👋 Good Tuesday morning!
In today’s Daily Kickoff, we report from the opening of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Abu Dhabi and spotlight the possible 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls and other U.S. politicians on the ground in Israel andthe Middle Eastthis week. Also in today’s Daily Kickoff: Sen. Bob Menendez, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass and Natan Levy.
With the House and Senate both in recess, a number of delegations and members are visiting the Middle East this week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is in the United Arab Emirates today with a Republican Senate delegation after first traveling to Saudi Arabia. The delegation, which includes Sens. Pete Ricketts (R-NE), Thom Tillis (R-NC) Ted Budd (R-NC), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and Katie Britt (R-AL), is meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other leaders in the UAE. McConnell met on Sunday with Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who is leading a delegation in India, will travel to Israel later this week.
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Jim Risch (R-ID) are already in Tel Aviv this week for the Tikvah Fund’s Hertog Forum, which kicks off tonight with a conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Walter Russell Mead. (Spotted in the Knesset yesterday: Netanyahu speaking to reporters — and apparently preparing for tonight’s event — with a copy of Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People in hand.)
Risch is slated to speak with Mead tomorrow afternoon in a session titled “The Politics of Support for Israel,” which will be followed by a keynote address by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Cotton, who in addition to Pompeo is said to be considering a 2024 White House bid, will give tomorrow evening’s keynote.
The three-day forum ends on Thursday, with McConnell and former Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams speaking during a second session on “The Politics of Support for Israel.” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and his predecessor, former Ambassador David Friedman, will close out the gathering on Thursday evening.
UAE Jewish community opens the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Standing majestically alongside a mosque and church of equal external dimensions, with common white-stone exteriors and arching architectural styles, yet each with its own unique twist and respective religious symbols, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in UAE capital was officially opened to the local Jewish community on Sunday. On Thursday evening the larger Abrahamic Family House, of which the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue is a part, was inaugurated. Jewish Insider’s Tamara Zieve was in Abu Dhabi to capture the scene and speak with community members.
Festive affair: The event, attended by approximately 325 guests celebrating the landmark occasion with live music and food, included bringing a Torah scroll into the synagogue for the first time and affixing a mezuzah on a doorpost. Sunday also marked the first prayer service held in the synagogue as the afternoon prayer of Mincha was recited. Children’s activities for younger community members were on offer in the rabbinic residence of Rabbi Ben de Toledo and Rabbanit Yael de Toledo — the young couple who moved to Abu Dhabi from Jerusalem to help lead services at the synagogue. After the main gathering there was also an intimate upsherin — a ritual hair-cutting tradition common in certain Jewish communities — for a local three-year-old boy from Saadiyat Island, marking another first of many celebrations at the site.
Then and now: The words “amazing” and “historic” echoed throughout the synagogue, while longtime members of the UAE’s Jewish community reminisced about how far they had come, one of them telling JI how she used to bring two suitcases in from abroad to host Shabbat in the country. At the front of the synagogue — hailed as the “first purpose-built synagogue” to open its doors in the Gulf in nearly 100 years — the Ten Commandments are written out in clear dark Hebrew letters on the cool stone walls, and two gold menorahs stand on either side of the wooden ark. Layers of geometric criss-cross lines rise up 30 meters to the roof, allowing light to filter in and giving a resemblance of a sukkah and wedding canopy.
First prayers: Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the chief rabbi of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, opened the event and Cantor Alex Peterfreund led the congregants through a series of verses. Sarna then invited Rabbi Levi Duchman, the first resident rabbi of the United Arab Emirates and head of Chabad in the UAE, to recite a Jewish prayer in Hebrew for the leaders and government of the UAE. The same prayer was also delivered in Arabic by Rabbi Yosef Hamdi, the leader of the small Jewish Yemenite community in Abu Dhabi that was rescued two years ago by the Emirati government. Hamdi’s 13-year-old son later sang a prayer himself, filling the synagogue with soulful Yemeni Arabic vocals. “Today is something special,” Hamdi told JI. “For all the people of Israel.”
