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Haredi and Secular Jews Must All Serve the Israeli Nation, and Find Purpose Together

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

I have just returned from a week in Israel, where, together with a delegation from our Beverly Hills community, we visited countless places, met diverse people, and absorbed the atmosphere of a nation still reeling from October 7th — acutely aware that the challenges they face are far from over.

This was my fourth visit to Israel since that horrific October day, and each time until now, I have been struck by the remarkable resilience and unity of purpose of Israel’s population, even as tensions between various groups simmer below the surface.

But this time was different. While Israelis are still united in their resolve to destroy Hamas and resist external attempts to halt their prosecution of the war, on other matters, they are deeply divided, with tensions on full display.

Protests in Jerusalem near the prime minister’s residence are back in full swing, focusing on Benjamin Netanyahu’s seeming inability to bring the remaining hostages in Gaza safely home — either by negotiation or by military means. But the backstory is more about broad dissatisfaction with Bibi’s leadership.

The setting aside of political differences after October 7th has been abandoned, and conflicts are back on display. Even within Netanyahu’s coalition, rifts are widening, and the government hasn’t fallen yet only because his coalition partners know a Bibi-led coalition emerging from an election is wishful thinking.

While we were in Israel, in a landmark ruling, Israel’s High Court of Justice unanimously mandated the drafting of Haredi yeshiva students into the military, ending the blanket exemptions that have been in place since 1948. The court declared a June 2023 government decision to delay drafting eligible Haredi men illegal, and instructed the government to start conscription, although gradually.

The real bombshell was the judges’ unanimous decision to bar state funding for any yeshiva whose students shun military service.

The court’s decision was widely anticipated. Last Shabbat, in a private gathering for our delegation, we heard a detailed prediction of the outcomes from Professor Yedidia Stern, President and CEO of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). Despite his Religious Zionist convictions, Professor Stern is sympathetic to Haredi ideals and concerns. As a libertarian, he believes it is not right to impose an integrated Israeli life on those who wish to live purely religious lives, even if they are citizens of Israel.

Nevertheless, he told us, the steady growth of the Haredi sector in Israel — currently 1.2 million out of a population of 10 million, with 7.5 million being Jews — makes the blanket exclusion of Haredim from military service, or any mandated national service, untenable in a country where every other Jew is expected to serve and where national service is a necessity. Unconditionally continuing to fund the Haredi community out of state funds, particularly when many who claim to be in full-time yeshiva study are not, is no longer sustainable.

Public reaction from Haredi leaders has been as expected. This week, Rabbi Dov Lando, the 94-year-old head of Bnei Brak’s Slabodka Yeshiva, visited the United States to urge American Haredim to help save Israel’s Torah institutions, now struggling with a combined $100 million shortfall resulting from the High Court ruling. “The authorities hate Torah scholars, and the situation is dire,” he thundered at a fundraiser, “there are already yeshivas that have closed down!”

Although the campaign organizers claim to have raised the full $100 million, next year’s shortfall will be closer to $300 million according to Professor Stern — and there is no way America’s Haredi community can fund its Israeli counterpart at such levels indefinitely. In any event, the solution doesn’t lie in the United States, it lies in Israel, where the seeds already exist for resolving the issue.

The only thing lacking is bravery. According to one Israeli Haredi insider who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, Haredi leaders “are afraid to express their opinions openly … in their chumashim, the commandment ‘Do not fear any man!’ (Deut. 1:17) has been erased.”

It is an open secret that out of the 12,000 annual exemptions, over half do not meet the standards of full-time Torah study, or even close. The past is the past, but right now, finding some form of military or national service for the thousands of Haredim who are not eligible for exemption is the only way out of the hole which the Haredi community has dug for itself, at least if it wants to remain a viable part of Israel’s present and future.

According to the insider I spoke to, even Rabbi Lando has privately admitted that the current refusal by Haredim to compromise and find a solution is unmaintainable — but he claims not to have the strength to be the one who proposes and pushes for such a dramatic shift. In the meantime, American Haredim are being forced to pay the bill for Israeli Haredim kicking the can down the road.

