Out Of Fear

For Rabbi Steven Schwartz, it’s important to talk about the issues affecting Israel. (David Stuck)

For Rabbi Steven Schwartz, it’s important to talk about the issues affecting Israel. (David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Schwartz said he speaks about Israel all the time — in the context of his sermons, in his adult education classes, in Torah study sessions.

“I don’t know how you cannot,” he said.

But it appears that Rabbi Schwartz — and many of Baltimore’s local rabbis who responded to the question, “To what extent (if at all) do you repress publicly expressing your privately held views on Israel?” — is not in line with a recent study that was published by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. According to that study, “Reluctant or Repressed: Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” about one-third of rabbis surveyed testified restraint, reluctance or repression of their true views.  Over 18 percent say that their private views are more “dovish” than those expressed publicly. And just over 12 percent said that they are “closet hawks.”

In addition, JCPA reported, about 39 percent sometimes or often “avoid expressing your true feelings about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians for fear of offending your listeners or those around you.” Almost half reported that in the last three years, they have refrained from publicly voicing their views on Israel.

Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation said he “could not understand the question” when, where and to whom do you talk about Israel? His answer, like that of Rabbi Schwartz: “I talk about Israel in many settings.”

And Rabbi Busch is not afraid to voice his opinion. While he noted the importance for a rabbi to be thoughtful in what he or she says regardless of the subject, noting that every rabbi “risks being taken out of context or [risks] a partial statement being taken as a full statement … I don’t feel that I avoid saying things.”

Why not? “I am trying to encourage thought and open thinking among those who are listening,” he said.

A lot of this has to do with the reputation, history and understanding the community has about the rabbi, explained Rabbi Schwartz. He told the JT that his congregants know that when he speaks about Israel, the dialogue starts from a place of love of Israel. And he describes his own policies as neither right nor left, but rather focused on what he thinks is best for the Jewish state.

For example, said Rabbi Schwartz, while he supports Israel’s erecting of the security fence along its border, he is opposed to additional homes being built in communities over the green line.

Rabbi Schwartz recalled that 10 years ago he noted during a sermon that Israel should “get out of Gaza and the West Bank. That, at the time, was not something people were saying publicly.”

Rabbi Schwartz said it caused tremendous uproar in the community — and even nationally. The Baltimore Zionist District asked to meet with him.

“This was an intense reaction. But at the end of the day, a few weeks went by, and it was all done,” he said.

Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton said he tries to engage his constituents in dialogue about Israel, trying to ensure they understand that Israel is like a family member, and the common denominator has to be “care and love for the State of Israel and the shared desire to see her safe, secure and successful.”

He continued, “I think that silence from rabbinical leaders on Israel is simply unacceptable.”

Except when it’s OK, according to Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro. The head of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, Rabbi Shapiro said he thinks rabbis should be supportive of Israel and that “you have to have a lot of relationship currency in order to express controversial views. You risk destroying your relationships with members who may vehemently disagree. It is important to walk a fine line and to do it gradually.”

Why does Rabbi Shapiro think a rabbi might be fearful of expressing his or her views on the Jewish state?

“He doesn’t want to be seen as a traitor or as naive,” he said.

Noted Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen of the Chabad Center in Owings Mills: “Discussing Israel is not considered discussing politics. I do not discuss politics. But I will discuss and defend Israel from the podium and in public.”

To read the full Jewish Council for Public Affairs survey, “Reluctant or Repressed: Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” visit jewishpublicaffairs.org.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

A Sense Of Pride

Forty-three percent of Israeli Jews consider their lives “so-so,” according to the 2013 Democracy Index published by the Israel Democracy Institute on Oct. 6.

The annual report, which takes the pulse of Israeli Jews and Arabs, was conducted between April 8 and May 2 and included 1,000 respondents. According to the IDI, the maximum sampling error is 3.2 percent.

The report’s findings come in stark opposition to happenings in the United States, where the government remains shut down largely over the Affordable Care Act. It was reported that 64 percent of Israelis believe that it is important to narrow socioeconomic gaps even if it means paying more taxes.

