👋 Good Monday morning!
The Biden administration held its first call with Israel’s government over the weekend when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabat on Saturday.
Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Marie Newman (D-IL) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) have all spoken out in recent days to criticize Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians against COVID-19.
The House of Representatives is expected to send its article of impeachment to the Senate today, but a trial is unlikely to start until early February.
🥯 Lox and a Schmear: Days after his nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, was spotted at the Georgetown branch of Washington breakfast spot Call Your Mother, President Joe Biden’s motorcade made a stop yesterday at the shop, which is partly owned by the administration’s COVID-19 czar, Jeff Zients.
Israel will halt all flights in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport for at least a week beginning tonight, in an effort to stop the spread of new strains of the virus.
Join Jewish Insider, Richmond’s Keneseth Beth Israel and the Virginia Holocaust Museum for a conversation this evening at 7:30 p.m. ET with Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber about Holocaust education, countering modern day antisemitism and the current Supreme Court case over WWII-era art restitution.
Sounding the Alarm
Jewish leaders raise concerns about Biden’s U.N. approach
The Biden administration is expected to move to restore funding to the Palestinians, aid the Trump administration withdrew in September 2018. The move would be consistent with President Joe Biden’s pledge to “repair our alliances and engage the world once more,” but Jewish leaders and others are looking on with caution, hoping the new administration does not repeat what some believe were mistakes of the past, reports Stewart Ain for Jewish Insider.
Agenda item: Among their concerns is Biden’s explicit pledge to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and “work to ensure that body truly lives up to its values.” Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told Jewish Insider that his organization hopes the Biden administration “will work assiduously to eliminate bias against Israel in New York and in the various U.N. agencies, particularly the U.N. Human Rights Council.” The Geneva-based council routinely “devotes a separate agenda item, number seven, to Israel alone while all other countries, including the worst tyrannies, are lumped together in a different agenda item,” observed David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee.
Reform minded: With the Biden administration set on rejoining the council, the question is whether it “will it be able to enact reforms,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University and founder and president of NGO Monitor, a policy analysis think tank focusing on non-governmental organizations. “A huge part of [the council’s] budget is used for bogus investigations of Israel,” he said. “It’s not realistic to expect the administration and a Democratic Congress will meet the hopes of Israelis on these points, but if they are sensitive to them, it will put down some markers in terms of the use of these institutions to demonize Israel.”
Non-starter: Regarding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Harris said it too has had a “persistent problem of incitement and hatred in their schools and other facilities. American re-engagement [with UNRWA] must also focus determinedly on ending these practices, which, let’s be clear, undermine the integrity of the world body.” Mariaschin cautioned that, “If we are going to move the meter on any kind of peaceful arrangement in the region, UNRWA cannot continue business as usual — engaging in this kind of education of hate, the promotion of hatred and the insistent demand that Palestinians be able to return in the millions to the State of Israel. That is a non-starter.”
Two women win Israeli party primaries
With just over two months until Israel’s fourth national election in two years, the Israeli political scene is as volatile and unpredictable as ever. Jewish Insider’s Amy Spiro breaks down all the latest developments.
To the rescue: Labor MK Merav Michaeli won the party’s leadership primary yesterday with 77% of the vote, beating out a slate of competitors who had little name recognition. Following her victory, Michaeli vowed to return the party to the same “vision that established the State of Israel,” and called on the party’s former supporters to “come home.” She added: “The Labor party is still stuck in the mud and I have the mission of rescuing and rebuilding it.” This coming Sunday, the party will hold a primary for its electoral slate. Michaeli has reportedly already begun negotiations to merge with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis Party, which has plunged in the polls. “Don’t be surprised if Merav Michaeli asks Ron Huldai to join her,” tweeted Army Radio political correspondent Yanir Cozin. “The person who will head up this bloc will be Merav Michaeli, not Huldai — yesterday’s poll has already shown that.”
Ready to merge: In the Bayit Yehudi leadership primary last week, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe emerged victorious, becoming the first-ever female leader of the national-religious party. Following her victory, Moshe said she intends to join forces with Bezalel Smotrich, who recently split from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina — but a formal deal has yet to be struck. In an interview with an Israeli radio station following her victory, Moshe said her groundbreaking win “says a lot about the national-religious party, and about the national religious movement overall, how open and democratic and balanced it is — which is not taken for granted.” Michaeli and Moshe are currently the only female leaders of any Israeli political parties.
Defection: In another major blow to the Likud, Bennie Begin, a former Likud minister and the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, announced he was joining Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party. Begin said he was concerned and disturbed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become “the source of vicious and obscene attacks against the institutions of the State of Israel.” Begin served as a minister for several years but did not run in the past three elections, and publicly said he would not vote for Likud in the past two elections due to Netanyahu’s leadership. “Begin’s decision to join the ‘New Hope Party’ led by Gideon Sa’ar is significant because the Begin name is still a symbol in the Likud,” tweeted Israel Hayom Knesset reporter Gideon Allon. “When the humble and rational son of the longtime Likud chairman declares he will not support the Likud but rather someone who resigned and established an independent list, its importance cannot be underestimated.”
