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In letter defending Iran deal, Obama pledges increase in aid to Israel

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 07:52

(JTA) — President Barack Obama promised Democratic lawmakers that the United States will increase missile defense support for Israel and continue to pressure Iran economically if his administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran goes through.

Obama said in a letter, dated Aug. 19 and addressed to New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, that if Iran rushes to build a nuclear weapon, “all of the options available to the United States — including the military option — will remain available,” the New York Times reported Friday.

The president also said in the letter, which the Times obtained, that the United States will uphold sanctions targeting Iran’s non-nuclear activities, such as its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and what Obama calls Iran’s “destabilizing role in Yemen.”

The letter emphasizes U.S. support for Israel, saying Obama has “consistently viewed Israel’s security as sacrosanct.”

Obama further pledged in the letter to increase missile defense funding for Israel, accelerate co-development of missile defense systems, and boost tunnel detection and mapping technologies, according to the New York Times.

Nadler, who received the president’s letter after raising doubts about the deal, said on Friday that he decided to support the agreement even though Obama’s answers “do not cover every challenge in the agreement.”

Atill, he wrote in a statement: “It is, in large part, because of my support for Israel that I have made the decision,” adding that he is “convinced is the best option for achieving our overriding security imperative.”

On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., became the latest to declare her backing for the Iran deal. The previous day, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., also endorsed the deal.

Their support brings to 26 the number of Senate Democrats who’ve come out in favor of the agreement aimed at dismantling Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Supporters now include 10 of the 12 members on the Democratic side of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

With the majority of Republicans opposed, Obama needs 34 Senate Democrats to sustain his veto of a resolution disapproving the deal. The disapproval measure may pass next month.

Bar Refaeli cancels Istanbul gig following anti-Israel campaign

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 07:45

(JTA) — The organizer of an Istanbul fashion show that was supposed to feature Israeli top model Bar Refaeli denied reports that she cancelled her participation due to safety concerns.

The cancellation of Refaeli’s participation at the Laleli Fashion Shopping Festival, which is due to open on Aug. 24, was announced Wednesday, and attributed to health reasons. But the Israeli news site nrg.co.il, citing acrimonious rhetoric against the invitation, reported that organizers beefed up security amid the controversy over Refaeli’s planned attendance.

“There is no safety issue that I know of,” Giyasettin Eyyupko, the president of the organization behind the festival, LASIAD, was quoted on Thursday by the news site aktifmedya.com as saying during a news conference. He said Refaeli would attend a different event at a later date. “Naturally, there are legal steps that can be taken, but we decided not to because the reason for her failure to attend is understandable, that is all I can say,” Eyyupko reportedly said.

Conservative media in Turkey, including the Islamist Yeni Akit daily, referred to Refaeli as “the Zionist model” quoting activists who called her invitation a “betrayal.” The paper blurred her picture, which adorned the organizers banner for the event. It also published an op-ed criticizing the ruling AKP party fdor allowing the event.

The news site aktifmedya.com and other Turkish media reported she would receive the equivalent of 700 billion Turkish liras, or a little over $2 billion, but other media reported the figure was closer to $2 million.

The conservative news site haber10.com reported that the local Istanbul-area municipality of Fatih came under pressure for its sponsorship of the event, and that it responded in a statement stating the organizers have cancelled the model’s attendance.

Haber10.com also published on Wednesday an article about Refaeli’s message of support on Facebook for Israeli troops fighting in Gaza last year. The article was titled “the bloodcurdling message of the unscrupulous Israeli model.”

Separately, a band of street musicians was assaulted in Istanbul last week by a man dressed in traditional Muslim garb who accosted them for playing “Jewish music” and warned them that he would “punish them as a Muslim,” the news site birgun.net reported Monday. Two other men unleashed two dogs on the musicians, according to the report.

Georgian PM to attend anniversary of country’s oldest synagogue, 120

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 07:39

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) — The prime minister of the Caucasus nation of Georgia is scheduled to attend the anniversary of the country’s oldest functioning synagogue, leaders of Georgia’s Jewish community said.

The ceremony in Oni, a municipality located on a mountain ridge 120 miles northwest of the capital Tbilisi, is set to take place on Sept. 2 at the historic building, which was built 120 years ago, according to Micho Benzion, an Oni-born shochet, or Jewish ritual slaughterer, who now lives in Tbilisi. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili will be the guest of honor.