Professor Tamar Hermann, who oversaw the study as head of the IDI, said, “The origins of the Israeli state were loaded with the socialist perception, and actually, the generation that contributed the most to the construction of the Israeli narrative and self-image were those in the Second Aliyah who came from Russia and were heavily influenced by the various socialist parties and movements there.”

Hermann said the idea that the state should be deeply involved with the well-being of the individual is something “ingrained in Israeli society.” She said that in contrast to the United States and some European countries, Israel is more in line with places such as Scandinavia and Finland. And she noted that many who move to Israel jump on the communal bandwagon rather than influence Israeli society.

“I think Americans who move here tend to change their views under the influence of overall Israeli society,” said Hermann.

Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post, told the JT that Israelis pay income tax of around 40 percent.

Other important findings: Israeli Jews continue to put their trust in the Israel Defense Force first (91 percent), whereas Israeli-Arabs focus on the Supreme Court (50 percent) and the media (48 percent).

Hoffman said the IDF is always at the top of these types of studies because “there is no institution that unifies Israeli Jews more than the IDF.”

Hoffman told the JT that Israeli Jews are becoming “increasingly cohesive” and that while he would not consider Israel to be racist, “the way in which they [Israelis] can show solidarity with their fellow Jews is by liking the institutions that are uniquely Israeli Jewish.”

Why the media? Neither Hermann nor Hoffman had an answer — and neither did David Pollock, Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said, however, “These are two completely different populations that live in the same city but have different identities. [These people] have been subject for generations to very acute conflict. I think it is remarkable that there is as much agreement as there is about anything between them.”

This year, the report found that 40 percent of Israeli-Arabs feel a sense of pride about living in Israel, down 5 percent from the previous year. Hermann says she thinks this is a response to a decision by the government to push for legislation that increases the Jewish focus of the state, as opposed to the democratic. For example, she noted, there is discussion about removing Arabic from the list of national languages.

“One of the most striking findings is that half of Jewish respondents said Jewish citizens should have more citizen rights than non-Jewish people,” explained Hermann. “Non-Jews means Arabs — this is unheard of in a democratic state.”

But Hoffman and Pollock said they feel otherwise. Rather, Hoffman said he believes the government strives to be equal but that a parliamentary democracy is “inherently discriminatory” against minorities. Pollock said that given the situation on the ground, he thinks that 40 percent is “remarkably high.”

Within the Jewish public, 37 percent believe that the Jewish character and democratic character of Israel are equally important, 32 percent assign greater priority to the Jewish element, and 29 percent give greater weight to the democratic nature. At the same time, 75 percent of the Jewish public believes that the State of Israel can simultaneously be both a Jewish state and a democratic state.

And the Jews are more likely to get their way, as Israelis remain engaged and involved with politics, 72 percent; only 60 percent of Israeli-Arabs are interested in politics.

Worth The Fight

Bike For the Fight riders were greeted by students at various schools along the way. (Provided)

Bike For the Fight riders were greeted by students at various schools along the way. (Provided)

Optimistic. Determined. Inexhaustible.

Pick a synonym for any of the above, and you can use it to describe the team of young Israelis pedaling each year across the United States to cure cancer.

Earlier this week, the participants of Bike For the Fight completed their second annual ride, which took them through the Baltimore, Rockville and D.C. areas, to encourage people to donate to the Israel Cancer Research Fund, a North American organization that gives grants to top Israeli cancer researchers. Ride founder Tom Peled, 25, a student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzylia, said the group met their fundraising goal, raising more than $85,000.

For Peled, the mission is personal.

Peled lost his father, who was 58, to a 10-year battle against cancer in 2011. At the time of his father’s diagnosis, Peled was only 15. He channeled his grief into a 3,000-mile bike ride through Europe. By the end, he said he realized he wanted to find a way to both honor his father and devote himself to fighting the insidious disease that robbed him of so many precious years with his dad. The result was Bike For the Fight.