A future of mutual respect and coexistence was on full display in Kibbutz Be’eri, where our group visited the synagogue, built in a joint effort between Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, a Haredi outreach rabbi who lovingly works with secular Israelis, and Rachel Fricker, a secular Israeli who lived in Be’eri for 33 years before terrorists overran her home on October 7th and utterly destroyed it. Miraculously, she survived the terrorist attack and now lives in a hotel at the Dead Sea until her return to Be’eri, which remains uncertain.

Incredibly, the synagogue was left intact by the terrorists. It is a tiny space, but very warm and homely. In the weeks and months following October 7th, the shul became a haven for IDF soldiers who converged on Be’eri and the surrounding area. Rachel explained how tough it was to get the synagogue built in her secular kibbutz, but that she regularly spoke to God to seek His help as the project progressed.

In 2015, when the idea for a shul in Be’eri was first raised, members of our Beverly Hills community donated money so that it could be built. This was our first visit there, and the experience was overwhelmingly positive.

Rachel Fricker is an inspiration. So is Rabbi Raanan. And when they work together, these two forces of nature are an exponentially greater inspiration. They represent the future for Israel, in which Jews of every stripe and color see themselves as part of one whole, not as exclusive groups existing in isolation alongside each other.

If every Haredi was like Rabbi Raanan, and every secular Israeli was like Rachel Fricker, Israel would become the unconquerable force we all know it could be. There are many who are like them, but right now they remain select individuals. If only these individuals could be the bridgeheads for their respective groups to join forces, no enemy could ever prevail over the united energy of an Israeli society dedicated to the common destiny of Jewish peoplehood.

Bottom line: Israeli Haredim must come up with a workable solution that finally casts the scourge of Haredi separatism to history. This is not the moment to widen the gaps. If October 7th and the Gaza war have revealed anything, it is the importance of finding ways of working together and being united. It can definitely happen. Let’s pray that it does.

The writer is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

The post Haredi and Secular Jews Must All Serve the Israeli Nation, and Find Purpose Together first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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One Part of Cyprus Mourns, the Other Rejoices 50 Years After Split

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan leaves after attending a military parade to mark the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus in response to a short-lived Greek-inspired coup, in the Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus, in the divided city of Nicosia, Cyprus July 20, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Greek Cypriots mourned and Turkish Cypriots rejoiced on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of part of the island after a brief Greek inspired coup, with the chances of reconciliation as elusive as ever.

The ethnically split island is a persistent source of tension between Greece and Turkey, which are both partners in NATO but are at odds over numerous issues.

Their differences were laid bare on Saturday, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attending a celebratory military parade in north Nicosia to mark the day in 1974 when Turkish forces launched an offensive that they call a “peace operation.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due later on Saturday to attend an event in the south of the Nicosia to commemorate what Greeks commonly refer to as the “barbaric Turkish invasion.” Air raid sirens sounded across the area at dawn.

Mitsotakis posted an image of a blood-stained map of Cyprus on his LinkedIn page with the words “Half a century since the national tragedy of Cyprus.”

There was jubilation in the north.

“The Cyprus Peace Operation saved Turkish Cypriots from cruelty and brought them to freedom,” Erdogan told crowds who gathered to watch the parade despite stifling midday heat, criticizing the south for having a “spoiled mentality” and seeing itself as the sole ruler of Cyprus.

Peace talks are stalled at two seemingly irreconcilable concepts – Greek Cypriots want reunification as a federation. Turkish Cypriots want a two-state settlement.

Erdogan left open a window to dialogue although he said a federal solution, advocated by Greek Cypriots and backed by most in the international community, was “not possible.”

“We are ready for negotiations, to meet, and to establish long-term peace and resolution in Cyprus,” he said.

Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, but a shared administration between Greek and Turkish Cypriots quickly fell apart in violence that saw Turkish Cypriots withdraw into enclaves and led to the dispatch of a U.N. peacekeeping force.

The crisis left Greek Cypriots running the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union since 2004 with the potential to derail Turkey’s own decades-long aspirations of joining the bloc.

