On the Attack Oren’s views of Obama set off firestorm

Michael Oren, former diplomat and noted historian, may be the only American-born member of the next  Israeli parliament. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

Former diplomat and current Knesset member Michael Oren is the author of “Ally,” about the U.S.-Israel relationship. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

In an op-ed published last month in The Wall Street Journal, former Ambassador of Israel to the United States Michael Oren accused President Barack Obama of abandoning two core principles of the United States-Israel alliance, and his follow-up days later in two other major American publications set off a cascade of reactions stateside and in Israel.

Oren wrote in his piece, “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” that Obama has forsaken the principles of “no daylight” and “no surprises.” He followed up with criticisms in The Los Angeles Times and Foreign Policy of the president’s approach to Iran and the Muslim world.

The American-born historian, who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013 and was elected to the Knesset this spring, is promoting his new book “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.”

The publication is a rare move by an ambassador only recently relieved of his post. In a lengthy interview with David Horovitz of The Times of Israel Oren said the timing of the release of the book was his choice; his publisher wanted to wait.

The op-eds and book publication prompted a response from Oren’s nominal boss, Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu Party, who wrote to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro June 17 to clarify that Oren’s book was written before the former ambassador joined the party. Kulanu was formed during this year’s Israeli election cycle and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition in May.

“The moment I became aware of Dr. Oren’s recent article I summoned him immediately to my office and he made it clear that all that was written reflects his own personal views,” wrote Kahlon, Israel’s finance minister.

Shapiro, in an interview with Army Radio, called Oren’s version of events “imaginary.”

“[Oren] was an ambassador in the past, but he is now a politician and an author who wants to sell books,” said Shapiro. “I can say as an ambassador that sometimes ambassadors have a very limited view of the conversations between the leaders, and his description does not reflect the truth about what happened.”

His sentiments were echoed by John Kirby, State Department spokesman, during the June 17 news briefing.

When asked of Secretary of State John Kerry’s opinion of the op-ed, Kirby said, “And it’s the secretary’s view that [Oren’s] account, particularly the account of President Obama’s leadership in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, is absolutely inaccurate and false, and doesn’t reflect what actually happened in the past.”

But others believe Oren’s version of events.

Mark McNulty, communications director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, described Oren’s writing as a “very succinct [and] well-researched sort of timeline of the Obama administration’s doing exactly what they said they wouldn’t do, which is put daylight between the United States and Israel.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Steve Sheffey, a Democratic activist who frequently writes for the National Jewish Democratic Council’s blog, made his feelings known via social media, tweeting: “Real question is whether Harper Lee’s new book will bump Oren’s new book off the fiction bestseller list.”

Sheffey, who at one time considered himself a fan of Oren both as an ambassador and author-historian, called Oren’s op-ed “dangerously misleading.”

“I was really surprised,” said Sheffey. “In his Wall Street Journal op-ed he said things that were demonstratively wrong, like two-plus-two-equals-five wrong. It’s amazing that he would sacrifice his reputation to say that.”

But McNulty contended that “anybody who’s saying they’re surprised by this is being completely disingenuous.”

Oren did say back in March, prior to the Israeli election, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “One of the principles of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the years has been ‘no surprises.’ And I did my best to pursue that principle,” referring to keeping the White House informed of the Israeli Prime Minister’s 2011 speech to Congress.

Oren’s assessment of Obama on the Foreign Policy website on June 19 — “I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists,” wrote Oren — also earned the ire of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It is legitimate and appropriate for anyone to criticize the policies of this administration. Ambassador Oren’s essay, however, veers into the realm of conspiracy theories, and with an element of amateur psychoanalysis he links U.S. policies in the Middle East to the president’s personal history of having a Muslim father,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director, in a prepared statement. Foxman urged Oren “to walk back these unjustified attacks.”

Articles sprang up in major Israeli and American newspapers, both secular and Jewish.

Among the many politicos and pundits who weighed in was former congressman Mel Levine (D-Calif.), who defended Obama’s record on Israel in an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post.

He offered a tit-for-tat rebuttal of Oren’s op-ed and concluded: “The former ambassador has a right to disagree with the president’s tactics, but to place the blame on President Obama distorts the facts and presents a startlingly unfair rendition of the past seven years and conveniently ignores the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship throughout the years.”

Netanyahu, who was reportedly asked by Shapiro to disavow Oren’s comments on Obama, has no intention of addressing the fallout from Oren’s op-eds publicly. The Israeli embassy in the United States likewise said current Ambassador Ron Dermer was unavailable for comment.

Oren acknowledged the controversy June 22 in a Facebook post and shared why he felt compelled to “explain [his] truth.”

“It is easiest and most simple to praise specific things and to hint at others, but on the eve of this very evil agreement with Iran, I chose to present the truth as I see it, sharply and unambiguous,” he wrote in Hebrew. “I see it as my responsibility and a continuation of my service [to Israel], and yes, I was aware that this would lead to criticism even from very dear friends.”

Oren continued, “I hear the voices that say the timing is cynical or problematic, but after years of working and giving I think that it is clear beyond any doubt that the good of the country [is near to my heart]. As a historian, I know how important it is to present our narrative, the Israeli narrative, to the world in real time.”

Anti-BDS Section of Trade Bill in Danger of Non-Enforcement

Ben CardinLawmakers are weighing their options following the announcement by the Obama administration that it will not enforce a provision in a recently signed trade bill that combats boycott efforts of Israel when it comes to settlements beyond the green line.

In a statement released last week, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said: “By conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy towards the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.”

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) drafted the original language that made discouraging boycotts of Israel a principal negotiating objective. The trade bill defines “persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories” as illegitimate targets for politically motivated boycott, divestment and sanction efforts by states and related actors.

The State Department issued its statement June 30, one day after TPA, as the legislation is known, was signed into law by President Obama.

“The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them,” Kirby continued.

When pressed as to whether the administration’s objection is tantamount to approval of boycotts of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, land the Palestinians claim for a future state, Kirby reiterated the administration’s opposition to boycotts of the State of Israel and stated that U.S. policy has not changed in regards to activity beyond the 1967 lines.

