👋 Good Thursday morning!
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we take a deep dive into the claims of Jewish ancestry made by Rep.-elect George Santos (R-NY), and spotlight a Washington, D.C., choral group paying homage to the Jewish songwriters who penned popular holiday season classics. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Rep. Josh Gottheimer, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi and Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti.
Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu announced last night that he was able to form a government, minutes before his midnight deadline.
Widely described as the most right-wing government in the country’s history, Netanyahu’s Likud will sit with the parties of Shas, Degel HaTorah, Agudat Israel, Religious Zionism, Jewish Power and Noam.
In his filmed telephone call to President Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu said, “I wanted to inform you that thanks to the enormous public support we received in the last elections, I was able to form a government that will take care of all the citizens of Israel, and I of course mean to establish it as soon as possible.”
Herzog responded, “I thank you for the announcement and wish you luck, and as you said the duty is to work for the entire Israeli people and public, and I hope you will all enlist to this task at this time.”
The Office of the President of Israel tweeted, “In accordance with Article 13 (b) of the Basic Law: The Government, Member of Knesset Benjamin Netanyahu, Chairman of the Likud Party, informed the President of the State that he was able to form a government.”
Despite the announcement, as of Thursday afternoon local time, Netanyahu’s Likud had yet to sign agreements with all of the factions.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin is expected to announce the formation of the government during the Knesset plenum on Monday, after which Netanyahu will have up to seven days to swear in his government. The former long-serving leader still needs to negotiate cabinet positions for key members of his own Likud faction.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was in Washington yesterday to address a joint session of Congress, nine months after his first address before the body, which had taken place virtually.
Prior to Zelensky’s speech, he met with President Joe Biden, who, during a White House press conference, invoked the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees. “Tonight is the fourth night of Hanukkah, a time when Jewish people around the world, President Zelensky and many other families among them, honor the timeless miracle of a small band of warriors fighting for their values and their freedom against a much larger foe, and how they endured and how they overcame,” Biden said. “The story of survival and resilience that reminds us [in] the coldest days of the year that light will always prevail over darkness.”
During his speech to Congress, Zelensky made mention of Russia’s “ally in [its] genocidal policy: Iran,” referring to Iran’s transfer of weaponized drones to Russia. “That is how one terrorist has found the other,” he said. “It is just a matter of time before they strike against your other allies.”
Israel’s deputy chief of mission in Washington, D.C., Eliav Benjamin, attended the address, tweeting after, “I was honored to represent Israel tonight during President [Zelenskyy]’s historic, powerful and inspiring speech at a joint session of Congress. As Ukraine fights for its freedom, Israel will continue to stand with and support the Ukrainian people.”
While Zelensky was in Washington, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Netanyahu to congratulate him on forming a government, Netanyahu’s office said. The two leaders discussed the Russia-Ukraine war, and Netanyahu told Putin he hopes he soon finds a way to end the war and suffering it is causing. He also said that he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and to thwart its efforts to establish a military presence on Israel’s northern border.
Brazilian database records, historian cast doubt on Santos’ claims of Jewish ancestry
In his campaign materials, George Santos, a Republican elected to Congress last month on Long Island, wove a compelling family narrative, tracing his maternal grandparents’ flight from Jewish persecution in Ukraine to Belgium, where, he has said, they fled the Nazis before settling in Brazil. But with key elements of Santos’ background now under scrutiny, the harrowing immigrant story and claims to Jewish heritage he sold to voters have been called into question, Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel reports.
Records reveal: Brazilian records from a national civil identification database reviewed by JI show that Santos’ maternal grandmother, Rosalina Caruso Horta Devolder, was born in 1927, and is unlikely to have immigrated from Belgium in 1940, as Santos has previously claimed. His maternal grandfather, Paulo Horta Devolder, was, “by all indications, Brazilian,” according to Fábio Koifman, a historian at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro who specializes in the entry of foreigners into Brazil.
Catholic roots: Meanwhile, none of Santos’ maternal ancestors “suggest any closeness to Judaism,” said Koifman, who recently assembled an extensive genealogical record of Santos’ family, the details of which he shared with JI. “All were baptized, married and buried according to Catholic rites and traditions. Most of them were born, lived and died in the city of Niterói, with a certain concentration in the Santa Rosa neighborhood from the mid-1950s.”