Peled told the JT that in its first year, BFF was an “adventure into the unknown,” as he had never planned anything but a backyard barbecue. But he said that when he got started and people saw his heart was in the right place, they helped. This year, he said, the team has grown (400 riders took part at different intervals along the way) – and grown up.

The ride is not based on speed, but on telling the story. They bike 60 to 70 miles per day.

“We want, as much as we can, to share the story with as many people as we can,” said Peled, who gave talks this year at Goucher College, Chabad of Towson University and Johns Hopkins University during his ride that went from Toronto to Boston, through upstate New York and Massachusetts and then down the East Coast through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C. It culminated at the Israeli Embassy, where dignitaries met BFF with flags, balloons and cheers.

The team relies on home hospitality; throughout its more than 60-day journey, BFF participants only slept in motels for four nights. In Rockville, they stayed with Alex and Miri Livnat; in Baltimore, with Bruce Sholk and Beth Kaplan.

Sholk said he was introduced to Peled though a business partner and his daughter ahead of BFF’s first ride. He went to a kickoff ceremony and saw that the organization was being supported by a wide representation of Israelis, from prominent business people to young activists. Sholk was enthralled.

“While they could have much more easily done this in Israel or Europe, they have chosen to bring this to the U.S. and now Canada to expose the Jewish and non-Jewish community not only to the importance of cancer research, but to the commitment of Israeli and Jewish young adults to do good,” said Sholk. “It is clear from the range of people they have interacted with along their journeys that they have succeeded in both goals.”

Peled’s partners, Director of Technology Inbal Brakha and trip manager Eran Rozen, also have tragic stories to propel them forward. Brakha lost her father to cancer one week before Peled. Rozen’s father was killed in a plane crash. Several of the other riders have stories, too.

“It’s the idea of taking something negative in your life, healing yourself and then turning it in to something positive to help heal others,” said Peled. “In my small way, I want to try to bring progress to finding a cure for cancer through raising money for research being done in Israel.”

Peled said everyone has difficulties, but they are faced with two choices: running away or overcoming them.

He also said BFF is about innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I started this at 23 with no experience at organizing anything,” he said. “But when you do something you believe in and it comes from a pure and honest place, people will help. People are looking to do good, you just need to show them how.”

Learn more about Bike For the Fight at bikeforthefight.com.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

In The Works

Aiman Saif is working in the Israeli government to increase opportunities for Israeli-Arabs to receive a better education and to join Israel’s labor force. (Provided)

Aiman Saif is working in the Israeli government to increase opportunities for Israeli-Arabs to receive a better education and to join Israel’s labor force. (Provided)

The economic security of Israel is at risk.

It sounds dramatic, but it is a reality on the ground — unless the government’s efforts at creating equality of access to education and jobs for Israeli-Arab citizens are successful.

Some facts: Israeli-Arabs make up 20.6 percent of the Israeli population, but they contribute only 8 percent of the gross domestic product, (GDP). Some 51.4 percent of Arab families live below the poverty line (compared with 15 percent of Jewish families). Each year, only 63 percent of Arab youngsters reach 12th grade, compared with 93 percent of their Jewish peers.

“Everyone needs to have the same fair shot,” said Rafi Rone, director of Jewish and Israel Initiatives for the Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds.

And last week, Rone, in conjunction with the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Foundation, brought to Baltimore Aiman Saif of Israel’s Authority of Economic Development of Minorities Sector (a division of the government) to discuss the challenge.

Saif, who grew up in Israel and ultimately attended a Jewish school, said, “The issues of Arabs and Jews is a non-issue. I think we can live together in Israel and build Israel together.”

The issue, rather, is that Arabs and Jews have little opportunity to interact with one another and that the minorities are suffering from lack of investment by the government … well, until recently.

Saif said new programs focused on upgrading the Arab business sector, empowering municipalities, encouraging employment and human resource development and approachability to higher education can hopefully help Israel buck the trend. He said Israel is investing about 4 billion NIS ($1.1 billion) in these projects, and the country is already seeing improvement.