Kirby further stated that the administration made their objections known during the bill’s drafting process, a claim Roskam’s office disputed.

“No, the administration at no point throughout countless meetings, phone calls,and emails expressed any concerns with the language it now claims is objectionable,” said Roskam’s press secretary, Michael Shapiro, via email. “In fact, USTR publicly supported the amendment at the Ways and Means Committee’s TPA markup in April.‎”

Sue Walitsky, spokesperson for Cardin, said via email, “The provision was never intended to make a judgment on settlements. Senator Cardin has said throughout this debate that ‘Israel is one of America’s closest allies and the only stable democracy in the Middle East. We may not agree with every Israeli policy, but we cannot allow our potential trading partners in the EU to fall prey to efforts that threaten Israel’s existence. Issues, including borders and settlements, need to be resolved in direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.’”

Liberal pro-Israel groups, such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, which oppose boycotts of Israel but do not support settlement activity, praised the State Department’s message.

“We welcome the State Department’s statement that U.S. policy regarding settlements remains unchanged,” said APN director of policy and government relations Lara Friedman in a statement. “These efforts seek to exploit concerns about boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel — concerns APN shares — as cover for legislation the true purpose and effect of which are to protect and promote settlements.”

As they did prior to TPA’s approval, J Street launched another email campaign urging their supporters to “alert their lawmakers to this effort now underway to blur the green line legislatively,” said Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs for the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization.

“The language used in the resolution, which passed several statehouses, is nearly identical to the language that was used in the trade bills,” said Williams. “This suggests a concerted effort to conflate Israel and the territories it controls and to put the United States and state governments in [the position of] defending, supporting and legitimizing illegal settlement activity.”

He further stated that unnamed members of Congress “raised the possibility of removing” the language the administration found objectionable prior to the full vote on TPA and that “groups supporting it, like AIPAC, specifically dissuaded them from doing so.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee referred back to the original amendment authors Cardin, Portman and Roskam.

“Yes, J Street tried to find a member to offer an amendment to strip out that language,” said Shapiro. “Obviously they were unsuccessful.”

The Zionist Organization of America, which joined AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups in lobbying for the original anti-BDS amendment to the TPA legislation, quickly criticized Obama’s administration for “aiding [the] BDS campaign against Jewish businesses in Judea/Samaria.”

“With this act, the Obama Administration has disgracefully and deceitfully joined the BDS movement and it deserves the strongest criticism from all pro-Israel groups and citizens,” said Morton Klein, ZOA national president, in a statement.

Citing the Constitution, Klein said, “The Obama Administration cannot ignore Congressional legislation and apply only those parts of the legislation it likes.”

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives authority to Congress to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.” In practice, Congress, by passing the fast-track authority, delegates the responsibility of negotiating to the executive branch. The Office of the United States Trade Representative is charged with negotiating in good faith to achieve the objectives outlined by Congress — a charge easier said than done, according to a former official with the USTR who had been involved with previous trade negotiations.

There’s an understanding, the official, speaking on background, said, going into negotiations that not every objective can be met and thus wiggle room is usually afforded.

“They’re objectives, they’re not binding,” explained the former official. “What is binding is the actual text of the agreement and the legislation that ultimately implements the agreement. That’s where you’ll see how the provision is or isn’t implemented.”

Though Congress will vote up or down on a final agreement and cannot amend the bill once it goes to a full vote, members of Congress do have influence over what the final bill will look like.

Explained the official, during the NAFTA and Uruguay Round Agreements, USTR presented a draft of the bill to certain congressional committees, which then conducted unofficial markups and sent the legislation back to USTR for adjustment. (“We called it a non-markup of a non-bill since it’s not official,” said the official, who added there is “full-fledged backing-and-forthing” in the non-markup process.)

Members of Congress who are displeased with how the executive branch negotiated the trade agreement can exert a lot of pressure during the non-markup process, said the official, “but at the end of the day, this provision is traded off against” other provisions that Congress wants.

As for the language proponents, they will continue to press for enforcement.

Said Shapiro, “We are considering all options to ensure the Administration complies with provisions it previously supported and signed into law [last] week.”

Cuba in a Nutshell Visiting professor provides outlook on how U.S.-Cuba relations have evolved

Richard Feinberg says that although tensions have eased, U.S. investments, with some exceptions, are not tolerated in Cuba. (Provided)

Richard Feinberg says that although tensions have eased, U.S. investments, with some exceptions, are not tolerated in Cuba. (Provided)

About 200 people packed the room on the 21st floor of the World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore on June 17 to hear renowned scholar Richard Feinberg present a lecture on relations between the United States and Cuba.

Feinberg, professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego, began by discussing the easing of tensions between the two countries since a framework for an agreement was announced by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, calling it a “major moment in Cuban-American relations.”

“Cuban foreign policy has been based on hostility since the revolution,” Feinberg said.

The impending agreement has lifted a number of travel restrictions and could possibly lead to the lifting of a 55-year-old trade embargo the U.S. has enforced with Cuba since the Cuban Revolution. The deal also included the release of political prisoners from both countries, including Maryland native Alan Gross.

Feinberg said he was at a conference in Panama the day the announcement was made, at which 10 Americans and 200 Cubans were present.

“When (Castro) said that, there’s this huge gasp in the Cuban audience,” he said. “And then people stand up and start cheering hysterically. They could see the sun coming through the clouds for the first time in their lives.”

Feinberg, a former special assistant on National Security Affairs to President Bill Clinton, said Cuba has always been a “thorn” in U.S. foreign relations with Latin America but that he finally sees signs of democratization. He listed a number of reforms including steps taken by Castro to transition to an economy that values free enterprise more than it used to.

Feinberg said hundreds of cooperatives have been set up in Cuba that are independent from the government, and Cubans are now permitted to sell their apartments. Yet, he was quick to point out that the country still has a socialist economy on the whole.

“These private enterprise people still work under a lot of restrictions,” he said and noted that restaurants are only allowed to seat 50 people and that government inspectors must come and inspect the chairs before guests may be served.

