Weekly roundup of world briefs from JTA

 


7 members of alleged Jewish terror cell indicted in Israel

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Seven members of an alleged Jewish terror cell were indicted Monday in an Israeli court.

An Israeli soldier and two minors were among those charged in Petach Tikvah District Court with setting Palestinian vehicles on fire, throwing firebombs at Palestinian homes and assaulting Palestinians in the West Bank, near Ramallah. The cell members also are accused of belonging to an illegal organization and causing grave bodily harm.

The accused terrorists were arrested earlier this month in a joint operation of the Shin Bet security services and the Israel Police.

In addition to confessing to the attacks in the Gush Talmonim area, some of the cell members reenacted their actions at the scenes of the attacks, the Shin Bet said.

The Shin Bet described the cell as “extreme and violent” and said it “systematically harmed Palestinians and their property, with full knowledge that human lives could be harmed, even after the result of the arson attack on a home in Duma.”


The July firebombing of a Palestinian home in that West Bank village killed a Palestinian baby and his parents, and seriously wounded his brother. The Shin Bet said the attack was an “inspiration” to the suspects.

The suspects have been identified as a soldier in the Netzah Yehuda infantry battalion whose name is under a gag order; Yisrael Shendrofi, from the settlement of Nahliel, and his brother Pinhas; Michael Kaplan from Beit Shemesh; Itamar Ben Aharon from Jerusalem; Shneor Dana from the settlement of Maale Efraim; and the two minors, whose names are being withheld from the public.

Tens of thousands hear priestly blessing at Western Wall

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers gathered Monday at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the traditional priestly blessing.

The crowd—estimated by the office of the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites in Israel at 50,000 - converged on the Old City for the blessing, called Birkat Kohanim in Hebrew, during the second intermediate day of Passover. The mass blessing also is held on Sukkot and Shavuot, the other of the pilgrimage festivals, when the Jews would ascend to the Holy Temple. Religiously observant Jews who pray daily in a quorum, or minyan, observe the rite during the services.

Hundreds of kohanim, members of the priestly class, raised their hands and blessed the worshippers, including many visitors from the Diaspora. The crowd also recited the prayers for the State of Israel, the safety of Israeli soldiers and for Israeli police officers.


Additional security forces protected the worshippers due to increased tensions at the Temple Mount, located above the Western Wall, and throughout the city.

“Today everyone felt a wonderful unity at the Priestly Blessing ceremony, attended by Jews from all over Israel and abroad, regardless of their outlook,” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall, said in a statement.

“The pilgrimage to Jerusalem is an impressive testament to the Jewish People’s attachment to the remnant of our Temple; when the masses of Israel come to touch its stones,” Rabinovich also said in the statement.”This joyous sight of the masses of Israel completely filling the streets is somehow reminiscent of ancient times when crowds of pilgrims would come to see and be seen. More than a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction, it is a commemoration of the Temple itself.”

The chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Rabbi David Lau, as well as  Rabinovich, greeted the visitors after the services.

On Sunday, the Women of the Wall group held Passover holiday prayers at the Western Wall, but did not hold a priestly blessing ceremony after being banned by Israel’s attorney general, who ruled that holding a female version of the ceremony violated a law enforcing “local customs” at religious sites in Israel.


Also on Monday morning, police removed two Jewish visitors from the Temple Mount for violating the site’s visitation rules, reportedly by attempting to pray there. Jewish prayer is forbidden at the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The previous day, 13 Jews were removed from the site.

Ted Cruz is in, Bernie Sanders out on senators’ letter urging more ‘robust’ defense package for Israel

WASHINGTON (JTA)—An AIPAC-backed letter to President Barack Obama urging a more “robust” defense package for Israel reportedly has garnered the signatures of 83 senators, including Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz but not Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Reuters reported Monday that 51 Republicans and 32 Democrats, more than four-fifths of the Senate, had signed on to the document.

The letter, initiated by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., was one of the lobbying day requests during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference last month.

Reuters said Cruz, of Texas, had signed and Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, did not. Sanders is the first Jewish candidate to win major party nominating contests.

