Weekly roundup of world briefs from JTA
Donald Trump, taking office, pledges to put ‘America first’
(JTA)—President Donald Trump promised to put “America first” in his inaugural address, pledging to prevent other countries from taking advantage of the United States and to return control of the country to its people.
Taking office at noon Friday following a tumultuous and divisive presidential campaign, Trump said his term would herald a return of power from the elite in Washington, D.C., to the American people.
“Their victories have not been your victories, their triumphs have not been your triumphs,” the former reality TV star said. “That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you.”
Trump said the U.S. economy and military have suffered at the expense of other countries that benefit from American dollars, either in the form of military subsidies or factories built by American businesses. Israel, which just signed a $38 billion military aid agreement with the United States, is the biggest beneficiary of American foreign aid.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” he said. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
Trump promised to prioritize “America first,” repeating the term. “America first” was the name of an isolationist and often anti-Semitic movement leading up to World War II. Trump has said previously that the slogan has no connection to the movement.
“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first. America first,” he said. “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
Trump also took a phrase from the Hebrew Bible in a brief allusion to unity, saying, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The verse he referred to is found in Psalm 133, which is also quoted in the popular Hebrew song “Hine mah tov umanayim.”
Following the inaugural address, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, delivered a benediction composed largely of quotes from the Bible. Hier has known the family of Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for decades, and his center has received donations from them.
“Dispense justice for the needy and the orphan, for they have no one but their fellow citizens,” Hier said. “A nation’s wealth is measured by its values and not its vaults.”
Trump: If Jared Kushner can’t broker Middle East peace, nobody can
(JTA)—President-elect Donald Trump said that if his son-in-law Jared Kushner cannot produce peace in the Middle East, then “nobody can.”
Trump referenced Kushner, an Orthodox Jew who married Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, after her Orthodox conversion to Judaism, during a VIP reception and candlelight dinner Thursday night at Union Station in Washington, D.C., ahead of Trump’s inauguration Friday.
“All my life I’ve been hearing that’s the toughest deal in the world to make. And I’ve seen it. But I have a feeling Jared’s going to do a great job,” Trump said. Addressing his son-in-law, he also said: “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”
Trump has named his son-in-law a senior White House adviser. Kushner, a wealthy businessman and real estate developer, served as a top confidante to Trump during the campaign.
“I sort of stole her husband,” Trump quipped about his daughter and Kushner.
Trump’s endorsement of Kushner for Middle East peace negotiator follows a series of statements in which Trump expressed confidence in Kushner’s abilities in that capacity.
“Jared is such a good kid and he’ll make a deal with Israel that no one else can—you know he’s a natural, he’s a great deal, he’s a natural—you know what I was talking about, natural—he’s a natural deal-maker—everyone likes him,” Trump said in an interview earlier this month in The Times of London and Bild.
Trump Treasury pick Steve Mnuchin blames ‘complicated’ forms for failure to report $100M in assets
(JTA)—Steve Mnuchin, President Donald Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, said he failed to disclose over $100 million in assets unintendedly due to complicated government forms.
Mnuchin, a former executive for Goldman Sachs and Trump’s campaign finance chief, told lawmakers Thursday during a Senate confirmation committee hearing that the omission, reported that day by The New York Times, “was unintentional.”
“I assure you that these forms were very complicated,” he said.
The undisclosed assets included homes in Los Angeles and the Hamptons, in addition to real estate holdings in Mexico. Mnuchin, who is Jewish, also omitted his role as head of Dune Capital International, a firm that is incorporated in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. He said during the hearing that he did not use the firm to evade paying taxes.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the new minority leader in the Senate, called Mnuchin typical of Trump’s nominees.
“Never before has the Senate considered such an ethically challenged [group],” Schumer said. “Mr. Mnuchin’s failure to disclose his Cayman Islands holdings just reeks of the swamp that the president-elect promised to drain on the campaign trail.”
