Muslims Look to Jewish Example in Campaigning for School Days Off

Above: Students at a Muslim  elementary school in Morton Grove, Ill., pray in the school gymnasium. (Students: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Above: Students at a Muslim elementary school in Morton Grove, Ill., pray in the school gymnasium. (Students: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When Jessica Abdelnabbi-Berrocal wanted her local public schools in Jersey City, N.J., to close for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in September, she looked to her Jewish heritage.

The daughter of a Sephardic Jewish mother and Catholic father, Abdelnabbi-Berrocal never had any trouble celebrating the holidays of both religions as a public school student in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. Her schools were closed for the High Holidays, as well as for Christmas and Easter. She remembers learning about dreidels in class.

But Abdelnabbi-Berrocal, who converted to Islam at 20, has faced the difficulty of sending her own child to public school on holy days. To celebrate Eid, which commemorates Abraham’s binding of his son, her 13-year-old daughter must choose between classroom and mosque.

Two years ago, Abdelnabbi-Berrocal’s petition asking the Jersey City Board of Education to designate Eid as a day off fell flat. But after attending the board’s monthly meetings, organizing 200 Muslim parents to show up at one of the meetings and receiving advice from a supportive local rabbi, she succeeded with a second petition: Jersey City students will be off on Sept. 12, allowing the Muslim kids to celebrate Eid.

“I told them we’re not asking for a lot — it doesn’t happen every year, like Christmas, like Easter,” Abdelnabbi-Berrocal said, referring to the Muslim calendar’s lunar cycle, which leads to holidays falling on different Gregorian dates each year. “We’re living in a multiracial society now. I believe we should be very inclusive.”

Jessica  Abdelnabbi-Berrocal. (courtesy photo)

Jessica Abdelnabbi-Berrocal. (courtesy photo)

Jersey City is the latest in a string of school districts to give students a day off for Eid. Last year, New York City, just across the Hudson River, announced it would close its schools for the festival. Philadelphia and several districts in New Jersey and Maryland will do so for the first time this year. Other U.S. cities with large Muslim populations, such as Dearborn, Mich., have long had days off.

In advocating for Eid, Muslim activists cite the precedent of Jewish Americans, another religious minority, and the days off given for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which this year fall a few weeks after Eid.

In at least a couple of places, the Jewish and Muslim communities have worked together to ensure the schools are closed for the holidays of both faiths. Rabbi Barbara Hachen of Temple Beth El in Jersey City helped Abdelnabbi-Barrocal by advising her on strategy and writing a letter to a Board of Education member.

“We view it as a natural result of the growth and maturity of the American Muslim community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The community has reached a status where it has a large number of school-age children. It’s only natural that Muslim students receive similar religious accommodation to other students in the school system.”

But some Jewish officials, including Hachen, caution that schools should not take off for one religious holiday just because they already close for another. In order to square with the First Amendment, public schools can shut down on religious holidays only if otherwise a large proportion of students or teachers would be absent. A school where only a few Jewish students  per class would be absent, for example, should not close on Yom Kippur.

“From a constitutional perspective, a school should not be closing for any religious holiday, be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” said David Barkey, the national religious freedom counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “What I’m seeing more and more is that people are viewing whether a school closes or doesn’t close as an affront to their religion, and that shouldn’t be the issue.”

One community occasionally takes umbrage when another appears to receive what they deem as preferential treatment. When the Jersey City school board discussed closing for Eid last year, some Jewish parents complained that their kids weren’t getting off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For various reasons, the board decided not to close schools that year.

Policies on school closings vary by district and are decided by school boards, and schools are prohibited from surveying their students’ religions. So there is no exhaustive list of which public schools close for which holidays, nor is there universal criteria or an established threshold for the percentage of students needed to close a school on any one holiday.

In Jersey City, by Abdelnabbi-Berrocal’s estimation, 4 percent of the population is Muslim. A similar percentage of the New York City metropolitan area is Muslim, according to the Journey Data Center. In Baltimore County, where 10 percent of the population is Muslim, students will have off on Eid this year because it falls on a professional development day.