“These are not slogans,” said Saif. “These are actions.”

What does Israel stand to gain? An estimated 30 billion NIS ($8.4 billion) each year.

Nobel Prize In Chemistry Shared By Israeli Professor

Arieh Warshel, an Israeli-American professor at the University of Southern California, will share the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work that made it possible “to map the mysterious ways of chemistry by using computers,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced.

Warshel shares the honor with Martin Karplus, a researcher at the University of Strasbourg and Harvard University, and Michael Levitt, who works at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics,” the Swedish academy said in a statement. “Previously, chemists had to choose to use either/or.”

“In short, what we developed is a way which requires computers to look, to take the structure of the protein and then to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does,” Warshel told reporters.


Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, Passes Away

Ovadya Yosef (1) As tens of thousands prayed for the recovery of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef, he passed away on Monday, October 7, 2013, at the age of 93, with his family and close colleagues, including several Shas leaders and President Shimon Peres at his side.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef was the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a noted Talmudic scholar and leading Halakhic authority.

He served as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party in the Knesset. His Halakhic responsa are highly regarded within Orthodox circles and are considered binding in many Sephardic communities, where he was regarded as the most important living Halachic authority.

Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad, Iraq on September 23, 1920, the day after the Yom Kippur. In 1924, when he was four years old, he immigrated to Jerusalem with his family, then under British rule. As a teenager he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where distinguished himself as a top student. Yosef’s father ran a small grocery, but the family knew times of poverty. He received rabbinic ordination at the early age of 20.

Ovadya Yosef (4)In 1947, Rabbi Yosef was invited to Cairo to teach in a yeshiva. He also served as head of the Cairo rabbinical court. Following a conflict between him and other members of the community he resigned from his position, two years after having arrived in Cairo. Approximately one year after his resignation, he returned to what had become the State of Israel.

After returning to Israel, Yosef served on the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva, where his bold religious authority was already being revealed.

In 1952 he published his first book, on the laws of Pesach, titled “Chazon Ovadia.” The book won much praise and received the approval of, among others, the two Chief Rabbis of Israel at that time, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.

Two years later, Rabbi Yosef founded the Or HaTorah Yeshiva for gifted Sephardic Yeshiva students. This Yeshiva, which did not remain open for long, was the first of many which he established, later with the help of his sons, in order to facilitate Torah education for Sephardic Jews and establish the leadership of the community for future generations. In 1954 and 1956 he published the first two volumes of his major work “Yabia Omer,” which also received much praise. Rabbi Yosef’s responsa are noted for citing almost every source regarding a specific topic and are often referred to simply as indices of all previous rulings.

Ovadya Yosef (3)Between 1958 and 1965 Rabbi Yosef served as a magistrate in the Jerusalem district religious court. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position which he held until his election as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel in 1973.

In 1973 Yosef was elected the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel by a majority of 81 to 68 votes. His candidacy was criticized by some as he was competing against an incumbent Chief Rabbi. The election process was characterized by tension and political controversy. During his years as Chief Rabbi, Yosef dealt with a variety of important social and Halachic issues.

Ovadya Yosef (2)In April 2005, Israeli security services arrested three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had been observing Rabbi Yosef in public and were held on the suspicion of his intended murder. One of them, Musa Darwish, was convicted on December 15, 2005 of Rabbi Yossef’s attempted murder and of throwing firebombs at vehicles on the Jerusalem-Ma’aleh Adumim road. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years probation.

He remained an active public figure in political and religious life in his capacity as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party and through his regular sermons.

His health weakened over the past year. On January 13, 2013 Rabbi Yosef was released from hospital after a minor stroke. On September 24, 2013 he was reportedly put into an induced sleep and was being aided by a breathing respirator. He showed some signs of recovering, but finally succumbed to his illness.

Rabbi Yosef leaves a vast gap in his absence. As the official announcement was made, his fervent group of followers gathered at the hospital, breaking down in tears. One of the Shas rabbis related to Israeli press that following the former chief rabbi’s passing, he now feels “orphaned.”

