Joining Together

Israelis in the Netherlands celebrate Purim at an event organized by the Dutch Israeli scouts movement Hatsofim.  (Courtesy of Hatsofim)

Israelis in the Netherlands celebrate Purim at an event organized by the Dutch Israeli scouts movement Hatsofim.
(Courtesy of Hatsofim)

Whenever he would fly from his native Israel back home to the Netherlands, Serge Lypcyz would bring a heavy load of Hebrew-language books with him.

Lypcyz and his Israeli friends in Amsterdam depended on such shipments — not only for reading material in their native language, but also to feel connected to their country of birth.

“Unlike Dutch Jews, we old-generation Israelis hardly go to synagogue here,” said Lypcyz, who moved to Holland in the 1990s. “We didn’t grow up together in a youth movement. We all met here by chance, so we need the books to be our social glue.”

Fortunately for Lypcyz, those days are long gone. Today he can look on Facebook to swap books at Shookbook, a Hebrew-language book fair started in 2003. He can enjoy Hebrew films — and buy their DVD versions — at Amsterdam’s FilmIsrael festival, which began in 2008. And since September, he can get his news from the Hebrew website, which was launched by Mokum Ivri, a Dutch nonprofit that caters to local Israelis that was founded in 2011.

In the past six months alone, Israeli activists in Europe have launched AGIV, a Britain-based lobbying and advocacy group; Good Deeds Day, an Israeli charitable initiative in Holland; and a London conference that was the first of its kind — the Global Israeli Leadership Summit, which in March brought together Israeli activists from around the world.

The initiatives joined several others launched in recent years to help build community among Israelis in Europe. The Israeli Salon social club started in England in 2011. Germany’s first Hebrew-language publication aimed at Israelis, Spitz Magazine, started in 2010. And in 2011, Dutch Israelis launched a Hebrew scouts movement — modeled on the popular Tzofim movement in Israel — that became hugely popular among Israeli parents.

“They came [to Europe] when they were young, had kids and worked to build their careers,” said Israel Pupko, the founder of Mishelanu, an Israel-based nonprofit that aims to engage Israeli expatriate communities. “They didn’t have time for community work. Now the kids are grown up, many have achieved financial success. So they have more time to develop the trappings of a community.”

When it comes to community building, Israelis in Europe still lag behind their counterparts in North America, Pupko said. In the United States, which U.S. Census figures report is home to 100,000 Americans born in Israel, the Israeli American Council has raised millions since its establishment in 2007 as a national umbrella group.

The council, which aims to integrate Israelis into the wider American Jewish community, now has offices in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Nevada. In November, the council drew 750 participants from 23 states to its first national conference.

Mishelanu, which was founded in 2011, and the Israeli Jewish Congress are among several groups founded in recent years to help communities in Europe and beyond follow the North American example. And European Jewish communities have a vested interest in making that happen, according to Anat Koren, the London-based publisher of the Hebrew-language newspaper Alondon and the founder of AGIV.

“The Jewish community here in Britain, which numbers 250,000, is declining because of assimilation and emigration,” said Koren, who also serves as liaison between the Israeli community and the umbrella Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Meanwhile, the Israeli contingent is increasing or remaining stable. To British Jews, Israelis are a reserve of quality members to replenish the ranks.”

Edwin Shuker, vice-chair of the board’s international division, confirmed that declining numbers are an incentive for building bridges between Israelis and British Jews, but he emphasized that solidarity and shared heritage is driving the process.

Israelis in Europe were the subject of some controversy last year after an expat in Berlin noted online that a dairy product similar to a popular Israeli dessert was selling in Germany for a fraction of the Israeli cost. The issue drew attention to the large numbers of Israelis living abroad — a sensitive issue in a country built on the ingathering of exiles to the Jewish state.

But Koren said the Berlin episode is not really representative of the reality of Israeli expats elsewhere in Europe.

“The Berlin community is a unique case in many aspects,” she said, noting that the German capital is among Europe’s cheapest cities. “No one comes to London, which is more expensive than Israel, to reduce their cost of living.”

In Amsterdam, where Israelis constitute 24 percent of the country’s Jewish population, according to community estimates, the local Jewish charity JMW established a small Israeli department, Tsavta, that organizes activities with an annual budget of approximately $25,000. Last month, the group for the first time brought dozens of Israelis to volunteer at a Jewish old-age home.

“Israeli communities will never blend into the existing Jewish communities because the cultural differences are too deep,” said Tzippy Harmsen-Seffy, who runs Tsavta. “But due to circumstances, these two communities are engaging each other more closely than ever before.”

A Real Concern

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with foreign ministers in Lausanne, Switzerland, during negotiations with Iranian leaders about the future of their nuclear program. (State Department photo/SIPA/Newscom)

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with foreign ministers in Lausanne, Switzerland, during negotiations with Iranian leaders about the future of their nuclear program. (State Department photo/SIPA/Newscom)

Israeli politicians and American Jewish organizations were nearly unanimous this week in voicing concern and skepticism about the framework nuclear agreement reached between a U.S.-led coalition of six nations and Iran last Thursday. The deal, they say, does not go far enough to prevent the threat of a nuclear-armed Tehran in the near future.

Shortly after the news from Laus-anne, Switzerland, where diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry huddled practically nonstop for days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the agreement. The framework deal, which will be finalized in another round of negotiations prior to a June 30 deadline, would threaten the survival of the State of Israel, Netanyahu said, and put the region in “grave danger.”

“Such a deal does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. Such a deal paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” he said “And it might very well spark a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, and it would greatly increase the risks of terrible war.”

Netanyahu’s comments were echoed by other Israeli officials, and The Jerusalem Post reported that opposition to the Iran deal among members of Israel’s governing cabinet was unanimous.

In his Thursday afternoon news conference in the Rose Garden and a phone call to Netanyahu later that day, President Barack Obama argued that a negotiated deal is better than the alternative.

“It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue,” said Obama. “If, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option. And I believe our nuclear experts can confirm that.”

