Wishful Thinking Will Obama, Netanyahu reconcile next year?

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

WASHINGTON — Now that enactment of the Iran nuclear deal appears to be a sure thing, the profound and often personal disagreement between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran is not about to go away.

In the contemplative spirit of the Days of Awe, we canvassed the experts to recommend a way forward for the two leaders.

Stop the sniping and work out differences behind closed doors
However you come at the U.S.-Israel rupture, pointing a finger at Team Obama or Team Bibi — or blaming both — there’s a consensus: Stop the public sniping.

“Take a timeout,” said Joel Rubin, until recently a deputy assistant secretary of state and now president of the Washington Strategy Group, a foreign policy consultancy. “You maintain the security relationships and you intensify them, so the security officials are made aware of what’s going on and are confident. At the political level, I don’t know what you can do to change the dynamic.”

He added, “The Israeli leadership will have to make a decision to stop attacking Obama.”

Amon Reshef, a retired Israeli major general, said both leaders need to rise to their better selves.

“Both parties, the United States and Israel, should change the course of the direction of diplomatic relationship,” Reshef said. “Both leaders are mature enough to behave not just as politicians but as leaders. They have to get together behind closed doors to come to some kind of agreement to move ahead.”

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is little the Obama administration can do in the near term to assuage Israeli nerves rubbed raw by the perception that Obama officials sidelined Israel during the Iran talks.

“I know the administration has reached out to Israel to work together to combat Iran’s regional influence,” he said. “But the Israelis see the United States as playing the role of arsonist — and firefighter.”

Hey, remember Palestine?
A year ago, the one significant outcome of the failed U.S. effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace seemed to be creativity in the epithets that Israeli and American leaders were lobbing at one another.

An unnamed senior Obama administration official called Netanyahu “a chicken——” in an interview last October with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. The previous January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly described U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as “messianic.”

Working together on peacemaking with the Palestinians as part of a broader regional peace may be a way out of the Iran-centered tensions, said Reshef, who heads Commanders for Israel’s Security, an assembly of former senior Israeli military officers who want Israel to advance a regional peace deal.

“The best thing for Israel, a kind of historical opportunity, is to deal with the mutual relationship with the United States on the one side and with neighboring Arabs on the other side,” he said.

In any case, a return to the Palestinian issue may be inevitable because of volatility in the Gaza Strip, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“Israeli officials, both in the political establishment and at the security level, are concerned about the potential of another conflict,” said Wittes, who was a senior Middle East policy official in the State Department in Obama’s first term. “And there’s no military answer.”

U.S. and Israeli officials could come together in the twilight of Obama’s presidency and consider a way out.

“Is there a way to address the stagnation in Gaza in a way that can be a springboard toward Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation?” Wittes asked.

Schanzer said the United States could show good will ahead of the U.N. General Assembly in September by making clear that Washington would stop any attempt by the Palestinians to gain statehood recognition in the world body and by intensifying opposition to the movement to boycott Israel.

“That could help shore up support for Israel and let them know the United States is working with them on some key areas,” he said.

Hire new wingmen
A key feature of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been designated buddies: two people who are each as close to their bosses as to one another, and who always pick up when the other’s face pops up on the smartphone.

That’s what Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was supposed to be when he arrived in the United States — Netanyahu’s right-hand man sent to forge close relationships with top Obama administration officials.

It didn’t work out, to put it mildly. Dermer, who without telling the White House worked with Republicans to set up Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March, is seen by the Obama administration as a partisan. Dan Shapiro, his American counterpart in Tel Aviv, is well regarded by the Israeli political establishment, but is also seen as too closely identified with the Obama administration.

Ilan Goldenberg, until last year a senior member of the State Department team brokering the Israeli-Palestinian talks, suggests hiring wingmen not associated with the current debacle. He suggested national security advisers known to have worked well together in Obama’s first term, America’s Tom Donilon and Israel’s Yaacov Amidror.

“That would be a perfect start, an additional channel to add some sanity,” said Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Stop throwing weapons at the region, start throwing ideas
The Obama administration is pitching weapons upgrades throughout the region as a means of offsetting Iranian mischief, should the Islamic Republic feel empowered by the nuclear deal. Israel is nervous because although it, too, is due to get a bundle of goodies, it fears enhanced military capabilities among neighbors that in the past have been hostile.