Analysis: Our Time To Lead

100413_jstreet1The J Street policy conference, “Our Time To Lead,” ran this year from Saturday night, Sept. 28 through Tuesday, Oct. 1. With 2,800 participants — 900 students — it was a sea of turquoise and a rush of chants, “Two states. Two states.”

Sometimes more like a football game than a foreign policy conference, the youthful energy at the conference was a testament to the grassroots and community-building work the organization has done on college campuses through its J Street U program.

“We have over 900 students who have chosen to engage,” said Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen during a Monday evening cocktail reception. The leader of J Street U at Princeton, Cohen brought 24 others with him to Washington. He said the students involved with J Street U feel they are moving the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform forward, a platform he equated to the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

And while certainly the students had an air of dedication surrounding them, there was also an atmosphere much like one would expect at a BBYO or United Synagogue Youth convention: kids wearing logoed T-shirts, snapping photos of their smiling faces and “checking in” on Facebook, tweeting words of inspiration, peace and love.

Participants listen attentively as speakers address how the Israel conversation is shut down and opened up in communities across the country. “Held Hostage” took place on Sept. 29.

Participants listen attentively as speakers address how the Israel conversation is shut down and opened up in communities across the country. “Held Hostage” took place on Sept. 29.

However, the loud cheering was just that — cheering. Rah-rah messages brought little diversity or depth to the J Street sessions, of which there were roughly 25. For the training sessions, as the conference coined them, the media was not allowed to attend.

In each session, the message was the one to be expected.

“Those who do not support a two-state solution … those who think belonging to the Chosen People gives you the right to discriminate against non-Jews, they are the real dangerous anti-Zionists,” bellowed Israeli Knesset member Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) ahead of Vice President Joe Biden’s talk on Monday, Sept. 30.

Participants examine conferene materials. Each attendee received a J Street bag, name tag and program folder. (Photos by David Stuck)

Participants examine conferene materials. Each attendee received a J Street bag, name tag and program folder. (Photos by David Stuck)

“In moments of crisis, we have a duty to make change,” said Dror Moreh, director of the documentary “The Gatekeepers” during the opening plenary.

“To say we’re doing everything we can to protect Palestinian lives is a lie,” said Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence during a session entitled “The Impact of Human Rights Organizations on Israeli Politics.”

One session, “Iran: A New Chance for Diplomacy,” had two speakers sitting on a panel from the same organization.

There was little more.

The vibe in the hallways — and in dialogues during free time and receptions — was that the conference lacked necessary organization and background, something that many compared with the sophisticated AIPAC annual conferences, which draw upward of 10,000 people. “Where were the Israel 101s and 102s you see at AIPAC for the inspired who need the background to effectively take a stance?” was a question older participants and other media asked more than once.

“I am often most impressed by AIPAC’s organization,” said Rabbi Eric Solomon, who leads a congregation in North Carolina, a state in which there are approximately 25,000 Jews. He noted that while many members of Conservative congregations nationally shy away from active participation in J Street politics, his congregants have warmed to the idea of their rabbi’s participation. He said the shul honors an active and concerned dialogue about the Jewish state and that they like that “I care and that I am passionate about Israel.”

Rabbi Solomon tries to attend both the AIPAC and the J Street conferences and believes the two organizations can be complementary.

“Before the public goes to vote, it has to be educated as to the realities of the peace process,” said Anat Saragusti of B’Tselem USA during the session “Can the People Bring Peace?”

100413_jstreet_boxThis need for greater education became gruesomely apparent when sessions opened up for questions. Though there were those in the audience who thoughtfully quizzed the speakers, there were many others who struggled to formulate on-the-subject — or even rooted in reality — questions.

