Clinton Pledges Support for ‘Strong’ Israel in AIPAC Speech

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Monday told close to 18,000 Israel supporters at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., that if elected, she would “never allow Israel’s adversaries to think a wedge can be driven between us.”

Speaking at the Verizon Center, the former senator and secretary of state eliminated any daylight between a Clinton administration and Israel.

The turmoil in the Middle East presents “enormous challenge and complexity,” but “walking away is not an option,” she said. “America needs an Israel strong enough to deter and defend against its enemies, strong enough to work with us to tackle shared challenges and strong enough to take bold steps in the pursuit of peace.”

She outlined three evolving threats the United States and Israel must combat: “Iran’s continued aggression, a rising tide of extremism and the growing effort to delegitimize Israel on the world stage.”

As Clinton spoke about Iran, she echoed AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr, who on Sunday night called the Islamic state the lobby’s top priority.

“This remains an extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel,” she said. Regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, Clinton said, “It’s not good enough to trust and verify. Our approach has to be distrust and verify. … We cannot forget that Tehran’s fingerprints are on every conflict across the Middle East.”

She noted that Iran continues to fund terrorists, including Hezbollah. The next president, she said, must impose consequences for “even the smallest violation” of the agreement.

The United States will act to stop Iranian violations of the agreement “with force if necessary,” she said.

She called for more sanctions on Iran in response to its recent missile tests. And she said the United States should continue to demand the safe return of Robert Levinson and other imprisoned Americans, an appeal that drew light applause.

Turning to U.S.-Israel relations, Clinton said she hopes the two allies will conclude negotiations over a 10-year defense memorandum of understanding as soon as possible. An agreement will “send a clear message to Israel’s enemies” that the two countries are united.

She added, the United States should provide Israel with the most “sophisticated defense technologies.”

Clinton condemned the wave of Palestinian violence in Israel and the territories. “Parents worry about letting their children walk down the street. Families live in fear.”

She received loud applause when she spoke about Taylor Force, an American who was fatally stabbed in Jaffa on March 8. “These attacks must end immediately, and Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence,” Clinton said.

She took aim at the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, calling it anti-Semitic. “At the time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the world … we must repudiate efforts to malign and undermine the Jewish people.”

Clinton said BDS has even extended to demonizing Israeli scientists and college students. At the mention of students, the audience stood.

All these efforts depend on electing a president committed to preserving Israel as a Jewish state and America as a world leader. “The alternative is unthinkable,” she said.

Also unthinkable — and unmentionable by name — was Donald Trump, the leading Republican contender for president.

He is “neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday,” she said, and dismissed Trump’s statement that he would be neutral on Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

“My friends. Israel’s security is non-negotiable!” she said to loud applause.

“We can’t be neutral when rockets rain down on residential neighborhoods … when bombers target the innocent. Some things are not negotiable. And anybody who doesn’t understand that has no business being our president.”

Later, she again knocked Trump without mentioning his name, for his call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Clinton likened it to America’s sending Jews back to Europe during the Holocaust.

She urged the Israel activists, “If you see a bully, stand up to him!”

David Holzel contributed to this article.

AIPAC Plans to Battle Iran as Conference Begins

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN DEFENDS THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT AT THE AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE. PHOTO BY MELISSA GERR.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN DEFENDS THE IRAN NUCLEAR AGREEMENT AT THE AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE. PHOTO BY MELISSA GERR.

Vice president Joe Biden on Sunday night addressed an AIPAC policy conference that was divided on the extent of the strength of the Obama administration’s support for Israel.

Speaking at the Verizon Center to the pro-Israel lobby’s annual gathering, Biden quoted Irish writer James Joyce and poet William Butler Yeats, as well as Zionist father Theodor Herzl, as he outlined an optimistic view of the Middle East.

Because of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, “Iran is much, much further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they were a year ago,” he said. As of today, more than two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges have been removed. More than 98 percent of the stockpiles … have been shipped out of the country. And the core of the reactor and … has been filled with cement. And unprecedented inspections are happening.”

He gave three reasons for being optimistic about trends in the Middle East. First, all parties are in agreement that Iran’s activities are destabilizing for the entire region. Second, Arab nations understand how radicalization presents a threat to their own security. And third, Israel is emerging as a regional powerhouse.

“Israel is stronger and more secure today because of the Obama/Biden administration. Period,” the vice president declared, drawing boos from the audience.

He said the new defense memorandum of understanding being negotiated by Israel and the United States “will without a doubt be the most generous assistance package in the history of the United States. And I’m hopeful that we can work out all the details. … As I told Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President [Reuven] Rivlin, Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs. First, Israel’s security is about more than military needs … it means making sure that Israel will always exist.”

When he warned that Israel’s settlement activities are moving the situation in Israel and the Palestinians “to a one state reality, a reality which is dangerous,” he drew applause from one side of the Verizon Center and booing and screaming from the other.

Biden expressed hope that his audience was as happy as he that Iran was farther from a nuclear threshold than it had been a year ago. But speaking just before Biden’s appearance, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr described just unhappy the organization was.

AIPAC lost a fight with the Obama administration last year when the Senate approved the agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. On Sunday night, Kohr announced that Iran was again the group’s top issue.

“The struggle to prevent a nuclear armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he told thousands of Israel supporters at the Verizon Center. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival,” he said to a round of applause.  “Its nuclear program is not dismantled, it’s in delay. And that’s even if Iran abides by the deal.”

Kohr said negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution was AIPAC’s number-two priority. Third was increased American support for Israel’s military strength.

But even Sunday morning, it was clear that Iran was high on AIPAC’s agenda, as speakers warned about what they said were the consequences of a flawed nuclear agreement.