“They figure if you have a lot of money, that becomes a pillar for power. And they don’t want a private sector that challenges the Communist Party.”

Feinberg said although Cuba is still a one-party state, friends may invite each other over for dinner and discuss politics or criticize the economy — something he referred to as “the beginnings of intellectual discourse.”

He said for the most part U.S. investments are not tolerated in Cuba, but there are a few exceptions.

“If you produce bricks and you want to sell to a private construction company in Cuba, you are now authorized to do that by the U.S. government,” he said.

He added that while the media is owned by the government in Cuba, officials are beginning to open up Internet access.

The event included a 30-minute question-and-answer session, and one member of the audience asked whether the recent developments with Cuba would improve U.S. relations with Russia. Feinberg explained that Cuba and Russia have had a history of ties since the Cold War when Cuba’s economy depended on the Soviet Union. He said the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis were some of the main events that ushered in tension.

“Although that failed, [the Bay of Pigs] was followed up by a lot of hostile activities,” he said.

Feinberg also said when the Soviet Union collapsed it had a detrimental impact on the Cuban economy, sending the Gross Domestic Product down more than 30 percent.

“A lot of people thought the regime was going to be overthrown,” he said.

Feinberg also said the sugar cane industry has taken a hit with production under 2 million tons per year and several factories having closed.

“They haven’t had the money to upgrade to modern technology to bring in the new machinery,” he said.

Feinberg concluded by discussing the next generation of leadership in Cuba. He said citizens in their 20s and 30s are mostly in favor of a more democratic state, but younger members of the politburo intend to maintain the Communist principles set by the Castro brothers.

“I think it’s a mistake to assume that because these people are younger, they’re going to be a lot more liberal,” he said.

Dana Moore said he found Feinberg’s lecture very informative and hopes barriers to travel and investment will be lowered soon.

“It’s definitely thawed. We’ve definitely seen some progress with it,” he said.

Cindy Hooper said she enjoyed Feinberg’s take on trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“The rest of the world is open to doing trade with Cuba,” she said. “It’s just us who are not, and the embargo is around the United States rather than around Cuba. I thought that was very realistic and edifying.”


At Long Last State Department’s human rights report released after four-month delay

Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a spokesperson, is “very excited” about the release of the Human Rights Reports. (United States Department of State )

Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a spokesperson, is “very excited” about the release of the Human Rights Reports.
(United States Department of State )

The State Department was set to release the long overdue Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on June 25, after a delay, the longest ever, that spurred speculation in some political spheres that it was done in an effort not to upset Iran during ongoing nuclear negotiations, a charge the State Department denied.

The Human Rights Reports, as it is commonly known, is mandated for release on Feb. 25 each year. That deadline was pushed back to April 20 and then postponed yet again until an announcement was made during a news briefing on June 22.

Chanan Weissman, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, confirmed on June 23 that the report was due out on June 25.

“We’ve been pretty public about it being a scheduling issue. It’s a priority for the secretary, but with his travel and his subsequent medical issues we had to find a time when it could be released,” said Weissman, who said that Secretary of State John Kerry is “very excited to release it.”

But there are those who believe the delay is linked to ongoing nuclear
negotiations with Iran.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent blog post: “There are two likely explanations for the delay and they are not inconsistent. The administration (a) isn’t all that interested in the reports except (b) to the extent that they could be used against the Iran deal, by reminding people in Congress of the nature of the evil regime in Tehran.”

Weissman said, “we absolutely rejects that notion” that the delay had anything to do with the P5+1 negotiations, whose June 30 deadline to reach a deal is rapidly approaching.

“Regardless of the outcome of negotiations, we will continue to [report on human rights] and press Iranian respect for rule of law, and we’ve been very clear about that,” said Weissman.

The State Department’s 388-page Country Reports on Terrorism, released June 19, well after the April 30 deadline, noted in the section on state sponsors of terrorism that “Iran remains a state of proliferation concern.”

The report further stated Iran continues to rearm Lebanese Hezbollah, whose fighters “continued to carry out attacks along the Lebanese border with Israel.” Funding, training and weapons were supplied by Iran to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups and to Iraqi Shia militias, one of which has a Foreign Terrorist Organization designation.

Providing sanctions relief without rolling back sanctions on non-nuclear related issues, such as terrorism and human rights abuses, is easier said than done.

As noted in a letter, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), David Perdue (Ga.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.), sent to Kerry in mid-May, human rights sanctions will not be part of a list of phased-out sanctions in a final deal with Iran.

Sanctions related to Iran’s terrorist activities will also remain in place, U.S. counterterrorism envoy Tina Kaidanow said during the unveiling of the Country Reports on Terrorism.

But providing sanctions relief without rolling back sanctions on non-nuclear related issues, such as terrorism and human rights abuses, is easier said than done given that many of the sanctions targeted Iran for multiple reasons, including the country’s nuclear ambitions.

As reported by the Associated Press, of the 24 Iranian banks currently sanctioned by the United States, only Bank Saderat is clearly subject to non-nuclear sanctions. The rest have been sanctioned for nuclear and ballistic missile financing. Untangling what institutions are or are not eligible for sanctions relief has reportedly been given to Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s sanctions czar.

Adding to the complexity of the talks — which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif recently alleged could go past the June 30 deadline — last weekend 199 of 213 members of Iran’s parliament voted to ban access to military, security and sensitive non-nuclear facilities, documents and scientists in a nuclear agreement. The bill, which is not yet ratified, reads in part: “The International Atomic Energy Agency, within the framework of the safeguard agreement, is allowed to carry out conventional inspections of nuclear sites.”

The State Department reiterated June 21 that inspections are a key part of any final deal.


A Matter of Conversion Targeting modern Orthodox rabbi, Israeli rabbinate draws battle line

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a  30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a
30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month.
(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — There’s no shortage of Israelis who want to reform the office of the Chief Rabbinate.

Ranging from advocates of religion-state separation to leaders of Israel’s non-Orthodox movements to newspaper columnists, some want to end the Rabbinate’s monopoly over the country’s religious services; others want to dissolve it entirely.

