👋 Good Thursday morning!
Ed. note: This will be the final Daily Kickoff briefing of an eventful 2020. We’ll continue publishing on our site and on social media as warranted by the news cycle. Thank you for being avid and engaged readers. We look forward to bringing you even more original stories in 2021. Happy New Year from the team at JI!
President Donald Trump yesterday pardoned former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, longtime advisor Roger Stone and Charles Kushner, the father of White House senior advisor Jared Kushner.
The senior Kushner, a major Jewish philanthropist, was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie in 2005 for tax evasion and witness tampering and served two years in prison.
Yesterday, Trump also vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both chambers of Congress with a veto-proof majority, setting up an impending battle between Republican lawmakers and the president.
A letter signed by 150 House Democrats urges President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran without preconditions, withdraw some sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and pursue further negotiations on other issues.
The letter’s signatories include moderate foreign policy hawks like Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA) — who initially opposed the deal — and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), a former CIA officer, as well as the progressive quartet of lawmakers known as “The Squad.”
Notably missing are a number of Jewish Democrats, including Reps. Brad Schneider (D-IL), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI). Outgoing pro-Israel stalwarts Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Nita Lowey (D-NY) also opted not to sign on to the letter.
The sole undecided House race won’t be called in 2020, as a series of legal battles over the razor-thin margin between Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) and former Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) will continueto play out into the new year.
Georgia’s billion-dollar runoffs
As Democrats and Republicans vie for control of the Senate ahead of Georgia’s highly consequential runoffs on January 5, an unprecedented stream of cash is pouring into the Peach State — and analysts have predicted it could reach $1 billion. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue defend their seats from Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But following an election that included some of the most expensiveraces in U.S. history — and in which many losing candidates outspent their opponents — a nagging question persists: Is all this money really necessary? Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel reports how groups and donors on both sides are approaching the January sweepstakes.
Saturation point: That question may seem beside the point in a political environment that allows outside groups to spend unlimited sums of money. And yet, political advertising can reach a saturation point, according to Brendan Quinn, outreach and social media manager at the Center for Responsive Politics. On the other side of the equation, an influx of political ad spending can lead to a pricier media landscape that freezes out smaller, third-party groups. “I’ve never seen the price of a commercial this expensive in any race in the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has raised close to $700,000 for Loeffler and Perdue through its PAC.
‘Ridiculous amount’: Michael Adler, a Miami-based developer and Democratic bundler, acknowledged that the amount of money flowing into the Georgia races was jarring to behold. “A couple of hundred million from November to January is a ridiculous amount of money to have to be spent,” he scoffed. Still, such misgivings don’t seem to have influenced the cost-benefit analysis, even as it has become increasingly apparent that a well-padded war chest does not always translate to electoral success. In November, several formidable Democratic candidates were defeated despite having raked in unprecedented sums of cash, including Jaime Harrison, who raised upwards of $100 million yet still fell short of unseating Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Different landscape: Andrew Weinstein, an attorney and Democratic donor in Coral Springs, Fla., argues that the upcoming runoffs are different from the general election, pointing out that the races in which well-financed Democrats lost this cycle took place in historically red states. Because Joe Biden flipped Georgia, donors still feel energized, Weinstein told JI. “I think people are optimistic about our chances of being successful — and folks want to do everything they can.” Well, not everyone. “I do have donor’s fatigue,” said Martin Peretz, a Democratic benefactor who supports pro-Israel causes, noting that he has not given any money to Ossoff or Warnock. But Peretz is less inclined to get involved in these races because he is unexcited by the candidates. While Peretz is ambivalent about Ossoff, he regards Warnock with some suspicion because of his past controversial statements on Israel.
Wedge issue: Though Warnock has sought to dispel accusations that he is anti-Israel, his comments have been used against him in a litany of attack ads put forth by Loeffler. On Wednesday, Christians United for Israel’s Action Fund released an ad whose narrator alleges that Warnock is “lying about the Jewish state.” That Israel has emerged as a wedge issue is unusual for Georgia, experts say, but it makes sense given the state’s sizable population of evangelicals. Meanwhile, liberal Jewish groups are jumping to Warnock’s defense. The Jewish Democratic Council of America put out an ad emphasizing Warnock’s positive relationship with the Jewish community, while Democratic Majority for Israel plans to run a digital campaign supporting the candidate, according to DMFI president and CEO Mark Mellman.
