The top 10 Jewish stories of 2019
December 27, 2019
(JTA)—For many Jews around the world, there’s probably no love lost for 2019.
As the year draws to a close, the Jewish community continues to grapple with the continued rise of global anti-Semitism—one major community in Europe is facing the possible election as prime minister of a man who many Jews consider an anti-Semite. And Israel is caught in the grip of political paralysis following two fruitless elections (with a prime minister facing prosecution for corruption).
Meanwhile, with a U.S. presidential election looming next year that is sure to be bitterly contested, there’s little reason to think we’re in for a smoother ride in 2020.
These are the Jewish stories that most captured our attention in 2019 and whose reverberations are likely to be felt well into the next ride around the sun.
The Poway synagogue shooting
In April, on the last day of Passover, a gunman opened fire at a Chabad synagogue in the San Diego suburb of Poway, killing one person and injuring three. The accused gunman told a 911 dispatcher that he did it because “Jewish people are destroying the white race.”
The Poway attack shook the American Jewish community, which was still reeling from the shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshippers at Shabbat services. As the one-year anniversary of the shooting approached in October, the community held a number of memorial events that made it clear the aftershocks were still being felt.
“I live with Oct. 27 every minute of every hour of every day, and I will for the rest of my life,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said.
Two killed in Yom Kippur attack on German synagogue
As 51 people gathered for Yom Kippur services in the German city of Halle, Stephan Balliet, clad in combat gear and wearing a head-mounted camera, tried to blast his way inside. When the synagogue’s fortified doors kept him out, he turned and shot Jana Lange, who had reprimanded him for making too much noise. Then Balliet proceeded to a nearby kebab shop, where he shot and killed a man identified only as Kevin S. Balliet later told police he was motivated by anti-Semitism.
Worshippers remained in the synagogue for hours before they were evacuated by police to a nearby hospital, where they continued their holiday services.
“It was intense and emotional,” one participant said.
The shooting sent shock waves through the tiny Jewish community of Halle, which numbers about 500 people. It also sparked outrage from leaders of German Jewry, who demanded to know why the synagogue was left unguarded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the failure “scandalous,” and said if police had been present they could have disarmed the gunman before he harmed anyone.
Israelis vote twice and still don’t have a prime minister
Israeli politics are a hot mess right now.
In April, national elections resulted in a tie between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and his principal challenger, the Blue and White party led by former general Benny Gantz. Netanyahu failed to form a government, so Israelis went back to the polls in September and again delivered no clear winner: 33 seats for Blue and White, 32 for Likud. First Netanyahu tried to form a government, then Gantz. Neither succeeded.
Israel has now entered uncharted territory: It appears headed for a third election, likely to take place in early March. The only thing Israelis probably agree on right now is how unpalatable another election will be.
Here’s an explainer on how we got here.
Netanyahu faces corruption charges
As if the Israeli political situation wasn’t complicated enough, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted in November on multiple charges of corruption, including bribery and breach of public trust.
The most serious case alleges that Netanyahu traded political favors to the largest shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable news coverage. Netanyahu also was accused of accepting gifts totaling $200,000 from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for political assistance, and of seeking positive coverage from the daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot in exchange for advancing a law that would have hurt a competitor.
Netanyahu has decried the indictment as a “witch hunt” and an attempted coup. He has 30 days to seek immunity from prosecution in the Knesset, his country’s parliament.
Hate crimes against Jews are spiking
Around the world, law enforcement and community organizations found that hate crimes continued to rise, with Jews often the most common targets.
In April, the Anti-Defamation League reported that 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 2018, the third-highest tally in the four decades the ADL has been conducting annual audits. In July, the Canadian government reported that Jews were the most targeted minority group for the third straight year, even as hate crimes against other groups fell. And in August, the British Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog reported the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents ever in the first six months of 2019.
In Brooklyn, a series of violent attacks against visibly Jewish victims caused particular alarm. Three were reported in one week in August alone. The situation led the city to create a new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and install Devorah Lauter, a former ADL official, at its helm.
Israel becomes a wedge issue
This year saw serious cracks in what has long been a cherished feature of the U.S.-Israel relationship: bipartisanship.
