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Opponents of Israel’s judicial overhaul see parallels in Tisha B’Av, this week’s Jewish day of mourning



(JTA) — The image started circulating almost as soon as the Israeli government finished voting to approve a divisive piece of legislation this week. “Shisha B’Av,” it said in white Hebrew letters against a black background – Hebrew for the Sixth of Av.

That was the Hebrew date on Monday, when right-wing lawmakers signed off on a law limiting the judiciary’s ability to review government decisions. 

But the image, which spread widely within the sweeping movement protesting the legislation, wasn’t just marking the calendar. It was also invoking the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, just days away, which mourns the destruction of the ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Rabbinic tradition says that collapse of Jewish sovereignty resulted as much from infighting as from external attacks — if not more so. 

“No one is missing the symbolism on the left,” said David Selis, a graduate student at Yeshiva University who is researching the use of Jewish text and images in Israeli protests over time.

Selis had participated in multiple protests against the legislation in Jerusalem but was in New York City when it passed. In the hours after the Knesset vote, he tweeted a suggestion to read the Book of Lamentations, Tisha B’Av’s central scripture, outside the Israeli consulate when the holiday began on Wednesday night.

Others also suggested turning Tisha B’Av into a focal point for Jews mourning what they see as a catastrophic development in Israeli politics. Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States are invoking the fast day in their statements, rabbis are planning to speak about Israel at their congregations’ services and special events are being held to observe the day of mourning in public ways. The groundswell of attention, some say, could make Tisha B’Av newly relevant to non-Orthodox American Jews and secular Israelis, who have historically been less likely to observe its rituals.

“We are now a little over 24 hours away from Tisha B’Av, the day when we mark the loss of our sovereignty 2,000 years ago, due to internal fighting,” Julie Platt, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, said during an online briefing about the legislation on Tuesday. “The parallels to today are frightening.”

Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, added on the call, “I see radicalization right now on the street. And I really hope we’ll be able to contain it…. Let’s hope Tisha B’Av will be only a memory, not a reality for us.”

According to Jewish tradition, a string of calamities have befallen the Jews on the Ninth of Av. The destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE — both known as “hurban habayit” in Hebrew — are the most prominent in a list of events cited by Talmudic rabbis in prescribing a day of fasting, prayer and mourning rituals. A series of more recent Jewish tragedies also took place on or near Tisha B’Av, including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492; the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, and the deadly 1994 bombing at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

No one has died in Israel because of the right-wing government’s judicial reforms. But those who oppose the government say its aggressive bid to sap Israel’s judiciary of its independence does threaten the country’s security and stability in the future, and will put vulnerable Israelis at risk absent the court’s protection. Reportedly beginning with former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan 50 years ago, Israelis have often referred to the modern state of Israel as a “Third Temple,” or third Jewish commonwealth, following those that existed millennia ago. 

“In Israel, even in the most secular spaces, people are referring to what the government is doing as ‘hurban habayit,’” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, the liberal rabbinic human rights group. “It’s really clear that this is just a major incident that is going to have really lasting negative repercussions for Jews and also for Palestinians.”

The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. But the ancient rabbis offered a slew of additional explanations that were enshrined in classic Jewish texts, including the Talmud. Chief among them, regarding the Second Temple, is the idea that “sinat chinam,” or wanton hatred, among Jews weakened the city, and there are others.

“One of the reasons that the Talmud mentions for the destruction of Jerusalem is the way that the judges were judging,” Jacobs said. The explanation is complex, she said, but boils down to the idea that the judges were applying the law very narrowly and not bringing in their own wisdom.

“The reason the Rabbis taught us all these reasons that the Temple was destroyed was not so they could say, ‘This is what people were doing back then. Weren’t they terrible?’” Jacobs said. “It’s about teaching us a lesson for today.”

Jacobs’ group has signed onto the public reading of the Book of Lamentations, known in Hebrew as Eicha, outside the Israeli consulate in New York City on Thursday afternoon, along with a growing number of local synagogues. The event marks the first time that the protest movement of Israelis abroad, which has organized solidarity rallies in New York City and elsewhere over the last six months, has partnered with synagogues.

