Seeking Refuge African asylum seekers leaving Israel amid unwelcoming environment, uncertain future

092614_coverstory1Mutasim Ali fled the Darfur region of Sudan in 2009 seeking refuge from a government undergoing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“I’m ashamed to see that happening in my country, but because of your race, you feel you don’t belong to that place anyway,” he said. “That’s one of the major problems we face there.”

So Ali, 27, like many other non-Arab Sudanese people and Eritreans, journeyed to Israel, the nearest democratic country. Five years later, Ali is, by his description and that of monitoring groups, a “prisoner” at the Holot detention center in the western Negev, about 37 miles from the nearest city, Beersheva. While he and about 2,000 other detainees are free to come and go, they must check in with authorities three times a day and are subject to a 10 p.m. curfew at the facility; failure to follow the rules leads to imprisonment.

The detainees, say activists, remain in a state of sociopolitical limbo in a country largely unreceptive to an approximately 44,000-strong group of African immigrants; Jerusalem takes little action on granting asylum seekers the legal and social protections of refugee status.

On Monday, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the closing of Holot within 90 days and voided a measure the Knesset passed last December that allowedincarceration without trial for those who illegally entered the country. Asylum seekers and advocates counted it as a small victory in an uphill battle for refugee rights.

“While we are content with the court’s ruling, the Right Now coalition will continue to advocate for greater change and more protections … including a fair Refugee Status Determination process, a cessation of Israel’s deterrence policy of coercing asylum seekers to ‘voluntarily return,’ social residency and the right to work, including work permits, health care and welfare benefits and the condemnation of all racist rhetoric and violent incitement towards the asylum seekers,” said Maya Paley, co-founder of the Right Now coalition, a volunteer-run group working to raise awareness of the issue in the United States.

Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Paley’s comments alluded to life outside of Holot, which is still rife with obstacles for African asylum seekers.

“We didn’t expect this from Israel,” Ali said, explaining that he and other asylum seekers thought Israel’s history and democratic government would make it a welcoming place for those seeking refuge.

That people like Ali have received anything but a welcome embrace from the Jewish state has sparked protests within Israel and spurred activists and rabbis in the wider Jewish community, including in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to take notice. And while Israel determines what to do with the influx of asylum seekers, more than 6,000 have reversed course and headed to their home countries where, according to a new 83-page report by Human Rights Watch, they face possible criminal charges, torture and imprisonment.

Israeli law

Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Act, also known as the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” referred to Palestinians trying to cross into Israeli territory from neighboring countries, as well as all sub-Saharan Africans who entered Israel illegally, as infiltrators.

Bill Frelick, refugee program director at HRW and editor of the organization’s recent report, said the language in the law itself may be part of the reason Israel has been so unwelcoming to those seeking asylum.

“These are not people that have any intention of doing any harm to Israel,” he said. “The legal framework in the statute itself frames this as a security and legal issue.”

In January 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to indefinitely detain anyone entering Israel illegally. This was struck down by Israel’s High Court in September 2013, but other regulations have since allowed for the arrest and detention without trial of anyone entering the country suspected of committing certain crimes.

092614_coverstory3Detainees would end up at Holot. As of mid-June 2014, HRW determined, there were 2,369 of them there.

Israelis and the Jewish community should demand better, said Columbia native Anna Rose Siegel, coordinator of the Right Now coalition’s regional activities in Baltimore and Washington.

“As Jews our commitment is to those who have experienced parallel persecution,” she explained. “Israel was founded as a refugee nation.”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Rockville similarly keeps human rights at the forefront of his concerns. He is on the board of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and serves as director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a one-year educational program on Judaism and human rights for young professionals. For the last couple of years, the fellows have spent a day of their study tour in Israel exploring the issue of African refugees.

Whether drawing from halachic, rabbinical or historical sources, Schwarz said, they all point to Israel being a place of refuge.

“We are a people who in our history oftentimes needed refuge. The Holocaust is the most recent example, perhaps even more recently that Israel has been a haven for Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina and France,” he said. “I think just from the perspective of history, a Jewish state should have as compassionate a policy towards refugees as possible.”