“The Iranians will mostly abide by the deal,” said Emanuele Ottoleghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in two sessions called “Nearing Implementation Day” and “After Implementation Day.”

Iran is motivated to adhere to the 15-year agreement because in the eighth year, the United States will lift its restrictions on Iranians studying nuclear physics here. “By the time the deal expires, Iran will have a legion of U.S. trained nuclear scientists,” who will greatly enrich Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

Ottoleghi said it is futile to hope that the United States and its allies can re-impose sanctions on Iran. “It took a years for Iran to feel the bite of sanctions. In 15 years Iran will be able to break out in weeks.”

In another session on the Iran nuclear deal, Omri Ceren, managing director for press and strategy for The Israel Project, reached the same conclusion as Ottoleghi.

If attempts to deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon fails, “the United States will have to have a military response,”Ceren said.

Over lunch, the talk was less about Iran and more about the appearances on Monday of the presidential candidates.

“That’s what really got me excited,” said Michael Goller from Cincinnati, a Donald Trump supporter.

Ross Mellman, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he was looking forward to what the candidates have to say. He disapproves of plans to boycott or protest Trump’s appearance.

“All candidates are here to speak and should be heard,” he said. “Some of the people here are missing that message. It’s just common courtesy.”

“Probably a high amount of people want to hear about what Trump says about Israel,” said Ava Fagin of New York.

“He’s the guy people want to hear from,” said Mark Zucker, of Chicago. “The protests are the side story. The important thing is: what are his views, because he’s one of the two major candidates.”

Eliana Elikan, 15, from Silver Spring, said she was disappointed that Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the only presidential hopeful not speaking at the conference. She likes Sanders, but she said he lost her support because he reportedly sought advice from the liberal J Street, which she criticized as “more non-interventionist.”

“I am a big supporter of Israel,” she said. “It is my number one issue.”

Daniel Schere and Joshua Runyan contributed to this article.

Non-Jewish Activists Link Arms with Hungarian Jews in ‘Symbols War’

The unveiling of a bust of anti-Semitic Holocaust-era lawmaker Gyorgy Donath in Budapest drew the ire of mostly non-Jewish protesters. (Adam Csillag)

The unveiling of a bust of anti-Semitic Holocaust-era lawmaker Gyorgy Donath in Budapest drew the ire of mostly non-Jewish protesters.
(Adam Csillag)

Hungarian officials likely anticipated some Jewish opposition to their decision to erect a monument in Budapest to a Holocaust-era lawmaker who promoted anti-Semitic legislation.

What they probably didn’t expect was that the Feb. 24 unveiling of a bust honoring Gyorgy Donath would attract a protest of mostly non-Jewish Hungarians. The protest would lead to the statue’s indefinite removal over vandalism concerns.

Hungary’s Jews have been fighting what one leading rabbi has called “the symbols war” against the government for years over the public veneration of Holocaust-era figures who promoted anti-Semitic laws. But the mostly non-Jewish protest, in which participants carried EU symbols and chanted anti-fascist slogans, was taken as a sign that the effort is winning allies beyond the Jewish community.

“This is not just the Jewish community’s fight,” said Anna Kovacs, 27, a non-Jewish translator and member of a Holocaust commemoration group. “It’s about the identity and future of this society. It’s our duty to ensure a second Holocaust doesn’t happen.”

Hungarian Jews launched the monument battle in 2014, when a statue seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust was unveiled in Budapest’s Freedom Square. The monument, which depicted an angel (understood to represent Hungary) attacked by an eagle (understood to represent Germany), was vigorously opposed by the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, which briefly suspended its ties with the government after its unveiling.

“It began with Jewish community activities but has spread beyond to a protest front with members of many affiliations,” said Adam Csillag, a filmmaker who has documented the protest since that unveiling.

That protest movement, which comprises a loose coalition of Christians, liberal political activists and Hungarian Jews, scored its first victory last year when Prime Minister Viktor Orban scrapped a plan to erect a statue of Balint Homan, another Holocaust-era politician who prompted anti-Semitic laws. The Faith Church, a Pentecostal body with 70,000 members, provided approximately half the 700 protesters who gathered at a site 30 miles west of Budapest in December to protest the Homan statue, which was canceled following an international outcry.

“Every time an anti-Semitic figure is honored, there is a significant resistance from the civil society, and the members of Faith Church often take part in these protests as anti-Semitism is contradictory to our moral values and faith,” said Daniel Kocsor, a 20-year-old church activist.

The symbols war comes at a time of rising nationalist fervor in Hungary driven by several factors: economic crises, opposition to EU interference in the country’s affairs, growing Russian assertiveness and the recent arrival on Hungary’s borders of hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants from the Middle East. Wary of losing support to the far-right Jobbik party, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has cracked down on liberal activist groups and increased efforts to celebrate figures like Donath and Honan, who are considered patriotic by the right.

Both wartime politicians supported legislation in the 1940s that targeted Jews. Homan, who served as culture minister, authored a law to limit the number of Jewish university students. Donath argued for a measure to bar any sexual relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew.

They died at the hands of communists and have been embraced by the far right as nationalist symbols of communist oppression. But critics of the government believe the effort to portray them as freedom fighters is merely a thin veil intended to obscure their virulent anti-Semitism.

Homan is “a marginal figure,” Kocsor said. “So the point of the monument … is to send a message because he’s a racist and an anti-Semite. That’s outrageous.”

Other partners to the anti-government coalition include Kovacs’ group Living Memorial, which started in the wake of the Freedom Square protest and now meets in the square twice a week to display alternative commemorations featuring Holocaust-themed artwork. Also participating is Dialogue for Hungary, a small opposition political party that took part in the Donath protest.

