J.J. Goldberg

Why Avigdor Liberman Dumped Bibi

By J.J. Goldberg

Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images


Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.

Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.

Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”

The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.

Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.

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More From Spy Chiefs: Palestine Conflict, Not Iran, Is Our Top Threat

By J.J. Goldberg


Yesterday I posted my translation of a Facebook post by Yuval Diskin, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency. He wrote that Israel’s security is threatened by a growing anger and frustration among the Palestinian public — and that the frustration is due in large measure to Israeli government policies. Among those policies: dismissing the Palestinians as a peace partner, ignoring their economic woes and continuing to build settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their future state.

Today Haaretz published two articles in English that elaborate on that thought. One is a new piece by Diskin, outlining what he describes as an achievable path to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, via a four-way peace arrangement between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt.

The other is an account of a briefing by Mossad director Tamir Pardo, the current director of the Mossad intelligence agency, given on Thursday to a group of Israeli businessmen. As reported by Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid, Pardo told the gathering that the “biggest threat to Israel’s security is the conflict with the Palestinians and not Iran’s nuclear program.”

According to an attendee at the briefing, Pardo listed the most dangerous threats to Israel’s security as the “Palestinian issue” and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as a destabilizing terror base in the region. Pardo reportedly declined to include the Iranian nuclear project in his catalogue of most serious threats to Israel’s security or survival.

This isn’t the first time Pardo has downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat, in seeming contradiction to the views of his boss, Prime Minister Netanyahu. In December 2011 he said in a speech to an annual gathering of Israeli ambassadors that it was a “mistake” to describe Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel.

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Ex-Shin Bet Chief: Israeli Illusions Fueled Blowup

By J.J. Goldberg


Yuval Diskin, who served as director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service from 2005 to 2011, posted some rather blunt observations on his Facebook page this morning regarding the tit-for-tat murders of teenagers, the Palestinian rioting in East Jerusalem and the Triangle (the Arab population center south of Haifa) and what he fears is coming down the pike.

It strikes me that he’s probably saying a lot of what IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz was thinking at this week’s security cabinet meeting, when Gantz’s far more restrained comments led to a tongue-lashing from Naftali Bennett. In other words, this is how the current meltdown looks to much of the top Israeli military and intelligence brass. It’s what they’ve been saying privately while in uniform and publicly after retiring (and occasionally even while still in uniform). I’ve taken the liberty of translating Diskin’s Hebrew into English.

Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.

However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.

But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse. I’m reprinting here a portion of my speech at the tenth anniversary of the Geneva Initiative in December 2013, which was based on several articles I’ve written in the last few years. The words are based on my experience in the security arena in general, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the schism between Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel in particular. It’s important to read in order to understand where we’re headed, because under the existing circumstances there aren’t too many other possibilities:

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Unruly Hebron Clan Pushes Hamas — and Israel — to Brink

By J.J. Goldberg

Mourners at the fresh grave of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli teens murdered, allegedly by members of the Hamas-linked Qawasmeh family of Hebron. / Getty Images

Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.

The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.

The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.

The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.

Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.

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Spooks Warn Pols: Don't Strike Hamas Over Kidnap

By J.J. Goldberg

Israeli troops search for evidence at site where the bodies of 3 kidnapped youths were found near village of Halhoul. / Getty Images

Israel’s security cabinet was due to convene at 9:30 pm (2:30 New York time) to discuss Israeli responses to the murder of the three teenagers whose bodies were found just before 6 pm in a shallow grave near the village of Halhul, north of Hebron. And a heated debate has already broken out over the proper steps to take.

As usual, politicians on the right are pushing for a maximalist response, while military figures are warning against letting emotions guide policy and urging “focused” and “targeted” responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and pointed to the Fatah-Hamas unity pact concluded last month as contributing to the terrorist act.