He also cites the Passover story, in which Jews were strangers in Egypt, as demonstrating why Jews should be sensitive to other strangers.

At ‘Warp Speed’

Dr. Myron Levine (Provided)

Dr. Myron Levine (Provided)

Four thousand miles from the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a team of Baltimore doctors and researchers is scrambling to help develop a vaccine that could stop the deadly disease’s rapid spread.

“We’ve rewritten the chapter [on Ebola],” said Dr. Myron Levine, a professor of medicine with a specialty in immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, even as federal officials warned on Tuesday that there could be upward of 1.4 million cases by January.

Prior to the outbreak, said Levine, the only major efforts to develop a protection against the Ebola virus were in the interest of national security. In the tense years following Sept. 11, 2001, the government had determined that it should prepare for the possibility of the virus being used as a bioterror agent. That the disease might become a major public health concern, he said, was not even on the radar for most immunologists and health care professionals.

Then, in late July, Ebola exploded onto world consciousness when Doctors Without Borders announced they could no longer control the disease, which had first begun showing up in Guinea and Sierra Leone in March, according to Time magazine. The international medical organization asked for assistance. By early August, the World Health Organization had declared the outbreak a global health emergency; the U.N. Security Council declared the crisis a threat to international peace and security last week.

In August, Levine was home getting ready to go on a bicycle ride when he received a call from the WHO asking for his assistance in developing a fast-acting vaccine to combat the outbreak.

Over the course of the past month, Levine and other UMd researchers have worked closely with other medical teams from around the world as a consortium trying to move at what Levine describes as “warp speed” to produce a vaccine. So far, testing on animals has been successful, and UMd and the National Institutes for Health have begun testing on humans in the Maryland area. But testing in a controlled environment on healthy patients with no exposure to the disease is far from testing in an environment like West Africa, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 5,300 cases and 2,600 deaths as of Sept. 18.

Health care professionals working on stopping Ebola’s spread have identified three groups of people with greater risk of becoming infected, said Levine. First on the list is health care workers. In many places, he said, the rapid spread of the virus has caused nurses and other workers to become too afraid to go to work. Ideally, these people would be the first to receive the vaccine, he said.

Second is the families of those who have become infected. Unfortunately, this group is the hardest to reach, he said, because it is extremely difficult to predict who will become infected early enough to treat their family members. Third is the people involved in burying the dead. Often, this involves family members, but reaching those who make a living helping in burials shouldn’t be too difficult in Levine’s opinion.

The plan, said Levine, is to get vaccine test samples to Mali, where Ebola has not appeared. Developers would like to start giving the drug to health care workers first, as they are at the some of the highest risk for infection. From there, the hope is to cross the border into Guinea, where the virus has taken the highest toll.

Though Ebola remains an ocean away from Baltimore, Levine said everyone should be wary of the outbreak’s spread.

“We have a so-called ‘flat world,’ in the sense that there’s a lot of travel,” he said. “If someone gets on an airplane and happened to have been contacted and happened, unknowingly, to be infected and is incubating, then [they] get on an airplane and go to another place, [they] then could become sick after [they] arrive.”

Levine added that many of common symptoms of Ebola are very similar to symptoms of other common illnesses in West Africa. As a result, those infected and those treating them sometimes fail to recognize the virus in time to take adequate precautions to prevent spreading the disease.

Should the current outbreak spread to urban slums in other parts of the world, Levine said, the results could be devastating.

“We hope that that’s not going to happen,” he said. But “things that we would never have imagined are occurring, in terms of transmission.”

Baltimore Gets a Glimpse of Obama

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(Photo by Marc Shapiro)

More than 200 people lined the streets of northwest Baltimore Friday afternoon in the hopes of catching a glimpse of President Barack Obama on his way to a fundraising dinner for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Yosef Wiener and his wife left their Shabbot meal cooking to walk about a half mile from their home to the corner of Green Meadow Parkway and Edenvale Road to show their young children the presidential motorcade. They had heard about the president’s visit through word-of-mouth and thought it might be a good learning opportunity for their kids, who stood on the curb waving American flags as they waited.