“There’s a nostalgia toward the good old Hungary” of the 1940s, historian Eva Balogh said. “It’s scaring a lot of people and driving them into action.”

Israel Touts Gay-Friendly Climate, But Rights Fight Faces Religious Firewall

Thousands march during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Thousands march during the annual Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — As the last Tuesday in February ended, it felt like Israel’s gay community had taken a major step forward.

On Feb. 23, eight separate Israeli parliamentary committees convened to discuss a broad set of issues facing the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Lawmakers from a range of parties talked about protecting LGBT Israelis in the classroom, at home, in government offices and in the army. That afternoon, the parliament officially recognized “Gay Rights Day in the Knesset.”

But 24 hours later, the  atmosphere was markedly  different.

On Feb. 24, the Knesset voted down a cluster of bills aiming at increasing LGBT rights. The defeated bills —  including measures to establish civil unions, provide government benefits to the same-sex partners of fallen soldiers, prohibit gay conversion therapy and mandate training for health care professionals  in LGBT issues — were all proposed by opposition legislators and rejected by Israel’s governing coalition.

“It’s historic that on one day, our issues were discussed in depth in all of the committees,” said Chen Arieli, co-chair of Aguda, an Israeli LGBT rights group. “What happened the next day was very sad.”

The contrast points to a dissonance in how Israel treats its LGBT community and their legal rights. For years, Israeli leaders have trumpeted the country’s welcoming climate toward gays and lesbians,  especially when compared to Israel’s neighbors. Tel Aviv in particular is known as a mecca for gays, complete with a gay beach and a raucous annual pride parade.

But in the halls of government, gay Israelis have long faced a firewall of religious parties that have blocked  pro-LGBT legislation. Gay couples cannot marry, adopt children or have surrogate pregnancies in Israel, though the government does recognize adoptions and gay marriages performed abroad.

Speaking Feb. 24 in the Knesset, Israel’s haredi Orthodox health minister, Yaakov Litzman, invoked the biblical story of the golden calf in expressing his rejection of the pro-LGBT bills.

Mickey Gitzin, founder of Be Free Israel, which promotes religious freedom, spoke of  “a big gap between the legal situation and the social situation.”

“Socially, Israel is a liberal state. To be LGBT isn’t so bad or terrible,” he said. “But legally, we’re among the most backward states in the world.”

Personifying that tension is one junior lawmaker, Amir Ohana, who has borne much of the criticism for last week’s about-face at the Knesset.

Socially, Israel is a liberal state.  To be LGBT isn’t so bad or  terrible. But legally, we’re  among the most backward  states in the world.
— Mickey Gitzin, founder of Be Free Israel

 

Ohana, who is gay and lives in Tel Aviv with his partner and two children, was previously seen as an LGBT success story. A former army officer, Shin Bet intelligence agency official and lawyer, Ohana  entered the Knesset with the ruling Likud party in December. He is the only gay lawmaker in the coalition, and one of only two in the 120-seat Knesset.

But though he supports  increased rights for LGBT  Israelis, Ohana exited the plenum for the Feb. 24 votes. When LGBT activists accused him of hypocrisy, Ohana  attributed the move to his  responsibility to the coalition.

In a Facebook post that day, Ohana defended himself as  a fighter for LGBT rights,  describing his decision to  exit the Knesset as a principled move to avoid voting against bills that were going to  fail anyway.

“Members of the coalition are obligated to observe coalition discipline,” he wrote. “They’re not masters of their own fate. Israel has almost no freedom to vote, nor is there a freedom to be absent.”

In Israel’s parliamentary system, coalition lawmakers are expected to vote with the government when it decides to support or oppose a bill. If  individual lawmakers deviate, they can be taken off committees or have other privileges taken away.

Responsibility for determining which bills gain coalition support lies with the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a Cabinet panel composed of representatives of the coalition parties. The committee determines which bills to bring to the Knesset and which opposition measures to support.  Because the coalition represents a majority of lawmakers, the committee essentially determines which bills become law.

Hovav Yannai, Knesset  coordinator for the Social Guard, a nonprofit aiming to increase Knesset accountability on social issues, says this is the reason Israel’s laws don’t match its reputation on gay issues.  Majorities of Israelis support pro-LGBT reform, and Yannai estimates that at least two-thirds of Knesset members would support equal rights for LGBT Israelis if they had the freedom to do so.

But the fact that a handful of committee members determines which bills gain coalition support grants outsized influence to smaller parties, which can bring down a government if they don’t get their way.  Israel’s current coalition  government includes the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which oppose LGBT rights.

“Governments work according to political agreements, not for the wider public,” Yannai said. “I don’t see positive change coming for the LGBT community in the near future as long as the Israeli government includes non-liberal religious parties.”

Absent improvements in gay rights, Arieli suggests that coalition Knesset members are being hypocritical by praising the LGBT community while stymieing its legislative agenda.

“You stand on our stages, march in our marches, give us speeches,” she said. “It’s time  to walk the walk. We want  actions, not just words.”

Pew Finding on Expulsion of Israeli Arabs Prompts Sharp Reactions

Pew Research released a study of Israeli’s attitudes, which show that a majority of Israelis agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pew Research released a study of Israeli’s attitudes, which show that a majority of Israelis agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — In a survey that spanned politics, religion and interfaith relations, one statistic stood out: Nearly half of  Israel’s Jews support expelling the country’s Arabs.

The Pew Research Center’s study of Israelis’ attitudes,  released Tuesday, had asked respondents whether they agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Forty-eight percent of Israeli Jews agreed, while 46 percent did not. Among self-described right-wing Jews,  72 percent agreed, along with 71 percent of religious Zionists.