Tenuous connections: Near the end of the election, Santos freely identified as Jewish, placing himself in a rarefied position to become the next — and only — Jewish Republican member of New York’s congressional delegation. But personal and professional acquaintances of Santos say they have no awareness of his connection to Judaism, and mainstream Jewish organizations in New York haven’t met with him. Jewish residents of Niterói, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, tell JI they have no recollection of interacting with his mother, Fatima Devolder, who lived there.
‘Deeply troubling’: Joseph Murray, a lawyer for Santos, said he was unable to comment, insisting that he would “respond in due course.” In a statement to JI, Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the RJC is “aware of the claims being made against” Santos and has “reached out to his office directly to ascertain whether they are true,” adding: “These allegations, if true, are deeply troubling. Given their seriousness, the congressman-elect owes the public an explanation, and we look forward to hearing it.”
Bonus: In The New York Times, Democratic opposition researcher Tyson Brody explores how Santos’ misrepresentations were not uncovered prior to last month’s election. “Could Mr. Santos’s opponent and Democratic operatives have pursued this story harder and found out much more? I can imagine why that didn’t happen: We’re talking about what appeared to be résumé embellishment, evictions and legal liabilities. These are not always shocking things on their own in politics; it’s the extent of Mr. Santos’s apparent false claims that’s highly unusual.”
Bipartisan bill aims to examine Holocaust education efforts
A new bill, set to be introduced on Thursday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the last days of this Congress, seeks to examine the status of Holocaust education efforts in public primary and secondary schools, Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod has learned.
In the text:The Holocaust Education and Antisemitism Lessons (HEAL) Act is sponsored by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Kathy Manning (D-NC), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Brad Sherman (D-CA). The bill draft, obtained by JI, would mandate that the Department of Education submit to Congress a report on Holocaust education in public schools, including identifying schools and states that do not require Holocaust education, and examine the quality and type of education and materials used and how students are assessed on their learning. The bill suggests measures of educational quality, including whether the curricula include in-class discussion, homework and projects.
Remembering: “It is critically important not just to remember the victims of the Holocaust killed by the Nazis in gas chambers and concentration camps simply for being Jews, but also because our history teaches us that we have a responsibility to confront bigotry, hatred and intolerance wherever it can be found,” Gottheimer told JI. “Therefore, we cannot — and must not — ignore the stunning rise in antisemitism and Holocaust denial around the world and, increasingly, here at home in the United States.” The current session of Congress is expected to adjourn by the end of the week, so the legislation will likely need to be reintroduced in the new year in order to proceed.
Fading memory: The bill arrives as incidents of antisemitism within the U.S. continue to rise. It also follows alarm about shrinking knowledge of the Holocaust in younger generations. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., 21 states require schools to provide Holocaust education. A 2020 study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany of people ages 18 to 39 — millennials and Gen Z — in all states showed that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were killed, and the majority of those thought less 2 million were killed.
Red alert: “The mounting evidence that knowledge about the Holocaust is beginning to fade should also alarm us all,” Gottheimer added. “As Elie Wiesel said: ‘Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger or hatred.’ With this commonsense bipartisan legislation I’m introducing, both Democrats and Republicans are coming together to ensure we’re working to stem the rising tide of hate and to improve Holocaust education in schools nationwide.”
Washington choir pays homage to Jewish songwriters behind holiday hits
Jewish tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn and others created much of the musical soundtrack for the secular Christmas season, but that fact has been largely overlooked. In its recent series of Christmas shows, the Washington Men’s Camerata, a choral group based in Washington, D.C., set out to correct the musical record by paying homage to the Jewish songwriters behind many of the jingly holiday favorites, Jewish Insider’s Madison Hahamy reports.
Doco direction: The group’s music director, Frank Albinder, who has led it since 1999, came up with the idea for the theme, titled “I’m Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” after watching a 2017 documentary about the origins of many popular Christmas songs, including “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” “Silver Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The documentary, “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” noted that songwriting was one of the few industries open to American Jews during a time of rampant job discrimination, and Christmas was seen as a collective holiday that brought people together, rather than one owned by the church.
Rudolph’s red nose: Nevertheless, Jewish songwriters still managed to incorporate their identities into the music. The story “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is commonly thought to have originated from creator Robert May’s experiences with antisemitism as a child due to his similarly prominent nose. His brother, Johnny Marks, who was also Jewish, would later write the popular song. Though the Camerata often sings Christmas music, the choral group has never done so by specifically acknowledging the Jewish origins of the songs. It’s something that Albinder, who is Jewish, was excited to see come to fruition.
