A Matter of Conversion Targeting modern Orthodox rabbi, Israeli rabbinate draws battle line

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a  30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a
30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month.
(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — There’s no shortage of Israelis who want to reform the office of the Chief Rabbinate.

Ranging from advocates of religion-state separation to leaders of Israel’s non-Orthodox movements to newspaper columnists, some want to end the Rabbinate’s monopoly over the country’s religious services; others want to dissolve it entirely.

But this week, the Rabbinate appears to have targeted a leader whose critique of Israel’s religious status quo is more subtle. Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, has been summoned to a hearing before the Rabbinate next month where he believes his job will be challenged.

Unlike many of the Rabbinate’s critics, Riskin is Orthodox, supports the Rabbinate in its current form and operates within the bounds of Orthodox Jewish law, or halachah. But he has called on the Rabbinate to condone his relatively progressive policies, especially regarding conversion and ordination of women.

“I’m very much in favor of the Chief Rabbinate, but there has to be a certain degree of pluralism for the rabbis,” said Riskin, who draws a salary from the Rabbinate. “It’s important for the Chief Rabbinate to contain within itself a number of different halachic ways.”

The Chief Rabbinical Council, the Rabbinate’s governing body, summoned Riskin to a June 29 hearing to discuss his reappointment as rabbi of Efrat, a town he co-founded in 1983. A spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry, Daniel Bar, said the hearing is part of a process all municipal rabbis age 75 or older must undergo in order to review their health. Riskin is 75.

But Riskin believes the Rabbinate may use the hearing as a pretext to dismiss him.

An American immigrant originally from New York, Riskin supports a government decision from last November that allowed Israel’s municipal rabbis to perform state-sanctioned conversions. For years preceding the decision, Riskin had performed conversions privately. The Rabbinate has come out publicly against the government decision and has yet to recognize Riskin’s conversions.

“I remain very optimistic that the Chief Rabbinate will understand that we’re facing a time bomb with this problem of the Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Riskin said, referring to Israeli immigrants from the Soviet Union who do not qualify as Jewish according to traditional Jewish law. “We can do a wonderful job converting the children as well as the adults in a warm and welcoming fashion.”

Since he received rabbinic ordination more than 50 years ago, Riskin has been a leader in pushing the limits of Jewish law within the modern Orthodox community. He took over Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1964, transforming it into a modern Orthodox hub focused on outreach. Two decades later, he moved to Israel and co-founded Efrat, today an 8,000-person bedroom community near Jerusalem with a mixed religious-secular population.

Riskin’s network of educational institutions, Ohr Torah Stone, runs modern Orthodox schools from junior high through graduate programs. The network includes the first school to train women as advocates in Israeli rabbinical courts, as well as Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Jewish studies college in Jerusalem.

In addition to conversion, Riskin has been an outspoken advocate of women’s Torah study. He created a five-year program to train women as Jewish legal authorities on par with rabbis. In February, he appointed Jennie Rosenfeld, who will graduate the program next year, as Efrat’s first female “manhiga ruhanit,” or spiritual leader.

“There’s a moral conviction that he has to his vision of Judaism, an imperative that he feels in bringing that to the world,” said Rosenfeld.

Riskin insists that his conversion process, while more welcoming to converts than the Rabbinate’s, is still done according to Jewish law. That could be part of the Rabbinate’s problem, says Rabbi David Stav, head of the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar, who says the Rabbinate views halachic dissent as a challenge greater even than the corruption scandals that have plagued the Rabbinate.

“They won’t remove a rabbi from his position because they saw him break Shabbat or because he’s suspected in some case,” said Stav, who ran unsuccessfully as a reformist candidate for chief rabbi last year. “But a rabbi suspected, God forbid, of conversions different than those accepted in the Chief Rabbinate?” Stav said sardonically, “That’s a reason to take him out.”

Riskin’s allies have closed ranks behind him following the Rabbinate’s summons. Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu political party and former Israeli foreign minister, weighed in on Riskin’s behalf. From America, liberal Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss and Shmuel Herzfeld sent a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer protesting the summons.

In an email, the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said, “While the RCA does not agree with every action of the Chief Rabbinate, we support the Chief Rabbinate as the official religious body of Israel. We are certain that, together with Rabbi Riskin, they will find a way to support his continued work as Chief Rabbi of Efrat.”

Efrat’s local government council passed a unanimous resolution Monday calling on the Rabbinate to reappoint Riskin. Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, an Israeli modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform, is organizing a public demonstration of support for Riskin in late June.

If the Rabbinate dismisses Riskin, Tzohar will stop cooperating with the Rabbinate, Stav said.

“I ask myself a lot, why do I still support this institution?” Stav said. “I still want to do everything for this institution to improve and succeed, but not at any price.”

Riskin has remained defiant, saying that he will continue as Efrat’s chief rabbi regardless of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision. But he hopes the Rabbinate will recognize that his positions, while innovative, fall well within the spectrum of Jewish law.

“Throughout Jewish history, especially regarding conversion, there have been two schools — the lenient school and the more stringent school,” he said. “The people of Israel are crying out for the more lenient school.”

Obama Gets Candid on Middle East President speaks about Israeli policy, Iran deal at Adas Israel

Adas Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Gil Steinlauf greets President Obama.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama went on the charm offensive last week, declaring publically what his most ardent Jewish Democratic supporters have said he’s expressed privately: a love of the Jewish people and Israel.

Speaking before an audience of 1,000 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., Obama joked about his status as the “first Jewish president,” so conferred upon him by Atlantic magazine writer and Adas member Jeffrey Goldberg, and declared that the values of Israeli pioneers “in many ways came to be my own values.”

But those strong sentiments did not cause the president to back down on criticisms of Israeli policies.

“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland,” said Obama. “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

That criticism has been a hallmark of administration diplomacy of late, as several statements attributed to Obama, his advisers and members of his Cabinet have singled out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for blame in the failure of the peace process to move forward.

“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” Obama argued at the synagogue, “Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.”

