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Weekly roundup of world briefs from JTA


Abbas walks back claim that Israeli rabbis called to poison Palestinian water

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas walked back his claim that Israeli rabbis had called for the poisoning of Palestinian water and said he did not intend to offend Jewish people.

“After it has become evident that the alleged statements by a rabbi on poisoning Palestinian wells, which were reported by various media outlets, are baseless, President Mahmoud Abbas has affirmed that he didn’t intend to do harm to Judaism or to offend Jewish people around the world,” his office said in a statement issued last Friday.

In his address a day earlier to the European Parliament in Brussels, which earned a standing ovation from parliament representatives, Abbas alleged that Israeli rabbis called earlier in the week for the poisoning of Palestinian water, a report for which he provided no citation and which echoes medieval anti-Semitic libels. Jewish groups responded by accusing Abbas of spreading blood libels and anti-Semitism.

Friday’s statement also said that Abbas “rejected all claims that accuse him and the Palestinian people of offending the Jewish religion,” and that Abbas also “condemned all accusations of anti-Semitism.”

Earlier in the same day of his European Parliament speech, Abbas refused a meeting with Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, that the parliament’s president had offered to arrange while Abbas and Rivlin were in Brussels.

“Someone who refuses to meet with the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu for direct talks, who propagates a blood libel in the European Parliament, is lying when he says his hand is outstretched in peace,” said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Israel awaits the day when Abu Mazen stops spreading lies and dealing in incitement. Until then, Israel will continue to defend itself against Palestinian incitement, which motivates terror attacks.”

Abu Mazen is an alternative honorific name for Abbas.

Netanyahu headed to Rome for meeting with Kerry and Italy’s prime minister

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Rome on Sunday to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The meetings on Sunday and Monday also will include Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Netanyahu said Sunday morning in Jerusalem at the weekly Cabinet meeting that the leaders will discuss “regional processes, the question of security, the process with the Palestinians and, of course, other issues.”

Netanyahu said the leaders also would discuss the British vote to leave the European Union.

“There is no direct effect on Israel apart from the fact that we are part of the global economy,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu said he held a discussion over the weekend with the finance minister, the governor of the Bank of Israel, the head of Israel’s National Economic Council and others regarding the implications for the Israeli economy.

“I can say one thing: The Israeli economy is strong. It has very considerable foreign currency reserves. Therefore, to the extent that there is some effect, it is not expected to be strong other than unrest in the global economy,” he said. “I think that as this process is begun, Israel is in a good position.”

Israel-Turkey reconciliation deal must include return of 2 soldiers’ remains, parents say

JERUSALEM (JTA)—The families of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza whose remains have never been repatriated released statements slamming a reported reconciliation deal between Israel and Turkey.

The statements Saturday night from the families of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in 2014, said the return of their sons’ remains should be part of the rapprochement deal. The agreement is expected to be finalized with Turkey on Sunday by negotiators in Rome.

It reportedly does not include the return of the remains, according to Ynet, nor the return of an Ethiopian-Israeli who crossed the Gaza border in 2014 or a Bedouin citizen of Israel. In April, Hamas issued a statement claiming to hold both men as well as the soldiers’ remains.

However, under the agreement, according to Ynet, the Turkish government vows to undertake efforts to secure the release of the soldiers’ remains through its contacts with Hamas.

The deal would normalize relations between Israel and Turkey six years after ties turned icy in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded and killed nine Turkish citizens in clashes on a boat attempting to break Israel’s Gaza blockade.

The rapprochement deal reportedly calls for Israel to create a $20 million humanitarian fund as compensation to the families. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously apologized for the deaths, another Turkish condition for the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Turkey reportedly also has withdrawn its demand that Israel halt its Gaza blockade, but Israel will allow Turkey to establish building projects in Gaza with the building materials entering Gaza through Israel.

The Shaul family said it would erect a protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in opposition to the deal.

Netanyahu said Israel is doing everything it can to bring home the bodies of Shaul and Goldin to their parents.

“There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation regarding the possible agreement that is being formulated with Turkey and therefore I would like to make it clear: We are continuing our constant efforts, both open and in secret, to bring back to Israel Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, may their memories be blessed, and also the two Israelis being held in Gaza,” he said Sunday morning at the weekly Cabinet meeting, echoing a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office the previous night. “We are in continuous contact with the families and we will neither rest nor be silent until we bring the boys back home.”

Jerusalem gay pride parade stabber sentenced to life in prison

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, including a 16-year-old girl fatally, was sentenced to life in prison.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem District Court also ordered Schlissel to pay compensation to the family of Shira Banki, the teen who was killed, and to those injured in the July 2015 attack. Schlissel, 40, was convicted in August.