But small populations have not stopped some communities from campaigning for days off. In Howard County, when the Board of Education considered having school on the High Holidays, the Jewish, Muslim, Chinese and Hindu communities banded together to successfully demand the school close for all their major holidays. In the 2016-17 school year, students will be off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid, the Chinese Lunar New Year and the Hindu festival of Diwali.

“If you’re a Jewish kid and your school is closed on Good Friday and not Rosh Hashanah, you don’t care about the explanation,” said Michael Meyerson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who supported the Howard County campaign. “All you know is your religion doesn’t count.”

Two years ago, before Jersey City gave a day off for Eid, Abdelnabbi-Barrocal persuaded her daughter, a good student, to miss an exam to celebrate the holiday. The teacher gave her a zero on the test; the family fought to reverse the grade.

“I remember growing up being Catholic and Jewish, and from a background knowing we celebrated different types of holidays,” Abdelnabbi-Berrocal said. “When I decided to convert at a very young age, I never saw having the same equality as the Jewish religion, as the Catholics or Christians.”

In Jersey City and elsewhere, that’s beginning to change.

Trump, Clinton Talk Tough on Iran Following Controversial Report

Hundreds of demonstrators in Los Angeles protest the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. (Peter Duke)

Hundreds of demonstrators in Los Angeles protest the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. (Peter Duke)

WASHINGTON — The Trump and Clinton campaigns issued tough-on-Iran statements in the wake of a report alleging that negotiators allowed Iran secret loopholes in the nuclear agreement.

The Institute for Science and International Affairs, a think tank founded by a former United Nations nuclear weapons inspector, David Albright, said in a report released this week that Iran complied with most of the sanctions relief for the nuclear rollback deal when it was implemented in January.

However, the report also said there were a number of exemptions, citing anonymous sources.

The Obama administration strongly denied the thrust of the report, saying the deal was being implemented according to the letter. Parties to the deal were Iran, the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia.

The campaign of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, pounced on Sept. 1, taking a shot at his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s first term helped set the stage for the deal.

“The deeply flawed nuclear deal Hillary Clinton secretly spearheaded with Iran looks worse and worse by the day,” said a statement by the campaign attributed to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who is now advising Trump.

“It’s now clear President Obama gave away the store to secure a weak agreement that is full of loopholes, never ultimately blocks Iran from nuclear weapons, emboldens our enemies and funds terrorism,” he said.

Republicans have strongly opposed the deal. A number of candidates during the GOP presidential primaries pledged to trash it, but Trump, while decrying it as a giveaway, has said he would first consult with his national security advisers should he be elected president.

Clinton, in subtle ways, has sought to differentiate herself from the deal’s outcome, praising the agreement while suggesting she would be more vigilant in keeping Iran on track.

The Clinton campaign did not address the report co-written by Albright directly but called for reauthorization of sanctions and sounded a tough note about how she would oversee its implementation.

“Hillary Clinton supports a clean reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act and believes Congress should get this done in short order when they return from recess,” said her spokesman, Jesse Lehrich. “And as president, she will also continue to enforce, and strengthen as necessary, sanctions on Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missile activity.”

The Obama administration says it does not need a reauthorization of sanctions first passed in the 1990s and enhanced over the years to force compliance but would not oppose a reauthorization. Many of the sanctions — but not all — have been waived as part of the deal.

Democrats in Congress favor a “clean” reauthorization that they say would allow any future president to quickly “snap back” sanctions, while Republicans want to add new provisions to address Iranian misbehavior not addressed by the deal, including backing for terrorism and activities in other countries.

Democrats and Clinton oppose the Republican proposals, saying they are stealth maneuvers to undercut the deal.

“She has always made clear that while the historic deal passed last year represents a crucial step forward toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we must proceed with a ‘distrust and verify’ approach,” Lehrich said of Clinton. “Maintaining the infrastructure to immediately snap back sanctions if Iran  violates the terms of the deal is essential. Congress should put partisanship aside and send the president a clean ISA reauthorization bill for his signature.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was “troubled” by Albright’s report.