Drive-through voting: With less than two months until the March 23 election, Israel has yet to fully formulate and approve a plan to enable safe voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel has never implemented mail-in or absentee voting in any national election. Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch warned last week that the election may need to be delayed because of the current high rate of COVID-19, sparking a wave of outrage from opposition politicians. Such a move would require a Knesset vote, something highly unlikely to pass. Orly Adas, director of the Central Elections Committee, said the committee is recommending increasing the number of polling stations and opening drive-through stations and dedicated polling stations for those sick or in quarantine. Such efforts, however, are expected to delay the counting of all votes cast in the election — which is being held just four days before Passover begins.
Nigun Quartet strikes a different note
Before the pandemic, an Israeli jazz ensemble was gaining recognition for its live performances dedicated to interpreting Hasidic melodies known as nigunim. The idea of crossing jazz with Jewish spiritual music isn’t new, but the Nigun Quartet — saxophone, piano, bass and drums — stood out; its shows had the convivial vibe of a festive Hasidic gathering. Polina Fradkin, who saw one of the group’s first performances and now helps with promotion, recalled being moved by the quartet’s on-stage approach. Before launching into a song, the band members would detail the origin of each nigun, creating an interplay between music and source material. “You feel it,” Fradkin told Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel. “To hear the nigun after you hear the story is something else.”
Folk prism: Recently, the Nigun Quartet independently put out its first, self-titled album, including nine tracks that draw on a variety of nigunim such as “Shures,” “Shalom Aleichem” and “Shamil” — all of which derive from different Hasidic sects. The album requires that the listener do some work on their own — like reading the liner notes that give the backstory behind each tune — in order to at least simulate the experience of a live performance. But the easy interplay suggests the group was more than ready to set these tracks down. The album invokes mid-period Coltrane, post-bop, funk, classical and other elements that in many ways represent the lingua franca of modern jazz — all filtered through a Hasidic folk prism.
Understanding the nigun: For the four band members, that unique influence is what sets the Nigun Quartet apart. “The key to understanding our approach is to understand the function of the nigun,” Opher Schneider, the band’s 49-year-old bassist and resident mystic, told Jewish Insider in a Zoom interview from outside Jerusalem last month. “Hasidic niguns are a vessel, like, it’s an inner thing — they use the nigun to evoke a certain awareness. It’s not just a song.” As an example, he cites “Ashreinu,” a track inspired by a melody from the Breslov Hasidim about a group of Hungarian boys who narrowly escaped the gas chambers at Auschwitz after they are found dancing defiantly on Simchat Torah.
Jazz and spirituality: Jazz has a long spiritual tradition including but by no means limited to some works by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, so the impulse to draw from nigunim was appropriate. “I always felt that jazz is a really, actually a deeply spiritual platform — it’s a very, very good platform in order to bring your spiritual connection into being,” said tenor saxophonist Tom Lev, 34, speaking on Zoom from outside Tel Aviv. “It happens right now, in the moment, on the spot. And that’s what jazz is about. Jazz is about bringing your spiritual entity into this music, right here, right now — that’s why it’s an improvised music.”
Future releases: Pianist Moshe Elmakias, 24, a Jerusalem native, says the band has much more in store as they make plans to draw from an extensive song book that came together after several rehearsals and performances. The hope, according to Elmakias, is to record at least two more albums, which will document the 20 or so arrangements they haven’t yet released. “That’s what’s beautiful about these niguns. We have so much material to work with,” he said. “It’s endless.”
Mergers on the horizon in wake of COVID-19 crisis
The planned merger of Israel trip providers Birthright Israel and Onward Israel, announced last Tuesday, heralds a period of increased streamlining as funders, consultants and organization staff begin to apply the lessons of the pandemic, which forced them to work together in new ways, reports Helen Chernikoff for eJewish Philanthropy.
Ripe consolidations: Several mergers are under discussion, said Aliza Mazor of Upstart Bay Area, which provides leadership and management training to younger, smaller Jewish organizations nationwide. She declined to name the organizations involved, as the deals are not yet public. In addition, she said, about a dozen conversations about how groups can cooperate deeply with each other are underway, and some of those might lead to mergers in the longer-term. “We don’t want any arranged marriages,” Mazor said. “We knew it wouldn’t create good outcomes. But we have several ripe consolidations in our network and beyond. We are going to see many more of these.”
Driven by fears: When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the world of philanthropy was braced for an “extinction-level event,” as John MacIntosh, the managing partner of a nonprofit merchant bank that supports nonprofits, described it in a CNN op-ed on March 20. Jewish nonprofits had similarly dire concerns and expected a wave of mergers prompted by the failure of groups that were already fragile, or hit especially hard by the virus, said Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. Talk of such mergers “was coming out of the fear that the community would implode,” Spokoiny said.
Read more here.
