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After Israel plunged into war, these Jews moved there anyway

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When Yona and Mikhael Benichou decided over the summer to move to Israel from their home in France, they set a target date of around a year later — in time for their eldest son, David, 15, to begin his studies for Israel’s matriculation exams.

But after Oct. 7, they sped up their plans to immigrate, known in Hebrew as making aliyah. The straw that broke the camel’s back, Yona Benichou said, came a week after the attack when the family, who wear identifiably Jewish symbols, were spat on by a group of rugby fans while walking down the street in their hometown of Marseilles.

“I was in total shock, I didn’t know how to react. Lots of other people saw what happened but no one tried to help us,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“The antisemites were always there. But after October 7, we felt like they have a platform to do whatever they like and that no one — and definitely not the French authorities — can stop them.”

The Benichous landed in Israel on Oct. 31, arriving in a country still reeling from Hamas’ devastating attack on its southern communities and in the early stages of a grueling ground war that has reshaped society. They are among the more than 2,600 people whom Israeli authorities say have chosen to move to Israel over the last two months despite the crisis.

Almost all of the new arrivals had been planning to move to Israel for some time, though a handful, like the Benichous, have accelerated their immigration.

Aaron Gold, 26, had planned to move next year and was in the country visiting when the war broke out. His parents, alarmed by the emergency evacuation of American citizens and by the fact that Gold did not live in an apartment with a safe room, pressured their son to return to the United States. He flew back to Philadelphia on Oct. 18 but said he “despised” being there and returned to Israel as a new immigrant on Nov. 16.

Gold, a product manager at Deloitte, said making aliyah had “always been a dream of mine” and said he felt waiting to see how the war played out would not make any difference.

Aaron Gold poses with his mother before flying to Israel from the United States in November 2023. (Courtesy Gold)

“Hezbollah could attack now, they could attack in six months, they could attack in six years,” he said. “You can’t plan it.”

According to Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry, 2,662 people have made aliyah since Oct. 7, including 1,635 from Russia, 218 from the United States, 128 from Ukraine, 116 from France, and 106 from Belarus.

The numbers are smaller than the average in recent years and dramatically lower than the same period for 2022, when 16,400 new immigrants arrived, propelled by people escaping the war in Ukraine. They also come at the end of a year when political discord in Israel had already depressed immigration beyond the usual rate.

Still, the new immigrants, known as olim, demonstrate that during challenging times, some Jews will still choose to move to Israel. And the organizations that support them say they anticipate a flood of arrivals in the near future, once the war ends but while concerns about spiking antisemitism are still fresh.

The Benichous reached out to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has helped 317 people make aliyah since Oct. 7. The organization purchased flights for the family and donated around $2,000 toward the cost of furniture for the family’s new apartment in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh.

According to the group’s president, Yael Eckstein, fewer new immigrants have arrived in Israel since Oct. 7 than other years due to a combination of canceled flights and decisions to put plans on hold until the security situation stabilizes. But she said she has seen an “increase in the number of requests for information about the immigration process from countries where cases of antisemitic incidents have risen.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated aliyah for 384 people from the United States and Canada since the start of the war, mostly for people who had begun the process long before Oct. 7, the group’s vice president of communications, Yael Katsman, told JTA.

Still, like Eckstein, Katsman pointed to a “vast surge” in interest since the attack, marking an “an unprecedented increase” of more than 100% in aliyah applications compared to the same timespan in 2022. She attributed the spike to an increased “commitment to building Israel” by Diaspora Jewry during “difficult historic events.”

Many people who initiate aliyah applications, required for new immigrants to secure a range of benefits, do not end up completing them. But the chair of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration, recently told an Israeli news station that he expects 1 million new Jewish immigrants in the coming years — a number that would dramatically reshape the country of about 10 million.

The agency’s head of international relations, Yigal Palmor, was more circumspect in comments to JTA but likewise said signs pointed to a rise in new arrivals. One thousand people initiated applications in France in October and November, according to agency data, marking a 470% increase over the previous two months.

“We’ve witnessed a dramatic rise in aliyah applications since the outbreak of the conflict, most notably in France and the U.S.,” Palmor said. “We will probably see the results in the coming months, but it’s premature to predict numbers.”

People get information about moving to Israel at a Jewish Agency fair in France in December 2023. (Courtesy Jewish Agency for Israel)

Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer told JTA in a statement that his ministry was preparing for a surge in immigration as a result of the war.

Since Oct. 7, there has been “a lot of interest [in immigration] from young people, students and young couples from western countries, including those from western European countries where people in the past did not show much interest in immigrating,” Sofer said.

The two main reasons, he said, were “growing antisemitism around the world, and solidarity with Israel.”

Gold said antisemitism in the United States redoubled his commitment to move to Israel permanently.

“You kind of realize you’re afraid to go to work, not only of physical violence but just emotionally,” he told JTA about his return in October. “I was with coworkers who told me that from their office they were able to hear people saying, ‘Restart the Intifada, death to the Jews’ and things like that.”

Israeli Immigration Minister Ofir Sofer poses at Ben-Gurion Airport with some of the 25 new immigrants who arrived from New York on Oct. 19, 2023, less than two weeks since Israel was thrust into war. (Courtesy Nefesh B’Nefesh)

Daniel Bleiweiss, 51, made aliyah with his 14-year-old son Emiliano this fall from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had made the decision years ago, but postponed it because of the pandemic as well as bureaucratic issues related to Emiliano’s adoption, a yearslong process that was resolved only in 2019. Bleiweiss, a physician, planned on arriving in Israel on Oct. 10 with his wife Natalia and her teenage daughter, Lucia, from a previous marriage. The war threw a wrench into their original plan and the flights were canceled. Ultimately, the family decided that Daniel and Emiliano would move immediately, while Natalia and Lucía would join them in the future when conditions become more stable.

Bleiweiss cited several reasons for wanting to make aliyah, including Argentina’s economic crisis and the South American country’s inadequate resources to support his son, who has learning and social difficulties. But like the other new immigrants JTA spoke to, the main impetus was a rise in antisemitism coupled with a strong desire to live in the Jewish homeland, which he described as a “historic responsibility.”

Bleiweiss recounted a recent incident in which his wife had tried to check into a hotel where she had a reservation. The clerk saw the Israeli visa in her passport and subsequently refused to allow her to stay at the hotel, Bleiweiss said, adding that his wife chose not to press charges. He also said that his son had been bullied at school for being Jewish.

“It is painful, but it reinforces our conviction that Israel is the safest place to be Jewish right now, and it is perhaps the only place where we can express our identity proudly and in peace,” he said.

Daniel and Emiliano Bleiweiss’ immigration flight was canceled after Oct. 7 but they rescheduled and now live in Israel. (Courtesy International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

Bleiweiss said that another reason he didn’t want to delay his aliyah again was because he felt compelled to be in the Jewish state in its time of need.

“If a friend is in trouble, you shouldn’t wait for a better time to go see him,” he said. “That’s the time you should be there.”

Meanwhile, in Beit Shemesh, life isn’t without its challenges for the Benichou family. Because of how suddenly they left France, they didn’t have time to save up money or sell their belongings.

“We never thought in a million years we would come within a month. We came without any money,” Yona Benichou said. “It’s not easy to build yourself anew.”

But there are no regrets for Benichou or her children, who she said were understanding of the fact that this Hanukkah they wouldn’t be receiving gifts on every night of the festival as they were used to from previous years. “My 8-year-old son told me, ‘Mommy, we don’t need Hanukkah presents this year. The biggest present is that we’re here.’”

The post After Israel plunged into war, these Jews moved there anyway appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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