Though much applause and cheers rang out from the pews, there were more than a few audience members who sat in silence and saved their applause for when the president declared the Palestinians as “not the easiest of partners.”

“The neighborhood is dangerous,” said the president. “And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”

With a white kippah perched atop his head, Obama forged on, addressing the ongoing nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran.

“I will not accept a bad deal,” he said of the nuclear accord expected before a June 30 deadline. “As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.”

Goldberg, who interviewed the president at length for his magazine, was seated just a few rows from Obama as the president acknowledged that a good deal doesn’t erase “Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. … And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.”

Noticeably absent from the occasion was Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

The fraught relationship between Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, and the White House is an open secret inside the Beltway, but several politicos commented that given the rare appearance of a sitting president addressing a Jewish congregation from the bimah — only the fourth time in U.S. history that America’s chief executive has visited a synagogue — the ambassador should have been present.

Obama’s presence was in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month and coincided with Solidarity Sabbath, an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that called upon world leaders to stand with victims of anti-Semitism.

Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the foundation and daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), for whom the foundation is named, was in attendance alongside her mother Annette Lantos. The initiative, she explained, “grew out of disturbing events in Europe and North America.”

She added that close to two dozen countries chose to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath and that the initiative’s website would soon be populated with information detailing information on how partner countries are combatting anti-Semitism within their borders.

“We wanted to give governments a chance to put their makers down in an international context to say, ‘Yes, we stand with our Jewish communities,” said Swett.

“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire.”

Greg Rosenbaum, chair of JAHM, shared similar thoughts.

“Persecution, historically, has been against a backdrop of leaders or government policies that had anti-Semitic themes,” said Rosenbaum. “If we can educate the population about the contributions of Jewish Americans to everyday life, then if something happened here, then the people would be less likely to support it.”

Obama named Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis as examples of American Jews who have “made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect.”

The president recognized Ira Forman, special U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, seated toward the front of the sanctuary, and noted the “deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in parts of the world where it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years or decades ago.”

“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire,” said Obama. “And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.”

Rachel Beyda, the University of California, Los Angeles student who faced an apparent anti-Semitic line of questioning in her quest to join her university’s student judicial board, was specifically requested to attend by the White House. Beyda, alongside Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, met with Obama briefly before his remarks.

The president’s condemnation of anti-Semitism resonated with Beyda.

“Jews seem to have lost their minority status. It was very interesting that President Obama made links between the struggles African-Americans and Jews have gone through,” she said. “That part of history is often forgotten and I think those attitudes need to change.”

Added Fingerhut, “I think [the speech] will turn out to be a moment when we became clear as a nation that what is happening on our college campuses is not simply anti-Israel political activity but anti-Semitic activity targeted at no other nation in the world, no other people.”

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who ceded his pulpit for the morning, said, “How blessed we are in our time to have a president of the United States to take the time to address the Jewish people, acknowledge our contributions [and raise] our awareness to the [rise] of anti-Semitism and how world leaders need to combat anti-Semitism.

“I thank God,” added the rabbi, “that we have a president like this who is able to make that kind of stand.”

mapter@midatlanticmedia.com

Bumpy Road Ahead Can Netanyahu make new, narrow coalition work?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu, shown in the Knesset on May 4, managed to form a ruling coalition just 90 minutes before the deadline.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shown in the Knesset on May 4, managed to form a ruling coalition just 90 minutes before the deadline.
(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — Seven weeks after he won re-election, Benjamin Netanyahu finally secured a fourth term as prime minister.

With 90 minutes to go until a midnight deadline to form a governing coalition, Netanyahu concluded an agreement May 6 with the religious, pro-settler Jewish Home party that gives him the narrowest of parliamentary majorities — 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Along with three other factions — the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism and the center-right Kulanu — the five-party Likud-led coalition skews right on diplomacy and defense and, for the first time in at least a decade, includes no parties that support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future.

The agreement represents something of a setback for Netanyahu, who called for new elections last year in order to strengthen his grip on a legislature he considered to be ungovernable. In the last government, Netanyahu’s Likud headed a 68-seat majority coalition. In a statement on May 6 announcing the agreement, Netanyahu sought to emphasize the positive.

“Sixty-one is a good number,” Netanyahu said upon announcing the agreement. “Sixty-one-plus is a better number, but it begins with 61 and we will begin. There’s a lot of work ahead of us. I want us to go to work. It should be very successful for us and for the nation of Israel.”

The new coalition is largely in agreement on the question of Palestinian statehood. Having previously voiced support for a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said before the March election that the Palestinians would not get a state on his watch (and then walked back those comments). Jewish Home is ideologically opposed to any withdrawal from the West Bank and strongly supports settlement growth. Kulanu would limit expansion to major settlement blocs but says statehood is not feasible under the current Palestinian leadership. The haredi Orthodox parties have been agnostic on Palestinian statehood in the past, though recent years have seen the haredi settler population swell.

“We are against giving one centi-meter of land to the Arabs, both from moral grounds and security grounds,” Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home’s leader, said in a Feb. 24 speech. “The biggest mistake is to copy and paste what happened in Gaza in Judea and Samaria,” he added, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

Despite agreement on that point, the new coalition is split on other issues, including economic policy and religious affairs, which could pose a challenge as Netanyahu works to keep his 61 lawmakers in line.

“Anyone who’s worried about governance in Israel and political stability should be worried about a government of 61 seats,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “It’s a government that will find it hard to instigate much-needed economic reform and even to deal with more mundane affairs of state like passing a budget without being extorted by backbenchers in the coalition.”

But Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat said the small coalition may make the government more stable, as partners will avoid conflicts that could break up the government.

“In wide coalitions there are ideological differences and people in the coalition think you can disagree and the coalition won’t fall,” he said. “In a small coalitions they think that if you make small waves, the whole business can collapse.”

Likud, with 30 seats, will control the foreign and defense ministries in the next government, along with the corresponding Knesset committees. Economic policy will be run by the 10-seat Kulanu, founded last year by ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, who will serve as finance minister.