All walks of life: The crowd represented a microcosm of the multicultural society of the United Arab Emirates, a country of more than 200 nationalities living in the Gulf nation, according to government statistics. “In one way or another, we are all on some kind of Abrahamic journey,” Sarna, who has been a driving force in the evolution of the Jewish community in the UAE, told the congregation. “We have all responded to some kind of call bringing us here to the UAE. For each of us, our journey may have begun at a different point of origin. Participating in the ceremony today are Jews from Iran, from Yemen, from Europe, from Russia, from Ukraine, the U.K. and both Americas. Some of us have been here for decades and others have just arrived,” he continued.
Read the full dispatch here.
Bonus: In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead offers a perspective of the U.S from Dubai and how the UAE is approaching competition with Saudi Arabia. “For now, the U.A.E. is responding to these pressures by focusing on its strengths. One of them is its flexibility. Thanks to more relaxed attitudes among a smaller native population, the Emiratis can take steps Riyadh can scarcely match that signal its openness to foreigners and their investments. As the Saudis dither over their relations with Israel, the Emiratis are opening kosher restaurants and synagogues. In a development even more shocking to conservative Islamic jurists, but much to the joy of the Emirates’ estimated 3.5 million resident workers from India, a Hindu temple opened in October in Dubai.”
Iran protests can be ‘defining moment for a difference,’ Menendez says in Munich
Speaking on a panel about the ongoing anti-regime protests in Iran at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said that the demonstrations could be a key pivot point for Iran if the international community offers the needed support to the protesters, Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod reports.
Defining moment: “The international community needs to wake up to the tear gas and start acting resolutely against the regime on behalf of the Iranian people,” Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “This can be a defining moment for a difference.”
New possibilities: The Democratic senator, who has long pushed for the administration to take a more aggressive stance toward Tehran, said that the current protests open the possibilities of a secular, democratic and prosperous Iran. “I do believe that this process is an opportunity, if we grab it,” Menendez said. “We lost the Green Revolution, we cannot lose another one,” he said, referring to the 2009 protests after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. Menendez described the women-led nature of the current protests as a “fundamental difference” between the current round of demonstrations and previous ones.
European view: Menendez was joined on the panel by Hannah Neumann, the chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the Arab Peninsula. Neumann argued that the European Union needs to more fully support the protests and embrace an “alternative vision” of Iran’s future, rather than continuing to try to deal with the Iranian regime. “I really have the impression [that] it’s shifting more, the more we can see what… the alternative vision [could] be… the more I think we see a shift,” she said. “And the fact that Iran is clearly siding with Russia, I think, will speed this up.”
Bonus:Politico sits down with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, examining his role as a bridge between the Hill, the White House and foreign leaders.
Los Angeles mayor pledges to work with Jewish community following antisemitic attacks
Addressing hate is a “chief component” of Los Angeles’ public safety agenda, Mayor Karen Bass said at a town hall hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on Monday evening, following the arrest of a man charged with hate crimes in two separate shootings outside of local synagogues in recent weeks, eJewishPhilanthropy’s Esther D. Kustanowitz reports. “Antisemitism crawls out of the shadows,” Bass, a Democrat, said at the gathering, held at the YULA Boys High School in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson. “Make no mistake, Angelenos from every community stand united to stamp it out and to ensure that justice is served. Antisemitism has no place in Los Angeles.”
Federation response: Antisemitism is “the world’s oldest hate,” federation CEO Rabbi Noah Farkas said to the crowd of 400 people, listing some of the communities, including Colleyville, Texas, and Pittsburgh, that have been the sites of anti-Jewish violence in recent years. “We have been assaulted, we have been beaten, we have been kidnapped and held hostage, and now we have been shot,” he said. “We know from our long history that hate speech leads to hate crimes. What begins with words, often ends in bullets.”
Police presence: The event also included a security briefing from Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore, who recommended that community members volunteer with the LAPD to get some basic training and take on administrative and other tasks that might otherwise have taken officers off the street. He urged people to push back against hate. “Don’t allow it to go unchallenged,” Moore said. “And anyone, famous figure or otherwise, should be boycotted when they will not take a stand against such hateful rhetoric.” Bass and other speakers noted that proactive steps to respond to such incidents include adding cameras, adding police presence as well as license plate readers. Those technologies were instrumental in tracking and apprehending the individual charged in the recent shootings.