Base motivations: “Advertising is playing a really big role in communicating to voters that this is a big deal and that things matter,” said election analyst David Shor. “The only problem is that that’s probably happening roughly equally on both sides.” Still, Charlie Spies, a Republican attorney and expert in political fundraising, adds the caveat that advertising on “broadcast television does have a diminishing return at some point,” especially in an atmosphere like Georgia’s. But in a charged political climate, the glut of ad money is inevitable, even if it may ultimately be excessive, says Adam Bonin, a political law attorney in Philadelphia. “Nothing motivates spending quite like a good villain,” he said.
A guide to Israel’s perplexing political parties
The first day of Israel’s national election campaign kicked off with a bang yesterday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals on the right sought to position themselves as leadership alternatives, and as the center-left is scrambling to get in fighting shape. Jewish Insider’s Amy Spiro breaks down the ever-changing political landscape.
Right rivals: Former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who resigned from the Knesset earlier this month to form his own party, “New Hope,” has continued to rack up Likud defectors who have joined his ranks. Last night, Sa’ar scored a major win when Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a longtime Netanyahu loyalist, announced he would be joining New Hope. In a primetime speech last night, Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying the Likud” and making decisions based on “personal considerations and the whims of his inner circle.” Other Likud MKs who have joined Sa’ar include Yifat Shasha-Biton, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel. The two most right-wing members of Blue and White, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, have also teamed up with Sa’ar.
Reverberations: The defection of Elkin was seen as the biggest blow to Netanyahu so far. While Sa’ar has been popular in Likud, he previously challenged Netanyahu for the party’s leadership, and their yearslong rivalry was evident. Elkin, however, was long seen as a Netanyahu confidante, and his defection was more shocking. “Hearing Elkin criticize Netanyahu feels as odd as the first time I heard criticism of him from [Netanyahu’s former media advisor] Nir Hefetz, when he became a state’s witness against him,” tweeted Jerusalem Post political correspondent Gil Hoffman. “Folks, these are the men behind the words ‘sources close to Netanyahu’ that you’ve been reading for years. That’s why it’s big.”
Not backing down: Not to be outdone, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett delivered his own primetime address last night, announcing that he was running for the premiership. “When we needed him the most, [Netanyahu] was not there for us,” Bennett said. “We must thank him for his years of service, but we must move on.” Yamina currently holds six seats in the Knesset, though polls predict it could reach as many as 13-15 — still far short of the power necessary to become prime minister. Gideon Allon, the Knesset reporter for Israel Hayom, pointed out that Bennett’s announcement “has no practical significance” considering Israel’s parliamentary election system, and was a “trivial statement.”
Loose left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, meanwhile, is struggling to hold on to its footing as polls show the party receiving just five to six seats in the March election, down from the 33 it received this year and the 14 it currently controls after it split from Yesh Atid. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, meanwhile, is expected to be the second- or third-largest party in the Knesset, although Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach announced his own new political party today. Labor leader Amir Peretz, who was the subject of derision after joining Netanyahu’s coalition following the March election despite a vow to the contrary, announced yesterday that he would step down from heading the party to make way for new leadership.
Rumors: A series of high-profile names have been bandied about as potential new additions to Israel’s national political scene, including former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai — as well as very familiar names like former Minister Tzipi Livni and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. With the filing deadline for running not until early February, there is still plenty of time for more political surprises.
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Bonus: Walla News political correspondent Tal Shalev told The New York Times that she wouldn’t be surprised if both Bennett and Sa’ar ultimately joined another Netanyahu-led government coalition. “If Gantz broke the promise,” she said, “why shouldn’t they?”
Elephant in the zoom
Zoom fatigue? Jewish organizations claim they’re immune
As AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., wound down in early March, attendees bumped elbows, tapped feet and waved goodbye, joking that they’d see each other in a few months, once the novel coronavirus, which had yet to spread its way across the country, had run its course. But within weeks, the world shifted to a new, virtual model to facilitate communication after in-person meetings became unfeasible. Since March, Jewish Insider has tracked the attendance of hundreds of virtual events, and now JI’s Melissa Weiss looks at how organizations have adapted to the world of digital engagement.