“The Israeli market needs reforms, and we in the Kulanu party, together with the Likud party, the prime minister, and the ministers, will lead it,” Kahlon wrote on Facebook last week after signing an agreement with Likud. “As we promised, in the next government we will advance reforms in housing, in banking, and we will work to narrow gaps in Israeli society.”

Jewish Home, with eight seats, received the education and justice portfolios, while the seven-seat Sephardi haredi Orthodox Shas party will run the Religious Affairs Ministry. The Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism, with six seats, will not appoint any ministers out of an ideological opposition to Zionism, though it will have several deputy ministers.

Netanyahu had a hard time just getting to 61. According to Israeli reports of the secretive coalition talks, Likud’s prospective partners sparred with each other on policy and demanded top ministries.

“If he thinks he can dangle this or that [ministerial] portfolio, he’s making a big mistake.”

The prime minister succeeded by granting significant concessions to his partners. UTJ demanded a rollback of religious reforms passed by the previous government, Shas received key ministries and Kulanu won the power to enact housing and land reforms.

The incoming justice minister will be Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked, 39, who entered Knesset just over two years ago. As minister, Shaked will aim to limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s power to overturn laws. Last year, the court invalidated a law allowing long-term detention of African migrants, one of Shaked’s key issues.

“There’s no situation in the world, as there is in Israel, where judges appoint themselves and invalidate laws,” Shaked wrote on Facebook two weeks ago.

Days before the deadline, coalition talks were rocked by the resignation of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who announced that his nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party would sit in the opposition. Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud were allies as recently as last year, but Liberman said the incoming government would be insufficiently hawkish.

Netanyahu may keep the foreign minister title for himself, holding it open should he persuade the center-left Zionist Union, with 24 seats, to join the coalition. As of last week, Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog said he would lead the Knesset opposition. On Facebook, he called the incoming government “a national failure government.”

“We won’t be a fifth wheel, and don’t intend to save Netanyahu from the holes he’s dug himself into,” Herzog said at a Zionist Union meeting last week. “I won’t be Netanyahu’s corkscrew. And if he thinks he can dangle this or that [ministerial] portfolio, he’s making a big mistake.”

At Home in the Lab

BEERSHEVA, Israel — In sync with a worldwide momentum to attract more women to STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — for their study and career choices, Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) is spearheading a concerted nationwide effort to attract and retain more women into academia in those fields.

The results from a two-year study, begun in 2010 under the direction and urging of Dr. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, revealed that a greater number of Israeli women than men — approximately 58 percent to 42 percent — hold master’s or Ph.D. degrees. But as academic rank goes up within a university system, that proportion drastically changes, showing that men hold about 85 percent of professor positions.

In order to rectify discrepancies revealed by the findings, a CHE committee recommended making the entire system more responsive to the particular biological needs and social realities of women in the modern-day Jewish state.

One of the greatest obstacles in the academic career path for women, the data showed, was time needed to accommodate for child-rearing and other family obligations. This can affect everything from postdoctoral study-abroad opportunities (a crucial part of a competitive researcher’s curricula vitae) to tenure-track faculty positions, where a woman might “stop out” to have children. But tenure-track professors are under extreme pressure to complete requirements in an allotted time or lose the tenure opportunity. Also according to the study, Israeli female postdoctoral students tend to be older (about 37 years old on average) and are likely to have more children than their academic peers worldwide. The combination of these factors can lead to great challenges for women in academic careers.

Therefore, some of the committee’s recommendations for all higher education institutions include adjusting the “tenure clock” to the “biological clock,” a proactive recruitment policy, representation of women on major academic committees and designated scholarships for women researchers with families.

Less than two years after adoption of the plan, small improvements are starting to take hold. Carmi, a pediatric geneticist who became Israel’s first woman university president in 2006 and is an accomplished researcher in her own right, was the first to adopt the recommendations at her institution.

Carmi said for her, “It’s been a mission for many years” to promote higher-level academic opportunities to women, but she admits success isn’t based solely on the numbers of positions women hold. She’s also committed to the more difficult task to change perceptions and behavior of both men and women, who at times, she asserts, “don’t even realize their biases about women’s roles in academia.”

Above all, her priority is “to empower young women” and “push them out of their comfort zone,” she said, helping female students to understand early in their studies the options open to them for research and  faculty career tracks as well as the support that is available.

Carmi pointed to Ilana Nisky, a senior lecturer in Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, as “one of the first women we helped, sponsoring her postdoc studies abroad.” She added that without the push from the university — the centerpiece of the Negev desert capital that is Beersheva — Nisky may not have continued in a graduate program.

“The idea is to identify those excellent women early on and push them forward,” added the president.

In addition to sponsorship from Ben-Gurion, Nisky also received postdoctoral financial support from the Marc Rich Foundation and the Weizmann Institute of Science National Postdoctoral Award for Advancing Women in Science. She recently returned to Ben-Gurion to head the Biomedical Robotics Lab, where her team is working to improve robotic surgery by studying human motor control.

Robotic surgery allows a doctor, with the use of a computer and handheld controls, to maneuver a mechanical arm equipped with small tools. A robotic arm or combination of arms performs the actual surgery on the patient. This type of procedure — local Baltimore examples include minimally invasive coronary artery bypass surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Medicine — happens about 500,000 times per year worldwide, Nisky said, and her team is working to improve the surgeon’s experience.

What is missing when using a robotic tool is force feedback, Nisky explained, a sensation that is typically perceived through the sense of direct touch. For instance, if you reach to pick up a glass of water, you get the sensation of grasping the glass, sensing its texture and weight. But if you tried to perform that action virtually through use of a computer and a gripper device and viewed the glass of water on a screen, you could see and perform the action, but wouldn’t perceive the sense of smooth glass against your hand or the heft of its weight.

The mission of Nisky’s lab is to better understand “how our brain controls movement to improve [medical] robotic design and training,” she said, and allow a robotic user to interact virtually but still experience a sense of touch. Their findings, she hopes, could also be applied conversely to improve the understanding of neuroscience.