Although Obama appeared to understand that it was unlikely that he would persuade the Israelis to soften their stance, he announced that he had directed his national security team to consult closely with Israel’s new government in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the majority of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations in the United States also expressed reservations about the framework agreement, citing a joint statement released by negotiators in Switzerland as lacking specific guidelines that Iran would need to adhere to; containing weak promises of International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regimes; omitting any restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program; and failing to mention any punishment for aggressive Iranian actions elsewhere in the Middle East.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, issued a lengthy news release, listing areas of specific concern.

“AIPAC appreciates the hard work and the diplomatic efforts of the administration to reach an agreement with Iran to end its nuclear weapons program,” the statement read. “However, we have concerns that the new framework announced today … could result in a final agreement that will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state and encourage a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Iran’s long history of cheating on its international obligations and its leading role in sponsoring terrorism and violating human rights should disqualify it from possessing the infrastructure for a nuclear weapons program.”

AIPAC suggested five questions that the Obama administration and negotiators should consider before agreeing to a final deal: “Will this time-limited agreement actually prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability? How will sanctions be reinstated if Iran cheats on the agreement? What will actually happen to the enriched uranium that the framework promises to neutralize? Will all sanctions relief to Iran be delayed until it comes clean on its past weapons development activities? How will Iran be prevented from perfecting its advanced centrifuges so that it cannot rapidly produce highly enriched uranium after 10 years?”

AIPAC also reiterated its support for additional sanctions legislation to be passed by Congress, believing the added economic pressure would result in a deal more favorable to the United States and its allies as the sanctions would provide a negative incentive for the Iranians.

The Jewish Federation of North America, American Jewish Committee and other major Jewish organizations that usually side with the president on domestic issues, released statements similar to AIPAC’s expressing appreciation for the administration’s efforts but essentially  saying, “No, thanks.”

“We appreciate the good faith efforts made by the administration and the other members of the [negotiating teams]. We all hope that a diplomatic solution to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is possible,” read JFNA’s statement. “However, the framework presented today leaves vital issues woefully unresolved. The agreement provides scant detail on how the phased sanction relief will be implemented. It contains insufficient clarity on how Iranian adherence to the agreement will be verified. And it is ambiguous on what penalties will be imposed if Iran fails to fulfill its commitments.”

This near unanimity was only broken by the complete support of the talks by the left-wing pro-Israel organization, J Street, and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

J Street welcomed the framework and praised the efforts of Kerry and U.S. negotiators for reaching an agreement that J Street believes would lead to a final deal that would “verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” J Street also urged Congress not to pursue sanctions legislation, which the organization feels would complicate the negotiations to come.

“With the critical details of a comprehensive agreement yet to be worked out, it is more important than ever that Congress not take actions that will undermine America’s negotiators at the table,” Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, said in a statement that dovetailed with Obama’s Rose Garden remarks. “There must also be no question that, if a final agreement ultimately cannot be reached, the United States is not to blame. We therefore continue to oppose new sanctions legislation currently before the Senate and remain committed to working with senators and members of Congress toward legislation that provides for robust and responsible Congressional oversight of Iranian compliance with any agreement reached.”

Did They or Didn’t They? Allegations of Israeli spying put cloud over Iran deadline

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Experts on intelligence matters in the United States are brushing off last week’s allegations from anonymous Obama administration sources alleging Israeli espionage concerning the multilateral nuclear negotiations. Scholars such as Michael Makovsky at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) dismissed the allegations, first published in The Wall Street Journal, and accusations that Israel was feeding illicitly obtained information to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as nothing more than normal behavior hyped by the White House to besmirch the Jewish state.

“It seems part of the administration’s campaign to attack Israel,” said Makovsky. “That has maybe subsided in recent days after some pushback by Democrats.”

The revelations came in the final days leading up to the negotiations’ self-imposed March 31 deadline, as Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from five other nations attempted to finalize a deal preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration provided high-level briefings on the talks to Israeli government officials but abruptly canceled them over frustration with Israeli espionage activities.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official told the newspaper.

Yet, leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill said that they were unaware of anyone receiving these alleged briefings from the Israelis or that they were provided with any information about the negotiations that was not already public or not provided in closed-door briefings by U.S. officials.

“Frankly, I was a bit shocked because there was no information revealed to me whatsoever,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference the morning the story broke. “I was shocked by the fact that there were reports in this press article that information was being passed on from the Israelis to members of Congress. I’m not aware of that at all.”

Although the United States and Israel maintain strong ties in defense and intelligence matters — often sharing information on security threats — the article alleged that the Israelis were active in obtaining information on the talks that was not publicly available other than through espionage, but it did not mention which methods were used and who the Israelis monitored to obtain this information.

It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S.legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy.

Beyond a “gentleman’s agreement” against spying on allies, Israel pledged to permanently suspend all espionage activities against the United States following the capture and incarceration of former U.S. intelligence contractor Jonathan Pollard in the mid-1980s.

“It is a very well-known fact that at that time and since then, Israeli leaders have made this pledge quite clearly, repeatedly, that they were not going to do that again,” said Meir Elran, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I do not have any reasons to doubt that it is an ongoing policy and that Israel is keeping to it religiously.”

As expected, senior officials with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office unequivocally denied the administration’s allegations.

That Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have met, often publicly, with American lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other branches of government is no surprise, said Elran. That they would discuss Iranian nuclear ambitions, which Netanyahu has described as an existential threat to Israel, is no surprise either.

“When a given country is perceiving a situation or a phenomenon that is an important threat to deal with, it needs information,” said Elran. “So it collects whatever information it’s possible to acquire. … There are different ways and means to collect reliable information without breaching this kind of commitment.

“If you ask me, I would say it would be very unwarranted on the part of Israel not to do whatever it can in order to collect the most reliable information on the issues,” he continued. “It considers this to be of very high significance.”

Should They Stay or Should They Go? Aliyah debate exposes French Jewry’s internal fault lines

PARIS — A burst of applause greeted Holocaust survivor Marek Halter and his close friend, Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, as they entered the Synagogue de la Victoire together in January.

Halter, a celebrated author and friend of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, is known for his outreach to moderate Muslims, and his appearance with Chalghoumi at the packed synagogue on Jan. 11 was seen as a hopeful sign after the murder of four Jews two days earlier at a kosher supermarket near the capital.