During the wide-ranging, five-hour hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Democrats pressed Mnuchin for details on everything from his thoughts on tax reform to his defense of foreclosures carried out by OneWest Bank while serving as its top executive.
Ultimately, it appeared that Mnuchin could still rely on enough Republican support to win the job, according to The Hill.
The Finance Committee’s chair, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, heaped praise on Mnuchin, lauding his extensive private sector experience as a boon to the government.
“You’ve made tremendous sacrifices to take this job, and I hope our colleagues at the other side of the aisle will come to appreciate that,” Hatch said. “You’ve certainly impressed a lot of people here. Certainly me.”
The only Republican senator to express some reticence was Dean Heller of Nevada, according to The Hill.
After reviewing the nomination, the committee refers it to the full Senate favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. The nomination needs a simple majority from the committee for referral; the nominee is appointed with a simple majority from the full Senate.
Male circumcision helps prevent all HIV variants, researchers find
(JTA)—An international research team studying the HIV virus in Africa concluded that male circumcision significantly curbs the spread of all its variants.
The six researchers of a study titled “Male Circumcision and the Epidemic Emergence of HIV-2 in West Africa” published their findings last month in the scientific journal PLOS, the IPS news agency reported Monday.
Whereas “male circumcision is known to correlate negatively with HIV-1 prevalence in Africa,” they wrote of the most common variant of the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, studies examining this issue for HIV-2, the rarer variant found predominantly in Africa, “are lacking.”
The researchers, working with state funding from Belgium, compiled results from surveys on the prevalence of HIV-2 in 30 cities of all West African countries, and cross-checked those with males circumcision rates of 218 West African ethnic groups.
This study revealed that HIV-2 only formed early substantial focuses in cities with “substantial uncircumcised populations.” Lack of male circumcision in rural areas exposed to bushmeat—meat of wild animals, including primates, that are hunted rather than farmed—“may have had a role in successful HIV-2 emergence,” the researchers also wrote.
HIV-2 has been less studied than HIV-1, but is nevertheless a considerable threat to public health, since it has spread worldwide and is probably infecting more than 1 million people, the researchers noted.
Two studies demonstrated a strong correlation between HIV-1 prevalence in the late 1980s and male circumcision in Africa. Other studies replicated these findings for most developing countries of the world.
The study reaffirming the benefits of male circumcision comes amid an ongoing debate in Europe on whether the custom, when performed for religious reasons on boys younger than 18, constitutes a violation on their rights. Many opponents of the custom argue it carries no medical benefits.
In 2013, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority determined based on its own study that there was neither enough risk to justify outlawing circumcision nor enough documentation of its benefits to recommend the practice, which is performed on children both by observant and non-observant Muslims and Jews.
In 2008, the Danish Health Ministry’s research institute, SSI, published a study arguing male circumcision severely diminished sexual pleasure and created health risks without offering any benefits.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2012 that the benefits of male circumcision outweigh the risks, citing its reducing the risks of HIV infection, urinary tract infection and penile cancer.
Swedish Jews boycott Holocaust memorial co-organized by nationalist party
(JTA)—Dozens of Swedish Jews said they would skip a Holocaust commemoration event in the southern city of Gothernburg due to the involvement of a nationalist party in organizing it.
The Göteborgs-Posten daily on Wednesday published a full-page ad by some 40 Jews, of which only two were identified by name, about the involvement of the local branch of the Sweden Democrats party in the event scheduled for Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“That the Sweden Democrats, with their ties to both old and new Nazism and xenophobia, are invited to co-organize the memorial ceremony is more than an affront. It is extremely offensive to us as Jews and our history,” wrote cosignatories Lisa Granér, Erik Nilsson and others whose names were not published, citing security fears.
The Sweden Democrats party, which has participated in organizing the Holocaust commemoration in Gothenburg since 2010, is among several Swedish parties that have sanctioned members for making offensive statements about Jews and consistently denied allegations that it condones such behavior.