But this week, the Rabbinate appears to have targeted a leader whose critique of Israel’s religious status quo is more subtle. Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, has been summoned to a hearing before the Rabbinate next month where he believes his job will be challenged.

Unlike many of the Rabbinate’s critics, Riskin is Orthodox, supports the Rabbinate in its current form and operates within the bounds of Orthodox Jewish law, or halachah. But he has called on the Rabbinate to condone his relatively progressive policies, especially regarding conversion and ordination of women.

“I’m very much in favor of the Chief Rabbinate, but there has to be a certain degree of pluralism for the rabbis,” said Riskin, who draws a salary from the Rabbinate. “It’s important for the Chief Rabbinate to contain within itself a number of different halachic ways.”

The Chief Rabbinical Council, the Rabbinate’s governing body, summoned Riskin to a June 29 hearing to discuss his reappointment as rabbi of Efrat, a town he co-founded in 1983. A spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry, Daniel Bar, said the hearing is part of a process all municipal rabbis age 75 or older must undergo in order to review their health. Riskin is 75.

But Riskin believes the Rabbinate may use the hearing as a pretext to dismiss him.

An American immigrant originally from New York, Riskin supports a government decision from last November that allowed Israel’s municipal rabbis to perform state-sanctioned conversions. For years preceding the decision, Riskin had performed conversions privately. The Rabbinate has come out publicly against the government decision and has yet to recognize Riskin’s conversions.

“I remain very optimistic that the Chief Rabbinate will understand that we’re facing a time bomb with this problem of the Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Riskin said, referring to Israeli immigrants from the Soviet Union who do not qualify as Jewish according to traditional Jewish law. “We can do a wonderful job converting the children as well as the adults in a warm and welcoming fashion.”

Since he received rabbinic ordination more than 50 years ago, Riskin has been a leader in pushing the limits of Jewish law within the modern Orthodox community. He took over Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1964, transforming it into a modern Orthodox hub focused on outreach. Two decades later, he moved to Israel and co-founded Efrat, today an 8,000-person bedroom community near Jerusalem with a mixed religious-secular population.

Riskin’s network of educational institutions, Ohr Torah Stone, runs modern Orthodox schools from junior high through graduate programs. The network includes the first school to train women as advocates in Israeli rabbinical courts, as well as Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Jewish studies college in Jerusalem.

In addition to conversion, Riskin has been an outspoken advocate of women’s Torah study. He created a five-year program to train women as Jewish legal authorities on par with rabbis. In February, he appointed Jennie Rosenfeld, who will graduate the program next year, as Efrat’s first female “manhiga ruhanit,” or spiritual leader.

“There’s a moral conviction that he has to his vision of Judaism, an imperative that he feels in bringing that to the world,” said Rosenfeld.

Riskin insists that his conversion process, while more welcoming to converts than the Rabbinate’s, is still done according to Jewish law. That could be part of the Rabbinate’s problem, says Rabbi David Stav, head of the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar, who says the Rabbinate views halachic dissent as a challenge greater even than the corruption scandals that have plagued the Rabbinate.

“They won’t remove a rabbi from his position because they saw him break Shabbat or because he’s suspected in some case,” said Stav, who ran unsuccessfully as a reformist candidate for chief rabbi last year. “But a rabbi suspected, God forbid, of conversions different than those accepted in the Chief Rabbinate?” Stav said sardonically, “That’s a reason to take him out.”

Riskin’s allies have closed ranks behind him following the Rabbinate’s summons. Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu political party and former Israeli foreign minister, weighed in on Riskin’s behalf. From America, liberal Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss and Shmuel Herzfeld sent a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer protesting the summons.

In an email, the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said, “While the RCA does not agree with every action of the Chief Rabbinate, we support the Chief Rabbinate as the official religious body of Israel. We are certain that, together with Rabbi Riskin, they will find a way to support his continued work as Chief Rabbi of Efrat.”

Efrat’s local government council passed a unanimous resolution Monday calling on the Rabbinate to reappoint Riskin. Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, an Israeli modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform, is organizing a public demonstration of support for Riskin in late June.

If the Rabbinate dismisses Riskin, Tzohar will stop cooperating with the Rabbinate, Stav said.

“I ask myself a lot, why do I still support this institution?” Stav said. “I still want to do everything for this institution to improve and succeed, but not at any price.”

Riskin has remained defiant, saying that he will continue as Efrat’s chief rabbi regardless of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision. But he hopes the Rabbinate will recognize that his positions, while innovative, fall well within the spectrum of Jewish law.

“Throughout Jewish history, especially regarding conversion, there have been two schools — the lenient school and the more stringent school,” he said. “The people of Israel are crying out for the more lenient school.”

Honeymoon Israel Young couples get their chance to do the Birthright thing

The Phoenix group from one of  the pilot Honeymoon Israel trips  gathers in Jerusalem, in May.

The Phoenix group from one of
the pilot Honeymoon Israel trips
gathers in Jerusalem, in May.

JERUSALEM — Jay and Mikelle sat next to each other on the bus as it ascended the road to Jerusalem.

Later the same day they accompanied each other on an emotional trip to Yad Vashem,Israel’s Holocaust museum. The next day they planned to trek up to the desert fortress at Masada and swim together in the Dead Sea.

During its week-and-a-half journey through Israel, their bus would stop so they could hike up north and relax at the beach in Tel Aviv. Some of the group had been here before; for others it was their first time.

But unlike the hundreds of Taglit-Birthright Israel buses that traverse Israel every year, there were no random hookups on this tour. Its participants were couples, some with children. About a third of the participants weren’t Jewish.
Called Honeymoon Israel, the trip is a “Birthright” for married couples aged 25 to 40. Like Birthright — the free 10-day journeys to Israel for 18- to 26-year-old Jews — the couples’ excursion hopes to foster Jewish identity in its participants as they are settling down and having kids.

Acknowledging the growing number of intermarried families, the trip mandates that only one of the two partners be Jewish.

“We plan on raising our household Jewish,” said Jay Belfore, a trip participant who was raised Catholic and whose wife, Mikelle, is Jewish. “In order for me to gain a better understanding of the culture, seeing Israel is important to us.”