On the rise: In some cases, audiences have grown as the months have gone by. Jews United for Democracy and Justice chair Janice Kamenir-Reznik has seen engagement rise steadily since her organization first started holding virtual events this spring. The volunteer-led group, which was created in 2017, began hosting weekly virtual events once in-person gatherings were no longer possible. Prior to the pandemic, JUDJ had a monthly lecture series that brought in 600-700 people per event. Since moving to the virtual space, they’ve been able to hold weekly events featuring speakers like journalist Carl Bernstein, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Bill Kristol, with attendance regularly surpassing 3,000 participants per call.
Leveling the playing field: Hillel International launched “[email protected]” in the spring to help local Hillels stay connected to college students. In the nine months since the program’s inception, Hillel International has connected with thousands of previously unengaged students. “Without the barriers of geography, campus, even age cohort, and frankly, organization, we’ve been able to work a lot more collaboratively across the Hillel movement, between Hillels and actually also with external organizations,” explained Mimi Kravetz, Hillel’s chief experience officer. “155 individual Hillels have in some way partnered on a [email protected] program and therefore taken part in these big national events. And so in many ways, I think what it’s done is it’s equalized those kinds of opportunities with some major speakers and stars and celebs and media and high-level educators in a way that wasn’t possible before the pandemic.”
New school: Dr. Gady Levy, who runs Temple Emanuel’s Streicker Center in New York, noted an uptick in attendance from in-person events. “People adapted very quickly,” he said. “We have registrations from 44 different states, and 22 different countries in addition to the United States. That’s a reach that we had never really imagined before.” In the days of in-person gatherings, Levy told JI that he would quip at the beginning of programs that the Streicker Center was the “new cheder.” But now? “Zoom is the new cheder.”
Temporary fix: “People are eager for all the kinds of human connection that events used to provide, right?” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens told JI. “You went to an event, and it wasn’t simply a matter of listening to the speaker who might interest you. It was also a social occasion, it was a dinner, it was schmoozing. There were all kinds of things that go around simply delivering a talk that audiences just enjoy. And people can also eat at home, but everyone wants to go out to a restaurant, by the same token. There’s just a social instinct that people feel they’ve been deprived of. And I suspect that that’s going to happen once the threat of COVID lifts in a way that makes it safe to host events.”
⛹🏾♂️ Court Side: Former NBA star and new assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets Amar’e Stoudemire opened up to The New York Times’s Marc Stein about his career transition and his personal journey. “My time in Israel was amazing,” he said. “It took me to another level of purifying myself and making me more mature.” [NYTimes]
🚑 On Call: NPR’s Karen Yi checked in with the all-volunteer ambulance crew in Teaneck, N.J., which was inundated with COVID-19 calls in March and April, but is less busy now even as cases in the state rise. “We’ve just been stocking up because we’re afraid if things become hard to get again,” said one volunteer. [NPR]
🗳️ Saving Gracie: Progressive activists in New York City will face a new challenge in the wide-open upcoming mayoral race. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) told The New York Times’s Katie Glueck and Dana Rubinstein that the socialist left is on the rise in gentrifying neighborhoods. “To the extent the success of the socialist left is in part tied to gentrifying neighborhoods, it remains to be seen how that will impact a citywide race,” Jeffries said. [NYTimes]
👔 Missed Opportunity: In Calcalist, venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg blasts the Israeli government for doing too little to entice entrepreneurs and others to set up shop in Israel during the pandemic. “If a country, city or state does not grow its human capital, it will shrink and that place will be challenged financially in the coming decades.” [Calcalist]
Around the Web
😷 Stay Home: Israel announced a third national lockdown, beginning Sunday evening, in an effort to curb the rise in new COVID-19 cases.
⚓ Standoff: Israel deployed a submarine to the Persian Gulf to serve as a deterrent to Iranian retaliation for the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
☢️ Wider Scope: Israel’s ambassador to Germany said that it would welcome a push by Berlin to expand the Iran deal into a broader security agreement once Biden takes office.
🇦🇿 Mending Fences: Azerbaijan — which has strong military relationships with both Turkey and Israel — has offered to help the two countries improve their relationship.
🏆 Peace Prize: Trump awarded the National Security Medal yesterday to Mike Pompeo, Steven Mnuchin, Robert O’Brien, Jared Kushner, Avi Berkowitz and David Friedman for their roles in the Abraham Accords.