Friends Zacharya Volosov, Chaim Lejtman and Shuli Katz took the advantage of the downtime between dismissal at Talmudical Academy and the start of Shabbat to try to see the president in their neighborhood. The visit was the talk of the school all week, they said, and it had become a kind of game to guess where the president’s helicopter would land in the area.

While the majority of the people gathered had come to watch the black limousines make their way through the Cheswolde streets, some had come to send a message to the country’s highest executive.

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(Photo by Marc Shapiro)

“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” read one sign held by an attendee with the CASA de Maryland group that had arrived to protest the president’s recent decision to delay any immigration reform.

“Stop Terrorism, Support Israel,” read another sign on the opposite side of the street.

“The Jewish community needs to realize that Democrats are not their friends,” said Ruth Goetz, who brought signs with her for people to borrow protesting the Obama administration’s policies on Israel.

The president landed in Port Covington just before 4 p.m. and headed straight to FortMcHenry, where he, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin; Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake viewed the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner.

The dinner was hosted by former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) president Howard Friedman, along with Josh Fidler, an area developer who hosted another fundraiser attended by Obama in 2012. Tickets to the event cost between $10,000 and $32,400 and featured a 10-minute sppech by Obama concerning some of the most high-profile issues of the day followed by questions from dinner attendees.

“And if you want to know why we’re here today, it’s because having a strong Democratic Senate allows us to continue to pursue a vision of an inclusive, progressive, economic agenda that is going to continue to give more and more people the chance to pursue the American Dream in the way that I have and Howard has, and so many people around this room have,” Obama told guests. The president also took questions after his speech.

In addition to the Senate, the president spoke about international conflicts, including Ukraine and ISIS.

“I made a speech this week discussing what is the most prominent threat that we face in the Middle East when it comes to terrorism, and that is the organization ISIL, that has not only taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria but displayed the kind of brutality that even by the standards of terrorists is extraordinary,” Obama said. “And I am very confident that with an Iraqi government in place that is committed to the kind of inclusive government that is needed there and sadly has not been there for some time, and the kind of coalition that we’re putting together internationally, and most importantly, the incredible courage and dedication and skills of our men and women in uniform, we’re going to be able to push them back and ultimately destroy them.”

Baltimore Jewish Times reporter Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.

Digging Deep

Palestinians view what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel in the Rafah area of southern Gaza. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Palestinians view what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel in the Rafah area of southern Gaza.
Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

OR YEHUDA, Israel — Something that looks like a can of soda could be Israel’s high-tech answer to the network of tunnels that Hamas has created under the Gaza border.

A sensor known as a geophone can detect underground movement based on the sound generated by the movement, the Israeli defense firm manufacturing the device says. The firm, Elpam Electronics, says the geophone is capable of finding the location of a person crawling as far down as 32 feet.

Israel has grappled with the danger of the Gaza tunnels for years, but the threat has gained greater urgency in the wake of Protective Edge, the military operation launched last month. A ground invasion of Gaza that started five weeks ago had the stated aim of neutralizing the tunnels, 32 of which were subsequently destroyed, according to the Israeli military.

Now the mission is continuing in the research labs of Israeli defense firms. Both Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and, according to several Israeli reports, Elbit Systems are at work on systems to detect tunnels. Neither company would comment on their research. But Elpam agreed to provide a look at the technology it’s been working on for decades and is now adapting to address the current threat.

Iky Koenig, Elpam’s CEO, wants Israel to bury hundreds of sensors in a constellation around the Gaza border. By next year the company hopes to have developed a monitoring system that can locate tunnel activity and differentiate it from other subterranean noise.

“Let’s say there’s a suspicion of activity from military intelligence or [the sound of] spoons digging,” Koenig said. “You put these things in the ground and if someone hears spoons, we’ll hear it like a bulldozer.”

In 1988, Elpam created its sensors to assist in search-and-rescue operations. The sensors were designed to detect sound frequencies in the ruins of destroyed buildings. Rescuers could hear people trapped under the debris and the trapped could respond. Dozens of the kits, which can fit inside a lightweight vest, were sold to the Israel Defense Forces.