On their second date, Mikelle told Jay that she wanted to raise Jewish children. Jay appreciates Judaism’s emphasis on family, and said the trip has given him a frame of reference for Jewish life, teaching him about the origins of holidays and customs. The couple has two children, 3 and 1.

“My hope was that Jay would learn about Judaism on a deeper level and would feel more involved in our children’s upbringing,” Mikelle said. “Honeymoon Israel has created a safe place for couples in similar situations.”

That safe place is the trip’s goal, said Honeymoon Israel co-CEO Avi Rubel, who launched the project with co-CEO Mike Wise. Families and Jewish communities at home can be judgmental of intermarried couples or those without much Jewish background, he said, and coming to Israel together allows them to have an immersive and supportive Jewish experience.

“What if they did feel welcome and not judged, and at home in the Jewish community?” said Rubel, formerly the founding North American director of Masa Israel Journey, which coordinates long-term Israel programs for young people. “Then at this time they’re looking for meaning, and they would find it in the Jewish community.”

Honeymoon Israel’s two pilot trips, from Los Angeles and Phoenix, arrived in late May with 20 couples each. There was an outsize demand — 85 couples applied from Los Angeles and 51 from Phoenix — and interviews were part of the process.

While the trip’s total expenses add up to about $10,000 per couple, the couples pay only $1,800. The Boston-based Jacobson Family Foundation is the primary funder. The trip is not linked to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which is paid for in part by the Israeli government. Rubel and Wise, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo in New York, hope to run 50 Honeymoon Israel trips a year.

Such initiatives, said Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen, are crucial in light of the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews were intermarrying. Showing intermarried couples a Jewish society, Cohen said, can give the non-Jewish spouse a larger context to connect personally to Judaism.

“Being Jewish in yourself is connected with being Jewish in your family, in your community and in your people,” said Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion. “These circles of social identity are layered from top to bottom.” Honeymoon Israel is one of a few imitation Birthright programs to emerge in recent years.
The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project runs eight-day group trips to Israel for Jewish mothers. An organization called Covenant Journey plans to bring groups of Evangelical Christian youth to Israel for subsidized trips starting this year.

Honeymoon Israel takes its participants across the country, but spends more time in Tel Aviv than most Birthright trips, aiming to show Israel’s modern culture as well as its historical and biblical sites. Participants on the Phoenix trip did Havdalah, the closing ceremony of Shabbat, with Beit Tefillah Israeli, a liberal prayer group that meets on the beach. And the group spent a day in northern Israel learning about coexistence efforts between Arabs and Jews.

“This is not a Disney World trip,” Rubel said. “We want people to see Israel in all its complexity. We want people to have a positive experience in Israel. We think part of doing that is giving people a chance to see the whole picture.”

The trips also aim to maintain connections among the couples after they return to their home city. Couples met at a Shabbat dinner before the trip, and monthly Shabbat dinners are planned for when they return. A trip staff member will also be available to meet with the couples back home.

“In this modern world where we have almost no boundaries, the new face of Jews is definitely an international one,” said Khai Ling Tan, who was born in Malaysia and whose husband, Jonathan Levine, is Jewish. “You don’t want to be exclusive because when you do that, your world becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.”

‘State’ of Confusion Will Vatican’s Palestine reference impact Jewish-Catholic ties?

Pope Francis greets Palestinian  Authority President Mahmoud  Abbas as the pope leaves St. Peter’s  Square at the end of a canonization  ceremony in Vatican City last month.

Pope Francis greets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the pope leaves St. Peter’s Square at the end of a canonization ceremony in Vatican City last month.

WASHINGTON — When considering the Vatican’s creep toward recognition of Palestinian statehood, think “Israel-Vatican” and not “Jewish-Catholic,” say Jewish officials involved in dialogue with the church.

A May 13 announcement on an agreement regarding the functioning of the church in areas under Palestinian control raised eyebrows in its reference to the “State of Palestine.”

The upset was compounded by confusion over whether Pope Francis, in a recent meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, praised him as an “angel of peace” or urged him to attain that vaunted status. On May 19, a Vatican spokesman said it was “very clear” that the pope was “encouraging a commitment to peace.”

But the Vatican’s shift from terming its Palestinian partner as the Palestine Liberation Organization — the designation Israel accepts — to calling it Palestine comports with a shift in Europe toward accommodating Palestinian statehood aspirations, the Jewish officials said.

Referring to a State of Palestine was “disturbing, but not critical,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said.

Catholic-Jewish relations and diplomacy between Israel and the Vatican are “on different tracks,” Foxman said.

Israeli officials, speaking anonymously, said they were “disappointed” in the use of State of Palestine.

“Such a development does not further the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct bilateral negotiations. Israel will study the agreement and consider its next step,” an official told the French news agency AFP.

A number of congressional Republicans also expressed “disappointment” in the pope, Politico reported.

Marshall Breger, a professor at the Catholic University’s School of Law who has led a number of Jewish dialogues with other faiths, said the use of the term Palestine was the product of an evolution in how the international community is treating the Palestinian question.

“De facto, the Vatican has accepted Palestine as a state,” he said. “It just adds one more country to the over 130 that have recognized Palestine.”

The issue is a matter of diplomacy and does not breach the sensitive issues under discussion between Jews and Catholics as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the declaration that absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Breger said.

“It’s a minor event,” he said. “It should not interfere with Jewish-Catholic relations.”

Using Nostra Aetate as a basis, Jewish and Catholic officials over the years have addressed problematic references to Jews in the Catholic liturgy and the role of the Vatican during the Nazi period.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Washington Post that the “Palestine” reference amounted to “appeasement of radical Muslims” and signaled “the historical Catholic enmity towards Jews.”

For the most part, however, Jewish organizations dealing with the Vatican were concerned about the statement, but only insofar as it represented another success in efforts by the Palestinians to secure statehood recognition outside the context of negotiations with Israel.

“We are fully cognizant of the Pope’s good will and desire to be a voice for peaceful coexistence, which is best served, we believe, by encouraging a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, rather than unilateral gestures outside the framework of the negotiating table,” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee director, said in a statement.

