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Wars in Israel and Ukraine take center stage in Israel for Jews with roots in the former Soviet Union

TEL AVIV — Valeriia Kholodova knows all too well the horrors of war. Born and raised in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, she fled to Kyiv in 2014 after fierce fighting broke out between pro-Russian separatists and government forces. 

Then, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she fled again — this time to Israel. 

Now, living through her third war in less than a decade, Kholodova, 40, is no longer running.

“What happened on Oct. 7 changed everything,” said Kholodova, who heads Chabad’s charity projects in Ukraine remotely from her Israeli home in Rehovot while representing Hillel in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Azerbaijan. “I decided to stay. I’m not afraid. This is my home.” 

Kholodova was among 150 Israelis with roots in the former Soviet Union who gathered Dec. 21 at a hotel in Jaffa for an evening of lectures, music and solidarity with Israel.

The event was organized by Limmud FSU, the global Jewish organization that brings together Jews with roots in the former Soviet Union to strengthen their sense of community and Jewish identity. 

The event in late December originally was supposed to take place at Shefayim, the kibbutz in central Israel where evacuees from Kfar Aza, one of the communities devastated on Oct. 7, have been relocated. The plan for a big annual festival there was quickly scrapped.

“This is a difficult time,” said Limmud FSU’s founder, Chaim Chesler, noting that the war in Israel became the focus of this event. “We didn’t want to give up, so we decided to move it somewhere else on a smaller scale — and to show everybody that we are alive.”

At one session, Victor Vakhstein discussed how U.S. college campuses have become “new bastions of antisemitism.” Kiril Fefferman talked about why the Holocaust has become one of the defining themes of Israel’s war against Hamas—both for Jews and their enemies. Binyamin Minich lectured on the four fast days of the Jewish calendar

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Marat Mairovich and Nina Garbuzova offered a master class on theater. Ukrainian-born guitarist and actor Ariel Krizhopolsky put on a musical performance. Participants paid a small fee of their choice, with all money raised going to the Lone Soldiers Fund. 

Participants at a Limmud FSU event in Israel amidst the war with Hamas stand for the singing of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. (Alexander Khanin)

David Mayofis, 24, immigrated to Israel in 2014 from the Russian city of Tomsk, in Siberia. He ascribed global protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza to antisemitism. 

“It’s not because we are dealing with a terrorist organization, it’s because of the idea that Israel shouldn’t exist. That’s why they think Hamas is a resistance movement,” said Mayofis, whose pro-Israel blog in English and Hebrew has 37,000 Instagram followers. “They want to remove Israel from the map completely. Criticism of Israel is valid, but once you say, ‘From the river to the sea,’ that’s antisemitism.”

Both Raheli Baratz-Rix of the World Zionist Organization and human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky used their sessions to urge attendees to speak out forcefully against antisemitism and the crimes Hamas is committing, including against Israel’s hostages.

“Jews are being attacked only because they’re Jews or Israelis,” said Baratz-Rix, head of the WZO’s Department for Combating Antisemitism & Enhancing Resilience. “Since the war began, Hitler has become a cultural hero in the Arab world. There are protests all over the Arab world with people carrying his picture and the phrase, ‘It’s a shame you didn’t finish the job. We will continue it.’”

She added: “Our job here is not only to increase awareness about what’s going on, but also to encourage people to speak out against it. Don’t stay silent.” 

Ostrovsky was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, grew up in Australia and has lived in Israel since 2012. He runs the International Legal Forum, a nonprofit coalition of pro-Israel lawyers from around the world.

“So much of the legal discourse we’re seeing around the world influences what’s happening on American college campuses, at the United Nations and on the streets of Europe,” he said. “But people are intentionally misapplying the law to attack and delegitimize Israel. So we must correct that while providing a passionate defense of Israel, and ensuring that the narrative stays on the real war crimes being committed by Hamas.”

Ostrovsky, who has 250,000 followers on X, said that in December alone, his posts have generated over 100 million impressions.

Limmud FSU co-founder Chaim Chesler and Raheli Baratz-Rix of the World Zionist Organization at the Limmud FSU event in Israel on Dec. 21, 2023. (Alexander Khanin)

“We’re in the age of social media, and misinformation spreads like wildfire. We’re fighting this war on multiple battlefronts, not only in the legal arena but also the digital arena—especially when we’re dealing with millennials,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle, but at the same time we’re also seeing people standing up for Israel and seeing the horrors for themselves. And they are speaking up.”

