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Why a Maine town swapped out a Star of David from its holiday display

(JTA) – A suburb of Portland, Maine, has removed a Star of David from its annual holiday lights display after a local Arab American organization complained, reportedly calling it “offensive” in light of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

But the mayor of Westbrook told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the reason for the star’s removal had more to do with the city’s efforts to follow the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which is understood to forbid overtly religious displays on public property. He added that local Jewish groups agreed it should be taken down and that Hanukkah would still be represented for the first time in the city’s holiday display via a series of dreidels.

“I think it was all positive intent to just try and be more inclusive,” Mayor Michael Foley said, adding that, since the story broke in local media, he had been fielding calls from people accusing him of antisemitism. “There’s been no ill intention by it. It was simply an honest mistake and it was never included on our display.”

Foley said the star had been ordered by a city employee without his knowledge. He added, “I still don’t truly understand” why the local Arab group, the New England Arab American Organization, had complained about it.

The Star of David has been widely used by Jewish communities since the 17th century; it has also been used to identify Jews by their adversaries, notably the Nazis. The Star of David is also the centerpiece of the Israeli flag, adopted in October 1948, months after Israel became a country.

“They view it as the city taking a side in the war, we’re supporting one country over another,” Foley said about the group that objected to the symbol. The organization did not respond to JTA requests for comment.

As the debate around Israel and Gaza has remained heated since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and Israel’s ensuing war on the terror group in Gaza, even public displays have not been immune to the war. Earlier this week the University of Texas in Dallas removed “spirit rocks” that had been fixtures on campus for years because, administrators said, students were using them to paint increasingly aggressive messages about Israel, Gaza and the Palestinians.

But the presence (or lack thereof) of Jewish symbols in city holiday displays is a much older issue, one that has been litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1989 case found that the public display of a Nativity scene in a Pittsburgh courthouse was not permissible because it could be interpreted as the city promoting one religion over another, but that the display of a Chabad-Lubavitch menorah was allowed because the city demonstrated pluralism by pairing it with a Christmas tree.

Foley had been hoping to find a similar pluralistic spirit in Westbrook. For the last few years the city sought to expand its holiday display to include Hanukkah and other celebrations, while avoiding having any explicitly religious symbols on the advice of their legal counsel. “We just tried to stick with colors and snowflakes and snowmen and animals,” he said.

City staff decided on dreidels, he said, because they “seemed like a reasonable compromise with members of the community.” This was to be the first year when the dreidels would join the display (Westbrook, which has a population of around 20,000, does not have any synagogues).

Foley said he didn’t know that a member of the display’s installation team also ordered the Star of David and was unaware that it is seen as a broader religious symbol for Jews beyond Hanukkah.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think the dreidel’s a really appropriate winter holiday symbol in the context of a holiday light display,” Molly Curren Rowles, the director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, told JTA.

Rowles said that her Portland-based group was looped in late on the dispute but now hopes to turn it into an interfaith teaching opportunity. She has reached out to the Arab American group to better understand their objection but hasn’t heard from them yet.

I think obviously we would be concerned if the Star of David were perceived as an offensive symbol,” she said. While the alliance would “give deference to the Establishment Clause,” she added, “we’re happy to have Stars of David wherever people want to put them up.”

Talks are in the works to add a menorah to the city’s display, while a local church has offered to put the Star of David on its own property — what Foley said is meant as a gesture of solidarity to the Jewish community. But, he said, he will follow local Jewish guidance on whether that would be appropriate.

The post Why a Maine town swapped out a Star of David from its holiday display appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Top IDF Brass Blindsided by UNRWA Fallout

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

i24 NewsSenior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) command was caught off guard by the speed with which the allegations implicating UNRWA staffers in the October 7 atrocities became public knowledge, according to a New York Times report published Saturday.

When, on January 18, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini sat down with senior Israeli diplomat Amir Weissbrod in Tel Aviv for a routine meeting, the UN official was supplied with intelligence about the agency employees’ involvement in the massacre.

While the intelligence was provided by the IDF, the military establishment didn’t expect the explosive information to leak into the public domain. It emerged that Lazzarini relayed the allegations to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and began firing employees, eventually reporting the developments to U.S. officials.

Unnamed IDF officials cited in the NYT report were concerned that the allegations had been disseminated without Israel having devised a proper strategy for the fallout.

European countries, from the UK to Germany, as well as the United States, Canada and Australia all froze funding to UNRWA amid reviews in the aid agency and its employees.