The haredi Orthodox man had been released from prison several weeks before the parade after serving 10 years for a similar attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in 2005. In the days leading up to the 2015 parade, Schlissel expressed his opposition to the march in interviews and in ads in haredi synagogues in Jerusalem and Kiryat Sefer.

Police initially turned away Schlissel at an entrance point to the parade, but he found a way in later in the route.

The three judges in their sentencing said: “A person who sees himself as a killer or giver of life cannot walk around the streets of Jerusalem or anywhere else. In the few days of vacation between imprisonment and detention, he ended the life of a girl with a passion for life. He didn’t see her as a human being, and didn’t care at all who will meet [his] knife.”

Banki had been marching in the parade in support of her gay and lesbian friends.

Birthright trip offering college credits for first time

JERUSALEM (JTA)—The first Birthright trip offering participants academic credit is now in Israel.

Some 50 students from colleges and universities in the United States are participating in the inaugural cohort and will be entitled to three academic credits at their academic institutions, according to Taglit Birthright.

They will attend courses at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, or IDC, and at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev during their two-week stay.

At the IDC, the students will learn about “The challenge of terrorism in Israel and the Middle East” and visit an Iron Dome battery in the field. At Ben-Gurion, they will study “Global Warming, Renewable Energy and the Desert Ecosystem,” which includes snorkeling in the coral reef in Eilat.

Birthright Israel provides a free 10-day to two-week trip to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 26.

2 Israelis lightly hurt in West Bank car-ramming, assailant killed

(JTA)—A car-ramming outside the West Bank settlement near Hebron lightly injured an Israeli husband and wife in an apparent terror attack on Friday.

The assailant, a Palestinian woman, was shot dead by a soldier at the scene.

The couple, in their 50s, had pulled over to the side of the road near a bus stop near Kiryat Arba when the assailant’s car hit theirs at a high speed. The couple was evacuated to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

The incident comes following a months-long wave of hundreds of terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank. Thirty-three Israelis and four foreign nationals have been killed in the attacks, as well as some 200 Palestinians, including many attackers. Recently the pace of the attacks has slowed considerably.

Israeli Chief Rabbinate rejects conversion by respected Orthodox NY rabbi

NEW YORK (JTA)—The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has deemed invalid a conversion performed by Haskel Lookstein, one of America’s most prominent modern Orthodox rabbis.

The decision to invalidate Lookstein  is the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between the haredi-dominated rabbinate in Israel and modern Orthodox rabbis abroad about who gets to wield Orthodox rabbinical authority.

Lookstein is the former rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun, a tony modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that counts Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner as members. Trump, daughter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, converted under Lookstein’s auspices in 2009.

Lookstein also previously served as the head of school at the Ramaz School, an elite Manhattan modern Orthodox preparatory school.

But Lookstein’s renown did not stop a rabbinical court in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikvah from rejecting his authority. In April, a woman who converted under Lookstein’s auspices last year applied for marriage registration with the Petach Tikvah rabbinical court, only to have her conversion declared invalid. The court is run by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which recognizes only Orthodox conversions.

The court did not recognize Lookstein’s authority because he was not on its list of approved rabbis, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate Israeli religious bureaucracy.

This is not the first time the Chief Rabbinate has rejected a prominent American Orthodox rabbi’s imprimatur. In 2013, the head of the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division, Itamar Tubul, rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter from Avi Weiss, a liberal Orthodox rabbi.

The move sparked widespread outrage that Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question. Tubul later reversed the decision, accepting Weiss’ imprimatur.

In Lookstein’s case, according to Itim, Tubul sent a letter to the Petach Tikva court urging it to accept the conversion. Upon reviewing the case, however, the court upheld its earlier decision. Itim is now helping the woman appeal the request ot the Chief Rabbinical Court.

“Chaos reigned,” Farber told JTA. “The right arm doesn’t know what the left is doing. Sometimes the rabbinical court says yes and Tubul says no. Sometimes Tubul says yes and the rabbinical court says no. There’s absolutely no transparency.”

Last year, Itim petitioned a Jerusalem municipal court to have the Rabbinate be more transparent about the process by which it accepts rabbis’ authority on conversions. As a result of the petition, the rabbinate released a list of approved rabbis in April. The list, which the Chief Rabbinate said is neither exhaustive nor binding, includes two Americans who have been mired in scandal and omits Weiss, as well as Lookstein.

On June 23, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett called the court’s decision “arbitrary and odd,” and said it should be reversed.

“Rabbi Lookstein is one of the leading, and most appreciated, Orthodox rabbis in the U.S.,” Bennett said in a statement. “Not only does no one question his commitment to tradition and Halakha, but Israel’s Chief Rabbinate approved—in writing—the conversion certificates he issued.”

In first, Israel grants formal asylum to Darfuri refugee from Sudan

(JTA)—Israel for the first time granted refugee status to a Sudanese national who fled the mass murder in Darfur.

