Bintel Blog

Child Nutrition Seders Fight Hunger

By Nathan Guttman

Ten O’clock in the morning might be a little early for a Passover Seder, especially if one intends to drink all four glasses of wine. But this was a Seder with a cause, and for dozens of Capitol Hill staffers, anti-hunger activists and students, its seemed just right.

Photo by Ronald M. Sachs

The Congressional Seder on March 18 was dedicated to fighting hunger and is one of 40 similar Childhood Nutrition Seders taking place across the country before and after Passover. Organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, their purpose is to mobilize both Jews and non-Jews to be anti-hunger advocates and to fight for reauthorization in Congress of the Child Nutrition Act before it expires.

It looked almost like a real Seder: Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, read the Haggadah, which was written for the event, while sitting in front a traditional Seder plate. But nothing else was traditional. The Haggadah’s Four Questions were adapted to ask: “What does it mean to be hungry in America?” and “What will it take to end child hunger in America?” The Four Sons from the Haggadah were played by four students from the Tucson Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, who spoke of their personal experiences as recipients of school food programs. And the Ten Plagues – they too got a new version to reflect 10 faces of hunger in America.

Three members of Congress stopped by for the early morning Seder, as did several administration staffers. The event ended with the signing of a petition calling on lawmakers to approve refunding for the child nutrition programs. The petition — no big surprise here — was printed on a matzo shaped poster.


Eric Cantor to the Forward: Administration Is 'Bullying Israel'

By Nathan Guttman

The lone Jewish Republican in Congress is taking the Obama administration to task over its latest spat with the Israeli government.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor phoned White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on March 15 — asking him to convey to his bosses the message that it is time to ease pressure on Israel.

“The administration needs to reduce the level of its rhetoric,” Cantor said in an interview with the Forward, “I don’t think that the notion of us telling Israel what is best for its security is a good one.”

Cantor and several other Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration’s tough stance on Israel in light of the dispute over the Jewish state’s approval of another 1,600 homes in contested East Jerusalem. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, have also said that the Obama administration was wrong in pressuring Israel.

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Israeli Teens Say No to Arab Rights and Compliant Army Service

By Nathan Jeffay

A new survey of Israeli high school students makes for depressing reading. When the Jewish sample was asked whether Arabs should have equal rights, some 49.5% said no.

An even higher percentage, 56%, said that Arabs should not have the right to run for office. Particularly alarming is that a repressive attitude towards Arabs and religious observance seem to go hand-in-hand. Looking just at the religious respondents from the Jewish sample, 82% said that Arabs should not have equal rights.

The figures come from a poll just conducted by the Maagar Mochot research company. The poll also contained figures which, if translated from talk to action, would raise major questions about how the Israeli army will be able to function when these youngsters are drafted.

Some 48% of respondents, including a significant number of secular students, said that they would refuse to evacuate outposts, while 31% said they would refuse to serve in the territories.

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Israel’s New PR Scheme: Healthy Zionism or Sinister Stalinism?

By Nathan Jeffay

So, Yuli Edelstein has decided to turn every Israeli in to an ambassador. As part of a new campaign called “Explaining Israel” he is putting out pamphlets, running television advertisements and operating a website asking citizens to get involved in a public diplomacy drive for Israel. “We decided to give Israelis who go abroad tools and tips to help them deal with the attacks on Israel in their conversations with people, media appearances and lectures before wide audiences,” Edelstein, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister, told the Jerusalem Post close to the start of the campaign. “I hope we succeed together in changing the picture and proving to the world that there is a different Israel.”

Last week his office said that the campaign’s Web site Masbirim (“explainers”) received 150,000 hits in its first fortnight, and revealed that an English-language site is in the pipeline.

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Israel’s New P.R. Scheme: Healthy Zionism or Sinister Stalinism?

By Nathan Jeffay

Likud Knesset member Yuli Edelstein has decided to turn every Israeli in to an ambassador. As part of a new campaign called “Explaining Israel” he is putting out pamphlets, running television advertisements and operating a website asking citizens to get involved in a public diplomacy drive for Israel. “We decided to give Israelis who go abroad tools and tips to help them deal with the attacks on Israel in their conversations with people, media appearances and lectures before wide audiences,” Edelstein, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister, told the Jerusalem Post close to the start of the campaign. “I hope we succeed together in changing the picture and proving to the world that there is a different Israel,” he said.

Last week his office said that the campaign’s website Masbirim (“explainers”) received 150,000 hits in its first fortnight, and revealed that an English-language site is in the pipeline.

Some are excited by the initiative — as much for its potential effect on Israelis as on the country’s PR. Hagai Segal, a right-wing columnist on Ynet wrote that a “lethal virus of skepticism has been running wild here for years and pulverized our faith in the righteousness of our way.” He believes that “these public relations efforts are not directed at the international arena, but rather, are aimed inwards. Israel’s citizens, who are supposed to use the website’s help in order to promote the country abroad, are the real target audience of this new venture, and rightfully so.”