Broad support: The Camerata Board, he said, was supportive of the idea of a Jewishly themed Christmas series (though one board member was concerned that Jewish people might find the theme offensive). Ultimately, the decision required little modification from the group’s repertoire, which already included most of the two dozen songs that they planned to sing, including three by Johnny Marks. They also sang songs by Gloria Shayne Baker, Mel Tormé, Jule Styne, Berlin, Felix Mendelssohn and others. In concert, Albinder introduced each song, explaining each composer’s Jewish background and whether or not their heritage figured into the tunes. For instance, he noted the origin of Rudolph’s red nose, as well as the anti-war sentiment behind “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Read the full story here.
UAE offer for Israeli insurer paves way for more deals, minister says
While regulators scrutinize a bid from the United Arab Emirates for Israel’s largest insurance company, the Gulf state will be looking to buy more pieces of the Israeli financial services industry, Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi told The Circuit’s Jonathan Ferziger. Al Zeyoudi said the offer last week from a consortium led by Abu Dhabi-based ADQ for a controlling stake in Israel’s Phoenix Group was “just another signal that relations are going to grow.” Israeli insurers, financial services companies and fintech startups are among the most attractive candidates for partnerships and acquisitions, he said.
Setting goals: In a video interview from his office in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, Al Zeyoudi also said he expects ties between the two countries to strengthen under returning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said the free-trade agreement that the UAE and Israel ratified on Dec. 11 would likely reach its goal of generating an annual $10 billion in bilateral economic activity by 2026, two years ahead of the ministry’s earlier projections. Two years after the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan signed agreements to normalize relations with Israel, he said more Arab countries are getting ready to engage with the Jewish state. “There is a growing appetite across the region for collaboration and cooperation,” Al Zeyoudi said.
Let’s make a deal: In the insurance deal, Al Zeyoudi said ADQ, a holding company owned by the Abu Dhabi emirate, is prepared to confront concerns expressed in Israel about foreign control of Phoenix, the largest manager of employee pension funds. The investment group it leads signed a term sheet last week with Phoenix’s controlling shareholders, U.S. investment firms Centerbridge Partners and Gallatin Point Capital, to buy between 25-30% of the company’s shares for as much as $800 million. “It’s all been studied very well and thoroughly from both sides,” he said. “No deals will be signed without the full picture [being] put on the table, being discussed, being tackled, and then we move on to the next level.”
Fast friends: In his own efforts to understand the Israeli financial services market, Al Zeyoudi said he developed a warm relationship with Samer Haj-Yehia, chairman of Bank Leumi, Israel’s largest lender. Haj-Yehia, an Arab citizen of Israel, was a surprise speaker in October at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia, even though the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. Al Zeyoudi first met the banker during a meeting with Israeli business leaders in Dubai on Sept. 15, 2020, the day the Abraham Accords were signed in Washington. “Since then, the relationship is very close with him,” Al Zeyoudi said. Haj-Yehia, who also spoke at conferences in the UAE last month, acknowledged through a Leumi spokesman that he has met with the Emirati minister and declined to comment further.
