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Austin synagogue arsonist sentenced to 10 years in prison

(JTA) – A man who pleaded guilty to setting fire to a synagogue in Austin, Texas, in 2021 was sentenced on Wednesday to 10 years in prison.

The sentencing of Franklin Sechriest came after a series of victim impact statements from members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue. Normal federal sentencing guidelines call for a five-year prison term, but prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge David Ezra to sentence Sechriest to 10 years due to what they said was the “tremendous damage” he caused and his “deep-seated hatred of persons of the Jewish faith.”

Sechriest pleaded guilty in April to two federal charges, including the destruction of religious property, which is classified as a hate crime. He admitted to setting a fire in October 2021 that damaged the sanctuary’s historic front doors and stained glass windows, causing around $250,000 worth of damage. Investigators found antisemitic and racist material as well as bomb-making supplies in his car, and journals filled with hate speech in which he had written, “I set a synagogue on fire.”

“It was a solemn and sad day,” Jake Cohen, Beth Israel’s executive director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “No one wanted to be in this moment, be in this place. And yet we are grateful to the judge, Judge Ezra, for his thoughtful deliberation, for his respectful, kind, empathic words to our community.”

Cohen said the sentencing carried extra weight coming amid a charged national climate around antisemitism. Law enforcement and Jewish groups have reported a rise in antisemitic incidents, and multiple Jewish institutions have been targeted by vandalism, bomb threats and other criminal behavior in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent war against the terror group in Gaza.

“Across the country right now, all Jewish communities are on heightened alert due to rising antisemitism,” Cohen said, adding that the congregation had received a robocall from the Ku Klux Klan mere weeks ago. “Everyone feels the anxiety and questions whether hate can come to our doorstep.”

The fire came amid a spate of antisemitic incidents in Austin organized by the Goyim Defense League, a white supremacist group that holds antisemitic rallies and distributes literature promoting hatred of Jews. The group, which the Anti-Defamation League said was responsible for nearly 500 antisemitic incidents in 2022, had hung a banner reading “Vax the Jews” from an Austin bridge in the days before the synagogue fire and streamed a swastika-burning event shortly afterwards. The group’s founder told the Daily Beast that Sechriest was not associated with the Goyim Defense League.

The congregation’s board of directors supported giving Sechriest a plea deal.

Daniel Wannamaker, Sechriest’s attorney, told JTA that his client had already spent two years in county jail and would get credit for that time. Sechriest has waived his right to an appeal.

“It’s a tough case because it’s a heinous crime,” Wannamaker said, adding that he believed Sechriest, who has autism, had been influenced by a hate group online.

In court filings asking for a delay in the hearing, Wannamaker had said that his client suffers from “several mental and emotional conditions” and would need more time to process the significance of his sentencing. The judge denied his request.

“He’s on the spectrum and he just kind of fell into the trap of finding people on the Internet who I think just took advantage of his condition,” the attorney told JTA. “They groomed him and had him commit these acts. But he’s guilty, he accepted his responsibility, and now we just want him to get help, which he should be able to get in a federal facility that deals with mental health issues.”

Since the arson attack, Beth Israel has turned its social hall into a new prayer space, which it inaugurated during the High Holidays this year. Next week the synagogue will hold a “visioning process” to figure out whether to rehab the damaged prayer space or explore other options including relocating the congregation entirely. Whatever the synagogue decides, Cohen said, “it’s going to cost millions of dollars,” and leaders plan to launch a capital campaign. The congregation also recently commemorated two years since the arson.

“We’re going to do what Jews do and make lemonade from a really painful situation,” Cohen said.

The new space includes a Ner Tamid, or eternal flame, constructed from bits of the fire-damaged stained glass.

The post Austin synagogue arsonist sentenced to 10 years in prison appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Gallant: Seizing Internal Hamas Documents Brings Hostage Deal Closer

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with IDF commanders, including members of the elite Shayetet 13 marine commando unit, in Atlit, Israel, Jan. 17, 2023. Photo: Ariel Hermoni (Israel’s Ministry of Defense)

i24 NewsIsraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant provided a review to fellow ministers of weapons and documents belonging to Hamas, which were collected by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Document and Technical Means Collection Unit (Amshat) operating in the Gaza Strip.

“This morning we are hosting the government meeting at the IDF, in the defense establishment, to show the ministers exactly how we are achieving and deepening our achievements and what is coming out of the Gaza Strip,” Gallant explained.

“You can see a small part of the things here – missiles, explosive charges, mines, a great many maps, means of communication, documents, computers, drives, all these things which the IDF uses now on as intelligence, and not only that,” the defense minister continued.

“These demonstrate that we penetrated into the heart of the most sensitive places of Hamas and use their intelligence against them,” Gallant described the process of attaining the documents and weapons, hinting at some of the locations from where it was found.