Nisky’s team has just begun their research, employing the use of sophisticated robotic machinery and controls like those used in surgery. Her team modifies the machines both mechanically and through software to enable them to record hand and — eventually — eye movements while a user performs a task, then compiles and processes the data.

Not every procedure can be performed robotically, but, according to Nisky, with improved user controls current procedures might one day be performed more efficiently and the list of approved robotic surgeries could grow. Others potential uses include tele-surgery, now in its early stages (a proof of concept was performed in 2001 in which a surgeon in New York performed procedures on a patient in Strasbourg, France) or for tele-mentoring, where a senior surgeon would guide a novice through specialized training at a distance.

In accordance with the CHE recommendations, BGU has also created formalized internal mentoring programs for young female researchers. Because Dr. Hanna Rapaport understands first hand that it is possible to raise and care for a family, obtain a Ph.D. degree and run a research lab, she is well placed as the mentor liaison for graduate students in the Department of Biotechnology Engineering and strives to “model by example.”

Rapaport supervises four  young female students, who are all married and receive full support from their families, as well as passionate and successful in their research. Though Rapaport fully supports Israel’s nationwide initiatives to attract and retain more women in research and faculty positions, she would prefer it not be necessary.

She acknowledges the strides Carmi has made at BGU and success at other institutions but added, “I believe the way the change should come is by simply hiring more women, and make the effort to support and encourage and recruit more women nationwide,” said Rapaport, and added, that ultimately “it depends upon how much a young woman wants to develop her science career as well as the support that she has from her family. If she has the motivation and support, she can get anywhere.”

Rapaport’s straightforward attitude to empowering women within academics is echoed in her lab work.

“We design peptides,” said Rapaport. “We [construct them] on a computer based on our understanding of principles of natural protein structures.” In the simplest terms, she went on, we “mimic nature, then improve upon it.”

Peptides consist of amino acids linked in a short chain. (A longer chain becomes a protein.) Amino acids, meanwhile, help perform important bodily functions and give cells their structure. Perhaps one of the most relevant properties in relation to Rapaport’s research is that peptides can be essential for wound healing and tissue repair, especially for skin, muscles and bones.

The Idea is to identify those exellent women early on and push them forward.

“We are biotechnology engineers and build on the principles of what the body is already doing to build bones,” said Rapaport. “We can come in and assist nature if there is a large bone defect that the body cannot deal with.”

She cited orthopedic trauma, implants, dentistry and osteoporosis as applications for her bone generation research. For instance, if a patient requires a bone graft or other ortho-pedic surgery, often doctors prefer to harvest bone tissue directly from the patient, an approach that can result in high medical costs, extended time away from work and a longer healing process, Rapaport explained. With approximately $2 million of funding support to date, her team has designed an alternative to that scenario that employs peptides and other biomaterials to assist in bone regeneration and healing.

Through the use of an injectable hydrogel that contains the peptide biomaterials designed by her team, a molecular scaffold is created within bone to encourage the regeneration of tissue.

The hydrogel injection treatment helped bone trauma heal dramatically, in one trial 80 percent faster, said Rapaport, while other projected uses are as a delivery vector for cancer- fighting pharmaceuticals and as a treatment for osteoporosis. As the most fully developed and tested of several of her lab’s projects, the next step is to set up a company to manufacture and market the hydrogel.

Dr. Simona Bar-Haim, head of the Laboratory for Rehabilitation and Motor Control of Walking at Ben-Gurion and a faculty member of its health sciences school, has taken the concept of empowering women in research and academia to another level with the Middle East Stepping Forward project funded in large part by U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We made a request [in the research proposal] that half of the researchers and medical clinicians we work with [must be] women,” said Bar-Haim, “and that half of the people receiving the rehab [must be] women.” The hope is that women on the team will be exposed to the idea “they [can] grow to become strong women. You know, it’s a process.”

As an extension of the work begun in her lab, Bar-Haim works with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian researchers to develop effective treatments for teens with cerebral palsy and brain trauma patients by way of re-patterning learning pathways in the brain. The goal is to help patients walk more efficiently and with more confidence, not to “normalize” a defective gait.

The Re-Step training technology, developed by Bar-Haim, is based on chaos theory. For therapeutic treatment, a patient wears specially designed shoes equipped with sensor pistons on the sole that emulate walking upon an unexpected environment. The movement of the pistons is generated by a chaos-based algorithm and creates the sensation of walking upon quickly changing terrain that causes slight uncertainty as the patient walks. The software adapts to each person’s gait according to his abilities.

But visually for the patient, the look of the terrain doesn’t change. For instance, as he walks using the therapeutic shoes down a hallway or sidewalk, all he sees is even terrain — but cognitively, his brain is processing the chaotic micro-movements created by the shoes. The patient compensates for the changes through balance, thus retraining the brain to adjust each step to walk with more ease and efficiency.

The movements created by the pistons are micro increments, “because the brain learns from small errors. If movement would be too big, it would be [registered as] artificial” by the brain, explained Bar-Haim. “So there are small changes for each step; up or down, left or right. … We think this is the best training to target areas in the brain for creating plasticity of the [pathways] that control motor function.”

Bar-Haim, who has been working with this technology since 2004, is conducting treatment at clinics in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Amman, Jordan.

“Every new project and new thing we’re doing, we’re asking that women will be involved,” she said. “They are progressing, they are going forward, step by step.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

AIPAC Doubles Down Focus on Iran

Organizers for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told attendees of its Policy Conference 2015 that unlike previous years –where a number of issues and pieces of legislation made up the slate of lobbying initiatives – this Tuesday delegates should focus solely on “stopping Iran.”

“When we go to the Hill on Tuesday, we will stress the urgency of the Iranian nuclear issue,” said Ambassador Brad Gordon, director of policy and government affairs at AIPAC. “And we will ask Congress, first: to support diplomacy by increasing economic pressure on Iran. Second: to insist on a good agreement, one that truly prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. And third: to play a key role in reviewing any agreement.”