The resonance makes sense, said Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, a Reform congregation that is participating in the rally. 

“Someone said they are experiencing an overwhelming ache in their body, just like when someone they loved died,” Timoner said. “This is the exact feeling that Tisha B’Av is designed to evoke in us, to get us in touch with the collective grief of our people through time, and equally now.”

Timoner said she planned to speak “very very briefly” about “the pain and grief that Israelis and all who love them are feeling right now” during services on Wednesday night, even as many Israelis in her community will be joining a special Hebrew-language service targeted toward them elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Not everyone believes it’s appropriate to draw such a stark connection between Tisha B’Av and the contemporary political crisis.

“The talk of the lessons of Tisha B’Av are not as apropos as most of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s opponents would like us to believe,” Jonathan Tobin, editor in chief of the right-leaning Jewish News Syndicate, wrote in a column on Tuesday

“While neither side in this dispute should behave as if it has a monopoly on truth or righteousness,” he added, “it ill behooves Jews and friends of Israel looking on from abroad to be lecturing the prime minister and his supporters about sinat chinam, especially when the mindless hatred against fellow Jews seems to be mainly flowing against those who support judicial reform.”

And some in Israel will be connecting Tisha B’Av to the protest movement not by honoring the holiday but by breaching it. Contrary to local ordinances, a number of restaurants in Tel Aviv plan to open their doors Wednesday night. Some say they’re doing so in protest of the government or as a gesture of principle to their secular Israeli patrons.

But even for some on the right, the Tisha B’Av timing has been a cause for concern. David Friedman, former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, called the confluence of the vote and the fast day “very bad timing.” 

“Given the striking parallels between Israel’s current internal rift and the infighting that caused the destruction of the Second Temple 2000 years ago, why would the Israeli Government proceed with its Judicial Reform bill on the eve of Tisha B’Av?” Friedman, who has long backed Netanyahu but has criticized the judicial reforms, wrote on Twitter

The judicial legislation is not the first time that the Israeli political calendar has delivered a major crisis on Tisha B’Av. In 2005, the government proceeded with its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip on the eve of the holiday, against the fierce protests of many right-wing and religious Israelis who believed that ceding land represented a catastrophe for the Jewish people.

“I always found it chilling that the disengagement, that for many Israelis was physical destruction, was conducted on the eve of 9 of Av,” said Masua Sagiv, an Israeli professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies contemporary Judaism in Israel. “And now, again, with legislation that promises to be the opening of a constitutional structural change threatening Israeli democracy and the basic fabric of the society in Israel, [the] Israeli government chooses this date.”

Sagiv published an essay in April, as Israel marked its 75th birthday, noting that the Jewish people’s attempts at sovereignty have tended to fall apart after 75 years. So the fact that the current conflict reached a turning point so close to Tisha B’Av felt especially poignant to her.

Symbols receive their power from the interpretation we give them,” Sagiv said. “But here these interpretations seem inescapable, and still an opportunity to remind us what is at stake, and how grave the danger is, and how much work is ahead of us.”

Some in Israel will be connecting Tisha B’Av to the protest movement not by observing the holiday but by breaching it. Contrary to local ordinances, a number of restaurants in Tel Aviv plan to open their doors on Wednesday night. Some say they’re doing so in protest of the government or as a gesture of principle to their secular Israeli patrons.

Selis said he thought it was more likely that Israelis would channel their political alienation through the traditions of the day. More modern practices include discussions of current events, which some communities use as a way to recognize the dissonance of lamenting Jerusalem’s destruction in a country that has a rebuilt Jerusalem as its capital.

“I think Tisha B’av is now going to be back on the secular Israeli consciousness,” Selis said. He added, “Secular or traditional sorts of Israeli society might be realizing that giving up control of so much of religious functioning of the state was a bad idea and… that they do, in fact, want there to be some religious identity for the state.”

Jacobs offered a similar prediction. “Many people in Israel feel like Judaism is something that’s coercive, something that’s only practiced by certain segments of the population, something that is used and misused for state power,” she said. “So it’s amazing that Israelis and others are saying, ‘No, actually, we’re going to claim Judaism and we’re going to find meaning in it.’”