“If the report is accurate, this unwarranted leniency sets a dangerous precedent concerning adherence to the agreement,” the pro-Israel lobby said in a statement. “No further concessions should be granted to Iran, and complete transparency related to the deal’s implementation must be provided.”

What Would Heschel Say About Black Lives Matter?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

When the Movement for Black Lives published its platform last month, many Jews were shocked that in addition to its call for the end of systemic racism against African-Americans, the platform demanded an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Support for Israel made the United States complicit in the “genocide” against the Palestinians. Israel, the platform asserted, is “an apartheid state.”

With its harsh denunciation of Israel, the platform placed many American Jews who sympathize with Black Lives Matter in a quandary: If the movement is so hostile to Israel, must Jews choose between the Jewish state and Black Lives?

Jewish organizations have had their say, ranging from outright rejection to calls for continuing dialogue. We wondered, what would Abraham Joshua Heschel say?

Heschel, a Conservative rabbi who died in 1972, is perhaps most famous for his activism in the civil rights movement and the iconic photograph of him marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march of 1965.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said her father hated when people used words improperly, and he would have objected to the Black Lives Matter’s accusation that Israel is guilty of genocide.

“My father would have been appalled as he always was by lies, and he would have been appalled that the Black Lives Matter platform would seek to alienate and close the door on the closest ally the African-American community has,” she said. “I also think it is terribly self-destructive for the Black Lives Matter movement. He would have said that black lives matter even more than that political platform or the people who wrote that platform.”

Civil dialogue is the way to understand these complexities, according to Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. It was part of his goal on Aug. 14 when he delivered a sermon at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Md. In it, he highlighted the experience of marginalization that Jews and African-Americans have faced, referring to the incident at the Olympics in which the Lebanese team refused to allow the Israelis on its bus.

“So I am here to tell you, that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus,” he told his listeners, in an allusion to civil rights worker Rosa Parks’ famous refusal to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955.

Weinblatt’s father, Samuel, attended King’s March on Washington in 1963. The younger Weinblatt said Heschel was a role model to him because of his ability to combine compassion with and activism in his writings and teachings. Weinblatt, too, thinks Heschel would subscribe to the goals of Black Lives Matter but would call the movement out for its anti- Israel language.

“I think what Heschel would say is, ‘We need to work that much harder to make sure the voices of love are louder than [those of] hatred and divisiveness,’” Weinblatt said. “‘We shouldn’t stand on the sidelines and allow the anti- Israel pro-Palestinians to hijack this movement.’”

It was a combination of Heschel’s teaching and his social justice activism that touched Adas Israel Congregation Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Wohlberg, who studied with Heschel at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Wohlberg, who now lives in Atlanta, said there is no question that Heschel loved the Jewish state.

“I think his deepest of emotions and philosophic commitments would have been supporting the modern State of Israel whether he agreed with current political positions or not,” he said. “At the same time, we all know he was committed to human rights, which led to him speak out and act publicly.”

Wohlberg said Heschel would have attempted to communicate the importance of both of these passions in today’s world.

“I’m sure he would have been caught up with trying to reach, as he did with Dr. King, a level of public understanding and expression that would have spoken for both of those concerns,” he said.

Among Heschel’s writings was “Israel: An Echo of Eternity” in which he discussed the 1967 Six-Day War two years after Israel’s victory. Edward Kaplan, a professor of romance studies at Brandeis University and one of Heschel’s biographers, said after the war Heschel went to Israel to walk the streets “as if the Bible were being written again.”

“If you look at [“Israel: An Echo of Eternity”], you have this extremely passionate, spiritual attachment to Israel. He quotes at length from [dovish] Abba Eban, who was the Israeli representative to the U.N. during the war. Heschel would be oriented toward a peaceful solution.”

Kaplan noted that Heschel was “more subtle and more learned than most of us,” because of the historical experience he had of being born in Poland, educated in Germany and then fleeing the Holocaust by coming to the United States in 1940. Kaplan said that Heschel’s identification with blacks during the civil rights years came from the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe.