The figure was inconsistent with the findings of previous studies and provoked strong reactions in a country that sees its Arab minority as proof of its commitment to democratic values and respect for diversity. It has also shined a spotlight on what has been seen previously as a fringe proposal. No party in the Israeli Knesset  advocates mass population transfer, and it has never been seriously discussed as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The idea that the State of Israel could be a democracy only for its Jewish citizens is unconscionable and we must find a way to address this,”  ­Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said at a meeting with officials of the Washington-based Pew Center. “I believe also that our democratic values are born out of our Jewish faith, a love for the stranger and equality before the law.”

Rivlin called on the public to engage in “soul-searching and moral reflection.”

But Alan Cooperman, the Pew study’s lead author, said support for expulsion comports with other data points in the survey. Cooperman pointed to survey findings that nearly four out of five Israeli Jews say Israel should give preferential treatment to Jews, 60 percent of Israeli Jews believe God gave the land to them, and that majorities of religious Zionists and Haredi Orthodox also feel that Jewish law should be the law of the state.

“You see it really makes sense,” he said. “Support is strongest among [religious Zionists], very high among settlers.”

Analysts say Jewish animosity toward Israeli Arabs has been exacerbated by the recent wave of Palestinian terror  attacks and a government  response that some consider  inflammatory. Rawnak Natour, co-director of Sikkuy, a  nonprofit that works toward Arab-Jewish coexistence, pointed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech decrying “two nations within Israel”  following a January terror  attack in Tel Aviv.

“I think there’s a feeling of fear here that’s strengthened by the political echelon,”  Natour said. “There’s a lack of familiarity of the other side.”

Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, is “alarmed” at the research results and said that “there’s a serious question about the separation of church and state,” and it leaves him concerned for Israel’s security.

“As someone who has worked with the American Jewish community for over 30 years,” Abramson said, “we are very much a tie-in to Israel and related to Israel and associated to Israel on the basis of the kind of Israel that we grew up wanting to see. [That is an Israel that] respects Judaism and being Jewish on both a  religious and cultural basis. And we want to see an Israel that is tolerant of minorities and is democratic. To the extent this study says Israel is moving in a different direction, [and] the American Jewish community should be concerned.”

Abramson continued, “Israel’s best friend in the world is the United States. If Israel was to move to an apartheid state, discriminatory in nature, then my greatest concern is Israel’s security. … These Pew trends have me concerned that there is a growing debate in a right-wing direction, and that is  of ultimate concern to the  security of Israel.”

The Pew finding on expulsion is significantly higher than other recent polls that have sought to measure Israeli attitudes toward coexistence. The 2015 Israel Democracy Index, a survey published  annually by the Israel Democracy Institute, found 37.5 percent support for the government merely encouraging Arab  emigration.

A 2015 poll by Haifa University professor Sammy Smooha found that six in 10 Israeli Jews felt “it would be good for Arabs and Jews to  always live together in Israel.” That survey also found 32 percent of respondents in favor of encouraging Arabs to leave Israel in exchange for compensation.

Israeli pollsters have laid blame on the question itself, calling it vague and misleading. Is the question about  Israeli Arabs, West Bank Palestinians or both? When would this expulsion occur and under what conditions? Would the Arab refugees be compensated?

“It was asked in a very  unclear way,” said Tamar Hermann, academic director of IDI’s Guttman Center for Surveys. “If we didn’t get a majority on a more cautious and less aggressive version [of the question], what happened here? I would say take it with a grain of salt.”

The statistic is a sign not only of extremism, but also of polarization in Israeli society, said Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who consulted on the Pew study.  Regardless of the exact level of support, he called the figure a “warning sign” for Israeli and Jewish leaders.

“There’s a lot of support for this notion that God gave this land to me — not to them, to me,” Cohen said at a panel discussion of the survey Tuesday in Tel Aviv. “Is there a context in which it seems the authorities are trying to diminish the place of minorities in this country? Is that happening? If that’s happening, then this question becomes very critical.”

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s co-chair of Israel and Overseas Initiatives, Yehuda Neuberger, said in a written statement, “Given Baltimore’s significant efforts to foster communal unity and cohesion, it is concerning to see increasing polarization in Israel. In the last couple of years, The Associated’s Israel and Overseas committee has funded programs that we hope will create a more harmonious and integrated society, and we hope to increase our efforts in that regard. While we are not in a position to change Israeli society, we can work to increase dialogue and understanding and to model communal  behavior that counters the current societal dynamic in  Israel.”

Lithuania Looks to Boost Tourism from Diaspora Despite Its Past

Lithuanian state tourism director Jurgita Kazlauskiene (left) gives  a presentation on Jewish historical sites at the Lithuanian Embassy  in Washington. (Daniel Schere)

Lithuanian state tourism director Jurgita Kazlauskiene (left) gives a presentation on Jewish historical sites at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington. (Daniel Schere)

Seven decades after the end of World War II, Lithuania is still struggling with the role it played in the Holocaust. German Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators killed more than 90 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population of more than 200,000. Last month, a group of Lithuanian Jews  demanded the government  release the list of upward of 2,000 names of Lithuanians who participated in the genocide.

“The Lithuanian Jewish Community believes refusal  to release the list could have negative repercussions at the international as well as  national level and could give rise to various theories that would damage the reputation of the Lithuanian state,” community leader Faina Kukliansky told The Jerusalem Post.

Lithuanian officials sidestepped those issues during a visit to Washington last week, focusing instead on tourism.

“We would welcome Litvaks to come and visit Lithuania  because their roots are in different small towns,” Mantvydas Bekesius, vice minister in charge of Litvak community relations, told reporters on Feb. 24 during events at the Lithuanian Embassy commemorating the country’s 98th birthday.