“It’s a bittersweet occasion,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s symbolic of how the government supports us here, in a country with virtually no anti-Semitism. On the other, it’s a reminder of how our oldest synagogue, once full of life, has become a monument.”

Oni, once home to many thousands of Jews, now has 16, according to Benzion.

Georgia used to have 250,000 Jews, who belong to an ancient community that some say dates back 2,000 years and has developed its own endemic customs, including special prayer styles. Most of them moved to Israel in the 1970s and 1990s, with only a few thousand remaining in Georgia.

Meir Kozlovsky, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s chief emissary to Georgia, said the Oni community does not have “proper minyan” — a prayer quorum, which, in Orthodox Jewish communities, consists of at least 10 Jewish men. Women are therefore called on to provide an approximation of one.

Kozlovsky said that, in addition to being Georgia’s oldest, “Oni is a symbol of coexistence” because in 1917, local Jews and non-Jews physically prevented Communists following Soviet orders from demolishing the building. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

The synagogue was severely damaged in the 1991 Racha earthquake and renovated with support from the government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee four years later. Then Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze attended the re-dedication ceremony.

Poroshenko to visit Israel for first time as Ukraine president

Fri, 08/21/2015 - 07:32

KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) — In a move that may anger Russia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly scheduled to visit Ukraine soon and host its president in Jerusalem.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Hennadii Nadolenko, announced the plans for the visits in an op-ed published this week ahead of Ukraine’s 24th independence day, on Aug. 24.

“We expect in the near future a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kiev, and by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Jerusalem, in a new milestone in bilateral relations that will further deepen cooperation between the two countries in all spheres of mutual interest,” Nadolenko wrote in his op-ed, which was reproduced on Wednesday by the news site evreiskiy.kiev.ua.

Resisting American and Russian pressure, Israel under Netanyahu has remained tight-lipped and neutral on the bloody conflict that, after Ukraine’s 2013 revolution, erupted between that country and Russia. That year, Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, was swept from power by revolutionaries who accused him of being a corrupt Kremlin stooge.

Russia then invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea, citing concern for minorities under the country’s new leadership, which Russia has accused of being a terrorist-harboring, pro-fascist regime.

Poroshenko, who was elected last year and has not yet visited Israel as president, has accused Russia of land theft and state-sponsored terrorism over its arming and support for separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where they are engaged in a bloody war with Ukrainian government troops.

He came to Israel last year on a clandestine visit, in which he reportedly urged officials to support Ukraine in the conflict.

Israel has protested the planned sale of advanced Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. In April, Israeli defense officials told the news site nrg.co.il that Israel may respond by selling arms to Ukraine and Georgia.

Hebrew Language Academy among NYC’s top charter schools

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 16:51

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn was ranked 27th among the 150 charter schools in New York City by the city’s Charter School Center.

The academy, which grabbed headlines in 2013 when the city Department of Education gave it an “F” grade, earned high marks in the most recent round of state tests.

Students at the academy, one of two Hebrew charter schools in New York City, outperformed state, city and district peers in the English language arts and math exams, the Hebrew Charter School Center announced in a news release issued Wednesday.

According to the center, which helps launch and support Hebrew charter schools across the country, 42 percent of the academy’s students met standards in the language arts exam compared to 31 percent statewide. In math, 64 percent of the academy’s students met proficiency standards compared with 38 percent statewide.

The Hebrew Language Academy is among the most diverse schools in New York, according to the Hebrew Charter School Center: 46 percent of its students are children of color, 15 percent have special needs and 8 percent are English language learners. The K-6 school will expand over the next two years to go through eighth grade.

When the academy was given an F in the final year in which the Department of Education implemented its school-grading system, advocates for the school argued that the grade was misleading, in part because it was based on the performance of only a small percentage of its students.

Opened in 2009, the Brooklyn school was the first established by the Hebrew Charter School Center, a network funded by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and others that now has seven schools, with another to open this fall in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The Hebrew Language Academy is the largest in the network.

Hebrew charters are public schools — tuition-free and open to all — but teach Hebrew language and also offer instruction about Israeli history and culture. The schools in the center’s network are designed to “teach children of all backgrounds to become fluent and literate in Modern Hebrew and prepare them to be productive global citizens,” according to the Hebrew Charter School Center.