Once again, AIPAC’s policy specialist called on attendees to convince their representatives that additional economic sanctions on Iran would give the administration more leverage during its negotiation, a tactic to which President Barack Obama’s administration objects.

The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015, also known as the Kirk-Menendez bill (S. 269) will be AIPAC lobbyists’ primary objective when they meet with members. The bill calls for cascading monthly increased in sanctions that will begin if a final deal is not completed by the July 1 deadline.

“How do we do this?” Gordon asked. “It starts with our first message to Congress: Support diplomacy by increasing pressure. We believe negotiations have the best chances to succeed if Iran understands the economic and political price it will pay for refusing to abandon its nuclear ambitions.”

AIPAC attendees were further urged to advocate for the new Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 – known as the Corker bill – which was co-sponsored by 11 other senators and introduced this past Friday.

President Obama has long been clear about his intensions to veto Kirk-Menendez, and added Saturday that he intdends to do the same with Corker’s bill. The bill would prohibit the president from suspending or waiving sanctions on Iran for 60 days post-agreement; would require the agreement’s text to be submitted to Congress five days prior to the potential final deal’s signing; and calls for an assessment of Iran’s compliance every 90 days.

Concluded Gordon, “[We’ve] seen America make every effort to resolve this issue peacefully and we’ve seen Iran refuse to waver on its dangerous nuclear program. … On Tuesday we will urge Congress to take immediate action.”

JT Editor-in-Chief Joshua Runyan will be live tweeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech Monday morning via @jewishtimes. Netanyahu speaks at the morning plenary, which runs from 8:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m.

 

Melissa Apter is a reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times.

Dmitriy Shapiro is the Political Reporter at the Washington Jewish Week.

Jewish Groups Slam Boteach Ad on Susan Rice

WASHINGTON — An array of Jewish groups condemned an ad by a foundation associated with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach accusing National Security Adviser Susan Rice of turning a blind eye to genocide.

“Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide,” said the advertisement appearing in Saturday’s New York Times, touting a talk on Iran this week in Washington hosted by Boteach, the New Jersey-based author and pro-Israel advocate.

As soon as the Sabbath ended, Jewish groups rushed to condemn the ad by This World: The Values Network.

The American Jewish Committee called it “revolting,” the Anti-Defamation League called it “spurious and perverse,” the Jewish Federations of North America called it “outrageous” and Josh Block, the president of The Israel Project, said it was “entirely inappropriate.”

Marshall Wittmann, the spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will host Rice on Monday at its annual conference, said, “Ad hominem attacks should have no place in our discourse.”

On Sunday, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement blasting the ad.

Other condemnations came from the Orthodox Union, J Street, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. In a combined statement, the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and Reform’s Religious Action Center called the ad “grotesque,” “abhorrent” and a “sinister slur.”

The ad notes Rice’s recent complaints about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday, which was organized without consulting the White House. Netanyahu plans to speak against the nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers, which President Barack Obama backs. Rice said last week that the way the speech was organized was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The ad also notes a controversy from the 1990s, when Rice was on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff and reportedly advised against describing the mass killings in Rwanda as “genocide.”

“Ms. Rice may be blind to the issue of genocide, but should treat our ally with at least as much diplomatic courtesy as she does the committed enemy of both our nations,” it said.

In an interview, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Rabbinical Assembly, said Rice deserved an apology from Boteach.

The ad “is completely inconsistent with the record of friendship and loyalty this public official has shown Israel and the Jewish people,” Schonfeld said.

Rice grew close to pro-Israel and Jewish groups during her stint as U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in Obama’s first term, through her efforts to head off attacks on Israel and protect vulnerable populations in Sudan.

“It is not up to Shmuley Boteach to make it appear this is the way the Jewish community treats our friends,” Schonfeld said.

Boteach in an interview said he stood behind the ad.

“The stakes could not be higher, and our ad rightly points out that Susan Rice has gone beyond any mandate in condemning the prime minister for simply speaking out,” he said. “Condemnation should be directed not at those who seek to give Israel a voice but to those who seek to deny it.”

Boteach, whose talk on Monday will take place in a Senate office building and will include Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist, as well as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has appealed to AIPAC activists to attend.

Sherman condemned the ad on Twitter, but did not say if he was still participating in the event it was promoting.

“This ad is outrageous and harms the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he said. “It should be denounced in every forum.”

AIPAC, like many of the groups that have condemned the ad, is skeptical of the Iran nuclear talks.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, a group that has been pronouncedly skeptical of the talks, on Twitter described the ad as an “inappropriate ad hominem attack” that “doesn’t advance discourse on key issue of Iran.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, who heads the JCPA, the public policy umbrella for the community, said the ad was a blow against bipartisan support for Israel.

“It’s a sad moment for the Jewish community to have this ad appear,” he said in an interview.

The Other Pro-Israel Lobby

-1

“Usually after the first event, it’s like a firestorm,” said Pastor Scott Thomas, the Florida state director for Christians United for Israel (CUFI). “The excitement hits, the understanding settles in.”

That, in short, illustrates the process through which CUFI has become America’s largest pro-Israel organization in less than a decade of existence. In January, CUFI announced that its mem-bership surpassed the 2-million mark. (The organization defines members as email-list subscrib-ers whose addresses do not produce bounce-backs when messaged.)

Since its founding in 2006, CUFI has held more than 2,100 pro-Israel events, sent hundreds of thousands of advocacy emails to government officials, and trained thousands of college students to make the case for Israel across the U.S.

Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder and national chairman, said that when he called 400 Evan-gelical Christian leaders to San Antonio in 2006 to pitch them on the idea of CUFI, he thought his concept of pro-Israel programming that would “not be conversionary in any sense of the word” might deter the leaders. Instead, when he asked them to raise their hands if they accepted his proposal, “400 men raised their hands with an absolute unity that was breathtaking.”

“It was one of those surreal moments that was difficult to believe had happened so effortlessly, and Christians United for Israel took off,” Hagee said at the 10th annual CUFI Leadership Sum-mit in San Antonio on Jan. 27.