🏠 Heart-to-Heart with Harris:Vanity Fair‘s Molly Jong-Fast interviews Vice President Kamala Harris about abortion rights, immigration and a series of firsts that she and her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, have brought to the Naval Observatory. “She mentioned family, and as a largely secular Jew myself living through a period of rising antisemitism, I told her there was something meaningful about having her husband, who is Jewish, living in the Naval Observatory. ‘We had a big Hanukkah party last night,’ Harris told me, while also mentioning she believed the couple was the first to put a mezuzah on the house of the vice president. ‘When we put up the mezuzah, my in-laws came, and they’re originally from Brooklyn, and they are exactly what you would know and expect,’ Harris said. ‘She would have to be very pleased, your mother-in-law,’ I remarked. ‘Oh, yes. My mother-in-law, Barbara, is very pleased and proud of her son. My father-in-law is equally pleased. My father-in-law, he’s an artist, so he’s got this coexisting thing, which my husband has, of being very kind and being very strong. Sometimes he just tears up about it all, especially when Doug did the convening for the summit on antisemitism because here he is, this kid from Brooklyn, started with nothing, my father-in-law, and his son is doing this work that could and does and will impact millions of people.’” [VanityFair]
🎄 Turkish De-Light: In the Washington Post, Devin Naar spotlights Albert Sadacca, a Jewish man from the Ottoman Empire who is responsible for popularizing artificial Christmas lights in America. “How Sadacca (1901-1980), his brothers and other Jews from the Ottoman Empire pioneered the Christmas-lights market a century ago reveals a dark side of their story — one shaped by nativism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and labor exploitation. Those forces have scrubbed Sadacca’s Ottoman Jewish background from our understanding of the holiday and the twinkly lights that illuminate it.” [WashPost]
🇺🇸 Mideast Strategy: In The Hill, Seth Cropsy suggests that the U.S. capitalize on the split between Russia and China as Moscow-Tehran ties deepen. “From Moscow’s viewpoint of dwindling munitions, Tehran is a partner of significant strategic importance; Russia’s Middle East policy increasingly is identical to Iran’s. This unity of purpose will intensify if Iran delivers the more advanced missiles Russia seeks. From Beijing’s viewpoint, Tehran is a potential disruptor. Iran provides benefits as a strategic partner — its oil exports, though less than Saudi Arabia’s, remain relevant, and its anti-Americanism allows it to stretch U.S. resources in a broader military confrontation. But if China can secure the Middle East by diplomatic and economic means through a relationship with the Gulf Arabs, then Iran becomes significantly less relevant to China; Beijing can undermine the possibility of a ‘Far Blockade’ without firing a shot, thereby reducing the stress of a potential Malacca Strait closure on its strategy and operational planning.” [TheHill]
Ξ Dirty Money:The New York Times’ Blake Hounshell explains why the collapse of FTX has received a largely muted response on Capitol Hill, where both Democrats and Republicans had benefited from founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried’s political donations. “If FTX’s cash weren’t politically toxic before, it surely is now. Federal regulations require the return of illegal campaign donations, and The New York Times reported recently that prosecutors were reaching out to the campaigns and committees that took money from Bankman-Fried and his associates to learn more about the nature of those contributions. For the Democrats who are embarrassed by taking dirty money, perhaps the only blessing of this scandal might be that it’s a bipartisan one. That might be why, as Michael Schaffer noted in an astute column for Politico written before Bankman-Fried’s indictment, the two parties aren’t firing at each other in Washington. The city’s ‘polarized political-media ecosystem can’t do much with a potential scandal,’ he wrote, ‘if there’s no partisan advantage to drive it.’” [NYTimes]
🖊️ Touched by Translation: In the Washington Post, author Nicole Krauss reflects on her correspondence with Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who translated one of Krauss’ books into Persian. “When, in 2019, I became aware that my novel The History of Love had been translated into Persian, everything about that fact moved me: the unlikelihood of my work — American, Jewish, and sometimes dealing with Israel — finding voice in Iran, a place I’ve dreamed of much of my life; the courage and passion of the translator who made possible a conversation between two cultures whose governments condemn each other. As Iran doesn’t adhere to copyright laws, I never would have known of the translation had an Iranian friend not seen the cover posted on Instagram. It gave me joy, this sense of unbridgeable distances — cultural, political, linguistic, geographical — suddenly collapsing. Only after some months did I learn that the translator was none other than Taraneh Alidoosti.” [WashPost]
🎤 From Kyiv to DC:The Atlantic’s David Frum reflects on last night’s address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a joint session of Congress. “What the Western world is getting in return for its aid is a powerful recommitment to its own best self. We didn’t believe the Ukrainians could do it, in part because we didn’t believe we could do it. But they did. And so did we. And we look now at both Ukraine and ourselves in new ways. The extremists and conspiracists and populists, the authoritarians and kleptocrats and theocrats who have all gained so much ascendancy in recent years, they do not speak for us. That small man in the olive-green jersey at the rostrum of the House of Representatives, he spoke for us. And the reception given to him today by the president and by Congress told the world that his words had been heard and received and understood by the great democracy-minded majority of Americans.” [TheAtlantic]
Around the Web
🗳️ McClellan’s Moment: Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan won the Democratic firehouse primary in Virginia’s 4th Congressional District with 85 percent of the vote, and will move on to the February special election to fill the seat of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), who died last month.
🚫 Stepping Up Sanctions: The Treasury Department announced new sanctions on two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members and an Iranian equipment manufacturer following the execution of two protestors.