Another Hebrew charter school network, Ben Gamla, launched in 2007 and operates several schools in South Florida.

Egypt reportedly seizes 4 senior Hamas naval commandos heading to Iran

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 16:40

(JTA) — Egyptian intelligence operatives reportedly abducted four Palestinians who are believed to be senior Hamas naval commandos on their way to Iran for training.

The four Gazans were on a bus traveling from the Gaza border with Egypt to the Cairo airport when they were taken Wednesday, the Times of Israel reported. The Palestinians had crossed into Egypt during a short period in which the Rafah border crossing was open.

A Gaza Interior Ministry spokesman said in a statement Thursday that the Palestinians were kidnapped at gunpoint in the northern Sinai and that Gaza officials had asked Egypt’s Interior Ministry “to establish the circumstances of what happened and demand that the Egyptians work to protect the victims and release them.”

Hamas naval commandos are believed to have received sophisticated equipment from Iran, including underwater scooters that can travel long distances, and are believed to have undergone intensive training there.

Egyptian intelligence, according to the Times of Israel, has found that Hamas is working with the Islamic State jihadist group to smuggle weapons in and out of Gaza and that it has been filming along the Gaza-Egypt border.

The Sinai, which Israel took in the 1967 Six-Day War, was returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Once a popular vacation destination for Israelis, the area has become a hub for Islamist activity in recent years.

Obama to speak about Iran deal in Jewish-sponsored webcast

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 15:40

(JTA) — President Barack Obama will speak directly to the North American Jewish community about the Iran nuclear deal via a live webcast.

The webcast, scheduled for Aug. 28, is being co-sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The organizations sponsored a similar webcast earlier this month on the deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The deal negotiated between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, would lift economic sanctions in exchange for the Islamic Republic curbing its nuclear program.

Netanyahu has been one of the deal’s most vocal opponents, and the American Jewish community has been divided on the agreement. Many centrist Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, have come out against the deal, but on Monday, 340 American rabbis signed a letter to Congress urging it to vote in favor of the deal. Polls gauging American Jewish public opinion have produced mixed results.

While most Republicans are against the deal, Democrats have mostly supported it.

Congress has until late September to decide whether to reject the agreement. Obama has pledged to veto a rejection.

To register for the webcast, go to http://jewishfederations.org/conferenceofpresidents.

2 men say they found loot-filled Nazi train in Poland

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 15:03

(JTA) — Two men claim to have found a Nazi train full of stolen treasures, but won’t reveal its location until they are guaranteed a 10 percent finder’s fee.

Marika Tokarska, an official at Poland’s southwestern district of Walbrzych, said that the men, one German and one Polish, approached the district council last week with news of a find worth “well over a million dollars” and that the council is taking the claims “seriously,” the Christian Science Monitor reported.

The train, reportedly found in Poland, is believed to be one that reportedly disappeared in 1945 loaded with gold, gems, art and guns bound for Berlin, one of several trains the Nazis used in an attempt to save their war plunder from the approaching Allies. According to local lore, the train vanished after entering a network of tunnels under the Owl Mountains.

READ: Jan. 8, 1946: Train with $12 million in property stolen from Hungarian Jews reported in U.S. hands

Documents that the men provided the council through their lawyers did not specify where the train was found, according to The Associated Press. Officials said they are willing to pay the 10 percent reward if the discovery is legitimate.

A lawyer for the men, Jaroslaw Chmielewski, compared the find to the “wreck of the Titanic” in an interview on a local radio station, the AP reported.

Joanna Lamparska, an author who has written about the train and the region’s history, told the AP that she believes it could be a scam.

“We have had a lot of stories like that in the last few years with people claiming they know where the train is,” Lamparska said. “But nothing was ever found.”

The missing train has been a local legend for decades after a Polish miner said German miners told him they had seen it being pushed into one of the tunnels.

The district governor has organized firefighters, police, military and others to determine how they can safely handle the train if it is found, since it may be armed with explosives.

“It could either be nonsense or they got the information directly from the Germans,” local rescuer Krzysztof Szpalkowski told the private broadcaster TVN24, according to the AP. “Maybe one of these men is a descendant of people who took part in this action.”

