Latest News on Israel and the Jewish World

JNS.org freelance reporters and staff editors strive to provide high quality news coverage of the latest news from Israel and the Jewish world. In this section JNS.org offers analytical reports and commentaries on politics and international affairs, culture and lifestyle features, arts and sports content, and religious news. For the latest news on Israel, we also include exclusively syndicated content from Israel Hayom, a major daily newspaper in Israel. If you are interested in a specific topic, please browse through the content “categories” in our navigation bar or search our site.

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Mainstream Jewish organizations—including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the women’s Zionist organization Hadassah, and a local Jewish Federation—are raising concerns about a Boston University-affiliated high school workshop over what they consider to be its anti-Israel bias and questionable pedagogical techniques. In April, Jewish communal attention was initially drawn to the issue when the advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT) released a video on Axis of Hope’s (AOH) “Whose Jerusalem?” workshop, which specifically selects Jewish students to act as members of the Palestinian terror group Hamas during mock negotiations. “It’s very concerning, when as a way to teach conflict resolution, we’re having kids role play this particular organization (Hamas),” said Robert Trestan, director of ADL's New England Region.

Illinois on Monday became the third state in a month to pass legislation formally opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. But going further than non-binding anti-BDS measures in Tennessee and Indiana, the Illinois bill took concrete action against those who boycott the Jewish state. The legislation—which unanimously passed both the Illinois House (102-0) and Senate (49-0), and will be signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner—prohibits state pension funds from including BDS-participating companies in their portfolios.

Controversy is swirling over conflicting reports as to whether or not the Pope Francis called Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace” during a meeting at the Vatican on Saturday. The episode comes after the Vatican last week recognized the “State of Palestine” in its announcement of a new treaty. Both incidents were roundly criticized by the Israeli government and pro-Israel commentators.

The Palestinian terror group Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis and launched thousands of rockets at the Jewish state, finds itself facing a threat to its rule in Gaza. Over the last month, Islamic State-inspired jihadist groups in Gaza, who ironically argue that Hamas has been too lenient towards Israel and has failed to implement Islamic Sharia Law, have launched a campaign entailing both propaganda and physical attacks on Hamas. “There is ongoing public disenchantment against Hamas inside of Gaza,” said Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their popularity did spike after the [last summer’s] war [with Israel], as a sort of ‘rally around the flag’ effect. But conditions inside of Gaza are still quite terrible and much worse than they were before the war.”

An independent analysis has confirmed the greatest fears of 20 watchdog and advocacy organizations who had expressed concern that University of California, Riverside (UCR) is offering a course that meets the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. A preliminary report on the issue by Verity Educate, an independent non-profit group that analyses the educational accuracy and objectivity of classroom curricula, determined that the student-initiated “Palestinian Voices” class at UCR “reflects a singular interpretation” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and presents Israel exclusively “as an ‘occupying’ power... guilty of ‘settler-colonialism.’”

May 8 marked what many consider an ignominious 10-year anniversary of Mahmoud Abbas becoming the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), given his official term expired more than six years ago. Since Abbas took over for Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, the political and economic situation in the West Bank has become more untenable than ever. With no clear successor to Abbas in the fold and reports of rampant corruption, nepotism, and cronyism, the PA faces an uncertain future. “The state of affairs in the PA right now is paralysis,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “Abbas has a stranglehold on political power, and he appears to be intent on remaining in office for the foreseeable future. There is no vice president. There is no succession plan, and there is no oxygen for political challengers to articulate their vision for the future.”

When Iran was in the incipient stages of its nuclear program, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sponsored the Iran Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act of 1998, a bill that passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate. Seventeen years later, Menendez looks back with concern on how his initial calls to action on the nuclear issue went unheeded. “We had not listened to the alarm bells… I wish others were right and I wrong, but, I was right and they were wrong,” Menendez said in an exclusive interview with JNS.org, referring to his colleagues in Congress. “We have allowed Iran to advance to the point that we are now willing to accept that a great amount of [nuclear] infrastructure will stay in place, even though it may be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”  

From his childhood, to his time as mayor of his birthplace, to his three terms as governor of New York, George Pataki fostered a close relationship with the Jewish community. If he decides to run for president in 2016, a much broader Jewish constituency will get acquainted with Pataki. “I grew up in this little town of Peekskill, but it was a very ethnically diverse town,” Pataki said in an interview with JNS.org. “I went to many a bar mitzvah and talked to many of my Jewish friends and their parents, primarily about Israel. I developed my jump shot in basketball at the synagogue in Peekskill. And then when I first got elected to office and was mayor [of Peekskill], I was pleased to welcome a yeshiva, Ohr HaMeir, to our community, and help them make sure that the community embraced them with open arms... I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to get to know so many members of the Jewish community in New York so well over the course of my time as governor and even before that.” Pataki, who has flirted with a presidential run multiple times, said he is “far closer to making a favorable decision to run than I’ve been at any point in the past.”

After a devastating earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the impoverished mountainous country of Nepal over the weekend, killing more than 4,000 people, Israeli and Jewish humanitarian and governmental organizations have assumed their traditional role on the frontline of relief efforts for a natural disaster. “I think that is one of the outstanding features of the Jewish community, its ability to come together and respond to crises and to show its dedication to tikkun olam (repairing the world),” said Michael Geller, communications director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

 

Resolutions that formally condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in the Tennessee and Indiana state legislatures mark what a group of pro-Israel organizations and grassroots activists hope is just the start of a new trend in fighting BDS on U.S. soil.

