👋 Good Monday morning!
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid flew to Riga, Latvia, today to meet with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. A statement from Lapid’s office said the goal of the meeting was to discuss efforts by Western nations, China and Russia to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program and express Israel’s opposition to a return to the previous agreement signed in 2015, as well as the situation in Ukraine.
Lapid’s visit comes on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Moscow on Saturday – a rare trip over the Sabbath – to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to mediate the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and ensure Israel’s continued security arrangements in Syria.
Following the meeting, Bennett spoke via phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before traveling to Berlin on Saturday night, where he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had days earlier visited Israel. After his return to Israel, Bennett spoke to Zelensky two additional times, and spoke again to Putin as well as to French President Emmanuel Macron.
An Israeli official who briefed the media following the trip said Bennett’s trip was coordinated with the U.S., Germany and France. In addition to the crisis in Ukraine, the prime minister also discussed the situation facing Israelis and Jewish communities in the region and the status of the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna.
Joining Bennett on his trip to Russia and Germany was Housing Minister Zeev Elkin, who was born in Ukraine and still has family there. Shimrit Meir, Bennett’s foreign policy advisor, and spokesman Matan Sidi also accompanied him on the trip.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday. This will be the first high-level meeting between an Israeli leader and the Turkish president in more than 14 years and is viewed as a sign of warming ties between the two countries.
The Czech ambassador’s simple, influence-winning motto: ‘Be interesting’
In the ornate sitting room in the Czech ambassador’s official residence in Washington, D.C., the walls are covered not in Central European art or other local artifacts, but an eclectic assortment of souvenirs from Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček’s excursions around the world. From a crimson-and-gold-upholstered armchair, Kmoníček points to a full crocodile skin hanging on the wall and begins to explain its provenance. “I was negotiating in Sudan, and I needed to prove I am macho enough,” Kmoníček said casually. The unique assortment of objects reflects Kmoníček’s idiosyncratic tastes, but it also gets at the key thesis of his diplomacy. “If we want to be heard, we must be interesting,” he told Jewish Insider’s Gabby Deutchin a recent interview at his residence.
Get involved: Sometimes, of course, even an ambassador from a small landlocked Central European country finds himself enmeshed in global geopolitical conflicts. The challenge these days for Kmoníček is not only standing out in Washington but standing up on the international stage for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as his embattled nation faces an onslaught from Russian forces. The Czech Republic has sent ammunition, fuel and medical supplies to Ukraine, and has also been at the forefront of advocating for a strong Western response to Putin’s aggression. Kmoníček called Putin’s actions in Ukraine “a danger for all of Europe, and to face it, the key is the absolute unity of all the allies.”
Renaissance man: Even when the Czech Republic does not find itself embroiled in a Continental land war, Kmoníček, 59, has a lot to offer that will interest diplomats, politicians and members of the public alike. Born and raised in Pardubice, a city of 90,000 some 60 miles east of Prague that is best known for its chemical factory, Kmoníček plays classical guitar and can speak several languages, including Arabic, Russian, some Hebrew and a bit of Tatar (his wife’s native language).
Personal discovery: The Hebrew came from a year he spent in Israel in the 1990s, during a “real roller coaster” of self-exploration — he discovered he was Jewish in his mid-20s, and soon after, he went to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of a program for Jewish leaders in the Diaspora. Kmoníček’s mother revealed her Jewish lineage after hiding it from him during the country’s socialist years. During the era in which Kmoníček grew up, a good Jew “celebrates his Christmas and never heard about Hanukkah,” he said.
Israel attitude: “I still consider it as my home ground,” Kmoníček said of Israel, while acknowledging that his Hebrew has not quite held up over the years. Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most pro-Israel countries in Europe, a tradition that dates back decades. Every time a new leader is elected in the Czech Republic, Kmoníček fields calls from friends and officials in Israel questioning the new administration’s stance on Israel. “I try to explain [that] because the public mood in [the] Czech Republic is traditionally so much pro-Israeli, that it’s suicide for any politician to go against that sentiment,” he said.
race to watch
New Bowman challenger says congressman is a no-show in the district
Freshman Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) drew a third Democratic primary challenger last week when Michael Gerald, a senior pastor at Shiloh Church in Tuckahoe and a deputy commissioner at the Westchester County Department of Correction, entered the race to represent New York’s redrawn 16th Congressional District. In his first interview as a candidate, Gerald told Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel that he is running largely because he believes that Bowman, who is among the most high-profile progressive lawmakers in the House, has been absent from the district during his first term.