Weighing in with similar statements were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Union for Reform Judaism.

When the Vatican launched talks with the Palestinians in 2000, it referred to the other side as the PLO, but over time shifted to Palestine. Pope Francis in his 2014 visit to Israel and the West Bank spoke of “my presence today in Palestine” during a Bethlehem stop and referred to “the good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine.”

Daniel Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith International, said the recognition of Palestine raised concerns, but they must be seen in the context of an increased willingness in Europe to recognize Palestinian statehood and not of Jewish-Catholic relations.

He likened it to the French and British parliaments recent nonbinding recognitions of Palestine and Sweden’s decision to recognize Palestinian statehood.

“It’s important, I won’t dismiss it, but it shouldn’t be seen outside that broader context,” Mariaschin said.

“It raises the expectations of Palestinians to unmeetable levels and frustrates the Israelis who say we can’t get a fair deal in the international community.”

Obama administration officials continue to maintain that recognizing Palestine outside the context of peace talks is counterproductive. However, prompted in part by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seeming election eve retreat from supporting a two-state solution, they now will not count out withholding the U.S. veto should the U.N. Security Council consider a Palestinian statehood resolution.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who also has been involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said the Palestine recognition should serve as a “wake-up call” for Israel.

“It doesn’t affect [Vatican] relations with Israel at all,” Reich said.

Instead, he argued, Vatican recognition of Palestine is another manifestation of European disaffection with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish policies and the expansion of settlements.

“It just puts more pressure on the Israeli government,” Reich said.

Bumpy Road Ahead Can Netanyahu make new, narrow coalition work?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu, shown in the Knesset on May 4, managed to form a ruling coalition just 90 minutes before the deadline.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shown in the Knesset on May 4, managed to form a ruling coalition just 90 minutes before the deadline.
(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — Seven weeks after he won re-election, Benjamin Netanyahu finally secured a fourth term as prime minister.

With 90 minutes to go until a midnight deadline to form a governing coalition, Netanyahu concluded an agreement May 6 with the religious, pro-settler Jewish Home party that gives him the narrowest of parliamentary majorities — 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Along with three other factions — the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism and the center-right Kulanu — the five-party Likud-led coalition skews right on diplomacy and defense and, for the first time in at least a decade, includes no parties that support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future.

The agreement represents something of a setback for Netanyahu, who called for new elections last year in order to strengthen his grip on a legislature he considered to be ungovernable. In the last government, Netanyahu’s Likud headed a 68-seat majority coalition. In a statement on May 6 announcing the agreement, Netanyahu sought to emphasize the positive.

“Sixty-one is a good number,” Netanyahu said upon announcing the agreement. “Sixty-one-plus is a better number, but it begins with 61 and we will begin. There’s a lot of work ahead of us. I want us to go to work. It should be very successful for us and for the nation of Israel.”

The new coalition is largely in agreement on the question of Palestinian statehood. Having previously voiced support for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said before the March election that the Palestinians would not get a state on his watch (and then walked back those comments). Jewish Home is ideologically opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank and strongly supports settlement growth. Kulanu would limit expansion to major settlement blocs but says statehood is not feasible under the current Palestinian leadership. The haredi Orthodox parties have been agnostic on Palestinian statehood in the past, though recent years have seen the haredi settler population swell.

“We are against giving one centi-meter of land to the Arabs, both from moral grounds and security grounds,” Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home’s leader, said in a Feb. 24 speech. “The biggest mistake is to copy and paste what happened in Gaza in Judea and Samaria,” he added, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

Despite agreement on that point, the new coalition is split on other issues, including economic policy and religious affairs, which could pose a challenge as Netanyahu works to keep his 61 lawmakers in line.

“Anyone who’s worried about governance in Israel and political stability should be worried about a government of 61 seats,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “It’s a government that will find it hard to instigate much-needed economic reform and even to deal with more mundane affairs of state like passing a budget without being extorted by backbenchers in the coalition.”

But Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat said the small coalition may make the government more stable, as partners will avoid conflicts that could break up the government.

“In wide coalitions there are ideological differences and people in the coalition think you can disagree and the coalition won’t fall,” he said. “In a small coalitions they think that if you make small waves, the whole business can collapse.”

Likud, with 30 seats, will control the foreign and defense ministries in the next government, along with the corresponding Knesset committees. Economic policy will be run by the 10-seat Kulanu, founded last year by ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, who will serve as finance minister.

“The Israeli market needs reforms, and we in the Kulanu party, together with the Likud party, the prime minister, and the ministers, will lead it,” Kahlon wrote on Facebook last week after signing an agreement with Likud. “As we promised, in the next government we will advance reforms in housing, in banking, and we will work to narrow gaps in Israeli society.”

Jewish Home, with eight seats, received the education and justice portfolios, while the seven-seat Sephardi haredi Orthodox Shas party will run the Religious Affairs Ministry. The Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism, with six seats, will not appoint any ministers out of an ideological opposition to Zionism, though it will have several deputy ministers.

Netanyahu had a hard time just getting to 61. According to Israeli reports of the secretive coalition talks, Likud’s prospective partners sparred with each other on policy and demanded top ministries.

“If he thinks he can dangle this or that [ministerial] portfolio, he’s making a big mistake.”

The prime minister succeeded by granting significant concessions to his partners. UTJ demanded a rollback of religious reforms passed by the previous government, Shas received key ministries and Kulanu won the power to enact housing and land reforms.

The incoming justice minister will be Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked, 39, who entered Knesset just over two years ago. As minister, Shaked will aim to limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s power to overturn laws. Last year, the court invalidated a law allowing long-term detention of African migrants, one of Shaked’s key issues.

“There’s no situation in the world, as there is in Israel, where judges appoint themselves and invalidate laws,” Shaked wrote on Facebook two weeks ago.

Days before the deadline, coalition talks were rocked by the resignation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who announced that his nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party would sit in the opposition. Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud were allies as recently as last year, but Liberman said the incoming government would be insufficiently hawkish.