Today’s debate over the killing of unarmed black men would have raised “religiously urgent questions,” said Rabbi Shai Held, who teaches at the Mechon Hadar yeshiva in New York and has also written about Heschel.

“He was very wary of situations where some people had all the power and others were very vulnerable,” Held said. “Were Heschel alive today, he would insist that Jews ask the question about the moral and religious damage caused by subjugating another people,” referring to the Palestinians.

Held thinks Heschel would have had similar feelings about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while he would not have regarded the occupation as “genocide,” he would have “insisted that the occupation has done great damage to Israel.”

“I don’t doubt that the Jewish people had a claim on the land, but I think he thought that subjugating another people [Palestinians] is wrong,” Held said. “And subjugating them in the long term damages both the oppressor and the oppressed.”

But the key in all of this may be time. Susannah Heschel said that when she was growing up, she observed a gradual shift in the American Jewish community’s attitude toward her father’s civil rights activism. Initially, the support came from rabbis who had fled religious persecution in Europe. She observed a similar trend when her family began speaking out on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

So will Jews again be able to feel they can comfortably support both American social justice and the legitimacy of Israel? Heschel’s daughter thinks so, but only if Jews continue to speak their conscience.

“My father said the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference,” she said. “You don’t give up. You keep talking. And my father kept talking.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Esther Jungreis Remembered for Outreach Work

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Esther Jungreis, seen in a photo from 2016, founded the organization Hineni to bring young Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism. (Hineni.org)

Esther Jungreis, an icon of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States and Israel, died Tuesday in New York at the age of 80. The author of four books on the subject of spirituality, Rebbetzin Jungreis, as she was known, was the founder of Hineni, a New York-based Jewish outreach organization.

“I met her several times and years ago had her speak to a group of 100 women I had brought to Israel. It changed their lives,” said Lori Palatnik, the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, based in Rockville. “She was a Torah giant and a link to generations of giants. Her constant aura was a love for every Jew, no matter what level of observance. She was the pioneer in Orthodox women’s leadership, and was my ultimate role model, and the role model of many rebbetzins [rabbi’s wives] around the world who looked up to her in every way.”

Jungreis was born in Szeged, Hungary, in 1936 where her father was chief rabbi. A child survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she and her family resettled in 1947 in Brooklyn, where she married her distant cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis. She and her husband, who died in 1996, founded the North Woodmere Jewish Center/Congregation Ohr Torah on Long Island in 1964.

In 1973, she founded Hineni to bring young Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism by offering Torah classes, singles events, and Shabbat and holiday services. She gave a speech that November in which she spoke about the biblical Abraham’s response to God’s call to service: “Hineni” or “Here I am.”

“She was a remarkable Torah scholar and a descendant of an illustrious line of Jewish leaders,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky of Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown. “She was a dynamic lecturer and author. Her main legacy is her ability to appeal to a diverse and broad audience. She was particularly influential in her tremendous outreach work. Personally, it was her focus on faith in difficult times that had the greatest impact on me.”

Jungreis was part of a delegation of American Jewish leaders who accompanied President George W. Bush to Israel in 2008 in honor of the Jewish state’s 60th birthday. Other members included Elie Wiesel, Ronald Lauder, Henry Kissinger and Sheldon Adelson.

“She took a ground-breaking public role in order to inspire thousands to connect to their precious and priceless Jewish heritage, but never compromised her values,” Palatnik said.

Jfeldschreiber@midatlanticmedia.com

JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

Ethiopians Press Their Case for Aliyah

Gezahegen Derebe and Demoz Deboch, Ethiopian Jews in their 20s, came to Washington, D.C., earlier this month hoping to press the Israeli  government into action.

They are among 9,000 Ethiopian Jews known as Falash Mura who are caught in what the Israeli government says is a budget crunch that is preventing them from making aliyah.

“The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting,” Derebe told a gathering at a downtown law office. “I don’t believe it is because of the budget.”