As the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence in France has led to record levels of immigration to Israel, Halter has emerged as a leading voice urging French Jews not to flee. In January, he published a 63-page manifesto, titled “Reconcile Amongst Yourselves,” that urged French Muslims and Jews to work together to make France a more tolerant place for minorities.

French Jews should “stay and fight for their place in society instead of packing their bags and leaving in the face of adversity,” Halter said in an interview.

Halter is among the most prominent French Jews to urge his coreligionists to stick it out in France, but his campaign is exposing tensions between integration-minded progressives — many of them Ashkenazi, like himself — and a more insular Sephardic majority that favors aliyah.

Sephardic Jews are believed to constitute a disproportionate number of French immigrants to Israel — 80 to 90 percent, according to Sergio DellaPergola, a sociologist at Hebrew University and one of the world’s foremost experts on Jewish demography. Overall, Sephardim represent about two-thirds of French Jewry.

The overrepresentation of Sephardim, according to DellaPergola, owes to “traumas that many North African Sephardim who settled in France after the 1950s brought with them, from living in Muslim societies where many enjoyed a peaceful coexistence but where many others were beaten and discriminated against.”

Violent anti-Semitism “brings back very unpleasant memories for Sephardic Jews, who already have a higher propensity to make aliyah also out of religious sentiment as they come from more traditionalist societies,” DellaPergola said.

Last year, 7,231 French Jews moved to Israel, a record-setting figure nearly three times the number who came in 2012 and which made France the world’s largest source of new Israeli immigrants. After the supermarket killings and the murder of a volunteer security guard outside a synagogue in Denmark, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was preparing for massive immigration and urged European Jews to consider the Jewish state their home. Some officials at the Jewish Agency, the semi-official body that coordinates global aliyah, expect as many as 15,000 Jews to arrive from France this year.

Following the attack at the Hyper Cacher market, Halter’s call for French Jews to stick to their proverbial guns was joined by other members of the French Jewish elite, including the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, who during the same meeting at Synagogue de la Victoire said, “Aliyah should never be the result of fear, only of an internal calling.”

But Siona, a group representing Sephardic French Jews, responded forcefully to a reproachful Halter opinion piece published in Le Monde last year urging Jews not to abandon their country to jihadists and the far-right National Front party.

“Instead of advising French Jews on a reality he does not know, Marek Halter should devote himself to the international salons he attends and the world greats he meets,” Siona’s president, Roger Pinto, said in a statement that seemed to underline widely held perceptions of a disconnect between the French Jewish elite and its rank and file.

The discourse reflects a “growing split in the different attitudes to aliyah — not so much between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but between a traditionalist majority where Sephardim constitute a strong element, and a secularist elite that has some prominent Ashkenazim, but also Sephardim,” said Karin Amit, an expert on French Jewry at the Ruppin Academic Center in Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of North African Jews immigrated to France in the 1950s, along with millions of Muslims. Replenishing the ranks of a community that lost a third of its members in the Holocaust, the newcomers inherited the community’s leadership from a declining population of Eastern European Jews. Current aliyah trends may return the leadership mantle to more secular and more assimilated Jews, DellaPergola said.

Among those determined to stay is Gilles Goldberg, an Ashkenazi businessman from the affluent suburb of St. Mande and one of those who applauded Halter at the synagogue on Jan. 11.

“Halter speaks for me because I agree that the current problems mean we need to work harder than ever on a solution,” Goldberg said. “But some of my friends, especially Sephardim, turn inward or to Israel for the answer.”

One of those friends is Serge Perez, who was born in Algeria and left after the start of the country’s civil war in the 1950s. Perez now lives in Paris, in a poor and heavily Muslim part of the city that provided some 40 percent of Jewish immigration from the Paris region.

“Some give French Muslims and society the benefit of the doubt,” Perez said at the synagogue. “But I have no doubt: French society gave up its Jews once and will again. And the Muslims, if they’re a majority where I live, I will live elsewhere.”

Wake-Up Call For Russia’s Jews, Nemtsov murder is reminder of their vulnerability

Thousands of demonstrators in Moscow protest the murder of Boris Nemtsov. (Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

Thousands of demonstrators in Moscow protest the murder of Boris Nemtsov.
(Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

During the past two years, Dima Zicer has skipped several political rallies opposing the chauvinistic policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A Jewish scholar of education from St. Petersburg, Zicer, 55, has limited hope for change in a country that is ranked 148th in the Press Freedom Index and where several of Putin’s critics have either died under mysterious circumstances or been jailed for what they and many Western observers say are trumped-up corruption charges.

On March 1, however, Zicer marched through St. Petersburg with 10,000 people, many of them Jewish, in protest of the murder in central Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. Nemtsov, an opposition leader, was gunned down Feb. 28 just hours after he urged fellow citizens to attend a rally against Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.

No arrests have been made in the killing, which took place on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion into Crimea. Russia has since annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

“This murder and the incitement that preceded it is so shocking that I could no longer remain an observer,” Zicer said.

Whether or not the Kremlin ordered the killing, as some have accused, Zicer holds the Russian president responsible because of the “the wild incitement he allowed on media in recent months against Nemtsov and other opposition figures.”

Kremlin spokesmen have denied any involvement in the slaying.

To many Russian Jews, the murder of Nemtsov — a physicist turned liberal politician, born to a Jewish mother but baptized in the Orthodox Church — is a troubling reminder of vulnerability as members of a relatively affluent minority with a history of being scapegoated, strong ties to the West and a deep attachment to cosmopolitan values and human rights.

The murder hit Russia’s sizable Jewish intelligentsia particularly hard because “nearly all the leaders of the liberal opposition are either fully Jewish or have Jewish background,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a writer for the Jewish monthly magazine L’chaim. “His murder is the low point in a process that started about two years ago which has left the Jewish intelligentsia and its milieu feeling more uneasy than ever before in post-communist Russia.”

To be sure, Nemtsov’s murder shocked countless Russians the world over, prompting vigils and marches in his memory. The main march in Moscow drew 60,000 people, but smaller events were held across the federation for Nemtsov, who at one time was second in command to Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, but ultimately was eclipsed by Putin before becoming one of his harshest critics.

In an interview conducted with Newsweek hours before his death, Nemtsov said that because of Putin’s policy, Russia’s economy is collapsing.

Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine was “wading into a costly, fratricidal war in Ukraine and into pointless confrontation with the West,” Nemtsov told the magazine.

“We all feel the effects of this insane policy,” Nemtsov said, adding that Putin’s use of media reminded him of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Putin responded to such criticisms by referring to opponents of Russia’s actions in Ukraine — and especially the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula — as a fifth column. And though Putin did not name Nemtsov, the president was widely thought to be referring to him, the liberal camp’s most senior politician. Russian media considered to have close Kremlin ties published Nemtsov’s name on lists of suspected traitors that started circulating shortly after those included on the lists expressed their opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

In a 2010 televised interview, Putin said that Nemtsov and other opposition figures stole billions from Russians and would “sell off the whole of Russia” if given the chance.

“Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV,” the Russian-Jewish journalist Leonid Bershidsky wrote on Bloomberg View after the murder.

Bershidsky added, “It did not help that he was Jewish. There was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the smear campaign.”

However, some Russians doubt that Putin would go to the trouble of ordering the assassination of a high-profile figure who ultimately may be more trouble dead than alive. Nemtsov, after all, had failed to gain widespread popularity outside the urban elite and thus never constituted any real political threat to Putin.

Edelstein noted that “there may have been anti-Semitic incitement online and in far-right circles,” but “Nemtsov wasn’t perceived as a Jew and wasn’t attacked as such.”

The evidence in Nemtsov’s killing, Edelstein believes, “points to ultranationalists, perhaps militiamen who fought in Ukraine, perhaps only their sympathizers.”

Nemstov himself was open about being born to a Jewish mother and said he rarely felt any discrimination.

“People tend to judge whether you are a thief or honest, competent or not,” he said during an interview in 2001 when he was asked about his Jewishness.

Raised by a single mother, Dina Eydman, a physician, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi and later in her native Nizhni Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow, Nemtsov received his doctorate in theoretical physics at 26.

“I never made it a secret that my mother is Jewish because I love my mother. I’m much indebted to my mother,” he was quoted as saying in a 1999 report about anti-Semitism in Russia.

“She has also drawn me into politics, though now she is not happy about this.”

In a telegram he sent Nemtsov’s 87-year-old mother, Putin wrote, “Everything will be done so that the organizers and executors of this vile and cynical murder are punished.”

Tanya Lvova, a Jewish mother from St. Petersburg and coordinator of the city’s Limmud conference on Jewish learning, said Nemtsov’s murder “does not make life more uncomfortable here because it is already as uncomfortable as can be.”

But Lvova said the killing does present her with a new concern.

“More than being afraid of living in a country where someone can be killed on the street for criticizing the government,” she said, “I am afraid of living in a country where this is considered a normal occurrence that doesn’t even create a very strong response.”

Children ‘Had Faces of Angels’

An Orthodox Jew stands near  the burial plots for seven children from the Sassoon family before their burial in Jerusalem on March 23. The seven children died early on Saturday when flames ripped through their Brooklyn home in one of New York City’s deadliest fires in years, officials said. Police identified the children who died as Yaakob Sassoon, 5, Sara, 6, Moshe, 8, Yeshua, 10, Rivkah, 11, David, 12, and Eliane, 16. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS/Newscom)

An Orthodox Jew stands near the burial plots for seven children from the Sassoon family before their burial in Jerusalem on March 23. The seven children died early on Saturday when flames ripped through their Brooklyn home in one of New York City’s deadliest fires in years, officials said. Police identified the children who died as Yaakob Sassoon, 5, Sara, 6, Moshe, 8, Yeshua, 10, Rivkah, 11, David, 12, and Eliane, 16. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS/Newscom)

The Brooklyn father who lost seven of his eight children in a home fire called his kids “a sacrifice” to the community.

Gabriel Sassoon sobbed as he tried to recite the names of his late children during a eulogy Sunday at a Jewish funeral home in the heavily Orthodox Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the New York Post reported.

“They all had faces of angels. Hashem knows how much I love them,” Sassoon said, according to the Post.

He was out of town at a religious conference when the fire consumed his home shortly after midnight Saturday. Officials have blamed an unattended hot plate warming Shabbat meals as the cause.

The children were buried Monday in Jerusalem.

“They were a burnt offering,” Sassoon said of his children. “I lost everything in the fire. Seven pure sheep. Those are my seven children.”

His wife, Gayle, and one of his daughters, Tziporah, 15, escaped the blaze by leaping from the house, but on Monday were fighting for their lives in the hospital, unaware of the seven deaths.

About 1,000 people lined the street outside the Shomrei Hadas funeral home for the service Sunday, according to the Post. Inside, an overflowing crowd of mourners wailed for the lost children, who ranged in age from 5 to 16.

Gayle Sassoon reportedly had planned to take the children out of town for the weekend — to her parents’ home in southern New Jersey — but stayed home because of a snowstorm that hit the New York area.

The fire trapped the victims in the second-floor bedrooms of their home, The New York Times reported.

Robert Katz, a Rockville resident and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that in a house fire of that magnitude, usually more than one thing goes wrong. Therefore, he strongly urged that anything left burning while residents are away or asleep should be located far from anything that can catch fire.

He advised families to make sure their smoke detectors are working properly and that every member of the family knows exactly what to do in case of a fire. Homes should be equipped with fire extinguishers, he added.

Other safety considerations to remember include making sure circuits aren’t overloaded and that a towel or any fabric that may be covering a pot lid not be anywhere near the fire element, Katz said.

It’s important that people immediately call their fire department rather than try and extinguish the flames themselves as they waste valuable time and may make the fire worse, Katz said.

Sometimes an observant person may be reluctant to use a telephone on Shabbat, but Katz stressed that it would be a sin not to call for help as it could be life-saving.

A hot plate, often the size of a cookie tray, is one of the least expensive ways to heat food and is plugged in throughout Shabbat, explained Rabbi Uri Topolosky, chair of the Beltway Vaad.

Alternatives include ovens that have a Shabbat mode, which enables the heat to be regulated overnight, he said. Also used are warming trays that are often built into a pull-out drawer.

Israeli Innovation Extends to Weed

032015_marijuanaIsrael is widely known as the “startup nation” for the plethora of innovation coming out of its tech-savvy entrepreneurs and researchers. And when it comes to medicinal cannabis, Israel does not disappoint.