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Two States for Two Peoples: A Postscript

By Nathan Jeffay

Here’s an interesting postscript to the first installment of the new Forward series “Imagining Two States for Two Peoples.” In the article, published yesterday, we consider Palestinian claims about the difficulties that settlements cause for Palestinians trying to travel around the West Bank. Now, settlers are making the same claim about the new Palestinian city of Rwabi.

Rwabi, just north of Bir Zeit, has been under construction for two months, and will be home to around 25,000 Palestinians. It is a project of a Qatari-based firm called Bayti.

Residents of the nearby settlement of Ateret are furious. One, Motti Hominer, has written to lawmakers asking them to put a stop to construction. He told Haaretz:

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Israel's North Is 53% Arab

By Nathan Jeffay

While the international community is, for understandable reasons, fixated on the population balance between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, a demographic war is being fought in a lower-profile part of Israel — the north.

Zionist groups have long been encouraging residents of central Israel and new immigrants to move to the north in a bid to strengthen the Jewish presence. And there is a similar interest in laying roots by some Arabs. Influxes of Arabs in to certain northern towns, such as Carmiel are taken by many locals as evidence of this.

New figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, an agency of the Israeli government, show that if you take Haifa out of the equation, there is already an Arab majority in Northern Israel. Some 53% of residents, the bureau reported, are Arabs.

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Israeli Arabs Lose Enthusiasm for National Service

By Nathan Jeffay

Two years ago, a Knesset panel discussed the possibility that Israel’s Arabs — who are currently exempt from any national service — could perform civic service in schools, hospitals and other non-political institutions that need volunteers. The polling at the time was fascinating in revealing a gulf between leaders and their constituents. Three quarters of Israel’s young Arab citizens favored the idea, while 90% of their political leaders opposed it.

Now, the percentage of young Arab citizens who favor the idea has fallen to 54%, a new Haifa University Survey indicates. So what has happened over the last couple of years to change the figure? It would seem that the opposition of the leaders has rubbed off on the general Arab population. When the idea was mooted back in February 2008, Arab leaders made their objections very clear. “Anyone who volunteers for national service will be treated like a leper and will be vomited out of Arab society,” Jamal Zahalka, a lawmaker with the Balad party declared at a rally.

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Offbeat Israel: Blessings for Pensions

By Nathan Jeffay

In this financial climate, investments are pretty unpredictable. In fact, one could say — God knows what is a safe investment. So why not get God on your side?

That is exactly what the Harel Group, Israel’s largest investment and insurance company, has attempted to do. Earlier this month, Haredi media report, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, Israel’s most influential authority on religious law, gave his blessing to an investment track in the Harel Gilad pension fund.

This followed an endorsement of the track by the Oversight Committee for Financial Investments of the Haredi umbrella organization the Eida Haredit. What, you may ask, does this endorsement mean? That investments don’t go to non-kosher firms? Well, kind of.

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Ayalon on J Street: ‘They Should Not Call Themselves Pro-Israeli’

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister stopped just short of calling J Street “anti-Israel” at a February 16 meeting of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

“The thing that troubles me is that they don’t present themselves as to what they really are,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in an address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They should not call themselves pro-Israeli.”

Ayalon’s remark stood in contrast to a recent thaw in the relationship between J Street, a left-wing lobbying group, and the Israeli government, including statements by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who, after calling J Street a “unique problem” in a December address, is reconciling with the group.

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Do Israelis and Their Politicians Disagree on the 'Bi-National' Issue?

By Nathan Jeffay

So, it’s a year since the general election that resulted in the current Israeli government. Are Israelis happy with the outcome? How would they vote today?

If you cast your mind back a year, the now-ruling Likud didn’t actually “win” the election — a fact the whole world seems to have forgotten. The largest party was Kadima, which received 28 of the Knesset’s 120 mandates. Likud received 27, but given that, it was able to pull together a working coalition led the government. If new elections were held now, Likud could be confident of a clear win. According to a new Haaretz-Dialog poll, partly published here, Likud would now return to the Knesset with 35 mandates, while Kadima’s head-count would drop to 26.

Perhaps the most interesting result of the poll is one that isn’t featured in the article hyperlinked above. It concerns Israel’s future in the West Bank. The key word in discussions about the West Bank at the moment is “bi-national.” The belief across the center of Knesset is that Israel needs a peace deal that will take it out of the West Bank, otherwise the only option left will be a single bi-national state in which, as demography runs its course, Jews will be outnumbered (it was this consideration that drove the disengagement from Gaza). Defense Minister Ehud Barak forcefully made this point last week, as reported here. But apparently the Israeli public doesn’t share this fear. Only 28% of respondents answered yes to the following question: “May our continued presence in the territories lead to a bi-national state?” The fact that only just more than one in four Israelis even consider accepting the principle that is guiding the political discourse of the country is quite startling. Some 53% of respondents actually dismissed the possibility.