In “The View from the Palestinian Street,” one participant stood up and asked a panelist how difficult it is to have the majority of Palestinian leaders exiled from the West Bank and cited Yasser Arafat’s 2003 death in a Paris hospital as an example. The panelist who was asked to respond, Nidal Foqaha of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, was left speechless. Ultimately he told the questioner he was sorry but he could not answer, as the facts were all wrong; although there are a handful of Hamas leaders who still live outside of Gaza, top Palestinian Authority dignitaries live in the West Bank. Arafat was not exiled from Ramallah at the time of his death.

‘The Machinery Is You’

There was only one session devoted to Iran — at least, though, there was one. Hamas was referred to as weakened and there was little talk — if any — as to whether the terrorist organization could pose an obstacle to peace.

In fact, for a conference focused on moving forward with peace negotiations, there was little talk about the actual status of the negotiations — although Ambassador Martin Sean Indyk did address that question during his keynote address at the Monday night gala. More focus was put on how external influencers can sway the peace process and what movers and shakers — and just average people — can do to move toward two states for two people. There was also talk about how media, film and even human rights organizations impact Israeli and Palestinians’ understanding of what’s happening at the negotiation table.

During the session “After the Credits Roll: Can films change the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” all three speakers — Ronit Avni, founder and executive director of Just Vision; Isaac Zablocki, director of the Israel Film Center and Other Israel Film Festival; and “The Gatekeepers’” Moreh — said their experience with film helped them see “the other side” of the conflict and learn the other’s story.

Bassam Aramin, director of international relations for The Parents Circle, said he was impacted by film while serving time in a Palestinian prison. During the session about sentiment on the Palestinian street, he said he watched a film on the Holocaust while in prison, out of revenge for his lockup, so he could laugh at the Jewish people’s pain. But midway through the film, he found himself crying.

J Street panelists took a critical look at the role of the  American Jewish community in Israeli decision making.  From left: Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil, Washington correspondent, Times of Israel; Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jay Michaelson, contributing editor, Jewish Daily Forward; MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid).

J Street panelists took a critical look at the role of the
American Jewish community in Israeli decision making.
From left: Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil, Washington correspondent, Times of Israel; Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jay Michaelson, contributing editor, Jewish Daily Forward; MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid).

“I cannot imagine your fear,” he said, though he noted that he, too has suffered. He lost his daughter to the conflict. She was shot by an Israeli soldier only several feet from her school.

Moreh commented that as news budgets are being cut, documentary filmmakers increasingly are doing the work of investigative reporters. In a similar vein, Riman Barakat, Co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said the media is reporting only one story and not the reality on the ground. For example, she noted that, while news reporters are calling it a breakthrough that the Israelis have agreed to start negotiations with the pre-1967 borders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared on Israeli TV praising this decision, “I’ll be honest … we are still very much connected to 1948. [We] are still connected to the coastal lines.”
She said the Palestinian Authority has not conveyed this new reality to its own people — “The PA is not educating or sort of preparing the Palestinian ground to accept this model.”

The media leaves that part of the story out.

The biggest game-changer (which was obvious at a conference called “Our Time to Lead”) is the people, said nearly all who spoke in larger forums. In his opening remarks at the Monday gala, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said, “The machinery is you.”

Congresswoman and minority leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi told the crowd, “It is indeed our time to lead. In fact, it is long overdue.”

America The Great?

The elephant in the room — or at least a cause for much debate — was the true role (or the ability to have an impactful role) of America in the peace negotiations. Biden talked much about the work U.S. President Barack Obama has done for Israel and for the peace process.

“No president has done more for the security of Israel than President Barack Obama,” he told a crowd that waited upward of two hours for him to speak. “Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu … publicly thanked the president for insisting on moving forward.”

The crowd cheered loudly for those statements.

So did many of the panelists.

Secretary General of the Arab League Hesham Yousef said he looks to the U.S. to decide its role in the “important” Middle East region. He said a breakthrough will not be made without U.S. intervention.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the Mideast is a place that needs the U.S. to maintain order.

Some panel speakers, however, were less confident in America’s role.