Israel and the United States are negotiating a 10-year defense assistance package, or Memorandum of Understanding, to follow the package set to expire next year that guarantees $3 billion annually. The new agreement is widely expected to be significantly larger.

AIPAC praised the letter.

“We applaud this statement from the Senate of overwhelming bipartisan support for a robust, new Memorandum of Understanding with Israel that increases aid while retaining the current terms of the existing program,” the prominent Israel lobby’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said in a statement.

The letter does not specify an amount to increase the overall defense assistance package, but notes that Congress is already considering increasing the nearly $500 million annually it budgets for missile defense cooperation, which until now has been considered separately from the defense package.

It cites a series of what it depicts as enhanced threats in the region, including a missile buildup by Hezbollah in Lebanon; Syria becoming a battleground for an array of forces hostile to Israel, including Iran and militant Sunni Islamist groups, and an increase in terrorism in the Sinai.

The letter also notes what it says is the influx of weapons into the region and the possibility that Iran will abrogate the recent nuclear deal and seek nuclear weapons.

“The nature and breadth of the current threats mean that the United States must enhance its investment in the long-term security requirements of our closest Middle East ally,” the letter said. “We urge you to conclude an agreement for a robust MOU that increases aid while retaining the current terms of our existing aid program.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier resigning from Hampton Synagogue, reportedly under pressure

(JTA)—Rabbi Marc Schneier, one of New York’s higher-profile spiritual leaders, is resigning from The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach after 26 years, with one report saying he was leaving under pressure.

Schneier, 57, went public with his decision to step down this summer from the Orthodox synagogue he founded in a letter emailed to congregants earlier this month. In the letter, the rabbi said he “wants to dedicate more time and resources to my work to strengthen relations between Muslims and Jews.” The New York Jewish Week published the letter on its website.

“I will continue to be a part of our community, as you all have a very special place in my heart,” the letter also said.

The rabbi told The Jewish Week he will remain in New York and not move to Israel, saying he had unspecified “professional opportunities” in the private sector that he planned to pursue.

However, the New York Post reported Sunday that Schneier resigned “under pressure from well-heeled synagogue members threatening to withhold pledges and payments until he was off the pulpit.”

Last June, Schneier was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America following an ethics inquiry into his behavior prompted by reports in the New York tabloids that he had had an extramarital affair with a woman, Gitty Leiner, who in 2013 became his fifth wife.

He divorced his fifth wife, with whom he has a daughter, in 2015.

Schneier gained prominence not only for the exploits that have landed him on newspaper gossip pages but also for running celebrity-filled programs for his wealthy synagogue community in the Hamptons on Long Island. He also presides over the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization devoted to bridge building between Jews and other ethnic groups such as blacks and Muslims. Russell Simmons, an eminent music producer and hip-hop impresario, chairs the foundation.

A new rabbi will take over in January 2017, Schneier said in his letter to congregants, following a search that will bring “Nationally acclaimed rabbinic candidates (to) spend several Shabbatot with us in July and August so that together we will choose my successor and determine the future of our community.”

Far-right candidate wins 1st round of presidential elections in Austria

(JTA)—A member of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria won the first round of presidential elections, clinching the movement’s best electoral showing ever.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, or FPO, took 36 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, with the runner-up—an independent, left-leaning candidate—taking 20 percent. Hofer, whose campaign focused on keeping migrants from Syria and Iraq out of Austria, and Alexander van der Bellen, an environmentalist with a pro-refugee agenda, will face off in the final vote on May 22 for the largely ceremonial post..

Hundreds of thousands of the refugees have passed through Austria in recent months. Popular opposition to their arrival offers only a partial explanation to the FPO’s successes, according to Karl Pfeifer, a veteran journalist and anti-fascist activist who formerly edited the official publication of Vienna’s Jewish community of 8,000 people.

The Jewish Community of Vienna has shunned FPO, which it regards as having problematic ties to neo-Nazis. FPO Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache has denied the allegations and recently visited Israel, where he met with Likud party officials. In 2012, Strache apologized for posting on Facebook a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks.