It also complicates any attempts to unlock energy potential in the eastern Mediterranean because of overlapping claims. The region has seen major discoveries of hydrocarbons in recent years.

REMEMBERING THE DEAD

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, whose office represents the Greek Cypriot community in the reunification dialogue, said the anniversary was a somber occasion for reflection and for remembering the dead.

“Our mission is liberation, reunification and solving the Cyprus problem,” he said. “If we really want to send a message on this tragic anniversary … it is to do anything possible to reunite Cyprus.”

Turkey, he said, continued to be responsible for violating human rights and international law over Cyprus.

Across the south, church services were held to remember the more than 3,000 people who died in the Turkish invasion.

“It was a betrayal of Cyprus and so many kids were lost. It wasn’t just my son, it was many,” said Loukas Alexandrou, 90, as he tended the grave of his son at a military cemetery.

In Turkey, state television focused on violence against Turkish Cypriots prior to the invasion, particularly on bloodshed in 1963-64 and in 1967.

Turkey’s invasion took more than a third of the island and expelled more than 160,000 Greek Cypriots to the south.

Reunification talks collapsed in 2017 and have been at a stalemate since. Northern Cyprus is a breakaway state recognized only by Turkey, and its Turkish Cypriot leadership wants international recognition.

The post One Part of Cyprus Mourns, the Other Rejoices 50 Years After Split first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Putin Jails US Reporter Gershkovich in Sham Trial

A Russian secret court found U.S. reporter Evan Gershkovich guilty of espionage on Friday and sentenced him to 16 years in a maximum security penal colony in what his employer, the Wall Street Journal, accurately called “a disgraceful sham conviction.”

Gershkovich, a 32-year-old Jewish American who denied any wrongdoing, went on trial in the city of Yekaterinburg last month after being accused of trying to gather sensitive information about a tank factory.

He was the first U.S. journalist accused of spying in Russia since the Cold War, and his arrest in March 2023 prompted many U.S. and other Western correspondents to leave Moscow.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Gershkovich did not commit any crime and has been wrongfully detained.

“We are pushing hard for Evan’s release and will continue to do so,” Biden said in a statement. “Journalism is not a crime.”

Video of Friday’s hearing released by the court showed Gershkovich, dressed in a T-shirt and black trousers, standing in a glass courtroom cage as he listened to the verdict being read in rapid-fire legalese for nearly four minutes.

Asked by the judge if he had any questions, he replied “Nyet.”

The judge, Andrei Mineyev, said the nearly 16 months Gershkovich had already served since his arrest would count towards the 16-year sentence.

Mineyev ordered the destruction of the reporter’s mobile phone and paper notebook. The defense has 15 days to appeal.

“This disgraceful, sham conviction comes after Evan has spent 478 days in prison, wrongfully detained, away from his family and friends, prevented from reporting, all for doing his job as a journalist,” the Journal said in a statement.

“We will continue to do everything possible to press for Evan’s release and to support his family. Journalism is not a crime, and we will not rest until he’s released. This must end now.”

Gershkovich’s friend, reporter Pjotr Sauer of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, posted on X: “Russia has just sentenced an innocent man to 16 years in a high security prison. I have no words to describe this farce. Let’s get Evan out of there.”

Friday’s hearing was only the third in the trial. The proceedings, apart from the sentencing, were closed to the media on the grounds of state secrecy.

Espionage cases often take months to handle and the unusual speed at which the trial was held behind closed doors has stoked speculation that a long-discussed U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange deal may be in the offing, involving Gershkovich and potentially other Americans detained in Russia.

The Kremlin, when asked by Reuters earlier on Friday about the possibility of such an exchange, declined to comment: “I’ll leave your question unanswered,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Among those Russia would like to free is Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a life sentence in Germany for murdering an exiled Chechen-Georgian dissident in a Berlin park in 2019.

Officers of the FSB security service arrested Gershkovich on March 29, 2023, at a steakhouse in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles (1,400 km) east of Moscow. He has since been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

Russian prosecutors had accused Gershkovich of gathering secret information on the orders of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency about a company that manufactures tanks for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

The Uralvagonzavod factory, which he is accused of spying on, has been sanctioned by the West. Based in the city of Nizhny Tagil near Yekaterinburg, it has publicly spoken of producing T-90M battle tanks and modernizing T-72B3M tanks.