Military and security figures have quietly cautioned since fingers began pointing at Hamas that there was no concrete evidence the kidnappers were operating under instructions from Hamas higher-ups. Today for the first time they began speaking not quietly but openly, warning that attacking Hamas as an organization in response to the kidnapping would backfire, fail to deter future terrorism and serve Hamas’s goal of isolating and delegitimizing Israel internationally.

The three boys, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and U.S. citizen Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were kidnapped at around 10 p.m. June 12 while trying to hitchhike home for the weekend from their West Bank yeshivas. The area, under Israeli military administration, has been the scene of Palestinian violence for decades but has been relatively quiet for the past few years. They were apparently killed shortly after they were taken.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Israel to launch a “war on terrorism.” Knesset member Miri Regev, one of the hardest-line members of Likud called for a wave of “targeted eliminations” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.

On the other hand former Mossad director Danny Yatom urged carefully distinguishing between terrorists responsible for the murders and politicians whose ideology may or may not have inspired the murderers.

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Indyk Quits, Abbas Offers New Talks, Israel Erupts

By J.J. Goldberg

Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, will formally resign this afternoon and return to his think-tank job at the Brookings Institution, the Associated Press reports. If there was talk of a renewed American effort to reignite peace talks, this is probably a bad sign.

It’s probably just coincidence that the news comes the morning after Washington throws a farewell party to end all farewell parties for visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres, who’s due to retire in a month.

Back home in Israel, meanwhile, the nastiest Middle East conflict was the one between hawks and doves inside the Netanyahu government. Over the last two days they’ve been furiously calling each other names and demanding each others’ resignation.

It all started on Wednesday, when Israel’s president-elect Reuven Rivlin praised Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas in a speech for his fierce condemnation the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, delivered June 18 in a highly publicized speech in Saudi Arabia to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Rivlin went on to say that he’s prepared to meet with Abbas, as he’s done in the past.

Economics minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett responded in a radio interview Thursday morning, calling Rivlin’s praise of Abbas “horrible.” Bennett called Abbas a “mega-terrorist,” his evidence being that the Palestinian Authority pays salaries to Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israeli prisons.

Abbas, visiting Moscow yesterday, said that he’s ready to return to the negotiating table for another nine months under certain conditions: that Israel complete the stalled fourth round of prisoner releases agreed to last year as part of the deal for the last round of talks, and that the first three months be devoted to discussing the borders of the new Palestinian state. No formal reply yet from Israel.

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How Jews Are Honoring 3 Civil Rights Martyrs

By J.J. Goldberg


Last night, in my musical post in memory of the three civil rights workers slain in Mississippi 50 years ago, I argued that too little had been done to incorporate their martyrdom into our narrative of American Jewish history.

It’s only fair that I take note of those Jewish organizations that did act to remember the martyrs, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, on the occasion of yesterday’s 50th anniversary of their murder.

On June 18, the Anti-Defamation League posted a statement on its Access ADL blog recalling the events surrounding their deaths in that Freedom Summer 1964. It noted that they had died while working to secure the right to vote for all Americans, and that today that right is once again under assault. It specifically cites last year’s Supreme Court decision on voting rights, which opened the way for a flood of mostly Southern state laws restricting access to the ballot. ADL said it’s “helping to lead a very large coalition” to “protect the same voting rights for which Schwermer, Goodman, and Chaney gave their lives.” And it’s working for congressional passage of a new law, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which sets new voter protections to replace the ones the court struck down.

On June 20, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism reposted the ADL statement on its own blog.

Meanwhile, Bend the Arc (formerly known as the Jewish Funds for Justice and Progressive Jewish Alliance) is collecting signatures on an online petition, “So All Can Vote,” urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act. And this coming Tuesday, June 24, it’s holding a nationwide vigil, in which it asks supporters to light yahrzeit candles in memory of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

The coalition to restore voting rights is being organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which comprises more than 200 organizations nationwide. ADL holds one of the seven officer’s positions on the board of directors, along with the NAACP, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Congress of American Indians, AARP, AFSCME, and the National Partnership for Women and Families. The Religious Action Center holds one of the other 24 board of directors seats.