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

The American Jewish Committee sponsored the event. But the initiator of the Ethiopians’ visit to Washington was David Elcott, a professor of practice in public service and leadership at New York University. Two years ago, Elcott went to Africa to see what he thought was the last aliyah of Ethiopian Jews.

Elcott thought Israel was going to accept all those who had qualified to join their relatives. But he noticed that many were left behind at one of the Jewish Agency centers in Gondar province, including Deboch and Derebe. He said he figured they needed an advocate to draw attention to their needs with the influential American Jewish community. Since then, Elcott has been raising funds and started a  petition to pressure the Israeli government to “do what needs to be done.”

“We are mystified at why the Israeli government would want to undermine a righteous and appropriate policy of kibbutz galuyot [the ingathering of the exiles in Israel],” the petition states. “We are committed to helping ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors as it fulfills the prophetic call.”

The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting. I don’t believe it is because of the budget. — Gezahegen Derebe, member of Falash Mura community

Derebe and Deboch are members of Falash Mura community, descended from a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. In the past, the group secretly practiced Judaism but was not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago.

Israel’s Interior Ministry last year established a committee to look into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families. Critics say the committee has not accepted or rejected a single case, National Public Radio reported.

An Israeli official who wished to be quoted anonymously said “there is a principal decision to bring 1,300 of the 9,000 that are waiting. This still has to be approved by the cabinet, which is expected to approve it soon.”

Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said his organization is awaiting the Israeli  government’s decision. “Once such a decision is reached, we will implement it to the best of our ability,” he told the Times of Israel. The Jewish Agency operates a facility in Gondar to prepare Falah Mura for aliyah.

Derebe has his sights on joining his sister, who is married and lives in Israel; Deboch also hopes to make aliyah.

Most Ethiopians recognized as Jews by Israel were brought there in 1984 and 1991 airlifts, and the country’s Ethiopian community has grown to around 135,000. In 2015, the Israeli government approved entry of what it called the last group Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. The move came two years after the arrival of 450 Ethiopian Jews then deemed to be the last such group. Each final wave of immigrants has brought out more Ethiopians who say they are Jewish or claim Jewish  ancestry.

After listening to Derebe and Deboch, attorney David Farber said the immigration issues for Ethiopians hoping to make aliyah is “a problem that most American Jewish communities think is behind them. The truth is that more need to get into the country, and these folks are waiting in limbo.”

Added Elcott: “Whether it was a smart decision for Israel to let in these people from the villages, it’s sort of, if you broke it, you own it. It’s done. So it is in Israel’s interest, and the Jewish people’s interest, to finally make a separation and say these 9,000 need to come in.”

JTA contributed to this  report.

jfeldschreiber@midatlanticmedia.com

Ravens’ Terrell Suggs Lost Weight — By Cutting Down on Gefilte Fish

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 28: at M&T Bank Stadium on November 28, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Ravens won, 22-20. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

Linebacker Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, seen playing in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 28, 2013. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

An NFL football player just sacked gefilte fish. The Passover staple is no good for those trying to maintain a healthy diet, suggested Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.

“I like my fried chicken, my pizza, my peaches and my gefilte fish. I had to cut all that out,” Suggs said Thursday when asked about his recent weight loss, according to AP. “I still eat the peaches, though, and a little bit of the fish. But that’s about it.”

Following a decrease in his consumption of the traditional Ashkenazi dish, the 33-year-old football player is in better shape than ever.

“He’s in excellent condition,” said coach John Harbaugh.

While Suggs did not elaborate on how he got hooked on gefilte fish, the linebacker has a Jewish history. He considers himself “half-Jewish” and has a Star of David tattoo on his right arm, according to TMZ.

Suggs isn’t the only famous person with strong opinions about the ground fish patties.

Despite having eaten the dish at home and having lots of Jewish friends, Rapper LL Cool J never learned to love gefilte fish.

“My grandfather was from the Bronx,” the rapper told the Jewish Journal. “[H]e came home with gefilte fish every week. I didn’t like it, no disrespect, but I loved him, it wasn’t my thing, but I always had great Jewish friends.”