The post Opponents of Israel’s judicial overhaul see parallels in Tisha B’Av, this week’s Jewish day of mourning appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial.




(JTA) — Earlier this year, a British Jewish nonprofit received a call from a young couple in the city of Brest, Belarus, who had just purchased a fixer-upper house and needed some help with a difficult situation: Their basement was built from old Jewish gravestones.

Jewish groups — including the nonprofit The Together Plan and its American arm, the Jewish Tapestry Project, founded to aid Belarusian Jewry — have been receiving such calls for nearly two decades from residents of Brest who have collectively discovered thousands of Jewish headstones in their city’s construction. All of the headstones come from a historic cemetery that was destroyed during and after the Holocaust.

Today, an athletic complex sits on the site of the cemetery, which once contained tens of thousands of graves. But by the end of next year, The Together Plan expects to complete a memorial to the cemetery. It is also in the process of organizing and cataloging more than 3,200 remnants of the cemetery’s headstones, which were used after World War II in construction projects throughout the city.

“Currently there’s nothing there to say it’s a cemetery,” Debra Brunner, CEO and co-founder of The Together Plan, the group leading the project, told CNN.

Before World War II, Brest — also known as Brest-Litovsk, or Brisk to the Jewish community that lived there — was home to more than 20,000 Jews and was a center of Jewish culture and study. But when the city was liberated after the Holocaust, only about 10 Jews remained there. Today, it has a total population of more than 300,000.

The Nazis also destroyed the city’s Jewish cemetery in part by selling half of its headstones. In the decades following the war, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and construction materials were hard to find, the gravestones became the foundations of homes, supermarkets, garden walks and cellars. In some cases, the Hebrew lettering on the stones was chiseled away.

The memorial will be erected on what was once a corner of the cemetery, some distance away from the sports complex. It will be made from broken pieces of the headstones that have been recovered over the past two decades and will feature a black granite plaque with text in Russian, Hebrew and English. The area surrounding the memorial will be covered with trees, grass and wildflowers.

Jewish cemetery preservation has been at times a contentious issue in Belarus. As recently as 2017, a Belarusian court approved a plan to construct a luxury apartment building on top of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Gomel, near the country’s borders with Ukraine and Russia. The Brest municipality has pledged to maintain the upkeep of its city’s memorial but did not provide any funds directly to the project. It is being led by the Together Plan and the Jewish Tapestry Project and supported by the Religious Jewish Union of Belarus, the Illuminate Foundation and the charitable Belarus-based organization Dialog.

“Jews have always honored the memory of their ancestors,” Boris Bruk, chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community of Brest, said in a campaign video for the project. “And as there is no cemetery, we wanted to have a memorial sign, or a memorial place which would tell our descendants that their ancestors lie at this place, the people who lived, worked and prayed in this city.”

In 2004, residents, construction companies and homeowners with properties paved with headstones began making phone calls to Regina Simonenko, the head of the Brest Holocaust Foundation and museum, wanting to return them. In 2011, the municipality of Brest approved the construction of a memorial using the headstones. The Together Plan joined the project in 2014 and has been fielding the calls since then.

Apart from 1,287 remnants with writing, another 2,000 to 2,500 headstone fragments without any writing have been collected and stored in a warehouse, where they have been photographed, cataloged and added to a searchable database.

The memorial is being designed by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, who plans to build two arcs opposite each other that each feature some of the headstones. According to his website, Goldberg “sees his work as a fusion between sculpture, landscape, and the built environment.”

“It isn’t a cemetery,” he told CNN. “They are all facing in different directions as if they are having a conversation with each other.”

He added, “One rabbi that we have consulted has described it as being about life rather than about death.”

Goldberg has a connection to Brest, too, which led to his work on the memorial. His family had taken in a Holocaust survivor, the late Jack Grynberg, when Grynberg came to the United States following the war. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of Grynberg’s relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Grynberg was one of only a few Jewish residents of Brest to survive.