Since its creation in 2005, Limmud FSU has held nearly 90 festivals worldwide, drawing over 80,000 participants. The organization is led by chairman Matthew Bronfman, Chesler, co-founder Sandy Cahn, and executive director Natasha Chechik, and its work is supported by individuals and organizations including the WZO, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Nativ-Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, Jewish National Fund – KKL, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Wilf Family Foundation, Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, Diane Wohl, Bill Hess and others.

Iryna Tsarenko flew to Israel in December for a 10-day volunteer program that included picking vegetables on a kibbutz, touring the damaged city of Sderot, spending Shabbat in Jerusalem and meeting with the families of Israeli hostages taken to Gaza. Originally from Kyiv, Tsarenko, 41, left soon after Russia invaded Ukraine and moved to Berlin. 

“I live in Germany, but Ukraine and Israel are really my countries — and both are at war,” Tsarenko said. “Many farmworkers went back to Thailand and they had nobody to pick the crops. So this was my opportunity to help Israel.” 


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French Government Will Hold Commemoration for Victims of Hamas Pogrom Amid Disquiet Over Far Left Party’s Participation

Posters in Paris broadcasting the plight of Israeli hostages in Gaza covered over with pro-Palestinian messages. Photo: Reuters/Magali Cohen

French President Emmanuel Macron will preside over a special ceremony on Wednesday to commemorate the French victims of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas pogrom in Israel as a row over the potential presence of far left parliamentarians continues to fester.

A statement from the Elysée Palace on Monday confirmed Macron’s presence at Wednesday’s event, which will take place at Les Invalides in Paris, where the French National Assembly and other leading national institutions are based.

A spokeswoman for Macron’s office pointed out that 42 French citizens were among the more than 1,200 people murdered during the Hamas assault, with a further three still being held hostage in Gaza.

Answering a question from a reporter about whether a similar event would be held for French citizens killed during the IDF bombing of Gaza that followed the assault, she added that a separate memorial ceremony would be held at a date yet to be determined. “It is obvious that we owe the same emotion and the same dignity to the French victims of the bombings in Gaza, and this tribute will be paid to them at another time,” she said. It is not clear how many French passport holders have actually been killed since the French government announced the deaths of two Palestinian children who were French citizens on Oct. 31.

Wednesday’s ceremony will unfold “under the universal sign of the fight against anti-Semitism and through it, all forms of hatred, racism and oppression against minorities,” the official statement from the presidency declared. Each of the murdered victims will be commemorated through the display of a photograph with their name attached. Families of the victims will be present, many of them being flown in from Israel on a special flight chartered by the French government.

The event is already mired in controversy due the announcement of parliamentarians from the far left La France Insoumise  (LFI -“France Rising”) that they plan to attend. LFI has been vocal in its support of Palestinians in Gaza, frequently drawing accusations of antisemitism because of its harsh rhetoric. Earlier this month, the daughter of two LFI MPs was arrested for allegedly antisemitic social media posts in the weeks following the Hamas attack, while another LFI MP faced condemnation over a posting on social media that invoked a popular Japanese manga meme appropriated by antisemites.

In a letter to Macron, members of five of the victims families demanded a ban on the participation of LFI MPs.

“We, families of victims of Hamas terrorists, solemnly demand that any presence of LFI at the national tribute that will be paid to the 42 Franco-Israeli victims of 7/10 be prohibited,” the letter stated.

However, that request is unlikely to be granted. Pointing out that parliamentarians are automatically invited to state-organized ceremonies, Macron’s office stated that “It is up to everyone to assess the appropriateness or not of their presence since the families spoke out and expressed strong emotion,” but notably did not accede to the ban request.

Mathilde Panot, the head of the LFI deputies in the National Assembly, said last week that she planned to attend the ceremony.

“I will be present and I have asked that a tribute be paid to all the French victims of this war in the Middle East, including the Franco-Palestinians killed in Gaza by the Israeli army,” she said.



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Montana Tucker “Bring Them Home” Grammy Tribute for Israeli Hostages Turns Heads

Feb 4, 2024; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Montana Tucker at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards at Arena in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. Photo: Dan MacMedan / USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

Jewish singer and songwriter Montana Tucker showed her support for Israelis still being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza at Sunday night’s 66th Annual Grammy Awards, an annual ceremony held to honor the record industry’s most critically acclaimed artists.

Posing for photographers, Tucker walked the red carpet clad in a beige, diaphanous corset gown ornamented with a yellow ribbon that said, “Bring Them Home.” She also wore a Star of David necklace.