Comedian and talk show host Seth Meyers agrees with the hip hop hitmaker.

“Growing up, my father—whose father was Jewish—embraced borscht and gefilte fish. My brother and I thought it was disgusting. That is not gateway food if you want your kids to embrace Judaism,” the former “Saturday Night Live” writer told Bon Appétit.

The dish has also been on the agenda of none other than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. One of her emails released by the State Department last year caught the eyes of many Jews.

“Gefilte fish” read the subject of the 2010 email, sent to two top aides. Its body contained a simple question: “Where are we on this?”

Apparently the issue at stake was a shipment of carp (a crucial gefilte fish ingredient) to Israel that had been blocked due to tariff issues just before Passover, when Jews traditionally enjoy the pungent patties. Fortunately, Clinton was able to pull strings to get the cargo approved, ensuring that no seders in Israel would go without the beloved dish.

Protesters Link Justice for Black Americans, Palestinians

IfNotNow protesters hold a large banner with their message in an attempt to attract the attention of people walking into the building that houses the American Jewish Committee. (Justin Katz)

IfNotNow protesters hold a large banner with their message in an attempt to attract the attention of people walking into the building that houses the American Jewish Committee. (Justin Katz)

A group advocating that American Jewry end its support of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank staged a protest of the mainstream Jewish community’s rejection of the Black Lives Matters policy platform in front of a major Jewish organization’s local office.

Fifty members of IfNotNow rallied at McPherson Square and headed north, singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) and other songs in the Aug. 11 gathering. Several protest leaders addressed the crowd when the group arrived in front of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Washington.

“The call for justice for black Americans and Palestinians are inextricably linked,” demonstration leader Jenna Bluestein said. “And it is for that reason that I feel I must heed both their calls. I will not condemn the Movement for Black Lives in favor of the immoral occupation.”

The platform of the Movement for Black Lives coalition, released this month, calls  Israel an “apartheid state” and accuses the United States of complicity in Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinians.

After the speeches, several protesters approached the building to deliver a written letter, addressed to Alan Ronkin, AJC’s Washington regional director. Denied entrance to the lobby, they were told the letter would be delivered to the AJC.

The letter’s message was “to truly be Jewish, and to stand in the legacy and history of Jews as leaders of civil and social justice, we need to be bold in our actions moving forward,” according to IfNotNow member Ethan Miller. The letter supported the Black Lives Matter movement and opposed Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

The call for justice for black Americans and  Palestinians are inextricably linked. And it is for that reason that I feel I must heed both their calls.”  — Jenna Bluestein, IfNotNow demonstration leader

 

Asked why the group chose the AJC as its protest site, Miller did not explain, saying that “this isn’t an issue limited to one organization.”

Eliana Fishman, who attended the protest, had a warning for the organized Jewish community. “Our goal is to force the American Jewish community to realize that if they do not stand for Black Lives Matter and if they don’t stand against the occupation, they will lose an entire generation of young American Jews.”

Jason Isaacson, AJC’s associate executive director for policy, said in an email that the protesters were “conflating two separate situations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aspirations of African-Americans” and not advancing the interests of either.

“The continuing struggle in the U.S. for civil rights, a cause AJC has championed for more than a century, often in partnership with the African-American community, is vitally important,” his email said. “But the worthy cause of addressing racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system is  undermined by those who  insist on inserting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into unrelated American political discourse.”

The Black Lives Matter platform struck a nerve with many in the Jewish community over its criticism of Israel when it was released this month.

“The U.S. justifies and  advances the global war on  terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” it reads. “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

On Aug. 8, IfNotNow demonstrated against the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which condemned the platform.

The co-author of the platform, Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, said he understood why Jewish groups were angered but stood by what he wrote, the JTA reported.

“The way we look at it is we take strong stances,” Ndugga-Kabuye said. “The demand we’re making is we’re against the U.S. continuing funding and military aid to the government of Israel. These are all things that are going to be in debate.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Will Congress Act on Zika?