“The state finally understood that it’s very important to pay attention to the Jewish heritage and rebuild what has been lost.”
— Jurgita Kazlauskiene, state tourism director

There are perhaps 3,000 Jews living in Lithuania today. Evelina Petrone, a diplomat with the embassy, said the Lithuanian government has invested $40 million in a goodwill foundation aimed at compensating Holocaust survivors and preserving Jewish culture.

Its latest effort is aimed at attracting tourists to key Jewish heritage sites such as the Sugihara House in Kaunas, which was the residence of Japanese vice consul Chiune Sugihara, who issued 6,000 visas to Jews during World War II, allowing them to escape  to Japan.

“The state finally understood that it’s very important to pay attention to the Jewish heritage and rebuild what has been lost,” state tourism director Jurgita Kazlauskiene said.

She added that Israel opened an embassy in the capital  Vilnius last year, and Lithuania organizes tours for displaced Litvak Jews to tour their country of origin.

Bekesius said Lithuanians who grew up in the Soviet era likely did not learn about the Holocaust. Now more than 1,000 schools participate in a Holocaust observance day each year.

“During the Soviet times, there was no [acknowledgement of the] Holocaust,” he said. “There was no Jewish  history about the Holocaust. There were never any books.”

Bekesius added that much of the history of Lithuania’s Litvak community has been preserved in the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which was founded in Vilnius in 1925 and moved after the Nazis invasion in 1941.

Bekesius said many of the records have been digitized, which he hoped will encourage Litvaks around the world to come to Lithuania to taste their heritage.

Lesley Weiss, deputy director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, said Lithuania has been late in  acknowledging its painful past. But she thinks recent  efforts to preserve the Litvak heritage are important for the Baltic region.

She added, “I don’t see a tremendous return of Litvaks to Lithuania to live there, but a lot of people want to return.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Why Israel Is Pilgrimage Site for Birds — and Birdwatchers

Thousands of cranes take flight in Israel’s Hula Valley.

Thousands of cranes take flight in Israel’s Hula Valley.

HULA VALLEY, Israel — Thousands of cranes sit in pairs in a field here, their outlines approaching the horizon. Then,
all at once, they take flight, a cloud of black-and-white feathers filling the sky.

Shai Agmon isn’t interested in most of these. All he cares about is one pair near the front, slightly shorter than the rest. Most of the birds are common cranes, but these two are demoiselle cranes — a rare find in these parts.

“They can’t sleep in the desert and can’t stop in southern Israel,” said Agmon, director of the Hula Valley Avian Research Center for Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund, which manages the valley’s birdwatching park. “Here, they have food and a safe place to rest.”With 300 bird species passing through each year, the Hula Valley in northern Israel is one of the prime birdwatching spots in a country that has gained a reputation as a mecca for birdwatchers. With a location at the nexus of three continents, and a climatic diversity that ranges from arid desert in the south to a cooler mountainous region in the north, Israel draws about 500 million birds annually from 550 species. The entire continent of North America, which is 1,000 times Israel’s size, sees barely twice as many species.

Israel’s unique geographic features — it is also one of the last green spots before the adjacent Sinai and Sahara deserts — has also made it a destination not only for birds, but also for people who live for the thrill of identifying a rare species perched on a branch or lake.

“The more I go see places in the world, the more I see how much richness of nature I have in Israel, and some of it is so close to home,” said Yuval Daks, a bird photographer for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “It’s hard
to compete with the richness of Israel because we have so many climates. We have the desert, [Mount] Hermon.”

For the estimated tens of thousands of birdwatchers who come to Israel every year, the must-see sites aren’t the Western Wall or Masada but the Hula Valley and the Eilat Birdwatching Park. Sometimes armed with telephoto lenses, birdwatchers will wake up before dawn and drive for hours to find a species.

When they’re successful, the experience can be electrifying. Dan Alon, director of the Israel Ornithological Center, recalled being overwhelmed the first time he encountered a flock of 200,000 honey buzzards in 1984.

“It filled the sky,” Alon said. “You couldn’t see the sky. You can’t forget that. I love birds. I love this world. I find new things all the time.”

The Hula Valley became a prime birdwatching spot by accident. Drained of its swamps in the 1950s, the valley was
re-flooded four decades later when KKL-JNF realized the drainage had damaged the local ecosystem. Farmers began planting corn and peanuts in the newly re-moistened soil — exactly the crops cranes like to eat.

Soon, rather than just pass through the valley, 30,000 cranes stayed there every winter, feasting on the crops and sleeping perched in an artificial lake. Now, to protect the farmers’ livelihood, the government feeds the cranes up to eight tons of corn a day.

KKL-JNF is setting up six birdwatching parks throughout Israel in an effort to draw birdwatchers to sites across the country. Every year the society holds Champions of the Flyway in Eilat, in which international teams compete to see how many different species they can spot in one day.

“We’re not going to manage nature,” said Yaron Charka, KKL-JNF’s chief ornithologist. “The most important thing is that there will be interesting birds that come here naturally.”

Some of Israel’s birdwatchers have done more than just look at the winged creatures. Yossi Leshem, director of the Israel-based International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, set up a radar system that detects bird migration patterns to avoid crashes that could down air force jets. Leshem pioneered the use of mice-eating birds like kestrels and barn owls as a means of pest control. And he has helped Israeli schoolchildren learn geography by studying bird migration patterns.

“What’s important to me is to preserve nature,” Leshem said. “So I looked for some applied area that’s not just theoretical.”

Some birdwatchers, however, prefer Israeli activists to leave the country’s avian ecosystem as is. Clive Bramham, an avid American birdwatcher who lives in Norway, has visited Israel twice — in 2002 and a decade later. The first visit, with less infrastructure and fewer crowds, was more pleasant.