💻 Cyber Challenge: U.S. Cyber Command conducted a number of offensive operations in the run-up to the 2022 midterms to intervene in attempts by Russian and Iranian hackers to disrupt U.S. systems.
👨⚖️ On U.S. Soil: Sam Bankman-Fried was extradited overnight to the U.S., where he will face a range of fraud charges.
📗 NoVA’s Jews: The Washington Post spotlights a new book, The Jewish Community of Northern Virginia, by New Jersey natives Shawn and Susan Dilles, who moved to the area in the 1980s, ignoring comments from relatives and friends that it wasn’t a region where Jews typically settled.
✍️ The Write Stuff: Bloombergincluded JI’s coverage of Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters on its annual “Jealousy List,” with Max Chafkin writing that JI features reporter “Matthew Kassel unearthed Masters’s old posts on forums for gun enthusiasts and body builders to paint a portrait of a coherence-challenged contrarian who had, over the years, flirted with elements of the extreme and kooky far right.”
🕎 Across the Pond: A group of British students who were the targets of an antisemitic attack last year in London returned to the site of the incident to light Hanukkah candles.
📜 Coalition Catchall: In Tablet, Matti Friedman lays out his thoughts on the incoming Israeli government, and the global reaction its formation is facing.
🛩️ Cutting the Commute: A new electric vehicle with the ability to fly users to their destination, being developed by Israeli startup AIR, made its first unmanned flight.
📱 Oops! The IDF accidentally called and texted tens of thousands of reservists during routine maintenance to its automated system.
✝️ Papal Pledge: The families of four Israelis being held by Hamas — two civilians who are believed to be alive and the bodies of two soldiers — met at the Vatican with Pope Francis, who pledged to work with religious and political leaders to return the four to Israel.
🏝️ Red Sea Reservations: Egyptian concerns over some technical aspects of a deal regarding a pair of Red Sea islands — which is seen as an early step toward Israeli-Saudi normalization — are delaying the agreement’s implementation.
🌃 Blackout Blunder: An assessment by the State Department found that Iran’s regular internet blackouts, imposed in response to ongoing anti-regime protests, are having a negative impact on the Islamic republic’s economy.
🇨🇱 Chile in Ramallah: Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced the South American nation will open an embassy in Ramallah, where it already has diplomatic representation.
➡️ Transitions: Yair Rosenberg, a contributing writer to The Atlantic since last year, will join the publication as a staff writer.
🕯️ Remembering: Statistician Albert Madansky, who used his calculations to determine issues as serious as the risk of nuclear war and as silly as the top New York deli sandwich, died at 88.
Pic of the Day
The Capitol Jewish Forum and the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) hosted a menorah lighting at the Capitol yesterday evening, featuring (from left to right) Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rabbi Levi Shemtov.
Former president of the World Bank, U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, U.S. deputy secretary of defense and dean of JHU’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Paul Wolfowitz turns 79…
Retired New York Supreme Court judge, Arthur J. Cooperman turns 89… NYC-based political consultant and ordained rabbi, his early career included stints as a policeman, taxi driver and bounty hunter, Henry “Hank” Sheinkopf turns 73… Retired assistant principal from the Philadelphia school district, Elissa Siegel… Associate at Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky turns 68… Rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig turns 66… Retired Israeli brigadier general who then served as the national CEO of the Friends of the IDF, Yehiel Gozal turns 65… Senior managing director in the D.C. office of Newmark, Lisa Benjamin… Former CFO of Enron Corporation, Andrew Fastow turns 61… Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Palm Desert, Calif., David Novak turns 60… Filmmaker, novelist, video game writer and comic book writer, David Samuel Goyer turns 57… NPR correspondent covering the State Department and Washington’s diplomatic corps, Michele Kelemen turns 55… Film and television actress, Dina Meyer turns 54… CEO and co-founder of Next Titan Capital, Michael Huttner… U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) turns 52… CEO of American Council of Young Political Leaders, Libby Rosenbaum… Author and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, James Kirchick turns 39… MFA candidate at the Helen Zell Writers’ program at the University of Michigan, Sofia Ergas Groopman… Israel programming admissions director at Jewish National Fund, Carly Korman Schlakman… Head of philanthropy and impact investment for EJF Philanthropies, Simone Friedman… Liberty Consultants’ Lisa Brazie…