In February, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., came under fire for a series of controversial tweets, including one charging—falsely—that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee pays politicians to be pro-Israel. Omar drew quick rebukes from leading Democrats and subsequently apologized. The following month, President Donald Trump piled on, calling the Democrats the “anti-Jewish” party. In August, Trump upped the ante, saying that anyone who voted for a Democrat was guilty of “disloyalty,” a comment that drew condemnation from critics who said it evoked classic anti-Semitic tropes.
Meanwhile, Democratic politicians were trending leftward on Israel, with several of the leading candidates for the presidential nomination saying they were prepared to use American aid as leverage to pressure Israel. The shifting center of gravity on Israel prompted pushback from the party’s so-called moderate wing and prompted the creation of a new organization, the Democratic Majority for Israel, dedicated to cultivating support for the Jewish state in the party.
With a sure-to-be-nasty presidential election looming in 2020, both sides were preparing to spend heavily on the Israel issue. The Republican Jewish Coalition announced a $10 million ad campaign painting the Democrats as a “shanda”—Yiddish for “disgrace”—in part because of their position on Israel. Democratic groups pushed back with an ad blitz of their own.
British Jews unnerved by Corbyn candidacy
With the United Kingdom facing an enormously consequential election that could well determine the future of its membership in the European Union, British Jews were facing a momentous choice of their own. The Labour Party, long the political home of a majority of Britain’s Jews, is led by Jeremy Corbyn, who has been long been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism.
Concern over Corbyn reached a fever pitch in the months prior to the Dec. 12 vote. In early November, Britain’s oldest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, published a front-page editorial pleading with Britons not to support Corbyn, noting a recent poll suggesting that approximately half of Jews would consider emigrating if he were elected. Weeks later, in an unprecedented intervention, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote of British Jewry’s justified anxiety at the prospect of a Corbyn premiership in a Times of London op-ed, warning that “the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
Corbyn’s record of actions that unnerved British Jews is long and well-documented. He once defended a London mural showing bankers playing monopoly on the backs of dark-skinned people that was widely seen as anti-Semitic, said Zionists have “no sense of irony” and described the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.
He has passionately argued that there is no place for anti-Semitism in his party, but recently apologized for “everything that’s happened” in Labour over the past few years.
Here’s more on how the election could affect Jews.
The #MeToo movement hits the Jewish community
Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish megadonor who helped found Birthright Israel and supports a wide range of Jewish institutions, was accused of a pattern of propositioning and sexually inappropriate remarks to women.
According to an investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica, the journalism nonprofit, seven women alleged that Steinhardt made sexual requests of them while they were seeking his financial support. Steinhardt denied the accusations, but acknowledged a pattern of comments “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.”
In the wake of the accusations, the organized Jewish community’s longtime focus on encouraging endogamy and child rearing—long among Steinhardt’s favored philanthropic objectives—drew increasing scrutiny.
A measles outbreak hits the Orthodox community
A measles outbreak that began with a trickle in haredi Orthodox communities in Israel and New York last year exploded into a full-on public health crisis in 2019. Hundreds of cases were reported in New York and thousands in Israel.
New York officials took aggressive measures to contain the outbreak, declaring a public health emergency and ordering that unvaccinated people living in four heavily Orthodox Zip codes in Brooklyn be vaccinated or pay fines up to $1,000. The state also banned religious exemptions for vaccines and at least 10 Jewish schools in New York City were shuttered for admitting unvaccinated students.
At least three fatalities were attributed to the disease in Israel, one of them a 43-year-old El Al flight attendant who contracted the disease on a flight from New York. By September, New York had declared the epidemic over.
Tiffany Haddish has a bat mitzvah
Tiffany Haddish’s breakthrough year may have been 2017, when the 40-year-old actress and comedian starred in the successful comedy “Girls Trip” and released her memoir, “The Last Black Unicorn.” But 2019 was her Jewish breakout year.
Haddish, who only learned she was Jewish in her 20s when she met her Eritrean Jewish father, released a Netflix special, “Black Mitzvah,” in December on the same day she celebrated her bat mitzvah, with Sarah Silverman’s rabbi sister presiding. She also sang “Hava Nagila” on “The Tonight Show” in the same week.
“Something that I feel like a lot of African-Americans have been stripped of is their history,” Haddish said. “A lot of us don’t know [our] origin. We don’t know what our origin story is because that was taken from us. And it talks about that in the Torah. I think it’s so powerful.”