An updated version of this system aimed at locating people trapped in the rubble of downed buildings could help Israel detect subterranean tunnels from Gaza.  Ben Sales

An updated version of this system aimed at locating people trapped in the rubble of downed buildings could help Israel detect subterranean tunnels from Gaza.
Ben Sales

Elpam also developed and sold two tunnel detection systems to the IDF in 2005 and 2006. One was intended to detect tunnels along the Phila-delphi Corridor on the Egypt-Gaza border, but the company could not say whether the system was ever deployed.

In a statement last week, the IDF said it had considered two tunnel detection systems in 2005 and 2006 that were not effective. The IDF said it is now combining those systems and readying them for field testing.

The military expects deployment of the system to take one year and cost between $424 million and $565 million. The IDF would not confirm whether those systems were developed by Elpam.

The sensor concept is not without its critics.

Yiftah Shapir, a military technology expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said rows of sensors cannot detect tunnels that turn or intersections between multiple tunnels. Shapir also said the sensors do not have the ability to detect tunnel openings, which was among the key goals of the ground invasion.

“You think a tunnel starts in one place and ends in another,” he said. “There are three or four entrances. In the middle there are junctions. It’s never just in one place. [The IDF] went in essentially to look at where the other openings are.”

Atai Shelach, CEO of the defense firm Engineering Solutions Group, said the sensors will also have trouble pinpointing tunnels that are only a few feet wide.

At best, he said, the technology will merely complement the military’s intelligence operations, not replace them.

“If [the sensor] will be effective at one point for a very great depth, it only solves a small part of the problem,” said Shelach, a former commander in the IDF Engineering Corps. “If it only finds one tunnel, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other tunnels. Until there’s a broad solution, there won’t be a choice but to rely on intelligence.”

Sotloff Remembered for Unique Middle East Coverage

Matthew VanDyke (Provided)

Matthew VanDyke (Provided)

Baltimore native and documentary filmmaker Matthew VanDyke knew Steven Sotloff wasn’t like other journalists. His love for the Middle East region and the time he took to learn Arabic and get to know the culture gave his coverage a deeper perspective, VanDyke said.

He pointed to Sotloff’s work on the Benghazi attack in 2012.

“He was one of the first people to actually go over there and take the time to track down witnesses and talk to them, whereas most of the reporting was superficial early on. But he really liked the legwork. He spoke the language. He understood cultural things,” VanDyke said. “He wasable to get to a different layer of the Middle East.”

VanDyke first met Sotloff in 2012 during his Middle East travels, in which he was fighting with rebels to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The two remained in touch until Sotloff’s August 2013 capture and eventual transfer to Islamic State operatives, who released a video of his beheading on Sept. 2.

VanDyke last saw Sotloff in Washington, D.C., last summer when the two had dinner along with VanDyke’s girlfriend and several Syrian activists prior to Sotloff heading to Syria.

“It’s a mixture of sadness, a little bit of shock, anger,” VanDyke said of Sotloff’s beheading. “It’s just appalling trying to imagine myself in his situation, what stuff he had to go through … if he was present during James Foley [being beheaded].”

Sotloff reported from Syria, Egypt and Libya and was published in Time, the “World Affairs Journal” and Foreign Policy.

A funeral was held for Sotloff on Friday, Sept. 5, at Temple Beth Am in Miami, where he attended as a child and where his mother, Shirley, teaches preschool, according to reports. Although there was no body, the funeral was held quickly in accordance with Jewish customs, and his family planned to sit shiva, reports said. Hundreds, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, attended.

Sotloff was also an Israeli citizen, a fact Israeli officials kept quiet for his safety, according to reports.

Following Sotloff’s death, which came two weeks after U.S. journalist James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State, President Barack Obama vowed to crush the group. The president was expected to discuss his plan on Wednesday.

White House Sparks Ire

Several Jewish organizations have expressed their disappointment in President Barack Obama’s delay on addressing immigration until after the mid-term elections in November.

Speaking to the new host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd, on Sunday, the president justified breaking an earlier promise that he would reform immigration policy by executive order by the end of the summer, because waiting until the fall will be “more sustainable and more effective.”