(Frankel: Courtesy of Facebook;Zika: ©iStockphoto.com/bakhtiar_zein)

(Frankel: Courtesy of Facebook;Zika: ©iStockphoto.com/bakhtiar_zein)

With the presidential campaign at a post-convention lull and Congress on recess, the country has reached the eye of 2016’s political storm. But with 16  locally contracted cases of the Zika virus reported in the Miami, Fla., neighborhood of Wynwood as of Aug. 8, some wonder if the legislature will act in time to prevent a possible epidemic.

“It’s annoying, but I don’t feel like we should be in a panic,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). “But it’s something we should deal with so we don’t get to the point where it’s a panic situation. It’s better to take care of this now before it becomes out of control.”

Frankel, who visited her south Florida district last week, attended a briefing from 18 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts. She said they were confident that the disease, which has been linked to birth defects in fetuses, will spread if nothing is done to control it.

Congressional Republicans rejected a $1.9 billion request that President Barack Obama made in February to fund Zika research and the development of a vaccine — something  experts say will likely not be available until 2018. Republicans then debated a $1.1 billion Zika package. Ultimately, Senate Democrats rejected a bill in June after Republicans added language that would have cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

“It is always very difficult to get any funding bill, other than the military, through a Republican-led Congress,” Frankel said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan fight. The question is this: Why can’t they take up a bill that we can agree to in a bipartisan way without restricting women’s access to health care?”

Frankel said if Congress were to reconvene tomorrow for an emergency session to pass a Zika funding bill, she would vote yes. Such legislation has been proposed by a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott,  a Republican, and Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats.

The two senators recently wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, pointing out that congressional action on earlier health emergencies was relatively quick.

“The combined time it took Congress to fund all of the last three public health emergencies — Ebola, H1N1 and Avian flu — was 137 days,” Cardin and Mikulski wrote. “It is deeply troubling that the Zika epidemic, which disproportionately impacts pregnant women and their babies, would be treated any differently than these other emergencies. In each of these instances, Congress was able to set aside political rhetoric and act quickly to help. Unfortunately, we have seen no such action on Zika for pregnant women and families.”

The Republican’s so-called poison pill amendment to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood angered Democrats as well as liberal nonprofit organizations such as Jewish Women International, which say the issues of women’s health and funding to combat Zika are linked.

“This is really crucial funding, and for the leadership to allow something defunding Planned Parenthood to be attached, we thought was really inappropriate,” said Ilana Flemming, JWI’s manager of advocacy initiatives. “To target a health-care service in order to pass funding for health care doesn’t make sense.”

Flemming said Zika funding has fallen victim to the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington.

“We’re in a difficult political climate right now, and it’s hard for Congress to pass major funding bills, and so I think that’s sort of spreading over into the Zika virus,” she said. “It’s a tough line to walk, but funding for Zika is not a partisan issue, and we just hope the leadership has the power to make this happen.”

JWI’s CEO Lori Weinstein condemned Congress’s inability to pass a Zika funding bill.

“After the recess, Congress must take swift, decisive action to safeguard the health of women, men and children; any attempt to hijack another funding bill for a political agenda will be not only useless, but downright dangerous,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of  Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that while it may not be accurate to call Zika a “crisis” in the United States, there is potential for locally contracted cases to spread throughout Florida and other Gulf Coast states.

“It is mandatory that you  respond to that with very aggressive mosquito control,” he said.

Contracting Zika from mosquitos in the United States poses a greater risk to the public than people entering the country from Brazil and other Zika-infected regions of the world, he said, adding that funding is “essential” for future treatment and prevention.

“I’m not going to explain why” that funding has not been approved,” Fauci added. “Congress is going to have to explain that.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Katie Ledecky, Olympic Gold Medalist Swimmer, Lost Family Members in the Holocaust

Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrates winning gold and setting a new world record in the Women's 400m Freestyle Final on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrates winning gold and setting a new world record in the Women’s 400m Freestyle Final on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

It isn’t up for debate — Katie Ledecky is currently the best female swimmer on the planet. The 19-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, who won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics at age 15, has never lost a final of a major international race. Now she has a good chance of taking home 5 medals from the Rio Olympics, and she might break some world records along the way (she has already broken multiple ones during her short career).