136 Israeli hostages remain imprisoned by Hamas in Gaza. They have been there since Oct. 7, when the terrorist organization committed a massacre of Jews across the southern region of Israel, the deadliest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust. Hamas’ fighters brutally murdered and rape hundreds, and according to numerous reports, more are being sexually abused in captivity.

Tucker’s wasn’t the only statement made about the Israel-Hamas war. Ann Lennox, Scottish vocalist of the popular 1980s band Eurythmics — most known for its No. 1 song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — called for a ceasefire in Gaza in a speech delivered after she performed a tribute to Sinéad O’Connor.

Raising a “Black Power” fist before a much larger audience than Tucker was accorded, Lennox proclaimed, “Artists for a ceasefire. Peace in the world.”

Lennox was alluding to “Artists4Ceasefire,” a small group of entertainers who issued a letter calling on President Joe Biden to “end the bombing of Gaza” that did not mention that Hamas started the war or condemn rising antisemitism. The letter’s signatories include, among other B-list celebrities, Adam Lambert — who in 2009 won second place in the now-discontinued television series American Idol — Jennifer Lopez, Rosie O’Donnell, and Alyssa Milano.

The Algemeiner honored Montana Tucker in 2022 for being one of 100 people recognized for positively influencing Jewish life. A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Tucker was dogged all her life by assertions that she does not “look Jewish.” Undeterred by the remarks, she committed to proudly representing the Jewish community, and in 2022 produced “How To: Never Forget,” a ten-part docuseries about her grandparents lives in Poland before the Nazi invasion.

“This has been my responsibility to do this, for me and my grandparents and everyone else,” Tucker said at the time, during an interview. “People are used to seeing my very light-hearted, fun dance videos and me collaborating with a lot of different people…It’s rare for me and my content, and rare for the platform in general, to have a docuseries on the Holocaust.”

Other pro-Israel activists wore apparel to the Grammy awards to show. Orthodox Rabbi-Rapper Moshe Reuven, whose song “You Are Not Alone” has amassed over one million streams on Spotify, sported a “Never Is Now” shirt distributed through partnership between civil rights nonprofit StandWithUs and Perspective Fitwear. The shirt’s designer is Karen Margolis.

Taylor Swift’s 2022 record, titled Midnights, won “Album of the Year,” and rapper Jay-Z implied during a speech for accepting the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award that his wife, multi-platinum artists and most-winning Grammy award winner ever Beyoncé, has never won “Album of the Year” because she is a Black woman. The moment was reminiscent of a 2009 incident in which Kanye West stormed the stage of the MTV Awards to denounce Swift’s winning “Best Video by a Female Artist.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Israeli Bank Shutter Accounts of Settlers Sanctioned By Biden

A woman uses an automated teller machine (ATM), outside a Bank Hapoalim branch in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 30, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Nir Elias / File.

The Israeli bank accounts of two of the Israelis sanctioned by the United States government last week were closed on Sunday and Monday. Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich spoke out against the action, saying “I will take action as the finance minister and do what I must. If need be, we’ll advance legislation on the matter.” He further called the instance “unthinkable” that it occurred.

The two Israelis, Yinon Levi and David Chai Chasdai, had their personal and business accounts closed by Bank Leumi and Bank Hadoar, respectively. The other two settlers listed bank with Bank Hapoalim, who also said they would close the accounts, saying “Bank Hapoalim respects the international sanctions and will comply with any legal order.”

The Bank of Israel announced their support for the move, saying “Banking corporations, by necessity of their international activities, are required to establish policies and procedures for the use of international sanctions lists and national sanctions lists of foreign countries and for entering into or carrying out operations with parties declared on such lists. Circumvention of sanctions regimes as mentioned, has the effect of exposing the banking corporations to significant risks, among them, compliance risks, money laundering and terrorist financing risks, legal risks and reputational risks.”

Chasdai, who denies any wrongdoing, said “The fact that a government bank decides in the middle of a bright day to seize the bank accounts of settlers solely because of pressure from extreme leftist organizations and a hostile American government is unimaginable, but the fact that this is happening under the tenure of a right-wing government just after the greatest massacre in the country’s history is a national disgrace first class.”

“We have gone through many oppressors who harmed the people of Israel over the generations, we will also go through the persecution of Biden and his aides,” he added.

US President Joe Biden approved the sanctions last week, saying “The situation in the West Bank – in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction – has reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security and stability in the region.”

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