“What you have now is an effort to arm the Saudis and other Gulf states,” Schanzer said, “but it erodes Israel’s qualitative military edge” — the U.S. policy of keeping Israel better equipped and prepared than its neighbors.

Goldenberg suggested collaborative regional efforts to combat terrorism and cyberattacks. Additionally, the Obama administration should show Israel it is invested in keeping Iran from arming Israel’s enemies, he said.

“Every couple of years Israel stops ships with Iranian weapons on them, and takes pictures and sends them out to the world,” he said. “What if the U.S. were to send those pictures? It would send a signal to the Israelis and embarrass the Iranians.”

Get over yourselves, there’s more work to do
The ongoing problems of the Middle East ultimately may be what forces back together the hard-heads who have fomented the U.S.-Israel crisis. The United States and Israel have common interests in Lebanon, Syria and across the region.

The U.S.-Israel relationship — one that is between stable democracies with a shared interest in fending off Middle Eastern threats — is larger than any differences between Netanyahu and Obama, said Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran adviser in his first term and now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This issue is taking place in a reality where the region is in a place of turmoil and uncertainty, where the state system is under assault,” he said, referring to the Iran deal. “Whether it gets implemented or not, that remains true.”

Cardin Will Oppose Iran Deal

081514_cardin-briefOn Friday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he will vote against the Iran nuclear agreement.

The junior senator from Maryland wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post, “This is a close call, but after a lengthy review, I will vote to disapprove the deal. The JCPOA legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program. After 10 to 15 years, it leaves Iran with the option to produce enough enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon in a short time. The JCPOA would provide this legal path to a country that remains a rogue state and has violated its international nonproliferation obligations for years.”

He pledged to introduce legislation to strengthen the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and United States regional security.

Cardin was integral to gaining Congress the right to review and vote upon the nuclear deal.

Earlier in the day, it was reported by the The Denver Post that Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) will support the Iran nuclear agreement, bringing the number of Senate Democrats backing the deal to 38.

His op-ed can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-will-vote-against-the-iran-deal/2015/09/04/003842ca-5281-11e5-9812-92d5948a40f8_story.html

‘We’re Not Giving Away Anything’ Obama takes Iran pitch directly to Jewish community

In an address to American Jews on Aug. 28, President Barack Obama insisted that the agreement negotiated between world powers and Iran blocks the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons without limiting the United States’ options in case of violations.

“This deal blocks every way, every pathway Iran might take to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Obama said during the 50-minute live webcast from the White House. “We’re not giving away anything in this deal in terms of our capacity to respond if they choose to cheat.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Obama made a few remarks before responding to questions, many submitted by American Jews to the organizers in advance.

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran deal during a live webcast on Aug. 28 co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (Screencap)

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran deal during a live webcast on Aug. 28 co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (Screencap)

The deal reached on July 14 between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, requires Iran to remove all but a “handful” of centrifuges from Natanz; to rebuild the heavy water facility at Arak in such a way that weapons-grade plutonium enrichment would be impossible; and to turn the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow into a research facility, Obama said.

“In the best of all worlds, Iran would have no nuclear infrastructure whatsoever,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, that’s not a reality that’s obtainable.”

The president reiterated that the United States had ensured it could “snap back” the sanctions on Iran that he credited with bringing the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table “in the event that Iran cheats or does not abide by the terms of the deal.”

Obama said that without this deal, he and his successor would be forced into military action. He conceded that Iran could feel “cocky enough” to develop nuclear weapons when parts of the agreement expire in 15 years, but he said Iran “could pursue it next week if we didn’t have this deal.”

The president stressed that the United States has not taken any options off the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that a “military approach at this juncture would forestall a determined Iran for a year or two from getting a nuclear weapon.”

He defended his record on Israel’s security, saying that even his fiercest critics would say there has been “unprecedented military cooperation” during his time in office and that there had been an enhanced degree of military aid, including for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Obama rejected the “heated” rhetoric that has been used by both sides, though he challenged the idea that the vitriol has been equal on both sides, laying most of the blame on detractors of the deal.

He denied calling deal opponents “warmongers” and defended Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who recently came out in support of the agreement. Nadler, he said, “for personal and political integrity, stood by Israel and has been attacked in ways that are appalling.

“I would suggest that in terms of the tone of this debate, everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives.”

Obama brushed off comments tweeted out by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “The president of the United States doesn’t respond to taunts. The president of the United States responds to interests, facts, evidence” in making decisions for the American people and American allies.