As officials work to verify the train’s existence, Mary Kate Cleary of the London-based Art Recovery Group told CTV News Channel that her group is preparing for the possible chance to reconnect the stolen property with its rightful owners.

“The Nazis were notorious plunderers of art, cultural property and other valuables,” Cleary said.

Murderer of Czech Jewish historian sentenced to 28 years in jail

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 14:55

(JTA) — The man who fatally stabbed Czech Jewish heritage researcher Jiri Fiedler and his wife was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Dalibor Skopan, 29, attacked the couple with a knife in their Prague apartment in March 2014. Skopan confessed and said he needed money to avoid living homeless in the street. He also expressed regret over his crime.

But the judge who sentenced Skopan this week in Prague Municipal Court said Skopan had committed a particularly severe act of violence, and even put the lives of other building residents at risk when he sealed the windows in the apartment and opened gas burners, apparently hoping that an explosion would destroy incriminating evidence.

Skopan stole jewelry and several books that he later sold for the equivalent of about $200.

The judge said that Skopan contacted Fiedler over his alleged interest in architectural history but in reality had been planning to ask the couple for money. Skopan browsed through books and photographs of Jewish monuments before stabbing the Fiedlers.

The Fiedlers’ son found his parents two weeks after the murder.

Fiedler, who was not Jewish, began documenting neglected synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish monuments in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. He published his major work, an encyclopedia of Jewish monuments in Czechoslovakia, after the fall of communism in the country.

Retaliating for rockets, Israel fires into Syria

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 14:27

(JTA) — Israel fired on Syrian territory in retaliation for rockets fired from there into northern Israel earlier in the day.

Arab media has reported a number of casualties, including fatalities, from the Israeli bombardment Thursday, which came in response to four rockets that exploded that afternoon in an open field in the northern Galilee, the Times of Israel reported.

The rockets were the first to hit Israel from Syrian territory since 1973, the Israel Defense Forces said, according to The Associated Press. They caused no injuries.

The IDF said it believes the rockets were fired by the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad from territory under the control of the Assad regime and that it holds the government responsible for all attacks originating from there.

Syria has been engulfed in a civil war for four years.

U.N. nuclear watchdog rejects AP report that Iran will do own inspections

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 11:51

A view of Iran’s controversial heavy water production facility in Arak, south of the Iranian capital of Tehran. in 2004. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The International Atomic Energy Agency, which will control inspections of Iran’s nuclear program under the recently finalized agreement, said a report that Iran will conduct its own inspections is inaccurate.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday on an agreement signed between the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, and Iran that would let experts and equipment chosen by Iran inspect the Parchin military complex on behalf of the IAEA. Iran has been suspected of nuclear weapons research at Parchin. The Iranian inspectors would then report their findings to the IAEA.

But the head of the IAEA said the report “misrepresents” the arrangement, according to Reuters, which did not provide further detail on his denial.

“I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said, according to Reuters. “Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.”

Earlier Thursday, the IAEA said it was satisfied with arrangements it had made with Iran concerning inspection of military facilities, Reuters reported.

“The separate arrangements of the roadmap are consistent with IAEA verification practice and they meet the IAEA requirements,” IAEA spokesman Serge Gas said in a statement.

On Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the Obama administration supported the arrangement.

The administration is “confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program,” Price said, according to AP. “The IAEA has separately developed the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated.”

The report’s revelation met harsh criticism from Israeli and American opponents of the deal. On Wednesday, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, the government’s point man on Iran, released a bitingly sarcastic response to the report.

“One must welcome this global innovation and outside-the-box thinking,” he said. “One can only wonder if the Iranian inspectors will also have to wait 24 days before being able to visit the site and look for incriminating evidence?”

Steinitz was referring to a provision in the original agreement that allows for a 24-day waiting period before international inspections of undeclared sites with suspected nuclear activity. That deal eases sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

“This side agreement shows that true verification is a sham, and it begs the question of what else the administration is keeping from Congress,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Times of Israel.

John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican senator, said, “Trusting Iran to inspect its own nuclear site and report to the U.N. in an open and transparent way is remarkably naive and incredibly reckless. This revelation only reinforces the deep-seated concerns the American people have about the agreement.”

