Reflections on New York Terror Attack, Israel Bike Ride and Beyond

The comments below were expressed in a letter by Nigel Savage, president and CEO of Hazon, an organization dedicated to building a more sustainable world within the Jewish community and beyond.

I rode into work, as I do many days of the year, on a beautiful bike path on a beautiful day. My organization, Hazon, worked quite hard for several years to increase the number of protected bike lanes in New York City. We’re proud of that work, and I sometimes say to people, “and the statistics show that protected bike lanes reduce fatalities and injuries, both for bike riders and pedestrians ….”

But of course those statistics didn’t allow for a day like Tuesday. A few hours after I rode in, a crazy guy — but not randomly crazy, a guy with ideological method to his murderousness — mowed down a bunch of people who happened to be on the bike path at that moment. As we know, eight of them never got up. I rode home an hour later, past the police and the barricades and the camera crews. And past two little kids — wee high, 3 feet tall if that — in cute white Star Wars stormtrooper outfits. “May the force be with all of us,” I thought. [Read more…]

Palestinian Women Tried to Smuggle Explosives as Cancer Medicine, Media Shrugs

Reprinted with permission from Snapshots, a CAMERA blog

Photo courtesy of Snapshots, a Camera blog.

Two Palestinian sisters tried to smuggle explosives into Israel from Gaza by labeling them as cancer medication. The Israeli security service Shin Bet caught the two women on April 19, 2017. Many major U.S. news outlets failed to report the event.

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PJFF Double Feature: “The Kozalchic Affair” and “And Then, Violence”

Two films for the price of one: a documentary feature and a narrative short. In one, an Israeli learns of his father’s unexpected heroic past during the Holocaust; in the other, a young Jewish woman — a law student who lives with her parents — depicts the fear Jews live with in Paris in the current climate of terrorism and increased anti-Semitism.

Buy tickets to these films here.

The Kozalchic Affair
Itzak Shaked, the son of two Holocaust survivors, lived an average life in Israel as an industrialist, until learning the true identity of his father, Yakov Kozalchic.

Known as “The Warden of the Death Block,” Yakov was a Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz who sacrificed his life to save as many of his fellow brethren as he could. His story begins in Poland, but truly takes off in the 1920s when Yakov is found working alongside Al Capone and the infamous German heavyweight Max Schmeling in New York City. From joining the circus as a musician to returning home to start a family in Poland, Yakov seemed to have lived an outrageously full life before seeing it torn apart by the Nazis. Separated from his wife and children, who were imprisoned in Treblinka, Yakov was sent to Auschwitz, where he managed to save himself from the gas chambers through his connections. However, he was unable to escape his placement as Jewish Kapo of Block 11. While carrying out Nazi orders, that if defied were punishable by death, Yakov used the little bit of independence and access he had to benefit his fellow prisoners and save as many Jews and Poles as possible.

Now 68-year-old Itzak embarks on an unforgettable journey to recover his father’s past and meet the people whose lives Yakov changed forever. In Hebrew with English subtitles, “The Kozalchic Affair” tells their stories.

And Then, Violence
Rebecca, a French law student living with her parents in the heart of Paris, runs out to the kosher supermarket to buy wine for a dinner party. However, after the terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the recent anti-Semitic attacks occurring in her own neighborhood, Rebecca is far from at ease navigating the streets surrounding her home.

Official selection of the San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle Jewish Film Festivals, “And Then, Violence” — in French with English subtitles — paints a vivid picture of the complicated reality of anti-Semitism and the subsequent fear Jews experience in Paris every day.

The Trump of Our Fears: Where Fear Begins

— by Annette H. Sabbah

Annette H. Sabbah

Annette H. Sabbah

A few months ago, I watched a spy thriller starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman. It was based on a conspiratorial plot that set in motion the cataclysmic eventuality and ensuing consequences of a nuclear clash between the United States and Russia. The film was titled The Sum of All Fears and rightly so, as it could scare the hell out of anyone, and it sure did me.