While Hagee planned for the initial group of 400 leaders to advocate for Israel on Capitol Hill that summer as a “test group,” the leaders spread the word among their own churches, and CUFI ended up bringing 3,500 people on the mission to Washington, D.C.

CUFI continues to grow exponentially, but Hagee isn’t satisfied. He said the organization hopes to double its membership to 4 million over the next two to three years.

“We are very delighted with our 2 million-plus membership base, but we want it to be many multiples of that,” said Hagee. “We feel that it’s imperative [to understand] that our ability to go to Washington representing 8 to 10 million people would be considerably greater than just 2 mil-lion.”

What’s the secret behind CUFI’s growth?

“It kind of happens organically,” said Thomas, the Florida state director. “It happens from all different angles. We’ll get a phone call from somebody who attends a congregation and says, ‘Hey, I would like for my pastor to receive information about CUFI.’ And so we’ll send out in-formation packets to those pastors to start the conversation. We’ll introduce them to CUFI, tell them what the events are like and what CUFI stands for. And then hopefully beyond that, we’ll be able to generate a follow-up phone call, introduce CUFI [to the pastor] verbally, answer any questions he might have, and find out what his perspective and stance and theology are on Is-rael.”

From there, CUFI offers to host a “Standing with Israel” event at that pastor’s church, an ap-proximately hour-long educational and informational session on the biblical roots of Christian support for Israel as well as current events in the Middle East. Eventually, the goal is to facilitate a larger program called “A Night to Honor Israel” — CUFI’s signature event, which the organi-zation aims to host in every major U.S. city each year.

“A Night to Honor Israel,” however, significantly predates CUFI. Hagee said that in 1981, he sought to organize the event as a one-time gesture to thank Israel for bombing Iraq’s Osirak nu-clear reactor. But then Hagee received death threats, as well as a bomb threat to the venue on the night of the event. His response? More than three decades of Nights to Honor Israel.

“I told my wife, we’re going to do a Night to Honor Israel until these anti-Semitic rednecks get used to it,” Hagee said. “And 34 years later, it has grown all over the nation.”

Pastor Tim Burt, CUFI’s Minnesota state director, recalled that CUFI began to gain momentum in that state after “a very effective and successful Night to Honor Israel.”

“I identified leaders in cities that very much had a passion for the support of Israel, and I began to meet with those leaders, raising up city leaders [for CUFI] throughout Minnesota… and [dis-cussing] how they could have an impact within their city and spheres of influence,” said Burt.

CUFI has now three-dozen city leaders in Minnesota. After CUFI took 16 pastors of African-rooted Minnesota churches on a trip to Israel last year, one of the pastors on that trip organized a trip of his own for 16 more pastors.

“It’s starting to snowball in that respect,” Burt said.

Aiding the “snowball effect” for CUFI is America’s predominantly Christian population. Former Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who attended the CUFI Leadership Summit, noted the “growing market” and “strong foundation” for Christian support of Israel.

“I think in light of the attacks and the aggressiveness that we see against the Jewish state, we’re going to see more and more Christians who are going to see a vehicle wherein they can demon-strate their support for the Jewish state, and I think Christians United for Israel is that obvious vehicle,” said Bachmann.

Before CUFI, despite the presence of a “reservoir of instinctive support for Israel” in America, that base of support “had a hard time finding a way to express itself,” said CUFI board member Gary Bauer, the U.S. Under Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan.

“As CUFI was set up, and Pastor Hagee and [his wife] Diana had this vision, and others joined with them, and then as time passed and people saw us speaking up, whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat, or whether there was Republican Congress or a Democratic Con-gress, I think the word spread,” said Bauer. “If you were pro-Israel, if you care about the alliance between these two great nations, and you want to do something, but you live in Toledo or Knox-ville or Birmingham or Sacramento… this is the organization you can invest in and feel confi-dent that you’re not going to wake up one morning and see an embarrassing story.”

Pastor Victor Styrsky, CUFI’s eastern regional coordinator, echoed Bauer’s sentiment.

“We’d bring Jews and Christians together [before CUFI existed],” said Styrsky. “We didn’t call them Nights to Honor Israel, but we were doing those, and rallies, and we were emptying savings accounts, running full-page ads, and we had no CUFI to keep it going, so we would literally dis-appear for years.”

Styrsky said that now, when he speaks to pastors on behalf of CUFI, “Almost always at the end of 45 minutes to an hour, we see the light bulbs go off, and a new journey has begun. … That’s how we keep going.”

Inclusiveness is also part of growth strategy at CUFI, which is “not targeting a specific demo-graphic in terms of ethnicity,” said Pastor Dumisani Washington, the organization’s diversity outreach coordinator.

“My job is to begin to reach out to everyone, and try our best to let them know that we want them here, and let them know that there’s a home here for whoever they are ethnically, if they are standing with Israel as Christians,” Washington said.

Bauer said CUFI supporters “can come to the table with all kinds of faith perspectives, and in some cases with no faith perspective at all.”

“We take those allies wherever we can get them, but we continue to do our harvesting in the church community, where we know there’s a natural predilection or bias towards standing with Israel based on the teachings of the Christian faith,” he said.

Kasim Hafeez, who addressed the CUFI Leadership Summit crowd on his jihadist-turned-Zionist personal story, offered an outsider’s perspective on both the success of CUFI and why the orga-nization is a frequent target of anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic criticism.

“Here’s why [anti-Semites] hate CUFI, and one simple word explains it all: fear,” Hafeez said.

While anti-Semites believe they can easily bully Jews, he said, CUFI’s mobilization of the much larger Christian community is more imposing.

“What the haters didn’t see was 2015, over 2 million Christians praying for Israel… Mark my words, there is no organization, there are no four letters, that will make an anti-Semite’s blood run cold more than C-U-F-I,” said Hafeez.

Moving forward, how will CUFI meet its aforementioned goal of doubling its membership to 4 million within three years?

“The specific step that we will have to take is to raise the funds to hire more regional directors and state directors,” said Hagee. “We need more people in the field meeting and training pastors and concerned Christians how to become a leader in this organization for the benefit of Israel.”