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Hamas Takes Revenge on Jewby Doo, Chez Jon Stewart

By Dan Friedman

Showing, apparently, the audacity to hate, Hamas are still producing virulently antisemitic children’s cartoons. In the face of crass hypocritical vitriol that is geopolitically and socially destructive the Daily Show had no real option but to set Dr. Bagelman (erstwhile producer of Jewby Doo) on to introduce them.

The whole sequence is unbelievable but the cartoons are the least believable and the least funny. Watch the sequence here.

Hat tip Jack Miller.


From Russia, With No Love

By Gal Beckerman

Well, there go my plans of drinking vodka in St. Petersburg this month with Natan Sharansky and the rest of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors…The quasi-governmental body in charge of Jewish immigration to Israel announced yesterday that its plans to hold one of its board meetings in the canal-lined city (Peter the Great’s window to the West) has been canceled only three-weeks before it was to take place. The problem, according to Jewish Agency officials anonymously quoted in various news sources, is that the Russians suddenly balked at the idea of an international Jewish meeting. They said the Agency only has legal status as a local NGO.

But I suspected, and Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz is the first to really confirm, that the real problem goes by the name of Leonid Nevzlin.

I profiled Nevzlin three months ago. He’s the former partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Yukos Oil who is now sitting in jail for various financial crimes. The consensus seems to be, however, that his biggest transgression is having posed a political challenge to Vladimir Putin. While Khodorkovsky became a target of Putin’s attempt to reclaim governmental power after the tumultuous ‘90s, Nevzlin got out just in time. After he escaped the country in 2003 and emigrated to Israel he was charged for ordering contract killings of Yukos’ enemies (for which he was tried and found guilty in absentia in 2008). In Israel, Nevzlin has rebranded himself, becoming a prominent Israeli philanthropist through his foundation, NADAV, and its many charitable projects to promote with Nevzlin calls “Jewish peoplehood.”

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When Lieberman Taught Palin About Rav Soloveitchik

By Gal Beckerman

Much of the juiciest material contained in “Game Change”, the new dishy chronicle of the 2008 election by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, has already made it’s way into the media. Elizabeth Edwards was prone to angry outbursts, Sarah Palin was an ignoramus, and Bill Clinton was … well, Bill Clinton, the lovable loudmouthed and inappropriate Bubba. For all the revelations though — perhaps with the exception of the surprisingly dysfunctional Edwards family — there was very little in the portraits that didn’t just confirm what most people already suspected about these characters.

As I was reading — I couldn’t help it! — I came across one more of these moments where the public persona is exactly what you would imagine behind the scenes. This scene did not get much publicity, but is worth transcribing in full. It involves Palin’s breakdown of sorts, in the days leading up to the vice presidential debate, and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew. John McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, had asked Lieberman to visit Palin and buck her up at a moment when her debate prep was going disastrously (For one thing, she kept calling her opponent, “Senator O’Biden” for some inexplicable reason):

The situation was wildly unconventional already: a Democratic senator being imported into a top-secret lockdown to assist a Republican vice-presidential candidate whose mental stability was in question, now Schmidt asked Lieberman to perform another unorthodox intervention.

“You’re both very religious,” Schmidt said. “Go in there and pray with her.”

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New Haimish Brooklyn Deli Imports Canadian Bagels

By Michael Kaminer

The news that Boerum Hill’s nouveau deli Mile End finally opened Monday warmed the hearts of Montreal expats — like me — across the tri-state area. Founded by a pair of 20-something Montreal transplants, Mile End will serve haimish old country food like smoked meat (house-cured here), karnatzel (thin Romanian sausage sticks) and Montreal-style sour pickles.

The place is named for a north downtown Montreal neighborhood where Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in the first half of the 20th century. Now home to a diverse ethnic mix, Mile End has become the city’s trendiest quartier; The New York Times travel section chronicled its ascent last weekend.

At its Brooklyn namesake, almost everything will be made in-house, says proprietress Rae Cohen; her business partner and husband, former law-school student Noah Bernamoff, oversees the kitchen. Cohen says the fare at revered Montreal joints like Schwartz’s and Abie’s inspired the couple, who both attended McGill University as undergrads before moving to New York.

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Haaretz Defends the Netanyahus

By Nathan Jeffay

Want to turn your foes in to friends? Do it the Bibi way and try a P.R. disaster.

Since before the general election last February which resulted in him becoming Prime Minister, he’s been regarded as “Teflon Netanyahu”. That is to say, political and P.R. disasters don’t seem to scathe him. Now we’re seeing that they have the strange effect of winning him the sympathy and support of his foes.