👨💼 On the Ground: The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan interviewed Gilad Erdan, Israel’s new ambassador to the U.S., about the pressing issues on his agenda. “We’ll do everything to convince the administration of our views, because in Israel, unfortunately, we are the first to be threatened by the Iranian ayatollahs’ regime,” he said. [WashPost]
🕊️ Rethinking Peace: NPR’s Daniel Estrin spotlights the thousands of Israeli tourists flocking to the UAE following its groundbreaking peace deal with Israel, which is “leading many Israelis to redefine the very notion of peace and reconsider whether they need make any painful sacrifices to achieve it.” [NPR]
🤳 Never Again: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas penned an op-ed in CNN proclaiming that “antisemitism has not disappeared. It just keeps shape-shifting,” and laying out how the German government is fighting the scourge. “We must finally get a grip on antisemitism and hate-mongering on the internet… the key to doing so is closer cooperation between platform operators, researchers and civil society organizations.” [CNN]
Around the Web
✈️ Going, Gone: Just before Israel shuts its skies, Malka Leifer was extradited to Australia to stand trial for child sex abuse following a six-year legal battle.
🇦🇪 New Digs: Israeli officials announced the opening of a temporary embassy in Abu Dhabi, which will facilitate consular activities until a permanent location is established.
💉 One of a Kind: Israel’s success in distributing COVID-19 vaccinations may be difficult to replicate in other countries without its sophisticated public health system.
🏫 Back to School: Israel has expanded its vaccination drive to include those ages 16-18, in order to allow them to return to school for exams.
💸 Economic Plan: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to provide a second COVID-19 stimulus check to citizens, but the proposal faces opposition from some politicians.
💥 Culture Clash: Violent riots in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Israel against police enforcing COVID-19 restrictions continued over the weekend.
⛏️ Easing Up: In its final days, the Trump administration quietly eased sanctions on Dan Gertler, an Israeli billionaire accused of corrupt mining practices in Africa.
⚖️ Sentenced: A Swiss court convicted Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz of corruption and forgery in mining activities in Guinea, sentencing him to five years in jail and a $56 million fine.
🗳️ Ballot Watch: Palestinian officials asked the European Union to send observers to monitor its upcoming elections.
🚦 Green Light: Israel reportedly gave the U.S. approval to deploy Iron Dome missile defense systems at its bases in the Persian Gulf, Europe and Asia.
🍿 Curtain Call: Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Entertainment, has narrowly averted bankruptcy four times in a year as movie theaters struggle to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
💰 Payday: Matt Ishbia, the CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, oversaw the biggest SPAC deal in history last week when his company went public, valuing his stake in the company at $13 billion.
📈 Aiming High: Israeli digital ad platform Taboola is set to make its U.S. stock market debut soon with a $3 billion valuation.
👑 Never Too Late: A descendant of the Italian royals who ruled during World War II has apologized for the role his great-grandfather, King Victor Emmanuel III, played in the Holocaust.
🧑⚖️ Case Closed: Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici reached an undisclosed settlement with Ottawa five years after she was replaced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
🇬🇧🇨🇳 Solidarity: British Jews are planning to raise awareness about the plight of China’s Uighur Muslim population on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
☪️✡️ Coming Together: A Muslim and a Jewish family, brought together in 2017 by protests against Trump’s Muslim ban, reflect on the last four years and the policy’s end under Biden.
⛔ Background Check: Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) introduced legislation barring adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory from obtaining government security clearances.
📖 Book Shelf: The new book American Baby digs into the story of Margaret Erle Katz, whose son was forcibly taken from her by Louise Wise Services, a Jewish adoption agency.
Gif of the Day
Israeli singer-songwriter Noga Erez has released a new song, “End of the Road,” which will be part of her upcoming album, KIDS, slated to be released in March.
Member of the Canadian Parliament from Montreal since 2015, he won 12 medals in swimming at the 2013 and 2017 Maccabiah Games, Anthony Housefather turns 50…
Israeli activist and author, David Grossman turns 67… Editor-in-chief of TheNational Memo and editor-at-large of The Investigative Fund, Joe Conason turns 67… Dean of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Naamah Kelman-Ezrachiturns 66… Los Angeles resident, Robert N. Newman turns 66… Actress and director, Dinah Beth Manoff turns 65… Los Angeles resident, Helene S. Ross turns 64… Partner at NYC-based ICM Partners Broadcasting, Michael Glantz turns 62… Chief investigative reporter and senior national correspondent for CBS News, Jim Axelrod turns 58… Former member of Knesset for Yesh Atid, he also served as Minister of Education, Shai Moshe Piron turns 56…
Managing partner of merchant bank Dock Square Capital and senior policy advisor at Bryan Cave Strategies, Jack Oliver turns 52… Born in Rishon LeZion in Israel, author of multiple novels and a lecturer in Jewish studies at Stanford University, Maya Arad turns 50… Toronto-born actress, writer and social activist, Mia Kirshner turns 46… National political reporter at The Washington Post, Michael Scherer turns 45… David Newman turns 44… President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky turns 43… Benjamin Newton turns 36… Director of executive communications for the National Association of Manufacturers, Mark Isaacson turns 32… Senior policy analyst at JINSA, Ari Cicurel turns 28…