Last Friday, the Interior Ministry announced it had accepted the asylum application of Mutasim Ali, who arrived in Israel seven years ago from Darfur, Army Radio reported. Ali said he left Sudan amid persecution by the Sudanese authorities over his political activity on behalf of the residents of his region of the African dictatorship.

The Jewish state has a little over 42,000 foreign residents whom the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, a nonprofit, believes may qualify as asylum seekers, according to a report published this month. Of those, 19 percent are Sudanese and another 71 percent are Eritrean. However, only 5,500 of immigrants from both groups have formally applied for asylum in Israel.

Most Sudanese and Eritreans in Israel are allowed to stay through an executive order labeled “temporary group protection,” which constitutes neither a visa nor asylum status, and which needs to be renewed every few weeks. They are, however, allowed to work.

Only four Eritreans have received asylum in Israel, out of 2,408 Eritreans who applied for it citing persecution in their dictatorial homeland in eastern Africa. In 2008, Israel gave temporary residence status to 500 Sudanese nationals from Darfur, who infiltrated its border with Egypt. It was a one-time humanitarian gesture, the interior ministry said at the time.

Israel began processing asylum applications by Sudanese and Eritrean nationals in 2013 and has since then received 3,165 applications by former residents of Sudan. Of those, Israeli authorities have vetted only 45 Sundanese applications, according to the refugee assistance group. The remaining applications are still awaiting evaluation.

Darfur, the rebellious region in western Sudan, became known in the mid-2000s for systematic killings, rape, forced relocations and other crimes committed against mainly non-Arab tribes by government forces and their nomadic militia allies, known as the Janjaweed.

As many as 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur since 2003, according to United Nations estimates, and 2.5 million people have been uprooted in what is widely considered a modern-day genocide, according to the New York Times.

The worst of the mass killings appears to have eased. But the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir—who has been indicted in connection with Darfur atrocities, including on charges of genocide, by the International Criminal Court—has escalated attacks against the insurgency there in recent years.

In Europe, approximately 70 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers are granted refugee status, according to the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. The figure for Eritreans stands on 80-90 percent in the West, according to the same group.

Democrats’ platform recognizes Palestinian aspirations, rejects ‘occupation’ language

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Democrats altered their platform to reflect Palestinian aspirations but rejected language calling for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and settlement activity.

According to an Associated Press report emailed to reporters late Saturday by the Bernie Sanders campaign, the platform calls for a two-state solution but does not frame it purely as an outcome that benefits Israel, as previous platforms have.

It declares that achieving Palestinian statehood would provide “the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

The platform drafting committee of the Democratic National Committee met in cities across the country. The meeting this weekend, which wrapped up the draft and where the Israel-related language was approved, was held in St. Louis. The full platform committee will vote on the draft on July 8-9 in Orlando, Florida.

The committee rejected language proposed by James Zogby, a Sanders appointee to the committee and the president of the Arab American Institute, that called for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.”

Zogby said Sanders, the Vermont Independent senator and the first Jewish candidate to win major nominating contests, helped draft the rejected language.

According to tweets by Josh Ruebner, the policy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who was monitoring in real time the St. Louis meeting of the platform drafting committee, Zogby’s language was defeated in an 8-5 vote at around midnight Friday.

Speaking against Zogby’s language were Wendy Sherman, a former deputy secretary of state and an appointee named by Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and Howard Berman, a former California congressman who was named to the committee by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., the DNC chairwoman. Advocating for the language was Cornel West, a Sanders appointee and a philosopher who backs the boycott Israel movement.

Keeping out language that could potentially alienate the pro-Israel community was a priority to the Clinton campaign. Earlier this week, Jake Sullivan, her senior foreign policy adviser, emailed JTA to say that “Hillary Clinton’s steadfast support for Israel, and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, are well known. As we have said previously, she remains confident that the party platform will reflect her views.”

Clinton has secured enough delegates to win the first round of voting at the convention in Philadelphia next week. Sanders, unusually for a candidate who is set to lose, was given five spots on the platform drafting committee, a reflection of the strength of his campaign. Clinton named six and Wasserman Schultz the remaining four.

Zogby and another Sanders appointee to the committee who advocates for Palestinian rights, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., seemed happy with the overall platform, saying Sanders scored wins on his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, break up big banks and expand social security.

“We got some great stuff in the platform that has never been in there before,” Zogby told AP.

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, praised the Israel-related language.

“The new language breaks with the party’s practice of framing its aim of establishing a Palestinian state solely in terms of Israel’s interests,” it said in a statement. “By including parallel acknowledgement of Israeli and Palestinian rights, the party underscores its belief that the only viable resolution to the conflict—a two-state solution—requires recognizing the fates of the two peoples are intertwined.”


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