Weekly roundup of world briefs
February 26, 2021
Flagship New Jersey yeshiva cancels Purim celebrations
By Andrew Silow-Carroll
(JTA) — Haredi Orthodox Jews in Lakewood, New Jersey, are curtailing Purim festivities because of COVID-19.
For the first time in 80 years, Beth Medrash Govoha, the yeshiva at the center of the township’s 70,000-strong Orthodox community, won’t host festivities surrounding the holiday, the Asbury Park Press reports.
The community saw a surge in COVID-19 cases after last year’s celebrations, which came in the early days of the pandemic, before widespread school closures, crowd restrictions and stay-at-home orders were put in place.
Ocean County health authorities have reported 11,369 COVID-19 cases in Lakewood since the start of the pandemic among the 747,000 statewide. At least 268 township residents have died.
“The biggest statement possible is that we’re not scheduling any celebrations” at the yeshiva, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the yeshiva’s CEO and president, said. “The physicians and the rabbis and community activists continue to caution folks to be extremely careful on whatever activities are taking place or being done in a far more careful fashion.”
Last week, Agudath Israel of America, the haredi Orthodox umbrella group, issued Purim guidelines advising against large gatherings — including group meals and parties — “even with appropriate precautions.” The public readings of the Book of Esther, the centerpiece of the holiday, should be held “without dangerous overcrowding,” the guidelines say.
“It is critical to remind ourselves that the eyes of the world are upon us, and will likely be watching us closely this Purim,” according to the statement. “Acting appropriately in public is always important; how much more so this Purim.”
Purim begins at sunset on Feb. 25.
Israel makes top 10 (again) in ranking of world’s most innovative countries
(JNS) — Israel was ranked seventh among the world’s 60 most innovative economies, according to the Bloomberg Innovation Index published last week.
The Jewish state went down one spot from its standing in 2020 and two places from 2019, where it came in fifth place.
South Korea was ranked as the world’s most innovative country and took the title from Germany, which fell to fourth place this year. The East Asian nation has taken the top spot on the index for seven of the nine years that it’s been published.
Following South Korea were Singapore and Switzerland, which each moved up one spot, and were ranked second and third, respectively. Sweden was ranked fifth, followed by Denmark and then Israel.
Finland, the Netherlands and Austria followed the Jewish nation, as the United States dropped out of the top 10 this year, falling two spots to 11th place.
The Bloomberg Innovation Index ranks the 60 most innovative economies in the world and “analyzes dozens of criteria using seven equally weighted metrics, including research and development spending, manufacturing capability and concentration of high-tech public companies.”
Israeli studies show Pfizer’s COVID vaccine highly effective
By Ben Sales
(JTA) — Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective in preventing the disease, show studies from Israel’s two largest health care networks.
Israel’s vaccination drive has so far gotten shots in the arms of 3.8 million adults, according to government data — more than half of the country’s adult population. Of those, some 2.5 million Israelis have both doses of the vaccine.
Now, studies of vaccinated Israelis from the country’s two largest health care providers show that the Pfizer vaccine is effective in countering the coronavirus. Israel guarantees health care to all its citizens, and operates its health care system through four providers.
On Thursday, Maccabi, Israel’s second-largest provider, released the results of a study showing that the vaccine was 93 percent effective one week after the second shot, similar to results announced by Pfizer last year. Out of 523,000 clients who were fully vaccinated, only 544 got COVID-19. Of those, only 15 required hospitalization.
On Sunday, Clalit, Israel’s largest health care provider, said that the vaccine led to a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID cases. The vaccine was equally effective for all age groups, Clalit said.
Israel has so far outpaced the rest of the world in vaccinating its population, though the rate of vaccinations is slowing and case counts are dropping slowly amid a nationwide lockdown. After shutting down its main airport last month in order to limit the virus’ spread, Israel plans to reopen it this week to 2,000 travelers per day.
Zach Banner, Alysha Clark, Josh Bell to headline ‘Athletes against Antisemitism’ event
By Ben Sales
(JTA) — Zach Banner, Alysha Clark and Josh Bell will be among the professional athletes to headline an event discussing activism against anti-Semitism and how athletes can contribute to the effort.