How is someone under the age of 20 poised to enter the discussion of best-ever female swimmers?

Part of Ledecky’s inspiration, as revealed in a Sports Illustrated profile in June, comes from the story of her Jewish grandmother, Berta, 83. Berta, who is Czech, is the mother of Ledecky’s father.

Berta and her non-Jewish husband Jaromir (who went by Jerry), met in the United States in 1956, about eight years after Jerry had immigrated from Prague with only five dollars in his pocket. Berta — whom writer S.L. Price describes as a “formidable” woman — once spent a year working as a translator for Albert Einstein at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

When Katie was 10, Berta took her to a Jewish cemetery in Prague and showed her graves of her family members who died during the Holocaust. Price doesn’t mention the exact number Berta’s family lost during World War II, or provide details of Berta’s experiences during the Holocaust, but the memory clearly stuck with Katie. Although Ledecky is Catholic and famously recites the Hail Mary before her races, Price writes that the “fuel” that drives Ledecky includes the visit to “a Jewish cemetery in Prague.”

So who knows — when Ledecky goes for gold this week she might just have her Jewish grandmother on her mind.

BJC ‘Distressed’ By Black Lives Matter Platform’s Take on Israel

briefBJCThe Baltimore Jewish Council released a statement Monday calling parts of the recently released Movement for Black Lives platform “malicious” and “untruthful” regarding Israel.

“The Baltimore Jewish Council is a strong supporter of the social justice ideals that are promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement,” the statement began.

“We are proud of our long history of promoting civil rights in Baltimore and remain committed to striving for justice for every citizen,” it said. “But we strongly condemn the national coalition’s decision to include in its agenda support for efforts to delegitimize Israel.”

The platform, which can be read here, refers to the “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and refers to Israel as an “apartheid state.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council statement in full:

“The Baltimore Jewish Council is a strong supporter of the social justice ideals that are promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement. We are distressed, however, by elements of the national platform released this month by a coalition of groups associated with the movement’s leadership.

We are proud of our long history of promoting civil rights in Baltimore and remain committed to striving for justice for every citizen. But we strongly condemn the national coalition’s decision to include in its agenda support for efforts to delegitimize Israel. Living in a city struggling with violence and community conflicts, we empathize with the coalition’s yearning to create a more equitable and just society.

However, this is not and should not be in conflict with strong support for the State of Israel and its people. Israel has long been a home for the oppressed, whether it is Jews escaping persecution, or Christians, Muslims, and other refugees fleeing from conflicts in the Middle East and around the world. Characterizing Israel as an “apartheid state” and describing the United States as being complicit in a “genocide” against the Palestinian people is an untruthful and malicious narrative. The coalition’s platform falsely conflates the need to address racial inequities in the United States with misconceptions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By calling for economic and cultural warfare against the nation of Israel and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel, the coalition undermines efforts to promote peace in the region.

We urge the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to reconsider this portion of their platform. The Baltimore Jewish Council stands ready to join in real conversations about how our communities can continue to work as allies in each other’s struggles, and to address the misinformation created by those who would seek to keep us apart.”

Excerpts from the Movement for Black Lives’ platform:

“…approximately 3 billion dollars in US aid is allocated to Israel, a state that practices systematic discrimination and has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for decades. Together with aid to Egypt — Israel’s most important regional ally — this figure represents nearly 75 percent of all US aid dollars. As these figures demonstrate, resources and funds needed for reparations and for building a just and equitable society domestically are instead used to wage war against a majority of the world’s communities.”

“The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people. Palestinian homes and land are routinely bulldozed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Israeli soldiers also regularly arrest and detain Palestinians as young as 4 years old without due process. Everyday, Palestinians are forced to walk through military checkpoints along the US-funded apartheid wall.”