Yet, in some strange fashion, the fearful events evoked in that doomsday scenario seem to pale in comparison when juxtaposed against the fears evoked by Donald Trump’s inflammatory speeches, harmful rhetoric and reckless diatribes. Palpable apprehension is raised by his willful exploitation of people’s xenophobia and ignorance in a manner never seen before.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

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Trump’s Rhetoric on Immigration Hurts US, Helps ISIL

A K-1 (Fiancee) Visa

A K-1 (Fiancee) Visa

It is a rare day when Dick Cheney and Lindsay Graham are in agreement with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump’s calls to ban Muslim entry into the U.S. are so absurd and outrageous that he has people on both sides of the aisle railing against him.

In Trump’s simplistic, uninformed world view, the constitutional questions of a religious test to enter the U.S. are of no concern. Neither are details of how one would determine who is a Muslim. Would Trump call for Caucasian or Christian males like himself be barred from theaters, schools, or political gatherings since the majority of mass shooters share his ethnicity or religion?

Ignorant of the thousands of applicants whose visas are denied, revoked, cancelled, or stuck in interminable security checks every day, Trump’s proposed solution accepts the radical’s narrative of religion, exposes his ignorance on the laws and processes of this country, and poses an even greater threat to national security than the national security problems they purport to solve. This latest proposal is much the same as his “solution” for immigration reform in general: build a wall.

The reality is comprehensive inter-agency counter-terrorism screening has been a part of the process for admission of foreign nationals since before 9/11. Since then, the visa issuance process has become vastly more complex. Applicants are screened regardless of the type of visa they apply for, be it as a student, tourist, worker, artist, or under the Visa Waiver Program, or as a permanent resident.

If a case is flagged for review based on law enforcement or intelligence, State Department regulations require a Security Advisory Opinion, or SAO, to be obtained before the foreign national can receive a visa to enter the U.S. The foreign national is run through as many as seven different interconnected government databases. Other federal agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and the NSA are constantly consulted to update visa issuance procedures. The data in these databases is also dynamic, and can be updated quickly in response to new intelligence.

Counter-terrorism screening works, and it happens every day for every type of visa. The refugee screening process is even more exhaustive. It can take between 18 and 24 months and it takes longer to screen refugees because they usually do not have documents with them.

A “security check” is not some pro-forma review done for appearance’s sake, but is instead a thorough screening to determine whether this person will be allowed into the U.S. They are performed by government agents who take their job very seriously. Trump’s rhetoric is a slap in the face of these dedicated public servants.

Many politicians are questioning “fiancee” (K-1) visa procedures. This is also a misguided inquiry. The issue is counter-terrorism screening, not the particular visa process. And counter-terrorism screening already happens for all visas. While no system is perfect, shutting the whole thing down actually enhances the threat to America. Do Trump & Co. really think the complex security check process run and maintained by experienced officials would have been established if it would have been easier to just stop immigration?

Perhaps more importantly is the fact that Trump’s proposal only feeds into the problem that he is trying to address. National security specialist Benjamin Wittes noted that rejecting refugees, particularly on the basis of their religion or national origin, actually presents ISIL and other extremist groups fodder for their narrative of an apocalyptic clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. ISIL profits from Trump rhetoric. Moreover, such a call would break up families, hinder business and effectively build a wall from the rest of the world.

Terrorism has multiple causes. Pretending it can be stopped by banning Muslim entry is a fantasy soundbite made to get ratings. But real lives are at stake here. This is not the time for a knee-jerk reaction.

A robust background check system — which we already have — must be considered as one part of a broader national security strategy. Rejecting xenophobia in favor of actually countering ISIL is not just the right thing to do — it is also the safer one.

Administration’s Strong Condemnation of Ezra Schwartz’s Murder

Ezra_Schwartz_Funeral_11222015-0552-635x357Ezra Schwartz was murdered by Palestinian terrorists on Thursday, November 19, while en route to deliver food to Israeli soldiers. He was an 18-year old American citizen just out of high school and on a gap program in Israel.

All terrorist victims tug at our hearts, but Ezra’s murder hit home hard. Even those of us who did not know him personally know kids just like him who participate in similar programs, including our own kids.

At times like these, we expect solace and recognition from our own government. Within days, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, State Department Spokesman John Kirby, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro had all condemned the attack, specifically mentioning Ezra. President Obama and Secretary Kerry personally called the family to convey their condolences.