Here are the ADL and Bend the Arc statements:

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Why Aren't We Honoring 3 Civil Rights Martyrs?

By J.J. Goldberg

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers murdered by a lynch mob near Philadelphia, Mississippi, while registering voters during Freedom Summer 1964.

Chaney, 21 at the time of his death, was an African American and a Mississippi native. Goodman and Schwerner, respectively 20 and 25, were Jewish New Yorkers who had volunteered to spend the summer on a Mississippi voter registration drive organized by CORE (Congress on Racial Equality), along with thousands of other northern whites, an estimated half of whom were Jewish.

For some reason, the yahrzeit of the three has not become an annual memorial day on a Jewish calendar that’s packed with memorials for Jewish heroes and martyrs. Goodman and Schwerner should be counted among the most important heroes in American Jewish history. Perhaps some day we’ll know how to tell our own story. Maybe then our young will care enough to stick around.

And by the way, here’s a memo to anyone tempted to kvetch about defending our own people before worrying about others: Before the civil rights movement, Jews were kept from working in most industries, living in most neighborhoods and attending most colleges except under numerical quotas. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed in the emotional immediate aftermath of the murders, was drafted to outlaw discrimination “on the basis of race or religion.” We were fighting for ourselves.

Here are some songs written to celebrate their lives and honor their deaths, as well as one Yiddish song, “Donna Donna,” written a quarter-century earlier but profoundly appropriate, I think, to the day. The performers are Tom Paxton; Simon & Garfunkel; Harry Belafonte (singing a Pete Seeger-Frances Taylor song); Joan Baez; Richard and Mimi Farina (she was Joan Baez’s sister); Nechama Hendel; and wrapping it up, one of my favorite Phil Ochs songs, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” All the songs were written by the performers except where noted.

Tom Paxton: “Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.”


Harry Belafonte: “Those Three Are on My Mind.” (Written by Pete Seeger and Frances Taylor. Hear Pete singing it here.)


Simon and Garfunkel: “He Was My Brother” (for Andrew Goodman, their friend and classmate at Queens College).


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Michael Douglas in Israel for Son's Bar Mitzvah

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images

Ynet reports that Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are in Jerusalem with their children as part of the bar mitzvah celebration of their son Dylan.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing them check in two days ago to the King David Hotel, where they’re staying in the presidential suite at a reported cost of 19,000 shekels ($5,400) per night. Shortly after checking in they’re reported to have set out for a tour of Jerusalem, ending with a visit to the Temple Mount tunnels, which are an incredible experience if you haven’t done it yet. (Here’s the 4-minute tour; here’s the 50-minute tour.)

Alert readers will recall that Douglas showed up at a public event in New York City in early May walking with a limp, which he explained as an injury to his groin that he suffered while being lifted in a chair at the bar mitzvah ceremony itself.

Douglas is the son of Kirk Douglas, who was born Issur Danielovitch (early in childhood he became Issur “Izzy” Demsky) and his first wife, Diana Dill. The elder Douglas started exploring religion under the influence of Aish HaTorah after narrowly escaping death in a 1991 helicopter crash, and since then he’s expressed regret on several occasions that he neglected his Jewish identity for so many years and never raised his sons as Jews. It’s a bit odd, considering that he filmed two movies in Israel before it became fashionable post-1967, at a time when hardly anyone was visiting Israel, much less promoting it.

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Israeli Public's Support for Settlers Declines: Poll

By J.J. Goldberg

Israeli public support for West Bank settlements has declined significantly in the past year, according to a new survey released June 12. It’s the second consecutive year of sharp decreases in sympathy for settlers and the settlement enterprise.