Several organizations, some of whom had written the White House at the end of last week, expressed their disappointment in the president and in Congress for failing to help immigrant families and children who have come to America to escape Central American violence.

“Delay means that thousands more hardworking immigrants, some of whom have been in this country for decades, will be needlessly torn from their homes, jobs, communities and families,” Melanie Nezer, vice president of advocacy and policy at HIAS, a global Jewish organization that aims to protect refugees, said in a statement. “Delay means support and solutions for the children and others seeking relief from relentless violence in Central America will remain on hold. The delays have gone on long enough.”

Some see the delay as a calculated political move to avoid potential impacts an executive order would have on the November elections.

“We are deeply disappointed that the president is bowing to the pressure of those who fear that taking a stand will impact their chances of reelection in November,” Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in a statement. “While we believe that the president’s commitment to comprehensive reform is sincere, we question how the administration can continue to allow 1,100 undocumented residents to be deported each and every day.”

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focused its sentiments on the various effects a delay on immigration will have.

“Because of Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, family members remain separated, employers continue to face challenges meeting their needs, our nation’s security is weakened and undocumented young people who wish to contribute to the only nation they know as home — and their families — live with uncertainty about their future,” Barbara Weinstein, director of the commission on social action of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “The time for action on immigration reform is long past due.”

Earlier this month, a coalition of 40 interfaith leaders — including Kaufman; Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the HIAS; Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek Orthodox Social Justice and Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — sent the president a one-sentence letter about potential executive action on Central American immigrants.

“While we celebrate the potential of executive action to alleviate the suffering caused by our nation’s broken immigration system — particularly in light of political inaction in Congress — it must not come at the cost of due process and access to humanitarian protection for children and families fleeing violence in Central America,” it read.

In a conference call prior to the president’s decision, Kaufman spoke about the Passover story and how Jews were once “strangers in a strange land” as well as the Jews of Europe being prevented to enter the U.S. and other counties during the Holocaust.

“We recall not only our ancient history, but our more recent history when we were rejected at the door of this country and most countries in the 1940s and as a result lost millions of our people,” said Kaufman. “Passover tells a story of liberation, and we remember that we were strangers, and we remember that it is our mandate to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry.”

Star-Studded Sendoff

Joan Rivers (File photo)

Joan Rivers (File photo)

The funeral for legendary Jewish comedienne Joan Rivers, who passed away Sept. 4 at the age of 81, a week after suffering cardiac arrest during routine throat surgery, was a star-studded affair indeed.

“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” said her daughter, Melissa. And the tributes that were spoken at Temple Emanu-El in New York on Sunday certainly reflected Rivers’ joy for making people smile.

Howard Stern delivered the eulogy, Audra McDonald sang “Smile,” and bagpipers from the New York City Police Department played “New York, New York.”

“It was uplifting. We were celebrating her life,” said fashion designer Dennis Basso. Hugh Jackman sang “Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage” at the end of the ceremony.

Among the attendees were Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelly Osbourne, Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, Diane Sawyer, Kathie Lee and Donald Trump.

Known for never holding back when it came to providing her unfiltered opinions on everything from what Kim Kardashian was wearing on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standup comedienne — known for her catchphrase “Can we talk?” — was renowned for her fearlessness, tenacity and courageousness to say whatever was on her mind.

Rivers began her career as a standup comic in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a time when the words “female” and “comedy” almost never went hand in hand. Rivers’ performances led to her first appearance on national television, which was a guest spot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” a gig she said was responsible for launching her professional career.

In more than five decades, Rivers hosted two syndicated talk shows, recorded comedy albums, appeared in numerous films, TV shows and standup specials, had her own jewelry line on the Home Shopping Channel and was the author of 12 best-selling non-fiction humor, memoir and self-help books. Recently, she was best known for hosting “Fashion Police” on E!, a weekly program that launched in 2010 in which she, Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, George Kotsiopoulos and a number of celebrity guests commented on the best and worst looks donned by Hollywood celebrities. Rivers also shared a reality TV series with her daughter called “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (2011-2014) and launched a YouTube series in 2013, “In Bed With Joan,” where she interviewed celebrities and comedians, including her first guest, fellow Jewish funny girl Sarah Silverman.