Opening salvo: Echoing criticism voiced by the two other challengers in the race, Gerald suggested that Bowman’s policy views — including on infrastructure spending, police funding and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — have been unproductive and out of touch with voters’ priorities. “Rather than the congressman focusing his attention on solving the issues of our district, he would rather turn his attention to making a national name for himself,” Gerald, 54, said on Friday. “He’s not getting anything done for us.”
Major contrast: Gerald took particular issue with Bowman’s support for defunding the police as well as his “present” vote last May on a Capitol Police funding bill. “The fact of the matter is that we should never abandon our men and women in law enforcement,” said Gerald, who worked as a New Jersey state trooper and as a county undersheriff before he became a full-time pastor in 2007. “I really take issue with folks who indiscriminately say we ought to defund the police.”
Eye on Israel: The first-time candidate, who describes himself as a strong supporter of Israel, also criticized Bowman’s recent decision to withdraw his support for and vote against bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords. Gerald characterized the about-face, which angered Jewish constituents in the district, as proof that Bowman “is fighting an ideological war,” adding: “He’s pretty much saying ‘I don’t give a F about what you think’ to people who are constituents, and I think that’s disrespectful.”
Bowman on alert: Experts have speculated that Gerald, who, like Bowman, is Black, could prove viable if he shores up some voter support — and campaign contributions — in the coming weeks. His candidacy seems to have raised Bowman’s receptors. On Friday afternoon, Gerald said he met with Bowman in the district at the congressman’s request. He left the conversation convinced he had made the right choice. “I still maintain that there is a way in which you preserve your character and you move forward together,” Gerald told JI, “because we ain’t going nowhere if we continue to be extreme in our thoughts and our positions and our policies.”
Young leaders’ summit builds on seeds of Israeli-Moroccan normalization
In a simply decorated classroom on the far side of a dusty schoolyard deep inside Marrakesh’s bustling Old City, about a dozen deaf schoolchildren watched with amusement last week as a small group of well-educated — and usually articulate — young hearing Israelis and Moroccans attempted to communicate with them. Using very basic sign language, or at least those signs shared by the Hebrew and Moroccan versions of the visual-manual modality language, the children seemed not to know or care that they were a part of something very remarkable, even historic, Jewish Insider’s Ruth Marks Eglash reports from Marrakesh, Morocco.
Building bridges: As the governments of Israel and Morocco work to normalize relations on a diplomatic level following a December 2020 agreement to establish full and open ties, grassroots movements and civil society organizations are working to build and strengthen the connection between the two countries, already deeply linked via long-standing cultural roots. The group visiting the École de la Princesse Lalla Amina school and the class for the non-hearing, which is operated by an independent local charity, were participants in the Leaders of Tomorrow Summit and one of four teams competing in a low-tech hackathon challenge to create sustainable and cultural people-to-people projects that aim to build bridges between their countries.
Listen to me: “Our main goal is to leave no one behind,” Oumaima Mhijir, 29, a participant from Morocco, later told hackathon judges in a five-minute pitch about Project Ismaani (translated from Moroccan as “listen to me”). “We want to create a fellowship for good that aims to enhance cultural understanding between our two people.” Elad Kakon, 36, an Israeli on the same team, told JI that the team’s decision to focus on the non-hearing community came about after Mhijir, who helped established, through a local nonprofit, Marrakesh’s Sign Language Café, appealed to the Israeli participants for assistance with the charity that runs the school for the deaf. When Kakon revealed to the group that his Moroccan-born father, who grew up in Casablanca, was also non-hearing, the group hit on the idea of building a bridge between the two tiny and often sidelined communities.