🚀 Shut Down: The U.S. is considering closing its embassy in Baghdad after a series of rocket attacks on the Green Zone by Iranian-backed militants. Trump threatened to “hold Iran responsible” if any Americans are killed in the attacks.
⚖️ Taking Sides: A series of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, filed an amicus brief in favor of Facebook’s ongoing legal battle against Israel’s NSO Group.
🖥️ Behind the Scenes: Oracle has spent years lobbying regulators and law enforcement agencies to crack down on Google, which is now facing a series of antitrust lawsuits.
👑 Recognition: Esquire named CNN anchor Jake Tapper “The King of Truth” on its year-end ‘best of’ list for his coverage of the 2020 election.
🧑⚖️ Showdown: Washington’s Museum of the Bible is consideringsuing D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for violating religious freedom by shuttering the museum amid pandemic restrictions.
✍️ Déjà Vu: Deborah Lipstadt and Norm Eisen write in The Washington Post that Trump and his allies’ campaign to deny the 2020 election results has parallels to Holocaust denial.
🇦🇷 Scot Free: A court in Argentina acquitted Carlos Telleldín yesterday over his role in the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires.
🇵🇰 Free to Roam: A court in Pakistan ordered the release of a key suspect in the murder of Daniel Pearl, after he was acquitted earlier this year.
⚰️ Giving Back: A teenager in Vermont has raised close to $15,000 to restore the state’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
🖼️ Art Activism: A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, titled “We Fight to Build a Free World,” showcases artwork addressing antisemitism and other forms of hatred.
🎶 Yay or Nay: Veteran reality TV judge Simon Cowell will be joining the judging panel on the fourth season of Israel’s “The X Factor.”
🗑️ Lost and Found: Volunteers and sanitation employees spent hours combing through a Brooklyn garbage dump to find a pair of tefillin that were mistakenly thrown away.
Gif of the Day
Washington Wizards Israeli starting forward Deni Avdija scored the first points of his NBA career on a wide-open catch-and-shoot three, five minutes into the first quarter. Avdija scored seven points on 2-2 shooting from the field, adding four rebounds and a steal, while showing flashes of his defensive versatility, in 28 minutes on the floor as Washington lost to the Philadelphia Sixers 113-107.
Member of the New York State Assembly representing Lower Manhattan, Deborah J. Glick turns 70…
Founder of Cablevision Industries, Alan Gerry turns 91… Retired professor of education and liturgy at Gratz College, Saul Philip Wachsturns 89… Former Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter for The Washington Post, now a columnist and senior national security reporter at The Cipher Brief, Walter Haskell Pincus turns 88… Owner of The Wonderful Company which operates POM, Fiji Water, Teleflora, Wonderful Pistachios and other businesses, Stewart Resnickturns 84… Emeritus professor of English at the University of Vermont and former chief of staff to Senator Bernie Sanders, he is the co-author of Sanders’ political memoir, Stanley “Huck” Gutman turns 77… British journalist and fashion critic who serves as an editor for 25 international editions of Vogue, Suzy Menkes turns 77… Retired justice of the Supreme Court of Florida, Barbara Pariente turns 72… Co-founder and a rabbi of Ohr HaTorah in Venice, California, Rabbi Mordecai Finley turns 66… Former director of the National Economic Council under both Presidents Clinton and Obama, Gene Sperlingturns 62…
Founder and chief investment officer at BlueStar Indexes which is now part of MV Index Solutions, Steven Schoenfeld turns 58… Founder of Ochstein Strategies, Jodi L. Ochstein turns 57… Activist against gun violence following the death of his 14-year-old daughter in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Fred Guttenberg turns 55… British-Israeli security consultant, Walter Zvi Soriano turns 53… Member of the UK Parliament, former leader of the Labour Party as well as leader of the opposition (2010-2015), Edward Samuel Milibandturns 51… Professor of internet law and computer science at Harvard’s Law School, Harvard’s Kennedy School and Harvard’s School of Engineering, Jonathan Zittrain turns 51… Staff writer at The New Yorker since 2008 where he covers politics and foreign affairs, Evan Osnos turns 44… Senior director of communications at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Roben Kantor Smolarturns 40… Pianist, singer and composer, at 9 years old he became the youngest artist to have his own hour-long National PBS Concert Special, his performances have raised over $50 million for charities, Ethan Jordan Bortnick turns 20…