In July, she appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I Synagogue to discuss her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” with journalist Hanna Rosin. Washington Jewish Week reported on the event, noting that Rivers gave every ticket holder a copy of the book with an autographed nameplate, as she said it was “too cheesy” to ask people to buy it. During the talk, Rivers provided her thoughts on Heidi Klum, Helen Keller, the Kardashians, and her fondness for telling Jewish jokes.

Her opening joke was about Heidi Klum and the Holocaust: “I haven’t seen anything that hot since the Germans were pushing Jews into the ovens,” she said. “I’ll get [it] from the ADL for insulting the Jews, but if I had said the gypsies, the Jews would have complained they were left out.”

And her thoughts on Anne Frank? “I’m nothing like Anne Frank. She lived in a walk-up; I live in a penthouse. She stayed home all the time; I go out shopping.”

Rivers said she performed a lot of Jewish jokes “to remind people about who we are and that we’re still here … and to shake things up.” She went on to talk about the difficulties of becoming a successful comedienne as a young woman and how she remained grateful to Johnny Carson.

“I have never found being a woman in this age to be a hindrance,” she said. “Back then I couldn’t do an abortion joke. … I couldn’t even say I was pregnant on the air to Ed Sullivan. I had to say soon I will be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” She also told the audience that she never thought she ever went “too far” with a joke. “Every time I can make someone laugh, it’s like giving them a small vacation,” she said.

Battle Scars

This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith via Wikimedia)

This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion.
(CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith via Wikimedia)

With the news that Maryland will be home to some of the latest efforts to develop a vaccine to combat Ebola, the deadly outbreak taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is seemingly getting closer and closer.

At American Jewish World Service, the outbreak resulted in a halt in regular programming in order to host emergency funding for the organization’s partners in West Africa.

“In Liberia we have grassroots organizations on the ground that have been doing organizing, fighting for women’s rights, fighting for land rights,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS. The organization provided the extra funds to the already-established groups they work with on a regular basis that have, in recent weeks, turned their attention to combating the spread of Ebola.

“They are human rights and anti-poverty groups that are community-based, so the people in those organizations know their own communities, and they are better equipped, I think, probably than anybody to step forward and do public health outreach, public health education, disease prevention,” she added.

Having worked in Liberia for years, AJWS recognized that a general mistrust in government can make public education difficult. The groups the organization has chosen to fund will use the money to operate largely through person-to-person outreach and radio programming to teach people how to recognize symptoms of the virus and what steps to take when they come into contact with someone who might have the illness.

Though AJWS only works in one country that is experiencing an outbreak, Liberia, Messinger said she and her staff are also working with community organizations in neighboring countries to educate people before the problem spreads.

“We’re actually in the process, I believe, of making a grant to one group that we have worked with for a long time in Senegal,” she said. “This is a group that basically does public organizing and education. They’re journalists and rappers, and they use music” to raise public awareness.

While Messinger and AJWS were proud of the more than $100,000 they raised in just one week to combat the outbreak, the news hasn’t all been good.

AJWS doesn’t send volunteers to its Liberia office on a regular basis, but it does organize regular donor trips that allow those who help fund the programs to see their dollars at work. Last month, the group announced the cancellation of a February 2015 trip to Liberia.

“I don’t think a long line of people are ready to go over to a country that they’ve, in most cases, probably never been to and don’t know anything about to put on a protective suit and try to reach people who might potentially infect them with a terminal disease,” she said.

Meanwhile, this week in Bethesda, the National Institutes of Health began early stage trials of a vaccine intended to prevent infection by the Ebola virus.

Twenty people will participate in the first round of trials using human patients. Guidelines require that subjects be healthy adults not infected with the virus. The trial will monitor the subjects’ immune response to the drug.

“There is an urgent need for a protective Ebola vaccine, and it is important to establish that a vaccine is safe and spurs the immune system to react in a way necessary to protect against infection,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases researcher, in a statement. “The NIH is playing a key role in accelerating the development and testing of investigational Ebola vaccines.”