But the Sweden Democrats, which describes itself as critical of immigration from Muslim countries and its effects of Swedish society, is the “only party with a clear xenophobic agenda where people are pitted against each other solely on the basis of their background and where Sweden’s survival as a country is contrasted with an alleged wave of mass immigration,” the co-signatories wrote. “There is only one party that makes history’s bells ring so loud.”
George Braun, the head of the Jewish Community of Gothenburg, told JTA on Thursday that the involvement of the Sweden Democrats in the ceremony is “problematic” but is a result of a system meant to be inclusive to all political parties that predates the Sweden Democrats’ entry to parliament. The community is in talks with other partners on how to proceed, he said, but “we don’t believe that boycotting the event and essentially leaving it to Sweden Democrats is the answer.”
In October, a Sweden Democrats lawmaker called for action against what she called the “control of media by any family or ethnic group.” Anna Hagwall named in an interview specifically the Bonnier Group, a privately held Swedish media group controlled by the Bonnier family, which has Jewish roots.
Mattias Karlsson, a leader of the Sweden Democrats, said in a statement Thursday that Hagwall’s actions “have damaged our confidence in her” and “will have consequences for her future activities in the party and its parliamentary work.”
Also that month, Sweden Democrats senior lawmaker Carina Herrstedt was widely criticized in the media for writing a racist joke in an email. It was about attempts to promote diversity in soccer and featured language deemed offensive to gays, blacks, nuns, Roma and Jews. Separately, the Swedish media published a recording in October of Sweden Democrats finance spokesman Oscar Sjöstedt jokingly comparing Jews to sheep being killed in German abattoirs.
Sweden Democrats more than doubled its gains in the 2014 parliamentary elections, which left the party with 49 seats out of 349 in the Riksdag, the kingdom’s parliament.
Separately, a protest by the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism prompted a Muslim youth movement in Sweden to distance itself from a Muslim cleric who was invited to speak to its members in Stockholm last month.
The Ibn Rushd association said in a statement that it would not have invited the Muslim Brotherhood theologian Zaghloul el-Naggar, who wrote a book titled “The Plot: Milestones in Zionist and World Subversion of the Palestinian People,” had it known of his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Ukraine’s Uman airport to service pilgrims thanks to $140M investment
(JTA)—Ukrainian officials have agreed to renovate an old army airport near the city of Uman and open it to commercial flights, including from Israel.
The renovation, reported Monday by the news site Life, is being made possible thanks to a $140 million investment by unnamed parties from the United States.
The opening of an airport near Uman, situated 120 miles south of Kiev, has the potential of redirecting from the international airports of Kiev and Odessa tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims who visit Uman to be near the gravesite of the 18th-century luminary Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, a spiritual father of the Breslav Hasidic movement. Some 25,000 pilgrims come on Rosh Hashanah alone.
The pilgrimage often has created friction between the predominantly Israeli new arrivals and locals, many of whom resent the cordoning off by police of neighborhoods for the pilgrims.
The Ukrainian lawmaker Maxim Polyakov last month said he had brokered a meeting between Ukraine’s trade minister, Stepan Kubiv, and “investors from the United States and Israel,” Life reported. They had “discussed the international airport construction project in the city of Uman,” Polyakov said at the time.
In 2016, approximately 50,000 pilgrims came to Uman, with 90 percent of them passing through Kiev’s main airport.
The number of flights from Israel and other countries with a substantial number of pilgrims has been rising steadily as well, according to Life. Last year, Boryspil International Airport in Kiev saw 302 such flights and 45,000 pilgrims compared to 167 flights with approximately 25,000 pilgrims in 2014.
But building a special airport for the pilgrims is not financially viable for the Ukrainian state without foreign investment, according to Life. In 2016, revenues from inbound pilgrims totaled $350,000.
Uman locals and tourism professionals often complain that the pilgrims do not bring in enough currency to even cover expenses connected to cleaning up after Rosh Hashanah. Many of the pilgrims consume only kosher food, which they will buy only from Israelis and other Jews who set up shop in Uman permanently or ahead of the Rosh Hashanah influx. According to various reports, Israeli crime bosses are also involved in trade in Uman.