CUFI is also bolstering its overseas presence, with plans to start a United Kingdom branch. Hagee said that in the U.K., CUFI would combat anti-Semitism by soliciting the help of spiritual and government leaders “to look this evil tidal wave eye to eye and call it what it is, and get peo-ple to admit that a very lackadaisical attitude toward the Jewish people and Israel have created this monster that must be addressed.”

Hagee emphasized the biblical mandate to fight anti-Semitism, quoting the verse from Isaiah 61, “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep quiet, and for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not be silent.”

“The message here is that Christians are to speak out, publicly, in defense of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, that we are authorized to combat anti-Semitism as aggressively as we pos-sibly can,” said Hagee.

He added, “If you took away the Jewish contribution from Christianity, there would be no Chris-tianity, so fundamentally, Christians owe the Jewish people everything. Period. Once a person sees that, he’s committed to take action in defense of the Jewish people.”

Israel’s Fallen

 Friends and relatives mourn during the funeral ceremony of Shahar Shalev at the Haspin cemetery in northern Israel on Sept. 1, 2014. Shalev, who was injured by an improvised explosive device in the Gazan city of Khan Younis during Operation Protective Edge, became the 72nd and final Israeli casualty of the Gaza war when he died from his wounds. Credit: Flash90.

Friends and relatives mourn during the funeral ceremony of Shahar Shalev at the Haspin cemetery in northern Israel on Sept. 1, 2014. Shalev, who was injured by an improvised explosive device in the Gazan city of Khan Younis during Operation Protective Edge, became the 72nd and final Israeli casualty of the Gaza war when he died from his wounds. Credit: Flash90.

“There isn’t a day that I don’t think about him. That I don’t think of my pain and the pain of the others whose children were killed. It is not easy,” says Shosh Goldmacher, whose son Nadav, a 23-year-old resident of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, was killed by an anti-tank missile when he responded to a terrorist infiltration during Operation Protective Edge.

The attention of the Jewish community and the rest of the world is (not surprisingly) transfixed on the three recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris that took the lives of 17 people, including four Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket. But not too long ago, last summer’s 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza claimed the lives of 66 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers and six Israeli civilians. More than four months after the end of the conflict — but still early in the grieving process—the bereaved families are working to pick up the pieces.

Last month, OneFamily — an Israeli organization working to rehabilitate families that have seen members killed or injured by war or terrorism — held an event for 160 people from 50 families that suffered a loss from Operation Protective Edge. The event, which was also funded by the Iranian American Jewish Federation, offered a therapeutic environment for the families to heal together and to receive financial aid for the coming year.

OneFamily staff members had visited each home of the families that were bereaved by the Gaza war during the seven-day shiva mourning period, and the organization has offered counseling and other support to these families since last summer.

“It gives me tremendous joy to see all of you sitting together, eating together,” Rabbi David Ba-ruch Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, said at the Dec. 31 event.

But in reality, the positive healing energy that the event sought to create is just the beginning of a lengthy process for these families. Rebecca Fuhrman, the communications manager for OneFa-mily, said the families are already experiencing the forgetfulness of society.

“Neighbors and friends are moving on and they are left with the loss,” said Fuhrman. “It is the first time they are really experiencing that since the summer. It can be a lonely journey.”

“A lot of friends came in the beginning, but everyone has returned to their lives,” said Shosh Goldmacher. “Our friends have moved on.”

Goldmacher takes solace in talking about her son, who was in the IDF reserves when he entered the Gaza war last summer. She said Nadav wanted to fight in Gaza in order to give back to the Jewish people.

Chava Noach of Mitzpe Hoshaya lost her 22-year-old son, Oren Simcha, when the armored per-sonnel carrier he and his squad were traveling in was caught in an anti-tank ambush in the She-jaiya neighborhood of Gaza.

“It makes you understand what is important and what is not important. … Losing a child, know-ing he won’t come back every day, that just doesn’t disappear,” she said, her words coming in between her tears.

Noach draws on her faith to get through the days. She believes her son had a job to do in this world. “He fulfilled it and now he is gone,” she said.

Goldmacher said it is painful knowing that there is a strong likelihood of future wars in Gaza. But she doesn’t think her son’s sacrifice came in vain.

“We are not done [with Israeli-Palestinian wars], there is no question,” she said. “And every time we go into Gaza more children will die. But what is the other solution? If we didn’t have this war, there could have been the very deadly attack they were planning for the holidays.” (Gold-macher’s reference is to a foiled Hamas plan to use the tunnels it dug from Gaza to Israel to exe-cute a massive attack on southern Israel last Rosh Hashanah.)

“Your children watched over Gaza… and we will watch over you,” Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennet said at the Dec. 31 OneFamily event. “I want to tell you, ‘Thank you.’ You sacri-ficed the most and we are indebted to you forever.”

OneFamily distributed $90,000 to the bereaved families attending the event.

“This is a wound that cannot be healed — the loss of a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling. It is not a healing process, it is a coping process,” Fuhrman explained.

Dr. Zieva Konvisser, author of the 2014 book “Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing,” expressed the same sentiment. She said “coping” is the correct word to describe the aftermath of losing a loved one to war or terror. For her book as well as her 2006 doctoral dissertation, Konvisser interviewed dozens of people who managed to transform personal trag-edy into triumph.

Konvisser told the story of Dina Kit, who lost one son to cancer and then a second son to a Pales-tinian suicide bombing in 2001. Kit and her husband, Omer, went through counseling through OneFamily and then began volunteering with the group. Dina Kit ultimately became the full-time office manager at OneFamily’s main office in Jerusalem. Konvisser quoted her as saying, “They see that I lost two sons and I am productive and strong, and they get encouragement from this. They see that when the body begins to strengthen, the spirit begins to work with and take care of the body.”

Omer Kit is a member of OneFamily’s male choir along with 11 other fathers who lost children to terror or war. He sings to remember his son, but also to make others like him happy. Konvis-ser said that the Kit family’s story proves how “alongside the pain and horror and grief, there is a possibility to move forward.”