Under the agreement, the IAEA allows Iran “to employ its own experts and equipment in the search for evidence or activities that it has consistently denied — trying to develop nuclear weapons,” the AP article said.

While the document obtained by the AP is a draft, and not the final version of the agreement, one official familiar with its contents told the news service it “doesn’t differ substantially from the final version.”

Israel rejects reports of U.S. withdrawing Sinai force

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 11:34

TEL AVIV (JTA) — A senior Israeli defense official disavowed reports that the United States is considering withdrawing its peacekeeping force in the Sinai Peninsula.

“These reports aren’t true,” said Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, told Army Radio, according to reports. “They reflect only the surmising of some people.”

The 700-member Multinational Force and Observers was placed in the Sinai to monitor compliance with the Camp David Accords. The accords brought about Israeli-Egyptian peace in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the territory.

The force has little offensive capability and has faced rising danger from Islamic militants, according to The Associated Press. Militant activity in the area has increased since Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in 2013 and replaced by Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, who has launched a campaign to defeat the Sinai militants.

But Gilad said that there was every reason to believe the force was staying put.

“Israeli-Egyptian peace relations are a strategic pillar of the region,” he said. “The force is acceptable to the Americans, Egyptians, Israelis. Its budget was recently increased. The administrative and command echelons are doing everything to preserve it. None of its members have been hurt or killed.”

Netanyahu signals continued support for Jewish world initiative

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 11:00

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has written to the Jewish Agency for Israel indicating his support for a renewed joint initiative between Israel and the Jewish world, JTA has learned, two weeks after the agency withdrew from a similar initiative in protest.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Natan Sharansky and Chuck Ratner, the chairman and board chairman, respectively, of the Jewish Agency, wrote that the agency would stop cooperating on a large-scale initiative to connect Diaspora Jewry with Israel. They complained that the project, launched two years ago and called the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry, had shut out Diaspora Jewish organizations from the planning process.

The letter implied that Israel’s Diaspora Ministry had instead taken undue control of the initiative, making it “simply into a funding framework” for the ministry.

But Sharansky and Ratner also wrote that they are still committed to the initiative’s original goals and would like to pursue them with the prime minister in a different framework.

“We hope that you will agree to meet at your earliest convenience with our senior leadership to explore together both how to maximize the opportunities created by your initial vision, and the ways to implement this vision jointly and in full cooperation,” they wrote.

In a letter sent Monday and obtained by JTA, Netanyahu wrote to Sharansky and Ratner that he would like to “expand our cooperation even further.” The letter was meant as an official signal to the Jewish Agency that Netanyahu would also like to pursue the initiative’s goals through a recalibrated partnership, managed by the Prime Minister’s Office and international Jewish organizations, rather than just the Diaspora Ministry.

“We remain committed to the values and ideas of the Government of Israel Initiative, which the government and the Jewish Agency developed and launched together,” Netanyahu’s letter said. “I would be glad to meet with you to discuss your concerns, as per your request.”

A source with knowledge of the matter suggested that the letter’s wording remained vague so as not to offend Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners. The coalition is in the midst of a sensitive period now as it hopes to pass Israel’s state budget in the coming months.

“The language is intentionally vague, so as not to say anything direct that would undermine his relationship with his coalition partner,” the source, who remained nameless as he was not authorized to speak on the matter, told JTA. “It is clear to all that the prime minister realizes the direction the initiative is currently taking is one that has strayed very far from the original vision, and he wants to get it back on track.”

The initiative’s goal was to create programming, jointly funded by the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations, to draw Diaspora Jews closer to Israel. Alongside the Jewish Agency, the initiative’s major partners included the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and the World Zionist Organization.

Since gaining control of the initiative, the Diaspora Ministry has allocated some of the initiative’s funding to programs not approved by the other partners. One of the programs funded by the Diaspora Ministry, without the Diaspora organizations’ input, is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which organizes group trips to Israel and other programs for Jewish mothers.

Planning for the initiative began in 2013, and last year, the Israeli government voted to allocate more than $50 million to the project by 2017, to be increased to more than $100 million by 2022. The goal was to have major Jewish organizations and individual donors double that amount, for a total of $300 million. But  the major Jewish organizations have yet to provide their matching funds and planning for the initiative has been slow.