A former maid is suing his wife, Sara, for treating her unacceptably and paying her below the national minimum wage. Since the suit was filed earlier this month the media has been strongly critical of Mrs. Netanyahu, claiming that she meddles in state affairs.

But with the country’s media mauling Mrs. Netanyahu, and by implication her husband, Haaretz’s Gidon Levy usually one of the Prime Minister’s strongest critics, leapt to the couple’s defense. In this article in which he argues that the public’s treatment of Netanyahu is “tainted by more than a hint of despicable male chauvinism.” He contrasts the treatment of Mrs. Netanyahu with the treatment of the husband of opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Despite being heavily involved in his wife’s political activities, Livni’s husband is accepted and respected. “What a man married to a female public figure can do a woman married to a male public figure can,” claims Levy.

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Tradition and Economics of a Dried Fruit Tu B’Shvat

By Nathan Jeffay

This Saturday is Tu B’Shvat, the so-called New Year for the Trees and everywhere you look in Israel people are trying to sell you dried fruit for the festival. There’s one obvious question. Why?

The shelves in every supermarket are brimming with scrumptious fresh fruit. Israel is famous for its oranges and the season is at its height. There are the numerous citrus varieties with which Jaffa has made its mark — the pomelo, the pomelit etc. And there are fruits that most of the Western world describes as “summer fruits” that, due to feats of farming, are in season here. The most popular is the strawberry, currently being shipped by the crate full across the world from Ben Gurion airport. So why on earth are Israelis going crazy buying dried fruit? It’s like going to the Caribbean and binging on tinned pineapple.

Ask Israelis why they eat it and you will invariably get the same answer — “tradition.” If you unpack this a little you find something fascinating. Dried fruit on Tu B’Shvat is a primarily Ashkenazi tradition, and one which is rather simple to explain. The festival may be the start of the Israeli spring, but it is deep winter in Europe, and historically there was little fresh fruit on the market, hence the dried fruit.

So here we have a most peculiar instance of modern Israelis celebrating a festival that marks the start of the spring and the rhythm of the agricultural cycle in this part of the world by ignoring spring produce and eating preserved fruit instead — because that’s what their ancestors did when they lived thousands of miles from Israel.

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Israelis and Immigrants: A Love-Hate Relationship

By Nathan Jeffay

What do Israelis think about immigrants? A new survey, commissioned by the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, reveals something of a love-hate relationship.

The majority of the population — some 73% — thinks that immigration is vital for the state. This is presumably primarily due to what many Israelis consider the need to boost the Jewish demographic in Israel.

Nevertheless, Israelis see a clash between national and personal priorities. Some 30% of Israeli-born respondents think that immigration makes it harder to find housing and 35% think that makes it tougher to find work.

Immigrants are also thought responsible for crime, with 52% of Israeli-born respondents saying that immigrants have a negative effect on crime. The high figure on crime may well be connected to recent the arrest of immigrants for high-profile crimes and the ensuing discussion about immigration laws and crime, which was reported here.

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Aboard Plane, Tefillin Causes 'Security Situation'

By Gal Beckerman

It might be time for some religious training for the brave stewards and stewardesses that fly the lately not-so-friendly skies.

In what was dubbed by police a “security situation,” a Chautauqua Airlines flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Louisville, Kentucky was diverted to Philadelphia this morning when an observant seventeen-year-old from White Planes tried to put on tefillin. Or as Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore described the “religious device”: a set of small black boxes attached to leather straps and containing biblical passages.

According to news reports, a stewardess became alarmed when the boy stood up and started wrapping them on, alerting the Transportation Administration Authority of a “disruptive passenger” and triggering the stop in Philly. The flight attendant had simply never seen tefillin before.

Since the Jewish world is constantly in our sights, it seems incredible that anyone would mistake those little black boxes for anything suspicious.

But, in this case, we might have to agree with FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver who said, of tefillin: “It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever.”


Carrots (for Israel's Cabinet) and a Sticks (for the Rest of the Country)

By Nathan Jeffay

So they say that an army marches on its stomach. Is the success of the Israeli cabinet also based on its nourishment?

There are clear similarities between feeding an army and feeding the Israeli cabinet, most obviously the sheer quantity of food required. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s panic to pull together a coalition, he doled out ministerial posts left right and center, meaning that the country has the largest cabinet ever.

But it seems that Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser has also taken on the ethos of an army commander, namely that it is his job to keep the troops healthy, even if that means controlling their food intake. As a result, at the weekly cabinet meeting this week, for the second time in a row, ministers were denied their normal snacks. There were no bourekas (savory pastries) or rugelach or even sandwiches, but rather muesli, yogurt and vegetables. Hauser reportedly put a political spin on the decision, saying that “unlike its predecessors this government will serve a full term of four years and I want the ministers to still be capable of standing on their feet.”

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