Chava Noach is just beginning this renewal process. She is working with Oren’s friends to com-memorate her late son, who loved camping and hiking, through the construction of an observa-tion point not far from the family’s home in Mitzpe Hoshaya. “Oren’s observation point” will be located in the Tzipori Mountain Range, feature spectacular views of the Galilee valleys, and be a part of the Israel National Trail.

Still, Noach contends that for her, the best kind of support she can receive is “a big hug.”

Biden Pledges Continued Support for Israel

111414_ga_biden_smAmong the many personal connections Vice President Joe Biden has made in the Jewish community, he holds that of Elie Wiesel close to his heart. The Holocaust survivor, author, activist and professor said something that has stuck with Biden for a long time.

“Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Wiesel told Biden, who recalled the encounter during a speech before Jewish community officials Monday. Those words have inspired Biden in how he teaches his family about the Holocaust, and have provided a foundation to his foreign policy in regards to Israel and Iran, said Biden.

The vice president spoke at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly after being introduced by Holocaust survivor and advocate Nesse Godin.

Biden, one of several Democrats among a slate of presidential hopefuls who could be on the ballot in 2016, began by referencing his early connections to the Jewish community, including campaigning for the Delaware state Senate out of the Wilmington JCC. His unwavering support for the Jewish community began at age 13, he said, when he learned about the Holocaust at the family dinner table.

“[I was] never fully understanding why there was even a debate in the Jewish community about why there should be a state of Israel,” he said.

He now teaches his children similar lessons, and has taken all three of them to Europe for their 15th birthdays with the first stop being the Dachau concentration camp in Germany “to not only show them what man and humanity is capable of but also more importantly to let them witness the incredible resilience of the human spirit,” Biden said.

He credited Jewish federations across the United States with continuing to bear witness, something he said is getting harder as the Holocaust becomes more distant.

“Silence is never acceptable,” he said.

To that end, Biden is working to address the needs of Holocaust survivors in America, 25 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line, he said, and has held hearings about anti-Semitism in Europe despite criticism. He noted that anti-Semitic speech all too often gets disguised as opposition to Israeli policies.

“Too often in too many countries, opposition to Israel’s military operation crosses the line,” he said. “The president and I stand with you. … We make it clear that Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter of debate. It is not negotiable.”

Biden said he and President Barack Obama will continue to support Israel’s security, something he sees as necessary for the security of the United States.

“Were there not an Israel, the United States would have to invent one. It’s more than an obligation we have, it’s a security necessity,” he said. “We will never, ever, abandon Israel out of our own self-interest.”

As he spoke of Israel, which he said has no friend like the U.S., and vice-versa, he turned to Iran, and used the opportunity to refute critics of the Obama administration’s overtures to Tehran to achieve a deal on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

“I’ve heard so much malarkey about our position on Iran, let me say to you clearly in a ‘Biden-esque’ way: we will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. Period,” he said.

He assured the audience that as the Nov. 24 deadline for signing a nuclear agreement approaches, the U.S. will not sign a bad deal.

Of course no discussion of Israel’s security would be complete without addressing the ongoing conflict with Palestinians. While Biden said part of securing Israel’s safety includes a two-state solution, he also sees opportunity for Israel and its Arab neighbors to battle emerging and longtime common threats together. And he is hopeful that it could change the political landscape of the Middle East.

“Israel and nearly all its Arab neighbors … find themselves on the same side in a fight against violent Islamist extremists like [the so-called Islamic State] as well as a regional struggle against Iran,” he explained. “They have all this in common and shame on us if we are not as nimble and as capable as our grandparents taking advantage of this.”

Verbal Assault

As fallout from anonymous Obama administration officials’ insults toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues, advocates for people with disabilities are calling on the White House to issue a separate apology for officials’ reported use of the word “Aspergery” in their description of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to reshape American society’s attitudes toward and strive for greater inclusion of persons with disabilities, told the Washington Jewish Week Thursday that she hopes the administration directly addresses the use of that word and reforms its internal etiquette and sensitivity practices.

“Disability impacts Americans in huge ways. Literally, 18.6 percent of us have disabilities, which means a majority of us have a loved one with a disability,” said Mizrahi. “And so what they think they were trying to convey is that [Netanyahu] is a person who’s incapable of building a relationship.”

In an article published in The Atlantic on Oct. 28, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg listed the collection of outrageous words he has heard Obama administration officials direct at Netanyahu.

“Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.’ (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.),” Goldberg wrote.

The article exploded in the media in the days following its publication primarily because of another word used by one anonymous administration official, who called the prime minister “a chickenshit.”  Yet, the use of the word “Aspergery,” which references stereotypical traits of individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, might hurt the administration in more than just in its relationship with Netanyahu and Israel.

On Wednesday, the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability advocacy organization based in Boston, released a statement singling out the word “Aspergery” and called for action from the administration.

“While it is perfectly acceptable for people to be critical of each other, it is unacceptable to use a term of disability in a derogatory manner,” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president. “The term ‘Aspergery’ was used in a manner that is insulting to the millions of people around the world with Asperger Syndrome. It is never OK to insult someone by referring to them by using disability in a negative manner.

“The Foundation calls on the administration to release a statement denouncing the use of the name of a disability in a derogatory manner,” Ruderman continued.

Going beyond the use of that word, Mizrahi thought the insults between the two countries are unfortunate, pointing out that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was once quoted in Israeli media questioning U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “messianic” fervor in pursuit of an Israel-Palestine peace deal.

“I know that there is a lot of concern about what an unnamed official said about Prime Minister Netanyahu, but definitely using disability as an insult is disgusting — to use it as an insult or slur — but I will say that I hope that the insults diminish on both sides, because there are some very serious issues right now,” said Mizrahi, pointing to a reported nuclear deal with Iran in development and the escalation of violence in East Jerusalem. “Whether it’s disability names or any other kind of names, we need to work together.”