From state-of-the-art vaporizers to groundbreaking research, Israel continues to advance the idea that marijuana can be used to treat a host of diseases, according to Lex Pelger. The Jewish state has even emerged as something of a leader in the industry.

“There are a couple of powerhouses around the globe for endocannabinoid research, and Israel is one of the most predominant groups,” said Pelger, a Brooklyn-based writer who recently traveled to Israel for a graphic novel he’s writing about the human body’s endocannabinoid system, which mediates the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

Several companies in Israel, which has been issuing medical cannabis licenses since 2004, are working on new ways to administer the medicine to patients.

In January, Yissum Research Development Company Ltd., the technology transfer arm of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced a collaboration with Phytotech Medical Ltd. to develop new delivery methods to enhance the absorption of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis shown to have therapeutic uses, and/or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

“[There are] two products that we’re working on. One is a pill with very advanced bio-availability,” said Boaz Wachtel, an Israeli cannabis activist and managing director of Phytotech. “The second product is a patch inside the cheek that will have a slow release of cannabinoids. Eventually it will dissolve and you can swallow it with no problem.”

In January, Phytotech became the first medical marijuana company on the Australian Securities Exchange and raised the equivalent of $4.7 million for its work. Wachtel said the company is also developing a high- efficiency vaporizer that would improve cannabinoid absorption.

Another Israeli company, Syqe Medical, developed a metered-dose inhaler through research supported by $1 million in state grant funds.

According to reports, a Canadian company, MedReleaf, working in conjunction with Israeli company Tikkun Olam, now produces cannabis that is not intoxicating but high in CBD, which research has shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.

While the expertise from Israel is being exported around the globe, actual marijuana plants are not, although some officials have pushed for a change in regulations.

Michael Dor, a physician and senior medical adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Health’s cannabis unit, said export of the plant was debated in the government with no final decision on the issue. He said the issue may come up again once a new government is established following the recent Israeli elections.

“We know some people would like very much to export,” Dor said. “On the other hand, there are some people who a very, very afraid of how Israel would be perceived.”

Israel’s foray into cannabis research began more than 50 years ago when a curious scientist wanted to know what cannabis’ chemistry looked like.

Medical cannabis research can be traced back to Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli chemist who discovered two crucial compounds in cannabis in the 1960s.

“I was at the Weizmann Institute at that time; I was and still am a natural products chemist,” Raphael Mechoulam, 85, recalled. “I was kind of surprised to find out that while morphine had been isolated from opium 100 years, 150 years previously and cocaine had been isolated from the cocoa plant almost a century previously, cannabis chemistry was not known, so I started working on it. I got material from the police.”

Through a police connection, Mechoulam got a sizable amount of Lebanese hash, which he transported himself back to his lab. In 1963, he discovered CBD. A year later, he discovered THC.

“He started the great wave of cannabis research,” Wachtel said.

About 20 years after those discoveries, Mechoulam mapped out the endocannabinoid system, which is involved in appetite, pain-sensation, mood and memory.

Mechoulam even did some early work on CBD extracts, which research in Israel and the United States is finding to be helpful in alleviating seizures in pediatric epilepsy and other disorders.

“We published a paper 35 years ago. Unfortunately nobody was very interested, and now people found out that, yes, things we published were correct,” he said. He is a noted critic of how slow medical cannabis development can be and the lag in getting medicine in the hands of patients.

His research was supported by the National Institutes of Health for decades.

“Raph Mechoulam is one of the most respected and godfathery researchers of marijuana,” said Ryan Vandrey, a cannabis researcher and associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

These days, about 13,000 patients hold medical cannabis licenses in Israel. Although licenses were first issued in 2004, it wasn’t until two years ago that the country established a National Medical Cannabis Program with adherence to United Nations drug conventions, Wachtel said. It is the third country to do so, after Holland and Canada.

Patients can obtain licenses for chronic pain, orphan diseases (rare diseases that affect a small portion of the population), cancer, HIV with weight loss, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, malignant tumors and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients can smoke cannabis or use oil, laced brownies, ointments and pre-rolled joints. In oncology wards, patients can use vaporizers.

Tel Aviv resident Sylvia Sheinbaum can speak firsthand to how medical cannabis helps those suffering from PTSD and chronic pain, which for her dates back to a car accident more than a decade ago.

Sheinbaum said she was having recurring nightmares and night sweats and had trouble sleeping and getting out of bed in the morning.

“It brought me from a point where I slept every two hours and I slept for two hours [a night] for a year and couldn’t get out of the house, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t do anything really, to something where I’m fully active as a cannabis advocate,” she said. “I’m busy with that, so it changed my life a lot. I sleep through the night and I have a normal life.”

Her organization, Pot for the Old Timers, advocates for people 50 and older to have access to cannabis to make the aging process more palatable and to fend off depression.

Mechoulam also sees a future in geriatric use of cannabis and its derivatives to raise the standard of living in the elderly. He sees endocannabinoid compounds becoming a part of medicine, as discoveries have shown promise in osteoporosis and certain types of brain injuries.

“I believe endocannabinoid compounds will become important drugs within the next decade and may be used in a lot of diseases for [which] we don’t have usable drugs,” he said. “But for them, it needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

Dor is excited about new research in oncology, intestinal illnesses as well as CBD treatment of epilepsy.

Ruth Gallily, a retired professor of immunology at Hebrew University, said there are indications that cannabis and its compounds can help lower diabetes risk and improve liver function.

“It’s very encouraging,” she said.

Wachtel added that new research shows it may help reduce damage from heart attacks and help the body accept foreign organs.

He attributes the Israeli cannabis environment to a few things, one being the normalization of cannabis thanks to the Green Leaf Party, which he co-founded in 1999 and which helped make the issue a national conversation, as well the fact that the plant isn’t stigmatized the way it is elsewhere, like the U.S.

“It’s a small country and the benefits of medical cannabis vibrated the psyche much sooner than in other big countries,” Wachtel said.

All About Bibi On Election Day in Israel, change comes as decisive victory

032015_cover1BEERSHEVA, Israel — When he called for new elections late last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast the contest as a referendum on his rule. On Tuesday, amid early energetic turnout and anecdotal evidence of successful get-out-the-vote operations by Netanyahu’s political enemies on the left, the prime minister got what he wanted.