Meaningful encounters: Organized by the Tel Aviv-based NGO ISRAEL-is, which educates and trains young Israelis to conduct meaningful encounters with their international peers, in collaboration with Mimouna Association, the summit brought together some 60 highly educated young Israelis and Moroccans, a mix of students and professionals.
Jewish heritage: Mimouna’s president, El Mehdi Boura, who established the organization in 2007, said there were some negative views of Jews, and of Israel, in Morocco but the normalization agreement, which is linked to the broader Abraham Accords with an additional three Arab countries, has served to bolster Mimouna’s profile and has made working on Jewish-related projects in the country much easier. “What we are doing in Morocco is not about the Abraham Accords, but it has definitely facilitated things for us,” he said, adding, “There are one million Jews of Moroccan descent in Israel and around the world and they are our brothers.”
People-to-people peace: Eyal Biram, co-founder and CEO of ISRAEL-is, told JI that he created the Leaders of Tomorrow Summit following the Abraham Accords’ signing to harness the new relationships that were forming. “We understood then that something really special was happening, that there was an Arab country opening its heart to peace and the people there were looking to connect with young people in Israel.”
Pro-Israel America wades into Tlaib primary with new round of endorsements
The bipartisan advocacy group Pro-Israel America is taking on Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in the Democratic primary for Michigan’s newly drawn 12th Congressional District. In its latest round of House endorsements — including five Democrats and three Republicans — PIA will announce on Monday that its political arm is backing longtime Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, who is among a handful of Democratic challengers going up against Tlaib this August in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, reports Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel.
Early action: “Pro-Israel America is working to ensure that the 118th Congress reflects broad, bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” PIA’s executive director, Jeff Mendelsohn, said in a statement to JI. PIA is so far the only pro-Israel group to have weighed in on the primary, which also includes former Michigan state legislator Shanelle Jackson. Former state Rep. Phil Cavanagh said last week that he was dropping out of the race and would instead run for judge in Wayne County.
‘Key race’: PIA says it is listing the matchup between Winfrey and Tlaib as a “key race” because it expects a “highly competitive” primary battle. The other candidates PIA is prioritizing — all of whom are Democrats competing in open-seat primaries against left-leaning opponents — include Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin, Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas and Kentucky state Sen. Morgan McGarvey. Both Irwin and Villegas have also gained backing from Democratic Majority for Israel.
Possible overlap: The other candidates PIA is endorsing are Rob Menendez, Jr., the son of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who is running to replace outgoing Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), and three Republican incumbents: Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Pete Stauber (R-MN) and Bill Huizenga (R-MI), who is seeking reelection in a newly drawn district now shared with Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI). Upton, whom PIA endorsed last July, has yet to declare if he will run for another term. PIA said it is “awaiting any updates from” the congressman but is “also endorsing Huizenga in the interim.”
‘Proven’ and ‘promising’: “These candidates include proven leaders in Congress and promising new voices who support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Mendelsohn told JI. “We will continue to bring the power of the pro-Israel grassroots community to help these candidates fight and win in their competitive races, including those against anti-Israel opponents.”