In a personal moment, the president said that if he lived in Israel he would have a “visceral reaction” to dealing with a country that denies the Holocaust.

“As an African-American, I understand history teaches us that man can be very cruel to man and you have to take threats seriously, but what history also teaches us is that sometimes the best security is to enter into negoti-ations with your enemies,” he said, referencing negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“The bond between the United States and Israel is not political. It’s not based on alliances of convenience; it is something that grows out of family ties and bonds that stretch back generations and shared values and shared commitments and shared beliefs in democracy,” Obama said. While the two governments may disagree, as families do, it “does not affect the core commitments we have to each other.”

The president promised to make sure Israel keeps its military edge in a dangerous neighborhood where Iranians prop up Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies, though he was adamant that military aid and sharing of intelligence was not to compensate for the deal as critics have suggested. Obama said that Israelis and Americans have been in discussion “for months” over enhanced sharing of military knowledge.

Congress has until late September to decide whether to reject the deal. Obama has pledged to veto a rejection.

On Aug. 30, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) came out in support of the Iran deal, bringing the total number of Democratic supporters in the Senate to 31. Obama needs 34 senators to uphold a presidential veto. Only two Democratic Senators have come out against the deal: Chuck Schumer of New York and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.


Mikulski Support Hands Iran Deal Victory to Obama

Mikulski - Sept. 24, 2013Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) announced her support Wednesday for the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Mikulski’s support for the deal brings the number of senators in favor to 34. That’s the number of votes that President Barack Obama needs to sustain a veto.

Republican majorities in the House and Senate are expected to pass a measure rejecting the Iran agreement. Obama has promised to veto such a measure.

“I have spent countless hours reading, being briefed and pouring over the intelligence,” Mikulski said in a statement.

“Some have suggested we reject this deal and impose unilateral sanctions to force Iran back to the table. But maintaining or stepping up sanctions will only work if the sanction coalition holds together. It’s unclear if the European Union, Russia, China, India and others would continue sanctions if Congress rejects this deal. At best, sanctions would be porous, or limited to unilateral sanctions by the U.S.,” she said.

“There are also those who have proposed military action as an alternative to end Iran’s nuclear program. But taking military air strikes against Iran would only set the program back for three years. It would not terminate the program. Iran would continue to possess the knowledge of how to build a bomb and could redouble its resolve to obtain a weapon, completely unchecked. Iran would almost certainly use Hizballah or other proxies to attack Israel or conduct terrorist- or cyber-attacks against U.S. interests. The military option is always on the table for the United States. We are not afraid to use it. But military action should be the last resort, since it will have only temporary effects versus the longer-term effects of this deal.

“No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime,” she continued “I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb. For these reasons, I will vote in favor of this deal. However, Congress must also reaffirm our commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”

Maryland’s other senator, Ben Cardin (D), has yet to announce whether he will support or oppose the deal.

Tourism to Israel Is Down, but Optimism Abounds Despite decline in visitors, experts remain positive about country’s tourist offerings

Senior reporter Marc Shapiro recently traveled to Israel as part of a Jewish press trip that was sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. The weeklong trip, from July 22 to 28, allowed Shapiro and seven other journalists to travel throughout the country to Jerusalem, the Negev Desert, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and more. The following articles capture a few of the places he visited and the people he met.


For a country only slightly larger than New Jersey, Israel offers a diversity of activities and scenery — mountains, desert, beaches, wineries, museums and history of literally biblical proportions — for tourists from all over the world.

It also serves as a destination for people of varying backgrounds, with holy sites important to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Despite all of this, tourism to Israel was down about 12.6 percent January to July 2015 compared with that same period in 2014, according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

Israelis and those in the tourism industry point to various factors, including the world economy, especially the decreased value of the euro and the financial crisis in Greece, as well as last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, which saw fighting between Israel and Gaza in July and August, and the media frenzy that accompanied it.

“It’s a destination that you almost don’t have to market if everything is quiet,” said Uri Steinberg,  of the Israel Tourism Commissioner for North America, a position in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

A record 3.6 million people visited Israel in 2013, and there was a significant increase in the first half of 2014, but ultimately that year topped off at 3.3 million visitors, less than the year prior.

Steinberg said the picture changes depending on how you look at the numbers and notes that last year was still a good year.