“You want access, but you want the real experience,” Bramham said. “The Hula was exciting, [but] I would not go there on a Saturday. I would not do that again. There’s more traffic on the weekend. If you really want to see the birds, get there early.”

Meet the Guys Helping Israeli Entrepreneurs Make It Big in the Big Apple

Arie Abecassis (left) and Eyal Bino are co-founders of ICONYC Labs,  an "accelerator program" that helps launch Israeli startups in New York.

Arie Abecassis (left) and Eyal Bino are co-founders of ICONYC Labs, an “accelerator program” that helps launch Israeli startups in New York.

NEW YORK — The hoodie-clad millennials tap furiously at their laptops. They’re perched on colorful couches, or sitting at long, communal tables, munching on Fruit Loops from the built-in dispenser in the open, subway-tiled kitchen.

In other words, AlleyNYC is your typical co-working space. There are plenty of international workers here, yet the space is quintessentially New York with its upscale, industrial look and “work hard, play hard” philosophy, complete with biweekly happy hours.

Its location in Chelsea, on the West Side of Manhattan, makes it a hub for local entrepreneurs, particularly those in the tech scene. That cachet made it the perfect home for ICONYC Labs, a new accelerator program that helps Israeli startups launch their businesses stateside.

Israel has earned a global reputation as “Start-Up Nation” for its lively tech scene — Israel is home to nearly 7,000 high-tech companies, and nearly 80 percent of those are startups, according to a report from the business information firm Dun & Bradstreet. But despite its track record of innovation, Israeli startups often struggle with finding local investors. Additionally, Israeli deals generally require entrepreneurs to cede a greater share of their companies than a typical American deal.

So a main goal of ICONYC Labs is to connect Israeli entrepreneurs with New York investors. Additionally, the program helps Israelis adapt their pitches and products to better appeal to American  investors, who typically have a longer decision-making process than their Israeli counterparts.

“In America, it’s about building relationships over time, but that’s not something that’s in Israeli DNA,” says ICONYC co-founder Eyal Bino. “It’s definitely a mindset we are trying to change with our founders, and it’s not always an easy task.”

But this incubator program isn’t just about generating money — through the shared workspace, the program also embeds Israeli startups in the city’s tech scene.

“While they’re here, they’re mingling with the other entrepreneurs in the kitchen,” says co-founder Arie Abecassis. “They want to be here and get to know New York, and one of the goals of this program is
to help them exponentially expand their social network in tech.”

Other goals include providing mentorship, assistance with media relations and branding, as well as operations support on logistics like immigration, banking and accounting. In addition to these services, ICONYC Labs provides the startups with $20,000 and office space in AlleyNYC in exchange for a small equity stake in the firms.

ICONYC Labs’ first cohort, which began last April and finished the end of October, consisted of Myndlift, a mobile health solution targeting those who suffer from ADHD; Flux, a smart agricultural product enabling water-efficient growth of food and plants; DandyLoop, a cross-promotional marketplace for independent online stores to gain traffic; Clickspree, an ad-tech firm focused on video engagement and return for brands, and Gaonic, a platform for businesses to monitor Internet of Things data.

While working with ICONYC Labs, the companies’ founders must spend at least a week each month in New York, although many stay longer. During the weeks they are all here, ICONYC hosts networking events and fireside chats with high-profile startup success stories. It also sets pitch meetings with potential investors and advisers.

“At the end of the program, they’ll have the ability to expand their business to New York and raise money here,” Bino said.

Going forward, the incubator will shorten the program to four months and accept companies on a rolling basis. Two startups began in January; three more will enter the program this month.

ICONYC staffers sift through hundreds of applicants to select businesses to accept into the program — there’s no shortage, after all, of companies hoping to be the next Waze and make it big in the U.S. They put potential applicants through a serious vetting process, which includes outside experts assessing their business prospects and an investigation into their reputation in the Israeli startup community. They’re looking for companies that already have a viable product with the potential to scale in the United States, along with a committed team and a willingness to learn.

Bino, 40, and Abecassis, 49, are uniquely positioned to help Israeli companies acclimate to New York’s startup ecosystem. Both were born in Israel — Abecassis moved to the U.S. as a young child, and Bino
attended college here and moved here for work a few years later.

When they met in 2014, Bino was working as a business development consultant for international startups in New York, and Abecassis was serving as a board member, adviser and investor for
several startups. Bino tapped Abecassis to mentor some Israeli startups, and the two began discussing the specific needs of Israeli entrepreneurs in New York.

The pair saw a gulf between the growth potential of many Israeli startups — the talent and the ideas were strong — and their ability to connect with a wider variety of investors, and turn those connections  into meaningful business opportunities.

One challenge facing Israeli entrepreneurs in New York is their products may not yet have an American following.

“We work extremely hard to help our founders prove their concepts in the U.S. markets, so they are worthy of funding from venture capitalists in New York,” Bino said. “The more traction our founders have, the better their story becomes.”

For Omer Rachamim, co-founder and CEO of DandyLoop, moving his business to New York was always the long-term plan because it’s a global hub e-commerce.

“ICONYC came along at just the right moment,” he said. “They helped us do a soft landing in the city, and really leveraged their connections in a way that helped me to be completely emerged in the startup community and the VC community within a few months. It’s like integration into the city on steroids.”

Since completing the program, DandyLoop, which is now incorporated in the U.S. and has an office in the city, has added advisers, investors and clients in New York.

In recent years, New York City has become a hub for Israeli-based startups — nearly 300 Israeli companies have a presence in the city. While Silicon Valley grabs a lot of the startup spotlight, New York typically makes more sense for Israeli entrepreneurs — the time difference (7 hours versus 10 hours) makes business calls more conducive, and it’s an easy train ride to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“They see New York as the market where they can meet clients and investors as well as the big American corporations they want to do business with,” said Guy Franklin, founder of Israel Mapped in New York, which tracks the Israeli startup community.