Banner, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, spoke out against anti-Semitism following anti-Semitic social media posts by DeSean Jackson, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. Banner connected his concern to the 2018 shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Clark, a small forward for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, is of Jewish descent and has played for three Israeli basketball teams during her career. She has Israeli citizenship.
Bell, a first baseman, played until recently for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Iran to join Eurasian Economic Union
By Neta Bar
(Israel Hayom via JNS) — Iranian Parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said on Friday that his country plans to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). According to Ghalibaf, Tehran would take its first steps to join the organization of nations from Eastern Europe and Western and Central Asia in two weeks.
Ghalibaf made the remarks following a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a three-day trip to Moscow. During his trip, the parliament speaker also held talks with members of Russia’s State Duma and discussed economic matters with senior government officials.
Formed in 2014, the EAEU enables joint policies on issues such as macroeconomics, transportation, industry, customs and antitrust regulations and allows for the free movement of goods. Its members include Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
Western states have expressed concern Iran could take advantage of the coastal trade with Russia and other countries afforded by the EAEU to bypass U.S. sanctions and advance its nuclear program. Russia has helped Tehran expand and upgrade its nuclear program in the past.
Iran, which is in the midst of a deep economic crisis due to the sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the country particularly hard, suffers from severe inflation. The country signed an economic cooperation agreement with Beijing last year.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
US threatens ban on El Al over rescue-flight exclusivity
By Shimon Yaish
(Israel Hayom via JNS) — The U.S. Department of Transportation has informed Jerusalem that its decision to ban American airlines from operating flights to Tel Aviv is a flagrant violation of bilateral aviation accords, U.S. media outlets reported on Saturday.
If Israel continues to ban U.S. airlines from operating flights to Tel Aviv this weekend, including those aimed at rescuing Israeli citizens stranded overseas, the department said that it would prevent El Al airplanes from landing in the United States.
Outside of rescue flights, Ben-Gurion International Airport has been ordered shut until Jan. 21 at the earliest, to prevent mutations of the coronavirus from entering Israel.
Israel’s flag carrier is currently the only airline to operate rescue flights on the New York-Tel Aviv route.
The U.S. announcement has significance for Israel’s decision to shutter its main airport, as United and Delta are two of the world’s largest airlines to operate in Israel.
Israel’s Transportation Ministry was set to convene on Sunday to examine how to address U.S. disapproval with the move. Should Israel allow U.S. airlines to fly to Tel Aviv, other countries will likely join the protest.
In routine times, the two U.S. airlines operate dozens of flights between Israel and the United States every month. While a majority of carriers ceased to operate their Israel flights, United Airlines was one of the few carriers that continued to fly to Tel Aviv during the pandemic. Although it does not currently fly to Tel Aviv, American Airlines announced that it would begin to operate a Tel Aviv-Miami route this summer.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
Israel, Cyprus announce ‘green passport’ travel agreement
(JNS) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades announced at a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday that the two countries had reached a “green passport” tourism agreement.
Under the agreement, which is set to go into effect on April 1, travelers who have received a full dose of one of the European-approved COVID-19 vaccines will not have to take two PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests before traveling from one of the countries to the other and will not need to enter quarantine upon arrival.
The agreement between the two countries “opens up the possibility of restarting tourism in the near future,” said Netanyahu, adding that while it wouldn’t happen immediately, it wasn’t far off. “Cypriot tourists in Israel. Israeli tourists in Cyprus,” he added.
The Israeli prime minister praised the cooperation between the two countries in multiple fields, noting, in particular, their joint work on the EastMed gas pipeline project.
Anastasiades spoke about the “strategic depth” of the relationship between Cyprus and Israel, and expressed his desire to reaffirm the “excellent cooperation and synergies that have been established both bilaterally and multilaterally.”
The Cypriot president singled out Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination program, which he said had established Israel as a “world champion in this respect,” and also expressed particular interest in the development of a promising new Israeli COVID-19 treatment. The drug, EXO-CD24, also caught the attention of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his visit to Israel on Feb. 8 to discuss travel and energy cooperation between the two countries.
Earlier that same day, the team of researchers from Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital) developing the treatment had met with Netanyahu to update him on their progress.
As did Mitsotakis, Anastasiades said he wanted Cyprus to take part in future clinical trials of the drug, and relayed that Cypriot authorities had already given the green light for such participation.