“In June 2014, people were afraid of not having places to put tourists,” he said.

The outlook with regard to tourism from North America is less bleak.

From January to July, tourism from North America is down 4.8 percent compared to 2014, but up 2.2 percent compared to 2013, the year in which Israel experienced record-breaking tourism numbers.

While El Al Israel Airlines also suffered last summer, with a 62 percent decrease in operating profit in the third quarter of 2014, things have picked back up for the airline, which recently announced the purchase of 15 additional aircraft and the possibility of adding 13 more in the future. The company announced a net profit of $17.3 million in the second quarter of 2015. The company had a net profit high of $57.9 million in the third quarter of 2013, which dropped to $10.1 million in the third quarter of 2014 due to military action.

Tourism from the United States, which sends the largest percentage of tourists to Israel (about 18 percent of its total), is strong, Steinberg suggests, because of the U.S. economy’s improvements in recent years. In Europe, however, it’s a different story.

“The euro has really damaged the incoming tourism from various countries to Israel,” Steinberg said. “People have been feeling it the last couple of months really hard.”

As of press time, 1 euro equaled 4.21 Israeli shekels.

Elie Gertler, a Jerusalem resident and a licensed tour guide since the 1960s, said that, in addition to the euro being distressed, Israel is an expensive country for travelers, pointing to the high price of hiring a private car for tours as well as the high price of gas. He’s personally seen a decline in clientele and thinks the decline in overall tourism is even higher than 20 percent.

“Right now I work with the Ministry [of Tourism] because there is no work,” he said, adding that his private bookings pay more. While his calendar is usually booked solid from July to December, during a weeklong tour in late July he lamented that his next job wasn’t for a few weeks, and his calendar beyond that was very much open.

Yuval Frucht, a driver with North Negev Tours who lives in Netanya, said business is about 50 percent off, but his company, which has about 120 buses, hasn’t laid off anyone.

“I sit at home too much,” he said. But the company keeps busy with business from Israelis, including the military and schools. It’s not just tour guides and drivers who suffer when tourism is down, he said.

“It’s tour guides, restaurants, hotels; it’s one big circle,” said Frucht. “The airports, the bell boys. Businesses close because of war.”

Oded Schickler, a tour guide with Ramon Desert Tours, which gives tours of the Ramon Crater, said the two months during the fighting last summer were tough for his company. There were less youth programs and less American families. But this past winter was one of their best, he said, because a lot of Jewish tourists came to Israel to support the country.

For some lucky tour guides, things haven’t slowed down. Asaf Salomon, a licensed freelance tour guide who works with different companies and conducts private tours for likes of The Rolling Stones, said that although friends and colleagues have felt the decline, he personally hasn’t. He thinks it has to do with his personal situation, since he guides VIP tours for the Western Wall tunnels in Hebrew and English, works with Hebrew University, the National Library of Israel, the AJC and the Shalom Hartman Institute and also guides congregations, birthright groups and Jewish schools. While some agencies he works with have had a drop in groups, he’s been assigned his usual amount of groups.

Salomon said he can empathize with those who get spooked by the media, which he feels doesn’t showcase the positive sides of Israel.

“People hear about Israel in security issues, and the other aspects are not shown enough; culture, history, religion, food, high-tech, etc.,” he said via email. “I also think that the news that comes out about the region has an effect — Syria, Egypt, ISIL. [It] doesn’t really sound welcoming. If people want to travel to a place and visit a region, I’m not sure this is a choice I would make if that’s the news I was receiving.”

Other tour guides share Salomon’s sentiment.

“I’ve been to the U.S. … I look at the news and I say, ‘I’m not going back home,’” Frucht said. “The truth is everything is OK. It’s quiet. It’s nice.”

Caroline Shapiro, spokeswoman for the historic Tower of David and Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which has seen a 20 percent dip in visitors, recommends those interested in traveling to Israel check event calendars in various cities to find festivals and other cultural opportunities.

“We hope that people continue to come to Jerusalem and discover a city not only rich in history and prayers, but a city diversely rich in cultures, in art, drama and dance,” she said. “While the media looks for the negative to report, the rest of the country and its visitors from abroad don’t have to look far to find the positive and to enjoy the fusion of old and new in Israel.”

Salomon thinks Israel needs to invest in reaching individual travelers and cost-friendly tourism and advertise the diversity of sites and activities the country has to offer.