Put simply, he won. But even with the decisive victory of his Likud Party, which according to vote totals, garnered 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to the Zionist Union slate’s 24, the first task of forming a coalition may prove difficult.
In this windswept gateway city to southern Israel’s Negev Desert region, pretty much the only thing voters agreed on in the March 17 parliamentary elections was that love him or hate him, it was all about Netanyahu.

Noa Herman, 26, a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from Asheklon, said she was casting her vote for the Zionist Union bloc led by Isaac Herzog, who conceded the election late Tuesday night.

“I believe Herzog [is] someone who can lead and also represent all the different groups in Israel,” said Herman. “In our party, there are Arabs, Russians and people from the periphery and young people, so this party can represent all of Israel.”

She believes Zionist Union, which is made up of Herzog’s Labor Party and the Tnuah Party led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has the best approach to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and appreciates the bloc’s socialist-leaning economics.


Hundreds of students at David Ben-Gurion University of the Negev main campus in Beersheva wait for free transportation vouchers in order to travel home and vote.

“I also believe we need a change in Israel, because I’m scared if there [is] another right-wing government,” added Herman. “I am hopeful we’ll win.”

President Reuven Rivlin must now ask either Herzog or Netanyahu to try to form a governing coalition representing at least 61 seats, but Netanyahu already began calling leaders of other parties.

If Herzog is asked, he’ll have a bigger hill to climb. Meretz, a natural left-wing coalition partner, won just four seats. He might include the Joint Arab List parties, representing 14 seats, in his coalition, but he would still need the support of a centrist party such as Kulanu — a new faction led by former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon that will get 10 seats — and possibly a haredi Orthodox party such as Shas, which garnered seven seats, or United Torah Judaism, which will receive six seats.

The inclusion of either of the religious parties, though, might prove problematic, given their aversion to establishing a Palestinian state and their support for social policies that are anathema to most of Herzog’s constituency.

A center-right coalition led by Netanyahu and including Likud’s 30 seats, along with Jewish Home’s eight, six from Israel Beitenu — a secular right-wing party led by Avigdor Liberman — and the support of Shas and Kulanu’s faction, altogether totaling 61 seats, is one of several possibilities. In opinion polls leading up to Election Day, Israelis even indicated their preference for Netanyahu to continue to an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister.

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with last-minute appeals. But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.

“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dry fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.

Just before the election, a Likud rally in Tel Aviv reportedly drew more than 25,000 people, and Netanyahu had taken in recent days to warning right-wing voters not to abandon Likud for fear of granting an electoral win to Zionist Union.

Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win re-election and wanted to push him further to the right.


An Israeli citizen casts her ballot.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy, and he’s religious.”

In Beersheva, Meital Dadosh, 21, who recently completed her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, said she was voting for Shas, but Nisim Vaknin, 51, was fully on the side of Netanyahu and Likud.

“I think it’s a strong party and that Netanyahu is strong,” Vaknin said through a translator. “[Netanyahu] stands up for his principles. He doesn’t want to return West Bank territories; he stands up for his state.

Still, Vaknin acknowledged the scandals that have tainted Netanyahu’s campaign, such as spending by the prime minister’s residence viewed by the public as profligate and the deterioration of late in Israeli-U.S. relations.

“There have been problems in the past, but I hope that the elections will improve them,” he said.

Guy Ben-Porat, head of the Department of Public Policy and Administration in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management at Ben Gurion, called Tuesday’s balloting “a very personal election.”

“It’s around Netanyahu,” said Ben-Porat. “It’s very much [about] his character and the people around him and on questions of integrity.”

It’s a “very personal election. … it’s very much [about] his character and the people around him.”

Ben-Porat saw little ideological debate in the run-up to the election and credited the two centrist parties, Kulanu and Yesh Atid, with turning it “into a very technical election” by appealing to Israeli citizens’ economic concerns. Polling last week indicated the availability of housing and the cost of living topped Israelis’ agendas.

But “Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — the two large parties and the two centrist parties have said very little about these issues,” said Ben-Porat. “It’s almost completely off the agenda. I think it shows on the one hand that Israelis are skeptical on the prospect for peace, so it doesn’t really matter who will be in charge, it will all be the same.”

Mazal Peretz, 51, and her friend, Orly Pahina, 47, arrived at a polling booth in Beersheva before 6 a.m. to set up campaign signs in support of Kahlon and Kulanu. They spent the remainder of the day assisting elderly people and those with disabilities to vote.

Peretz said through a translator that she hopes the election will bring “a social change, that it will change the way people think, that things will get better, and [Israelis] will wake up with a smile on their face.”

“I believe him,” Pahina said of Kahlon. “He’s working on behalf of the people.”

She offered the example of Kahlon’s push last year to dissolve the monopoly of cellphone carriers in Israel.

“It used to be very expensive for cellphones,” she said, adding, “He’s doing a lot for all the handicapped people.”

Tour guide Ori Zaber, 23, was adamant in her support for Meretz.

“I might be the only one who will be behind it, but I want Bibi to go,” he said. “We need a change, internal and external. I’m going to vote [Meretz] because Herzog’s is the biggest party, and because without Meretz in the Knesset, things would not look the same. And they’re right on the edge of disappearing.


The Zionist Union slate led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Tnuah leader Tzipi Livni will win as many Knesset seats as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

“I’m not going to support any party that will support Bibi,” added Zaber. “I want to change the leadership.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of Potomac, who led the Israel Project for 10 years, was in Tel Aviv for the Jewish Funders Network conference this week. She said this was her 30th trip to the Jewish state and that she’s noticed a change in how the people respond to elections. Some people are simply not interested.

“This time … there are the paid ads on TV and the paid billboards that are everywhere, but if you drive by people’s houses or apartments, you don’t see that they’ve put signs in their windows or on their yards,” said Mizrahi, who has worked with all of the major candidates through her advocacy efforts.

“They’re not going to stand up and wave a flag for them, because they’re not that sold, and they’re not that excited about them.”

As an outside observer, Mizrahi said she believes this election could offer a chance to regroup and improve Israel’s relationship across the entire global community.

