a Milken Innovation Center delegation that traveled to the conference from Israel. Photo by Ryan Torok, with help from Mimi Kaplan

Celebrity converges with Israel fellows at Milken Institute Global Conference


 

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Former President George W. Bush participated in a conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, at approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

At the beginning of the discussion, the two discussed one of the more positive element’s of the 43rd president’s legacy, increasing foreign aid to the African continent.

“I believe all life is precious, and I believe we’re all God’s children,” Bush said, explaining his commitment to Africa.

Bush hopes to prevent the current administration from cutting foreign aid to Africa.

“My mission today is to … urge Congress not to stop the funding on a program that’s effective,” Bush said, appearing in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton.

Actor Chris Tucker, in attendance at the Milken Institute Global Conference, expressed interest in visiting Israel.

“I haven’t been to Israel, but I want to go…So, I’m a Christian, I want to go visit the Holy Land…I was raised in church, my mama raised me in church. [I value] my spiritual side. It’s so important to stay balanced,” he said in an interview with the Journal.

Tucker goes to church “every Sunday,” unless he is on the road for work, he said. He attends a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) congregation. In the photograph above, he appears with fellows from Israel from the Milken Innovation Center.

Israel Prime Minister's Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

“I have no doubt California can stand up to its [water shortage] challenges,” Eli Groner,Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General, said, appearing on a May 3 Milken Institute Global Conference panel titled “Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” “It has been done, can be done, but it takes real focus.”

Joining Groner on the panel were Jeremy Bentley, Citi Israel head of financial institutions and public sector; Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board; Richard Blum, chairman of Blum Capital, a member of the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former chair of the UC Board of Regents; Angela Homsi, director of the Angaza-Africa Impact Innovation Fund; and Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Glenn Yago, senior fellow at the Milken Institute and senior director at its Israel Center, moderated the discussion.

Seated in the audience, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said he wished supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had been there, so they could hear representatives of Africa discuss the work they are doing partnering with Israeli businesses.

“This is reality, and BDS is ideology,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said. “It’s a shame.”

"Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies." Photo by Ryan Torok

“Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” Photo by Ryan Torok

On Wednesday, Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, conducted a conversation with former President George W. Bush. The two discussed immigration, the Middle East, W. Bush’s passion for painting and more.

“That’s what this whole conference is about in some way – markets,” Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, said in a May 2 panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.”

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mix and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). Photo by Ryan Torok

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mixed and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). They were on their way to a panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.” Photo by Ryan Torok

 

On May 1, during the Milken Institute Global Conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke of the effectiveness of policy implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations or countries sponsoring terrorism, including Iran.

“These sanctions really do work [on countries such as Syria],” he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network, appearing the first day of the three-day conference. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact and I think you saw this in the case of Iran.

“The only reason Iran came to the table to negotiate was because of economic sanctions on them,” he said, “and that’s what created the incentive.”

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

 

In an interview with David Rubinstein, a billionaire financier and philanthropist who has been a supporter of Jewish life at Duke University, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., U.S. secretary of commerce, said he is hopeful President Donald Trump will have a positive impact on the American business community.

“Every business executive I see, even ones who have specific complaints…every one of them is very encouraged by the new president,” Ross said on Monday afternoon during a Global Conference lunchtime session.

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

This year’s conference, held April 30-May 3, drew more than 4,000 attendees from 48 states and more than 50 countries. 75-percent of the speakers were new speakers, according to the Global Conference, which was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has advised the president on business matters, such as the China currency manipulation issue. On Monday, Dimon appeared in an interview with Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

“I was not a Trump supporter, but he asked me to serve in this [the president’s business strategic advisory council]. I was criticized by a lot of people, including one of my daughters…[But] I’m a patriot. I am going to try the best I can to help my country,” Dimon said.

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

A dinner session on Monday featured Jon Favreau, J.J. Abrams and Apple executive Eddy Cue.

Favreau, director of “Jungle Book,” a live action reimagining of the classic animated film, said he heeds to the philosophy of making the old new again.

“[Telling] the old stories and giving it a new look, using new technologies and new settings,” is rewarding, Favreau said, appearing in a conversation titled “Multi-Hyphenates.”

“I think ‘multi-hyphenate,’ is a term for a lucky person with ADD,” Abrams, director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” said.

Abrams spoke of moviegoing as a “communal experience,” while addressing the phenomenon of people opting to watch new releases at home.

“We are desperately working to give people something worthy of their time,” Abrams said.

Favreau, on making the film, “Chef,” said he appreciated the opportunity of becoming acquainted with real chefs.