 

Rising anti-Semitism and the issue of Palestinian statehood will be among the factors in the equation for Jewish voters when the United Kingdom heads to the polls on May 7 to determine the country’s next ruling political party and prime minister. The election’s two major contenders are the Conservative Party, led by current Prime Minister David Cameron, and the left-leaning Labour Party, led by Member of Parliament (MP) Ed Miliband. Though Miliband is Jewish himself, he has been heavily criticized by his own religious community due to Labour’s stances on Israel, particularly the party’s support for a unilaterally established Palestinian state. But British pro-Israel activist Fiona Sharpe told JNS.org that “what is of greater concern and a much more immediate concern [for Jews in the U.K.] is the issue of anti-Semitism.”

You could call it Israel’s version of former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chat.” President Reuven Rivlin sat down with English-speaking reporters in advance of his first Israel Independence Day as head of state, and laid out both his vision and his concerns for Israel’s future. Since he took office last July, tone of the Rivlin presidency has been markedly different than that of Shimon Peres, his predecessor. Peres was seen as a senior statesman of the world, counting presidents and celebrities amongst his admirers, while Rivlin displays a more down-to-earth demeanor. He articulates what many regular Israelis may feel—but how many other world leaders question the future existence of their state? “For me, until now, it’s not obvious that we are in a position that Israel is a fact and will last forever,” Rivlin says.

University of California, Riverside (UCR) is offering a class cited by 20 watchdog and advocacy organizations as meeting the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. The UCR Spring 2015 listing of student-initiated courses includes a class called “Palestinian Voices” whose syllabus reveals a different title: “Palestine & Israel: Settler-Colonialism and Apartheid.” The 20 organizations wrote in a letter to UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox, “The course schedule is filled with egregiously one-sided, anti-Israel readings and films that falsely paint Israel as a settler-colonial and apartheid state, hold Israel to a double standard to which no other democratic country is held, vilify and demonize Israel and Israel’s supporters, and argue for an end to the Jewish state.” 

Two months after the student government at UCLA raised concerns over the Jewish background of Rachel Beyda, a candidate for the school’s student judicial board, an eerily similar incident has emerged at Stanford University, where student senate candidate Molly Horwitz’s Jewish background was called into question by the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) during an endorsement session for elections. An SOCC member asked Horwitz, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?” Horwitz later said, “I am running for the Stanford Undergraduate Senate in order to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment at Stanford. I am upset that SOCC, a group which purports to encourage such an inclusive environment, instead engaged in anti-Semitism.”

In the aftermath of the recently reached framework understanding on Iran’s nuclear program, the agreement’s fate on American soil could rest in the hands of just a few U.S. senators. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which on Tuesday was unanimously passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would require the Obama administration to submit a final nuclear deal to Congress for review. President Barack Obama previously vowed to veto the bill, but may now approve a modified version. If Obama does exercise his veto power, a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives would be needed to override the president. “[Without Congressional review of a deal], we could face the possibility that the U.N. Security Council... gets to vote on the Iran agreement, but not elected officials from our 50 states. Understandably, that might not go over well at all with the American people,” said American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris.

As Iran and P5+1 nations reached an agreement on a preliminary nuclear deal on April 2, the Islamic Republic is forging ahead with its quest for dominance in the Middle East region. How will the result of the negotiations affect Iran’s regional ambitions, and what is the current extent of the Islamic Republic’s power play? JNS.org spoke with experts for a snapshot of Iran’s influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza.

As Ukraine continues to unravel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) will try to help that country’s Jews celebrate as normal of a Passover holiday as possible in chaotic times. As a tenuous cease-fire holds, aid organizations are working to provide relief to civilians caught in the crossfire. Among them, JDC is currently assisting more than 4,600 Jews displaced by the conflict or stranded in separatist-controlled regions. Despite the upheaval, JDC-run Hesed social welfare centers and JDC-supported Jewish community centers will hold a variety of Passover events—including seders, matzah baking, and cooking workshops—for thousands of Ukrainian Jews. “Now there is an atmosphere of insecurity in Ukraine,” said Oksana Galkevich, JDC’s Ukraine director of external affairs. “An absolutely safe place does not exist.” 

Former secretary of state James Baker, a prominent figure in president George H. W. Bush’s administration and a critic of the Israeli government’s policies, is under fire from conservatives and pro-Israel activists for his decision to speak at the annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. But should the pro-Israel community’s concern extend to former Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Jeb Bush, for whom Baker serves as a foreign policy adviser? “Baker is not a key adviser to Jeb Bush; he has about a dozen policy advisers, all of whom are strong supporters of Israel. ... Jeb disagrees with [Baker] on the U.S.-Israel relationship and the way forward in the Middle East,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and Republican fundraiser who is close with the Bush family.

Fresh off a decisive election victory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in yet another diplomatic storm with U.S. President Barack Obama over pre-election comments that a Palestinian state would not be established under his watch. Netanyahu later clarified that he wants “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.” But were his initial remarks even a policy change to begin with? While mainstream media outlets reported that Netanyahu’s pre-election remarks were a significant departure from a 2009 speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University, in which he backed a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state, both supporters and opponents of Netanyahu within Israel say that the prime minister’s policy on a two-state solution has been consistent.

On Monday, nearly 500 college students attending the annual J Street conference in America’s capital gathered outside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for a two-block march to the headquarters of Hillel International to express disappointment that the Jewish campus umbrella’s CEO and president, Eric Fingerhut, cancelled his appearance at the conference. Fingerhut had pulled out of the gathering after learning that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who has compared Israel to the Islamic State terror group and defended Hamas, was also speaking at the conference.