Noting that Anastasiades’s visit came on “the heels of the visit of the prime minister of Greece,” said Netanyahu. “It’s a fact that we have built not only a bilateral alliance but a trilateral alliance, which I think is good for the region, good for our countries, [and] I think it’s good for the world.”
UAE swears in its first ambassador to Israel
(JNS) — The United Arab Emirates on Sunday swore in the country’s first-ever ambassador to Israel.
Ambassador Mohammad Mahmoud Al Khajah was installed in an official ceremony in Abu Dhabi, in the presence of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, said the Dubai Media Office, which tweeted out the event.
Al Maktoum wished Al Khajah much success and urged him to work to achieve friendly and cooperative relations with Israel. Al Khajah pledged to carry out his job with integrity and sincerity, reported Gulf News.
A number of ministers, senior sheikhs and other officials attended the event.
On Sept. 15, 2020, Israel and the UAE signed the Abraham Accords, an historic normalization agreement brokered by the Trump administration. Bahrain signed the accords at the same time. Before former President Trump left office, normalization agreements were also signed between Israel and Sudan and Morocco.
Avi Berkowitz, Special Representative for International Negotiations under Trump and a key figure on the U.S. team that brokered the accords, took to Twitter to share his elation at watching the UAE’s ambassador to Tel Aviv being sworn in.
It’s hard to express the joy this brings to me and the team, led by President Trump and Jared Kushner, that worked on the Abraham Accords — thank you to the UAE for leading the way.
The UAE Cabinet approved the assignment of an ambassador to Israel on Jan. 24. The same day, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced the opening of an official diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, with Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na’eh, appointed to head the temporary mission until a permanent ambassador is appointed.
Court revives challenge to Arkansas law that restricts state business with Israel boycotters
By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) – A federal appeals court struck a blow to the legality of an Arkansas law that aims to penalize the boycott Israel movement.
In 2017, the state passed the law, which financially penalizes companies that do not renounce the boycott Israel movement. A federal Arkansas judge dismissed a challenge to it in 2019.
But a federal appeals court revived the challenge on Friday and ordered the district court in Little Rock to reconsider the case.
“The Act seeks to restrict government contractors’ ability to participate in speech and other protected, boycott-associated activities recognized as entitled to protection under Supreme Court precedent, thereby implicating First Amendment rights,” said the ruling issued by the St. Louis-based Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which covers Arkansas.
The case’s plaintiff is the Arkansas Times, an alternative monthly. The Times holds no position on Israel boycotts but filed the suit because it objected to having to sign an agreement not to boycott Israel as part of an advertising deal with the University of Arkansas.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented the Arkansas Times in the case.
More than half of the states in the United States have passed similar laws banning business with Israel boycotters, but contractors who have challenged the laws in court have scored a number of successes.
Portuguese politician suggests that Israel’s vaccination success is because of Jewish financial power
By Cnaan Liphshiz
(JTA) — A Portuguese politician suggested that Jewish financial domination has facilitated Israel’s success in vaccinating for COVID-19.
His tweet prompted an unusual repudiation several days later by the country’s second-largest party.
“The Jews, as they dominate the fiscal world, bought and have the vaccines they wanted,” Rodrigo Sousa e Castro, a former local elections candidate from Lisbon, wrote. “It’s historical revenge of sorts. I won’t say anything else before the Zionist ‘bulldogs’ jump.”
Following protests over his remarks, including by the Israeli Embassy in Lisbon, Sousa e Castro deleted the tweet and said it was “offensive.”
But Sousa e Castro, a spokesperson for the military officers who in 1974 ended the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, later posted on Twitter that the original tweet actually spoke about “Zionism and its crimes in Palestine” that upset “Zio-Nazis.” He also posted a photo of himself shaking hands with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
On Wednesday, the Social Democratic Party, which was established in 1974 by key revolution figures, tabled a draft resolution in parliament that said “Portugal is seeing the propagation of anti-Semitic discourse with serious insinuations.” To be an advocate of the 1974 revolution, it added, “means to honor its values.”
Portugal, a country with 10 million residents, has about 3,000 Jews and anti-Semitic incidents there are extremely rare, as are resolutions in parliament condemning anti-Semitism.