How Israeli MMA fighter Natan Levy went from teaching martial arts to competing in the UFC
From a young age, Natan Levy was a fighter — not in the schoolyard or locker room, but through his love of martial arts. At age 15, Levy began practicing karate and kung fu, achieving his black belt at age 18 while training in Japan. Levy, now 31, went undefeated as an amateur fighter before going pro in 2018. In 2021, he joined the UFC, becoming the only Israeli in the league at the time. Today, his pro MMA record is 8-1-0 and he’s ranked No. 77 in the lightweight division. In December, Levy called out rapper Ye — formerly known as Kanye West — in response to antisemitic comments the artist made on radio host Alex Jones’ podcast, saying, “If you got a problem with me or my people, come see me, bro.” During a recent episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, Levy sat down with co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein to discuss his journey to the UFC, what it’s like being a professional MMA fighter and his thoughts on Joe Rogan’s recent comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
A day in the life of Natan Levy: “It’s a mix of martial arts. If you do this sport, you got to train in many different disciplines. You got to do boxing, jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, and then you got to do all the physical training: running, sometimes you swim, strength training, conditioning, all that stuff. So it’s very hard to build a perfect schedule, but basically, [if you’re doing] less than two or three training sessions a day, you’re not going to get enough in the week to be proficient in all these styles.”
The benefits of learning martial arts: “It requires discipline: being on time, doing what the teacher [or] the coach says. A kid that is coachable, a kid that can listen, that can accept somebody being above him, telling him what to do, sometimes we need that in life. We need to, from a young age, hold our ego on a leash. You know, you don’t want to get the crazy ego. I think martial arts keeps your ego in check, keeps you in check. But on the other hand, when you build mastery in one field, that is punching, kicking or throwing… whatever it is, when you develop this mastery in one field, you actually realize that you can develop mastery in anything else you want in life.”
On Joe Rogan’s defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar: “I posted a video about it. Basically, you know, I think he’s defending her. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I am a listener of his show from time to time and I think he’s the first one to say that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I think it was right on with this one. He had no idea what he was talking about. He was spewing what I think is hate propaganda. I don’t think that was his intention, but as far as saying the Jewish people are so into money, it’s like saying that Italian people love pizza. No, it’s not the same. Six million Italians were not killed because they love pizza. It would be more aligned with saying that Italians are lazy, or thieves or crooks or anything like that would be more of a comparison, but you wouldn’t say that, so why say the other one?”
🔥 The Provocateur: In The New Yorker, Ruth Margalit chronicles the rise of Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, from teenage activist to high-profile government official. “Ben-Gvir made an early career of stoking that kind of hatred. As a young Kahanist, he heckled stage actors known for leftist views, and handed out eggs to throw at marchers in gay-pride parades. For Purim, he would dress up as Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mass murderer. In 2011, he invited the press to a public pool in Tel Aviv, where he appeared with forty Sudanese migrant workers. He bought them all tickets to enter the pool, and, while cameras rolled, handed them swimsuits. ‘I want all the pampered Tel Avivians to understand that if we give human rights to the Sudanese they will come here,’ he told reporters. Laughing, he called out to the migrants, in English, ‘Swim! Swim!’” [NewYorker]
🇮🇷 Inside Iran: In The Atlantic, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly explains why she and a crew recently traveled to Iran as part of NPR’s coverage of the ongoing anti-government protests. “For an assignment like Iran, the necessary effort involves being on the ground. I acknowledge the inherent limitations of any foreign correspondent, the impossibility of an outsider grasping the complexity of a place with anything close to the insight of a local reporter. But there is value to fresh eyes and ears, and to the resources and international platform that a major news outlet can bring to a story. In Iran, things seem quiet. But when you get there, a truth becomes apparent: Iranians with differing views will always find ways for their stories to be told. On the eve of Revolution Day, the government put on a fireworks show, and as the explosions crackled across the night sky, my producer suddenly cocked her head. ‘What are they saying?’ she asked. We threw open our hotel windows to hear cries of ‘Death to the dictator!’ and ‘Freedom!’ echoing from the apartment buildings around us.” [TheAtlantic]