“We are using their weapons against them, detonating them in the field, all this leads to the consequence of deepening and penetrating the heart of Hamas’ capabilities,” the defense minister said.

“The more we deepen our operations, the closer we get to a realistic deal in order to return the hostages,” Gallant concluded.

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UNRWA Chief Urged to Resign After ‘Absurd’ Pledge of Ignorance

View of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90.

i24 NewsIsraeli diplomatic leaders called for the resignation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, following denial of knowing about a Hamas data center under the agency’s headquarters in Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) revealed on Saturday night that Hamas built a vast network of tunnels under the UNRWA headquarters, with a base directly underneath that was even hooked up to its grid.

“The exposure of UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters’ deep involvement with Hamas, including its use for terror activities and as an access point to terror tunnels, requires immediate action,” the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, posted on X.

“Philippe Lazzarini’s claim of unawareness is not only absurd but also an affront to common sense. His prompt resignation is imperative,” Katz concluded.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, also called for the UNRWA Commissioner-General to resign, responding “it’s not that you didn’t know, it’s that you didn’t WANT to know.”

“We exposed terror tunnels under UNRWA schools and supplied evidence that Hamas’ exploits UNRWA. We implored you to carry out a comprehensive search of all UNRWA facilities in Gaza. But not only did you refuse, you chose to stick your head in the sand,” Erdan added in a detailed post on X.

.@UNLazzarini it’s not that you didn’t know, it’s that you didn’t WANT to know. We exposed terror tunnels under UNRWA schools and supplied evidence that Hamas’ exploits UNRWA. We implored you to carry out a comprehensive search of all UNRWA facilities in Gaza. But not only did…

— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) February 10, 2024

“Take responsibility and resign today!” the Israeli ambassador said, “Every day we find more proof that in Gaza the UN=Hamas and vice versa. Anything the UN says or claims about Gaza cannot be trusted.”

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Preparing for the Next ICJ Debacle

The UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgIn the theater of the absurd commonly known as the International Court of Justice, judges are again preparing to ignore history and facts. Having weaponized the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide against the Jewish state, the judges are now preparing to hear oral arguments on the next oxymoron: The “legal consequences” of the “Israeli occupation” of “Palestinian territory.”

The glaring problem with this is that there is no such entity as the “Palestinian territories.” The term is an invented one used to define areas allocated by the international community to the Jewish state, which were then illegally invaded by Egypt and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Any discussion anchored on this false terminology should immediately be ignored and scorned.

In December 2022, the United Nations General Assembly, prompted by the Palestinian Authority, adopted a resolution to request from the ICJ an advisory opinion on the following question:

“Considering the rules and principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, relevant resolutions of the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council, and the advisory opinion of the Court of July 9, 2004:

“a) What are the legal consequences arising from the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, from its prolonged occupation, settlement, and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character, and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures?

“b) How do the policies and practices of Israel referred to in paragraph 18 (a) above affect the legal status of the occupation, and what are the legal consequences that arise for all States and the United Nations from this status?”

Following the request, the ICJ set a July 25, 2023 deadline for initial written statements to be submitted, with responses to be submitted by Oct. 25, 2023 and oral arguments to be made starting Feb. 19, 2024.

The underlying assumption of this debacle is that Israel is in some way “occupying” “Palestinian territory.” But is that really the case?

In reality, never in history has an independent country called “Palestine” ever existed.

In reality, the area the UNGA claims and has asked the ICJ to consider as “Palestinian territory” was controlled for 400 years by the Ottoman Empire.

In reality, after World War I, the international community repeatedly allocated the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, from Lebanon to the Red Sea, for the sole purpose of reconstituting the Jewish homeland.

In reality, the 1923 division of the geographical area called “Palestine” into two separate areas, one to be called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the other remaining Jewish Palestine, was the real “two-state solution.”

In reality, in 1947, the United Nations offered the Arabs an opportunity to create another Arab country to the west of the Jordan River alongside Israel, but the Arabs refused. Instead, five Arab armies attacked the nascent Jewish state with the stated and express goal of throwing the Jews into the sea.

From 1948 to 1967, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and Jordan controlled Judea and Samaria, which it renamed “The West Bank.” During that time, no U.N. resolution of the General Assembly or the Security Council demanded that Egypt and Jordan retreat and desist from occupying those areas. No such request was made of Jordan since Jordan saw Palestine as an integral part of Jordan.

In reality, even U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, from November 1967, does not mention, even once, the notion of occupied “Palestinian” territory.

In fact, the idea that a State of Palestine ever existed and that Israel is occupying “Palestinian territory” seems to prove the billboard advertisement that “Palestine” is the only country in the world that did not exist before it was “occupied.”

Sadly, as the judges demonstrated with their shameful decision on the false claim of South Africa against Israel when it comes to the Jewish state, history, facts and the truth are just not relevant.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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