Yet even before Shabbat ended on November 21, some of us were expressing outrage — not at the terrorists who murdered Ezra, but at the administration, even though Dan Shapiro condemned the attack almost immediately and even though the State Department (which is run by John Kerry, who reports to President Obama) condemned it on November 20.

Maybe some of us were not aware of the condemnations, but before we criticize the administration’s response to such an awful tragedy, do we not owe it to ourselves and our friends to verify before posting? It is not that hard with Google. Maybe some of us did not know that the ambassador to Israel (the official U.S. representative in Israel) and the State Department both report up to the President and speak for him. The President uses spokespeople of necessity because there are so many pressing issues and so little time.

On Monday, November 23, the day after Ezra’s funeral, Kerry spoke to the family and condemned the attack. Kerry mentioned Ezra again the following day, adding that “Israel has every right in the world to defend itself and it has an obligation to defend itself.”

President Obama also called the family on Monday and condemned the attack in the strongest terms.

Is the day after his funeral, the second day of shiva, really too late?

Perhaps we should reserve our anger for the terrorists and acknowledge that the administration’s response to this tragedy was more than sufficient. And to the extent we have questions, let us get answers before assuming the worst.

Should our first instinct be to wonder whether the President condemned a self-evidently horrific attack? Should our first priority be to look at our watches to see if he spoke out in time? My guess is that those who were concerned–whose sincerity I do not doubt and to whom this would never have otherwise occurred–were prompted by social media that ultimately came from the usual suspects, that small but vocal segment of our community for whom nothing President Obama does is good enough.

It’s an easy game to play, straight out of Negative Politics 101: Accuse any politician of not responding, then of not responding fast enough (because it will never be fast enough), and then of issuing a response that was not strong or thorough enough (because more can always be said). And when it is the president, complain that the person speaking for the president was not at a high enough level (it will never be high enough).

Those who shared this misleading information were the victims of yet another partisan Internet hoax. The blame rests with the people who started these rumors and petitions in the first place, making them look as official and legitimate as possible, knowing that they would be shared and recirculated by people who were genuinely grieving for Ezra Schwartz. The purveyors of these falsehoods knew all too well that Mark Twain was right: A lie can travel half way around the world before the truth can put its pants on.

President Obama has earned the benefit of the doubt. Neither his personal differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the steady stream of invective from some quarters of the American Jewish community has prevented him from strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.

President Obama supported record levels of aid to Israel and raised military and intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel to unprecedented levels. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama enthusiastically supported and funded Iron Dome, which has saved countless Israeli lives. President Obama, at Bibi’s request, immediately intervened to save the lives of the Israeli diplomats trapped in the Israeli embassy in Egypt (do you know their names? Probably not — because Obama saved them). Also at Bibi’s request, President Obama immediately ensured fast U.S. help with the Carmel forest fires. And now we are complaining that a phone call to Ezra’s family the day after his funeral was not fast enough?

Unlike his predecessors, President Obama’s record of support for Israel at the U.N. is 100%. He even vetoed a Security Council resolution on settlements deliberately worded to match long-standing U.S. policy on settlements (to make it harder for the U.S. to veto) just to affirm the principle that the conflict must be resolved by the parties to the conflict, not one-sided international pressure on Israel.

And what about Iran? If Congress had blocked the Iran deal, we might be at war with Iran or preparing for the imminent possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. I still do not know whether to be amused or saddened by claims that we could have held the sanctions regime together, even though all of our allies said it would fall apart and even though the same people who accuse President Obama of failing to lead somehow expected him to use his Jedi mind control techniques to hold it all together.

I still marvel that the same people who accused President Obama of undue reluctance to use force (even though he killed Osama bin Laden and has ordered over 6,000 airstrikes against ISIL) said out of the other side of their mouths that if Congress blocked the deal, we could stop Iran with force. Who did they think would authorize it? The Iran deal removed the biggest threat to Israel and world peace and is already emerging as one of our greatest foreign policy achievements. With all that is going on in the world today, imagine where we would be if President Obama had not taken Iran off the table.

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Expressing Solidarity With Paris

Deborah Willig, Esq., Bonnie Squires, and Helen Loeb.