🤐 Dangerous Journey: French-born Jewish writer, Catherine Perez-Shakdam, tells the Jewish Chronicle how she infiltrated the Iranian regime and came to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other leaders of the Islamic Republic. “Despite this, on that trip, in February 2017, she had already met several senior regime officials, and been told of a secret IRGC plan to ‘map’ key Jewish figures around the world for Iran’s assassination squads. ‘The idea was to identify all the prominent NGOs run by Jews, who was doing what in each business sector, the important rabbis,’ Perez-Shakdam, 41, told the JC. ‘They wanted to figure out their influence and where they lived with their families in order to target them. ‘They wanted to have a better understanding so they would know how to strike and where, so that if Israel ever dared to attack Iran, the diaspora would have a very nasty surprise.’” [JC]
💸 Culture Wars: The Washington Post’s Duncan Mavin looks at the debate playing out over corporations’ efforts to shift toward ESG — environmental, social and governance — investing. “But many of the solutions to perceived ESG problems actually risk making things worse. On the right are those who seek to disenfranchise the big asset management firms, either by refusing to invest in them or by curbing their ability to vote on issues at the corporations where they own shares. Several conservative state legislatures last year pulled their money from asset managers in protest… On the left, meanwhile, publicly castigating the big asset managers on ESG, including calling for senior executives to resign, risks creating a bunker mentality that could lead the firms to disengage from the broader debate. It also generates heat that fuels ESG backlash.” [WashPost]
👫🏻 A Couple’s Courage: The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman spotlights a Ukrainian couple who died on the frontlines in a firefight with Russian forces. “Taras and Olha met when they were 8 years old, part of Kropyvnytskyi’s tiny Jewish community, the remnants of what was once a vibrant group massacred during World War II. They went to the same Jewish school before it closed because there weren’t enough students and later joined environmental protests together. In one picture of them as teenagers, Taras flashes an easy smile with a green scarf cinched around his neck; Olha stares at the camera with dark eyes radiating intensity.” [NYTimes]
Around the Web
🎧 Podcast Playback: U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides appeared on David Axelrod’s podcast, “The Axe Files,” to discuss Israel’s new government, the recent uptick in violence in the region and prospects for a two-state solution.
🇺🇳 PA at U.N.: Israel panned a “one-sided statement” by the U.N. Security Council after the body condemned an Israeli decision to legalize West Bank outposts and approve the construction of some 10,000 settlement homes. The move followed an effort by the U.S. to persuade the Palestinian Authority to suspend a push for a vote on a stronger resolution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a rare public criticism of the Biden administration, saying, “the statement should never have been made and the United States should never have joined it.”
🗳️ Special Election: Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan is the favorite in today’s special election in Virginia’s heavily blue 4th Congressional District, which had been represented by Rep. Don McEachin (D-VA) until his death in November.
📄 Hill Hustle: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and 23 co-sponsors from both parties reintroduced a resolution condemning Iran’s persecution of the Baha’i minority. The legislation passed the House last year but did not advance in the Senate. Twenty-three Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) reintroduced a bill declaring that any nuclear deal with Iran should be considered a treaty and subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) previewed plans to reintroduce the Stop Iranian Drones Act. Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) reintroduced legislation to cut funding to UNRWA, joined by 13 Senate colleagues and 24 House Republicans.
🏀 Back in the Game: Former NBA player Meyers Leonard, who was suspended in March 2021 for an antisemitic slur, has reportedly signed a 10-day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.
👨 Rolling with Rudd: Rolling Stoneinterviews actor Paul Rudd about the revival of the show “Party Down,” which he co-created, and his DJing days in L.A.
👩🎓 Campus Beat: Hillel International convened its Israel Summit East at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., over the weekend; Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke at the event’s opening session.
🎵 On the Stage: The New Yorker spotlights a new opera by composer Tobias Picker based on the book Awakening by his friend, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks.
📗 Book Shelf: Smithsonian Magazinehighlights the story of Muriel Gardiner, who helped hundreds of Jews and Resistance members escape pre-World War II Austria, which is being revived by a recent issue of her memoir Code Name “Mary.”
🇺🇸🇮🇱 Troubled Ties? Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen gives a gloomy forecast on the U.S.-Israel relationship as the influence of the Israeli right grows.
👁️ Inner Vision: Writer Roger Rosenblatt details the effort of creating his latest book, Cataract Blues, alongside cartoonist Jules Feiffer as Feiffer lost his vision.
🍲 Food for Thought: The Jerusalem Post interviews Jewish Food Society founder Na’ama Shefi about her nonprofit work and the creation of Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel.
