Jewish mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city shot

The Jewish mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, was in critical condition after being shot in the back by an unidentified gunman on Monday.

Gennady Kernes, 54, was going for his morning swim when he was shot and was immediately rushed to a local hospital, journalist Zurab Alasania — who works for the state-run National Television Company — wrote on his Facebook account. On Tuesday, Kernes was airlifted to Israel for emergency treatment.

Kernes had been a strong supporter of deposed pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. But after Yanukovych’s overthrow, Kernes became more supportive of the new Ukrainian government and called for Kharkiv, located 25 miles from the Russian border, to remain part of Ukraine.

Kernes had become more connected to Judaism in recent years, receiving a Hebrew name and a brit milah, said Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to the city, according to

Erdogan and Israel to normalize ties

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that a compensation deal between Israel and Turkey is forthcoming.

In an interview with Charlie Rose of PBS, Erdogan said the deal would lead to “normalization” with Israel and will be signed in the next few weeks.

“With the completion of this stage, we may move toward a process of normalization. I have spoken with my colleagues in the Foreign Ministry and I think it is a matter of weeks,” he said.

According to Israeli Army Radio, Israeli government officials confirmed that the deal with Turkey was nearing. The deal will likely include a $20 million compensation package for the Turkish family members of the victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, which led to the severing of Turkey-Israel relations. After militants attacked Israeli soldiers on board the flotilla, which was trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American were killed in clashes.

The push to re-establish relations began during a March 2013 visit to Israel by U.S. President Barack Obama. At the time, Obama urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Erdogan for the flotilla deaths. Netanyahu made the apology over the phone.

Defensive Berlusconi cites friendship of Israel

Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy, reiterated his claim to be a friend of the Jewish people and Israel and said it was “surreal” to call him anti-German.

His assertions, made in a statement posted Monday on the website of his Forza Italia party, came in the wake of international outrage over remarks that seemed to imply that Germany did not acknowledge the existence of Nazi concentration camps.

Berlusconi, 77, is campaigning for his party in upcoming European Parliament elections despite a conviction for tax fraud. He accused leftist opponents of taking out of context a remark he made about center-left German politician Martin Schultz, the president of the European Parliament who is running to head the European Commission.

Berlusconi has sparred in the past with Schulz, once comparing him to a concentration camp kapo. At a rally on Saturday, he accused Schultz of being anti-Italian and added, “According to the Germans, there never were concentration camps.”

In his statement, Berlusconi called it “surreal to attribute anti-German sentiments to me, or a presumed hostility to the German people, of whom I am a friend.” He said he claimed his “role as a longtime friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, which is and remains a unique defense of freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.”

Kerry ‘would have chosen a different word’ than apartheid

Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that if he “could rewind the tape,” he “would have chosen a different word” than apartheid to describe his views on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Daily Beast had obtained a recording of Kerry saying that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” in the absence of a two-state solution.

“First, Israel is a vibrant democracy, and I do not believe, nor have I ever stated publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one,” Kerry said in his clarification.

“Second, I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two-state solution.”

Questioning Palestinian Unity

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. The leaders agreed to form a unity government within five weeks. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90/JNS)

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. The leaders agreed to form a unity government within five weeks. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90/JNS)

Now that Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form a Palestinian unity government, opinions are mixed on what this means for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the future of the peace process.

Israel suspended peace negotiations a day after the April 23 announcement that the rival factions agreed to bridge their differences. It calls for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to organize a united governing coalition within the next five weeks and to hold elections after six months, the first elections in the West Bank since 2006.

National unity is a popular issue among the Palestinians, but past attempts by the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah to rule the Palestinian territories together failed.

Elliot Abrams, a former top National Security Council official and senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked closely with this issue during the George W. Bush administration, believes the odds are stacked against the Palestinians.

“The first thing we have to say is that this has never worked before, and if one were betting, one would have to bet that it doesn’t come off,” said Abrams.

The two factions have been opposed since 2007 after the previous year’s election victories by Hamas led to a civil war — resulting in Hamas taking complete control of the Gaza Strip, while Fatah retained the West Bank.

Including Hamas, which is recognized by the United States, Israel and the European Union as a terrorist organization, in the Palestinian Liberation Organization could severely limit the PLO’s ability to participate in further negotiations with Israel and the U.S. unless it recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism.

According to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the move is an understandable — albeit reckless — concession made by Abbas to gain favor from the Palestinian people rather than placing his faith in the negotiations.

“By allowing Hamas to join the PLO, Abbas is almost guaranteeing that the organization or one of the organizations that he heads is going to be designated as a terrorist organization,” he said.