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👨 Man of the Moment: In GQ, Michael Idov explains Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise to worldwide popularity. “A huge part of Zelensky’s global resonance is that he seems to fit a type everyone knows the world over, because, thanks to millennia of persecution, the type exists the world over: a Jewish wiseacre. The idea of one of those (of us, I should say), becoming a wartime icon is in itself a perfect Jewish joke. It’s Woody Allen in ‘Bananas,’ it’s Dustin Hoffman in ‘Ishtar,’ it’s Ben Stiller in ‘Tropic Thunder.’ Except in real life. Risking real death. The true story of 44-year-old Zelensky’s rise is a tad more complicated, and speaks more to the incredibly messy cultural tangle that exists between Russia and Ukraine than to any easy stereotype.” [GQ]
🕍 Safe at Shul: CNN’s Rebecca Wright and Olha Konovalova spotlight the efforts of a synagogue in Uman, Ukraine, to provide a safe haven for Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians alike. “‘We invite all the people, all Ukrainians, all Hasidic people, doesn’t matter who,’ said Irina Rybnitskaya, a lawyer for the US-owned foundation that runs the synagogue. ‘We prepare this place especially for them, in order to hide (when) there is (an) alarm.’ The temporary hideout is lined with wooden benches and has been stocked with mattresses, blankets and hot drinks. The residents have arrived carrying their valuables and bags of clothing, in case they have to camp out for days — or longer — in the shelter. ‘It’s safe to be here, that’s why I am here,’ said Dasha Borscht, 16, a non-Jewish resident taking refuge in the basement.” [CNN]
🎭 Star Power: In a wide-ranging interview with The Cut’s Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, actress Beanie Feldstein, who stars in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” explains the differences between herself and the show’s star, Fanny Brice. “She just wants to do what she loves, which we, of course, can understand. But there’s this brazen, unapologetic attitude to her that I certainly don’t have. I finish a number in the rehearsal room, and I run offstage. I’m like, ‘No, don’t look at me!’ The first song is called ‘I’m the Greatest Star,’ and it’s just her demanding that we know that she is a star, which is so uninhibited. It’s so freeing to play someone who just puts a period at the end of the sentence and is like, ‘This is who I am, and make way for me.’ And the whole beginning of the show is people telling her that she’s too — in my case, too short or not the right size or this … And she’s just like, ‘Okay, I know I’m not that, but I’m this. And give me a chance to do this.’ And so, it kind of tracks her trajectory to stardom.” [TheCut]
📷 Preserving the Past: The Boston Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie looks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new push to reach Holocaust survivors and their descendants living in the New England. “Hundreds of photos covered a long wooden table at Julie Ross’s home, painful reminders of her father’s harrowing captivity in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. There was an image of Stephan Ross, maybe 12 years old, wearing the striped uniform of a prisoner. Pictures of corpses being pushed into ovens. And clusters of emaciated men staring in stunned disbelief upon their liberation by American troops. ‘Some of these things we’ve never seen,’ Julie Ross said recently, picking up the photos, one by one, and reflecting quietly on what her father had endured. ‘He never showed them to us.’” [BostonGlobe]
✍️ Sanctions and the Regime: In National Review, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Rich Goldberg calls on Congress to act to keep sanctions on Iran as a nuclear deal between Tehran and Western powers begins to take shape. “Congress should defend the integrity of U.S. terrorism sanctions by mandating new sanctions on any institution in Iran — including the Central Bank of Iran — that continues to finance the activities of the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations. Congress should condemn as wholly illegitimate the removal of terrorism sanctions without a cessation of illicit conduct. [President Joe] Biden is setting a dangerous precedent for U.S. counterterrorism policy. New legislation should set a deadline for Iran to fully account for its undeclared nuclear work or face the full reimposition of U.S. sanctions. Removing sanctions for a supposed nuclear deal that knowingly allows Iran to hide its clandestine nuclear activities defies common sense.” [NationalReview]
Around the Web
📈 Security Funds: At a press conference on Friday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) expressed his support for increasing Nonprofit Security Grant Program funding to $360 million, as Congress scrambles to finalize 2022 spending levels.
🛥️ On the Superyachts Trail: Following President Joe Biden’s warning to Russian oligarchs during last week’s State of the Union address, the Associated Press tracked efforts to move superyachts that could potentially be seized as the U.S. levels sanctions against individuals and companies tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
🇷🇺 Off the Rails: A demand made by Russian officials over the weekend that U.S. sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine not include the country’s trade and investment with Iran threatens to derail nuclear talks with Iran as the discussions near their final days. Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s delegation said Iran “got much more [in nuclear talks] than it could expect, much more.”
☢️ Asking Questions: Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) reacted to Moscow’s continued participation in the Iran nuclear talks, tweeting, “Why, then, are we negotiating with Russia as if it had never invaded Ukraine? As though the times we live in were business as usual? Cognitive dissonance.”
✡️ Religious Renaissance: The Washington Post looks at how Jewish life in Ukraine has experienced significant growth in recent decades, an about-face in a country in which most Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
💵 Rapid Relief: The New York Times reports on efforts by Jewish organizations in New York — where a plurality of the 300,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union hail from Ukraine — to raise millions of dollars to support Ukrainian relief efforts.