The key to prevention is through public health education, Fauci added, but a vaccine would be a great tool to use alongside tools like adequate protective equipment and quarantine.

According to a release by the NIH, the vaccine delivers one fragment of Ebola’s genetic material to the patient’s cells. Instead of replicating, the fragment is met with an immune response in the vaccine recipient. The individual cannot be infected with Ebola, the release stated.

Prior to the launch of the human trial, the vaccine was tested on primates, a trial that the organization said was successful.

‘Robbery, Extortion, Trafficking’

Sen. Marco Rubio (left) and Sen. Bob Casey (Consolidated News Photos/Newscom, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Sen. Marco Rubio (left) and Sen. Bob Casey
(Consolidated News Photos/Newscom, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

With concern over the apparent growing strength and spread of the Islamic State, the terror group that has beheaded two American journalists in as many weeks, Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), despite the Senate’s summer recess, have sent a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling on the administration to target all aspects of the Islamic State’s operation funding and to have the Treasury Department classify the group as a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO).

The senators praised current efforts by the administration to combat the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the letter, but they expressed concern that the jihadi group remains a threat to both the region and U.S. national security interests.

“ISIS’s criminal activities — robbery, extortion, and trafficking — have helped the organization become the best-funded terrorist group in history,” the senators wrote. “This wealth has helped expand their operational capacity and incentivized both local and foreign fighters to join them.”

The senators’ letter described some of the methods used by the terror group to fund itself.

The “cash flow from this criminal enterprise relies on smuggling routes and black market sales. Reporting indicates that some smuggling routes cross through other countries in the region, which, like the United States, have a clear national security interest in maintaining stability,” Casey and Rubio wrote. “Additionally, there are reports that some government officials in the region have helped to facilitate this illicit cross-border trade.”

The black market the senators referred to is believed to have sprouted as a result of the region’s growing instability, a consequence of the civil war in Syria and the marginalization of minorities, specifically Iraq’s Sunni Muslims by outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s majority Shiite Muslim administration in Baghdad.

The Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by the late Jordanian militant Islamist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group’s extreme viciousness led al-Qaeda to cut ties with it, and, according to Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, most of al-Qaeda’s deep-pocketed, Gulf-based terror financiers remained with the parent organization, forcing the Islamic State to adopt unorthodox revenue methods.

At first glance, the senators’ request that the administration cut off the group’s funding sources looked to some like political posturing. The Islamic State, after all, was classified by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2004, and its assets within the United States’ control were frozen. That designation further established sanctions for cooperating economically with the group.

The State Department has not yet replied to the senators’ letter, but one Senate staffer familiar with the letter said the administration’s reply might be that it already has all the tools necessary to restrict funding, given the Islamic State’s current designation, and is using them.

Some, however, say the administration could do more.

“I think there are [additional] things we can do to try and cut off the funding; it’s really hard,” said Austin Long, assistant professor in security policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Even when there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the height of the surge, we couldn’t cut off all the funding to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State.”

When a group is designated a TCO, its operations are restricted as outlined in Executive Order 13581, which prevents members of TCO-designated organizations, and those aiding and abetting them, from transferring, paying, exporting or withdrawing assets in the United States “or in an overseas branch of a U.S. entity.” Some of the groups presently listed as TCOs include the Brothers’ Circle (Eurasia), Camorra (Italy), Yakuza (Japan), Los Zetas (Mexico), Yamaguchi-Gumi (Japan) and Mara Salvatrucha (El Salvador).

Casey and Rubio are part of a larger group of lawmakers pushing to include the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah under TCO classification in the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act. The bill was passed unanimously by the House in July and is awaiting approval from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, said that the additional designation would allow for a broader scope to investigate and cut off the group’s funding sources.

“It allows the intelligence community to work with a broader array of actors to counter [the Islamic State], and it allows for the FBI to have a greater role as well,” said Schanzer. “It basically widens the ability of the United States government to act on multiple levels with multiple players inside and outside the United States. If it’s considered a criminal organization, the FBI can look into whatever assets may be here. So, in other words, it becomes a warfare issue as well as a criminal one.”