Netanyahu may keep the foreign minister title for himself, holding it open should he persuade the center-left Zionist Union, with 24 seats, to join the coalition. As of last week, Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog said he would lead the Knesset opposition. On Facebook, he called the incoming government “a national failure government.”

“We won’t be a fifth wheel, and don’t intend to save Netanyahu from the holes he’s dug himself into,” Herzog said at a Zionist Union meeting last week. “I won’t be Netanyahu’s corkscrew. And if he thinks he can dangle this or that [ministerial] portfolio, he’s making a big mistake.”

Written in Blood South African man’s dedication to giving hits 53-year mark

Every eight weeks like clockwork, Dennis Kahlberg enters the blood transfusion clinic near his home in Johannesburg, South Africa to donate a unit of blood.

This spring, after 53 years of donating, Kahlberg gave his 300th unit, totaling 142 liters — or 28 times the amount of blood found in a human body. Kahlberg was originally inspired to donate by his father, who donated more than 150 units in his lifetime.

“It’s a wonderful way of saving lives,” said Kahlberg. “To me, it was always my way of doing my share for charity.”

For his achievement, Kahlberg was awarded a medal by the South African Blood Transfusion Services, and the Linksfield SABTS clinic’s blood crew bought him a bottle of sparkling wine. It’s believed that Kahlberg has cracked at least the Top 5 in whole blood donations for his region.

“It’s healthy too, I think. If the rabbis in the Gemarah did it, it should be good,” he said.

Kahlberg’s 300th donation came on March 10, his eldest son Hilton’s birthday. The timing was fitting, as Hilton, inspired by his father, donates plasma in his home city of Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s fantastic,” Hilton said of his father’s milestone. “My father doesn’t do it for recognition. He does it to help people.”

“The first time I went with my father, when I was young, at his 100th donation, and I remember fainting,” said Hilton. The minor hiccup did little to deter him from giving. Now every two to three weeks he donates plasma — a lengthier process than donating whole blood because the red blood cells are cycled back into the body — and estimates he has donated 145 units.

“It becomes a part of my life like Shabbos. Every Friday is Shabbos, and every two weeks I donate plasma,” said Hilton.

Kahlberg does not subscribe to any special routines, he said.

He wakes up at 3 in the morning each weekday and is in synagogue by 4:30 for Torah study and morning minyan and then on to his job as a store man. He bleeds on Tuesdays, he said, because the clinic is open late so he doesn’t have to take off from work.

For fun, Kahlberg lawn bowls, but mostly he and his wife enjoy spending time with their three children and seven grandchildren. One son and a daughter live nearby and were on hand to celebrate with their father when he made his milestone donation. Every Friday night, the extended family gathers for Shabbat, and each year they make a trip to Australia to visit Hilton and his three children.

Last summer, they journeyed to Israel for the first time in decades to watch as Hilton’s son, Saul, who along with his sister, Nicola, donates blood, earned his Israel Defense Forces beret at a ceremony at the Western Wall.

Kahlberg has no plans of slowing up. “I plan to keep giving as long as Hashem keeps me on this earth,” he said.


At Home in the Lab

BEERSHEVA, Israel — In sync with a worldwide momentum to attract more women to STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — for their study and career choices, Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) is spearheading a concerted nationwide effort to attract and retain more women into academia in those fields.

The results from a two-year study, begun in 2010 under the direction and urging of Dr. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, revealed that a greater number of Israeli women than men — approximately 58 percent to 42 percent — hold master’s or Ph.D. degrees. But as academic rank goes up within a university system, that proportion drastically changes, showing that men hold about 85 percent of professor positions.

In order to rectify discrepancies revealed by the findings, a CHE committee recommended making the entire system more responsive to the particular biological needs and social realities of women in the modern-day Jewish state.

One of the greatest obstacles in the academic career path for women, the data showed, was time needed to accommodate for child-rearing and other family obligations. This can affect everything from postdoctoral study-abroad opportunities (a crucial part of a competitive researcher’s curricula vitae) to tenure-track faculty positions, where a woman might “stop out” to have children. But tenure-track professors are under extreme pressure to complete requirements in an allotted time or lose the tenure opportunity. Also according to the study, Israeli female postdoctoral students tend to be older (about 37 years old on average) and are likely to have more children than their academic peers worldwide. The combination of these factors can lead to great challenges for women in academic careers.

Therefore, some of the committee’s recommendations for all higher education institutions include adjusting the “tenure clock” to the “biological clock,” a proactive recruitment policy, representation of women on major academic committees and designated scholarships for women researchers with families.

Less than two years after adoption of the plan, small improvements are starting to take hold. Carmi, a pediatric geneticist who became Israel’s first woman university president in 2006 and is an accomplished researcher in her own right, was the first to adopt the recommendations at her institution.

Carmi said for her, “It’s been a mission for many years” to promote higher-level academic opportunities to women, but she admits success isn’t based solely on the numbers of positions women hold. She’s also committed to the more difficult task to change perceptions and behavior of both men and women, who at times, she asserts, “don’t even realize their biases about women’s roles in academia.”

Above all, her priority is “to empower young women” and “push them out of their comfort zone,” she said, helping female students to understand early in their studies the options open to them for research and  faculty career tracks as well as the support that is available.

Carmi pointed to Ilana Nisky, a senior lecturer in Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, as “one of the first women we helped, sponsoring her postdoc studies abroad.” She added that without the push from the university — the centerpiece of the Negev desert capital that is Beersheva — Nisky may not have continued in a graduate program.

“The idea is to identify those excellent women early on and push them forward,” added the president.

In addition to sponsorship from Ben-Gurion, Nisky also received postdoctoral financial support from the Marc Rich Foundation and the Weizmann Institute of Science National Postdoctoral Award for Advancing Women in Science. She recently returned to Ben-Gurion to head the Biomedical Robotics Lab, where her team is working to improve robotic surgery by studying human motor control.

Robotic surgery allows a doctor, with the use of a computer and handheld controls, to maneuver a mechanical arm equipped with small tools. A robotic arm or combination of arms performs the actual surgery on the patient. This type of procedure — local Baltimore examples include minimally invasive coronary artery bypass surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Medicine — happens about 500,000 times per year worldwide, Nisky said, and her team is working to improve the surgeon’s experience.