In 1997, Grynberg and his son Stephen traveled to Brest together. Stephen Grynberg is a filmmaker who has done work for the Shoah Foundation and was the one who recommended Goldberg as the memorial’s designer. The younger Grynberg is also donating a third of the memorial’s estimated $325,000 cost.

“In 1997 there were no signs of the cemetery,” Stephen Grynberg told CNN. “We were taken there and our guide said, ‘This is where the cemetery was.’ Like so many things with the Holocaust, you can’t really understand them, you just have these complicated visceral feelings.”

He added, “I was just trying to compute the idea of them bulldozing a cemetery and building on it. That was the empty feeling I had.”

The post A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says




(JTA) — Authorities in Peru have arrested a 33-year-old man who the FBI has charged with making a string of bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish institutions, including synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.

Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos made more than 150 threats, mostly by email, against synagogues, hospitals, school districts and other institutions in five states between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, according to the FBI’s complaint against him, which was unsealed Thursday. Nunez Santos was arrested in Lima on Tuesday, according to the FBI.

The FBI says Nunez Santos, who is Peruvian, embarked on the bomb threat spree after asking teen girls to send him pornographic pictures of themselves and being rejected. He is also being charged with crimes related to those requests, the FBI said.

Some of the emailed threats included phone numbers to contact. Those phone numbers, the FBI said, belonged to the teen girls who had rejected or cut off contact with him.

The tally of threats in the complaint reflect only some of those that have been reported by synagogues or their local police departments in the last few months. None of the threats have been credible.

After Rosh Hashanah, which began on the evening of Sept. 15, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted a total of 71 threats against Jewish institutions in 14 states since July 21. But the ADL, an antisemitism watchdog, cautioned that the real number may be even higher: Some communities, it said, had chosen not to disclose the threats they received, in part to avoid gratifying whoever was issuing them.

The bomb threats targeting synagogues have, in many cases, led to congregations being evacuated in the middle of prayer services so that police can conduct a sweep of the building. In addition, the threats included in the complaint resulted in thousands of schoolchildren evacuating their schools; a lockdown of a hospital; and flight delays, according to the FBI.

The FBI and antisemitism watchdogs did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional people might have been responsible for the recent wave of bomb threats. The threats in the complaint were made to institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, and Alaska, according to the FBI, but evacuations were reported in several other states including several in New Jersey on Rosh Hashanah.

The complaint includes an example of a complaint received by a synagogue in Westchester County, New York, on Sept. 17, the second day of the holiday. “I placed multiple bombs inside the Jewish Center,” the threat said. “The bombs I placed in the building will blow up in a few hours. Many people will lay in a pool of blood.”

At the time, the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee emailed synagogues in the county saying that local police and the council’s own security official had investigated the email and others received in the area that day and deemed them non-credible. The committee emphasized that all threats needed to be investigated, a warning that came after months of recurring fake threats.

Using data tied to the emails, and by investigating the included phone numbers, law enforcement agents were able to trace the emailed threats to Nunez Santos, who works as a web developer.

The five charges that Nunez Santos faces, if he is convicted, carry the potential of significant prison time. The charges of conveying hoaxes and communicating threats across state lines carry maximum sentences of five years in prison. The charges related to child pornography and exploitation carry much harsher penalties.

“Not only did Santos allegedly email hundreds of hoax bomb threats terrorizing schools, hospitals, and houses of worship, he also perversely tried to sextort innocent teenage girls. His actions wasted limited law enforcement resources, put first responders in unnecessary danger, and victimized children,” the FBI’s assistant director in charge, James Smith, said in a statement. “The FBI will not tolerate anyone who seeks to induce fear in our communities, and we will do whatever it takes to put the perpetrators of such actions behind bars, regardless of their location.”

This is not the first time false bomb threats have been called into a series of Jewish institutions. More than 100 such threats were called into Jewish community centers in the early months of 2017 — most of which, it was later discovered, came from a teen in Israel. In 2020, dozens of JCCs received a separate series of emailed bomb threats.

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Biden expands Civil Rights Act protections at 8 cabinet departments to include antisemitism




WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration is aiming to counter antisemitic discrimination in federally-funded transit systems, housing, food programs and other areas — one of the most major actions the White House has taken since it unveiled a far-reaching strategy to combat antisemitism in May.