The ramifications could be severe. The U.S. is required by law to cut the millions of dollars in aid it sends the Palestinian Authority if a joint government does not disavow Hamas’ principles of violent resistance and recognize Israel, although a sitting president can always choose to issue a waiver and ignore this congressional budget provision.

Shortly after the reconciliation was announced, Rep. Iliana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, called for an immediate cutoff of aid for the P.A.

“President Obama must not allow one cent of American taxpayer money to help fund this terrorist group,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, I will convene a subcommittee hearing on this issue and many more regarding the P.A., Israel and the peace process. It’s long past time the U.S. reassess its relationship with the corrupt Abu Mazen [Abbas] and his cronies.”

Abrams said history shows that Hamas will not change merely for the opportunity to sit in a government with Fatah.

“Hamas is not going to abandon its beliefs. We found this out after 2006, where they were in fact cut off by Europe and the United States,” he said. “And they could have made some compromises. They refused.

“Hamas is a terrorist group, and they believe in what they’re doing,” continued Abrams. “It’s an Islamist group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re not going to give up their views. Nor are they going to give up power in Gaza. The notion that they would seriously contemplate letting the Fatah party run Gaza, I think, is ridiculous.”

But Lisa Goldman, director of the Israel-Palestine initiative at the New America Foundation, believes the latest Palestinian moves is part of a general approach to achieve national goals through nonviolent means. While Israel and the United States oppose the Palestinians’ steps to join United Nations agencies and treaties, these actions are a far cry from indiscriminate acts of terror.

“I think it’s just part and parcel of their general shift toward diplomatic means — nonviolent, diplomatic and also unassailably credible,” said Goldman. “You can’t take away the rights of the Palestinians to apply for membership in an international agency. It’s a nonviolent means of establishing some kind of basis for their state.”

Others, such as Palestinian-American writer and Middle East observer Samer Badawi, say that a unified Palestinian populace is the only realistic approach to achieve success in negotiations.

“Fatah and Hamas are coming to the inevitable conclusion that you cannot negotiate a peace agreement with the Israelis — with or without [Secretary of State] John Kerry’s help — if you leave out one-third of the population of the occupied territories who are essentially the people of Gaza,” said Badawi.

To Badawi, unification means that rather than negotiating with Fatah and excluding Gazans from a Palestinian agreement, both parties would be at the table, granting any result legitimacy. That the U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization that cannot be negotiated with will just have to change.

“It’s not unprecedented for the U.S. to affect a policy shift when it comes to negotiating with groups that we consider unsavory,” explained Badawi, who pointed to the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example.

“If you’re looking to create a sustainable peace, you can’t not negotiate with your enemies,” he said.

Goldman and Badawi agreed that since both Fatah and Hamas are unpopular, it isn’t certain that Fatah would be routed again by Hamas in another election.

The U.S. and Israel will be watching closely for what transpires in the next five weeks.

“I do think when we talk about Palestinian unity, it’s important to note that in principle it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because you ultimately do need a unified Palestinian front if you’re going to make [peace] last,” said Schanzer. “But if you include Hamas in its current form and current ideology, then you’ve got a big problem.” contributed to this story.

Taking a Stand

Yair Lapid says he would leave the coalition if the Israeli government did not "exhaust all options" in its peace negotiations with the Palestinians. (Elad Gutman)

Yair Lapid says he would leave the coalition if the Israeli government did not “exhaust all options” in its peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
(Elad Gutman)

TEL AVIV — Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said he supports freezing settlement growth to help jumpstart peace negotiations and vowed that his centrist Yesh Atid party would leave Israel’s governing coalition if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were responsible for the collapse of the peace process.

In an interview this week, his first with an American Jewish news organization since entering the Knesset last year, Lapid continued his recent shift toward placing the peace process at the top of his party’s agenda.

A year ago he told The New York Times that Israel should not change its settlement policy to advance negotiations nor should it curb its “natural expansion” or limit financial inducements to Israelis who move there.

But on Monday, Lapid said that he would sooner agree to freeze settlement growth than free Palestinian prisoners, as Netanyahu has done previously in an effort to advance the process. A fourth round of prisoner releases was due to take place March 29, but Israel reneged.

“I would choose, every day of the week, freezing the settlements over freeing prisoners,” he said. “But in this coalition, in this particular moment, this was the favorable option.”

A former television news anchor, Lapid entered politics for the first time in advance of the January 2013 elections with the aim of re-energizing Israel’s political center. He stayed relatively quiet on security issues during the campaign, running on a largely domestic platform of lowering the cost of living and expanding the mandatory military draft to include the haredi Orthodox.

But over the past year, Lapid has become increasingly vocal about the need for Israel to reach a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. And while he laid the blame for the current impasse in peace talks squarely at the feet of the Palestinian leadership, Lapid said he could not stay in the government if it did not aggressively pursue a deal.