Four rockets fired at northern Israel

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 10:42

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Four rockets were fired at northern Israel from Syria.

No injuries were reported in the attack late Thursday afternoon. Two of the rockets caused a wildfire upon landing near the country’s northern border, adjacent to the Golan Heights, the Times of Israel reported. No group has taken responsibility.

Sirens sounded ahead of the rockets; residents have been advised to stay near shelter.

Abbas shutters Palestinian office of Israeli-Palestinian peace group

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 07:35

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ordered the closure of the Palestinian office of the Geneva Initiative, a group that pushes for an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

The move came a month and a half after Abbas fired Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, the Geneva Initiative’s Palestinian arm, from his post as Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general. It was part of a string of moves that Abbas has made recently to consolidate his power, according to Haaretz.

Founded in 2003 following the completion of the Geneva Accords, an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian agreement negotiated by politicians from both sides, the Geneva Initiative aims to advocate a peace treaty to Israeli and Palestinian politicians and the public.

Abbas has attended the Geneva Initiative’s events. The Israeli branch of the initiative said in a statement that it would continue to pursue its goal with its Palestinian partners.

“It’s unfortunate that a personal power struggle led to the decision to close the Palestinian headquarters of the Geneva Initiative,” the statement said. “The Israeli headquarters will continue to work with its Palestinian partners, without connection to the organizational structure, to advance the idea of two states, which enjoys majority support in both nations.”

26 former American Jewish leaders back Iran deal

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 06:44

(JTA) — Twenty-six former senior leaders of major American Jewish groups have signed a letter supporting the agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.

The letter, which appeared Thursday as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, says that the negotiators “devoted decades to building and enhancing Israel’s security and strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance,” and that the agreement “cuts off Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon.”

The signatories include three former chairs of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, former leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, and former heads of the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council.

The list also includes nine former heads of local Jewish federations, some of which have released statements opposing the deal. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, also signed, as did two former Democratic congressmen, Mel Levine of California and Robert Wexler of Florida.

The advertisement was sponsored by a group called the “No Nukes for Iran Project,” which is headed by Wexler, currently the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. S. Daniel Abraham, the Slim-Fast diet foods magnate, also signed the statement.

The letter raises concerns over the anti-Semitic statements of Iranian leaders and the regime’s sponsorship of terrorist groups, and says the agreement will prevent the regime from becoming more of a threat.

“We remain deeply concerned that Iran is unflinchingly anti-Semitic and an unapologetic state-sponsor of terrorism,” the letter says. “However, a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more dangerous. While not perfect, this deal is the best available option to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

5 groups win Ruderman Foundation inclusion prize

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 06:11

(JTA) — The Ruderman Family Foundation recognized five Jewish organizations that integrate people with disabilities into their services and programs.

The Ruderman Prize in Inclusion, which awards $50,000 to each recipient, aims for communities around the world to replicate the integration models created by the prize winners.

This year’s recipients are:

  • The Yavne Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, a Jewish school with broad services for students with disabilities.
  • The YouthAbility program at Cleveland’s Jewish Family Service Association, a volunteer program for youth with disabilities.
  • The Kisharon Adult Employment Program in London, which finds and supports jobs for people with learning disabilities.
  • The Luria Academy of Brooklyn’s Room on the Bench program, which integrates students with disabilities into the New York City Jewish day school.
  • Beit Hillel in Raanana, Israel, a religious Zionist group that has worked to enhance the status of Jewish community members with disabilities.

“As our worldwide Jewish community begins to accept and practice the value that all Jewish people have a right to belong and participate in Jewish life, this year’s Ruderman Prize in Inclusion awardees set the standard for the rest of our community organizations to aspire to attain,” Jay Ruderman, the Ruderman Family Foundation’s president, said in a news release Monday.

The prize was first given in 2012.

JTA is a media partner of the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion.

White House ‘confident’ in agreement having Iran perform its own inspections

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 05:15

(JTA) — A White House spokesman said the administration was “confident” in an agreement that would have Iran’s own inspectors examine a suspected weapons site.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday on an agreement signed between the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, and Iran that would let experts and equipment chosen by Iran inspect the Parchin military complex on behalf of the IAEA. Iran has been suspected of nuclear weapons research at Parchin. The Iranian inspectors would then report their findings to the IAEA.

On Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the Obama administration supported the arrangement.

The administration is “confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program,” Price said, according to AP. “The IAEA has separately developed the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated.”

The report’s revelation has met harsh criticism from Israeli and American opponents of the agreement reached last month over Iran’s nuclear program between six world powers, including the United States, and Iran. On Wednesday, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, the government’s point man on Iran, released a bitingly sarcastic response to the report.

“One must welcome this global innovation and outside-the-box thinking,” he said. “One can only wonder if the Iranian inspectors will also have to wait 24 days before being able to visit the site and look for incriminating evidence?”

Steinitz was referring to a provision in the original agreement that allows for a 24-day waiting period before international inspections of undeclared sites with suspected nuclear activity. That deal eases sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.

Spanish public broadcaster accuses Jews of promoting Satanism

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 04:50

(JTA) — A Spanish public broadcaster accused Jews of promoting Satanism.

State-owned RTVE aired “From the Inferno-The Jewish People: Propagator of the Satan Cult” last month as part of its weekend “A la Carta” program.

Following an opening featuring ominous music, a gravel-voiced announcer quotes from Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jew from Poland who had been excommunicated by his community for his heretical kabbalistic interpretations.

“The Jews first propagated the cult of Lucifer in several secret satanical societies,” the announcer continues. “Through black magic, the Israelites called on the powers of darkness with demonic rational.”

The synopsis on RTVE’s website for the 30-minute program states: “The Jewish founders of the occult and masonry society introduced the cult of Lucifer” to some organizations.

The broadcast about Jewish Satanism – an ancient trope and element of Christian anti-Semitic blood libels – is part of a series on Satanism in general. On Thursday, “A La Carta” aired another broadcast about Satanism by Vatican societies.

Yigal Palmor, a senior spokesman for the Jewish Agency and former spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, criticized RTVE on Twitter.

“How can a public entity give a podium to this sort of crude, lowly and disgusting racism? A return of the Inquisition,” Palmor wrote Wednesday.

In the same Twitter dialogue, Palmor joined other critics who accused organizers of the Rototom Sunshine Festival near Valencia of anti-Semitism for disinviting the Jewish-American singer Matisyahu over his refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood. Matisyahu, who is not Israeli, was the only performer asked to make such a statement.

After an international uproar, the Spanish government — which recently passed legislation to give citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews, aiming to atone for their ancestors’ expulsion in the 15th century – condemned the organizers.

On Wednesday, the organizers apologized for their actions and reinvited Matisyahu to perform on Saturday.

J Street U elects Muslim student as president

Wed, 08/19/2015 - 16:25

Amna Farooqi speaking at J Street’s 2015 National Conference. (Screenshot: YouTube)

(JTA) — The campus arm of left-wing pro-Israel group J Street elected a Muslim-American student to serve as president of its national student board.

At its “Summer Leadership Institute” in Washington this week, J Street U elected Amna Farooqi, a senior at the University of Maryland who is of Pakistani descent, Haaretz reported.

Approximately 120 J Street U student leaders attended the four-day gathering, according to Haaretz. J Street U says it has 4,000 active participants on 75 college campuses in the United States.

A native of suburban Washington, D.C., Farooqi grew up in a “fairly religious Muslim home” with “a lot of Jewish friends,” Haaretz reported.

But “growing up in a household sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the Palestine-Israel conflict was always the elephant in the room,” she said in a video filmed at the J Street conference last March. “This conflict evoked a level of anger and emotion in me, and I needed to learn more. Everything I was learning about the conflict made me not want to be pro-Israel. … As someone who wanted to contribute to ending this conflict I knew I needed to understand all sides.”

While taking a course about Israel in college, Farooqi said she “fell in love with Zionism, because Zionism became about taking ownership over the story of one’s people. If Zionism is about owning your future, how can I not respect that?”

She spent a semester at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School in order to “meet people on the ground and understand the Israeli narrative from their perspective, and to put faces to things and see some of these issues up close,” she said, according to Haaretz.

Her extended family has been “confused but supportive” about Farooqi’s Israel activism, she said.

This summer she lived in Jerusalem as a J Street U intern, co-leading day trips, including a visit to Hebron, for American university students, Haaretz reported.