MK Meir Sheetrit of Israel’s Hatnuah Party said during “UN-ilateralism?” that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “must be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, not by the U.N. or the U.S. With all my heart, I believe we must solve it ourselves.”

Even Biden noted, “We cannot want peace in their country more than they do.”

Sheetrit’s statement came just one day before a poll was released by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion, which stated that 68 percent of Palestinians believe that the intervention of the United States in the policies of the Middle East harms stability in the region. Also, that poll noted that only 6.2 percent of Palestinians “strongly believe” negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will result in peace.

One striking piece was the near absence of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who recently concluded his term. Oren did send a letter, which was handed out in folders to conference participants. But while the letter noted in but one-and-a-half paragraphs that the U.S. and Israel have “worked tirelessly for peace,” there was no mention of J Street, its policies or the conference. In fact, the letter was addressed “Dear Friends.”

Similarly, when Oren offered a two-minute video clip at the gala dinner, there was an absence of the name of the sponsoring organization or the work that it does. Instead, the video focused on the effort that Netanyahu has made toward security and peace and strongly reiterated that Israel is a democracy, and the choices being made are by people elected to lead and in the name of popular Israeli opinion.

There was less applause for Oren.


Checking In on the Peace Process
Understanding J Street’s Policy


Iranian Spy Captured In Israel

A Belgian citizen spying for Iran was arrested on September 11th 2013 in Tel Aviv, this according to a statement released by Israel’s General Security Service (GSS). The man, named Alex Menes, aged 55, was arrested as he tried to leave Israel via Ben Gurian airport.

A Belgian citizen spying for Iran, Ali Mansuri,  was arrested on September 11, 2013.

A Belgian citizen spying for Iran, Ali Mansuri, was arrested on September 11, 2013.

In his interrogation it became apparent that he is an Iranian citizen, born Ali Mansuri, who was sent to Israel on various espionage missions. He lived with his family in Iran until 1980, then moving to Turkey where he established himself as a business man. In 1997 he received a Belgian visa, marrying a native Belgian who he subsequently divorced. During this period he was granted Belgian citizenship, changing his name to Alex Menes, thus obscuring his Iranian identity.

In 2007 he returned to Iran, and broadened his business connections. He remarried, this time to an Iranian woman, and was recruited by the Iranian espionage services in 2012. He was instructed to use his business as a cover for visits in Israel. He was promised vast sums to finance his activities.

Mansuri has previously visited Israel in July 2012 and January 2013 on the request of his Iranian handlers. His last visit began on September 6th. He tried to establish business connections during these visits, presenting himself as a Belgian businessman.

During his arrest he was in the possession of numerous photos from various locations in Israel, several of them of interest to the Iranian intelligence services, including the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

Mansuri detailed during his interrogation by the GSS the training he received, the various methods he used to maintain contact with the Iranian intelligence services and his actions in Israel over the past months.


State Department Photo Lists ‘Palestine’ As Country

A photo posted on the U.S. State Department’s Instagram account on Tuesday lists “Palestine” as a country. The post occurred a day after the State Department unveiled its new Instagram account.

state department on instagram - sept 25, 2013“These social media accounts serve as a conduit for the U.S. Department of State to inform and engage publics around the world on foreign policy issues,” the State Department said in a special statement announcing the roll-out on Monday.

Secretary of State John Kerry even released a video message for the occasion. “Finally, the State Department is on Instagram, and we hope you’ll follow us around the world,” Kerry said.

Tuesday’s photo was only the fifth post on the Instagram account, and it was also shared on the State Department’s Facebook account. The post was about logistics ahead of the U.N. General Assembly taking place in New York, but it may have inadvertently revealed the terms used by State Department officials.

“Behind the scenes at #UNGA. We keep hundreds of flags on hand for meetings surrounding the 68th UN General Assembly. Is your flag in the photo?” reads the post, alongside a picture featuring the State Department’s inventory of flags. The flags are stacked in transparent plastic cases, with the name of each country written on the outside.