“As a filmmaker, you have access. When you say you are directing a movie, something about the magic of the movie business, it opens up doors and you can sit and talk to the top people in each of these fields – futurists, chefs, soldiers, police officers, generals. They will talk to you and give you their perspective. It’s incredibly fulfilling. For me to get into that [when working on ‘Chef’], just chopping shallots and that mindfulness brought to the work, it was very meditating,” he said. “It was very fulfilling.”

Both Abrams and Favreau are Jewish.

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

 

Check back for updates.

 

 

Celebrating Israel’s global humanitarian impact on its 69th birthday


When a car bomb went off in the town where he had evacuated to, shrapnel ripped through Fadi’s leg, making it nearly impossible to walk on his own. A father of four, Fadi has lost 25 family members, his village, and his way of life in Syria’s brutal civil war. Yet, he says he may be able to run again, thanks to the world-class medical treatment he is receiving from Israeli doctors.

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 69th birthday, the Jewish state stands out on the international stage for its thriving democracy, diverse and dynamic society, and innovative humanitarian work, which makes a global impact well beyond the country’s tiny size.

In Syria — a country officially at war with the Jewish state since its independence — Israel has responded to its neighbor’s six years of devastating conflict with an outstretched hand and an open heart. More than 2,600 Syrians have received medical care in Israel since 2013.

Within a month of the outbreak of hostilities in Syria in 2011, the Israeli organization IL4Syrians began sending fresh water, food, medical supplies and post-trauma care specialists, who covertly crossed the Syrian border to provide care. In addition, the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID has been providing medical and psychological support since 2011 to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Greece, Turkey and Germany. The Israeli government is now constructing a plan to absorb Syrian children who have no home, including victims from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s horrific gas attack April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun.

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 69th birthday, the Jewish state stands out on the international stage for its thriving democracy, diverse and dynamic society, and innovative humanitarian work.

Israel’s humanitarian intervention in Syria illuminates the dream its founders long envisioned: that a modern Jewish state could not only serve as a homeland and haven for the Jewish people, but also as Or LaGoyim — a light unto nations.

At Israel’s founding, the future of this vision was far from certain. Surrounded by hostile neighbors — with swamps in the north, deserts in the south, very little water and no natural resources — the new country had to fight for its survival.  

Against all odds and in the face of constant threats, Israel has not only survived, but thrived. In 68 years, we have transformed from a developing country into a high-tech powerhouse, earning the nickname “Startup Nation.” Israel has turned arid desert into blooming farmland, built tiny towns into thriving cities and gathered a scattered people into a modern nation. With a population of just 8 million, it has produced 11 Nobel Prize winners and has 83 companies listed on the NASDAQ — more than any country except the U.S. and China.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Israel as the eighth-most powerful country in terms of international influence and leadership, and Bloomberg ranks Israel as in the 10th-most innovative economy in the world. For the past four years, Israel consistently has ranked as the world’s 11th happiest nation.

Israeli innovation is lifting up people in all corners of the world — whether on the plains of Africa, where Israeli-designed sustainable bio-sand filters give residents long-term access to safe drinking water, or in the tropical forests of South Asia, where advanced agricultural techniques are helping farmers to move from poverty to prosperity.

While Israel’s journey has been nothing short of remarkable, as our nation begins its 69th year, we still must fight for our freedom and legitimacy — not only against threats of terrorism and the specter of enemies such as Iran — but also against a coordinated campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.  

Israel’s enemies have turned college campuses into anti-Israel bastions of hate, and international forums like the United Nations into theaters of the absurd, where demonizing the Jewish state takes precedence over everything else, including pressing issues like the conflict in Syria. Each year, the U.N. Human Rights Council spends more time investigating and criticizing Israel — the only free and democratic country in the Middle East — than the rest of the world combined, as brutal dictatorships like Iran and North Korea get a free pass.

After 2,000 years of being a people without a state, and without a voice, we have once again become a sovereign nation that can speak up for itself, and that cannot only defend itself, but also help others and shine as an example for humanity. Although we may not always get credit for it in the international arena, Israel will never cease to pursue our values, striving to be a light unto the nations. On this anniversary of Israel’s independence — and the many more to come — we celebrate not only the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, but the way that the modern Jewish state continues to make a difference in the world — one innovation, one invention and one refugee at a time.


Sam Grundwerg is the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

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

Why is Trump strict with Assad but not with Erdogan?


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

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

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

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

What do we learn about Trump from these three events?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we learn from all this?

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

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

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

King Abdullah of Jordan. Photo via WikiCommons.

A Mideast bonfire of the hypocrites


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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