That’s precisely what the Ministry of Tourism is doing, Steinberg said.

“The Middle East is a hot spot and we have to acknowledge that. It’s about targeting those audiences, targeting those influences in those circles like rabbis, pastors and priests who can really convince their followers,” he said. “It’s about safety and a transformative experience.”

And it’s been working, Steinberg said, as Israel has seen more faith-based travelers from places such as India and Brazil.

“The idea of walking where Jesus walked is a very powerful one in Brazil,” he said.

He said the ministry is undergoing a “significant digital revolution” to try to reach specific people in a personal way.

“One of the most remarkable things in Israel is it has so many faces that fit so many different audiences that it feels like they’re living almost in a fantasy. People can connect you to who you are whether you’re in the LGBT community, the Jewish community, the Catholic community,” Steinberg said. “It’s a crossroads for so many different things.”

Destination Israel articles

Israel’s Biblical Chef

Museum on the Seam: Not Your Average Art Venue

The Ramon Crater

Soreq Stalactite Cave


What happens next? With a vote on Iran nuclear deal approaching, expert weighs in on likely outcomes

Congress has less than a month left to review the Iran nuclear agreement before it comes to an expected vote in mid-September. Despite opponents lobbying hard and spending millions to sway undecided lawmakers, President Barack Obama may still get his way, the Senate majority leader said recently.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to the Associated Press, told a business group in his home state on Monday that Obama has “a great likelihood of success” in pushing the Iran nuclear agreement forward.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act passed earlier this year, Congress has 60 days to review and vote on a deal. A vote on a joint resolution of disapproval is expected to take place Sept. 17.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he will vote against the Iran nuclear deal. (File photo)

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he will vote against the Iran nuclear deal. (File photo)

It’s generally accepted that Republicans have enough support to vote down the deal initially, but Obama has promised a swift veto. To sustain a veto, 34 Democrats in the Senate and 146 in the House are needed.

As McConnell put it quite simply, “[Obama] can win by getting one-third plus one of either house.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) became the second Senate Democrat, the other being Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. Menendez called the current agreement “a very expensive alarm system” that in his estimation was a “far cry from significant dismantling” of Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier in the day, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) became the 21st Democrat to back the deal.

If enforcing existing sanctions seems like a tall order, imagine trying to corral allies into imposing more sanctions — a nearly impossible feat, said Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

As of press time, no Republicans have come out in favor of the deal. To overcome a Democrat-led filibuster of a motion disapproving the deal, six Democrats would need to join with the GOP. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) the one Republican who considered supporting the deal, said recently he will vote no.

Said McConnell, “The campaign of the president to get it approved will be entirely among Democrats, probably Democrats in very safe Democratic seats whose only fear in re-election would probably be getting [through] a primary.”

If opponents of the deal are able to overcome a presidential veto, what are the consequences to the United States for rejecting the deal?

No one can say for sure, but Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow with the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution in Washington, examined likely outcomes in an extensive paper published earlier this month.

Under INARA, if Congress disapproves the deal, then Obama is prohibited from issuing waivers needed to lift sanctions, a key component of the United States’ commitment under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, thus removing Iran’s incentive to keep its own commitments.

In the short term, Einhorn wrote, the president could not enact limited sanctions relief required by the Joint Plan of Action reached in November 2013. The release of $700 million to Iran each month from its estimated $100 billion in frozen overseas accounts would stop.

It would become increasingly difficult to enforce sanctions on the purchase of Iranian crude oil. Since 2012, United States oil sanctions compelled countries to reduce their imports of Iranian crude oil every six months. Under the JPOA, countries were allowed to stop their import reduction without risk of sanctions. Reimplementing sanctions would impact India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and, most notably, China, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude oil.

China might offer up token sanctions to keep the United States happy, wrote Einhorn, but it is far more likely that China would find a workaround or completely ignore the United States’ sanctions. Other countries would follow China’s lead.

At the same time, the United States would be trying to enforce other existing sanctions. Some major international financial institutions, Einhorn predicted, might get on board rather than risk being cut off from the United States financial system, but the temptation of entry into Iranian markets may be too much for European allies.

The European Union and European governments might not crack down on sanctions busters, forcing the United States to become a worldwide sanctions enforcer, setting up a scenario where the United States government could impose sanctions on allies in pursuit of compliance.