Separately, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a body affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement, announced the opening of two synagogues in Ukrainians prisons—in the western city of Vinnitsa and in the northeastern city of Kharkiv—the news site Jewish.ru reported Wednesday.
There are currently some 200 Jewish prisoners in the Ukrainian prison system and rabbis are working in seven of the prisons, Rabbi Zeev Vinogradov was quoted as saying.
The opening of the synagogue in the Vinnitsa colony came at the initiative of an inmate, Vladimir Pedko, who for many years independently studied Judaism in prison, the rabbi said.
George Soros: Trump is a ‘would-be dictator’ destined to fail
(JTA)—Billionaire George Soros called President-elect Donald Trump a “would-be dictator” who is “going to fail.”
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., Soros said Thursday during a panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland, that Trump was “gearing up for a trade war,” which would have “a very far-reaching effect in Europe and other parts of the world,” Agence-France Presse reported Friday.
The “would-be dictator... didn’t expect to win, he was surprised,” the Hungarian-born financier and Jewish philanthropist told an audience of business leaders and journalists at the site of the World Economic Forum.
“I personally have confidence that he’s going to fail... because his ideas that guide him are inherently self-contradictory,” said Soros, adding that the members of Trump’s Cabinet are each fighting for different interests.
But he predicted the loss of the United States’ “positive influence in the world in favor of an open society,” which would have “a very far-reaching effect in Europe and other parts of the world.”
Soros, who was a supporter of Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, during last year’s campaign, lost nearly a billion dollars as a consequence of the market rally prompted by Trump’s surprise election victory, according to news reports. But the positive reaction in financial markets would not last long, Soros predicted, because ultimately they do not like uncertainty.
U.S. stocks retreated and the dollar fell against most currencies Thursday in the final session before Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
Soros also predicted the failure of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who last year replaced David Cameron following a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. Cameron, who supported remaining, resigned after a majority voted in favor of a British exit, or Brexit, from the bloc.
Voters were “in denial” about the financial consequences of leaving the European Union, he said.
“It’s unlikely that Prime Minister May is actually going to remain in power,” he added. “The current economic situation is not as bad as it was predicted, they live in hope, but as the currency depreciates, and inflation will be the driving force, that will lead to declining living standards.”
Tests in 1973 convinced CIA of Uri Geller’s paranormal powers
(JTA)—Uri Geller, an Israel-born celebrity who claims to have paranormal telepathic powers, convinced CIA researchers in the 1970s that he indeed possessed such abilities.
Famed for his spoon-bending skills, Geller underwent a week of experiments at the Stanford Research Institute in 1973, according to a report Thursday on Sky News based on 800,000 declassified CIA documents put online earlier this week.
The Geller tests form part of the Stargate program, which investigated psychic powers and looked into how any such abilities could be weaponized by the CIA, the British broadcaster reported. Over the course of eight days, Geller was subjected to various experiments conducted by scientists, including image and word tests.
“As a result of Geller’s success in this experimental period, we consider that he has demonstrated his paranormal perception ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner,” CIA researchers wrote.
During the experiment a scientist would pick a word at random from the dictionary before drawing a picture of the word and sticking it on the door of the sealed room in which Geller was placed. Geller would then be asked to draw the same image using his paranormal powers to sense the picture created by the examiner.
Successful tests included felt tip pen sketches of the solar system, a bunch of grapes and a swan.
The cache of documents was declassified after a two-year campaign by freedom-of-information activists and a lawsuit against the CIA.
Others released papers include the recipe for invisible ink and information about UFOs.
Canceled in 1998 due to negligible results, the Stargate Project “never provided an adequate basis for actionable intelligence operations.”
While the information was previously available for public viewing, it could only be viewed on one of four computers in a library at the National Archives in Maryland.
The full declassified CREST archive (the CIA Records Search Tool) is now available on the CIA Library website.