The findings include an 11-point increase, from 48% to 59%, in those saying settlements damage Israel’s relations with the United States; an 8-point drop, from 42% to 34%, in those saying settlers serve as Israel’s “security belt”; and a 6-point drop, from 52% to 46%, in those agreeing that West Bank settlement is an “act of true Zionism.”

The survey also found a 4-point increase, to 35%, in the proportion agreeing that settlements are an impediment to peace; and a 6% increase, to 36%, in the proportion agreeing that settlements are illegal.

The findings are particularly noteworthy because the survey was conducted by a settlement-based institution, Ariel University, located in the West Bank town of Ariel and closely allied with the ideological settler movement. Founded as a branch of the Orthodox Bar-Ilan University, it was upgraded from college extension to university status in 2012 following a long fight that pitted the settler movement and its allies against all seven of Israel’s established universities.

Some responses were unchanged from last year: Half agreed that settlement budgets come at the expense of education and welfare, and 40% said Jewish settlements in the territories are a waste of government money

On one question, regarding the future of the territories, the current survey showed a polarization: 51%, up 4 points from last year, favored withdrawing from all or part of the West Bank, while 31% — also up 4 points — favored annexing all or part of the territory. Support for the status quo was 12%, unchanged from last year. The bolstering of right and left came at the expense of undecideds.

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'911' Call From Kidnapped Youth Ignored as Prank

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s police emergency line received a desperate call from one of the three youths kidnapped near Kibbutz Kfar Etzion Thursday night, but dismissed it as a prank call and failed to report it to the military. Only four and a half hours later, when a relative of one of the boys showed up at a police station to report a missing person, did police officials alert the military, triggering an all-hands search.

As a result, four and a half hours were lost in a search and rescue operation in which every additional hour lengthens the odds of success. The emergency call came in at 10:25 p.m. The relative, variously reported as either a father or a brother, went to the police at 3:00 a.m.

The emergency call was rumored on social networks as early as Saturday, but was only cleared for publication by the military censor on Sunday. National police commissioner Yohanan Danino told a press conference that the delay in sounding the alarm would be investigated, but cautioned that the urgent priority right now was not to cast blame but to find the kidnapped youths.

Danino himself had just returned from New York, where he was to have attended an international police conference. His failure to return to Israel until Sunday afternoon, almost three days after the kidnapping, has touched off a scandal of its own that seems likely to bring his downfall.

According to press reports, a police operator on the 100 line, Israel’s equivalent of 911, received the call at 10:25 and heard a male voice whispering “They’re kidnapping us” and repeating it twice. (Some reports quote the call as “They’ve kidnapped me” or “we’ve been kidnapped.”) The call continued for another two minutes during which shouting and jostling could be heard before the line went dead.

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Taking Different Lessons From Same Threat

By J.J. Goldberg

Yeshiva students pray for safe return of three kidnapped youths

With the terrorist kidnapping of three teenagers dominating the news cycle and nearly every private conversation for the past two days, Israelis have had little attention to spare for America’s national agony in Iraq.

It’s hard to think of a time when the two nations’ fates were so closely linked, yet their concerns were so utterly disconnected. It seems like neither public has time for the other’s troubles.

The similarities of their situations go beyond their struggles with Islamist terrorists. In both countries, it seems, the initial horror of the events themselves — the fall of Mosul, the disappearance of the three yeshiva students — quickly gave way to anger at the perpetrators and their enablers.

And at that moment, when thoughts turned to the enablers, each country’s political sides began to turn on each other.

In America, of course, it’s those who blame Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq before the mess there was fixed versus those who blame George W. Bush for creating the mess by going into Iraq in the first place.

In Israel, it’s those who blame Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas for opening the door to Hamas — and by none-too-subtle implication, the supporters of the Oslo peace process that created an openly armed Palestinian presence on Israeli-controlled soil — versus those who accuse the right, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, of freezing forward motion and threatening the tentative stability that’s been won in the past few years.