What is missing when using a robotic tool is force feedback, Nisky explained, a sensation that is typically perceived through the sense of direct touch. For instance, if you reach to pick up a glass of water, you get the sensation of grasping the glass, sensing its texture and weight. But if you tried to perform that action virtually through use of a computer and a gripper device and viewed the glass of water on a screen, you could see and perform the action, but wouldn’t perceive the sense of smooth glass against your hand or the heft of its weight.

The mission of Nisky’s lab is to better understand “how our brain controls movement to improve [medical] robotic design and training,” she said, and allow a robotic user to interact virtually but still experience a sense of touch. Their findings, she hopes, could also be applied conversely to improve the understanding of neuroscience.

Nisky’s team has just begun their research, employing the use of sophisticated robotic machinery and controls like those used in surgery. Her team modifies the machines both mechanically and through software to enable them to record hand and — eventually — eye movements while a user performs a task, then compiles and processes the data.

Not every procedure can be performed robotically, but, according to Nisky, with improved user controls current procedures might one day be performed more efficiently and the list of approved robotic surgeries could grow. Others potential uses include tele-surgery, now in its early stages (a proof of concept was performed in 2001 in which a surgeon in New York performed procedures on a patient in Strasbourg, France) or for tele-mentoring, where a senior surgeon would guide a novice through specialized training at a distance.

In accordance with the CHE recommendations, BGU has also created formalized internal mentoring programs for young female researchers. Because Dr. Hanna Rapaport understands first hand that it is possible to raise and care for a family, obtain a Ph.D. degree and run a research lab, she is well placed as the mentor liaison for graduate students in the Department of Biotechnology Engineering and strives to “model by example.”

Rapaport supervises four  young female students, who are all married and receive full support from their families, as well as passionate and successful in their research. Though Rapaport fully supports Israel’s nationwide initiatives to attract and retain more women in research and faculty positions, she would prefer it not be necessary.

She acknowledges the strides Carmi has made at BGU and success at other institutions but added, “I believe the way the change should come is by simply hiring more women, and make the effort to support and encourage and recruit more women nationwide,” said Rapaport, and added, that ultimately “it depends upon how much a young woman wants to develop her science career as well as the support that she has from her family. If she has the motivation and support, she can get anywhere.”

Rapaport’s straightforward attitude to empowering women within academics is echoed in her lab work.

“We design peptides,” said Rapaport. “We [construct them] on a computer based on our understanding of principles of natural protein structures.” In the simplest terms, she went on, we “mimic nature, then improve upon it.”

Peptides consist of amino acids linked in a short chain. (A longer chain becomes a protein.) Amino acids, meanwhile, help perform important bodily functions and give cells their structure. Perhaps one of the most relevant properties in relation to Rapaport’s research is that peptides can be essential for wound healing and tissue repair, especially for skin, muscles and bones.

The Idea is to identify those exellent women early on and push them forward.

“We are biotechnology engineers and build on the principles of what the body is already doing to build bones,” said Rapaport. “We can come in and assist nature if there is a large bone defect that the body cannot deal with.”

She cited orthopedic trauma, implants, dentistry and osteoporosis as applications for her bone generation research. For instance, if a patient requires a bone graft or other ortho-pedic surgery, often doctors prefer to harvest bone tissue directly from the patient, an approach that can result in high medical costs, extended time away from work and a longer healing process, Rapaport explained. With approximately $2 million of funding support to date, her team has designed an alternative to that scenario that employs peptides and other biomaterials to assist in bone regeneration and healing.

Through the use of an injectable hydrogel that contains the peptide biomaterials designed by her team, a molecular scaffold is created within bone to encourage the regeneration of tissue.

The hydrogel injection treatment helped bone trauma heal dramatically, in one trial 80 percent faster, said Rapaport, while other projected uses are as a delivery vector for cancer- fighting pharmaceuticals and as a treatment for osteoporosis. As the most fully developed and tested of several of her lab’s projects, the next step is to set up a company to manufacture and market the hydrogel.

Dr. Simona Bar-Haim, head of the Laboratory for Rehabilitation and Motor Control of Walking at Ben-Gurion and a faculty member of its health sciences school, has taken the concept of empowering women in research and academia to another level with the Middle East Stepping Forward project funded in large part by U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We made a request [in the research proposal] that half of the researchers and medical clinicians we work with [must be] women,” said Bar-Haim, “and that half of the people receiving the rehab [must be] women.” The hope is that women on the team will be exposed to the idea “they [can] grow to become strong women. You know, it’s a process.”

As an extension of the work begun in her lab, Bar-Haim works with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian researchers to develop effective treatments for teens with cerebral palsy and brain trauma patients by way of re-patterning learning pathways in the brain. The goal is to help patients walk more efficiently and with more confidence, not to “normalize” a defective gait.

The Re-Step training technology, developed by Bar-Haim, is based on chaos theory. For therapeutic treatment, a patient wears specially designed shoes equipped with sensor pistons on the sole that emulate walking upon an unexpected environment. The movement of the pistons is generated by a chaos-based algorithm and creates the sensation of walking upon quickly changing terrain that causes slight uncertainty as the patient walks. The software adapts to each person’s gait according to his abilities.

But visually for the patient, the look of the terrain doesn’t change. For instance, as he walks using the therapeutic shoes down a hallway or sidewalk, all he sees is even terrain — but cognitively, his brain is processing the chaotic micro-movements created by the shoes. The patient compensates for the changes through balance, thus retraining the brain to adjust each step to walk with more ease and efficiency.

The movements created by the pistons are micro increments, “because the brain learns from small errors. If movement would be too big, it would be [registered as] artificial” by the brain, explained Bar-Haim. “So there are small changes for each step; up or down, left or right. … We think this is the best training to target areas in the brain for creating plasticity of the [pathways] that control motor function.”

Bar-Haim, who has been working with this technology since 2004, is conducting treatment at clinics in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Amman, Jordan.

“Every new project and new thing we’re doing, we’re asking that women will be involved,” she said. “They are progressing, they are going forward, step by step.”