Weekly roundup of world briefs from JTA
February 16, 2018
Republican Jewish Coalition chairman says its members are ‘thrilled’ with Trump
(JTA)—The chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition said its members are “thrilled” about the performance of President Donald Trump, especially with his approach to the Middle East.
“I think they’re feeling thrilled,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman in an interview with McClatchy at the weekend’s annual RJC leadership conference in Las Vegas. “If you look at the change of what has happened with Israel, in terms of moving the capital to Jerusalem, the tough approach to Iran, holding the U.N. finally accountable... I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm in the center-right, pro-Israel community about President Trump.”
The McClatchy reporter noted that in March 2016, Coleman wrote an op-ed titled “I will never vote for Donald Trump” in which he called the then-presidential candidate “A bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully.”
Reminded about the op-ed, Coleman replied, “There are things I agree with the president on, things I disagree with. When it comes to Middle East policy, when it comes to what he’s doing in Iran, absolutely I’m thrilled he’s doing it, I’m thrilled he’s here.”
The annual gathering took place at the Venetian/Palazzo Hotel, owned by one of the RJC’s and Republican Party’s main benefactors, Sheldon Adelson, who was in Israel for a friend’s funeral and did not attend.
While others at the event were similarly enthusiastic about Trump’s Middle East policies, McClatchy noted mixed feelings among the RJC membership.
“For center-right Jews such as myself, that’s been the problem, is that on certain things he’s been overall positive—on the U.S.-Israel relationship, no question he’s better than Obama,” said Noam Neusner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “But on so many aspects of how he’s handled the presidency, how he’s conducted himself, perhaps certain issues of leadership, fitness—it’s been a challenge.”
Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and made plans to move the U.S. Embassy to the city from Tel Aviv. He also has declined to certify the Iran nuclear deal and pulled the United States out of the United Nations’ economic and cultural agency over its anti-Israel bias.
White House: Netanyahu’s claim of US-Israel talks on annexing settlements is ‘false’
WASHINGTON (JTA)—The White House denied Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported claim that the United States and Israel are discussing the annexation of West Bank settlements.
“Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in an email to JTA. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.”
The statement was unusually forceful for a White House that enjoys a close relationship with the Israeli government.
Hours earlier, Netanyahu had told the Likud faction in the Knesset that he was in “historic” talks with the Trump administration about annexing settlements. Netanyahu delivered the remarks in a bid to stave off individual Knesset members from advancing bills to annex the settlements, saying that such a bill should be government initiated and be timed to solidify U.S. support for annexation.
Within minutes of Raffel releasing his statement, Netanyahu’s office sent a message to Israeli reporters that did not quite walk back his earlier remarks, but that noted that President Donald Trump remained committed to reviving the peace talks.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu updated the Americans about initiatives arising in the Knesset and the Americans expressed their unequivocal position that they are committed to advancing President Trump’s peace plan,” the WhatsApp message said.
Trump has suggested that Israel would have to compromise on settlements and has cautioned Israel against radically altering the current status of the settlements.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is spearheading the bid to restart the peace talks. The Palestinians in December retreated from the “talks to start the talks” after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Paul McCartney wins Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize
JERUSALEM (JTA)—Paul McCartney is one of nine laureates announced for Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize.
McCartney is one of two recipients of the 2018 Wolf Prize in Music, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin announced Monday.
Each year the Wolf Foundation awards $100,000 prizes in five fields. More than 30 winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.
The announcement called McCartney “one of the greatest songwriters of all time. His versatility underlies an extraordinary wingspan, from the most physical rock to melodies of haunting and heartbreaking intimacy. His lyrics have an equally broad range, from the naive and the charming to the poignant and even desperate. He has touched the hearts of the entire world, both as a Beatle and in his subsequent bands, including Wings.
McCartney shares the prize with conductor Adam Fischer, who the prize committee called an “eloquent defender of human rights,” particularly “his protest against the political developments in his native Hungary.”
Seven other prizes also were announced in the fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics and agriculture.
According to the Wolf Prize, the prizes will be presented to the winners by Rivlin at a special ceremony to be held at the Knesset in Jerusalem, at the end of May. The Associated Press reported that the prize foundation had notified McCartney representatives of the prize, but that it was not immediately known if the former Beatle would attend the ceremony.
McCartney has appeared once in Israel, for a concert for over 50,000 fans in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park in 2008.
Iceland is getting its first resident rabbi in decades
(JTA)—The Chabad movement is sending a rabbi and his wife to Iceland, an island nation with 250 Jews where ritual slaughter of animals is illegal and circumcision is likely to be outlawed as well.
Rabbi Avi Feldman, 27, of Brooklyn, New York, and his Sweden-born wife Mushky, are slated to settle with their two daughters in Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city, later this year, the couple told JTA last week.
The country is not known to have had a resident rabbi servicing an active Jewish community there since 1918, the year it gained independence from what was then the Kingdom of Denmark.