While some have pushed for a complete shutdown of the agency, including U.S. lawmakers and Israeli ministers, others — including unnamed senior IDF officials — have said that it was inadvisable to do so during the war when UNRWA was providing needed humanitarian aid.

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Hamas Turns Down Hostage Deal, Demands Israel Release More Terrorists

Families of hostages and supporters protest to call for the release of hostages kidnapped on the deadly October 7 attack by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 6, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

i24 NewsHamas on Sunday said it rejected the proposed hostage deal formulated in Paris, demanding that Israel release more Palestinian terrorists locked up in Israeli jails, according to a Saudi outlet.

There are 136 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian jihadists, abducted during the October 7 incursion and massacre.

The statement comes hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reiterated Israel had “red lines” which could not be crossed.

Thus, the leader said, Israel will not end the war until all its goals are met, namely “the eradication of Hamas, the rescue of all our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will never again pose a threat to Israel.”

“We will not agree to every deal, and not at any price,” he said, adding reports in the local media whereby Israel agreed to freeing large numbers of terrorists were not true.

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Dennis Ross Is Blaming Israel Again

Former Clinton adviser and US Mideast envoy Dennis Ross. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgFormer U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross just can’t stop blaming Israel.

Speaking via Zoom for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism & Policy on Jan. 31, Ross offered some expected, perfunctory criticism of Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah. But again and again, he managed to bring in one-sided and unfair criticism of Israel.

Referring to Israel’s counter-terrorism actions in Judea and Samaria, Ross said: “West Bank violence [by Arabs] is not disconnected from Israel’s policies in the West Bank.”

That’s just absurd. The terrorists are not responding to Israeli policies. They were murdering Jews long before there were any settlements or so-called occupied territories. They oppose Israel’s existence, not its borders. It’s these terrorists who are the aggressors, and Israelis must respond to them.

Regarding Gaza, Ross said: “The Israelis haven’t done everything they could to spare civilians in Gaza.” Is he kidding? The Israelis have refrained from striking terrorist targets where there are civilians. They have personally warned civilians to evacuate, again and again, through leaflets and phone calls and public announcements. They have risked the lives of their own soldiers by going house to house, instead of just bombing from the air. What else can they possibly do?

Ross also commented on the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice—the ruling that failed to condemn Hamas and demanded that Israel give more aid to Palestinians in Gaza. He said the ruling was “not irresponsible” and that it was provoked by “extreme statements by Israeli politicians.” That’s simply nonsense. The statement that the court cited most prominently was made by Israel’s left-leaning president, Isaac Herzog, who said that many ordinary Gazans supported the Hamas massacre, which was a perfectly reasonable statement of fact.

The practice of saying a few perfunctory crucial words about terrorists and then “balancing” it with criticism of Israel is typical of the grotesque “even-handedness” that Ross and his colleagues pushed during his many years at the U.S. State Department.

That approach was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. There can be no “balance” between good and evil. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not on the same moral level. Israel is America’s loyal, reliable, democratic ally. The P.A. is a terror-sponsoring, hate-mongering dictatorship.

In recent months, Ross has been saying that Israel should allow the Hamas leadership to leave Gaza in exchange for the release of the remaining hostages. He points to Israel’s decision in 1982, under U.S. pressure, to allow PLO chief Yasser Arafat and thousands of PLO terrorists to leave besieged Beirut.

But Ross never mentions what happened after Arafat left. He didn’t retire. He set up PLO terrorist headquarters in Tunisia, and then 20 additional years of terrorism followed—suicide bombings, intifadas, mass shootings, stabbings. Ross’s new plan would have the same result.

This is the same Dennis Ross who has acknowledged—on the op-ed page of The Washington Post in 2014—that he pressured Israel to allow Hamas to import concrete. Ross wrote that the Israelis opposed his demand because they feared that Hamas would use the cement to build terror tunnels. Ross insisted the concrete would be used to build houses, and because of his pressure, the Israelis gave in. We all know the result.

In his Zoom talk this week, Ross had the chutzpah to mention that Hamas used imported cement to build tunnels instead of homes, though never mentioned that he was the one who helped them to get that cement into Gaza in the first place.

Ross is frequently quoted in The New York Times and invited to appear on television shows and webinars. He’s treated as if his past involvement in Mideast diplomacy makes him an expert on how to make peace today. Yet every one of those diplomatic efforts failed. He has never facilitated real peace because he continues to pretend that both sides are to blame for the absence of peace.

The Jewish world is full of talented speakers, thinkers and writers. Surely, our institutions should be able to find more thoughtful lecturers than those same tired, old critics of Israel with their familiar and disastrous proposals.

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