📛 Summit Saga: A senior Israeli diplomat on Saturday was removed from the African Union’s annual summit in Ethiopia, with Israel blaming South Africa and Algeria for the move amid a dispute over Israel’s observer status.
✋ Knesset Chaos: The Knesset passed the first reading of the first bill of the judicial system reforms late last night, after tens of thousands of Israelis protested the contentious reforms outside the building and several protestors were removed from the plenum observation gallery after entering it illegally and banging against the glass dividers. Several opposition lawmakers were also removed from the plenum after they wrapped themselves in Israeli flags and protested the reforms.
📞 Clandestine Conversation: Senior aides of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been holding secret talks for almost two months in an effort to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, Axios’ Barak Ravid reports.
🙅♂️ Wasn’t Me: Iran rejected Israeli accusations that it was responsible for an attack on an oil tanker linked to Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer last week.
☢️ Nuke Inspection: The International Atomic Energy Agency is conducting a probe into Iran’s nuclear enrichment, after monitors indicated that Tehran has enriched uranium to just below the threshold for a nuclear weapon.
🇮🇷 Rushdie Reward: An Iranian foundation has offered a plot of agricultural land to the man accused of seriously wounding novelist Salman Rushdie in an attack last year.
🕯️ Remembering: Richard Belzer, who was best known for his role as Detective John Munch on “Law & Order: SVU” and several other shows, died at 78. Dancer and choreographer Rena Gluck, who as a founding member of the Batsheva Dance Company was instrumental in bringing modern dance to Israel, died at 89. Nobel laureate biochemist Paul Berg, biotech pioneer who first spliced DNA, died at 96.
Pic of the Day
Helen Mirren, who stars in “Golda,” attends the premiere of the film at the 73rd Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin yesterday. Mirren told Reuters that playing Israel’s only female prime minister was “a bit like playing Elizabeth I of England,” which she did in the 2006 film “The Queen.”
French actress, she starred as Shosanna Dreyfus in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 war film “Inglourious Basterds,” Mélanie Laurent turns 40…
Holocaust survivor and author of a book on systemic hate, he was the developer of the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills in 1976, Severyn Ashkenazy turns 87… Co-founder of Dreamworks and noted collector of American artists’ work, David Geffen turns 80… Dean of Yeshiva Bais Yosef Novarodok, Rabbi Mordechai Jofen turns 73… Monica Agor… Vice-chairman of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, previously a sports agent for basketball and baseball players, Arn Herschel Tellem turns 69… Director of a fiscal and monetary policy group at the Brookings Institution, David Meyer Wessel turns 69… Chairman of the KABR Group, a New Jersey-based real estate investment firm, Kenneth D. Pasternak turns 69… President of Yale University since 2013, Peter Salovey (family name was Soloveitchik) turns 65… Fitness personality, he develops businesses through the “Body by Jake” brand, Jake Steinfeld turns 65… Former owner of the Cleveland Browns of the NFL and Aston Villa F.C. of the English Premier League, Randolph David “Randy” Lerner turns 61… Former member of the Knesset for the Kadima and Hatnuah parties, Orit Zuaretz turns 56… Executive director of former VPOTUS Mike Pence’s advocacy organization, Advancing American Freedom, Paul Teller turns 52… Reality television star, Jonathan Cheban turns 49… NYT best-selling novelist, writer-in-residence in the graduate creative writing program at NYU, Jonathan Safran Foer turns 46… Former Chicago Cubs player, Adam Greenberg turns 42… Emergency medical physician at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Dr. Miriam Fischer Wachter… Former member of the Florida House of Representatives for six years, now in private law practice, Katie Edwards-Walpole turns 42… Rochester, N.Y., resident, Joshua Futerman… Pitcher for the Israeli team at the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier, he is now a sales associate at Stryker, Brad Goldberg turns 33… Israeli judoka, she won a team bronze medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Shira Rishony turns 32… Israeli rhythmic gymnast who competed in the 2012 Olympics, Polina Zakaluzny turns 31… Monsey, N.Y., resident, Efrayim Katz… Former professional tennis player, now playing pickleball, Noah Rubin turns 27… Law clerk for a USDC judge in Chicago, Jay S. Schaefer…