The announcement closely followed news last month that lawmakers from four political parties in Iceland submitted a bill proposing to outlaw nonmedical circumcision of boys younger than 18 and equates that practice, common among Jews and Muslims, with female genital mutilation—the custom of removing parts of a girl’s clitoris, which is common in some African Muslim communities.
“We hope to bring awareness of the relevance and importance of brit milah,” the rabbi told JTA, using the Hebrew-language word for Jewish ritual circumcision, which is typically performed on boys when they are eight days old. “We hope to bring this awareness to local Icelandic people and especially to lawmakers in their decision on rules, which we hope will have a religious exemption clause.”
Feldman and his wife visited Iceland in December and organized a Hanukkah celebration for the community, which is made up of some locals and Jewish expatriates from the United States and Israel. The couple hopes to set up an educational framework for Jewish children, a synagogue and a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, none of which exist in Iceland, a nation of some 300,000 people.
A Chabad spokesman said Reykjavík is one of only a handful of European capital cities without a synagogue.
The absence of infrastructure for Jewish communities can be seen as “a challenge,” the rabbi said, “but it’s also a tremendous opportunity, to set up a living breathing community.”
Notwithstanding, local Jews have celebrated holidays in Iceland also without a resident rabbi, often with help from yeshiva students and Chabad rabbis who came there especially to celebrate the dates, Feldman said, calling this “inspiring and very special.”
Despite the decades-long ban on ritual slaughter in Iceland, “the country actually has a lot more kosher products than many people realize,” Feldman said. This is because the island depends on imports from Europe and the United States, “so this means you can find products with a kosher label in your average minimarket.”
Mushky Feldman, who grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, said she looked forward to “bringing the light of Judaism to one of the world’s darkest places,” a reference to how Reykjavík in January enjoys only 4 1/25 hours of daylight. “But sunrise comes after 11 a.m., so that means we’ll get to see the sunrise every day.” she noted. In the summer, Reykjavík has days with 18 hours of daylight.
The Feldmans said they will travel to Reykjavík next month to organize a Passover seder.
State of New York sues Harvey Weinstein
(JTA)—The state of New York has filed a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein, his brother and their production company for violating laws against sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
The lawsuit could harm a deal to sell the Weinstein Company, which had been expected to be finalized on Sunday, and push the company toward bankruptcy, The New York Times reported.
The lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court on Sunday includes “new and extensive allegations about longtime company CEO Harvey Weinstein’s vicious and exploitative mistreatment of company employees,” the office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.
It follows a four-month investigation that included interviews with multiple company employees, executives and survivors of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct.
Executives of The Weinstein Company “repeatedly failed to take meaningful steps to protect company employees or curb Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct,” the lawsuit alleges.
The civil rights lawsuit calls for the defendants to pay restitution and damages to the victims, something that was not provided within the framework of the sale of the company.
Half of House Democrats urge Trump to preserve funding for UN’s Palestinian relief agency
(JTA)—Some 102 Democratic congressmen sent a letter to President Donald Trump calling on him to continue funding for U.N.’s Palestinian relief agency.
The State Department last month announced that it had put a hold on $65 million of the $125 million annual allocation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which distributes its assistance in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, as well as to refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Days later, the State Department announced that a $45 million payment pledged for the UNRWA food aid program would also be held up.
According to UNRWA, the United States provided more than $350 million in aid to the organization in 2017.
“Continuing to freeze this aid will harm American interests by exacerbating the threats facing both peoples and reducing the United States’ ability to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a two-state solution,” said the letter sent Thursday signed by more than half of the House Democratic Caucus.
“The deterioration in the near-term prospects for progress toward a negotiated peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would render a cut-off of US assistance all the more dangerous. Deliberately exacerbating the hardship of the Palestinian people and reducing the ability of their government to function would only contribute to the benefit of those who reject engagement. Extremist and anti-Israel groups would be all too eager to fill in the vacuum, deepening their hold in the region and expanding their destructive influence on the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”
Reps. Peter Welch of Florida and David Price of North Carolina circulated the letter.
J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group, rallied lawmakers to sign the letter.
Israel has ‘absolute right to defend itself,’ US Defense Secretary James Mattis says
(JTA)—U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis defended Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
“Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that’s what happened yesterday,” Mattis told reporters before leaving on a European trip on Sunday.
The Israeli Air Force downed an Iranian drone in airspace over northern Israel on Saturday morning, and followed the infiltration by attacking 12 targets in Syria, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.
Mattis told reporters that the United States was not involved in supporting the airstrikes, but he pointed a finger at Iran.
“It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged,” Mattis said.
“So when Syria, which has made no—has not hidden at all, made no excuse for what they’re doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughput for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israeli has an absolute right to defend themselves. They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Egypt on Sunday, part of a five-nation visit to the Middle East that does not include Israel. Tillerson also is scheduled to visit Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.