“And as the ranks of sanctions evaders grew and as the defectors came to believe there was strength in numbers, such a campaign could become increasingly confrontational, futile and self-defeating, especially if the sanctioned entities had substantial economic links to the United States,” wrote Einhorn.

If enforcing existing sanctions seems like a tall order, imagine trying to corral allies into imposing more sanctions — a nearly impossible feat, in Einhorn’s view. In the meantime, Iran would likely begin expanding its nuclear capacity with the justification that the United States did not hold up its end of the deal. Then it would be harder to get partners back to the negotiating table, and even if the United States succeeded in restarting talks, Iran’s nuclear program would be further along than it is today.


Museum on the Seam: Not Your Average Art Venue Jerusalem sociopolitical art museum in danger of shutting down

When people think of Jerusalem, biblical history comes to mind: the Western Wall, the Old City and other sacred relics of the past. But situated in a modest building on the borders of Mea Shearim, Musara and East Jerusalem is what one might call an anomaly for Jerusalem, a contemporary art museum with alluring and provocative pieces that shine light on sociopolitical issues.

Raphie Etgar, curator of Museum of the Seam, a sociopolitical contemporary art museum in Jerusalem. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Raphie Etgar, curator of Museum of the Seam, a sociopolitical contemporary art museum in Jerusalem. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

A large banner that exclaims “The Revolution Is Not Over” graces the outside of the building, and inside visitors might catch a glimpse of the curator, Raphie Etgar, who founded Museum on the Seam 20 years ago.

“My feeling is that we are dividing more than we are getting together,” he said. “At the end of the day we are left with information and knowledge that is misleading us to fighting each other rather than to accept the differences.”

He talks of “sharing” and “balance” and “friendship,” and speaks critically of world leaders, who are the subject of the museum’s current exhibition, “And The Trees Went Forth To Seek A King.”

“This exhibition … is about our leaders, is about us, is about the relations that are developing from the moment we love them, we follow them, we want them to guide us and they disappoint us,” he said. “We are used to this corruption, and this disappointment is growing from every day to the other. If we lose faith in our leaders, we lose the faith in ourselves,” or as his introduction to the exhibit reads, “we face the danger of losing faith in institutions of power.”

The museum, which The New York Times named one of the best 29 art venues in the world, features a variety of international artists.

A banner declaring “The Revolution Is Not Over” greets museum visitors. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

A banner declaring “The Revolution Is Not Over” greets museum visitors. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Pieces in the current exhibition include “Photo Op,” which depicts former British Prime Minister Tony Blair taking a selfie with an explosion in the background, which the artist hopes leaves the viewer to question the responsibilities and morality of politicians during war; “Those in Charge,” a six-minute video produced guerilla-style, features a motorcade of seven black Mercedes-Benz sedans topped with large portraits of Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and six prime ministers upside down, the artist pointing to disillusionment with government programs and policies as well as the suffering caused by the economic downturn; and “Begin” a mixed-media wood silhouette of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which reflects the leader’s “tragic image” as a courageous leader who would partly be blamed for the Lebanon War in the 1980s.

“You have distance to look at a thing and then to make up your mind [on] what is actually the real thing and what the exhibition meant,” Etgar said.

He’s well-aware of the critics in his own backyard.

“This exhibition is trying to do something that some people say is against Israel, and I think this is the opposite because what we want to do is expose the weak points. We want to tell ourselves where we went wrong and how we can change,” he said. “If we will just say to everybody, ‘We are good and this is the right way and we should fight with everybody and we shouldn’t share anything,’ this will lead us to catastrophe.”

While the museum stands out in Jerusalem, the building itself is not ordinary either. Originally built as a neoclassical mansion, it became a frontal military post during the Six-Day War in 1967, when what was Jordan was right across the street. Etgar grew up behind the building and remembers the barbed wire that used to adorn the borders of his museum.

While he’s not sure how far and wide his message has been heard in Israel, Etgar has at least one victorious story. When a group of border guards visited the museum, Etgar told them to be sensitive and do their jobs in a way that would let people being checked know that the guards weren’t against them and to remember that the women whose purses they checked were also mothers. Two months later, one of the guards returned to the museum.

“He said, ‘You know what you did to our unit?’” Etgar recalled, “‘We came to the checkpoint with bunches of flowers and we gave to each woman a flower once we checked her bag.’ And I said that day, ‘Thank you God.’”