“Netanyahu has a negative relationship with the president of the United States, and he’s had challenges with French and German leaders,” she said, “so this actually could be an opportunity for people who care about Israel’s place in the world to hit a restart button and repair and rebuild the relationship with Western democracies, which is really important for Israel’s security.”

JTA contributed to this story.;

The Somali Connection Muslim, Jewish communities unite to combat terrorist recruitment

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

Andrew Luger (at podium), U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, leads his state’s initiative to combat terrorist recruitment that targets the Somali community. (Provided)

As the U.S battles Islamist terrorism abroad, cities such as Minneapolis, with its large Muslim Somali population, have emerged as ground zero in the psychological and sociological battles at home. Somali community groups there have joined forces with the federal government to prevent terrorist recruitment as well as anchor, educate and support young Somalis in hopes to assuage an identity crisis that can leave many susceptible to recruitment tactics.

At the recent three-day conference at the White House on countering violent extremism, leaders from Minnesota’s Somali community presented their plans to counter recruitment efforts, in conjunction with local clergy, educators and law enforcement. Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and a prominent member of Minneapolis’ Jewish community, was asked to lead the initiative.

“From 2007 until today, our community has struggled with the cycle of recruiting by overseas terrorists,” Luger began, as he addressed the assembled group at the White House. After many months of meetings with hundreds of community members, “the Minnesota Somali community told us what it would take to combat this recruiting.”

Minnesota, and specifically its major metropolitan area of Minneapolis, is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, at approximately 33,000 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It comprises about one-third of the total Somali population nationwide.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their home country. Many landed in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which remains a densely Somali-populated area located a few miles from the downtown district and about midway between Minneapolis and its “twin city,” the state capital of St. Paul.

About a decade later, from 2007 to 2009, the FBI tracked more than 25 Somali Minnesotan young men traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. That initial wave included the first documented American-born suicide bomber, who in 2008 detonated himself during the Somali conflict against occupying Ethiopian armies.

Since then, more than 20 of the men have been federally charged for their involvement, but others remain active, pursuing young Somali-American men with savvy social media-based recruitment tactics “to join the fight overseas or conduct an attack in the United States,” said FBI agent Rick Thornton, who provided current intelligence to the summit attendees. And in 2013, more young Minnesota-based Somali-Americans traveled overseas to join terrorist organizations, he continued, “only this time instead of al-Shabaab, it was [the so-called Islamic State], and instead of Somalia, the destination was Syria.”

In the presentation, which also included comments from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Luger outlined the three main components of a proposed anti-recruitment pilot program that draws directly from the needs expressed by the Somali community.

The project intends to increase community engagement by local law enforcement, address the root causes of radicalization in the community — identity crisis, a lack of job opportunities, the need for mentors, a shortage of effective after-school programs and a widening disconnect between youth and their religious leaders were all noted as major factors — and develop community-led intervention teams trained to respond at the earliest signs of radicalization.

Now a year into his tenure as U.S. attorney, Luger didn’t realize at the outset he would take on such a high-profile initiative. But he said that following his instincts shortly after he was sworn in has paid off.

One of the first things he did was ask Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, where Luger is a member, to introduce him to several of the local imams. Zimmerman holds close ties with many clergy as part of an interfaith group that meets monthly.

“Growing up Jewish, I’ve had a deep respect for clergy of any faith,” said Luger. “I knew it would be important for me, no matter what, to reach out to the Muslim community. … When I knew the recruitment from 2007 and 2008 was back, I needed to start to understand the Somali community here, to see how I could assist on civil rights issues and the efforts to stop the recruiting, so it made sense for me to start with the religious leaders.”

Meetings take place about every four to five weeks, he said.

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Mohamed Farah, director of Ka Joog, is a leader among Minneapolis’ Somali organizations in his efforts to engage and connect young Somali men and women to the community. (David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

A month after Luger asked Zimmerman for assistance, Washington officials turned to him to coordinate anti-recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Luger, though, is the first to admit his is a community-driven effort. Joining Luger is Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog.

At the White House summit, Farah explained the mission of his organization to steer youth toward higher education, civic involvement and volunteer commitment by providing options and outlets for young Somalis. He relies on after-school programs, college preparation and leadership training to “break the cycle of recruiting and radicalization.”

“In 2007 and 2008, none of the community wanted to talk about al-Shabaab and that such things were taking place,” Farah said during an interview. “We didn’t have too many fans in the Somali community, but we did that because it was an issue that was a reality. Now more people realize it’s not just a Somali issue, but an American issue as well.”

Farah explained that about 80 percent of the young people he works with are American-born, but their Somali-born parents are “physically here, but mentally they’re back home.”

Parents encourage their children to become educated and return to help rebuild Somalia, he said. “So a lot of the kids have been confused, and a lot of the young people don’t know anything about Somalia, so that’s a big issue.” When conflicts arise, “the elders tend to use solutions that have worked in
Somalia, but because we’re in a different environment, that doesn’t work, so there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of communication between these two generations.”

Typically, parents don’t speak English well either, he added, “so there is a disconnect.”

It’s a dangerous and confusing situation if both parents and terrorist recruiters are telling young people to go back and take care of their home country, though obviously with very different motivations, he said. “But the idea of integrating into our society here in America is a lot better than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Now people are comfortable being here, thinking about the future of our community, and many nonprofits are making sure kids are graduating and giving back to their communities.”

Madeline Barnett, assistant director of community and public relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, knows the challenges of dealing with ethnic immigrant populations well. BJC regularly hosts several interfaith programs, such as the Jewish Muslim Dialogue, that includes programming directed at young adults.

“We need to teach young people about different [media] outlets so they can interpret [the information] and think about it through a critical lens,” said Barnett. “They’re capable, but we need to give them the tools to do so. I think it’s 100 percent necessary and effective” in educating young people against persuasive messaging.

At Luger’s suggestion, Zimmerman invited Farah and other members of Ka Joog to speak at a Temple Israel study session during Yom Kippur last fall. The session is traditionally used to draw congregants in to participate in dialogue that can sometimes include “difficult conversations” said Zimmerman, adding that she is proud to be part of a congregation where “even if people might disagree, they understand that talking is the antidote to violence and that these are our guests.”