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Did Eric Cantor Lose Because He's Jewish? You Betcha.

By J.J. Goldberg

Did Eric Cantor lose because of his Judaism? Everybody’s been tiptoeing around the question for the last two days, so let’s just come out and say it: Of course he did. That and redistricting.

The Virginia Republican leadership accidentally did him in by trying to build him a safer district. They took away some of the purple zones in Richmond and its suburbs and giving him some solid red countryside further north.

What the GOP’s redistricting mavens forgot to factor in — what’s eluded pretty much the entire chattering class wrestling with this earthquake — is that the prairie fire that’s turned so much of middle America red is as much about Christianity as anything else.

And if it’s about Christianity, then it’s also about not-Jewish. How does that factor in? Most talk of Jews in politics begins and ends with Israel and anti-Semitism. If it’s not one of those two, we’re done. Hence the endless repetition of the line that Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report gave to the New York Times: “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” No, you can’t. But nobody knew what to make of the elephant. (Actually, it’s more about the elephant that’s suddenly out of the room, isn’t it?) Even Wasserman didn’t mention it in his Cook coverage. Yes, Cantor’s Jewishness mattered. Now can we please talk about something else?

I’ll have more to say about redistricting issue in another post. Suffice it for now to note that redistricting is frequently unkind to incumbents, often in unexpected ways.

Right now. the main point is that one can be pro-Christian without being anti-Jewish. Practically speaking, Jews feel threatened by a political movement that seeks to put religion — the majority religion, which isn’t ours — at the center of the nation’s public life. It’s exclusionary. It arguably violates the Constitution, which says (Article VI) that there may not be any “religious test” for public office. The Christian right is all about judging candidates for office by their religion — by which they mean the values that the candidates bring to the table. Judging candidates by their values sounds like it ought to be center-stage in politics. But how do you do that without applying a religious test? Christian conservatives say the clause bars legislation that would apply such a test, not the personal views of the voters.

It’s not that they don’t like Jews. I’d bet that 90% of the 36,000 zealots who turned out to vote for David Brat on Tuesday (vs. 29,000 for Cantor) don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in their body. It’s just that they love Jesus. They want more religious values guiding and governing our public life. And by religious values they mean Christian values. That’s David Brat’s main calling card.

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Stop Palestinian Aid Over Hamas? Not So Fast

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel appears to be sending mixed signals to Washington on U.S. aid to the new Palestinian unity government. On one hand, the Netanyahu government wants everyone to know it’s furious over the new “reconciliation government” that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has formed with the reviled terrorist organization Hamas. Officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington ambassador Ron Dermer have been declaring that the unity pact means “there can’t be business as usual.”

On the other hand, it’s not clear Israel that wants Washington to respond by cutting its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem depends heavily on the PA security forces’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in the West Bank, and loss of funding could freeze their salaries and keep them home. In the longer run, the aid underwrites billions of dollars in PA governmental services from health to mail delivery and garbage collection that would fall on the Israeli taxpayer if the authority were to collapse under U.S. and international pressure.

Israelis who have met members of Congress in recent days say they’re hearing expressions of confusion over Israel’s mixed messages — that the new PA government is essentially a terror-backed group but that aid should not be cut.

Pro-Israel lawmakers and Jewish groups have been reciting a line that seems to represent a demand for ending aid, namely: “U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.” Those words appear in a pop-up on AIPAC’s website. A nearly identical phrase appears in a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez that’s touted on the American Jewish Committee website and elsewhere.

But that’s not the whole law. Deeper on the AIPAC website is a set of “key points” that states the entire relevant law:

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Israel's Bitter Splits Boil Over in Open

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Brothers? Naftali Bennett (left) and Yair Lapid in happier times.

Israel gave the world an unusually raw look at its internal divisions this week when the annual Herzliya Security Conference, traditionally the top showcase for the country’s defense doctrines, turned into an extended food fight.