“The success of the FPO reflects the political center’s failure to provide an alternative,” Pfeifer told JTA on Monday. “Instead of confronting the FPO, the political establishment either ignored it or shifted rightward to steal would-be FPO voters, but the voters went to the source and cut out the middleman.”

Another independent candidate, the right-of-center former judge Irmgard Griss, garnered 19 percent of the vote. She has not yet endorsed either candidate in the final round. In France, mainstream rival parties put aside their differences and endorsed one another to keep the far-right National Front from winning.

“But this sort of behavior does not occur in Austria,” Pfeifer said.

If Hofer wins, Pfeifer said, “It is my opinion that the Jewish community will have no choice but to cooperate with him, as it is bound to work with Austria’s elected leadership.”

He added: “I fear for what this victory means for Austria and for Europe in general because it signals a slide into a restrictive democracy of the kind that exists in Hungary.”

Reporter who revealed fake Polish rabbi taking heat from community leader

  WARSAW, Poland (JTA)—The Polish reporter who revealed the imposter rabbi serving in Poznan said the Jewish community’s leader has insisted he stop writing about the case.

In a report published Monday, Glos Wielkopolski said Alicja Kobus, head of the Poznan Jewish community and vice president of the Union of the Jewish Communities in Poland, “threatened” the newspaper over the report several days earlier by Krzysztof Kazmierczak exposing Jacoob Ben Nistell, who claimed to be a rabbi from Haifa, Israel, but in fact was a cook from the Polish city of Ciechanow named Jacek Niszczota.

Kobus reportedly has tried in recent days to intimidate Kazmierczak, demanding that he stop writing about Nistell.

According to the Glos Wielkopolski report Nistell, who served the community for several years, is not Jewish, does not know Hebrew and is not familiar with Jewish customs.

In Poznan, Nistell ran a kosher kitchen for tourists from Israel and guests of the Jewish community, according to Glos Wielkopolski.

“He served food for our guests, but so what. Everyone has such a right,” Kobus, also vice president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, told the newspaper. “And he did everything from cooking to taking out the garbage.”

The restaurant’s menu, posted on Facebook, included falafel, stuffed grape leaves, cholent and kreplach.

Nistell reportedly has disappeared from the community and deleted his Facebook page.

Kazmierczak said he has not met with any other negative reactions from Jews.

“True Jews and people interested in Judaism say it is very good that I revealed the sham,” he told JTA.

Kazmierczak said he believes Kobus knew for a long time that Nistell did not come from Haifa, especially since the imposter rabbi read Hebrew prayers in Polish transliteration.

Meanwhile, leaders of Polish Jewry have criticized the Poznan community’s lack of knowledge about the rabbi.

“It is said that the wild animals come where there is an empty space,” Shalom Ber Stambler, chief Chabad rabbi in Poland, told Glos Wielkopolski. “That’s what happened in Poznan; it shows that in a place where there is no real Jewry, bad things happen.”

Warsaw Jewish leader Przemyslaw Szpilman told JTA: “The Polish Rabbinate should read Glos Wielkopolski; many of them will learn something new.”

Szpilman called the revelation “a cosmic embarrassment to the Polish Rabbinate.”

“I knew from the start that this guy was in disguise. But the rabbinate for so long did not attempt to find out who is the man claiming to be a rabbi and taking part in community celebrations,” he said.

Szpilman said he was speaking publicly on the issue as an individual member of the Polish Jewish community and not on behalf of either the board of the Jewish community in Warsaw on which he serves or as the director of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

In a statement shared with JTA, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Lesław Piszewski president of the Union of the Jewish Communities in Poland, said Nistell was never employed through the union.

“Mr. Jacek Niszczota, also known as Jacoob Ben Nistell, has never held a position of a rabbi in the Jewish Community of Poznan,” according to the statement. “Moreover he has never been hired by the Community. He is a private individual and has never represented the Union of the Jewish Communities in Poland nor the Polish Rabbinate. He visited Communal premises as a guest or a volunteer.”

 

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