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel invites her congregants to engage in “difficult conversations” because she believes communication is an antidote to violence. (Provided)

The hall was packed with about 300 people, with many standing on the periphery of the room, said the rabbi. Since there is nominal interaction between Jewish and Somali communities and a lot of press about terrorist recruitment activity, “it’s important to be based in facts. It’s important to confront [the issues], but also to know that the majority of Somalis want to be American and integrate into society and retain their culture, which Jews understand historically.

“We also wanted [the Somali community] to understand the Jewish perspective,” she added, “and if no one is at the table, then you can’t understand it.”

The members of Ka Joog spoke for about an hour, said Luger, who was in attendance, and “people were just fascinated to learn” about their lives in refugee camps, what it was like to come to Minnesota and what they’re doing to combat recruitment and actively build up their community.

“I think the Jewish community has a natural affinity for other communities that are developing their infrastructure and that want to succeed and pursue the American dream,” said Luger, “and you could feel it that day at Temple Israel.”

Bibi or Bougie? Despite focus on security, Israeli elections could come down to social issues

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Dr. Natan Sachs (Marc Shapiro)

Israelis will head to the polls early next week to cast their votes for the country’s 20th Knesset. As Election Day draws closer, the question has become: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retain his position, or will Isaac Herzog, the not-as-charismatic leader of the opposition Labor Party and its joint Zionist Union slate with Hatnuah, win out?

Pundits largely agree that the most probable outcome is a national unity government that likely will be tasked with conducting electoral reform. But a narrow Netanyahu government that would pair his Likud Party with right-wing religious parties is possible, as is an outright Herzog victory, provided centrist parties deliver in a big way.

On March 17, Israelis will vote on lists of parliamentary candidates put forward by front-runners Likud and Zionist Union along with Ha’am, Itanu, Jewish Home, Kulanu, Meretz, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as a joint United List of three Arab parties, Balad, Hadash and Ra’am Ta’al.

The threshold for any party to win seats in the Knesset is 3.25 percent of the total vote, with the legislative’s 120 seats then divvied up by vote percentages.

Polling data has shown that Israelis rank socioeconomic issues, cost of living and social equality as high on their list of priorities.

“What we’re seeing, what the polls are showing is that more Israelis are focused on socioeconomic issues and cost of living [rather] than security issues,” said Guy Ziv, assistant professor at the American University School of International Service and author of “Why hawks become doves: Shimon Peres and foreign policy change in Israel.”

Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, in a recent panel discussion alongside former Knesset member Yohanan Plesner of the now-defunct Kadima Party, agreed that Israelis say social issues are number one, but come Election Day, security issues could still reign.

“By and large, Israelis still vote on traditional issues,” he said, but there is maneuvering on the edges when it comes to such issues as housing costs, environmental concerns and poverty.

According to Plesner, most politicians are on the same page on Iran and other security issues.

“The main dogma … around security has crumbled,” said Plesner. “By and large, even [right-wing politician and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett] doesn’t want to control Palestinians in the West Bank.”

The policy differences among politicians are really minute, which Plesner predicted could help centrist parties focused on the economy and civil rights, such as Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, gain traction closer to the election.

Netanyahu, whom Israelis refer to as Bibi in common parlance — Herzog is referred to as Bougie — has played up his security bona fides, pressing on the Iran nuclear negotiations in talks both in Israel and before the U.S. Congress, an appearance last week that many pundits viewed as a campaign tactic.

But Netanyahu’s Washington, D.C., speech, which proved controversial among the American public, garnered the prime minister little sway at home.

“The speech had limited impact,” said Ziv. “It may have given Netanyahu a very mild boost. He is tied in the polls, so the speech is not a game changer.”

Israelis are largely indifferent to the Iran issue in Ziv’s estimation. He noted that it was not brought up in a recently televised debate.

“I think Israelis are tired of Netanyahu exaggerating the Iran issue,” continued Ziv. “His issue warnings have not materialized in terms of timeline.”

Despite so-called “Bibi fatigue” — an anti-Netanyahu rally drew 40,000 protesters to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last weekend — Netanyahu still comes out on top in terms of who the public views as prime minister material. With Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu announcing he would not join a Herzog government and Arieh Der’i of Shas backing Netanyahu, the prime minister should not be counted out.

A number of political personalities have emerged as potential successors to Netanyahu, Herzog being at the forefront of those who have made gains in the court of public opinion.

“Herzog is someone who has shown himself to be moderate, cool-headed,” Ziv said of the son of Israel’s sixth president. “He’s been criticized for being a nerd. He has a high-pitched voice that doesn’t sit well with Israelis who are used to a more authoritative [figure], but he is intelligent and hardworking.”

Moshe Kahlon, running on the Kulanu list, has been dubbed a “kingmaker” by Sachs. Kahlon’s party is crucial for any proposed government to cross the 60-seat threshold needed to control the Knesset. After the election, President Reuven Rivlin will review each party’s performance at the polls and decide, based in part of recommendations by new Knesset members, who to ask to become prime minister.

“Should [Kahlon] recommend Netanyahu to President Rivlin, the game is likely over, assuming Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox do not change their minds,” Sachs writes in a recent blog post. “Should Kahlon choose to side with Herzog … or the Zionist Union outperform the polls dramatically, a Herzog coalition would be possible as well.”

It is possible that Kahlon will recommend no one, or recommend himself, to Rivlin.

Left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon has served as the de facto opposition leader, vocally opposing Netanyahu and Likud policies on all fronts.

Despite the political jockeying, there are a huge number of Israelis who are undecided, said Plesner. There’s a feeling, he said, of “Why do we have to bother two years later?”

Israelis typically have a high voter turnout. By Plesner’s estimation, until the late 1990s more than 70 percent of eligible voters participated each election cycle. But as elections have been called with more frequency, there has been less enthusiasm to participate and anger over the cost of holding elections.

One group who may turn out in higher numbers are Israeli Arabs in order to vote for the United Arab list. Traditionally, Israeli Arabs have stayed away from the polls despite comprising 20 percent of the population.

Whereas in previous years Israelis living in America have traveled back to Israel to vote — only Israeli diplomats can cast ballots abroad — this year, there were no advertised election airfare specials by El Al.