While Etgar relishes in impactful moments such as that one, his storied museum could close in about three months. With changes in the von Holtzbrinck family of Germany, the museum’s sole donors, funding is ending. And while Etgar has met with some potential donors, no one has committed to the museum, which he said requires $1 million per year to run.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “People are very much full of respect and full of sympathy, but that in the end, nobody’s putting out a checkbook.”


Israel’s Biblical Chef Moshe Basson’s culinary creations draw from the Torah and his multiethnic upbringing

Many people connect to the earth by going on hikes, connect to the Bible by going to synagogue or church and connect with food by eating and cooking it. For Chef Moshe Basson of The Eucalyptus in Jerusalem, all of those pieces come together in his work. From picking his own herbs and vegetables to cooking food that draws on Arab, Jewish, Iraqi, Israeli and Palestinian traditions with culinary roots in the Bible, Basson has rightly earned the title Israel’s Biblical Chef.

“Each dish that is on your table that we are serving here, there is a story,” he recently told a group of American journalists who visited the restaurant.

Above: Chef Moshe Basson, known as Israel’s Biblical Chef, speaks with a group of journalists at his restaurant, The Eucalyptus. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Above: Chef Moshe Basson, known as Israel’s Biblical Chef, speaks with a group of journalists at his restaurant, The Eucalyptus. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

His restaurant, located in the Artist Colony near the Old City, is the culmination of Basson’s upbringing, curiosity, memories and skills learned along the way.

Basson, 65, first came to Israel with his family in 1951 as a 9-month-old. They had fled Iraq as refugees and lived in a shed made of aluminum and wood that Basson recalls was about 9 feet wide and 12 feet long. While each person could leave Iraq with only a ring and one suitcase, Basson’s family smuggled some gold out when they left. With that gold, they opened a bakery and bought a small stone house.

His father got a chicken so the family could produce eggs, planted a vegetable garden around the bakery and house and later bought two goats. They’d milk the goats, make cheese when they had enough milk and sell the cheese locally.

It was at the bakery where Basson fell in love with herbs and spices. During the High Holidays, his father would rent out one of the ovens to Arab families, and although Basson couldn’t eat their  non-kosher delicacies, he was enthralled with the scents of the pitas and samosas coming out of that oven.

He learned to forage from an Arab friend. Basson would take his goat herd and his friend would take his sheep herd and they’d pick wild herbs together.

“When you are close to the ground, really physically close, you feel happy,” he said. “It is organisms … releasing sort of chemicals, I don’t know what, but they make you happy.”

Basson, an internationally renowned chef and member of Chefs for Peace and the Slow Food movement, never went through any kind of formal training. Rather, he learned by watching his mother cook the recipes her family has passed down, from Arab mothers and from a Moroccan rabbi’s wife, among others.

“I liked cooking and reading anything, and I like the text and stories and I believe in the Bible,” he said. “I’m reading the Bible since I’m a child, and now I can show the connection, now I can see the connection and talk about it.”

The Eucalyptus’ roots go back to 1986, when Basson’s brother opened a restaurant out of the family’s old stone house to feed workers from the area.

“I joined him to help him, to consult, and I was sucked in,” Basson said. “I started to cook my memories from things that I saw.” Two years later, Basson would take over the restaurant and rename it. Other than about two years during the Second Intifada, the restaurant has been going strong ever since and moved to its current location almost six years ago.

When asked about his dishes and their biblical connections, Basson becomes part-chef, part-scholar. His restaurant prominently features the seven species that are mentioned in Deuteronomy — wheat, barley, grapes (for wine), figs, pomegranates, olives (for oil) and dates (for honey). For example, the appetizer menu features figs stuffed with chicken. He uses hyssop, which was used for brushes to paint doors with the blood of the lamb in the story of Exodus, in dishes such as his appetizer breads and dips, which features hyssop pesto. Red lentil stew, which the menu calls the “Jacob and Esau Special,” goes back to the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for lentil soup.

“This soup was cooked when the Bible was really fresh,” Basson said.

When there was an infestation of grasshoppers, Basson was featured on numerous news outlets cooking the insects, which are mentioned in Leviticus as permissible to eat.

“It’s the things that you can touch and things that you can smell, and it’s all surrounding the Bible or our roots, deep roots, in this ground,” he said. “So you can get very, very modern dishes at my restaurant and always you find the sort of [ingredients] that will take you back, back, back to the Bible, to the legendary stories of the region.”