🏠 Course Correction: In a letter to the board of Bed, Bath & Beyond, Chewy cofounder Ryan Cohen, who has a 9.8% stake in the home goods company, suggested strategic changes for the company to consider as it seeks a turnaround.
🎰 Betting Big: Cordish Cos. sold two Pennsylvania casino properties for a combined $674 million, shortly after its sale of Live Casino & Hotel Maryland.
🛂 Immigration Investigation: Lisbon is investigating Roman Abramovich’s successful claim of Portuguese citizenship under a law offering citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled during the Spanish Inquisition.
🏭 Zoning Out: Israel’s cabinet approved a measure that will phase out factories in a Haifa industrial zone, and instead invest in improving public transportation and developing residential properties in the area.
❤️ New Ring: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is reportedly engaged to girlfriend Dr. Dana Blumberg. Tommy Hilfiger made the announcement at the amfAR Gala Palm Beach on Saturday.
👋 Guard Change: 5W Public Relations founder Ronn Torossian told staffers that he is stepping down as the firm’s CEO.
💼 Transitions: PBS “NewsHour” foreign affairs producer Ali Rogin has been promoted to weekend correspondent. Howard Pollack, who formerly worked in the office of New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, has joined the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York as director of community affairs.
👶 Welcome to the World: Jewish Insider’s Israel editor and correspondent Tamara Zieve welcomed her second child, a boy, on Sunday.
💍 Mazal Tov: Rachael Baitel, chief of staff at Russell Street Ventures and a Trump White House, USAID and DFC alum, and Alec Greenberg, who works for his family’s company, Wearwell, got engaged Friday. The two were introduced by a mutual friend. H/T Playbook
Pic of the Day
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes a group of children from the Alumim orphanage in the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr on Sunday as they arrive in Israel at Ben Gurion Airport.
Former chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner turns 80…
Nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Times since 1984, Suzanne Bregman Fields, Ph.D. turns 86… President emeritus of the California Institute of Technology, he is the 1975 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine, David Baltimore turns 84… Former bureau chief for the AP in Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, London and Tokyo, Myron Belkind turns 82… Geneticist and 2017 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine, Michael Rosbash turns 78… Retired media executive, she was a member of the first co-ed class at Yale College in 1969, Ruth Barbara Jarmul turns 73… Chairman and general trust counsel of Fiduciary Trust International, Gail Ehrlich Cohen turns 66… Award-winning freelance journalist, author and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, Anne Farris Rosen turns 66… British public law and human rights barrister and a member of the House of Lords, he is the long-time chair of the British Legal Friends of Hebrew University, Baron David Philip Pannick turns 66… Executive director of Academic Exchange, Rabbi Nachum Braverman turns 64… Democratic political strategist, Lewis H. Cohen turns 62…
Professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the author or editor of several books about Baruch Spinoza, Yitzhak Yohanan Melamed turns 54… Academy Award-winning actress, Rachel Weisz turns 52… Assistant news director for DC’s NBC4 News and an adjunct professor of journalism at American U, Matt Glassman turns 52… Brooklyn-based political consultant and attorney, Michael Tobman turns 49… Member of Israel’s diplomatic corps since 2010, he has been the spokesperson of the Embassy of Israel in Washington since 2018, Elad Strohmayer turns 41… Television news anchor, author and businesswoman, she is the host of “Hatched,” a business competition show on The CW Network, Nicole Lapin turns 38… Author, popular science writer, spaceflight historian, YouTuber and podcaster, best known for writing Breaking the Chains of Gravity, Amy Shira Teitel turns 36… Climate deals reporter at Axios Pro, Alan Neuhauser turns 35… Attorney in Reno, Nevada, Sasha Ahuva Farahi turns 34… Marketing manager at Just Women’s Sports, Rachel Zuckerman turns 33… Digital engagement manager at AIPAC, Cory Meyer turns 31… Jake Hirth… Yaakov Spira…