By the end of Day 2 of the three-day gabfest, angry exchanges of retorts and threats had broken out on the main stage among ministers in the Israeli cabinet and between leading Israeli and American defense experts.

More subtle, but arguably more significant, were dueling assessments of the threats facing Israel — on one side, a united front of government spokesmen, and on the other, the uniformed generals who had been asked to present their professional assessments. Government spokesmen presented the Iranian threat as pressing and mortal, while the generals presented it as part of a larger and clearly manageable range of challenges in the region.

Government spokesmen presented the Palestinian Authority as an ongoing threat with no peace solution in sight, particularly given Hamas’s unalterable commitment to attacking Israel. The generals said Hamas had been effectively deterred from attacking Israel — “they’ve learned the price of attacking us,” chief of staff Benny Gantz said laconically — and made no mention whatever of the Palestinian Authority or the peace process.

“They’re soldiers. They didn’t want to stick their necks out by giving their views,” legal scholar and former education minister (and conference staffer) Amnon Rubinstein told me.

The exchange among the ministers drew the most media attention. In a Sunday evening session featuring the heads of Israel’s main political parties, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni both threatened to quit the government if it decided to begin annexing West Bank territory, as demanded by economics minister Naftali Bennett, who was sandwiched between them. Also appearing was opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor, who mocked Lapid and Livni for remaining in a government that was building settlement units they oppose, and told Lapid he “should have thought about peace before you dragged your ‘brother’ Bennett into the coalition.”

Lapid also blamed Israel — presumably meaning Prime Minister Netanyahu — for the current “unprecedented crisis” in Israeli-U.S. relations. And he demanded that the government present a map of its desired borders and begin staged withdrawals accompanied by negotiations. That drew a sarcastic retort in Knesset the next day from Netanyahu, who called Lapid “naïve” and “inexperienced.”

The American-Israeli confrontation came earlier in the program and caused some gasps in the audience. It came during a panel discussion on “regional and global threats” featuring American and Israeli defense experts.

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Knesset Big Sees 'Plot' in President Race Scandals

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Clockwise from left: Reuven Rivlin, Silvan Shalom, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer

The speaker of Israel’s Knesset dropped a bombshell Saturday night into the country’s closely watched presidential race, saying he suspected political sabotage behind the sudden eruption of scandals that destroyed two of the lead candidates in the past three weeks. And the stepson of one of the tarred candidates is using the furor to reopen one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iran-contra scandal.

The Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein of Likud, told a Channel 10 talk show host Nadav Perry that he didn’t have information to name names, but believed there was a “guiding hand” behind the sudden scandal eruptions. Asked if he suspected another candidate was responsible, he first said, “No, I think the still, small voice [of God] came down and made the allegations.” Then he turned serious and said, “Look, I’m not so naïve as to believe that people serve in the public arena for 30 years, serve in most senior positions, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister, interior minister, and suddenly in the space of three weeks all these charges drop on them.”

The Knesset is scheduled to vote by secret ballot on Tuesday to choose a successor to figurehead president Shimon Peres. There were six declared candidates. The front-runner by most accounts is Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin, 74, a former Knesset speaker widely admired and respected for his charm, gentlemanly manner and vaunted devotion to his principles, including civil rights for all Israelis, democratic process and — his signal cause throughout his career — the Greater Land of Israel.

Since May 21, Rivlin’s two leading rivals have been forced to quit the race after allegations of criminal activity suddenly emerged. One, Silvan Shalom of Likud, 55, former foreign and finance minister and one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest allies, quit the race May 21 after trying for two months to fight an anonymous charge of sexual harassment dating back to 1999. The other, Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer of Labor, 78, a retired brigadier general, onetime military governor of the West Bank and Gaza and former defense minister, quit the race today (Saturday) after a charge of bribery emerged on Thursday, leading to his interrogation by police on Friday.