Matisyahu calls festival cancellation ‘appalling, offensive’

American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu

American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu

American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu spoke out against the organizers of a Spanish festival that canceled his performance because he refused to endorse Palestinian statehood.

On his Facebook page Monday, a day after festival organizers announced that he was no longer invited to perform there, Matisyahu said the festival organizers had asked him “to write a letter, or make a video, stating my positions on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to pacify the BDS people.” However, he wrote, “My music speaks for itself, and I do not insert politics into my music.”

Matisyahu, who for many years was a Chasidic Jew, added that he felt “pressure to agree with the BDS political agenda.”

“Honestly it was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements,” he said. “Were any of the other artists scheduled to perform asked to make political statements in order to perform? No artist deserves to be put in such a situation simply to perform his or her art. Regardless of race, creed, country, cultural background, etc., my goal is to play music for all people.”

Matisyahu was scheduled to perform Aug. 22 at the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Benicassim, near Barcelona.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain called the cancellation a case of “anti-Semitic cowardice.” The organizers had been pressured to disinvite Matisyahu by activists promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel, the federation said.

“As Spaniards, we are ashamed of the organizers,” the Spanish federation’s statement said. “In this case, the BDS movement employed all its anti-Semitic arsenal against the participation on Matthew Paul Miller,” using Matisyahu’s full name.

Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington executive director Ron Halber took to Facebook on Tuesday to denounce the decision, writing that singling out Matisyahu and canceling his performance because “he wouldn’t offer statements to appease Israel haters” is anti-Semitism.

According to the El Pais newspaper, other musicians threatened to cancel their performances in the festival unless Matisyahu made a declaration.

In a Facebook post Saturday about the decision, Rototom mentioned its “sensitivity to Palestine, its people and the occupation of its territory by Israel.”

Countering Attacks What if the assaults on Israel are not from guns?

From left: Shimon Mercer Wood, consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel, speaks, as StandWithUs executive director Shahar Azani, Mid-Atlantic Media editorial director Joshua Runyan and The Algemeiner Journal editor Dovid Efune, look on.

From left: Shimon Mercer Wood, consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel, speaks, as StandWithUs executive director Shahar Azani, Mid-Atlantic Media editorial director Joshua Runyan and The Algemeiner Journal editor Dovid Efune, look on.

Israel is currently under assault, but not from Hamas rockets. The attacks on the Jewish state are increasingly coming from international media outlets sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

How to counter this trend and depict Israel in a more positive light was the topic of a panel discussion titled “Israel on Trial in the Courtroom of Public Opinion” held Aug. 12 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., as part of the 10th annual National Jewish Retreat, an event organized by the Brooklyn-based Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Mid-Atlantic Media editorial director Joshua Runyan challenged the pro-Israel community to engage in the debate about Israel rather than shutting off the opposition.

“If we look at the debate and we say the debate shouldn’t be happening, we’ve already lost because it means that we are not allowing our voice to be heard,” said Runyan. “If we acknowledge that the debate is going on and we say, ‘Yes, let’s have that debate about Israel, and let’s talk about how great the country is and how it’s doing all of these things right,’ then we can actually have a conversation with Israel’s detractors.”

Runyan was joined on the panel by Shahar Azani, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel education and advocacy organization, and Shimon Mercer Wood, consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Dovid Efune, editor of The Algemeiner Journal, served as moderator.

Wood said that winning friends is as important as winning arguments and cautioned against in-fighting in the pro-Israel community.

“There is a real risk of turning our gunsights against each other and picking fights with each other,” said Wood. “Who is Zionist enough? Who is defending Israel the right way? Who is defending Israel in the wrong way? We couldn’t give a greater gift to our enemies than to be litigative and spiteful among ourselves. So building relationships, building friendships and maintaining the friendships within our own camp has to be an important part of what we do.”

Don’t allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to consume all the oxygen in the room when the topic of Israel is broached, advised Azani. Instead, be prepared to educate people about the positive contributions Israel has contributed to the world by engaging on social media and other forums.

Said Azani: “Be ready for the debate on the conflict, but don’t let it be your sole objective because by doing so you will have committed a crime against Israel. We are not just a counter-reaction to the Arab world or to the Palestinian people, we are a vibrant country on our own with a strong tradition and a tremendous gift to the world, and let us never, never forget this.”