“If I would think this coalition did not exhaust all options and it is our fault that the negotiation is not in progress or process, then I can’t stay in this government,” Lapid said. “We decided we’ll do everything in our power to back up the negotiations.”

Lapid said that overall, he is happy with how the past year has gone for his party. He dismissed criticism that Yesh Atid’s signature achievement, a bill mandating that the haredi Orthodox perform military service, is too weak. The bill defers criminal sanctions for haredi draft dodgers for three years, but Lapid said a stricter law would have been unrealistic.

“If we would just send draft bills to any young 18-year-old haredim, we’ll be the winners of some game, but nothing would have happened,” Lapid said. “The way we’ve been doing this, it will actually happen.”

Lapid also campaigned on establishing civil unions in Israel, a measure that would have broken the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s control of Jewish marriage. Yesh Atid introduced a bill to create civil unions in October, but it is opposed by Jewish Home, a religious Zionist party that entered the coalition in alliance with Yesh Atid.

Lapid sounded confident that he could get a civil unions bill past Jewish Home, possibly with support from left-wing parties. But though he vowed to continue to push the issue, he would not say if Yesh Atid would leave the coalition of the bill fails.

“I don’t think this is good partnership,” Lapid said, “to keep a coalition under threat.”

Lapid said all Jewish denominations should have equal standing in Israel, which he said would strengthen Israel’s relationship with American Jews.
He also called for ending the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and conversion, and for an end to all forms of religious coercion.

But he stopped short of calling for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate or for a complete separation of religion and state, which he said would hurt the country’s Jewish character.

“I don’t think the American model of total separation of religion and state is feasible in Israel because it was established as a Jewish state,”Lapid said. “I don’t want to give up this identity.

“I would favor having parallel institutions to the Rabbinate. If someone wants to get married in the rabbinate, he can. If someone wants to get married at City Hall, he should be able to do so as well.”

Yesh Atid surprised pundits when it captured 19 seats in Knesset elections last year, becoming Israel’s second largest political party. Soon after, Lapid said that he expected to be prime minister after the next ballot.

Last Monday, Lapid said his party was in the Knesset to stay, but he declined to make similar boasts about his own political future.

“I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned in this last year: There’s no problem in politics being an idiot — there’s a big problem being an idiot twice,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m not going to declare such declarations anymore because this is stupid.”

Israeli Arab lawyer indicted for aiding Hamas

The Haifa District prosecution has indicted Mohammed Abed, a 42-year-old attorney from the village of Baana near the northern Israeli city of Acre, for a series of security offenses concerning his contacts with senior Hamas operatives.

A gag order placed on the case was partially lifted Monday, revealing that Abed was arrested Feb. 24 in a joint Israeli police, Shin Bet security agency and Israel Defense Forces operation.

Abed was charged with multiple counts of contacting a foreign agent and providing services to an illegal association. The indictment alleged that for years, while legally representing Hamas members jailed in Israel, Abed has been a go-between for several senior Hamas operatives — including Abbas al-Sayed, who planned the 2002 Passover bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel — and Hamas officials in Gaza and the West Bank.

China’s ancient Jewish community returning to its roots

China’s ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng is set to celebrate a traditional Passover Seder for what may be the first time in centuries.

The Seder is being sponsored by Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization that helps “Lost Tribes” and other forgotten Jewish communities return to their roots. The Seder will be conducted by Tzuri Shi, a Kaifeng Jew who formally converted and immigrated to Israel a few years ago.

“We are proud and excited to organize this historic event,” Shavei Israel chairman and founder Michael Freund stated. “Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their Jewish roots as they prepare for Passover.”

Persian or Iraqi Jewish traders first arrived in Kaifeng, one of China’s imperial capitals, during the Middle Ages. At its height, the Jewish community there likely numbered around 5,000 people.

National Library of Israel acquires rare Montefiore Haggadah

The National Library of Israel has acquired a rare Passover Haggadah that once belonged to well-known philanthropist Moses Montefiore, Israel Hayom reported.

The unique Haggadah is thought to have been printed in London in 1837 and is written in Hebrew with an English translation. The front of the book is adorned with the stylized Montefiore family’s symbol, which includes the word “Jerusalem.” On the cover, there is a note indicating that the book belonged to Montefiore.

Inside of the Haggadah, there is a hand-written dedication explaining that the book was given to Rabbi Joseph Myers, a friend of Montefiore’s. The dedication shows that the Haggadah was given to Myers on the eve of Passover in 1849 in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England, where Montefiore lived.

‘New Reality’

041114_french-jewsEven among those who anticipated it, the intensity of anti-Semitic violence that hit France in 2002 was shocking.

That year — the height of the second Palestinian intifada — synagogues and schools were torched, previously rare anti-Semitic beatings occurred in Paris and elsewhere, and a new generation of Jews were introduced to dangers their grandparents recognized from the 1930s.