Earlier on Friday, the court unexpectedly said it would pronounce its verdict within hours after state prosecutors demanded Gershkovich be jailed for 18 years for spying. The maximum sentence for the crime he was accused of is 20 years.

Russia usually concludes legal proceedings against foreigners before making any deals on exchanging them.

‘WRONGFULLY DETAINED’

Gershkovich, his newspaper and the U.S. government all rejected the allegations against him and said he was merely doing his job as a reporter accredited by the Foreign Ministry to work in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is open to a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, and that contacts with the United States have taken place but must remain secret.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that Washington was working every day to bring home Gershkovich, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and other Americans.

He declined to go into details when asked why Putin would reach a deal on Gershkovich’s release ahead of the U.S. election.

“Any effort to bring any American home is going to be part of a process of back and forth, of discussion, potentially of negotiation,” Blinken said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“Depending on what the other side is looking for, they’ll reach their own conclusions about whether it meets whatever their needs are, and we can bring someone home – and I don’t think that’s dependent on an election in the United States or anywhere else,” he said.

Mark Warner, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, called Gershkovich’s sentence “outrageous,” and said he thinks “it’s clear that the Russians view Evan almost as a bargaining chip at this point.”

Speaking in an interview with Reuters, Warner declined to discuss whether efforts are underway to arrange an exchange for Gershkovich’s release, but said “all options have to stay on the table” with regards to how the Biden administration responds.

Friends who have exchanged letters with Gershkovich say he has remained resilient and cheerful throughout his imprisonment, occupying himself by reading classics of Russian literature.

At court appearances over the past 16 months – most recently with his head shaven – he has frequently smiled and nodded at reporters he used to work with before he himself became the story.

Since Russian troops entered Ukraine in 2022, Moscow and Washington have conducted just one high profile prisoner swap: Russia released basketball star Brittney Griner, held for smuggling cannabis, in return for arms dealer Viktor Bout, jailed for terrorism-related offenses in the United States.

The post Putin Jails US Reporter Gershkovich in Sham Trial first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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VP Harris Hits Fundraising Trail Amid Ongoing Calls for Biden to Quit Race

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will headline a fundraiser in Massachusetts on Saturday as President Joe Biden faces continued pressure from fellow Democrats and big money donors to end his floundering campaign.

Biden and top aides on Friday vowed to continue with the campaign, even as major donors signaled they were unwilling to open their checkbooks unless the 81-year-old president stepped aside.

The crisis-in-confidence in Biden’s ability to win has placed a huge spotlight on Harris, widely believed to be the most likely replacement if he steps down.

Her fundraising events, including the one on Saturday in Provincetown, Massachusetts are getting added interest from donors who want to signal they are willing to coalesce around her potential bid for the White House, according to three Democratic fundraisers.

More than one in 10 congressional Democrats have now publicly called on Biden, who is isolating at his Delaware home with a case of COVID-19, to drop out following a disastrous debate last month against Republican former President Donald Trump that raised questions about the incumbent’s ability to win the Nov. 5 election or carry out his duties for another four years.

Biden’s campaign hoped to raise some $50 million in big-dollar donations in July for the Biden Victory Fund but was on track for less than half that figure as of Friday, according to two sources familiar with the fundraising efforts.

The campaign called reports of a July fundraising slump overstated, noting that it anticipated a drop-off in large donations due to vacations. It said the campaign still has 10 fundraisers on the schedule this month.

Harris assured major Democratic donors on Friday that the party would prevail in the presidential election as more lawmakers called for her running mate, Biden, to stand down.

“We are going to win this election,” she said on a call arranged on short notice to calm donors, according to a person on the call. “We know which candidate in this election puts the American people first: Our president, Joe Biden.”

Harris attended the call “at the direct request of senior advisers to the president,” one of the people said, an account confirmed by another person familiar with the matter.

The post VP Harris Hits Fundraising Trail Amid Ongoing Calls for Biden to Quit Race first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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