Operating like an organized crime family, the Islamic State has surprised — and even, in a dark sense, impressed — the international community with its numerous creative methods to fund itself.

“IS has managed to successfully translate territorial control in northern Syria and portions of Iraq into a means of revenue generation,” said a Treasury Department spokesperson. “IS generates a large portion of its revenue from smuggling, extortion and robbery in areas under the group’s control as well as from ransoms received for hostages it has kidnapped. The group also benefits from extortion-derived proceeds from Iraqi and Syrian oil resources.”

Taking a page from al-Qaeda in Iraq’s former playbook, it has developed sophisticated fundraising tactics to make use of the resources in the areas they conquer. Once in control of a city or resource rich area, it threatens the local population with violence and seizes control of basic resources such as water and other necessities, said experts.

“The common assumption has been for a long time, and I don’t know where it comes from, but there are a lot of people who have surmised that IS’s funding comes from various Gulf individuals or a number of different Gulf governments including Qatar and Kuwait. This is not true,” said Lee Smith, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “There has been some money in the past, but this is not the main source of IS’s funding. The main source of funding comes from the fact that IS sells oil on the black market. That’s the No. 1 source of income. The No. 2 source of IS income is its extortion rackets in towns it runs — and it runs a few, including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which are both fairly large Arab cities.”

IS’s single most profitable venture is the selling of oil that is produced in areas under the group’s control. Upon occupying an oil field or oil-producing city, the group makes the local populace an offer it can’t refuse, said Columbia’s Long.

“That’s what they try to do. People don’t always cooperate, but in general, if somebody says, ‘We’re going to keep paying your salary, just keep showing up for work [because] the alternative might be something bad happens to you, then you can either keep showing up for work or you can become a refugee, and I think a decent number of people don’t want to become refugees understandably,” explained Long, who previously served in Iraq as an analyst and adviser to the Multinational Force Iraq and the U.S. military.

Much of the oil is then sold internally to the Syrian and Iraqi residents of Islamic State-occupied territories.

“People have lots of cars,” said Long. “Iraq [is] just like every modern country but in some sense it is more dependent on [oil]. You need trucks to move food around — without gasoline, the economy grinds to a halt.”

The rest of the oil is smuggled out and sold abroad and, surprisingly, some of the buyers include opposing governments, such as the Syrian regime and Turkey.

“That’s a pretty typical feature of Arab warfare,” said Smith. “People make all sorts of deals with all sorts of different people.”

Determining who exactly is bypassing sanctions and buying oil from IS sources — or even exactly how much of it is being bought — is difficult to determine.

“The oil could be going across the border in Turkey and the Turks maybe aren’t asking too many question about who it comes from, hypothetically, because of course it won’t be necessarily somebody waving the Islamic State flag who drives the tanker truck across the border,” said Long.

According to a recent estimate by BBC News, the Islamic State exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25 to $45 a barrel — a significant discount from the current international price of around $100 a barrel.

Casey and Rubio’s letter mentions that some of the Islamic State’s funding is supported by allied countries in the region, and Schanzer sees room for the United States to do more to pressure these nations, specifically Turkey, into doing more to crackdown on this illicit trade, even though Turkish officials have publicly denied that country’s involvement and condemned the terror group.

“If you look at the map, you will see that IS maintains a presence all along the eastern Turkish frontier, just on the other side of the border, and we don’t have definitive proof that there’s been direct assistance, but anecdotally we continue to hear that there are individuals and entities operating on the other side of the Turkish border who are facilitating this activity,” said Schanzer. “I think that it is fair to say at this point that Turkey’s permissive border policies over the last two years or more have led to a rise in jihadi groups’ ability to finance their operations, arm their fighters and provide other assistance to these groups.” contributed to this story.

Moving On

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague's chief rabbi amid  reports about his love life. (Provided)

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague’s chief rabbi amid reports about his love life.

PRAGUE — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores in March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago, and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intra-communal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, said that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, said.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually, the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek, who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, said that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and he also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur and a machzor. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”