Plus, in some significant ways, New York City is more culturally similar to Israel than Silicon Valley.

“There’s the food, the holidays,” Bino said. “Israelis may not be able to see themselves renting a house in the suburbs in California, but they could live on the Upper West Side.”

New Citizenship Law Has Jews Worldwide Flocking to Tiny Portugal City

Congregants introduce a new Torah scroll to their synagogue in  Porto, Portugal.

Congregants introduce a new Torah scroll to their synagogue in
Porto, Portugal.

PORTO, Portugal — Five years ago, this city’s tiny Jewish community was so strapped for cash it couldn’t afford to fix the deep cracks in its synagogue’s moldy ceiling.

The Jewish Community of Porto was also too poor to hire a full-time rabbi because of its small size (50 members) and the paucity of donors in a country gripped by a financial crisis.

But last month the community, situation 200 miles north of Lisbon, showcased its stunning turnaround. Hosting the biggest event in its history, it drew hundreds of guests from all over the world to the city’s newly opened kosher hotel and newly renovated synagogue. The community also has a new Jewish museum and mikvah ritual bath, and there are plans to build a kosher shop, Jewish kindergarten and school.

The money, community members say, came from a massive influx of Jewish tourists that coincided with the implementation of Portugal’s 2013 law of return for Sephardic Jews and their descendants.

The law named the Porto community, founded by a handful of converts to Judaism, one of two institutions responsible for vetting citizenship applications, providing the Jews in this little-known city of 230,000 with tens of thousands of dollars in income and turning Porto into a destination for Jews from around the world.

“This law not only gave us new funds but put us on the world map,” said Emmanuel Fonseca, a 53-year-old Orthodox convert to Judaism. “In no time, we went from a tiny group struggling to exist to a well-to-do congregation with local and international standing. I never thought I would live to see this.”

Applying for membership in Lisbon and Porto’s official Jewish community costs $300-$560 and is a required step for a Jew to become a Portuguese citizen under the 2013 law. (Spain recently passed a similar law aimed at descendants of Sephardic Jews.) Each application must be checked by one of the two Jewish communities against their records and lists of lineages. Some of the hundreds of applicants to Porto have added handsome donations on top of the required fee.

So far, only three of the hundreds of citizenship applications have been approved, a wrinkle that Leon Amiras, an Israeli attorney handling citizenship requests and chairman of the Association of Olim from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, attributed to bureaucratic complications connected to last November’s elections in Portugal. Amiras said he expects hundreds of applications to be approved this year.

Meanwhile, Porto is becoming a more attractive prospective home for Jews with European Union passports, who can move here without obtaining citizenship. Yoel Zekri, a French Jewish student in his 20s who temporarily moved here last year from Marseille, where five Jews have been assaulted in three stabbing attacks since October, said he’s considering staying on after his studies “to help build the community.”

“I no longer feel comfortable in France,” Zekri said. “I would never wear a kippah on the street. Here people sometimes tell me they are happy to see the Jews return.”

Porto hasn’t seen a single anti-Semitic incident over the last decade, according to the mayor, Rui Moreira, who spoke last month at an event at the synagogue and obliquely referenced the rising anti-Semitic violence elsewhere in Europe.

“This synagogue was built when others across Europe were being burned,” he said. “Today, it again offers shelter from the bad winds blowing around us.”

Alexandre Sznajder, a Jewish businessman from Rio de Janeiro with a Polish passport who was in town for the kosher hotel and synagogue celebration, is thinking about moving to Porto with his wife and son.

“The economic situation in Brazil is deteriorating and personal security is terrible,” said Sznajder, an importer who said he was kidnapped for ransom two years ago. “If I can keep doing business from here, where it’s safe, Porto could be the place for us.”

Some applicants for Portuguese citizenship from non-EU countries want a Portuguese passport as an insurance policy, in the event things in their home countries go south. Hila Loya, a visitor from Cape Town, applied last year for that reason.

In South Africa, she said, “the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish atmosphere is worsening, and there’s a feeling things may turn for the worse in the near future.”

Last month, approximately 250 Jews from 14 countries convened here for a weekend retreat designed to introduce them to Porto and its Jews. Among those present were the president of Lisbon’s Jewish community, Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva and 80 other Turkish Jews. Most of the applicants to Porto’s community so far have been Turkish Jews, including many of those who came for the weekend retreat.

Haleva, one of Sephardic Jewry’s most respected religious figures, said he came not to apply for citizenship — “I’m a Turkish Jew, period” — but to visit “this place where our roots are.” Many of Turkey’s Jews are descended from Sephardic Jews who fled northern Portugal after 1536, when Portugal joined Spain in applying the Inquisition’s expulsion orders against Jews, according to Haleva. And many of those who fled from Portugal to Turkey originally came from Spain, where the Inquisition began in 1492.

Tens of thousands of Jews stayed in Portugal and converted to Christianity. While many continued to practice Judaism in secret as anusim — Hebrew for “forced ones” — the Jewish presence ultimately vanished from this once heavily Jewish area. The Jewish revival was sparked in 1923, when a Portuguese army captain, Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, reached out to the descendants of the anusim, leading to the construction of Porto’s synagogue.

Built in 1939, the community’s Kadoorie-Mekor Haim synagogue is among the largest and most beautiful in the Iberian Peninsula, but it saw long periods of neglect until last year’s extensive renovations were completed. That helped put a new shine on the synagogue’s best features: Moroccan-style interior arches; heavy redwood interior and dazzling collection of more than 20,000 hand-painted azulejos, Portugal’s iconic ceramic tiles.