Ben-Eliezer, born in Iraq and a Knesset member since 1984, is popular among Sephardic Jews as well as Israeli Arabs. Shalom, born in Tunisia and a Knesset member since 1992, has long stood in Netanyahu’s shadow and occasionally clashed with him. Rivlin was strongly opposed by Netanyahu because of his occasional barbs over Netanyahu’s alleged cutting corners. He’s also opposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman because, as Lieberman told journalist Nahum Barnea last week, of Rivlin’s support as speaker for Israeli Arab Knesset members when they’ve been accused of disloyalty. He’s also feared by many on the left because of his uncompromising devotion to settlements and opposition to territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

Edelstein is expected to meet Sunday morning with the leader of the opposition, Labor Party chief Yitzhak Herzog (whose own father Chaim Herzog was Israel’s sixth president) to discuss the possibility of postponing the Knesset vote in order to clear up some of the scandal. Ben-Eliezer told reporters he had full documentation for the money that paid for his Jaffa apartment, which is alleged to have come from a disgraced businessman.

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Why Shavuot Is Zeppo Marx of Festivals

By J.J. Goldberg

This column, which I wrote for the festival of Shavuot in May 2010, is one of my favorites. Today being Shavuot, I thought I’d rerun it.

Of all the major Jewish holidays, the least familiar to the general, synagogue-avoiding Jewish public is the festival of Shavuot. In fact, its obscurity is so striking that discussions of the holiday commonly start by noting its obscurity, as I did. As a result, it’s probably best known for being little-known, if you follow me. Basically, Shavuot is to Jewish holidays what Zeppo is to the Marx Brothers.

It deserves better, but we’ll get to that.

The usual explanation for Shavuot’s low profile is that it lacks pageantry. It used to be a real contender — the Bible ranks it up there with Passover and Sukkot as one of the three pilgrimage festivals, mega-holidays when work was forbidden and sacrifices were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, though, Shavuot didn’t fare as well as the others in the transition from ancient kingdom to modern Diaspora. Passover became the big family get-together of the year. Sukkot had those little straw shacks with the hanging fruit and Chinese lanterns. And what did Shavuot end up with? All-night Torah study and a piece of cheesecake.

The pomp deficit is only a symptom, however, of Shavuot’s larger problem: its dour message. Passover celebrates the Exodus from slavery to freedom. You don’t need an advanced degree to get on board with that. Sukkot isn’t quite as transparent, but it’s not too hard to see the lean-to as a symbol of the fragility and impermanence of life, especially when you’re wandering in the desert. Also, it’s like eating in a playhouse. It’s fun.

Shavuot, on the other hand, commemorates the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. This is the day we celebrate the handing out of the rulebook, with its bounty of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. Yay.

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Tell It on the Mountain: A Shavuot Holiday Concert

By J.J. Goldberg

The festival of Shavuot begins tonight. You all know what that means: time for a little holiday music. Herewith a mix of Peter Paul & Mary, Shlomo Carlebach, Shoshana Damari, Bob Dylan, some Ladino sacred cancon, some 1950s doo-wop and lots more, including a snippet of Mel Brooks.

The holiday comes seven weeks after Passover (hence the name Shavuot, or “Weeks”) and traditionally marks the day that the children of Israel, newly freed from Egyptian bondage, stood before Mount Sinai as a free people and received the Book of the Law, the Torah. In a way, it’s the birthday of the Jews as a nation of laws. So it has a special association with books and learning. In the Reform movement it’s the day of confirmation, or graduation from religious school.

It’s also Chag HaBikkurim, the Festival of First Fruits, celebrating the spring harvest. In the culture of modern Israel, especially in the kibbutz movement, the holiday is associated with songs about the land and the harvest.

I’m also throwing in a few songs about journeys in the desert. That’s a theme that’s more associated with Sukkot than Shavuot, but I like these songs.