One of the cases has “Palestine” written on the outside, with the Palestinian flag clearly visible inside. An Israel Hayom reporter tried to contact the State Department on Tuesday through Twitter to get additional information on the picture, but as of Wednesday, no official State Department reaction was noted on Twitter or Instagram. A commeneor on the Instagram page asks, “State Department, have you noticed that one of the cases says Palestine? Is that official U.S. policy?”


Israel Under Pressure To Give Up Chemical, Nuclear Weapons

The United States-Russian deal for the destruction of Syria’s huge chemical weapon stocks caused Israelis to breathe an audible sigh of relief.

Many expected that a U.S. strike would push either Syria or its ally Hezbollah to retaliate by attacking Israel. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Israelis, not known for their patience, spent hours waiting in line for government-issued gas masks.

Yet the deal also increases pressure on Israel to get rid of its chemical and, even more troubling to the Jewish state, its nuclear stockpile. If Syria must get rid of its chemical weapons, the reasoning goes, why can’t Israel do the same?

Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel to discuss the Syrian plan with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. According to the deal, Syria will give a list of all its chemical weapons sites to the United Nations within a week, and all such arms would be destroyed by the middle of 2014.

Groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Syria has already moved significant stocks of chemical weapons out of the country. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal claimed that some 200 trucks were loaded with chemical weapons last week and sent to Iraq.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that Israel has “good capabilities” when it comes to following the trail of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

At the same time, the 100 tons of chemical agents and munitions that Syria is believed to possess are distributed among dozens of sites, which will make their verification and destruction difficult.

Netanyahu sounded unconvinced when it came to the new U.S.-Russian agreement. He spoke after his meeting with Kerry.

“We have been closely following — and support — [the] ongoing efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian regime must be stripped of all its chemical weapons, and that would make our entire region a lot safer,” Netanyahu said. “What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time, that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat. What is true of Syria is true of Iran, and, by the way, vice versa.

Other Israeli officials were less diplomatic.

“All of the conversation is duplicitous,” a senior Israeli official said. “It’s a way of diverting attention away from the real subject, which is the fact that Syria has chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons and has threatened its use of chemical weapons to try to switch the spotlight onto us. While we’ve been going to coffee shops and starting high-tech companies, they’ve been using chemical weapons.”

Israel has always kept a low profile when it comes to its own chemical weapons program. They signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1982 but never ratified it, which means that Israel considers itself bound by the spirit of the treaty but not legally obligated to observe it.

“The main pretext for Israel’s refusal to ratify the treaty was the Syrian arsenal,” Eitan Barak, a professor of international relations from Hebrew University, said. “Israel says Syria is a neighbor country, hostile, with a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and we needed to be able to retaliate.”

He said that given Israel’s pharmaceutical success, it is likely that Israel has a significant arsenal of these armaments. Israeli officials say that efforts to force Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention are duplicitous.

“Unfortunately, while Israel signed the Convention, other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the Convention,” Deputy Foreign Minister Paul Hirschson said. “Some of these states don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it. In this context, the chemical weapons threat against Israel and its civilian population is neither theoretical nor distant. Terror organizations, acting as proxies for certain regional states, similarly pose a chemical weapons threat. These threats cannot be ignored by Israel in the assessment of possible ratification of the Convention.”

Even more disturbing to the Jewish state is a possible linkage of its chemical weapons program with its nuclear weapons program. Israel’s long-stated nuclear policy is one of ambiguity.

“Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” officials have intoned repeatedly over the past decades.

Yet the purported chemical weapons deal with Syria has also increased pressure on Israel to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Some 190 states have joined the NPT, whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Of the world’s nuclear powers, only four have not joined the treaty — India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have all openly tested nuclear weapons, and Israel, with its policy of nuclear ambiguity.

International media reports say that Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons. Israel has refused to sign the NPT despite pressure from the international community. However, when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the country might be more flexible.

“Israel has an interest in a chemical-free zone as opposed to a nuclear-free zone,” Eitan Barak said. “That would leave Israel with its alleged monopoly on nuclear weapons.”