Left to right: Deborah Willig, Esq., Bonnie Squires and Helen Loeb.

The French International School of Philadelphia, located in Bala Cynwyd Pennsylvania, held a solidarity rally for students, alumni, parents, teachers, and members of the community in order to express solidarity with France and the victims of ISIL terrorism.

Deborah Willig, Esq., chair of the school’s board of directors, along with the school’s co-principals, organized the rally. Votive candles in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and the peace symbol were on a table, and attendees were encouraged to light candles in sympathy with the victims of the Friday the Thirteenth attacks in Paris.

Honorary Consul Michael Scullin, Esq. and Rabbi Albert Gabbai.

Helen Loeb, a native of Toulouse, France, now living in suburban Philadelphia, told the people gathered that her niece who lives and works in Paris had called to tell her that she had lost two friends who were at the concert at the Bataclan venue where the American rock group Eagles of Death Metal were performing.

Michael Scullin, Esq., Honorary Consul of France in Philadelphia and Wilmington, and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, of The Congregation Mikveh Israel, spoke briefly, along with the co-principals of the school, expressing condolences for the victims of the terrorist atacks in Paris. Scullin had arranged a rally the night before in front of the LOVE statue in center city Philadelphia. Votive candles arranged in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and the symbol for peace were available for lighting at the school.

How Shall We React to the Terror in Paris?

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World Trade Center’s spire lit in France’s colors: blue, white and red.

Our prayers are with the victims of the horrible terrorist attacks across Paris. Now is the time to grieve.

The natural reaction is to strike back and avenge the carnage. But before we do, let us pause and consider our actions, making them deliberate and thoughtful, to do more than lash out and punish: Who is the enemy and how do we best work to defeat them in the long-term war of ideologies in which we are engaged?  We are compelled to answer this question before we can take the next step.

It is enticing to react and retaliate, but violence untargeted or mistargeted will serve to create more victims and foment more hatred. The threats are real, but we need to know who the adversary is and the most effective ways to combat the enemy. Precipitous action will do far more harm than good.

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Walls of the Old City Jerusalem lit with image of French flag.

Sadly, some struggle to support the French, seeing this tragedy as an opportunity to say “turnabout is fair play” due to perceived and real anti-Semitism in France. We are better than that. The Jewish values of chesed (kindness) and rachamim (mercy) compel us to reach out and provide comfort and support. Our compassion helps us to rise above all kinds of hatred and Judaism becomes a beacon of light to the nations.  We reach out to the people of France with a unique understanding of the pain and suffering they endure, uniting with them in a battle against the darkness.  We need to declare the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité belong to all of us.  By doing so, we demonstrate that our values give us strength, the strength to love others and the strength to fight when we must against those who would eradicate us.

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Inquirer Headlines Go Easy on Terrorists

— by Sean Durns

The following “letter to the editor” was sent to The Philadelphia inquirer, but went unpublished.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted an AP story entitled "American killed in Palestinian attack was peace activist" with the vague title "US Educator Dies in Israel."

The Philadelphia Inquirer reprinted an AP story entitled “American killed in Palestinian attack was peace activist” with the vague title “US Educator Dies in Israel.”

Recent Inquirer headlines U.S. Educator Dies in Israel and Israelis Kill 3 Palestinians have the potential to mislead readers by not accurately reflecting the news articles beneath.

The first article itself makes clear that American-born Israeli educator Richard Lakin did not just “die” in Israel; he was murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Lakin’s son told The New York Times his 73-year old father was the victim of Palestinian “incitement and hate.” Yet, the headline could lead readers to mistakenly infer that Lakin just happen to pass away.

Similarly, Israelis did not just happen to “kill 3 Palestinians” without justification as readers might infer from the headline. Again, as the article beneath the headline notes, three Palestinian Arab terrorists were killed by Israeli security forces after attacking Israelis, both civilian and soldiers, with knives. The headline fails to convey essential facts regarding both the chronology and causation leading to the death of the terrorists.

Space restrictions can make headline writing challenging. However, precise terminology and chronology must be used to prevent readers from drawing false inferences. We trust that in the future Inquirer headlines on contentious issues such as these will accurately represent the stories they summarize.