First, to get us in the mood, here’s Peter, Paul and Mary singing the old spiritual, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Now for a treat: We happen to have some live footage of the climactic moment when Moses received the Tablets of the Law and presented them to the people. Just kidding. Actually, this is Mel Brooks’ imagining of that moment, from his 1981 movie “History of the World, part I.” That’s Mel in the role and robe of Moses.

Here’s Avraham Fried with a marvelous Hasidishe version of “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe” (“Moses commanded the Torah to us”). If you’re pining for the more familiar children’s ditty, click here.

It’s no secret that some of us aren’t satisfied with the traditional answers and continue to wonder where the book actually comes from. Here are The Monotones from 1958, asking that very question: “I Wonder Who Wrote the Book (of Love)”:

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After Brussels Bust, France Nabs 'Jihad Recruiters'

By J.J. Goldberg

20 Minutes
Mehdi Nemmouche

French police have arrested four people suspected of recruiting would-be jihadist fighters in Paris and southern France, apparently for training and combat in the Syrian civil war, the British edition of the International Business Times reported today.

The arrests were announced by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. They come a day after the announcement on Sunday that French police had arrested a suspect in the May 24 terrorist shootings at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in Belgium.

The suspect in the Brussels attack, a French-born Muslim named Mehdi Nemmouche, is alleged to have received training and combat experience in Syria with a militant anti-Assad insurgent force, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Nemmouche’s arrest has touched off fears among European, American and Israeli security officials that the Syrian civil war might be breeding a new generation of young Islamist radicals with Western roots — and Western citizenship — who could return home prepared to carry out new terrorist attacks. Intelligence sources told Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel that an estimated 1,200 European and North American Muslims are fighting with militant groups in Syria at any given time.

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Right Wing Gadfly Group Has Day in Knesset

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Ayelet Shaked, Nissim Ze’ev

Im Tirtzu, the right-wing Israeli truth squad best known for bashing the New Israel Fund, allowed itself a victory lap this week after taking credit for an “emergency” gathering in the Knesset on “delegitimization of Israel.”

Unfortunately, as with so much else the organization touches, the facts of the case are a bit murky. Im Tirtzu claimed in a press release afterward (full text appears below) that it had participated in a meeting of the Knesset Caucus on the Struggle Against De-legitimization of the State of Israel. The meeting’s topic, it said, was “organizations claiming to be Zionist, but which actually espouse BDS philosophies,” alluding to Im Tirtzu’s conspiratorial view of the New Israel Fund. The meeting had been convened, the release said, “as a result of Im Tirtzu’s campaign” to link the New Israel Fund with the BDS movement.

But a news report on the pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva-Israel National News said the caucus had convened “for an emergency discussion on the topic of anti-Israel boycotts in the wake of the rise of the extreme right in Europe.” The report cited Im Tirtzu leader Matan Peleg as one of a string of speakers, most of whom focused their remarks on European antisemitism, the shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum and what’s been described as a link between the shooting and anti-Israel incitement.

The delegitimization caucus is one of 132 such groupings of Knesset members registered with the speaker’s office to advance specific causes. They range from promotion of Israeli-Arab peace to annexation of the West Bank, higher education, autism awareness, Israeli Arab economic development and a one-member “Tuesdays without meat” caucus.

The May 27 meeting reportedly drew several dozen attendees, including a half-dozen guest speakers, all but one of them right-wing specialists in left-wing perfidy, as well as seven Knesset members. The seven included four from the settler-backed HaBayit HaYehudi-Jewish Home party, two from Yisrael Beiteinu and one, caucus chairman Nissim Ze’ev, from Shas.

According to several reports, including a detailed account at the Haredi website Kooker, Ze’ev opened the meeting with a declaration that “delegitimization leads to anti-Semitism and antisemitism leads to terrorism.” He called for “dealing with” sources of funding for organizations that promote delegitimization and “exposing their true face,” as there are some that “pose as Zionist organizations.”

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