When Porto’s mayor dropped in at last month’s retreat, it was his second time at the city’s shul — a sign of the Jewish community’s increased significance in Porto, according to the local rabbi, Daniel Litvak.

Addressing 300 guests from the synagogue’s podium while wearing a kippah, Moreira, who himself is descended from an Ashkenazi Jew who settled in Porto in the 19th century, said Portugal’s new law of return was to “correct a historical wrong” — the 16th-century expulsion of Portugal’s Jews.

But, he added, “the law has future implications: We want you to come live here, with us, and share that future.”

French Jews Struggling to Find Work in Israel

Catherine Berdah, pictured here with her husband and daughters at their apartment in Raanana, Israel, went from making $6,000 a month as a pharmacist to $6 an hour as a cashier. (Photo: Cnaan Liphshiz)

Catherine Berdah, pictured here with her husband and daughters at their apartment in Raanana, Israel, went from making $6,000 a month as a pharmacist to $6 an hour as a cashier. (Photo: Cnaan Liphshiz)

Raanana, Israel — Before she traded her native France for Israel, Catherine Berdah ran a successful drug store in an affluent suburb on the eastern edge of Paris.

A 50-year-old pharmacist with a master’s degree in business and decades of experience, Berdah earned over $6,000 per month and presided over an expanding business with 14 employees. But Berdah sold out last year and moved with her husband and two teenage daughters to this central Israeli city because she feared for their future in France amid rising anti-Semitic violence.

Berdah hoped to build a new pharmacy business in the Jewish state. But six months after settling here, she has already quit a $6-per-hour job as a cashier that offered no prospect of advancement and another in a health clinic where she was told to stack boxes in a storage room. Berdah left the latter because she was unable to lift the boxes.

“At 50, I was told that lifting boxes was basically all I’m good for,” Bredah said. “That’s when I started to feel humiliated.”

Now Berdah is studying Hebrew and waiting to take an exam that will grant her an Israeli pharmacist’s license. But before she can do that, she must meet a range of demands, including that she produce her attendance log from a pharmacology internship she completed 30 years ago with a French pharmacist who is no longer alive. According to Qualita, an umbrella group of 12 French immigrant associations in Israel, the exam has an 80 percent fail rate.

All of which has Berdah wondering if she made a terrible mistake in uprooting her comfortable life in France for a chance at a better one in Israel.

“I’m going to give it another year,” Berdah said. “But it’s not going too well.”

Some 15,000 French Jews have settled in Israel in the past two years alone, driven here by a combination of rising anti-Semitism and economic stagnation, among other factors. But while their impact is felt everywhere from the opening of multiple kosher patisseries to the launch last year of a French-language kindergarten to the sounds of yarmulke-wearing boys imitating their
favorite French movie stars in Raanana’s Yad L’Banim Square, Israel’s Francophone newcomers are struggling to make economic inroads.

Their plight recalls that of Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, many of them highly trained professionals with advanced degrees forced to work low-skill jobs as garbage collectors and street sweepers because their credentials did not transfer.

“French physicians, nurses and pharmacists who’ve studied for five, eight years won’t work here as sanitary workers like their Russian counterparts did in the 1990s,” said Mickael Bensadoun, the director of Qualita. “They’re Zionist, but there’s a limit. And if it comes to that, they’ll return to France or move to countries hungry for skilled newcomers, like Canada.”

Both Bensadoun and Berdah believe Israeli authorities have presented unnecessary obstacles to protect local professionals from immigrant competition. The Israeli Health Ministry declined to respond to the charge and referred all inquiries to the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption, which said that efforts are underway to smooth out the certification process for health care professionals.

“We represent a boon for Israel, please don’t put us through a bureaucratic hell for this desire,” David Tibi, a dentist who immigrated to Israel in 2014, wrote in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December.

In the meantime, French immigrants are taking matters into their own hands. In 2014, they launched an aggressive lobbying effort to break through the bureaucratic tangles they fault for making absorption exceedingly difficult for those already in Israel, while deterring countless others from coming.

The lobbying, led by Qualita and its member organizations, has already led to some changes, including the easing of certification requirements for French physicians in 2014 and pending legislation that would exempt experienced French dentists from taking a certification exam. Other professionals still must undergo thorough testing to work, regardless of their experience or the French standards they meet.

In December, the lobbying effort received a big push from Meyer Habib, a Jewish member of France’s National Assembly and friend of Netanyahu, who declared he would advise French Jews against moving to Israel unless progress is made within three months.

“I cannot support a situation which creates tragedies in people’s lives,” Habib wrote on Facebook.

According to Bensadoun, some 300-400 French health care professionals cannot work in their chosen field because of certification issues. He also pointed to official figures suggesting that the situation is leading 15-20 percent of French immigrants to return to France within two years.

Still, Bensadoun says he is optimistic, partly because of lessons drawn from the trials of Russian immigrants in the 1990s.

“The Russian olim’s success and immense contribution to Israel’s rise as a start-up nation have created an awareness in the Knesset and public of the potential dividends from educated olim,” said Bensadoun, using the Hebrew word for immigrants. “In a way, we’re sailing in their wake.”

For all her troubles, Berdah is not quite ready to give up on Israel. But the situation has put strains on her marriage. Her husband, Michel, wants the family to return.

“You think you have something to offer here?” Michel says as they argue on the subject. “Israel doesn’t want anything from you.”

Berdah, in turn, has her own disagreements with her oldest daughter, Clara, 18, who wants to stay in Israel and — to Berdah’s chagrin — serve in an army combat unit. Her younger daughter, Naomi, has acclimated well at her high school, where she studies in a special class for new immigrants and is considering starting a modeling career.

“The silver lining here is that the girls are really fitting in,” Berdah said. “It makes me wonder whether Israel really wants us or only our children.”