On Thursday, the administration announced that it is instructing eight cabinet departments to extend civil rights protections to victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry. The decision marks a broad expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In addition, the administration is launching a listening tour of schools and colleges this fall to hear from Jewish students about hostility on campus, which Jewish groups say often comes from the anti-Israel left. Last week, an LGBTQ student group at Rice University cut ties with Hillel over its support for Israel, and in a separate incident, the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was vandalized.

Thursday’s launch of the listening tour in San Francisco will include a meeting between the deputy secretary of education and representatives of the city’s Hillel chapter. 

“The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to lead a robust, whole-of-society effort to combat antisemitism and discrimination in all its insidious forms,” a White House official said in an e-mailed statement. The four-page release was the most comprehensive accounting to date of how the antisemitism strategy has been implemented since May. Biden set a deadline of May 2024 for the strategy to be implemented across the executive branch.

The announcement includes a comprehensive list of initiatives already taken under the antisemitism strategy. It also comes the same day as President Joe Biden is set to deliver a speech in Phoenix at the McCain Institute, named for the late Republican senator, that will warn of threats of democracy from the far-right and former President Donald Trump.

Under the 1964 act’s Title VI, which the White House release cites, any program or activity receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The White House statement said that staff at the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and Transportation will be told the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of religious bias.

The initiative is a substantial expansion of initiatives by the Obama and Trump administrations to extend the Civil Rights Act’s protections to Jews through the Education Department. An executive order signed by Trump led to a series of federal complaints alleging that Jewish and Zionist students faced hostile campus environments.

Staff will be trained “to respond to this kind of discrimination, engage with entities that are prohibited from discriminating in these ways to explain their legal responsibilities, and inform communities of their rights to be free from such discrimination and how to file complaints,” said the release. Fact sheets on the topic will be available in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Punjabi, and other languages.

Examples of how the expansion would work, the release said, include “shielding people from harassment or discrimination on transit systems funded by the Department of Transportation; in housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; or in U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded food programs.”

In recent years, Jewish watchdog groups have recorded a spike in antisemitic attacks in public places, targeting people who wear outwardly Jewish symbols or clothing. Muslim and Jewish groups have also long advocated — with some success —  for making kosher and halal food available through relief programs.

Jewish groups have, for decades, sought the act’s protections, but have been frustrated by the difficulty of resolving constitutional guardrails around the separation of church and state. The Obama and Trump Education Department directives worked around that issue by defining Jews not simply as a faith but as a group defined in part through ancestry, and also as a group perceived by bigots as being a race — cateogires that fall under Title VI’s purview. 

As part of the launch of the listening tour of Jewish students, Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten will meet with Jewish students, teachers and community leaders at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, followed by a closed session with Hillel-affiliated students from the Bay Area about campus antisemitism.

The emphasis on allegations of campus antisemitism may address concerns by some Jewish organizations that the Biden administration was not as focused on combating antisemitism from the left as it was on antisemitism from the right, and that it is not addressing antisemitism in the context of anti-Israel activism.

In addition to the expansion of Title VI and the listening tour, the White House statement mentioned a list of actions the administration has taken as part of the strategy on antisemitism. Those include delivering information and training to Jewish and other communities on securing their buildings and their computer systems in the face of threats, and bringing together law enforcement agencies and religious communities targeted by violence. Federal officials are also training National Park Service staff on stopping and preventing antisemitic harassment.

The White House is providing information to religious communities on their rights to build houses of worship, an issue that continues to dog Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities thwarted by local authorities. Alongside those measures, the administration is informing members of religious minorities of their rights to religious accommodation in the workplace and is educating medical students, professionals and chaplains on religious discrimination in health care settings. In addition, an exhibit on how the United States reacted to the Holocaust is touring libraries across the country.

In November, a planned Agriculture Department summit of religious leaders in Omaha will “assess the state of antisemitism, highlight effective strategies to counter antisemitism, and build solidarity across faiths.”

The post Biden expands Civil Rights Act protections at 8 cabinet departments to include antisemitism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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