So when teenagers started throwing stones at Jews walking to synagogue in Evry, Manuel Valls, then the mayor of the Paris suburb, did more than issue a condemnatory news release. Valls, who became prime minister last week, joined the weekly synagogue walk, signaling to the perpetrators and anyone who cared to look that the Jews had a powerful ally.

“There is a new reality for French Jews,” Valls said years later, describing the atmosphere in 2002. “And it is palpable to me.”

Valls’ promotion last week from interior minister owed less to this kind of dramatic gesture on anti-Semitism and more to his reputation as an energetic and reform-minded politician, assets that have helped him rise to become France’s second-most powerful politician in the shakeup that followed his Socialist Party’s defeat in local elections last month.

But to many French Jews, Valls is something of a hero for his unusually robust defense of Israel and the French Jewish community, and his elevation is seen as a reassuring sign amid one of French Jewry’s most troublesome periods.

“I don’t think we ever knew a minister who said things the way he says them,” Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, said last week.

Cukierman was referring specifically to a speech last month by Valls at a rally marking the two-year anniversary of the slaying of four Jews in Toulouse in which Valls said that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But Cukierman could have had in mind any of several explicit displays of Jewish solidarity that Valls has undertaken over the years.

As interior minister, Valls led an uncompromising assault on comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who created a quasi-Nazi salute known as the quenelle that Valls has described as “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate.” And Valls has been filmed wearing a yarmulke at numerous Jewish community functions, exposing him to charges of hypocrisy since he supported banning Muslim head coverings for women at French universities.

Even more unusual, Valls has explicitly linked his pro-Jewish views to his Jewish wife, violinist Anne Gravoin, saying in 2011 that his marriage connected him “in an eternal way” to Israel and the Jewish people.

“Without Jews,” Valls said last month, “France will no longer be France.”

Such statements are highly unusual in a country with a strong secularist ideology and where government officials are typically careful not to single out any minority or group for special treatment. But Valls is not a typical politician.

Born in Barcelona to a family of Catalan intellectuals, Valls moved to Paris in his teens, where he studied history and began his political career as president of a Socialist student union. Many French political analysts attribute Valls’ departures from the conventions of French politics to the fact that he is not a native of France.

“Through his life story and his upbringing by a Spanish anti-fascist family, Valls has a lot of points in common with the story of the Jewish community,” said Michel Zerbib, news director at Radio J, the French Jewish station.

Valls and Gravoin wed in 2010, the second marriage for Valls. The couple’s Paris wedding reception was, according to a report in Elle magazine, a “happy mix of men wearing kippas from Manhattan and Paris and [local] imams.”

Valls’ good looks and his very public marriage — the couple have been photographed repeatedly exchanging affections — have not hurt his appeal to female voters, hundreds of whom voted him France’s sexiest politician in a survey by the IFOP polling company. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they would consider having an affair with him, a possibility Valls brushed off, saying, “OK, but I am [already] in love.”

In a 2011 campaign speech before a Jewish audience in Paris, Valls invoked his wife to demonstrate his credentials as a defender of the Jewish community.

“So please,” Valls said, showing some of his trademark oratory passion. “I didn’t come here to get tips on how to fight anti-Semitism!”

In January, Valls lobbied mayors to ban a new tour by Dieudonne, who has been convicted multiple times for inciting hatred against Jews, leading to its eventual cancellation. Valls also has sparked an unrelenting financial investigation of Dieudonne that could land the comedian behind bars for years.

All this has not been cost-free for Valls. The battle with Dieudonne alienated many voters, some of whom admire the comedian for his defiance. Polls conducted immediately after Valls’ move to ban the tour saw him losing 5 to 8 percentage points from his earlier 60 percent approval rate.

Nicolas Anelka, a star athlete who was fired recently by a British soccer team for performing the quenelle, said this month that Valls’ campaign was launched at his wife’s urging. Less reserved critics, including several extremist Muslim preachers and right-wing conspiracy theorists, have taken to calling him “Valls the Jew.”

Yet despite his pro-Jewish credentials and the price he has paid for them, Valls has faced distrust from Jewish supporters of the centrist UMP party and its former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who feared Sarkozy’s tough stance on anti-Semitism and his pro-Israel rhetoric would crumble under the Socialists.

Sarkozy was the clear favorite among Jews in the 2012 presidential election. But two years after Sarkozy lost to Francois Hollande, many Jews agree that Valls has made good on his pledge to follow Sarkozy’s lead in confronting Islamist fanaticism and anti-Semitism in the growing ranks of the far right.

“We are fortunate,” Cukierman said, “to have a leadership that is perfectly attentive to the community’s needs.”